Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Easy Part

And a Kind Greeting To You, Incessant Reader!

Last time I talked about the initial spark that inspired me to write my first novel.  Little did I know that my initial approach to tackling the book put me in direct opposition with the greatest contemporary author of horror, suspense, fantasy and sci-fi....none other then Stephen King.

I wouldn't know it until years later, but Stephen would have chastised me for my initial approach.  Before I began to write in earnest, I sat down and meticulously plotted out every single chapter of my book right down to the very end.

Years later, after I'd finished the first draft of my book I read the following passage in King's amazing memoir On Writing:

"I won't try and convince you that I've never plotted any more then I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.  I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless...and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't possible."   

Well, this might be all well and good when King produces a situational book like The Shining or Misery (two genre masterpieces, BTW) but as a voracious reader of his, it was also easy for me to detect when this anti-plotting stance failed him, resulting in the literary equivalent of being painted into a corner in the end.  Anyone who's ever read the novel IT likely knows what I'm talking about.  Here's an actual transcript of my thoughts in reaction to that book's finale: 

"Wow, I'm really digging this book.  I love the characters, I love the flashbacks to the 50's with them as kids.  That friggin' clown is totally creeping me out.  Oh,'s not a creepy clown after all it's actually some kind of a...a  Um, okay.  Okay, sure, we'll go with that.  I guess.  But, oh yikes, now the kids are all lost underground and starting to freak out, I wonder what King's gonna do to get them out of...*Whoa!*  Really?  She's doing that? Really?!  With all the boys?  Yikes!  Man, I wish there were girls that accommodating to boys without self-esteem back when I was hittin' puberty!  Cripes!"    
Actually, in spite of IT's lame ending,  I actually totally agree with him.  If I was writing some slice-o'-life novel, like my own Atlantic Canadian version of James Joyce's Ulysses, I certainly would have taken the "plotless" tact.  But I'm sure that even Mr. King would have to admit that a certain amount of mercurial navigation would be required for what amounts to a fantasy love letter to classic works of tragedy such as Oedipus Rex or MacBeth.  After all, since so many of those classic plays feel like an inexorable march towards certain doom I really wanted my hapless readers screaming at the page "ABORT!  ABORT!  ICEBERG 'ROIT AHEAD!"  

So, before I sat down to write any new segment, I would start with a one-line synopsis such as:  "Justinian Gets Sacked", "Tyranis Seeks Fafnir", "Valarius Confronts Couris" or "Tyrian En Route To Darkfrost".  As such, I tackled each new chapter like the equivalent of your Language Teacher giving you a milquetoast topic like "What I Did Last Summer" except that instead of detailing my family's boring trip to Rainbow Valley, I could make all kinds of crazy shit up!

Now, that's not to say that I kept my characters confined within the restrictive rubber walls of these one-line playpens..oh, no.  They were more then free to run riot within the chapter, often spawning more one-line sequels just from their actions alone.

This is best typified by the so-called villains of the piece, the Rogue Pirates.  In the realm of Brother's Keeper, this notorious organization is born when an angry young war veteran named Tyranis gathers a pack of unemployed ruffians together to attack his adoptive home Norrvik while it sits virtually defenseless.  He organizes and leads the sneak attack for two reasons: seek revenge for the loss of his father who died at the hands of Northerners and raid the town's prodigious coffers.

Amidst all the treachery, betrayal, loss of life and virtual destruction of the town, Tyranis has no qualms about robbing everything of value and exiting stage left.  Then something weird happens: in an action of either mercy or guilt, Tyranis spares the women and children of Norrvik!  Not exactly the actions of a vicious, bloodthirsty pirate, eh?

Years later we come to realize that despite how nasty the initial raid might have been, Tyranis really isn't that evil.  He just came up with what he thought was a good (though selfish) idea and followed through on it.  Problem is, he now finds himself at the helm of a truly nasty bunch of professional criminals.

To make sure readers could get a feel for this, I made the decision early on to allocate almost as much face time to the antagonists as I did to the protagonists.  These two concurrent story lines alternate back and forth until both factions meet at the end for the inevitable war of attrition.

I was amazed by how readily these characters came to life: how they began to breathe, speak and do things for themselves.  Valarius goes from milksop to master of his own destiny to someone slightly unhinged.  Tyrian, like many ne'er-do-well kids who think they know everything, begins to realize that he's not so bad-ass after all.  Syrach, their father, spirals down from nominal leader to a mental train wreck after he looses track of his exponential pack of lies.  Their mother, Cassandra, initially seen as a dizzy stereotype, rises to the occasion when her husband falters.

