Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Subtext Goes Wrong

While on a flight, I began reading The Righteous by Michael Wallace. It had an interesting concept dealing with a murder investigation by a secretive polygamist sect that happened to one of their own. He wrote the book well, delivered solid characterization, a tight plot, and fluid prose. SPOILER ALERT However, towards the end in one of the climatic scenes when many of the characters are in mortal danger, it is revealed to the reader that one of the main characters was wearing a wire for the FBI, and the agents, right on cue, burst in with their guns drawn to essentially save the day.

END SPOILER ALERT. This reveal of such a critical piece of information in the place it was revealed made the climax instantly loose it's momentum because I felt like I had fallen victim to a deus ex machina. Now, this particular scene was not quite a DEM as the rescuing characters had been properly brought into the story, but because of the late reveal of that critical piece of information, it really felt like it.

Now, what I think Michael Wallace could have done differently to fix this would to have brought that critical piece of information in when one of the characters was in their viewpoint. It would have taken away the knowledge gap between the reader and the character, but it would inserted a new knowledge gap (that the reader would be aware of) between the main character and the antagonist. This would sacrifice the poorly done twist for heightened suspense.

So I think the main takeaway from this short post would be that you need to be careful when using knowledge gaps to give your story a deeper subtext, because one wrong slip (especially right at the climax) can have disastrous effects. Look at what you are keeping from the reader and actively see if there might be a better way to reveal that information.

Do you have any examples of when subtext goes wrong?

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Townhome #Fridayflash

Here is another piece that I put together for #Fridayflash. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

Each step ground that foulness deep into the fibers of my carpet. Each step could have been prevented if not for my anxious desire to drink a glass of water. Each step taunted me when I reached my kitchen and I realized what I had done.
But I must stop blaming myself, for it was not my fault that yet another violation of the townhome association’s bylaws —  Section 6 article 14 regarding each owner’s responsibility to clean up after their pets — lie in wait for my shoe to come along. My neighbor, Amber, had been cited four times throughout the year on this very violation with numerous other complaints brought forth by myself, and I was sure she was once again the culprit.
Taking my jogging shoe off, I proceeded back towards my front door where I could toss it onto my porch, careful not to step in the evenly spaced brown smudges and keep the damaged contained. From my porch I spied it, the source of my miseries on the sidewalk in front of Amber’s door.
Back inside I heard, even from across the extra thick, sound proofed walls I paid so dearly for, a faint barking, probably from that devil of a dog — Smokey as Amber called him. That dog itself was a violation. I would have bet my entire comic book collection that it was above the forty pound limit established by the bylaws. I had brought that up to the board as well at the last meeting, and once more they took no action.
After that final dismissal by those seven tyrants who held sole jurisdiction over the matter, I realized that the next time I would be on my own. I had never considered myself to be the type of man to resort to vigilantism, but then again I had never considered that in this world, the justice system could fail one of its citizens so egregiously. Stored away in the back of my closet, next to my winter hats, I retrieved a small box of dog treats I kept for Dixie, a schnauzer my neighbor Doug watched for his parents from time to time. She was safely under the size limits and whose temporary guardian, I am quite confident, adhered to Section 6 article 14 of the association bylaws.
I put a handful of the treats in a bag and went down to my garage where I kept the rat poison. Using it against those particular rodents that invaded my own home caused me to feel guilt since they kept themselves hidden and did not disturb me; however, the dog next door on loan from Beelzebub himself harbored no such merits.
I crushed the poison into a fine power and put it with the treats next to the door. For the next two hours I scrubbed and cleaned my carpeting with the aid of no fewer than six different cleaners and both of my wet-vacs. The sun was dipped below the horizon and the neighborhood was blanked in the soft yellow glow of the porch lights when I finished. Checking my watch, I saw that it was 7:57pm.
If anything, Smokey was reliable, and at 8:33 plus or minus thirteen minutes at one standard deviation he would want to go out. I put on a dark coat I seldom wore and proceeded outside towards Amber’s door where I noticed there were no lights on inside, meaning she was probably working out in her basement gym as was her custom.
After quickly checking that nobody from the neighborhood was out that may recognize me, I placed a small handful of treats on the corner of Amber’s porch, sprinkling it with enough poison to kill a small horse. As soon as Smokey came through the door and smelled the treats, it would only take one lick for the white powder to enter his body and send him back to hell where he belonged. And Amber, that irresponsible young woman, might be inspired her to re-think her behavior over the last year.
With it being garbage day, I strolled down the block and discretely disposed of any evidence that would point to myself, including the jacket in another resident’s bin. I then made my way to Doug’s unit and knocked on the door.
He let me in and his parent’s schnauzer ran up to me and barked a couple times in excitement; a bark so similar to Smokey’s that the rage it conjured urged me to kick the thing. But I calmed down and we sat down on his couch where we resumed our series of great action movies; tonight The Dark Knight was on the docket. Even though the movie made me feel great pride at exacting my own vengeance, I began to feel the slightest bit of guilt by the time 9pm came around.
Towards the end of the film at approximately 10pm, a knock came at the door. I stood up, reminding myself to act casually with the police, who would inevitably come canvasing the neighborhood for the culprit. I would tell them nothing of the feces or what I had done, and they would in turn never find out it was me.
However it was not the police at the door. It was Amber, and she was crying. My excitement tempered as I saw the human toll of taking the law into my own hands. Doug ushered her in, unaware of what I had perpetrated, sitting her down on the couch next to me.
She took a couple deep breaths between sobs and said, “Smokey and I just got home from our trip up north. I let him out of the car and he went for this pile of treats on my porch. Then the next thing I know, he’s dead.” Amber collapsed into the couch and resumed crying.
On the screen, Batman departed the factory a wanted criminal, but at least he got the right guy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Best #Fridayflash of the Month for December

