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Words as Mood Setters…or Killers

As I was reading Chuck Wendig‘s blog this morning (as I do most mornings depending on the degree of my health or severity of my hangover) about “25 Reasons That Writers are Bug Fuck Nuts,” it occurred to me that, while he hit the most salient points, he forgot to mention a rather important one:

Writers are obsessed with the Hunt for the Perfect Word to set a mood.

Seriously, we are, and anybody who says differently has probably never written anything more descriptive than a grocery list, or maybe a suicide note.  Look at us, we have dictionaries and thesauri both written and digital, we have new words and clever descriptive phrases scribbled on crumpled cocktail napkins, old condom wrappers, and the backs of our hands. We have pile of books surrounding us, some dogeared and with particular passages underlined because we just happened to like another writer’s particular turn of phrase. We live for words, we worship them; they are both our tools and the bane of our existence. Finding the right word to set a particular mood is an obsession I tell you, and Word!Crack is more powerful than any drug ever made or imagined.

The question remains though, is the obsession for new words worth the effort?

Maybe, maybe not.  Like my favorite .45, words have appropriate and inappropriate uses, and should be tailored to the character using them. Words, again like a .45, can be mood makers and mood breakers.  You don’t think a .45 is a mood changer?  Wait until you have one aimed at your head.  I’ll wait right here while you change your shorts.

Right then, let’s take an example shall we?  (I can hear the moans from the back of the room.  Shut up and just go with me on this, okay?) Swell.

Let’s take three perfectly good English words…say evisceratedefenestrate, and buttocks. Got that?  Good. Three perfectly correct words that will make or break our scene depending on their appropriateness. Now to set the scenario.

It’s the climatic chapter of your novel, the Hero, let’s call him Randy Horndog, is finally facing off with the evil Demon, Shitforbrains. The Demon is armed with fangs, claws, and superhuman strength while our hero is down to only his trusty blade; it’s either one’s fight to win or lose as they are both in the process of bleeding out all over the white shag carpet in the fiftieth floor apartment belonging to Randy’s girlfriend. The floor and walls are awash with blood, every piece of furniture is in splinters, and the air in the room is heavy and close with the sharp scents of extra spicy testosterone, blood, and Demony evil. Got the mood here? Cool beans bucko. Hang in there.

Now, the expected dialog might be like:

Shitforbrains took a shuffling step backwards, more to give him relief from Randy’s bright, biting blade than fear of his Human opponent.

 “What now Horndog?” asked the Demon in a rasping voice.  “Do you really think that little pig sticker of yours can kill me?”

 Randy’s blood smeared lips curled into an evil sneer. “I ain’t gonna kill ya,” said Horndog. “The fall will do that.”

 “Fall?” asked the Demon.

 “Yeah, after I fuckin’ gut ya with this blade, I’m gonna toss yer bleeding Demon ass out that window.  We’re fifty floors up shithead.  Even you can’t survive a fall that.  Not in your condition. I’ll just sit hear and listen to your last scream all the way down until you splat on the pavement. Should be fun.”

Okay, bravado, desperation and imminent death all in one short scene. So what about our three words? Well, unless it’s Professor Randall Horndog of the Harvard School of English Literature, who moonlights as a wet work, black ops specialist for the CIA Department of Subterranean Affairs, you’re probably not going to hear:

 “Yes, the fall. You see after I eviscerate you, I thoroughly intend to defenestrate your buttocks.  We’re fifty floors up dear boy.  At an acceleration rate of fifteen feet per second per second, even you shant survive a fall like that.  Not in your present, weakened condition.”

Get it?  Our three words just killed the mood, even though they were used correctly. Words can be addictive, but it’s how we use them that makes or breaks the mood we strive to set for our readers’ entertainment.

My father once told me to never use a six-bit word when a two-bit word will do. Why did it take me so many years to realize the truth of this?

Hmmm, Demon killing, black ops moonlighting English Professor?  Might be a story there after all…and maybe not.

Confession time….

Yes, I’ve been away for a bit. ‘Nuff said.

It’s been said that confession is good for the soul. Maybe, maybe not, but I’m going for it anyway.

