Revising the Storm- Week 24

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I’ve been sharing my work on this story with a writer’s group and getting some feedback from them. They’ve helped me to see the need for more variety in my descriptions of the storm. I don’t mention temperature or smells at all, and I hardly include any sound. Instead I have a lot of very-similar visuals about the waves and the darkness. I use different adjectives each time, but it’s still a repeat of the same picture. I also revisit the same obstacle many times over and over, that of the boats trying to push up a wave and getting tipped to their sides.

Honestly it’s been a little discouraging, having put in this much time and still finding such fundamental shortcomings. However, seeing the problem is the first step to being able to correct them, too. At this point I’m nearly at the end of the third draft, so I’ll push through to that, and then I’ll look into replacing my repetitions with something more inventive.

For now, let’s move forward with today’s touch-ups. Here’s the link to the latest draft if you want to compare it to this new version.

The Climax)

The wave hit, and all the world became water. Its torrent poured into the wheelhouse and slammed against Oscar, knocking his feet out from under him. He tried to get his bearings, tried to make sense of the wind and the sea, tried to figure out what way to maneuver his vessel…but his mind refused to process these things anymore. The last drop of resolve had been wrung from his body, so that all he could think to do was surrender to oblivion.

Cut down on this moment of Oscar’s mental and emotional exhaustion. As I’ve stated several times in this act, I really feel like less is more, and the reader will better grasp what I’m saying if I don’t spell it all out.

“Oscar…” Harry’s voice came softly over the radio. “Let’s face it. We’re going to both die if we keep up like this. But I’ll bet you still have enough fuel to get around the cape…if you weren’t towing me anymore that is.”

“But I am towing you.”

“Oscar, I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be you. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right between us.”

“Harry, please stop. I don’t want—”

“I lied to you Oscar.”

The next wave stretched twice as high as any previous. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and bracing for impact as Harry continued.

“I told you that when I took your son out sailing he forgot to tie down his safety line in the storm. But James was too bright for that. He secured one for himself and for me. He did it just as soon as we were in real trouble. Then we dashed around the boat like mad, trying to tie everything down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept reeling from side-to-side, and each time seemed like the one that would finally throw us in the drink.”

A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped.

“Each wave swamped us, half drowned us! I was praying and cursing with every breath I took. Some of the rigging was loose, so I made my way back to the mainmast and threw knots off and back on, pull them tight as I went.”

Oscar flung his arms our for balance as he slid down a water-hill sideways.

“Then the next wave fell on us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth! I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel what was in my own hands. It seemed like an eternity, but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. James–he…he just wasn’t there anymore.”

A tide of water swept into Oscar’s cabin. He slipped and fell to his knees, head rolled back, fingertips gripping the wheel.

“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how I could have…but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up along with all the other knots and then that wave hit us and took him out to sea. I–I killed him!”

Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent. His whole body heaved as it expelled the last of the air from his lungs. His hands twitched on the edge of the wheel handles.

“And I didn’t have the courage to tell you the truth, Oscar. I let you believe your son was lost because of his own mistake, because he forgot to tie his lifeline in the first place. But that was nothing but a pure lie.”

Oscar’s heart beat heavily inside him. Beat like it would tear him right in two. The pounding of his heart was matched only by the pounding of the waves against his boat. They buffeted his vessel where they would and he did nothing to stop them.

“I undid the wrong lifeline that day, Oscar, and for fifteen years later I’ve been waiting for someone else to untie my line because I’m too much of a coward to do it myself. So…so why don’t you go ahead and cut me loose now? Let me go and make for shore while you still have a chance.”

Little alterations here and there, some lines removed or moved around, reducing the flashes of Oscar being overwhelmed by the sea so that Harry’s confession feels more unbroken. Overall, though, I’ve considered this to be one of the stronger parts of my story and I still do.

There’s just over 1,000 words left in this draft, so I’ll finish that next week, then move on to my next iteration, in which I will primarily focus on restructuring that troublesome middle.

The Salt Worms: Part Seven

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

“Hey, come back here,” Manny had said.

“What?” Nathan asked.

“We need to talk.”

“Can it wait.”

A long pause.

“No.”

Samuel Iverson shifted in his chair, interrupting Nathan’s memory.

“So…” Samuel stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Anything else?”

“Not really,” Nathan shrugged. “There were more dangers and challenges, of course, but by that point I knew I had a system that worked. It brought me all the way to you on the fringe of civilization, and it will bring me through my next steps as well.”

“Which are what exactly? What is your plan to deal with the worm here?”

“It’s very simple…and it requires nothing from you. I will go out onto the salt flats on my own. I will find the sand striker worm’s nest and light it on fire. When the sand striker worm comes I will already have the poison pellets ready in hand.”

“What? And just throw them in?!”

“No,” Nathan shook his head. “That would leave too much to chance. What if I missed? What if it didn’t ingest them?”

“What then?”

Nathan simply stared back intensely.

“You don’t mean…”

Nathan nodded.