Even though this December I pretty much went MIA at the end of the month, I was able to read "To Begin With" by Larry Kollar, also known as FARFetched in the twitter world. This particular piece was fantastic and my choice was this month's #Fridayflash of the Month!

I liked how this piece felt so smooth as I read it. The transitions from paragraph to paragraph, I could swear, were coated in Teflon. I also never really knew when the story really hit some of the milestones that make a story a story, but when I went back and tried to look for them, sure enough they were there.

Now, I have no idea how, mechanically, Larry pulled this off other than he found a really engaging voice with an interesting enough concept to pull you from the first sentence to the last and have you wondering if that was actually a 100 word story because it read so quick. Incredible how Larry was able to do that, and I think you should all go check it out before you come back here to see what he has to say about that particular piece. Now, on to my interview with Larry Kollar:

From what I understand, your day job has you function as a technical writer. How has that helped/hurt your creative writing pursuits?

Mostly, it's helped. For the last 25 years, I've had to focus on proper writing techniques, file conversion and layout issues, and other issues that help in writing fiction — but without having to worry about creative burnout when I come home. On the other hand, there are times when I've felt like I was writing fiction at work! I've also learned to include all relevant information in my technical writing, which translates to an antipathy toward loose ends in my fiction.

Now I should point out that it's only been in the last few years that I've taken up fiction writing as something more than an occasional short story. I wrote a few stories and a short novel in college, but never tried to publish anything and let it go once I was on my own. The #FridayFlash project has been one of the things that has rekindled my interest in fiction writing.

As for drawbacks, the closest thing would be this: I instinctively structure my stories, but the structure I use doesn't often conform to the classic three-act style. I'm not sure that's really a problem, though.

You also seem to have a quite large ‘cast of characters’ on your blog. Have you been able to get most of them to read your work/blog as well?

My daughter (Daughter Dearest) and my mom have been the only ones to read my blog without prompting. I've handed a few stories to my wife for her to look at, but she doesn't read the genres I write in so I don't do it often. There have been times when she said, "don't put [something that happened] on your blog" though. :-)

I know one of the big projects you have coming out (and really big as the last word count I saw was about 180,000 words) is “White Pickups.” Can you tell me and the readers a little more about this?

I'm glad to! White Pickups was, in its first incarnation, a flash story of 825 words. At the time I wrote it (Feb 2008), I was writing and posting a serial called FAR Future a peak-oil story depicted as a series of blog posts from 2012 to 2045. I got the idea for the original flash story on the way to work one morning, when I was surrounded by white pickup trucks on the freeway for a few minutes. The flash version includes only two characters, Tina Ball and her daughter Kelly.

Anyway, in May 2009, I finished writing FAR Future and posted the last episode in September 2009. In August, I started wondering what I'd do for an encore, and looked over the White Pickups flash. I asked myself “so what happens next?” and the story began pouring into my head from the Great Beyond. That's not to say I had the whole story in my head right then — far from it — but the story and characters demanded that I start serializing it ASAP. That was about two weeks after the last episode of FAR Future went live.

So…White Pickups is a paranormal, post-apocalyptic story. Here's the blurb:

At summer’s end, mysterious white pickup trucks take to the roads and compel nearly everyone to “drive off.” Some of those who remain gather in a suburban Atlanta subdivision, and struggle to cope with a world whose infrastructure is rapidly crumbling. One of the few who are mentally and emotionally prepared for the end of the world is Cody Sifko, a youth who quickly becomes the inspiration for the others. When a strange homeless woman names him “Father of Nations,” is she seeing his future or her own delusions? As winter and a hate group try to destroy Laurel Hills, can Cody overcome personal tragedy and seize his destiny?

I serialized what was essentially the first draft on my blog, usually staying (at a post per week) at least two months ahead. When I first started, I thought it would run 30 to 40 episodes (at roughly a thousand words per episode, oops) plus a few “Conversations” postings that provide the personal canon for the primary characters. Tina and Kelly are still important characters in the novel, and (along with Tina's ex, Charles) are the only known family unit to have survived the Truckalypse intact, but Cody rapidly became the main character. Then the story began growing, and I'm not sure it's stopped growing just yet. The only thing I had when I started posting was the first 10,000 words or so, a commitment to see it through, and a few lessons I'd learned about serializing a long story while writing and posting FAR Future.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that the entire story wasn't going to fit into a single novel. I figured out where the first novel would end, and tagged everything beyond that point "book 2" while continuing to fill in the gaps in the first book. Then there came a point where I reached my limit of how many loose ends I'd allow at the end of the first book, and started pushing parts of the story into the second book.

