The elusive goal in writing appears to be the creation of magic moments: the beauty of ice coating the bare branches of a tree in winter, the thrill of racing down a basketball court, jumping, and YES! perfectly blocking an opponent’s layup.
But magic moments are pretend writing, like a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s high heels and pearls. When we grow up, we write truth. More accurately, we sneak truth by the enraptured reader.
We humans like to feel good—think whole body massages. We covet delicious food: prime rib, strawberries, did I mention chocolate? We seek to be entertained: music drifting through high quality ear phones, comedians doubling us over with so much laughter we cry out in pain, “Please, please stop.” We are hedonists content to drift along on the surface of life. Truth? We don’t want truth, that’s way too much work. So, we writers, ensnare our readers in the emotions of our main character. Then as the character encounters truth, so does the unsuspecting reader.
But so powerful is the art form, that if we write without knowing the truth, sometimes the truth reveals itself.
Several years ago, I sat across my kitchen table from a wonderful woman as she told me that she had been sexually assaulted. “Well, I was stupid,” she said. “I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him. I was trained in self-defense, but I…It was really all my fault.”
I gripped the edge of my chair to restrain myself. “It wasn’t your fault,” I whispered. “He committed a felony. He’s a criminal.”
“No, you don’t understand. I had been drinking.”
“Did you say no?”
“Well, yes.” She shook her head back and forth, put her head in her hands, self-disgust in every movement.
“So, you did try to fight him?”
“Yes,” she stood, looking for her purse. “Don’t you see, I knew all these Kung Fu moves.” Her voice got louder with each word. “I should have been able to get free. It was my fault!”
“It wasn’t your fault. He attacked you.”
She found her purse, but not her keys.
“I’ve got some fresh organic lemon. Let me get you some for your tea.” Remembering the cookies, I put three on a plate in front of her, tempting her. “Want some, two kinds of chocolate chips?”
She collapsed into her chair. I brought a box of tissues; gently touched her arm. “Why don’t you write that story.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I couldn’t.”
I tried again. “Perhaps if you wrote it, someone who read it, might stop blaming herself. Maybe she’d realize that what happened to her wasn’t her fault.”
But that’s not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was, “Perhaps if you wrote your story, you’d realize the attack wasn’t your fault.”
A few minutes later she made an excuse and left. I get it, even speaking about what happened thirty years ago was overwhelming. But still she doesn’t write her story; she doesn’t write her truth. And I know as I pen these words that she still believes the attack was her fault.
I’m talking gore today. I’m going for yuck, gross and gag me with a spoon. This isn’t about obscenity or shock, it’s about making your reader vomit. Yes, I really said that. Gore is often used to identify the villain. Today I’ll talk about layering gore, like layers of paint.
Her stomach threatened to spill its lunch at the smell of the thing.
The witch was no more than four feet tall and nearly bald. What little hair she had was filled with sticks and clumps of seaweed.
Two weak, watery eyes peered out of a face covered with pus-spewing sores. A rat sat her shoulder, her belt was a live snake, her clothes made from the skin of a deer to which pieces of green, maggot-laden rotting meat still clung. She had no shoes.
This time she’s attempting to get home. The same pattern emerges. First the primer: sentences which prepare the reader, which set the stage for what is to come.
The witch’s breath came in ragged gasps. Lying on her belly, she clawed up clumps of soil, her fingers relentlessly searching the ground. Yes! Warm air touched the skin of her middle finger. Following the vent of air, she pushed her finger into the ground.
Her eyes rolled back in her head. She reached for the change, sticking out her tongue so far she gagged herself. Tongue first, then teeth, nose and eyes, she dissolved, the warm goo oozing down her arm, following her finger, dripping into the vent, into the pit below the soil. Head and neck followed. Feet, ankles, knees and thighs liquified, rushing up her middle and down her arm. The hand which had not found the vent and its arm also turned to mush and dripped into the earth. Her core dissolved and with it the rat, which had sat on her shoulder, and the snake she’d fashioned into a belt. These also dribbled into the vent. Finally, the arm, hand and finger trickled away. All that remained were a few bits of seaweed and a poorly scraped deer hide.
But wait, how can we possibly improve on all that gore. Yes, but of course, we reveal the depths of her villainy, she’s not a witch at all. She’s something much worse.