I have a jones for reading blogs with “helpful advice for writers.” Chuck Windig and Laura Anne Gilman come to mind as examples. One common theme amongst them is that the first draft of a story is essentially “word puke”…just get your shit down on the page and worry about edits and revisions later.  Do I listen to these people?  Do I follow their learned advise?  Oh hell no.  I can’t stop myself from going back a few chapters in the rough draft to “fix” things. I. Need. To. Stop. This. Shit.

I use Scrivener as my writing program. It has a thousand options for working with multiple levels of revisions, built in three by five cards and the like, but do I use them?  No.  I go back and change and change and change. It’s an addiction I tell you, and not a good one.

Now, I’ll freely admit to being a “pantser” rather than one who makes copious notes and reams of character sketches before a single word of the story hits the page.  Perhaps this is where I need to change. I don’t know. Every damn time I try to outline a story first, I wind up tearing my hair out, getting drunk, slamming my face into my keyboard, and wanting to just say “Fuck this” to the whole story idea.

Somewhere there must be a middle ground.  I just have to find it, lasso the sucker, and throw it on the grill before I fry my brain.

If I have any brain left that is. Personally, I have doubts.


Killing off a Good Guy

One of the joys of being a writer is the ability to emulate doG by creating entirely new worlds and populating them with creations from your mind, both with characters you love and characters you love to hate.  Killing off the bad guys is easy, killing off a good guy is harder but sometimes necessary.

If you’re a follower of the HBO adaptation of George. R.R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire, you might have read some of the outrage from watchers who raised holy hell when a favorite character was beheaded. I found the brouhaha…amusing.  Obviously these were people that had never read Martin’s books or were completely ignorant of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey  where sometimes the “Mentor” has to die in order for the “Hero” to progress in their own development to achieve their ultimate goal or resolution.  (If you’re unfamiliar with The Hero’s Journey, a good summary can be found here. If you write fiction, read it!)

A similar situation happened some years ago during Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, killed off one of a favorite pair of lesbian characters amidst cries of “foul” from fans and critics alike.  It proved to be necessary for the development of Willow, the remaining partner, as Whedon wanted to explore the trope of “addiction” in the following year. That said, the death of Tara  was still like a punch in the gut to many of us with some fans even going so far as to quit watching the show altogether.

In response to the fans who accused Whedon of giving in to the trope of a Lesbian romance never ending happily, he said something I’ve never forgotten.

“Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.”
~~Joss Whedon

So, yeah, if you find it necessary to kill off a character that you’ve sweated blood over creating, taken the time to give him or her a proper background and made them likable, or even lovable, even though you may want not to do it, you may have to send that character off screaming into the depths of Hell for the sake of your Hero’s further development.  It ain’t always easy to do this, but if you must, do it with style, and for the love of doG do it for the right reason. A senseless and useless death of a “good guy” character will get you naught but grief from your readers, but one done for the right reason will give you cred for knowing what the hell you’re doing as a writer.

Of course, it’s not always necessary for a good guy to die, but who the hell doesn’t like a little added angst and drama combined with some graphic blood and guts type slaughtering of the innocents? What!  You mean that’s just me?

I doubt it.

Capturing the Music of Madness

I have a small problem.  Well, actually, I have several, but I’m on medication and feeling much better now, thank you so much for asking.  No, I have a writing problem in that I have to come up with a character that is, well for the lack of a better term, nuts. You know, off his head, bonkers, stark raving, the “everything is a conspiracy” type; in essence, bat shit crazy. Not the Peter Rabbit hopped up on crystal meth, armed with a machete and a flamethrower looking to extract a little revenge on Farmer Brown crazy, but more like the quiet type of crazy.  The kind that sidles up to you at the bus stop crazy who makes you wish you’d bought that can of Mace, or perhaps looked into the firearm carry laws a little closer. The angry nut job, not the violent one.

As a writer I can write this person, but I needed help with the music of his dialog.  Music you ask?  Yeah, music.  To my ear every type of dialog has a pattern, a pacing, that to me sounds like music, or at least a syncopated pattern that approaches music.  You think I’m wrong?  Go read some Hemingway or Tennessee Williams or James Lee Burke.  All of them write beautiful dialog that literally flows off the page and oozes it’s sweet music into your subconscious. It’s a talent that I have yet to achieve, but I’m workin’ on it.

