Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First Kill

Last week I mentioned a scene I had written using one of my buddies as the main character. Here is said scene. It's not meant to be a short story. It's simply a writing exercise that took on a bit of a life of its own. Read on if you date. But not if you're lupophobic.


First Kill

Phil sat back in his chair and watched the computer monitor wink off, listening to its static hiss as it shutdown for the weekend. Only when his computer’s fan had died out as well did he realize how quiet the office was. He glanced at his watch. 7 pm on a Friday night made for a quiet office at the corporate headquarters for Sav-U-Mor Markets. He looked back to his monitor and saw his distorted reflection in its curved surface. Another week done.
It had been a productive day. A press release sent out for Romminger Vineyards’ Winter Festival and Open House, a couple of articles on local grown organic produce posted to the website, and some major rewrites of the company’s monthly newsletter. He grimaced. If only he could get the department heads to enroll in Grammar 101.
“Late night, eh, Phil?”
Phil swiveled in his chair to see his boss, Ted, walk up to the front door of their small office space. He was an older man, good-natured and professional. The two of them had worked together for a couple of years now, and Ted had assumed something of a mentorship role with Phil, taking him under his wing and helping him negotiate some of the corporate hurtles that inevitably came with employment with a family-run supermarket chain.
Phil nodded. “Yep. Got the Romminger release out. Should be a hit.”
Ted lifted his winter coat from the coat rack and pulled it on. “Good. Any plans for the weekend?”
Phil shook his head. “Nope. My wife’s out of town. Girls’ retreat. They’re staying up in a cabin at Tahoe. You know, no phone, no boys allowed.”
Ted laughed. “They’re brave. I wouldn’t spend a night up there.”
Phil frowned in confusion. “Why’s that? It’s Tahoe.”
Ted pulled some gloves from his coat pocket and began to put them on. “The animals. You saw the Bee this morning, didn’t you? They say the drought is drawing animals down from the Sierras in search of water. Lots of attacks, especially in the suburbs.”
“How many is ‘lots’?”
Ted shrugged. “Several, I guess. Fish and Game think they’re mountain lions, but they can’t be sure. There have been several deaths. Gruesome.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Cannibal's Art

My Literary Boot Camp group recently held a reboot camp, in which each of us was asked to prepare an essay on the craft of writing. Here was mine...


“Writing novels is a cannibal's art, in which one often mixes small portions of one's friends and one's enemies together, seasons them with imagination, and allows the whole to stew together into a savory concoction."
-          Diana Gabaldon, Voyager

Every character you’ll ever write inevitably contains bits of you and bits of people you know or know of. Writers are often asked where they got the inspiration for their main characters. The answers are usually along the lines of, ‘my dad,’ ‘my neighbor,’ ‘my grandma,’ ‘my dog,’ ‘Hitler.’ In creating a character, you are Dr. Frankenstein. You sequester yourself in your clandestine lab, don your lab coat, lay out your scalpels and saws, and send out your lackey. This lackey is your muse, and you won’t necessarily know body parts he’ll return with, or that he’ll harvest from, as Gabaldon put it, your friends and enemies.
Your novel will be one big pot of mystery, cannibal gumbo, because you don’t always know what ingredients you’re using (your lackey might bring back an Abbie Normal brain, for instance). So, it’s good to shed some light on your characters, to peel back that white sheet and take a look at the character you’re lifting up to the lightning storm to see if you like the monster you’re about to create. Will it stumble about? Will it rampage across your novel and wreak havoc? Will it kill everyone you hold dear? Will it even come to life?
To answer these questions, it helps to understand where your characters come from—an amalgam of people in your life—so you can better control your end result. You can’t guarantee the flavor of your cannibal stew if you don’t know its ingredients.
In creating your heroine, Brunhilda the Dragon Slayer, did you find that you relied heavily of your memories of your sweet grandmother? If so, then the next time Brunhilda is staring down the maw of the dragon that slayed her parents and you find yourself with writer’s block, don’t ask yourself, “What happens next?” Ask yourself, “What would Brunhilda do?” Or, “What would Grandma do?”
This lesson was grilled into me while writing my first novel. I faced a scene in which the antagonist and his soldiers were chasing down the band of heroes and was confronted with a rocky ridge behind which the fleeing heroes had disappeared. I found myself stumped as to what should happen next. It struck me after 15 minutes of fruitless brainstorming that I was asking the wrong question. I needed to see that rocky ridge through the eyes of my antagonist. He was a soldier based, in part, on my grandfather (only the soldier parts, mind you), and I knew in an instant what my Grandpa would do (what should happen next). He had his men silently dismount and search the ridge, knowing full well that the heroes were likely to lay an ambush for him. The action proceeded from there.
Understanding that characters are borrowed from those around us helps with another problem. Your grandma may have actively played the role of grandma when it came to grandmothering you. That’s how she fit into your story. But in her story, the only role she ever played was that of the main character. Stephen King talks about this in his book, On Writing. No character should think of himself as ‘the sidekick’ or ‘the comedic relief’ or ‘the stupid henchman.’ Each character should think of himself as the main character in your novel (even if that isn’t how you cast him). You’ll find that as you keep this in mind, your characters will be a lot less like the clumsy monster of the Frankenstein movies, and much more like the real boy Pinocchio became.
Recently, I was ruminating on a story that was to take place in my home town. One of the central scenes was of the protagonist’s first encounter with a werewolf. To write myself into the scene and see if I liked the image of a werewolf metamorphosing on a local downtown street, I decided not to give too much thought to who the main character might be. The focus was on the werewolf, after all. So I cast one of my best friends in the role.
The results were magical (if not in my writing, then in my experience). The whole scene leaped out at me. I’ve known this friend since junior high. I didn’t have to create any back story for him. I didn’t have to figure out what he wore, or what he likes to eat for breakfast. I already knew all those answers. I know him so well, I knew exactly how he would respond to a werewolf assaulting him on his way to Ludy’s Barbecue.
In that moment (well, over the course of a lunch break), I understood how much easier writing is when you truly know your characters, when you, as Dr. Frankenstein or as that cannibal cook, know exactly what you’ve concocted. The scene wrote itself because I didn’t have to make up the character as I went.
We should each know our primary and secondary characters so well. It makes writing so much easier. To demonstrate this, I offer up this writing challenge: choose a story intro or scene that you’ve been struggling with and plug in one of your best friends or family members into the role of the main character. See what happens to your writing when you know your character through and through. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