The first book,White Pickups, is nearly complete and runs about 95,000 words. I have an editor lined up, and I hope to have it out this spring. My original launch date was September 14, the day the story itself begins, but that obviously didn't happen. I've learned a lot as I've prepared the MSS, and one of the lessons is patience, grasshoppah. Maybe that's an advantage of middle-age; the 25 year old me would have thrown it to the wolves and devil take the hindmost (when I mix metaphors, I use a blender). The second book, Pickups and Pestilence, is about 2/3 complete at this point. I've been thinking hard about whether I'll serialize it as well… and I may, just to give myself an incentive to finish it. If the stars all align, I could have it completed and released by the end of this year.

What style of writer would you consider yourself?

I definitely fall into the "pantser" camp, and that should be obvious from the above, although I prefer to call it "organic." I try to give the characters a lot of leeway — after all, they're the ones who live the story. When things are going really well, it's almost like I'm taking dictation from the voices in my head. They're telling me the story, and I'm just writing it down. It's a cool feeling when it happens. On the other hand, I've done a lot of advance plotting and planning with regard to a YA trilogy that I intend to tackle once I finish Pickups and Pestilence. That's partly because I had a bunch of ideas about it, and didn't want to lose anything important. It's waiting (patiently, so far).

With regards to “To Begin With”, is there anything in particular that inspired this piece?

The opening line was a blatant homage to Dickens, obviously. As for the inspiration, one of my online friends was talking about Christmas-themed ghost stories. I had two ideas, both of which used the same opening line ("The Harley was dead, to begin with").

Wow, that beginning was a brilliant salute to that work. I can't believe I missed it! But let's move away from my literary blindness and go back to you. Are you yourself a motorcycle guy? If so, what kind of bikes do you have?

Yes I am! My primary ride this days is a Suzuki DR-Z400SM, a "supermoto" (fancy term for a dirt bike adapted for primarily on-road use). I also have a Yamaha Virago 1100, which I soon hope to pass to Daughter Dearest. There are pictures of the bikes on my blog: Suzuki and Virago. [You might also remember the Purple Indian story from June that I wrote.]

Have you ever hit an animal on a motorcycle? Is that a more common occurrence then I’m aware of?

I nailed a squirrel one morning on the way to work. He ran out in front of me at the wrong time, then bounced off the bottom of my boot just to gross me out (no, the bike didn't surge at it). Then there was the time that two dogs ran out in front of me and froze; somehow I managed to steer between them. That falls into the category of what I call "the Ex-Lax moment." I don't know how common it is, but I've heard about people who put deer whistles on their bikes to (they hope) forestall impacts with larger critters.

Do you of anybody who believes their restored classic bike is possessed by a spirit?

No, not seriously anyway. There are always gremlins lurking about in the innards of older bikes though — especially in the electrical systems.

Were there any particularly difficult challengers in writing this piece?

None beyond the usual: how I was going to end it. But as happens often with my organic writing style, the ending came to me as I wrote. The repetitive parts ("The Harley was dead" "The Harley is alive!" "The Harley is undead") just flowed naturally into the story.

Are there any other ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught? Something that wouldn't be as obvious as the opening line?

No. The opening line to "A Christmas Carol" is well-known enough that it wouldn't qualify. Had I more time, I might have tried to put something more subtle in there as well.

What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?

Personally, it's a fun challenge to include elements that are required in longer stories but not considered necessary for flash: plot, character development, conflict and resolution. Other than that, doing one every week can be a challenge given the other stuff going on in my life. :-) There are brief times when I have two or three "extra" flash pieces and all I have to do is pick which one goes up, but most of the time the story that goes up on Friday was written on Tuesday. If not Thursday evening.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?

As with longer short stories, the ability to have them ready to share in a few hours. Novels are a long-haul endeavor for me, and they can often be more work than fun.FAR Future was a two-year project, and the White Pickups duology looks like it will take even longer. Even a novella like Xenocide or Chasing a Rainbow (something I completed just this week) can take a long time to complete. Thanks to #FridayFlash, I have an incentive to start and finish a story quickly and share it with the rest of the world.

What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?

I think a lot of writers, myself included, would like to be able to do it for a living. For me, that's still a fantasy (so far). I'll settle for knowing that my stories have brightened someone's life, somewhere, somehow.

Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

About writing? Sooner or later, there comes a time when one needs to stop reading the advice sites and just start writing. Better yet, write first and look at the advice sites later. You need to find your own voice, your own style, before you start worrying about what other people think.

I want to extend my thanks out again to Larry, and one more round of applause.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We're returning to our normally scheduled programming

Sorry about the holiday lull, but I should be back to my normal routine in the next couple days. Look for some awesome stuff this year!

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