Dark Thanksgiving

Welcome back, dear reader, and first I’d like to say Happy Thanksgiving to those of you in the US who celebrate it. I have mixed feelings about the origins of the holiday, especially where it relates to colonial ties and what it represents for indigenous people, but I do like the idea of a time of year where people are prompted to reflect on what they have and understand that happiness is sometimes about what you have in hand, and not in the endless pursuit of something “more”. Gratitude is something that I practice daily for the sake of my own sanity, but anything that encourages more of it is a good thing, I think. Shame for the poor turkeys, but hey I’m an omnivore so I suppose I can’t say too much there.

That said, what a dark week it has been thus far. Warning: going to get up on my soap box a little here. Sorry if you don’t agree, but I also think that an artist’s political views are part and parcel of their output, whether it’s explicit in the works or not (and I prefer not to be overt in my fiction). Full confession, I am a “left leaning moonbat” who believes in equality of opportunity for all and the social contract – that we all benefit from our society and thus owe it to others to take care of them, beyond it just being the right thing to do. Don’t worry, it’s not going to become part of the weekly update or anything, I’m not trying to start a political blog here. This is still mostly about writing. I just can’t ignore what’s going on.

I have a dark history where it comes to sexual abuse, having been on the receiving end more than once, and so the past few weeks, or hell, is it a month now, have been difficult at best. The Roy Moore thing, though…that’s been a real capper. To see people not only openly defending this predator but also state that it’s preferable to vote for him rather than someone who defended civil rights? Sad times for the United States. And of course Trump goes and tacitly endorses the guy for the purpose of destructive tax cuts, but then he’s already cut of similar cloth so I suppose that’s to be expected. Then we get Ajit Pai and the FCC promising to gut net neutrality at the same time that we’re opening a path to more media consolidation and one company controlling a vast majority of the media in this country (and it enrages me that any of this is political hay these days, once upon a time basic fairness was viewed as a natural American trait).

It’s a lot to take in when you’re supposed to be thinking of family, friends, and gratitude. Add in that I’m away from my family, truly far away, for Thanksgiving for the first time in ages, and I’m very reflective. The good news is that our own little family is still going strong, and we’re all celebrating together, even if two of us walk on four legs.

All right, enough of that. On to the usual stuff: writing! And what a lot there has been. First, I’m in the process of wrapping up the fourth version of the In the Pines outline. There will certainly be a fifth, as there are too many chapters that still need polish. A little disappointing, but I’d rather do it right the first time than rush and blah blah, you get the picture. Some of the chapters are very, very ready, though. It’s just going to be a matter of putting some meat on those bones. And I didn’t get any real curveballs during this part of the draft, so I think the fifth version should really wrap things up. I usually have some major revelations or changes to talk about here, but honestly it all kind of came together, and the one larger development is actually a huge spoiler that would ruin the ending, so I will remain quiet about that one.

Next week I return to the Elkmont story treatment and wrap up the third act. That’ll put me in a good place to break the story into an outline and really start massaging things. Just looking at where I’ve come since the story treatment for In the Pines I expect a lot of changes, all of them good. I’d like to have that finished before the 1st.

But in the meantime there’s something new on the horizon. I keep a list of story ideas in Google Keep, one that’s always growing and changing; for some time, I’ve thought that one or two of those ideas might be the one to follow Elkmont, but every now and then something comes out of seemingly nowhere to grab you. Back in 1998, I started on a little story that I called Hauntworld. All that really remains of it are the first two chapters, some fragments of character descriptions, and an old website, but something about the core of the idea has stuck with me all these years. The original was about a seasoned detective and his rookie partner who are investigating a series of murders and soon learn that the killer, who styles himself as “the Imago”, has origins in another world and kills via supernatural means. The original write-up is a little silly, but the story popped back up in my head the other morning, along with a “what if”: what if this was a private detective rather than a cop, and one that operated in a world where the paranormal was more of an open secret than something that he happens upon? And what if he were getting on in years and deciding to take on a partner that he would groom to take over the business? What if there were schools that taught people how to do this work, and in the process of interviewing, he somehow gets a top-notch candidate, but the one catch (for him – I think she’s a great character) is that she’s a young black woman, and he fears he can’t relate to her but covers it with bluster?