To Outline or Not to Outline

When I began my first novel, I was reading Robert Jordan's uber-epic Wheel of Time series. This did  the tremendous misfortune of letting me believe that I could let my muse prattle on unrestrained. The book went way long, and I'm loathe to cut it down to size. I'm proud of it, but current publishing trends don't let first-time authors write such epics (226k words).

I had just read Stephen King's book On Writing when I began my second novel, and though I highly recommend the book, it did me this disservice of thinking that I could be a straight-up discovery writer. That's not King's fault. It's mine. He even warns would-be writers to find their own ways. I failed to do so, and I failed to take into account the expectations of both my genre and, again, the publishing world. To bring my novel down to a more palatable 144K, I had to strip out nearly 40k words. The Valkyrie (my working title) is stronger for it, but it was a painful process.

It looks like I straddle the fence when it comes to defining myself as either an outliner or a discovery writer. I'm a bit of both. For my next novel, I'll be trying out the Snowflake method. It sounds very intriguing. Thanks to my buddy Rusty for forwarding the link.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Epsilon Seven - an Ode

I've read more than my share of Dan Brown, James Rollins, and Steve Berry novels. They like to mix historical references, paranormal events, and religious exposes (of dubious veracity) into their action/adventure/military/academic novels. It's all in good fun.

Here is my short story, Epsilon Seven. It is part homage and part spoof of these writers. And it has no commercial value.


EPSILON SEVEN - by Justin Lindsay

Washington D.C.
Epsilon Seven HQ
May 5th
2:43 pm
COMMANDER CHARLES MAGNUS’S eyes watered from having stared too long at the symbol spread out on the table before him. The symbol was nothing more than a half circle drawn atop a horizontal line, a simple charcoal rubbing on thin vellum. Simple, but costly. Acquiring the rubbing had cost him two of his best field operatives.
            As head of the Epsilon Seven task force, he commanded a team of twelve soldiers gone professional, men and women who had been hand-picked from the world’s various Special Forces units for their keen intellect and non-linear thinking. Each had been fast-tracked through a variety of professional licensing and certifications, resulting in soldier-lawyers, soldier-accountants, soldier-psychotherapists, and soldier-masseuses, to name but a few of the professions. The result: a team of experts prepared to step into any professional setting as spies, legitimate help, or assassins.
No, no longer twelve strong. Ten now. Oh, what he would do to have Johnny and Beth with him right now. But they were gone. Gone as so many of his companions…
            “Commander Magnus?”
            Charles looked up to see his team arrayed around the table, looking to him for guidance in this crisis. Only three of them could be here on such short notice. He steeled himself, knowing that he had to hold it together. If only he could figure this damned symbol out. Looking up to Laura, who had spoken, he nodded.
            “What do we know about this guy?” she asked.
            Charles looked back down at the symbol. “Not much, beyond the fact that he’s the best in his field, and that he’s reputed to be a real pain in the –”
            Just then the intercom beeped and the voice of the receptionist said, “Sir, your visitor is here.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What is a Climax?