“You’ll let it eat you?!”

“At that point, face-to-face with a worm, there’d already be no way of getting out alive. You know that. And I am prepared to do what I must.”

Many of the people in the room shook their heads in disbelief.

“The rest of you will simply have to wait for the worm to die. Take whatever precautions you need to stay safe during its final days.”

“You won’t even survive long enough to find its nest!” the older lady down the table exclaimed.

“This won’t be the first worm field that I’ve had to cross! But in the event that the worm did find me prematurely, so what? I’ll still be prepared to meet it, and when it’s gone it’ll be a small thing for you to take care of the eggs.”

Samuel Iverson shifted around in his seat, trying to find the words to express his discomfort with the idea.

“It’s–it’s just too much,” he finally concluded. “This whole plan, coming out of the blue like this, with so much that could go wrong. You asking us to go along with it is just too much.”

“As I said, all the burden is on me. If I fail then I die and life continues the same as ever for you. Of course I do understand that this is a lot to digest, anyway. I’m sure you’ll need a day or two to think about it–“

“He doesn’t even know if those pellets work,” the elderly woman sided with Samuel. “They’ve never actually been tested.”

“What if the worm realizes its been attacked and decides to take us out?” another member of the council added.

“Besides,” Doctor Hogue chimed in, “even if it did succeed, what would we really gain? I mean of course I’d love to remove the threat of that monster breathing down our necks every day, but I don’t see how doing that is worth all of the associated risk.”

“You don’t see how it’s worth the risk?!” Nathan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Don’t you see, the reason why I’m doing this isn’t just so you can live here more comfortably, it’s so you can finally get away from here!”

Everyone in the room gave him a curious look, as if they hadn’t even considered that possibility.

“You mean you didn’t get that was the reason I came here specifically?! With the radiation zones pressing in from the north and the spawning grounds to the south, everyone in the nation is bottlenecked by this one Bonneville worm’s nest. If that one cork could be popped every surviving American might have a chance to make it to the coast!”

“Oh,” Samuel said softly. “So that’s the plan.”

“Well of course that’s the plan! You’re the remnants of the Coast-Seekers company, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And your objective was to reach the California coast and set sail for New Zealand, correct?”

“Well, New Zealand or Hawai’i, but one of the two, anyway.”

“But you gave up on that dream when you got bottled in by this worm, so now I’m giving you a way out! A way to finish what you started.”

“Yes,” Iverson said after a pause. “That was the idea all those years ago, you are correct. Reach the coast and sail away…but, well, that was a long time ago. Back then we couldn’t even fathom scratching out our lives here…but now that’s become our reality.”

“You can’t be telling me that you actually like it here!”

“It’s life, isn’t it?!” Iverson shot back. “And let’s be realistic, that’s more than you could guarantee us if we made for the coast. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco…these were massive cities! They must have drawn in hundreds of worms, which broke them to the ground and are now sprawled everywhere along that border!”

“Not everywhere. There’s sure to be holes. I admit I don’t know where, but once you’re past this bottleneck you’ll have room to maneuver, to test for weak spots, to find a way through!”

“And how many surveying teams will have to be sacrificed to find out where they are?”

“Does it matter?! If all of us die except for one soul who gets through to freedom then that’s worth it, isn’t it?!”

Nathan looked demandingly around the room, but no one said a word. No one met his gaze. And in that moment Nathan knew. He had seen the same look of defeat in the eyes of countless wanderers during his journeys, but those had been the faces of people who truly had no hope left. He had always assumed that things would be different here. How could a community be trapped less than six hundred miles from total freedom, and be offered a second chance at life, and still turn it down cold?

“We’ve got to be thinking bigger than just ourselves,” Nathan tried one last time. “It wouldn’t just be you getting a shot at freedom, it would be everyone else trapped in this whole country. You can’t deny them their shot just because the cost might be high for you.”

“I’m sure that was the same sentiment they held when they dropped the nukes on us,” Iverson said bitterly.

“I’m sorry, Mister Prewitt,” Doctor Hogue said gently. “When we heard you had something to offer, we didn’t know what to expect. But this plan of yours…we’re just not interested. Better to preserve what little we have than to risk losing it all.”

Who Even Are You?

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The Mysterious Man)

The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!

And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!

But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.

Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.

The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?

At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.

Suspect Again)

Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?

This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.

Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.

Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.

Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.

Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.

And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!

The Pleasure of Being Unsure)

Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.

Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.

In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.

But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.

My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.

Revising the Storm- Week 23

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Not quite to the final act of the story, but getting very near. Today’s effort ought to bring us to the moment just before the story’s climax, and then we’ll be well on our way to having this draft finished.

I’ve been expressing a lot of concern about the story’s pacing, trying to tighten things up and wondering if it’s still too weighed down. There is a very tricky balance I’m trying to strike, where the journey needs to feel long and exhausting, but not become a slog to read through. This will definitely be my central focus in the next readthrough.

But for now, it’s time to finish applying this current layer of polish. Here’s the link to the latest draft if you want to see how it compares to this current version.

