Like a Ferrari in Wyoming

Fear not gentle reader, I have not forgotten you.  The winter of our discontent is well nigh over. With sickness and familial obligations behind me and the black and sour scrapings of my soul shoveled into the furnace for yet another year, I’m ready to think and talk about writing once again.

Joseph Campbell. He could almost be your neighbor.

Joseph Campbell. He could almost be your neighbor.

Last post I referenced something called the Hero’s Journey. Also known as the “monomyth” it is the result of decades of research and curation on the part of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Presented for the masses in his book “Hero With A Thousand Faces”, Campbell felt that he had identified consistent themes and patterns within myth and lore across many cultures. While Campbell was mostly interested in what this told us about the human spirit and subconscious (he was after all a student of Jung), story tellers of all stripes and quality immediately embraced the formula as an aid to their own creative efforts. Campbell had exposed the bones of what storytellers had known intuitively for eons.

For those of us coming after, the neophytes and students of the craft, the Hero’s Journey is a life saver. Most of us have a world of ideas and characters running around, bumping off the empty places in our heads. Without direction they live like mayflies, buzzing about until they die. Some find a place on the page, but even then, it’s no guarantee they will be anything more than a disjointed collection of words, thoughts, and ideas. Every serious writer has a notebook full of just such writing.  The Hero’s Journey provides a skeleton upon which to hang these ideas, turning the soupy mass of story tissue into a living thing.

Richard and I found the Hero’s Journey to be invaluable in plotting out the last three Grapple Gun books.  In each case we had a strong grasp of the characters and setting.  We knew where we wanted to go. Richard, the primary writer and particularly adept at dialogue, had witty conversations already whipping back and forth between his ears. The Hero’s Journey helped us connect these multifarious dots and keep the action moving.

Ferrari's are weird.  They make me feel things an introverted nerd should not feel.  I think it might be my spirit animal.

Ferrari’s are weird. They make me feel things an introverted nerd should not feel. I think it might be my spirit animal.

Could we have done it without the prompting of this universal outline?  Probably, but there is a second factor to keep in mind: the audience.  Every medium has forms to which the audience has become accustomed. Television has it’s half hour comedies, and your movie needs an inciting incident exactly 12 minutes in. Epic fantasy can be 500 pages long, while your romantic novel better better have lip lock by page 150.  Like genre, adhering to these forms rarely has the effect of boring the given audience.  Quite the opposite actually. A classic O. Henry short story always has a twist and every reader loves knowing it’s just around the corner. Just like last time. The same is true of the Hero’s Journey.  Knowing that your hero will finally prevail against ever mounting odds often has the effect of forcing the reader to wonder how and what, propelling them through the story on the edge of their seat.  A well told story in a well worn format can be like a Ferrari in Wyoming: pure joy.

And so I turn to this journey in my own story. In the next few installments  I hope to break it down into steps along the Hero’s Journey, fleshing out an outline and identifying support characters.  Characters themselves fit into a series of archetypes along the Journey and Lord willing, we’ll explore that next.

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Meet the Protagonist

Before I get much farther into discussing the protagonist of my current work in progress (WIP) I think I should clarify a few things. There are a few readers I know who are at least a little disappointed to hear I am putting my efforts into something like urban fantasy. That’s understandable. My first post was a highly carbonated affair that implied this would be an entertaining trip, full of twists and turns and self deprecating humor. By the second post it turns out Ben was not at all kidding about the narcissism, and he thinks you might actually want to read some kind of horror/mystery thing that sounds mostly like something you wouldn’t read. It’s kind of like finding out you’re going on a family vaction to Florida…for grandma’s funeral.

Rest assured, despite our discussion of genre last week, I am not looking to write a horror story. Or a mystery story. Or a fantasy or even an urban fantasy. I want to write a good story. Whether it falls into a specific genre is mostly a question for it’s earliest beginnings (like now) and it’s final stages when marketing and Amazon categories becomes an actual concern. In the meantime, let’s talk about that protagonist and see where this ends up.

As I said in the last post, I wanted to avoid a lot of the classic tropes of young adult fiction and urban fantasy. As such, I knew immediately that the classic “chosen one” story line had to go. This was the seed.

What if the villain had already succeeded? What if he killed the chosen one and derailed the prophecy?

From this sprang not only a protagonist, but a story, and shortly, a story world. Let’s start with the protagonist.

Mike Sullivan by Dana Guerrieri

Mike Sullivan by Dana Guerrieri

Meet Mike Sullivan. He’s fifty something, a little overweight, and he’s been a cop his entire life. More specifically, he’s been a heavy hitter in the St. Louis City Homicide Division. A legend in his own right, they say if Mike Sullivan can see a crime scene he can find you a suspect, every time. A married father of three, Mike’s gift for investigation has allowed him to lead a relatively idyllic life, especially in a career which eats healthy relationships for breakfast.

