The Curious Case of A Mirror Untrue

Did you know that I once spent over six years on a novel? True story. The first draft of the first chapter was completed on July 31st, 1998. I was 22 years old and living in Blacksburg, Virginia. I can still remember the day that I birthed the concept – a hot sunny July afternoon, when this character just started pouring out of me Kerouac style (of course, some drugs might have been involved in this process). This story would be the one to put me on the map, a contemporary fiction work that combined showed a man’s slow descent from idealistic naivete to cold-blooded murder, with plenty of questions about the nature of art along the way. Hell, that’s the nature of the title, that what we see in the mirror rarely reflects what we feel on the inside, and it’s even more true in William’s case as he’s convinced himself that he’s still an idealistic outsider artist when in truth he degenerates into something of a scumbag who needs to redeem himself.

Part of the book is set in 1972 and is a rumination on idealism and the loss of innocence. A pack of 1972 baseball cards represents an idealized childhood that the protagonist never had in the first place.

Part of the book is set in 1972 and is a rumination on idealism and the loss of innocence. A pack of 1972 baseball cards represents an idealized childhood that the protagonist never had in the first place.

I abandoned the book at the end of 2003, which makes a whole lot of sense, as 2004 kind of marked the beginning of what I see as my “fallow period”. Words would come off-and-on for the next seven years, but the unbearable pain and confusion in my personal life overrode artistic concerns. I suspect there was also a great deal for mourning for Mirror Untrue, this fabled story that would never be told.

I made a few attempts over the year to punch it back into shape – my writing files show a trail of tears from revision to revision. The last major version to be completed was the second draft, though there are six more semi-complete versions of it floating around out there. The most recent attempt to revive it appears to have dated to July of 2011, and even then my notes make it look more like a half-hearted effort rather than any real reboot. I had Corridors and I had Room 3 and I really didn’t need a third book that didn’t fit into that sort of genre.

Well, that’s changed. I’ve recently made the discovery that critiquing and revising a few pages before writing a few pages and then repeating the cycle is an incredibly effective way to get the creative juices flowing. I started by critiquing the work of an Internet stranger, then rolled into my critique group, and then found myself with nothing to critique. Why not open up some old files and see what was hiding in there, maybe put some ideas in and see where they go?

I started yesterday by digging up the last version of Mirror Untrue and reading through the first chapter. I didn’t expect much.

It shocked me. The writing itself is a bit raw and needs work, and I obviously hadn’t learned a whole bag of tricks that I now carry around, but by God the concept itself – and the characters – are good, if I do say so myself. My final concept had been to layer the 1972 story in between the “modern” story, which I’m now going to leave in early 2001, as it was such a different world. But by God I think I’m going to breathe life into this old project and get it out the door. I’m not sure when or how, as this is a side-side project, but it might make it out there before the 20th anniversary of its inception. We’ll see.

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Fiction Wednesday: Announcements and New Cover Artist

I’ve decided to take a break from the usual Fiction Wednesday grind this week since the ongoing books are still…well, ongoing books (told you they were long) and I’ve hit an unexpected surge of creative energy. These surges usually don’t take hold until later in the Spring, around the end of April/beginning of May, so this one needs to go as long as it will possibly go.

This particular surge has pushed me well past the midway point on the current pass through City of the Dead and given me impetus to start another novel midstream. The City thing is weird, as it’s sort of a second draft, but I never finished the first draft completely due to a major change in the plot. I’ve never quite drafted a novel in this fashion, but it’s making the idea of discrete drafts something of a thing of the past. It’s nice because it allows me to react more quickly to ideas and issues that arise, rather than working in a straight line. The connections between story concepts become much more apparent, and themes arise more quickly. Look for a write-up on this process in the near-future.

Bottom line, however, is that the book is coming along well, and readers should enjoy it. It’s still a long way out, unfortunately, and will probably hit the same November timeframe that I seem to hit every single year. I hope to get some other work out there in the meantime.

Big news, however, is that I’ve engaged a very talented cover artist to do a refresh of the Among the Dead line – that means a new cover for Corridors of the Dead along with the upcoming City cover. I’ll miss having Ryan Bibby along for the ride, as he’s a great, super-talented guy, but his plate seems to be full at the moment. I absolutely want Ryan back for some other covers in the near future, but for now, Bulgarian artist Silviya “Morteque” Yordanova will be handling the art refresh.

