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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