Monday, May 30, 2011

The Unlimiter

I woke up with this crazy desire to go back to the manuscript I put down four months ago. I thought about it all day, piecing it together like a puzzle, and I think I've settled on something good. The thing is, it's completely different.

Well, not completely, but enough that I don't know if I'll be able to reuse a single chapter. I have the characters and the setting, though. I know them. I won't need to go through that process again.

Most importantly, I'm excited about it again. And I know it takes me about three months to turn out a decent rough draft from this point.

I've developed a habit of writing queryesque blurbs about books before starting on them. (Just to make sure I have an actual plot.) It's kind of fun.

So, here's Brian explaining his problem. If you want to see how it looked before, click the In Memory tab near the top of the page, just under the blog title.

I’m not particularly talented. I do well in school, make friends easily, keep out of trouble. There is one thing that sets me apart. 
I make superheroes. Occasionally a supervillain. 
I know. It’s crazy. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration—but not much. Take my girlfriend, for instance. She can control people’s emotions. I gave her that ability. 
Okay, again I exaggerate. Esha was born with a gift, you might say. But how far does talent get you? I mean, even with a lot of work and perseverance, talent still has limits, right? 
Not Esha’s. I unlimited her. 
I guess that’s my talent. I bring out the best in people. 
So imagine my surprise when the girl Esha rescued from suicide blamed all her troubles on me. I knew Leah. (Had a crush on her in middle school, in fact.) Weirdly, she knew about my talent. She says I unlimited her years before I even knew I could. It was an accident. 
Now she claims unlimiting drove her mad, and that it will do the same to Esha—and Peter, and everyone else I’ve unlimited. She says madness will drive Peter to homicide, and I have good reason to believe her.  
There’s only one way to stop him, but I can’t do it alone. I make super-people. Only Esha can unmake them.  
That’s exactly why Peter wants her dead.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Best Bookends in the World

I'm not exaggerating. Ever since we moved into our house five years ago, I've needed a set of bookends for my dresser. That's where I keep a bunch of books that I'm reading, intend to read, or think I should read. I've been getting by with one plain metal bookend and a picture-frame/old-trophy combination that sometimes lets the whole line fall over.

My wife, who is not only beautiful but also unbelievably multitalented and infinitely creative, (it's okay for you to feel a little jealous—of either of us,) asked what I wanted for my birthday. This was, like, six months ago because she also plans waaay ahead. One of the things I mentioned was a set of bookends.

A couple weeks before my birthday, she asked what I like. Not the same question, you'll notice. I really had to think about that, and she had to ask follow up questions to get the answer she wanted. But I settled on three things:  books, stars, and bikes.

Forgive me some bragging, but my wife has a lot of talent with the arts. She draws, carves things out of wood with a Dremel, and has recently picked up wood-burning (pyrography). (There are other things, but I'll stop.) She worked for hours to make this gift, and I was amazed when I opened it.

Bookends that look like books about my favorite subjects! Our daughters picked the titles: The Bike and Search for the Stars. Even the inner sides are woodburned and painted. I may have to unscrew the bottoms and switch them around after awhile so I can see the telescope and stars. These aren't the greatest photos, and that one would look better with old hardcovers, but I don't have many of those.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Write the Truth

And the truth shall make you fees. Or something. Yesterday, I went back and rewrote the first scene of Drivers. (BTW, I really like that Blogger now recognizes Command-I as a shortcut for italics on Macs.)

I wanted to add a little action. There wasn't any in the original, and I wanted the hero to do a little something heroic for his girl right off the bat. You know, to kind of foreshadow bigger things later and make people like him.

Here's the deal:  They both arrive in a foreign country on a private jet. They're among strangers, under armed guard, and doomed to die in a few days. The security guy at the airport lets Ash and two other men pass without so much as a metal detector scan, then announces that he has to search Zephyr because she has a violent criminal record. She's embarrassed and protests, since she was searched before getting on the plane and has been under guard ever since.

The problem now is that there's nothing Ash can plausibly do to rescue her. I tried to play up the conflict between Zephyr and her guards, then have Ash defuse the situation by insisting they search him too, and making fun of the security guy.

It was pretty meh.

