Another Blast from the Past essay
Sometimes, vampires truly do suck…and not in the good way.
I mean, take writing them. You go along, line by line, chapter by chapter and then, all of a sudden, the sucker (pun intended) won’t do what you wanted them to do. That goes for all types of characters as well.
Now, I do realize that characters don’t really have a life of their own and that it’s mainly my subconscious trying to make me realize that I’m about to go down the wrong writing road (because if I really thought that Keira Kelly or Adam Walker or Tucker or any of my characters were whispering in my ear, that’s when they’d come to take me to the asylum to be a roomie for Renfield, and I’m so not going there).
What I’m really talking about is the little voice inside that nudges you when the book you’re working on is branching off into boring land, or maybe just repetition road. I know. I’ve just been there, done that.
About seven eighths of the way to a finished draft of Blood Bargain, I decided to make a huge concerted effort to finishing the the draft in a week. Not so bad, a couple of thousand words a night, every night for six nights. I could do this. Part of my angst involved my day job, a fairly demanding position which was about to become even more demanding after losing two of my peers due to life moves. I knew that in order to make sure Blood Bargain had even a remote chance of getting done and getting turned in, I’d have to knuckle down and write more than usual.
I went along, first night, about 1500 words, second night, 3000, third night, 1700. As I wrote, I polished, trimmed, sorted and re-sorted actions and sections to make more sense in the narrative flow. I cut out part of the prologue, move most of the rest of it to within the body of the book, making it more dynamic. (Thank goodness for Scrivener, which lets you do this with relative ease. I fought a long hard battle with Microsoft Word in the past, and it lost, but that’s a tale for another day). I expanded one scene, trimmed another, made sure that my timeline made sense. I was doing great. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment, basking in the euphoria that happens when you’re in the writing zone and you know it.
The euphoria lasted three nights.
On night four, I got home loaded for bear and ready to attack. I just knew that I could do at least 2000 words, maybe even more. I sat down, opened up Scrivener and reviewed the last couple of chapters I’d written. In less than fifteen minutes, I realized that there was a totally extraneous chapter where nothing happened. I don’t know why it took so long to realize. This was a chapter that had been written eons ago, long before I’d actually gotten to this point in the overall narrative. It was one of those scenes that I’d conjured up so very clearly. In fact, I could visualize just about everything, including the lighting, the sounds, the smells. Oh yeah, baby, this was golden!
Only thing is, I also knew that I’d had trouble with this chapter for a long time, but kept thinking it was the lead in from the previous chapter that was the problem. A couple of my beta readers had even remarked on the abruptness of introducing this scene. I could fix that, no problem. Just make sure to write a scene before it that gets my characters here.
Except..not so much.
Turns out, it was a problem because simply, the scene existed. It wasn’t the writing. The words were good. The dialogue was good. It’s just that absolutely nothing happened. Without giving away the plot (a crucial part at this point), my protagonist, Keira, finds something out about Adam, who is her lover and the chief of the local vampire tribe. In the original version, Keira’s at her house, with her brother, telling him why she’s not at Adam’s, when they get a call and rush over to Adam’s ranch to find out that [insert spoiler here that I won’t give away]. It was about 2500 words of Keira saying & thinking: “I’m at my house, being all angsty and oh, is that the phone?”
What’s wrong with this picture? There was absolutely no reason for the entire scene at Keira’s house. None. Nada. Rien.
After going through the five stages of writing grief:
- Denial (No, I can’t cut it. It’s a good chapter)
- Anger (Damn it! I just wasted all that time!)
- Bargaining (Well, maybe if I just tweak it a little…)
- Depression (Sigh. That means I’m 2500 words further away from “the end”)
- Acceptance (Cut, paste into a separate file for posterity, rework the discovery of [insert spoiler here] where Keira is at Adam’s house),
I realized that the lessons I’ve learned from hanging out with writers over the years are very, very true and that ignoring them will just lead to bad writing.
(1) Writing is not for sissies.
(2) Show, not tell.
(3) Sometimes, you have to kill the puppies.*
(4) When in doubt, cut it out.
Oh yeah, and vampires really do suck…but mostly in very good ways.
* Killing the puppies = deleting a well-written scene because it doesn’t advance the plot.
Here’s a random snippet of something from the may-never-get-written files. Came from a wee idea, but never really went anywhere.
