Wednesday, June 27, 2012


If I'm going to get in at least one post each month, I have to do one in the next couple of days. So here it is.

The prequel to A Melancholy Humour has stalled a bit. It's really two books in one, the first half set in a tiny village on the slopes of Santo Stefano in Sicily. That part's done (in first draft, anyway), and I'm maybe 20,000 words into the second half.

Chicago circa 1965 isn't a challenge. I recall enough to texture the story with sufficient background. I have, however, introduced a potential love interest for my heroine, and he's turning out to be a bit of a putz. Who knew? Still, even that's not so much of a problem. If he comes across as too dorky, I can fix him in rewrites. (Anyone who can seduce a she-wolf had better not be a dork, if he doesn't want to wind up as dinner. I've got other long-range plans for him.)

I have been spending a lot of time in video games lately, but that's just an excuse. Besides, it's good research -- at least, the gems I prefer really are. Bethesda's open worlds of Fallout and Skyrim are addicting, and have some cool storytelling concepts ripe for stealing. Plus, they're awfully pretty in a dread-filled sort of way.

No, what's been slowing the story relates to my penchant for explaining things. Any first-year writing course will hammer home the need to "show, don't tell." That's rough when you write concept-heavy fiction. One slips into explanation mode far too easily. Furthermore, it's often hard to come up with a way to show certain ideas, particularly nuances of historical philosophy or theological struggles.

I put a lot of explanation into my first published novel, Still Life. In order to make the exposition more palatable, I had various characters explaining things to each other, or arguing about the ideas, but it still dragged on sometimes. In my defense, the story came out of the sense-of-wonder "literature of ideas" Golden Age of 1940's science fiction, where every novel had to have a detailed explanation of the workings of star drives, or the optics of lasers, or the geometry of a tesseract.

A Melancholy Humour had a lot less of that, but still involved discussions of historical issues like the role of bodily humours in Medieval medicine, or why it is that the Office of the Inquisition still exists today. But rather than tell the reader that Vincent is something of a neurotic depressive with suicidal tendencies, we see the story from inside his head so the reader can experience his pathology directly.

Telling rather than showing is a timesaver -- it uses less ink, and if a publisher has a limit on the numbers of words in a novel, it's hard to show everything. That's particularly true when a story is told in a point of view limited to a single character. This is the problem I've been struggling with in my current effort, Lupa Bella.

Observe: I could have Emmett tell Celeste that he's a Ceremonialist Magician, with ways of contacting daemons who give him secret information, and that's how he knows she's a werewolf. Any emotional impact then has to come from Celeste's reactions to being discovered, and to her uninformed assumptions about the reality of Magic.

Or, I could show the reader a scene wherein Em contacts his daemons and learns what they have to say. Emotion then comes not only from Emmett himself, but also from the reader's shock at seeing and experiencing the daemons (not to mention the impact of Ceremonialist Magic going on in the heart of a 1960's Chicago meat-packing warehouse).

The second course takes a lot longer than a paragraph of dialogue followed by one or two of reaction. It also requires being able to break away from the highway of my point-of-view character, Celeste, and take the reader through a backroads off-ramp into someone else's experience. After a hundred pages or more of being in Celeste's head, that's not going to work.

A third alternative is for Em to bring Celle to his temple-room, complete with the shadowy presences of the rest of his Magical lodge, and pull her into one of his ceremonies. By far, this is the best way. If I've involved the reader enough in Celeste's way of seeing the world, the visceral experience of her shock and surprise should shake the reader as well. This is, however, also the most time-consuming way, for we need additionally to see Emmett seduce her into it, not to mention the mechanics of him setting the whole thing up. If done wrong, it will slow the story unbearably, provide a distraction and detour from the main action when it could have been done in a half-dozen sentences.

Finding that balance between a story that gallops with action, and one that progresses more slowly but wrings every drop of sweat from the reader's bones -- that's hard work, and often takes trial and error, or long periods of meditation on how the hell do I show this?

After doing far too much talky-talky in Still Life, I showcased a lot more action and emotion in A Melancholy Humour. I'm trying to tell as little as possible in Lupa Bella, with the exception of occasionally having a character tell Celeste about events from decades before (and even then, I'm considering flashbacks instead). It's a lot longer way to tell a story, and it may force me to break it up into a series of smaller novels instead of one big one. My hope is to have a tale where I explain nothing, but make everything clear nonetheless.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Four Dead in Ohio

Tin sol­diers and Nixon com­ing,
We’re finally on our own.
This sum­mer I hear the drum­ming,
Four dead in Ohio.

— Neil Young, “Ohio”
Go watch the video. I’ll wait.

Yes­ter­day marked the forty-​​second anniver­sary of the Kent State Mas­sacre. I feel a very per­sonal tie to this event, whether deservedly or not. Let me tell you my thoughts.

