Archives for March 2014

Hidden in Plain Sight

I didn’t spend the weekend writing, like the good little writer boy that I aspire to be.

Instead I spent it reading and thinking about the first draft of a friend’s novel that I had a chance to look at. I won’t say I was “honored” to look at it, since the truth is that reading anybody’s first drafts (my own definitely included) can only be considered an honor if you’re also “honored” to have Mistress Helga take a paddle to your bare ass after a hard day at work, so you can “unwind”. First drafts can hurt, and not in a good way.

This isn’t something I regularly do. I don’t hang with writers. I don’t belong to writing groups. Other people’s writing process interests me. The result of that process, especially in its raw, first-draft form, not so much.

First, as I think I’ve mentioned, I almost never read fiction when I’m writing. Some possibly-foolish concern about cross-contamination, stylistically or in terms of plotting or characterization. Like most, if not all writers, my style and way of telling my stories are a result of years of reading and writing and reading some more. Absorbing bits of style, ways plots are developed, how characters can be made real to a reader. Mostly on a subconscious level, though occasionally it’s been “I like the way she did that – I’ll have do something similar sometime”. But once I’m actually pounding out the words, I want to concentrate exclusively on my own voice, not somebody else’s. So I read non-fiction.

Second, as I’ve also mentioned, I don’t believe everyone has a novel in them. They may have enough words to create something approximating novel length, but often the story is ill-advised, the plotting is dismal, the characters wooden cliches that barely have enough buoyancy to float. I don’t want to read that. And I dread the inevitable “what did you think?” that follows. Because it puts me in that moral gray area – do I say “Yeah, it was good” or do I tell the truth? And the only lying I like to do is making up stories and telling them in book form. Unless I’m fairly sure that the writer has the skill to have, perhaps, “issues” that can be pointed out and discussed (rather than telling the writer “delete it and start again” or asking “do you have any hobbies that you’re good at?”) I decline the “opportunity” to read early-draft work. Or, for the most part, even later-draft work.

In this case, I’ve read other stuff from this writer, over the years, so I know he can write. He can tell a story. He can write realistic characters and have the words coming out of their mouths sound like actual speech. Also his style is radically different from my own, and not one that I’d want to emulate, so I’m not apt to be “contaminated” by it. Which is not to in any way say that there’s anything wrong with his style. It’s just not appealing to me as a writer. As a reader, I’m fine with it.

And when I read somebody else’s material, I try my damnedest to read it as a reader, not a writer. Give five writers the same plot synopsis and put them to work, you’re going to have five different versions. Written different ways, focused on different aspects of the story, with different characters moving the story along. If he summed up his plot in a paragraph and said, “Write it your way” it would be very different. So I have to suppress that. I have to say “This is what it is, and it needs to be read based on what he wrote, not as I would have written it.”

For a writer, that can be difficult.

Even moreso when as a reader you get to a point where the story becomes unsatisfying and as a writer you see all the elements already in place to turn that around.

In this case, it was in the ending portion the book. Which is, as I’ve found myself, often a minefield that you have to get across to bring the story home.

Endings are hard. Maybe they’re easier if you plot the whole damn thing, chapter and verse, from beginning to end, ahead of time. Or if you write to a template, whether it’s something like the Hero’s Journey or an “act” structure, where certain things happen at certain points in the story, because readers “expect” it. I don’t write that way, because for me, if the story doesn’t roll out organically, it ain’t a story worth telling.

So getting the ending right is hard. In Bleeding Sky, I was two-thirds of the way through the book and I knew I was adrift. I knew where I needed to end up, but there was no satisfying path to follow. It took some hard thought and reflection. And then I saw it. I saw what was there all along, what was, as I’ve said, “really going on” – who was who, how they connected, and what it meant. A little retrofitting of a couple of scenes in the book and it all fell together.

In Bandit’s Moon, I actually cheated a bit, in my own mind. I knew the last chapter was going to be episodic, so I went ahead and wrote the last scene. It gave me a target, and helped me through the events that made up the last chapter.

