Revising the Storm- Week 30

Here is a link to my most recent draft if you want to compare changes. And now let’s get to today’s work.

Tied Together)

Oscar opened the throttle and his vessel surged forward, bouncing atop the waves, advancing until its prow pierced through the misty screen. Large and heavy raindrops broke across the windshield, which momentarily obscured Oscar’s vision, but then the curtain parted and darker forms were revealed beyond!

It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by the strong winds into wisps, long and thin, yet so numerous as to crowd out the evening sun entirely. Under the grim ceiling lay a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in endless agony, the green-black hue of ink. Oscar could feel the temperature around him drop by at least fifteen degrees, even without the wind chill. And wafting in on that wind came the stench of sea-things, long dead and decaying, churned out of their slumber by the rolling deep.

I took out the visual description of lightning, and replaced it with details of the temperature and smell. I think this provides a more complete sensation now, and I can always bring the bristling lightning back elsewhere if I need it.

And there, caught in the thick of everything, was Harry’s vessel. It twitched and swayed erratically, entirely at the mercy of the storm. On occasion it would surge to life, just enough to jerk back into line with the rolling waves, and then the engines would die and it would flounder once more. The boat must have taken on a great deal of water already, growing more sluggish by the minute. Growing more difficult to haul out by the minute.

Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more steady, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just for you to swing into my hull!”

“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”

“Don’t just try! You gotta hold her straight. I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”

“Okay, Oscar. I’ll try.”

Oscar sighed in exasperation. Apparently “try” was as good as Harry was going to give.

The old sailor held firmly to the wheel, maintaining a straight line to Harry. They would have to move with precision and speed, minimizing the number of seconds that their boats would be so treacherously close to one another!

Oscar glanced over his shoulder and punched a button, dropping the net from the trawler’s central beam. He pulled a lever and the rope ran out until fifty feet of it lay unfurled on the deck.

Made some cuts to the paragraph above, and I think it makes a subtle but significant difference. The image I want in the reader’s head is one of tactical precision, so I removed every excess word I could, imitating in my words the sharp efficiency of Oscar’s actions.

Everything was ready, and just in time for Oscar’s trawler to sputter ahead of Harry’s. In one fluid motion he cut the throttle and locked the wheel in its place. Then, as his boat slid backwards, he dashed to the rope laying on the deck, coiled it around his hand, and bounded with it to the port side. Just then the two boats drew level with each other, and he flung the rope through the air to where Harry was waiting to catch it. Harry pulled the coil to his chest and sprinted with it to his bow cleat.

As before, I trimmed down the preceding paragraph to give a sense of quick, hurried action. And even before that, I removed the bit about Harry being out on his deck too early, as it didn’t seem to really contribute anything at this point.

Oscar hurried back to the wheelhouse and spun the helm to account for drift. He raised the throttle back up, moving his vessel a little ahead of Harry’s boat, but not so far as to pull the line out before Harry had it secured.

It was very difficult to hold the boat steady in the rolling waves, but the true challenge would only begin after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. They would have to maintain constant tension, since the more often the rope slacked and tautened the more likely it would break. They would have to gauge their speeds so that Harry’s boat didn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. They would have to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of another and vice versa. They would have to keep the line straight between them, or else they might roll each other sideways into the drink.

In short, there were many things that could go wrong–that probably would go wrong–and any of them could easily end in disaster. For any other fisherman in their hamlet, Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.

Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one Oscar could never forgive?

“Alright, I’m ready to go,” Harry’s voice came from the radio.

“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar immediately returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and give whatever you’ve got to keep us aligned. I’ll do the pulling and warn you for every turn.”

“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”

“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar eased the throttle forward and the engine churned back to life. As he came close to the end of the rope’s length he lowered his speed so that he would hit tension as gently as possible. A slight jolt shuddered the boat from stem to stern and the boom that the rope ran from groaned ominously…but there didn’t come the sound of anything breaking. Looking over his shoulder Oscar could see Harry’s boat coming up to the same speed as his own. They were in sync.

Adding this final sentence about the two boats being “in sync” is a small change, but I think important. From this point on the two men truly share the same fate, and though they are at odds with one another, their journey is now shared.

That’ll do for today. Come back next week as I revise the next batch of this story.

The Salt Worms: Part Thirteen


Sixty seconds later Maxine had her rifle out and propped on the top of the perimeter wall. She turned the knob on the side of the scope, bringing Nathan’s retreating form into focus.

Down below Samuel Iverson turned the key in the pickup truck’s ignition. There came the rattle of the engine trying to start, but nothing more.

“Jackie!” he called out the window furiously.

“It’ll work, it’ll work,” the greasy mechanic said, fumbling under the hood. “Sometimes it just needs a little extra teasing.”

“We don’t have time for–“

“Try it now!”

Samuel turned the ignition and this time the engine sputtered to life. Two of the New Denver guards hopped into the back and Samuel drove out the gate of the city, and up to the city’s western wall. He idled there at the edge of the salt flats, waiting to see if Maxine would be able to make her shot.

“Alright,” Maxine squinted through the scope, “everybody be quiet now…”

The view she saw was anything but clear. At this range and with this heat there was a wide haze that smeared Nathan’s figure across the glass, making it appear as if his feet connected with the ground thirty feet to the left of his head.