The dynamics could be very interesting, with him teaching her his investigative methods while she tries to bring him into that world’s version of the 21st century. All while chasing a relentless supernatural killer with inscrutable methods and motives – the Imago returned. It seems like a pretty damn good hook, and the foundation for a series where we end up following “Zoe”, as she’s currently known. I’m kind of thinking of the genre as Neo-Noir Horror, but there will definitely be some comedic elements as well. And I’m almost having to resist writing some of this already, as the ideas for scenes are flowing fast and furious. I want to make sure I have plenty of foundation laid for it, first, as there will be some twists and turns.

Anyway, this will be Hauntworld, for now, and it’s the third book in my queue. Expect me to talk about it more in the near future as I develop the idea.

All right, that said, time to wrap this thing up with the usual photography feature. Hope everyone has a great holiday, and I’ll see you next week.

My brother-in-law hit me with the black-and-white challenge on Facebook, so I accepted. Also dug out my bass for the first time since the move.

Say this for the Midwest: the sunsets are stunning. And this week in particular has shown colors I haven’t seen since childhood.

Saturday morning we went to The Shack in Chesterfield, MO. Great place for coffee and gluten-free options.

Warning: controversial contents.

After breakfast we roamed historic Route 66 and found Stsovall’s Grove Dance Hall and Saloon. The site dates back to the 1860s in one form or another, and the current place opened in the 1930s.

Yep, that sure is a horse out front.

Freezing cold Saturday night, so we got the fire place going.

See what I mean about these sunsets?

One last sunset picture. Couldn’t resist this one. Too ominous. And check out the colors in the clouds.

Last pic. Clear sign that the seasons are ready to turn that corner into winter. Get ready!

Hot Steaming Mess

Welcome back and whew, let me tell you. This week has been a practice in dreams meeting reality. Let me get the personal out of the way first: the weather has sucked, our cat may be sick, work is absolutely ball-bustingly busy, and the culture shock of moving halfway across the country has set in. That’s not even getting into the bug that’s been going around the office, which laid me low at the end of last week and ensured that I didn’t get back into In the Pines until Monday. What I’m saying is that your trusted narrator is currently a Hot Mess, but I am striving for better. Trying to get better at my job and at my writing. It’s an ongoing process.

Speaking of writing, let’s talk about it, shall we? Last week I stated an intention to kick off proper drafting of In the Pines on December 1st and I think I can still meet the spirit of that goal, but a review of the first seven chapters reveals at least two that will need a further outlining pass. The good news is that the other chapters are in really good shape and I think further outlining would be pointless – I need to drill down into the details of the scenes and really let them live and breathe to get to the next step. I’m already seriously loving the two main characters. There are echoes of Corridors of the Dead in this book, to be certain, but I think it’s different enough to be thematic.

Anyway, let me elaborate at boring length about how I envision the process going. There will be one more outlining pass, which will be the fifth draft of the outline, but in this version I will take the “narrative-ready” chapters and start breaking down descriptions of scenes into actual narration and dialogue. For example, going from something like this:

The “camera” pans to her mother, hopefully surprising the reader. Now we set the scene: smells, sights. A tidy table, everything in its right place. Her mother drinks coffee and reads from an iPad, but frowns and looks up. Of course she’s not okay, she says, her daughter got attacked the night before.

To something like this (and again, keep in mind that this is a first draft and will be further refined because yuck):

Though Morgan’s mother sat on the opposite side of their tiny dining room table, in their tiny breakfast nook, she seemed to be a million miles away. Morgan’s words died somewhere in the middle of the neatly-arranged wasteland of artificial sweetener packets, honey bears, and napkins.

