Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behind the Words

The Story of "Mr. Mean Man"

Every so often, I hope to post short anecdotes about the impetus behind some of the characters, backdrops or ideas expressed in my writing.  Today, it's a spark from my real life which ignited into the character known in the opening chapters of "On The Gathering Storm" simply as Mr. Mean Man.

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I was living on Vancouver Island and had headed out to catch the summer blockbuster in Colwood, at the same theater, in fact where Hannah heads off to see a flick in the opening chapter of the book.  So I was standing in line next to this older, rather twitchy looking man who had a bald crown and a long greasy mullet hanging down past the nape of his neck.  He was wearing torn and paint-spattered jeans and eyeing the teen girls hovering around the concession stand with a kind of leer that is not uncommon among middle-aged men but is still creepy.

For some reason, he decided to strike up a conversation with me and I learned that he had already seen a movie that day and had been in the men's room for the last forty-five minutes until he snuck out and hopped into the waiting spot to see a showing of one of the Spider Man movies.  That's when our paths crossed and I guess I wasn't appalled enough at his confession so he continued talking to me, with a snorting laugh, the kind that reminded me of that crazed, raspy one of Elmo Blatch's, Tommy's cellmate from The Shawshank Redemption.

He kept looking the girls up and down as he asked me where I was from and told me a bit of his story.  He grew up on the island and now had a place he shared with his elderly mother, a large, treed lot out by Thetis Lake, overlooking the water.  He was building a house by himself, from scraps he found and some he bought, and in the meantime, he was living in an RV trailer parked in the tall grass, off the road.

When he learned that I was at the theater alone, the same as he was, he invited me out to his "Place by the Lake," he called it.  I was relieved when the usher opened the doors to the auditorium and let us in.  I used the opportunity to head to the men's room myself, then pretended to get lost in the shuffle of kids and teens and their parents all bustling through the double doors with their popcorn bags and cokes.  After a cool splash of water on my face, I headed back to the auditorium and managed to find a seat away from the man in the paint-spattered jeans, in the last row of the theater.  I could see that he found a chair off to the side, a little further down to the front, where he wouldn't have to stand up to let anyone pass, but could continue to study the girls as they chatted and giggled.

There was something amiss about this strange fellow.  Though I doubt he had anything on his resume as nasty as Mr. Mean Man from my novel did, to this day, I still have a rigid formula whenever I go to a movie theatre.  I head straight for the very last row and I sit with my back to the wall...and a clear path to the exit.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"He didn't get out a the cocka-doodee car!"

So I'm watching "Dexter" the other night, a show I really enjoy. The writing is killer.

Without ruining it, I'll say that there's a scene in this particular episode where Dexter is chasing after someone he has locked in a room. He goes inside and the captive manages to get past him, darts through the door and gets the upper hand by now locking him inside the same room where she's been locked up.

And she's off.

We think Dexter's doomed. How's he going to get out of this predicament?

Boom. No warning. No build up. He blasts through the door with the hard shove of a shoulder.

What? If it was that easy, don't we think for a second that the captive would have summoned the strength to do the same before all this went down. After all, she's fighting for survival and freedom. If anyone would have more incentive to break down a door, it would probably be her.

Like Kathy Bates does in the movie version of "Misery" I call it a cheat.  You may remember this rather fun scene:

Now, I won't hold it against the writers of Dexter. It's a good show and rarely has holes this big. I can suspend for a moment my disbelief and go with it because, after all, it's not a plot breakage, just a lock breakage. Nothing else hinges on this locked door. How's that for a pun?

Now, in literature, I see cheats all the time. A bestseller cheat that comes to mind is Jodi Picoult's book,  "My Sister's Keeper". She deliberately leads us astray by messing with the narrative. She teaches us the language of her story by speaking from the point of view of several characters. However, in the beginning we get a chunk of narrative that is not labeled and it leads us to believe that someone is dead by the end.  La-dee-da, we read a gut-wrenching, tear-inducing story and by the end, we aren't sure which sister will actually meet her maker. I would argue it's not sleight of hand here because the author deliberately broke the rules of her own narrative universe by not indicating who is the narrator for a key section. Again, for those of you who may want to read it, I won't go into great detail here but if you've read this book with scrutiny in your eye like I have, you may have felt the same.