Maxine held her breath, settling the crosshairs at the center of Nathan’s streaked figure, then slowly pulled the trigger.

PING!

Nathan jumped in surprise as the bullet whizzed through the air and impacted on the ground, just ahead of him and a bit to the left. Against all of his instincts, Nathan froze on the spot, hands extended for balance as he felt the earth through his feet, checking for the rumbling of a worm coming to investigate the gunshot. It took every ounce of self-control to hold steady when he was sure a second bullet was soon to follow, but the unseen adversary was more dangerous than the known one.

Back at the New Denver perimeter Maxine grunted in frustration.

“Anyone happen to see where that bullet went?”

No one spoke, but a few shrugged or shook their heads.

“I know the haze makes it hard, but anyone with binoculars, try to help me pick it out.”

She loaded locked the next bullet into the chamber, settled her cheek against the gun, and fired once more.

There it is,” Maxine watched the haze-smeared plume of powder unfurling in her sights. “Correct for the haze…fifteen feet to the right and slightly down.”

Nathan kept his feet stationary, but furiously fumbled in his backpack, opening one of the secret compartments at its bottom.

“You idiots!” he whisper-hissed.

If they summoned the beast here, he would have no choice but to use his weapon immediately, and at this range he could not guarantee that the city would survive the fallout of doing so! Nathan’s shaking hands found what they were looking for and withdrew a circular, metallic device from the backpack. This was not the actual weapon, though, it was only a sonic beacon.

“We’ll try it,” he said as he placed it on the ground, “but if this doesn’t work, then you brought whatever else follows on your own heads!”

He flipped a switch, starting the device charging, then he turned and started to run.

PING!

The third bullet ricocheted right between his feet. The shooter was finally finding her mark!

“That one was low,” Maxine huffed as she locked the next bullet in the chamber. “Just barely, though.”

“He’s running again,” one of the nearby guards announced.

“Hmph, it’s too late for that now.”

Nathan juked to the left at just the right time and the next bullet pierced through the air where he had been a fraction of a second before.

“Ha!” Maxine scoffed. “He’s been timing me. Alright…” she let a few seconds slide by before readying her next shot. “Now when do you think I’m going to shoot?”

Down below, Samuel Iverson had had enough.

“Four shots…she’s not going to get him,” he decided. “Hold on tight!” And with that he slammed the gas pedal down and the vehicle roared out onto the salt.

Up above Maxine cried out in frustration. “I’LL GET HIM! I’LL GET HIM!” But the guards in the back of the truck just shrugged at her.

Out on the arid plains Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the engine roaring to life and saw the truck entering the field.

Full acceleration…third of a mile out…it’ll be here in thirty seconds… he thought to himself as he continued juking and spinning at random. In his hand he held the remote to activate the sonic beacon, but he needed to time it correctly.

“Come on, come on,” Maxine muttered, twitching the scope left and right with Nathan as he continued to move erratically forward. “Wait for it, wait for it…” She settled into a cadence where she was sure the scope was never pointing more than a foot or two from Nathan’s center of mass. Then she watched, waiting for the next juke. Once he did another one of those, his motion would be consistent for a second or two, and that would be all the time she needed.

Fourteen… Nathan counted in his head. Fifteen… He punched the button on the remote the sonic beacon he had left behind gave a tremendous soundwave that reverberated into the ground. Then Nathan half-spun to the left, but pulled out of it early, and sprinted striaght forward.

WHAM!

The bullet thudded dully into his shoulder and he slammed into the ground, sending up a cloud of salt. His arm was throbbing terribly…but…so was the ground.

“He’s down sir,” a guard in the back of the truck shouted up to the cab.

“He might not be dead!” Samuel called back.

“Maxine can finish him,” the other guard replied, pointing back to city. As he did so his face fell. From here he could barely make out the sight of the people standing on the Western wall, but they were just clear enough that he could tell they were all waving their arms, crossing and un-crossing them…like they were giving a warning. Only then did he notice that there was a rumbling under his feet aside from the humming of the truck’s engine.

“WORM!” he shrieked as the truck passed over the sonic beacon.

The entire ground exploded upwards fifty feet away. At first all one could see was the cloud of salt, but then, bursting out of its midst, a huge and terrible worm streaked through the air! Its exoskeleton was broad, segmented, and shiny, wrapping a long body that ended in a head that was fifteen feet wide, with huge, serrated mandibles. Long antenna extended from the top of the head and reached out through the air, feeling every tremor…even every heartbeat.

Form in the Function

Higher and Higher)

We will soon be in the Christmas season, during which time innumerable Christian churches will be putting on a performance of Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that tells the story of Jesus Christ, first composed some two-hundred-and-eighty years ago by George Frideric Handel. It is, perhaps, the most famous of all Christmas music pieces, especially its Hallelujah Chorus.

It is also an excellent example of something called “word painting,” which means music that is written to imitate the text that is being sung. So, for example, take that most-famous movement we just mentioned: the Hallelujah Chorus. Look at the notes alongside of the text and you will see there is a deliberate connection between the written words and sudden changes of pitch.

