Revising The Storm- Week 7

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Firmly in the second half of the story now! Now comes the image of two ships tethered together, fighting their way through the storm. Now is the long, hard tow that wears them down until they finally break and the truth comes out. Obviously I want every part of my story to be executed well, but this segment in particular has a great deal that it needs to accomplish, and I will be paying close attention to anywhere that it is lapsing.

The Tow)

Oscar eased back a little. He didn’t want to hit tension on the rope too quickly and snap it. He watched as the last feet of slack pulled out of the line, and then his vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously. Nothing broke, though, and the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.

“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope pull you into line.”

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

If you know so much, then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.

Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide turn right, continue until they were past the cape, then right again and back to the docks.

Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat was now at a slant to the waves, and they were thundering against his hull and drenching his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked back-and-to-the right to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black, as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle, alone in their own, thick darkness.

A reverberating whine came from behind and Oscar saw Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling the rope at an angle.

“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.

“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They would have to try a shallower angle into the waves, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could handle.

He brought their angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, then checked over his shoulder. No good, the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.

So he reduced down to twenty-five degrees and checked again. Still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, it continually wavered back and forth, never settling.

Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.

“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief. Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get past the cape, meaning they’d be spending twice as long in the heart of the sea.

Twice as long in the ink. The murky green glow from beneath the waves had extinguished, and somewhere beyond the clouds the last remnants of the sun had expired. All was pitch black now, and the men could barely see each wave before they were already upon it. And those waves had progressed from small hills to sheer mountains. Each yawned high above the sailors, tipping their boats skyward, then breaking across their bows in a fury. Then came the rapid drop down the trough on the other side. The wind seemed to shriek around their wheelhouses in every direction at once, and the rain pelted them sideways.

Well, they had arrived…. This was the full height of the storm’s intensity and they would be locked within this fearful epicenter all the way back to shore.

Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles, locked his knees in place, and stared ahead with unblinking eyes. Each successive wave was a new trauma heaped upon the last like an extra brick on his back.

This kept the same vein of how it was before, though with a good deal of fiddling throughout. Most of the changes were in the last paragraphs when I described the storm around them. A major critique from my first draft was how the escalation of that storm wasn’t very clear, and behind the scenes I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make a more intelligible progression out of it.

To that end I’ve decided that the storm is now at its strongest, and every point hereafter will be describing a different element or perspective of it. The escalation of danger now will be based upon their angle-of-attack and the damage to their boats. My hope is that by having a clear sense in my own head of what’s going on, that will come through in the written depiction of it.

Now I’m going to tackle a moment of introspection in Oscar, and this is one section I already know I want to make a few changes to.

The Conversation)

“I can’t do this,” Oscar said hoarsely to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”

“I don’t think you have any choice in it anymore,” another side of him replied.

If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly, his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.

“I should have quit after I lost James.”

“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”

“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”

The original version of this conversation that Oscar has with himself was melodramatic and confusing. I felt it jumped from one statement to another with no obvious connection between them. I also felt it was obscure as tp who exactly “James” was.

But with this take on it there is a much clearer transition from not wanting to face great obstacles anymore to wishing he had quit before he lost his son. I had initially wondered about cutting the conversation entirely, but I think it is important to get across that Oscar’s son has died and that that loss is somehow connected to Harry, otherwise the later confession would come entirely out of the blue.

Next week I’ll be pulling the sailors even more through the wringer, come back as I try to maintain a clear line through it all!

Covalent: Part Seven

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

And not only could Cace perceive the monster’s presence in the Ether, he was able to understand its parallel purpose in both worlds. He saw that it was a multiplicative. Its first purpose was to reproduce itself in other beings. To that end it had a special ability: to take other living matter and transform it into a copy of itself. It wasn’t simply that the larva consumed the host it was planted in, it was that it became a kernel within, rewriting the living thing to grow and harden and reshape until it was the same as that beast.

And this was why the beast retained a special connection to each of its larva, they were each a continuation of the original. They might appear as separate entities, but they were clones of one another, separate branches that had grown from the same trunk.

All of which was fascinating, but Aylme was running out of time and Cace still didn’t know how to help! So he pivoted on the spot, surveying the rest of the world, looking for some other element in the Ether that could help.

He traced the connections from the beast, saw that it had threads to all the other components in the Ether. This was because of its second purpose: to be a regulator. It multiplied itself in order to scour the entire system and restrain or purge anything that was amiss. Any foreign entity or corrupted module were eradicated instantly. Because, as Cace now realized, all of these modules were parts of a whole, they were separate functions to one higher purpose. They were a machine, a great and massive machine, and that machine had to be preserved from corruption.

Cace turned his attention to the heart of the machine, looking for some way to sever its connection to the beast or to change its functions. But the heart of the machine was cold and inactive. Its periphery systems still ran, but the core did not. It required fuel to function, and at some point it must have run out of that.

Cace saw the furnace of the machine…a great sprawling mass, which twisted in every direction around the other parts of the machine, trying to feel out some entity to burn. It was careful not to touch any of the other parts of the machine, though, because it had no way to differentiate between machine module and foreign element. It would just consume anything that it came in contact with.

And suddenly Cace realized he knew what the sprawling engine’s counterpart was in the overworld. It was the black powder at the foot of the almnut tree.

