Killing Characters and Playing God

God

In writing the two novellas I’ve finished rough drafts for, I noticed something interesting: I barely wanted any characters to survive. I’ve had to show restraint because I want to kill off nearly every character I create. A couple of them were untouchable, but I would still briefly consider offing them anyway. I think some of it may be a sort of rebellion against all the years of movies I’ve watched with “Hollywood Endings”, where the good guy saves the day and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

And if I decide I don’t want to kill them, I want to make their life as unbearable as possible. But that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? How boring would it be to read a story with a protagonist who doesn’t encounter any struggles or challenges? But I don’t just want them to struggle – I want them to suffer.

cartoonvillain
MWAHAHAHAHA!!!

Physical, mental, it doesn’t matter. They must go through hell. There is the seed of an idea for a story in my head that would turn this whole concept on its head, but that’s the exception. What I’m wondering, though, is where is the line in the sand? How far is just too damn far, where you kill someone off and the audience just gives up? If you put a character through too much and the payoff is not great enough, will it turn readers off? At this point, I’m sure I don’t know. But someday I may very well find out.

Just Keep Writing – Something For The Other Writing Noobs

RothfussPatrick

There was a time, about 6 or 8 months ago, when I had finished the rough draft of my first (well, technically second, but who’s counting?) novella, and I didn’t know what to do next.  I had revised it a few times right off the bat, but I knew I couldn’t just keep reading it over and over without a break. What I wanted to do was kick up my feet and smoke a big, fat cigar (figuratively speaking), and revel in my accomplishment.

But deep down I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. A little voice in my head whispered, Write another one. Over time, the voice grew from a whisper  to a yell. What the hell are you doing?!? You know how you are, if you stop now, you’ll never start back up! And that voice was right. So I started another. And finished it. Then I hesitated again, unsure if the editing process alone would make me want to keep writing. What I realized is the only thing that would keep me writing was to keep writing. So I started on my first novel.

Now that I’ve been writing nonstop (not counting one liver-punishing vacation to Las Vegas) for just over a year, I feel like I’m starting to get it. With some rare exceptions, you really don’t ever stop writing. One story leads to the next. Another brick in the wall, so to speak. But I still have my doubts, and there’s this other voice in my head that says things like, You’ve written again, you’ve proven to yourself you can do it. You don’t REALLY have to keep going if you don’t want to. But I’m doing my best to tell that voice to sit on it (Happy Days reference!), and just ignore it.

In the short time since I started this blog I’ve found  a lot of very helpful and inspiring bloggers out there who are in a very similar situation to my own. It really is nice to know I’m not alone in this. Then, today I found a little something that helped as well. To keep it criminally short, it was a project that involved asking some famous authors to put some advice to writers on their hand. One of my favorites is from Patrick Rothfuss (the pic at the top of the post), but they are all really nice bits of inspiration. I highly recommend anyone curious check it out.

Now, I realize I’m one of the last people who should be giving out advice to anyone, but once I realized there were other writers out there as green as me, I figured there was a chance someone might be looking for something to keep them going. This is that.

Just keep writing.

P.S. – Yes, I realize this post is parenthesis happy.

Improvisation – Writing Off The Cuff

improv

Quick wit is a good thing to have. The ability to think on your feet can come in very handy, impress people, and can get you out of some sticky situations. What I’m focusing on, though, is improv as it pertains to writing.

When I’m thinking of a new story, I try to plot it out in my head as much as I possibly can. Which, oddly enough, is usually not very much at all. I have a starting point, and a couple of ideas for the middle, and an ending. The majority of it is wide open, and I just start writing. I don’t know if this is the recommended method, or how most writers do it, but it seems to be working for me. Some really great ideas have sprung to me as I was typing them. Ideas I had never even considered just come to me out of nowhere. During the editing and revision process some of the ideas turn out to be utter crap, but a lot of them end up being pretty good.

