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.”
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.
“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.”
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!
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!”
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.
Well, I’m nearly halfway through the latest draft of The Storm. That surprises me, I feel like the plot is more than halfway through, apparently I spent longer with the sailors battling in the heart of the storm than I realized. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up cutting out a good deal, or maybe its good for such a large portion of the story to take place here. I guess I’ll see as I go.
There came a heavy thud as the rope between the boats ran out of slack and the full weight of Harry’s vessel tugged at Oscar’s.
“Full throttle, Harry, full throttle!” Oscar cried, punching his own speed up to maximum. The next wave was already upon them and they would need all the speed they could muster to push through.
Oscar’s boat spun its propellers valiantly, but it grew slower and slower as it crawled towards the peak of the wave. And as it lost its momentum the stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, wanting to fall off to either one side or the other. Oscar spun the wheel back-and-forth and applied the throttle in controlled bursts, trying to counter the boat’s shying and keeping it pointed forward.
Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching! Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn out of the way, and Harry had rear-ended him!
“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s engines had come to life and he still had considerable momentum, even against the slope of the wave! It gave Oscar the push he needed and he was able to steer his way through the crest of water. Then the two boats rushed down the wave’s backside, restoring both to their full and proper speed.
I like this sequence, but in my last draft it felt wordy and confusing. I’ve pared it back a good deal and think it’s looking better now.
“Alright Harry, that was lucky,” Oscar pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance, you hear?”
There didn’t seem to be any response, but then Oscar realized he still had the button on the radio locked down. He released it just in time to hear the last of Harry’s reply.
“–and I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your ‘sorry,’ Harry,” he shot back. “Just competence.”
Together the two men settled in to the next dozen waves. Oscar tried to keep the two boats moving forward at a steady clip, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which they were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for more than an hour longer was running particularly low on it.
“Uh-oh” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.
“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling against his own and he knew.
“I’m out of fuel.”
“I–I think so.”
“Don’t you have a spare tank?”
“Yeah, I used it already!”
They came to the rise of the next wave. Oscar’s boat started to burst through the crown, but Harry’s boat wasn’t able to maintain speed. It held Oscar’s boat like an anchor, and he felt himself sliding backward with the wave. Harry gave a cry as his own boat cut low through the wave’s summit, totally flooding his deck and threatening to smash the windows of his wheelhouse.
“You still there?!” Oscar demanded as they finally broke through to the other side.
“Run out to the front of the boat, here comes my spare tank.”
Oscar locked his wheel in place, grabbed the plastic tank from under the seat, and dashed to the back of the boat. He paused to pour a fifth of its contents into his own fuel-starved engine, then flung the canister through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms.
As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn and determine if they were far enough away from it to turn around. That spare tank wouldn’t carry the two of them for even an hour, so did it even make sense to keep pressing forward?
And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. During this last hour they might have pushed well away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it! He just couldn’t tell. And whenever they made the decision to turn, whether now or later, they still would have no way of telling what their situation really was.
“Oscar!” Harry’s voice called through the howling wind, his hand pointed fearfully ahead. Oscar turned around just in time to see his vessel sliding up the ramp of the next wave!
Oscar muttered a deluge of insults to himself for being such a distracted fool as he turned on the spot and sprinted towards the wheelhouse. Too late, though. The wave burst across the prow of his boat and he had to grab the nearest line for dear life. His feet swept out from under him as endless gallons of water poured into his body. All the world was confusion, and all he could do was hold fast to the line and hope to come through the other end without washing out to sea!
Finally the flood did abate and he was still standing upon his deck. But he was standing sideways! For without his guidance the boat had been entirely at the whim of the wave, and was now careening far to starboard, likely to capsize at any moment!
I’ve made some little edits here and there, but just now I cut out an entire paragraph that delved more into Oscar’s fears of being swept off the boat. It wasn’t particularly bad, it just wasn’t contributing to the story and so it was bogging it down.
