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Excerpt from Hometown Boys, a Kelly Durrell thriller

The following is an excerpt from Hometown Boys, a work in progress featuring Kelly Durrell. Kelly returns to the Midwestern town where she grew up to attend the funeral of her aunt and uncle. They’ve been murdered by her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, a meth addict destroyed by chronic drug abuse. Kelly is unwillingly drawn into the case when Troy’s lawyer asks her for help. The lawyer has evidence that Troy was coerced into committing the murders, but Troy refuses to talk about it. The lawyer hopes Kelly can persuade him to open up and reveal who wanted her aunt and uncle deadand why.

In this flashback she remembers meeting Gene Countryman, one of Troy’s friends from their high school days. Now a successful businessman, Gene may not be as respectable as he appears.

In the dark he became a stranger

Certain moments stayed frozen in her memory. Like photographs, she thought with a pang. She warded off thoughts of Day Randall, her murdered friend and a talented photographer, whose body was still missing. Memories decayed faster than photographs. A lot faster. But the vital details, the ones whose emotional charge held the memory in place—those never changed.

It was her second date with Troy. Or maybe third. That unimportant detail had decayed. He picked her up down the block from Steph’s house, where she was supposed to be sleeping over. He pulled to the curb in a pumpkin colored Buick, a carriage waved into existence by a fairy godmother with a twisted sense of humor. The bucket seat sagged beneath her weight. Smells haunted the interior—marijuana and cigarette smoke and something like vomit. The engine made odd choking noises, and when they headed out of town, Kelly worried that the car might break down and leave them stranded in the country.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look uptight.”

“No, I’m fine.” She peered beyond the reach of the headlights and ignored the uneasiness that hollowed her out. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” In the dark he became a stranger. He could pull the car to the side of the road, strangle her, and roll her body into a cornfield. For a moment she wanted to go back to Steph’s house, pop some popcorn, and watch TV. Then she summoned the image of his lucid blue eyes and knowing smile, a smile that intimated life was a joke and nobody got it but the two if them. He was dangerous, but not to her.

Somewhere along the highway leading to Uncle George’s place, Troy turned onto a side road. Gravel crunched under the Buick’s tires, and the headlights played over milkweed and a drainage ditch. Treetops emerged from the darkness of the sky, then windows illuminated with bluish light winked into view. She couldn’t see much else of the house, only the silhouette of high eaves and a front porch, its roof slumped with age. The Buick jolted over a rutted driveway and arrived in a small clearing where several other vehicles were parked. Smothered music drifted from the house.

“What is this?” Kelly asked.

“What’s it look like?”

A party in the country. Obviously. Yet, for reasons she couldn’t pin down, the place seemed furtive and sinister.

Troy got out of the Buick, slammed the door, and strode toward the porch. Kelly scrambled to catch up, so young and smitten that she accepted his rudeness. And he set the pattern. The boyfriends who followed him differed only in degree—until she met Cash, whose old-fashioned father taught him to open doors for women, not because they were weak or helpless but out of respect. Kelly wondered now why she’d valued herself so little, why she’d taken so long to move beyond her teenage insecurity.

I am the passenger

Inside the house Iggy Pop crooned, “I am the passenger, I ride and I ride . . . ,” the song’s bass notes booming like distant thunder. The raw smell of mud drifted from a field. They stood for at least a couple of minutes. She was fretting that no one had heard Troy knock when the door swung wide. A skinny man stood in the threshold. His hair ebbed from his domed forehead and hung in greasy dishwater strands to his shoulders. Later she found out he was twenty-eight, but lines scored his face from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His irises, almost colorless, were ground zero in a bloodshot explosion so intense that he seemed about to weep blood.

Troy leaned forward and said something. The skinny man’s gaze jumped frenetically between her and Troy before he finally nodded.

Troy grabbed her upper arm and pulled her toward the door. “Say hi to Gene.”

She mumbled a hello.

Gene raked his fingers through the stringy hair. “Troy says you’re cool. Is that right? He’s not full of shit, is he?” He sounded like a clarinet with a bad cold.

“No. I mean, I am. Cool.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She fudged her age by fifteen months. Lying made her nervous, but he wouldn’t ask unless he needed to hear the magic number.

Gene’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, right.” But he let them in.

As Troy shepherded her through the entryway, she noticed a mahogany hall tree, the varnish on the bench top cracked and bubbled where liquid—someone’s drink, maybe—had been spilled and left. To Kelly, who loved old furniture, it seemed like desecration.

They went into a front room where a dozen or so partiers lounged on a couch and chairs and huge pillows scattered over the floor. Everyone there was older than her. Some were way older—not quite her parents’ age, but almost. Troy dropped into a chair and patted on its wide upholstered arm, indicating that Kelly should sit there. Pretending not to notice, she sat cross-legged on a Persian rug. Several burns pocked its glossy pile. She stroked the rug with her fingertips as if to comfort it.

Most people don’t feel much of anything

A nearby table was also scarred with burns and littered with an overflowing ashtray, a couple of metal pipes, and the leftover butts of smoked joints. “Look at them fat roaches,” Troy said. “Can’t let ‘em go to waste.” He picked out the longest roach and held it to his lips. He removed a book of matches from his T-shirt pocket, opened it, and struck a match—all with one hand in a single fluid motion. The feat of dexterity had impressed her at sixteen. Remembering it at forty, she wondered how many hours he’d wasted perfecting the trick.

He sucked on the stub and blew out acrid smoke, then offered the smoldering butt to Kelly. She shook her head. He gave her the knowing smile. “Come on, don’t be a narc.”

