Commentary: Traits of the Medium

Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do. 

Writing violent action is difficult. Part of that is just a characteristic of writing: the dramatic and exciting action sequences that we love to see on the big screen don’t translate well to the written page. Fight scenes, driving scenes, and the like are visual and auditory in nature, and therefore don’t come across well to a reader as they would to a viewer.

So what am I to do? The story as I’m writing it has a fair amount of action in it. How can I write action in a way that can be exciting to the reader? Well, I can take cues from people that already do. How do my favorite writers compose their action scenes?

In many cases, they don’t write the action per se. Describing the blow by blow can get tedious, the opposite of what you want in an action scene. Instead, it seems that my favorite authors focus on what the medium is good at: details, internal reactions, and talking about something that goes beyond the concrete events. Take a look at a graphic novel and see how much writing goes into the average fight scene. Characters may have extended conversations while trading punches, or give mental monologues on the larger context. It’s rare that I come across drawn panels that are “silent;” Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a good counterexample.

Or take one of my favorite television writers, Bryan Fuller. His show Hannibal (one of my all-time favorites) features quite a lot of violence, much of it rather brutal. But unlike other shows about similar subjects, Fuller takes his time with the scenes. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead or Grimm, where battles may take up to two minutes of punch after punch, Hannibal fight scenes over in seconds, much like how a fight would go in real life. The difference is that Fuller lingers over the fight, focusing on characters’ faces as they grapple in both physical and mental realms. In this way, the battle becomes an effective opportunity for character development, and maybe even larger themes of violence and trauma. Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do.

I’m no Bryan Fuller (yet), but I will take this lesson, that violence and action in a story should be deliberate, purposeful, and a character can’t get away with being violent and expect to be unaffected, even if they are physically unharmed.

XV.b. The Devil I Don’t Know

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not? I’d like to know about any monster people that want to stab me, if that’s not too much to ask.”

Spin, slap, toss, kick. 

No thought, no pause, no fear. 

The gun is still midair as I sidekick his stomach. He crumples, hissing at me. My assailant is lithe and lanky, and he almost coils on the ground. Between the green tatters of what used to be a military uniform and the scaly, warty scabs on his exposed skin, he looks reptilian. The hissing doesn’t help.

I’m about to go for the gun when he snaps out a switchblade and leaps up to attack again.

Lunge bob slash weave stab sidestep. My mind doesn’t know how to do this, but my muscles remember. And he seems predictable, as if I can see where the knife will be and I move to be somewhere else.

There. He goes wide with a slash, I go in and punch him right in his gut. He squeals and falls again, and this time he stays down, whimpering.

Stones clattering.

It was almost invisible with all the waves of heat radiating off the pavement, but with a misplaced step, I know where to look. A humanoid shape, outlined in bent sunlight, creeping closer to me. And a second, third, fourth.

Shit. Where was that gun again?

Oh right, I have one.

I fumble a bit pulling the gun out of my belt, and that’s all they need. One of them cuts my arm, and drop the gun with a yelp.

Focus on staying alive. Don’t let them touch you. 

We dance, these copper-scaled madmen and I. When I stop thinking, stop planning, everything seems to flow. I thread between their knives, dodging and striking. The air crackles with static, and I feel an energy course through my limbs, sourceless and diffused. It clears the fuzz in my mind, the clogged lactic acid from my stiff joints, and then I am spinning, wheeling, laughing.

I punch with a snapping spark, and a scaly man shoots backwards like a rubber band. The others pause, staring at the electricity arcing between my fingers.

That’s new.

They seem to think so too. They turn tail and run, fading into the air with a shimmer. The two that I dropped just groan in pain.

I breathe toasted air. My adrenaline fades, and the lightning fades as well. I’m about to go when I catch my reflection in the mirrored walls of Prosper Tower. The burns have started to heal. The shiny, bloody blisters have started fading, turning pink.

Abel has a lot of explaining to do.

 

“Lightning, huh?”

“Don’t forget the invisible snake people.”

