What a World What a World

Happy Tuesday, everybody. As usual, it’s an insanely hot and muggy July here in the mid-Atlantic and I’m hiding out in the AC as long as possible. Have to love those Southern summers. Of course, as moving day creeps ever closer, we continue to plug away at packing and I’m dreading the last bit of the process. I’ve lived in Bethesda for seven years now, the longest of any town in my adult life, and my brain is refusing to accept that this will change. I tell myself that it will be changing, that I will only experience this place for a few more days and then it’s gone for good, but for whatever reason it will not take.

Maybe it’s the history. I’ve lost love here, gotten engaged here (and married but that was technically in Vegas), finished my first few novels here…there’s a lot of history in this place. Yet I always found myself unable to think of this place as home for some reason. I’ll get over homesickness and whatnot, surely, but it will take some time and I would not be surprised to see the events that have happened here show up in a story at some point down the road. It’s absolutely time to get out of here, but the whole thing is bittersweet. My creativity thrives on the bittersweet stuff of life, however, so it’s not all bad. Not to mention that we finally get a place to truly call our own.

Despite my near-zombie status, yesterday turned out to be a fairly productive day in the writing department. I finished up the first chapter of the re-sequenced Came to Believe and began Chapter 2, which is an entirely new set of scenes for the revised timeline. And as always happens, this new scene surprised me, as the original plan was for the scene to begin with Dean sitting in a jail cell waiting to see the magistrate who’s gone MIA. The new version still has that scene, but starts with Dean and the teenage prostitute in the back of the cruiser. Their minor interaction doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Dean, but it does give a good baseline to establish Dean’s arrogance and balance it against the man we see at the end of the book.

It’s going to be an interesting revision. I hope the story makes it through unscathed. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay cool.

On Beauty, Innocence, and Broken Wiring

warning_pageWarning upfront: this might be a slightly uncomfortable topic, one that looks at the roots of sex addiction and the abuse that creates it. I want to talk about it because the psychology behind it increasingly driving my next book and I’ve actually learned something from writing about it. Imagine that!

Yesterday I mentioned that my protagonist, Dean, is addicted to hiring prostitutes who are college freshmen, typically of the “barely legal” variety, and I want to talk about that a little today. You see, there’s something more going on with him that goes beyond an obsessive early-book need to possess women as if they were rare cars: Dean’s fundamental operational wiring in his brain is broken, though not permanently. Here are the relevant paragraphs that have made me think more about this:

Her face shifted and he caught a glance of the child that had so recently disappeared into this budding woman.

It made his heart ache. He had no idea why he found the combination of beauty and innocence so intoxicating, surely something from his distant past, but he didn’t worry about that. He was no monster; he had no desire to steal away her remaining naiveté, but at the same time it worked like a powerful aphrodisiac. He simultaneously wanted to protect her and fuck her.

Now make no mistake, gong into this I did not personally understand this point of view; it came from the testimonies of more than one sex addict in the course of my research into the topic. It initially repulsed me, but I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I didn’t have a problem understanding the underlying sentiment: plenty of beautiful, innocent things can make you pause and re-consider the very context of life. Baby bunnies, kittens, and puppies come to mind without too much effort. The very concept of their existence is a fragile, precious thing and worth consideration as an important part of the life cycle.

My misgivings lay in sexualizing this, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  I simply don’t look at something innocent and beautiful and start to feel any of those stirrings. The impulse to protect, yes, I absolutely get that, like I said, it’s a fragile thing in a chaotic, dangerous world. But sexualize? Why? What could cause such a thing?

I honestly failed to comprehend right up until I wrote Dean’s story and the pieces started falling into place. Without giving too much away, something traumatic happened to Dean when he was on the cusp of puberty, which is not at all uncommon for sex addicts. Current psychological theory for why sex abuse causes sex addiction is complex, with many different reasons coming together to create a web of maladaptive behavior, but basically the concept is that an abused person seeks to recreate their trauma and master it this time. This is why you’ll sometimes hear about rape victims who then go on to put themselves into extremely dangerous situations.