Without waiting another moment Cace turned on the spot and dashed from the field! He heard Aylme’s cries as the boulder above her fractured. She was trying to prop it up with her hands, but it was starting to crumble into rubble. One more hit and the monster would be through!

Cace’s foot caught on a root and tripped him, but he turned his fall into a roll, returned to his feet, and kept going. He leapt over the next root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. He had come to the base of the almnut tree and saw the powder sprawled out before him like a black ocean.

Back in the clearing, the creature lifted itself and thrust its body down once more. Aylme screamed as it impacted on the loose rock. The stone shattered into pieces and fell between her arms. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact of the creature’s hard underbelly…but it didn’t come! Instead the creature sharply recoiled, legs falling over one another as it writhed in agony.

Aylme slowly opened her eyes. Incredulous, she pushed away the loose rock and sat up, watching as the beast trampled its way into the center of the clearing, convulsing horribly. It opened its clam-like mouth and it was filled with that same black powder that had tried to suffocate Rolar. It was as if that powder was flowing into the creature from an unseen fountain!

Back at the almnut tree, the last of the white larva sunk into the black soil, twisting as it went. The powder had hungrily eaten the thing up, then gone through it—as if it were a portal—to where the great beast now twitched in the clearing. The powder crawled out of the monster’s mouth and across its surface, flowing over every detail, consuming as it went! Two of the creature’s legs disintegrated and it collapsed onto the ground. A few more moments and there wasn’t any creature left, only a large pile of black powder where it had stood!

Then came the sound of ruptures all around the clearing, buried beneath the surface. It was the thousands of the creature’s larva being invaded all at the same moment. The whole earth rumbled and plumes of black powder erupted like small volcanoes.

Aylme felt the pocket of ground next to her start to tremble and she quickly rolled away before the fountain of powder could get on her! She scrambled over to Rolar’s unconscious form, eyes frantically darting in every direction, making sure that none of the powder plumes were going to fall on him.

And then, just like that, it all stopped. The earth gave a loud groan, like a pained sigh, and there was no more shaking, no more rupturing, and no more creature or larva. Everything turned still.

“Aylme?” Cace called, dashing across the clearing towards the other two. He was pale, sweaty, and disoriented.

“Cace, Rolar’s seriously hurt!” Aylme sobbed, looking the older boy over. She turned his head so that she could see his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. “We’ve got to get him back home. Though I’m not–I’m not sure how we can fix this.”

There was dread in her voice. Rolar’s arm was bent at an odd angle, clearly broken, but even worse damage had been down in the next blow, which had hit him squarely on the back and head. No doubt he had a concussion, and perhaps a fractured spine. Maybe even damage to his internal organs.

Had they saved his life, just to watch him slowly succumb to his wounds?

Better Moves

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The Game of Chess)

I’m not any good at chess, but I do like to play just for the fun of it. I would describe my style as simply being “try to make as few boneheaded blunders as possible!” Usually that’s what decides the winner in the games I play, whoever is better able to catch themselves from making mistakes will prevail.

And the key to not making mistakes is typically to look…and then look again. Very often in chess a move will immediately suggest itself, and the temptation is to grab the piece and swipe it across the board with confidence, only afterwards realizing the hole that move opened. So it is better to acknowledge the move that first occurs to the mind, and then keep looking to see what might be wrong with it.

And the little bit of reading I’ve done on chess strategy suggests that principle is still true even after you actually know what you’re doing. It is often advised that as soon as you see a “good move” to hold off on it, as there is probably a more sublime one still waiting to be seen. Experts don’t win just by making less mistakes, they win by holding out for more of those sublime moves than their opponent.

Waiting for Ideas)

And the same holds true for writing a story. It is very easy to jump from one plot point to another, following a chain of the first “good idea” that pops into your head at each juncture.

But usually the first idea that pops into your head is the obvious one. And as with the game of chess, great stories aren’t achieved by writing the obvious “good moves,” but by holding out for the more sublime ones. Anyone can write a story of obvious “good moves,” but that’s not what people go to the bookstore for, they go there to find something that will take them deeper than the immediately obvious.

The problem with always writing that initial obvious idea, is that because it is obvious it has already occurred to the reader, too. They will therefore anticipate it, and then have that unpleasant sense of “I already know exactly where this story is going.” Nor is it any better to just take the first idea and then go in the exact opposite direction from it. That quickly becomes just as predictable and just as uninteresting. You don’t want to just roll out a carpet for the reader, but neither do you want to constantly pull the rug out from under their feet. You want to lead them on a surprising journey.

Quality scenes take real effort. Genius rarely occurs “on demand,” it is the result of serious work. Sometimes the perfect plot point falls into your lap ready-made, but usually it is the result of pausing, thinking, and looking for something better.

This issue came up in my current story when I had the children spring a trap set by a massive predator. They handled a small, white stick, which signaled the underlying beast to spring out of the earth! Originally I envisioned that stick as some strange, detached organ of the creature, like the light dangling at the end of an anglerfish…but then I realized that I was just taking the obvious example from nature, something that every reader would already be familiar with. That’s not very creative or interesting.

So I changed that in my last entry. I made it so that the small, white thing is a larva, and I stated that the beast used its own young as bait. In my next entry I will also add a detail about how the larva is planted into the beast’s prey, and then evolves that organism into a perfect copy of the original beast. Both of these changes required some deeper, outside-the-box thinking, but the result is far more entertaining!