After a long moment, Morgan spoke again. “I asked if you’re okay.”

“I heard you,” Wendy said, but her eyes seemed unable to leave her iPad. What would she be reading? Work emails? The Wall Street Journal? Family Circle?

“Then can you answer me? Kind of rude to just sit there…”

Wendy sighed and lowered her coffee cup. At last she lowered her reading glasses and stared across the table at her daughter. Morgan would normally welcome this gaze, but now she couldn’t help seeing her own eyes staring back at her.

“Of course I’m not okay,” Wendy said. “My daughter got attacked last night.”

So you can see how nuance develops; though it’s not mentioned in the outline or in her character description, we learn that Morgan’s mother, Wendy, is cold, prim, and proper, but also has a Martha Stewart side. This will play into a subplot that comes up later.

I can do this kind of elaboration for each of the “narrative-ready” chapters while simultaneously working the chapters that still need outline massaging. I don’t know what to call this phase of the process, exactly. It’s a hybrid approach, for sure, but I think it will help me keep the overall plot in mind while I work on those straggling chapters.

My goal at the moment, however, is to finish plot outline Version 4.0 and then take another week off to work on the third act of the Elkmont story treatment because that bad boy will go in a drawer until the first draft of Pines is finished. Still to be determined on how long that first draft might take.

So, roughly, my current take on the process is to keep switching off between stories; Elkmont story treatment followed by first draft of Pines followed by Elkmont outline version 1. At some indeterminate point I’ll start workshopping the next novel in this merry-go-round, as it’s already starting to take some shape in the basement of my subconscious. Going to be quite the ride to see how this all plays out.

Of course, wouldn’t be a blog entry without the photos. Not as much to go on this week because of illness and general Hot Mess status, but here’s what I have.

This is Broemmelsiek Park in St. Charles County. As you can see, the fall colors were quite choice. This is very late in the year to see this kind of color for an East Coaster.

We were drawn to Broemmelsiek Park for its astronomy center. Really need to go star-gazing there one night.

A moment that felt tailor-made for a shot.

The park has several ponds. This one was probably my favorite.

After our journey we went to the Fireside Bar and Grill in New Melle. They didn’t have a ton of gluten-free options, but I can heartily recommend the bacon-cheese dip. Just make sure you have someone to share it.

We also happened to find the home of the Addams family in New Melle. Talk about a highlight! Hope you have a great weekend and week.

When The Parts Don’t Line Up

Hey there, welcome back. It’s Thursday again and you know what that means. That’s right. Prepare yourself for thrills, chills, and literary spills as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing. It’s all a process, though, right? Right.

These days I have my hands on my hips and am shaking my head at the damn weather. Summer seemed to last well through to the middle of October (with a few reprieves here and there), then we got a week of Autumn, and now it’s straight on to winter, with sub-freezing temperatures and a thick layer of frost a week after 70-degree temperatures. I’m told this is par for the course for St. Louis, that we experience wild swings in weather all the time to the point that it’s very unpredictable, to which I can only say ayyyyy. Oh well, I suppose we’ll get used to it sooner or later.

At least the writing continues to move forward. This was my week off from In the Pines, which meant Elkmont, Elkmont, and more Elkmont. I’m working my way through “act 2” of the story treatment and already hit a portion that was driving me crazy. To set the scene, one of the five podcasters/YouTube stars goes missing (abducted, as it turns out, but they don’t know this), and an argument ensues as the others realize that their stoner friend hasn’t just wandered off and may be in trouble. Night has settled in and there’s a certain danger (aside from anything supernatural) inherent in exploring an abandoned mining town with little more than a flashlight and night-vision camera. You know, things like collapsing structures and falling through holes in the ground and whatnot.

The ever-lovely “star” of the show flat-out refuses to explore, as he’s above all that. This leaves the three somewhat rational members of the team debating on how to handle things. All agree that they need to search for their friend and no one person can do it alone. Skip ahead a bit and the two female protagonists, currently known as Katie and Theresa, are exploring the burnt ruins of the rich side of town while the ever-dutiful Bill “Country” Simas watches over the arrogant star of the show, James.

