The Hero-Villain Axis in Horror (or Anything Else).

For my Speech Class final I demonstrated how to write a horror story. The keys to a good horror story are characters, atmosphere, and the villain. The only thing worse than a crappy villain is a lame hero and set of protagonists, so care must be taken to fill your story with solid, believable people. A great villain makes the arc for your hero easier to plan out and effortlessly reveal. A great hero means your villain has to really step up the game, and this means your reader wins. Let’s get started…

Alright, you’ve got your story about a vampire bond trader in Muncie, Indiana. Your vampire is a woman because you’re smart and know that in the business world women are often invisible making your vampire’s life easier. She works the Asian markets because those happen overnight and she can sleep during the day. You’ve made her smart and good at her job so the company is happy to keep her on her chosen shift. She’s also ruthlessly deadly when it’s her lunch break. The vampire rules and lore are your own, but based on a cross-section of the classic vampire lit.

Now the job is to make her accessible and relatable. What kind of shampoo does she use? What does vampirism do to a woman’s hair? Is there a fabric or clothing line she prefers? Does she shop or buy her things online and have them altered? Does she do this by herself or use a tailor? Is she an iPhone or Android girl?  Shoes: high heels or sensible? What does a lady wear when she’s hunting? What’s her casket like? Maybe she sleeps with an old rag doll or teddy bear from her pre-vampire days a century ago. Does bad breath annoy her? If not then what does? Unruly kids at the theater? Car alarms? Perhaps she wears pant-suits because her victims involuntarily kick her legs as she drains their blood, tearing her hose.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, are a nice, kind and wonderful person. I am also sure that there were times in your life you wish you had special powers to exact a measure of vengeance on some idiot who has wronged you, or at least pissed you off. Now you can live that dark fantasy out with your bond-trading vampire. You know that asshole at the coffee shop holding up the line because he’s on his phone? Oh yeah, she follows him into the men’s room and rips out his throat. The parking attendant who grins watching you dash to the meter just as she slides the ticket under your windshield wiper blade? Have fun with that scene. Your vampire lives in the modern world so giver her modern problems and let her deal with them.

Now you need a hero, someone to foil your vampire and ultimately put a wooden stake through her heart. You’ve set your story in the real world where vampires don’t exist, so your hero comes into the story blind to the possibility. Personally I’d go with a man. A female hero is cool, and adds dimensions like the fact that she would share a restroom with your vampire. While there are cool scenes to be had here, your vampire might need a sanctuary. A new female coworker might not last too long in this office. Like I said, women in business are often invisible, and having a male here gives your villain some room to do her thing…until your hero starts to catch on.

I’ve worked the graveyard shift as a night auditor. We are not the A-Team. People who work this shift are folks who’ve been stuck or stuck themselves in the margins. Some of them are college students, and others are deep in debt. Many of my coworkers were Iraq War vets with PTSD, and just wanted a job where they didn’t have to deal with people. Right off the bat, the fact that your hero gets a new job at night suggests a level of desperation. You can make him a recovering addict, or a veteran, or just a guy who has lost everything and needs a job. Your reader is already rooting for him on a basic level, even if he’s kind of a dick in the beginning.

This is where your hero-villain axis begins to take shape. In the beginning of the story the axis is tilted to the villain’s favor. The hero has no clue as to what is going on. As the story moves along your hero starts to notice things, but doesn’t put them together until half way through your story. This stretch of the narrative is used to build tension and atmosphere. Your hero has received a break and got a job. There are a few other people who work in the office along with him and your vampire. These people have their own lives and set of problems which you can mine for story. Your hero will need an ally, and maybe your vampire has one too.

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Let’s step back and look at a couple of examples of a good villain-hero axis. The first that comes to mind is the movie “Alien” where Lieutenant Ellen Ripley faces off against an acid-blooded seven foot-tall monster. She’s not even the lead character until more than half way through the movie, and in fact – the character was written to be a man in the original script. Giving the part to Sigourney Weaver was genius. Ripley is a competent character and when the surviving crew looks to her for leadership she steps into the role believably. She blows up the ship and blasts the alien out of an airlock, and even saves her cat.

At first the Alien dictates the action by kidnapping and disabling the crew to use as hosts for more alien babies. The story takes place on a big ship with plenty of places to hide, and a very small crew. Worse, one of the crew is working against the others in order to bring the creature back to earth. Ripley changes the axis when the traitor is exposed, and then tracks down the missing crew and burns out the rookery. At this point the Alien and Ripley are on even footing, and all she has to do is set the ship’s self-destruct and get into the escape shuttle. The Alien isn’t stupid and guess who is waiting for her inside after the ship has been nuked? The final stand-off is right out of a classic western.

