Category: writing

Writing Gruesome Scenes

I’m at the climax of MURDER CASTLE at the moment, writing my way through the final scenes of the book. It’s an interesting position to be in, because usually at this point, I find myself just blazing through the word count each day. I know what needs to happen. I know how the characters behave and react. All I have to do is sit back and let it happen.

And that’s the case with this scene, but it’s not writing nearly as easily as it usually does. I would worry that’s a symptom that I’m not happy with the climax and that I need to revise it, but in this case, I think it has more to do with the actual content of the climax. The main character is now in probably the worst situation I’ve ever thrown a protagonist into. This is a book about a serial killer who brutally murdered dozens of women in the late 1800s. When your main character is a woman who’s trying to take that killer down, I don’t think it should come as much of a shock that at some point in the course of the novel, things aren’t going to go too peachy for her.

And that’s really hard for me to write. It forces me to think in ways I don’t really want to think. I have a hard time telling if I’m dwelling unnecessarily on details, or if I’m zooming through it all too quickly. Difficult scenes can take a long time to write, so they naturally feel like they’re just lasting longer than they ought to. Ironically, those same scenes can be some of the fastest to read, so readers might feel like they were over too soon.

Ideally, I want the tension to rise and rise and rise. I want to cram plenty of suspense into this, and that takes pages. So I just tuck my head down and barrel through the descriptions, putting myself into my main character’s shoes and trying to see things through her eyes. Which, like I said, isn’t a fun thing to think about when you’re sick in bed day after day.

The book is solid, though. I think I’ll have to go back through and add in some more details that bring characters to life, but the actual actions of the book feel good to me after this first pass through. I’m really hoping my main character lives to see the end of this, but at the moment, I’m not sure how likely that is. I know what I want to happen, but sometimes once you’re in a scene, you realize that what you wanted to happen as an author . . . just can’t happen. You’d figure you have all the control in the world over your book, but it doesn’t feel that way. Not if you’re doing it right.

Your characters have abilities. Strengths and weaknesses. For Etta (the main character in MURDER CASTLE) to get through this alive, she’s going to have to dig deep. She’s got real nerve, though. I think she’s got a fair shot.

And now, back to the grisly details . . .

Short Story: Three Winters

After my post yesterday  on Professor Thayer’s passing and the writing I did for his class, I thought it would be interesting to put up one of my short stories from that semester. This is probably the best one, if that says anything. I wrote it back in the winter of 2001.

Presented now for your reading pleasure:

Three Winters

I sat down but had to tap my foot. Where were they? I glanced at my watch again. 21:19–three minutes later than the last time I had looked. Nineteen minutes late. I sat back in the overstuffed chair and tried to appear relaxed. My fingers started a quick staccato on the chair arm as I tuned back into the conversation around me.

“I dunno, Anderson. Do ya think they’ll schaff it?”

“They’ll be fine. There’s no way they would’ve missed the 9:10.”

One time they had forgotten I was at school. I called home, but Dad was asleep. He said later he hadn’t heard the phone. Mom was out doing errands. It had been three hours before she got my message and came to pick me up. Why did I keep thinking about that?

“Hey–Christensen. Christensen! Man are you spaced or what! For someone who fought bein’ trunky, you sure did die fast.”

I shook my head and didn’t answer. I got back up and went to the window but didn’t look out. My socks swished on the carpet. New ones, bought for today. No holes. I checked my reflection again in the mirror. Dad would comment on my suit. I hadn’t dry cleaned it once the whole two years. What was the point? The lining was worn out from my backpack, and the wool was beginning to fray at the edges.

Elder Habicht always said it had to do with which clothes you wore less. At home, Sunday clothes were special; in the field, P-day clothes were taken care of. Folded up neatly, ready for the next week. Dad wouldn’t understand. Or would he? He had been there–he had done it, too.

I felt my hair over, going through the motions. I had smeared a thick glob of gel in that morning. My comp always called it a helmet, but I didn’t like to worry about it getting messed up.

Things had been different before my mission, of course. Classic rock and T-shirts, late nights and mornings that were almost afternoons. Older and wiser now, I reminded myself. I thrust my wrist free of my white shirt again. 21:23. I started roaming. President Johnson’s apartment had high ceilings and cushy blue carpet. My eyes paused on a picture of the Freiberg temple and a Leipzig Travel Book. I flipped through them for a moment and then went back to the window. No one would call it a gorgeous city–nothing to compare to Paris or London or Salzburg. Leipzig gawked up at the sky in muted grays and browns and blacks as small cars made of compressed cardboard swerved on the streets below. I’d ridden a Trabi every week to church in Schwarzenberg; the scent of bad gasoline and a cramped back seat weren’t easy to forget. It was a joke that they even had seat belts in that death trap. The stupidity of Communism. Bruder Brummel had been waiting at the train station that first night, eager to help the two Elders up to their apartment.