I’ve admired Silviya’s work for more than a year now and I’m super-stoked to work with her. She seems to have a similar creative philosophy, and I think that her art perfectly compliments what I’m trying to do with my fiction. You can find her work at Deviant Art to get a taste of what’s to come. Drop in there and say hi, maybe give her a like on Facebook. I think she has a bright future in the business.

Wednesday Fiction returns next week with a review of Black Sun Rising and possibly The Knife of Never Letting Go. See you on Friday.

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Happy New Year from Shaggin the Muse and my 2012 Booklist

Wow, so this is the second New Years Eve for this site. I’m planning a 2012 in review post for later this week, but for now I can just say that 2012 was a great year for my career. I published a second novel and a plethora of short works and attended my first show. I managed to crank out half a million words. More than that, I began to get my legs under me and figure out what I’d like to see out of the next few years. Next year I’ll be releasing a short story collection and another novel and attending a few shows, with an April show already confirmed. More information coming on those in the near future. For now, I just feel that I have some decent momentum going into 2013.

I hope you’ve had a great year and have a lot to look forward to next year. We only get so many of them and as I get older I realize just how important it is to do the most you can with the time you have. Yeah, I know that’s something of a cliche, but it begins to settle into your bones as you approach middle age, that’s for sure.

Now, enough of that. It’s booklist time! This year I set a goal to read 60 books (up from last year’s 50). That meant I would have to read, on average, more than a book a week. I hadn’t done that in many, many years and wasn’t sure if I would make it. I’m happy to report that I’ve exceeded that goal, hitting 64, which means I’ll probably keep my goal static next year. Let’s see what I read…

Ready_Player_One_cover

Alexandria

On the Dark Edge: My Top Ten Dark Fantasy Novels

It’s Top Ten time again! I haven’t done a top ten list in quite some time, and they’re almost always fun, so I figured, “why not?” I’ve recently discovered that so many of my favorite books fall into the dark fantasy genre, so I figured it might be time to take a look at the ten that loom large over my own work. Without further ado…

Honorable Mention: Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice), The Stand (Stephen King), Abarat Series (Clive Barker), Sandman (Neil Gaiman)

#10: The Witching Hour by Anne Rice – Note here that I’m not talking about the Lives of the Mayfair Witches series. The series itself became increasingly disappointing, to the point that I couldn’t bring myself to finish the third book, Taltos. Well-written, with lots of twists and turns, this story of a dynasty of witches manipulated for the desires of a supernatural being grabbed me right from the start and didn’t let go. Unfortunately, it also marks the end of Rice’s good years.

#9: The Thief of Always by Clive Barker – Clive Barker dominates this list, and it’s no coincidence. He has probably been the most singular influence over my own work, and I continue to read and re-read these classics. I was fortunate enough to discover him when my parents picked up a copy of the Books of Blood based on the Stephen King recommendation on the cover. I read his early stuff over and over, and loved the path he followed as his career progressed. Featuring a child who goes to a seemingly perfect paradise for kids only to discover that it hides something sinister, the Thief of Always is a great, imaginative children’s book that really captures the dark side of childhood imagination.

 

#8: The City and the City by China Mieville – China is a more recent discovery for me, but I’ve rapidly come to love many of his books, none more than The City and the City. It strikes me as a bit odd, given that, while I enjoyed reading it, it didn’t feel like a classic; however, I felt a little bit of a loss when I’d finished it and have wanted to revisit it since then. Set in one city that has been split into two, its borders reinforced by strict social controls not to acknowledge the denizens of the other city, the story takes cognitive dissonance and plays it to its logical end, giving us a paranoid urban legend that grabs hold of you right to the end. Continue reading

Someday We’ll Find It: Making the Character Connection

Welcome back again, folks. You may have noticed that I’ve been a little “dry” of late. I’ve felt it, that’s for sure, and finally pinpointed the problem: I’m working myself to death. In addition to my day job and marketing the book, I also sell thrift store finds on Amazon Marketplace, year-round. I probably don’t have to tell you how crazy things get at Christmas time. I start getting hit over the head, having to package and ship things every single day. Don’t get me wrong, the money is great and it’s going to help pay for a wedding, but I’m beginning to feel the effects of burning my candle at…I guess three ends? If you can imagine some odd three-ended candle…somehow.

