Writing What Hurts

Writing What Hurts : Characters, and why so Few are Memorable

Characters, and Why So Few are Memorable

There is a very old, and very wise, bit of writing wisdom. “Write what you know…” This can be taken too simplistically, and too seriously, but at its core, it’s truth.  The reason most of the characters you will encounter in books, on TV, and in movies do not stick with you is very often they are paper thin. You also must write who you know. Crazy computer hackers always have stacks of monitors, racks of servers, dark rooms with flashing lights and these days at least one screen scrolling symbols like the screen saver that came out after The Matrix. When I see or read all of that, I shake my head.

I’ve worked most of my adult life in computers, computer security, and networks. I have met a lot of hackers and computer gurus. They are more likely to have a single notebook, maybe a server at home with more power… something they can close the lid on and run. Sure, they have gadgets and gimmicks, but what the big banks of monitors and dark rooms tell me is… the creator needed a computer expert, or an evil hacker, and they wrote what they’ve seen others write, rather than trying to dig deeper and find out the truth.

It’s how we ended up with so many Hannibal Lector, high-intellect serial killers, bumbling FBI agents, forensics labs with the time to concentrate a dozen people around the clock on a single case and many other endless clichés. They write well, people “get” what you’re doing and saying… but if you remember those characters it will be for something else they did… not for the characterization, or the dark screen-filled room.

So, how does that relate to writing what you know? You have a perspective. You have your own skills, knowledge, and you have your ability to research. If you write about a plumber, you are going to write about a plumber in the context of your experience with plumbers. You can widen your perspective by reading, actually talking to plumbers about what it is you need to happen, how it would play out in the real world. Even then, it’s wise to limit yourself to writing about your character, and embellishing that character with as much reality as you can without going too far and writing or having your character say something that will push buttons on readers who know more about plumbing than you do. It’s tricky business.

I recently read a pretty good mystery by an award-winning, Internationally bestselling author. It had a lot in it about falcons, and raptors. Repeatedly, he referred to them (and had his character who was purportedly an expert) refer to them as “raptor birds,” instead of simply raptors. I love raptors. I’m not an expert on them, but it was enough of a faux pas to really grate on my nerves, and if it affected me that way – I have to believe that people who know about falconry and birds of prey would be squirming – and they would have to be at least a peripheral market for the book.

It’s even trickier when you start writing about specific characters – say – a theoretical physicist. You are safest writing such a character as a person, and avoiding attempts to cleverly let people into their theoretical thoughts, or going too far in describing things. Most people know about Schrödinger’s Cat, and a few bits and pieces about chaos theory and string theory from The Big Bang Theory and Jurassic Park… but that is the paper-thin character I mentioned above. If you are not capable of thinking like a theoretical physicist, you should write the parts of that character that you can understand, their life, loves, tics and prejudices, but not try to pass yourself off as an expert in their field.

What you know is how you see people, how you see men and women you’ve met and interacted with, the things about certain types of characters that you would expect to encounter in a real-life scenario. Characters who matter to you will matter to your readers… characters who remind them of every other character of a “type” they have ever encountered, will not.

In keeping with the theme of this book I’m writing, don’t forget that you don’t like everyone, and some people you like to obsession, or love, or crave or loathe. If you are afraid to reach that level with the characters, you may write a darn good yarn, but a year after reading the book, no one will remember them.

Writing What Hurts – Part the 9th – Submarine School

7.

Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?

In Groton I was on my own again.  I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else.  I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles.  I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station.  Submarines.  Movie Stars…

One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears.  If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program.  That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program.  Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service.  Yay.

At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing.  I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people.  One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women.  You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad.  As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion.  I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.

Not that there was not fun.  There was.  We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time.  We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.

In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall.  While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors.  I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.

When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate.  I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last.  They figured it was a formality at that point).  I had other ideas. I am tall – 6’ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful.  I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days.  Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there.  I agreed.

When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears.  Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain.  They took me out.  They gave me Sudafed and had me wait.  They tried again.  Again, before long, my hand was in the air.  I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out.  I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head.  I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.

I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life).  I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well.  He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician.  He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course).  I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer.  Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton.  I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday.  Life is full of accidental lessons.

Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms.  I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me.  I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full.  To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate.  I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop.  I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.

So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician  class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming.  Yay.  The good news?  Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing.  There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.

Writing What Hurts – Part the 8th

6.

 

So there I was.  I graduated high school with good grades.  I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program.  It was, of course, not true.  I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program.  They got extra points for that.  The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.