I should note here that like it or hate it, I make extensive use of the classic Jung/Campbell “Heroes Journey” form. It’s a good framework to start with and it fits well. Most people who claim to hate it are actually using it. It’s kind of magical like that.

In our heroes journey, this would be Mike’s “normal world”. He’s in a good place. It’s stable and safe. Like any good adventure however, there’s something lurking just beneath the surface which is threatening to break everything.

In our case the call to adventure came eight months ago when Mike picked up the biggest case of his career, a certified red ball. In police slang, a red ball is a high profile career making case. It’s a media feeding frenzy and the mayor calls your sergeant to check on your progress. It takes the highest priority and riddled gangstas and homeless beatings can wait. It flies in the face of “justice for all” but such is the way of the world.

In this case, the red ball is a bizarre multiple homicide featuring eleven carefully arranged corpses in a snow filled construction site near the river. How they got there or why is a mystery, as is their multi-national origin.

It’s stone cold “whodunit” and despite his reputation, the case appears to be unsolvable. Then, just as Mike appears to be on the cusp of a breakthrough he is found almost dead, run through with what appears to be a large sword. With no recollection of his attacker and the case taken from him by an FBI taskforce,  Mike’s life starts to spin apart. Obsessed with the case & his own attack , Mike meets his failure with rage and confusion. Before long, his wife of thirty years is taking an extended visit with relatives in Chicago and his sergeant has relegated him to administrative purgatory.

And there is where I leave you today, fair reader.  Our protagonist is born and with him, the tiniest kernel of a world.  From this I have a thousand questions that need answered. Research projects are born and an entire cast now waits in the wings.  More importantly I’ve poured storytelling gasoline on this otherwise boring pile of paper.  Something is going to happen.

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He Will Not Be Buffy Summers

My primary work in progress was born out of a late night conversation with my wife. I was frustrated with my waning ability to create original characters from whole cloth, something I had reveled in throughout my teens and early twenties. These days I was spending too much time reading about and building worlds and not enough time filling them with anything alive. World building is great and fun, but world building on its own is essentially like building a museum diorama. It only comes to life if exposed to ancient Egyptian magic and turns into dust if outside the museum after sunrise.

As such, I set out to create a protagonist first. In building the world around him and developing the cast I wanted to move in concentric circles, spiraling outward. Character was to be the center of it all. After all, no character no story. Is this the right way to create a story? I have no idea. I’m making this up as a go along. Isn’t that how you write?

All of that said, before one can even begin to create a protagonist, you have to at least know what genre you’re working in.  Genre gives us a sense of familiarity and streamlines the storytelling process.  Ghost stories are mostly scary because you know they are supposed to be scary and you’re sitting around a campfire.  Comedians are very often funny because we expect them to be funny.

Further, for the writer, defining the genre helps you know what you absolutely need in your story.  Romance needs some form of attraction and a reasonable amount of relational intrigue.  Historical drama is going to require some historical context and a few useful facts.  Science fiction needs science.

I knew from the start that I wanted to write something in the urban fantasy genre.

*saxophone wails*

This guy sucks at relationships.

This guy sucks at relationships.

Urban fantasy is basically what happened when Detective Fiction with his three day stubble and trench coat and burnt out world view ran into the raven haired femme fatale that is pulp fiction Horror. Turns out they lived on the same street, drank at the same bars, and kicked the same dogs when they stumbled home at dawn. She was intriguing and dangerous and wore a dress the color of blood in dark alleys. There was something otherworldly about her and Detective Fiction couldn’t stay away if he wanted to.

But they weren’t good for each other. Not at all.   Detective Fiction always wanted an explanation, something neat and clean, something scientific where he could hang his hat every night. Horror wasn’t that kind of girl. She didn’t settle down. She didn’t have any explanations and she didn’t care. Take it or leave it, jack.  What you see is what you get and you’ll never see enough.

It was a short, torrid thing, and nine months later, there was a little screaming thing left on some authors back step.  They called him Urban Fantasy. The name didn’t really fit that well. He didn’t look much like his Uncle Fantasy at all and there was a general lack of elves and dwarves and poetry. But he was something special.  How did you explain the inexplicable? Nobody knew, but Urban Fantasy did it and it was different every time. People ate it with a spoon. Pretty soon one day, Fantasy put down his lute, Detective Fiction looked up from his cards, and Horror licked her lips and there he was, standing there in a hat too big for him, silver bullets in an old revolver.