Two hundred feet, seeping through cracks, dripping from rock to rock, she drained into the hot bowels of the Earth, and the bubbling pit of lava which lay directly below dragon’s keep. Around the pit, the antenna of lava beetles shot up, awakened by the scent of a dragon. The witch goo, now floating on the lava’s surface, congealed first into a shapeless glob. Within minutes, the dragon’s large backbone formed. Weakened of magic, it was a mere 20 feet long. Over the next two days the head formed, the energy required to reconstitute its immense brain, cooling the lava more than a hundred degrees. As the belly, limbs and wings grew the lava beetles began their work, scraping off and eating ill-formed scales—of which there were many—allowing the dragon to regrow newer stronger ones. At last the claws formed, only one made of obsidian. Whole again, the dragon slept, drawing energy from the heat of the pit, dreaming, tasting the young girl and her magic which would soon fill its aching belly.
All that gore has accomplished its goal. It has prepared the reader. The villain is coming—and she’s a dragon.
Happy writing. I love gore, it’s addictive. Please respond with a bit of your best. I look forward to vomiting over your work.
How is it that I constantly receive gifts? Gifts from family, every day, all day. “Thought I’d work on your fish table.” Two years ago, at a gathering of friends, I saw a small table—shaped like a fish—of a good height to sit between rocking chairs on my back porch, to set a coke on while I watch the cardinals that have decided to nest in those ugly bushes I’ve been meaning to chain saw down. But not now, because they are roosting there, and I can’t bear to see them go. During this time of pandemic, social distancing and stay at home, my husband is making me a fish table. Of course, it won’t be shaped like a fish, because he hasn’t the tools for that, so he was going to carve a fish into the top. Now it’s three maple leaves. I like maple leaves better.
My son is teaching me to code in html. Okay, he’s laughing with me as I learn to do the simplest of things. I can now create a website that spins a cat picture.
Gifts from friends. A telephone call. Have you recovered? I had a minor infection, cured with good ole antibiotics. My doctor’s gift. Yes, I’m fine. Do you need anything? Yes, I needed you to call, but you’ve done that, you’ve given me the security of a friend’s voice. And I remember what a good friend you are. So incredibly dependable. How do I deserve the wonderful gift of you?
Gifts from strangers. Why? Why do people who don’t know me, give me gifts? Watercolor videos on YouTube. Almost I’ve gotten out my paints. Still scared. Maybe I’ll watch a few more videos. Comedians. I like the guy who sings with famous people in his car. I do that. You know, sans the comedian and sans the famous people. I dance, too. I like to make the people in the car next to me laugh.
Tim Ferriss, gave me a gift, his book: The 4-Hour Chef. More than a cookbook it teaches the reader how to quickly learn anything. Tim recommends the creation of a “One-Pager”. On one page (8.5” x 11”, no cheating with super large sheets of paper) he recommends writing down the most important concepts you must grasp to learn the desired skill. For ten years I have struggled to create meaningful stories, stories that enrich lives. Here is my One-Pager for aspiring writers. It’s good for sticking to your refrigerator, or the wall behind your desk. It’s a gift.
When I sent my first novel to a beta reader, she flagged several passages, including the one below, as “racist.” The brickwork discussed in this passage still stands at Fort Gaines—built in 1821—on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama. My intent had been to convey my respect and admiration for the craftsmanship of the slaves who laid the bricks. After receiving my beta reader’s comments, I rewrote the passage to both remove the bias and to focus the narrative on one of the main themes of the book which is: truly seeing the many choices in front of us and choosing the right path. Lloyd is African-American and Anthony (the speaker) white. Both are twelve years old.
We inspected the fort’s buildings, the bakery, the latrines, and the armory. “Hey, these were built by slaves,” Lloyd said, reading a plaque.
“Yup, look at that arch.” I (Anthony) pointed upward at the gorgeous brickwork. “Dad took me here when I was five. I remember him holding me up, showing me this brickwork saying, ‘Son, you’ve got to respect a man who does an excellent job, even when he’s a slave. He didn’t get paid, in fact he probably got whipped, but he did a good job anyway, obviously took pride in his work’.”
We inspected the fort’s buildings, the bakery, the latrines, and the armory. “Hey, these were built by slaves,” Lloyd said, reading a plaque.