The axis shifts as the hero grows. Your new guy in the bond office has figured out the lead trader is a vampire, and maybe he has convinced one of his coworkers of this fact. Now your villain has to dance to change how she does her thing while figuring out the extent of how much danger she might be in. This is a vampire story so your hero has a daylight advantage, and your vampire controls things at night. Plus, there’s still business to conduct, and your hero really needs to pay off his college loan or whatever. The axis swings back and forth for the last half of the story with each shift being more dramatic than the last. Remember I suggested your vampire have an ally? This subverts your hero’s daylight advantage.

The problem with a weak hero is that your reader ends up rooting for the villain, and while Hollywood has turned this half-assed form of writing into big box office, it has not made for great horror. Yes, sometimes the villain wins, and you are well within your right to end the story that way. I just want to care enough to read the story all the way to that last page without feeling insulted.

A great example is comparing Luke Skywalker’s character arc in the last three “Star Wars” with Anakin Skywalker’s character arcs in the first three. Luke leaves Tattooine as a farm boy, and returns as a Jedi Knight to rescue Han Solo. In the meantime he went to Degobah to study with Yoda, and faced off against Darth Vader before he was ready, and loses his hand and almost dies. There is a solid character arc for Luke Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker has no arc. This is the real tragedy of the “Star Wars” prequels because his character is a waste of time. There isn’t much movement from where we really get to know him in the second film until when he gets his black mask and helmet. He’s not even consistent with the Darth Vader of the final movies.

This wasn’t an acting problem – it was a writing problem.

Your hero bond-trader is going to have to overcome a lot to deal with your vampire, and his growth should be measurable. Maybe he stops drinking. Maybe he stops being a dick, or maybe he learns to be an asshole and take care of business. Whatever you do it has to be organic to your narrative. Your vampire is smart, and she could arrange to promote your hero to a better paying job in San Francisco, and he might be cool with a truce in the end. On the other hand, the story could end with the office in flames, and your hero karate-chopping one of your vampire’s wooden “Trader of the Year” award plaques to use as a stake to impale her amid the flames.

With a good villain and a hero who is up to the challenge your story will flow because they will drive the narrative while you sit there taking dictation. It’s really that easy and that hard. Good luck and good writing.

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My Thinking on Writing Ghost Stories

A long time ago I used to hunt ghosts. Not like you see on cable T.V. today, I would be asked to checkout someone’s house and I would get the address, go there, and talk to the people. Then I would go to the library and search county records, and newspaper microfiche. I found more bad plumbing and CO2 contamination than anything weird, and I also found that, while some were relieved that Satan hadn’t moved into the attic of their Pacific Grove Victorian, more were bummed out they hadn’t been touched by the paranormal. People love this stuff and want it so bad to be real that every bump in  the night is a ghost or demon who’s come to take their soul. My job as a writer is to make it real for reader for a few hours or days depending on the length of the story.

The other thing I learned when my friends asked me about my adventures is how disappointed they’d become when I gave an accurate account of the alleged haunting. The lesson there is this:

The worst thing you can do is tell a bad ghost story.

Ghost stories go all the way back to before words were written down. When humans began to paint stories on cave walls ghosts were depicted long with the animals and rival tribes. Shakespeare used the Ancient Greek ghost-model in his best plays as his characters were tormented or mocked by spirits of the dead. Ghosts were unassailable speakers of truth, and amplified version of the character’s conscience. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s curse kills all the men of his crew, and once the curse is broken they rise from the dead to sail him home to testify to anyone who will listen of all of his sins.

The Victorians changed the ghost-model and reframed it to be a spirit of a person who had been murdered, or died with unfinished business. Science had taken off in the Victorian era and merged with the rise in Spiritualism, a direct result of the end of the Napoleonic, and American Civil wars that had left millions dead and families with broken hearts. The Victorians had believed they had enough evidence pointing to the existence of ghosts, and were faced with the problem of rationalizing their existence. The real problem is that the science of the day was not advanced, and was often practiced by people with little or no education. The top medicines of the day had Mercury as their active ingredient, and most homes and apartments were heated by coal so it isn’t any wonder people were seeing things and hearing voices.

