Countdown Apocalypse


I have suffered through some horribly cheesy movies of late. This is mostly due to 3 things:
1) Free ‘Premium’ channels on Dish [I set the DVR to record anything that sounded vaguely interesting.]
2) Halloween [Yeah, apparently ‘scary’ and ‘stupid’ are supposed to go hand-in-hand?]
3) NaNoWriMo [Waiting for the 11/1 kickoff, I’ve been wasting time doing things other than writing.]

To be honest, there is a 4th cause to the cheesy-moviethon: I like them. Actually, it’s not that I like suckhole movies. I really do abhor the thin storylines, contrived plots, flat characters, and horrendous dialogue. What I ‘like’ about them, is picking apart all the wonky, god-awful elements.

Last night I watched some stupid flick titled Countdown Apocalypse or Apocalypse Countdown or some such. The supposed apocalypse was utterly, utterly lame. And I never did experience any sort of countdown. The bulk of the movie was some chick wandering around–always moving–in a plane, walking across the desert, navigating the streets of Old Jerusalem, in a car between cities, hiking up stairs in a building, wandering aimlessly down long hallways, etc. Seriously, laid end-to-end, the main character’s footprints would wrap around the equator seven times.

During all this slow walking and uneventful travel, there was no dialogue. Like, at all. Instead of meaningful words to let me in on the lady’s state-of-mind or how horribly distraught she was over her daughter being kidnapped and shipped off to some antichrist processing facility in Tel Aviv, I got to enjoy symphonic music which–I am reckoning–was supposed to cue my feelings. Or something. It just made me sleepy.

About 15 minutes in [translation: 10,987,789 footsteps already traveled], it struck me that only 10 lines of dialogue had been spoken. The main character, Allison, spoke very little. And when she did, 90% of the time it was in the form of a question. Seriously. Lame. Watching with a friend, of course, we started shredding the movie’s suckiness. My job was to simply announce “Question” each time Allison posed one. While the pace of my job was uber-leisurely since she hardly ever spoke, I soon grew tired of hearing my own mouth say the same word each and every time she delivered a worthless line.

My buddy’s job was pointing out every time a character said something one moment only to contradict it in the next breath. Not as some form of characterization, but as [idk the hell what!] perhaps a failed attempt on the part of the writer to infuse tension? Maybe?

So here is how I would write in the style of Countdown Apocalypse:

Allison wore her tanktop which plainly showed the backwards culture that she was a hot, blond American MILF. She walked to the foreign taxi. Although it should only have taken 3 seconds, the journey took days. Slow emotional music echoed in her head.

“Can you take me to Jerusalem?” she asked.

“No. I am on my break. Well, okay,” the cabbie answered.

She rode along over a barren landscape which stretched out for millions and billions and trillions of miles. She stared out the window looking neither sad, nor bored, nor scared, nor anxious. But the somber tune continued to echo all around her. After 40 days, she arrived at the hotel.

“Did my husband check-in?”

“No, he did not. Oh wait, yes he did. Yesterday.”

“Was my daughter with him?”

“Yes. I mean, no. He was alone.” The innkeeper paused as Allison grimaced with horribly acted, false sadness. “Here, have a tissue, you sad American lady. Oh, prophets! The box is empty.”

“Can I have the key to our room so I can put away my stuff even though I will never pay attention to it for the rest of this boring ass movie?”

The innkeeper searched the desk, his pockets, the empty Kleenex box. “I’m sorry, it seems I have lost the spare key. Wait! Here it is. It was waiting right here with this important envelope I was supposed to give you. Enjoy your stay!”

“This hotel has a staircase, right? Would you mind if I took it up to the 785th floor so I can stare at the unopened envelope for 45 minutes as I climb?”

“No, I’m sorry. We only have an elevator.”

“Then what is that door with the stairway symbol?”

“Oh, I guess we do have stairs after all.”

“So you mind if I take them? How are the acoustics in there? Will the sad music effectively emote for me since I don’t have the capacity to do it for myself?”

The innkeeper nodded his head in slow motion to indicate that the sound in the stairway was awesome. “No, the sound in there is horrible,” he said.

