Who Does Your Main Character Work For?

A little white back, my wife and I saw The East, a 2013 film starring and co-written by Brit Marling:

Marling’s character infiltrates an off-the-grid terrorist organization that’s been striking out at corporations that have gotten out of hand. One is responsible for an oil spill, another for despoiling a town’s water supply, and a third for releasing a drug onto the market that has horrible side effects. Part of what makes the movie interesting is that Marling isn’t a cop or a crusading journalist, but rather an agent for a private security firm. It made me think about the importance of who your main character works for in a story and what it means for their development (or lack thereof) as a character.

A lot of stories are about main characters solving some kind of mystery, figuring out the solution to some problem. It’s no surprise, then, that lots of stories have main characters whose jobs require them to solve those mysteries – cops, private detectives, journalists. It gives them not just a motivation for getting into the problem in the first place but a destination as well – an arrest, the confirmation of a dark secret, an expose article. But it can also give them interesting limitations, blinders, or obstacles to overcome.

The natural job for a character like Marling’s in The East would be a cop of some variety – a person tasked by society with taking down bad guys. A person who should, at least in theory, be motivated to serve justice and help people. We’ve seen that story before, however, so making Marling’s character a private security operative boxes her in interesting ways since she’s not working for society in general, but for specific clients.

There is a scene, for instance, where she winds up in a middle of a plot the group is pulling that will poison dozens of people at a drug exec’s party. When she realizes that and calls her boss for guidance, she’s gently reminded that the drug company is not their client, so she shouldn’t try to stop what’s happening, just keep gathering info for the client that actually hired her. It creates an extra amount of tension over what she’s going to do and why, which I thought worked pretty well.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on the sequel to Moore Hollow.

Yeah, so, I’m doing a sequel to Moore Hollow, the first of many, I think (currently now being worked on around the final volume of the Unari Empire trilogy, Heroes of the Empire).

For the books going forward, Ben Potter, the disgraced journalist who is the main character of Moore Hollow, permanently relocates to West Virginia and throws himself into investigating the area’s rich tradition of beasties, legends, and general weirdness. In the second book, though, he hooks up with a lawyer to help represent a particular client. That will give him different motivations and restrictions than his normal work as a paranormal journalist. I hope to explore how those roles are different as the series goes forward and Ben sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t work with that attorney.

Of course, those choices don’t always work for every reader/viewer. Consider this view, from a review of The East:

Yet the biggest issue with The East is that Batmanglij and Marling so thoroughly rig the script in the environmentalists’ favor. By casting Marling as a corporate spy instead of a government agent, it sets up a fatally compromised situation where her bosses have the same profit motive as the companies being jammed. So choices that might be made in the name of justice are instead a matter of loyalty to one set of values that’s clearly more compromised than the other. Environmental activists like the ones in “The East” live by a code, but the same can’t be said of Sarah’s employer. Going native is easy when you don’t have to follow the letter of the law.

But for me, it’s precisely that lack of direction that makes the character (and her journey) interesting. In the end, I think she finds a lot of commonality between her employer and the would-be do-gooders.

What I’m saying is that, oftentimes, our main characters born out of what they’re going to do in our story. Still, it’s useful to think about the context in which they’re going to do it, which includes how they’re making a living. It can open up some interesting storytelling avenues.

The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

I Won! I Won!

Hey, everybody. How was November? Everybody awakened from their turkey coma?

As I said earlier, I spent last month taking part in National Novel Writing Month, working on the sequel to my first novel, Moore Hollow. I’m pleased to say it was a very productive month:

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Of course, in this case “winner” means “reach the 50,000-word threshold,” not have a complete manuscript in a month. Still, I made a very good start and should finish up this first draft in the next few weeks. More importantly, this book now has a title! The second installment of what I’m going to call the Appalachian Paranormal series is The Triplets of Tennerton. I’m super excited to share it with you (in a while).

All in all, 2019 will have been a pretty productive writing year for me. I finished and published Gods of the Empire, first of my new Unari Empire trilogy. I also wrote a first draft of its sequel, Widows of the Empire. Now I’m about to wrap up a first draft of The Triplets of Tennerton. Not too shabby.

