Another beautiful weekend here in Baltimore, which means that my laziness quotient was bound to increase at an exponential rate, which means that I spent most of the weekend going to the park, drinking beer, and blowing up a virtual recreation of 1940s Europe online with a band of weirdoes from Scotland with names like AssKillah095. It’s sad, because despite my very full life, I manage to squeeze in more time wasted than a bunch of potheads in a basement with the shades drawn.
It’s bizarre holding an Advance Reader’s Copy in my hand again. It’s a feeling of, “Uh oh, here we go again.” With the ARC of Funny Little Monkey there was an accompanying feeling that anything was possible and that things were about to take off. This time, with Jo-Jo and the Fiendish Lot, that feeling has been supplanted with a combination of anticipation and dread. I guess you could say I’ve been educated. On a side note, I spent a good ten minutes online making the rounds of the Young Adult Lit network I used to surf regularly, updating myself on what’s been going on since my last book. All the stalwarts are there, friends and acquaintances. Mostly it just reveals how much reading I have to do. No more rereading “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” or that episode guide to The Simpsons. That’s why I chose to break from my weekend laziness to venture to do one productive thing, and that was to venture to the library and snatch up a stack of middle grade series books, including The Sisters Grimm, Chet Gecko, The Spiderwick Chronicles, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Chasing Vermeer, to name a few. I guess you could say I’m working on something. Something specific.
I’ve also been kept pretty busy at work, where my compatriots and I have been busily crafting what will most likely be the greatest video game story since…well, since last year’s “Bioshock.” It’s been interesting working with a group of writers as opposed to being in a group of writers. I’m a lot crankier a collaborator than I remembered. They assuage me with coffee and small travel-sized bottles of whiskey, and most of the time I keep the baseball bat in the bottom drawer…most of the time.
Sure, there are a lot of problems with it. Your character can essentially die fighting a monster, come back to life, find the monster still smarting from the previous tussle, die fighting it again, and then come back for more until the cycle grows boring or the beast is dead. Challenging gameplay, this is not. But damn it, there’s something about “Bioshock.” I’m only about four hours in and I can’t wait to get back.
From the crackling crooner’s coming out of every speaker, to the over-the-top ridiculousness of Rapture’s underwater metropolis, and even down to the tiny waterfalls spilling over rag doll corpses that litter every floor, the game gets its atmosphere perfect–and I mean absolutely perfect. You’re visiting a real place, one with slippery floors and dark corners. People look relatively normal until they get within a foot of you, and then you glimpse their utter grotesqueness, which is usually followed by a pipe to the face, all of it choreographed to Bing Crosby.
I haven’t felt the urge to return this way to a game for years, maybe not since “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,”back in 2003. There’s something overwhelmingly classic about the style of “Bioshock,” its aesthetic, its entire design from the smoky intro vid to art direction to voice acting. It’s so…science fiction vintage. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Django Reinhardt and Art Deco, since my musical and pop culture tastes tend to swing more 1930s-1950s. I mean, the last game that enamored this greatly was the great noir spoof “Grim Fandango,” which riffed on the same chord, only with more hilarious and less spooky results. The game also reminds me a lot of older PC games from the heyday of adventure software by Sierra and LucasArts, in that it seems to capture a clarity of vision that is totally unique from the drab gray realism of current gangster fantasies, or the candy-colored worlds of the Wii. I guess I’m just a 21st century guy who digs his high-tech old fashioned.
If you haven’t played this game, play it, just for the music if not for the whole stellar package. If you have, don’t you dare tell me what happens.
Over the weekend, my wife and I spent an afternoon finishing a bit of work we’d been meaning to do, she on her freelance design and me on some writing. At one point I leaned back and interrupted what she was doing, asking her what kind of dresses a young girl might find on a spring clearance sale during the summer month of July. This received a curious look, and a pretty satisfying answer. I’d hit a wall in a pivotal scene in which one of the two main characters of Freak Magnet, Gloria, undergoes change, and takes on a new appearance to symbolize that change.