Anyway! I want to revisit some of the things that I’ve talked about in the past. I started this blog as a way to talk about my writing process as I went through Corridors of the Dead, and I’ve mentioned wanting to do the same with Room 3. Unfortunately, Room 3 has been dormant for a few weeks as I pushed Corridors out the door and edited the erotica (which, by the way, is now available on Amazon).

Thankfully, the long-dormant engines are starting back up again, and they’re a bit rusty. I thought this might present a good chance to look at a problem that I’m experiencing with Room 3. It’s a problem with establishing a believable connection between characters. Continue reading

Going Off the Rails: Irrational Actors

I’m dealing with several irrational actors in my writing, so I thought that I’d take today to talk about these difficult characters. I’ve always been something of a fan of the unreliable narrator (assuming it’s done well), especially when the reveal at the end of the story shows us a whole new way to look at the story. It’s very tricky to pull off, though, and honestly I’m not sure if I’m ready to do it, though I do see myself edging closer to it.

The narrator of Entanglements, at least in the journal segments, is not a unreliable narrator, but she is an irrational actor. Where Matty was very down-to-earth and able to cut through a situation very clearly, Carla, the “main” protagonist of Entanglements, is not. She’s highly driven by her emotions. For instance, she struggles with a food addiction that drives her to make some irrational decisions early on and becomes important later in the book. For her, that addiction is a manifestation of a need to be loved. She’s had obstacles to being loved all her life – her father was distant and critical, her mother was also critical – so when she stumbles across real love, she has difficulty first even identifying it, then embracing it. Especially since she’s in a hostage situation, which makes things a lot more complicated. It drives a lot of the internal conflict of the book, especially in the later stages, when her prospective lover disappears for a time.

So what makes a good irrational character, and can you have an irrational protagonist acting of their own volition, driving a story?

Well, the answer to the last is a resounding yes. The story will be a little more…for lack of a better word, “jittery”. You don’t get to see as much of that out of Carla until the end, when she makes some rash judgments that might not be the best idea in that moment, but that’s sort of a function of being a captive. But that’s what happens when an irrational character is in the driving seat – sometimes you’re not quite sure what’s coming around the next corner. Of course with her being constrained, there isn’t a whole lot of room to explore that beyond her interactions with characters. Now that I think about that, there are some opportunities for that to shine through, just not in an overt physical form.

As for the former, the question of what makes a good irrational character…well, how do you create an irrational character without a story falling apart? I think the answer is internal consistency for the character. This means that even if they make a rash decision that changes the face of the story itself, that rash decision is internally consistent with the character’s emotional values, motivations, and back story as established within the story.

For example, Carla makes a decision to eat something that could well have meant her death based on her emotional vulnerabilities and background. She doesn’t realize until much later that she could have died there – they could have tricked her, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for them to do so, given that they just beat her.

This is where I get into something that I talk about with my fellow writers: I think we kind of have to be armchair psychologists. I know that I personally spend a lot of time picking through motivations and unseen causes for behavior in both day-to-day life and in books. Having undergone a good deal of introspection into my own internal vulnerabilities and drives, I think I’ve learned to better recognize what’s happening in someone else and be sympathetic to it.

That’s also important when presenting an irrational protagonist: you have to be sympathetic to their weaknesses. You’re creating a human being, not some sort of cardboard cutout or superman. Those weaknesses are going to inform your story. For instance, Carla is obviously overweight because of her food addiction. It would be easy to play it up for laughs, but I think it’s more important to be sympathetic and both understand her emotional issues and present them in a light that touches the reader. Hell, those issues can drive the story itself, too.

I suspect this has to do with my problem with building an unreliable narrator. I can understand and empathize, but my biggest problem is trying to make an unreliable narrator through the story itself. How do you make a reader identify with someone who’s lying to them? It’s something I haven’t quite worked out. I do think I’ll examine it sometime in the future, but I’m nowhere close to writing a work with an unreliable narrator.

Tomorrow, I want to examine framing stories, as they’re becoming more and more important to me. Something to look forward to!