I often find that editing is easier with a little gap of time from when you first wrote the material. It’s hard to let go of a paragraph when the memory of the effort it took to write it is still fresh in the mind. But given enough time, anything can be cut out for the greater good.
And with that, I’m going to call it good there and pick things back up again next week.See you then!
Nathan had known that day was coming long before it occurred. Everyone did. Every other week some general or senator would show up, claiming to be the voice of the White House, and delivering a totally different set of orders than the last “representative.” Gradually everyone came to understand there was no central authority anymore. Somewhere along the way it had dissolved until every national power was an island of its own.
Nathan’s team stopped accepting oversight. They worked night and day to complete their prototype. For what purpose they didn’t know. No purpose if they didn’t get it finished, though.
Against all odds, they managed to scrap something together that they thought might work. But they couldn’t turn the tide with just one prototype, and they didn’t have resources to make any more. It wasn’t fully tested, either. It might not even work.
No. It had to work. When his colleagues’ faith waned Nathan held constant. Fate had chosen to let them complete this for a reason. This prototype had a purpose, a great calling to fulfill. He didn’t know how, but it was going to turn the tide of things. All that was required of him was to keep seeking until he found out how.
And so he stole it.
Any moment a sand striker worm might smash through their facility, or a mob might come marching into the building, or one of the other researchers might hand it over to one of those useless senators. He had to act before any of that happened.
It wasn’t hard to steal it. He waited for one of those rare times when all the other researchers took a break for a few hours of sleep. He left with them, but then doubled back, got his handgun out of his locker, and marched up to the guard.
This was no trained soldier, just some local former sheriff turned mercenary, and he gladly kicked away his weapon and laid down on the floor rather than get a bullet in the head. Nathan took the prototype, stole the sheriff’s truck, and sped off into the night.
“It was decided we should take the prototype weapon and bring it out west,” Nathan looked Samuel Iverson squarely in the eye. “I was entrusted to bring it here.”
“Why here?” the elderly woman further down the table asked.
“Well, as you know, the giant sand striker worm population is much denser in the eastern states than it is out here.”
“Because of the higher human populations,” Doctor Hogue added.
“That’s right. You don’t have anything nearly so populous out here until you get right on the western coast. So L.A. and Seattle and Portland were hammered, but here in the central west we were detecting less than one worm for every twenty thousand square miles.”
“So wasn’t the need for your weapon greater out east?” the elderly woman suggested.
Nathan shrugged. “I mean what difference would it make? This prototype should be able to clear out one adult and its nest, but then it’s used up. It would be like firing a single bullet into a horde of ants. But out here…it could actually make a difference.”
“It could?” Samuel Iverson still looked skeptical.
“Yes, at least that’s what I’ve always trusted in. I didn’t know what I would find out here when I first set out. I didn’t know anything about your outfit here at the edge of humanity. Basically I had no idea what it was I was looking for…but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Some opportunity, some special situation, some perfect place that this weapon had been made for.”
“I’m still unclear as to the nature of this weapon,” a large, black man seated next to Nathan spoke up.
“Ah, yes,” Nathan removed the shoulder straps of his backpack and put it on his lap. “Nothing too extravagant. Tried and true methods of killing were the best option.” He unzipped the bag and reached inside, pulling out a plastic tray that was divided into ten equal sections, each covered by its own lid. He popped open the first section and pulled out a compacted pill powder, about the size and shape of an egg. “Promethyia,” he pronounced, “a poison specifically engineered to disrupt the giant sand striker worm’s digestive system.”
“How, specifically?” Doctor Hogue leaned close and squinted at the pellet.
“There are three layers. The first is eroded by the highly potent acids in a sand striker worm’s gut. It’s a tough layer to get through, and any other creature that swallowed this pellet would pass it without ever unsheathing the second and third layers.”
“The second layer is a carefully engineered acid, one that is specially designed to perforate the intestine wall of the sand striker worm, creating openings to the rest of the body. Then the third layer is a bacteria that naturally occurs in the sand striker worm. Usually it is dormant and does no harm to them, but we found some worms that died from a mutated strain. We were able to preserve and hybridize that bacteria variation, and through the intestine perforations we release them into the creature’s bloodstream.”
