Everybody Floats

(Warning: This blog contains some disturbing imagery. All quoted passages are from IT by Stephen King.)

Fifth grade. It’s late. Time for bed, but I’m not tired. Instead, I take a book out from under the bed. IT, by Stephen King. It’s thick and heavy and I knew my parents don’t want me reading it.  The cover is breathtakingly macabre: a paper boat floats down a gutter toward a drain, where a single green claw clutches at the grates.

I open to the first page. I meet Georgie, a six-year old,  wearing a bright yellow raincoat playing in the rainy streets of Derry, Maine. He’s made a paper boat and set it sailing on the flooded gutters. He’s having fun, laughing, in that naïve, innocent little-kid way.

His boat falls into a sewer grate. His heart sinks. It’s lost. He runs up to the grate and looks down  – and sees a clown. Just like at the circus, with the red nose and make-up and baggy clothes and even the colorful balloons.  

The clown smiles; he kindly offers Georgie his boat back, and in fact, asks if he wants a balloon as well. “ ‘Do they float?’” Georgie asks. “ ‘Float?’ The clown’s grin widened. ‘Oh yes, indeed they do. They float!’”

Georgie reaches down –

* * *

I talk a lot about the fantasy genre, but given the season it seemed appropriate to talk about another genre that’s always fascinated me – Horror.

Horror isn’t just about the monster, it’s about the shadows where the monster might hide.  It’s about infusing dread into what would otherwise be mundane situations by adding the threat of something horrible. It’s about uncertainty – when she opens the door, will it be the killer, or merely an empty closet? That tapping at the window – is it a vampire, or merely a branch?

I grew up in rural Maine, surrounded by woods and coyotes and a whole lot of quiet dark.  An appropriate setting to devour  everything Stephen King ever wrote, not to mention smatterings of R.L Stein, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub.  Those stories don’t bother me at all, I’d say. I’m not scared.  Who cares about ghosts and demons and evil clowns.

They’re not real.

Funny, how that stuff drifts into your head right at the worst moments. How the crack in your closet seems to have grown larger since you went to bed. How the glow of the night-light looks rather like a demon’s eye. How alone you are, a kid, in your bed, nothing but a half-open window between you and the howling, creeping, rustling things outside.

Of course, none of that stopped me from reading the stuff. More than once, even.  I liked the flutter in my chest and the twist in my stomach.  I thought, then, as I do now, that it’s extraordinary how mere words can create such a visceral reaction.

I’m clearly not the only one – horror novels don’t sell as well, anymore, but horror films still do. Different medium, but many of the same ideas.

I find that most horror films over-rely on shocking the viewer, going for a quick scare. That’s too easy –  just a trick of camera angles and edits. Better when the situation itself, the stories, the character, the dialogue, organically create that sense of horror.

A classic example that did work for me  is The Blair Witch Project. I watched it at a friend’s house one Halloween in high school. At first, I thought it was creepy, but not that bad. I wasn’t sure I was scared. After the film, we drove home, down dark, rural roads with no traffic, surrounded on all sides by endless stretches forests. I spent the entire car-ride white-knuckled, eyes shut, quivering with fear.

Probably the film that scared me the most is Event Horizon. It’s a sci-fi film from 1997; a ship designed to travel through dimensional rifts re-appears unexpectedly after having vanished seven years prior. A rescue time arrives to investigate. The ambiance of the desolate ship is spine-tingling creepiness at it’s best; the fate awaiting the investigators is as gory and grotesque as it gets. Frankly, I don’t even remember much about the specifics of the film, only that it was one of the few movies to truly give me nightmares.

I’ve heard in my writing workshops this year that horror (outside of Stephen King) doesn’t sell well in adult markets anymore, though there are signs of a resurgence in the YA markets. That’s too bad – it’s a genre with a lot of room left to explore.

Still, I can be satisfied with reading more King. He’s one of the few authors who I think writes even better short stories than novels – in particular, I recommend his collection Everything’s Eventual . The thing about King; for all my talk of horror being more about the unseen than the seen, sometimes the monster is really just as bad as you imagined.

And sometimes it’s worse.

* * *

And Georgie reaches down, and the clown’s face  changes. Georgie screams and screams,  his sanity melting away as it pulls him down into the darkness.

“’They float’, it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re done here with me, you’ll float, too –‘…’Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more.”

I closed the book. Set it back down under the bed. Only a story, I thought, pulling the covers tight, listening to the wind and the coyotes howling outside my window. I’d read some more in the morning. If it was sunny.

It’s only a story. But sometimes, that doesn’t make them any less real.

* * *

Stephen King’s IT is one of my favorite books of all time – I’ve never forgotten that first scene (nor the other twenty or so also, highly, uh, ‘memorable’, scenes).  I  really strongly recommend reading it – in addition to the horror elements, it’s the best novel about childhood and friendship I’ve ever read.  No, that’s not a contradiction. Go read it and see!

( And yes, it did kind of ruin clowns for me, but hey, who needs happiness and joy anyway, right? 🙂  )

I’ll break the horror genre convention of downer endings by ending this blog post on a lighter note, with a Halloween-themed piece from my all-time favorite a capella group, Pentatonix. Have a wonderful Halloween, everyone!

