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.

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This Vanishing World

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

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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.

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Face-up to the Afterglow

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

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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:

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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:

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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!

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Mulholland Drive, Character Progression, and Illusion

Slow week last week and I fear this week will not be much different, as I am in class starting tomorrow afternoon and lasting until Friday. It’s kind of frustrating, as this is typically the time when I ramp up my word count heading into the productive months of September and October. Unfortunately, the move, this class, and something else (that I currently can’t discuss but is potentially very exciting) have been eating up my time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still writing about 8,000-9,000 words a week, but it’s not the level that I’d prefer. Anyway, just wanted to vent some frustrations.

On the writing front, I’m taking a break from editing and am digging into the all-new Chapter Four. Quite the fascinating chapter, as this is the first real glimpse at Dean interacting in more of a real-world environment and not being controlled by his addiction. We also meet fellow sex addict Peggy, who previously served as a sponsor for Lindsay, Dean’s future wife. She still serves in that role but gets a much-expanded presence in the latest draft, providing Dean and Stephen with information on sex addiction and why they should consider going to a recovery group for it. The reader learns more of her history and it sets the stage for what happens with Lindsay and Peggy later in the novel.

It’s always fun when bit characters step up and fill an expanded role. Sometimes it happens because they’re interesting and deserve to share the spotlight; other times it’s a necessity of the story. This one is a bit of both, and I think it ultimately strengthens the novel. Hoping to at least get that chapter knocked out this week.

In other news, Mary and I have been re-watching Twin Peaks and recently discovered that Mulholland Drive was not only supposed to be a television pilot but also would have starred Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horn, a Twin Peaks character. David Lynch had also made statements that the movie still shared a common universe with TP, so we decided to watch it (in my case, re-watch it). This led to watching Lost Highway last night, as Mary had not seen that one either.

I’ve spoken before about my love of David Lynch, but re-watching the show and these films has cemented it. Watching this many of his films back-to-back also reveals a common language and approach to storytelling, such as the use of red and blue to denote different emotional/spiritual states, red curtains, and yes, even bare breasts (wow never realized how much he has those).

It finally occurred to me that it’s pointless to ask whether his stories actually “happened” and have supernatural elements or whether they happen in the characters’ heads. In Mulholland Drive he almost explicitly states that any alternate worlds/dreams are one and the same as a character’s thoughts. He does this a lot, actually: see any time a character talks about having a dream and it comes true, such as the Winkie’s scene at the start of Mulholland Drive, which informs the viewer that this is not all fantasy or dream.

To me, this is key to understanding all of his films: a person’s emotions and thoughts might as well be reality or some form of it, as they ultimately leak out and have an impact on everything surrounding that person. He just presents a more literal form of this “leakage”. It lines up with the old magickal theorem that a magician can direct what happens in his or her life by altering patterns of thought, behavior, and ritual (otherwise known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in more base terms).

So his films, to me, are essentially an attempt to show you a character’s inner world via the literal language of film, almost a new approach to bridging film and the written word.

With that in mind, I suspect that, much like the circular portion of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive is a story told in reverse – we see the events that lead up to the start of the picture toward the end, and those provide the key for understanding what comes before. I’m convinced that the world of the movie’s first two hours is the afterlife, but an afterlife that is driven by the emotional states and experiences of the main character. It flirts with some Buddhist principles, specifically that individuals are a combination of habits, memories, sensations, desires, etc., which come together to present the illusion of a single, unified being.

In Mulholland Drive we see Diane’s pieces broken up and scattered to form different personas and situations that also appear to be singular, unified beings but are ultimately part of a bigger illusion. These parts are being directed around by a higher power (represented by The Cowboy) and need to be combined in certain ways for Diane to understand who she “was”. In this way, she can be set free of the cycle of reincarnation, represented by the blue box.

I don’t know, just a theory. The best thing about these films is that Lynch leaves a lot of answers waiting for you to find them, but you have to seek. Again, much like magick. That’s why he’s so influential on my own more fantastic works.

Now I’m itching to write something like that again. Perhaps soon.

Return to Form?