I’m curious about other writer’s methods when writing something new – do you plot out everything in your head, or just get an idea and write off the cuff? Do you write an outline? I’ve tried that, and it came in handy in one or two instances, but I’m still not sure that’s the method for me. Do you have nothing more than a title or an opening line, and go from there?

H is for Horror (& Pizza)

carrie

I love pizza. I can’t say unequivocally it’s my absolute favorite food, but it’s definitely up there. But the thing is, for every beautifully made, artisanal pie utilizing only the finest ingredients, there is a greasy pizza with too much cheese, or the sauce tastes a little funny, or in the case of a local pizzeria, it has canned mushrooms on it.

And I like both. Not the same, of course; all things being equal, I’d eat the better quality pizza all the time, but if it’s offered to me I will eat the greasy, second-rate pie because, after all…it’s still pizza. There’s something comforting about it.

The horror genre is like pizza for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the only thing I like. But it truly is my first love. I started reading The Dead Zone in 5th grade, and it never let up from there. I had an appetite for everything horror. I started reading all of Stephen King’s books, then Clive Barker. When I was a teenager, when there were still mom and pop video stores, one of my parents (awesome enablers that they were) would run me up to the store every weekend, and the owners got to know me and would let me know any new gory, blood-soaked titles that had come in since my last trip. Slaughter High, Blood Diner, Pieces…I dug them all. I even scored a poster for Return of the Living Dead after the store took their promo down.

I also know the difference between good and bad horror. And maybe it’s because I’m older now, but there seems to be a lot more of the bad then the good. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Because as much as I love the good ones, I’ll still watch the bad ones. Literally any new horror movie that comes out, when I see the commercial or the trailer, I want to see it. I can’t remember the last time I went to see a horror movie in a theater, but if I’m flipping channels and I see one on, I watch at least 10 or 15 minutes of it. At some point, I watch the whole thing. Like pizza, there’s some degree of comfort in it.

I realize horror is not everyone’s pizza. For my wife, it’s chick flicks; my father-in-law, action. But it’s kind of a neat thought that people can find comfort in something, and it doesn’t have to be the absolute best. Hopefully, someday one of my books will be somebody’s pizza. Even if it’s the greasy pizza with canned mushrooms.

pizza

G is for a Gibson ES-125 – My Pride and Joy

Image

This is my guitar. There are many like it, but this one is mine. OK, OK, enough with the Full Metal Jacket schtick.

I have heavy musical influences on both sides of my family. On my dad’s side, I got an intense love and appreciation for all kinds of music, namely the blues and rock n’ roll. From my mom’s side, I got the musicianship gene. My mom played the piano, my great aunt played the mandolin, and my grandma and both my great uncles played the guitar. The guitar in that picture was my grandma’s.

The story changes a little depending on who’s telling it, but the way I know it, she bought it in 1961. It was manufactured possibly as early as the late ’40’s, but it’s hard to pinpoint because theses particular guitars have no serial numbers. My grandma was an aspiring country and western singer, and this was her primary guitar.

She gave it to me in the mid-nineties. She said she wasn’t playing it anymore, and didn’t want to make me wait until she died for me to start enjoying it. It’s been in my possession ever since.

It’s worth a little bit, though not much by guitar collector standards. But to me it’s priceless. It’s sitting three feet from me as I type this, and just looking over at it makes me happy. And it feels even better to play it.

As I got to my teens and beyond, the music I liked tended to be loud, fast, and heavy (or some combination thereof), so it’s never been my primary guitar. It’s got a warm, sweet sound that lends itself more to jazz and blues than punk and metal. But now that I live in Tornado Alley, if there is ever a legitimate threat of a twister coming my way I have two priorities: Make sure my wife and dog are safe, and if at all possible, grab that guitar.

F is for Freaks Letting Their Freak Flags Fly

freak

I think part of the reason I put off getting back into writing was because I was scared. I worried what people would think. Not so much whether or not it was any good, but the subject matter and the language. I gravitate toward the dark side, and my stories tend to show that in a big way. I pictured friends and family reading my work and thinking, ‘But he seemed so nice!’

