Friday, March 27, 2015

The Bird - a short

Today I thought I'd bring to the light something I wrote several months ago, which I've been rather puzzled about since.
I'm not sure what inspired it -  it's one of those things you write after midnight and don't understand the next morning, nor ever.
I've gotten several different views on what it [the Bird] represents, anything from a conscious to a Phoenix to Lies to Guilt. As of yet, I'm still not sure what I think it stands for (and I've always pictured it as more of an owl-like bird than a Phoenix?), but it still makes me wonder.
Enjoy (or don't) The Bird:

Day One:
The strange people who came here today forgot their little dead bird. Or at least I thought he was dead. This evening he opened his eyes and stared at me. I tried to throw him away (he seems to be frozen), but he just ends up back in my bedroom. I will give him back when they come again.

Day Four:
The bird is still watching me, it's little lifeless eyes moving back and forth as it takes in my features. Every once in a while it lets out a little chirp, making me jump. I wish it never came to me.
Everyone else stares at me in terror. They expect my shadow to start dancing, or at least to speak. Sometimes, so do I.

Day Six:
It's worse now that the bird is starting to move. First it flaps its puny little wings, and then turns its neck to follow me as I move. It flexes its talons twice every minute, as if reminding itself (and me) that it has weapons.

Day Ten:
I think it grew overnight.
Now it talks to me, in my mind. It begs me to set it free. Demands. Sometimes I dream of it, moving, flying, soaring. Diving. At me. I see its eyes glint in the sunlight as it dives toward me with beak open and talons wide. I wake in a cold sweat each time, shivering. And there it is, sitting frozen, staring at me with those calculating eyes.

Day Fourteen:
They came again, demanding to know where their bird is. I can't say anything now that will betray the bird. He is very insistent that I say nothing of him, and so I can't. If I so much as think of telling them my tongue glues itself to the roof of my mouth.
Every night I dream of him, tearing me to pieces. He's still growing; he can spread his wings a little, too. They reach as far wide as I am tall. The thoughts he speaks to me with scare me.

Day Nineteen:
Today I wish I was dead. The bird was gone when I awoke. There was a single feather left on his perch, and a note scrawled in dark red blood on my doorstep:
I will return for you.

Day Seventy:
The bird has not returned, even though I told them he was here, and gone.
They do not blame me, although they were angry. They know I could not have told them, even if I wanted to. Everyone in the village blames me, now. Crops are found scorched after only one night. A cool night. Fires rage even during storms, and those storms are infrequent now. I'm isolated from everyone. Even Dale, and I thought he loved me. No one speaks to me, and I am silent.
Silent forever.

Day One hundred twelve:
I'm living in a nightmare.
No one is left:
Kate, Dale, Greg, all dead.
Even of those I hate I am bereft,
And I can't make myself care.

Day One hundred twenty:
The bird came back today. He's as tall as me, and his feathers emanate a strange heat. The grass withers beneath his talons, each as long as my arm. He just stood there staring at me.
I'm naught but a shadow of myself: I've not had much to eat or drink, and no shelter. My clothes are rags, my once-long hair is knotted and disgusting.
I hate myself, and he hates me.
But I cannot make myself care. Never.

Day One hundred twenty-one:
He came again today, and stood staring at me for almost two hours this time.

Day One hundred seventy:
I hate him.
I hate me.
I hate the ground I sit on.
I hate the people who betrayed me.
I hate every scrap of decency left in this world.
I hate the darkness, the light, the sun, the moon.
I hate being wet, dry, hot, cold.
I hate, and yet he still comes.
I hate living, but cannot die.
I hate that the bird stares at me all day, now.
I hate.
Yet I live.

Day Two hundred:
At last he speaks to me.
"Why are you so desolate?"
The bird's voice is croaky, but very wise-sounding. I say nothing.

Day Two hundred two:
He asks the same question every single morning at dawn: "Why are you so desolate?"
I wish I was dead.

Day Two hundred ten:
I tried to kill myself today, with a sharp rock. I cut my own neck, and bled to death by noon.
I awoke this evening, with the bird still watching me, and my blood on the ground around me.
"Why are you so desolate?"

Day Two hundred thirty:
"Why are you so Desolate?"