For starters, go 29 seconds into the piece where they start to sing “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” Notice how relatively low the first phrase is sung at, with the Hallelujah’s suddenly exalting to the stratosphere?

Now go forward to 1:17, and see how they are singing “The kingdom of this world” with notes dragging along at G4, down as low as the world and all measly its kingdoms. But then with the following words: “the kingdom of our Lord,” the notes suddenly shoot up an entire octave, mingling with the heavens!

And finally go to 1:59 for that famous “King of kings, and Lord of lords!” There are these two phrases repeated three times, for six individual statements. And notice how each statement is a few notes above the previous, giving a sense of constant ascension, like that of Jesus ascending above all other kings and lords.

And this same pairing of text to note is evident in other movements in this oratorio. Consider this one from All We Like Sheep.

Right at the start notice that the four-part harmony is kept in unison through the first phrase “All we, like sheep.” But then, when they sing “have gone astray,” the notes go all over the place. In fact, they not only wander, but they wander differently from each other. The sopranos are going astray one direction and the tenors in another!

Thus, Handel did not only write music that was pleasant to listen to, he also wrote it to have special significance when paired with its words. That is a very impressive feat, and no doubt part of why this piece remains so compelling nearly three hundred years later.

Assigning Meaning)

Of course, what does more rapid vibrations in the voice of soprano really have to do with Jesus being the king of kings? Well, nothing, I suppose. We artificially decided to call notes at a more rapid frequency as being of “higher” pitch, and decided to call one person who rules over others as also being of a “higher” status. And so, the pairing of “higher” notes to Jesus being of a “higher” status is somewhat arbitrary. It really only makes sense if your language happens to tie those ideas together.

Suppose it had been more common in our culture to say that a ruler was of a “lower” status than everyone else, because the leader was the foundation of them all. Then Handel might very well have written his piece so that it was the bass’s who belted out Jesus was the lowest Lord of them all.

And to be sure, this phenomenon of symbolism being changed by cultural and linguistic meaning really does occur in life. In the west we typically associate the color red with anger and harm, which is why the color is reserved in Star Wars for Darth Vader’s lightsaber and the emperor’s personal guards. But in China red is a good color, signifying luck and fortune. Thus, in the Chinese film Hero, a major sequence is shown with the heroic characters clothed in red, protecting a calligraphy school from a barrage of arrows. Seeing the protagonist dash about in streaming red may make for a strange, conflicting image to western audiences, but it wouldn’t have in China.

Literature)

And, of course, the written word is also used to accentuate the feelings that the author wishes to convey. Deep, thoughtful moments are written with long, adjective-ridden sentences. Sudden, impactful moments in short, direct phrases.

And I tried to follow this same wisdom in the last chapter of my story. During a moment of battle, I described its sequence of events in a short staccato:

Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett's face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.

The battle concluded, and I suddenly started to put a lot more detail into my sentences, taking the time to make the painful effects of the fight sink into the character and the reader:

Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.

Whether in music, or cinema, or literature, it isn’t just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it. Each of these mediums are very robust, they are able to convey an extremely wide range of mood and expression. Anyone that uses them should become familiarize with each of these forms, so that they properly know how to apply them to the appropriate function.

If you can capture the spirit of your scene’s action in the structure of your sentence, then it no longer is a case of you telling the reader what has happened, you are causing them to experience it directly!

Revising the Storm- Week 29

Last week I got through the first act of The Storm, which had only small tweaks here and there until I started the transition into the second act. Then came more substantial revisions, which were very satisfying, as it felt like I was carving away the cumbersome waste until the better story hidden underneath could shine through. It’s more difficult work making extensive alterations, but also more rewarding.

Today we’ll get through the end of the transition between acts, and I already know the number of substantial changes is going to pick up as we continue. So without further ado, let’s get to it.

Finding Harry)

Oscar edged his vessel along the narrow strip of water between cliffs on the left and storm-veil on the right. As he traced through that relatively calm water his eyes roved over the shoals and cliffs to the left, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat. He saw none, only the black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of water spinning below. Oscar grabbed the mic and called through the storm.

“This is the Last Horizon. Repeat, this is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”

No response.

So Oscar turned his attention to the starboard side. Thirty yards distant there rose the wide curtain that marked the true beginnings of the storm, and it was edging closer and closer to him with each passing moment. He tried to catch sight of a vessel through its thick, shifting forms, but the whole thing was too transient to make make sense of any of it.

“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing are you there?”

Again, no response.

Then a sudden gust of wind broke through the storm’s perimeter wall and Oscar’s boat jerked erratically. He let go of the mic and used both hands to wrestle his boat back into line, then grabbed the mic again and roared his frustration into it.

HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!

His hand pulled at the wheel, starting to turn the vessel around. It was time to call this operation off as a lost cause. He had come, he had looked, but if waited around any longer there would be two boats lost in the storm instead of just one. But right at that moment, the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.

“Yes, yes…this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! I’m on your starboard side.”

I made some modifications to the above sequence, adding in the visual of Oscar threading the gap between the Broken Horn and the storm-curtain. I also added the bit about Oscar preparing to give up the search and then Harry’s voice finally coming over the radio. That might be a bit cliché, but I think it’s an effective way to build catharsis, making the audience know he was moments away from being out of this whole mess and then got roped back in again.