“Oh, the Copperfangs aren’t anything new. Just crazier than they used to be.”

Good to know.

“Abel, are you going to tell me what’s going on or not? I’d like to know about any monster people that want to stab me, if that’s not too much to ask.”

“Let’s get somewhere safer, and then I’ll try to answer your questions.”

“Fine. I could use the exercise.”

We set off through the streets, guns in hand. If the sun is moving, it’s difficult to tell. Haze diffuses light almost uniformly, and shade is hard to come by. Abel brought me a scarf to cover my face and head, so instead of sunburns I just have my own choking sweat to worry about. We creep through a vacated city, past storefronts with windows smashed and wares looted, wheelless rickshaws and overturned street vendor kiosks. At first, I think I can hear animal cries: barking dogs and screeching birds, but the longer I listen, the more they sound like people. Their notes sound imitative, like an actor offstage creating sound effects. Every time we hear them, Abel leads me in the opposite direction.

Our path traces alleys and backstreets, intersecting wheel spokes and widow webs. Buildings constructed of sandstone and limestone, painted and plastered with advertisements. “Heavenly Styles at Earthly Prices!” next to theatrical costumes with lozengy patterns. “LIVE with PURPOSE: CASH by Chariot” above a crowing white rooster. “BOGO: Seizing Destiny + Guiding Destiny” under a pair of eponymous books that look like memoirs. Interspersed with these are bits that sound more like propaganda. “The Eyes of the Future are Upon Us” accompany a huge pair of blue eyes, one deep and the other light. “Defender of the People” proclaims a poster of a winged man with a comedy mask cracking a whip at mythical beasts with mixed animal parts. “Who Counsels the Consul?” seems to suggest the insincerity of a sneering woman gripping the comedy mask in absurdly clawed hands. Many of these posters have been stuck over each other, silent debates raging on the walls.

Our stumbling path takes us eventually to an open square, which an arched sign above the entrance declares “Martyr’s Quad.” Gazing over the square, almost untouched by whatever happened before I woke up, is a shining bronze statue of a woman in robes and a spiky crown. “Our Fallen Star,” says the plaque at the base. She holds a pitcher tipped towards her bare feet, but if water once flowed here, it’s stopped now. The face is angular, fierce, determined. Did her sacrifice achieve the victory she hoped for?

Abel heads to a large, sturdy door in the center of one of the apartment blocks framing the square. Unlike the other flats, the door is still on its hinges. He fiddles with a keyring and opens a series of locks, hauls it opens and we slip inside.

He lets out a slow whistle. The flat — if that would be an appropriate name — is lavish. Gold-leaf symbols accent the wallpaper, from which hang paintings of fractals. The floor is tiled in different colors of marble, and the furniture is embroidered with tessellating animal shapes that flow from one into another, a raven’s beak in the nook of a tiger’s arm, an angel cradling a pair of koi. And clocks, everywhere. Grandfather clocks loom along the walls like suits of armor, orreries hang from the ceiling, even the table in the entryway seems to be a clock, concentric rings marking out increments of time out to months.

And it all has stopped. No ticking or grinding, no mechanisms turning. No light, either, besides what pours in from the doorway. It’s enough to see the wealth, the obsession, and the loneliness.

“No accounting for taste, huh Alex?”

“I think the accounting was pretty good, if you ask me.”

Another chuckle. I’m getting good at this. “But this is—” He stops. “Never mind. We should find the backup sphere.”

Is it even worth asking at this point?

We move through the flat, living room, kitchen, den, library; each room as ostentatious as the first, each chaotic with symbols and timepieces. One of the bookcases swings out on oiled hinges, behind which is a spherical device made of glass and intersecting rings made of precious metals.

“Want to do the honors?”

“What?”

“Turn it on.”

“With what switch?”

“Just give it a little zap.”

“Excuse me?”

“Like you did with the Copperfangs. It needs a jolt.”

“And how exactly do I do a ‘little zap?’”

“Hell if I know.”