The modern era saw few ghost stories as society turned away for the fantastic in its fiction, and they wouldn’t return until the post-modern era when movies became the preferred source of entertainment. Most ghost stories written in the 1930s up to and including today still use variations of the Victorian model. Don’t get me wrong, the Victorian ghost-model survives in fiction because it is a cookie-cutter frame to build a dandy tale around, and I even use it myself sometimes. But I don’t always like it when I do use it. I like to challenge myself when I write a new story, and while the Victorian model has a lot of mileage left in it, I am driven by my real-world encounters with ghosts to tell a different kind of story.

The problem with real ghosts is that they are terrifying for about five to ten seconds at a time. The fear has to do more with what the person experiencing the phantom brings to the event than what the phantom does. Old-School ghost hunters used to say that places aren’t haunted – people are haunted. That’s the underlying truth, whatever the phantoms are and why we see them sometimes has nothing to do with how we react when we see or hear ghosts. The fear and dread a haunted person feels stems from the revelation that they are not in total control of their reality. If ghosts are real, if their house or workplace is haunted then they’ve been lied to by science and their church, and if ghosts are real then what else is real? What if I am going insane?

Against this backdrop I searched for authors who better expressed the real life ghost experience, and I settled upon two. Edith Wharton and Ambrose Bierce both engage the phenomenon effectively while spinning a good yarn. Wharton was a Victorian writer, and pretty much reinforced the Victorian ghost-model, but her ghosts are different. Their menace is subtle, and the key to her ghost stories are that the protagonist doesn’t figure out that they’ve been dealing with a spirit until after the initial event. The tension builds after this discovery as they wait for the ghost to return. As in real life, the character does all of the heavy lifting in the fear department while the ghost is usually secondary.

Ambrose Bierce had to have seen a ghost in his time; his stories are just that honest to the phenomenon. I found that the majority of the time ghosts just show up for no reason at all, at least not a reason known to the person who stumbled across them. Most of his ghosts stories are like that, a man is going about his business when he comes face to face with someone who shouldn’t be there. In “A Baffled Ambuscade” a Union Army officer comes across a lone picket standing guard in the woods, in “A Moonlit Road” someone is walking slowly on the road in front of a farm house, and in “The Thing at Nolan” a man walks through a general store, with a bad head wound, in view of three men without acknowledging them, and out the back door. At the time of this visit, the man has been considered missing and murdered by his son, and they dig up his well-preserved body three years later.

Bierce’s stories are short and to the point. They have the effect of having the rug pulled out from under the reader’s feet, just like the actual paranormal encounter does. Some agrue his stories were too short, but Bierce would tell ask you why you want your time wasted when he could deliver the jolt in under a few thousand words? As a writer I’ve learned that if Bierce can drive a scare home in a short narrative then I can drive home a bunch of scares into the reader in a longer one…or at least I should make this my goal.

Bierce and Wharton were both Victorian era authors who, while helping to build that ghost-story model, were drawing from sources unknown to make their stories come to life in a way that so many writers never seem to accomplish. I recommend their work to any horror writer, especially Bierce, who also wrote other short works of the fantastic including the first story of featuring a robot (hint: it doesn’t end well), and his stories of the Civil War remain the only first-person, fictional accounts of that war. Even if you don’t like ghost stories these depictions of war are stunning, sickening, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

My goal each time I set out to reveal a new story is push my boundary out further, to fill my bag of tricks so to speak. A good ghost story is hard to write. The mistake I most often make is to approach the ghost story from a horror writer’s perspective, and this is like fishing with dynamite. Sure you catch a lot of fish, but more people go fishing for the experience of choosing the right lure, and sitting by or wading into the creek or river, and engaging the elements to reel in their catch. Sport fishing is about subtlety by nature or you scare away the fish. The same is true for the ghost story, too much horror and you ruin the ultimate desired effect – the lingering discomfort of what has just been read. The best ghost stories are like a fine wine or good meal, they have an after-taste which stays with one for a while. A good after-taste makes you want more.

Ouija Board Story

Just posting this because I mentioned it on Twitter and got a few requests to hear this story.

Everything you’re about to read is true to the best of my memory.