Another big seller and big cheater made it to the big screen with Martin Scorcese at the helm. The director of the movie adaptation used Dennis Lehane's original book as source material and they both cheat in "Shutter Island". Yes, it's a turnabout story: what we think we're seeing turns out to as something different entirely. I would argue, however, that both the movie and the book lead us by deliberately showing items and scenery that aren't really there. By the end, when the narrative leads us back to the explanation of how we were duped, both writer and filmmaker neglect to cover the ground where items  were completely fabricated. You can turn things around like this but you can't fabricate out of thin air.

Now, in discussions with other readers and viewers, I've come across dissension, mostly from the folks who ascert, "Come on, J, it's just a book!" or "It's just a movie! You need to just enjoy it!" I lean towards agreement, but there's a part of me that can't let these things go, especially when crafting my own stories.

When most astute viewers or readers find a "plot hole" and move on, I simply can't drive on by. I need to stop, get my shovel and fill it in. It needs to make sense for me to keep driving down the path the storyteller is trying to build. Without that crucial connectivity of all moving parts, I just can't be wholly invested in a story. Not for long, anyway.

And if this storyteller has neglected to fill in their holes, I may just get up in the theatre like Annie Wilkes and shout, "He didn't get out a the cocka-doodee car!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

The One Lovely Blog Award

I was granted the award by Maria Savva author of Second Chances and a whole pile of other novels. Her Goodreads blog is a well-oiled machine with many frequent visitors.

Thank you, Maria!

The way the award works is that you accept the award, post it on your blog with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link.

Pass it to 15 other blogs you've recently discovered, and contact the bloggers to let them know they've been chosen.

It's a great way to introduce people to new blogs which they may find interesting.

I am able to share 5 and, in no particular order, they are as follows:

Writer Unboxed: A whole whack of talented folks

Brenda Sedore

Stacey Graham

Sean Patrick Reardon

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Interview at Smashwords Reviewed

Author of the anthology Believable Lies and the upcoming comic thriller Rooster, reviewer and blogger Neil Crabtree has interviewed me for his popular website, Smashwords Reviewed.  We talk about getting no sleep, strategies for making ebook sales and how cold it gets in my studio, among a myriad of other topics. It's always a bit disconcerting for me to yak about myself but I do my best and Neil is a kind interviewer. Hopefully, readers will get some enjoyment out of our exchange and learn a bit about my writing and marketing processes.

Please check out the interview here and feel free to share it with folks you know who may be interested.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Write What Challenges You

In his essay, 13 Writing Tips, Chuck Palahniuk says to confront things in your writing:

Number Twelve: Write about the issues that really upset you. Those are the only things worth writing about. Life is too precious to spend it writing tame, conventional stories to which you have no personal attachment.

Well, do I confront things in my writing?

When I set about to write the beginnings of a novel which eventually became my current Smashwords bestseller, "On The Gathering Storm", I decided that I didn't want to address any real issues. I wanted to write something that avoided anything as serious as sexual assault, women's issues or the fundamentals of our contemporary capitalist society. What did I end up with? A book that looks at all of those things while spinning wildly through the fevered events of a young woman's violent abduction, mingled with troubling memories of her past -- all of it splashed with traces of these very same issues.

Is it a topical book? Yes, I think so. And will it challenge readers? To a degree, yes. And is it, in part, because the writing of it was such a challenge for me? It was bloody hard. I pulled hair and threw punches at myself. I stressed. I ranted and raved. Every single day of two thousand or so words in my initial draft, plus every excruciating day of editing and editing again was agony. I had loud conversations with myself: take it out! No! People won't like it! I don't care! It stays! You'll get roasted! It's part of the deal to get roasted! Argh!

I must admit: the writing of this story did challenge me, did force me to look at tough issues, ones that I wasn't necessarily familiar with, ones that I had no firm opinion on in some instances. And I needed to discover how I felt about them to write about them more effectively. This self-discovery was some of the hardest back and forth I've done on any writing project to date.

Was I scared tackling some of these things, looking at them through the eyes of my female protagonist even though I could have garnered serious criticism for the effort? Absolutely. Would I do it again? I say I wouldn't because the act of putting the words down was at times so incredibly difficult. But in my current writing, I'm doing it all over again: tackling two more big issues, gun violence and religion, even though I have a strong aversion to these topics. I wouldn't sit down with a stranger at a dinner party and discuss my feelings on some of these topics, so why do I feel the need to break ground on them in my fiction?

I think, for me, it goes back to the same sentiment expressed by Palahniuk. A book is an infinitely better read because it tackles hard ideas. And if I'm not being challenged, as the writer, I grow bored. And a bored writer is a material component for a disastrous final book.
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