To the Limit)

“Whatever fuel you’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his own throttle up to maximum. With new life his vessel churned forward…then came a jerking halt as the line ran taut and Harry’s vessel dragged Oscar’s back.

“Harry?!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Harry exclaimed. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came back to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope to snap taut again.

I removed another iteration of Harry’s engines working and then not working. The point is already made so it was just taking up unnecessary space.

Oscar ground his teeth together. This constant relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself off of what Harry’s boat could handle.

“Is it steadier at lower speeds?” Oscar asked.

“Yes, the engine holds if I don’t throttle over twenty percent.”

“Alright. You keep it there. I’ll tug.”

Oscar slowed his boat down until both he and Harry were travelling at the same, slow speed. Then he accelerated, but very gradually this time. The line eased back to full tension, and the two boats began gaining speed as one. Eventually Oscar was back to full throttle, dragging Harry’s waterlogged hull through the waves. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone on its own.

“Come on, Harry,” Oscar willed the other man’s boat to spring to life. But it didn’t. It just hung there as an anchor, constantly weighing him back into the storm. And he found that he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.

Oscar turned his attention back to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face or, better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, but by looking so earnestly his mind was starting to play tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.

Was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Did a rock just spring out of the dark in front of him?! No, just one cloud moving past another.

Once again, I’m keeping the same scene as before, with Oscar looking for shapes in the dark, but I’m cutting it down to about half of its original length.

“Turn deeper, Harry. “Let’s bring it to forty degrees!”

“Alright…if you’re sure…”

“I’m not sure of anything anymore.” Oscar replied, but only to himself. He was surprised that they still hadn’t seen either the saving light or the damning rock. Had he become more turned around than he realized? Were they actually headed away from the shoreline?

“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”

The next wave came rolling up from behind the trawlers and tilted them so far that Oscar had to plant his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance. They seemed to hold in this position for an eternity, and Oscar’s hands twitched on the helm, ready to throw it to starboard at the first sign of the floor rolling out from under him.

But it wasn’t his boat that started to roll first. Suddenly there came a sharp tug from behind as Harry’s started to fall onto its side, reeling the line in as it went!

By pure instinct Oscar threw his wheel the rest pf the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. The torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But all that force against the side of Oscar’s trawler made it pull back sharply on the rope, like a kite on the end of a string, hauling Harry’s boat out of its roll and back onto its hull!

I took the description of two waves passing over the sailors and combined them in one. There was a lot of good material here…but it was, in fact, too much. I’ve got to match the pacing in this sequence with the rest of the story. I’ll also be cutting down the following paragraphs by half.

Oscar had gotten them through the moment, but the entire situation was quickly getting out of hand. There were now too many competing forces for him to keep up with: the mad sloshing of water down in his hold, the erratic swaying of Harry’s boat at the end of the line, and the sporadic buffeting of the screeching wind.

“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to take control of the situation. But the more his hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, the more his boat fell into over-correction and only added to the rolling chaos.

The next wave was nearly upon them, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver to get back stability. His nerves were too worn down, and he surrendered everything, reverting back to holding the helm for dear life!

Honestly it’s very cathartic to cut long passages down, combining and simplifying them into something leaner and more fluid. Next week the story will enter its climax, where I expect to have less changes to make. Then we’ll be off to the conclusion!

The Salt Worms: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Nathan’s eyes darted down to the backpack he was clutching to his chest.

“Don’t do it!” Manny said hotly. “We always said we’d protect it, no matter the cost!”

“But what difference does it make?” Nathan shot back. “She gets it either way, better that we’re still alive after she does.”

Nathan!

“Would you just trust me, Manny?” Nathan gave his compatriot a meaningful look.

“Glad to see you can be sensible,” Stella smiled. “Now hand it over.”

With a deep sigh Nathan loosened his grip on the backpack and slowly undid the zipper over the top. He reached in and pulled out a large mechanical device. The body of it was flat and rectangular, with three buttons, a dial, and a switch along one side. On top of the box a small satellite dish was mounted, about the size of a hand.

“Explain to us how it works,” Stella commanded.

“It’s really quite simple. Hook the cord up to a power source, though it does need to be 220 volts, so you’ll probably need a converter. These three buttons toggle between sawtooth, sine, and square waveforms. The worms will eventually adapt to one type of signal, so once you see them coming out of their frenzy just change the waveform and they should go back to attacking themselves. The dial is to raise and lower the amplitude. Each worm will respond best to a slightly different signal strength, so you just have to experiment to see which level gets the most consistent reaction out of them. That’s it.”

“Alright,” Stella held out excited, trembling hands. “Give it to me!”

Nathan paused before handing it over, though. “Stella…” he said slowly, “you tell us that you’re no mercenary, that you’re not going to use this for profit, that we can trust you. But the problem is, can you say the same about your own men?”

And with that Nathan casually tossed the device through the air to the guard that was standing to Stella’s left. The man raised his arms in surprise and caught it, eyes flicking left and right as if unsure what he should do.

