The Garden of Gethsemane

Right upfront, let me say this: Oz is not a Christ-figure.  I’m not even going to start listing the reasons why not, but I want to be clear that he is not Jesus in my mind.

That being said, Oz does have his Garden of Gethsemane moment…and I am writing that moment right now.

That’s hard for me.  Err, that’s very hard for me.

If I were to write a story from the Bible, there are only 3 or 4 that would make my list to “dramatize”.  First on that list is the Garden of Gethsemane.  Self-doubt, fear, resentment, and acceptance…I know a thing or two about each and every one of those.

So does Oz.

When Connor calls, desperate to meet, Oz meets his Gethsemane…

…and fails the test.

That failure, however, is what makes him such a real character to me.  He betrayed his friend—his brother—and he knows it.  Shit, he not only knows it, he can’t live with it.

Oz lives in a zero-sum universe.  When Connor comes to love Nat, Oz thinks such love can only come at the expense of the care and closeness he and Connor share….and yes, before you ask, he is in love with Connor.  Desperately, totally, and unrequitedly.  He is fine with that, so long as their stasis as friends and brothers is not broken.

Nat breaks it.

That is what Oz cannot deal with.  That is what Oz has to confront in the Garden.  That is the test Oz fails.

That is what finally kills Oz.

The early parts of the book had their speed bumps and problems, but they went fine for me.  The closer I get to the end, however, the harder it gets.  All of the challenges I set for myself–especially the decision to hate so much happen “off-screen”–have to be drawn together and closed in a way that makes sense, and works with the story.

That’s not easy.

The closer I get, also, the more of me, and my memories, goes into everything.  Act IV scares the crap out of me, it’s hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles.  It scares me not just because I have to draw everything to a climax, but because I have to kill Oz.  Again.

I told you once his death was the first scene I wrote, and yet I have to revise and rewrite it.  The death of every friend I’ve lost to suicide.  Shit.

Getting the tone and feel of the Gethsemane scene was hard enough, but THAT?  That’s gonna be a tough day for me.

Where The Hell Are We?

There’s good and bad to starting with just a couple of characters and a very basic idea about tone and message.  The good is flexibility: I’ve been able to craft everything to fit the needs of what I want to accomplish.  That bad is…well, I’ve had to craft everything.

That being said, one of the most fun pieces to work on has been the setting…

The key for me was to set this in an industrial, working port.  I very much wanted the feeling—and all the inherent problems and complexities—of such a city.  In the back of my mind I had places like Marseilles, Boston, New York, etc…  I wanted a place that was gritty and corrupt–and definitely no stranger to poverty and suffering–but also a place with an upper-crust whose wealth and power were almost totally disconnected from the docks and the rest of their ‘society’.

This story does exist in a wider universe (from a couple of previous stories), but is pretty much totally disconnected from those stories, characters and settings {Note – Fadi is the one point of crossover as I wanted a character just as broken and fucked-up as Connor and Oz…plus, with him, I get to explore (a very little bit) combat-related PTSD}.  The star I chose for this is intentionally out of the way and isolated—no one goes to Groombridge if they don’t have to.  It is very much the ass-end of the Universe, a complete dead-end and about the last place you would want to visit.  There is, however, money to be made there…and where there’s money, there’s corruption and crime.

I spent a while on the backstory and prep material for the system, as well as Port Oblivion itself, and there actually is a functioning and viable economy based on mining and resource processing.  My narrator, however, is a 17-year-old junkie: how much does/could he know about commodity pricing and shipping lines?  What he does know, what he sees every single day of his life, is crime, dirt, noise and crowding.  In short: a slum.  More precisely a ghetto: the rich and powerful on the Station want nothing to do with the lower classes of dockside, and they very much have created virtual walls through distance, expense and bureaucracy to ensure as little ‘contamination’ as possible.

I grew up in and around Los Angeles.  Even as a kid the complete disconnect between rich and poor neighborhoods that were only blocks—sometimes only yards—apart was always striking to me.  You can walk from the rich, private and very, very privileged world of USC to one of the poorest slums in LA in a handful of minutes.  I wanted that in this story; I wanted that disconnection, that incongruity.  Everybody living at Port Oblivion, whether docksider or takie, is a victim of self-delusion and imaginary walls in one sense or another.

