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Villains and Villainy

10 Mar
"Villainc" by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Villainc” by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is probably my favorite villain of all time. I am, of course, referring to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in the film, Silence of the Lambs. You can see a ‘bad guy’ done perfectly here. His motives are understandable – if repugnant – and his actions have the weight of inevitability. The way he manipulates other characters is amazing – reaching two or three connections out from the people he touches – and if you deconstruct the story, you see that there is no other way it could have gone. And for all his power and gravity, Dr. Lecter is only on screen for a few minutes. He doesn’t get in the way of the story, but the story could not exist without him.

By contrast, Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, in Breaking Bad, was all character study. It was exquisite, yes (even Anthony Hopkins was awed by it), but in so many ways, Walter White is part of the problem with villains and villainy. Every action and forward movement in his story comes at a high cost of humanity and goodness. And while it is the theme of the story to show how very bad things can go, there is nothing left in the end. Walter White is unlikeable, but the series is constructed so that you sympathize while he brings everything around him into Hell. It is sleight of hand – a trick. The entire story is held together with spit and the promise of resolution, somewhere down the line.

I’m sure much more has been written, by smarter, more attractive people than myself, on this subject. I cannot leave it alone. So much of my life revolves around understanding how and why stories work. And at the core of much of it lies conflict, overcoming obstacles, and the clash between characters. I can’t just sit back and enjoy Star Wars, without taking apart Darth Vader. Is this the story of the ‘Black Knight’? Is it redemption? Or is that just the background, and it’s really about the two different ways of wielding power?

( ( Oh, and by the way: this is why Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were terrible. Who cares about Anakin Skywalker? Huh? He grows up to be a bad guy – a very important bad guy – but that don’t make him interesting. Ya dig? Now, Obi-Wan on the other hand… ) )

Sometimes, this is how writing feels - other times, it's no fun at all

Sometimes, this is how writing feels – other times, it’s no fun at all

Okay, this is how I get all turned around. I avoid conflict in my real life. Arguments, fights – all the normal please-don’t-hit-me kind of stuff. I’m not pathological about it, but I think I’m a considerate, conscientious person. And when I’m hip deep in a story, when the body count is rising, when the good guys and the bad guys are getting ready to rumble… I sabotage myself. It is easy for me to come up with ways for the conflict to get put aside, for the characters to find common ground. After all, in real life that is what I would do. It takes an act of will for me to push those people into the fight. Sometimes, this is exactly what throws me from my groove.

But if all my characters are set up – if my villain and all the little obstacles are right – then the conflict writes itself. I don’t have to justify their actions, or even spell them out for the reader. It can be a simple, beguiling tale, that draws the reader inevitably towards the conclusion. And it doesn’t have to be heavy handed. No one wants to watch Bad Guy Presents: Bad Guy, in Story Title – starring Bad Guy. I mean, maybe that’s what some people want. But to go back to Silence of the Lambs for a moment: this is a story about Clarice Starling, and the way she deals with the evil she comes into contact with. It is beautifully done.

I am still studying my craft, working on it every day. And this problem – villains, antagonists, foes – is what is on my desk right now. The next big project I am making notes on relies on who the ‘bad guy’ is, and what different characters want. Like everything else, it feels like a puzzle that doesn’t have a definitive solution – just workable measures. Maybe there is a lesson in that as well?


Analysis and Surgery

5 Mar
Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

I just finished editing a neat little short story. The setting is pretty bizarre (shocking, right?), but the underlying emotional content is supposed to be real. It is an element of craft that I find very attractive. How would real characters react when faced with the unusual, fantastic, or supernatural? And more importantly, how can I convey their very real inner lives? It’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on/with since before I ever heard the words ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism.’

The first (revised) draft weighed in at just under 3,000 words. Not bad. I was worried about how the story was balanced and paced, so I did something I almost never do: I analyzed my work. Determined to chop it apart – to vivisect, if you will – I broke out the excel spreadsheet. I hacked the text into bits and made notes on what happened in each scene, how many words were in that scene, and where in the story it took place. Then I rendered two graphs, which looked like this:


the progression of the word count

the progression of the word count

the word count in each scene

the word count in each scene

It’s not terribly instructive, really, but it gives me a rough idea of structure. And the visualization makes me happy. I can see pretty clearly how the story builds, and what I placed the most emphasis on. If there is too much in one scene/section, but another seems slight, maybe I ought to dive in and carve it up.