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Epic Dreams

When I was a kid, the only thing that made me happier than a thousand-page epic fantasy was a series of thousand-page epic fantasies.  Reading the Wheel of Time, I dreamed of my own epics, determined to make them even more complicated, to have more bad guys, more magic, more heroes. Why stop at ten books, I thought? Why not twenty? Fifty? A hundred?

Three years ago, when I first decided to give writing a try, the first story I worked on was a ‘small’ epic fantasy. No need to bite off more than I could chew, I thought. I’ll stick with a mere five main characters and keep it small – a pentalogy, perhaps, or a heptalogy (is that a word?).  And besides, this series was merely a warm-up to my huge, twenty big epic that would turn the world on end.

Of course, six chapters in, it blew up in my face.

Needless to say, the degree of difficulty in navigating plots of that complexity is insane. Brandon Sanderson, even after writing for nearly a decade, considered his first attempt at a massive epic fantasy series un-publishable. It took him another five years before he had the skills to rewrite it successfully. George R.R Martin has sagely pointed out to new authors that he started the Song of Ice and Fire after he’d been writing for twenty years.

Even the published series have run into criticism. Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time (which I talked about here) ran into serious pacing issues around books 8-10. Many accuse Martin of having the same problem in books 4 and 5 of the Song of Ice and Fire.

That these series have flaws should come as no surprise when one considers how few sagas of this magnitude have even been published. Jordan had no ten book series to learn from; he was forging new territory. Martin was in the same boat. That they achieved as much as they did is remarkable. When you’re writing a single book and you discover an issue in the middle, you can fix it. When you’re on book eight of the series you’ve been writing for fifteen years and you see a plot or pacing flaw, you’re probably stuck with it.

For many readers, myself included, those flaws are beside the point, an acceptable cost to being thrown into a world of such breadth and depth. Few stories are as real to me as those two, simply because I have spent so much time in their worlds, met so many of their characters, seen so much of their magic and wonder.  I dream of the day my own set of hefty tomes will be stacked in a tower next to Jordan’s, Martin’s, and the others.

And unlike those pioneers, I’ll have complete examples to learn from. Sanderson will have finished the Wheel of Time by January.  I’ll also be able to watch Sanderson write his own epic series the Stormlight Archives, with ten books planned. The first volume, The Way of Kings, has been out for a couple years and is highly recommended, not to mention one of prettiest hardcovers I’ve ever seen.

Sanderson’s already taken steps to try to avoid the pacing and plot snarls. His strategy is to roughly split the series into two closely linked pentalogys, and to have each book ‘focus’ on a single character by exploring that character’s backstory as well as the current events. He allows himself to show glimpses in the rest of the world through interludes, essentially self-contained short stories, but he restrains himself and sprinkles only a few throughout the novel.

I even have a concept for my own epic, taking place on a world with no sun, undergoing a technological revolution. The cast of characters has been quietly growing for years. I even have an inkling as to how the major story arc begins, develops, and ends.  I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to let them onto the page.

But I’m going to wait. I’ve got plenty of learning left to do before I’m ready to try a long epic. In the mean time, I hope more authors jump into the breach. As much as I love the break-neck-paced urban fantasies, the long epic will always have a special place in my heart. All I know is whenever one comes out, I’ll buy the hardcover (it’s just not the same on Kindle), curl up on my bed, and enjoy every single one of the thousand pages.

An Update Concerning Magic and Dogs With Magic

Had another fantastic weekend with friends – Sean and another friend, Case, came up to form a three person team so we could compete in Grand Prix San Jose, Magic: the Gathering tournament.  571 teams made it out, so the convention center was absolutely swarming with magic players. The tournament was Swiss style but effectively ended when you lost your third match. We managed to stay in through round 9 before dropping our third. Sweet moments included playing the featured match against a team of Japanese pros including reigning player of the year (who Case beat!), and me winning the deciding game of a close match after getting a penalty game loss for improperly storing my cards.

In the midst of the tournament I even managed to write two blurbs to submit to the online workshop I’m taking.

***

Sean and Case left Sunday afternoon. After dinner, I opened The Wildfire Crown and started to write. Three hours and five thousand words later, I typed ‘The End’. I put poor Gare through a lot. The both of us could use a rest 🙂

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve finished a rough draft, it’s the sixth. But this project’s different – I raised the bar a great deal, and as you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I have a ton of unfinished versions of this story sitting around. I’d estimate I’ve written close to 400,000 words for this project overall, less than a quarter of which made it to this draft.

A draft which is far from done. Finishing wasn’t quite the emotional high I’d hoped for, because the ending just isn’t very good. It’s not terrible, but it’s got too many ideas in it. Key themes are handled in a clunky manner. A secondary character got dropped. A planned denouement didn’t happen, though I still may add it in if I can get some other elements to work out.