After describing to my wife what I was trying to do, we together came to the realization that I have a thing for driving my fictional characters to radically switch personas, and that I love using visual representations of inner transitions. I couldn’t deny it. I have a thing for playing funhouse, for providing various reflections of a character in order to reveal an aspect that they, or the reader, may not have considered. I’ve done it in the past and it seems I have a problem.
In Funny Little Monkey I played with various evolution imagery to try and illustrate the gradual advancement of the protagonist. Of course, the jerky “one step forward, two steps back” nature of his self-discovery allowed for some fun scenes. For example, in the chapter “Monkey See, Monkey Don’t,” Arty is being zipped into a gorilla suit, about which his mother remarks, “Are you a baboon, a gorilla, what? I’ve seen both, and you’re neither.” Arty is preparing for his first real date, and the suit symbolizes his stepping out. Of course, by the next chapter he’s wearing a new costume, that of an egg to go with his date’s chicken, begging the age-old question of who came first.
In Jo-Jo and The Fiendish Lot metamorphoses is portrayed in a different way—an otherworldly glow that literally radiates from every single person in the afterlife. As every individual grows and changes, that light can weaken or intensify based on their progress. This was an interesting challenge to write because characters’ evolution was a shared public experience rather than a personal inner journey. A stranger can stroll over to you, lean close to your ear, and whisper, “Listen, buddy, you’re looking a little dim. You may want to reconsider something you’re doing.” Everything is on display, and everyone’s working to attain a certain degree of acceptable enlightenment.
I have this thing about making change visible, in the same way that a film director might send an actor into wardrobe or makeup to add nuance to the character’s suffering. Like that wonderful Roman Polanski trick of making Jack Nicholson vulnerable in Chinatown by giving him a ridiculous nose bandage a third of the way into the film. I love giving readers moments like this, and Freak Magnet is no exception.
The reason I’d asked my wife about seasonal dresses was because at the time I’d been writing a scene where the protagonist, Gloria, goes shopping for a formal dress with her older sister, Maggie. After hours of shopping, Gloria, who prefers platform boots and black sweatshirts to ball gowns, rejects all outfits that are suggested. When the two girls walk around the store and discuss Gloria’s recent troubles, Maggie exposes some revelations that cause Gloria to realize she’s been acting differently than she perceived.
As the two girls chat, and Gloria undergoes an on-the-spot transformation, Maggie proceeds to pillage a nearby clearance rack of items—a dress, earrings, and a headband—and literally dress her sister in clothes that are befitting her newly changed character. In the current state, Gloria is certainly not ready for a ball gown, but she is changing, and perhaps more open now to a splash of color, a pair of bright sandals, and a haircut that doesn’t drowned her in doom-dyed bangs. And funniest of all, Gloria doesn’t hate the outfit. In fact, she thinks she looks good, a way of seeing herself that she’d never allowed herself to consider before.
I just love the image of the big sister helping the younger, draping a beautiful sundress over all that black. It’s like opening a window into a darkened room. Scenes like that make all the writing drudgery worth every minute.
Lately I’ve been so wrapped up in video games that I haven’t had much time to comment on recent novel news. That’s not to say that nothing has been happening. On the contrary, life has never been busier when it comes to the word processor.
I’m in an interesting place at the moment. One of the books I’m writing is nearing its completion and going through all the happy-go-lucky (as in agonizing) steps of early production. There’s a cover, an entry for the publisher catalog, and final text revisions looming on the horizon. I’m in a good place, but a slowly solidifying one.