She pinched the roach gingerly, its heat a millimeter from burning her fingertips, and brought it to her lips. Maybe if she pretended . . . She barely inhaled, but she sucked in the smoke anyway. Her throat closed like a fist, and pressure backed up in her chest. She hacked and coughed loud enough to be heard over the music. An overweight woman guffawed. A man with a wispy goatee snickered. Kelly felt trapped in a cartoon where it was her fate to do one stupid thing after another.

She  braced for anger or disgust from Troy, but he asked, “Are you okay? Want something to drink?” She might have started loving him at that moment. It was a slight kindness. Basic courtesy. Yet . . .

He left the room and quickly returned with a can of soda. It was already open and not cold enough to have come straight from the fridge. She guessed someone—Troy, she hoped—had already drunk from the can. She didn’t care. Its fizz soothed her parched mouth and throat.

When he passed her a lighted joint, she took a drag to make him happy and gave it back. A minute later, he offered the joint again. She shook her head. “I’m new at this. In case you haven’t guessed.”

Troy smiled and stroked her cheek. “You’ll be okay. Most people don’t feel much of anything their first time smoking.”

She took another drag. And a few more.

She leaned against the chair where he sat. She listened to Iggy Pop snarl the lyrics of “Lust for Life.” The music had a depth and shape she’d never experienced before. She pictured the drummer twirling his drumsticks like batons and pounding drums the size of trampolines. The silver pinwheels of the drumsticks spun before her eyes. She bounced on a giant trampoline, soaring high—higher with each bounce, more weightless. Time froze. She became the silvery sticks between the drummer’s fingers. Spinning and spinning. Her stomach pitched and her mind reeled. Vomit soured her throat. She needed a toilet before—

The darkness in their faces

Hand clamped to her mouth, she staggered down a dim hallway into the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen. Several men leaned against an old-fashioned oak dining table and a counter cluttered with beer cans and gallon jugs of wine. The men turned and stared at her. Something about their faces. A darkness.

Gene Countryman held a small metal pipe between his thumb and fingers. A pistol was jammed into the waistband of his jeans, snug against the small of his back. Had it been there when he let them in? Kelly struggled to think. Many of the grownup men she knew, her father included, owned guns and hunted deer and birds. None of them stuck pistols down their pants like a movie gangster. Show off, Kelly thought, but she couldn’t let go of the darkness in their faces.

Gene noticed her, and his mouth curled in a sarcastic hook. He nodded toward a door. “Over there. And try not to miss.” Scattered laughter chased her into the tiny windowless bathroom.

She raised the toilet seat and lowered her head over the bowl. Someone had peed and forgotten to flush, and shit smeared the porcelain just above the water line. Her stomach contracted. She’d thrown up her half-digested dinner, and the sour reek had triggered more vomiting.

All these years later, she carried an image of Gene Countryman’s gun in her memory—the black textured plastic of its handle and the way it wiggled when he straightened his back, as if trying to escape from his too-tight waistband.

Later, driving back into town, Troy had reassured her. Lots of people barfed the first time they smoked and—who knows?—the weed could have been cut with something.

“Like what?”

“Who knows? Meth or angel dust.”

Kelly never wanted to smoke weed again, and he would keep insisting. She hoped she could say no to his impish smile, his blue eyes shaded by dark lashes. It didn’t matter. After the way she acted, he wouldn’t ask her out again.

Only he did. And Kelly said yes for the stupidest of reasons. He was giving her another chance after she embarrassed him. How could she do any less for him?

 

 

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Juliette – plight of a secondary character

On January 6 the TV show Grimm begins its sixth and final season. As a fan I’m disappointed to see the show end. Worse, the final season is half its normal length. But I’ll take what I can get. At least the story will come to an end instead of terminating abruptly, and I’ll find out what happens to the characters. I especially wonder about Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), the hero’s girlfriend. She’s had a rough five years. From the start I’ve harbored the uneasy feeling that the show’s writers aren’t quite sure what to do with her. She’s too important to the narrative to remain static. She has to change. But how?

The saga of Juliette

Life is goodA perky veterinarian, Juliette lives with Detective Nick Burkhardt in a delightful old house in Portland, Oregon. Life is good. Then Nick begins seeing people’s faces change into monsters. He thinks he’s going nuts and doesn’t tell anybody. Shortly thereafter, his Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) shows up with an Air Stream trailer full of weird artifacts and some news for Nick. Grimm’s fairy tales are real and he’s a Grimm. Like many of his ancestors he has the ability to see various species of monsters called Wesen.

They look like ordinary humans, but under duress Wesen show their true forms. Sometimes the transformation becomes so complete that ordinary people see them too. Hence the legends about werewolves etc. Some Wesen are dangerous and predatory, and Nick’s duty as a Grimm is to hunt them down and kill them. As a cop he already chases bad guys, so that’s handy.

Nick’s new identity spells the beginning of disaster for Juliette. She gradually becomes aware that he’s hiding something and their relationship suffers. Then one of his enemies, the Hexenbiest (witch) Adelind Schade (Claire Coffee), casts a spell on Juliette, a weird coma beyond the doctors’ understanding. This plot twist takes Juliette out of action for several episodes.

The writers could have let her die, but that would be too easy

Nick’s boss, Captain Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), happens to be a Zauberbiest, the male equivalent of a Hexenbiest. At first he’s in league with Adelind and her mother against Nick. Later he allies himself with Nick against “the Royals,” European aristocrats who use Wesen to maintain their power. As the King’s bastard son, Sean has never had a comfortable relationship with his family.