So back to my literary nut case.  I needed to find this pattern that the truly disturbed have.  It’s a staccato pattern, disjointed and irregular, but framed with just enough logic that after a few minutes you begin to question your own views.  Then, as they ramble on, you begin to hear the underlying anger, their discontent, and perhaps, their little bit of madness.  My problem was, how do I find people like this and where without putting myself in danger, or at the very least, in need of flea spray?

The answer came to me when I realized there are too many people in this country without enough to do, and most of the “tinfoil hat brigade” are hanging out on news sites posting comments to the stories. CNN seems to attract some of the more “eloquent” type.  Let me tell you something right now.  When a person has enough free time on their hands to comment on every damn story on a news site, and has the time to create their own avatar, and create a circle of like minded “friends” who comment on his comments, I’m not stupid enough to pass on this as a goldmine for how the angry ones think.  It can be, however, disturbing.

I may not need the flea spray after reading a few pages of this tripe, but I sure might order a bucket of brain bleach.  At least I got their “music” down.

It’s a start.

Nice Guys Finish Dead

This morning I find myself ready to block out the first fight scene in the new book which usually involves me jumping around the house like an idiot, swearing at an invisible opponent and carrying on like a demented person.  It may be crazy, but it works.  For me.  Your mileage may vary.

The first thing that came to my feeble mind was were some words of wisdom I once heard from my unarmed combat instructor many years ago.  “If you wanna lose a fight, hit somebody in the cake hole with your fist.”  Okay, I cleaned that up a bit, but you get the idea. The fistfight has become a trope, and a bad one usually.  Since I’m not shy about sharing my views I thought this a good time to share them with you.

It seems that no matter what genre of fiction I read or write, or you read or write, except perhaps a treatise on the mating habits of fluffy blue unicorns that crap rainbows, there is going to be conflict of the more physical nature,  like a fistfight.  We’ve all seen it or read it, the brave protagonist thrashes his/her adversary with a series of thunderous blows that render the brigand senseless after which the hero sweeps their lust object into their arms, safe at last.

So, what’s wrong with that you ask?  Just about everything.

Let’s get real for a moment. “Thunderous” blows only happen in sporting contests with rules, and usually involve padded equipment and a referee.  You don’t believe me?  Fine, go punch a brick wall with your bare fist and put everything you’ve got behind it. I’ll wait right here.

Done?  Good. Now do you feel like grabbing somebody and kissing them, or are you at the “Shit on a stick I think I broke something!” stage?  Believe me, there will be pain and tears and flowing of snot and blubbering, and much running to the Doctor to see why you can’t move your fingers before you feel like kissing anything.

Fists are not designed to hit jawbones, head bones or any other kind of bones. Finger bones will break and it hurts like hell.  This little fact was the reason I laughed like hell when I first saw Han Solo punch the shit out of an Imperial Storm Trooper who was wearing a helmet. A Helmet!  Are you fucking kidding me?  If Han had really punched somebody wearing a helmet, little Yoda would be raking up busted finger bones for a week. I know it’s fiction, but come on!  Let’s try for just a hint of realism here people.

So what do I do when my Heroine must fight off the Big Bad?  Any damn thing she can to win, EXCEPT punch the motherfucker with her fists.  He comes at her with his fists, she kicks him in the nuts and then stomps his head into mush.  He pulls a knife, she pulls out a sword.  He pulls a sword, she pulls out a fucking gun.  He pulls a gun, she pulls out a canon and blows his shit up, and then roasts marshmallows over his smoldering corpse.

When fighting for your life, either in fiction or reality, there are NO rules, only the determination to stay alive and not get your ass killed.  If you’re not willing to tear that son of a bitch a new asshole and skull fuck his rotting corpse, then just run away and hide and leave the fighting to somebody else. This of course does not make for exciting fiction, but it will keep you, or your protagonist, alive for another day.

People who fight with “honor” when their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, are at stake fucking deserve to die. It was beautifully summed up in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom movie where a sword wielding assassin rushes at Indie with this huge-ass scimitar. Jones watches the guy go though his kata, sighs, pulls his revolver, and shoots his ass dead.  Not exactly a “heroic” move, but Jones lived to fight another day.

Of course, there’s always the Hero or Heroine with “sooper-sekret” magical powers who can coldcock a dragon with one right cross…but that’s a subject for another post.