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 🙁

Extra Life, The Nationals, and Picture Log for 10/6 to 10/12

Time for the Friday housecleaning entry. I had originally intended these entries to be photo-only, but I think this is also a good place to tackle whatever happens to be on my mind, clear the cobwebs and reset for the weekend. I’m going to try to avoid talking about writing in these entries, but we’ll see if I can stick to that.

First of all, I’ll again be participating in Extra Life this year. For those who don’t know, Extra Life is an annual video game marathon/fundraiser that helps out the Children’s Miracle Network, a lifesaving organization committed to providing quality care for children, no matter what their ability to pay. Having grown up a bit disadvantaged myself, it’s a cause that is near and dear to my heart that aligns with one of my hobbies, so it’s a real no-brainer to participate.

I’m going to be honest; I’m struggling for donations this year. This is my fourth year, and each year I’ve seen dwindling returns, to the point that I am the sole donor at this moment. And this despite keeping my social media commitment and at times exceeding it. I’m not sure what else I can do, but I – and the children – could really use your help. I would be so grateful if you could contribute, even a dollar will help. My page is at https://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=275297.

Okay, enough of that. Moving on. It’s funny, I had this rambling diatribe planned for the next section of this entry, but now that I’m actually sitting down to write it, I’m at a loss for words. Here’s the deal: I’m a baseball fan. Baseball, not just my team, though I do love my team…well, teams. I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan (though sadly too young to truly enjoy the 1983 Championship team) and still follow them, but my primary team became the Washington Nationals as I watched them stumble through the early years. Hell, I was present at that god-awful first game, and I’m talking FIRST, the April 3rd 2005 pre-season charity game at RFK stadium. They were terrible for those early years, but by God they were our team.

Which brings me to last night. And 2012. And 2014. And 2016. Heartbreak every single time. Last year it kind of became apparent that this team was lacking “something”. I’m not talking intangibles, as I’m not necessarily a big believer in that kind of thing, but for whatever reason, the pitching and hitting just did not click together as a machine. Championship teams, you usually see that happen – they get the hits they need at the time they need them, the pitchers come up strong, the defense works at the right time. Honestly, last night, while the Cubs were a bit of a mess, I saw it with them way more than the Nationals. See some of Javier Baez’s plays, or Heyward’s grab of Matt Weiters’ fly ball. The Nationals had their moments during this series, for sure, but it just never gelled. I’m not going to point fingers because there’s plenty of blame to go around, though for once I’m not sure that Dusty Baker is actually the problem. He made a few questionable moves, but it’s hard to second-guess most of them.

Anyway, I think it’s time to blow up this current iteration of the team. Hold on to Harper and Rendon until the trade deadline next year so they can up their value, then trade them for some young talent. Harper in particular should bring back some nearly-ML ready talent. Give Victor Robles the chance now that we’re free of Jayson Werth. See if you can deal Daniel Murphy now and give Wilmer Difo a shot at second. Try to build the offense around players like Carter Kieboom and Juan Soto. Trade Strasburg. Not sure what you do with Max Scherzer because of his contract, but maybe someone will take him. Fill the gaps with reclamation projects until the kids start arriving, see if some of those pan out.

I will always have a soft place in my heart for this iteration of the team (except maybe Gio Gonzalez), but this series made it clear that its time is past. There’s no sense in clinging to it anymore. Might as well salvage what we can from this nightmare.

All right, enough baseball nerding. On with the pictures.

Visited a great used game store in St. Charles, MO on Saturday. Wish I could afford one of these machines. Or put it anywhere.

Picked up this rare “import” vinyl from our local record store. I used to be a big Nirvana bootleg collector back in the 90s, so I couldn’t resist this, especially for the price.

El Tio Pepe’s in O’Fallon is already proving to be our local favorite Mexican place. Reminds me a lot of this authentic place we had back in Harrisonburg.

Caught this gorgeous sunset in St. Charles right after we got out of Blade Runner 2049. Fantastic movie, by the way.

Monday morning was crazy foggy. This isn’t my picture, but it really captivates my imagination.

October is the season for horror soundtracks on vinyl! This is a limited edition copy of “The Void” soundtrack, from Mondo records. Synth goodness.

Bertram was feeling particularly affectionate toward his mother. He’s gotten very sweet in his old age.

And last, the NLDS of doom. See you next week.

