Friday, February 12, 2016

Ideas Like Bullets -- Writers Read (So Read This)

Sometimes coming up with what to write about in a regular weekly blog (well, okay weekly most of the time) isn’t just off the top-of-your-head easy.  Especially for someone like me who has a ton of snippets, pieces, and singular lines running through my head, any of which I likely could weave into a decent post.  So, faced with this issue recently, I narrowed down my several options for this week’s post to two and asked a few people what they thought I should do.  One option was sharing writing tips, the other sharing an extended excerpt from my most recently published work. 

Although the scales were decidedly tipped one way as replies came in, I realized that I could actually do both, especially since my plan for giving writing tips was going to follow a sort of plan I had in my head. Essentially, I will share tips here every now and again, from the very first tip I would give any one wanting to be a writer all the way through the last one, in my own makeshift order, that, if it all comes out like I think it will, could carry a writer through the completion and possible publication of a story. 

Now, why I thought I could do both options in one column this time around is that my very first tip to any writer is a very simple one.  One so simple that almost instantaneously people will answer ‘Oh, sure, I do!’ when I ask them if they do this.  But, upon further questioning, at least one out of every three can’t recall the last time they did this or the last thing they did this to.  Even established writers often stumble with this one.  And no, it’s not ‘Writers write,’ although that is a tip I’ll get into in future columns.  And it’s not ‘Write what You know,” because that’s a tip I have touched on in a previous column and will revisit in detail later as well.  No, this is something so rudimentary, yet so essential to being a writer that we often forget that it’s a part of the process.

You want to be a writer? Fine. Then, to be a writer, one must read.

Sounds simple, right? And also, you’d be amazed at how many people wanting to be writers, after saying they do read but being unable to recall the last time they did or the last book they read, decide to tell me that reading and writing are separate.  They don’t really have but the barest of connections.

No, really. Not making it up. Heard it a hundred times.

A writer must read and, in my opinion, a writer must read almost as often as they must write, that being every day.  Why? Well, there are two answers I’ll explore briefly here.

First, reading is the best way to learn about writing styles. Not just the personal styles of others, but the way that types of stories read and are put together. Want to write a western? Well, reading one wouldn’t hurt, to both show you the conceits that may be required for a western AND ways you can write your take on it that sets it apart from other westerns.  You pick up stylistic inferences and tricks as well as different ways to approach structure and grammar.  Pulp Fiction, for instance, makes great use of two things most literary writers and English teachers would tell you to never use- Dialogue tags and sentence fragments.  Used to excess or poorly, these things can cripple a story.  But read tales where they’re used like scalpels by surgeons, and they make a story sing on a whole new level.  So, yes, read to learn how to write.

Secondly, writers should read so they can figure out what they like.  Yes, a writer should write what they know (again, more on this in a later post), but one wanting to put pen to paper should also read to figure out what they like, at least in fiction.  And it’s really a rather simple concept.  I am not a big romance reader. Bet that surprises you, but it’s the truth.  Now, could I write it? Sure, I could, I think.  Would it pop, though? Would it reverberate with the personal energy and involvement that I want all my works to have in them? No, it wouldn’t, it would simply be I hope a well told story of two people finding love and maybe making all sorts of connections (wink, wink) and then….yadda yadda yadda.  And why wouldn’t it have that? Because I don’t like romances.  How do I know that? Because I read and have tried reading them…and guess what? Not a fan.

Now, some of you are already out there yelling and screaming at your phones and computer screens that I’m wrong and that you can write in any genre you want to, whether you like it or not.  If you’re doing that, then go back and read the paragraph I just wrote. Yes, a person can write in genres they don’t like, sure they can.  But there’s a vital aspect added in when an author writes something that they like, when they’re focused on a genre or a style that impacts them, not as a creator, but as a person, as a fan. As a reader.

Read. Read so you can write what you like and so the rest of us will hopefully like it as well.

And, making myself my own example…I read all sorts of things, but I absolutely adore mysteries, especially those featuring a Private Investigator type.  So, my latest tale is definitely a PI story, introducing a new character and a new world, based on another type of thing I like- magic in the modern world. So, without further adieu, read the opening pages of the latest story written by a writer who writes what he likes to read…

A Free Mason, P.I. Story

She cut a haunting silhouette out of the darkness of the office doorway, only the dull jaundiced glow of the single light bulb dangling in the hallway behind her. Her left hand rested on its matching hip, delicate, long fingers riding dangerous, deadly curves.  Her right hand snaked elegantly up the doorjamb above her head, giving her shape the look of a sultry hourglass in repose.  Hints of crimson along her form flickered in and out of the black of night seeping in through the windows of my office.  A tight fitting, perfectly suggestive red dress, tailor made for her by some dowager on the outskirts of Paris, if I remembered correctly.  It was the last thing I’d seen her wearing before her unannounced, but not wholly unexpected arrival a few minutes ago.  The last thing she’d probably ever wear.