The Listener)

A story that allowed itself to find the “better move” is the 1974 film The Conversation. In it, Harry Caul is a surveillance expert, who offers his services to record the private conversations of others. Harry is very efficient at his job, but also socially awkward, hearing the most intimate details of other peoples’ private lives, but never having a real connection of his own.

The film begins with him recording a young man and woman in a park, who are discussing another person—the woman’s husband—with worry. At one point the young man says “he’d kill us if he got the chance,” and it seems clear that the young couple is having an affair and are afraid of what might happen to them.

That woman’s husband is also the client that hired Caul to perform this investigation, and Caul is afraid to turn the recording in. At this point the obvious option would be for Caul to step up and become the hero. To use his knowledge to prevent catastrophe.

But the film wisely rejects that obvious path for a far more original plot. Caul doesn’t give the recording to his client, but neither does he warn the couple that the old man is on to them. He frets in between those choices, unable to bring himself to do anything decisive at all. Then the client has the recording stolen from Caul and his anxiety grows. He is convinced that violence is about to follow, but he is not powerful enough to intervene, and he has no concrete evidence to go to the authorities with.

Sustaining the tension like this required deliberate plotting on the part of the writer. It would have been far easier to fall off to one side or another, but instead it is stretched out all the way to the finale, and it makes the film relentlessly engrossing!

At the climax of the movie Caul goes to a hotel room that is adjacent to a private meeting the young woman is having with her husband. He has to know whether his suspicions are valid or exaggerated, and as he listens through a wiretap he hears the very murder he has been afraid of! He collapses to the ground, racked with guilt, and when he comes to, the deed is done and the killer has escaped.

Perhaps he is too late to save anybody, but at long last Caul decides to take a stand. He goes to confront his client, but once again the film’s writer has changed the obvious plot point for something far more engrossing. For much to Caul’s shock, he finds that his client is unavailable…because he is dead. Caul’s client was the one that was murdered at that private meeting, not the young wife. The wife is perfectly alive and well…and arm-in-arm with the young man from the park.

Suddenly the audience realizes that the truth was right there from the beginning. The obvious interpretation of what Caul heard at the start of the film was that the husband was going to kill his wife…but it was just as possible that the wife and the young man were plotting the murder of the husband instead. This clever reversal was not the result of random happenstance, it was the deliberate craft of a writer who took the time to steer away from the obvious “good ideas” and pushed instead for the truly sublime.

Check mate.

Revising The Storm- Week 6

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In the heart of the storm and in the heart of the story! We’re right at the middle of my tale, where the protagonist is about to face his great trial. He must couple himself to the man he hates most, to resolve the unfinished business between them.

I don’t expect to change as much in this next section as the one prior, but I guess I’ll see as I go. Let’s get to it!

The Throw)

Oscar held firmly to the wheel, maintaining as straight of a line as possible to Harry. He tightened his grip, readying his nerves for the tumultuous waterscape ahead. They would need to maneuver with precision and speed, minimizing those treacherous moments when their boats would be in close proximity to one another, relying on the mercy of the unpredictable waves to not careen one of their boats into the other and leaving them both in mortal peril!

Oscar quickly glanced backwards to the beam at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net off of its line, then snapped his eyes back forward as he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out, unfurling on the deck behind him. He waited until there would be about fifty feet of line let loose, then locked the lever back into place.

“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready?”

Harry didn’t respond, but when Oscar’s eyes slid over the other sailor’s ship he saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.

“You’re still supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, then turned the wheel to create an even wider berth between the two boats. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat.

“Alright, alright,” Oscar told himself encouragingly, then cut the throttle and locked the wheel in place. As his boat slid backwards he ran back to the rope pooled out on the deck. With practiced skill he found its end and coiled it around his hand as he leapt to the port side. His boat came level with Oscar’s for just a moment and he gave a mighty fling, arcing the rope through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled it to his chest for dear life, then sprinted towards the front of his trawler to ran it through his bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift. He wiped the back of his sleeve over his rain-soaked brow and tried to catch his breath.

This sequence plays out in much the same way as before, though I tidied and embellished it here and there. I specifically ramped up the sense of danger of two boats resting in close proximity during an unpredictable storm. I’ve also decided to play up the depiction of Harry as a more clueless seaman, which will of course come to play with his later revelation. I think it makes him a more distinctive character, but I’ll have to make sure I don’t overdo it. I don’t want him to be a caricature of buffoonery.

Now let’s move forward to the start of the sailors’ arduous journey to safety.

The Towing)

“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving ahead of Harry’s boat and giving a safer distance between them, but he was very careful to not pull the line out before Harry had it secured.

It was very difficult to try and hold steady in such rolling waves, but the true challenge would begin only after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to keep enough distance between the two boats so that Harry’s wouldn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. One had 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 the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to keep the line straight between them, not letting the wind blow one off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled 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 small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.

Oscar paused to ask himself why it had to be Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke 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 you give whatever you’ve got to keep us level. I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”

“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 pushed the throttle control forward and his engine hummed loudly, slowly edging the trawler forward.

I think this was one of my better-written sections already, and I changed very little of it this time around! We’ve got less than half of the story remaining, and I can’t to keep things churning along next week!