I used to work at a haunted pizza parlor. At some point someone got the idea to bring in a Ouija board to communicated with the ghosts. We staged a séance that was a huge failure mostly because most of the crew thought it was a game or a party. A week or so afterword one of the employees who had not been at the séance nagged the bartender, Ron, and me into trying again. We were bored, and because nothing happened the first time we figured it was worth another try.
What we did was have the other guy, Dave, write down whatever the planchette pointed at while Ron and I wore blindfolds fashioned from towels. We figured this way it would be hard to cheat. After the rest of the crew had gone home we killed the dining room lights, and began our Ouija session by the glow of the Budweiser sign. We began with asking if there was anyone there who wished to speak to us. We asked this a dozen times but nothing happened. Then the planchette started to glide in a circle over the board. I figured Ron was having fun with me.
“Is that you?” I asked.
“No, I thought it was you,” he said. We asked if someone wanted to talk to us one last time but the pointer just kept circling the board.
I asked, “Do you want us to get out of here?” The planchette jerked hard to one side of the board. Ron and I yanked our blindfolds off. It was pointed to “Yes”. We looked at each other, stood, and headed for the door leaving the board on the table, and dragging Dave behind us. He was asking what happened but Ron and I couldn’t speak until we were at the stoplight a block away.
Ron said, “Please tell me that was you.”
“No,” I said. “No way.” We explained to Dave what had just happened and that shut him up. I wish I could say I felt Ron pull, I wish I could say I felt an icy, evil presence, but it was a matter of the planchette slipping from beneath my finger and me trying to keep it from flying off the table.
The Ouija board took up residence on a shelf in the manager’s office where it was forgotten for a few months. The haunting was in full swing by then. There were three ghosts, two girls around 13 or 14 years old, and a man in a coachman’s uniform. I would recognize this uniform in a photo from the old Hotel Del Monte in Monterey just over the hill. Doors would slam, the coachman was eventually seen by everyone at some point, and half of the crew had seen the two girls.
The pizza parlor was in the Carmel Center, which was becoming the Crossroads Shopping center. The construction was the factor behind the hauntings as the restaurant had no reputation for being haunted in the year and a half that I had worked there. Next to us was a Safeway supermarket. Back then it closed at 10:00 P.M. and overnight crews restocked the shelves. One of those guys was Caesar, who would come in for lunch every so often. One evening he and I were sitting at a booth enjoying free beer, and talking about all sorts of things. Then the conversation turned to ghosts. It turned out that Safeway had weird things going on at night.
I told Caesar about what happened with the Ouija board and he got excited and insisted that we try it again. This time it was with Danny, our manager, and me and Caesar. Again, we waited until everyone had left, and we were careful not to tell anyone what we were up to so we didn’t invited pranks. Danny and I put on our blindfolds and we began. Things started out like the last time, with nothing happening. The Caesar started speaking in Spanish and the planchette started to move deliberately.
Neither Danny nor I spoke or understood Spanish.
Caesar was having a conversation. The session lasted almost a half hour and then the planchette stopped. We turned on the lights and Caesar translated all he had written down. The answers were all in Spanish. The ghost had called him a drunk (we were drinking a lot of beer). When he asked if he had heard our earlier conversation the answer was AMPS. We had discussed guitars and his new Fender amplifier. I don’t recall everything that he wrote down. There was a date in the 1890s, and some other mundane stuff. The weird part was that the opening statement and closing statements were almost identical:
“I am speaking to the one named Caesar”
The second version spelled his name the Latin way. Caesar did not touch the planchette and Danny and I had been blindfolded. Our minds were blown. That night Caesar went home and had a dream where he met the man who wore the coachman’s cloak. He was an older man, missing teeth. He had a shack near the river just behind the shopping center where construction was happening now. He told Caesar he had murdered the girl’s mother, and later murdered them and buried them near his shack.
It’s just a dream, so take it for what it’s worth, but in the 1990s they would dig up the skeleton of a woman on the banks of San Jose Creek about a half mile from the center. This was about where the old man had said he’d killed the mother.
We didn’t use the board again. Danny moved on and the board was left in the office until the pizza parlor was sold. By then I worked at the theater in the center, and one of the guys at the restaurant asked me if I wanted the board. I took it home. I didn’t use it, just stuck it under my desk. Sometimes I’d do my Arabic homework on it while sitting on my bed. The board was in my house for a few weeks until the shit hit the fan.
My grandmother had a series of strokes which eventually killed her.
The water heater burst a day after she died.
Our dog vanished.
I remember being emotionally spent and heart broken. As I sat on my bed my gaze fell upon the Ouija board box under my desk. At that moment I didn’t believe the board had anything to do with misfortune, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Grabbing the box I took it out back and put it in the trash can. That night I went to work at the theater and got home after midnight (not being creepy, it’s what time the last show let out). When I turned on the light in my room I saw that Ouija board sitting in its box on my bed.
I took it back outside and put a brick on top of it. That next morning I heard the garbage truck approaching. I got out of bed and went out back. The Ouija was where I’d left it. I snapped the board in half, put it into the garbage can, and dragged it out to the street where I waited and watched it get loaded into the truck. It was like night and day at home afterword. Things calmed down and got back to what would pass for normal. I could write off most of the things that happened at my home to coincidence if it weren’t for that board somehow returning to my room. To this day it is all hard to believe, and if someone else told me this story I’d think he was on something too.
Just thought I’d share.