Then I had a thought: What if I excised ALL of the fantastical elements? So I did. The work was simple, but time-consuming. Every sentence (or part of thereof) that referred to or described something out of the ordinary fell under my cruel editor’s knife. Here is an example, from early in the story. This scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood in a crowd next to those swings as the giant alien spaceship had moved towards the city. The disk had slid into view from the south, having just destroyed Los Angeles. A million tiny, yellow and white lights illuminated its hull, and it filled the sky like some kind of imported constellation. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him, and they watched as the enormous starship stopped in the sky. It shook, fell apart, and the pieces began to rain down to the earth below. None of them knew why or how it had been destroyed, but any relief they felt turned sour as hundreds of tiny fireballs began to hit the ground.

After chopping out any references, it became this scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood next to those swings. A million tiny, yellow and white lights filled the sky. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him and the stars stopped in the sky.

The story is essentially about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, because he’s been an ass. The setting happens to be during some strange, alien invasion, apocalyptic events. By chopping out the ‘weird’ stuff, I was able to look at the meat of the story, without any fancy bits – sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In all, I only put in two new words, and I cut out a thousand. That told me that only a third of my story was about crazy stuff. I dug into it again.

This time, I took on Pete’s smoking. Cigarettes are fucking terrible, but they can be very useful props for characters to interact with. After cutting out the cigarettes and all references to them, I had ditched another three hundred words. I was pleased. My story was lean and smooth, but I didn’t enjoy it so much.

I put the crazy/end of the world/alien invasion business right back where it belonged. And then I reworked the start of the tale. Like I said, it’s not hard work, but it does eat up a lot of time. My final draft, after one more edit is right about 2,700 words. It’s not perfect, maybe, but it might be as good as it gets.

What have I learned? That is a damn good question. I think I need to take a more critical look at my assumptions about my work. I will definitely use this graph/analysis technique again. And if I have the time, I will absolutely rip apart my living story and perform home surgery on whatever seems out of place. It makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist, to be honest. I’m building these little monsters, and I want to do my best. I am sure I’m not the first or last to tread this path, but it seems like a good direction to go.

Building a Mystery

2 Mar
~ original image from wiki commons ~

~ original image from wiki commons ~

I am no stranger to writing myself into corners. As a lifelong ‘pantser’ I frequently stop writing and wonder what the hell has happened to my narrative. Seat of the pants can still work for me, especially with short fiction. I love the weird surprises and unnatural connections that spring to mind when I’m putting together a short story. In those cases, it’s usually my readers who are wondering what the hell happened (hopefully in a good way).

The worst experiences I’ve had with this kind of work is with mysteries. I’ve dabbled in all manner of genres, and my brain was somehow designed to get a thrill out of mixing things up. But the strange constraints of mysteries and detective stories hurt my brain. And the more I write about double-crosses, red herrings, and dangerous coincidences, the more I get lost. Even straightforward tales seem to curl up and die after I run out of steam. Honestly, some of my favorite work has been abandoned too soon, just because I can’t untangle the mess I’ve made of things.

Looking back at my favorite authors offers some help. My love of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle have all informed me in various ways. I’ve pretty well run through their work and have moved on to Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) for a more modern turn of the screw. But I still feel like I’m doing things the hard way.

As an aside, here are some choice words that Chandler had to say about Hammett:
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish… He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

This inspires me to simplify, tell the goddamn story, and not get caught up in being cute about it. I try, but it is a ongoing chore just keeping a lid on my weirdness. After a long distance from this kind of work, I am diving back in. I am plotting, working out the bugs, and outlining my schemes. I’ve been honing up on my “rules” of the game, and I have some fun ideas. But this is a kind of writing that I’ve never felt successful at before. I have an appetite to do the work, and yet it somehow still feels like work. That’s an unpleasant feeling.

If this focused effort doesn’t bear any fruit, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Probably drugs. Or something. Maybe take notes from both Hemingway and Hunter? Perhaps the seat of my pants has been the wrong place to drive this process from? Well, sooner or later, some kind of combination of hard work, planning, and illicit chemicals ought to shake something loose. We’ll see if it turns out to be readable.

Not the End of the World

28 Jan
( wikipedia commons )

( wikipedia commons )

I have a perverse fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories. When I was young, movies that involved the apocalypse, or near destruction of society grabbed me like nothing else. I’m thinking of Road Warrior, Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Dead. Real juicy stuff like that. My budding storyteller brain got stuck on those scenarios and I would try to adapt them to my own life. “How would I survive the zombie holocaust?” That was a very popular one in my imagination.