Something’s in the air in the tropics. Perhaps it’s the way the atmosphere hangs heavy on your skin, like a warm, wet unseen ocean covering all your pores, unbroken except for the occasional whispering breeze from the sea. The nights are still and darker than the deepest purple velvet. The stars each beckon brightly, as if winking a secret.
Maybe that’s why they came. At the beginning it was only one or two of them. A family of sorts, buying up the empty houses and rebuilding the crumbling walls. Cities and resorts once again sang, the songs of life and people recalling the early days of their glory, but this time, all the life was night life and the beaches were strangely empty during the hot, sun-filled days.
Most of the locals shrugged and pocketed the handfuls of hard currency that was now flowing easily, cheerfully shopping in the new supermarkets and video stores now freely accessible by all. They’d grown used to the oddities of tourists, at first the tall gueros — blond, Nordic Europeans with money to burn and hungers to satisfy, then the rest of them, little bits at a time, taking advantage of El Jefe’s need for tourist spending. At first there were still restrictions. Locals couldn’t go into the hotels or restaurants; those were reserved for the turistas. Tangential business such as drug dealing and prostitution rose, but the economy became a little more stable, even though necessities such as toilet paper and light bulbs continued to be in short supply. And the military watched, guns still very much in evidence.
Then the unthinkable happened. Not even ten years after the tourism industry picked up, the man himself began to change. Things began to happen gradually at first. He allowed an American baseball team to play against an all-star selection of the homeland’s best and brightest. Then, little by little he began to raise the restrictions that had been a part of most people’s entire memories. Stores began to get stock, cruise lines began sounding out the government for permission to add the island to their schedules, and life began to be if not happy, it was at least tolerable.
No one really knew what to think about all of this. How it came to be, why things began to change, but some of the abuelitas muttered that it was all too good to be true. Chickens don’t suddenly begin to lay square eggs, they were heard to say when talking about El Jefe’s miraculous change of heart. He never even lambasted the NorteAmericanos any more. It was as if he were a different man. Nothing good could come of this. Just watch, it will all go back again tomorrow.
But most of the people just sat back and enjoyed the largesse. Why, you could even go into the market and buy three bars of soap and a bottle of shampoo — all at once! Not to mention the fresh bread that was available every day if you wanted. With no queues.
Un milagro, extolled the priests, coming out of hiding and celebrating mass in public churches. Only God could have granted this miracle to us, after so many years of waiting and praying.
The lust lure of capitalism, muttered the lifelong Communists – a curse brought by the evils of American television signals and the Internet. They knew computers should have never been brought there.
The television stations began to show more and more of El Jefe in his private life. Sitting at home, enjoying a mojito or two with his buddies. Visiting a nightclub in the city, dancing a merengue or the mambo. He’d even given up smoking cigars and was dressing in clothing other than his usual trademark.
We all began to notice that there was a new member of his social group. A tall, thin man, dark-haired, dark-eyed and always impeccably dressed, usually in a beautifully cut white suit. He never shared El Jefe’s limelight, only stood to the side, occasionally leaning over and whispering in the leader’s ear. You never saw very much of him. Glimpses only, at a bar, a restaurant, but never by himself. Never strolling the streets in the broad daylight.
A new advisor, nodded the pundits, smiling wisely and pretending, as all the good politicos do, that they knew everything. From Europe, no doubt, with his tailored suits and atmosphere of style. Perhaps even a distant relative. There was something about his eyes. El Jefe did tend towards a little nepotism.
It was when the first real estate office opened that we all knew things were really changing. Instead of being awarded by the government, houses and apartments could now be sold! And sold they were – by the score, as these new residents began to arrive and rebuild. Masons and carpenters long denied their trade once again rushed through the streets with their tools, too busy to stop for a cafecito or even a few minutes chat.
We began a time of honeymoon then. Golden days full of laughter, of steady, honest work and of money. Lots of money. Money that didn’t have to go to bribe a dishonest block snitch. Money that could be used to buy groceries, even enough to save for later. Maybe for the kids to have when they needed it.
People were seen on the street waiting for the delivery trucks and the postman. Waiting for packages of goods purchased over the Internet. New dresses, new hairstyles. Everything was good.