“As stunning as ever,” I said, turning my back to my desk and shrugging back into the trench coat I’d nearly shuffled off seconds before.  I’d only just opened the door, put the brown paper sack cradling my bottle of dinner and desert on the corner of my desk when those tiny little hairs, those holdovers from earlier states of evolution great minds tell us, stood up and did their ‘Somebody’s coming’ dance along the back of my neck.  No footfalls on the ancient stairs, no pained sigh of the third story hallway floor, no hushed whisper of skin and fabric against the wood of the door.  No sound. Just a sudden chill running like the blood of a dying winter down my back.  “Being dead and buried a month looks better on you than most.”

“Aw,” she cooed, her voice like thick velvet poured over melting ice.  Just soft enough to breathe new life into old memories, but enough rough to remind me why the memories were from long ago.  “I bet those are words you don’t say often to old girlfriends.”

“More than I’d like to admit.”  I stood, studied her as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.  Familiarity allowed the shapes of the battered couch and the war scarred hat rack to solidify.  The twin windows in the wall to the right gave off such little light due to opening on the dullest alleyway in the city, but still enough to pierce the black of a still unlit room.  Yet as my eyes played along her exquisite road map of a body, a joyride I’d taken as a naïve boy who didn’t know better and one I’d gotten off of as a jaded man who just didn’t give a damn anymore, I saw more dark than light.  Shadow danced around her like flickering streamers, allowing glimpses of the dress, a hint of thigh through the slit, the shimmer of her matching red heels.  But unlike the rest of the room, the darkness around her seemed alive. And selfish.

I took a deep breath, the scent of lilacs and earth filling my nostrils.  Lilacs I remembered. The smell of dirt laced with decay was new for her, but not unfamiliar.  “So,” I offered, “you just come back to be on display in my doorway?”

The shadows around her face shifted just enough to allow me to see those pouting scarlet lips, the bottom one making like the eaves of a roof over her chin.  “Didn’t you ever have manners? Too much to ask for you to invite a lady in?”

I stepped forward, crossing my mouse hole of an office nearly in one stride.  Standing now only three or four feet from her, I still only saw hints and glimmers in the dark.  It worked that way sometimes, I knew. I also knew a little more than I had minutes ago about who she now was. Or more, what she was on her way to becoming.  “You carried being a lady like most men wear ties.  Loose and long.  But yeah,” I said, my hands idly pulling my trench coat tighter, closed, “sure.  I think there’s just barely room enough in this hovel for two.”

She laughed, something lost between a giggle and a purr, and slinked toward me.  As she moved, the lingering black that had before clung and crawled over her like silken ribbons faded and the woman I’d known as Evelyn Passmore, never ever Eve or Evie, came into view.

She moved in the dress as if she flowed inside of it, all the grace of a lazy river ready to turn into raging rapids if just given enough reason.  The frock itself still held much of its luster, only slightly dampened by a film of ashen dust spotting it.  A random thread had begun to unfurl in one place or another, but not in ways that anyone who wasn’t looking for it would notice.  Hair the color of burnt amber still framed an almost doll like oval shaped face that ended in rather a sharp chin, the point softened slightly by the thickness of her lips.  I let a sardonic smile curl my mouth as she stopped just inches from me, allowing me the once over.   She really didn’t look like someone who’d lain in a coffin for the last thirty days.  A tease here, a lint brush there, and she’d be ready to rejoin the elite of the city in their nightclubs and society balls again.  Except for her skin and the eyes.  They were now more suited to the darker pursuits that Evelyn had always found fascinating.

Once vibrant, almost china white to go with the dollish face, her skin was now pallid, gray like burgeoning storm clouds.  Her flesh was mottled, her face a uniform light shade, while her bare arms sported spots, almost like dark, deep gray bruises.  What was revealed of her chest by the low cut of the dress also looked as if it had begun to pass from healthy to decomposing, but only slightly.  And her eyes, the glittering green of dew heavy grass before, they had changed as well.  Black, darker than starless nights, a shade heavier than whatever evil might lurk in hidden hearts.   As black as the arts that Evelyn Passmore had more than dabbled in.  But, they weren’t dead eyes.  They simmered with life in a way they never had before.  An unearthly, corrupted life, a morbid electric hunger that would never know peace and only demanded more.