These different worlds not only give me the vastly different characters I need and want, they give me the option to explore cultures and worldviews in some pretty fun ways.  That will be a post for the future: exploring the basis of those cultures, and how I want them–and their prejudices and expectations–to play off one another.

Connor’s Dad

So I promised some character stuff this week.

One of the problems I’ve been running into is waaaay overthinking this blog.  Sometimes being a writer is NOT a good thing.

Less thinking, less planning.  I want to communicate the story itself, and what it means, not get mired in details.  So, instead of some damn planned character sketch, I am going to throw out there one of the “off-stage” pieces I wrote as I created the background material for the story.

In this book Connor is the main character…C0nnor is the voice…Connor is a kid I really like.  Connor is also a fuck up, a drug addict, and a thief.  How do you humanize him?  How do you understand him?

Oz is the most important force in Connor’s life, but everything starts with his dad.  Oz I know…..Oz is a post (err, probably more) in and of himself, so I figure I’ll do a post concentrating on Connor’s dad.

A note of explanation: the “Riot” is the single most important incident in the lives of every single character in the book.  It also happens four years BEFORE the book starts.  It is very much the instigating incident, but one of the challenges I set for myself was to leave certain things “off-stage”, and the Riot is the biggest of those.

Below is one of the very first background documents I wrote as a way of working on the tone and voice.  It is Connor’s dad’s last (undelivered) words to his son:

The biggest crime of it all is that I’m not there to tell you this myself.  I’ll never forgive myself for that.  You and I have had our problems, but in spite of disagreements and arguments, in spite of my failures and the ruin I’ve made of your life, you’re still the only good thing I’ve managed in this miserable universe.

I went to the Market that day just looking for a few drinks.  I was off work, and our visit the day before was eating at me–my last words to you were pissed off, and through all eternity I can never make up for that.

I should’ve known something was wrong.  The atmosphere was too tense, the voices too quiet and the tempers too short, for it to be a normal day.  A couple of beers over lunch was enough time to see that atmosphere grow worse and worse.

Finally, I could hear a commotion at the hatch to the transit dock.  Not really shouting, but voices raised in question and answer.  Anger and stress everywhere.

I should have left.

Instead I went to see what was happening.  That decision changed everything.  That decision ruined your life more than everything else I’ve fucked up, and that’s saying something.

You know the Market–that area around the door to the docks is pretty tight.  It might be just the stairs coming down from the entrance, and a bunch of stalls and tables, but it’s packed.  Nothing really substantial, but more then solid enough for a semi-converted cargo hold.

Johnny had told me the takies were coming; he said he’d heard about about some kind of raid.  I guess the Council assholes decided it was time for another crackdown.  Can’t leave dockside alone…no, Station folks can’t have us poor bastards just getting on with life and business.  Not when there’s money to be made from taxes and fines.

No one knew what the fuck to expect.  Everyone I asked figured it would be a few stationside cops and a Council agent or two.  Roust the stalls a bit.  Confiscate some shit.  Harass people for not having implants.  The same shit they pull every few years.

An assault?  Nope, not a fucking soul saw that coming.

Guy next to me had a buddy workin’ the slime farm.  Got a flash over his ‘screen that the universe was goin’ ape-shit.  Then the message just stopped.  The last words were something about cops and guns.  Dude musta been in a hurry ’cause his message made no fucking sense at all.

Everyone knows the Council would never put a gun anywhere near dockside; too much chance of shit spiraling out of control.  No one wants blood on their hands, not when us poor-ass scumbags are nice and isolated a thousand clicks from their perfect little station.

I guess shit changes.

They musta hit the Ops center first because they definitely had control of all the major systems.  The hatch just popped.  No warning, none of the usual shenanigans, just popped open to let in a flood of assholes in black.

They weren’t storming in with guns pointed, which I guess is a miracle, but they were still ready for trouble.  They were pretty fucking free with their clubs, and they used their riot shields like battering rams.  I was in the back of the crowd so I didn’t get hit, but fuck me if I didn’t get half-trampled by people trying to turn and run.