Nobody even cared that their new neighbors kept to themselves so much. Sure, we all talked about them. Look at the people that moved in next door to Samuel and Marta on Calle Rosa. They bought that big house that used to belong to the Uribes before the revolution. Spent a lot of money, too – on furniture, on carpentry work. They even hired old Manolo to work in the garden, even though he was nearly 80 and half-blind. Paying him a pretty good salary, too.
But did you notice? They never came out of the house. Or at least, they didn’t seem to. A beautiful day like we have with no clouds, no rain forecast. The water so blue and lovely. It simply calls out for spending the afternoon swimming. But they spend the entire day inside.
Manolo would just shrug when asked about his employers. They are rich and they are eccentric, he’d say. Who cares if they waste the sunshine and spend the day playing on their computers or listening to their CD players? What does it matter? Lots of these newcomers didn’t know how to enjoy the lovely sunny days. They were probably spoiled, worried that their too pale skin would burn and peel in the strong island sun.
We’d all laugh and agree, and go back to our café con leche, our cigars and our game of canasta or dominos. Our lives had gone from good to bad to better in so little time, we all wanted to enjoy it. It wasn’t until the first dead girl turned up that we began to wonder.
She was not much to look at in death, pale under her coffee-colored skin. Black hair tangled from the water she’d been found in. Not drowned, though, no water in her lungs. Enrique, the local police officer, recognized her right away. He wasted no time pronouncing it a judgment from above. The girl had been a prostitute, trading her body for beautiful dresses and fine meals at tourist restaurants. After times began to change, she’d not been able to change with them, and had remained walking the streets and selling herself.
Some time ago, someone asked me why I set my books in Texas. I wrote the following essay in response:Many myths exist about my home state of Texas, some truer than others, some as far-fetched as any fantasy novel. Texas is a land full of contradictions, from the stark beauty in the spare barrenness of the Llano Estacado to the lush greenery of the piney woods of East Texas to the incomparable variety that can only be found in a state so large that it incorporates a variety of ecological regions from desert to marshland and everything in between. Some areas are hot and dry, others hot and humid.
It really does take about a full day to drive from top to bottom of the state–not that I’ve tried it. I did, however, once drive from San Antonio to El Paso–twelve grueling hours in a car with a caged and not-sedated part-Siamese cat. Every single time another car passed us, the cat would yowl, as only Siamese can. I never thought I’d survive the trip!
The Texas of television and the movies is only a tiny slice of the myriad of realities–it’s not just a Red State. It’s not just a bunch of rednecks looking to punch cows (or people they dislike), and it’s most definitely not only made up of cows, cowboys and big oil–though they definitely play a huge part in the state’s makeup and history. It’s a huge state chock-full of contradictions and crazy characters–just like the country it belongs to.
I chose to set my series in Texas, because as with many of us, the place we consider “home” often holds mixed and opposite feelings. I have a love/hate relationship with Texas that leads to my own characters’ relationships. Like Keira, I consider the state home, but as she did when she hit human-version adulthood, I, too, began to wander. First from the Austin area to San Antonio, then to El Paso, to Midland, and then Dallas. Eventually, I made my way back to San Antonio, until the turn of the millennium, when I found myself aching for the East Coast–where we’d lived for a few years when I was a child. I got to experience South Texas, Central Texas, North Texas, West Texas and the Hill Country–all jewels in their own right, each with unique characteristics. Pretty good prep for my later career as a writer, huh?
As had some other writers before me, it wasn’t until I left that I could appreciate my home state’s wonders and accept those things I found (and still find) deeply wrong.
Separation for me brought a certain equanimity and an ability to see Texas and Texans from the outside as well as granting me that unique insider’s view. Writing in my fictional town allows me to settle some old ghosts, as well as evoke the familiar emotions that keeps my fierce love burning, despite the machinations and ridiculous politics, the bigotry of some of its citizens, and the ingrained belief that somehow, this state isn’t really part of the union…no kidding. With that in mind, I create a fictional Texas that has some of the best traits, some of the worst traits and hopefully balance the two within a story about people–because to me, that’s what writing is all about: characters. Laura Lippman may have Baltimore; Dana Stabenow owns Alaska–but I’d like to claim the Texas Hill Country as my own space to play in. So, without further ado, a quick primer on the Texas Hill Country–with tongue firmly in cheek.