More Novel Writing Stuff

At the moment I write this I am three quarters through my sixth novel. Since the first week of November, 2013, I have finished five novels, and revised the first. They range in subject matter from paranormal commando thrillers, to a western, an apocalyptic sea critter yarn, and a Hollywood fantasy. If your time is brief, this is what you need to know about novel writing:

Anybody can do it. You just have to be persistent.

That’s it, that is all there is to it. Uh oh, I can hear you guys right now muttering negativity. Look, I know it’s hard. Not “Hard” like giving birth, building a house, milking a King Cobra, just hard in the way that getting good at anything is hard. Once you find a story that demands to be told all you have to do is write it.

I write, or try to write every day. On the few days I don’t, I’m still thinking about the story. My routine has been broken up so that I can get to writing earlier, take a break by showering, and then returning to writing with new ideas I got while in the shower. I’m reading a lot more now too, I have to refill the brain. Now that I have a process I’ve begun to push my writing harder, and that means tackling subjects that are more real. Viewing this as a challenge is what drives me. I could be that guy who writes his first novel, and then rewrites it, and revises it for years, but at right now I want to show potential agents and publishers that I can write productively. Writing a bunch of novels has built my narrative muscles, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m going to share some things I’ve learned about getting the novel together, and keeping it all going.

  1. Start with a good story. Good characters will drop into your head from the either to be in a good story. A good story drives everything else.
  2. Once you have your main characters, take time on the side to polish them up. I write short stories that take place before my novel begins to put them through their paces so I can see who they are. From these stories I draw up a profile page to refer to when writing the novel.
  3. Keep a character list. When the story begins rolling new characters will pop up. Write them down on a separate page with a brief description, and page and chapter number they first appear in. If needed, keep a reference of all of the chapters they’re in. The list comes in handy, it saves you time when you get stuck trying to remember the name of the cop from back in chapter five. The other thing is does is gives you people you can come back to when you need something. I have had minor characters turn into key players later in the book from scanning my list and realizing I already had someone for the plot development.
  4. Stop every 10 chapters and read the story. It keeps you honest, and often I have found something to use in the later chapters.
  5. Give yourself a break. I said write every day, but realistically there are days it’s not going to happen. Take those days off. Take a walk, paint the house, pet the cats, see a movie, or whatever. Just get back to it the next day.
  6. Pull out your DVDs and play them with the director’s commentary. If there’s a writer’s commentary play that one too. Listening to Ridley Scott discussing why he made lighting choices, or put the camera where he did can enlighten you in your quest to tell your own story. The writer’s commentary should drive home the fact that there’s a lot of rewriting involved. All movies start with a writer and a story.
  7. Talk to other writers. You should have writer friends. Join a group or take a class at the local junior college to meet people. It will help.
  8. Don’t over think it. The thing that blows me away is that every story is different, with different challenges to overcome. Some writers swear by a strict outline, others just sit down and wing it. At this point I’ve done both. Being too attached to a single process can and will get in the way. Do what the story dictates. You have to treat it as a living thing.
  9. Have fun. If you’re not having fun then your reader won’t either. And yes, you can have fun while writing a story about your childhood trauma. The fun comes from knowing you’ve created art, and if you’re crying like a baby at the end of your daily writing session you are winning the game…and that is fun.
  10. Don’t write the easy stuff, even when you’rewriting the easy stuff. What am I talking about? Read some Elmore Leonard.

Writing the Apocalypse, or You Can’t Have Darkness without Heart

 

Here I am, just over a week after finishing my fifth novel, thinking about what I learned from the process. #5 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If it is ever published I doubt anyone will be able to tell, but for me it marks the point where I began to walk upright as a writer. On the other side of this beast I look forward, and look back, and find that I’m somewhat lost. I want to go back to Max Chrome, and his world, his friends, and his adventures, but I also want to continue the push. This has happened to me before in other aspects of my life; when my guitar playing took off I pressed harder instead of enjoying things, when I began getting in shape there came a day when I saw my body had changed shape and I began to live in the gym, and the point where hiking 7 miles had become an average day so I began to find longer trails. The difference is today I have the benefit of those experiences to guide me through this new phase. I’m taking a break to cool my writing jets, and take stock.