Day Three hundred:
"Why are you so Desolate?"

Day Four hundred:
"Why are you so Desolate?"

Day Four hundred two:
I answer him today. My voice is far more raspy than his, now. I don't drink and don't eat, but do not die.
"Because of you," I tell him.

Day Four hundred three:
The bird is gone.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fallen Angels

I thought I’d step away, for a little while, from my usual topics about writing, and bring you a review of a novel I finished recently, Fallen Angels. 
If you’ve read it, you already have a lot of images going through your head: some good, some not.

If you’ve heard of it from uber-conservative friends, you’re probably thinking of it as some kind of pagan book full of obscenities.

Fallen Angels is a historical fiction novel (by Walter Dean Myers) set in Vietnam in 1968. History buffs will recognize this date right away, and everyone else ought to have a vague idea of what that date means. Coupled with the country, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out what this novel is about.
But just to humor you, I’ll sum it up: It’s about a young New Yorker (from Haarlem) who joins up and is deployed during the Vietnam War. It follows him and his unit through its deployment.

I’ll separate my review into a few small categories, but first I want to discuss what I meant in the third paragraph above. Fallen Angels is real. I mean that in the sense that it shows war and people for who and what they are. Fallen Angels is about as gritty a war novel as you can find. It’s not overly gory, but it’s intense, and there are moments where even I – very not squeamish – winced and hurried on. If someone made this novel into a movie and kept its contents intact, it’d get an R rating for strong language throughout, strong violence, and some sexual references.
This novel is not a child’s book. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone under sixteen, and not to anyone with a weak stomach for violence and language.
Now that that’s over with, let’s get on with the real review:

Characters: This book is about a young fellow named Perry. He’s joined by a large cast of characters, including men like Monaco, Peewee, Johnson, and more. Each one of them is unique, and there are just enough of them that are quirky to make it humorous. The way they rub against each other in the wrong way makes the moments where they’re working as a team all that more real. They’re here to survive first, and friends just come as a byproduct.
A very real byproduct.
Even the way in which Myers deals with PTSD endears the reader to the characters. These aren’t the kinds of characters fangirls squeal over (in fact I doubt this novel has very many female fans to begin with), but they’re real. Lobel and Peewee become the reader’s best friend almost before Perry does. Even the characters we hate and those we’re supposed to hate are real to us. The Viet Cong are real people, even though, as it’s put by one character, “…they ain’t real till you know they names and what they eat. Then they real.” We don’t get any glimpses of the dietary habits of the enemy, but they’re still living, breathing beings.

Emotion: If there’s one thing this book does best, it’s emotion. It’s another one of those books that use the word ‘was’ well. It places just enough emphasis on things that are distant while making the constant tension, fear, and the almost-sick feeling of combat hang in the air. No two characters deal with what they do and what they see the same way, but each way is crafted wonderfully with just the right words.
There isn’t a single moment where the emotions are glossed over, even the ones the readers might not want to deal with. When the battalion (including Perry’s unit) have to burn the bodies of their dead, we see the shock, the desperation, the disgust, and the despair. Humanity isn’t sugar-coated, here.

Conflict and Resolution: Every chapter is filled with conflict. Some of them are little things, like which unit won the volleyball game, but a lot of the conflict is huge: skirmishes, suicide bombings, guerrillas and more. The characters live in a nightmare where they’ll never wake up. Right from the start we experience what it was like to be in Vietnam: from the heat and the bugs to the sicknesses to the landmines to the all-out firefights.
It’s not an easy read, especially when you consider how real these sorts of situations were, but it’s truthful.
The conflict forms a series of themes revolving around friendship and loyalty. Myers doesn’t cram in a bunch of patriot junk about being on the ‘right side’, he shows the fight for what it is: about surviving.
Lastly, this book ends at perhaps the best spot possible. I actually turned the page, hoping for more.
All I got was an ‘about the author’. *grumbles*
But then again, that’s how all endings should be.