This is essentially what Dean is doing. The innocence and beauty in his life was stolen from him at a very vulnerable age and in a sexual manner. The people who should have protected him for one reason or another failed to do so, leaving him open to the dangers of the world, which ultimately consumed his own innocence. When Dean becomes entranced by the quality of beauty and innocence in others, on one level he recognizes some lost component of himself and wishes to protect it, but at the same time the assault has crossed up the wiring in his brain so that when he recognizes this rare and precious trait it’s inexorably associated with sexual trauma.

Essentially, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a hell of a thing that screws with you to the very core.

Combine all of that with the addict’s core belief that “I am inherently a bad and unlovable person” and we get the mess that is Dean Rohrer’s brain at the opening of Came to Believe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that his behavior or any similar behavior is a good thing – it’s a destructive adaptation that destroys lives. But it doesn’t arise in a vacuum and it can’t be fixed without some understanding and attempts to correct that behavior.

So the bulk of the book is about him untangling those threads and learning to appreciate the beauty in life without compulsively sexualizing it – essentially breaking the compulsive patterns. It’s not an easy path for him, nor is it for anyone who has to follow it in real life. There are many pitfalls and sometimes the slightest thing can throw someone off the rails of recovery (as it does for Dean), but it is possible. I’m hoping that Dean’s redemption rings true for folks. We’ll see. I’ll share more on the dynamics of addiction and trauma as I go through the book.

The Jerk Line

HannibalBeing married to a fellow writer can be an illuminating experience. Mary and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on what makes a compelling story. She, for instance, can’t stand post-apocalyptic stories and war movies and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals, though some are all right. One thing that we do agree on, however, is the importance of compelling characters. We don’t always agree on what makes a compelling character, but fascinating ones can keep either of us hooked on a story for far longer than we should be (hello most recent season of Hannibal).

Which brings me to the point of this post and something that’s been knocking around in my head the last few weeks: how do you find that line where a character goes from sleazy but interesting to just a total turn-off slime ball? I call it the Jerk Line. It’s a valid question more than ever now that I’ve transformed Came to Believe into a more linear story.

DentistYou see the protagonist, Dean Rohrer, is a sex-addicted small town dentist who actually begins his journey as a cocky creep. He hires expensive Freshmen from the local university who highlight as hookers for one reason or another. He has a thing for “barely legal” women. He’s a seemingly incurable porn addict, and he exploits a legal loophole in order to avoid jail time and/or a fine. Of course, there’s also a thoughtful, tortured guy underneath it all, but the more linear structure of the story demands that he begin as a shallow creep who slowly finds that shining gem of a person within him. The book is about him seeking to become a better person and the various ways that he fails before creeping up to the line of being what he hopes to be.

depressed-manNow the previous structure accounted for this. We see uber-creepy Dean, but we also see a more broken, humbled Dean in the future who still has severe problems but is a little more sympathetic. The problem I faced was how to make uber-creepy Dean interesting even if he wasn’t fully sympathetic yet, and where was the line between creepy and too much to take? How did I keep from crossing that Jerk Line?

The answer, as it turned out to be, was a leveler. A humbling experience that dials back the creepy just enough that the new person begins to emerge almost immediately, albeit at a snail’s pace. We still see him have plenty of compelling jerk moments, but we also witness him humbled, at a low point, and ready to at least feign some change to get himself out of hot water. It’s a start toward him being a genuine human being and I think it will teach me more about the balancing act of writing an anti-hero.

Oh, and on that note, finished up the re-sequencing and am starting on the new version. I had feared that my original opening sentence would be lost, but I think I found an even better one:

“Try as he might, Dean Rohrer could not remember the name of the gorgeous young redhead sitting in the passenger seat of his BMW X5.”