“Look at that arch.” I (Anthony) pointed upward at the gorgeous brickwork. “Why do you suppose the slaves did such a good job? If I’d been a slave, I would have died rather than build my master a fort.” I drew my knife. “I’d have taken some of them with me, too.”
Footsteps came our way. Quick, I sheathed the knife and pulled my sweats down over it. Two little kids, one chasing the other, raced by.
Lloyd ran his hand over the curving side of the archway. “My daddy told me that slavery wasn’t homogeneous.”
“You mean like milk?”
“No, that’s homogenized.”
“What he meant was that each person experiences slavery differently. One person might escape. Someone else might get depressed and never want to do anything.”
“Are we still talking about bricks?”
Lloyd gave me a mean look. “My daddy had a boss that always took credit for my daddy’s work.”
“Why didn’t he complain to the boss’s boss?”
“They were brothers.”
“He should have quit.”
“He couldn’t quit. He needed the money. So, he decided to keep doing the best job he could.”
“Why? That was just playing into his boss’s hand.”
Lloyd shook his head, “Don’t you see? It wasn’t about his boss. That’s what my daddy figured out. He could choose who he worked for. So, he decided to work for God.”
“Anthony, I don’t know why those slaves did a good job. But I guess I’m hoping that they did it for God.”
“Lloyd, these bricks were laid in 1821. All those slaves probably died slaves. They were never freed, they never even got paid, and their masters got all the credit.”
I glanced over at him.
“The Old South is gone, Anthony. But hurricane after hurricane this fort has survived.”
I looked again at the beautiful brickwork.
Lloyd whispered, “Maybe God did see.”
Emotionally Connecting with Your Readers
I have three go to books on my writing shelf: Story Genius by Lisa Cron featured in my first blog post, Your First 1000 Copies by Tim Grahl and Save The Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. Yes, I’ve got other writing books, hundreds, but these three are the superheroes, the Avengers, of writing books.
Save The Cat! is about pacing. An expectation, of what will happen when, has been created in readers by television and movies: the sidekick should be introduced in the first quarter of the novel; at the midpoint someone will die; etc. Yes, you can break these rules, if you’re good, very good, but if you follow them, your novel will tend to be more readily accepted by agents and readers alike. The Save the Cat! formula begins with a single scene, an opening image, which should establish an emotional connection between the reader and your protagonist. Below is the opening image to my novel The Dream Seer. Your comments are earnestly solicited. If I don’t get this right, I’ll lose the reader on the first page.
I woke with a Cottonmouth hissing and coiling in my gut. The California sun shone all bright through my window—right into my eyes. Outside, in a tree, a little yellow bird decided to serenade me, chirping out happiness. I pulled the covers over my head.
Dad hadn’t called, not for three days. He always called. We had a standing breakfast Skype appointment. Grandfather would even set place for Dad at the table. If he fixed banana pancakes—Dad’s favorite—he’d make an extra stack and sit them right in front of the computer screen where Dad could see them, just to let Dad know that we were thinking about him.
Dad would look oh-so-longingly at those pancakes and say, “Thanks.”
Grandfather said Dad’s mission had probably gone long or the base was on a communications blackout. Guess that had to be it. I mean, everyone knows that its practically impossible to kill a Navy SEAL. SEALs are the most highly trained soldiers in the whole world.
Big feet moseyed down the hallway and into my room. Grandfather gave my hammock a swing. “Time to get up, sailor.”
Underneath the blanket my hands curled into fists.
“Hmmm…, Grandfather said. “I see.”
I didn’t know what he was seeing, but a lump of covers.
“Would you like to talk?” he asked.
“I’m here for you, son.”
“Don’t you need to be fixing breakfast?”
Through the covers he kissed my forehead. Then his footsteps headed for the kitchen. Soon enough came the sound of whistling and a spoon hitting the side of a mixing bowl.
Ding. Must have been heating syrup in the microwave.
I reckoned it was no use. I had to get up, and I had to go to school. That’s what it’s like when all the men in your family are in the Navy. You grow up knowing you’ve got to follow orders, even if nothing about the world makes you want to be living in it.
Tell me, do you want to read more?
Side by side on the fateful night of the Titanic disaster . . .More info →