I give Fallen Angels 8.5/10, disregarding whatever thoughts I may have about the mature content.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Power of the Climax

Yesterday, I wrote nearly sixteen hundred words in under an hour.
Today, I’m having trouble getting out five hundred (which is my daily minimum).
Based on the first statement, one can assume I’m not in the middle of a Forest of Trees and Things. Actually, I’ve just finished the climax, the most vital part to my story. I’d also like to claim it’s a pretty good climax, all things considered.
The climactic chapter, the showdown between the hero and the villain, is just over 3300 words, which means I wrote half of it yesterday. Prior to that, I’d written small amounts of words each day (barely making my goal).
What in the world happened yesterday?
Why is it so hard today?
I found my answer in the simple word ‘climax’.

Which part of a book do you enjoy most?
Me, I’m a little strange. I tend to enjoy the middle parts, the points where there’s plots twists and subplots and shiny new characters. For a lot of people, however, the end is the best part. The villain is as strong as she’s ever been, and the hero is at his lowest. The white-bearded mentor is dead; the Ally is trapped beneath a thousand tons of rubble (the same Ally who miraculously survived the explosion that created said rubble), and the love interest has been forced to serve under the villain’s nefarious captain.
There’s no way the Hero and his motley band of villagers can tackle this villain. After all, the author has armed her with the best of the best, enough minor villains to take over the world.

And somehow, the hero does it.

Be it through Dues Ex Machina (not advised) or through the Hero’s brilliant plan, the villain’s armies are dispersed, the nuclear holocaust is averted, the magical dragon is killed, and the villain is brought low, made the laughing stock.
The climactic showdown is often the most tense, most exciting, and most thrilling part of any novel. It’s packed with emotion, action, loss and victory. It’s the part of the rollercoaster where it plunges straight down, shoots through two loops, and then jerks to a halt in time to stop at the finish.
You, the reader, have had the time of your life. Now you’re ready to settle back and enjoy the last few chapters, the explanations, the epilogues, the endings.

And boy was that ride worth it.
Now imagine yourself as the writer. Shouldn’t be too hard to do, even if you aren’t one. Imagine writing that scene. Imagine writing how the hero dodged the dragon’s fire and claws and tail, stabbed the villain’s second-in-command through the heart, and forced the villain to surrender at the point of the sword. The valiant hero saves the girl, rescues his friend, and visits the grave of his mentor.
It’s a lot of fun to write. Whether you’re writing it out with a pen, on a computer, or on a good old-fashioned typewriter (if so, I envy you), it’s the best part to write. At last we get to watch as our hero takes down the villain. Our hands can’t move fast enough on the keyboard, the pencil can’t scratch fast enough on the page; nothing can keep up with our minds as they race. The tension the writer has built up can be seen in their posture as they lean closer and closer to the page, the keyboard, the screen. They cry a little, laugh a little more, and let out a triumphant shout as the hero says “DROP. YOUR. SWORD.”*
It’s a lot of fun. You learn to type faster than you’ve ever typed before, or you might have to learn how to decipher the scribbles that result from combining half a dozen words in your haste.
And then comes the end. Sometimes the end can be fascinating, enjoyable, and give the writer a nice warm feeling. But other times (as is my case), it’s hard to get it out, and make it live up to the previous chapter. It just doesn’t feel… right. If the climax really is that good, how can some happy ending do the despair and triumph justice?

What about your climax?
Does your climax make you sit on the edge of your seat? How many word-per-minute records have you broken as you approach this showdown?
If you’ve never been more excited, if you can’t stop, even if dinner smells fabulous, even if it’s two in the morning, even if your homework needs to get done, if you just need to get that last page done…

You’ve done it right.

*yeah this isn’t an original line.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The ‘pro’ and ‘epi’ of ‘logue’

Last week I discussed what makes beginnings and endings strong. Grabbing the reader by the throat and holding them against the wall until the very end is vital, especially in those first few pages.
But what do you use for those first few pages?

It’s quite common to use a prologue. Simply put, a prologue is a short [sometimes long] ‘pre-chapter’ before chapter one. These can be used as powerful attention grabbers, but also as areas to dump information on the reader, do cheesy introductions, spy in the villain for no real reason, and/or to show us something the author thinks we need prior to getting to the real story.
Prologues rarely have some form of ‘okay’. They either stink like hogs or shine like your grandmum’s best china. I’ve read only one prologue which fit the term ‘okay’, and even then I didn’t like it.