I thought maybe I'd build it up more, so when Ash steps in it really feels heroic despite him not really changing anything. I thought about having him actually save her from the search. And it all started to feel like the original opening scene of In Memory that no one liked. Nothing felt right. It felt contrived.

Because it was!

So I settled on something completely different. I still have Zephyr in the same situation, but I don't play it up and make it more than it is. It's only a pat-down that no one else got, not a strip search or anything really bad. It's just an insult on top of everything else wrong in Zephyr's life—and everything else is much, much worse than airport security.

The truth is, to the helpless and hopeless, small victories don't matter. But it helps to know you're not alone.

Ash quietly walks back to join her. He doesn't do anything heroic—just nice. It fits his character, and it's not contrived. It's true.

It's not exciting. It's not action. I don't really know that it's a good beginning. But I like it right now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Theme Song

I finished the first draft of Drivers on Saturday. It's a good thing, too, because I was raptured that afternoon.

Ha ha. Kidding.

Anyway, a funny thing happened on the last page. Third-to-last sentence: "We're. . .back in the sunlight."

Cue the music!

I know a lot of writers make playlists of songs to go with the novel they're working on. (I'm going to leave that preposition right where it is, thankyou.) But when paraphrased lines from songs work their way into your manuscript, does that mean you're listening to that playlist a little too much?

The thing is, Follow Me Back Into the Sun is the theme song for this novel. I originally had it near the beginning of the playlist as a bit part to go with one chapter because it's a nice song and kinda sorta fit.

Then I realized it neatly condenses the feel of the whole book into four minutes, and I promoted it to the end of the playlist. It could have been written about my characters—but, of course, it wasn't.

Did I write a novel based on a song? (No, I didn't)

Or do I simply interpret vague lyrics to mean what I want them to?

I do that second one all the time. Take the line "You can blow what's left of my right mind" from Future Starts Slow by The Kills. I doubt they were thinking about literally blowing up a mentally ill person. But they could have been. I mean, that's what it says.

The Rescues' lines
Love be brave
Burn all the maps and let the ashes blow away
aren't about a boy named Ash and a girl named after the wind.
Sirens in the distance cry
Don't know how to leave you
Don't know how to leave you now
doesn't have to be about lovers trying to save each other on a battlefield. That's the nice thing about ambiguous lyrics. They let you make the song mean what you need it to mean.

And it's an awesome song. Listen to it, if you haven't already.

(If your browser settings prevent that link from working, you can go to and search for "Follow Me Back Into the Sun" by The Rescues. No need to register or pay.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Heart as a Compass

I had a bunch of words written about singing in my car and how it's like writing and never showing anyone, and blah blah blah. They felt like a rotted log, hollow and dead. And something Napoleon said kept running through my mind:  "Follow your heart. That's what I do."

Yeah, that's Napoleon Dynamite. Like I'd know anything the other Napoleon said. Gosh.

So I'm following my heart. It says I'm in the same place I left Ash (my protagonist) yesterday morning—on a minefield. He's still there. I couldn't write this morning because all my ideas felt like that same rotting log. How do you get through a minefield?

Metaphorically, life is a battlefield. (I said LIFE, not love. Did anyone else hear Pat Benetar just then?) The battlefield is mined, meaning there are bombs that blow up when you step on them. Stepping on a mine is a mistake, the kind you make when you're not being careful and start following the wrong tracks, going off the path, etc. You have to slow down and think before every step you take.

In other words, to avoid making mistakes and stepping on mines, follow your head, not your heart.

If I were Ash and stuck on an actual minefield in a damaged vehicle and with snipers shooting at me from the trees, I'd be strongly tempted to simply drive like mad for the other side. I know this because that's basically how I got through school. I tried to study hard and do all my work. But there came a point in every class where I lost all desire to tread carefully and do good work. That point usually came late the night before a big test or deadline. No matter what my head said I should do, my heart sabotaged it by not caring anymore. It really hurt me. Led me onto a lot of mines and bad grades.

My head said I should major in computer science. I like computers. I like science. There's good money in that field. My heart said no. I flunked my CS classes.

All right, I told my heart. We'll do physics and astronomy, because that's what we really love. Nope, said my heart. The night sky is wonderful, but I don't like math. Never have, never will.