Covalent: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Rolar shook his head. He didn’t understand what Cace meant. It didn’t really matter anyway. What mattered was that the beast was here now, and that it might prove to be an excellent source of food for them. Or otherwise they would be food for it! So Rolar turned his wrists, raising the bladed end of his staff to the ready.

“No, wait!” Cace exclaimed, but it was too late. Rolar charged forward with a shout. The creature, though blind, snapped itself around to face the youth. Rolar’s eyes flit from the left to the right, waiting to see which of its four arms the creature would attack with. As soon as it did he would swing the blade to sever it.

But the creature did no such thing. It bunched up those legs and sprang forward like a loosed spring, head first at the boy. Rolar’s eyes went wide, he swung his staff against the head, but it rang out as if he had struck stone, and the wood burst into a thousand splinters!

“Oof!” Rolar exclaimed as he the wide head buffeted him and sent him sprawling backwards, landing in a heap on the earth. He’d had the wind knocked out of him, but he still tried to roll out of the away.

No good. The beast landed above him and instantly seized at him with two of its long, wiry limbs. Rolar fought back, kicking and pressing with his arms, trying to keep himself out of the creature’s hold. But it was much stronger than him, and along with the grasping of its arms it began lifting its clamshell body and slamming the bottom of it into the ground, trying to crush him like a piece of steel between hammer and anvil!

Rolar twisted out of the way once, pushed off to the side to dodge the second blow, did a half-roll to get around the third…but the fourth blow fell on his wrist and there came the unsettling sound of something snapping. Rolar cried out, and the next strike hit him squarely in the back and he collapsed onto the soil. The monster raised itself high on its arms, about to slam itself down for the killing blow!

“Hey!” Cace shouted from behind. He had extracted the white stick that had been in the center of their trap and was holding it aloft with both hands. The monster didn’t regard Cace’s shout one bit, but then Cace started to apply pressure to the stick, threatening to snap it in two. And that the monster did acknowledge! It gave a horrible shriek and spun around on the spot, forgetting about Rolar entirely.

“That’s right,” Cace nodded. “This is a part of you, and you don’t want me to break it, do you?” He tapped the stick in his palm and the creature’s legs twitched beneath its head, wanting to lash out at Cace, but not daring to. But they weren’t twitches of pain, Cace realized, they were of worry.

A sudden intuition washed over Cace, another revelation from the Ether. He had been slightly mistaken…it wasn’t that the stick was a part of the creature’s body…it was something else. Cace looked down at the stick and saw how it wriggled gently, how it had little stubs along its underside in two even rows. This wasn’t one of the creature’s organs…it was one of its larva!

There was the sound of a dried leaf crinkling underfoot and both Cace and the beast looked to the side in surprise. Evidently Aylme had heard their commotion, and was stealing around the side of the clearing, trying to get to where Rolar’s broken body lay.

The creature’s clamshells opened and it gave a vicious shriek, then thrust two of its arms out, pinning Aylme down to the ground just as it had done with Rolar. Aylme fell with a cry, but kept her head about her enough to struggle against the arms and shimmy under a nearby overhanging boulder. The monster stepped forward and tried to slam its hard underbelly on her as well, but only came in contact with rock. It was undeterred, though. It had her cornered, and it continued to beat down, taxing the boulder until it would break.

“Hey!” Cace called again, giving the larva another twist. The monster hissed, but it didn’t turn back. It might despise Cace for having hold of its young, but evidently it had given up on it. The creature had been willing to use the larva for bait in the first place after all.

Cace stepped back and forth anxiously. Rolar and Aylme were about to be killed. Then he would be, too, as soon as the beast had finished with them. Cace wanted to help, but he knew he wasn’t strong, or fast, or knowing the right things to do. He didn’t even have any weapons or tools to help him.

“I hate this world!” he cried. “I hate not being able to do anything in it!”

Then, without even thinking about it, he held back his heartbeat and thudded it out in unison with the rhythm of the Ether. He didn’t even have to strain himself to find its cadence. Ever since last night’s excursion it had been constantly thundering in him, he had only been containing it beneath the surface.

But now he let it out. Now he let down his restraints and the trance washed over him in an instant. This time he didn’t lose consciousness in the real world, though. He remained standing with a leg in each. On the one hand he still saw and heard the beast crashing down on the rock over Aylme, but on the other he perceived how that same creature was only one of the many systems that existed in the Ether.

In fact, now Cace could perceive that even Aylme was a system in that place, and so was Rolar. As before, he couldn’t actually “see” them in the Ether, but he could sense them, was aware of their forms and interconnections. And as he looked over both worlds at the same moment he understood a great truth: there wasn’t anything in either world that didn’t also belong in the other. They were two separate systems, with different rules, but infinite interconnections in between!

Part Seven

Force My Hand

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No More Hesitations)

Last week I considered the resistance that a main character must press through to achieve their greater story. Most protagonists are written so that they dearly want to follow that epic path, but they usually refuse to take the journey until they have no other choice.

Think of Luke Skywalker who dreams of leaving his farm to fly across the galaxy. He begs his Uncle Owen to let him follow that calling, but Uncle Owen just keeps telling him “next year.” Interestingly, when Obi-Wan Kenobi urges Luke to do the very things he has been yearning for, Luke draws back, repeating the same arguments that Uncle Owen has used to keep Luke grounded. Luke isn’t able to break free until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle and leaves his home a waste. Every other path in Luke’s life has been literally burned to the ground, so at last he moves forward with his greater story.