Friday on My Mind: The Artist Interaction and a Change of Direction

Today’s entry is a bit of a hodgepodge, so I apologize in advance. A few things on my mind. Met last night with the first of my beta readers to finish Corridors, and it was really enlightening, actually. I mean, not just in getting a feel for some things that might need to be changed in the book or diagnosing issues, or even examining what was good. By the way, it was a very good review. Very fair, and almost everything she had suggestions for were more stylistic, polish issues than issues with the actual substance of the book. It sounds like I finally hit the nail on the head with this one. But what I’m thinking of here is that I’m starting to get the whole participation between artist and observer from the point of view of the artist.

I poured my heart and soul into this book, and it’s a reflection of a lot of very personal issues and ideas. To hear that reflected back in the way that I intended it was nice. I was very impressed that she could figure out some of the nuances that I had thrown in as either little nods or buried leads for the following books. Very cool. Even cooler, however, was that she found different angles for characters and situations in the book that I hadn’t considered because of how she was perceiving the story.

I’ve always been the kind of person who believes that there is one valid interpretation of most stories (leaving aside that some stories are designed to be ambiguous). But as I listened to her talk about the characters and the plot, I hadn’t even caught on to some facets of the story that she had uncovered. Not only is that going to strengthen the story, it’s really cool to see something that I’ve created imbued with someone else’s personal and emotional experiences, the filter of their own life.

So suddenly I feel like my own interpretations

So suddenly I feel like my own interpretations of art that I’ve dismissed in the past might have been valid after all. Actually, that’s not exactly what I mean. I just mean that, while I’ve considered analyzing structure and what actually exists, I’ve always felt that trying to interpret intent is a fool’s game. But maybe not. Maybe my own interpretations and perceptions of a given story’s intent were valid, even if they were different from what the author originally intended – both emotional states (the creator and the reader) being equally valid.

I hope that makes some sense. I’m rambling a bit, and I’m talking on a far more emotional than intellectual level here. I’m also really tired. It’s been a long week

I’ve really been wrestling with Entanglements. Yesterday I realized that I had quite the dilemma. While I was really enjoying the parts of Entanglements that involve the two male characters, Kenny and Noah, I was feeling like the blog entries by Adshade were a total chore and I was just not feeling her character at all. And this was only in the first “chapter”, or set of interlocking information. And it was kicking my butt. The biggest problem was just how…bland she was. Now she was a fully-realized character. I could see her in my head, hear her voice, etc. But she just bored me. I mean, honestly, I think that might be a first. She had a distinctive voice, a distinctive way of choosing words, but I just didn’t like her. She was a little too goody-goody.

So I went back to the drawing board and re-imagined her. What came out is…well, she’s a pretty unique character. She’s originally from Boston, and still has her accent, which shows in the way she writes. Her father was a beat cop for X number of years, she’s a little on the chubby side, she has a cat, etc. She feels like a real person to me, in the way that Matty did.

I was also concerned that having one voice or another being stronger than the other would mean the risk of losing readers when they couldn’t get the “stronger” or more “unique” voice more readily. I started to rethink my whole approach to the book, even if I knew that changing the approach would mean having to remove the blog entries that the characters were reading. This posed two problems. One was that the blog entries drove the plot, obviously, as everything was integral to driving the plot. The other was that I liked this re-imagined version of Adshade.

So getting rid of the blog entries was problematic at best, but then I had the problem that I kept having to stretch believability with how she could be writing the entries in the first place. If I keep having to plug holes in the plot’s plausibility, things are bound to sink.

I considered this. The other solution would be to write a story from her point of view and a sequel or something similar that would be the story of Noah and Kenny. I had planned to take the weekend and really think about which would be the better approach, but as I was walking the long hallway from the elevator to our apartment (the dreaded Hallway of Doom), the answer hit me over the head.

Invert the worlds. Instead of it being about two guys who stumble across a blog and are drawn into this world of intrigue, make it so that the woman who wrote the blog is creating their world – Noah and Kenny become the meta-story, characters which she has created, which will eventually align with her reality rather than the other way around. The overarching plot involves a shady organization who kidnaps her to force her to write – this will all become clear as the story goes on, and ties into the universe in the “of the dead” books. I’m excited about this book again and ready to go!