And here’s where I ran into trouble. My original plan was to have the stoner character, currently known as TeeTee, be dragged to the town square by a hostile group and we don’t see the male characters again until Katie and Theresa return to camp to find a nasty surprise. But my brain locked up on me here, refused to move forward. As always, I realized that when this happens it means that this is not how the story is supposed to proceed. So I backed up and rethought the scene structure. Theresa and Katie still have their adventure, but they don’t make it back to camp right away. James and Country have a minor altercation before things turn for the worst for them, and the two parties get split up for the remainder of Act Two.

The end of Act Two, of course, is supposed to leave your characters in the darkest of places, so we’re building toward that. I can’t tell you what that looks like, exactly, as even I don’t know yet, but I do understand the forces that are at work in the town and have some faith that I’m back on track.

Of course, tomorrow I return to In the Pines and try to nail down the fourth (and hopefully final) version of the story outline. My goal is to start writing the real thing on 12/1 and power through that first draft, but we’ll see how the outlining goes. These things, as you know, rarely work out as planned. I just have to go with the flow.

On a personal note, had a rather quiet weekend, as I participated in Extra Life 2017 on Saturday for potentially the last time (just no interest from folks and no donations. My time could be better spent). On Sunday we headed out into the badlands of Central Missouri despite being under a tornado watch and…well, just check out some of the stuff we found. As always, you can see more at my dumb little Instagram account. See you next week.

The Insurance Company Spire of Doom.

Love the look of a cornfield in November. So…melancholy.

Found this at an abandoned power substation. Not ominous at all.

More of that abandoned substation. Neighbors were paranoid about me taking pictures, but eh.

AMERICA FUCK YEAH

Found this in a little dive bar in Chain of Rocks, MO that was about 99% nicotine particles. Didn’t have any quarters 🙁

Understand the Plan

Apologies for not hitting that Friday post last week, but work continues to be hectic and I’m fortune to get even one blog entry out the door. So hey, consider this a victory alone.

Considering life’s pace, I’m actually quite happy with how much writing I’ve done over the last week. Believe it or not, I’m on track to at least equal my productivity from last week and have made huge strides of progress where Elkmont is concerned. I’m about halfway through the “first act”, which entails the arrival of the characters, and am getting a good feel for their personalities and the clashes inherent in their goals. I’ve found a pretty good way to manage these, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but first I’d like to talk about physicality.

I am an intensely visual person, which is probably why I favor photography so much. I’m drawn to the unusual, the captured moment that reveals something you might not have noticed otherwise. It’s probably related to my love of the obscure (and not in a hipster way, more in that I find some divinity in those small details) and overlooked. When I create a character, they pop into my head visually. I can “see” their height, weight, hair color, etc.

Big deal, I’m sure you’re saying. Most writers do this, as it’s a big part of reading. Fair enough. I tell you this because I also find it important to imagine a story’s “stage”, to understand the overall workings of that world and how the locations fit together. In some instances I’m writing about a place that I know and can wander in my head. In others, not so much. When it comes to a place that’s been abandoned for 50+ years, it becomes even more difficult, as the original details of the place become obscured. How much is left of that building, for example, and has the foundation shifted? I can see bits and pieces of this place in my head but pulling it all together into a cohesive whole eluded me. I found myself itching to create a map of the place, and just decided what the hell; why not do it? So I took a pen and paper and took five minutes to sketch this out.

Yeah, my handwriting is spider-poop.

Not only does it give me the lay of the land, it also allows me to put the story beats into a physical context and have an idea, for example, of how far a character has to run to get from the general store to the hospital. Incredibly helpful, and something I plan to do for the rest of my books in the future. And it works on the micro level, as well; I created a map of the hospital as well and found that the contours of that building suggested some twists and turns to the character interactions. Which brings me to my other “map”: the character motivation map.