A strange thing occurred to me this morning as I brushed my teeth and did that old study-yourself-in-the-mirror thing, and it’s strange specifically because of when it happened. I realized that I’m not done writing dark fantasy. Part of me has been flirting with abandoning the genre altogether and going full-on literary, though I’m not proud to admit that here. I now realize that was based on a belief that my dark fantasy had to be cleverly structure and draw the reader on with its mysteries. Don’t get me wrong, I think that can be a fun way to write a story and if I’m allowed to toot my own horn a little I think Room 3 benefitted enormously from the approach, but my critique group has enlightened me to some of the problems inherent in what I’ve been doing.

Linear storytelling has never been my cup of tea. Even when I wrote short fiction in college I had a tendency to jump all over the place in the timeline and allow the reader to reconstruct the tale. There’s something to be said for it, that you experience the twists and turns of discovery right along with the reader and allow them to share in some of the mystique of the creative process.

The problem comes when the structure drives the story, rather than the story driving the structure. I had become so enamored of the approach that it blinded me to the possibilities of really toiling away at a linear piece and turning some of the energy devoted to high-flying literary acrobatics to instead focusing on the word craft and emotional texture. Hey, it’s all a learning process until the day we die, right? Anyway, this leads me to the conclusion that I’m not done with dark fantasy, as I haven’t attempted a truly straightforward, linear piece without a central mystery. I want to see how I could stretch my wings in such an environment.

So, mea culpa to those who have read my dark fantasy works to this point. You guys aren’t forgotten, I just need to work this stuff out of my system so I can come back and do something (hopefully) really dynamite. Still lots out there waiting to be written, it’s more a question of time than desire.

Oh, and a total side-note, anyone watching Under the Dome this season? Could that thing be any more ridiculous and overwrought?

I Climbed the Mountain, I Turned Around

Quick update today, as I have a lot of stuff to do, but wanted to check in with folks. Went out of town this weekend to see some friends and take care of some things for my parents, which was actually quite fortuitous. You see, I’m writing new scenes set in new places in the Shenandoah Valley and I needed to get a feel for those areas – specifically some scenes set in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, met up with a friend in Bridgewater and we set out toward the Hinton/Briery Branch area and then up into the mountains proper.

While my hometown is near the mountains and not far from West Virginia, I grew up in sort of the “gateway” between the more developed areas of the central Shenandoah Valley and the mountain’s edge. We had a hill in the center of our town, one that bisected the town and gave the two sides of Dayton very distinctive characters, but it was a 15-20 minute drive to get to the mountains proper.

Even with that background, it’s the mountain that calls my name when I need to get away and reset my internal stress levels. So, we took the winding roads back into the country and climbed the mountain. This time my friend, J, suggested going to Reddish Knob, which is somewhat legendary among locals but which I had never actually seen. I didn’t understand that this meant climbing along a ridge and then up to a peak, which sent us through this narrow, winding one-lane road. The whole way up and down I prayed for no one to be coming in the other direction, which worked out great, by the way.

And the top? Well, they call it the parking lot in the sky. The thing about the knob is that from one side you can see Virginia, and on the other West Virginia. Not only that, it’s the highest spot in Virginia, so the view is really breathtaking. The place inspired me, and will make an appearance in a future novel, no doubt.

So, back to work, but I thought I’d share some photos with you, along with some of the graffiti we saw up there:

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Why I’ll Never be “Famous”….and Why I’m Okay With It

Bit of an epiphany this morning, and a good one, though some might not see it that way. All started when I checked my mail this morning and found the latest post from Karen Cioffi. For those who don’t know, Karen writes a wonderful blog about book marketing and whatnot, a real essential during my morning walks. Regardless of your feelings on the topic of book marketing, I suggest that any author subscribe, as she covers some handy topics and offers a lot of useful information. Even as a cranky author who refuses to define his success in terms of sales and reach, I think it’s important to to stay on top of what’s “expected” these days.

This morning Karen got my attention by publishing an article about the importance of an author’s online platform and its effect on an author’s success with finding a publisher. These include some metrics of the numbers that publishers like to see before taking on an author. I suggest you read the article, but the crux of it is that publishers like to see, at a minimum:

-5,000 newsletter subscribers
-Speaking to 1,000 people a year (this is optional)
-If you’re self-published, sales of at least 2,000 a year

Here’s how she sums it up:

Writers are no longer simply writers. Writers are now a business with a marketing plan and hopefully a marketing budget. Authors now need to allocate a significant amount of time toward marketing themselves and their products.