She leaned forward and then draped herself on me, pinning her body to my chest like a quickly wilting corsage.  I felt her breasts rise and fall, her lungs filling with air they no longer needed more out of routine than necessity. She stared ahead for a second, her eyes squarely planted at the base of my neck, then she looked down, a throaty chuckle rolling out from her welcoming mouth.  Her hands slid from around my neck and snaked their way down my chest, the right one hesitating about mid stomach on the right side. 

“You were always glad to see me,” she mewled, her fingers teasing the hard bulge, dancing along the length of it.

“Maybe,” I said, “but you know Nature didn’t leave me that well armed.” I pulled back slightly, forcing her fingers to fall away from their exploration. “Holster, same place it’s always been.”

“Okay,” she replied, a gray tongue playfully wetting her scarlet lips, “Just seems…longer than I remember.”

“World changes every day,” I said, turning away, giving her my left profile, the one she said she always favored. “What keeps a man alive has to change with it.  And that,” I said, my eyes falling on the bagged bottle that sadly was not going to get my attention as I had planned, “begs the question.   What’s keeping you alive, Evelyn? Why are you here?”

I let silence rise in the room like a slow tide.  Just as the quiet passed from uncomfortable to all encompassing, she breathed in sharply. Old habits died hard, apparently. Just like her.

“I died.” She said it as if it was something I’d not known, something she was reporting for the first time.  And I let her continue on, easiest way to get anyone to talk was to let them do it naturally, in their own time.  “I know it wasn’t much of a surprise to most,” she looked down at the floor, her hands folded in front of her, forming a gray fleshy arrow pointing at the floor.  “The way I was living. The parties, the drinking.” She paused. “The men. And the women.”

“But,” her voice sounded different, almost as if an innocence that had never truly been there was edging its way in, “I was actually a little caught off guard by my death.  I’d taken precautions, I thought.  Dabbling here and there with the dark things,” I grimaced at her familiar pet name for something so much more complicated than she made it sound, “that became more than just playing around.  But you knew that.”

She’d raised her head, I felt her eyes fall heavy on me. “Yeah,” I answered because she expected it. “I never cared for magic. Have no use for it.”

“I know. You made that quite clear when you walked out of my room two years ago.  Funny,” she mused, taking a step closer to my desk, to me.  “That’s when all that went from party games and silly little séances to…more.” She waited, wondering if the guilt she’d slung at me had hit its mark.  I didn’t move a muscle. “And I got pretty good at it,” she continued, disappointment tingeing her words.  “Learning the right words, putting all the pieces together. Moving up in that world, so to speak.  Didn’t think anything could stop me.  Or hurt me.”

“Until it did.” I turned to face her again. She had drifted to the corner of my desk opposite me, her fingers out, teasing the battered metal.  “You were awful young, everyone said, for a heart attack.”

“Is that what they said? Everyone?”

“No.  The coroner said he didn’t know of any reason your heart should have just exploded the way it did.  Nothing left but tiny pieces scattered all inside your chest. Like confetti, he’d said.”

Her head bobbed up and down, a shuddering nod.  “There were reasons.  And all of them far beyond highballs and spirit boards.  I had made…deals, allied myself with others who went from playing to pursuing the dark things like I did.  Eager to, to become a part of what made the world turn, what really makes everything around us move forward.  You know,” her words came faster now, a burst of passion behind them, “that it is what comes out of the shadows that fuels what light we have. You know that.”

“No,” I said flatly.  “No, I don’t.”

Her face wrinkled in frustration.  “Well, it does. And I wanted to be a part of that. I was tired of being just a person, just someone else for others to use, to move around. I wanted to be a force, a shadow all my own.  And I was almost there. Almost there. But I couldn’t do it alone.  No one can access the dark things that way alone.  They…”her words caught in her throat, “they demand too much for just one person to be able to give that much.”

“So, you made deals.  And someone, one of your partners, crawfished you.  Made you a part of the process instead of one of the benefactors.”

“Thought you didn’t know anything about magic.”

“Never said that, just said I didn’t care for it.  You were double crossed.  Sacrificed.”