I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois.  My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University.  I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it.  To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated.  Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had.  My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him.  The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students.  I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave.  I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.

The Navy offered me a good way out.  There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape.  They paid me.  They trained me.  They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life.  I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids.  It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.

I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone.  They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson.  Born exactly the same day that I was born.  We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible.  He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.

Transience is a constant in the military.  You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux.  You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on.  I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all.  I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself.  I think most people are.  You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way.  It’s the way humans work.  We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule.  Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else.  It goes back to those influences.  All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.

Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well.  You meet your characters for a short period of time.  You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them.  You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.

The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp.  I went in the summer.  A very dry, hot summer.  I ended up dumped into Company 927.  We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire.  He had a good attitude, but he was tough.  They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant).  Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.

A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find.  One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.

My experience there was different than most.  We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up).  We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services.  It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.

Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us.  I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go.  I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them.  Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.

The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself.  I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice.  I could be whoever I could pull off.  Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.

This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing.  First, I met a lot of diverse characters.  I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories.  At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new.  Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives.  For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic.  Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on.  Give them someone, and something, to relate to.

In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons.  I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble.  I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith.  I didn’t write – not then.  I told everyone I was a writer.  I believed I was going to be a writer.  How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.

What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working.  Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow.  For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.

I’m not going to dwell on that time.  There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course.  The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing.  If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital.  Pay attention.  Keep your mind open.  Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world.  If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.

Next stop?  US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…

 

Writing What Hurts – Part the 7th (I think)

5.

 

A lot of people join the military.  There are myriad reasons for this – adventure, to see the world, to take some time and figure out whether you want college, and what you want from it.  All of those are good, valid reasons.  None of them were mine.  I spent most of my life in a small town, not fitting in all that well at school and trying to find ways to deal with the abusive, alcoholic step-father life dealt me.

No, he never beat me.  He did launch me off the ground with a broom once, but I thoroughly deserved that.  My brother and I had been considering getting into an old oil barrel and rolling down a steep hill toward the lake below…  Bob – never dad – was a big man.  He had his own issues – raised in the depression on or near an Amish farm.  Grew up to serve as a police officer and (I believe) a pilot for a while in a non-wartime military.  When I met him, he was a barber.

I have never understood the relationship he and my mother shared.  She seemed to spend most of her life in trying not to make him angry, while sneaking behind his back to see that my brother and I had some kind of life of our own beyond him.  Bob’s idea of how our days should be spent was in going to school – only because we had to – coming home – and working.  He was always working on something, a glass of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up in one hand and a cheap, stinking cigar in the other.  We were expected to be part of it.  He could build things.  He could fix cars.  He could fly a plane, and even taught my mom to do it.  What he could not do was – in any way at all – relate to people other than his few old friends, and though he seemed to get along well with his own son, he was pathetically inept at dealing with me, or my brother.

After very, very long hours of thought, my brother and I have come to the conclusion he was possibly gay, and just never had the courage to come out of the closet.  He and my mom slept in different rooms.  He insulated his with cork and air-conditioned it to near freezing.  Most of the jokes he made were off-color and inappropriate.  He was prejudiced to a fault, and when the family (on the rare occasions we were allowed out of our bedroom) watched Archie Bunker, Bob laughed with Archie while the rest of us laughed at them both.  Bob was Archie Bunker and proud of it.  He had more ethnic slurs memorized than I do 70s and 80s pop songs, and that is one of my super powers.

I remember one winter how he sent us out to shovel snow off the driveway.  Not a bad thing, in and of itself, though we were not very old or large or strong.  Here’s the thing, though.  It was still snowing.  By the time we hit the end of the drive (which was long) it was covered again.  Southern Illinois in winter is VERY cold.  Our toes were near frostbite.  We did this for HOURS and he would not let us stop, or come in.  On top of it all – he owned a 12 hp tractor with a snow plow, and when we were finished…then he went out and plowed it after the snow stopped.  This is the type of thing that happened any time he was given control of the situation, so – for our own survival – we found ways to avoid as much contact with him as humanly possible.

I remember one day, out in the sun, not allowed to get a drink, trying to hold sheets of particle board siding against the wall without letting them move as he stood back and cocked his head, drank his beer, or whiskey, and took his sweet time deciding to nail it into place.  We were so tired – so hot.  At some point, I had a spade in my hand.  I don’t remember what job required that, but there it was.  In those few short moments, I remember considering slamming it into the back of his head repeatedly, and taking my chances – as a juvenile – in the system. I truly, truly hated him.  I was told I would get over that when I grew up.  I never did, though I came to sort of pity him and the anger drained away.