What of next year? My main focus will be on finishing Widows and writing the final book in that trilogy, Heroes of the Empire. Will Widows see the light of day in 2020? Too early to say, but it’s definitely a possibility. All I know is that I’m going to keep grinding at this thing called writing.

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Hello, 2019

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not as if you file them with some official registry and, when you start to slip, government drones bust in to keep you on the straight and narrow.

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I prefer to use the start of the year as a time to take stock, to think about what the coming year might hold. So let’s do that, shall we?

To start with, my initial goal for 2019 is to finish up Gods of the Empire, the first book in my new trilogy. As you’ll recall, this project was originally going to be a series of shorter books, but morphed into a trilogy of longer books. As a result, I basically wrote the first book in two separate parts. They’ve now been fused together for a complete manuscript. It’s a couple of edits away from “done” and, I hope, will see the light of day this year.

Beyond that, things are fairly wide open.

Obviously, at some point, I’ll need to get cracking on the second book in this trilogy, Widows of the Empire. It’s largely planned out (in broad strokes, at least), but I’m not sure whether I’ll want to jump right back into that world or get some distance before I get working on book two in earnest.

I’m also planning to go back and revive something I thought was a standalone novel – Moore Hollow. I’ve had more than one person ask about a sequel, which I’d never intended, but I’ve come around. It’s now going to be the first book in a series in which Ben Potter moves to West Virginia and investigates various weirdnesses. Getting cracking on the second book in that series is high on my list of priorities, too.

There are bound to be some shorter projects that pop up here and there, too. Last year, between rounds of Gods of the Empire, I actually wrote a novelette (I think) set in the expanded Moore Hollow universe because the idea lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t go away. That same kind of thing is likely to happen again. Only time will tell.

So there you have it – no resolutions, but some plans and some goals. Now let’s get out there and take on 2019!

letsdothis

The River (and Hollow and Ereph) Is Wide

Well have I got some news for you, dear readers.

For the past couple of years the eBook versions of all my books have been available exclusively through Amazon (including via Kindle Unlimited). I’ve decided to try something different and expand my reach a bit, so I’m happy to announce that starting right now, everything – The Water Road trilogy, Moore Hollow, even The Last Ereph and Other Stories – is now available all across the Internet at places like Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Scribd.

So if you’re a non-Kindle eBook fan, here’s where to get everything:

The Water Road Trilogy

The Water Road

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Endless Hills

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Bay of Sins

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

Moore Hollow

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

The Last Ereph and Other Stories

Kindle | Paperback (Amazon)
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iBooks
Inktera
Scribd
Playster

In addition, if you buy any of my books in paperback, you’ll get a Kindle version absolutely free!

As for the inspiration for the title of this post – take it away Nick!

Moore Hollow Is Free – Three Days Only!

For the first time, and possibly the last, my debut novel, Moore Hollow is absolutely free at Amazon, today through Wednesday.

Moore Hollow is about a guy, Ben Potter, whose life is a shambles. As a journalist he’s hit rock bottom, writing dreck about monsters and ghouls to make ends meet after a big story blew up in his face. As a son he’s a disappointment, unwilling to follow his father, grandfather, and great grandfather into the family business. As a father, he’s mostly just not there.

Now a new assignment could change all that. All he has to do is go from London to the hills of West Virginia to investigate the strangest of stories his great grandfather told. Did a sleazy politician really raise the dead to try and win an election? And if he did, what happened to the zombies? Could they still exist? Ben needs to find out, to solve the mystery and find a way to get his life back on track.

But once he finds the answer, Ben has to face a whole new batch of problems. Does he use what he learns to put his life back on track? Or is he compelled to do the right thing, even if it leaves his life a mess?

The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

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Get your free copy here before time runs out!

Albums That Change Your Life

A few days ago there was a trending hashtag on Twitter for #3AlbumsThatChangedMyLife. When I saw it pop up, I had to play along:

I like this framing better than the typical list of “favorites” or desert island discs (do they even do that anymore in the iTunes and playlist age?) since it leans right in to the subjectivity of musical experience. There are no wrong answers to this question. Or so I hope . . .

Selling England By the Pound

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To my mind, Selling England By the Pound isn’t just peak Genesis, it’s the template for much of what we call symphonic prog these days. The only thing it lacks is the truly oversized epic, but everything else is there – lush symphonic arrangements, lengthy instrumental passages, contrasting pastoral and bombastic passages. Throw in a set of very English lyrics and it’s hard to argue it gets any better than this.