Of course, to call the writing of Jo-Jo and The Fiendish Lot a “challenge” would be like calling standing in line at the DMV “immensely rewarding.” I wrote the first draft back in January through April of 2006. The manuscript wasn’t exactly awful, it was simply a piece of gaudy garage sale hallucination, a random collection of every strange idea and image I’d ever hoped to cram into a piece of fantasy. I can’t say I discovered a newfound admiration for authors of fantasy and speculative fiction, because I’ve always had the utmost respect for these visionary oddballs; however, I did learn that I am indeed a writer of realistic fiction that only likes to take the occasional foray into a magical world, and I would never want to live there. (After all, hobbit holes have very low ceilings, and I’m 6’3”.)
It’s a good feeling to feel like a book is leaving the room. It’s exciting. And while it’s not final, I thought I’d drop a quick excerpt here, for the hell of it. This is our “hero” Jo-Jo when he’s in a not-so-great place:
With me I had the old .45 and a joint—everything I really needed, except a reason to go on living. My pop made a joke once, telling me never to take the old .45 out of his underwear drawer unless it was for a good reason. I had me a damn good one.
When you get the idea of killing yourself into your head, you can’t think of a better reason to do anything else. The crazy idea sits there in the middle of your mind, like a big truck parked on some train tracks, and after a while the idea begins to seem less crazy and eventually even makes a bit of sense. Making yourself dead is a good reason to get up in the morning, if only to make it so you don’t ever have to get up again. Me, I did not want to get up one more morning without Violet.
It gets better. I promise.
At the same time as I’m crunching to get this epic out the door and onto shelves, I’m simultaneously enjoying the wildly creative process of finishing a pretty clean draft of a new book, one I’ve been living with for a little over a year now. Most writers can speak to the feelings of discovery that come with early drafts, how the story beneath the plot begins to erupt up to the surface, or the moment you recognize a character for who they actually are—not who you planned them to be, but who they are. That’s the kind of exhilaration I feel these days as I work.
Freak Magnet has been a pleasure to work on, because the story is so concentrated, so focused, unlike Jo-Jo, which at times is like a sprawling patch of land you have to survey carefully for months at a time. The plot of Freak Magnet revolves around two kids, their small neighborhood, and the fact that they both frequent the same small strip mall shopping center. It’s the equivalent of watching two bugs trapped in a jar. I’m excited to fling this novel out into the world, and although it may be spoken for, we all know that’s never a certainty. And since it’s not really anyone’s but mine right now I’m going to drop some prose below, just for fun. Keep in mind, however, that this is super early draft material.
In this scene, Charlie, the male hero, explains that his favorite part of working at a drugstore is the abnormal or flawed merchandise that occasionally arrives, only to move from shelf to clearance rank in a matter of days. He collects these freaks of the merchandise, and treasures them. His greatest prize: a bag of candy hearts with obtuse phrases printed on them. Charlie finds their mysteries compelling, and as he describes them to the female hero, Gloria, she begins to find Charlie compelling…at least more than she ever expected to.
”You can’t know the whole conversation, just this tiny slice of it, like a hint. You’d have to take it at face value without knowing its role in some greater drama. That’s what the candy hearts remind me of. You know? Clues.”
I did know, exactly, but the way he put it, well, it was sort of pretty.
“Give me an example,” I said.
Thinking, eyes focused hard on empty space, he took a breath, “There’s this lime green one that says, ‘I always think back to that time.’”
“Wow.” It gave me chills.
“A yellow heart says: ‘Did you really mean it?’ I ate one once. It tasted like dish washing detergent.”
“Those are amazing,” I said.
“Want to know my favorite?”
“Sure,” I said. It was weird. He could have recited candy hearts to me all day.
“‘I’m torn,’” he said, almost like a sigh. He gave the words a moment to settle, not blinking, not once. Big fat tears welled in his eyes, but he wiped them away before they fell. “That one is like the Jesse Owens of candy hearts,” he said, “the Abraham Lincoln.”
Then he smiled, as if crying in front of a stranger was something he did all the time. Then it occurred to me: maybe it was.
Well, I have things to do. Cheers!