Later in life, to show he never changed, I visited home with my first wife.  At this point, Bob and my mom slept in different halves of a duplex (reinforcing the separate room thing to a ridiculous degree).  We were in mom’s half, on a fold-out couch in her family room.  Before we woke, he came in, and sat in a chair.  Then he grinned and started talking, and very clearly thought if he waited long enough, we’d both get out from under the covers without dressing and prance around for his entertainment.  I had to get up and tell him to get out so she could dress.  The creep factor was huge. During that trip he also had a near psychotic break because, having hated anything but whole milk all of my life, I had the temerity to buy some and put it in the refrigerator. It might have been the depression years talking, but he was absolutely insanely angry about what he considered a ridiculous waste of money when Skim and 2% were cheaper. Funny the cost of whiskey never came up.

Anyway… why do I mention all of this?  Not really for therapeutic purposes, but just to show another aspect of how your life can inform your creative process.  All of the things that I blame on that man, and the life I lived before I left for the US Navy, are a part of what I’ve written, what I will write in the future, the decisions I make as a man, husband, father.  Writing is like life, when it’s done right, and the things that ache – the things that hurt – the things that drive you near the edge of madness – those are the things that give your words power – side by side with the wonder you find in the world, the love and relationships and success you encounter along the way.  These are the influences that insure you have something to say – and if you don’t – why are you writing?

You will find part of my life in those days in the childhood of Brandt, the protagonist of my fairly popular novel Deep Blue. Writing that was therapeutic.

You thought I was going to talk about boot camp, and I am.  I first escaped home by spending a lot of time in a church.  I walked in that world for a time, and when I left home, I was still mired firmly in that dream.  As I said a few pages back – in 1997 I left for the United States Navy – EVERYTHING changed.

 

Writing What Hurts – Part the Sixth – Progression

(Author’s Note): Just to say… I have not posted any part of this long-in-the-works book on writing in a very, very long time. You’ll find the link to the parts (and a couple of side posts) on the front page of my website at the top. I am working on re-activating my creativity after a long period of too much time building Crossroad Press and ignoring it. I have to find a way to schedule both… Here is the next installment in this book on writing that I may, or may not ever finish…

I mentioned in the previous short chapter that when I started writing, I chose the short story as my format.  There were a lot of reasons for this, but the one I’m going to stick with is – I wasn’t ready to write a novel.  What is true for me is not necessarily true for anyone else.  A lot of people start out the gate writing novels and never really do much in the short form. Some of my favorite authors are very skimpy on stories, and long on novels, or even novellas.  Peter Straub and T. E. D. Klein come to mind as authors who chose their length and pretty much stuck to it.  While Peter has written a number of short stories over the years, I don’t believe they are his chosen form… That said, he did beat me for the Bram Stoker award the year my collection Defining Moments was on the final ballot.

For me things have always been a progression.  In fact, when it comes to the books that have mattered the most to me, it goes deeper.  The first novel I wrote that really mattered to me was This is My Blood.  Anyone who is a fan of mine will know that the novel was born as a novelette – first published in Starshore magazine long ago, then reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror XIX and a number of other publications over the years. That novelette, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” or sometimes mis-titled as “A Candle in the Sun,” was – as it turns out – only the germ of the idea.

It took someone else’s perspective to make me see my error.  I was very proud of the novelette.  I’d never gotten the kind of notice it brought, and I was even starting to feel a little cocky – the first sense that I had chosen a profession where I had the skill to make a name for myself.  Then came my first World Horror Convention.  In those days, there were rock-stars of horror.  John Skipp, Craig Spector, Poppy Z. Brite, Kathe Koja, David Schow – wandering the halls like the Pied Piper with troops of acolytes and poseurs dangling off them like lichen on a swamp tree.  I was a bit in awe of them, but they proved friendly enough, and accessible.

At the time, I was not only starting my writing career, but was in the midst of publishing my magazine, The Tome.  I had a table in the dealer’s room, covered in the books and magazines I’d cobbled together to sell and help pay for the adventure.  Among those books and magazines were several copies of Starshore with my story.  Sales were anything but brisk – there was a lot of competition.  Still, I met people.  I passed my story on, and on that very first day, it happened.