Novel #5 began a few years ago with a 100-word short story, and it had a solid concept which yielded great things. The opening chapter revealed itself to me one afternoon, powerful enough to drive the first quarter of the story, and I wrote a test version of it, which was lost when my first laptop died. I got two things out of that experiment: A powerful introduction to the villains, and my hero. He would evolve in the three years between the test chapter, and when I finally turned him loose into my fictional California city. It turned out that he would save my story a couple of time when I thought all was lost. He forced me to take the story from a series of set-pieces strung together by narrative, and made me focus on characters.

His name is Wes, and in that first test-drive he was a Sheriff’s deputy in the middle of an ugly divorce. He is making a phone call outside of a waterfront bar when the novel’s antagonists strike. Wes didn’t want to be a cop. His reasoning (and yes kids, we had long internal conversations about his story) was why make him a guy with a gun if the gun would be useless to the plot? He complained that all of my novels to this point involved guys with guns, and he didn’t want to be the next one, thank you very much. Wes became a bar-tender with a hell of a back story. Once Wes took shape the rest of the characters just spilled into his word; his daughter Katy, his girlfriend Talia, his ex-wife Angela, the regulars at the bar: Leroy, Herman, Skipper, and a guy named Duckfoot. I had so many characters I had to keep a list (which is a great idea that I’m sure good writers already do), and I was forced to name many of the supporting cast after Oakland Raiders. Wes is laid back with a wisdom earned by the many beating life has inflicted on him.

I began #5 in August, 2013 while I was finishing up #4, which was a Max Chrome adventure that has the unique status of being a novel I have no intention of trying to publish. #4 was written based on comments from trusted friends who wanted to know more about him, who he was, and his motivations, and so I set a story in his home town with old friends, and his ex-wife. For an action adventure there is a lot of talking, but it was worth it. In November I took Max out for a spin with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and crushed a solid story in 17 days thanks to that exercise. #4 opened up Novel #5 thanks to my taking my action hero, and making him have long discussions. This made me take different tacks to scenes where I had to think about who was in them instead of what was going to happen next. The characters drove the story with the action being secondary, and I think that’s probably how it should be.

The first grownup adventure story I read was Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”. I was 9, and though 90% of the character plot was way over my head I still became attached to Chief Brody, and he kept me involved in the story through the boring affair stuff with Hooper and his wife. I wanted to see him survive, and right up to that last paragraph with the shark facing him down I was holding my breath. When the movie came out in 1975 I was disappointed because all Spielberg saw was the shark, and the shark drove the story. The problem was that the shark wasn’t portrayed as a character; in fact it had more personality in the early scenes where you didn’t see it. The next action novel I read was the long-lost “Firespill”, by Ian Slater. The plot involved two oil tankers colliding in the Gulf of Alaska, one carrying high-octane fuel, and if you haven’t guessed it already, the spill erupts into flame. I think I bought it because it had a submarine on the cover. All I remember from this story is that the Vice President is on a yacht caught in the middle of the conflagration. But I do remember reading it, and it had sat on my bookshelf since 1977. The story focused on characters in the middle of an impossible situation. The narrative it tight, and could enjoy a revival as it is still a believable plot.

I thought destroying the world would be easy, but I soon discovered it is a huge chore. Characters don’t always do what you think they’re going to do, and sometimes they take the story in another direction. I learned not to fight it. Good characters will never let you down. By the time I was three quarters into the story over half of the set-piece scenes of destruction had been discarded, and at least one character I had planned to kill in an horrible way was still around while another one I had hoped would be the Han Solo to Wes’ Luke Skywalker was dead. My vision of a story, which was to be like “The Stand”, had wandered off into its own world, with its own rules, and sensibilities. Worse for me was when I finally saw how it would end I became depressed. My man Wes might not make it to the end of the story. Killing him was going to suck. I started writing Novel #6 to cheer myself up, but Wes would tap me on the shoulder and get me back into #4.

“Trust me,” Wes would say. “Respect me, if I have to die then I have to die. Just remember who I am and let me do my thing.” #6 was shelved, and around this time Craig Johnson of the Longmire novels rolled into Monterey. Craig spoke to the Creative Writing Class at Monterey Peninsula College, and later did a big talk/reading shindig at school’s theater. Craig offered tips on writing ranging from character, to dialog, to structure, and he knocked the cobwebs loose. I wrote ten short stories to apply those things to my writing, and get them wired into my brain. Some of those stories can be found here, but a couple of them are just for me.

