MAKE BELIEVE STORIES NEED MAPS THAT ARE REAL

Every evil scientist needs a secret lab, right?

I gave the bad guy in The Deep Cove Lineage, Dr. Sleeth, more than a lab.  I gave him an entire underground complex fully funded out of the covert operations of the United States.  Yeah, I was having  fun with that.  His job was to create a monster that could be useful in warfare, that could be unleashed behind enemy lines and turned lose, so to speak.

Of course he succeeded, because that is how the Deep Cove monster came to be.

The last two weeks I’ve been working on the next installment (I hope to have it out by Thanksgiving) and it is set almost entirely in the underground complex named DECOSOL, which is an acronym for Deep Cove Special Operations Laboratory.  I gave it a long acronym name because when I was in Port Orchard I was surrounded by government employees and sailors in the Navy, and those people use acronyms like you wouldn’t believe.  I mean, everything is an acronym.  Whenever they talked it was like a whole other language.  So, I made this one up as a tip of my hat to them.

Continuity has been an issue with this story, now the fifth one in the series, but the biggest problem has been the actual layout of the compound.  In The Deep Cove Lineage I mostly described individual rooms–the lagoon where the monster was kept–the cafeteria–private quarters–administrative areas–you know, the places things happened.  What I didn’t do was work on a unified map of the complex.  Shame on me, because now the plot requires an almost systematic walk-through of the facility, and I need to describe where the characters are, where they are going, and how they get there.

So, with my large red Sharpie I made a map.

TOP SECRET:  A map of DECOSOL
TOP SECRET: A map of DECOSOL

I am not much of an artist, but in my mind I need to know where things are because those things matter when telling a story.  I recently read a novel that had people on a spaceship and, although the book was good, I never could get a mental map of where they were on the spaceship and what was happening where.  I don’t want my readers to have the same problem.

I don’t think sharing the map gives too much away, and you probably can’t read my handwriting anyway.  The bottom of the map where it says “Above/Below” is the entry place.  I really liked that piece in the story.  You’ll have to buy it to find out why.  From there, on one side of the compound is the lagoon, which I sometimes call the lair, and on the extreme other side (top left) are the private quarters for the bad guy Dr. Sleeth.  I had to shrink them down a bit because I ran out of paper.  In between those two areas is essentially an H-shaped facility.  Again, I was thinking about government buildings here.  One hallway is filled labs that heads into the cafeteria.  A hallway joins that large room to another large room, what I call the workroom.  To the right of the workroom is a hallway that runs parallel to the labs, but it has living quarters for the scientists.  Above the workroom, along a zigzag hallway is Dr. Sleeth’s bedroom, living room, and private laboratory.  There is lots of cool stuff inside his private lab.

The blue ink line represents the water line.  Everything to the right of that line is actually built under the lake.  And yeah, that matters.

I share all of this just to say that when writing it is sometimes helpful to draw it out, or diagram it, even if the actual picture or image never makes it into the text itself.  This kind of grunt work is a part of the background story, and that is what I think gives even far-flung fiction like government engineered lake monsters a feeling of reality.  I am reminded of a story I once heard about C. S. Lewis.  Apparently he made the first map of Narnia when he was about seven years old.  When he was an adult, he could write about Narnia as an adult with clarity, even though Lewis still had some major continuity problems, but that is a topic for a different blog.

I resisted the temptation to put a “You Are Here” sticker on the map.  I am proud of myself.

If you’re interested in reading the first four stories, head over to my Amazon author page (click here) and pick them up.  Most of them are only 99 cents.  The first two, Deep Cove and Deep Cove: The Party Crasher are pretty short, but The Deep Cove Lineage and The Deep Cove Investigation are both good sized short stories, about 12,000 words each.  Those last two are also more sci-fish than the first ones, which are more horror/monsterish . If you read Lineage and Investigation, you have the essence of the story.