Okay, improv. I place a hand on the sphere, and unbidden, I feel a pulse. It starts at the base of my spine, courses up and out, vibrates my skin. I feel warm, then hot, then wired. The sensation fills my brain, my vision glows, and electricity branches from my fingers to the sphere. Flanges on the inside of the rings start spinning, and we have our lightning in a bottle.

The lights come on, incandescent and warm, casting the gold-leaf into brilliance.

“Nice.”

“I summon lightning and the best you can say is ‘nice?’”

“Let’s make sure the rooms upstairs are clear.”

We head up to the residential part of the suite, with an office, some kind of laboratory, and a locked bedroom.

“What is this place,” I ask as Abel opens the door.

FLASH. The lights blind me for a moment. And then, a woman’s voice.

“Alex, a little privacy please.”


For commentary on this chapter, click here.

Commentary: The Stranger that the Author Hasn’t Met

“While I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.”

If you’re reading this, then we’ve both met someone new today.

I’ve been thinking about this story for the better part of four years, and in that time I’ve come up with a wide cast of characters, both main and supporting. But as I was doing one last look over my notes on greater story structure, I realized that I was missing a character. Namely, the character of Abel Carter. No spoilers in giving away his last name; it’s just a placeholder anyways, as is normal for early drafts.

Specifically, Abel has existed in the story for some time, but not in the form or place that I’m now using him. The original version of this portion of Angelfools had Alex waking up alone in the rubble, and spending much of the what follows alone with his own thoughts. While that may be easier to write, it isn’t very interesting. What’s more: I wasn’t doing that with other parts of the story that you’ll read soon. In my first layout of the story arc, Alex doesn’t have contact with other people for a bit, and yet he manages by himself. But I think that in this early stage, with both the reader and the protagonist largely ignorant as to what is happening, it’s important to have someone act as an anchor.

Abel is that anchor — for the moment. He knows more about the catastrophic situation than Alex does, and he knows Alex as well. But because Alex doesn’t know Abel yet, they can develop a relationship that is both independent and dependent on previous interactions, which Alex and the reader get to discover as time goes on.

From a different perspective, Abel and I the author get to discover a new relationship as well. Abel is a bit of an experiment. Of all my characters, the fact that he is the youngest of my brainchildren means that he is the least developed in my mind. I know less about his speech patterns and habits. And while I know the broad strokes of his motivations, I have yet to learn about the nuances.

So this journey that we take together, you the reader and Ben the writer, is at least partly a journey into the unknown. Although I can guide you through much of Fortune’s Coast and the story of Angelfools, there are some parts that will grow organically as I write. This is one of them. I’m excited to get to know Abel Carter, and I hope you are as well.

XV. The Devil I Don’t Know

“We aren’t the only survivors, but most aren’t as friendly or as well spoken as I am.” 

Dry.

Everything is dry. My mouth, my eyes, the air. The sky is dry, baked and hollow. I can see it through a hole in the rubble, noon haze glaring at me.

Can’t move. Limbs numb.

Footsteps. Someone else survived.

“Help.” Cracked and thin. Have to do better than that.

“Help!”

Third time’s a charm.

“HELP ME!”

“Don’t move!” No risk of that. “I’m getting you out of there!”

A silhouette appears, haloed by the parched sky. The rubble shifts, and he levers a slab of wall off me. Needles of pain pierce my legs as blood flow returns, and I can’t keep the scream in.

“Sorry, friend. No getting around it. Come on, up you go.”

An arm under my legs, another under my back. I shut my eyes, but the glare is still orange through the lids. He sets me on unsteady feet, and I lean on him.

“Let’s get you out of the sun.”

We hobble this way or that way, I don’t bother complaining. I’m sure he gets the idea from my groans of pain. Legs quaking from circulation, skin blistered and burnt, head ringing.

Then shade. Blessed shade. And blessed water. Warm, but wet. HE only lets me drink for a few seconds.

“Not too fast, friend, you’ll get sick.”

“Thank you,” I gasp. Not so cracked, still thin. “More, please.”

Another quick sip.