But that’s not what makes it a life changer for me. I can’t see SEBtB was the first old school Genesis album I heard – my brother had everything from Nursery Cryme through Duke – but it was the first one I connected with. I’m not quite sure why. The macabre sensibility of Nursery Cryme or the sci-fi aspects of Foxtrot would seem to have been more obvious choices. But for some reason the album with the sleeping lawn mower on the cover and references to British politics and gang wars is what sucked me in. It wasn’t the only album that made me a prog fan, but it’s probably the one most responsible.

Special mention, probably, for starting my lifelong love affair with the Mellotron. The world’s first sampling keyboard, it was supposed to put classical musicians out of business, but it never really created lifelike sounds in the end – which is what makes it so cool! The intro to “Watcher of the Skies” from Foxtrot is probably the definitive Genesis Tron moment, but for me the part of “Dancing Out With the Moonlit Knight” where the choral tapes kick in gives me goose bumps every time.

Brave

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When I got into Marillion in college, the fan base was split in the kind of way that happens when long-lived bands have major lineup changes. In this case, the fissure was between the early Fish-fronted version of the band and the then (and still) current version fronted by Steve Hogarth (aka “H”). The battle lines, as I understood it at the time, were that that Fish years hewed more truly to the band’s progressive rock roots, while the H years were all about mediocre attempts at mainstream success. As a result, after my gateway dose of Marillion (Misplaced Childhood) I focused on absorbing the Fish-era stuff.

Then I heard about Brave – a concept album, one with some long multi-part songs and a dark exploration of a potential suicide. This didn’t sound like the stuff of a low-rent Phil Collins desperate for pop glory. I decided it was worth checking out, even as part of me figured it would be a flop and send me back into the loving arms of the earlier material.

Holy hell, did I have that wrong! Brave wasn’t just a great, deep, layered progressive rock record, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Yeah, it was different from the early days, more ambient and less overtly “prog,” but damn, it’s good. And that H guy’s no slouch! Hell, Brave even made its way into one of my books.

This was important not only because I discovered a great album, but because I learned that Marillion wasn’t a thing of the past. As a band they had a lot of life left in them (still do – seeing them again at the end of October!) and became one of my absolute favorites.

What makes it all the more impressive – Brave isn’t even my favorite H-era Marillion album.

Kid A

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Kid A didn’t work the sea change in my musical world that the others did. Instead, it set something going in my brain that slow burned its way into an appreciation of an entirely different kind of music.

I was late to OK Computer and wasn’t completely on board the Radiohead train when Kid A came out. What I read about it – electronic, experimental – didn’t really intrigue me. Then I saw this:

The song itself didn’t grab me so much as Johnny Greenwood (?) sitting at the front of the stage, swapping patch cords and twiddling knobs on a modular synthesizer. Not a keyboard in sight (RIP, Don Buchla, by the way). I went out and got the album and, it turned out, I really dug it. I’ve been on the train ever since.

The funny this is, at the time, I didn’t think to myself, “self, you’re listening to electronic music now.” Radiohead’s been drafted in by the prog crowd and Kid A (and just about everything else) is certainly adventurous and genre diverse to fit the bill. Nonetheless, it was definitely the gateway drug. It was a while before I consciously decided to check out Kraftwerk and Jarre (I think Richard Barbieri’s first solo album was a way station), but I got there and fell hard (much to my wife’s dismay). It was only a matter of time once I’d heard Kid A and let it seep into my brain.

So those are my three. What are yours?

I’m at Tamarack!

I’m at Tamarack!

Opened in 1996, Tamarack (just outside of Beckley) is a showcase for West Virginia artists of various kinds. According to its website, it was the first of its kind – a center devoted to the promotion of regional arts. In the 20 years since its opening more than 7 million people have visited.

Items sold at Tamarack have been juried and approved, which means getting into the collection there is something of an accomplishment. So I’m very pleased to report that my first novel, Moore Hollow, is now available there:

Book@Tamarack1

Cell phone picture – pardon the quality

I think Moore Hollow is a natural fit for Tamarack, given that it’s set largely in West Virginia. It also ties a little bit into the political history of the state and, I hope, might give people a reason to rethink their perceptions of small mountain towns and the people who live there.