Juliette learns to shootSean and Adelind’s mother devise a spell to awaken Juliette. Unfortunately it has side effects. Juliette doesn’t remember who Nick is and she develops a sexual obsession with Sean. (Before your imagination runs wild, keep in mind this is NBC, not HBO.)

By the time everything is sorted out, Juliette’s life has radically changed. She lives in a world of monsters. Even Nick’s friends, the perfectly nice couple Monroe and Rosalie (Silas Weir Mitchell and Bree Turner), are Wesen. But Juliette adapts. She becomes a team player in the ongoing battle against the Royals and various species of evil Wesen. The trouble is she doesn’t have much to do. Her knowledge as a vet occasionally comes in handy, but without magical powers or physical prowess, she can’t do much.

Adelind strikes again

Adelind gets her powers backAfter Nick takes away her Hexenbiest powers, Adelind endures an arduous and disgusting ceremony to regain them and proceeds to take away his Grimm powers. Hey, tit for tat. It’s only fair. With a magic potion she takes Juliette’s form and seduces Nick, who acts surprised when she comes on to him. I get the sense that Nick and Juliette’s love life hasn’t exactly been on fire.

Now that Nick is no longer a Grimm, Juliette hopes for a normal life. No such luck. He’s now helpless against his enemies. Nor can he protect Monroe and Rosalie from the Wesen Nazis who consider their mixed marriage an abomination. (Rosalie is foxy and Monroe is wolfish.) The only way to regain his powers is to reproduce Adelind’s spell. Ever the good sport, Juliette drinks the potion, takes Adelind’s form, and has sex with Nick.

And turns into a Hexenbiest herself.

As one might expect, the transformation is disastrous for her relationship with Nick. Nor does it do wonders for her personality. Once perky and sweet, she becomes sarcastic, jealous, and vindictive—like a witch should be. When Adelind ends up pregnant with Nick’s child from their single encounter, Juliette flies into a rage. She’s on the brink of killing Nick when his Grimm apprentice, Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni), brings her down with an arrow from a crossbow.

Photo by: Scott Green/NBC

Of course Juliette doesn’t die

She’s spirited away by a secret organization devoted to fighting a secret organization of Wesen trying to take over the world. (The organization is called Black Claw like the daemon enforcer in my Daemon World series, so I must point out that my daemon existed long before Grimm‘s secret organization. If anything, they borrowed the name from me.) After extensive conditioning, Juliette reemerges into the narrative as Eve, a Hexenbiest who does nothing but fight. A weapon without life or personality, she appears not to care that Nick has hooked up with Adelind. Maybe she would have been better off dead.

Juliette slain

But here comes another twist. In the final episode of season five, Juliette is grievously wounded and healed through the power of a mysterious artifact. In the process she changes and becomes . . . what?

Poor Juliette. Human beings are merely at the mercy of fate. TV characters are at the mercy of script writers.

 

Photos from fanpop.com and NBC.

checking your grammar day and night
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When a comma matters

Grammar Nazi deplores sloppy punctuation. My own attitude is more ambiguous since I think communication matters more than correctness and nobody is perfect—least of all me. But sometimes punctuation matters. While reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I came across an example of how much a missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

In Cronin’s novel a virus developed by the military changes test subjects into vampires with familiar characteristics: blood hunger, razor sharp teeth, aversion to sunlight, and indeterminate lifespans. The monsters also have psychic powers that enable them to escape from the fortified lab and infect the entire North American continent and perhaps the world. Eventually they number in the millions and and very few human beings or other animals are left, creating a problem. Whose blood are the vampires going to drink now?

Humanity’s only hope is a young girl, Amy, who is infected with a variant of the virus that gives her the vampires’ powers without turning her into one.

A familiar premise, but The Passage is remarkable for the breadth of its story and the depth of its characters.

The second half of the novel concerns a small colony of human beings in California roughly a hundred years after the catastrophe. They survive by following strict social rules and keeping the perimeter outside their high walls flooded with light through the night. But the batteries that store power from a nearby generating plant are failing. It’s just a matter of time until the lights go out. Then Amy arrives. Her unlikely survival outside the walls arouses suspicion and her presence upsets the colony’s social balance.

Cronin provides ample backstory to create characters that become like people whom I’ve known for years. This narrative strategy could have been a drag on the plot, but the histories are dramatically rich and always pertinent to the current action.

One of the colony dwellers, Peter Jaxon, has always felt overshadowed by his older brother Theo. Theo is a leader, a warrior, the inheritor of their father’s mission to leave the safety of the colony and search the world for other survivors. Peter reflects bitterly that while he cared for their mother on her deathbed, it was Theo to whom she spoke her last words: “Take care of your brother, Theo. He’s not strong like you.” Peter feels disregarded, belittled. His mother’s words drive home his belief that he is—and always will be—second to his brother.

Only much later, after a lot has happened, does Peter realize that he might have misinterpreted his mother’s words. Perhaps she said, “Take care of your brother Theo. He’s not strong like you.” In other words, Peter is the stronger of the brothers and their mother knew it. This interpretation is more likely. Unless she was altogether delirious, she would know which of her sons was sitting at her bedside.

Apart from what the misunderstanding implies about Peter’s sense of himself and his relationship with Theo, it shows how important a comma can be. The comma after brother puts Theo in the vocative case and indicates that she was addressing her older son. Without the comma Theo becomes the object of the verb in the sentence, the one with whose care Peter is charged.

(Grammar Nazi reminds me that if Peter and Theo have no other brother, this should be indicated by placing a comma after the word brother. Grammar Nazi has a habit of complicating things.)