I was thinking about getting the hell back to our pod when the shit really started.  I know the hold is forty feet high, and sound echoes like mad, but fuck if that wasn’t the loudest fucking few minutes of my life.  Insults and threats flew everywhere, but mostly I remember the screaming…the fucking screaming was the worst.  I almost pissed myself.  It was definitely time to leave.

Trouble was, more and more people kept pushing in.  Everyone wanted a piece of the fucking goons who were trying to beat their way in.  They all musta had the same bullshit fantasy about being badass special-forces types because they came in wearing all-black fatigues and tried to look like some fantasy version of a badass assassin.  Fucking idiots.  Everyone wanted a piece of everyone else.  I’m not small, but fuck if I could push back against all the bozos who wanted in on the action.

Then I heard shots.

Well, I didn’t so much hear the shots as what came after.

Dead silence.  I haven’t heard silence since I left Mars.  You haven’t been on a planet since you were like six, so you have no idea what it’s really like.  To hear the Market go absolutely still and silent, even just for a second, was the oddest, worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Then all hell broke loose.

I thought it was bad before, but that was nothing next to what happened.

I’ve been in riots, and what we had going was a normal, garden-variety riot.  Some broken bones, a shit-ton of damage, and nothing more than funny stories and bad feelings.  That shot changed everything–it went from riot to full-fucking battle real fast.

“Push back the takie cops” became “kill the bastards” almost instantly.  It’s dockside….I think the Stationside assholes forgot what that means.  They’re used to being the only ones with guns in their safe, quiet little paradise.  Well, half the Market was armed…and all of it was panicked.  Shots came from everywhere, but you could barely hear them over all the screaming.

People were pushing and shoving, trampling each other to get out.  No one was going the same direction, no one knew what the fuck was happening.  All we knew was that it was time to get out.

The place was a nightmare–all the stalls had been turned over and everyone was panicked as fuck.  Everything as far back as Snug was a mass of chaos.  I don’t know if most folks were rioting or running, but no one was gettin’ anywhere in all that shit.

I’m not much for brains, you know that better than anyone, and I’m even less for bravery.  When I smelled the smoke, I gotta admit I joined the panic.  A fire.  A fucking fire.  In the Market.  That place is a death trap at the best of times.  In the middle of a fucking gunfight?  Anyone who didn’t get out was screwed.

I didn’t get out.

I looked back and saw the last of the cops leave through the hatch to the docks, then the fucking thing slid shut.  Even over the noise and chaos you could hear the locks seal.  That left only the one way out, the door back into the res-holds.

Shit, Connor, the Market is only three hundred feet long, but it might as well have been three hundred miles.  With everyone screaming and panicking there was just no fucking way out.

A minute later the lights snapped off.  I can barely make my way through that place at the best of times, but in pitch black?  We were all fucked…then fucked times two when the air-system shut down.

You don’t think about that very much–the hum of the blowers and filters going is a part of life (literally).  When it shuts down, however, you can’t hear anything else.  Shots, screaming, shit crashing…none of it was loud enough to drown out the silence.

There was no air, and the only light came from a fire that was growing fast.

Yeah, we all know that’s a possibility; we all know the only safe way to deal with a fire is to vent the affected hold, but who the fuck expects that to happen to them?

The smoke was the worst.  There was no circulation so the air just sat there and let the smoke accumulate.  I musta been near the heart of the thing because it was only a few seconds before I couldn’t breathe.

Then some big bastard knocked me down–he just pushed over me as he ran for the door.  I tried to pick myself up, I really did, but I just couldn’t.   I was already half in the bag, and random assholes kept stepping on me.

I looked over and some girl in the same boat.  She had a baby with her.  I don’t how or why I noticed, but that kid looked exactly like you did the day your mother bugged out on us.

The last thing I saw was that kid’s blue eyes, and his hand reaching out to me for help.

Fuck, I can’t even die right.

Spiralling Down

So, I did mention that drunk-bloggin’ may rear its head from time to time.  I’m not writing a post right now (but, yes, since you ask – I am, in fact, well on my way towards drunk).  Keep in mind, this post is out of order….it was supposed to follow a few character-specific posts.  Oh well.  The character posts will come next week….something to look forward to!