Allison ate up 20 minutes of screen time, eventually reaching the door. Pausing, with her hand on the knob, she spoke through the wood, “Isn’t there some kind of countdown I should be worried about? Shouldn’t I be racing to save my daughter before it’s too late?”

The door stood silent. But the music droned on.

I won’t even go into the contrivances, false tension, lack of real plot or resolution, or the stupid ending I waited 6,500 hours to discover. What I will share is that I don’t understand how ‘stories’ such as these become actual movies. It really baffles me.

Going into NaNo–the 4th cause of me watching this P.O.S. in the first place–I am extremely aware of the need to avoid dead scenes, empty space, and groan-worthy dialogue. Also: stereotypes, dangling elements, lack of emotion, a pretend ticking clock, and subplots which go nowhere. While I was already well aware of those pitfalls, this fustercluck of a movie drove all these points home. So, maybe it’s a work of genius after all? Ummm…

“Why, oh why, do I subject myself to this crap?”

:: Cue heartfelt, symphonic music as Lucas trudges ever-so-slowly towards November ::

Current countdown to NaNo at the time of this posting: 15 hours, 12 minutes, 58 seconds

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Lovecraft on Weird Fiction


When I say that I can write nothing but weird fiction, I am not trying to exalt that medium but am merely confessing my own weakness. The reason I can’t write other kinds is not that I don’t value & respect them, but merely that my slender set of endowments does not enable me to extract a compellingly acute personal sense of interest & drama from the natural phenomena of life. I know that these natural phenomena are more important & significant than the special & tenuous moods which so absorb me, & that an art based on them is greater than any which fantasy could evoke—but I’m simply not big enough to react to them in the sensitive way necessary for artistic response & literary use.

— H.P. Lovecraft in a letter to E. Hoffman Price (29 September 1933)

Lovecraft’s use of the term ‘weird fiction’ is not in a generic sense, but actually refers to a genre-of-sorts. Weird Fiction is akin to a sort of a ghost story/horror/macabre vibe separate from what we call fantasy or sci-fi, and was used from the late 1800’s to roughly the 1930’s, before these niches were labeled.

He was a moody, reclusive chap with some definite issues. So, this ‘confession’ could very well be a true admittance of weakness. But, unless I am mistaken, I get a sense of low-key sarcasm and reverse-projection hidden in the subtext. Lovecraft’s quiet, high level of self-efficacy in these words is quite beautiful to me. He’s saying one thing, but I believe it is subversive, and he is meaning quite the opposite. Of course, that’s just my take…

My Guide to Not Sucking


You can invest your very soul in writing a whooole book. And, in the end, it can suck.

Writing is a talent which is innate to many of us, but like any other skill, it must be developed and honed. Phreak Show is either my 3rd or 4th novel–depends on which way the tally is done. I do not want it to suck. So, I have been reading the ‘competition’, as well as books on writing craft. To further polish my grasp of this seemingly simple [bullshit!] craft of writing, I constantly explore relevant blogs, and even dished out the dough and attended an SCBWI conference last month.

And I feel far more prepared, knowledgeable and humble this time around.

Along the way, I have collected bits and pieces of advice, tips, keys, and ‘secrets’ to crafting an amazing novel. Finally, I have them all typed up and congealed into a single, personal reference file. These have come from all the above mentioned sources, but I admit I have been lax in recording the attributions. I’m guessing a lot of these tidbits came from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. Most of them, I have paraphrased or rewritten in my own words so they make sense to my specific brainwaves. I can’t claim ownership of any of these nuggets, but I hope they offer you the same bit of guidance they offer me.

THE BIG PICTURE

–          The essence of story is conflict.
–          The mind doesn’t know the difference between an imagined thing and a real one.
–          Above and beyond setting, characters and plot, great novels alter our way of seeing the world. Amazing novels do not leave us feeling neutral; they rattle, confront and illuminate.
–          Throughout every scene and twist, steer away from the obvious.
–          The time-tested development tool of asking “What if [insert alternate option here]?” while creating, offers a way to escalate stakes, add layers to plot and character, and open new thematic dimensions.
–          We read fiction not to just see ourselves, but also to imagine ourselves as we might be.
–          The moment tension slacks off, so does a reader’s attention. Include tension on every page to keep the reader glued to your story.
–          A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise, and climax [or reversal] at the end.