All right, everybody have a great Labor Day weekend. Since it’s Friday, have to send you out with a song…

Handling Rejection and Facing Voldemort’s Hugs

Here we are. The last of the feelers for the initial version of the novel have been sent out and returned. It’s all come full circle in a sense, and I think I have a clean slate from which to push forward. What I’m trying to say is that the publisher rejected the previous version of the novel based on the full manuscript submission (which is cool, I can always at least lay claim to getting that far in the old process).  They didn’t tell me why they passed, but that’s okay. I know the reason – lack of emotional engagement.

It’s kind of funny, the email said:

Thank you for sending us your full manuscript. After careful consideration, we have decided not to take your submission to the next stage. I realise that this is not the news you were hoping for, but I hope you will take some comfort from the fact that yours was one of just a handful of novels we requested after reading the initial submission.

Funny because secretly, this was kind of the news I was hoping for. It seems perverse, I know, but as exciting as it would be to have a traditional publisher pick me up (and one that I really respect and enjoy), I understand why they and agents passed on it, and I would have been a little disappointed in the publisher if they decided to pick it up, not to mention the fact that I’ve essentially rewritten it into a completely new work. Agents told me that it was well-written and technically competent, but they were having trouble connecting to it, so it was easy enough to figure out that there was no soul to it. When this publisher requested the full manuscript, I kind of cringed. I’m a few thousand words away from completing the rewrite that addresses all those issues…well, I would have been due for a big rewrite on this one so that I could get it out in November. Frankly, the whole idea of that was getting me down. Well, now what? I thought.

This is what. Oddly enough, while it’s bittersweet, this is for the best. I’m happy that the publishers are still seeing what works and doesn’t work. I know it was a flawed work, and that’s okay. But this does plant the little seed of an idea. Perhaps when I finish the next novel (the thriller), I should go back to the well of traditional publishers and agents. Not necessarily to get it picked up, but to try to get the same feedback and insight. It would work as a kind of litmus test for where I am with the work. I mean, who knows? Maybe I can continue to self-publish the rewritten works based on that feedback. Self-publishing isn’t what it used to be after all.

Ultimately, I think self-publishing the answer to me, but if I can get that level of feedback on what makes my book more marketable while retaining the core of what I want to talk about, why the hell not? Maybe in the process one or two of my books will get picked up by a traditional publisher, which of course does not rule out continuing to self-publish other works. I figure I’m good for at least two books a year for awhile, and maybe a diversified approach would work for me? We shall see.

On to other things. Saw the last Harry Potter movie yesterday and it was…interesting. Given how much analysis I’ve given to why things in stories work and why they don’t, it opened my eyes to some of the very real differences in media forms between books and movies. It’s the age-old conundrum: why is the movie so different from the book? I’ve understood it on an intellectual level for quite some time, but looking at the story from the same perspective that I’ve used on this site, I really got it for the first time yesterday. Some of the things I noticed are most likely questionable choices on the part of the producers and directors, but some are really commentaries on the differences between the forms.

The first thing that really bothered me was the battle at Hogwarts. It was…well, a mess. I know that these massive battles are difficult to handle both in books and on-screen, but this definitely could have been better handled. Not to get too spoileriffic, but some major characters die during the battle (this isn’t too shocking given that it’s Harry Potter). Okay, that happens, but the deaths are given less screentime than Dobby the house elf‘s death. Dobby hadn’t had a role in the movie series since the second movie, nine years ago. Okay, eight when the first part came out, to be fair. In the books it had more gravitas as there was an entire subplot about the liberation of house elves, but in the movie continuity, Dobby just sort of reappears, saves the day, and dies.

It felt a little odd and out of place, but that was nothing compared to how major characters from the last few movies are killed off with so little fanfare. I mean, one character died and I wasn’t even aware of it! I had forgotten that he died in the book, and so when one of the characters is delivering a speech about those who sacrificed their lives (again, tiptoeing around spoilers), I was utterly baffled. That character died? Did I just blink and miss it? Well, no, turns out that I had confused two of the mourning characters because they look so damn similar. That’s a major failure of storytelling right there. I remember in the book that the guy’s death was given quite a bit of treatment, as well, so seeing this pass in less than ten seconds was just breathtaking in its failure.