“So Elder Christensen, wo kommen Sie her?”

“Uh… Entschuldigung? I didn’t quite–I mean–Ich habe nicht…” I had looked over at my trainer in desperation, still too new to even remember his name. The snow fell softly over the train station, quickly covering the marks of the passing train as its taillights disappeared in the dark. My last link to anything resembling home. Above us a yellow streetlight bathed the scene in sepia.

My trainer looked at Bruder Brummel in a knowing way, who smiled in return.

“Ach! You are Golden. Ich habe völlig davon vergessen. Welcome to the Erzgebirge!” He jerked his green knit hat down over his ears and signaled for me to follow. The next thing I knew I was in his Trabi, rumbling through the late night up a hill to Communist housing–Neubau. Purple lights gaped down from windows filled with plants and the shifting light of televisions. It had taken five months to understand the thick Erzgebirgisch accents, five months in which the snow had gradually turned into budding leaves and fields of yellow flowers.

Outside a Straβenbahn interrupted my memory, electrical lines sparking furiously as if in imitation of the lightning the night before. Breaking my train of thought. Winter was in the air, and the cold would soon attack the city in force. Already a few areas of the mission had had their first snow. Magdeburg. Cottbus. Eisenach. I listened to the pedestrians walking by underneath the window.

“Ja, es ist mir schon ziemlich kalt. Es wird ein schlecter Winter sein. Sag mal…”

No Englisch. 21:27.

“Come on, Christensen. They’ll be here sooner or später, and waiting up here’s not gonna hilf much. How about we go and grab some Essen?” SYL, mission-style. I had fought it for the first quarter of my mission, but finally resigned myself to the choice between Speak-Your-Language snob or German pidgin.

“You guys go ahead. Sister Johnson is up here still, and there’s a few more things I still gotta erledigen.” I kept pacing once they were gone. I had paced at school that day, too. How do you sleep through five phone calls? My quarters ran out, or I would have kept trying. Forget it. College had been better, hadn’t it? I’d been independent then, hadn’t I?

I thought I’d be independent once I got to Gotha. Third city, DL, Golden Trainer. I’d be in charge. The mission would be smooth sailing from there on out. Four months with a difficult companion, three baptisms, two bike wrecks and one thrashed suit had shown me otherwise. You couldn’t be independent on a mission; it wasn’t your job. Winter had descended and the bikes had been replaced with Bahn cards and missed trains. But with it came a contentment–a satisfaction. I remembered one evening, walking home through a light snow from a late appointment. Elder Jones had been anxious for warmth–I let him walk ahead. He was furious. The purple lights in the windows were comforting by then, and I knew that in a year I would have to let them go. I didn’t know what to think about that, and let myself be enjoy the crunch of the snow underneath my shoes. Jones tapped his foot at the end of the corner; I took my time.

I shook my head back to the now. Here I was ready to face winter, and I was being released. My eyes roamed the apartment, lingering on the dining table in the other room even as my ears pricked toward the window for a trace of English. I strode to the door, opened it, and took the wrought-iron elevator down to the office. With a creak the downstairs door opened, carrying with it the sound of eating Elders. I closed the door and looked around the dimly lit apartment. Light shone into the hallway from the kitchen, and it was there that the office Elders had gathered for their nightly ritual. I stepped over oversized suitcases and walked in.

“Hey! Here he is now! Mr. Big Cheese himself!” With a chorus of greetings, they each resumed their socializing. I tried to talk with them, but they already were focused on events I would have no part of. They had a tomorrow; I had a homecoming. Finally Elder Anderson signaled me into the other room.

“So what’s up?”

“Not much. They’re a half-hour late.”

“Don’t worry about it. They’ll komm schon. Enjoy your last few minutes as a full-blooded Elder.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Hey–what’s the matter with you? What’s got into you?”

“Nothing.”

“Right. You’ve thrown up about five times today. Something’s up. Sag mal.”

“No–I mean it. Nothing. I have nothing to look forward to. I’m gonna go home and sit around for three and a half months and then fly off to school. Nothing.”

“Sounds like a whole lotta something to me.”

“Something like a bad decision is what.”

“Huh?”

“I should’ve verlängert. Then at least I’d only have had two months to blow.”

“Come on, man. It won’t be that bad.”

“Leicht gesagt. You’ve got five months left.”

“Well, how about the Büro. You got any suggestions on what I should work on?”

