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The Subject of Scenes

Every fiction writer struggles with scenes, occasionally, and each writer has certain types of scenes that are the most troublesome, according to his or her strengths and weaknesses. One writer may have difficulty writing scenes with lots of action. Another may fret over scenes with nothing but dialogue. But sometimes a scene is difficult not because of the writer’s abilities, but because of the scene’s subject matter.

Currently, I’m struggling with one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written. The reason is that it’s a seriously important and emotional subject. It needs to be the absolute best I can make it.

In the first book of the Dynamistress trilogy, Dyna becomes a suicide prevention crisis counselor, as I was, myself, for a time. My treatment of that subject in the first and second books was pretty superficial. But in the third book, I wanted there to be something more. So I have a scene where she encounters a would-be jumper on the Golden Gate Bridge.

#1 suicide destination in the U.S.

Now, Dyna is strong enough to  easily just grab the jumper and hoist him back over. But that’s not addressing the problem. It’s like “treating” an alcoholic by removing all the beer from the fridge. I knew I needed to show what a suicide prevention counselor actually does, but with Dyna’s own particular flair. The danger, of course, is keeping the flair to a minimum and treating the topic with the seriousness it deserves.

I first wrote the scene about a month ago and thought I had it done to the point of being happy with it. But the back of my mind said differently. So, a week ago, I rewrote sections of it, improving the scene greatly. But no, I still wasn’t done. I’ve spent probably two full hours just on that scene this weekend.

I’m still not totally happy with it and no doubt will revisit it at least a few more times before the book is finished.  And it’ll be worth it.

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Memory Mining

Like many writers, I draw from my own life experiences for the things I write. As I write this, I’m currently working on the third book in the Dynamistress series. These books are filled with variations of events that actually happened to me as a kid or young adult.

I’d always planned to do this for the books, but some of the things that came to me were very unexpected, things I hadn’t thought of in an awfully long time. For example, at one point in the story, Dyna’s brother is making an analogy and he mentions a particular item from their (my) youth: a bag of marbles.

When I was a little boy, there was a big bag of marbles my dad had. They were old, and I knew that my older siblings (older by 15 and 16 years) had played with them when they were little. Sometimes I actually played with them in game form with my friends, putting a circle of string on the floor and we’d take turns shooting them out. But mostly, I just liked looking at them.

Not the actual bag, but…

There were all sorts. Some were plain glass of white or black. Others were “cat’s eye” marbles, with beautiful waves of color nestled inside the clear glass. There was one that was an old style, made of clay, rough to the touch. There were even a couple steel ball bearings in there.

When the memory of these marbles popped into my head, I allowed myself some time to savor the memory. But then, as I’m prone to do, I went online and started researching marbles, including how they’re made, how much some of them sell for, and so on. One of the things I learned is that some of the marbles being made today are crazy beautiful.

Now, sometimes I do deep research on things for the sake of making accurate points in my stories. Entire scientific articles are studied just for the sake of a single, almost throwaway, line in a book. But no, there won’t be anything about the marbles in the book aside from their use as an analogy. I was doing the marble research purely out of curiosity and fascination. Because I’m insatiably curious. Also, easily distracted.

I admit that when I first decided to use memories of my personal history for inclusion in the books, it was because it would be an easy source of material. What I’ve found, though, is that it not only allows for a richer storytelling, but also a deeper appreciation of my own life, both past and future.

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Not Age Appropriate… Honest

Years ago, not long after Wish You Were Here was published, an acquaintance told me that her daughter had read it and really enjoyed it. I knew this woman hadn’t read it, herself, so I asked how old her daughter was.

Twelve.

I groaned inside when she told me that. Unless her daughter was pretty mature for her age, this was not an appropriate book for her to be reading. (As it happened, she was.)

Here’s what I think of your age rating system.

Not long ago, another acquaintance purchased the book and said he was going to read it to his kids, who were considerably younger than twelve.

“That’s really not a good idea,” I said, and told him the book was not even remotely appropriate for children.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I can edit on the fly.”

I continued trying to dissuade him from using this as bedtime story material, telling him that the maturity level had everything to do with subject matter and nothing to do with four-letter words, but he assured me he knew what he was doing. “Okay, then,” I said, mentally adding, “but you’ll be sorry!”

I saw him yesterday. “Wow,” he said, “you weren’t kidding! It was fine, up to a point, but then I just had to stop. You cover some really heavy issues.”

Yes. Yes, I do.

Way to traumatize those kids, Vince. Good job!

“It’s not at all what I was expecting! But it’s really good. I’m gonna read it again.”

Lesson to be learned, people… if the author says a book isn’t age appropriate, you’d best believe it.

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When Is a Story Not a Story?

There is a particular short “story” (sometimes hilariously referred to as “a six-word novel”) that is often attributed to Hemingway (though almost certainly not his invention) that consists of only the following words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This trifle of words is often lauded as being a masterpiece of flash fiction (which, to me, is an oxymoron). Now, I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but this bit of fluff is without any inherent meaning.