Oscar squinted his eyes harder at the storm-curtain. He peered into it deeper than before…and at last, he saw it. Even further out than he’d expected, veiled by the mists of storm so that it appeared almost like a ghost, was the faint outline of a boat.

“I see you, Harry,” he said. “What’s your status?”

“Not good, Oscar. I got out a ways and then all-of-the-sudden I started having engine trouble. It just kept cutting out on me unless I left it at low throttle. So I tried to figure out what was going on with it, but then the storm came down and I had to make a run for it! But of course, I couldn’t run very fast and it caught me. Now I can’t get up enough speed to push through the eddies by the cape, and I can’t get up enough speed to push through the storm to go around the eddies! So, I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady and not get swamped! I don’t mind telling you I’ve been real scared, Oscar!”

I’ve added a bit to Harry’s story for how he got caught in this mess, which makes clear that it was his own lack of foresight led him here. I feel this makes for a much stronger character introduction than what I had before. I will now add more details to Oscar’s response as well, making the decision to press into the storm a much more momentous act.

“Yeah, well I still am, Harry!”

So, it was typical shortsightedness that had led Harry into this mess. He had been so focused on fixing his engine that he had forgotten about the active storm warning. Then he had been so focused on running away from the storm that he had failed to account for the eddies along the coast. Just a little bit of thinking ahead instead of plowing forward, and Oscar wouldn’t have to be out here risking bone and bow to rescue him right now.

But Oscar was here. This was what he had signed up for. And unlike Harry, he was taking the time to think things through. He would have to tow Harry, and that meant he would be weighed down and slow, just as Harry was. He would face the exact same problem going against the storm or through the eddies.

“First against the storm,” he decided. “Advance as far up as we can, then use its push to help force our way through the eddies.”

Of course, towing Harry meant getting up alongside of Harry. So, at long last, Oscar turned the wheel, bringing himself into alignment with the nearing storm-curtain. Once again, his boat groaned in protest.

“I know, I know,” he said softly. “I don’t want to either…but we have to.”

I’ve added in this detail of the eddies around the cape being a barrier that prevents small boats from escaping. I believe that will make clearer the reason why they need to push up into the storm at first, so that it can build up speed behind them as they try to push around the cape. Anyway, that will be the end of what I post for today, but I’m excited to share next week the next look at how things are coming along!

The Salt Worms: Part Twelve


Nathan squared his shoulders against the rock and kicked out with his feet, sending his assailant flying back.

“Who are you?!” he demanded, groping on the ground for a rock to use as a weapon.

Everett didn’t respond. He just fought to regain his footing, then charged back into the fray.

“Listen,” Nathan panted as he dodged one fist, then got Everett’s other arm locked up at the elbow, “I could kill you now if I wanted, and I will if you don’t stop fighting!”

“I doubt that!” Everett grunted, using his free hand to pummel Nathan’s broken one.

“ARRRRGH!” Nathan collapsed to his knees and Everett wriggled free.

Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett’s face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.

“Listen to me, you idiot!” he snarled. “This is my last night on earth and I had wanted it to be a peaceful one. For one night, just one night, I wanted to not have to run, and fight, and kill…. But I absolutely will again if I have to.”

Everett gurgled meaninglessly.

“Give me an answer!” Nathan pulled Everett’s head up and slammed it back against the rock. “What’s it going to be?!”

“What does it matter?” Everett finally gasped out. “You’re planning to get us all killed anyway!”

Nathan gave a shout, drew back his hand, and buried his fist in Everett’s stomach. Just before contact, though, he flicked the blade closed so that Everett was doubled up in pain, but not mortally wounded. With a grunt of exasperation Nathan stood up, picked his and Everett’s handguns off the ground, and slung his backpack over his shoulder.

“That isn’t going to happen. Not after I’ve fought and bled this much. My plan will work.

Everett tried to respond, but it just came out as painful wheezing.

“And even if there were–unintended side effects, and everyone in New Denver had to be sacrificed to clear the way forward for the rest of the nation…it would still be a worthy cause. Now I’m going to go on my way, and make no mistake, the next time we cross paths I will kill you.”

Nathan slid a fresh magazine into his pistol, then turned and stomped over to the end of the bowl, disappearing over its lip.

Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.

Perhaps Everett had underestimated Nathan, but the man was a fool if he thought that Everett would give up the chase. Everett turned so that he faced the end of the bowl that Nathan had disappeared behind and took a halting step forward. As he did so his body seemed to knit itself back together and he was able to take his next step with greater confidence. Another and another, and now he moved into a heavy stride, reached the lip of the bowl and deftly swung over it.

BANG!

Everett never felt the bullet that rang out from directly behind. He just collapsed dead on the ground. From underneath the bowl’s overhang Nathan emerged with the gun, ready to shoot again…but he saw that it wouldn’t be necessary to finish the job.

“Now was that necessary?” he sighed, then continued on his way.

***

“This is New Denver Operations. I repeat, this is New Denver Operations. Everett are you there?

It was early the next morning as the radio operator tried to raise the ranger. He looked up to Samuel Iverson and shrugged. “No response.”

The door to the room flew open and Thompson rushed in, sweat shining on his face.