Stella’s own eyes went wide and without a word she reached her left hand up to right elbow, pulling out the blade sheathed on her upper arm.

“Hey!” the other guard shouted as he wrapped his hands around her arm, holding her back from stabbing out with the blade. “He hasn’t even done anything!”

But Stella reached her free hand and took the blade into it, then plunged it into the guard restraining her. The other guard cried out in rage and leaped at her, fumbling with the firearm on his side.

“COME ON!” Nathan roared, grabbing Manny under the arm and hauling him to his feet. Stella and the two men were two busy struggling to stop the two prisoners as they plowed their way out of the tent.

“Nathan, wait–” Manny tried to turn back but Nathan forcibly dragged him towards the trees, ducking low to avoid being seen by anyone else in the camp. “But Nathan!”

“Will you shut up?!”

There came the sounds of shots and shouting from the tent as Nathan finally wrested Manny into the tall, thin trees at the edge of camp.

“But the Wave Emitter!” Manny hissed. “You can’t just give that up! If we go back now we might be able to get it off of whoever’s left.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nathan replied as he continued to lead Manny deeper into the trees. “It was a red herring all along.”

“What?!”

“It was just something I threw together from the scraps left at an old Best Buy. It doesn’t actually do anything.”

“But–but–you said–“

“Look, you’re absolutely right that we’ve got to protect the prototype at any cost. So of course I haven’t been showing anybody the actual thing!”

“But you always told me–“

“I’m sorry, Manny. When I first met you I couldn’t trust you with the truth either. I suppose I could have later, but it always seemed safer to keep the truth to as few people as possible. To myself.”

“What truth? Is there an actual prototype or isn’t there?”

Nathan looked over his shoulder and determined that they were far enough from the camp to pause and explain things.

“Shine this on me,” he handed Manny his flashlight and lowered the backpack from his shoulders. “We did make a prototype and it can kill the sand striker worms. I just lied about it being a wave frequency device that puts them into a frenzy.”

“But we’ve risked our lives for that device! Numerous times!”

“No. We risked our lives for the backpack. And the back still has everything that matters.” Nathan pulled sharply on a tab that hung from the inside of the backpack’s main compartment. A false bottom rolled to the side, revealing a rectangular package divided into ten compartments. “This is the actual prototype we made.”

“What is it?”

“It’s poison pellets. Ten poison pellets. This is the real hope of the future. This is what we have to get to your people in New Denver.”

Nathan’s senses were pulled back to the present moment as Samuel Iverson finished his hushed powwow with the messenger boy.

“…and if that doesn’t work, have Janice restart the generator entirely and hope for the best.”

“Okay.”

The youth nodded to everyone in the dimly lit room and shuffled out the way he had come.

“Now then,” Iverson rubbed the bridge of his nose, “where were we?”

“Manny agreed to accompany me out west,” Nathan reminded him. “He believed in my cause enough to risk everything.”

“And when exactly did you say Manny died?” Doctor Hogue asked.

“About a year ago, when we reached Old Denver.”

“Nomads?”

“Influenza.”

Samuel Iverson and Doctor Hogue frowned at that. Evidently it wasn’t important enough of a death for their friend.

“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “I did everything I could for him before the end. Fortunately he did not die in vain. By that point I was near enough to Utah that the locals could point me from one landmark to another until I found you. And now here I am.”

Whatever Nathan expected at the end of his tale, it wasn’t total silence. A heavy weight pervaded in the room and Nathan didn’t like it. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the leaders were thinking it suspicious for Manny to have died before he could confirm or deny the story that Nathan was telling. For all they knew, Nathan had forced their friend to assist him at gunpoint, then killed him as soon as he no longer of any use.

Of course, if they were thinking that, none of it was true. Except for that one part about Nathan having killed Manny.

Part Seven

Something Old, Something New

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A New Voice)

Romeo and Juliet has been a classic since its premier in 1597, and like many of Shakespeare’s works it has been reimagined countless different times. What if the story were set in a different timeline? What if the characters’ sexes were swapped? What if the ending was tweaked? But typically these reinterpretations remain closely tied to their original source, they feel like a branch off of its trunk.

Every now and then, though, a reimagining comes along that is notably different. And one such example occurred in 1957 with the release of the Broadway musical West Side Story. West Side Story is unmistakably based on Romeo and Juliet and shares many plot developments with it, but it really does feel like its own thing. There are two main reasons that I can identify for why this is the case.

The first is that the world of West Side Story is completely reimagined from the ground up. All of the dialogue is original, with even the most classic of lines (“Wherefore art thou Romeo?”) replaced by entirely new speech. New characters like Officer Krupke are incorporated, even though they don’t have any direct analogue in Romeo and Juliet. Also entirely new plot points are added, such as the council where the two gangs decide the terms of their rumble.