I ripped this one straight from Jim Butcher's blog about writing. If you haven't read Butcher and you like urban fantasy (or even if you don't know the genre), I highly recommend him.



A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.

There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!

For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:

When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?

And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:


See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!

Well. Okay. Maybe it's not THAT easy. But it is SIMPLE to write a good story climax when you bear in mind that ultimately, the story climax is, on its most basic level, the answer to a question. Will the Rebels overthrow the Empire? Will the hero win the heart of the girl he loves? THAT is where you begin. It is therefore kind of important that, before you begin writing said story climax, that you know the answer to that question.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Cannibalism and Writing

I'm the only male that I know of who is reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. These books are enormous tomes, though I've listened to all of them as audio books. Gabaldon is an amazingly gifted writer, and she breathes life into her world like few others I've read. Of course, that's easier to do when your novels are so epically scaled...

The characters are layered and complicated, and the storyline is compelling. I wish there weren't as much of the romance. Not the love story, mind you. But the, uh, adult content.

And then there's Davina Porter, the reader. She is truly a joy to listen to. Her accents and acting are stunning. My only complaint is that she doesn't do American accents that well. I'll forgive her that, in light of her Scottish burr.

One quote I enjoyed from Voyager (paraphrased): "Writing novels is a cannibal's art, in which one often mixes small portions of one's friends and one's enemies together, seasons them with imagination, and allows the whole to stew together into a savory concoction."

Too true.

I've recently discovered that she'll be attending the 2011 Historical Novel Society. Giddy up!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Full Night Ahead

I wrote this short story for a writing group, with the limit that it couldn't be over 3,000 words. Enjoy.


            Sarah awoke with a start. She took a deep breath and looked around the darkened bedroom to reorient herself. She looked to the book shelves, the bathroom, the open window, and heard the drone of the house fan. She let the breath out and rubbed at her eyes.
            Ben stirred beside her. “You okay?” His voice was heavy with sleep as he turned to face her.
            She nodded and let her hands fall into her lap as her heartbeat slowed.
            “Who did you kill this time?” Ben asked as he began to rub her lower back.
            Sarah groaned in relief. She leaned forward to give him better access. “Two home invaders. I killed one with a bat and a knife. The other one with just the knife. Then I shot them both in the head.”
            Ben chuckled. “Was I useless in this dream, too?”
            “You weren’t there.”
            “I’m glad your subconscious thinks so well of me.” He yawned. “Did you save any kids?”
            “There were two kids this time.”
            Ben yawned and moved his hand to rub her belly. “Well, I’m sure little tadpole and its future sibling are grateful.”
            “It wasn’t our house. I don’t know whose house it was.”
            “It’s just the hormones.” He patted her pillow in invitation. “Come back to bed.”
            “It was vivid, Ben. I can’t just go back to sleep.” She placed both hands on her belly. This was the second killing dream this week. Vivid dreams weren’t infrequent for pregnant women, but this made for ten killings in less than a month. Maybe it’s different for a woman who’s supposed to be infertile.
            Ben drew her down to her pillow. Reluctantly, she let herself be eased into his arms. He kissed the crown of her head. “It’s just the hormones, Babe.”
            She nestled against his chest. “But I’m in my second trimester. My hormones should be settling down.”
            Ben kissed her again. “Will you call the doctor tomorrow?”
            “We have our 20 week ultrasound in two days. I’ll ask about it then.” She felt a flutter in her womb. The baby had woken up. Only at night. Only after the dreams. Sarah knew she wouldn’t sleep with the baby awake. Maybe that was for the best. I don’t want to dream anymore.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Starborne - My Entry into the Literary Boot Camp

You're in for a treat: my first writing sample online. It's not my best, but it's what got me past Orson Scott Card's screening and into his 2008 Literary Boot Camp. The assignment was to offer up the first page of a short story you have written. I wrote this little bit exclusively for this assignment, and it never progressed beyond the first page. It's my first stab at science fiction, and though I'd love to flesh it out into a full novel, I don't see that happening any time soon.