Maybe it was because I grew up with the constant idea of nuclear war. Movies like Threads, or The Morning After certainly chilled me – terrified me, even – but there was no happy fantasy I could play with there. I mean, the real end-of-the-world is a whole bunch of no fun. My own, personal, imaginary, post-apocalypse might have been a morbid place, but it one that was on my own terms. I don’t know. Maybe I’m psychoanalyzing too much. But the appeal of this imminent ‘sunset of civilization’ stayed with me – and grew and grew.

Here’s an excerpt from a story I’ve been working on. The origins are relatively mundane, really. There are these characters, and their lives are in shambles, they’re unhappy, and they split up. The fact that it happens in a city that has just barely escaped total devastation at the hands of an alien attack is a bonus. Well, kind of. It’s a complicated story, and I’m working the bugs out. But this section really made me smile.

    They looked at each other in silence. Their faces were mirrored in mutual confusion and regret. His jaw was clenched, her eyes were puffy. He lit another cigarette and she sipped her tea. Pete tried to understand the tangle of love and lust, hate and sadness that he was trapped in. He couldn’t grasp why he couldn’t move. This whole encounter was a microcosm of the last two years of his life, and it didn’t take another woman or another man to break it free – it took an alien invasion, and an entire city falling on their heads. She shifted in her seat and searched his face. He wanted to give her closure, something – anything – as a going away gift, to make it easy. She wasn’t going to cry, she wasn’t going to kiss him, or hit him. She just wanted to leave.

As I return to these weird themes, over and over again, I’m the lesson I’m learning is very simple: write what you want. I’m working with whatever turns my crank and gets me motivated. A lot of it is going to be trash, but I’m okay with that. Every piece of trash can be reused, recycled, made better. Which would be a nice point in a post-alien invasion story, huh? Think of all that junk in landfills. Hmm…

Numbers and Words

21 Nov

The first time I wrote something that was more than a couple thousand words, I really thought, “Wow, I could be a writer.” I’m sure it was high school and when I broke through that multi-page barrier, it probably felt like a major breakthrough. It’s hard to put that into context now. On a regular basis these days, I will write a few thousand words and just abandon them – or at the very least, just put them aside, in perpetuity.

When I wrote a story that broke the five thousand word limit, it kind of blew my mind. It was double digits in page count and I couldn’t believe it. There was such a sense of empowerment in the work that I totally ignored how terrible it was. I kept going, and every artificial milepost impressed the hell out of me. About the time I hit 30,000 words my storytelling muscles had been completely exhausted. I’d written myself in circles and had no plan for moving forward.

I stuck to short stories for a while after that, and loved carving out tiny pieces of madness. I could embrace the fire for a brief time, but not get burned. And then I wrote a gigantic mess of a novel, hammering out thousands of words a day – writing in the morning, at night, anytime I could find to work. In a couple of weeks I had blown past the fifty thousand word mark and sailed higher and higher. It was a good feeling. Unfortunately, there was nothing in that steaming pile of crazy that could be salvaged. It sat there, mocking me with how terrible it was – goading me to knock it off its smug perch. And when I set out to surpass that record, I hit 60,000 – then 70,000 – on a new project. It was awful too, but in a much different way. There was all the structure and story elements a book needed to be a living thing.

My current and most recent record is just a hair over 110,000 words in length. I know it can be trimmed down – in fact, I’m counting on it. But the size of the work isn’t what matters. This time around, I know better how to put a story together, and what order the bits and pieces need to be in. Whether you think of it as building an engine of interlocking pieces, or sewing up body parts to build a new Frankenstein’s monster, if the gears and guts and motors and organs aren’t where they need to be it is going to be a messy failure. And although I have plenty of bad things to say about my latest/greatest work (so far), I know that it a complete thing, all on its own. I can see how it works, and I’m proud of it.

When I think of works that I’ve read and enjoyed – or fallen in love with – the size of it doesn’t matter so much. Of Mice and Men, or The Old Man and the Sea are incredibly short and packed with power. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are impossibly huge by comparison, but couldn’t be done with less. The range in size of the most famous books, or my favorite books, is vast. In my attempts to tell a story, the hardest part is not figuring out how many words to use, but which words to use. When I look at infographics, like the one below, my brain doesn’t know how to process it. Which is partly why I enjoy this particular one so much. There is a lot of information, but very little commentary on it.

Like so many other things in life, it is easy to get caught up in looking at the wrong criteria. The price, or color, or perceived value of a thing can be misleading. As a writer – and especially as an editor! – my best work comes through when I can cut away the crap, and focus on the utility. Does this work? What doesn’t work? Did I say what I needed to say? How can I make it better? It’s a messy process, it’s a deeply personal affair, and there is no guarantee of success. What do you do? What can you do? You go to work. You write. That is the only way to make things better.


