Greetings from Slumpy Hollow, Slumptavia

So it’s been several weeks since I’ve touched my novel to any significant degree. Weeks. Maybe more than a month. I’m beside myself. I’ve tweaked and revised several short stories, spent time researching markets where I might submit them, attended several classes, re-sent book 1 of my novel series to the publisher I’ve wanted all along (they never responded the first time, and their guidelines say to re-send), and I sent the entire manuscript to another publisher who had an unexpected open submissions period where no agent was needed (neither of these publishers have a “no simultaneous submissions” mention on their guidelines). I’ve read through several of the scenes in book two of my novel series and made a few small changes. So I haven’t been ignoring my craft. I just haven’t written anything new other than blog posts or book reviews, nor have I continued the narrative in book two. When I do open it, I watch the daily target word count creep up and up and up, small increases for now but the longer it takes me to knock that down, the bigger they’ll get.

It isn’t that I don’t want to write. I do. I just can’t seem to get away from Life’s distractions long enough to nail my butt to the chair until it’s so late in the evening that I’m either wiped or too frazzled to focus, or it’s too close to bedtime. I don’t know about you, but if I write up until time to shut down and go to bed, sleep is hard to find. I have to stop and walk away from the computer at least two hours before I hope to close my eyes for the night. (When did that happen? I used to be able to write until 4:00 a.m., then go straight to bed, sleep three hours, and work all the next day.)

I’m on vacation this week, and spent the whole day today cleaning my desk (I could barely reach my computer), doing laundry (or I’d be naked), and other assorted tasks that I’ve been putting off too long. I meant to write. I wanted to write. I tried to write.

The words wouldn’t come.

I don’t remember the last time I was in a slump this bad. Maybe it’s the holidays, which seemed much busier this year than in the past. Is it just me? And no, we don’t spend a great deal of time shopping for gifts. While I understand the desire to exchange gifts with friends and loved ones, it seems to me that the Mercantile Scramble has become the main focus of Christmas. It’s gotten so bad we try to avoid going anywhere retail oriented (other than the grocery store) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Doesn’t matter what’s behind it. I fully expect you all to wag your finger in my direction and remind me of my BIC HOK TAM mantra. You’d be right to do so. This cannot go on. The voices in my head are yammering non-stop for me to let them out, so tomorrow I intend to sit at the computer and do nothing but write.

So fair warning to all my friends and family: I love you. But for the rest of this week, don’t look for me on Facebook or e-mail. Don’t call unless it’s an emergency. Don’t text. Or rather, feel free to do so, just know you’ll have to speak to our voice mail or expect an answer next YEAR (hee!). These blank pages and I? We have a date, and I’m not missing it again.

Red Moon

by Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing, ISBN: 978-1455501670
Mass Market Paperback, © 2013, 668 pages

They live among us. They might be our neighbor, our pastor, our doctor, our teacher, our spouse, our child. Most of the time, they look like us—except when they don’t. Except when stress or anger or fear incites the prion infection they carry into a frenzy and they change into their animal forms. They are the lycans, many of whom want only to be left alone, to be allowed to live their lives according to their nature.

There’s just one problem. Their nature is a fear too many human citizens cannot abide. When human attempts at control finally push the lycans too far, the Resistance bursts screaming from the shadows and there is no going back.

It feels to me like Percy took on a lot in writing this book, and he did it well. He aimed to blend literary and genre fiction together in a seamless style. He melded an alternate reality/world with issues relevant to this one, while fuzzing the line between the good guys and the bad guys. With few exceptions, no one is wholly one or the other in this story, which made it all the more gritty and plausible to me. All three main characters endure intense trauma and life-changing circumstances, and none fail to evolve in realistic ways. I found myself wondering how I would have handled the tragedies they lived through, whether I would have done any better than they. The truth is I don’t know the answer to those questions. More importantly, I don’t want to know. I hope I never find out.

Settings and scenes felt crisp and three-dimensional. I found Percy’s literary prose both beautiful and poignant, stark and chilling. He did tend to go on a bit longer than I would have preferred in his descriptions, but every reader’s tastes differ in this respect. In a few places, I skimmed the text to catch any foreshadowing, stopping only where it felt the relevant narrative picked up once more. Parts of the tale take us from one character’s head to another’s, even diving into the thoughts of bit players whose role consumes only a few pages before they are gone for good. Other parts pull back to reveal events unfolding far from our main characters, so that we know before they do what is coming. Scenes range from long, flowing passages to short, staccato bursts, almost like weapons fire; as events unravel and the characters’ world falls apart, scenes often ended in abrupt moments of tension, leaving the reader hanging in breathless anticipation for its resolution. In one way this format contributed to a more intricate weaving of plot threads, a writing tactic I generally like. However, I did find myself occasionally confused as to which character’s scene was which. This grew a little less frequent as the characters’ storylines began to converge.

