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.

Ripple

Hey hey, it’s Thursday again, and you know what that means – blog time. Still hanging in there, still writing, still enjoying the hell out of it, though I find myself in a bit of a “situation” with In the Pines. This is the same kind of situation that has plagued me in the past, but as I said in the past, at least this time it’s on the outline level and the fix is measured in days rather than months.

Here’s the situation: as planned, I picked up the outline again on Friday, with grand plans to hone it to Version 3 and from there take a hop, skip, and a jump to Version 4 and then the first draft of the actual novel. Things were chugging along rather well, with an adjustment here or there, until I hit the portion of the story where Morgan comes home to find that her once-vibrant-cum-sickly mother has “recovered” and turned into a sickly-sweet manic version of herself. I went forward with a taken on this chapter that featured Morgan and Rosa (who are now attached at the hip because of Morgan’s off-the-rails boyfriend) dealing with this crazy but ultimately well-meaning mother.

And it just felt flat, which is obviously not something you want from a scene that’s supposed to be filled with manic energy. I puzzled over the problem, how to fix the scene and such, and realized that it might not be “fixable” as such; the dynamic entirely changed with Rosa in tow and I was not about to remove Rosa from the scene.  So the scene itself had to change. But how? Again, I searched my thoughts. The scene needed more tension to keep it from falling flat. What if her mother wasn’t so well-meaning? What if the nature of her “change” was far more sinister and threatening? From there it wasn’t a long trip to one of the book’s underlying themes: sexual agency and confusion.

A horror mentor long ago told me that one of the most powerful emotional taps that we can touch when creating horror is the sexual side; it’s part of what’s made Stephen King so effective, even if he comes across as a crazy creeper in some instances. Horror is about eliciting a response, about touching on the reader’s emotions, and to be honest I feel like sexuality has been something that I’ve kept at arms’ length in my genre works (not the literary novel I’m writing though, that’s for sure). I don’t want to give away the turn here as it’s pivotal to the second act of the book, but I think I found an effective way to combine sexuality and terror. At first I recoiled from the idea, but shit, isn’t that what I want the reader to feel, to empathize with what Morgan is going through? So I went for it, and it’s taking the second act of the book in a completely different direction.

I think I can circle back to the original ending, sort of, but there’s going to be a new subtext and a dude-in-distress subplot that I hadn’t considered before. As you can imagine, this is going to mean that the fourth version of the outline will need considerable massaging, so that mythical first draft is still a little way down the path. The good news is that if I keep this pace up, we could be looking at the end of Version 3 by the end of this week. Then it’s back to plotting Elkmont.

Just goes to show the ripples that a change in direction can send across the surface of even a well-planned novel, to torture the hell out of the metaphor.

In other news, this weekend I’ll once again be playing for Extra Life, trying to raise money for St. Louis Children’s Hospital, though I have to admit to being an utter failure to this point. Not that I can blame anyone; if your autumn has been anything like ours, money is precious. But if you happen to be able to give, please consider doing so at this link. I will be livestreaming off-and-on during the day, depending on which system I’m using.

Finally made our way back east of the Mississippi river Saturday, to a town called Alton, Illinois. Picturesque little place, though it appears to be struggling like many other once-industrial cities in similar settings. I’ve included some pictures below, as I’m obviously never getting to those Friday photo posts again. If you happen to be in that neck of the woods, I highly recommend checking out Bluff City Grill. Fantastic comfort food, nice bar, and great atmosphere. We’ll definitely be going back.

Downtown Alton.

A Jacoby Art Center Halloween display.

More of the Halloween display. Spoopy with a chance of skeleton.

Finally feeling like Autumn out here.

This place rocks.

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.