I breathe for a while. It’s not so orange anymore. I blink, rub my eyes. Mistake. The eyelids are burnt, inflamed.

“Easy there,” my rescuer says, voice muffled. “You must have been caught in the blast like me. You look terrible.”

“How bad is it?”

“You won’t win any elections, but I’ve seen worse.”

“Well, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

He chuckles. I blink again, and now I’m starting to see contrasts, dark against light. Buildings blocking out the diffused sun. A man crouched in front of me, swathed in linen wraps. His face is covered with a scarf, hood up. A pair of gloves lie in the dust next to him, by the canteen. His hands are covered in shiny pink blisters, and he’s holding some kind of spear.

“Where are we?”

“Templeton, just on the edge of Prosper Plaza. That’s Prosper Tower behind me. Well, what’s left of it.”

I lean and squint, then wince away. The tower is a jagged pillar of light, glass and steel. It’s mostly shattered and twisted, but it’s reflecting the sun all the same.

“What happened? You said there was a blast.”

He squats, hands on his knees. “You don’t remember? It was kinda hard to miss.”

“I remember the blast, but nothing else. Everything’s shuffled.”

“You probably hit your head.”

“I think I hit a lot more than my head.”

“At least you didn’t forget a sense of humor.”

“Small favors.” I give him a once over. “You’re burned all over?”

“My own mother wouldn’t recognize me. I’ll try and find you some sturdier clothes; you won’t get far in those.”

He points at my rags. Whatever pattern may have marked them is burned and blasted away, and the skin isn’t much better. The pain has subsided to a low simmer, so there’s that.

“Listen friend,” he says. “We can’t stay here very long. I’m going to go find us some supplies, and then we have to get out of the open.”

“Why?”

“We aren’t the only survivors, but most of the others aren’t as friendly or as well spoken as I am.”

“Lay off the charm, I’m not voting for you.”

He presses a gun into my hand. “Just in case.”

“I didn’t get your name.”

He extends a hand. “Abel.”

“Alex.” Before I can shake, he jerks it away. I can’t see his face, or his eyes, but I think he’s looking at the gun he just gave me. After a long moment, he takes my hand.

“I’ll be back soon. Don’t do anything foolish.”

***

Foolish. And I heard a voice calling me “Fool” before I blacked out. Might be a coincidence, might not.

I clearly mean something to him, and not in a good way. Do I have a reputation? He didn’t recognize me, but that may be thanks to the burns. Exactly how bad do I look?

Mirror. The tower has reflective stuff all over it.

What could it hurt?

Now that I’ve rested for a few minutes, I don’t feel as bad as I thought. Legs starting to feel again, eyes adjusting to the day. I survey my surroundings.

The plaza — Prosper Plaza? — is a vast hexagon surrounding the tower. Debris litters the space: smashed kiosks and wares, torn clothing and trampled food, sandstone rubble and spent coins. I pick one up, careful not to cut myself on the filed edge. One side bears a six-winged figure, the other a geometric pattern of crossing and parallel lines.

No weapons, and no bodies. Could be more than one reason for that.

And it’s quiet. No wind, no birds, no insects. Just my footsteps, cautious and tender.

Oh, I’m wearing boots. I hadn’t noticed before. Probably why my feet aren’t burning off. Gotta be grateful for the little things.

And then I see my reflection in the mirrored tower walls. I almost retch.

My face — what used to be my face — is one massive sore. Angry and bloody, inflamed with burns. If I had hair, it’s gone now. Eyebrows too. I crane closer. Yup, took the eyelashes for good measure. But my eyes, remarkably, look pretty okay. No burnt retina or red sclera, and I can open and close them without problem. Brown irises, so that’s normal. Again, little things.

Nearby, I think I see the place where Abel dug me out. A slab of concrete and rebar has been overturned. There’s a jacket lying underneath, tattered and torn. But I recognize the pattern, the crimson and sky-blue diamonds.

Mine. 