In the first draft I was reading over the weekend, the ending portion is also episodic. But the episodes weren’t especially strong. Some blah-blah-blah, something happens, some more blah-blah-blah, something else happens. There was no compelling thread to it, something to make me, as a reader, want to find out what’s going on, what happens next.

But as a writer, I saw all the elements already there, in place, to construct a compelling thread, to give a reader something to follow along with, to even get some questions answered, as the book moved to its conclusion.

As writers, we sometimes miss things in our own pieces. Things we’ve put there but left unconnected to the whole of the story. They’re there, they’re clearly visible, but they’re hidden from us. Because we’ve got other ideas, or we’re anxious to move on, or because of the peculiar tunnelvision that keeps our eyes so focused on what’s ahead that we miss the scenery on either side as we pass.

And as loathe as I am to put on my writer hat when I’m supposed to be a reader, I pointed out this different direction to him. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.

For me, it’s time to get back to Blood for Blood. It isn’t going to write itself…

Covering Blood for Blood

Decided to take at least some of the day off from writing to play around with Blood for Blood cover ideas.

Still need to find a 3D black van, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. Perhaps something like this from the 3D Warehouse (not the version with the red spoiler, which is way too gaudy…)

Van

It doesn’t have to move, of course, and it’s not even the focus of the cover, so it should work…

The scene where the cover is set returns us to the back-alleys of No-Name City. I still have some work to do on the lighting (red is a common motif in the series covers, but this almost seems too red – or too dark – or too something…like I said, it needs work… I also may dim the light of that street light so it’s not quite as bright), then add a couple of characters, place the van, probably use the headlights of the van to create some scary shadows…. I may also pull the camera back some to get more of the area, make it less claustrophobically tight, and give me some flexibility in framing it.

Stage

The final element is a poster that will be on the wall under the streetlight. It’s still a work in progress. This iteration is designed to mirror the fonts of things like the logo and the extended tagline at the bottom, but make the rest of it more casual – what advertising people refer to as “fun”, not so corporate looking. I’ve still got some playing with it to go before I’m happy…

Poster element

I won’t know for sure how it looks till I have it plastered on the wall in the scene and add the other elements. I won’t even know how much to the text is readable at “cover” size till I get to that point. But it might look okay. I’ll play with it more next week when I take a writing break…

 

News That’s Unfit to Print

Back in December I talked about media bias in the world of Night and Day, from the perspective of a country that is, for all intents and purposes, occupied by vampires. In response to that, a user named sexymaria said, on the TMU/TMOA forums:

But in an occupation with no other opposing media, the resistance can no longer openly express a different view, it must always conform to what the media proposes is the official view point. It must contend with it first before getting it’s own message across.

That got my wheels turning, and solved an essential Blood for Blood question… Something very bad is happening (well, worse than the usual kind of bad when vampires live in the neighborhood…). There’s a man who has found out about it. Welles gets sucked into the case, and it ends up being the main focus of the book (after the rom-comish beginning that I’ve talked about before).

I knew who the man was. But I didn’t have a reason for him to know about it. And I didn’t have a way for him to disseminate the information.

Let’s say the bad thing that was happening was that aliens were working to colonize the Earth (it’s not, but I’m making a point here, okay?) Like in the 60s TV series The Invaders. In that series, the man who had discovered the fiendish alien plot was an architect named David Vincent. Apparently an independently-wealthy architect, since he spent two seasons traveling the country, investigating strange happenings with connections to the aliens, never seeming to work or have any discernible income.

In those pre-Internet days, I’m not sure how he found out about all of these strange happenings. My guess is the Weekly World News. They seemed to cover that kind of thing in depth. As well as other related news…

Wwn

But David Vincent wasn’t especially successful, and his show got cancelled before he was able to either stop the aliens or convince everybody that they were here.

Making my character an architect was out. As was making him a bus driver or grocery store manager. I could probably have figured out a way for him to find out the bad thing, but what would he do with it? Tell people getting on the bus? Program the grocery store receipts to have a little message on them? It seems…ineffective.