            He held his mother’s hand, her grip strong and warm. He shifted his weight as the crowd pressed in about them. Glass and shrapnel crunched beneath the soles of his shoes.  Looking up to his mother, he tugged on her hand. She smiled at him, her look one of anticipation and excitement. She plucked him up and settled him onto her hip. He would soon be too old to be held like this. He was growing, changing. Everything was changing.
            He looked over his mother’s shoulder, past her raven hair, and over the heads of the people behind them. A crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands had gathered in the town square. Behind the masses stood the broken remains of glass buildings, tenements, and shops. Windows had been blasted out, their sills long since empty. Every structure bore blackened scars from the war.
            Some of the people stood atop firebombed autos, crushed gliders, the remains of the monorail, and the insect-like shell of a fallen hover transport. He had no memory of the war. He had only been three when it ended. That was four long years ago.
            “Look!” his mother said.
            He turned to see her pointing to the skies overhead, and he looked up too.
            The man and woman had finally reached the top.
            They stood atop a metallic platform suspended by a three-hundred-foot crane. They had spent the last five minutes climbing up, and now they stood ready. Even at this distance, he could see that they were naked. His face flushed with embarrassment. They held one another’s hand as they stared at what lay beneath them. Their pale skin glowed golden from below.
            “Who are they?” he asked his mother.
            She looked away from the two above them and down to her son. “The Chosen,” she said. “They were chosen for this.”
            “Are they going to jump?”
            “They are.”
            “Are they going to get hurt?”
            “I don’t think so. I heard some techniks talking earlier, and they didn’t think so either. And they helped make it.” She nodded to the expanse before them.
            “Why are they going to jump?”
            “They are the Chosen. They’ll set the pattern. For us.” She glanced around her to the others. “For all of us. When they jump, they’ll activate the Sea.”
            “Activate it?”
            “Yes, Jacob. Watch.” She pointed to the pair suspended above them. The buzz of the crowd died down as the two stepped to the edge of the platform. The man, looking fit and in his prime, leaned in to the young woman and kissed her. She kissed him back, her hand stroking his cheek. Then they parted and held hands once again. They dangled their toes over the edge of the platform.
            They stepped off the edge as one.
            They descended hand in hand through the black sky, their bodies aglow. Jacob watched as they plummeted toward the Sea. And then, with only the smallest of ripples, they plunged beneath its surface, a golden expanse that filled the once empty valley.
            Within moments the Sea began to toss and heave.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Know Your Characters

To better understand the importance of knowing your characters through and through (the old saying, you should know what they had for breakfast and what's in their closet), try writing a very short story, of any genre, in which your main character is a very close friend or relative. Since you'll be working with a character that is fully fleshed-out and real in your mind, you'll find that writing the story is that much easier. And you'll come to understand this maxim more readily: know your characters.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Writer's Block

I've wondered if the term 'writer's block' is more harmful than useful. So many different things can cause it, that I don't know how helpful it is even to have a term for it. Oftentimes, it's a lack of imagination. Orson Scott Card says that it usually comes when we're being dishonest in our story, or to our story. I like that. I've also found that my biggest hangups happen when I'm asking the question, what should I do next. Wrong question. The question should almost always be, what should this character do next? Let the characters decide.

Writer's block can be as much about not knowing how to proceed as anything else. It's a craft, a skill, and often we are not sure how to do a thing, or we're fumbling with trying a new technique. If piano players are allowed to fumble over a new piece, and painters are able to ruin canvases and start over, why can't writers have their creative juices dry up when confronted with a tricky part of writing?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Restraining Your Muse

Artistic inspiration must be tempered with reasoned judgment. Just because your muse came up with a great idea doesn't mean your publisher or agent will like it. Your muse rarely thinks about the sellability of your work; it's much more concerned with indulging itself with a great new twist in your tale, some new tangent. Often these developments bear fruit. But often they don't. Thus, the metal ingots of raw ore your muse digs out of your creative mine must be tempered in the furnace of your reason, and hammered out on the anvil of your judgment.

Some ingots will prove to be worthy additions, needing only a few puffs of the bellows or a few strokes of the hammer. Some ingots will need to be cast out. Can this be done? Should it be done? Should one dare put shackles on one's muse? Absolutely. You do it all the time. How many times in the course of a conversation do you think of a funny comment to make (your comedic muse whispering in your ear), but you know darn well that you better not say it, not in this company, not at this time. You've just screened your muse and shut it down, though you may laugh inwardly. How about Lady Wisdom? You sometimes gag her, don't you? You can be in that same conversation and suddenly get keen insight into the vanity or pride of your companion, but you wouldn't tell him that, would you? Your muse needs a handler.

True, sometimes you need to give your muse free rein, knowing all the while that you'll have to ply your delete button to his work later when your muse isn't looking. Muses can be petulant creatures, and sometimes will refuse to perform at all unless given center stage. But at other times they can be reasonable, if you talk to them nicely and don't wound their pride when you strike down one of their ideas. Inspiration, when tempered with judgment, gets good results.