Two things happened that helped me get over it and stop worrying. The first was something I read on author Chuck Palahniuk‘s awesome website, where he used to have a terrific section for writers (it has since moved here). I’m paraphrasing slightly, but it basically said: Don’t underestimate your readers. They’ve seen it all before, and they can handle whatever you can dish out, so don’t hold anything back.

That was incredibly reassuring, because I actually was considering toning down certain aspects of my novella. That got me  to reconsider.

The second thing that happened was that a friend of mine passed away. Michael Louis Calvillo (or as I knew him, just Mike) was an author – not an aspiring writer like me, but an actual published author. He was incredibly proficient, and anyone who enjoys horror fiction should do themselves a favor and check out his work. I had already started writing again before he passed, and I had read some of his work. It was crazy. I mean that in the best possible way. In terms of imagination and creativity, it was light years ahead of what I was (and still am) doing. Off the charts.

When he died, I went on facebook to write a short post about him, and one of the things I wrote was, “he was never afraid to let his freak flag fly.” After I posted it, I thought about that. He was the nicest guy you could ever meet, and he wrote some of the weirdest, goriest, bat-shit crazy stuff I’ve ever read. Why? Because that’s just who he was.

And that’s when I decided it was time to write for me, no one else. I took all my insecurities, threw them in a pile, poured gas on them and lit them on fire. So whether a publisher gives me a deal or I have to go the self publishing route, if you read my work you can count on one thing: It’s going to be at least a little bit weird. Just like me.

freakmeme

Editing – Boy, Does It Ever Stink

typer

Even though I’ve been writing for a long time now, up until the last year or so it’s been on again, off again.  So in no way do I consider myself experienced. I wrote my first novella in 2000. I finished the rough draft for my second one 06/15/12. I’m still not done editing and revising it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read over it and tweaked it since June; I’d guess at least 10 or 12. Go ahead, more experienced writers, rev up your laugh machines for what I’m about to say: I totally underestimated how difficult the editing process is.

The process really feels never ending. Every time I begin to look it over, I find something else that needs fixing. I don’t think the time will ever come when I will look at it and not find something that feels wrong, or second guess the way something is worded or the way the story unfolds. I spent my breaks at work today editing it, and I decided after I finish this pass through it, I AM DONE. I can’t obsess over it forever. It’s about as good as it’s going to get. It’s time to let this baby bird leave the nest and fly on into the big, bad, scary world of submissions.

Besides, I’ve got my third novella waiting to be edited and revised, and who knows how long that one’s going to take. And by the time I finish with that one, I may be finished with the rough draft of my novel. And I think the editing is a pain now. That’s going to feel like a freakin’ root canal. Does everyone find editing and revising this difficult? Does it ever get easier?

Dreams – Sleep Paralysis and The Old Hag

thenightmare
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli – 1781

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. I can still remember a couple of my dreams from early childhood, and several from different points in my life. I’ve always wondered what placed certain people and places into your dreams, and I find it extraordinary how much about dreams is still unexplained.

I’ve had dreams that were:

Weird (an early childhood dream where a king had a giant throne in our living room, and when he scraped his arm he bled yellow)

Violent (shooting someone I went to high school with that I barely knew and hadn’t thought about in years)

Supernatural (the night my mom passed away she comforted me in a dream)

Funny (Hi, John Goodman! Say, why do you live in a loft in this public restroom?)

I don’t know if I’ve ever had a true, honest to goodness nightmare. I’ve had some scary dreams, but nothing that had me crying out or waking up in a cold sweat. So when I got the idea to incorporate some aspect of dreams/nightmares into my work in progress, I started doing research and became fascinated with one particular aspect of dreams/nightmares – sleep paralysis.