JESUITS IN SPACE–A REVIEW OF THE BOOK “THE SPARROW”

Sunday night I finished The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  I read it as part of the sci-fifantasy group over at Goodreads.  I love Goodreads, but it irks me that they combine sci-fi and fantasy that way.  Anyway, back on subject, The Sparrow was published in 1996.   The paperback edition I read was released in 2008.  334176

Overall

I give the book an overall grade of A-.  I have never read anything by Russell before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I had heard about the book and knew that it was highly regarded as one of the best sci-fi books of the past generation and she is favorably compared with the masters of the genre.  I can see why.  The book is interesting throughout.  It is not a perfect book, as I will get to below, but a well-thought-out plot with fascinating characters is more than most sci-fi books achieve.  It gets a “minus” because the whole Jesuit in space thing has been done a time or two and the adverb issues which I address below.

Plot

Without spoilers, the story is about the discovery of life on another planet in the not so distant future.  Before governments can form a response, a group of Jesuits lead an interstellar expedition of people from various technical and religious backgrounds to investigate.  As you might imagine, all does not go well.

Strengths

This book has three strengths.

1. The characters are written well.  This is brought out with crisp dialogue and believable action.  Russell’s intelligence and research on Jesuits, science, linguistics, and history makes every character human.  The only flaw in her characterizations are that every major character is just a little too competent and perfect, but I can live with that.

2. There is an almost perfect balance in the book between science and fiction.  It is in this way that the book reminds me of Ray Bradbury.

3. The book asks sincere theological questions without giving pat answers, either for or against.  Russell seems to delight in the intentional ambiguity.

Weaknesses

1. The pacing of the book is sometimes less than ideal.  About one third into the book it felt like she kept repeating the same basic things.  She could have told the same great story with 50,000 fewer words.

2. Russell is guilty of adverb abuse.  She loves, loves, loves, loves to have people doing “ly” things.  For example:

D.W. lied cheerfully

Two lines later:

Emilio said seriously

I just pulled that out randomly by opening the book (page 51).  They are all over the place.

3. At times I lost the POV.  Sometimes she would switch right int he middle of a paragraph with no warning.

Audience

There are some mature themes to be sure, and the language is rough.  Who knew Jesuits talked like that?  If you are easily offended at different religious worldviews, you shouldn’t read this book.  However, if you like to see how others might wrestle with difficult issues, then this book is for you.

There is a sequel to this book called Children of God.  I do not know when I will read it, as my TBR pile has grown out of control, but I will indeed read it.  In fact, I’ll probably buy it today at Amazon.

WRITING PLAYLISTS

I’ve had several exchanges with folks on the twitterverse and interwebs lately about their writing playlist.  I’ve come to the conclusion that music, and what kind of music, helps me write.

Old Blue Eyes Is A Muse
Old Blue Eyes Is A Muse

The most important thing about a writing playlist is that it should be something I’m familiar with.  If my mind is focusing on the music or the lyrics, then my mind is not engaged in the work of writing.  That is why streaming music or listening to NPR doesn’t work for me when writing.  It has to be older stuff I’ve heard a million times.  So here goes some of my writing playlists.

Dialogue (generic)–Something instrumental.  For generic dialogue I don’t need words in my mind as I’m trying to find out what my characters are saying to each other.  I don’t want my characters quoting George Jones or Jimi Hendrix.  Classical is okay, but so too is blues and jazz.  Green Onions by Booker T. & The M.G.’s is excellent to just loop over and over until the scene is written.  Yo-Yo Ma is great for this too.

Dialogue (intense/arguing)–Church hymns.  I don’t know why, but something about church music makes me think about arguing.  Let the reader understand.

Dialogue (internal)–When I am thinking about what another person is thinking there is only one authority:   Johnny Cash.

Theological Themes--Pastor Butch Gregory stories always have theological themes, and for that I need to listen to Rich Mullins.

Dream Sequences/Flashbacks–Norah Jones, because she just sounds so dreamy.

Crime/Violence–I’ve got a playlist I call “War/Spy” that has a heavy dose of Talking Heads, James Bond theme songs, Blondie, U2, Hall and Oates, and Mumford and Sons.  I know that doesn’t make a lot of since genre wise, but it does to me.

Fight Scenes–Guns-N-Roses.  It is important to know where you are.  You’re in the jungle baby.