Says a lot about the guy and the situation right away. Pretty happy with it. So far so good! Now to start the day proper…

Quick Update on Came to Believe

A real quick one today since I’m swamped with almost non-stop meetings and presentations (go me, I guess?). Have finished the re-sequencing plans for Came to Believe, which has yielded quite a few new chapters due for writing, sigh. Good news is that it undoubtedly strengthens the final product, bad news is the book will almost certainly not be finished in 2014. Sucks, but it’s the way of things. Trying to make a fresh start in a new genre is not easy and I’m still on the learning curve side of things. Quite a few valuable lessons learned this time around, though; most important is that writing a novel in a weekend? Probably not the best idea. I mean who knew, right? Ugh. Yeah that’s one that seems a bit dumb in hindsight, especially since I’m tossing a good 50%+ of the work from that weekend.

Oh well. At least the story is improving. I’m actually writing a straightforward novel for once! I don’t even know what to think.

Anyway, more tomorrow, when there’s time.

Back in the Saddle

Good morning/afternoon/evening all, I’m back and ready to grind it out yet again.

I missed a few entries last week and for that I do apologize, but to be fair not much was really going on in my life other than misery.

It started last Monday with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on just what that sensation might mean, but I do recall that around 11 or so the possibility of leaving early had arisen in my mind. Then came lunch, and shortly afterwards an intense wave of nausea, so bad that I did eventually leave a few hours early to go home and writhe in misery. Couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, as it’s very rare for me to feel that way.

Woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning with intense post-nasal drip. Still not fully sick but aware that I was either having the mother of all allergy attacks or I had caught something during the previous weekend’s excursion to the mountains. I muddled through Tuesday, becoming increasingly lethargic and useless. Writing dropped pretty damned low on my priorities.

And it didn’t really come back up for air last week. Oh, I had the stray idea here or there that I made sure to write down, and of course I checked in here a few times, but not much of note got done last week. Nature of the biz, one week you’re on top of the world, the next you’re doing good writing a sentence or two. Around Thursday morning I realized it would be a lost week and wrote it off.

Spent a good portion of the weekend doing more move prep (and I assume this will increasingly take the place of weekend writing for awhile) and am now climbing back up the hill of wellness. I started this morning with a vision of how the last portion of the new and improved Came to Believe will end and I’m pretty pleased. I will tentatively say that I think I’m back. Still a lot of catching-up to do today, so I’ll have more tomorrow. For now, it’s good to be back.

Hanging in there…Barely

Hey all, apologies for the radio silence yesterday. I’ve been felled by a particularly nasty Summer cold bug that’s made normal operations nigh-impossible. Don’t get me wrong, some content managed to leak out of my stuffed-up head yesterday, but it’s slow going and the proverbial pulling of hens’ teeth to get there. It’s especially bad for it to strike on the hottest stretch of days that we’ve had so far this year, which means that while the AC is already struggling to keep up my fever is making it feel ineffectual at best.

Sooo not much more to report on my end. Few bits and pieces of the story crafted, more re-evaluation of how the chapters will look in the new version. Not much to say when there’s not much to say. I’m doing good staying upright at the moment. More updates soon.

Quick Hit

Happy Monday to all! It’s been hard to find 15 minutes to update, as today has been quite the ass-kicker, but I think I’m here for a bit. At least, a quick little thing, as I said much of what I had to say yesterday.

Interesting morning, though. Funny the things you research as an author. Since I’m now showing Dean’s actual arrest in Came to Believe, I had to delve into the Virginia criminal booking procedures as well as the expected charges and possible penalties for being caught with a prostitute in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Turns out it’s a Class 1 Misdemeanor, basically the highest misdemeanor you can get in the Commonwealth. Max of a year in jail and/or $2500 fine. Not life-destroying, but nothing to sneeze at, either. Sentencing and bail are influenced heavily by the defendant’s background and prior criminal history.

The way I see it, Dean, in on his first arrest, would likely be released on his own recognizance once the magistrate had seen him. It just so happens that the magistrate can take his or her sweet time if you’re picked up in the middle of the night, which means he’ll have to wait overnight. His chances of getting a suspended sentence or slap on the wrist are pretty damned good given his standing in the community.