Of course, Moore Hollow is also still available from Amazon, as well.

What I’m Doing for the Next Month

Traffic here on the blog will be light-to-nonexistent for November while I participate – once again – in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

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Except for 2010 (I was editing) and 2014 (I was getting ready to spend two weeks in Cambodia), I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2008. I’ve “won” – that means I’ve produced at least 50,000 words from scratch – four years and failed two other times.

I’ve found NaNo to be a good time to really focus down on writing and force myself to be productive every day. Moore Hollow, which came out last month, was my NaNo project for 2012. Meanwhile, The Water Road and The Endless Hills were projects for 2009 and 2013, respectively. As you can see, it takes a lot of time beyond NaNo to polish something into a finished product, even if it’s a winner.

All of which is a long way of saying that for November, NaNo and The Bay of Sins (book three of the trilogy of which The Water Road and The Endless Hills are the first two parts) is my first priority. I can’t say I won’t blog about anything – in fact I know of one thing I’ll have to blog about – but pretty much anything else will have to wait until December.

You can keep track of my progress, if you like:

Alternately, I’ll be posting occasionally to Twitter, so you can follow me there.

See you in December!

The Incredible Shrinking Second Draft

I have a weird way of handling second drafts, maybe a unique way.

It grew out of my day job, in which I sometimes have to synthesize argument originally made by other lawyers into a final brief. I quickly decided that just dumping someone else’s words into a brief and doing a quick edit wouldn’t work – we all have a different voice, after all. Just dumping was inelegant at best and headache inducing at worst.

Instead, I take the section provided by someone else and rewrite it in my own voice. The final product includes the same information, the same argument. But it sounds of a piece with what came before and what comes after. That’s the theory, at least.

I imported that system into my fiction writing. I take the first draft, print it out (usually as a PDF these days), then work my way back through it, rewriting from word one. That allows me to do a couple of things. Most importantly, it allows me to focus on the words themselves, the really bottom level grunt work of writing. That’s because I already know what happens to whom and where, so I don’t have to worry about plot stuff.

The other thing it does is it lets me fill in gaps that occurred in the first draft. Sometimes they’re gaps I didn’t realize at the time but that, as I go through it again at a brisker pace, make themselves known. Other times it’s because I was stuck on the first draft and didn’t want things to grind to a halt completely and I left myself a note to add something or expand something.

Either way, the usual has been for the manuscript to grow in the second draft. Moore Hollow was just over 50,000 words in the first graft, but grew to about 65,000 in the end. The Water Road, the first volume of the trilogy I have schedule for next year, grew from about 110,000 words to 135,000 in the end.

Which is what makes my experience with The Endless Hills kind of odd. This is the second book of The Water Road trilogy, and it wound up with about 127,000 words in the first draft. But after the second draft (which I finished last weekend), it’s actually dipped a bit, to 123,000. And that’s including a couple of new scenes or chapters that I had left behind in the first draft.

What the heck happened? A couple of things, both of them good (I hope).

First, I’ve become very sensitive about using dialog tags and trying to clean them out of my writing. For those not in the know, dialog tags are those things like:

“This is a dialog tag,” JD said, to nobody whatsoever.

There’s frequently skirmishes on writers forums about the need for them at all and whether, if you use them, you should just stick to “said” and let that be that. Earlier on I went the John Scalzi route and tried to use “said” exclusively and all the time. I think it goes back to my legal writing where ambiguity about who is speaking could be lethal to a legal argument. But for fiction tags can sometimes get in the way, particularly if you’ve only got a two-way conversation going on. So I took a lot of that stuff out on the second draft.

Second, I’ve also been trying to pare down my writing as a I go forward. Trying to do more with less, I guess you’d say. I’ve never been the most verbose of writers, but I’m not exactly Hemmingway brief, either. I think I’m getting better about tightening things up without sacrificing what’s important.

One of the things more experienced writers will tell you (if you listen) is that writing is as much craft as art. Becoming a better writer is partly down to learning how to do things better, from a mechanical point of view. Sitting down and writing something ten years after you started writing completely should be easier and be a better product when it’s finished.

At least that’s what I’m hoping!