Obviously people don’t use punctuation when they speak, so this kind of ambiguity is inescapable. But writers have the tools to communicate with greater precision. They just have to use them.

You may have noticed that I’m no longer blogging at Ancient Children. The blog is now part of my new website, created by Kate McMillan of Outbox Online. I hope you’ll take a look around while you’re here.

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A shiny new object changes everything – and nothing

Last year I got an awesome deal on a camera. I “saved” over $500 off the purchase price. (And no, I didn’t buy it off the back of a truck. It was last year’s model, on sale, and I had credit card points.) Of course I could have saved more by passing on the camera and continuing to take photos and videos with my phone like most people.

FlowerI justified the purchase in various ways. I was writing a novel, Darkroom, in which a photographer and her photographs play a central role. Hands-on experience with an actual camera was research. (The photographer in the novel is old school. She uses shoots with film and develops her prints in a darkroom. I wasn’t ready to go there, especially since darkroom equipment is hard to find.)

Instead of shelling out money on stock photos, I could use my own high-quality photos on my blog and in the process learn more about working in Photoshop. And I could make videos!

I could ask an onlooker to videotape some of my riding lessons so I could study and improve my form.

As webmaster of the local Scrabble club, I take pictures at the meetings. This particular camera has a setting called “Beauty Shot” (I’m not kidding) that processes images of faces and eliminates flaws. I could get better shots of the people who hate having their picture taken. They might stop threatening to kill me if I posted photos of them online.

PlaygroundAnd the shiny new camera would give me a reason to detach my brain from my iPad and get my butt out of the house once in a while.

Once I started snapping pictures, I came to some unhappy realizations. All the fancy features were pointless until I knew how to use them, so I studied the manual enough to be minimally competent. More than that would take practice. A lot of practice.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd I soon realized were things that my camera couldn’t do. A few outdoor sessions showed me that even with the correct settings I couldn’t capture birds in flight. My husband, Joe, a sometimes photographer who gave me invaluable help in researching Darkroom, explained that I needed a lens with a longer focal length, which would cost almost as much as I’d spent for the camera.

HydrantMaybe someday . . .

It wasn’t only the camera that had limitations. I lacked the eye for photography. My gaze slipped past the unlikely objects that make good photos. I didn’t think in terms of frame or perspective or angle. Joe helped me. When I walked around town taking pictures, he came along and pointed out what I overlooked. He set tasks for me. One was to photograph the fire hydrants in our neighborhood. I came to think of the project as a travel guide for the dogs who might journey to Charleston, Illinois.

His tutoring helped. I learned to see more possibilities in places so familiar that I’d stopped  seeing them.

Locked

And I made a heartening discovery. Photography helps my writing. Not only do I see the world in a new way, but my photographs have become a kind of memory, capturing mundane images in more detail than I could ever remember.Shadow Box

But there are limitations here as well.

Memory is more than an visual image. It’s the smell of mud, the bark of a dog and the rumble of distant thunder, the flutter of the wind and the damp touch of the air. Above all it’s the convergence of thoughts and moods with the input from the senses—that complex thing called experience.

Broken Dishes

My writing process – That Magic Moment

Writers are expected to write about their creative process. It’s on every handy list of blog topics for authors. But this particular topic is a struggle for me. On one level is the mystical Source From Whence All Inspiration Flows, and I haven’t got much to say about it. It’s my well in the desert. If it dries up, I’m toast.

On another level the creative process is a set of practices that, like rituals, give the writer access to the Source. But I have nothing as exalted or predictable as a ritual. I don’t need a special chair, a lucky pen, a certain place or time of day (although I usually write in the morning). And inspiration doesn’t always come to me in the same way.

I might experience a creative moment when an story comes to me in its entirety, a flash of inspiration with a strong emotional component. In that moment I experience the story and understand its meaning. The story is complete and perfect. My writing inevitably falls short of the original conception, but sometimes it comes closer than others.

Cover of YubiA long time ago I wrote a short story about a woman who falls in love with her parakeet. From the beginning I knew the last line would be “Daniele would love Yubi as long as she lived.” I began the story with Daniele’s brother giving her the bird as an unwanted gift and simply aimed toward that last line. It felt easy. (“Yubi” is available here as a free download.)

But my fiction isn’t always conceived in a magic moment. For my horror novel Daemon Seer I set out with only a goal, to write a sequel to Talion. And Talion began as a story about the friendship of two very different teenage girls. The serial killer’s role was to unite them against a common enemy, but somewhere along the way the son of a bitch highjacked my story.

Since Daemon Seer ends with a cliffhanger, I pretty much have to write a follow-up. Fortunately the story of Daemon Blood came to me in a flash of inspiration. I’m in the middle of writing the first draft now.

Before I can write, I have to discover the story’s tone. Sometimes this means reworking a paragraph several times. This part of my process contradicts the advice of writing gurus who advise never, ever stopping to revise a first draft. But I can’t help it. No way can I continue until the prose sounds right. Once it does, I move ahead at a decent clip. And sometimes tone isn’t an issue since I have it right from the start.

I outline my novels, for all the good it does. An outline is like a rough map of uncharted territory. You begin the journey and discover there’s no path where the map clearly indicates there should be a path. Instead you spot something off to the west that might possibly be a path. So you head that way instead, trusting that it eventually leads where you need to go. No matter how elaborately I plan, I come to a place where I have to trust my sense of direction. Maybe that’s what creativity is.