I suspect these numbers may be a little different with smaller publishers, but they seem to check out, and that statement is pretty much iron-clad by this point. Here’s the problem, or rather my problem: it’s reality, but the reality makes me want to rebel against the whole damned establishment.

Ani Difranco once said that if you don’t want to end up working for the man, you have to find an alternate plan, and I suppose that’s where I am at this point.

If I’ve learned one thing about myself over the last three years, it’s that I’m not a marketer. Oh, sure, I go through the motions and technically this would be a marketing activity, but I find the process tiresome. More importantly, I find that it diminishes the time I can spend writing new fiction, which is a sin in my mind.

I’ve spent the last year pushing aside the compelling push to market my work and instead focused on writing. Did it improve sales? Hell no. Did it make me happier and better at my craft? You bet. Oh, and During that time, I cannot recall a single instance where I would have been happier going through the marketing motions rather than writing.

Oh, sure, a pang struck here or there, a little voice telling me that I wasn’t doing “what it takes to make it”, but each and every time that came from a place of fear, not a place of joy.

You know what came from a place of joy? Writing.

Not every single time, true. Sometimes it’s punching in and punching out, doing the lunchbox work of the craft, but regardless of my commitment to any particular day’s work, my quality of my life appreciably diminishes when I don’t write. The world’s edges become harsher, and I lose touch with myself in ways that frighten me.

Simply put, writing is in my blood and part of my psyche. I wouldn’t stop even if I never sold another book in my life. Would it be awesome for more people to read my stuff? Absolutely, but the characters come first.

And so, I do not expect to find much “success”, but who knows. Stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, work on Came to Believe continues. I finished editing all of Chapter 1 and most of Chapter 2 and now leave them to the hands of my critique group while I push forward. I’ll talk about some of their suggested changes on Monday.

Cure for the Pain

Happy Monday all, and what a glorious one it is, right? No, no, I’m not sarcastic at all, why do you ask?

Molasses: not just for hair any longer!

Molasses: not just for hair any longer!

Okay, yes, I may have struggled to get up and get going this morning (and why do we sometimes feel like we’re struggling through a swimming pool of molasses after a restful nights’ sleep, anyway), but thankfully I’m starting to shake out of the torpor and get down to this business of writing and working and living again. That’s a good thing, because so far this month has been a little frustrating on the writing front. Oh, I’ve come close to hitting my writing targets thus far, it’s not exactly that, it’s just a matter of finding time to work when there’s so much to be done on the unpacking front. Terribly frustrating, and it doesn’t help when you spend so much time tired and out of it. Thankfully, things are starting to ease and I have some writing commitments to meet this week so it shouldn’t be a problem to push that stuff aside and focus on the good stuff: writing.

This morning it occurred to me…well,  the proper place to start is in explaining that I suffer from a recurring back problem that dates back to around age 15. You see, I was (and still am) a major baseball junkie, and would do anything to play with just about anybody. Whatever it took to get some playing time, and I liked to experiment with stances and possible ways to hit the ball, like going the other way on an outside pitch or what would happen if I tried to push an inside pitch to the opposite field, that sort of thing. On this particular day I was attempting to recreate the batting stance of one Phil Plantier:

PhilPlantier

Not pictured: the end of his career due to back pain.

Thing looks hilarious but it quickly became apparent why he used it: you could generate tremendous torque and thus power when you “unfolded” and hit the ball. Long story short, it resulted in tremendous home runs, with an additional side effect of shrinking the strike zone.

You might already see where this is going, however; the stance stresses even a 15-year-old’s back pretty fiercely. On this particular day I got a pitch too low for even that stance and went for it (plate discipline might not have been my thing). I was rewarded with a strikeout and searing agony that shot up the center of my back. Spent a good deal of time writhing in the dirt, but managed to get home and fake it for about five seconds before Mom decided an ER trip was the appropriate response.

Sigh.

This led to a week or two of having to sit bolt-upright, even as I slept, for the slightest false move sent another flare up the back. Imagine this as an active 15-year-old. Absolute torture. Eventually, however, it cleared up.

I don't even know what this is about.

I don’t even know what this is about.