When I got back to #4 I found Wes waiting to drive to the finish line. I began researching the key elements of the final chapters (yep, a submarine), and while watching a YouTube video of a guided tour of a Trident submarine I saw exactly what I needed to at least give Wes a shot at making it. I knew I didn’t need to add too much more color in the way of human suffering, I had plenty, and by the time I burned San Francisco to the ground you (the reader) see it from a distance on the other side of the bay. You already know what’s going on by now, and the story isn’t about San Francisco, it’s about Wes being in deep shit.

Wes brings you into the story, keeps you invested in the story, and (hopefully) keeps you turning the pages. Destruction for destruction’s sake isn’t interesting beyond a few paragraphs. Tornados rampaged through the mid-west while I was writing the last chapters, and while the footage on the Weather Channel was gripping, all I was worried about was the people in their path. In the aftermath the news showed splintered houses, naked trees, and crumpled vehicles, but it never hits home until they talk to the survivors. The stories are all the same, some people took shelter as their home blew apart around them, and others just got lucky being in the right place when some poor person only a few yards away died. And after the tears, and the shock, those people began to clean up the mess, bury their dead, and began to rebuild. This was all applied to Novel #4, and steered me in a realistic direction.

With #4 done you’d think things should be easier for me, and in some ways they are. I started a test chapter for #7, and instantly knew what I needed to do to pull it off. This is a new thing for me. The problem is I need new characters, and I need to find my outrage that will drive the plot. I don’t have that right now. For the time being I’m going to fizz around and write some shorts, do character sketches, and read the news. Novel #6 will pick up over the next few weeks, but I need to ease back into that one. I think that as a writer I have transitioned from a bicycle to a car, and now I want a better car. What I need to remember is the most fun I’ve had in my life came in old, beat up cars, and not a Ferrari. I need to just roll up my sleeves and write, but it should be, no – must be fun.

 

Writing the Apocalypse

     Telling the story of the end of the world is the second oldest profession for story tellers, the first being describing the creation of the universe. When the written word was first etched into stone and clay these were the first stories told. While creation stories are measured to conform to a religion or culture’s status quo, the apocalypse has always been an over-the-top affair. You’d think we’d be pretty good at it by now, but unfortunately this is not often the case. I’ve been writing an apocalypse story, and I confess it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I worry I am failing. I’m writing this for my own good, and to share my thoughts with others who might be considering their own world-killing tales.

I’ll start with best: Stephen King is probably the go-to guy if you want good apocalypse narratives. “The Stand” is a masterpiece, and if you’ve never read King (and if you haven’t what’s wrong with you?) then this book is a great place to start. Set against the backdrop of a bio-engineered plague, King whittles the human race down to a single digit percentage of the former population. Using his horror-writing skills he sprinkles the fantastic into “The Stand” in limited, but effective amounts, and the story settles into an exodus to a promised land, and a race against evil. “The Stand” is character driven, the plague is background, and the story comes with how the people deal with the many phases of the end of the world. It’s a damned good yarn. King has other apocalypse stories too: the short story “Trucks”, and the novel “Cell” are wonderful takes on the end of the human race, each with different catalysts, but all share the strong character-centric base.

James Gunn’s screenplay for the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” had many things to like, but the primary factor making it a great apocalypse story is its character-centered narrative. It’s a zombie movie, but the zombies are secondary to the story with the survival of the people staying front and center. The movie takes its time in places using monotony to build a feeling of hopelessness, and Gunn’s script is full of great dialogue which adds depth where so many movies like this rarely do.  While the movie hints the zombie outbreak might be terrorist- related, the source is never revealed, and this a key difference between Gunn’s story, and King’s various works. Not knowing the source driving the end of the world can be risky, the reader or viewer has no rule book or guide, and the risk of losing interest in the story goes up if the reader suspects that there is no hope. Gunn’s story flirts with going in this direction, but the action moves the story at a pace which doesn’t let the viewer dwell on the outcome. King’s stories give the reader a source, or starting point for the apocalypse so his readers know where the limits of the virus, or menace lay. This is found in the Bible with the story of Noah, God tells Noah he’s up to something, tells him to build an ark and fill it with animals, and then floods the earth.