*record screech*

Short version? Urban fantasy combines mysterious supernatural elements with the classic tropes of detective fiction. Imagine the dark forest of classical fantasy, full of spiders and evil wizards and make it any big city since the Industrial revolution.  Throw in a slightly rumpled but good hearted rogue, some shady deals, a bar, and boom. Genre.

(This is not meant to be comprehensive discussion of the genre or genre’s in general. In fact, I think probably the best writers start with a genre and end up somewhere in between genres. It’s not a bad place to start however.)

While I wanted to write urban fantasy,  I didn’t want it to be like everything I was already seeing.  I didn’t want the protagonist to be a capable, yet sexy female.  I don’t have anything against these kinds of characters per se.  I married one.  It’s simply been done and for purposes of a central character, I wanted something different.    The world doesn’t necessarily need another Anita Blake or Rachel Morgan or Charlie Madigan or Buffy Summers.

Little known fact: The Hellgate beneath Sunnydale High is actually where most of our urban fantasy tropes come from.  True story.

Little known fact: The Hellgate beneath Sunnydale High is actually where most of our urban fantasy tropes come from. True story.

I also knew I didn’t want the character to be “chosen” or prophesied or part of some pre-existing secret society.  I didn’t want to tell a story where the hero has to decide to embrace his destiny or wallow in angst ridden recrimination and self-loathing.  I didn’t want to write a story where the new comer overcomes the ancient unstoppable villain who has thrashed all the older and more experienced people by sheer luck or pluck or unique perspective.  The character needed to be able to contribute in a meaningful way beyond serving as a cipher for the audience.

Some of those tropes annoy me. Some of them only really worked that one time when none other than J.R.R Tolkien did it.  Sometimes, it’s simply that those stories have been told and infinitely better than anything I can expect to create.

With all those things in mind, I knew my protagonist would not be young, or female, or a vampire/werewolf/wizard.  While this means I’ve probably murdered any possibility of capturing a “Young Adult” category on Amazon, and a huge segment of potential readership, I’m going to be okay with that.  Most of us aren’t six to eight year old girls, and yet somehow we all love and relate to Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   Most of us alive today didn’t survive the horrors of the Second World War, and yet we empathize with Captain America’s sense of displacement and cultural whiplash.  All of our Hollywood stars look better on screen than we ever did at our prime and yet in every decent movie we project, making their adventures ours.  In the end, it comes down to that classic admonition from Neil Gaiman: make good art.  Make it good and people will read it.

So who is my protagonist?  Can you just tell us?  Next time, good readers. Stay tuned. We’re getting there.

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Now With More Piranha

You are about to experience unbelievable narcissism. If you read this blog, you are about to let a would-be author talk to you about their “book” for as long as you let him. This is never a good idea. It’s the awkward death of dinner parties and coffee dates. Otherwise friendly and enthusiastic family and friends get glazed expressions when you start to talk about “your book”. Given a few more Thanksgivings and Christmases, “your book” starts to get treated like your cousin’s alcohol problem.  We know it exists, but can we just not talk about it?

It’s even worse if they are writing fiction.

“Creative” writers believe in themselves to an inordinate degree. We think we have interesting ideas and that you should like them. And there are a lot of us. Walking through the genre fiction aisle at your average big box book store is like kicking two day old road kill in summer. Authors rise buzzing from the carcass of science fiction or fantasy or romance in sun blocking hordes.  Turn the bloated thing over and you’ll see all the little wannabe’s they’ve left behind, pupescent and wriggling, fighting for their own little piece of the rot.

If Ben in fact knows he’s a really boring self-involved maggot in a stinky meat sweater, why is he doing this to us?

The shortest possible answer is, he needs to. Which is not to say you need to read his blog. As introverted as he tends to be in public, Ben is a social creature when it comes to creativity.  He needs to talk things through, write things down, and run it up the flag pole. He needs sticky notes on the wall, and starving artists who’ll draw him character art on the semi-cheap. He also apparently talks about himself in third person. He might need to get that looked at.

This is how Rube Goldberg sharpened a pencil.  This is also how Ben thinks. It doesn't necessarily work every time.

This is how Rube Goldberg sharpened a pencil. This is also how Ben thinks. It doesn’t necessarily work every time.

The other reason is accountability. Richard Rohlin, the creative juggernaut behind Grapple Gun Publishing is often the recipient of my nascent creativity. While Richard squirrels away knowledge in Evernote next to his long form poetry and carefully plotted epics, I’m a Rube Goldberg story machine. I never realize I need a piranha until after the mash potatoes are sliding down the wall. Recognizing my lack of piranhas, Richard suggested I start a blog to serve as a way to trace my progress toward a goal and ensure that I do in fact continue making progress. He’s kind of a genius like that.

Therefore, gentle reader, thou hast been warned.  Lo, we are about to get creative way up in this joint.

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