Word? Words.

The Word of the Day: Tmesis

12 Nov
"These tmesis words are un-freakin'-believable!"

“These tmesis words are un-freakin’-believable!”

I don’t think I’ve done a “word of the day” before, but maybe we should start doing that. Every now and then I run into a word that stops me in my tracks. And today, that word is TMESIS. Damn, that’s a hot word. It is a word that is interrupted, or broken up, by another word. Although it has its roots in very old Greek and Latin, our beautiful and modern English language does it quite well. It is un-fucking-believable how common it is. (Aha! See what I did there?)

This came to my attention when I read something only tangentially related. I could point to several different instances of it, in colloquial use of course, but our language is so fluid and ever-changing. There will always be possible variations of this kind of grammar-bending. The best use that I’ve seen is “a whole nother thing”: the word ‘whole’ is just dropped, rudely, into the middle of ‘another’. It is abso-fucking-lutely beautiful.

Like many weird aspects of our language, we employ it every day, without noticing. Any time you have an odd verb that is just clinging in there on its own, chances are good that tmesis is in play. So, “turn it off” or “turn it up” or “turn down for what?” or whatever. I’m amazed that I’ve never noticed this beautiful element of our mother tongue before. And because I’m kind of in love, it gets to be my first ‘Word of the Day.’ Enjoy!

A Glutton for New Projects

10 Nov
(original image: wikipedia commons)

(original image: wikipedia commons)


Who has two thumbs and likes tackling new projects? This flaky procrastinator right here. Ha! It is the bane of every writer, isn’t it? We slave away and grind and burn the midnight oil, but our biggest enemy is always going to be ourselves. Unless, ya know, you are lucky enough to actually have a nemesis or something. Most of us aren’t that cool though. One of the most aggravating distractions that I deal with is the New Project problem. It’s like some kind of ‘seven week itch’ or something.

“Hey Brain, you know what would really derail my progress on this project?”
“Um, a brand new, totally different project?”
“YES! And what a coincidence…”

Now, I keep a ‘master list’ of story ideas, and I make lots of notes on things that inspire me. It’s a good way to mitigate the overwhelming desire to ditch this current piece of work for some new, sexy project that isn’t all up in my business. It’s saved me from quite a bit of heartache, but it’s not perfect. What if what I’m working on really isn’t very good? And what if this new thing really is perfect for me? Maybe it is super enticing for a reason? There isn’t any way to know for sure, unless I dive in and start writing. Right? Well, kind of…

Confession: I am a hedonist. I love everything that is good and delicious and fun – in heaping amounts. The reason I’m not dead of some weird, food-related overdose yet is that I am not a slave to my impulses. Really. Well, maybe a little. See, the point is that I can make a distinction between what I really, really want and what I need. The same has to be true for my work. Writing new projects is just like taking a bite out of a cookie, or digging into a chocolate mousse. That first tiny taste is divine, isn’t it? But I am well aware that if I indulge my every whim, I will get nowhere at all. It feels so damn grown up to say it, but I’ll do it anyway: Discipline. It is a skill, and I’m working on it. And when I flex my meager willpower muscles and succeed over my flighty urges, it feels like a win. I feel like a better writer.


After ten thousand words into my newest novel, I totally got distracted by a shiny, new project. And for very good reasons, I am not concerned. I know that in the face of all of what I just wrote it might seem absurd – or worse, hypocritical – but I’m on to something here. I just got done with a hefty novel a month or so ago. It’s a damn good thing to jump back into the saddle, but word counts and artificial targets aren’t the end-all, be-all of being a productive writer. Not only do I need to keep my eyes on what inspires and engages my creativity, I need to keep my mind on my business.

I started a new, side project on a theme. As eye-rolling and cliché as it might be, I planned out a multi-part short story series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, it’s been done – by better, smarter, and prettier people than me – but I immediately figured out my own path. It’s engaging to me, of course, but I also think I can sell it. And for all the weird, awkward, and disturbing things I’ve done in the name of writing, I have done very little to push myself down the Big Plan. The Big Plan is, of course, getting published, getting paid, getting rich and famous. All that good stuff.

I’m going to follow my instincts. Even if my instincts are telling me to dig in, have another serving of New Project. Maybe I need to take advantage of my enthusiasm while it’s there. After all, I’ve had plenty of “famine” – why not enjoy some “feast” for a change?