Elkmont promises to be my first book written from the point of view of multiple characters, and I need to do each of them justice, so each has their own subplots that thread together and form a background to the overarching plot. This means a need to understand what each character wants, both overall and through the different phases of the story. The answer seemed simple: I needed a chart. Beware, this chart has some spoilers, but I can tell you already that some of these details have already changed, so there’s no guarantee that they will hold.

As I said, the table captures overall goals for the characters, any observations about those goals and how they interact with other characters and the overall plot arc, goals for the three different acts, and obstacles to those goals in each act. The very idea of laying these down, like the hospital map, suggested certain contours. Katie and James both want to make a great YouTube documentary, but for very different reasons. This will cause some dynamic push-and-pull between them as they work together one moment to better the show and then butt heads in others when James insists on being the center of attention because of his marketability. And one character’s lack of ambition will grind at another character. And so on. Add those elements to the overall plot, which involves a dark hidden secret and vengeful ghosts of the past, and you’ve got yourself a stew, baby. Or at least the suggestion of an overall plot.

So I’m feeling pretty good about where I am with Elkmont. This is the giddy portion of the program, where I can just lay down stupid ideas and see if they go anywhere (usually not) and then winnow and shape as we move forward. Tomorrow I’ll be putting the story to a rest, though, with work on “Soul Eater” resuming. And while I haven’t done too much thinking about Soul Eater beyond finding a new title, potentially In the Pines, I also feel like I’ve learned a lot from the Elkmont experience and can transfer those findings over to the third draft of the outline. Before you know it, it’s going to be time to expand that outline into the real deal.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Hope everyone has a great weekend and a great Halloween, if you celebrate. We’ll be seeing the original Halloween on the silver screen Saturday night, after seeing the Exorcist last Saturday. Have to love those $5 horror movies during the Halloween season.

The Small Victories

Welcome back! I’m glad to report that you’re catching me on the upswing, which is a rare and beautiful thing this time of year (I’m usually starting that downward slide into the SAD doldrums right around now). Thankfully, I’m on the mend physically, mentally, and emotionally. The return to work has done me a world of good. I’d love to be that person who works better from home full-time, but I’ve learned that such excursions should be limited for my own mental well-being. For whatever reason, I prefer to work with the sound of other people around me, and some hustle and bustle. I suppose for the same reason that I prefer to work under some pressure – the imposed limitations push me. If ever I were lucky enough to become a full-time fiction writer, I would likely rent an office, or venture to the local coffee shop for work. I suppose that would be cheaper than rent.

Anyway, my point is that I’m doing better, and my brain ticked over at some point last week. I mean, I wrote over 18,000 words, a high point for this year. And this in the midst of taking on a new role at work and an increased workload as a coworker and friend transferred to another department. This week has been a little more difficult as I pick up the pieces, but I’ve found that each small victory bolstered my confidence and gave me what I needed. I think I’ll still hit 10K words this week, as I’m already sitting at the threshold. That was my old goal, and it would be nice to hit that consistently again now that I’m out from under a few shadows. The key is to make the time, and I think I’ve found a way to do it.

Enough of that talk. How about the actual writing? Once upon a time I had thought that the second draft outline of Soul Eater would be finished on Monday, but the job transition and related exhaustion changed those plans. The good news is that it was not a permanent change, and I finished that outline up yesterday. As always, the process surfaced some more ideas and issues with the approach. I know I went over some of this last week, but I feel okay digging into specifics now.

The original idea for this story revolved around a male millennial character who was a video game streamer and worked at the local gas station. His life was going nowhere, and he felt stuck living with his mother, who had moved them out of the city and into the exurbs to offer him a better life. Ethan proved to be a cypher, however; I could get into his surface emotions but had trouble digging deeper into his motivations. In addition to that, I figured out about halfway through the draft that I would need to shift perspectives from Ethan to Morgan, who Ethan pretty much knew as his best friend’s girl. And I learned that Morgan was easier to understand and presented more compelling options for the story. I finished that draft and chewed over the idea of shifting protagonists, as I always end up doing.