Occasionally characters refuse to go along with my plans for them. In Darkroom, a bartender named Nina Ivan gets drugged and raped at her place of work. There’s a scene in which the protagonist, Kelly Durrell, persuades Nina to report the rape to the police. That’s how I planned the scene anyway. By then I was working on a later draft of the novel. In earlier versions Nina was a much less important character and I hadn’t thought much about her background or motivation. I didn’t really know who she was.

While writing the persuasion scene, I reached a point where I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out why. The dialogue wasn’t coming and dialogue is usually easy for me. I stopped in frustration. When I came back to the scene the next day, I understood. No way was Nina going the police. She isn’t that kind of character. I wrote the scene her way and altered the story. Everything worked out.

It usually does.

Your Story is Still Unfolding

Usually. There’s always a chance of dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. Creativity takes faith.

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Who Is the Second Person?

Here’s a rerun of  an old essay on use of the second person for new readers who missed it the first time around. I’m kind of proud of this one. 

You don’t see much fiction in second-person point of view. You encounter plenty of characters who tell their own stories and all kinds of third-person narration, but only a few quirky narrators who address you the reader directly. Second person is unconventional and unexpected. Readers can be put off by its strangeness. There is also presumption in addressing readers directly, telling them what they they’re doing and thinking. The second person takes liberties, like a stranger who seizes your arm and tries to steer you where you hadn’t thought to go.

Sometimes it can be downright aggressive.

Point of view defines the relationship between the writer, the character, and the reader. In first person, a character speaks to the reader with the writer as an invisible medium. In the various modes of third person, the writer becomes visible and mediates between reader and character, creating a connection ranging from subjectivity that reveals every thought to the objectivity of a camera that shows only external action.

With second person this triangular relationship becomes complicated. While a third-person narrator is understood to be the author – or rather, a constructed version of the author – a second person narrator might be either the author’s persona or a character in the story, and might be speaking to the reader, to another character, or to itself.

In Albert Camus’ The Fall, the second-person perspective is unobtrusive in the beginning. The novel seems to be written in first person. The narrator, a former lawyer, speaks to an unnamed and silent listener. They meet in a bar in Amsterdam, and the narrator begins the story of his downfall. He continues the tale as they meet several more times over the next few days. It’s a story of lost innocence. Like Adam after the Fall, the narrator sees he is naked and understands that he — like every human being — is guilty. Several events contribute to the awakening. The most crucial happens while he is walking alone at night and sees a woman jump from a bridge. Rather than trying to rescue her or calling for help, he walks away.

The incident changes the narrator. He becomes self-conscious, a divided being: “My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double.” He looks at the world with new eyes. Although he is guilty, he is beyond judgment. No one is capable of judging him since they are equally guilty. Once an earnest believer in law, he rejects morality and the concept of justice. He explains to the listener:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves are constantly innocent . . . That’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise everything would be just a joke.

At first the listener seems no more than a handy dramatic device. The narrator has to confess to someone. But it slowly becomes clear that the listener is part of the story; he is implicated. The narrator admits to stealing a valuable painting, and the listener could expose him. But he won’t. He sees himself in the narrator, just as readers do. The second person in The Fall includes not only the listener, but everyone. We’re all guilty.

In his short story “Videotape,” Don DeLillo uses second person narration directly. The story has no I, only you. The narrator is watching a video clip on the news. Filmed accidentally by a child, the clip shows a man being shot in his car by someone called the Texas Highway Killer. The narrator is obsessed with the clip and wants to watch it every time it appears on a news show. And he watches himself play out the obsession the way he would watch himself on video. He becomes an image of himself, objectified and placed in a framework for analysis:

You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast – a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending.

His thoughts stretch beyond his small obsession to reach the understanding that video has radically changed reality for him and everyone else in our culture. Even the killer’s modus operandi is inspired by video.

Second-person point of view is necessary to this story. It models the way video affects how we look at ourselves, shapes our thinking. It implicates readers, whose reality has been shaped by video whether they know it or not. It reveals our collective obsession with recording and replaying. Remember Rodney King’s beating by the police and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a half-time performance at the Super Bowl? Video clips of these events were aired hundreds of times on TV. They have become part of our collective reality, or as DeLillo describes it, “the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you are thinking.”

From these two examples, second person seems to be a technique for literary masters, but it’s available to any writer who cares to give it a shot. I wrote a section of my thriller Talion in second-person and present tense. A girl is enduring torture at the hands of a sadistic killer. I wanted the narrative to feel intense and immediate. First-person failed to convey the shattered state of a character whose personality is being destroyed along with her body and who struggles to hold onto a fragment of her personality.

I’m presumptuous, talking about my writing along with that of masters like DeLillo and Camus, as if I’m anywhere near their league. I write genre fiction, but I try to learn from the best. What matters is whether the technique works. If second person were wrong for the section, it would be a distraction. Apparently it’s not. Though a few readers have criticized Talion for its occasional shifts into present tense – something they think shouldn’t be done in genre fiction – no one seems to have noticed the second-person narration. Maybe the descriptions of torture are so harrowing that readers don’t notice she and her have become you and your and they’ve joined the victim beneath the killer’s knife.

As with any literary technique, second person works best when it has both a narrative and thematic purpose. Ideally, writers don’t up and decide to write in second person; they have a story that can’t be written any other way.

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I was a teenage changeling

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

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Autobiographical fiction: I was there when none of this happened

Fiction writers often begin with autobiography, especially young writers. Life is painful and incomprehensible. Their stories cry out and struggle to comprehend the world. My early fiction was cathartic in this way. But I soon figured out that personal experience is limiting. The characters in autobiographical stories are distorted fragments of the people on whom they’re based, and what happened is often less significant than what might have happened.