And this is true of many epics. The hero wants to step into their proper role, but for some reason holds back until their hand is forced.

Does a story have to be this way? No. There are plenty where it isn’t the case at all. Consider Forrest Gump, who blithely charges ahead with whatever occurs to him that he wants to do. Think of Pollyanna, who is never deterred by any problem, and always encourages those around her to just see the good in the world. There is also Ulysses, who though he is waylaid at every league of his journey never falters from start to finish in his quest to get back home.

But today I want to take a closer look at the archetype of the reluctant hero, and why it is such a widely use form.

My Own Delay)

Why do stories frequently make use of a reluctant hero? Because that’s exactly what most of us are in our own lives. We all have dreams of the greater story we’d like to live, but very few of us are actually chasing it. We watch it longingly from a distance, but feel too weighed down by work and duty to really get our hands into it.

That was certainly the case with me. I longed to be a writer for a long while, but it remained a wistful daydream for years,. I just couldn’t see any way to fit it into my busy schedule. Though let’s be honest, the excuse that we just don’t have enough time is usually a cover-up for something deeper. And in my case that was also true. I had been rejected in my creative endeavors before, I had been told that my work wasn’t very good or wasn’t very important. I didn’t like feeling that, so I made myself too busy to have time for writing anymore. The desire was still there, but I wasn’t able to break out of my reluctance by myself. In fact it took a literal act of God to finally get me back into my writing!

I previously mentioned the example of Luke Skywalker being reluctant to leave the farm with Obi-Wan Kenobi. And honestly, he isn’t given a very good reason for why he’s being so hesitant. In fact there are many stories which tack a reluctance onto their hero without any good explanation. Stories like this feel like me saying “oh, I don’t have time,” and I just don’t buy it. If an author decides to write a reluctant hero, they ought to give a clear reason for why that hero is being so hesitant.

A Reason to Not)

A better example is that of Peter Parker. In the original Spider-man comic strip, Peter is a bright and intelligent High Schooler, whose aunt and uncle and teachers dote on him. But he is scrawny, nerdy, and unpopular with all of his peers. He is the subject of bullying and mockery, which disillusions his view of the world.

When Peter Parker finds himself imbued with heroic powers he immediately thinks of how he can use them for profit. He enters into the ring and fights a mountain of a man, easily coming off the victor. This lands him a TV deal, and at long last it seems like his life is falling into place.

One day a thief is at the television studio and he makes off with some loot, running right past Peter Parker in his costume. An officer that is giving chase calls for Peter Parker to intervene, but Peter staunchly refuses. As he says “I’m thru being pushed around–by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one–that means–me!”

In other words, the bullies got to Peter. He hates the world and he doesn’t care about the people in it. The optimistic world view of his loving aunt and uncle has been overridden by cynicism and callousness. And now that he doesn’t need other people he’s perfectly content to watch out for himself and that’s it. He might be dressed up like a hero, but he has a solid reason in his heart to not actually play the role.

This is a much stronger depiction of the reluctant hero. It is relatable, it is believable, and it is tragic. At this point I am just as convinced as Peter Parker that he is never going to enter a more heroic story…unless fate intervenes.

Which, of course, it does. That same petty thief later corners Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben and guns him down. Because Peter had chosen not to be the hero, the man he loved and admired most was killed. Peter’s very good reasons for not sticking his neck out for anyone come crashing down, and in an instant and starts to care about what goes on in this crazy world around him. He steps into his role in the greater story.

Cace’s Hesitance)

In my own story I gave Cace a very simple reason for not continuing into the Ether: it seems like it is going to kill him! He is afraid for his life, and so the only thing that could possibly convince him to go back would be if his life was forfeit anyway. And as you will see on Wednesday, that’s exactly where the story is going. Cace is going to have to choose between death by the Ether or death by a monster. And given that, he will finally be motivated to dive back into the Ether, as it is the death-option that still has even a ray of hope. It also just so happens to be the one that his greater story lays within!

Revising The Storm- Week 5

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The Storm is a very short story, and yet it still maintains three distinct acts. Thus far we have made it through the first, in which Oscar learns of Harry’s dilemma and sets out to find him. Now we come into the second, where he meets Harry and they begin their hard journey back to port. This act should feel very full and weighty, and should also maintain a steady escalation in the threat of the storm. Keeping these in mind, let’s forge ahead!

Finding Harry)

The waves did not merely rock Oscar’s boat now. They were long and deep, shallow mountains and valleys that his vessel now had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, those mountains and valleys would only become greater and more treacherous.

Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out through the storm.

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

Nothing.

Oscar reached to the throttle and pressed it up to full. Never mind the fuel spent, he’d have the surf to help carry him back to the shore. For now all that mattered was that he finish his duty as quickly as possible. Find Harry, or have done his due diligence and surrendered him to the sea, and then get straight back home.

With the extra clip of speed his trawler distanced itself past the point of the Broken Horn, to the point that he now turn back slightly north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved the shoals and the cliffs with his eyes, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.

But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked, his vessel was the only white speck between that black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and that black abyss of water spinning below.