PREMISE

If you do not start with a strong premise, your story is doomed to be mediocre. A great premise should contain these key ingredients:
Plausibility: It should contain a grain of truth, come from someplace real. It should be surprising yet credible. Readers will be concerned about the outcome of the story if what is happening to the characters could happen to them.
Inherent Conflict: Where there is conflict, there is rich soil in which to plant a story. The world should have strong conflict woven into its very fabric. (e.g. Strong opposing forces—perhaps both in the ‘right’)
Originality: Steer away from the obvious. It is essential to find a fresh angle, an unusual perspective. This often involves tapping into a previously unexplored aspect of a familiar subject.
Gut Emotional Appeal: Create a premise with a strong emotion built in. It should feel personal, and touch emotions that are deep, real, and common to us all.

STAKES

–          High stakes yield high success. Make the stakes in your manuscript as high as they can possibly be. Escalate the stakes. Put more at risk—much more.
–          A combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes is the most powerful engine a truly amazing novel can have.

CONFLICT

–          What makes a novel memorable? Conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough that a great number of readers can relate.
–          Having your protagonist face a moral choice is one of the most powerful conflicts any novel can present.
–          Push your central problem far beyond what any reader might anticipate or imagine.
–          Conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen, and grow. Make it deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.
–          Use mystery. Between what we are supposed to know and what we do know—questions unanswered—there is tension.
–          When conflicting ideas, values, or morals are set against each other, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict.

CHARACTERS

–          Readers identify primarily with one strong, sympathetic character. It is this character’s destiny about which they most care.
–          All great characters are larger than life. They act, speak and think in ways we cannot. They say things we wish we had said and do things we dream about doing. They also express for us our greatest purposes and deepest desires. They are us. That is the reason we identify with them.
–          Great main characters are principled, opinionated, and passionate. They do not sit on the sidelines. They act.
–          The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary. Identify what is extraordinary in otherwise ordinary people.
–          Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…Which of these defines your main character’s motivation, drive, and inner turmoil?
–          Depth is the secret to memorable characters. Fully rounded, 3-D characters have many sides, complex motives, and act in ways which surprise us.
–          Test your characters’ principles and strongly held beliefs to the uttermost. Push them to the extreme.
–          Push your characters to the edge. Be willing to make your protagonist suffer. Kill his/her ally. Take away his/her greatest asset. Undermine whatever s/he holds sacred. Shorten the amount of time in which s/he has to solve the main problem.
–          A character’s stakes will resonate with the reader only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. When characters are strong and appealing (better still, portrayed warmly and with intimate candor) the stakes feel high, and readers’ interest also runs high.
–          Self-sacrifice is the highest form of heroism. It is the ultimate expression of love and, as such, is about the most powerful action a character can perform.
–          The guiding principle of cast construction is contrast. Secondary characters are most useful when they disagree or produce friction with your main character. Or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem.
–          Combine roles in the cast whenever possible. (e.g. A lifelong friend can also be the doctor, an ex-lover can be the antagonist, etc.)

PLOT

–          “Setup” is, by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out.
–          A great story involves great events. In the course of the story, your characters must find themselves in unusual, dramatic and meaningful situations.
–          The central problem generally grows and grows until it seems to have no solution.
–          Ask: How can what is happening matter even more?
–          Ask: How could things get worse for the characters? When would be the worst moment in the narrative for them to get worse?
–          Striving to attain the impossible is a struggle from which we cannot take our eyes.
–          To lend an enlarged perspective—a sense that the universe is paying attention to what is happening—shatter or protagonist with a tragedy, or give him/her an unexpected gift. These things happen in real-life. Little miracles become our personal myths.
–          Consider motivating your main characters in complex ways. Put them in situations that are difficult, but in which the right path is not obvious.
–          The promise of transformation is what gives the journey of self-discovery its deep-rooted attraction.
–          Narrative momentum resides in the main plot; subplots put on the brakes. The scene following a high point is often a good place to introduce a subplot scene.
–          Subplots should only be included if they affect the outcome of the main plotline. If it complicates, bears upon, mirrors, or reverses the main plot, then it adds value. Otherwise, leave it out. It is dead weight.
–          Great plot twists stem from a sudden elevation—or fall—from one level to another.
–          Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot-specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.
–          The secret to a strong ending is allowing your protagonist the continuing possibility for failure.