“How quickly does it work?”
“The worm will die within a month.”
“And you have enough here to poison ten of them?”
“No. One worm needs to consume all ten pellets.”
“Can the bacteria spread from one worm to another?”
“Theoretically, perhaps. But it only lives in the blood, and sand striker worms do not generally encounter one another’s blood. They don’t even eat one another’s corpses.”
“A month?” Iverson said.
“You said a month for the worm to die?”
“Yes, it should be about that long, give or take a week.”
“But this was your first prototype?”
“So it’s never been tested.”
“Yes, but the science is solid. It will work.”
Samuel Iverson folded his arms and shook his head in disappointment.
“It will work!”
“But what effect will it have on the worm during that month?”
“Gradual deterioration of its functions. Increased temperatures, swelling of the glands–“
“It’s behavior!” Iverson pressed, “What will it’s behavior be like during that month?”
“I–don’t know. Like you said, we haven’t tested it yet, so–“
“So it might go into a rampage! It might thrash about in agony and destroy anything in its vicinity!”
“Ah, I see,” Nathan said quietly.
“Now you do. But you’re not used to looking after a community, are you? You don’t have their lives weighing on you like we do! You’re not used to thinking through all the possible side effects, picking out the ways a plan might backfire and spill the blood of others.”
Nathan took that in for a moment, then replied in a low and steady voice. “I have not had to care for a community like you have, sir, but absolutely I have had to endure the weight of my creation. I have faced consequence and side-effect every step of the way from Virginia to this room. I have made difficult choices, and I have had to endure the spilling of blood.”
120 years ago, when film was still in its infancy, the first flashback sequence was conceived of, in the french film Histoire d’un Crime. Before the film gets to its flashback, though, it opens on a burglar breaking into a house, killing a man, and robbing the place. He is arrested the next day while enjoying wine with friends at a café, and as he sleeps in his jail cell the painted wall above him pulls away, revealing an inner world of his own memories. The flashback. The audience watches how the man once had a happy, family-centric life, but became enslaved to alcohol, until he finally performed the crimes we saw at the beginning of the film.
To be honest, it’s a very clunky transition, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had already been told this was a flashback, I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow along. Contrast that to the far superior flashback we get at the start of Citizen Kane.
In that film, news reporter Jerry Thompson is trying to dig into the life of Charles Foster Kane, after the business and political magnate has died. Thompson’s research leads him to the memoirs of Walter Thatcher, a banker who established a trust for Kane when he was still a boy. Thompson reads the following line in Thatcher’s memoir:
I first encountered Mr Kane in 1871.
The camera pans across the line very slowly, soft, tinkling music plays, and then the page fades away into a scene of a boy playing with his sled in the snow. Unlike the burglar’s story being acted out on the wall above his cell, I immediately understood that I was being taken back into Kane’s history.
Of course, Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, had the benefit of forty years between these two films, during which time cinema had learned many fundamentals of how to communicate its transitions to the viewer. Soft tinkling music, a blurred frame, fading from the image of an adult to that of a child; these are all cues that cinema learned for how to communicate a transition to the past, some of which Orson Welles used.
Coming Back Again)
Of course, transitioning to the past or a dream or anything else is one thing, but what if you need to come back again? How do we signal when we are back in the regular, current world?
Well, the most obvious choice is to reverse the events that brought you into the alternate scene to begin with. So consider the example of the 2007 animated film Ratatouille, when the famous food critic Anton Ego tastes the titular dish cooked by the star of the movie, Remy. Anton clicks his pen, ready to write out his critiques, then puts the first bite of food into his mouth. Suddenly his face drops all of its tension, his eyes go wide, and the camera zooms out from him, exiting through the similarly-drooping eyes of a young boy in his mother’s kitchen.
