Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Setting Up the Critical Scenes

There are scenes in stories and novels that are critical in that they are climatic and essential to the resolution of the plot and subplots. Too often, a writer will neglect to set it up so that when it does occur, the moment is filled with tension and credibility. The author must ask some critical questions. Have I placed doubt in the reader that the character can actually accomplish the task? Is there some moral or ethical principle at stake? Have I given enough attention to the subplot scenes too? Is the reader unsure of the outcome? Does he/she feel the tension of possibilities? Answering these questions may not guarantee that a scene will work, but it will definitely help.

Characters are human, not super human. They have doubts, faults, fears, reservations, and all sorts of foibles. A writer can use these to create tension. In Searching for Lilith for example, Annie, one of my main characters, finds herself in a situation where she must shoot one of the characters out to kill her. The scene acts as the climactic moment in the novel. I wanted to place doubt in the reader whether she could pull the trigger or not. To that end, I created a scene early in the book where she questions the use of force by John LeGrand, the main character. Later, when she finds out that she might have to shoot someone, she questions whether she can do it. Because of her actions and thoughts earlier in the novel, when the moment comes, the reader is unsure whether she will shoot, or whether the "bad guy" will kill her.

When I started the novel, I had a very basic idea of the plot. A woman disappears with her infant daughter. Twenty years later, the father, who fears he is going to die of cancer, hires LeGrand to find her. I wanted it to be a journey—from Ellisonville to Ellisonville. When the detective finds Annie Wates, who may or may not be the daughter, he leads the people out to kill her back to his home turf where the scene I outlined above takes place. He can see no other way to save her. The plot leads the reader straight to the confrontation.

In Lighted Windows, my collection of short stories, the father in the story "La Boucherie" tries to explain the difference between killing out of necessity and killing for survival. "Killing is serious," he tells the boy. "It should never come easy. Only a fool kills something without good reason." In Searching for Lilith, killing a human being goes against everything Annie believes. The idea is morally troubling for her. If she decides to kill a man, the action must be necessary, and even then, she knows that whether right or wrong, there will be repercussions. The reader must deliberate whether she is capable of doing something, she considers morally wrong.

Subplots need the same attention as the main one. Is Annie Zack's daughter? The scene when she meets him must have the same emotion and tension as the climactic scene. In another subplot, LeGrand is not only looking for Zack's Lilith. He is also looking for his own Lilith in Lisa Ching, a love interest, but because of a rather painful divorce, he is unsure of himself. That scene too must resonate with the reader. Will he find his Lilith or fail?

And what about the people responsible for all the disorder and turmoil? Their scenes must add tension and doubt too. Throughout the book, I tried to add little uncertainties about whether the characters were capable of causing such violence to others. For example, drug czar, Carlos Garza orders Anthony Watts to kill his wife. He's comfortable with her, maybe even loves her. When the time comes, can he do it?

Whether I was successful or not is up to the readers to decide. All I can hope for is that all the juggling, copying, and pasting I did pays off. I am sure of one thing, however. I learned much about scene construction and placement, and my next book is going to be better for it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Something for Nothing