Unfortunately, as these things tend to do, it crept back into my life. Over the years a wrong move would cause another flare-up, or perhaps a too-long period  of sitting (or sleeping, ye gods) in the wrong position. It acted up very badly about ten years ago and the doctor gave me the great news that this injury had resulted in a bone spur on my spine, which causes arthritis from time to time. Only option would be cutting my back open and shaving the thing down, which is not a journey taken lightly.

Now imagine the stress of moving, the packing and unpacking, moving furniture, all of that fun stuff, with such a back problem. Fantastic, right? Well, the good news is that I’m on a treatment that helps my muscles heal much more quickly and reduces the time it takes for me to bounce back for injury. I can do a lot more and not worry about the consequences so much, but when it does catch up, watch out.

Giant_handSo, and we’re getting to the point of this, as well as perhaps a tortured metaphor. My back is pulling the old tricks again, but it’s added a twist of making my hand go numb when I lie on my back too long – doctor thinks it’s a pinched nerve, whatever, it’s not fun and only clears up when I roll on my right side and push my elbow into the bed (odd, I know). But the affliction is not necessarily the thing here, it’s what it represents, or so it seemed as I mulled it over in my head on the way to work.

It occurred to me that the entire situation bears resemblance to emotional wounds. You might undergo something that sucks at the time, but you think you have moved past and healed. Years, sometimes decades, down the road, it pops up again in the strangest places. Perhaps you’re buying a latte and hear a song that played when the traumatic event occurred. Maybe you stumble across a phrase that evokes that period. You could also find yourself in a repeat of the situation, facing down some of the same fears and frustrations from all those years ago.

And sometimes the body’s response is to numb up, to shut down any sort of incoming pain. I’ve learned to cope with this response in many different ways; sometimes you can prod your psyche into pushing on, sometimes you do your best and phone in emotional resonance until it resurfaces, and sometimes you throw your hands up and realize that you can’t do anything until the situation passes. It sucks, but it happens.

The relevance? This entire situation sums up Dean’s addiction in Came to Believe. So much of it is autopilot, his body trying to shut down any attempt at facing the painful reality in which he lives. His story is about lowering his defense mechanisms and letting the world come in. It’s about the things that threaten to derail that self-awareness and ability to cope.

Ultimately, it’s about surviving a wound and learning to thrive again. Sometimes, a day feels like a microcosm of all this. It’s good to know that I can return to that world and watch as “someone else” (admittedly, a projection of my own psyche) overcomes this stuff. If nothing else, that can keep somebody going. That’s the power of writing – and reading.

Moving On

Hello, regular (and not so regular) readers. As promised, I return to you following a very complex and arduous move. I had expected to return yesterday, but a very busy work schedule and the disaster of hiring handybook.com (save yourself and do not hire these people) for a post-moveout cleaning intervened. Not to mention that there are still piles of boxes to be unpacked at home. Moving is a harsh, demanding mistress, and no amount of pleading or cajoling will get you away from her. I suspect I won’t be free of her grip for another few weeks.

As Mary likes to say, the old condo just refuses to die. We had hoped to be free of the place Tuesday afternoon/evening at the latest, but a combination of factors has left me coming back since then. These return visits have been…interesting. There’s something poetic about seeing the place that you lived for seven years stripped down to the bare minimum. The dirty carpet, the dust bunnies on the wood floor, the abandoned kitchen. That strange scent that you can’t quite identify.

In my visits I couldn’t help flashing back to how the place looked when I first moved in. To remember the hope and excitement of it all. I’ve come to realize it’s something of a metaphor for life. You have a vision of how things are going to work out and somewhere along the way “things” happen to you and the people around you. Before you know it you’re standing back where you arrived, surrounded by the detritus of a life lived. Perhaps it wasn’t well-lived, but it was authentic, and that’s what matters.

Anyway, enough about dusty wood floors. We’re also in our new apartment and while we’re still in that phase where boxes rule your life, it’s coming together nicely. Images of the future are peeking out and it looks like it will be a nice, homey little place. I’ve always preferred closed design to open design, though, as it feels more intimate, so there is some bias at play, I’m sure.

As for writing, it is currently focused on work-related material; side effect of staring down a hairy deadline. I do expect to dive back into Come to Believe soon, though.

Hope everyone has had a great week so far.