A Week in Photos: 9/1 – 9/8 2017

Welcome to a new and hopefully ongoing feature, A Week in Photos. While I have many creative passions, the top two in my heart are writing and photography. I make my living with writing, but I would happily do the same with photography, if it were possible. Since it’s not, at least not now, I make sure to take at least one picture every day, whether it’s for practicing the art or just capturing the moment. A lot of these go on my Instagram page, but I can’t just post every photo. So I want to share some here. This is my last week, in photos.

Our three-day weekend started in Creve Coeur, Missouri with a visit to the Sugarfire BBQ restaurant. This was our first proper Missouri BBQ and good lord was it amazing.

After lunch we slipped next door to the Sugarfire Pie Shop, which featured the Greatest Bathroom Ever – a Twin Peaks-themed one. Of course Mary got the cherry pie.

More of the bathroom.

After lunch we headed to downtown St. Louis to see – what else? – the Arch.

That wasn’t all, though. We stopped on some side streets to walk around a bit and take some pictures. Downtown St. Louis actually has some beautiful buildings. It’s a shame that it’s mostly deserted on the weekend.

This great clock was attached to an abandoned building.

The Civil Court building, which looks very much like a Masonic temple, was just around the corner. Its architecture really struck us.

A close-up of the memorial in front of the building.

Sunday through Wednesday were mostly lazy days.

Forgot to gas up the car over the weekend, so I had to do it Thursday morning, which cost me commute time. While I was there, the sun exploded.

It’s been quite some time since I had a room that I could call “my own”, so I’ve been making the most of this new mancave by decorating it in a neon-chrome video game theme. This Atari neon sign arrived from eBay yesterday and it’s everything I thought it could be.

Friday morning September moon brings up to speed. See you all next week, when I anticipate pictures of St. Charles, MO.

The City Lights

Hey everybody, back from Thanksgiving break. Hope my American followers had a great holiday (and that everyone else had a great week/weekend as well). Strange times, for sure; hard to get into the spirit of things with how warm it’s felt lately, especially on Thanksgiving itself. Found myself sitting on the porch in short sleeves and not particularly chilled. Compare that with last year, when we had snow on the ground. I can’t remember it ever being this warm this late in the season. Hope it doesn’t bode ill for 2016.
 
Otherwise, had a good time visiting family and taking lots of photographs. Found some interesting postcards in Harrisonburg as well, ones that you can expect to see soon as I discuss locations in my novels. For now, here are some photos I took Thanksgiving night in Downtown Harrisonburg, to try to get a little cheer in the air. Will be out for oral surgery later this week…not sure what that means for the update schedule. In the meantime, have a great week.
Downtown04 Downtown07 Downtown08 Downtown11 Downtown13

On Vanished Worlds and Historical Preservation

Hey regular (and new) readers, good to be back. As I said last week, had a minor health setback, but am ready to work once again. Word to the wise, though: avoid swimmers ear if at all possible. Shit is deadly serious. Now I’ve had a kidney stone so I can’t say it’s the worst pain I’ve ever encountered (although that was over in like an hour), but the words “agony”, “torment”, and “suffering” all easily float to the top of the mind.  I’m talking throbbing from neck to temple, the kind of stuff that makes you curl up in the fetal position and pray for death. Conversation was, quite simply, beyond me for a day or two. Real one-star experience, if you know what I mean. F–, would not recommend.

But hey, I’m doing much better today and can actually hear out of that ear, which was a pretty touch-and-go proposition for a few days. Now to ramp my activity back up to pre-pain days.

Anyway, moving on to this week’s (or should I say last week’s) topic, a few words on why I’m so fascinated with the past and historical preservation. One of the prevalent themes in my photography – almost a quest, if you will – is seeking out remnants of the vanished past, bits of detritus and ruins that remain from a long-gone world. This is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia, though that can provide a fun boost to such searches. It’s more about exploration and context and, consequently, what those can mean for your emotional landscape.

Take the photo below as an example. This is a shot of downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia during a holiday season in the late 50s or early 60s. This was an era where “downtown” really meant something, before malls came along and wrecked that paradigm.

Downtown_HBurg01

I came along too late for this era, by far; this was the world of my mother’s childhood, one that she’s described in glowing terms but which I couldn’t quite grasp until I saw this photograph. The reality pictured here haunts me as I consider what such a world looked like, felt like, smelled like. By the time I arrived on the scene the department store in the center of the frame had alreayd entered its decline phase, soon to close forever and live only in memory and photographs like this one. I never knew a world with that JOE shop, or the clothing store next to it. My memories of downtown are seedier, more ramshackle, a place that you visited only when you absolutely needed to grab one of the famous Jesses’ Hot Dogs.