In short, nothing from the original story was deemed sacred, and none of it had to be adhered to if it didn’t fit West Side Story’s new setting. The feud in West Side Story is based on racism in New York, not on a royal family quarrel, and that fundamental change meant that many connecting elements of the story would also need to be altered to remain consistent. The writers of West Side Story made all those changes without reservation. In fact, when all is said and done, it hardly feels appropriate to call West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at all. It is its own thing, with the ties to Romeo and Juliet being little more than an homage.

The other reason why I believe West Side Story stands apart is because it is designed within a completely different genre. Romeo and Juliet was a classic tragedy, while West Side Story is a modern musical. The integration of big band music, dazzling dance choreography, and soulful lyrics take West Side Story beyond just looking and sounding different from Romeo and Juliet, now it feels different as well.

Unrecognizable Familiarity)

Perhaps an even more drastic reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story was the 2013 film Warm Bodies. Like West Side Story, this film takes the tale into a totally new genre, this time zombie horror. And once again it throws out all of the dialogue and relationships and characters that don’t make sense in that world, and incorporates new ones that do. So dramatic of a shift was this film that I didn’t even realize it was a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet until it reproduced the famous balcony scene in its own amusing way.

The Lion is King is also a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic: Hamlet. It features the king-father who has been murdered by the evil uncle, a son whose duty is to right that wrong, and a long period of soul-searching before he is willing to face that calling. Virtually everything else, though, is dismissed for an original narrative, just like our other two examples.

When I try to think of what one should call stories like West Side Story, Warm Bodies, and The Lion King, I really don’t think terms like adaptation and re-imagining do justice to how distinct they are from the original material. I think a better term might be that they are a reincarnation. They have held on to a few key characteristics of the original, but everything else has been conceived as an entirely new body.

My Own Invention)

I’ve been trying to do something similar with my latest story: The Salt Worms. It’s a story that is molded after the traditional hero’s quest. Our main character, Nathan Prewitt, has traveled across the entire United States, bringing with him a weapon to destroy the giant sand striker worm that keeps the entire populace pinned down. This is his great calling and burden, much like Frodo carrying the one ring to Mount Doom.

In fact, Lord of the Rings is the story that I am most trying to “reincarnate” with The Salt Worms. Our main character carries an item of awesome power, he has a faithful companion, Manuel Castillo, and those that learn of his possession want to steal it from them.

But the differences between Lord of the Rings and my story are far more numerous than their similarities. Rather than trying to recreate that classic I am throwing out all the things that don’t fit, and adding things that do. I am also changing genres, trading out high fantasy for post-apocalyptic near-future. The changes are so vast that I doubt most people would pick up on the connection to Lord of the Rings without having me point it out to them.

Now my little story isn’t going to begin to make the same sort of waves as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, nor will it be as revolutionary a reincarnation as West Side Story or The Lion King, but it’s been a fun exercise in how to pay homage to a classic while still remaining a story that is entirely my own. Keep an eye out as I continue The Salt Worms, and see if you can pick out more ways that I reference the original while putting my own twist on it as well.

Update on My Novel: Month 29

black pen near white printer paper
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SEPTEMBER STATS

Days Writing: 11
New Words: 1,635
New Chapters: 0.5

Total Word-count: 87,132
Total Chapters: 23.5

September wasn’t the best month for my novel. 11 days of writing is a bit low, and 1,635 words written is especially low. For perspective, each month I generate about 12,000 words for my story blog.

And honestly, the disparity between my blog and my novel has stood out to me for a while now. I usually prioritize work on my blog in the morning, leaving the evening for my novel. I had thought that would give me more uninterrupted time to write With the Beast, but the reality is that putting off the novel to the end of the day makes it easy for it to get squeezed out by other needs and distractions.

I’ve told myself to “just dig deeper” numerous times already, but when my output continues to be the same regardless, sooner or later I have to be frank with myself and say that while I could accomplish more in a day, it may not be realistic to expect that I will.

All of which is to say, if I simply don’t have the capacity or the discipline to do both blog and novel…then I’m going to choose the novel. Before I make that decision, though, I want to give myself one more chance to manage both.

During the month of October I am going to flip things around. I will not write any new blog material first thing in the morning, I will work on my novel instead. Specifically I will write or edit 500 words each day before I move on to any other work. Hopefully I will find the time and energy before day’s end to also write my blog, but if I don’t then I don’t.

I’d hate to let go of my blog, and honestly I expect the fear of losing it to be a powerful motivation for “digging deeper” like I’ve been talking about. In either case, on November 1st I’ll come back and let you know how things went and what my decision moving forward will be.

For now, here is a segment from my new material this month.

“This matter of harvesting the cane…you think it’s an impossible problem?”

“Yes…well…no. Honestly I wish that I did. The truth is I have a sense that there is a way to accomplish this, but I just won’t be able to find it. Whatever I choose to do, it will be the wrong thing, and it will spoil the entire field.”

“Do you mean that you’re destined to fail?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he runs his hands wearily through his hair. “I suppose yes, that is what it feels like.”

“Then do it.”

William blinks rapidly. “I beg your pardon?”