This is some freaky stuff.  With sleep paralysis, people who are either beginning to fall asleep or starting the waking process have the inability to move. So they feel awake, but can’t move and often have trouble breathing. That’s kind of freaky on its own. Oh, and did I mention that the paralysis is accompanied by terrifying visions?!? So you’re basically having the worst acid trip of your life, plus you can’t move and can hardly breathe. One of the recurring visions people report seeing is a witch (called ‘the old hag’) or a demon sitting on their chest, or feeling someone or something on their back if they sleep on their stomach.

So, to summarize, you feel awake but you can’t move, and you’re having trouble breathing. You either see horrific things around you or have an overwhelming sense of unbearable dread, and can’t do a thing about it. I’ve read some recollections of people who have sleep paralysis, and it sounds terrible. Some people claimed to be able to get it under control, even take charge of their dreams and change their surroundings (known as ‘lucid dreaming’), but at least those first few times it must feel like you’re losing your mind. Crappy for actual people, but great for my protagonist. 🙂

If this sort of thing interests you, check out some of the stories from people who suffer from sleep paralysis here. This is a fairly run of the mill episode someone shared online:

I’m a 21yr old healthy male, currently at university. I recently went home to see the family, and stayed in the guest room. Normal day, normal sleep time, nothing out of the ordinary.

I wake up, at what I would imagine is around 4am, just as it is getting light, my eyes are open and I am looking at the wall that the bed is against, away from the corridor and the door. I hear some noise in the corridor and think that I must have been woken up by it, not thinking much I try to fall sleep again, until this noise turns into screaming.

This screaming is terrifying, its like a woman absolutely screaming her lungs out, not really human sounding, terrifying. I try to move and just cant, I’m lying on my front facing the wall, eyes open, not able to move.

This screaming travels down the corridor until its outside my door, I hear my door open and the screaming continues across the room until I feel this thing climb onto me, kneeling on my back. There is this incredible weight on my body, this thing is literally kneeling on my back screaming in my ear, its deafening too. At this point I remember grinding my teeth horrendously and waking.

This was absolutely terrifying, it still scares me now. I’m guessing it was Sleep Paralysis, sounds similar, what do you think?

I think I’m grateful I don’t have sleep paralysis! Does anyone out there suffer from this or know anyone who does? Feel free to comment and share your stories.

And if all this doesn’t creep you out enough, here’s one last dose of nightmare fuel for you. Sweet dreams!

Want a balloon?
Want a balloon?

 

 

C is for Comedy – Why I Love Stand Up

Image

Does this picture make you smile? Does it make you groan? It’s OK either way, there’s no wrong answer. I love to laugh, so it makes sense that I love comedy. Who wouldn’t? Besides, laughter is good for you. People way smarter than me have proven it, so if you don’t believe me, visit a search engine near you.

I love all forms of comedy: sitcoms, movies, sketch comedy, satire, the Kansas City Royals. But the one I have the utmost respect for is the one I wanted to talk a little about – Stand Up.

One of the most universal fears people have is public speaking. But most people’s public speaking is giving a short presentation at work or school, maybe some sort of speaking engagement at a conference, something like that. I guess that’s not necessarily easier than being a Stand Up, but in most cases if you just suffer through those in that one instance, you’ve succeeded. Imagine the added pressure of having to be funny and entertaining the entire time, doing it night after night, and being judged an utter and complete failure if you’re not.

I feel Stand Ups are unsung heroes. Once you attain a certain level of success, you can travel a lot more comfortably (like maybe Chris Rock or those Blue Collar guys), riding in rock star buses from town to town, taking your family with you if you want. But like a lot of other artists, the up and coming spend a lot of time struggling and starving. And in the case of comedians, they do it alone. Driving a beat-up car from city to city and state to state, wondering if you’ll be paid the amount you were promised (or paid at all), not knowing if you can afford a decent place to stay for the night, and wondering if you’ll have a good show. Will they like you?

