Whistle while you work

When kicking around ideas for new stories music really helps get my creative juices flowing. I like instrumental and songs, as each can evoke tones and imagery that feel immediate. Ideas are sometimes very much in the early stages with only scribbled notes jotted-down hastily on whatever paper is nearby, and listening to something (especially while driving for some reason) helps my mind wander around the edges of those ideas. I’m able to refine scenarios in my head and explore really random things. While they may not ultimately make the page, it helps me with story beats and characterizations.

steamboat

For my upcoming short, the next in a continuing series following Sky Horns Growling and We Are Alive Tonight, the basic structure is there but the tone and direction will go into even more unusual, darker places than before. That said, I think it will turn out to be one of the most fun and twisting, turning, genre-blending stories I’ve dreamed-up yet. It’s hard to explain a creative process that feels so intangible at times, but I tend to “see” these stories as larger brush strokes of vivid colors. The image starts out a bit hazy at first, but over time and with subsequent research and revision the picture gets clearer. Each story runs to a unique beat, and I find that after a while it feels more like I’m describing real events happening somewhere rather than making things up as I go. Especially with this series, every paragraph is about world-building. It moves at a fast clip, and each revelation should have serious implications for both the readers and the characters.

cv

Here are a few songs haunting my playlist recently that give a sense for the flavor of things to come.  Enjoy!

Now, back to that old drawing board…

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Thoughts formed

Now that my latest short story We Are Alive Tonight is out on Amazon Kindle I thought I’d share some background on how the story came together. Like most writers, influences come to me from a lot of places – dreams, pop culture, film, music, personal fears – and likely a lot of other really small things that help season a story until I get it just the way I want it. Sky Horns Growling, the first installment of this ongoing story, was initially inspired by a very vivid dream and grew out of that into what was originally intended to be a one-and-done tale of terror. While Sky Horns Growling was infused with some deep feelings about 9/11 and some truly out-of-this-world things, once I decided to extend the story with future installments to see where it naturally led me I had some new challenges to address.

I woke up one fine Saturday morning and picked up a Grande Flat White and Slow-Roasted Ham & Swiss from Starbucks. I was listening to Grace Potter’s album Midnight and the song Alive Tonight on the drive when the ideas struck. Back home I sipped warm coffee and hastily scribbled an outline on a small notepad about where the story should pick up and what threads I wanted to continue. That, as they say, was the easy part. From there, I began chunking the ideas into smaller pieces and I knew that this direction would require me to grow as a writer to pull it all off effectively.

typwriter

For the main character I wanted an intelligent, confident female protagonist to structure this next section around. Where Ethan was patterned a bit after the 24 year old version of myself, Harriet would be an accomplished professional airline pilot nearer to my age today. She would need to be direct, able to lead others intuitively and without sugar-coating the situation to sway people to her point of view. She would be tough to rattle, but I’d also need to convey her humanity through her actions rather than her dialogue. I took to heart some reader feedback I’d received on the character Marie from my short Domataphobia with the critique that she wasn’t a fully-realized female character. While she was definitely a very different type of character than Harriet, I definitely wanted to take on the challenge of writing a female lead honestly and without compromising her or positioning her as a damsel in distress. This would be a little harder to fully realize in a short story that is part of a larger whole, but I wanted to at least set the foundation to continue to build upon.

I also needed to break down the big emergency landing sequence that opens this second chapter of the story. I really liked the challenge of laying out the action in a realistic and no-nonsense manner. That meant stripping away exposition and adapting the visceral nature of the event to the transcript-style approach I had in mind to emphasize the immediacy of what was happening minute-by-minute. To do that, though, I needed to do quite a bit of homework on commercial passenger jetliners; their size, crew, passenger capacity, and terminology. I’m not a pilot, but I studied flight paths, air speed, flight simulation videos – you name it – even transcripts from the famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ to tweak the dialogue for authenticity. I shared a rough draft with a longtime family friend and experienced pilot for feedback on protocol. Where I had the initial idea of the flight crew being quite terrified I found that the opposite would ring truer, and a strict need to follow procedure to land safely that stemmed from years of intensive training was much more likely. It also helped drive home Harriet’s character as a cool-under-pressure, capable pilot despite all sorts of craziness happening all around her! That said, given the situation some cursing and very curt updates to the passengers would probably be given by the pilot under the circumstances.

airplane

Continuing the structure of throwing the reader a curve ball with each mini-chapter was also important to have this feel like a natural progression from Sky Horns Growling. While I have a sense for where things are headed, I wanted to keep readers guessing. We pick up with a series of real world quotes on the “sky sounds” phenomena, but rather than drop right back into this world with Ethan and Mary I felt a change in perspective would help confirm that this was an event occurring on a scale only hinted at originally while also allowing me to expand the cast of characters and mystery much more quickly.