But that shouldn’t be much of a surprise; I’ve spent hardly any time on the ending, compared to the rest of the story. Other portions have seen multiple full-rewrites. The last twenty thousand words are a true rough draft. The good news is, some of it works really well. In the mess I still managed to find some wonderful moments I want to keep, some unexpected developments I want to build around. The setting of the final sequence is really cool, but I didn’t decide on it until a couple weeks ago, so it’s not fleshed out as well as it should be.

So, there’s a lot of work to be done. The good news is it’s work I’m excited to do. I’ve come to realize I like revising more than writing a new scene for the first time. The second version’s always better than the first, and with enough polish, a rough misshapen mess turns into something elegant, beautiful.

I’ve learned more than I could have imagined with this project, but I’m not done yet. I’ve met my bar for the first draft; the bar for the second draft is much higher. I’m going to have to push very hard to hit it.  I honestly have no idea how long it will take – I’m hoping only a couple months (or less), but it’s hard to say. It’d be nice if I could get the story out for beta readers before the holidays, though that may be a tad optimistic.

***

I’ll be taking a break from novel-writing this week, to try my hand a couple short stories, with plans to submit them to the Writers of the Future contest if they turn out well. The first is about two outlaw brothers who concoct a risky scheme to trick the kingdom’s most dangerous thief, only to find out that the thief’s been playing them the whole time. The second is about a were-wolf named Simon trapped in a truck with another were-wolf, intent on turning Simon into a killer, with two humans trapped in back the perfect test to see just how much control Simon has.

Can’t wait to see how they turn out. I think that’s half the joy to all this, each story is it’s own discovery, and no matter how well or poorly they turn out on the page, they always live on in my head.

I’ve decided I like ending these posts with a video. Today this song came on my Pandora stream, and it was perfect for the mood I was in. Hope the same is true for one of you, wonderful readers. Till next time!

Quick Update

Apologies for the lack of a post this past week, but I decided to hunker down and try to make serious headway on The Wildfire Crown. The good news is, my plan worked – I’ve had my most productive writing period ever, adding more than 20k words to the manuscript in the past five days. I expect to be done within another week (despite some lousy illness doing it’s best to stop me), and rest assured there will be a celebration post reflecting on the complete draft.

Until then, I recommend you entertain yourself with the awesomeness of the following:

Great Food and Company

I just got back from a fantastic week in Los Angeles with my best friend, Sean – hence the lack of a blog update yesterday.

Friday night he took me to my first Korean BBQ experience at Hae Jang Chon, an apparently well-known spot as evidenced by the substantial wait. For those who don’t know, Korean BBQ means you get a bunch of little dishes (I think we got six complimentary appetizers) and a wok on your table. You order meat; they bring it out to you  and you cook it yourself. You can order a lot of meat – we did rounds of beef brisket, bulgogi, and pork belly. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

We followed dinner with the film Loopers. I hadn’t heard much about it, except that it had some actors I liked and was getting good reviews and involved some kind of time travel, so I went in without many expectations. I was blown away. In a year where it seems like every movie is a re-make or a sequel, Loopers defies a lot of traditions with a strange (but compelling) structure, a dark, unexpected storyline, and a number of cool ideas. The acting’s great, the writing’s great, and there are some really sweet scenes that I don’t want to spoil. The time-travel aspect is not without issues, which comes to no surprise, but I found them easy enough to ignore and just enjoy the ride.

Saturday was spent at a gaming story, playing in the Return to Ravnica pre-release event – a Magic: The Gathering tournament. I’d been very much anticipating the set, and despite the insane heat and crowded playing conditions, still had fun.  Having not had much of a chance to get food, we ended the day by gorging ourselves at a pub-style restaurant called the Village Idiot, which had about the best french-fries I’ve ever tasted and a pretty cool S’more style desert involving dark chocolate pudding.

Sunday involved donuts and a lot of hanging out before going to the airport and waiting on a delayed flight that took me to a delayed bus that sat in traffic for far too long. Fortunately, I had the newest Jack Reacher book (wow does Lee Child know how to pace!) to keep me company, and didn’t get too worked up over it.

Saturday in particular I ended up feeling about as happy as I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and it occurred to me that such moments should come more frequently than they do. Certainly it’s not something we have total control with, but I believe more and more we have a heck of a lot of say in how we feel. A lot of what I’ve been doing this year, not just with my writing but my life in general, has been to gain greater control over my emotions. They weren’t out of control before, but just like anything else, it seems like things like being happy more, avoiding stress, not letting negativity get to you, can all be improved. I think I’ve been pretty successful at that, and I hope to see more moments like this weekend in the not-too-distant future.

James Owen, who I’ve talked about before ,  has continued to inspire this type of thinking. He gave one of the most inspirational talks I’ve ever seen at Superstars in Vegas. That’d be awesome enough if it was a one-time thing, but I can now say after following him on Facebook in the months since, that’s just how he is. He posts wonderful, inspiring, powerful messages not just every week, but every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. And not just the same thing, either – sometimes it’s a little thought, sometimes it’s an anecdote, sometimes an analogy. He reminds me that you can always elevate yourself higher than you currently stand, and that doing so is a choice we can make every day.