The following things are NOT found in the Texas Hill Country:
- Saguaro cactus (the big tall ones): look further west…like Arizona. You will find a lot of prickly pear and other smaller cacti. (Though I understand if you got confused by seeing the first iteration of Matters of the Blood. The cover designer went with a saguaro. I had little input.)
- Pine trees: (those are east–Houston, Galveston), instead, you’ll find live oaks, mesquite and cottonwoods (cottonwood in Spanish? Alamo)
- Lots of lush grass (most grasses in the Hill Country is non-existant…at least the kind you think of on suburban lawns. You’ll see mostly sparse, scraggly grass in the rural areas and very much human-imported and tough to grow lawns in the ‘burbs.
- Oceans–the Hill Country is smack in the center of Texas, hours away from the Gulf Coast
- Vampires: nope, not even vampire bats–just loads of other kinds of very useful bats that eat the mosquitoes and June bugs
- Wolves: wer, or otherwise. However, in East Texas, the endangered red wolf inhabits the marshland between Houston and Beaumont, one of the most thickly settled areas of the state.
Things you CAN find in the Texas Hill Country:
- Ranches: with cowboys and cows and barbed wire – side-by-side with McMansion subdivisions/resorts and the requisite millionaires
- Hills: lots and lots of rolling hills built on porous limestone
- Water: lakes (mostly man-made via dams); some are even underground in gorgeous grottos
- Wine: The Hill Country is the center of the award-winning Texas Wine Industry. No laughing!! There are some really fabulous wines here.
- Parks and recreational areas: loaded with ’em, unfortunately, it’s often too hot in the summer to even *think* of camping out, though people do
- Caves: loads and loads; the base of the area is limestone–everywhere, you can even see it in the drinking water from the tap (yes, I know, ick)
- Golf Courses: loads and loads, even professionally rated courses used to play the Masters Tournament.
- All sorts of ethnicities: from the Mexican natives who once owned the land, long-established settlers from “back east”, Alsatian descendants still keeping their cultural traditions, Germans, Polish, Spanish, French, Canary Islanders, and many, many more.
- Bluebonnets–In the spring, they bloom all over. A common tradition is to have your family photo, wedding photo, etc. taken amongst the bluebonnets. Google “bluebonnet photos”. They’re pretty. They’re a weed. And highly illegal to pick…because it’s the state flower. (I shrug at this–it’s not like they’re endangered!)
- Horses: not of the wild persuasion, they always belong to someone else. Yes, there are still horse and cattle rustlers in Texas…only now, they’re just called thieves.
- Armadillos: a.k.a. road kill. They’re built like tiny tanks, but no match for a speeding, or not speeding car. Slow waddlers, they’re most often found flat in the middle of the road.
- Deer: all sorts, mostly white-tail
- Javelina: a really ugly boar-like creature that a lot of guys love to hunt
- Feral pigs: exactly what they sound like; they’re extremely ugly, nasty and have no natural predators…except for the 2-legged shotgun-toting kind
- Big hair: yeah, I admit, it’s everywhere. But for every big-haired woman, there’s at least three others that have sensible ‘dos.
Some famous Texans from this region:
- Lance Armstrong
- Michael Dell
- Kinky Friedman
- Molly Ivins
- Lyndon Johnson & Lady Bird Johnson
- Tommy Lee Jones (I totally saw his house!)
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
As you can see–variety isn’t just a word, it’s a plain fact. The Texas Hill Country is an amazing place that remains very special in my heart, and now in my books.
* Texas Tourism Slogan from the early 90s
I’m pretty open minded when I read other people’s works, especially if it’s something I borrowed from the library or got as a freebie. What really chaps my hide: when the writer doesn’t do basic research or gets basic facts about something wrong.
I started a book recently, where the main character is a kindergarten teacher. The opening chapter has the MC holding a meet-and-greet for the parents of the new students. So far, okay.
Then this MC hands out syllabusus, or is it syllabuses? (both spellings used in adjoining paragraphs.) Then he mentions a precocious three-year-old who will be in his class.
That’s when I metaphorically threw the book against the wall.
a) The plural of “syllabus” is “syllabi” – although, the OED does grant that “syllabuses” can be used. Syllabusus, though? Not a word.
b) In what world are three-year-olds in Kindergarten? In most states, the youngest age is 5. Something easy to Google.