We understand that this is the same character, Anton Ego, as a youth. It doesn’t take much to convince us of the fact, because by this point flashback sequences have become so numerous and varied that audiences just know to expect them. Anyway, we see how Anton’s mother makes him a dish of ratatouille to comfort him after he scraped his knee on a bike. The young Anton takes his first bite of the dish, smiles at the camera, which then zooms into his eye and back to the scene of old Anton sitting in the restaurant. The exact process that brought us into the flashback is played in reverse to return to us to the modern day.
So far we’ve been looking at transitions in film, but how about in a written medium? Well, because it is written, it is possible to call the transition out far more explicitly. You can write “seventy years ago” as a header before the flashback starts, you can say “Egon was taken back to a moment as a young boy,” and you can return to the original scene with “back in the present day.” In short, the written medium allows much more explicit transitions which don’t require an audience to be trained to interpret them.
But sometimes a story wants to do things without being so blunt. Visual mediums are so prevalent in our society that often a story wants to emulate their nuances, including their smooth transitions. The story that I am currently working on is going to feature several flashbacks, and I knew it would feel clunky if every few chapters I kept on saying “seven years ago” and “back to the present day.”
If you go to the end of Part Two of The Salt Worms and the start of Part Three, you’ll see that I made an effort to create just such a seamless transition. First, I stopped the dialogue that was going on between Nathan and the leaders of New Denver. Time froze as we went into his inner thoughts about this conversation, and I mentioned that the account of the past he was giving was different from the actual events.
Then dialogue returned, but it was something that Major Hawlings had said. That hadsaid is meant to be a very subtle indicator to the audience that we have now traveled back to the time that Nathan was just thinking of, much like the transition from Thatcher’s memoirs in Citizen Kane.
Then, at the end of Part Three, I come out of the flashback by reversing the sequence that brought us into it, just as with Egon’s memory in Ratatouille. First I let go of the dialogue, shifting seamlessly into exposition. I mention the fact that the worms now lay their eggs on the surface, which was the very last thing that was said before I went into the transition in the first place. Then dialogue resumes in the present day with Nathan continued his account to the council.
All in all I’m pretty pleased with the effect, but I’m going to have several more of these flashbacks, and hope that I’ll be able to keep all of them seamless, yet clear. I guess we’ll see!
I’m coming into the real meat of the story now, the long journey back to shore. As always, here is a link to the second draft of this story, and now let’s continue with the third!
Sailing Into Trouble)
“I can’t do this,” he said to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
Then another side of him replied. “I don’t think you have any choice in the matter. You’re already committed.”
I revised the above so that it was clear Oscar was talking to himself right away.
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly and 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 next wave slammed against the side of Oscar’s boat like a slap across the face. His feet jerked out from under him and he had to catch hold of a shelf to keep from tumbling across the floor.
“Keep it together!” he commanded, clambering back to his feet and spinning the wheel to correct his drift.
Trying to cut across the waves at an angle was proving extremely difficult. It meant that the port side of their boats were constantly slammed by the onslaught of water, which pushed them back to starboard. As they came down the crest of each wave Oscar had to crank his wheel back to port to compensate for the diversion, but his boat was becoming sluggish, weighed down by the weight of more and more water in its hold. It taking too long for his boat to turn back into its line, he wasn’t even able to get back to the proper slant before the next wave was already upon them and pushing them further off-course.
“Whoa there!–” Harry’s voice cautioned over the radio as the next wave nearly turned Oscar’s boat completely broadside.
I reduced this sequence a great deal. I find that I try to spell out a lot of the locations and rotations of the boats in this story, and while I want to keep some of that, it pretty quickly becomes overwhelming and confusing. Probably better to only put enough that the reader knows things are a problem, and then trust their imagination to supply a fitting visual.
Oscar snatched the mic to his mouth. “Alright Harry, we’ve got to go head-on into those waves. Hitting them at an angle just isn’t working.”
“I don’t think there’s enough time between waves to turn at them head-on!”