Travel Scenes–I’ve found that my characters seem to always be traveling somewhere, and when they do, Led Zeppelin Rambles along.

Plot Development–Frank Sinatra.  I’ve got him under my skin.

Romantic Scenes–I don’t put a lot of romance in my books, but when I do, I prefer Cole Porter.

Techno–While writing sci-fi, sometimes I need to describe technological things which may or may not be real, but which are technological.  There are two groups that help me with this.  One is R.E.M.  I mean, Michael Stipe may actually be a character from a sci-fi novel.  The other is ZZ Top.  In my universe(s), all megalomaniac evil scientists wear cheap sunglasses.

Michael Stipe, SCI-FI
Michael Stipe, SCI-FI

When In Doubt–Sometimes you don’t know what is going to flow out of the fingertips, and when that happens I hit an 80s mix.  Duran Duran always gets the creative reflex going.

There are a lot of other artists and genre’s I listen to, but these are the ones that most often find their way into my ear bud while writing.  I’d be interested to know what you listen to when you write.

images from therecordingrevolution.com and aleim.com

CHALLENGES FOR WRITING FICTION

Man Typing on Laptop
The next scene is him throwing the laptop across the room.

I’ve spent lots of time this week trying to finish my new short story on the Deep Cove monster.  It will be the fourth installment behind Deep Cove, Deep Cove:  The Party Crasher, and The Deep Cove Lineage.  These sci-fi stories are written like a serial–a continuing story line.  It is almost finished and ready for others to proof.

As I’ve been working on this, and through the rollout of my new novel The Little Girl Waits, I’ve been pondering some of the greatest challenges for writing fiction.

1.  Deciding how much to leave out.  Fiction, because it exists entirely in the mind of the creator, can go as far as you want it to.  When I write about the woman being attacked by the monster, for instance, my mind sees the whole thing at once.  The problem is, the whole thing at once might bore the reader to tears.  I mean, seriously, does the reader really care what kind of shoes the old woman has on?  But at the same time I recognize these kinds of detail can give the story a rich, narrative depth.  It is always a struggle to know where to stop.

2.  Continuity in the story.  This is hard enough in a single novel, but it becomes increasingly difficult for me when the stories pile up, such as the Deep Cove series.  Many of the characters in The Little Girl Waits are from my first book or other short stories, and I had to really be careful that I didn’t change anything significant about their characters.  I almost did.  At one point I almost changed the gender and name of one of Butch Gregory’s kids.  Yikes.

3.  Continuity in the character.  I would like input from other writers on this one, because I find that maintaining a character’s voice is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  I’ve got a character, Colonel Crews, who in the Deep Cove Lineage has a certain demeanor and I am finding it hard to keep him ‘in character’ in the new story.  I don’t know why that is, because I wrote him the first time.  Why is it so hard to keep him in personality stasis?

4.  Fight scenes.  I love reading a good fight scene, and I think I understand the logistics of writing them and how they should work.  The problem I have is lack of experience in actual fighting.  The last fight I remember being in was in fourth grade.  A kid flicked my ear from the seat behind me on the bus and I lunged over the top of the seat, put him in a headlock, and pounded his nose with my left hand.  He never picked on me again.  However, not all fights can go like that.  I have to really work at writing these–even to the point of acting it out in the study to feel how the motion goes.  Oh I hope no one ever sees me fighting with myself through the window.  They will think I’m Edward Norton from Fight Club.

5.  Keeping the tension high.  Tension is the key to interest.  No one is interested if everyone is happy and the world is picture perfect.  Things have to go wrong and the threat of danger must be near.  I can do that fairly easily, but what I have a hard time is keeping it high.  As a human being, I want things to balance out cleanly before the next tension arises, but this linear mojo is not in keeping with life or good art.  It is far better when the tension swirls all over the place and never truly comes to resolution.  I find doing that to be a real challenge indeed.

There are many other challenges in writing fiction, but these are some that I’ve been mindful of on my most recent projects.  If you are a writer/artists, feel free to share what your major challenges are right now, or if you’re willing, share how you overcome some of these that I’ve mentioned.

 

 

image from Shutterstock