Maria’s comment gave me a shove in the right direction. Let’s say the guy was a reporter, an investigative reporter – had been one for many years, before the war the vampires and after. He’d have the contacts and skills to learn about the bad thing, and dig for information.

But what then? Remember, the media (newspapers, TV, radio) are all censored by the vampires. There’s an Internet of sorts available to people (AmericaNet), but it, too, is monitored and censored. He’s got the explosive story – what can he do with it?

To answer that, I reached back into my own past. Right after college, I was a newspaper reporter. After an “editorial disagreement” with my editor (even then, I knew better than anyone else…at least in my own mind), I quit and went to the police department. In between the police department and the fire department, I published a couple of free newspapers. The second one was called Concert World and was, as you might imagine, music-oriented. But the first was called The Stray Gull Gazette, and was more of an alternative/counter-culture kind of rag.

We covered a lot of local news of interest to hippies, music lovers, tree-huggers and arty-folk of all kinds, but we also subscribed to the Liberation News Service for news at a national/international level. A couple of times a week, a packet of memographed pages from LNS would arrive, I’d look through them, and depending on space in Stray Gull or how interesting a story was, I’d include it.

Lns

(In the end, neither of the papers was especially successful, and I went back on the public teat, first at the fire department and then at emergency management – all of which allowed me to retire so splendidly here in Birmingham that I could spend my days writing…I’d give you some pictures of both papers, since I have copies of every issue, but they’re in boxes in a closet with the rest of my papers, and I ain’t digging through 20 boxes right now…another time, perhaps…)

I started thinking about LNS, and decided that maybe a new LNS had arisen in the post-vampire war USA. Underground, of course. Disseminating information to small groups and individuals across the country, who’d publish it in underground newspapers (some professional looking, others little more than a handful of photocopied pages stapled together and left to be found on park benches and at bus stops) as well as underground websites on AmericaNet (up until the vampire authorities took them down, then reappearing on another server at another URL).

The truth cannot be suppressed! And thanks to Maria, the fictional truth in my fictional world will get out, and everybody will live happily ever after.

Well, at least happy-ish….

Done Right, Done Wrong – Part 2

In the world of fictional vampires. there have been plenty of hits and plenty of misses. In my opinion, of course. Some of the hits (Twilight) were misses for me, and some of the misses (Daybreakers) were misses for most, but if not hits for me, at least entertaining enough.

And then there’s Ultraviolet (not the 2006 Kurt Winner/Milla Jovovich movie, which I kinda like, but isn’t that good).

Uv1

Ultraviolet is a 1998 British TV series. It ran one season (or series, as they say in the UK), six episodes and out, and centered around a secret unit in the government charged with hunting down and destroying vampires. Known as Code 5s (V being 5 in Roman numerals…V for Vampire…tee-hee) or informally among the people in the team as leeches.

It has an excellent cast (I was actually prompted to rewatch it after seeing Susannah Harker’s work in the original version of House of Cards recently) including the always reliable Idris Elba and a nice, almost police-procedural feel to it.

The “mythology” of the vampires is developed through the six episodes, and focuses mostly on what they’re up to – what their ultimate goal is. We find out about their research into blood diseases (keeping the food supply clean) and developing artificial blood (shades of Daybreakers!)…and of their ultimate desire to create a nuclear winter situation that will shroud the earth in a perpetual twilight and allow them to go outside all the time without catching some rays (which cause them to catch fire, but not necessarily die.)

But we don’t spend a lot of time with the vampires – they’re sinister, they’re manipulative, and they stay in the shadows and work through the humans they control.

Overall, a great show that sadly ends after those six episodes – apparently the writer/director/creator hadn’t planned on writing and directing all six episodes, and spent so much time doing it that he didn’t have the time to come up with any more stories. Unfortunate, but as he said in an interview, it was a high-concept show, and the problem with those is that you can quickly run out of ideas, and either have to go in a different direction, or start repeating yourself.

So of course, they tried to remake it for the US market…

Uv2

I recently watched the unaired pilot for the US version of Ultraviolet and man, was it wretched. Tedious. Uninteresting.