It was a dif­fer­ent time. Rocked by racial ten­sions, Amer­ica seem­ingly could not extract itself from a bloody, unpop­u­lar, and unnec­es­sary war. Protests on our col­lege cam­puses, and riots in the streets of our cities con­trasted with an explo­sion of artis­tic expres­sion and new-​​found sex­ual free­dom. The assas­si­na­tions of Bobby Kennedy and Mar­tin Luther King still burned like open wounds.

I, an impres­sion­able young per­son, had worked on the cam­paign of Bobby Kennedy in my own small way. As a sixth grader in 1968, my capa­bil­i­ties were lim­ited, but at least I talked him up with my class­mates, most of whom spent their time argu­ing whether the Bea­t­les were bet­ter than the Rolling Stones. Bobby’s assas­si­na­tion changed the nature of my polit­i­cal con­scious­ness. It robbed me of my polit­i­cal innocence.

Amid the ten­sions and the vio­lence, the world still held infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties. The first men walked on the moon in the sum­mer of 1969. The Who released Tommy that year. Doc­tor Chris­ti­aan Barnard had per­formed the world’s first heart trans­plant only two years before that. We stood embed­ded in a moment preg­nant with his­tory, at the end of a tumul­tuous decade that had seen JFK and the cre­ation of Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and the Vot­ing Rights Act, Selma and George Wal­lace and school deseg­re­ga­tion.

Richard Nixon promised an end to the Viet­nam War in the elec­tion cam­paign of 1968. In Novem­ber of 1969, Amer­i­can troops slaugh­tered over 500 civil­ians, mostly women and chil­dren, in the lit­tle vil­lage of My Lai. The draft lot­tery began in Decem­ber, the first Amer­i­can draft lot­tery since World War Two. The war had appeared to be wind­ing down; the lot­tery sig­naled a new surge. Pres­i­dent Nixon ordered Amer­i­can troops into Cam­bo­dia, and began “secret” bomb­ings there (“secret” only from Amer­i­cans — the Cam­bo­di­ans cer­tainly knew they were being bombed).

A series of protests broke out on col­lege cam­puses across the coun­try. Quite nat­u­rally: young men of that age would be most directly affected by the war and the draft. They died by the tens of thou­sands.

Con­tro­versy raged across the nation. Con­ser­v­a­tives insisted the pro­test­ers were sim­ply unpa­tri­otic cow­ards who didn’t want to defend Amer­ica. The pro­tes­tors pointed out this par­tic­u­lar war had noth­ing to do with defend­ing Amer­ica, since Viet­nam was not, and could not be, any sort of threat. True patri­o­tism, they insisted, rested in point­ing out when your coun­try was mak­ing an error, and helping to cor­rect­ a ter­ri­ble course.

We heard, how­ever, that there was some­thing unpa­tri­otic, and per­haps sedi­tious, in crit­i­ciz­ing the deci­sions of a wartime president.

The cam­pus of Ohio’s Kent State Uni­ver­sity saw protests in early May of 1970. There’s an excel­lent his­tory and sum­mary of the events here. The protests were mostly peace­ful, but there were spo­radic inci­dents of con­fronta­tion and vio­lence. The gov­er­nor called out National Guard troops to con­tain the protests. On May 4, 1970, in a con­fus­ing series of events, perhaps due to the inexperience of a junior officer, the Guard troops opened fire on the pro­tes­tors with live ammunition.

Four col­lege stu­dents died of gun­shot wounds from Amer­i­can National Guard soldiers.

I remem­ber the date. My birth­day is May 4. On May 4, 1970, I turned four­teen. I spent the evening lis­ten­ing to the news reports.

The head­lines on May 5, 1970: “Four Dead in Ohio.”

In two years, my older brother would be eli­gi­ble for the draft. Three years after that, it would be my turn. The lesson was clear to this fourteen-year-old: it seemed as dan­ger­ous to protest the war as to allow one­self to be pulled into that meat grinder. The world had already become The Hunger Games.

My dad told me a story when he came home from work on May 5. For months, a par­tic­u­lar coworker had been crit­i­cal of the teenagers protest­ing the war and the draft. Con­ver­sa­tion around the water cooler (they still had those then) focused on Kent State that day. This par­tic­u­lar fel­low was almost glee­ful. “It’s about time!” he said. “We have to stop these protestors!”

Dad looked at him for a moment. “We’re killing our children.”

The man had no response.

Dad walked away.

It’s easy to get caught in the polit­i­cal give-​​and-​​take, the con­test of who is on top and who can win. But pol­i­tics is about peo­ple. It’s about lives. It’s about our chil­dren and our par­ents and our broth­ers and sis­ters -- and our friends' children and parents and brothers and sisters, and the brothers and sisters and parents and children of people we'll never meet. If we for­get that, then our souls have already died.

I’m sure there are par­al­lels each of you can see in my story, par­al­lels to Iraq or Afghanistan, to the Tea Party protests or to the Occupy peo­ple, to George Bush or Barack Obama. I want to express an opin­ion on that, but I’ll refrain. At heart, I’m a nov­el­ist. The pur­pose of a nov­el­ist is to tell a true story, and to let the reader decide how that tale relates to his or her own life.