But you're pretty good at it, I answered.

Don't care, said my heart.

All right. Fine. What do you want to do?


But there's no money in English, and it's ridiculously easy. Don't we need a challenge? Don't we want a good job?

It's easy because we're good at writing. And I like easy.

Speaking of easy, it's no problem to follow your heart when your head agrees. It took me two years of getting beat up by college to switch to English. Lo, and behold, I got good grades and enjoyed school.

It's still hard to follow my heart—especially when it seems to be leading me to do the wrong things. I rewrote a novel several times because it felt like the right thing to do. After the last rewrite, the first feedback I got from someone who'd read earlier versions was that the characters felt flat.

All that work had made it worse. All those hours that were supposed to make the manuscript wonderful robbed it of what's most important.

What do you say now, heart? How does it feel to kill something you love?

It hurts.

We have to fix it. So many people are invested in this project.

Not right now. Maybe later. Right now, I want to move on.

Whose side are you on?

My head says don't use present tense. It's a fad, an affectation, rarely done well, a rookie mistake, a sign of weak writing, unnecessary. . .

Do it, says my heart.

I'm not a logical person. I follow my heart. It leads my head kicking and screaming down wrong paths. I've seen it make so many mistakes. And yet, part of me wonders if it's ever done anything that turned out bad in the end. Didn't I learn a lot from those rewrites? Didn't all that homework turn out to be unimportant?

To survive the predicament I've dumped on him, Ash should slow down, ignore the less dangerous gunfire, look where he's going, and find the right set of tracks to follow. He should follow his head, not his gut instinct. That's what my head says he should do.

And me? I'm charging blindly across the field at top speed, scared to death that I'm making a huge mistake—but doing it anyway.

At least I know what to do with Ash, now.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Drivers: Another Try

So, I have two early versions of a query. The first one I wrote just recently. It's short. (And I'm almost done with the first draft of the book.)

Ash had nothing to lose when he took the job. He wanted to die, and it sounded like a good way to go, hidden inside a supposedly driverless robotic vehicle fighting in a foreign war. Speed, guns, explosions and all that. 
But Ash is better at staying alive than he thought. Since meeting Zephyr—since falling in love with her—he also has a lot more to lose. 
And he'll lose it all unless he and Zephyr can escape from two armies, a corporate security team, and their own inner demons.  
Aside from their desperate new love of life and each other, they don't have much to work with:  Zephyr's brains, Ash's photography skills, and a cell phone with no service.

And the following is what I wrote before I wrote the actual novel. I thought that one up there ^ was much better, but this one has a lot going for it:
Ash is trapped in a dead-end job, but he’s changed his mind about dying. He’s basically a suicide bomber. Not the terrorist, strap-a-bomb-around-your-chest sort of bomber. He works for an American security contractor, driving a heavily armed vehicle on missions too dangerous for soldiers.  
Too dangerous for anyone, actually. That’s why the vehicles are supposed to be unmanned, computer controlled. No one on the outside even knows Ash and his fellow drivers are inside the armed robotic vehicles. 
Yeah. And he works for the good guys. 
Ash signed up for the suicide mission. He wanted to die, anyway. Speed, guns, and explosions sounded like a good way to go. 
That was before he met Zephyr, another driver. She understands him. She even cares about him. After they both survive their first operation, Ash wants his life back. Then he and Zephyr run up against the downside of their employee agreement. 
They can't quit. 
They know too much, and a lot of money and criminal charges ride on keeping  the company’s secrets. With a fifty percent survival rate per operation, odds aren’t good they’ll make it through another. 
Their only escape is locked inside a robot with a hair-trigger self-destruct—a mobile arsenal that everyone thinks is unmanned and will be told is out of control.

Now, if you don't mind, tell me:  Which one gets you most excited to read the book? Are there pieces of the other you'd like to see grafted into your favorite? Have you ever made a root beer float with chocolate ice cream?

Monday, May 9, 2011

No News is Good News

I'm still not sure what that's supposed to mean. Does it mean that not getting any news means nothing bad has happened? Or does it mean that all news is bad? Are those basically the same thing, and I'm all confused about it for nothing? Is this statement even true, for cryin' out loud?