As the word left my mouth, her entire body trembled.  Violently shaking, sounds like sobs rippled out of her.  I stepped toward her, then stopped just as quickly.  Her black eyes burned like ebony flames, raging fires fueled by hatred unquenchable.

“Yes,” she seethed. “And that is why I am back.  For retribution.  They…” her voice was little more than a growl, although she struggled to keep the ladylike ring to it, “Someone used me.  Killed me, knowing I would come back, wanting me to so a ritual could be finished.  But the dark things, they were already in me. They made sure I came back, not mindless, not a thrall, but something else. Something that could take what I needed.”

“Yeah,” I barked, moving forward suddenly, slapping her hard across the face, “But what flavor?”  She jerked back, staring at me, her eyes wide with shock. I slapped her again hard across the left cheek. “You were dead.  You’re not now.  But,” she was looking at me once more, her black eyes narrowed, her scarlet lips opened, her breathing short and ragged, “the dead come back in so many ways on the side of the street you’re walking. So, what are you?” I hit her again on the opposite cheek with my open palm.  “Ghoul? Fiend? Somebody’s undead plaything?” She glared at me now, anger creasing her gray face. Her eyes were little more than black slits and the red lips peeled back, baring startlingly white teeth.  “For once in your life, Evelyn,” I roared in her face, “be honest with me and yourself! Show me what you are!”

I raised my hand to hit her once more, but was stopped in mid swing.  Her left hand now held my wrist, nails digging like tiny blades into my flesh.  The rage in her features had gone from fury to something bestial, the wrath of an animal.  Her eyes sliced through me, the black in them almost palpable, seeming to pour forth from them, threatening to envelop me.  And her teeth glistened. Especially the four canines. A little longer, sharpened to a needle point, and wet with saliva and need.

“There you go,” I said softly.  “Whoever did this to you expected a dumb little lamb wandering to the altar.  But, you came back as the hunter.”

As I spoke, her grip on my wrist relaxed. We both lowered our hands and I watched as her appearance changed once again. The teeth receded and her lips closed.  Anger flushed from her face, leaving only sadness. Her eyes widened again, though still dark like the night, and looked woefully at me.

“It’s…”, she struggled to speak, “not like the book…or those silly movies.  It takes time.  My heart, it’s even back together, though not like before.  It doesn’t beat, but it’s there.”

“I know,” I said, almost soothingly.  “Everything takes time, it’s how corruption works.  But,” I smiled, “Lugosi sure makes it look elegant.”

“Elegant.” The word had no meaning for her as she said it.  “It is an existence, like anything else.  I am controlled by the same emotions, the same needs. The same…appetite.  Just for different food.” She turned away, her head lowered.  “And those I feed on, they don’t change, they don’t become.  It’s…not like that.”

“No,” I said, reaching out to her, my hand falling gently on her shoulder. “That’s all fiction. Because the fact is too terrifying to believe.  The idea that a person dying with hate and unfulfilled vengeance in their heart is all it takes to come back as a vampire, most minds can’t deal with that.”

“Not all it takes, “she said quietly. “I opened myself up to this, up to all of it. And I can’t stop it. I can’t even find the one who did this to me, even though that is why…all of this.” She spun around, her hands grabbing my coat lapels, desperation wracking her entire body. “I can’t even get the bastard who did this to me! I get distracted! I get hungry and…”

“That’s why you came to me,” I said, knowing her words would have been something different. “You need a babysitter.  Someone to hold your hand.”

She let go of my coat with her right hand and slapped my face this time. “Go to hell, Mason.”

“No,” I said, grinning through the stinging pain, “not again.  All right,” I said, pulling away from her.  “I’ll play tour guide, make sure you don’t dine on the regular folk.  But,” the smile never left my lips, “I work pretty much like your ‘dark things’.  Nothing’s free once you walk through that door, doll.”

From somewhere around her waist I didn’t see, she raised her right hand, fingers splayed out. In her palm rested two coins. Gold.  “Something,” she said huskily, “I had hidden away.”

“Good thing for me the Ferryman didn’t check your bags,” I said, taking the gold from her hand.  “Now, you may not be Pied Pipering your way back to your killer like they planned.  But I bet you have an idea who the most likely candidates are.”

She nodded. “I only worked in the darkest things with two people.  William Bygard. And Fineas.”

“Okay,” I said, already walking toward the door.  “Your nightclub owning boy toy and the milquetoast husband.  Let’s start with obvious and work our way to ludicrous, then.”