I’ve heard comedians say that they are generally a self-loathing, hateful group of people. I would tend to believe that (which is what makes some of them so funny), but thankfully, as with all other forms of comedy, it’s not true across the board. You can find something for almost every mood, every point of view, and age level. It’s not all mean-spirited, cynical and vulgar. But if that’s what you like, there’s plenty of that out there for you. If you prefer something a little cleaner and family friendly, that’s out there, too. You may have to search a little harder for that, but I think it’s worth it. It reminds me of music. There may be a lot out there you don’t like, but when you find something that really connects, it’s totally worth the effort.

Now, I understand some people just don’t like comedians, and that’s OK. I’m not trying to force anybody’s hand out there. But I feel like not enough people appreciate what these people do, and just wanted to encourage everybody to look up some clips on YouTube, buy a CD on iTunes, or, better yet, go catch a comedian live. Have some laughs; it’s good for you.

mitch

BUGS – The Goldenrain Tree Bug is the Bane of My Existence

See the pretty tree in this picture?

How pretty!
Oooh, beautiful!

This is a Goldenrain tree. It’s a very colorful tree, starting in the spring with tiny yellow blossoms (golden rain) that give way to little pinkish-orange pods (seen in the above picture), which contain tiny little black seeds. In the fall the green leaves turn a vibrant yellow before they fall off around November. When my wife and I bought our house, the majestic Goldenrain tree in the front yard was one of our favorite things about the house. Then, one day, I saw a few of these little fellas roaming around the driveway.

Say, that's kind of ugly.
Say, that’s kind of ugly.

Growing up in the desert of California, I had never seen a bug like it. So, not knowing what they were, I did what any reasonable homeowner would do. I killed every one of the little buggers that I saw. Sprayed ’em with bug spray, problem solved. Until the next year. Then I noticed little clusters of them, on the driveway and in seemingly random places around the yard. Kinda like this:

Oh, look. They've multiplied. Lovely.
Oh, look. They’ve multiplied. Lovely.

Again, I sprayed them, they went away. Then they would come back. I sprayed. They came back. There were at least three “waves” of them before they went away in the late fall. By this point I was getting pretty frustrated. This brings us to the summer before last. As spring sprung, I started to notice them earlier than years past.

Not again, I thought. I’ll show those stupid bugs who’s boss.

I finally decided to try and look these things up online. I didn’t find much at first, so I put it off. A month or two went by, I kept killing them, but it was not so much waves anymore as much as just a constant barrage of them. We started finding dead ones in the garage, and spreading to the side of the house. Finally, I stumbled upon pics of the Boxelder bug online, which is very similar in appearance. From there, it didn’t take long to find out about these wretched Goldenrain tree bugs.

The bugs are exclusive to the Goldenrain tree (hence the name). Among the things I discovered about them:

They eat the tiny little seeds that are inside those pretty pods that grow on the trees. That’s it. They don’t eat anything else but those seeds.

Spiders and birds don’t eat them because they evidently taste like a dirty sock (or something similarly disgusting).

They are easily killed with a simple solution of soapy water.

They are completely harmless. Just a minor (that’s a matter of opinion) nuisance.

YOU CAN NEVER BE COMPLETELY RID OF THEM. 

I found that last bit hard to believe. I went out in the yard, armed with a garden hose connected to a little jug of laundry detergent, and I walked up to that damn Goldenrain Tree determined to unleash hell on those bugs. What I saw looked a little bit like this:

Holy crap, run for your lives!
Holy crap, run for your lives!

They were covering practically the entire tree. I sprayed, and sprayed, and sprayed. I went through an entire bottle of laundry soap. I bought more, and sprayed more. It took four days of spraying to make a serious dent. After a week, I hardly saw any. But they came back. They keep. Coming. Back.

Last summer I kept them pretty well under control, and I just accepted it was a part of having such a pretty tree in the yard. I sprayed with the soapy water, which allows you to kill them much more efficiently, a few times over the summer. But I hate them. I hate them with the fury of a thousand burning suns.

And now that the weather is starting to warm up, I’ve seen the first few of the year out on the porch. I squashed them under my shoe, and felt a sick sense of satisfaction. God help me.

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