Eagle-eye readers will also see that some of the characters appearing here seem strikingly similar to those found in my other short stories, and that is no accident. For the modest few readers I have it’s hopefully a treat to see that there is a broader fictional world these stories share and one that this series will attempt to bridge, explain and payoff in ways that readers will enjoy. If you’re wondering how an otherwise self-contained “haunted house” story might have some very close ties to what appears to be a biblical Rapture or alien abduction-scale situation, well, just hold on to your hats!

rapture

We Are Alive Tonight is intended to reaffirm much of what started before while posing several other questions, particularly in it’s final chapter. I can guarantee you that nothing you’ve read so far is a cheap gimmick; the story structure, coincidences, characters and direction are all building towards something that I think you’ll find will be really thought-provoking. Every detail – from the cover art to the appearance of a gigantic serpent-like monstrosity (yes, you read that right!) are there for a reason.

I have become very interested in the nature of human consciousness, perception, how our actions change the world around us, and where we fit into a much larger universe in recent years. The more I learn about time, space and concepts ranging from multi-dimensional realities to thought forms the more I’m curious to explore these ideas in ways that will also entertain as pulse-pounding adventures.

consciousness

Next up is prep for the follow-up, and the places I’m set to take readers are bigger, more outlandish and more challenging than anything up until now. I assure you there will not be a Patrick-Duffy-in-the-shower dream ending, either! Most importantly, writing this series has been fun for me. I never really thought about writing fiction, or even that I could enjoy it, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the process so far. In this case, the story is a bit of a puzzle that needs to be put together before I can put it to the page and half of the enjoyment is thinking through the possibilities, seeing it come to life after lots of work, and knowing there is still much left to be explored. I sincerely hope that if you’re reading this you’ll give this series a try, I think you’re in for a treat!

Well, back to the ol’ grindstone…until next time!

 

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I’m fixin’ to…

Almost a year ago I released the short story Sky Horns Growling. It was relatively quick to write and I took inspiration from a variety of things including dreams, 9/11, and even War of the Worlds. A fellow author offered to read a draft and provided some feedback which really helped, and in doing so, she also challenged me to extend the story. She liked the weirdness going on and felt that there could be more to it than the “one-and-done” short I had in mind originally. The structure of the tale was intended to throw readers a new curve ball at each turn; and the more I thought about it, the more I felt drawn to see where this all led.  So, that last page had a bold “To Be Continued” tag added to the end as a promise of more to come.

bttf

Sure, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but I was happy with how it came out and received some nice feedback from gracious readers.  The holidays came up soon after that, and it wasn’t until the new year that I began noodling with the idea of where the heck this installment was going to go next.  It didn’t take too long, though, and I hatched the idea of not only this latest, upcoming part of the story, but also where it would lead from there.

Great, right?

Well, those ideas were just that: ideas.  To really capture the tone, the language of the characters, the overarching situation they find themselves in and more meant I needed to really start doing some homework.  Without giving too much away, readers are returned to this world smack in the middle of an action set piece.  I wanted to make it read as immediate and jarring, but to do that I needed to really understand and carefully plan things to earn that authentic feeling I really wanted to land.

homer thinking

How would these characters respond in this situation?  How long would this event actually last?  How did they all get here?  What rules had I set for myself previously that I needed to play by so as to not cheat the reader? How can I make these events, these people, this situation unfold organically?

I started with a series of in-depth searches and put out some feelers for all sorts of things.  I had to brush-up on commercial passenger jetliners (of which I knew next to nothing), the mystery of human consciousness, how to honestly portray a strong female protagonist, and other seemingly disconnected topics while carefully considering how all of the various puzzle pieces would continue to fall.  As a reader I expect the author knows where they’re taking me, is careful about how things are revealed to me, and how the story allows me to become invested in it.  I love reading something that makes me want to instantly go on to find out what happens next.  I love stories that make me stop and reconsider everything I thought I knew about what was happening on the page.

Wait. Did I mention that my wife and I are expecting a baby boy soon?

Yep – so with all of this stuff bouncing around in my head –  real life continues to march on!  My marriage, our soon-to-be-growing family, work, naps, DOOMStranger Things, and amazing pies all mixed-in and sort of delayed this latest short story much more than I’d intended.  That said, I’m happy to report that I’m putting the finishing touches on it and aim to have We Are Alive Tonight release right around Halloween.  To give you a sense of the vibe I had going as a wrote it, check out these tracks from S U R V I V E, and Grace Potter.

eggo

So, they say “good things come to those who wait”, and despite some radio silence I hope the next short story is a lot of fun for people and leaves them wanting even more.