But I think all of that is a director’s choice, and a questionable one at that. More could have been given to those characters, even in a long movie. I can think of two minutes of footage that could have been trimmed to give them a little more than a perfunctory nod (and no, shoehorning in a ghost doesn’t count).

Where I really saw the difference between the visual form and the written word – and the advantages inherent in the former – is in the climax. Here are some spoilers that I think kind of dance around major stuff, but be on the lookout. It really bothered me that, in the end, Harry Potter wins out over Voldemort because of love. Because he can love and Voldemort can’t. Hm. It seemed cliche and didn’t feel right at all. It bothered me even more than the fanfic coda. But in this movie, with the way Raph Fiennes portrays Voldemort, you get more of a sense of why caring and love can defeat him, or at least exploit the blind spots in his character flows. Fiennes shows us how this guy is not a personification of evil but a stunted, awkward, vulnerable, frightened person.

This was a huge leap over Rowling’s method of telling us that Voldemort is that thing – it was really the difference between intellectually grasping it and really, emotionally, seeing it in play. I think that made the climax a lot more satisfying than in the book. I mean, that was 100% my issue with the climax of the novel in retrospect – not the cliche, that could have worked – but that Rowling tells us that Voldemort is a pathetic being rather than showing us that.

I’m running a little long, but the gist of what I’m saying here is that in the visual form, there are times when you have no choice but to show rather than tell. Anything that comes across as a data dump is going to be a lot more glaring in a movie than in a novel. This is making me think that I need to do another entry on showing rather than telling, with some more concrete examples. After all, it’s easier to talk about this than to really show it. Maybe Wednesday, we’ll see.

Have a Beer with Fear

The original intent of this entry was to discuss my greatest writing fear. This is a concept that’s been on my plate for over a month now, and the problem that I arrived at as I turned this over in my head was that it was nearly impossible to narrow it down. There are so many different possible writing fears that naming just one would be impossible.

There is, for example, the fear of not getting published (although obviously with self-publishing I can do that). There is the fear that my work is secretly crap and I’m not as objective as I would hope. Obviously, I will be subjective of my work, but more that those who have read my work and complimented me were just being nice to me.  That’s actually a pretty big fear, and may be #1. Though there are also the fears of losing vision or my hands getting injured, something like that. I think I would find a way around that, but it’s a constant fear.

Oh, and the fear of losing my mind – not in the sense of going crazy, but Alzheimer’s. When your mental acuity declines, how much can you really write? For me, writing is life. It’s who I am, and have been, for years.

There you have it: it’s simultaneously a very huge subject but also a small subject. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to  point to the motivations that keep a story going.

Not to get too personal, but once upon a time, one of my greatest fears was having a significant other cheat on me. On some base level I equated that with a form of emotional death. That shaped a lot of how I behaved in a relationship. I would give in, I would put up with things that a lot of other people would not put up with because I felt I had to please the other person no matter what, or they would go elsewhere, giving them the ultimate power over me. If I were a character in a book, it would certainly have been one of my motivating factors.

Like any good book, I had to face that fear. It happened to me. That would have been the climax of that particular arc of my character. It transformed me, that’s for sure. The end of the story is probably yet to be written, but I’ve come out of it a better person. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about. Sometimes a character’s motivation may be to avoid something that’s negative, but that negative thing may be just what they need.

Let’s look at one of my favorite books, Stephen King’s the Wastelands, part of the Dark Tower series. One of the characters, Jake, has an intense fear of losing his mind (and he slowly is losing mind thanks to a schism between timelines). Everything that he does is motivated and driven by this fear – the need to relieve the pressure of living in the shadow of this fear. It’s used very effectively, and when we get to the climactic point where he literally moves into another world and resolves this internal conflict, we learn that there is a guardian between worlds, a demon, who nearly kills him.

The symbolism here is obvious, going back to the hero’s journey and the crossing of the abyss, facing down the demons that haunt us, etc. This externalization, combined with the suspense that’s been building up through his erratic actions in the grip of this fear as control slips away, adds a punch to this demon pursuing him because he is facing the ultimate realization of loss of control.

So not only is fear a motivating factor, but it’s used as an effective plot device to build suspense in that scene, especially as we know that he is not safe – the character has already been killed twice at this point.