SETTING

–          Either relegate it to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything rides. But DO NOT ignore it.
–          Create a fictional world that exists convincingly, wholly, and compellingly apart and unto itself. The best novels sweep you away, whisk you into their world, transport you to other times or places, and hold you captive there.
–          Include specific, unique emotional responses to places. This is the secret ingredient in making a setting breathe. Also, show the change in the character’s emotional response to a particular place over the course of the novel.
–          Bring your characters alive in a distinct place and time which is alive itself: period, culture, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood, etc.

So, there you have it. A list of truths I am using to try my damndest to keep Phreak Show from being a mediocre suckfest. There are lots of other pointers swimming in my head along with the ideas. And I am hanging the novel on the framework of 4-part story structure, infused with concepts of The Hero’s Journey. We’ll see how it goes, but early reports indicate that–so far–this 3rd [or 4th?] novel doesn’t suck.

Character Cabinet Cards


The basic outline for Phreak Show is done. The first chapter is complete and in the hands of betas & CPs for feedback. I am letting the characters & storyline bounce around in my subconscious until 11/1. On that illustrious date, I will kick the drafting into overdrive as part of NaNoWriMo.

What to do in the meantime?

I know! Create an ‘antique’ cabinet card for each of my characters:

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This was a fun process. And while it may seem like a waste of time, as it relates to writing, it is further reinforcement in my own mind that these characters are about to live. They are as real as they can be. They each have a story to tell. And Phreak Show is the vessel which is going to allow that to happen.

I do feel bad for Douggie, though. He doesn’t have a cabinet card yet. The source image I have for this character is perfect. It is Douggie. Unfortunately, it is cropped in such a way that it doesn’t lend itself well to the cab card construction. I’m still chewing on what to do about this.

In the meantime, I continue to live with the characters & pin more paper strips to the plotting wall. November is coming quick. Soon, these lovelies will begin to breathe. And presented in this uniform way, they really are beginning to feel like a team–a sideshow troupe ready to hit the road as The Last American Phreak Show.

The Plotting Wall


This was my writing nook earlier this evening: ambient, cozy, uber-organized & highly functional. But that focal wall behind my laptop was looking a bit empty. Too empty, in fact, with me being so close to beginning the first draft of Phreak Show. So I printed out some of my OneNote plotting info and turned that blank wall into this:

Now I have a visual reference for the major elements: call to adventure, refusal of the call, crossing the threshold, plot points, pinch points, mid-story twist, climax, etc . There are also setting notes, conflict opportunities, specific scenes, and random lines thrown into the mix. Over the next two weeks, these strips will move around, and probably triple in number.

I’m a very visual person. This set-up grants me a bird’s-eye-view of the story. When I begin the actual drafting, I will mark through each reference with a highlighter as it becomes part of the story. Maybe it’s silly, but I like seeing that colorful progress. It motivates me to keep going. I used this process for the first time when I wrote Freeborn. As I got into the thick of it, I knew I would use it for every future novel.

One tool I didn’t utilize with Freeborn, but am using with Phreak Show, is character cards. I created one of these for each of my named characters:

While I have all these in a digital file, I wanted to hang them right in front of my face—like an open photo album. Historically, Victorian sideshows had at least 10 attractions; more commonly, they had 12-15. Phreak Show has 11. That’s a lot of folks to keep up with. I’m counting on this set of cards to keep the characters fresh in my mind, make sure I keep their descriptions consistent, and remind me of anyone I leave out for too many consecutive scenes.

Every part of the writing process is fun to me. But this next stage, where I begin filling in the gaps & fleshing out the details, is one of my favorites. With the concrete, tangible scraps of paper in front of me, it really feels like something is being accomplished—like the story will take shape, that it is coming to be.