A short, slender man with a slightly odd accent stepped up to the table. We started talking about vampires.  His name, he told me, was Robert Eighteen Bisang.  I kind of nodded, thinking it was odd enough to either be true, or an affectation, and that it didn’t matter.  He told me he had the largest collection of vampire fiction in the world, first editions of Dracula.  I told him that he did not have all of the vampire stories yet.  I sold him a copy of Starshore.  He promised to read it and let me know what he thought.

I, of course, had heard that a lot since opening the table and seldom seen return traffic.  What there was mostly consisted of my fellow small-press editors and authors, and a few people who hoped that, if they stayed close by, I’d remember their names and buy the next story they submitted.  Yes – even at the lower levels, we had acolytes.  I was pretty new, though, and my “posse” was pretty sad.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Robert came back to my table later that day.  He had an odd look on his face, and I’ll never forget what he said.  “You know, David, this is really brilliant – but it has to be a novel.”

It took me a bit to get over the “brilliant” part, but I did.  His words stuck with me, and so did Robert. In fact, one night out in the middle of the Mediterranean on board the USS Bainbridge, I sat down in the transmitter room I’d claimed as my own (too cold and noisy for most others) and I set to work.  I had one of those tiny green Gideon Society bibles that they give you when you go to boot camp.  I had my old IBM 386 PC and a Deskjet 500 printer.  I had from 4:30 in the afternoon until midnight, day in, and day out.

I went through all the gospels.  I wrote down the holes in them, and then I compared those holes to the other three gospels to make sure they weren’t covered somewhere else.  I found places where – without changing the original story much – I could insert my characters.  I had no idea how long it would end up, but I had a really good idea of where it was all going.  This was an important work for me on many, many levels.

Prior to being a writer and publisher, there was a time in my life when, lured to church by good looking high school girls and fun college ministers, I thought my life would go in a different direction.  I thought that maybe I’d become one of those fun campus ministers, preach to college kids and high school students, make the church my life.  I’m going to stop talking about This is My Blood for a while now, and I’m going to move on to a more memoirish (new word – take note) segment of my tale.  I’m going to tell you how a young, naïve man with dreams left small town Illinois, joined the US Navy, outgrew organized religion, and got to the point we just left – the point where this book – this first, important book, was something that had to be written.  In no small way, my books are my life.  I think that must be true for most creative people – the ones who would create without fame or fortune or fans – the ones that can’t help themselves.  We are a sad lot – though the sadness could be dulled by a healthy dose of sales…

In 1977, I graduated from Charleston High School, in Charleston Illinois.  Soon after that – things started to get interesting.

 

Writing What Hurts – A Matter of Perspective

0

129168711694499852There are two things you’ll hear a lot when people start giving out advice on writing.

  • Write what you know.
  • POV Matters.

I’m not much for cut-and-dried rules; I write what I write, and I write ‘how’ I write, but sometimes I can go back after the fact and pick out some things that are important.  Since this week I’m talking about my novel, This is My Blood, I thought I’d start with that.

When I parted ways with organized religion, the insides of my psyche were not a pretty sight.  I had issues.  I had some anger, too.  Mostly, though, it was growing pains.  I was drawn into the “fold” the way many are – I was young, lonely – girls asked me to a Bible study (pretty girls) – it gave me a sense of belonging, and, for a while the notion that I knew something important.  I’m not planning on bashing religion in this post.  I’ll say that I write fiction, and it can be powerful.  Ancient people wrote fiction too, and just because it helped them get through the night, and the stories were passed down from generation to generation, I see no reason to consider them more than they are.  Fiction.  The world does not need Gods or higher powers to believe in – it needs men to step up and take responsibility for their own good, and bad works.

In any case, there I was.  I had recently decided NOT to become a campus minister, but had studied quite a lot toward that end.  I had a wealth of biblical knowledge, and some very strong ideas about what I did NOT like about Christianity.  It had nothing to do with Jesus, or with God – for that matter, though he seemed (and still seems) far too clinical, judgmental, and violent for my taste.  It had to do with rules, with the men who made and enforced those rules, and the hypocritical nature inherent in anything important that becomes ‘organized.’

I started with my plot – it was straightforward.  Someone near Jesus would be cursed with vampirism.  I did not want to change the main story.  I did not want (as many suggested I should) to turn it into some sort of cosmic romance novel.  I had something to say, and I needed the proper voice to say it.  So I started with what I knew.