“Sir,” he gasped. “He’s there! He’s out on the salt flats right now!”

“What?!” Samuel roared as he dashed out of the room and made for the western-facing wall. Samuel mounted the five stone steps onto the parapet, coming upon a crowd of Elders and guards who were all looking through their binoculars at something in the distance.

“Someone hand me their binoculars!” Samuel ordered, snapping one from the three that were offered. “Where?” He pointed them in the direction indicated.

There was Nathan, about a third of a mile past the edge of the city, having just emerged from the canyon and now walking across the ocean of salt that stretched nearly as far as the eye could see.

“He’s not running,” a guard up front observed.

“Doesn’t want to pull the worm to him,” another concluded. “But he must know that we can see him.”

“Sir, what do we do?” Thompson asked.

“Put a battery into the truck.”

“Sir, you mean to send some of us out there?!”

“I’ll drive it myself if no one else will! And where is Maxine?”

“Here, sir,” a tall, chubby guard with a round face and blond ponytail rushed up the steps.

“It’s a third of a mile,” Samuel said, handing her the binoculars and pointing in the direction of Nathan. “Can you do it?”

“Third of a mile?” she peered through the lenses. “It would be a new record for me…” she spun the knob on top, adjusting the focus. “Someone grab my rifle. Let’s do it!”


Well, Isn’t That Convenient?

The Wonderkid Chet)

When I was young I loved reading the Hardy Boys mystery stories. This famous series began in 1927, first conceived of by Edward Stratemeyer but written by many ghostwriters over the years. The novels all involve the eponymous brothers, Joe and Frank Hardy, who are sons of a detective and anxious to lend their sleuthing skills to any difficult and dangerous case.

The two brothers also have a friend, Chet Morton, who is enthusiastic and jolly, but also chubby and foolish. He’s a silly companion, yet also surprisingly useful. Because without fail, Chet is always learning some new hobby in the Hardy Boys’ stories, and it always just so happens that that hobby is exactly what the boys need to get out of a bind later on.

Which is, of course, coincidental to the point of being ridiculous. Actually, it comes up so often that it becomes a sort of running gag. Thus when you read Case #45: The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge, and Chet starts talking about his new shot-put fascination, you’re already in on the joke, trying to guess in what way it will come into play. You’re sure that somehow the bad guys are going to set things up so that the only way forward requires hurling a heavy ball a very great distance…and that is exactly what happens!

What’s This, Q?)

Another example of eye-rolling good fortune comes through James Bond’s quartermaster Q. In every Bond film Q has invented some new and fantastic contraption which, while clever, does not appear to have any immediate value. At least it doesn’t until the villain catches Bond in a trap which just so happens to be broken by that very same gadget! Take, for example, the famous laser wristwatch that Bond receives in GoldenEye, and which proves to be the perfect thing for Bond to cut his way through the metal floor of a train that is rigged with explosives.

As with The Hardy Boys, every time a new gadget is introduced we aren’t surprised when it happens to be useful, we are surprised that the writers were able to come up with a way for it to be so!

There is a time and a place for inside gaffs like these, but as a general rule, unless you’re using the coincidence as a way to wink at the audience, you probably don’t want to write any Chet Morton’s or Q’s into your story. Audiences will quickly lose patience with a tale where the protagonists “just so happen” to have exactly the thing they need to get out of a bind. It smacks of lazy writing, as it takes very little skill to write your hero into an exciting predicament, but a great deal more skill to get them honestly out of it.

Unraveling the Knot)

When a hero gets out of a problem by coincidence then they never really overcame the obstacle and they didn’t earn their success. And that is always a dissatisfying resolution for your readers. As a writer, if you took the time to tie an intricate and massive knot, then you ought to come up with a more clever way for your hero to dismantle it than to just hack through it with a sword. Which, come to think of it, that’s exactly what Alexander the Great did!

The legend is that Gordius, father of King Midas, once tied a knot so elaborate that no man was able to undo it for hundreds of years. Further adding to the knot’s fame was an ancient oracle’s prophecy that the man who could tease apart its secrets would conquer all of Asia.

Well, many years later, when Alexander the Great heard about this famous knot he came to solve its puzzle and claim the associated reward. He stared into its intricacies for a time, but then proclaimed that it didn’t matter how the thing was undone and cleaved right through it with his sword! Then, true to the Oracle’s prophecy, Alexander extended his empire throughout all of Asia minor.

So, did Alexander cheat the solution and get away with it? Well, at first it might seem so, but one ought to consider the rest of his story before making their final judgment. For just as Alexander brute-forced his way through the Gordian Knot, so to he captured his swaths of land only by the power of his sword. And in his haste to acquire, he never learned the secret of the far more difficult task: how to keep. He didn’t puzzle out the intricacies of how to lead a massive nation or win the hearts of its people.

Thus, no sooner did Alexander die than the entire nation broke apart, his brother and child were murdered, and the rule of Asia slipped from his household forever. Alexander may have appeared clever and powerful in the moment, but he hadn’t really solved the mystery of the knot, or the mystery of how to rule. Whether in legend or literature, a cheap solution is always fleeting.