The movie Se7en has this too. In the climactic scene with the box, we see Brad Pitt‘s fear of “what’s in the box”. It’s a microcosm of using fear as a motivating factor. We can even see how Kevin Spacey‘s character pulls the strings of Pitt’s fear in order to make him act in a certain fashion.

This is something that I’m trying to use in Corridors of the Dead. There are times that I’m concerned it may not be 100% effective, but as I draw closer to the end, I think I’ve tied the ends tightly enough that Matty’s actions and motivations make sense in the face of that. She has a fear of losing someone she loves, which motivates her to go along with a monstrous plan that she would otherwise oppose. She finds herself in conflict with this fear at most points – becoming self-driven in fits and starts as this threat is hammered against her psyche over and over again. It becomes a question of her resistance against this implacable stone of her fear. It’s the crux of the novel’s climax, which is a symbolic representation of her taking control of her life – control that she lacks at the beginning of the novel.

In that way, I think that fear can be something that makes us think we have no control. It can keep us living life from the standpoint of a victim. That’s a theme that I like to explore in my writing quite a bit because…well, hell, it’s something I know. I did it a lot in my life. It’s something that will likely recur as I continue to develop my career.

So yeah, fear. It’s a great motivating factor. Something that I want to talk about in the future are other motivating factors that you can use for your characters and possible scenarios that might explore those.

Okay! Music Friday. Let’s do this. This is Whirring by the Joy Formidable.

Tied to the Tracks: Leading with Peril

First off, apologies for not having an entry yesterday. I’ve been sick the past few days and am only starting to climb my way out of it.

But that’s not today’s topic. Today’s topic is Leading with Peril. Now what do I mean by that? Well, when you start off your story – novel – screenplay, what have you, you want the story to grab the reader by the lapels and really shake them around. It should say “hey, this is important!”. God forbid you lead off with an internal monologue or a “weather” beginning.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with a “weather” beginning (though it’s quite a cliche by this point), it begins by describing the weather that a character is experiencing, something of which I’ve definitely been guilty. I’ve also been guilty of the internal monologue beginning. I mean, hell, the book that I was trying to sell – the one that may indeed still sell – starts with an internal monologue. The rewrite does not. The rewrite follows the principle of leading with peril.

But let’s look at an example from my own past to establish just what I’m talking about (from the second draft of my own long-abandoned novel, Jazshael):

The congested I-81 corridor from Northwestern Virginiais more than just a thoroughfare; it is a means to transport a traveler into a land of carmine autumn mountainsides, spacious verdant fields, and unresolved dichotomy. The unsuspecting traveler to the Shenandoah Valley moves from a place where a rural sensibility informs the outliers of a metropolitan area to an insular, unique land, where a BMW may find itself stuck in a no-passing lane behind a black horse and carriage, where drunken frat boys from that metropolis rub shoulders in sparse, redneck bars with mountain men just come down from ancient familial perches in the Blue Ridge. It is a place where the citizenry would fly both a Confederate Flag and an American Flag and see no contradiction, so long as some know-it-all from the city didn’t think to comment. The average tourist may remain unaware of the nature of the land, but those who have lived there know it, and feel it in their pores for the remainder of their lives.

It’s a travelogue, basically. I’m sure it would work just fine as a travel book, but as the beginning of a novel, it’s pretty damn weak, even if I do think the writing itself is fairly strong.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean that the character has to be in danger right from the outset. That will get a reader’s attention, but what if you’re writing a book where the character is not in physical danger at any point? I’ve read in a few places that the danger you present may be emotional. Or a career danger, or a mental danger. So that gives you some possibilities. You could lead off with the end of a relationship, or the threat of ending a relationship. Or having a job threatened.

I mean, stories are, at their core, about conflict – conflict that changes characters. If you can lead your story off with a conflict that’s even remotely related to the main plot, it’s a really good start. As I’ve become more selective about what I read, I’ve definitely noticed that the poor, slow starts always turn me off. I always sit there wondering when it will get going. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes literary works are slower burns.

But there is a way to make a literary novel also start with this peril. Like I said, it’s about identifying an immediate danger to the character – even a literary novel has some sort of conflict, and that’s what you need to be focusing on. For instance, one of the novels that I wrote once upon a time was about a young man who moved to join an artists commune in Northern California in the early 70s. It was intended as a deconstruction of the end of the Hippie Era and the end of the 60s in general.

