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Shoptalk #7: A Tale of Two Chapters: Chapter 30

Chapter 30 presents at least one challenge that Chapter 29 did in its portrayal of another crumbling relationship. I've also conjured myself quite a technical nightmare.

The last draft of Chapter 30 (formerly Chapter 34) ended at 31 pages, a long way from my 15-page-per-chapter limit. One major reason: a character I've kept in the blue distance for the previous 300 pages is now stepping forward to join an increasingly bizarre and intense narrative. (This is otherwise known as "author withholding information.")

I've faced this problem before. In an earlier draft, I walked a new character through 50 pages, and then cut the chapter into chapterlets that I planted in various furrows of the narrative field.

Not this time: this character must remain a passing shadow, only glimpsed now and then, until around midnight time of my tale.

Chapter 30 is, in part, about a stormy romance that unfolds in a Very Bad Place that is also a key setting. To make it more interesting, more like literature, the dangers this character faces also arise from within. I have 3 threads to weave together: the story of this character, the story of her relationship with the woman she's fallen for and, also, to a lesser extent the story of that woman, too (though she has made a few appearances elsewhere).

And to make it even more challenging: she's both gay and a sort of person that many of us tend to avoid.

Some background: During a panel at the 2006 World Horror Convention, held in San Francisco, guest speaker (and Red Room member) Peter Straub decried the type of story populated by characters whose sole sad purpose is to  . . . DIE. . . ! DIE . . . ! DIE. . . ! The Most Hor-ri-ble Bloo-dy Death!

You may have read some of these fictions. The characters are always hasty stereotypes, sometimes sentimental Red Riding Hoods. In our more misanthropic era, they often embody the pet peeves of the writer and his readers; Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, seems to be the originator of this tactic (though I may be wrong); a more contemporary example waddles through the first Jurassic Park movie-of course, the fat obnoxious nerdy guy who works for the evil corporation is going to be raptor fodder (ha ha ha ain't that a stone riot and it didn't raise a single solitary goose bump on me, did it you?).

Though I've not seen them, the entire Saw movie series is reportedly slapped together on this premise-the victim has it coming, so the audience can gleefully wallow in "moral" sadism.

Though I knew better already, I still winced as Peter Straub's point hit my mind. Indeed, "monster fodder" lurk somewhere in my book. This is more than tender-hearted, liberal Catholic moralizing; this is a fundamental aesthetic principle of creating genuine suspense through character, a Hitchcockian dictum no one has neither disproved nor improved on.

Not that a character has to be "lovable" in Hollywood's Give-the-Nazi-a-Rubber-Ducky-and-a-Puppy sense, but they must be complex, contradictory, engaging, interesting, charming, somehow recognizable from life, not stereotypes peeled and plastered on, like a Fathead, from other narratives, movies, or Daily Show satire.

Watching rabid beavers attack Glenn Beck is only funny once. And it's never scary, not ever. As we see him--or as Glenn presents himself--he's a stereotypical reactionary clown, and after a certain point, not terribly interesting (like the crazy drunk uncle who keeps finding new ways to wear lampshades while ranting about black helicopters). If there's any mystery, nuance or complexity in beavers eating Glenn Beck, we're not supposed to know and so, after about five seconds of hearty sick laughter, it's time for Stephen Colbert to roll out his next gag.

But what happens if we see a Glenn Beck even he doesn't want us to see? (There go his ratings, for one.) What if somebody, for example, actually loved Glenn Beck--someone like a forgiving family member, relative, or lover (but not kittens)? A man whose real life and mind reflects ours, even obliquely? Among the best moments I've encountered in both literature and film is a brief flash of sympathy, empathy, a touch of pathos, for someone I've otherwise despised (or feared) throughout.

My first drafts of Chapter 30 concerned a kind of female fool many of you have encountered at one time or another, especially since the 1970s. They were usually found in and around college campuses shaking their fists with fearsome stridence. Even while agreeing with their goals, the most agreeable male didn't dare smile within twenty of feet of them, much less ask for a date (and risk revealing those Penthouse magazines stashed in the closet.)