Religion – particularly Christianity – is based on faith.  You don’t’ get to know things, you have to trust…God, The Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Church.  You just take what they say on “faith” and forge ahead.  That is the flaw.  It is not enough, and it never was enough, because men are creatures of intellect.  We can think for ourselves (and should do so) and in a faith-based system, that’s not only frowned upon, but you are told in many cases that the thoughts and facts you encounter are just tests from some dark, evil entity trying to lure you from the fold.  Clearly, then, none of the men surrounding Jesus was going to be able to tell the story as I wanted it told.  It had to be someone who knew the truth.  Someone who had walked where Jesus had walked, had absolutely no doubt there was a Heaven, and a Hell – someone without the false support of faith crumbling beneath their feet.

I chose an angel.  I chose to have Lucifer raise one of the fallen in the form of a woman, ostensibly to test Jesus’ will to resist temptations of the flesh, but in my mind, to provide the perspective – the point of view – that could make my book more than a vampire story.

I don’t want to get mired in talking about that book, because I want you to go and read it.  I’m greedy like that.  I love feedback.  The point is, as Mary often tells us in the novel, she has walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell, and her memory will suffice.  She was disgusted by the greed and infighting among the apostles, astonished at the blindness of those witnessing miracles, and five minutes later arguing over points of “law” as if their opinions mattered a whit.  She knew what was at stake, and so, as she walked along through the gospel of Judas Iscariot, she was the perfect voice to comment on things that had been left unsaid, to voice the concerns and fears that the Bible ignores.

She was MY voice, my message to my past, and my hope for the future.

I call these posts “Writing What Hurts” for a reason.  When you are really writing, everything about the words matters to you.  Sometimes you are just storytelling.  Sometimes you are fulfilling commitments, or putting bread on the table.  Other times, like the time I spent writing This is My Blood¸ you are consumed by the work – obsessed with it – invested so deeply that every comment, every reaction, every turned page matters to you.  If Clive Barker is right, and we are all books of blood, then our best work is flesh torn from our hearts.

When you decide what your book is about, think about who is involved.  Think about all of the points of view from which the story could be told, the problems inherent in each, the gains and take-aways of each choice.  Think about how you want your readers to react, and to which characters – and events.  Choose your book’s voice wisely, and stay true to it.  You may find that, by the time the work is done, you’ve learned as much as you’ve taught.

-DNW

Now, as I’m certain I’ve caught your attention – Buy This is My Blood now at Amazon.com…

The Writing of the Novel Deep Blue

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The novel Deep Blue finds its origin in the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction.  In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture.  I was honored to be among authors such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in presenting our separate visions of what lay buried behind her art.  From the images presented, I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats.  I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in.  I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.

The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my mundane job took me to Washington DC.  We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie PI which, at the time, was newly released.  On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard.  It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician.  That set the mood for what was to come.

I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapenos and washing them down with beer.  Then came the movie.  I won’t go into detail about PI, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned.  I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.

The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit The Holocaust Museum.  I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit.  I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.

That night, I started to write.  I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get.  I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out.  That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues.  The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.

Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life.  As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.”  Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness.  I give you . . . Deep Blue.

Writing What Hurts – Part the Fifth – Stylistic Writing

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3.

Style is a word you see tossed about a lot in literary circles.  There have been epic battles fought over stylistic writing vs. plot-driven writing vs. character driven writing.  There are authors who understand words and punctuation and the painting of images in sequences of letters so well that they can twist and turn the language into intricate pretzels of brilliance…and there are an even larger number claiming “style” to hide a lack of proper grammatical understanding, or a simple misunderstanding of the term.

My take on it is as simple as my take on most of the big writing arguments.  In fact, let me qualify this by stating my opinion on most such squabbles up front.  If you are arguing over style, or plot, or who is right about what particular aspect of the craft of writing, you aren’t writing.  If you spend all your time worrying over how other work, or whether you are doing it “right” then you aren’t concentrating hard enough to actually create anything useful.  Creation requires your full attention – don’t waste it on irrelevant nonsense, because, in the end, if you don’t actually create something it’s all so much wasted breath.

Style is what it is.  While I believe you can recognize a style that you like, emulate it, study it, twist it and turn it – it isn’t your style until it develops into something so ingrained in your psyche that it occurs without thought.  It’s like I tell my oldest daughter, who is fond of telling everyone how she likes to be random.  If you are trying to be random, it’s not random.  If you are trying to write with a particular style you may be in a developmental stage, but  it can’t be considered completely your own.  I would go so far as to say that even if you absolutely LOVE the style of another author, unless it molds itself to your mind and becomes something entirely new, you are writing in someone else’s style, and can never be more than a reflection.