What makes a good prologue?
Well, it appears to depend on the genre. Readers for different genres will expect different things, and some prologues don’t fit certain genres.
For instance, most historical fiction has no prologue. Those that do have prologues are often boring, and filled with background information about such-and-such who died and are irrelevant except as some form of cynical symbolism. Dystopias (the few that have prologues that work) tend to have very short [one or two page] prologues that are very tense, mysterious, and make the reader ask questions. This sort of prologue - the dark, tense, attention-grabbing kind – works well for almost any genre.
There is one kind of prologue, however, that is an exception. The epic fantasy prologue is, generally, very long. Some, such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have prologues stretching anywhere from twenty to sixty pages.
*low whistling*
However, this sort of prologue becomes, in the reader’s mind, a sort of chapter one.

In fact, any good prologue should act as a chapter, standing alone by itself. If the author could rename it ‘chapter one’, it will probably work. At this point, the author should weigh the pros and cons of keeping it as the prologue or just make it chapter one.
The basic rule of thumb* I follow: “If it wouldn’t work as a first chapter, it shouldn’t open your novel.”
Because everyone goes into your book looking for a beginning. And if your prologue doesn’t begin the story, but simply set it up, they won’t walk away happy.

In summation:
Never use a prologue to dump information. This includes information on the story, the world, the pre-story history, and the characters (especially the villan2).
Always treat the prologue as a first chapter. If it doesn’t work as one, figure out why, and consider changing it so it does.
The prologue should begin the story, not set it up.
A prologue must be concise and gripping. If your prologue rambles on forever and ever about one thing, you’ll lose the reader just as fast as if it was a foreword or preface.
After a long period of observing people, I’ve discovered that people either hate prologues or love them. To give you a generalization: fantasy readers tend to enjoy and read prologues more than others. And yet another: authors dislike prologues more than your average reader.

If there’s one part of a novel that is often overlooked, it’s the epilogue. Not because all epilogues are excellently written and thereby deserve no criticism, but because they normally contain very little critique-able information.
Almost every epilogue is used as a ‘flash-forward’; it’s a chance for the author to show the audience what happens, say, seventeen years after the conflict resolves.
I’ve found very few unsatisfactory epilogues in my browsing of literature, but here are a few marks of those less-than-marketable ones:
-They drag on forever3. This is a hyperbole, as there are no books that stretch into eternity, but it’s still true. Often times an epilogue will grow boring after the first few pages. Why? Because the conflict is over. We’re reading about the characters we loved, but older and changed. Maybe even matured and wizened. Chances are a few of them have fallen in love and gotten married. Ew.
-The epilogue ruins a perfect ending. Imagine this: in the last chapter, the main character is sitting at a table with his best friend and the love interest. Maybe they’re in some tavern, drinking mulled cider and talking about how the villain is crushed forever, and all is right with the world. The best friend says something witty, goes to get another drink, and the lovebird get their moment. Queue the cheesy music and/or the theme song, and pan the camera prose toward the frosted front windows of the hole-in-the-wall inn.
The reader is happy, and ready for the credits.
BAM. We’re rushed twenty years into the future, listening to the aged hero telling his children about the time he destroyed the castle of his arch-
We had the perfect last scene.
Not only that, but we already know the main character destroyed that castle. We watched him do it, even as he wept because his sister was trapped under the rubble. We probably even had his future with the love interest planned out, and named all his kids.

A good epilogue wraps up loose ends. It gives the reader satisfaction, brings the conflict to a close, and lets the reader get a glimpse and what will be, after the story finishes. It never ruins a perfect last chapter, it never drags on. It gives us a few last thoughts to ponder, and it always –always- makes the reader want just one more sentence.

What about you? Do you like prologues and epilogues? What are some examples of your favorites? Share in the comments below!

*I never have understood this phrase… why do thumbs have rules?
2I say this because there are countless prologues that try and be clever and shows us a quick glimpse at the villain. It’s more cliché than the thin air your Mentor vanishes into.
3there are very few exceptions where a long epilogue is a good epilogue. For instance, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy has not one, but two epilogues, both of which are rather lengthy. But then, Tolstoy can get away with that when his book is already going on fourteen hundred pages.