What I know for cer­tain is that my birth­day is for­ever col­ored by tragedy and fear. Deservedly or not, I have a tie to four col­lege stu­dents who died at Kent State, at the hands of America’s National Guard, because a crim­i­nal of a pres­i­dent insisted on pro­long­ing a war he had promised to end.
 Gotta get down to it
Sol­diers are cut­ting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Go lis­ten to the video again. I’ll wait.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Monsters walk the streets of Chicago

It's now less than a week until the release date for A MELANCHOLY HUMOUR. I'm pretty psyched.

As with many of my stories, this one went through a number of changes before reaching its final form. My original conception was for a short tale of a psychiatrist interviewing a young man who is convinced he is a monster. The story as I saw it then had only two characters, and neither of them survived into the present version, though a number of elements of personality have.

The title came before the story, which is unusual for me (I'm currently over 60,000 words into a prequel to A MELANCHOLY HUMOR, and I still don't have a title I like). It's such a perfect title for a werewolf tale that I'm amazed it hadn't yet been used. Too bad for everyone else.

My penchant for puns perhaps led me to the title. I'd gotten interested in werewolf lore (how that happened is a story for another time) and even the most superficial research revealed the medieval explanation for lycanthropy: an excess of one of the four bodily humours, the fluids that keep us alive. Too much black bile -- melancholic -- is the culprit. This is why werewolves are so often pictured as being depressed, antisocial, withdrawn -- melancholy. But I shall say no more, lest I spoil some of the surprises.

With the startling revelation of the title, the main themes of the story couldn't be avoided. Both the beginning idea and the soon-to-be published version center on the people involved -- their reactions to the events, more than the events themselves. Both deal with the tension between madness and the extremes of reality, the question of perception and how a broken mind deals with the pressures of everyday life. How can one tell for certain that the absurd things someone else describes are not real? How can one be certain of one's own sanity?

The young man in my original tale has become a young woman, one with a twin brother. The female psychiatrist who examines him has likewise been split, into a retired profiler of serial killers and a much more minor character, a policewoman.

I changed the focus of the story in expanding it into a novel. When I had the germ of the idea, urban fantasy had not yet become a part of popular culture (yes, I'm that old). A current reader wouldn't be surprised by the idea that someone who thinks himself to be a werewolf might actually be one. The question of who really is or is not a preternatural beast could not be saved for the ending. Instead, a more interesting question today would be who really is the monster.

The original form of the story still interests me, however. I've started a draft of a short more true to that beginning conception, but one that doesn't deal with wolves. I think I can still make a go of it, after it undergoes a few more metamorphoses.

Meanwhile, I'm hard at work on a longer tale, a prequel -- really, a series of prequels -- to A MELANCHOLY HUMOR. I dropped some hints as to where Celia came from. It will take more than one book to explore all that. I do intend eventually to tell where it's all going. I think these people have taken up permanent residence in my head, and I know better than to argue with creatures who have teeth like that.

Friday, February 3, 2012


I'm not from around here. None of us are.

I grew up near Chicago. Where we are as a child affects how we think and how we view the world. That's not where we're from, though.

I have a carved wooden elephant I bought from a street vendor in Dakar, Senegal. It's made of some black wood, the color of midnight, heavy and solid. It has tusks made of a different material, possibly ivory. I think sometimes about where that statue came from.

Did it come from a tree, or from the hands of the unknown artist? The tree came from a seed, nurtured by the earth and the rain. The soil from which the tree grew, the material that became the tree, was the decayed remnants of billions of years of plants and animals who lived in Africa and whose bodies became the dirt and rocks. The same is true of the artist, whose body was made of the food he or she ate, meat and meal that came from the Earth.

Not limited to Africa, though. Storms and tides carry flotsam around the world. Dust from a volcano in the Philippines can be found in Europe, and will certainly become parts of the living creatures there. We are all made up of pieces of everything that lived. The same atoms that once were part of Cleopatra or Moses are now in your body and mine. We breathe the same oxygen.

From where did those things come? Physicists tell me the only original natural element is hydrogen. Anything more than that -- oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, gold, copper, all of it -- was manufactured in the kiln of stars, enormous nuclear furnaces that smash simple atoms together to make more complex ones. When a star dies in the explosion of a supernova, its material is spread through space, like a cosmic Johnny Appleseed fertilizing the galaxy. Those freed atoms then coalesce into planets, and, eventually, living things like you and me and trees and elephants.

We are all made of dust from the dying remnants of stars. Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchel were both right. We are star-stuff.

I don't recall being part of a star. I don't even know in which galaxy that star lived. I suspect my elephant statue doesn't recall being a tree in Africa, but it was. I wonder about it sometimes.

All I know for sure is that I'm not from around here. None of us are.