The post below was written a couple of weeks ago in the taproom of my favorite brewery (as a note, about two-thirds of DockRat has been written in that same taproom):

So…I’m not a drug addict.  Nor am I a minor-league criminal or a homeless teenager.  That being said, there is far more of me in DockRat than in anything I’ve written before.  Ever.  This book means something to me….means far too much, in way too many ways to list.

If you accept the fact that this book is first and foremost about my two street kids–Connor and Oz–then you’re standing on the same ground as me.

To that I want to add one very key thought:  I know suicide.

I’ve attended the funerals of three very good friends who killed themselves.  I’ve punched that particular ticket  far too many times…

I have–in all honesty–tried myself.  More than once, then things started to change.

Believe me, I know the shit life has to give.

With that in mind, I want to say that I like Connor…I like him as a character, I like him as a “voice”, and I like him as a person…

…but I love Oz.  Oz is the reason for this book.  Oz is not the main character.  Hell, a lot of Oz happens ‘off-screen’, but Oz is far and away my favorite character that I’ve ever come up with.  He means more to me than all the rest put together.

Most of the major characters I’ve created have bits & pieces of me in them, but Oz is different–Oz is made from pieces of those I wish were still here.  To be honest, I cry even as I write that…because I know who and what I’m talking about.  And no, you don’t get those parts.  Those are mine.

No one should ever suffer what he did, no one should have to live the life he did, and no one should ever have to die for who they love….and, in the end, that is exactly what Oz dies for.  His death may have been meaningless in dockside’s world, but it is NOT meaningless in this world.  Not to me.

Oz mattered.

Mattered to me as a writer, and hopefully to you as a reader.

Now, to the reason for this post….

This book is characterized by music and memory.  From time to time, when the memories and thoughts and plans all come together in a common harmony, I start breaking down.

Inevitably, there’s booze involved.

I’m a very music-oriented person–I feed off the mood and message of what I listen to, and my writing starts to reflect that, then my thoughts.  Then I listen to more music and as the cycle repeats it becomes more intense.  The drunker I get, the worse everything becomes.

Most of DockRat has been written in the taproom of a brewery…the owners are good friends of mine and the staff are folks I know well, so no one questions my presence in the corner typing away.  But from time to time, that locale comes back to haunt me.

With booze in my system, and with my love of music, the mood of what I am writing can create an echo chamber.  Occasionally that reaches a death spiral:  I’m writing something sad (yes…Oz), and listening to a song that helped inspire things, and drinking…then I start thinking about the personal shit that lies at the heart of this…then the music gains more power…then my writing feeds off the memories and the mood…then I need more music…then I need more booze…then it starts again, but worse.

As I said, a death spiral.

I’ve spent nights listening to music that devastates me…but I’m not always sure if it’s the music, or the thoughts/knowledge of Connor & Oz, or the personal memories.  No matter the source, it makes me drink more…then I listen to more music, then I drink more, then I write more…then it goes back to the beginning; lather, rinse, repeat…

Fuck.

This book might very well kill me.

Then I remember something I learned from the first of those three funerals; a motto, if you will, from my friend Mike:

Why not?

So I go back to writing…I always go back to writing.  It’s the only way to keep the demons at bay.

Shit…now I need a drink.

Playing Catch Up

Crap – I’ve had this blog a week, and I’m already behind.  I want to have a couple of weeks worth of posts written and ready to go so I can just post stuff when it’s time.  Am I there yet?  Not a chance.

I AM putting together a series of posts to describe and get into the current book, but they’re pretty skeletal right now.  So, instead, here are two “early” posts I wrote back when I first decided to do this blog…and yes, that washh-animals-squirrel-4.png closer to three months ago than three weeks.  Yes, I got distracted…squirrel!

 

 

 

 

Stories and characters are the ghosts in my life.  They spend all of their time haunting me.  The really annoying ones won’t shut up, won’t go away, until I make them.

That is, to say the least, annoying.

I want to fill my head with booze and reruns of Gilligan’s Island, not plots and characters from half a dozen (or more) universes.  I want Mary Ann and Ginger, not some space opera living next door to a dystopian fantasy….okay, I did NOT intend that to sound as creepy as it did.

The problem with ghosts is that you need an old priest and a young priest, not to mention a pea-soup spitting kid.  And holy water.  And a goat.  You definitely need a goat.