I wrote early on in this piece about influences.  You can’t avoid them, and should not try.  On the other hand, you also can’t get caught up in them.  Like drinking, or television, or video games – if you let yourself get too tangled up in one influence or another, you will lose yourself, and if you don’t personally have anything to say, why are you writing?  If you don’t believe your own words, in your own style, will reach out and grab people – or get your message across – or do justice to the voices in your head, what is the point?  It’s not arrogance to believe you are as good as anyone out there, it’s mental survival.  Never strive to be second best, or the next “so-and-so” – strive to make what you are a thing that others envy and want to emulate.  Be the first you.

And with that in mind, a bit about style.  Just like everything in the arts, you have to be careful with that hat that says “stylist” on it.  The publishing world, and subsequently the world of readers and consumers, is very fond of labels.  The thing about literary labels is that they come with their own particularly sticky and difficult to wash off adhesive.  If you write a horror novel, and it does well, you are a horror writer.  You can overcome this over time – particularly if you are a pretty successful author, like Dean Koontz, or Poppy Z. Brite – but it’s not an easy task.

The problem from the publisher’s side of the fence is a simple matter of marketing.  To create a best-selling author, you begin by publishing and marketing that first book – and you build on it.  You try to create a recognizable brand – a product you can quantify, qualify, and pop onto the right shelf.  If the aforementioned horror writer turns in a mainstream novel or a mystery, you have to either build parallel paths (possibly with one genre under a pseudonym to keep from getting it all messy) or start all over in the new genre, building that brand.  I get this – and you should too, if you plan on putting that stylist hat on.

For one thing, if you are going to be a stylistic writer, you had better have the standard styles down pat.  You’d better be able to communicate and articulate, punctuate and prove it.  If you become a rule breaker, you have to be able to prove that you know you broke rules, and didn’t just do it because it sounded “cool.”  You’ll get called on it.  The problem with writing as a stylist is that most of the readers who are interested in that type of writing are a very literate crowd, and they are quick to flush out “poseurs”.

Also, think long and hard about your reasons.  Some authors, Caitlin Kiernan comes to mind, write the way they do because it’s the way they write.  Kathe Koja has a “voice” that has been present since her first novel.  It’s not an affectation, in other words, and I believe that to be effective, style can never be an affectation.  It has to be a naturally occurring voice.

That brings me to the actual point (sometimes I really get there if you stick with me).  The point is, we are all stylists.  Your ‘style’ is how the words come out when you are in your ‘zone.’   The Zone, for me, is that place where I’m working – the words are flowing – and I am not thinking about them at all, just pounding the keys and letting it flow.  That’s the natural state of your work.  It is possible to force that work into other voices, and styles, but a rare occasion when you pull it off without losing something in the translation.

It’s also important to understand what stylistic means.  There are any number of quirks that can distinguish one literary voice from another.  Short sentences, long sentences, punctuation that uses flips and tricks to reach an end, stream-of-consciousness, quirky first person, clipped phrases …you get the idea.  Early in my career, I used WAY too many ellipses.  Sometimes I still do.  I used to think it was part of my “style” and now I know, sadly, that it’s a flaw in my grammar.

One of my pet peeves in writing could, I suppose, be considered nothing more than a stylistic preference.  The use of the word “could” to modify verbs irritates the crap out of me.  If you take a paragraph full of “He could see the campfire from where he stood” like sentences and change them so they read in the immediate, real-time way I think they should, you get “He saw the campfire.”  Over a few pages, this can tighten and trim up a manuscript with incredible swiftness and aplomb.  That’s what I think.  In practice, I see everyone from Stephen King to John Grisham tossing the “could” word at verbs and I have to live with it, or not read their work.  It only bothers me when I notice it one time in a jarring sentence, but from that point on it can irritate me right out of my happy place.

The point of this short aside is just to note that this is a quirk of my own style.  I’m not necessarily right, or wrong about it, but in my own writing you’ll not find me using that sentence structure very often.  It’s the tip of a huge iceberg.  I will be getting further into my own style as we progress, and hopefully examining where elements of it came from – why they stuck with me while others did not – and how this may, or may not relate to your own writing.  Stay tuned.

Writing What Hurts – Part the Fourth – Words & Mountains

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2.

When I started writing seriously, I attacked the challenge of the short story.  The first few times out the gate I remember how difficult it was to hit what I considered the minimum length for a serious story – 2500 words. I worked out characters ahead of time, almost like a role-playing game stat sheet for each one – not because I intended to use all of that information, but because if I knew it, it could inform the decisions and dialogue of the character.