Of course, Dean doesn’t know this. He’s a poor kid who managed to chip his way up the ladder by kissing ass, working hard, and staying clean (at least in socially acceptable ways; his conquests were the stuff of legend in college). As far as he knows, this will ruin his business and likely his life. For an hour or two he thinks everything has changed, and it works on his insecurities enough that Stephen can get through that veneer.

The initial draft suggested a scandal: a dentist caught with a teenage prostitute who made the headlines and nearly lost his practice. While his adversarial relationship with the paper was true, I always intended that Dean vastly overestimated his own importance and fall, a sort of side effect of his addiction.

The new version makes it much more clear that he’s not in a great spot but isn’t about to lose everything. He does lose his girlfriend and suffers a great deal of shame, but there’s no scandal and his investment in recovery is haphazard at best. This shows up in Chapter 3 or 4 where he learns what sex addiction is and what will be required of him to avoid the sentence altogether. So essentially this new version is the unvarnished truth of Dean’s experience rather than his romanticized, twisted version of things. Interesting so far. Would that I had a little more inspiration today I would be all over it, but yesterday wore me out. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Breathing Underwater

Hey readers, hope you had a good weekend. I don’t typically update on Sunday night, but a couple of things got my butt in the chair. Thing the first: a weekend of not writing. I allowed myself a day-and-a-half of not writing to recharge the battery to avoid some of that lovely burnout casserole. So far so good. I still feel up to writing.

1380783973_Creative_Wallpaper_Girl_under_Water_034917_Thing the second: Sunday evening blues. Lots of folks seem to suffer it and while there is supposed to be a connection to the start of the work week, I don’t believe my own blues have to do with work. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t do backflips at the thought of starting the work week once again. I’m just not devastated or even blue at the idea. It’s just whatever. My Sunday blues are almost always more of an existential variety, a bittersweet melancholy that things are not all okay with my world or my life, but I’m in the best place I could be at that moment. As juvenile as it may sound, the lyrics of Metric’s “Breathing Underwater” actually come to mind at times like this:

They were right when they said
We were breathing underwater
Out of place all the time
In a world that wasn’t mine to take

I’ve always read that song as her saying that “things aren’t great right now and I’m okay with that. They may be good one day, but not now.” And I suppose that does hit where I am very succinctly. Life is improving. I am taking steps to improve it. But right now it’s not all great. What can you do?

Pencil_paperAt least the writing is coming along. I have gone through the chapters and decided which stay and which go. Final count is 13 that stay as-is, 16 that remain but change to fit with the new narrative flow, and 8 that get jettisoned. With that in mind I am now retooling how the chapters work in the new version. I’m at Chapter 10 and have 4 new chapters coming so far. It’s kind of front-loaded on the new chapters, however, as a good deal of the back-end stuff is in that 13 that stay as-is.

The new narrative shows us a naive Dean who agrees to sex addiction counseling to dodge jail time and ends up not only realizing that he has an actual problem but meets the woman who will become his wife there. We also get to see Stephen joining at the same time and going down a slightly different path, becoming something of a holy roller. There are a few subplots that I’ll talk about as we go through the next draft. I feel good about the direction, so hey, there’s a positive.

Anyway. I will catch you some time tomorrow, even if it’s a short entry. Hope all is well and you have a great week.

Untangling the Knot

Ah, Friday the 13th! I’m not given to superstition, but confirmation bias tells me that Friday the 13th is typically pretty awesome for me and I choose to believe that little demon because…hell, why not? Better to think it’ll be a good day than a bad one.

You can probably guess what I did yesterday. Well, other than my day job. Writing. Lots of it. Not a one-day record for words or anything, but the most that I’ve written in 2014. Like, 4500 words. And it kept on! Even as I lie (lay? We had a great discussion about this in the critique group once) in bed trying to drift off to sleep the ideas kept hitting me.

Here’s what kept talking to me last night. Brian and Mark in my critique group pointed out that they didn’t 100% buy Dean being assigned to Sex Addicts Anonymous as part of a sentencing in 2001, and it was a good point. Some brainstorming and I had come up with the idea of showing him in jail learning about the group. But how to tie that into the sentencing?