With stories, you need a plot and some characters.  Okay, that’s easy enough.  Well…you need a plot that makes sense and characters that are interesting.  That’s a hell of a lot harder.  To be honest, it’s easier to get the priests and the goat–especially if you’re in one of those countries where they come as a package deal.

I know it’s apocryphal (ooh, big words even AFTER a few beers!), but Steven King’s dictum that the first million words are practice makes a lot more sense to me now.  No, I haven’t hit the million-word-mark yet, but I’m not far off.  When I was just a little writer-ling (well, little-ER), and I’d barely even started climbing this damned hill, that saying seemed a hyperbolic joke.  It was a throwaway line to scare folks away from the business.  I’d read (a lot).  I was (reasonably) well educated.  I could write…even if most of my early stuff was done for the consumption of corporate cube-monkeys.  How hard could it be?

That hill is pretty fucking steep right now, and Sisyphus is way the hell up there laughing his ass off at me.  Fucking Greeks….fucking boulders….and fucking writing.

Why do I bother trying to climb this damned thing?

Because the ghosts won’t shut the hell up.

*****

There is, however, something cathartic about dreaming up ideas.  Yeah, yeah, I know…you’ve heard that before.  It’s a damned truism at this point.  But truisms are there because they’re generally…well, you know…true.

Characters, locations, scenes–imaging them is fun.  Planning and writing them is even more fun.  I get the same feeling from writing a well-crafted and well-executed scene as I do from a good workout at the gym.  It sounds stupid as hell, but it’s true.

Editing and reviewing, on the other hand, they’re like running to me–punishment for my (many) sins.  Necessary, vital even, but still miserable.  If I could find a way to combine editing and running, I could work off my years of debauchery and bad judgment in a single afternoon.

People see me working and often ask what I’m writing.  When I say I’m editing and revising I get the strangest looks….it’s like they expect a perfect story/scene to spring Athena-like from my brow.

Oh, if only that were possible!

I’m sure there are folks out there who get it right in just one or two drafts.  That is, quite sadly, not me.  I’m a wordy bastard, with all of the sins that come with that: awkward constructions, questionable punctuation, and bad word-choices.  I live in hope of improving to the point where that’s no longer true, but for now the real work starts AFTER I get 150,000 words down as a first draft.

The Ghosts Wouldn’t Leave Me Alone

The first question I get asked when I say I’m working on a new story is, “What’s it about?”

Sounds simple, right?

It’s not.

I’m pretty sure every writer out there has their own way of coming up with a story…whether it’s a specific character, a plot, or a new setting, each book and each writer has their own drive and their own “instigating moment”.

For me it’s different with every story, every idea.  At any given time I keep a list of the top ten or so of these ideas—there are, to be sure, far more floating around the back of my mind, but only that handful are anything close to ready or well-defined.  Some of the ideas on that list will eventually get written, while others will never see the light of day.  Regardless of their eventual fates, however, those ideas all lurk in the background fluttering around like quiet ghosts.

This story grew out of one very basic idea, a desire to look at the fucked-up side of life.  It wasn’t terribly well developed, nor even all that interesting when I first added it to the “list”.  It just sat in the background, fermenting.

The whiskey-drinker in me would say that, like all good beverages, it got better with age.  The reality is that the idea itself didn’t have all that much going for it.  Then came a weekend with nothing much to do, a weekend I decided to spend thinking about just who this story might be about, and why they might be interesting.

The two characters who emerged were anything but quiet and timid.  They weren’t little Casper-type ghosts, but were full-on poltergeists.  They rattled their chains, they battered at the windows and they pounded on the walls.  They demanded to be heard.  I couldn’t resist; even while working on something else, I began to really dive into those characters.

That may have been a mistake.

What do you do when a couple of only semi-realized characters take over your life?  You pay attention to them.  You write them.

The last stuff I wrote was, in all honesty, bland and nondescript.  Intentionally inoffensive and “easy”, it was remarkably like drowning in a bucket of wallpaper paste.  It was time, I decided, to do something challenging, something with more of an edge.

My original plan had been to start work on a modern adventure story with a good bit of humor and satire to it.  I needed to laugh just then, just as I needed to let more of my own personality emerge in my writing.

Connor and Oz wouldn’t let me.