And next to it, also mine? A metal rod, engraved with a spiral design along its length like a coiled spring. There’s a holster on my belt that looks like they were meant to be to together.

Rod, jacket, and a face to my name. Not bad. And I didn’t get myself hurt on the way.

CLICK.

Damn.


For commentary on this chapter, click here.

Commentary: Now You Know Everything

What’s the point of reading a whole novel if you know everything on the first page?

Think about the openings to your favorite novels. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the classic, with its “best of times” “worst of times” passage. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has another great one, with a Dick and Jane primer passage that disintegrates into madness: “hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhitewithareddoor….” Other media do this also; who can forget “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” or “Space: the final frontier”?

One of my English teachers once told me that a truly great story will tell you everything that the story is about within the first page, or even in the first paragraph. Parsing the opening of a work of literature can reveal all the important themes, many significant symbols, and sometimes even key character relationships.

So what, then, is the point of reading a whole novel if the first page tells you everything? Then again, the first page doesn’t tell you everything. It’s more like a teaser than a spoiler. Does the first passage of the novel show you something that you like? Does this sound like a story and a writing style that you’ll enjoy? The trick is to tell the reader everything while keeping almost everything a secret. One of my favorite novels, The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer, starts at the end of the story. The fun is finding out how a greeting-card writer ended up trapped on a zeppelin with the frozen body of a brilliant inventor and the disembodied voice of his insane daughter. Now you want to read it, right?

This is a lesson that I’ve tried to enact here in Angelfools. If you’ve only read the prologue, I would imagine that you’re very confused. I’ve given you the name of our protagonist, a very bizarre scene of him falling to an imminent death, and pretty much nothing else story-wise. But I’ve tried to weave in some important images and themes that will recur throughout. Nonlinear time is key to the plot structure of Angelfools, and I want to make that clear to the reader right at the beginning. Maybe I can even introduce some camaraderie between Alex and the reader, as he is clearly as confused about his situation as the audience is, if not more so. Unlike comparable novel openings where we don’t start at the beginning of the story, Alex doesn’t know how he got to this point(s) in time. We get to experience the journey along with him.

Astute readers will also figure out my primary inspiration for this story, and perhaps will know a bit more about where we’re going as a result.

Side note: this story is based on a long poem that I wrote about four years ago, and I’ve preserved the images here that I used in the opening of that poem. One of these images was the “blossom of cream in coffee,” which inspired the sketch that accompanies the prologue.

Prologue: 0. I am Fortune’s Fool

“I am not falling through time, but suspended beside it, watching it pass while I hover in the aether, holding an hourglass by the neck.”

Cards.

Falling cards.

Or maybe they’re dancing, marionettes on strings.

It’s like watching cream bloom in coffee. The first memory buds out of the darkness, then the whole blossom unfurls. For all of our accomplishments in science, we can’t explain the pattern of cream in coffee. It follows its own geometry, its own physics.

Focus on the cards. 

They turn their faces to me, then their backs; they know I’m watching. These aren’t playing cards, with simple pips marking number and suit. More like tarot cards, for telling fortunes. A face here, a scene there. Objects, people, buildings, none of them familiar to me. They arrange themselves into tableaus, overlaid and reversed. Then with a breath, scattered like sand.

Well this is a shitty memory palace. Who designed this thing?

And am I in this somewhere? Which face belongs on mine? Am I the tuxedoed young magician, debonair and suave? Or the sharply dressed heiress in white and gold, smoldering and savvy? Perhaps I am the masked man, horns and spear forming an uneven crown. And as I question the deck, a consistency emerges. I see the character who recurs in more places than he should if he wasn’t important. But he looks so…silly. Do I really think that blue and red lozenges are the best fashion choice? What possessed me to wear a jacket that looks like a circus outfit? Perhaps it’s symbolic, and I play the clown in this story. Here I am dancing on a chimney, there holding someone with a blurred face in my arms, here at the head of a righteous army, there hanging from a tree by my feet, bound up by ribbons. And there I am falling from a tower, surrounded by shards of sparkling stained glass.

Or is that happening right now? 