There’s a sea of darkness beyond the uncertain light of memory. The truth is somewhere out there, and once my imagination enters the darkness, I abandon any pretence of autobiography. I’m not writing about actual people or events anymore. I’m writing about ghosts and dreams. The story can become anything.

I’d reached that point when I wrote “Mandarian Training School.”

Although rooted in experience, the story is fiction. Most of the events never happened, and the characters only loosely resemble people I met at a summer school for high-school students with mathematical ability at San Diego State University. The distinction matters. The story reflects my imagination, not any kind of objective reality.

At fifteen I was a year younger than most of the participants. People who know me now might be surprised that I applied and even more surprised that I qualified. My friends at Charleston Scrabble Club will tell you that I’m not exactly a whiz at keeping score. My interest in math is mild at best, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. These days I can barely solve a binary equation.

Mathematics is an elegant and challenging language. It expresses concepts that cannot be understood in any other way. As a child I loved math. The summer in San Diego changed that. Emotionally I was unprepared for the workload or the competition. I worked my butt off and felt like the stupidest person in the program. But when I received our class rankings some months later, my name appeared in the middle of the list. I wasn’t a failure. Only mediocre. Somehow that seemed just as bad.

“Mandarian Training School” chronicles my emotional struggle during that summer long ago. And yes, writing it was cathartic. In retrospect, it marked a milestone for me as a writer, the point where I broke away from personal experience and learned to see in the dark.

Read the story here.

 

Image from fotolia.com

Happy Endings

Ultimately no one gets a happy ending. As every Game of Thrones fan knows, Valar Morghulis: All men must die. Even if you’re steadfast in your belief in an afterlife, you still have to die and the process is usually painful and scary.

The most we can hope for is a fortunate death. You rescue a child from a fiery building and get crushed by debris while the kid crawls to safety. At the age of 92, you and your beloved spouse die instantly in a car crash where no one else get hurts.

The inevitability of the unhappy ending may explain why so many readers of fiction crave happy ones. The storyteller brings the protagonist through conflict and danger to a moment of triumph or fulfillment—and then stops. The golden moment sails on forever. If it’s especially satisfying, the reader may reread the book and experience it all over again.

Some readers feel cheated when a story fails to deliver an upbeat ending or when it stops before the conflict is fully resolved (the open ending). “That’s all there is?” they ask. “What a downer!” A few might hurl the book across the room. Books have an advantage over e-readers here; they can be hurled without breaking.

Readers aren’t shy when they hate the ending of a book. They complain to friends and excoriate the offensive book in merciless reviews. Frustration and disappointment run deep, especially when there’s a large emotional investment in the story. Just read the reader reviews of Allegiant, in which Veronica Roth kills off the main character of her trilogy.

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I understand why readers feel this way. It was hard for me to forgive JRR Martin for the Red Wedding. Never mind that Rob Stark brings his fate upon himself. His army dwindles as he alienates his allies from the other northern houses. Betrothed to one of Waldo Frey’s daughters for political reasons, he marries the woman he loves even though his advisors and his mother warn him not to. And his mother knows Waldo, knows his bitterness at being slighted by other houses. How can she even consider going anywhere near the old man? None of that matters. Martin makes me love these characters and then has them brutally slaughtered while they attend a wedding at Frey’s castle. My anger didn’t stop me from continuing the Fire and Ice saga but when I set out to reread it, I stopped in the middle of A Storm of Swords before coming to the Red Wedding. I just couldn’t go through that again.

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I laughed when someone told me that the outcome of an “exotic massage” is called a happy ending. The analogy suggests the nature and depth of readers’ frustration. The author ramps up the tension with conflict and suspense and then delivers disappointment and frustration. True tragedy offers an elevated kind of release—catharsis—but melodrama depends on the happy ending.

Not every massage delivers sexual relief and not every kind of story ends well for the protagonist. Massage clients and readers know that. Their outrage comes when the benefit is promised and not delivered. Since the legality of a sex massage is iffy and readers don’t want to be told ahead of time how a story ends, the promise is implied. A suggestive sign outside the massage parlor, a book cover identifying the story as a romance.

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It upsets me to see Daemon Seer categorized as a romance. I worry that somewhere a reader of romances loathed the ending and still blames me for her damaged Kindle.

So why not give deliver the happy ending every time? Because disaster is the logical end of certain stories, in which case the happy ending becomes a clumsy lie. Intelligent readers reject the lie—even when part of them yearns to accept it. And a few writers are hard cases who insist on delivering a truth that few people care to acknowledge. A truth stated beautifully by Anne Sexton in her poem “Cinderella”:

Cinderella and the prince
Lived, they say, happily ever after,
Like two dolls in a museum case
Never bothered by diapers or dust,
Never arguing over the timing of an egg,
Never telling the same story twice,
Never getting a middle-aged spread,
Their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.


Image credits:

Cinderella still from FanPop

Game of Thrones still from FanPop

JRR Martin meme by AryaArryWeaselNanSaltyCatofthecanalsBethNoOne via Mashable

Massage parlor sign from Bakersfield Now

Sentimentality – Does God care about roadkill?

“Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.”

—Kenneth Meyers

 

My horse, Tucker, lives on a farm forty minutes away from my home. The roads are flat and straight and sometimes so empty I drive for miles without seeing another car. One afternoon while driving out there to ride, I composed the above haiku in my head. (I’m not the sort of driver who wields pen and paper while behind the wheel.) Haiku is a Japanese form consisting of three lines: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. A haiku usually presents two images, but they don’t come together to form a metaphor. The reader discovers connections between them while contemplating the poem.