That’s what really gets me. Not the fact that it’s wrong so much as they didn’t even bother to get basic facts right. If you’re writing a teacher, a mechanic, a soldier – at the very least, do a little research. Make sure you use the right terminology, you know the correct length of a tour of duty for the specific branch of the military.
No, teachers don’t just get off school at 3:45 p.m. and lollygag the rest of the afternoon/evening. There are things like grading papers, preparing upcoming exams, lectures, etc. Most teachers work way more than a 40 hour work week. (Yes, I saw this in another book. This one featured a high school teacher.)
Also, chefs, especially head chefs, of any restaurant aren’t going to show up to work at 4 p.m. and then get off work at 10. What planet is this dude living on? I know something about this because I’ve read a few of Anthony Bourdain’s books and I watch a lot of shows about restaurants and cookery, but also, a minute on the Google gave me Job Monkey’s Chef & Cook page and many, many others.
It might seem ridiculous to spend the time on these small details, but it’s those little bits of verisimilitude that make a story grounded.
Heck, for Matters of the Blood, I spent ridiculous amounts of time and ended up with pages and pages of research on hunting deer, butchering deer and biological facts about various kinds of deer…something I barely used in the book itself. But I needed it to be right – or if not completely right, enough so that it made sense and didn’t jar the reader out of the story.
I’m never going to claim to be an expert on everything I put into my writing, but I definitely intend to get the core things correct. And I expect that from every author I read.
Many-times-award-winner and longtime buddy, Laura Lippman once said that it’s the little things that trip you up. The stuff you think you know. She put a minor fact in a book that turned out to be wrong, because she thought she knew it and didn’t bother to double check. Of course, that’s the first thing a reader discovered and wrote her about.
So I look stuff up.
Do I always get it right? Nope. But I know that I did my best to find out the information, and that’s okay. I’m human. I will make mistakes. But I don’t want those mistakes to be because of laziness or assumptions.
I’m totally a hoarder. I hoard my files – the electronic ones. Some time in 2008, I discovered the writing program Scrivener. At the time, it was only for Mac and was ridiculously low priced. I downloaded a trial version, and never once looked back. Word seemed cumbersome and annoying, especially since I write completely out of order. Scrivener saved me.As I write, I save each day’s output as a backup file, appending the date, which means I’ve got gobs and gobs of versions of all my writing. It’s fascinating to go back and see my thought process.
For my third book, Blood Kin, I knew I wanted to set the book in Vancouver, but needed to figure out the logistics and the storyline. If you’ve read Blood Kin, you also know there is a HUGE reveal…one which came to me in the middle of writing. I admit it – it was not at all planned, but damn if it didn’t work out.
Sometimes, that’s just the way the way it rolls, especially if you are a seat-of-the-pants writer, like I am.
This week’s blast from the past is the original set of brainstorming notes for Blood Kin. Enjoy!
Originally posted online 8/2011
So…what happens next? That’s the question every single writer has to ask from the first keystroke forward. Some folks like to have a plot lovingly outlined and planned. Me? Not so much. I call myself a plantser – a hybrid between a plotter (outliner) and a pantser (writing by the seat of one’s pants). I tried outlining once. For my second book. I nearly never finished it. For me, the outline was a short-cut storytelling method and the story was done, so I didn’t need to tell it again. Luckily (and since I wasn’t on any deadline because I hadn’t actually sold the book yet), I was able to rethink the whole thing, discard about 85% of the so-called outline and start over.
Isn’t that tough, you ask? Starting blind, not knowing where the story’s going? Sure. It’s tough, but no matter if you outline or not, at some point, you have no idea where the story’s going to take you. I just like to travel that path while I’m writing the narrative, not before.
That said, I do *some* plotting beforehand. Because I write a series, I need to know basic story arc beats. Plot points that I need to hit in order to move the overarching storyline forward. In BLOOD SACRIFICE, I knew that I had to wrap up a bunch of threads that began unsppoling in the very first book of the series. I kept a list – mostly in my head and made sure to address those as part of the discrete story of this most recent book.
Did it work? I think so. Does this process work for me. Absolutely. Will it work for you? Maybe.
Seriously. The key isn’t how I do it, or how anyone else does it. It’s how it works for you. How can you keep track of overarching themes? How best can you keep your plot moving forward and track the various trails? Try out various methods, see what you’re most comfortable with. Then write!