Here I am falling from a tower, dressed in red and blue motley like an idiot, ground rushing up to say hello. It’s raining, for what that’s worth. Why does that seem unusual?

But am I the one falling, or am I standing at the crown of the tower looking down, as another man plunges to his doom? Here the rain is still, drops suspended as we tumble together. There they slice through thin and thirsty air, and I look down on their descent.

Or am I already fallen, lying on my back with the rain in my face? Who is the other in the dust beside me? Who tugs at my arms, calling a name?

Alex. My name is Alex. I can work with that.

***

I turn to the tower as I fall, and it rushes by sideways like a train behind schedule. I am not falling through time, but suspended beside it, watching it pass while I hover in the aether, holding an hourglass by the neck.

The other man twists as he falls, a clock face with arms spinning dozens of hours per second. Indigo skies above, carnelian sands below. And the rain, teal and metallic.

And then I am the victim, falling with both sky and sands on my coat of office. But so slowly! Have I passed the event horizon, or not yet reached it?

And then I am the victor, watching my rival take the express route down. Something is in my hand, something hard and sharp. A weapon? A trophy? A crown, perhaps? And a chorus from the pit below me, thousands chanting a name as they welcome me onto the throne.

Motley. Really? I guess that explains the costume.

***

Something about this feels unnatural. Not the plummet through space to my imminent death, that part seems normal. Should I be more disturbed about this? I feel tranquil; nothing holding me back, or down, or up for that matter. My knuckles are bruised, and my muscles are tense. Had I been fighting someone? Did I lose?

Too many questions. Focus on what you know to be true. 

My name is Alex Motley, apparently. I am wearing some kind of costume or uniform. I am falling through the air very quickly. It is raining in the desert. I am surrounded by memories that I do not remember.

The landscape widens, and I can see the city spinning below me, six great radial avenues spoking a municipal wheel with the tower at the center, grinding the coastline between desert and ocean, smoke coiling up like springs from patches of electric orange light before being shredded by the rain.

So the city is burning. Good to know, since I seem to be heading in that direction real fast.

At terminal velocity, the drops of rain seem as solid as the particles of glass. I turn my face to the trembling sky, clouds beating like an anxious heart.

The flash.

What was dark and steel is bright and blinding, a cascading eruption of electricity spreading across the heavens. It starts at the tower’s crown, bursting out in a web of fractal light. Bolts lance down through the air, spearing the city. The glossy black tower is filled with white fire, ripping it apart from the inside faster than I am falling. It shatters the windows, and I am pierced with lightning.

I see three skies filled with elemental wrath. In the dust looking up, on the tower looking down, and falling looking sideways. As above, so below. And in between I suppose.

The lightning passes through me. I am a conduit for power. The air goes white, and I go black. One word before I fade.

Fool.


For commentary on this chapter, click here.

Welcome to Fortune’s Coast

The start of a new journey

Friends, family, and curious readers: welcome to Angelfools, a novel published weekly as I write it. This project is one that I’ve been keeping on the back burner for the better part of four years, and now that I’ve graduated and have evenings to myself again, I think it’s high time I actually started it.

A lot has gone into this story already, even though it isn’t written yet. I’ve taken copious notes on trivia and esoterica, created a robust cast of characters with placeholder names,  mapped out a convoluted plot that will probably change twice as many more times as it has already, and even put together some concept art (which will hopefully be joined with more illustrations as I continue). As I publish each installment, I hope to also provide commentary about the writing and storytelling process (spoiler free).

As with any project of this scale, I owe much to other people for inspiration and advice. For now, I’ll start by thanking my friend Ted Tinker for publishing his own novel in a similar format, as I’ve been invigorated by his example (I also got the commentary idea from him; good writers use other good writers’ techniques). You should definitely check out his novel Akayama DanJay, a story about “reincarnation, hallucinogenic bugs, and giant space robots.” It’s a real treat to read.

The first chapter of Angelfools is available here. I hope you’re excited to read this story, because I’m excited to tell it.