We talked shop for the next while, and Elder Anderson left me to my thoughts. 21:43. After three hours, I’d been pretty steamed. Said some things better left unsaid. Hadn’t I? I shook my head. Memories of the mission were clear as a seven o’clock study session, but anything before the MTC got hazy and wobbly. Some memories you never forget, though. They’re branded in your mind. I’d never forget that experience. I don’t think I wanted to know why. But I was no longer Ben–I was Elder Christensen. Right? That was who I wanted to be. And couldn’t. The doorbell rang, and I got up to answer it out of habit. Then thought again. I stayed in the room, turning off the lights.

Elder Anderson open the main door and through it cut the voice of my father. Release in a sentence. My jumbled thoughts and scattered emotions clicked together at once. Home. I walked to the door and went to meet my family.

There was everything such a reunion should have. Dad commented on how much older I looked, Mom cried, and my brother went on and on about video games. In a blur everything whisked to the car, an expensive Mercedes Benz rental–the wonders of Capitalism–and we were off to the hotel. I squirmed on the leather seats and stared at the seat belt before I put it on.

“Why don’t we go out to dinner?” 22:31. Already past bedtime. What bedtime?

“Sure, why not?”

I looked around the restaurant, curious to see the German waiters bustling back and forth just like their counterparts in America always had. I didn’t have to Contact them. My family went to the menus, asking for help with translation. Rotkohl, Rouladen, Klöβe, Getränke. Orders were placed, and everyone started talking at once.

“So, son. Have you heard much about what’s happening at home?”

“Uh… No, Dad. Not wirklich.”

“What was that?”

“Give him a break, Joe. Tell us all about Leipzig, Ben. Where should we go sightseeing tomorrow?”

“Well, I–uh–I hadn’t really thought about it that much. What with things at the Bür–“

“See, Mary. He hasn’t thought about it. That’s what I told you, isn’t it? Missionaries just keep their heads in the–Now Ben.” At this my father’s face hardened. “I know that you’ve had a good mission. Of course you have–that’s how we raised you! But we’ve got to get you back into the swing of things pronto. You got me? Pronto. You’ve got a lot ahead of you.” A low chuckle. “Boy, do I wish I was back in your shoes. Picking a major, choosing a career–hey, what am I saying? Choosing a wife, right? You’ve got to find a good summer job, right?” His sales pitch stopped, and it took me a moment to realize a response was expected–required.

“Well–yeah. Sure,” and as an afterthought forced out through unfamiliar lips, “Dad.”

“That’s my boy! We raise ’em right, don’t we, Mary?” Mary just kept her mouth closed in a worried grimace as she glanced uneasily between me and my father. “That’s what I say. Well, don’t you worry a bit, Ben, cause I’ve got it all worked out for you. You start the day after we get back in Dan Stuart’s department–down in shipping. It’s a bit of grunt work, but it’ll be fine. Gotta get rid of some of that fat you’ve got stored up there. You’ll have to get a car, of course. That’ll mean car payments and a loan–build credit.”

He went on, but I had stopped listening. Car payments? A loan? Menschenskinder… A wife? I gazed out the window in the direction of the office, my sight now blurred by the falling snow.

Doug Thayer: My Second Writing Instructor

I just read in the news that my second writing professor at BYU, Doug Thayer, passed away. I only took one class from Professor Thayer, but it came at an important point in my writing life. I took my first creative writing class in the winter of 2000, right off my mission. I had a good time in it, and I enjoyed writing and thinking up stories, but I got a B+. I know, you’re thinking so what. To me, that somehow meant I wasn’t good enough. I took it as a sign that I could do okay as a writer, but not great.

I decided not to take another class.

In hindsight, how dumb was I? I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was only 21 at the time, so perhaps I can blame it on my brain not being fully developed? In any case, I chose to focus on English analysis, and not the actual creative writing side of things.

Except I kept writing. I knew it wasn’t great. I knew I had problems, but I just had too much fun doing it. And I’d go back to my apartment and write anyway. Nothing really serious by my standards today, but I kept tinkering around with things in my spare time. And after a while, I realized it wasn’t going away, so I began to reconsider my decision. A B+ wasn’t that bad, after all, and it had been my first time taking a class like that. Maybe I could get better.

Doug Thayer started things off with a bang. He was gruff and often came across as irritable. He told us all that he didn’t like reading “fantasy or anything like that,” and so he didn’t want us to submit it. We were to turn in stories and then workshop them as a class. This was my first real exposure to a writer’s group format. He would have us read selections, and then he’d pick the selections apart. I never quite knew how he was going to come down on a piece.

I loved the class.

Interestingly, I also wrote some of the most depressing stories I’ve ever come up with. Because I was trying to avoid writing fantasy or genre fiction, what ended up coming out of my fingers was sad, “serious” fiction. A couple who lose their child. An abused woman. Dark stuff that’s not really like anything I write these days.