This may sound like setting fire to a straw woman, but I encountered one of these folks a couple of years ago at another writer's conference and erred in telling her about this book. She threw me a look meant to decapitate. Fortunately, I'm old and experienced now, so her blade was dull and I kept on with my knitting.

But, as I studied Chapter 30, I saw my character was not much more than a scowling scold. As many other novelists do, I had to create a whole life for this woman, before her part in the story begins. And once I had explored that enough, came the struggle to decide what to leave out, what to keep, and then how to use what I kept.

I also recalled similar characters in supernatural fiction and a perfect tender memory floated to the dark surface--Eleanor Lance, the sad soul at the center of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I reread some of those sections and marveled at how Ms. Jackson, sometimes tenderly, sometimes with gemlike honesty, took us on Eleanor's lonely journey to her true home. She could have sentimentalized Eleanor, but didn't. She could treated her as monster fodder, but didn't. Horror fiction often portrays the weak and the wounded. When it does this as artfully and compassionately as Shirley Jackson does, it whispers greatness.

So: this woman is a literary ancestor of Eleanor Lance's, but I want more than a ghostly imitation. Next, I pondered on some of the questions posed by editor Noah Lukeman in his important book The Plot Thickens and found one worth answering: What is the thing(s) that this woman loves most in her life?

I had first made her a bibliophile. Sharing a passion with a character should, logically, deepen my empathy and yours. It bothered me though, because it felt too easy, too much like a post-modern tactic--hey, lookit! I've read The Bell Jar!

I started thinking about things; objects. In the last essay posted here, I discussed the use of car keys in an episode of The Wire. They are strictly functional-the character drops them on the table, and when he picks them up again, it's clear that the whole drama has shifted.

In my story, I took, if you will forgive the pretension, a Nabokovian approach--the object is a blessed piece of furniture, but I don't use it as a trope to mark off dramatic points. To my character, it is a beloved nostalgic object that tells us some of what we need to know about her. It is her cross, her talisman, her comfort against an uncaring--and deadly-- world. )To make it more ironic, more a mirror of her inner struggle, the character also sees herself an anti-materialist).

Meanwhile, there's this romantic relationship with the strange mysterious woman she's rashly moved in with . . .  well, you see the mess I've made.

I've cut 8 pages from Chapter 30, stripped away plenty of brush and created some moments that genuinely scare me. Still, the dilemma remains unresolved.

Cut too much, I may wind up with little more than another poor dumb fool whose only purpose is to DIE!DIE!DIE! I risk losing genuine suspense, real terror, leaving only a series of crude, empty shocks.

But if I let it go on too long, I risk losing you, the reader, as you yawn and lay my book aside.

I've even considered cutting the chapter and the character entirely but when I asked the basic question: what exactly is her place in the narrative? The answer came up small . . . but essential.

Right now, I lean toward allowing my 15-page rule to slide. When I call my book  "finished" what I mean is that it's ready to take to market. I can still revisit Chapter 30 later. It will pass under the eyes of agents, editors and other eye-pairs hopefully more clear sighted than mine are right now, before it reaches bookstores and e-Readers. Maybe the Muse will fire that bolt of lightening into brain that will reveal what I must do.

On the other hand, I could be completely, stunningly, wrong. I may have actually written something decent.

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Shoptalk: Chapter 30

I like this peek behind the scenes of a book in the making. And it provides some insight into why I'd never dream of trying to write a novel, even if the ideas flowed the way they do for you! I get the sense that having a detailed plot outline to keeps characters and plot lines from ballooning is probably a very useful thing for highly creative types like you, Thomas.

Which leads to a three-part question: how many chapters are planned, how many pages do you expect it to come in at, and do you have a new working ETA (or will it be "done when's it's done")?

Your fan-in-waiting in Pasadena,


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Shoptalk 30:

Hey Keith:


These are are all estimates, but probably 40 chapters at around 470 pages finished in mid-to-late May.