I seldom write poetry—as you can most likely tell from this effort. When I brought the haiku to my critique group, some praised the imagery while others faulted the poem for its sentimentality.

Say what? I thought. People dislike my writing for various reasons, but they seldom find it sentimental.

Sentimentality evokes emotion at the expense of critical thinking. It’s comfortable emotion, epitomized by the verses on certain greeting cards, the kind with rainbows and ribbons and nostalgic country scenes on the front. It horrifies sophisticated readers and most writers. A whiff of sentimentality sends them scurrying to open the windows and run the fans at high speed until the stink is gone. I suspect that readers without training in literary criticism don’t feel this horror. They recognize tearjerkers and sugary writing and accept them for what they are. Most of the time anyway.

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I don’t think my haiku is sentimental. It shows two images of destruction on the highway. To find the poem sentimental, the reader must make a metaphoric connection (the piece of blown tire stands for the death of a human being in a car wreck) and an inference (because the tire claws the sky like a bird, the death of a bird is just as important as the death of a human being). But this line of thought reveals as much about the reader as about the poem.

I hate seeing dead creatures in the road and do what I can to avoid hitting them, but it wasn’t just pity that inspired my haiku. I was struck by how much the wing resembles the blown tire and how common it is to see both things on highways. Nearly everyone drives on highways. We need them. But there’s something inexorable and destructive about the process of hurtling over them at high speed.

Of course we feel worse about car wrecks than we do about roadkill, especially when people are maimed or killed, but ultimately we accept those fatal multi-vehicle highway disasters as facts of life. We accept them as surely as we accept the occasional crushed bird and woodchuck. Grieving when someone we loves dies in a car wreck doesn’t change that.

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Flying Spiders: Brief Excerpt from Talion

The second chapter of Talion includes a flashback of Lisa and her brother  visiting their father in Chicago. She receives a locket that becomes significant later. For readers wanting an entirely plot-driven story, the flashback might be an annoyance, but unless they understand who Lisa is, how will they care what happens to her?

Flying Spiders

He was nowhere in the crowd of faces at the airport gate. The other passengers swept her and Randy forward like a powerful river. A crash of voices and distant music echoed from the cavernous airport walls. Lisa searched the endless stream of faces. She desperately had to pee. They passed restrooms, but she couldn’t ask Randy to stop. He grabbed her wrist so hard she yelped in pain. “Stay with me!”

He dragged her through a huge terminal building to the United Airlines counter. They waited in a long line. When their turn finally came, the uniformed woman behind the counter was writing something. Randy drummed his fingers until she said, “May I help you?” Her eyelids drooped as she listened to him, then she lifted a phone and punched some buttons. “I got two kids here’s supposed to meet their daddy.” She pronounced the name, Murray Duncan, so precisely that it sounded like contempt. She hung up and started checking suitcases as if Randy and Lisa weren’t there anymore. Another uniformed woman told them to step aside so the line could keep moving. Squeezed between the ticket line and the baggage line, they got jostled and drew curious stares.

Randy’s face turned red and knotty, like when he lifted his stupid barbells. What if he started a fight and ruined their vacation?

“Dad probably just went to the wrong place,” Lisa said.

“Well, they’re paging him right now.”

A loudspeaker drifted above the noise in the terminal: Murray Duncan, please come to the United Airlines ticket counter. Murray Duncan. . . Something about the sound, hollow and distorted, made Lisa feel the awful moment would keep happening forever. Dad would always forget to meet them, and his name would drift through the airport terminal like a ghost.

Lisa saw the girl coming. She hurried along in snake-skin pumps with ticking steps that made her boobs jiggle. Lisa might have laughed except the girl was gorgeous. She looked like a model with perfect hair and makeup and a flashbulb smile.

“You’re Randy, right? You’ve got your dad’s sexy eyes.”

The swollen anger drained from his face like air from a popped balloon. The girl tossed a conspiring smile over her shoulder. That’s how you handle men, it said. She introduced herself as Angelina and apologized for not meeting them at the gate. The traffic on the expressway had been insane.

Randy carried their suitcases out to the car and stowed them in the trunk, putting lots of effort into lifting so Angelina could see his biceps. Lisa snickered but kept her mouth shut. She wanted his good mood to hold. Breathing the grit and fumes of the airport, she felt excited and a little queasy. Her whole life would change from this vacation, she just knew. It didn’t even matter that Randy took the front seat and stuck her with sitting in back.

“Where’s our dad?” Randy asked once they were on the expressway.

“In a meeting.”

They waited for Angelina to explain further as hundreds of cars spun past, the people inside glowering or desperate or laughing wildly. Compared to them she seemed cool and perfect. Her hands rested easily on the steering wheel, the car just another accessory like her gold bracelet and pink nails.

“Are you his girlfriend?”

“Yes. And I work for him as well. I’ll be staying with you while he’s at the office.”

“So he’s paying you to stay with us?”

“Should he be?”

Randy scowled. Though he teased Lisa without mercy, he hated being teased himself.

The condo, in a high-rise by the lake, was like a picture in a magazine. Everything down to the empty flower vase fit the decorating scheme, but nothing reminded Lisa of Dad. It felt like a hotel. She and Randy watched TV and drank bottle after bottle of orange and lemon Pellegrino.

She felt bloated and grouchy by the time Angelina drove them to a restaurant with pastel tablecloths and napkins spread like fans. Dad sat alone at a table drinking a foreign beer and reading a newspaper. He looked different than she remembered. Didn’t he used to have a tan? Now his skin reminded her of mushrooms. It was stretched too tight over his cheekbones, but under his eyes the wrinkles gathered like cobwebs.