“If all the world has conspired to make you fail, then why are you running away from it? Just get it over with!”

William is flabbergasted, and shakes his head, unable to process what he is hearing.

“Are you–are you making fun of me?”

“Absolutely not! Listen, I’m not going to try to argue with you whether fate has marked you for failure or not. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t, I don’t know. But if I ever felt that I had to take a fall, then I’d rather go ahead and get it over with as quickly as possible. Then I could get back up and move on to the next thing.”

“Accept defeat? Just like that?”

“If there’s no alternative, why not? Accepting defeat is only disgraceful when one still has other avenues left to pursue, but if there really are no alternatives left, then there is no shame in embracing it.”

Revising the Storm- Week 22

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After my first draft I felt that The Storm needed a more fleshed out body, with more obstacles to exhaust both the characters and the reader. I therefore added a great deal of material in my second draft, which I have now proceeded to trim down a great deal week after week.

I’m very curious with my next read-through to see whether I’ve retained that sense of overwhelming labor though. The best case scenario will be that I have trimmed each individual moment into its most clean and pleasant-to-read form, but that they will still combine to create a sense of herculean labor. The worst case scenario will be that I’ve polished down the individual moments to the point that the overarching pacing is broken between them.

I’m very much looking forward to finishing this draft so that I’ll be able to take it all in and see where I have landed along that spectrum. As always, here’s the link to the latest draft if you want to reference the changes that are being made, and now let’s get into it.

Turning Back)

“NO!” Oscar shouted, fumbling hand-over-hand along the rope, trying to make his way back to the wheelhouse. The next wave would surely roll his boat the rest of the way over, leaving him hanging upside down in the water, boat suspended overhead!

Suddenly there came a great creaking sound and the entire boat was yanked back to port, returning to its hull. As the upper edge of his boat rotated downwards Oscar found himself facing the Broken Wing. Harry had moved to the Last Horizon’s side and used their tether to pull the boat back upright. Oscar gave a grunt for his thanks, then dashed to the wheelhouse and took hold of the helm and throttle.

“Are you alright there?” Harry’s voice called nervously over the radio.

“Yeah, I’m here–” Oscar said dismissively. “I was–I just had–I’m alright now.”

He released the mic and his whole body trembled. His eyes welled up in tears but he refused to let them run out. He had to suppress the emotional breakdown that was lurking in his periphery, had to push through to survive. Do that first and then collapse in a heap on the floor.

Added in the above paragraph because it felt like too drastic of a transition to Oscar deciding that they turn around. Showing that he is at his absolute limit should help to justify that decision.

“Harry, let’s get out of here,” Oscar decided.

“You mean turn around?”

“Yes. We’re taking too much of a beating. Let’s hold steady through this last wave, then turn back.”

“Okay, Oscar.”

The next wave passed without incident and the two men began the arduous process of turning around. They were not able to make the turn in a single passing of the waves, and so they had to do it in degrees, slicing up and down the crests at angles, until at last they had their backs to the rolling tide and were pointed towards the shore.

I greatly simplified the above sequence. I once again was asking the reader to get lost in the minutia of exact turns and degrees. Here I reduced it to saying that they made the turn in degrees. It is easy to think that more details will make the picture more clear, but usually they only get in the way.

“Alright, now we keep a steady pull to port!” Oscar instructed. And so, at the low point of each wave the men pulled their boat towards port, pumped the throttle forward, then straightened back out and slowed down whenever the tide rose in another wave.

“And keep your eyes open wide!” Oscar shouted into the mic as he stared intently through his own window. “If you so much as wonder whether you’ve seen the cape, you call it out!” He reached up and turned off the overhead light and covered the blinking LED on the radio, casting himself into complete darkness, the better to see through the storm outside.

The above paragraphs went from talking about looking for the cape, to how they maneuvered around the waves, to looking for the cape again. I’ve rearranged things so that we get out all the maneuvering taken care of first, and then the search from the cape is uninterrupted.

Of course they might not be able to see the cape, even if it was right before them. The storm-mist that pressed in on every side was so black and thick that it was probably indistinguishable from rock face. What would truly let the sailors know where they lay was if they saw the beacon shining from the lighthouse. So long as there was no light, they were still in danger.

One dark minute slid by, and then another. Then another three. And each one of them felt like a greater pronouncement of doom upon the lost sailors. How many minutes could they spare before they would be upon a stone-hard reckoning?

“Further to port!” Oscar commanded.

Oscar spun the wheel thirty degrees further to the left, and he did not straighten back out when the next wave came upon them. This would take them around the cape more quickly, but it also created the unsettling sensation of being tilted to starboard as they glided up the wave, then rolled to port as it left them in its wake. The boats threateningly sloshed back and forth, but it wasn’t enough to roll them onto their sides.

I’ve trimmed things down here and there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I lop off entire sections with my next read-through. With my next editing session I should be able to get right up to the door of the story’s climax, and I’m looking forward to that. See you next week!