Earn It)

Yes, it takes more effort to come up with a clever way for your protagonist to earn their way out of a tight spot. Truly ingenious plotting requires a truly ingenious mind…or at least a mind that’s patient enough to wait for the right solution.

In my story I recently had a character sneak up on my sleeping protagonist with his gun drawn and at-the-ready. The would-be assassin came within a few yards of the main character, aimed his weapon, and fired at the protagonist’s head! Now obviously I didn’t want to kill off my main character, so I needed a way for that bullet to miss. But I didn’t want to rely on some lazy convenience, such as the assassin tripping on a rock or the hero just happening to turn over at the right time.

For a while I couldn’t think of a way for my unconscious hero to get out of the bind that didn’t feel contrived, but at last an idea did occur to me. What if he was in the habit of protecting himself from just such an attack by always sleeping with his head behind a rock? What if he had learned to do that from previous night-encounters. Then my would-be assassin’s bullet could bounce harmlessly off of the stone, and it wouldn’t feel like my main character cheated. He has earned the triumph by his wit, not by dumb luck.

And I’m going to hold true to this standard as I continue to write my main character into and out of more dangerous situations. No coincidental hobbies, fantastic gadgets, or cheap shortcuts will pave the way for him, his only success will be what he has earned.

Revising the Storm- Week 28

Last week I shared my notes on The Storm: Draft Three. There were more structural changes necessary than I expected, but I was encouraged that I had immediate ideas for how to address each one of them.

Along with those notes, I also have some feedback from the writer’s group I attend. With both of these documents in hand I am going to do another pass on the story, and I am going to do it as quickly as I can. Rapid iterations help keep the memory of what I am trying to do fresh in my mind, whereas too small of efforts result in constantly spinning my wheels over the same areas. That doesn’t mean that I will be publishing larger posts here, just that my work will be a bit ahead of this blog.

Here is the previous draft if you want to compare it to this new one, and now let us proceed.

Storm Brewing)

Oscar regarded the sea behind him. The gray of water below perfectly matched the gray of unbroken clouds above. Off in the distance was a similarly gray wall of rain, which bridged the gap between ocean and cloud, so that there seemed to be no separate bodies at all, only one massive volume of silver liquid. And at the fringes of that elevated sea Oscar and his trawler were currently scurrying forward, trying to make land before the wall of rain did. For that wall of rain was no trifling shower, but the face of a dark and violent storm.

The storm had not been expected until later that evening, so its early arrival had cut Oscar’s excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. There had been time and fuel spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Most of the time the ocean yielded just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a man grew a penny poorer each day he tried to live by it.

Though sometimes the cost was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took far more than it had any right to. More than could ever be excused.

“That you, Oscar?” the voice crackled over the boat’s radio.

“Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar raised his eyes to the red-and-white lighthouse in the distance, where Sam sat as their watchful guardian, never losing tally of each man’s going and coming back again.

“Any catch?”

“No catch.”

“Sorry to hear that, Oscar.”

“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”

“All but Harry.”

Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse above to the long pier below, where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was Oscar’s own berth, and as far away as possible to the right was Harry’s. The only empty spaces.

“Do you know which way he went?”

“Went for mackerel. Around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.”

“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”

“He woulda.”

“And he shoulda made it far enough back now that we’d see him by now.”

“He shoulda.”

Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic, signifying that Sam would say no more until Oscar did. Sam wasn’t the sort of person to tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them figure it out for themselves.

And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair?

Well, if Oscar said that, Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out by himself, and he would be that much more delayed, that much more in danger of the storm.

Oscar swiveled his head around and surveyed the horizon. Not a single ship in sight.

“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.

“If you think that’s best,” Sam approved. “I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.”

“I know you won’t, Sam.”

Minor corrections scattered throughout, but now we come to the first of my more substantial rewrites in this draft. I want to cut out all the parts about Oscar turning and over-correcting and realigning his course. I’m going to reduce it down to just one, simple turn. I also want to replace some of the repetitive visual descriptions of the sea with some details that speak to the other senses.

Oscar sighed, then slowly turned the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, that moment where he was still pointed towards the safety of the docks, but then his entire world shifted. Pier, berth, and the road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away and to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea stretching beyond. As Oscar settled against the waves his boat creaked mournfully.

“Sorry, girl,” he muttered. “I don’t like it either. We’ll get back home just as soon as we can.”

The sea seemed to protest his return also. The wind whistled around the wheelhouse in a forbidding moan, the rain lashed against the window with long tears, and a sudden chill rose out of the tumultuous depths, putting its ice into his veins. The whole vessel trembled as the lively waves struck against its side, trying to push Oscar back towards the shore, but Oscar stubborned his hands on the wheel and steeled his heart against all misgivings. He kept himself fixed on the most direct route to the cape, and the darkening gray that lay beyond it.

I’m liking these new paragraphs a great deal more than what I had before. Now I need to do a similar reduction on the turns Oscar makes to get around the Broken Horn. I’m also going to cut down on the many times I repeat how Harry must really be in trouble out here.

The Broken Horn was the name they had given to that cape, and it rose very quickly from the otherwise flat coastline, outstripping the grass and the trees so that its promontory cliff was nothing but black and jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea.