Then he hugged her and said, “How’s my beautiful girl,” and Lisa told herself everything would be OK.

The next day Angelina took them shopping. In a jewelry store Lisa found the locket. She knew right away it was what she wanted — a smooth hunk of 14-carat gold with a thick chain. Inside, Dad’s picture would fit beneath a crystal. Angelina slapped down a credit card without asking the price.

That evening they had dinner at an Italian restaurant too fancy to serve pizza, and Lisa asked Dad for a picture of himself.

“You don’t need my picture.”

Lisa was too surprised to answer.

“Can’t you give a picture to your own daughter?” Angelina said, careful not to presume. She was just asking.

“I don’t have one.”

“I’ll take one,” Randy said.

“No. If there has to be a photograph, I’ll get it done professionally.”

At the end of their visit, he’d given each of them a photograph that looked like it came from his driver’s license.

On the plane home Randy said, “What an asshole. He’s paranoid of his own kids.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want pictures of himself floating around for the cops to get a hold of. He scams people. He talks them into phony investments and steals their money.”

“He does not.” Lisa yelled so loud the flight attendant frowned a warning at her.

“Ask Mom if you don’t believe me.”

“Mom hates him.”

“Because he’s an asshole. He spent more time with Angelina than us.”

On a bright Sunday afternoon, Dad and Angelina had taken them to the John Hancock Center. They rode an elevator at breakneck speed to the observatory on top. It was swarming with tourists. Everyone jockeyed for a spot at the windows. Luckily Randy was big enough to elbow past the adults, and Lisa was small enough to stand in front of him without blocking his view.

Sailboats drifted across the lake in dreamlike silence. Lisa imagined sailing out there, the sun on her shoulders, the waves lifting her with the promise of excitement. She imagined diving into the jeweled water of the pool on the roof of an apartment tower. Knowing her father lived in just such a building, she felt like a princess. When she was older and ready, he would bring her into his world. She would dedicate herself to preparing for that time.

She realized Dad and Angelina were gone. They had to be somewhere in the observatory, but she felt anxious. She turned to Randy. He was staring, not at the lake or buildings but into the vacant sky.

“What’s up there?”

“Spiders. On the outside of the window.” He pointed to some darkish specks Lisa had dismissed as dirt. But they were spiders. “I wonder how they get up here. And what do they eat? Probably insects that come flying along. And if the wind blows them off, they’re so light they float along on air currents to another skyscraper.”

“You can see spiders anywhere,” she said. “Where’s Dad?”

“Who cares.” His eyes never left the spiders. “You go find them.”

The observatory’s corridor followed the outer windows to form a big square. On the opposite side she found Dad and Angelina. They were each leaning a shoulder against the inner wall, touching foreheads as if sharing secrets through telepathy. His arms circled her waist. Lisa knew then he wanted to be with Angelina. His kids coming to visit was a pain, and he could hardly wait for them to leave.

They never heard from him anymore. The child-support checks were signed by his lawyer. The birthday and Christmas presents were certificates from upscale catalogs, but Mom still made them send thank-you notes. “Your actions show who you are,” she said. “And if he’s got any shame he’ll help pay for your college.”

 

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Ambiguity

Photograph by Tonia Fraser.

You could write a book on why readers dislike ambiguity in fiction. Someone probably has. It might seem arrogant (or at least reductive) to address the question in 500 words or less, but I’m going to try.

The answer comes down to what a reader wants — challenge or comfort.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity or certainty in a situation. In fiction, it’s found in open endings, unsolved disappearances, characters whose nature remains mysterious, events that may or may not be real. For me, ambiguity enriches a story and keeps me thinking long after I put the book aside. It makes the story more real. More like life.

We live with ambiguity every day. Someone texts a friend several times and gets no reply. An insecure person thinks, “I did something to make her hate me.” A fearful person thinks, “Maybe she’s in trouble.” An optimistic person thinks, “She’s having too much fun to check her messages.” The point is, people feel the need to come up with an explanation.

Oftentimes more is at stake. You interview for a job. The interviewer promises to get back to you, but doesn’t. Maybe you should call and ask whether you’re still in the running. But what if your call annoys the interviewer?

You meet someone and want to start dating. But maybe he’s a con artist with a string of ex-wives. You run an online search and hope it uncovers the truth. Some of the truth anyway.

The uncertainty of life can be exhausting and anxiety provoking. What a comfort to escape into a story where the mystery is solved, the lovers are united, and both characters and reader stand on solid fictional ground.

The trouble is, the real complexity of experience is missing from those stories.

Margaret Atwood’s “Death By Landscape” is a short story built on ambiguity. The protagonist, Lois, goes to summer camp and meets Lucy. The two girls become friends over several summers together at camp. One day while they’re alone on a hike, Lucy goes off to pee and never comes back. A search of the surrounding countryside turns up nothing. The owner of the summer camp blames Lois.

For the rest of her life, Lois carries the guilt and perplexity of not knowing what happened to her friend. She collects paintings of wilderness landscapes but otherwise pushes the experience to the back of her mind — until she gets old. With her husband dead and her children gone, the mystery of Lucy’s disappearance reemerges. Lois spends her days gazing at the landscape paintings in search of Lucy.

“Death By Landscape” illustrates how devastating lack of closure can be. Lois seeks closure in her collection of landscapes. They are attempts to recapture Lucy by placing borders around the uncharted territory that swallowed her up.

Many readers seek closure in fiction and abhor the holes where certainty and clarity disappear. I can’t really blame them.