I am one of those people who are always looking for something for nothing—the one who sends back the Publisher's Clearing House prize letters although I have never won a prize. I will allow strangers into my home because they promise me something free. I will buy a cheap imitation of the real thing because it costs less. Of course, I know that nothing comes without a price, but the impulse in me is so strong that it is a constant battle simply to resist.
I should have known better. I had been to Bangor, Maine, and the only thing I saw there was snow and ice.
When I first moved into my home in Springfield, Missouri, I received a phone call from a woman I thought would deliver a neighborhood welcome. She would shower my family and me with gifts—furniture, utensils, bed sheets, and all sorts of edible goodies. I should have known better.
She was not the welcome wagon. She represented a water filter company who wanted to show me how dirty my tap water was. In exchange for a brief presentation by one of their representatives, her company would give me, free of charge, a trip to the Virgin Islands, a trip to Branson, or a state-of-the-art grill. I could already smell the burgers cooking, so over my wife's groans, I said, "Yes."
Are you aware how much sludge you take in through your tap water? It is disgusting to see. Are you aware how much it costs to filter that filth out? Let me put it in terms most people can understand—it costs many state-of-the-art grills. My family would be eating old-fashioned grilled burgers and chasing them down with dirty water for a very long time to come.
I actually did receive something for nothing once. 
My daughter was an early riser—usually a few minutes after I got up, she would appear, framed in the doorway of the kitchen, sleepy-eyed, mussed hair, and holding on to her Holly Hobby doll. She would mumble a hello and park herself in front of the television to watch “Sesame Street.”
One morning, she broke with routine. She sat at the kitchen table, carefully placed her doll on the chair next to her, and crooked her finger at me.
I knelt before her.
She looked me directly in the eyes. She hugged my neck and told me how much she loved me.
"I love you too, sweetheart," I said into her shoulder.
It was a scene straight out of a Shirley Temple movie—too much for my old heart to take. I turned away, misty-eyed, and poured boiling water into my coffee pot.
My daughter asked me what why I was teary eyed. I could hear the concern in her voice.
I mumbled something about mushiness in my eyes.
She slid off her chair and crooked her finger at me. I bent down to her level. She took both my cheeks in her tiny hands, and in her small, but serious voice, she said, “Daddy, don’t be funny so early in the morning. It confuses me.
I chuckled and blew my nose. I dabbed at my eyes with a paper towel. I had not been so emotional in a long time, and it felt good to drain the tear ducts. I wanted to turn around and hug her, kiss her, and thank her, but that would have been too much like payment. She had given me the moment free of charge. I wanted it to stay that way.
A woman from the newspaper called recently.
She asked me if I received the local newspaper.
"No,” I told her. I get my news from public radio.
Well, her boss had authorized her to offer me two months of the paper free of charge. At the end of two months, if I didn’t want the daily paper anymore, they would stop delivery, and I wouldn’t owe a penny."
Who could resist such a deal?
"Okay," I said over my wife's groans.

I wrote this in 1994 or so while I lived and taught in Springfield, MO. I have since gained a modicum of success controlling my urges to seek out something for nothing. I have concluded that the only thing given freely is love.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Damon L. Wakes' Top Five Books

Welcome to Cajun PI and Other Matters Cajun. My guest blogger today is Damon L. Wakes, and he is going to give us his top five books.

Damon L. Wakes was born in 1991 and began to write a few years later. He holds an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester, and a BA in English Literature from the University of Reading. Ten Little Astronauts formed the final project of his MA and has since been accepted for publication by Unbound, who are currently crowdfunding it.

When he isn't writing, Damon enjoys weaving chainmail. He began making chainmail armour ten years or so ago, but quickly discovered that there was no longer much of a market for it and so switched to jewellery instead. He now attends a variety of craft events, selling items made of modern metals such as aluminium, niobium and titanium, but constructed using thousand year-old techniques.

RumoThis thing is the size of two or three house bricks and its storyline follows all the conventions of the classical epic. However, it takes place in the most alien fantasy setting I’ve ever come across. There are no orcs or elves: every single character is utterly bizarre and completely original. The protagonist, for example, is an intelligent bipedal horned dog wielding a sword that has multiple personalities. Despite the abundance of unusual creatures with outrageous abilities, though, nothing ever feels like it’s pulled out of thin air when the plot demands it. Any detail that proves significant is always set up well in advance, and the overall story feels totally airtight.
2: The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
The Island of Dr. MoreauWhile it’s not particularly scary as such, The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of the more consistently unnerving books I’ve come across. Shipwrecked at the beginning, the main character doesn’t start off in the best of situations, but the steady string of revelations about Doctor Moreau and his island of surgically-created animal people ensures that things just keep on getting worse. It’s not so much that the events of the book are relentlessly terrible, though: it’s that it becomes disturbingly unclear what’s right or wrong in the first place, and in many ways I think that’s a lot more troubling.
3: The Siren by M.R. Graham
 The SirenFew books have kept me turning pages like The Siren. I read the whole thing in a single day, and though the fact that I was on a very long train journey was a contributing factor in that, it is an exceptionally gripping story. It opens with a corpse banging on the main character’s back door, and pretty much just gets weirder from there. The corpse is actually inhabited by an incorporeal alien that’s become stranded on Earth. It’s hard not to root for it, healing and recovering its strength as it struggles to blend into ordinary places like clubs and coffee shops, but at the same time there’s the constant threat that it might be turning into something very dangerous indeed.
4: To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North
To Be or Not To BeThis book is an interactive adaptation of Hamlet. I’m not really sure what else you need to know. It’s Hamlet. You can take on the role of Hamlet, Old Hamlet or Ophelia, and pretty much do whatever you like as your chosen character. The book highlights choices that actually follow the storyline of Hamlet, so you can recreate the original play if you like, but you’re also free to branch off into totally new territory, forget the classic storyline and, say, invent central heating instead.
 The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus5: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Technically a play, rather than a book, but I’ve only read it, never seen it. Possibly a good thing, as legend has it that early performances summoned devils onto the stage and drove members of the audience mad. It’s pretty much a real-life King in Yellow. Beyond that, though, the story flips neatly between Faustus’ horrifying deal with the devil, which will ultimately see him dragged away to Hell, and the hijinks he gets up to with his ill-gotten powers in the meantime, which include turning invisible in order to play tricks on the Pope.