While Red Moon is mostly character-driven, it is also a tale intended to provoke questions in the reader’s mind. As I mentioned above, issues prevalent in the narrative could easily have come from our own world. In the struggle between the lycans and the humans, as well as between the individual lycan and human enclaves themselves, I saw clear similarities to our own ongoing clash between individual rights and freedoms and the fearful desire to control and confine anyone who doesn’t match what we define as “normal.” Percy’s message isn’t even subtle when he illustrates the difference between those lycans who want life to go on in its usual peaceful way and those lycans who are willing to go to extremes to effect what they see as essential changes in politics and policies regarding their own kind. This is not one of those stories that ties everything up in a nice tidy bow at the end. Real life isn’t like that, and Percy didn’t try to depict it as such. The story’s conclusion is disturbing, unsettling, and absolutely believable, which only adds to the effect.

I must admit I didn’t know Red Moon was a werewolf story until the end of the first scene. Had I known beforehand, I might not have read it; with few exceptions—i.e. Stephen King, John Saul, a few select others—I don’t usually read horror. The only reason I picked it up was because some of Percy’s responses to questions in GlimmerTrain’s “Writers Ask” newsletter piqued my curiosity, especially where he responded to queries about the abundant research he did in preparation for writing Red Moon. “I have to read this book,” I thought. By the time I’d realized the plot revolved around lycans, I was hooked.

Make no mistake. There is a strong blood-and-guts horror element to this book, but what saved it for me was that the graphic violence was not gratuitous. It made perfect sense in the context of the tale, and if Percy had skipped those bits, it would not have worked nearly as well. Some stories can’t be told with sparkle and glitter, and this is one of them. The only gleam you’ll find in Red Moon is the reflection of moonlight on a sharpened blade, the muzzle flash of a Glock or an M4, and the liquid sheen of blood on the numerous bodies.

Because Percy wove his narrative in such a convincing way, I’m still not sure where my sympathies lie, with regard to some of the characters. I find I can see why most of them did the things they did, and I’m not sure I could make a convincing argument against them even when I didn’t like the outcome. And that—the fact that its moral quandary will linger in my head for a while after having finished it—is, for me, a sure mark of a good story.

Swimming with the Snarks

A couple of months ago, I joined a FaceBook writers group with thousands of members. I hoped to find helpful input, guidance and handy tips from others in the biz. What I got instead was drama. Every post I saw, no matter how innocuous or innocent the question, drew dozens of trolls whose main purpose seemed to be to offend as many people as possible on the thread. Granted, with that many members, it would be impossible to moderate adequately to keep all the trash out. But sheesh! What is the point of trying to snark another person into oblivion when they are there for ostensibly similar reasons as the snarker?

I followed it from the sidelines for over a month. Maybe two. I kept thinking maybe it was only a short-term thing, that the list would revert to its “normal helpful state” once the jerks got bored. But no. I found myself wading through 20 or 30 comments of rude or downright mean BS in order to find one helpful tip.

Let me be clear. I don’t speak snark. I don’t see the value in snark. My life has no room for snark. I have no problem telling someone if they’ve upset or offended me, but that is not the same thing. After that long with no clear change in the atmosphere, I finally bid the list adieu. I did make a comment (I know – stupid of me) that I was leaving in search of a writers group without all the drama, which I don’t need. For a week after I left the list, Facebook continued to send me the comments of other posters in response to my farewell note.

And each one’s tone? Yep, you guessed it. It was like a grade-school sandbox where the bullies were running the show. Who needs that?

As it happens, one of the other list members who was also tired of the puerile posts created his own writers group, and invited me to join. So I did. Already, I’m getting useful information every day. Because that’s the point of networking with other writers, isn’t it? To offer support and feedback? Advice and encouragement? It certainly seems to me like a more useful goal than tearing each other down, setting out to embarrass or humiliate the others, or to lord one’s own experience over a newcomer.

In Hampton Roads, where I live, there are several writers’ groups: Hampton Roads Writers and The Muse Writers’ Center. Both are oriented toward helping writers learn and improve their craft. HRW hosts “Show and Grow” events where writers can read excerpts and receive critiques, as well as classes, workshops and an annual conference (see my blog post in late September). The Muse Center has a regular physical space where they host gatherings, classes of all kinds, open readings, and more. They also host writers’ happy hours at various locations near their site so that we who are crazy enough to pen our thoughts in creative prose of one form or another might network and find others of like mind.

That is the type of support writers need. That’s why we seek out the company of other writers and creative people. And sometimes, we find each other in the darnedest, most unexpected places, as if we are drawn to one another by the muses in our heads.