The Salt Worms: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

A silence fell over the room, but it was finally broken as the man next to Nathan spoke up.

“Yes, there are some definite concerns,” he said to Samuel Iverson, “but it would be something for the entire council to decide on.”

“Yes, of course,” Iverson softened his posture and leaned back in his seat. “Well said, Harris.”

“Thank you,” Harris turned back towards Nathan. “But what I want to understand, is how you even found us out here. I’m sure our fame doesn’t extend all the way to Virginia!”

“No, you’re right” Nathan shook off the tension from the previous moment and settled back into his story. “As I said, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for when I left with the prototype, I just wanted to get out west and see what opportunity I could find along the way. I drove my vehicle until it ran out of gas, then continued on foot. I advanced very slowly, only progressing when I was sure of the next leg of my journey. I won’t go into unnecessary details about the adversity I faced, I’ll only say that I have struggled against any form of opposition imaginable. Mobs, natural disasters, striker worm nests, injury and illness…I’ve dealt with them all.

“Inch-by-inch I made my way to Missouri, though, and it was there that I met the man who told me about your city. He was a former citizen of New Denver.”

“What man?” Hogue piped up. “Did you get his name?”

“Of course. His name was Manuel Carrillo.”

“Manny!” several people in the room exclaimed at once.

“Manuel was sent to find Washington D.C. early on,” Iverson affirmed. “He was supposed to find out if there was any semblance of a government left to support us. We all assumed that he had died.”

“Well…he did–” Nathan said awkwardly, “but not until later. Not until a year ago.”

“You spent some time with him?”

“Oh yes. Once I told him there wasn’t any vestige of the government remaining he wanted to find somewhere to settle out East, but I convinced him to accompany me back here. As soon as I heard about your situation I knew this was the place for me to come. I wanted a guide, and when I explained my purpose to him he knew that my cause was worth the risk.”

“Manny wouldn’t have stayed out East,” Samuel huffed. “He would have come back here to finish his mission.”

“Manny barely survived the trip out to Missouri. He lost an arm for his trouble and he wasn’t too keen on losing the other while coming back. And certainly not to deliver a message that you shouldn’t expect any help from the government! You’d figure that out on your own soon enough. As I said, though, once he knew the importance of my own mission, and that he would have my help to survive, Manny agreed to accompany me back here.”

“Except you didn’t keep him alive!”

“Oh I did. I saved his life many, many times over. And he saved mine. I can honestly say that Manuel Carrillo is the only friend I’ve had since the world fell apart. As dangerous as the road from one coast to the other is for the typical traveler, it was even more so for us. As much as possible we tried to keep the nature of our mission a secret, but at times there was simply no way forward unless we disclosed the truth. And while that opened many doors for us, it always invited trouble as well.”

The door to the bunker suddenly squealed loudly as it opened on its rusty hinges, startling Nathan. A youth came in, blinking furiously until his eyes were adjusted to the dark, then he made his way to Samuel Iverson’s side and whispered a message to him. Evidently there was some issue out at the pit. Nathan heard something about “saltwater backwash,” which set him at ease. It was just typical salt battery concerns, nothing to do with him.

For a moment, the way that youth had opened the door had taken Nathan’s memories back to a similar room with a similar door on one particularly dangerous night. He and Manny had been the only two people in that room at that time, and they were listening to the din outside of a clan murdering itself!

“It’ll be alright,” Manny had said encouragingly. “Red Stella is a mad upstart. There’s no way she could have planned a coup that actually had a chance of success.”

“No,” Nathan shook his head. “She might be crazy, but she isn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have shown her hand tonight unless she had the force to back it up.”

There came a particularly loud explosion from out in the camp and both men flinched lower to the ground.

“Well then we got to get out of here!” Manny hissed.

“That’d work for me! You got any idea how?”

“We just gotta take our chances and run for it!”

“I don’t know–maybe you’re right–“

But just then the conversation was cut off as the corrugated door swung open, flooding the two men with the light of fire burning out in the field. Silhouetted in the door was the figure of a tall woman. She was large and powerfully built, nearly sixty, with deep stress lines etched along the sides of her face, and streaks of gray through her red, waist-length hair.

“Hello, Stella,” Nathan murmured.

The woman and her two bodyguards entered the room. Behind them Nathan and Manny could see that the struggle in the camp was winding down. The old management had been successfully deposed of.

“Now we will return to our prior conversation,” Stella said with her deep, husky voice, “and Mister Tanning won’t be around to interrupt with his opinions any more!”

“I always knew you were crazy,” Manny snarled, “but I didn’t figure you for the mercenary type!”

“Mercenary?! Please, I have no intention to profit from your weapon. As I said before, I’m trying to prevent exactly that. I only mean to safeguard what you two clearly cannot protect on your own.”

“Oh, so you’re robbing us to keep us safe from being robbed. How thoughtful!”

“I’m not going to try to make you see reason. I don’t have to anymore. Either hand the device over of your own volition, or we will kill you and take it from your corpses!”