Thanks for sharing, Damon. Damon can reached at these links:

 Mystery Thriller Week

Thursday, February 2, 2017

To Err is Human

Mrs. Miller passed me to Mr. Latour's seventh grade on condition that I not make any failing grades. It was a tall order because I was not exactly a good student. I only cared about two things: writing and mischief. After a few weeks in his class, Mr. Latour took me aside and told me that I was not doing so well. He cautioned me that if I made any failing grade, he would be compelled to send me back to the sixth grade
I had no answer, so I gave him a lame joke about me doing well in PE. PE was the only class that I was not taking with Mr. Latour. He flushed, and the bump on his head stood out more than usual. Mr. Latour was an emaciated old man with liver spots and a rather large bump in the center of his forehead. Stories about the bump included: it was the devil's horn; his wife abused him; it was a malignant tumor slowly eating away at his brain.
I was not doing so well in Mr. Latour’s class because I was writing a book about a Sad Sack character fighting in the Korean War. The character was a bungling soldier, who accidentally became a hero. The theme was that all things were possible if you believed in miracles. As Mr. Latour rambled through the French irregular verbs and the square roots of rational and irrational numbers, I quickly filled two Big Chief tablets. About halfway through the third tablet, I gave up on the book. I was finished. My character had just completed the big climatic scene, and all I had to do was tie the knots, but I had lost the interest. I boxed up my manuscript and slid it under my bed.
Without a book to work on, I turned to mischief.
Mr. Latour handed out demerits and after ten demerits, you had to stay in during lunch recess and suffer his punishment, which usually meant a session of writing on the board. I became the class clown: made rude noises while Mr. Latour lectured, told crude jokes in French during study period, threw paper wads across the classroom. Before I knew it, I had ten demerits, and Mr. Latour told me to show up during my lunch recess the next day for my punishment.
I did not show, but Mr. Latour found me in the gymnasium and escorted me back to the classroom. He sat at his desk and ordered me to write To err is human; to forgive divine three hundred times on the blackboard. About halfway through the lunch recess Mr. Latour left me alone in the classroom and disappeared down the hallway. In a moment of daring, I followed him. At the end of the hall, I slowly opened the double doors a crack and peered around them. Mr. Latour quickly capped the bottle from which he had been drinking.
He called it medicine, but it smelled suspiciously like alcohol to me.
He told me to forget the punishment—to finish my book instead. I was surprised he knew about that, and I guess my face showed it. He reached out to me with shaky, age-splotched hands and in a kind, soft voice told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn as much as I could.
"Writers don't write in a vacuum, Mr. Roy. If writers want to make their stories real, they must know what real is."
I nodded, returned to the classroom, and filled in a page of my third Big Chief. Mr. Latour glanced over my handiwork and nodded.
He told me that every day was a blank slate, and it was up to us to fill it up with as much information as possible.
I made a conscious effort for the rest of the school year to keep the demerits off my record. Although Mr. Latour never said it, I sensed that he trusted in my ability to succeed, and I tried hard not to let him down. I passed the seventh grade with several D's on my report card, but no F's.
I never did finish that book. I dug it out in the eighth grade—I was going to work on the ending while Mrs. Hazelton droned on about American history—but a family of mice had used my manuscript as a home and had completely destroyed it.
My grades improved dramatically after the seventh grade, but I believe I learned something from Mr. Latour that an A or an F cannot measure.
I never told anyone about what I saw that day in detention, until now. At the time, I was sure the bottle he drank from held whiskey, but today, I am not so sure. It could have been medicine. However, if it was whiskey, then all I can say is "To err is human; to forgive divine."
I was twelve or thirteen in the seventh grade, and anyone over thirty seemed ancient. Mr. Latour may not have been as old as my memory suggests, but that is how I remember him. Also, I may not have been as mischievous as I made myself out to be in this little story. I seem to remember Walter, Michael, and Fred earning quite a few more demerits than I did.  

Prologue: The Three Indians

Prologue: The Three Indians The frozen winter wind rattled the windows of our shack. We all sat in a semi-circle around the fireplace. My...