“Well there’s going to be some tricky maneuvers coming up…but you leave them to me, just do everything you can to keep up!”
Oscar locked the mic button down and set it on the panel. He would need both hands on the wheel for this next part, but would also need to call it out instructions as they went.
Of course, not cutting across the waves at a slant would mean giving up the shortest path around the cape. Now they would have to turn fully into the waves, push for as much distance as they could from the Broken Horn, then turn around and come back again. Then, as they then thundered back towards the cape, they would slice to port, hopefully pulling enough in that direction to skim past the dangerous shoals on their right.
How far out would they need to be able to make that turn? Oscar wasn’t sure. Did they have enough fuel for it? It didn’t matter. They just had to deal with the situation at hand and worry about the rest as it came up.
As before, greatly reduced the above description to hopefully make a cleaner and clearer experience for the reader. Obviously I am at a disadvantage when trying to gauge how difficult my work is to understand, because I already know exactly what I’m trying to communicate. I will be submitting this story to a writing group for feedback later on, and in the meantime feel free to sound off below whether these segments are making sense to you or not.
Oscar tapped his fingers in anticipation on the helm as the next wave roared up to them. The boat creaked as it was pulled upwards, bow pointed towards the sky. As before, the wave was slowly turning his boat to starboard, but Oscar still kept his wheel locked as far to port as possible.
The foam burst high into the air as the boat crested the wave at an angle, then Oscar swung his head around, watching until Harry’s boat burst through the top of the wave also. As soon as it did he sprang into action.
“Harry, hold that angle, but give me a little slack!” Oscar called down towards the mic. Then he thrust his wheel hard to starboard, opposite the way he needed to go. All the water in the hold rushed over, making the boat careen onto its side. Oscar splayed his toes wide, feeling the movements of the vessel through his boots. He could tell the shift when the water down in the hold collided with the hull wall and started to slosh back the other way. Now he spun the wheel back to port as quickly as possible, encouraging the water’s momentum, flowing it back across the hold until it slammed into the opposite side of the hull. The port side. The rudder and the rushing water combined to give Oscar that needed extra push, just enough to finally pull his boat out of its angle and pointed head-on towards the next wave.
Well, I’m making a lot more changes in this new material than in the old. I’m not too surprised. This new stuff has one less coat of polish than my original work. Hopefully with repeated passes I’ll be able to have them all smoothed out until it all blends together nicely. In any case, come back next week when I get to it again!
“Black Cypher you are now at the appropriate depth,” Major Hawlings had said into the microphone. There was a moment of silence, but no reply, so Hawlings repeated himself. “Black Cypher you can level out now, do you copy?”
“Two thousand feet, confirmed,” the voice of Sergeant Bradley crackled in from the wall-mounted speakers. He said something else, too, but it was lost in the static.
“Corporal Donahue, is there nothing we can do about the audio quality?” Hawlings turned in his seat.
“It isn’t interference, sir,” Donahue replied. “It’s just the signal becomes impure when it has to travel along such a long cable.”
Nathan Prewitt, seated against the back wall of the room, tried to imagine it. A massive hole somewhere in the plains of Iowa, nearly twenty feet across, with a massive black cable nearly a mile long snaking down into the earth, winding through tunnels until it joined at the back of a massive earth-moving vehicle.
“Black Cypher, please repeat,” Major Hawlings instructed. “We didn’t get your last message.”
“Our instruments show two thousand feet as well. All clear so far as we can tell and we’ve leveled out.”
“Excellent work, Sergeant. Now turn to mark two-four-zero and proceed eight hundred feet.”
Everyone in the operations room looked to the wall-mounted computer screen. It was a live feed from their seismic instruments, which gave a rough approximation of all the entities moving beneath the surface of the earth.
And there were many of them.
No less than seventy separate signals, each represented by an expanding and retracting circle on the screen, swarmed about the screen. Sergeant Bradley and his team were very near now to the sand striker worms’ nursery, and it was tended to by dozens of workers. At this particular moment, one of those gigantic worms was drawing very near to the blip that represented the earth-mover.
“Alright now, we’re seeing some movement in your area,” Major Hawlings said into the mic. “Are you detecting anything on your end?”
“Not yet, sir. Though the rig’s shaking so much it would be hard to know. Should we stop?”
“No, I don’t think so…” Major Hawlings looked to the lead zoologist, Doctor Persaud, who was seated against the back wall a few spots down from Nathan. Doctor Persaud shook his head in agreement. “Don’t slow down Sergeant. Your rig has been designed to imitate the tremor patterns of the other worms. So long as you keep moving like they do, they should think you’re one of them.”
Everyone’s eyes snapped back to the monitor, watching as the approaching worm grew closer and closer, then smoothly glided past the earth-mover, about forty feet above.
“Well done, Sergeant, you’re in the clear!”
“We should be getting close now, shouldn’t we?”
“About one-hundred-and-fifty feet to go. Make sure you don’t stop to drop the package. When I say so just make a wide, one-hundred-and-eight degree turn and drop it behind you.”
The indicator for Bradley’s team updated its coordinates every few seconds. Those numbers grew closer and closer to the known location for the nursery. Somewhere, half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, there was an underground cavern filled with thousand of striker worm eggs.
“Turn now and drop the package!” Hawlings ordered.
“Message received…turn initiated…” there was a long pause, and then… “package deployed. Countdown sequence underway.”
The room erupted in applause.
Thus far the giant sand striker worms hadn’t posed any threat to humanity, but Washington had ordered their team to come up with a weapon which could be used against the worms if ever needed. While they worked on a more elegant solution, they decided to at least try an underground nuclear explosion. This mission was a pre-emptive strike, just to let them know what they could expect if they ever went to war.
And it had worked. The entire nest, and nearly all the attending nursery workers had been destroyed that afternoon.
And almost immediately after that, all the other worms in the colony began surging for the surface!
At first the specialists were all baffled as to why. These were just dumb creatures, weren’t they? It’s not like they could have understood that humanity was responsible for the attack and were retaliating against them!
One theory Nathan heard, just before the collapse of the government, was that the worms had seen the attack on their nest as a sign of some more powerful predator churning in the deep. As a result they had moved up, hoping to find a domain where they would be the apex predators once again. That would explain why they now built their nests at the surface, too.
“In any case,” Nathan continued his account to the council at New Denver, “it doesn’t matter what drove the giant sand striker worms to the surface. All that matters is that they came and they ravaged everything faster than we could have anticipated.”
“And were you involved in the decision to drop nukes on your own people?!” the man two seats down from Nathan demanded.
“No,” Nathan sighed. “That was as much of a shock to me as it was to the rest of the world.”
That much was true. The decision to drop nuclear bombs across the northern states had been made in a state of frenzy, causing far more destruction to humanity than to the worm population. Perhaps the giant worms had moved towards the surface, but they still spent a significant portion of their time at depths where the radiation wouldn’t reach down to them.
“So what happened to your department?” Samuel Iverson asked.
“Things became more and more difficult as the cities grew uninhabitable. A lot of our work just couldn’t be done remotely, though. We had to gather somewhere with machines and technology and staff. We were working on a prototype, a weapon that we thought had a real chance to kill the worms, but we had to relocate time and time again. First Arlington, then Raleigh, then Lynchburg. We were slow to realize that the worms could feel our communities through the soil, that they would pop up sooner or later wherever the population was more than a few thousand.
“With every strike we lost people, lost equipment, and lost resources. We were close to a working prototype, but finishing it seemed more and more improbable. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the entire government collapsed.”
I have previously mentioned the idea of a story being bookended by another. This would be like the Grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson in the Princess Bride, or Roger Kint telling his story to police detective Dave Kujan in The Usual Suspects. The bulk of the story is through the inner narrative, but there are a few moments where we see it connect to the outer one.
Arguably there is just one story, though, the larger inner one, and the other stuff is an enhancement of it. But what if there truly were two stories that stood side-by-side in the same narrative?
This is a common phenomenon in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Many times a case opens with a client coming to Holmes and recounting the events that led them to his doorstep. And these aren’t just quick summations, they are elaborated from a first-person perspective, telling an entire tale on their own. Then, only after this first story is completed does the second story pick up, that of Sherlock Holmes solving the case.
An excellent example of this is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In this mystery Victor Hatherly comes to Holmes’ abode with a chilling tale and a bandaged hand. He recounts how he was hired for an engineering task at an old mansion, but was blindfolded so that he did not know where it was. While doing his work he discovered that the mansion was being used for some sort of criminal operation. The owner’s of the mansion got wise to his epiphany, though, and tried to kill him, resulting in a chase where Victor escaped but his thumb was chopped off along the way!
The story now returns to the present moment, where Holmes deciphers the true intentions of the criminals, figures out the location of the mansion, and leads the police in a raid on the facility, only to discover that the place was already destroyed by a fire that Victor Hatherly inadvertently caused while he was there.
There is a strange feeling when Holmes and the others go the mansion, because it the first time that he has been there, but it feels like it is both the first and the second time for us, the audience. Were we there with Hatherly during his eventful evening, or were we sitting in Holmes’ study only hearing about it secondhand?
Well…both. It is a very strange and interesting sensation, being able to exist in two different scenes at the same time, and it is a quality I enjoy a great deal from this mystery.
There is another famous detective who also has his stories split in two. The TV series Columbo was unique in that it always let the audience know beforehand who the murderer was, and exactly how they carried out their crime. The first half hour of each episode was always dedicated to following the murderer as the main character, showing the meticulous details of their crime and how they tried to cover up any clues that tied them to it.
Take, for example, the episode Fade in to Murder, which is incredibly meta by making the murderer an actor who plays a television detective. Ward Fowler is a star of the silver screen, but his entire career has been overshadowed by the blackmailing of his show’s producer. Finally he decides that he has had enough, and he stages an elaborate scheme to rid himself of her for good. First he sets up an alibi by inviting a friend over to watch a ball game, then drugs the man while he goes out to commit the crime. Fowler then stages a robbery at the deli where his producer, Claire Daley, is ordering her meal. After knocking the deli owner unconscious he shoots Claire, assuming that the police will see this as a simple case of a robbery gone too far. Finally Fowler returns to his home, rewinds the VCR on which he has been recording the ball game, setting it back to the moment where his friend went unconscious and rouses him, making the man think he had only been passed out for a few minutes.
And that ends the first story, and now begins a new one as Lieutenant Columbo arrives to investigate the case. Bit-by-bit the detective finds things that don’t add up in the case. For example the bullet hole in Claire Daley’s jacket is above the entry wound in her back, suggesting that she still had her arms raised when the robber shot her, suggesting that she wasn’t running away or making a scene, suggesting that the killing was deliberate.
As Columbo zeroes in on Ward Fowler we feel another strange split of perspective, just as we did with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the time we spent with Ward Fowler as our main character we feel sympathetic to him. Part of us wants to see his ingenious strategy come off. But at the same time Columbo is our main character now, and we are charmed by his ingenuity, too. Are we supposed to view this as Columbo’s triumph or Fowler’s tragedy? Well…both.
My Own Story)
In my latest chapter of The Salt Worms I had the main character start to recount his journey from the eastern United States to the west. When I first wrote this it was a very brief summation, something that I rushed through to get back to the main event. And it worked, and I think that version of the story could have been maintained, but as I thought about this idea of a story split in two, I realized that I had an opportunity to slow things down and show the protagonist’s journey as a story of its own.
So then I revised and expanded it, and will continue doing so as the overall narrative proceeds. One thing that I am going to be careful about that, though, is to make sure both stories matter to one another. Only together will they provide the two halves that I want for The Salt Worms. Two halves that come together and tell of a grim resolution to correct a terrible situation, but all of it tinged with an uncertainty of success at the end.