Part Six
Part Seven

Always Opposition

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Sad Song)

My parents grew up during the height of film musicals and so our video library was full of classics like The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and West Side Story. Of all these films, West Side Story was my favorite. It was cool. It had action. It had good guys and bad guys.

The only thing that upset me was how sad the ending was! Tony and Maria want to get out of the ghetto, and they get so close to accomplishing that dream, but then at the end a simple miscommunication dashes all their hopes to pieces.

Every time we watched it I would somehow hope that the ending would change. This time would be the time that Riff and Bernardo decide to keep it a fair fight instead of pulling out their knives. This time the Jets wouldn’t torment Anita until she lies to Tony that Maria is dead. This time Tony would hold on to faith just a little bit longer, rather than running into the night, calling for Chino to gun him down.

But of course, none of those alternate-endings ever played out. The same tragic tale of self-destruction was the same each time. It had to, because that was the whole point of the story. West Side Story without its sad moments would be absent its whole message about the cycle of violence. If the Jets and the Sharks ever make friends with one another, then that’s the end of the movie right there. West Side Story is expertly crafted to make us want peace, but to bring those feelings alive in us it can never have any peace of its own.

The Need for Conflict)

Much has already been written about the need for conflict in a story. Opposition is considered the lifeblood of every narrative, whether based in a villain, or a situation, or even within the protagonist’s personal flaws.

This is represented in a very interesting way with the Star Wars series. Here there is an all-connecting power, the Force, which comes in two distinct flavors: light and dark. It is therefore not strictly a good power, it fuels both the heroes and the villains. In fact, whenever one side grows more powerful than the other the Force seems to surge to the other side, keeping things in balance.

This is a most fascinating construct. It seems to imply that the Force is almost a sentient being, one that wants there to be epic stories, legendary heroes, and diabolical villains. In short, the Force wants what every audience wants as well.

The concept of the force is derived from real-world ancient eastern philosophy, such as the notion of yin-yang, which insists that opposition, good and evil, must live together, and only through their interplay is life able to exist. Even western philosophies have similar ideas, such as in Christianity the pairing of a divine spirit with a carnal body to create a life that is constantly at odds with itself, yet which is able flourish and grow through the conflict.

Many stories have explored the idea of conflict being necessary for happiness. In the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, Henry “Rocky” Valentine finds himself shot to death after a robbery, and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is immediately granted. He is amazed that he somehow made his way to heaven, and for a while enjoys getting every break he couldn’t have in life. Money, luck, romance…it all comes effortlessly and on-demand.

After a while Rocky gets sick of life having no edge, though. He wants some risk, some danger. His host says they ought to be able to accommodate that. Things can be arranged so that Rocky will lose a few times at the roulette wheel, or he could be chased by some policemen that he will forever evade. Rocky says that’s no good, he’ll know it’s all a sham. He wants real danger and real stakes. He wants conflict.

Rocky becomes so bored that at the end of the episode he asks to be let out of heaven and to go to the other place instead. At this point his host laughs, and announces that Rocky has been in “the other place” all this while. Rocky’s hell is to live without any opposition.

Make the Conflict Real)

Unfortunately some writers have taken the lesson that “every story needs conflict” too far and made everything into a conflict. The mentor is gruff and doesn’t want to train the new talent, the kids at the school are jerks until the new kid proves his worth to them, the super-secret organization isn’t going to admit the applicant until she gains their trust. Of course, that’s all well and fine so long as your story’s central conflict is actually about reawakening the disillusioned mentor or befriending the kids at school or gaining admission to the secret society.

So it works for Daniel LaRusso to be bullied at his new High School, because The Karate Kid is all about him gaining the power to stand against those miscreants. And it works for there to be tension between Paddy and Tommy in Warrior, because their story is all about how a father makes amends to his son while coaching him. And it works in The Pursuit of Happyness for Chris Gardner to face stiff competition when trying to land a job as a stockbroker, as that story is about the man’s struggle to lift himself out of poverty.

But if these things aren’t what your story is actually about, then don’t shoehorn in meaningless scruples that distract from your main conflict. The 1997 film Men in Black is about James Edwards being welcomed into an intelligence organization that deals with extraterrestrial threats. Thankfully the writers of this film understood that the central conflict is not about James getting into the top-secret organization, but the enemy he must track down after he has done so. So rather than put James through a meaningless uphill battle to even land the job, they have the organization reach out to recruit him all on its own. It lets us skip past any unnecessary drama and get right to the meat of the story.

Applying the Concept)

In my own story I just introduced a new conflict when Nathan Prewitt started to see that the leaders of New Denver weren’t enthused about destroying the nearby giant worm. But they aren’t be contrary for no reason. As the story goes on, their opposition is going to become even more pronounced, and it will be the last and final opposition that Nathan must overcome in his quest to kill the beast.

In short, every story needs conflict, but the conflict needs to actually be meaningful to the heart of the story. Identify what it is your protagonist is really fighting against, and spend your time on that battle, rather than on meaningless periphery battles.