I believed that there needed to be a set number of plot twists, and that there was a particular point in the story where you had to be working on the conclusion.  I was fond of twist endings, cliché as they usually turned out.  I read constantly through the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and I bought all the popular books on writing.  Oddly, what I don’t recall doing is sitting down and trying to emulate a particular formula or style.  Considering all the dissecting, prodding, poking and plotting that was going on, it’s an odd omission.

I don’t want to dwell on formulas just yet, though, I want to talk about the constant desire of authors I have known (myself included) to keep score on the words.  As I said, in the beginning, a 2500 word story seemed pretty long to me.  Over time, I started to stretch them out to 3, 4, and even 5000 words, but throughout that time I managed to hold onto the ability to be succinct.  To this day I can write flash fiction under a thousand words without much effort, and with pretty good results.

Unfortunately, in the world of short fiction, you are paid by the word.  In the world of novels, you often have guidelines you need to fall within – like 70-80k, or “about” 100k.  If you are winging your novel, writing from the seat of your pants, these sorts of guidelines can drive you crazy.  They are one reason that I took up the fine art of the outline a few years back.  I don’t need explicit instructions when I travel – in this world, or one I’ve made up – but I like to know where I’m going and about how far I expect to travel before I get there.

I remember clearly a cruise I took on board the USS Guadalcanal, one of the ships I served on in the US Navy.  I had two computers at the time – I took the older one with me to the ship.  It was an old 386 with Word Perfect 6.0 loaded and ready.  Along with that computer I had a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 – the sturdiest, most reliable printer I have ever owned.  I took a drawer full of ink cartridges, and a case of paper.  I remember sitting down before I left and figuring out that, at 250 words per page, there would be half a million words printed if I used that entire case.  I came very close.

I was the Leading Petty Officer of the Electronics shop during that period.  I didn’t have an office of my own, but I had a UHF Transmitter room that I sort of took ownership of.  Most of the equipment in that room was mine to maintain, and there was a workbench that would hold my computer.  I also had a large “boom box” and a box of CDs.  Those became the soundtrack for several novels; not all written on that cruise, but at the very least revised and completed.  I had floppy disks with all my books and stories, and I worked constantly.  The ship served dinner between 4:00 and about 5:30.  After that, every night that I did not have duty, I was in that room, typing away, until around 11:00 PM – sometimes later.

Depeche Mode and Concrete Blonde were my friends.  I memorized the first two Crash Test Dummies CDs and learned to love a band called Ten Inch Men, whose album Pretty Vultures is still one of my all-time favorites.  The singer from that band, Dave Coutts, went on to sing for “Talk Show,” along with members of the Stone Temple Pilots.   I met Dave, and several other members of Ten Inch Men, when they found my review and comments on their music in my Live Journal online.  Again – another story.

The point is the words.  You just don’t see how they add up until you let yourself think about it.  Most professional writers I know claim about a 2,000 word per day output.  In those days on the Guadalcanal I averaged 3500-5000 a day and had days that topped 10k.  These days I fall in the 1500 -2000 word range, but here’s the thing.

One of my great pleasures every year is participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge.  50,000 words in thirty days.  When you say it that way it seems like a horrifying challenge.  When you break it down to the reality – 1,667 words a day, you see that a lot of working writers write more than that every month.  If you add in what I do for the Crossroad Press site, and the blogs I write to promote my work, I’m sure I’m still doing the 5k a day shuffle myself.

So…in reality…if you concentrated, you should be able to churn out 3-6 novels a year with some regularity, although broken up by short stories, essays, reviews, etc.  Writers write, and though there are certainly times this is less true than at others, a steady stream of words produces a prodigious output over time.  I have been at this a very long time, and have determined that I do not – at this point – want to know how many words I have written.  In fact, I cringe at the thought of it and want to run away, pulling out what little hair remains to me and go screaming off into the night.  I’ve written so much, and yet, I feel as if there is so much still to accomplish.  There are so many stories waiting, and now they are piling up against the end gate as I plow into them, trying to fight my way through in the allotted space of a lifetime.

You can get buried in the words.  You can get lost in worrying over the numbers.  In the end, those that can’t be held back will escape your fingers, and your personal mountain of words will grow.  I’ve decided to make mine tall enough to touch the sky, beautiful enough to attract climbers and wildlife, and solid enough to withstand time.  Foolish, simple dreams that make me smile, and keep me working.  I have always loved the mountains.