That is what kept hitting me over the head last night. My plan: Dean meets Stephen in jail when Stephen is picked up for an indecent exposure rap, a bit of he-said he-said involving a male prostitute on the North Side of town. Rather than being a self-centered, standoffish sponsor, Stephen is the polar opposite: kind of clueless about himself, in the closet, and overhelpful to the point of being obnoxious. This version of Stephen simply claims that he ran into the prostitute on the street, the prostitute followed him, and watched him as he pissed on fence.

For those who have read the early versions of this novel, you’ll see the massive change in character. Stephen was once something of a cloistered monk. The new Stephen is louder and brasher, but with some of the same spirit as the original, and having that character in place makes it much easier to understand how he lets things decline the way he does. For both of them the sex addiction thing – both the idea and the recovery – are little more than dodges to get out of jail time. The catch is that Dean thinks Stephen is sincere at first. They both go in and genuinely fall in love with the whole thing, but it starts from a faulty premise.

This strengthens the novel’s opening, answers a lot of questions right out of the gate, and allows the story to grow organically along its natural timeline. I’m happy with the approach. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but I have a good feeling.

Still deciding which chapters stay and which go before I get back to finishing the first revision. A lot of the end-state chapters are probably gone, so finishing that revision shouldn’t be too difficult.

I don’t know, I’m just excited to share the novel with you. We’ll see how it evolves and grows and I’ll try to keep you appraised every step of the way. Appreciate having you with me.

Once More Into the Breach

It’s funny how flashes of insight arrive. Sometimes you work hard at them and try to coax them out of their burrows to play and they still refuse to pop out. Other times they hit you while you’re writing a blowjob scene walking across a parking lot, I mean insight has a pretty sick sense of humor, you know?

And incidentally, yes, I did happen to be writing a scene like that as I went for a short walk. My method of walking and writing sometimes yields some really odd juxtapositions, but it’s really working for me, so…whatever.

But I’m here to talk about insights and not blowjobs, and for that I apologize to the reader. Perhaps a good description would be more entertaining than an update on the latest insanity to beat me over the head, but where’s the fun in that?

Okay, so I’ve been writing for a few days about a different approach to the novel, threading flashbacks or resequencing or whatnot and I realized that my dissatisfaction lay at a more fundamental level: the pacing sucked. Hard. It was right in front of my face the whole time and I didn’t realize it. My critique group kind of walked around it at one point, telling me that they sometimes felt like they were being dragged back to the present where everything sucked as opposed to a more vibrant past.

Pacing! That’s the problem right there. I heard it but did not understand. I had gotten so married to the initial opening sentence (and it’s a damn good one, I stick by that) that it had begun to overshadow the rest of the story. Ridiculous, right? Should have been obvious how that one would end, but we do these things to learn just as much as to share our realities.

Anyway. Lesson learned: instead of becoming more convoluted, I needed to flatten the spiral Möbius strip of its plot and understand the true beginning and end of the story. From there I could re-evaluate the peaks and troughs of the story as it flowed. And you know, there’s something compelling to be told there without the hammer of life after Lindsay’s death hitting you over the head. Hell, in this version she may not even die. I’m not certain yet. I think she will, and I think we’ll see infrequent flash-forwards to the time after Lindsay’s death, but I’m not locked into that yet. Essentially, I have to throw out…well, not half of the book, but a big chunk.

Please note that this was an outlined novel, so don’t think that outlining prevents these kinds of things from happening. It’s the nature of writing itself. Sometimes the true gem of the story is buried underneath the trappings and you need to clear the cobwebs to grab it, to ham-handedly mix a metaphor.

Anyway, major restructure, planning which chapters stay and go, and then I move on. I’m still going to finish the first revision, but only those chapters that are staying for the next big version. It’s going to be interesting. I’ll share more of how I think it will work tomorrow. Thanks for bearing with me.