A lot of that was based on the desire of the producers to move away from a focus on what the vampires were up to. They didn’t think American viewers would be interested in that. Instead “We were interested in the more human side of this story, the idea that Leeches are still dealing with normal kinds of people’s problems.”

Because of course you tune into a show about a secret government agency hunting and destroying vampires because you want to know how vampires deal with normal everyday problems. Even the producer (who had worked on X-Files and was later to work on 24) said ‘frankly we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well.’

In both shows, the vampires wanted people to believe that they were being persecuted for being ‘different’. In the British version, it was fairly clear that they were just being manipulative (without absolutely discounting the possibility that they were maybe just a little right). In the American version, it’s presented as possibly being true…yet without the real moral quagmire of that. Because hey, it’s just a normal people problem, right?

Same thing, done right, done wrong.

I’m about a quarter of the way through Blood for Blood. Smooth sailing at the moment.

Done Right, Done Wrong – Part 1

I’m always interested in different takes on vampires. Which would seem kind of obvious, since the Night and Day series takes place in a world where vampires have swept across the United States and now live in uneasy coexistence with humans.

The series is not about vampires, though. The vampires are around, they’re part of the world, there are vampire characters. There won’t ever be a Night and Day book that ignores that aspect of the world – even when it’s not an overt part of the story (Bandit’s Moon), it’s there, you have some vampire characters, and the basis of the story is tied in with the vampire “occupation” (as some see it.) It would be like doing a “Charlie Welles’s Day Off” story – no detective stuff. Instead he goes to the grocery store, hangs out at Hanritty’s, takes in a movie, watches some TV, makes a new microwave casserole.

If a Night and Day book ever starts out that way (and it might be fun to do that), you can be sure that there’s going to be a turn up ahead that will take it into Charlie Welles land…pretty damn soon. Because I don’t see an argument with the ticket taker at the movie theater over a discount being the dramatic highlight of a story.

And though vampires aren’t at the heart of the series, what I tried to do with the vampire lore of my vampires was generally tie it into existing/conventional vampire lore. Show how aspects of my vampires could have given rise to the basis of more traditional vampires.

Mine is definitely a different take. And as I said, I’m always interested in other takes. Not so much the Twilight kind of take, where vampires are a metaphor for various aspects of teenage angst, but those where vampires are treated like realistic, non-human creatures. Once us, no longer us.

An early favorite was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend – the novel and the first filmed version of it (The Last Man On Earth, which is stark and grim, tempered with some minor hamminess by Vincent Price – far superior to Chuck Heston’s sometimes-campy The Omega Man version of the story, or Will Smith’s souless I Am Legend). The vampires have risen because of a plague, they’re smart, and they rule the night. They’re not really organized into a society (though the subplot shows the beginnings of that), and the vampires have most of the common characteristics you might expect, but it’s a different, non-traditional take on the subject.

Daybreakers, from 2009, is a somewhat less-successful story – again a plague is to blame, and in this case almost everybody is a vampire, leading a normal kind of life, which is all fine and good except if everybody is a vampire, what’s for dinner? That’s the central point of the movie, with a search for artificial blood, a cure for vampirism, the hints of curing vampires to add to the food supply all the greater part of the mix. I like the movie, but it’s not really that good.

White Wolf Games released the groundbreaking Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem role playing games, which have their own deep mythology – the vampires are typical in a lot of ways to the traditional vampire, but the lore, backstory and vampire society are unique (full disclosure – I’m a big fan of The Masquerade, and never really got into it when they rebooted things with The Requiem). They tried to make a TV show based on The Masquerade (Kindred: The Embraced) which wasn’t very good, and didn’t last. Saw it, saw what they were trying to do, didn’t care for it.

There was, however, a British TV series with a very different take on vampires – which resulted in an American TV pilot version of the story that was so awful it wasn’t even aired, let alone picked up as a series.

But more about that in Part 2 tomorrow…I’ve got a Code 5 to retire and some fiction writin’ to do…