Writing What Hurts – Part the Third – Influences

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One of the most popular subjects among authors and those who study authors is that of influences.  It is a natural trait of those who teach writing, and those who study writing, to want to know cause and effect – to see if there is a combination of outside events and internal decisions behind the success, or lack of success, of a given writer’s work.  When I’m asked about my influences, it can send me into a tirade, or drop me back into reflective silence.  It all depends on context, and where my mind is at the moment the subject is breached.

It’s easy to get caught up in analysis.  Nobody works in a void.  Someone influenced every creative voice in history, and the two –pronged question is how much, and does it really matter?  If you ask the question directly you may get a pat answer filled with all the right names.  You may get a group of avante garde trailblazers, or a group of the most popular, financially successful authors working.  You might get movies and relatives and heroes and mentors, but what you will never get is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

You can interpret the question more than one way.  Who influenced me?  Well, popular authors influence me all the time; some of them because I love and devour their work, like Stephen King and John Grisham.  Others because their phenomenal popularity has struck a chord with the world, and I want to be a chord-striker too – even if I can’t get interested in their writing.  Dan Brown is a good example for me.  I know that millions of people enjoy his fiction, but for me – if it’s an influence – it’s on the choice of subject matter; I don’t care for his writing style at all.

I think the question goes much deeper than what other writers have influenced you, though.  There are things that form you as a person, and when writing is at its best – as you might gather from the title of this work – I think it is very personal.  The writing and the writer are not far removed from one another, and so, whatever influenced the formation of the writer is what influenced the writing.  Religion – philosophy – experience – relationships – all of that, and so much more.  What music do you listen to?  Why?  When did you listen to that music, and what was happening in your life.  Do you like art? What artists – what types of art – why?  Who introduced you to them, and why do they stick with you.

There are too many influences in a writer’s life to categorize them all.  I think you can break them down into categories though – or periods.  I grew up in small-town Illinois.  I was a nerdy book reader, not great at sports but participated anyway, picked on by several different groups and types of other students and friends with some great kids.  From that period I brought Vonnegut, Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Tolkein with me.  I  left behind The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Abraham Lincoln and Kenneth Roberts, whose historical autobiographies kept me glued to the page for days at a time and taught me the truth behind history – that it’s rewritten again and again and really just a form of fiction.  The book that set me straight told the full story of Benedict Arnold, who was far from the traitor we are taught in school.  I also left behind a ton of comic books, and somehow never re-acquired the love of reading them I had as a boy.

What came next were my US Navy years.  I brought from those Stephen King, Salvador Dali, the music of Steeleye Span and a thousand rock groups, the ability to play guitar and the first few novels of my career.  I left behind mountains of fantasy trilogies, elves, goblins, and other such critters, even as I moved to and through Dean Koontz and on to Clive Barker.  I also left behind my first publishing venture – a magazine called The Tome – the editing of which was eye-opening and deeply influential on my career, as well as my writing.

I’m cutting each of these periods far short.  I visited countries and continents in the US Navy, lived in Spain, joined a Bike Club (Tiburon MC) – visited Masada and Jerusalem, Rome and Pisa and Florence, Greece and Crete.  I loved and lost and married and divorced.  In other words, I lived – a lot.  All of that is in my writing if you look for it, though it may not be easily discernible to anyone who didn’t share all of that experience (a person, in other words, who does not exist).

You can gain absolutely nothing from huge chunks of your life and be influenced forever by just a few moments.  What you take from a book might be a short quote you can’t shake, a style of getting a particular bit of plot or information across, a conversational tic.  Stephen King’s characters often say, “I had an idea that,” or “I had the idea that,” and that sticks with me.  I haven’t used it, but I recognize it in his work and smile when I see it.

Since we’re still in the introductory part of this book, I’m going to close the door on this influence thing for a while with the note that throughout the pages of this book, the things that have influenced me will become apparent.  I’ll tell you stories.  I’ll reference other writers and talk about thing I like or do not like in their work.  I’ll say repeatedly that all opinions are subjective, and that these are just mine…something I have learned to say through the influence of Mr. Richard Rowand, editor of the late and much missed STARSHORE MAGAZINE – who published my first major genre piece, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” which later became the novel “This is My Blood.”  He used to tell us – right before hacking our work to bits – that we should keep in mind that all reviews are subjective.

Before I continue, I’m going to sit back and listen to some Hank Williams Senior and follow that with Charlie Johnson’s Birdland – music picked up while being influenced by Poppy Z. Brite’s novel “Drawing Blood,” though ol’ Hank was with me since my childhood (and you can read about that in my novel Deep Blue).  Onward.

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