More to come!

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Weekend!

youdoexist

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One small step

Like many writers, writing isn’t my “day job”, and it certainly doesn’t pay the bills just yet. It’s a passion, and a true love/hate endeavor every time that new idea pops-in there. Take my short story Sky Horns Growling, for example. After I published that last fall it was only a matter of weeks before the relief and joy of another story brought to life subsided and I hatched the idea for how to carry the story forward with the next installment.

GBRAY

That was October. October of last year. I know, I know, “write every day!” Well, even us writers need time to decompress, relax and just enjoy life away from staring at Word. Even though I had the idea, it was a complex one. OK, for me it was complex, and I needed to do some homework to really kickoff the first chapter with an authentic, pulse-pounding start to leave readers breathless and ready to dive right into chapter two. I needed to build the outline. I needed to understand who these characters were, how they fit into this crazy world I setup in the first installment, and where the heck this was all going.

Kimmy

In between I played a lot of video games. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Transformers: Devastation and Bloodborne all were welcome diversions. I did a lot of Netflix watching, flying through the second seasons of Daredevil and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt while catching-up on The Americans on FX in between.

TCIF

I tell ya, I walked into the man cave countless times and saw that stack of notes but turned away with a guilty conscience to read through my latest stack of comics and several Dark Horse Conan graphic novels instead. By Crom, though, I finally wrapped-up what was a daunting first chapter of the continuation of Sky Horns Growling, We Are Alive Tonight. It took a lot of time, a lot of research, a bunch of tinkering, false starts and second guesses, but here I am. It all starts with a single step, and that’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for any writer.

SmallStep

More to come!

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Prey Slaughtered

whirlygig

After almost a year of on-and-off again playing I finally did it: I survived Bloodborne. It was a long, winding road filled with rage-quits, obsessive level-grinding, and detours to other games that exuded much more compassion to players. To put it into context; from the time I started playing Bloodborne almost a year ago to when I finally entered that sweet, fleeting, melancholy NG+ I was also able to completely finish Arkham Knight and Metal Gear Solid V. Neither of those games are necessarily “easy” or “short”, but compared to the unending nights roaming the Forbidden Woods or Forsaken Castle Cainhurst they felt like cheerful strolls down sunny beaches. Even when I was thinking of returning to press onward it was almost as if Bloodborne sensed the returning confidence in me and landed The Old Hunters DLC as a sort of sadistic mic-drop, taunting me to dare enter the Hunter’s Dream again.

forbidden woods

You may have noticed that I haven’t said that I “beat” Bloodborne, and that’s entirely intentional. I didn’t finish all of the numerous Chalice Dungeons or find every secret along the way. I didn’t complete all NPC quests, either, but I did take down all of the main-game and DLC. That, for me, was a victory. You’d have thought I would have had time to relish it after such a long slog, but in fact, it was a mix of emotions. It felt almost like a long swim across deep waters to shore. I was out of breath, happy to have reached a place of respite, and happy to be alive. Almost as quickly, though, a sense of emptiness set in. NG+ instantly locks all lanterns and resets the game. Sure, I got to keep all of my gear and the Level 101 scaling I’d arrived at with a focus on HP/Stamina/Strength build, but all of the bosses returned, every area was sealed-off again, and my lofty stats were basically pitiful against the increased challenge. I thought about another go at it, because hell – I’d beaten this once already. However, upon reflecting on the toll that would take I’ve resigned myself (at least for now) to put the game in my rearview mirror.

annalise

Bloodborne is a masterpiece. It’s a raw, unflinching gaming experience. It’s a grotesque, disturbing quest. The core gameplay mechanics are great, and at the same time I cursed every instance that an enemy struck me through a stone wall. The art and design evoke truly nightmarish landscapes on a grand scale. The sound design and score can be minimal or bombastic; highlighting frenzied, white-knuckle battles and the hollow, echoed footsteps into a forbidding cavern. There are honestly too many things to note that I love about it all. So far, I don’t think I’ve had such an engrossing gaming experience since Red Dead Redemption a console generation ago. I’ve played other titles by From Software, but Demons’ Souls and Dark Souls never sucked me in the way Bloodborne managed to, and I certainly never completed those games.

ladymaria

Certain characters and locations stand-out in particular: Forbidden Woods, Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, Snake Parasite, Ebrietas Daughter of the Cosmos, Shadows of Yharnam, Annalise Queen of the Vilebloods, Hemwick Charnel Lane, Micolash, Winter Lanterns, and many, many more. For as horrific as the overall setting is, all of the excellent pieces combined are more than the sum of their parts. The rich lore and the barely-whispered corners invite exploration; and the impenetrable nature of the unraveling just-what-the-hell-is-going-on scenario draws you in further to mine the depths of this pitch-black world.

cainhurst

I can’t say I’ll be going back soon (I’m not that much a glutton for punishment to attempt some NG+7 crusade), but when the Resonant Bell rings softly for an inevitable sequel I will wholeheartedly enter into that deep, dark dream once again.

lantern

For the honor of Cainhurst.