The flip-side to this is the event-driven apocalypse story. Two prime examples of what not to do are the movies “The Day After”, and “World War Z”. “The Day After” is riddled with disaster movie clichés, characters are cartoon like with cartoon motivations, and are pushed aside by scene after scene of special effects. Nobody cares about the people in the story because they are poorly written. “World War Z” had the same problem. Brad Pitt’s character races from one set-piece to another where he meets one stereo-type after another in his quest to stop the virus behind the zombie outbreak. At no point does the viewer feel Pitt is in danger, and his ultimate success in figuring it out and getting back to his family are never in doubt – it is that badly written. I’m talking about the movie, and not the book. The book is pretty good, but it was adapted badly into movie form.

“World War Z” saved my story from going in that direction. My apocalypse story centers on a threat from the sea, and starts off in spectacular fashion. Luckily I had developed a stable of strong characters, and had used their points of view to describe the destruction. The temptation was to pull back the point of view to reveal the global scale, but after watching “World War Z” I changed my mind. Sure the world is still getting torn up, but my characters experience this through the television. I have already established the events which occur during the attacks, and I trust my readers with putting the rest together in their imaginations. This has allowed me to move the story faster, and keep the narrative crisp.

Trusting your reader is key. Stephen King and James Gunn just assume people are as smart as they are. This allows them to tell stories which can take risks, and keep their fans engrossed through multiple readings or viewings of their work. I need to remember this. In my defense my destructive force is unique to the apocalypse, so I have to do a little more work throughout to inform the reader about what is going on. At this time I am seven weeks away from finishing this novel, and this doesn’t count revisions in the future. I am glad I’ve taken a shot at the subject, I have a lot of great scenes in this story I’m proud of, and like I always tell people – there’s no such thing as wasted time while writing. There are a few other great apocalypse movies I should mention: “Omega Man”, and “Night of the Comet”. Both are character driven, and “Night of the Comet” is also just a lot of fun. Happy reading and joyful writing to you all.

Thank you for checking this blog out.

A Dry Relapse

I write this post event, no more than fifteen minutes from being under my home in the cold, wet mud. I take a small consolation from repairing one of the two leaks daunting my soul for the last three weeks. They are daunting because I am claustrophobic, a condition which has only grown with age. The discovery of the main, and still unrepaired, leak came four weeks ago. I noticed the floor in a corner of the kitchen darkening. I have been under the house about ten times (this morning was my eleventh) to make repairs to the plumbing. This is a side effect of living below the poverty line in California, a plumber would cost me one third of my pay check. The fear of going under the house again consumed me to the point of experiencing a dry relapse. What is a dry relapse? I’m glad you asked.

A dry relapse is something that happens to alcoholics when their deepest triggers are pulled. They do many of the things they did while drunk or stoned, but without the chemicals pumping through their veins. My sleep patterns disintegrated, my eating went out of control, and my writing suffered. My writing, the act of getting up to write for an hour or more every morning, is the only thing that kept me from falling off of the wagon.  I would sleep in late forcing me to shower, and get out of the house quickly. I wouldn’t get to sleep until two in the morning, and often my fear would waken me for a few hours of torture.

I’m great at torturing myself.

The fear of going under the house ate at me. The funny thing is when I am finally under the house, on my back in the mud I am fine. The time before I take the siding off, gather my tools, check my headlamp, and sort my parts is when the fears reach their fulcrum. I remember to breath, and tell myself it’s only twelve feet to where the water is dripping. It is the size of a parking space. Laying there this morning I had a realization about fear. Fear is based on three things: a person’s last bad experience, the cumulative weight of all of their worst moments, and the perceived possible negative outcomes. Some of these fears are valid (getting electrocuted, an earthquake, Black Widow Spiders), but most are simply Harpies created by our waking subconscious in order to devil ourselves.

The problem for an addict is these fears carry more weight – everything negative carries more weight. A person doesn’t become an addict from over-confidence, and as problems arise, real or not, they turn to chemicals to hide from them. I have done a lot of work to disarm those triggers which sent me of course, and I have eliminated many. Only a handful remain, and claustrophobia is the hardest to resolve since climbing, or crawling into tight spaces is not a daily activity. The sick thing is the dormant addict inside me seemed to welcome this fear like an old friend just rolling into town.

Like I said, I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of today’s adventure, so I haven’t had time to put this last epiphany into perspective. I write this to share my thoughts. The only way addiction will ever be defeated is when we get it out in the open, this way smarter people can assemble the puzzle. I will, and I will tell you what I find out. I am still sober, and this is something to celebrate. Ten years ago, after climbing under the house, I would now be on my third Mickey’s Big Mouth having stocked up on two -6 packs at the store in advance. Now it’s just my Diet Coke.

I still win.