Now even that world has vanished, replaced by a movement to attempt to revitalize the downtown area (but which is still falling short due to a combination of short-sightedness and the times having moved on from such mid-00s trifles). Here is a photo of the place from Christmas Day 2014. The big gray building on the right, a public school administrative building, is what remains of the department store above. I can’t say for certain whether the buildings to the left are the remains of those old stores. They don’t appear to be, but much can change in 50 years, including facades.

Downtown_HBurg02

This is where context is so important. The place looks sparse and utilitarian, even on Christmas Day, with little more than the modest wreaths to even indicate the season. The photo by itself might not spark much feeling if you didn’t look at that one above, didn’t know that this place once thrummed with its own vibrant sense of life. With that in mind, you can imagine those angels covering the two windows of the school building, of that display in the window above the entrance way. There’s an ache to the place, a bittersweet emotion that’s hard to define.

Historical preservation becomes near and dear to my heart where this emotion crosses with historical relevancy.  It’s about holding on to the floating ties of a vanished world, about offering context to the world around you. I’m continually shocked and amazed to discover strange realities floating just out of our mind’s eye, waiting to spring to life; the home that was once a convenience store, the general store converted to a restaurant. The lives that once intersected at that location matter, and it matters that we are aware of that convergence.

Now you certainly can’t save everything. I’m also a believer in change and progress, and sometimes it’s truly not worth the time or effort to save any hint of, say, a hot dog stand down the street. But we can save photographs from that time and us amateur archaeologists or whatever you want to call us can seek out the remains that may still stand.

This is why I photograph the places that I do. It’s why I think it’s important to photograph the detritus of places like the General Lee Motor Court, so that we can not only revisit places that we might have once known and get that hit of nostalgia, but also to contextualize our ever-evolving world. The ghosts of the past are all around us. We need to not only notice them, but reach out and grab hold of them, even if it’s simply capturing an image. Without that context, we can easily lose sight of just how our own world can vanish at any moment.

General_Lee03

On another note, expect a status update on my woefully-behind-schedule novel on Friday, and next week I’ll be back to talk about our upcoming trip to Culpeper, Virginia and what it means to me to be on the open road. See you again soon.

Monday Sanity Check: Skyline Drive Edition

“Happy” Monday to everyone. Hope you had a great weekend and got a chance to do something relaxing and peaceful. The wife and I headed out to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and took a ride down Skyline Drive, stopping at just about every overlook to take some pictures. I’m still sorting through the photos (there are easily 100+), but here are some I’d like to share.

Fave01 Fave03 Lookout14 Lookout16 Road02

The Shifting Sands

Hey everybody, welcome back! Apologize upfront if this entry seems disjointed, as I got a late start this week due to some edits on Chapter 16, which is taking a lot longer than expected due to shifting narrative priorities.

You see, in the original vision, the chapter started with Dean and some paramedics arguing about what he could do to support his friend following said character’s stroke. Unable to ride along in the ambulance, Dean followed the paramedics to Rockingham Memorial Hospital and found himself stuck in the waiting room. Anxiety and stress mounted, which led to him first downing Ativan, then masturbating in the bathroom in an attempt to ease his nerves. Pretty much what you’d expect for an addict in the throes of mortal terror. A problem arose when a male nurse entered the bathroom just as Dean “finished”, leaving him to clean up in silence. Thinking that he had done a good job, he slipped out and tried to be smooth with the nurse, who acted amused by Dean’s presence. It was only as he exited that Dean noticed a spot of semen on one of his shoes.

This sent Dean into a downward spiral, one only arrested by a call from Lindsay.

The second draft cut the paramedics and began with a nurse who would not allow Dean to follow his friend. Defeated, he slumped into his seat in the waiting room, where we then met a new character, an abused meth-head who spotted him taking his anxiety meds and wanted in on the action, going so far as to offer sex in exchange for the pills. They ended up doing the deed in the bathroom stall, with the condom breaking and once again leaving evidence on his shoe for the male nurse to spot. Repeat revelation, this time with a question mark hanging over the encounter. It worked, but still had some gaps.