“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing, do you hear me?”

A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. Being even a little bit broadside to the waves was becoming treacherous, and he didn’t like how much his boat tilted against each new crest. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration into the mic.

HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!

All at once 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! Starboard side.”

Oscar turned his head from the cape and looked to his right. There, in even deeper waters, he could barely make out the outline of a white boat through the outer mists of the storm.

“What’s your status, Harry?”

“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, Oscar, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady for as long as I could. I don’t mind telling you I was real scared, Oscar.”

“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”

Oscar opened up the throttle and spun the wheel. For a moment his vessel rocked up and down without actually making any advancement, but then it built up enough momentum and lurched forward, pressing deeper into the storm.

The first layers of rain broke upon the windshield, large, heavy drops splotching across the glass. This heavy rain had a formed misty barrier around the edge of the storm, a wall to conceal its inner workings. But after a moment of clouding his vision the heavy rain subsided, and now that Oscar had pressed through those curtains, far darker forms were unveiled beyond!

It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, but so numerous as to entirely crowd out the sun. Under that grim ceiling was a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in an endless agony. Oscar crested the outer ripples and saw leagues of the deep yawning wide. There was a great depression in the middle of that floor, pulling it down into a massive bowl some eight miles across. The water was the green-black of thick ink, the darkness of untold fathoms beneath. Seeing all at once the huge expanse of it and the under-weight of it was enough to make one agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at the same time! And across that rolling landscape several shocks of lightning bristled every second, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently shooting the immense energy above down into the darkness below. It was also the loudest storm Oscar had ever known. All about was the cacophonic din of sharp thunder mingled with crashing water mingled with screeching wind.

And there, caught within it all, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, almost entirely at the mercy of the storm, but on occasion coming to life just enough to jerk back to a nearly perpendicular line to the rolling waves. The boat must be taking on water already, growing more sluggish every minute, growing ever more difficult for Oscar’s vessel to haul out of the foment.

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 windward, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just to have you swing into my hull!”

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

Oscar spat and shook his head. It was a hard thing he was asking, even if it had been of a good shipman, but it was absolutely necessary. “Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. And 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. Okay. I’ll try.”

Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.

Almost all of today’s text was either completely new or heavily modified. If you would like to compare it to the original version you can do that here.

By far the greatest change has been how I have developed a sense of Oscar breaking through the outer layer and into the storm proper. I’ve been trying to stretch out the escalation of danger, with each act of the story presenting greater threats than the one before. In my original draft there was very little text between Oscar seeing Harry’s boat floundering in the storm, and then already being alongside of him, throwing out a line. With this second draft I’m really taking the time to describe how the stakes are being raised. This has the added benefit of making the reader feel the passage of time while Oscar closes the gap to the troubled vessel.

But given that I am writing so much new material, I wonder whether it will feel unpolished when laid alongside the earlier parts of the story. I also worry whether I have escalated the storm too quickly already, for I need things to get even more dire later on. So I’ll be very curious when I read the second draft as a whole to see whether these new parts already fit with the rest, or if I will need to polish them a fair bit more. I guess I’ll just have to see.

Covalent: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Cace could not hide his hurt the next day. Even after a particularly deep sleep his face was gaunt and pale, with deep lines etched beneath his eyes. When he came out of the sleeping quarters Aylme took one look at him and her face fell.

“Why, Cace?”

“I want to help, Aylme.”

“By hurting yourself?”

“No…not by that. I thought I’d be able to do it safely. I was trying to flow in and out on my own…but it didn’t work. It…was even worse than before.”

Aylme shook her head sadly. “I know you mean well, Cace, but so did the Elders at the House of Olaish, and see what they brought upon us? I had thought that you of all people would see the folly in this. We’re simply not meant to walk between two worlds, Cace.”

That last sentence Cace could not agree with. Even more than before he felt that a part of him was still locked away in the Ether. He didn’t know how, but he was most definitely in two places right this very moment. But never mind that. No matter how much he burned with a desire to explore the secrets of the Ether, no matter how sincerely he believed he could use it as a tool to help the three of them survive, he had to face the facts that he didn’t have what it took to do that.

“Well I’m not going back Aylme,” he told her. “I still think it could have saved us…but it’s beyond me.” He hung his head and hurried away before she could respond. He went to clear his head by helping Rolar set some traps.

“Ah, Cace,” Rolar said without even looking up from his work. He could recognize the boy by his lighter footfalls.

“How do these ones work?” As Cace approached the older youth he saw that what he was working on was an apparatus of wood and vine.

“Very delicately…” Rolar replied, a bead of sweat rolling down his nose as he strained at the apparatus, prying two wooden meshes apart from one another. “This vine is surprisingly elastic, as good as a synthetic really!”

“So you just pry the wooden halves apart, but if they get disturbed they’ll snap back together…crushing anything inside?”

“That’s right. You pick things up quickly, Cace!…Grab that bracer for me,” Rolar nodded his head towards a fat, white stick laying on the ground.

Cace reached down and picked it up. There was a strange breaking of tension, as if it had been attached to some invisible membrane. But as if the breaking of that membrane wasn’t actually occurring under Cace’s fingers, rather it was centered elsewhere…somewhere far away. And now there was another strange and distant sensation, like the memory of an imbalance and dizziness. “Ohhh,” Cace touched his head and moaned.