The prime conflict within the story was that this guy wanted to become the best artist he could possibly be while living within his own ideals – more beatnik than hippie in nature. But within this commune there were rules about collective bargaining; now that I know a little more about the world, the plot is fairly ludicrous, but give me a break, I was 19 when I started it. Anyway, the rule was that it was okay to sell your works, but no agents. Dissatisfied, a group of artists broke off and made a deal to produce counterfeit art with this man who claimed to be a great agent and would eventually get them big gallery shows (which he did deliver upon).

There was also a subplot involving him falling in love with a woman who already had an abusive boyfriend who tries to kill her, but they end up killing him and running off to Mexico. It was all very melodramatic, but I was trying to wrap an artistic approach around that. Obviously I didn’t feel it worked, because I never sold the book, but I learned a lot. The reason I mention this book, however, is that I recall the opening to this book:

But that was after.

Before, it was a hot July day. Before, I was dealing with one of those days I’ve always hated, when nature wants you to soak you in your own juices. Before, I hadn’t met Norm.

Wait. Let me back up and tell you a little about Norm Lavoy.

Of all the bastards I’d seen come and go, Norm was the most significant of them all. When Norm was a kid, he kept live rats in his basement. His mom would tell him to kill them, he’d put them in a box. Norm would tell you to fuck off, then hug you like you grew up together and were just boys.

And now (or rather, then), I stood before Norm’s apartment door having never met the guy, knowing only of him through second-hand anecdotes of one of his stoner friends. My stomach was tight in my throat, my heartbeat in time to agitated thought behind my eyes. Those thoughts weren’t that important, but they involved some variations of him laughing his ass off at me, followed by homelessness, followed by hobosex in the back of a Jack in the Box at 3 AM in exchange for some trashed burgers. They weren’t that important. I knocked once, a quick tap.

That’s right, hobosex.

The only answer to my knock was machine-gun-fire barking. I imagined a gnarled dog hunkered down in some World War I trench, firing off barking rounds to protect its position from the encroaching cat army. Then…ah, yes, it paused, peering over the trench to see if the enemy was still there. I heard footsteps behind the door.

Then the doggy soldier unloaded another fusillade as it dove, ass-first, back into the trench.

This bit of a mind-movie, amusing as it was, was interrupted by a thump against the door and the quieting, but not ceasing, of the dog’s volleys.

Actually not as bad as I had once thought, but the second paragraph describes the weather, and there’s not much hint of a conflict here, and it doesn’t get much better over the ensuing pages. We just meet Norm and his jail-bait girlfriend. But keep in mind what you see above is the fourth draft. In the original draft, we followed him in agonizing detail as he walked from his car to that front door. It was a slow, plodding affair, because I had been reading a lot of literary works at the time and wanted to emulate that style. It was a very Kerouac-influenced book.

If I were to rewrite this today, I would likely start with him wondering what the hell he’s done signing this agreement with this “agent” and then work backwards from there to show him arriving while cutting out the extraneous details. At the time, though, I felt that I needed to show as many of the opening events as possible. Now, of course, I’ve realized that you can shorthand a lot of stuff.

I mean, that’s just one example of how you can do it. Look at the key point in your story and how you can harness some of that to get the story going. Some books I’ve read say that beginnings of novels are actually easier than endings and I’m inclined to agree. Now that I’ve actually learned the secret to creating a good beginning, I don’t have much trouble with it. Here are a few off-the-cuff examples that I’ve come up with, and there are loads more that can serve as spurs for writing:

  • Mark wanted to understand why he was a marked man, but the gun in his back was a more immediate concern.
  • She’d always suspected there was something unusual about her dog. The bones in the kitchen just proved it.
  • It’s not every morning you awaken in another world, but today just happened to be that kind of day.

And on and on. You get those, and you can sit down and think about which ones really work for you. Sometimes I think it’s good practice to just write these intros and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the character saying or observing this?
  • What is the situation all about?

From that you can get solid story ideas and proceed onward.

Again, leading with peril. Leading with conflict. We’ll talk about endings tomorrow.

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