The only actual meaning contained in those words is that there are baby shoes for sale in new condition. Any meaning beyond that is given to it by the reader. And perhaps because stories are supposed to be about conflict, we assume the worst. A child who died not long after birth. A miscarriage, perhaps. An adoption that fell through. Or whatever. But those are all assumptions by the reader. There’s nothing in the piece that gives us any reason whatsoever to conclude any of those things, or anything else. Perhaps the shoes didn’t fit. Perhaps they were a gift for a friend, but were forgotten at the back of a closet and never given. Or any of a hundred other things.

Seriously, they were the ugliest fuckin’ shoes.

It’s all well and good to allow your reader some involvement with your work. There is no need for you to spell out everything in great detail. Once upon a time, a test reader of mine complained that I never stated what color eyes my protagonist had. “It’s important,” she said. “You can tell a lot about a person from the color of their eyes.”

Velcro? You’re joking, right?

Disregarding her obvious delusion, the fact was that there was no reason for me to state what color his eyes were. It had no effect on the story. I was perfectly fine letting my reader give him whatever color eyes they wished. Similarly, in most circumstances, I find it okay to let the reader imagine what sort of clothing my characters are wearing. Or what they like on their pizza. Or any of a thousand other things.

Leather!? You bought me leather!? I’M VEGAN, BITCH!

But the actual meaning of an event is rarely open to speculation. See, that’s my job, as a writer: to tell a story. I’m not here to write a puzzle that someone is to figure out (at least, not without giving the answer at the end).

Yet, that’s exactly what this piece does. It forces the reader to “write” the story, filling in the conflict themselves. But stories aren’t just about conflict. They’re about characters and how they change (or refuse to) due to the story’s events (or in spite of them). And there is no character, here. And that’s why I put “story” in quotes in the first sentence. Because it isn’t a story. It’s a scenario, nothing more.

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I’m a Novelist (i.e., Researcher)

One thing many people don’t seem to think about… and, indeed, something many new writers don’t seem to think about… is just how much research can go into writing a novel. Research, many seem to believe, is reserved for non-fiction. But novels often require a ridiculous amount of research, too.

My novel, Wish You Were Here, is a sword & sorcery style fantasy. As such, most people wouldn’t think a lot of research had to go into it. And in truth, there wasn’t, compared to my later books. But one area of research that found its way into the book was herbology. All of the herbs mentioned in the book are real, and the uses depicted are, as well. The names I gave them, in many cases, are folk names for the actual herb.

Despite the name, it’s not what you think.

One Nation Under God required me to become a lot more familiar with Constitutional law than I had been. It also allowed me to use research on my own personal interests in topics such as intentional community, alternative education, and more.

But all of that combined is nothing compared to the research for my new series, The Many Deaths of Dynamistress. Just a few of the topics I’ve been diving into: human genetics, synthetic biology, a number of cool inventions from DARPA, acoustic weaponry, zero-point energy, and more.

Like the trauma pod.

My attitude has always been that in fiction – even fantasy, sci-fi, or superhero fiction – the more we pay attention to real science, the better the finished product. And the more we disregard it, obviously, the weaker the finished product.

It doesn’t matter how unbelievable your topic is. If you back it up with solid research, you can make it believable. Never assume that because you’re writing “out there” fiction that you can’t bring it down to earth enough to be swallowed.

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Days of Coffees Past

A few years ago, I became enamored of Turkish coffee.

Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.

I had it at a nice little place here in Sacramento called Kasbah. Technically, I had what they call Cafe Berber, which is Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom and clove. I absolutely loved it and, before too long, started making it at home. Sadly, I’ve never made it, or had it anywhere again, as good as that first time. Including the cup I’m drinking right now, which, frankly, is definitely not my best effort. But then, it’s been nearly a year since I last made it. Probably because it’s a slow process that can’t be rushed, and requires undivided attention.

The third chapter of my forthcoming book includes a scene where the protagonist is introduced to Turkish coffee. It may just be my favorite scene in the entire book. I was thinking of this scene earlier today (which is probably why I felt the need to prepare a cup), especially with regard to the way the story is going now, nearly twenty chapters later. Those early chapters have a pace to them that is fairly relaxed. And that’s as it should be, since those chapters are of times long past, in the context of the book. They’re the necessary history leading up to “today.”

Past a certain point, that relaxed pace disappears. Events take on a more urgent tone. There’s less time for waxing poetic about beverages, for example. And I find I really miss those early chapters. I’m not certain why. If I put on my psychoanalyst hat, I might posit that I’m nostalgic for those chapters in the same way that I’m nostalgic for my own younger years, that I’m having a mid-life… not “crisis,” exactly, but… something.

Nostalgia was better in the old days.

I’m not under any illusion that my younger years were idyllic. Far from it. Nor were they for my heroine. But the times then did seem simpler, less stressful, and more filled with promise and hope. “Today,” both in my life and the heroine’s, is filled with… less pleasant things.

Perhaps what my life needs is to make more Turkish coffee. It won’t change my life much, but it will add a few pockets of peaceful pleasure. And perhaps I also need to put more of that into my current writing. It is, after all, meant to be my heroine’s memoir. The later chapters could use some more deep, sweet earthiness, too.

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