The first time I read Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau, I got to his rant about news and felt a little—miffed? He basically says news is worthless unless it directly involves you. At the time, I was in my first year of college, idealistic, and very much into news and politics.

Lately, I'm not really into either. Why? Jaded cynicism, I suppose. What passes for news largely consists of the following:

Congress isn't doing anything. Each party blames the other and/or the White House. (Insert clips of politicians spouting meaningless rhetoric.) In other news, (insert latest disaster or coup I can't do anything about), (update on celebrities I don't care about), and (sports I don't care about).

I find myself agreeing with ol' Thoreau. News is worthless. Unless I'm going to be voting in a local election, sandbagging the local creek, or going to a multiple author appearance at a local middle school (which should have been in the news before it happened, dang it!), nothing in the news really applies to my life.

The idealist in me feels bad about this. He thinks I should be actively trying to promote change. To borrow a line, I'd join the movement if there was one I could believe in. Maybe I'll run for school board, someday.

Until then, it doesn't matter who I vote for in presidential elections. (I'm in Utah.) It doesn't matter who I vote for for U. S. senate or house. (Same thing.) Our state legislators all deserve the boot, so I never vote for an incumbent. I don't live in a city, and county positions are usually unopposed.

Activists annoy me, and I'm not going to become one.

I'm not likely to travel long distance to help disaster victims, and I already donate money to a charity I trust to make good use of it.

I do like reading about new books coming out. I get that from blogs. In fact, I get all my news from blogs, Twitter, and Facebook these days, and that suits me just fine. Most of the news is about people I know and care for. When they need my help, I can give it directly, sometimes over a great distance.

And so, the mass media in my life have been replaced by social media. You know what? I'm happier that way. (I mean, you see how grouchy I get at the mention of politics.) I'm in touch with the real world of people's lives, not that fabricated reality of mass media where nothing ever changes.

But if anything ever does change, someone let me know in 140 characters or less.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

To Kill a Mockingjay (with spoilers!)

It was either that or "Jay Mocking" for a title, and I flipped a coin. I'm sure there are some other good puns I could've used, but I haven't thought of them.

A while back, when I finished reading The Hunger Games, I wrote a blog post about the moment I realized I was the audience consuming violence for pleasure. I said the book was horrific in its conception and execution, and I still think that. I don't plan to ever read it again. (I never reread, though, so that doesn't say much. Too many new books to read, too little time.) But I liked it.

When I finished Catching Fire, I hated the ending and wrote a little about that here.

Spoiler Alert! Stop reading if you haven't read Mockingjay. Seriously.

I finished Mockingjay last Friday, and as if to prove wrong what I recently said about crying over books, it brought tears to my eyes. It was the moment when Katniss realizes and enunciates why she needs Peeta and not Gale.

Prior to that, there was a lot of over-the-top violence. I was ready to throw the book across the room at one point. I thought Collins was going to end it badly. I was overjoyed to be wrong.

Here's the funny thing—Collins completely destroyed her main character. I expected that after the hell the author put her through, Katniss would never recover. You know what I loved? She tried to kill herself. Katniss was suicidal for weeks! How do you recover from that? I mean as a writer. How do you drag your character to rock bottom right at the end of a book and not end up with the readers cursing your name?

Fast forward!

Just skip all that boring recovery from PTSD and other unpleasant psychological issues.

I don't mean to say that I didn't like the way she did it. I loved it. It's just that I'm writing a book that starts with the characters at rock bottom and drags them up from there—aaaaand then back down. And when they reach the end, there won't be any fast forwarding into happy endings, because—well, I don't want to make it sound easy.

Anyway, I was telling my wife about Mockingjay, and she said she'd never let me write a book with that much violence. I thanked her. (She has no interest in reading them, and I wouldn't recommend them to her.) But you know? I didn't have the same issue I did with The Hunger Games. All that violence had plenty of awful consequences by the end of the series. If I were to rate the books individually, the first two wouldn't score highly. But the entire series gets a thumbs up. Two thumbs up, because I have two thumbs.

p.s. It was nice to see a strong person driven to suicide in a popular novel, but it probably did little to shed light on the problem in the real world. The circumstances were too extreme.