Oscar made his way to the shadow of that rock, then he turned his boat to give a wide berth as he went around its cliffs. There were treacherous shoals at the feet of the Broken Horn, and if one of those snagged him, he would be held like a fish on a spear until the endless flow of water overran his vessel. Or, if the waves managed to dislodge him, they would rush him past the shoals and into the jagged edges of the sheer rock face, tearing his body and boat to shreds in an instant! Had Harry come into difficulty anywhere else Oscar would have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into. A sailor caught in these waters with a compromised vessel could have things go wrong for them in quite a hurry. Of course, this wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong for Harry in a storm.

All in all, my opening act was pretty much where I wanted it to be, only requiring minor tweaks here and there. But at the end of today I’ve started into the section of the story that needs the most extensive changes, and I will be continuing with that work all of next week. See you then!

The Salt Worms: Part Eleven

Previous Chapter


The bullet streaked through the night. Its aim was true, but somehow it impacted on stone, not flesh, then ricocheted harmlessly into the night. Everett couldn’t understand it. How had he missed? That should have been impossible!

No time to dwell on that now, though, Nathan had sat bolt upright and was raising his own handgun to return fire! Everett flung himself backwards and Nathan’s shot zipped overheard. Then Nathan kicked dirt into the small fire, throwing them into the black. Everett didn’t try using his firearm while blinded, instead he lifted onto all fours and charged forward like a bull. By the time Nathan heard him coming and understood what he was doing Everett had closed the distance and slammed into Nathan at full force! The two men fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.

Everett tried to punch Nathan in the gut, but his hand struck something hard in Nathan’s backpack. Nathan curled his arm around the back of Everett’s head, gripped the man’s chin, and gave a sharp tug. Everett rolled with the motion, spinning his whole body across the ground. As he went his head struck a large rock that had been hidden in the dark.

“Rrrrrrrgh,” Everett growled, trying to push past the fuzziness that came swimming in at the corners of his eyes. He couldn’t let himself fall unconscious. He forced his arm to swing his gun through the air, firing off two quick shots. They weren’t even close to hitting Nathan, but they spooked him enough that he turned and ran off into the dark.

Everett tried to stand and run, but he quickly stumbled back to the ground. Whether he wanted to or not, he was going to have to pause for a moment before he continued the chase. His back pressed against the rock he had hit his head on and suddenly he understood. This rock had been right in front of Nathan’s head when he was sleeping, and in the dark Everett hadn’t been able to make it out. That was what his first bullet had ricocheted off of. Yet another precaution Nathan had known to take, no doubt due to some prior night-time attack during his long, seven-year journey.

While Everett regained his wits, Nathan bolted full speed over the rocky terrain. There wasn’t a lot of moonlight, and more than once he tripped and fell. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to catch himself on his good hand, and not damage his broken one further.

He didn’t know who this attacker was that had come for him. Normally he would assume a common raider, but it would be strange for a thief to happen upon him in such a removed place as this. Unless there was a bandit hideout nearby.

There came a sound of clattering stones, and Nathan glanced over his shoulder to see his Everett sprinting down a hillside, two hundred yards distant. Definitely not a common thief, then. Only someone with a mission to fulfill would be this persistent.

So be it. Nathan had made it through a grueling, seven-year journey, what was one more night of life-and-death struggle? He already intended to be dead before next nightfall anyway, so a little lost slumber bore very little weight?

For a moment Nathan considered waiting to ambush the man. He rounded a particularly large boulder, knelt down, and pulled out his gun. He had to hold in his left hand, though, since the right hand was broken, and he saw the gun’s muzzle shaking erratically in front of him. No good.

With a snarl Nathan stood up and kept running. He bounded over a small rise in the rock next, and came upon a wide, open bowl. Running through it would make him an excellent target for his pursuer, but there was no alternative, sheer cliff faces or sudden drop-offs lay on either side. So Nathan continued forward, making for a rocky outcropping halfway through the bowl.

As he went, he strained his ears for the sound of footsteps halting, of sleeved arms being raised, or of a gun cocking. But, of course, he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own clattering feet. Thus he had no warning before the shot suddenly rang through the night. It made a deep graze across his arm, just above the elbow, and he winced in pain as juked left and right, spun and snapped back around the other way. Then he dove behind the rocky outcropping, waited for a moment, and popped back up to fire two shots towards the entrance to the bowl. He ducked back down as another shot was returned. Nathan popped off another volley, but this time no other shots came his way.

Nathan fired once more. Still no return.

Then Nathan understood. His foe was armed…but had little or no ammo remaining. He had left it all behind to be as quiet as possible when stealing towards Nathan’s camp! So Nathan weighed his options. Did he turn aggressive? Try and get the other man to burn his last shots and then finish him off with his own gun? Or did he just sprint out of there and focus on his final objective?

Up at the top of the bowl Everett understood the silence perfectly. He knew it meant Nathan had figured the situation out and was concocting the best way to finish him off. Now Everett could try to run through the exact same scenarios in his own mind, figure out the same conclusion Nathan would come to, and then try to think of a way to counter it. But that would mean continuing this game at a disadvantage. Rather than wait for Nathan to make his move, Everett would rather tip the board over and knock all the pieces to the floor!