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Finding authenticity

verisimilitude

When it comes to entertainment, one thing I always appreciate is authenticity. I love nonfiction, and the reason is that I’ve found reality is almost always capable of being far more unusual and interesting than anything someone can imagine. That said, when it comes to fiction in its many forms, I love the details that make a story seem grounded and believable.

Director Richard Donner has stated on several occasions that when filming the original Superman: The Movie motion picture he always had verisimilitude at the forefront of his mind. That meaning, that even though the story and characters being presented were firmly in the realm of comic book fantasy, the cast and crew should treat the subject matter with a sense of actually being possible. Sure, Christopher Reeve wasn’t actually flying, but the way he shifted his weight or positioned his arms while hoisted above from wires in a scene were reminiscent of how hang gliders similarly shifted their bodies to ride the air currents. In that example, it was a small touch that the audience may only notice subconsciously, but that slight attention to detail helped ground the performance and suspend disbelief just enough so viewers could vicariously soar through the heavens just like the Man of Steel.

Take video games; the medium is synonymous with outlandish worlds, amazing characters and impossible scenarios. Yet as the years move on graphics, sound and design continue to evolve along with a savvier population of players. Getting the physics just right in a Grand Theft Auto game helps transport players to a world not too different from our own where spectacular vehicle stunts seem all the more impressive because of the insane level of research, detail, and care that have gone into developing a subverted mirror image of a major US city.

gtav

While it may seem easy, as a writer I find that when I hatch an idea I want to follow-through on the details. For me, sharing that exactly-right comment with readers helps them feel like they are in the moment with me on an interview. It’s great when I’m writing nonfiction, with the only frustration being how to distill something down into the most important aspects of a conversation or situation. Fiction, on the other hand, I find to be an entirely different, sometimes-cruel animal.

A lot of my ideas start as dreams where the intimate, visceral nature leaves a strong positive (or terrifying) impression on me. When writing, I want to convey that same sense of wonder or dread in readers. To do that effectively, though, can be a challenge. I’m working on a new short story now, and the hurdle ahead of me is setting-up a heart-pounding introduction to the characters and situation. Think summer blockbuster-level spectacle. It goes by fast, and I want readers to feel the rushed, panicked nature of the events as the characters experience them. However, I don’t want to cheat. I want the scene to feel completely outrageous, immediate, but always authentic. At times this causes writers to research any number of odd areas to better understand how the world around us works. Writing about a man trying to get the power restored to his house on a dark, dreary night? Well, it helps to know how a person would really do that rather than write the character as looking to change the electricity batteries hidden in the bottom drawer of the fridge. OK, that may be a little extreme, but you get the idea.

The great part is that in the process of writing in many ways you are also in a process of learning; learning about the world around you, learning about how to stage a scene, or learning about how a story should go versus maybe how you originally thought it would go if your aim is authenticity. I never thought I’d be reading-up on commercial airline landing procedures or interviewing experienced pilots about in-flight cockpit jargon, but there it is! In many ways the little things, the small details help craft something even better than you initially imagined. Much like Superman: The Movie, the director and effects teams started with miniatures and tried-and-true special effects to tell the story on screen. However, with verisimilitude in mind, they found that by leveraging a mix of a variety of techniques the approach would need to change but the ultimate goal could be achieved. It worked, and today people still remember that film as the one that made people “believe a man can fly.”

superman

Authenticity shows more than just an eye for realism, to the reader or audience it also shows that the creators cared. They cared enough about the experience they were creating and the people they were creating it for to get even the small things right…or at least, right enough to be believable. Likewise, if something fantastic or unreal can be made to seem all the more plausible it can in turn make the experience more believable even while taking people to a world they could only scarcely imagine. Steven Spielberg grounded his tales with a great peppering of actual reality multiple times with films like Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan among several others. I’m no Spielberg, but I appreciate how he spent so much effort getting his worlds on the screen to seem completely plausible so we as the audience could lose ourselves in the story if only for a short while.

Man, that first T-Rex fence attack scene in Jurassic Park STILL holds-up better than most of the latest special effects extravaganzas today. Amazing! OK, all that said, a little update for you awesome readers: I’m still writing, still tweaking the fine details, but I assure you it’ll be worth it! Now, back to the old grindstone…

snoopy

 

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