I also had to immediately make the call as to how these characters would speak to one another.  The producers of the recent movie Thor must have had the same thoughts I had on the matter: no-one on earth will possibly relate to characters pontificating in Olde English medieval-speak.  As such, the characters in my novel speak quite informally but nowhere close to the conversational nadir that was on display in such dreck as The Adventures of Sinbad T.V. show from the late Nineties.  Sin-BAD, indeed.

In fact, I took great pains to give all of my characters their own unique voices.  Older characters such as Syrach, Fafnir and Urland speak in reserved tones when compared to younger characters and Valarius and Tyrian as kids.  Here are a few examples:

Tyranis (To Fafnir): “Obey me, old man, or I’ll split you open and smear your carcass across this deck!”

Tyrian (shaking a textbook in his brother's face): “Val, how many times do I hafta tell you these things?  You’re playing right into Syrach’s hands.  I know you better than that; you’ve got less interest in this than I do!”

Calvin (noting Fafnir's prominent absence): “He said he had pressing matters to attend to, but if you ask me, he has more brains than all of us put together.”

Valarius: (addressing a hostile heckler in enemy territory) “I am heir to the House of Aligheri, you ill-bred dog!  Now take me to Couris before I imprint this ring’s crest between your beady eyes!"

Fafnir (to Tyranis) "“I’m sick and tired of watching children steal from the bodies of unarmed merchants.  I hate this coward’s enterprise we’ve fallen into and I don’t want any part of it anymore.”

Gideon (chastising Syrach for lamenting only his own son's battlefield injuries) "Every man that died out there was someone’s son.”

Cassandra (to a recovering Valarius):  "Now that you’re getting better, you and I are going to have a little talk.  I’ve been nice to you so far because I’ve been worried but now that I know you’re going to be alright, I’m thinking about turning you over my knee and giving you a good beating!”

Now some may argue that the dialogue is a bit too informal, but my reasoning is that everything you're reading here is a translation of some language.  Since folks have a tendency to speak very informally with one another in their native tongues (with colloquialisms thrown in like the conversational equivalent of "Mrs. Dash"), this is eventually what comes though in my "interpretation".

One thing that Stephen King and I really do see eye-to-eye on is description.  After reading Sir. Walter Scott's Ivanhoe I always promised myself that I'd never subject a reader to the sort of anal-retentive color commentary that Scott was notorious for:

"His dress was a tunic of forest green, furred at the throat and cuffs with what was called minever - a kind of fur inferior in quality to ermine, and formed, it is believed, of the skin of the grey squirrel."

I won't bore you with the rest, but just suffice to say that Scott book-ends this with endless, gratuitous details about this character's temperament, stature, body type, facial features, hair, as well as every aspect of his wardrobe right down to his golden-clasped sandals.  I mean, c'mon, dude!  Give our flabby imaginations a chance to fill in the blanks!

As Stephen King wisely observes: "I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes I can always get a J. Crew catalog."

I prefer just a few quick impressionistic brush strokes which affords the reader just enough clay to mould the image in their own, unique mind's eye:

"Calvin, on the other hand, was in his forty-third year and his prime was slipping behind him.  His once thick blonde mane was thinning badly, leaving his fuzzy crown gleaming in the light.  His lean, ferret-like frame was beginning to paunch, showing mostly in his face and mid-section.  Too many years of carousing, driven by coffers that knew no bottom made Calvin besotted before his time."   

And yes, then there's the ending.  Given my inspirations, the finale of the book was never in question.  Nevertheless, it was very difficult for me to pull the trigger since I knew it would likely alienate some readers who were vainly hoping for some sort of network dramedy eleventh hour miracle.  But the novel's original ending has always been what it is and, frankly, if I'd altered it in any way it just wouldn't have been true to the story, the characters or myself.   It would have been like Old Yeller, minus the inevitable double-tap. 

When the first draft of Brother's Keeper was completed I set it aside and let it go to fallow for a bit.  It's during this time that I read Stephen King's memoir about his life's work.  Despite being at loggerheads with him RE: meticulous plotting, I was actually kinda relieved to find out that I was already doing a lot of things he was suggesting.  

But I still had a lot of work to do. 

Next time out: the editing process can sometime be cruel, but after subjecting myself to it's cold auspices, I now consider it to be cathartic and liberating.  Stay tuned, kiddies: lots more tips and tricks I learned from Stephen King (and my own nominal experience) in the next entry!


FAIL: I'm really, really hoping these are fake but, sadly, they probably aren't...

MONDO FAIL  Ah, Zen Gesner, where are you now, you blow-dried pretty boy?  Cripes, he's about as Arabic- looking as Steve Buscemi...

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