So without any further thought Everett bounded out from behind his juniper tree and sprinted across the bowl. Nathan heard him coming and stood up, firing off a few rounds. Everett raised his own weapon and fired wildly in return, pouring out his last two bullets.

Both men missed, Everett due to shooting while running, Nathan due to having to shoot with his weak hand. Both gun clips clicked empty, and before Nathan could reload Everett bounded over the rocky outcropping and body-slammed him to the ground for the second time that night!


I Am Your Aggravator

The Indisposed Villain)

Who is the one, great source of opposition in The Lord of the Rings? Of course the answer is Sauron. It is his will that compels every other foe that the heroes face up against, he is the one pulling of all the strings, his is the one life force that absolutely must be destroyed.

However…as a literary character Sauron has almost no presence whatsoever! He is more of a disembodied force, an idea, impersonal and vague. Yes, he is evil, but he isn’t a foe that the heroes can actually cross swords with.

And that is why The Lord of the Rings also has characters like Saruman, the Witch King of Angmar, and Gollum. These are villains with bodies and voices, villains who are able to compete over the same physical space as our heroes, villains who have to be dealt with as individuals. Boromir might not be the main villain of the story, but when Sauron bends his mind to try and take the ring from Frodo, that physical attack suddenly makes Sauron seem less like a vague concept and more like an active presence in the world. Thus, to be victorious, our heroes must not only overcome their more base natures, but also slay a few orcs along the way!

This same situation of a disembodied evil can be found in the first half of the Harry Potter franchise. Lord Voldemort is unquestionably the main villain of the series, but until the end of the fourth book he only exists as an intangible soul. Like in The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series remains visceral by then adding more corporeal henchmen to stand in for Lord Voldemort, flesh and blood enemies that the heroes must face up against. Professor Quirrell, Wormtail, Barty Crouch, Fluffy…all of these characters stand in as bodies that the audience can hate and fear until Lord Voldemort finally gets one of his own.

The Theoretical Made Real)

You can see this same notion in the final soliloquy of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. This John Steinbeck novel follows a family during the Great Depression, as they migrate to California in the hope of finding work. Instead they find one disappointment after another, several of their number die along the way, and they are made to witness all manner of extortion and corporate abuse.

Eventually this all leads to Tom Joad killing a man, and he knows he has got to make a run for it, as much for his benefit as for his family’s. His mother wonders how she will know where he has gone and what has become of him, but he replies that it doesn’t matter.

I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there....I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.

Tom is talking philosophically. He is seeing himself as being a part of humanity’s all-encompassing soul, which is necessarily a vague and impersonal thing. But then look at how he goes about describing it. He sees it in the corporeal, physical moments of hungry people fighting, a man being oppressed by the police, angry people shouting, and so on. To be sure, an idea is a real thing, but Tom needs to personify it in order to feel and express its realness.

Own Worst Enemy)

This same phenomenon is at play in the noir film Double Indemnity. In this movie Walter Neff is an unassuming insurance salesman, who then begins assuming far too much when Phyllis Dietrichson seduces him and convinces him to murder her husband! The idea is that he will be able to set up a double indemnity clause in Mister Dietrichson’s account, allowing for a large insurance payout when he dies.

But what seems to be a foolproof plan begins to unravel as the murdered man’s “accidental death” falls under suspicion of murder. Further complicating things is the fact that Phyllis is untrustworthy and unpredictable, likely to blow her cover when Neff very much needs her to keep a cool head.

So, what is the villain in this story? Lust and greed, of course. These are the vices that drive every bad thing that happens and leads to the story’s tragic ending. But of course, Walter and Phyllis are the villains as well. They are the ones who hold the vices, and so they stand in proxy of them, directly incurring the ire of the audience. Lust and greed might be their downfall, but also they are their own worst enemies.

My Story’s Villain)

Without characters like Boromir and corrupt cops and Phyllis Dietrickson, these classic tales would have felt philosophical only. They would have been like Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is more of a thought experiment on the nature of good and evil than an actual story. But by having the idea of evil fronted by a person of evil, each of these stories is both philosophical and literal at the same time.

In The Salt Worms I have also had a couple nebulous forces lurking in the background. For starters, giant worms are behind the story’s destruction, but we have not yet directly interacted with any of these, much like with Sauron and Lord Voldemort. My story also features a humanity that is competing with itself to survive, much as in The Grapes of Wrath.

I needed to make these unseen enemies manifest themselves physically, though, so I’ve introduced a physical antagonist in the form of Ranger Everett. This man takes all of the various forces that have tried to prevent Nathan in his quest and distills them into a clear and physical adversary, much like Boromir and the Death Eaters. He isn’t intended to obscure the deeper forces of opposition that Nathan faces, but rather to bring them into sharper focus.

I also made Nathan Prewitt something of an enemy to himself, similar to Walter Neff. Virtually all of the affliction that Nathan faces in this story is a result of his stubborn disregard for the needs of others, and his attempts to override them with his own intentions.

And I will continue to introduce new characters to keep Nathan’s struggle fresh, all the way until he comes face-to-face with the greater evils of giant worms and broken philosophies. Because, after all, that is the entire purpose of the smaller antagonists in these stories. They are there simply to keep driving the hero forward, pushing them on until they can finally face the larger, existential threats waiting at the climax of the story.