“You alright?” Rolar glanced up, but then back down to the two halves he was holding apart with trembling hands.

“Yeah, I just…I just feel like something shifted.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, but I am having a hard time keeping these apart!”

“Right, right…sorry.” Cace tried to dismiss the strange uneasiness and wedged the stick sideways in the wooden mesh. “Okay, let go.”

“No,” Rolar panted. “Set it and pull your hand out.”

Cace could see the wisdom in that and hastily withdrew his fingers. Rolar nodded, then rolled his own hands over the edges of the trap. Both boys covered their ears in case the stick didn’t hold and the trap snapped shut…but after a few moments of squeaking it held.

“Excellent!” Rolar exclaimed. “That’s the trick with traps. You’ve got to make them sensitive enough to go off when the animal gets in, but not so sensitive to go off when nothing’s there. I’ve heard some ragouls in the night, and they’re about the size of two hands, so I figured–“

But Cace wasn’t listening. As soon as he had covered his ears and shut out the outside noise he felt that weird dizziness even more clearly. And he was starting to realize what it was.

When he had lifted that stick something had shifted in the Ether. Something there was tethered to that stick…and it in turn was tethered to something else that was here. And ever since that disturbance there was a rumbling sensation in the Ether that was growing stronger and stronger, louder and louder, nearer and nearer…an explosion that had not yet burst to the surface.

“It’s a trap!” Cace blurted out, jumping to his feet in a panic.

“What?” Rolar wrinkled his brow in confusion. “Well of course it’s a trap, what did you think we were making?”

“No, we’re being trapped. Come with me!”

“What are you going on about?!”

But Cace couldn’t wait any longer. He seized Rolar’s arm and hauled with a strength that belied his smaller frame.

“Cace, what are you doing?” Rolar asked as the younger boy lurched for the edge of the clearing, still tugging at Rolar’s arm every step of the way.

But then Rolar didn’t have to wonder anymore, for now he could feel it even in the regular world. The entire ground beneath seemed to wake up! It shook violently for a moment, and then the ground in the center of the clearing rose and burst apart, giving birth to a massive, brown creature from below. It looked like a sideways clam, with two plate-like halves that snapped the air wildly, seeking the boys that had been there just a moment before! At its back, where the two clam-halves hinged together, four sinewy legs sprawled out to the ground. When fully raised it stood nearly twelve feet tall.

“Get behind me!” Rolar gasped, pushing Cace to the rear and drawing his staff from his back.

The creature stopped snapping at the air, evidently understanding that its prey had escaped too quickly. So now it turned very still, slowly turning its head left and right, a warbling growl emanating from somewhere inside that massive mouth.

“What’s it doing?” Rolar whispered over his shoulder.

“It’s looking for us,” Cace responded. “That stick thing was its bait, and when we moved it it knew to come out.”

“How? The stick was just laying on the ground…there wasn’t any connection between them.”

“There was…but not here. They’re connected in the Ether.”

Part Six
Part Seven

Update on My Novel: Month 25

black pen near white printer paper
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MAY STATS

Days Writing: 7
New Words: 1303
New Chapters: 0.75

Total Word-count: 72,605
Total Chapters: 21

May was a funny month for my novel. I had great success with my 500-words-per-day minimum in April, and stated that it was my intention to maintain that pattern through May, though with more days of work. On the one hand, I did maintain my 500-words-per-day expectation, but I certainly did not increase my number of days at work.

I realize that 1303 words divided by 7 days may not look like I did 500 words each day, but I only wrote new material for 2.5 of those days (the 1303 words), and the rest of the time was spent reading through and revising Chapter 21, and each of those days I revised 500 words or more of what had originally been written.

To be fair, these numbers don’t give the full picture of the work that I did either. I may not have had much time for With the Beast, but halfway through the month I decided to revise my approach to the novel entirely. I realized I was being too casual about the whole thing and wanted to treat it more like a serious business. I conducted a number of board meetings with myself, where I reviewed all the different projects I am working on, evaluated whether they were worthy of continued effort, created a regular work schedule for my writing, and addressed likely obstacles to keeping that schedule. All of which I hope will lay the foundation for increased performance in my writing, though at the expense of much of my writing time for this particular month.

I am very excited about the new schedule, though. It will take discipline, but if I am able to follow it I will have 7.5-10 hours each week to work exclusively on With the Beast. Given my average rate of writing, that would be about 2000 words written and revised each week, or 8000 each month. Not bad at all!…if I can keep myself on task.

That will be the challenge and the hope. I do believe that I could finish this novel at the same crawl I have been moving at lately, but I am not content with that. I need this process to go faster! I’ll let you know if I’m able to obtain that with my next update.

And as always, here’s a small snippet from what I wrote this month.

Of course some days an entirely new situation arises that Clara has never seen before, such as when she finds a cluster of tiny, golden eggs on the underside of the tomato leaves. She brings them to her mother for analysis.

“Yes, it’s some sort of insect,” Eleanor sighs wearily. “They’ll eat the leaves as soon as they hatch.”

“What do I do?”

“Two things. First you must check every leaf daily and scrape off any eggs that you find. Next you must take a board of wood and lay it at the foot of the plants. Turn it over every morning, before the sun is fully up, and crush any bugs that are sleeping under it.”