Enter third draft. Meth-head gets more personality and we find out that she might know Dean’s identity. Some adjustments to Dean’s behavior here as well, as his character development had created a man who might not act on such a temptation. The reader needed to understand why he might relapse in this situation, so I talked some about how the temptation made him snap and how that makes him look like the asshole that we saw in Chapter One. That guy would most definitely take up the girl on her offer.

This had the pleasant side-effect of making his revelation much more believable: once he’s snapped out of it, he recognizes what has happened and how close he is to spiraling out of control. This, at last, convinces him that he needs to change. It made much more sense than being ashamed of some random dude recognizing his transgressions, though the male nurse does still drive some of that recognition.

These changes seem relatively simple on the surface, but they represent a radical shift that necessitated a lot of thinking and rewriting, hence the long incubation period. Now I just need to add a few flourishes here and build on the chapter’s themes to put it to bed. Then we can move on to Chapter 17, which has a very interesting lead and is already in pretty good shape. I’ll talk more about that one in the coming weeks.

Old Time Religion

Speaking of revelations, it’s funny how these things sometimes happen. For example, a simple quirk of editing led to an interesting discussion in our critique group, one that prompted me to examine how Dean interacts with religion. In Chapter 5 (or maybe 6), my fellow readers noticed a throwaway line stating that Dean had been born into a Mormon family, which contradicted a later statement about his mother being a raging atheist. This happened because I had originally intended to implicate the Mormon upbringing in some of Dean’s damage, but in the end that opened a bigger can of worms than I could possibly address, so I instead went with a mother who viewed religion as a crutch for the weak and a spiritual father who didn’t dare discuss it openly in the home. This push and pull left young Dean with an intense longing for an authentic religious experience and left room for more nuance than the Mormon angle.

Trying to fill the hole in his heart, Dean chased different denominations throughout his youth, going so far as to attend churches with various schoolmates, many of whom were only too happy to woo a potential convert. This chase ended with him becoming close to this kid, Paul, and Paul’s dysfunctional family, who played a big role in an event that pushed Dean away from spirituality and toward a hedonistic, secular worldview.

The question of spirituality becomes unavoidable when Dean joins Sex Addicts Anonymous, as Twelve Step groups are almost inescapably associated with churches and spirituality. The biggest and most intimidating of these connections is the requirement to develop a relationship with a “power greater than yourself,” which unconsciously brings up painful reminders of that period in his life. As with the dynamic between his parents, Dean will eventually have to reconcile the push and pull between his own hedonistic worldview and the call of the Steps in fixing his life.

He’s not the only one wrestling with these issues, though; next week we’ll talk about Dean’s friend Goose, his early experiences with the church, and his angle on recovery

Question of the week

Now it’s time to get a little more interactive. This might seem silly and awkward at first as I try to find the right format, but hey – have to fall down a few times before you can walk, right? The idea is to start posing questions, answer them myself, and then hope to hear from you. Maybe we’ll find a natural format in the course of our conversations. For now, here’s this week’s question:

When you were little, who was your favorite superhero, and why?

You know, this seemed like an easy one, but it surprised me. Batman seemed like the obvious answer, as he was close to my heart, but Spider-Man edged him out by a hair.

Both were down-to-earth heroes, at least on some level, and I liked that. Sure, Spider-Man had superpowers while Batman relied on his physical prowess and mind, but Peter Parker always seemed a little more relatable. Sounds strange, but that mattered to me as a kid, though I don’t think I could have articulated it. I just knew that he had to deal with school, with girl problems, and with family – all things that I either dealt with myself or saw around me. Sure, Bruce Wayne had lost his parents, but that kind of tragedy was too heavy, too hard to get my young mind around. Batman also had the advantage of money while Peter fought for what he got outside of his superhero persona; I could relate to the latter far better as a poor kid.Oh, and let’s not forget that Peter was a photographer, a far cooler profession to me than billionaire playboy. Funny how that works, huh?

So how about you? I’m really curious to hear your answer, so please leave one in the comments.

Photo of the week

This week I’d like to honor of the snowstorm that’s just hit us and rewind to a photo taken just after Thanksgiving of 2014. Snapped this one when we climbed a mountain in the George Washington National Forest and hit a bend in the road beyond which our little sedan could not continue. We pulled over and I hopped out, camera in hand, to find this place just waiting for us. Could not have scripted it better.

And that does it for now. Next week I’ll tell you a little more about Chapter 17, Goose and religion, and pose another question. See you then.

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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!