Especially Oz.

Two street kids fucked over by everyone, two boys with no hope and no future.  Two boys who tell me more, and force me to write more, about the bonds of friendship and love, and about pain and tragedy, then all of the other ghosts combined.

How could I ignore them?

The short answer is I couldn’t, no matter how much I wanted to.  Connor and Oz overwhelmed every other thought and idea.

So, instead of something funny, I started to work on the planning and background material for a book that is dark, raw and personally painful.  Their story is sad as hell, but there are no happy endings for two kids so used and abused by the world around them.  It is a story of love and triumph nonetheless, even if some of the scenes do leave me crying in my beer when that day’s writing is done…

The Prologue, or Who the Fuck Am I?

So blogs are not something I’ve really done before, whether “writing oriented” or not.  It’s not that I have anything against the medium—hell, I’m a regular visitor & commenter on more than a few blogs—it’s more that I am an intensely private person.  I am, especially, an intensely private writer.

Yes, I write for the consumption of others, but pulling aside the curtain to show the sausage-making behind the scenes feels a bit like letting random strangers in to the bedroom.  Writing & imagination are very personal, very private, processes…to be right upfront about the material is hard enough for me, but to lay out the thinking and emotion that goes on behind the scenes is a major stretch.

That is, in fact, why I’m doing this.  Stagnation is easy.  Easier, even, than failure.  I’ve done enough of the latter, I refuse to let the former steal from me my vision and creativity.

I am most definitely one of those uber-competitive people who do nothing in public that they do not do well, so doing a blog is not in any way natural.  There are enough people around me criticizing and doubting, do I really need to make that “audience” larger?

Yes.  Yes, I do.

I suppose at this point I should spell out a bit of background, and a bit of my “philosophy”…yes, I put that in quotes, and for good reason.  Most of my “philosophy” in life involves finding good booze and good food.  Leaving aside sex, it’s all pretty much in that order.  That’s as close as I get to a “life plan”.  I make shit up as I go along, and I have the failed romances to prove it.

About the only thing I take seriously is writing.  Writing, to me, is where I get to actually be “me”, something that never happens in public.  Not with family, not with friends, and not with lovers.  I am always wearing a mask, generally playing whatever part my “audience” at the time expects.  Only when I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, do I get to let out the flawed, fucked-up individual underneath it all.

On that note, a warning: none of the personal information associated with this blog is actually me.  The emotions, the thoughts, the sentiments and the words, those are all mine….the name and the identity are not.  I write and work in other—very different—realms, and I do not want that to carry over or color what I do here.  To that end I am writing this blog anonymously, with a pen name and an electronic identity.  This is not a tool for sales or marketing, nor is it designed to capitalize on anything else I do.  What it IS intended to do is follow the process, from my point of view, of imagining and writing a novel…this very specific novel.

Future posts will get into all the whys and wherefors, the sausage-making of how and why I do what I’m doing.  This first post is intended just to provide basic insight into the idiot behind the blog itself.  It is also, for the most part, thrown out there off the top of my head.  I do have something of a plan for topics and timing, but that is as far as the planning goes.  I am not going to pour a ton of time into precise editing and detailed timelines.  Fuck that…I bore myself enough in the “real world”, why do so here?  Posts will sometimes be funny, sometimes serious, often verbose, and…yes…occasionally drunk-bloggin’ will rear its entertainingly regrettable head.

I am going to split posts between insights into the story and characters, as well as the inspirations and reasons behind them, and the down-to-earth concrete process of turning the basic idea for a setting and two characters into a full-fledged 120,000 word manuscript (keep in mind, I do suck at predicting word counts).

Friends familiar with what I am trying to do have asked if I will post excerpts of the book itself here.  I’m still undecided on that score.  Let’s be honest—writing is no great way to make a living, and putting up for free the work I am slaving over is likely not the greatest business decision.  I’m not closing that window totally, however…but at this point, the snippets and scenes I plan to post will be drawn from the background material, not the manuscript itself.

What I do want to do is offer insight into what is going on behind the scenes as I work through the book…and also dive into the background of the story itself.  Most, if not all, of these posts will be specific to this current novel, but I do reserve the right to go all emo and tear off into parts unknown…that is, in fact, what I do for a living.