If you wanna stop by and have a seat on one of the settees, then consider this an open invitation. The coffee’s always hot. And if you’re nice, I might even let you pin something to the plotting wall. I know, I know! I get pretty excited about it, too.

{Sidenote: See that lovely hand cutout? It pivots like a mailbox flag. When it’s up, it means: Leave me alone. I’m writing. Only bother me if I need to back up my files real quick before bolting out of the burning building.}

Well Whattya Know?


Gamzee with Sopor Pie

I was on kid duty this weekend.

We didn’t do anything major, like hit an amusement park, but we had a great time just being us. Planning Halloween costumes & shopping for the random supplies kept us busy. Creating a custom white werewolf & a cosplay-level Gamzee Makara, well, these things take time. We also, somehow, ended up taste-testing all the flavors in the spice rack. Yes, anise tastes like nasty black licorice, mustard seed is pretty tangy, and chewed cloves make your tongue feel like you’ve been licking a battery.

Both the teenage girl & pre-teen boy had friends come over at some point during the weekend. My son and his bud battled their Beyblades for awhile. This reminded me of hanging out with my childhood friend, Eddie, and zipping cars around his racetrack. Other than that resemblance to my childhood, the rest of my kids’ interaction was different than my own experience at both their ages. For the majority of their time together with their friends, my kiddos were glued to the laptop.

They basically used it as their personal on-demand video player & research library. Due to the 5 year age difference, and the whole opposite-gender thing, they obviously have different tastes. But what they had in common was pulling up videos on YouTube, hitting forums related to the topics they were watching, chatting & laughing with their friends about it all, and using that digital touchpoint as a means of interaction.

At first I was thinking, Well, that’s no different than me chatting on Facebook or Twitter. But it is different. When that’s going on [which, is like, a lot…] I am physically alone at the keyboard, interacting with an avatar–a projection of the real person on the other end. I believe that the person tethered to that electronic image is the same as in the picture. But I don’t really know. Maybe I don’t even care. By that I mean, I’m not really engaging with that actual person, but the stream of words that person chooses to send out. And I am okay with that. There is editing. A self-determined set of rules is in place which governs what information we transmit back and forth. I might be getting the whole truth, no truth, or something in-between. The same for you.

But, that person is not sitting beside me. Distance and pixels separate us.

Even as I’m drafting this post: you have no idea what I’m wearing [if anything], where I’m sitting [coffee shop? library? home? in a cubicle?], or if I’m even slightly like the person you think you’re interacting with. I am holding back information–you don’t know my kids’ names. I am releasing pieces and chunks: you know I have a spice rack, that my family enjoys the whole dressing-up-for-Halloween thing, that I had a childhood friend named Eddie. But how much of that is true? What if I don’t even have kids? Or, if I do, why was I on kid duty this weekend? Why was this weekend different than any other? What if Eddie never existed? Or we played with dolls instead of cars?

And you can’t look at my face, hear me snicker, playfully punch me if I get cheeky, catch my contagious yawn. If we were at dinner, or a bar, or in a car, then we could experience these things with one another. But, at opposite ends of the wi-fi, we lack the physical presence my kids enjoyed with their friends. If I have kids. If they have friends.

So what the hell are you getting at, Lucas?

Maybe nothing. Maybe something deep and profound. Maybe this isn’t even Lucas, but one of his [imaginary?] kids hacking into his blog. If so, that young’un did a pretty bang-up job of mimicking his online voice. My online voice. I’d be a pretty proud, impressed papa if that were true. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. You’ll never know. And maybe that’s the point.

For the record, I do have two amazing kids. I was on Daddy-Duty because their mom was in Louisville, KY visiting an old army buddy. We didn’t really taste the mustard seeds, though. We’ve done it before, and know better. Eddie was my best friend when I lived in the tiny tobacco town of Pine Level, NC. We not only played with his glow-in-the-dark racetrack, but also ate Cap’n Crunch straight out of the box, and stole wood from our nemesis’ treehouse to make our own. 😉 Most everything I blog about is 98% true & unembellished. All things written in invisible ink are 100% certified truth.