Clara follows both steps to the letter, and the next morning she nearly screams when she turns over the board and is met by a mass of dark beetles scurrying all about! She presses a fist to her mouth to suppress the shout, but paces back and forth uncertainly, not wanting to follow through with the last of her mother’s directions.

But she knows that everyone is counting on her…what can she do but follow through? So she screws her eyes shut and stomps her foot down on the mass. Then again and again, peeking every now and again until the deed is done.

And each morning faithful Clara continues to squelch out their number and scrape off their eggs until their numbers finally diminish and the crops are saved.

Breaking Through to Story

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Discouraged Efforts)

Last week I talked about “inciting moments,” where the protagonist commits to some cause, even though there is strong opposition to it. I mentioned that in my own story Cace was initially discouraged from exploring the Ether, but then felt he had to because of his promise to help save Rolar and Aylme.

And so, in the very next chapter, I began with Cace determinedly making his way back towards the Ether. This time he was testing his ability to call himself back after entering the trance and things did not go well. Tearing himself from that alternate reality did him serious, physical damage, enough that it could threaten his life if he continued forward. Thus Cace will be freshly discouraged from seeking out the Ether in the next chapter…at least until he gets pushed back into it again!

More Than Human)

There is a similar back-and-forth for the character of Clark Kent in the 2013 film Man of Steel. Clark is a native of Krypton, sent by parents he will never know to Earth. His father, Jor-El, knows that he will be a being of immense power, and hopes that his son will choose to lead the people of Earth into the light.

But when Clark arrives, he falls under the care of a farmer, Jonathan Kent, who is a far more reserved father, fearful of what the world will do to his son if they discover his powers. So Jonathan urges Clark to keep his supernatural abilities hidden, though on occasion Clark defies those instructions, always feeling compelled to intervene when others are in trouble.

Then Clark gets an even more powerful deterrent when Jonathan finds his own life endangered. Clark wants to save him, but they are in a public place and Jonathan commands his son to not intervene, giving up his life rather than his son’s secret. Though Jonathan is gone, Clark is weighed by the magnitude of the man’s sacrifice. He becomes an aimless drifter, occasionally using his powers for good, but always anonymously, disappearing from each place as soon as he shows a glimmer of what he can really do.

Then, fate intervenes. An alien menace threatens mankind if Clark Kent doesn’t turn himself in. There is no way to quietly and peacefully keep his existence a secret anymore. Either he abandons humanity to their destruction, or he steps out in front for all to see. Clark wrestles with the decision, but ultimately chooses the latter, becoming the hero Superman.

The entire first half of the film is taken up with Clark’s struggle. He has powerful reasons to assume his heroic identity and he has powerful reasons not to. Of course he was always going to choose to fully unfurl his powers at some point or another, though, for that is where the story is. If Jonathan Kent had had his way, the story that needed to be told would never be.

Hakuna Matata)

Something similar happens in Disney’s the Lion King after Simba runs away from his home and is taken under the wing of laid-back duo Timon and Pumbaa. Simba is heir to a throne, born to be a powerful king, but right now he is weighed down by shame and absent a father to protect him. To his fears and insecurities comes the soothing philosophy of his new friends: “hakuna matata” which means to just not worry about things anymore.

Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba how to live the carefree life, giving up his duties and identity for indolence. Years pass and Simba believes that his past is gone forever, but there are hints that his heart is discontent with this. He is avoiding his greater story and he knows it. When his childhood friend Nala finds him and tries to stir him back to action he resists, repeating the carefree philosophy he has come to live by. But then he receives a message from his dead father, calling him out for having given up his true identity, and this finally convinces him to act.

Timon and Pumbaa may have meant well, but just like Jonathan Kent they were blocking Simba from his true story. What is the same in both Clark Kent and Simba is that each of them is discontent with their lesser life, but they are also unwilling to stir themselves from it by themselves. Each of them has to be disrupted in some way and have those story-blocking walls broken for them. For Clark this is by the alien invasion and for Simba it is by the appearance of his father’s ghost.

Get the Message Through)

In the story Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean must have his wall broken by several incidents in succession. For after 19 years of hard labor he has been firmly converted to the image of himself as a convict, and it is not an easy thing for him to accept a role in any larger story.

First a kindly priest looks beyond the titles of “convict” and shares food and lodging with the man. Valjean is touched, but not yet fully disrupted. He wakes up, steals the silver, and knocks the priest on the head when discovered!

The next day he is found with the stolen goods, arrested, and brought back to the priest. Instead of condemning him, the priest orders him to be set free and gives him even more silver. He stresses to Jean that he is a new man now, purchased, reclaimed, and set upon a new story.

Jean Valean is deeply moved this time, and in most film and theatrical adaptations finally accepts a reformed life. In the original novel, though, there is one more incident where he starts to go back to his thieving ways, before recoiling in horror and fully committing to his higher calling. In any case, he does finally break his old walls and enters his greater story.

Cace’s Change)

In my story I had Aylme discourage Cace from visiting the Ether, but then when he saw Rolar in danger he recommitted himself to it. Now with my last chapter I have given him a stronger discouragement when he encountered real, physical danger in the Ether. This, of course, means that there must now be an even stronger push to go back. This next push will be the one that gets him through permanently, fully entered into his larger story. Come back on Wednesday to see how I deliver it.