Shifting to Morgan has proven to be the right call, and I have made her friend Rosa far more important to the story than the original, while Ethan has receded to victim status. But this has brought a new set of complications: the story feels rushed, and a theme has surfaced that demands finesse. The good news is that the theme is crystal-clear, I just need to decide if I want to follow it to its logical end. I don’t know. If I don’t, I will need to do some more retooling. I’ve decided to let the story sit until next Friday while I chase the Elkmont dragon to its den in the mountains.

And what a den it’s turning out to be. It’s way too early to talk specifics, but this is the one that I mentioned last week that features a group of YouTube actors filming a lost town in the West Virginia mountains. A theme has already surfaced for this one, and I think it might be strong. I’ll have more to report next week on that front.

That’s all for this week. Look for more tomorrow, with the weekly photo post, and thanks for joining me again.

And We’re Back!

Not like I intended to leave in the first place, but being in pain will do funny things to your productivity. And make no mistake, I was in pain. A lot of it. I’ll spare the delicate nature of what went down, but suffice it to say that I had a lot of pain in a very sensitive place, and it ended up necessitating surgery. Minimally invasive, outpatient surgery, but surgery nonetheless – itself very painful, painful enough to cut through the general anesthesia. So you have two weeks before surgery and two weeks after for recovery and you get to the month we’ve had since the last entry. But I have not abandoned you, dear reader, and I have not abandoned my work. In fact, since Sunday I’ve been back to the grindstone better than ever.

I believe I’ve mentioned my latest project, a relatively straightforward horror novel. The interesting thing is that, as part of this project, I’ve developed a new method of drafting that seems to mitigate my worst habits. But let me back up.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks with my novels in the past has been my tendency to get three-quarters of the way through a story and realizing that it’s not working in its current form. I mean, hell, Corridors of the Dead was a different book altogether at first, with a different protagonist, which I retooled entirely. Room 3 went through several different iterations and a complete rewrite, as did Room 3 and Came to Believe, which is still stuck in Clusterfuckistan and may not make it out for another year or so. Clearly, the idea of doing the bare minimum of planning then diving in and adjusting on the fly was not working. Came to Believe even had a relatively complete plan before I started drafting, but it still fell victim to the same problems. So half-planning didn’t work, and going by the seat of my pants definitely didn’t work. A new approach was needed. I went down the full-on planning road.

So far it’s working out. As often happens, I quickly realized that problems with the POV character would necessitate a change in protagonists and in the dynamic of some relationships. I also learned that the first protagonist was kind of a cypher, somewhat boring. Another character stepped to the front of the stage, and the second draft of the plot has been all about her. In the course of creating this second draft, I’ve realized that there are pacing issues that can be shored up here and there, which will be addressed in the third draft. But I think you see where I’m going: in the past I might have written 75 to 100K words before discovering the protagonist didn’t work, which would necessitate a months-long total rewrite. In this case, I discovered it within 15,000 words of the plot, and the update is going to take a couple of weeks. And again I might have gotten through that second 75 to 100k word round and discovered the pacing didn’t work, so now I have to insert a chapter here and there then go through the text again to account for any ripple effects. Cue another six months or so. As it stands now, my plot is about 22,000 words, but again it will only take a week or two to insert the new chapters and adjust accordingly. By the time I’m finished, I’ll have a pretty good skeleton of the story that will be pretty easy to drape flesh over.

I’m hopeful enough about this new process that I’ve already started brainstorming another story idea and am allowing that to develop organically. I’m not ready to fully talk about that one yet, but it involves YouTube wannabes and a long-lost abandoned town in the mountains.

Anyway, thanks to those of you who have stuck around all this time. I can’t promise that the road will be clear from here on out, but I am doing my damnedest to stay on it. Hopefully you see some more fiction from me sooner rather than later.