Professor Thayer liked what I wrote. I got an A in the class, and I determined to keep at it and take even more classes. Though I’d want to take classes that would allow me to write genre fiction, if at all possible.

Honestly, I learned a lot about how to critique a piece well from that class. I learned to say what I thought, and not what I thought the person I was critiquing wanted to hear. I learned my opinion has value, especially if I can back it up with examples. I learned to take criticism in the spirit it was intended: to help me improve. It set me up for the trajectory my writing career has taken.

Who knows what would have happened if I’d gotten another B+.

In any case, I was sorry to hear of his passing. I didn’t know him well, and I doubt he would have remembered me, but as is so often the case with teachers, he made a much bigger impact on my life than I ever made on his.

Pushing Through on a Project

I’m 500 words shy of the 60,000 word mark on MURDER CASTLE, and I’ve been tearing through it. Most days when I sit down to write, I’m pretty sure what I need to do in the next 1,000 words, and it doesn’t take me a terribly long time to get it done. (About 45 minutes of actual writing time, which turns into a bit over an hour once you count the mandatory durdling time.)

But I’m at a bit of a tricky spot, as well. I’m far enough into the book to realize there are some significant problems with it. I’m not sure how significant those problems are. Basically, I recognize that the main character (Etta) is doing too much on her own, without really interacting with other people as much as I feel she needs to. This has a tendency to make the book a bit too cerebral. Not that she’s not doing things, but she’s on her own for long swathes of the novel.

Some of this is just due to the type of book this is. She’s undercover, lying to most people around her, trying to find information on her lost sister. So in many ways, she’s trying to avoid getting to know too many people. But at the same time, I worry that much of the oomph to the book will be found as she interacts with the people who might be out to kill her. I think I might need to watch Silence of the Lambs again to get a feel for the kind of book I’m trying to write. Not that this is a novel where the main character is studying a serial killer to try to catch a different one, but . . .

Actually, the more I think about it, the more the connection seems clear. I’m writing Silence of the Lambs meets True Grit. Go figure.

In any case, my feel for the novel leaves me in a bit of a precarious position. Part of me wants to stop the writing, go back and read what I’ve done, fix it if it needs fixing, and then finish things off. On the other hand, my gut isn’t just telling me part of the book isn’t working. It’s telling me that it’s going to put me right back where I am now after I fix it. In other words, imagine that you’re trying to get from Maine to Pennsylvania. You know the route you ultimately want to go should be over the George Washington Bridge, but you realize you ended up going through Albany somehow. You know that was a waste of time, but you also know that now that you’re already in New Jersey, it doesn’t really matter. You’d be at this spot of road one way or the other. You can go back to fix that Albany trip, but perhaps it’s better to just get to Pennsylvania first.

That analogy makes a whole lot more sense to me than it probably did to you, but oh well.

The bottom line is that I’ve decided to push forward. I’m becoming more comfortable knowing that my first drafts are going to need some big overhauls. I’d love to get to a point where I can just write them the right way the first time, but I don’t think I’m there yet. On the plus side, at least I’m to the point where I can feel what the big things that need changing will be. Right?

Another 20,000 words, give or take, should take me to the end of this draft. At that point, I plan to immediately go back and read the whole thing, looking to see if the tension levels are right, if there’s enough interaction with other characters, if the voice is consistent, and if there’s anything big I still want to tweak.

But maybe I need to watch Silence of the Lambs again before all of that . . .

MEMORY THIEF Thanksgiving

memorythief_Facbeook

I’m off on vacation today. Headed to a rental house over by Acadia, and looking forward to relax and try to recharge. And as I drive off, I’m very pleased to be able to announce that step 3 of my plan for global domination is finally complete, just as I planned.

PLAN FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION

  1. Publish MEMORY THIEF in America
  2. Publish MEMORY THIEF in China
  3. Publish MEMORY THIEF in Turkey.
  4. [. . .]
  5. Take over the world

As with many of the best news I get to announce on my blog, I’ve known about this for months, and I’ve had to keep quiet about it. That leads to some strange celebrations. I’m the most excited when I can’t tell anyone, and then when everyone else is the most excited, it’s already old news to me.

But either which way, it’s great news. Three languages! I think these foreign sales are some of the best surprises I ever get. I love having my agents email me to see if I’d like to accept an offer I knew absolutely nothing about. It’s like if someone comes up to you to say you’ve inherited a bunch of money and asks if you’d like to accept it. You don’t have to do anything to get that money except sign on a dotted line. All the work is done already.

I don’t think I would ever get tired of that.

In any case, have a great weekend, everybody. I’ll catch you on Tuesday, when I’m back from vacation!

%d bloggers like this: