Monday, July 11, 2011

Cult Fiction: A Splash of Blood

Come share in Chicago's Cult Fiction 
Horror Reading Series Fifth Event!

8:00 - The doors to darkness open.  Get some drinks from Bartender Mellisa to brace yourself for the madness to come!

9:00 - The Blood Soaked Readings begin.

  • "The Boy in the Lake"
    Summer at the lake is always the same; until now!
    written by the maddeningly morose Andy Golub 

  • "The Weeping Parrot"
    What horrors those avian eyes have beheld!
    written by the soul slicing Michael Penkas
9:30 - We bust out the Pyre of Marshmallow Incineration for S'mores.

9:40 - Relax with the "Dr.Seuss-icide" story, Green Door, Red Door, Mean Door, Dead Door illustrated (mostly) by Neal "Morbid" Morrison and read by the despicable Kevin Dudey!

10:00 - Act Two of the Sunken Readings begin.
  • "With All Hands Lost"
    The darkest reaches of the oceans hold unspeakable terrors!
    written by pain junkie Eric Cherry
  • "Sandgrabbing"
    Childhood dreams can grow up into nightmares.
    written by the breath stealing Jude Mire
11:00 - Art Galt's Widow takes the stage and plays a whole bunch of new songs!  There's also the possibility of a musical coup with Neally and DJ DigDug taking the stage by force later on!

12:00 - Captian DJ 3rik takes over and brings the dark metal melodies with him.  You can't kill the metal!

2:00 - They turn those damn bar lights on and we all scuttle off into the night shadows full of shots, s'mores, and satisfaction.

ALL this for a measly 5.00 bucks at the door!

Sign up to let us know you'll show up on our Facebook event page: HERE

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Character Engagement

I just read an excellent story in draft form.  I'm working on critique notes, but one element of the narrative leaped out at me again with this draft as with the last: I'm deeply engaged by the protagonist.

Now I'm fascinated by how that works, and whether there's a method for making it happen.

Plot vs plot

There's a Plot in this story, and I use the capital P for a reason.  The setting and the characters in this story could be used to tell countless tales.  They'd each have a Plot, again with a capital P.  This Plot is perfectly serviceable, and there's no particular reason that this Plot is superior or inferior to any others.  It could be removed and replaced with another, and though this would entail a significant rewrite, the other elements of the story -- the characters, the people, the setting, and the backdrop -- could remain intact.

There's also a plot, lower case p.  As distinct from the Plot, the plot strikes me as the natural and necessary event sequence that a story's elements possess.  It is independent of the Plot: pick another Plot, and the plot can continue on.  But the Plot may well be totally dependent on the plot: change the characters, people, settings, and backdrops enough, and the plot is altered -- potentially enough that the Plot would no longer work.

Setting vs plot: Not the Same

Lower case plots emerge from the rules of the setting and the sorts of people who occupy it.  This doesn't mean that setting and plot are the same.  The lower case plot requires events to unfold and actions to be taken, which requires setting elements to be dynamic.  Since a setting could be rendered as stagnant, or be so marginalized in the narrative that it's essentially inert.  Thus, plot is not necessarily present.

Plot vs plot: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Let me use a different story as an example.  Consider Neil Gaiman's novel, Neverwhere.  (Lo!  There are probably spoilers lurking ahead!)

Neverwhere takes place in London, more or less as we know it today in the real world.  It also takes place in a magical London Below, which is the urban fantasy underbelly to the real world London.  Those who fall through the cracks of society can eke out an existence (as one character puts it) "in the sewers and the magic and the dark."

Neverwhere has both plots and a Plot.

The Plot involves an evil bastard who sends magical assassins to kill a noble family.  One of the family members escapes certain death, and the Plot involves all of her actions to a) survive the Plot, b) unravel the mysteries within the Plot, and c) bring the Plot to a just conclusion.

The plots are many.  People live in the magical London Below, and there are many problems they face.  It's dark and dank.  It's resource-poor and magic-rich.  The petty fiefdoms and factionalism prevent any sort of society-wide improvements in life for the majority.

As an example of a Neverwhere plot, there's a tribe of people called the Sewer Folk.  They scavenge useful items from the rivers of sewage under London, which they barter away at the great bazaar (known to one and all as the Floating Market).  At one point, a cadaver comes into their possession.  They wheel it to the bazaar in a shopping cart, where they barter it away (for, as I recall, a not-quite-full bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume).

The Sewer Folk have a rough time of it in a rough place.  Because they stink worse than most, they are banned from any Floating Market that isn't in the open air.  They don't seem to talk, either because they can't or by convention.  How they came to be this way, how they get by, who their rivals are, how they and their rivals square off (and whether allies align to either side, and how), etc, are elements to their plot.

Neverwhere's Plot focuses its attention on the Lady Door, she who has survived the assassination of her noble family.

Door has a plot, too.  If the magical assassins Croup and Vandemar had not shown up, she would have grown up as a member of a powerful family.  She'd been off exploring the dim reaches of London Below, encountering anachronisms.  She might have helped a lost Roman legion make contact with her father, who might have used their military might to...well, whatever.  The family has magical powers, and they can construct portals from one time and place to another.  They might have been involved in some great form of public works program.

Maybe she'd have been made to marry some other magical person from another magical family.  Or she could have resisted this.  Or something.

But the Plot happened to her instead, and it eclipsed her plot.  In the aftermath of the Plot, she's got a revised plot to pull together.  As she says, "...there's a lot of sorting out to do in London Below.  And there's only me to do it..."

So in the course of Neverwhere, she grows up, which (if some other Plot didn't kill her) she'd have done anyway as part of her natural plot.

Character Engagement: Neverwhere, continued

I read and enjoyed Neverwhere years ago.  I've taken it apart and reassembled it a few times and from a few angles.  One moment in the story bugged me on first reading, and it bugs me still.

As part of the Plot, the Lady Door has gained an audience with the earl of Earl's Court.  The earl asks what she's come for, and she says it has to do with her father's death.  He says, "Yes.  You seek vengeance.  Quite right, too."  He goes on to falter his way through some bombastic poetry.  To which Door replies: "Vengeance?  Yes.  That was what my father said.  But I mostly just want to understand what happened, and protect myself.  My family had no enemies."

I lost her at that point.  Or she lost me.  "Understanding what happened" doesn't strike me as a way for the protagonist to engage with her Plot.  (It also shows a total lack of engagement with her family's plot: there's no way a world of fiefdoms and petty factions includes a powerful family like hers as having no enemies.)

Maybe the earl's bombastic poetry highlights some aspect of vengeance that doesn't work for Door, and she is repulsed enough to find some other motive for having come this far.  Not to avenge the family, no, with what happened?  Understand it?  Yes, of course!  No knee-jerk vengeance for Lady Door, with its "steel sword sheathed in hated heart."

Who Engages Whom?

The protagonist engages with the Plot (and/or the plot).  The reader can engage with the protagonist, the plot, and/or the Plot.

For myself, I can engage in strong Plots to the exclusion of all else in a story.  Zombies are a great example.  Give me a zombie apocalypse, even if the scale is reduced to a small town, and I'm willing to go along.  I'm going to readily engage with your Plot.

Lower case plots, too, can draw my interest to the exclusion of everything else.  Give me a complicated sci-fi or fantasy world, populated with lots of bad guys on opposite sides of sundry conflicts, and I'm apt to be engaged with your plot.  (I may or may not give a damn about your Plot, and it's entirely possible for that central storyline to distract me from what I care about.)

As examples, I engaged with every plot that Tim Powers has ever served up: in Declare, Last Call, Earthquake Weather, On Stranger Tides, Drawing the Dark, and (perhaps most of all) The Stress of Her Regard.  Did I always find his Plots compelling?  Not always.  Did his characters draw me in?  I'll admit that I enjoyed his renditions of the literati in The Stress of Her Regard.

Characters are harder for me to engage with.  I've engaged with a handful of protagonists in fiction.  Author Daniel Keys Moran gave us Carl Castanaveras (in Emerald Eyes) and Trent the Uncatchable (in The Long Run); I engaged with each of them.  Lawrence Block created Matthew Scudder, and I've read the entire series all the way through several times.  I can't avoid engagement with Scudder.

So what's going on with these characters that I'm engaged by them?  What's with the cast of Neverwhere (or Declare) that I'm not?  And what about the protagonist in this draft of a story?

The Common Thread: Protagonists and their plots

When there's a setting that's rife with plots -- events and actions that unfold all the time, showing that the world is more than just a painted scrim for the protagonist and the Plot to play out against -- there's a good chance I'm going to be engaged.  (If those plots don't make sense, if they contradict each other or leave gaps between them, then my engagement will take a profoundly hostile turn.)

A protagonist who engages with one or more plots will be more interesting to me.  This is true for Carl Castanaveras and Trent the Uncatchable: they emerge from and are hopelessly bound to their worlds; they are caught up in the battles between people and organizations; and they care enough to take sides.  Scudder's world is replete with organizations and people pursuing their own stories, often clashing, and more often passing each within sight of each other.  He moves in and out of their stories, sometimes getting caught up in their action and sometimes keeping his distance.

In Neverwhere, the Marquis de Carabas is the most interesting to me.  Down from him, Hunter.  Old Bailey, the Abbot of the Black Friars, Serpentine, and Varney are interesting: these are characters who are active parts of the world and its unfolding action.  Door is connected, but as I observed above, there are key aspects to her that make her seem removed from London Below in ways that don't help me connect.  Richard is even worse: he wants no part of London Below, and isn't part of it.  Croup and Vandemar, as entertaining as they might be, are only connected to London Below by dint of being magical themselves: their intrinsic level of engagement for me is not zero, but still not as high as it could've been.

In the draft story I'm reading, the protagonist is engaged in her world.  There are social forces at work.  She's invested in those forces, even when they work against her.  She has a stake in several battles underway at the same time.  She has made and lives with hard decisions, and it's not always easy to see that she's made the right call or the wrong call.  She is a complicated character in a world that works mightily to be uncomplicated, and the stress points of these situations is interesting.  The setting as revealed by the plots is engaging, and the character who moves through them is engaging.

Intrinsically Engaging Characters: Cross Overs

Would Carl Castanaveras and Trent the Uncatchable be as engaging in some other world?  Yes, I think so.

Say they are moved from their novels by a bizarre event.  They each wind up in some other story world -- Scudder's New York City, say.  Assuming they couldn't get back to their own world at once, they would each be invested enough in their principles to enact them against a new background.  Each might seek some sort of retirement, but it wouldn't last.  They'd both assume Scudder's NYC is the NYC of their own world's history, and they care mightily about how their world is they would necessarily get involved.

What if they were born in Scudder's NYC?  It's not really possible.  They have sci-fi origins.  To be born in Scudder's NYC, they would need to be different in too many ways.  Some similar aspects to their personalities could be worked in, they might resemble Carl and Trent, but they'd necessarily be different.

Could Scudder do a Rip Van Winkle to wake up in the NYC of Emerald Eyes?  Or The Long Run?  Sure, let him.  He'd still be an ex-cop, an alcoholic (either in the making, or in recovery), and an unlicensed detective.  Could he make sense of his new world?  Could he find a place in it?  He would try, either one drink or one day at a time.  He would engage and thereby be engaging.

Door could open a portal to either of those fictional New Yorks; why not?  But she'd not belong, and she'd just aim to go back.  Any of her company who wound up left behind in these other worlds would be forced to get by or perish.  The Marquis could manage.  Hunter could.  The other bit characters?  They might not manage, but they would try.  And in trying and failing, they would be both engaged and engaging.

Richard is a neat case, because he demonstrates early in his story that he cannot cope on his own.  He would have perished in London Below if he weren't picked up by Door & Co.  He would perish in either NYC if not picked up by allies.  If a Plot were to pick him up in either NYC -- more the kind of thing to happen in Emerald Eyes or The Long Run, but Door could get him to Scudder's world as readily -- then he might continue his personal arc.

Would Richard become engaging?  No: he never engages with plots in his world, early on.  He is an observer of plots, and he brings the insulated sensibilities of the modern Londoner to bear on everything he sees.  His new surroundings might be engaging, but he wouldn't be.

And the protagonist in this draft story?  Move her out of her home town, and she runs into trouble.  She is heavily invested in her home town, and every hard decision she makes that lets her stay put costs so much that her investment only grows.  She wouldn't leave voluntarily.  Suppose she woke in some distant town?  She'd work to get back.  Suppose she were forcibly ejected?  She'd work to get back, or she'd suffer a prolonged misery.  Maybe if her new environment gave her support in the right way, she could recover.  Then what?  Would she engage in her new world?  Hm.

She's empathic enough that she couldn't stay totally isolated.  But in the world she comes from, she's an outsider.  Even if she wanted to enter totally inside a new society, she's unlikely to lose her reserve.  That would be true in any town in the world she knows, where the religions she knows are operative (even if they are regarded as myths in those distant places).

Move her to London Below (thanks to Door, perhaps).  New magic, new myths, new religions.  She'd be able to adapt in ways that Richard couldn't.  If she learned that the rules of the world say she can't go home, she'd adapt rather than fight to get back: she lives by the rules, especially those known to be true by everyone, even if she doesn't like them.  If she were enmeshed in a Plot -- say that she was somehow able to take Richard's place -- then she would be able to get back home afterward.

Would she engage with London Below?  Absolutely, but as described above.  She's empathic, so she'd learn the rules and about the people.  She'd care.  She might not mesh, but she'd engage.

The same is true for either NYC.  She'd fit better in Scudder's world than the sci-fi future world, but that's mostly a matter of tone and atmosphere.  She'd go home if she could, especially if she got the option before the new world could help her out of her misery.  If she put down fresh roots (which seems likely, given enough time), she might resist going back without some major investment issues coming into play.

Observations about Engaging Characters
  1. Their worlds have plots.
  2. They care about the people caught in these plots.
    • This caring can be empathic.
    • This caring can be principled.
    • This caring can be selfish.

My Problem: Disengaged Characters

My characters don't care about plots at work in the world.  If they do care about the plots, they don't care about the people caught up in them.  If they do care about the people, it's generally for selfish or abstractly principled reasons.

When the Plot is afoot, my characters focus on it to the exclusion of everything else -- because they've got nothing else to distract them from it.

These are problems to be fixed in my current story.  If I can manage to fix my character designs so that they engage in their worlds, then all of my future stories will be fixed.

   - emc

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Unholy Sacrifices Unholy Schedule!

Come share in Chicago's Cult Fiction 
Horror Reading Series Fourth Event!
8:00 - The Unholy doors open.  Get some drinks from Bartender Lauren to brace yourself for the madness to come!

9:00 - The Dark Readings begin.
  • "Figure 8"
    Peer inside the eerie last days of a dying cult!
    written by the pleasantly morbid Brendan Detzner 
    read by wayward gypsy Josh Zagoren

  • "Threads"
    Terrifying things can happen under a humid Southern moon.
    written by the frequently lubricated Frank Stascik
    read by spitfire sexy Kalina "Kitten" McCreery
9:30 - We bust out the Pyre of Marshmallow Incineration for S'mores.

9:40 - Neally and DJ DigDug astound us all with some serious Nerdcore Rap.  Prepare to be geeked!

10:00 - Act Two of the Dark Readings begin.
  • "Infidel's Revenge"
    Can the terrible appetite of the vile Island God be quenched?
    written by pain junkie Eric Cherry
    read by vampyr hunter Brian Amidei.
  • "Just a Little Head"
    Old things, angry things, dead things can be found in the dark forests.
    written by goose-bump raising Mike Penkas
    read by Queen Mab's prodigy Claire Cooney.
10:45 - "This Melting Flesh" Inhuman, trans-formative, performance art by Jude W. Mire.  Not to be missed!

11:00 - Art Galt's Widow takes the stage and plays the rest of the day away.

12:00 - Unholy DJ 3rik takes over and brings the dark metal melodies with him.

2:00 - They turn those damn bar lights on and we all scuttle off into the night shadows full of shots, s'mores, and satisfaction.

ALL this for a measly 5.00 bucks at the door!

Sign up to let us know you'll show up on our Facebook event page: HERE

See you there cultists!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cult Fiction: Unholy Sacrifices

Here it is!  Our FOURTH show!  This time around we offer up four stories guaranteed to appease your appetite for darkness.
  • A Little Head - By Michael Penkas
  • Figure Eight - By Brendan Detzner
  • Threads - By Frank Stascik
  • "I'm calling it my damn sacrifice story cuz I'm still working on the title" - By Eric Cherry  (obviously Eric will rectify this post-haste!)
A set of fantastic actors will be under our morbid spotlights bringing these chilling tales to some sort of unnatural life. 

Our intermission show are the hysterically eerie, Neally and DJ DigDug performing their nerdcore rap hits Zombie Girlfriend, In Transylvania, and more!  Check out their site and get yourself some serious nerd downloads.

 We're also adding another fun element to the show this time.  An unsettling and inhuman trans-formative piece of performance art by Jude Mire.  We guarantee it's like nothing you've ever seen live!  Just how shallow is your humanity?

The evening will wrap up with indoor S'mores at the bar, drinks, and a party, all behind the backdrop of a musical jam session provided by Art Galt's Widow!  Yes, you heard me, we've got TWO musical acts this time!

DJ 3rik will be around to fill any and all sound gaps with audio awesomeness.  Lauren will be pouring heavy from behind the bar, talking you into that one extra shot you really need.  Trust her, she's a professional!

Writers, actors, musicians, performers, terror, booze, and S'MORES!  
For $5 bucks.  Be there.  The cult commands it!

RSVP on Facebook here:Facebook Event  Also, when you do, be sure to invite other people and share it on your wall.  Grow the cult, baby!

Lucky Number Grill - Upstairs
1931 N. Milwaukee

Doors open at 8:00
First reading starts at 9:00
Goes until we get kicked out around 2:00

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On Conflict

Knot by Vidi

I worked hard on my Unholy Sacrifice story, and along the way I produced two other pieces of flash fiction.  The focus on shortening my wordcounts highlighted the need to produce tighter conflicts.  This revealed yet another weakness in my writing skills.

One thing I did was to write about conflict, and what I did was to render all conflict as dialogue.  Then I reduced the complexity of this dialogue to the simplest kind of back-and-forth I could devise.  These simple arguments covered a short range of positions and moves that seem to be the basic building blocks of conflict.

The basic exchange between two characters can be reduced to: "Gimme!" and "No!"  (Apologies to any parents who are now suffering flashbacks.)  The protagonist wants something, and the antagonist refuses to give it up.  This attempt to succeed that meets with resistance can take on variations in tone -- "Please, gimme?" and "No, sorry," -- but the dramatic shape is more or less the same.

The protagonist can become more aggressive and insistent.  The most basic rendition of this is, "Gimme, or else!"  The "else" is the important shift.  This isn't mere tonal variation; it is dramatic escalation.  The antagonist has a new situation to cope with.

The antagonist can also escalate.  The first step up is an opposing attempt to get something from the protagonist.  The simplest counter offer I can devise is, "No, now go away!"  As with the protagonist's insistence, this isn't a change in tone.  The protagonist is faced with a fresh situation.

Either side can capitulate at any time in this back-and-forth.  The antagonist can give up whatever the protagonist wants, and the protagonist can walk away.  Tonal variations abound: "Fine, I didn't want it anyway," "That's right, keep walking," "You didn't have to shout," and etc.

The final escalation available is retribution.  Parents may well shudder to hear the basic rendition: "I'm telling on you!"  Both protagonist and antagonist have this measure available to them.  I notice that capitulation is implicit in retribution: a character might hold out hope of getting whatever it was that he or she desired, but that's no longer the primary goal.  The primary goal is to punish the other character for daring to attempt, resist, insist, or oppose.

When a conflict plays out in narrative, the scale and scope of action doesn't need to match up with notions of dramatic escalation.  What I mean is, the protag can start off with a polite, "Gimme, please," and meet with armed opposition: "Die!" (Blam!)  That is not retribution on the part of the antagonist, it's merely insane levels of opposition.  Obviously, the personalities and capabilities of the two sides will change how each approaches a given conflict.

If the protagonist walks up to the antagonist and takes whatever it is, meeting no resistance or opposition, retribution is still possible.  "Gimme.  Hey, thanks!  That was easy."  (Alarm sounds, and armed security rushes in.)  "Oh, crap!"  In this case, the protag made an attempt that met with capitulation, followed quickly by a retributive strike.

So I worked out these patterns, then laid them out for my story.  I went through the story and rendered the dialogue exchanges back into action.  Some of it remained dialogue, other bits became fighting or maneuvering.  There are two other components to how I worked this all out, but those will wait for another post.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dresden Files and a little Chicago pride

Hello folks, this is Brendan Detzner (the tall handsome one). I've been a busy bee this weekend working on my submission for the next CF show, but I've been sneaking in some reading too and wanted to throw a couple of questions to the crowd. Specifically, I've been trying to bone up on some of the current offerings in the Urban Fantasy section of the bookstore in preparation for any upcoming project of my own set in wonderful Chicago, looking for cliches to avoid and cool ideas to rip off.

The elephant in the room when it comes to Chicago urban fantasy is of course Jim Baker's Dresden Files books, which I've felt obligated to snack on a little bit. So far I haven't really fallen in love- strictly a matter of my own taste, feel free to disagree- and one of the big sticking points for me is how he uses Chicago. It's clear that he doesn't live here or know much about the city that you couldn't pick up from internet research, but he keeps throwing in street and neighborhood names in a way I would find distracting even if he were more accurate about what the places he's talking about are actually like. I'm a big fan of crime authors like George Pelacanos and Richard Price who often use intense research into urban locations as a starting place for their books. It'd be my preference for Baker to either go that far, or else to just admit that he's pretty much using Chicago as Generic Large City X and not sweat the details.

I'm curious- am I being too sensitive? Does anybody else have this problem? Also, any good horror/fantasy/genre books set in Chicago that make better use of the setting? I'd love to hear what you all think.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flash Structures

I'm working on a project that involves a whole whallop of short bits of writing.  Primarily fragments, 750-1200 words long.  Tiny things.  This size story is called "flash fiction" and, with the advent of an ADD culture and the internet, has risen in popularity (if not prestige) over the last decade.  So how do you write it?

A lot of authors bio's I've read, and authors I've met, have commented that writing short stories is, in some ways, more difficult than novels.  Per capita, every word holds more weight, carries more of the load.  I've seen novels wander around for pages on things that, while entertaining, aren't really important to the story.  Short stories don't generally have that freedom.  Perhaps a few paragraphs, but obviously, since the whole thing is smaller, the leeway is smaller.  Now if you consider flash is the smallest version of short story, we're approaching a word weight/significance ratio that is actually closer to poetry than typical prose.  Want to hear about how to stay up all night toiling for the perfect word combination?  Talk to a poet.  They're amazing that way.  Sadly, I am no such poet.  The beauty in the subtle combination of verbiage generally eludes me.  When it happens for me, it's not usually intentional.  I am more rooted in plot and setting, character and concept.  So short of becoming a poet and writing a poem long enough to be considered flash, what's a prose writer to do?

When faced with this sort of question I do what I always do; look to the authors I admire most and see how they handle it.  So I turn to my number one standby; Roger Zelazny.  When asked about his short stories Zelazny once explained that many of his short stories are what he'd consider the last chapters of novels he'd never written.  Going back and looking at them, it's clear that most of his short stories have a "tip of the iceberg" sort of feel when it comes to their world settings.  Characters enter the story already knowing one another, with pasts, and goals that they understand, even if the reader doesn't.  Follow with it, and once you get over that climax, it all makes sense.

So lets take a minute to look at how Zelazny would have to accomplish this.  In his mind, there is a novel.  Not set to paper perhaps, or maybe it is, but only in outline form.  What matters is that the novel, the whole thing, is there, present in the imagination.  Now, since it's fully developed, he can step in and begin writing wherever he likes.  (For the record, evidence that Zelazny wrote with "full concepts" from the start is all over his works; chapters out of sequence, backwards, massive chunks of missing time, only writing key scenes)  Instead of starting at the beginning, the call to action, where the character typically leaves their normal setting and tromps off into the story, he starts at the end.  At those final steps before the climax.  If you want to talk Heroes Journey speak, most of Zelazny's short stories start in either the "Supreme Ordeal" (the characters low point) or, more commonly, the moments before "Seizing the Sword/Item", that vital moment where everything come to a head and the character succeeds or fails. 

This doesn't mean that all those "unwritten" chapters have no place.  They are folded in to the ending, used to slow it down a bit, provide some context.  But instead of having the chapter where something is detailed out and explained, we have a paragraph, if that.  Sometimes it's literally only the scars and vague recollections of the previous material.  But it's there, and it adds a reality and richness to the story, something we can't see, but can feel.

So how does this apply to flash?  Well, if a short story is a twelve chapter novel with the first eleven "folded in" and the last remaining.  I'd say flash fiction should be a six scene short story with the first five scenes "folded in" and the last remaining. 

The climax of any story is the "tasty bit".  It's that sweet spot, like the center of a watermelon.  It's why we're on the trip, it's the destination.  Sure, the journey needs to be interesting, but in the end, you need, well... the end.  The climax.  

Flash doesn't have to be just a fragment of writing.  I doesn't have to be incomplete.  Flash is a climax, supported and nestled in the buffer of very real, carefully implied story.

Now go flash someone!

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Time Scouting: Caverns and Cities

Image: Strange World by ~Pixie-kemh

I wrote my first location scout essay.  The goal of the essay was to explore locations that would work for my evil cult story.  I intended to write it in a particular voice, but I failed at that.  Despite that failure, I think that I came up with some decent ideas to work from.

The first paragraph defined the story outline.
The story has a cult with numerous members, and they're into human sacrifice.  There's an ex-cultist from years and years ago who made off with some valued relics.  The cult snatches up a relative of the ex-cultist for their next human sacrifice.  All of this implies that the group has been active for a long time -- a generation or two, at least.  The ex-cultist undertakes a rescue operation, so it's one ex-cultist against a fully-staffed cult gathering.
 The following paragraphs built up the ideas for which locations to use.
I hate to say it, but isolation is probably a good starting position for the cult's grounds.  They can't have been doing much human sacrifice in a public space, can they?  Unless they're the majority in the area, or the powerful elite in the area, so that they can kill with impunity.  Going the first route, we're looking for wilderness of some kind: deep forest, dark swamp, high mountains, vast caverns, etc.  Going the second route, we're picking on a small town or village, or maybe a small country with a totalitarian regime in place.  Can't we have both?  A small country with a lot of natural resources, where there's a ruling class more or less dominated by the evil cult.  So there's settlement here and there, and abandoned industrial zones of some kind (mining, logging, oil drilling, etc).

Wasn't there a Greek city-state with a silver mine?  It got flooded due to overdevelopment or somesuch.  Make it an goodly sized island with natural caverns and an exploited mine, then flood the thing out.  The ruling class is manipulated by cultists.  (The ex-cultist who ran away was part of the law enforcement or military community, which might be a valuable trait for the story.)  The cult sacrifices to an evil god of some description, and it can be an ancient practice that ran in cycles.  Give them temples and statues and all that.  Flood the most potent areas.  That puts us on bridges and boats going in and out.  A subset of the island population can be kept in the darkened areas as labor and service for the old grounds, too.

The ex-cultist fled the cult, which also means escaping the island.  The ex-cultist lives elsewhere now, and so will the cult's chosen victim.  Where is this?  We're going into some rural island territory, backwaters with ancient ruins and so forth.  Wouldn't some contrast be nice?  Somewhere modern, techy even?  Japan, say.  Getting from one point to the other involves planes and boats, maybe even hops between multiple countries.  (A quick Wikipedia stroll leads to Odaiba, which is a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay, Japan.  Seems neat enough: contrast modern development and tech stuff with the more primitive cult island, but keep the island theme.)
And I finished with how I felt about the material.
My initial reaction to having a story hop from Tokyo, Japan to some unspecified (possibly fictional) Greek island is apprehension.  Does the story need that kind of exotic locale?  Might that clutter the story, or cloud the conflicts?  But that's the point of the exercise: to expand my writing beyond the confines I normally use.  These particulars aren't necessary, but they could be cool, and it's a good challenge.
This isn't to say that I'll succeed at evoking these places for the audience.  I think the goal of the essay was achieved: I have better places to set my story than an unnamed city in decent weather.

Image: Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba by ~samoorai

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nowhere is Dull

Image: Welcome to nowhere by ~Paskaler

At Cult Fiction, we talked about our stories.  I laid mine out, as much as I had, and there was much critique.  One question that didn't get asked was, "Where is this taking place?"  Which is good, because my answer would have been something like, "Doesn't matter.  Anywhere, really."

My current story has a cult that engages in human sacrifice.  There's a victim for the cult to murder, and the victim has a rescuer.  When I took my first run at the structural layout, I didn't even ask where it'll take place.  When I imagined staging the events, I pictured some modern city in the United States, during some temperate weather.  There'd be a house in the city, there'd be a cult gathering site on the outskirts.

Well, a major benefit I get at Cult Fiction is being made to face up to my limitations.  How many drafts of how many stories do I need to write before I stop slighting the setting?

Spare No Expense
One lesson I've been slow to learn is that I'm not saddled with a budget.  Were I making a live action movie, I might have trouble putting my cult in the Himalayas.  Or having the cult attack the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, abducting their victim during the middle of a ballet. These would be impossible to shoot on a shoestring, but prose comes cheap.  "A nondescript room in the middle of nowhere interesting," doesn't cost me more than, "A noisy morgue in the embattled city of echoes."

Setting Isn't Clutter
Habitually, I select the minimum number of locations and backdrops, and I aim to make them unimportant to the unfolding drama.  It's as if I regard the setting as clutter that needs to be swept off the page.  Instead, I should seek to mine the locations and backdrops for interesting complications and embellishments.

New Tool: Location Scout
I'm a fan of making tools to overcome writing problems.  This one is less formulaic than others I've made, and it consists of writing a short essay in the voice of an excited location scout.  I come up with my story idea, even do a bare-bones layout of some structural components, then I write a five paragraph essay that explores wild, interesting, and exotic locations and backdrops that would enhance the story.  What this should do is kick me out of my habitual rut.

My goal is to turn in a draft of my new story on Tuesday.  I want to do all the things right that I already know how to do, and I want to deliver an engaging setting along with it.

   - Eric M. Cherry

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Cult has arrived!

Worship the written word!  Bow before the dark gods of story crafting and tremble before their massively dangerous creativity!  Know that without story; nothing exists.  To write is to invoke the very essence, nay, the primal goopy stuff, of reality!  There are those who dare such a feat!

We also like to meet up in a mostly abandoned bar.


After pages and pages of material written, dozens of writers workshops, three live performances, and a whole lot of s'mores, we've decided it's time to officially launch the Cult Fiction Blog!  It's mainly a place to discuss genre writing, keep tabs on your local cult activities, and provide us with a place to communicate with a world that will soon fall under our evil sway!

Just you wait and see...