A couple of weekends ago, I was gifted with contributions toward purchasing a new laptop and met young Phillippe, the sales clerk who assisted me at the Apple store. He was as nice as he could be, and I was already enjoying his company when I mentioned in passing that I am a writer. He was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more. I obliged (what writer wouldn’t?) and he confessed that he’d often thought of writing the story of his life as a fictionalized tale. Bobby and I strongly both encouraged him to do so, told him he’d never know if he could do it unless he tried. I told him about the local resources, and watched the look of excitement spread over his face at the thought of pursuing this dream. I admit to thinking how much farther along in this career I’d be by now if I too had started at twenty, like I wanted to. It felt really good to encourage him, to see his eagerness, and to wonder later if he would actually go after it.

I’m one of the first people to say that as widely differing individuals, we should try to find common ground if we want to understand one another. And I’m not sorry I joined that first Facebook writers group. It served as a reminder of the fact that there are apparently people out there who speak only snark. But I have no desire to visit snark city on purpose. The world has too much unavoidable ugliness already without choosing a forum whose atmosphere gags me with it every time I visit.

A Picture vs. A Thousand Words

This past weekend, Bobby and I visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk to see a glass exhibit, and while there we discovered Giovanni Battista Langetti’s “Prometheus,” which had been in the museum’s storage vault for some time awaiting restoration. Now that it’s back to full splendor, the painting hangs alone in the upstairs foyer, a grim sentinel who greets visitors on their way to the second-floor galleries.

You couldn’t walk past without seeing it. The piece is enormous, its rich shadows and vivid colors combined in a beautiful depiction of an appalling scene. Prometheus—who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans—lies chained to a mountain ledge. Skin and muscles of his brow wrinkle and writhe even in the stillness of the artist’s oils. Whites of his eyes stand out around blown pupils as he stares, panicked. His mouth stretches so wide you can almost hear his scream. Knotted muscles cover every inch of his naked body and all four limbs, including their associated phalanges, contort in futile attempt to escape. Beside him sits the eagle, dispenser of justice sent by the gods to eat Prometheus’s liver. Every day he endures this torment. Every day it begins again. Every day. For eternity.

Standing before that painting, I felt the thief’s dread, his terror. I easily imagined the madness that surely crept in, the suffering he must have experienced on a daily basis even before the eagle touched him. Just knowing what lay ahead would be torturous. I’m familiar with the myth of Prometheus and his theft of fire. Nonetheless, seeing that painting drove home with morbid finality the revulsion I didn’t feel from reading the tale.

That is the power of the visual. That is why our writing teachers tell us to “show,” not “tell.”

In this past week’s fiction class, my short story “Last Call” was up for critique. While everyone suggested improvements or noted flaws, everyone loved the story. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel! (Sorry for the exclamation point, Lydia!) Several people mentioned in their written comments how my description of a nebula popped a visual into their heads, or how Max’s reaction to news from home provoked in them a visceral reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, I must admit, because I’ve been tweaking that story since February of this year. Of course, it was my first ever short story attempt, but I loved the concept so much I could never bring myself to set it aside and forget it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.

It ain’t easy to paint pictures with words, especially when word-count is so important. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to know when to just come out and say, “Sam told Jane the bad news. Jane fainted,” and when it’s better to say, “Sam’s voice echoed in Jane’s ears, tinny and surreal beneath the hissing roar that threatened to drown him out. All the color drained from her face. A grey film painted everything in sight as if someone had drawn a fine veil over her head. She watched, mesmerized and nauseated, while a darkening tunnel sucked the room away, and the floor rushed up to catch her.” Okay, maybe that’s not my best effort (hey, it’s Monday with a vengeance), but you can see what I mean. Readers need to see what’s happening. And if I can’t show them in imagery, then I must bind their emotions to those of my characters, and pluck them as needed to drive home a plot point.

Granted, sometimes it’s easy to go overboard. A fellow student in class wrote at one particular paragraph on my manuscript, “Words on words on words. Wordy McWordy Word.” After I stopped laughing, I tried to figure out how I could make it better. I certainly notice when a writer has gone on far too long about a particular point; unless it’s necessary to the story, Professor McWordy can deflate all the power from the narrative, not to mention send you spiraling into an unwieldy word count that no agent or publisher will take on.

The key, I think, is as in most other things in life—to strike a good balance between the words and the images they paint. I’ve heard teachers say over and over that words in written works are valuable real estate; every single one must be absolutely necessary to the whole.

So I dance between too much and not enough. Don’t all writers do that same jig? I promise, if I ever figure out the exact formula that works every single time, I’ll write my own “how to” book and share the secret with the rest of you.