27 July 2014

Are you itching to read A DRY PATCH of SKIN?

As those who have been following this blog must know (and those who spy on those who follow), I recently finished a new novel, my one and only entry into the genre of vampire tales: A DRY PATCH OF SKIN. (You can read more about it on an earlier blog post and here.)

The story is narrated by Stefan Szekely, the happy-go-lucky lab technician who one day notices a dry patch of skin on his cheek. Just as he is falling in love and building a wonderful relationship with local TV reporter Penny Park, he begins to suffer from a certain affliction for which he seeks treatment, if not an outright cure.

Let me share with you some trivia as the manuscript begins its journey from twisted mind to slick, published novel.

A DRY PATCH OF SKIN is a rare example (for me) of a title coming first and the text making use of that phrase in several places in the book. I knew from the start that I wanted to write more of a medical thriller of someone "turning into" a vampire rather than simply another paranormal romance. Here are a few excerpts:

What will be the first sign? Will it simply be a dry patch of skin? An odd blemish? A discoloration?

“I do care about you,” she whispered.
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound positive. “We can’t let a dry patch of skin get between us, now can we?”

“So...what brings you here this morning?” asked the perky physician’s assistant.
“A dry patch of skin,” I said glumly.

“Hey, you know who else is allergic to garlic?”
“No, who?”
She burst into laughter. Until she saw my stern face—with the dry patch of skin on my cheek. 

I was not going to let a dry patch of skin defeat me and make me miserable for the remainder of my life. 

In deciding to write a vampire novel, I had the challenge of avoiding everything that had been done before. That was not too much of a problem as I tended to want to spoof them--well, not spoof, exactly, but poke fun at them, just for fun. The characters are aware of Bram Stoker and Stephanie Meyer, of the TV shows and the movies, and frequently make comparisons between those and what is happening in my book. It often makes for great comedy.

Mother Park inquired about my ancestry, amused that my name was, for her, unpronounceable. She alluded to the Twilight books, suggesting I looked like that Edward Cullen character but with different hair—better hair. She went on and on about that series, practically telling me the whole story, as we consumed our dinner. Penny tried to intervene.
“He doesn’t want to hear about that vampire stuff,” she said, flashing me an expression of sympathy.
“I’m only saying there’s a resemblance,” said Mother Park.
“There is no resemblance,” Penny countered.
“If not that Edward then his father, the doctor, Mister Cullen. Since your boyfriend is older, he could pass for Mister Cullen. He’s a very handsome man—I mean, vampire. They’re all popular now.”
“No, it’s zombies that are popular now. Not vampires. That trend has passed.”
When they paused to take a breath, I spoke up:
“I think both of them merely play to humanity’s fear of the unknown, especially that age-old concept of the abnormal couched within the normal. That is, a real, biologically viable man who is yet again not a man but something undead. It’s the same with zombies: they’re normal for the most part yet they’re infected with some fatal flaw that renders what once was a perfectly normal, lovable family member into an unexpected, unthinking evil. That’s what scares people. That something normal can so easily be transformed into something abnormal. It’s got nothing to do with some disease or a weird appearance that someone might have. It’s the visceral fear of transformation into something hideous—and with no cure—that forces us to irrevocably face our mortality.”
They stared at me and we could hear the crickets all the way over in Korea warming up for the night’s chorus.
“He reads a lot,” said Penny.


“No, what is it? What skin disease do I have?”
She lifted a hand and placed it on my shoulder, the typical doctor-patient confidentiality pose. “I hate to break it to you, but it seems that you are a vampire.”
“A what...?”
“It’s circumstantial, obviously.”
She saw that I was not amused.
“I’m kidding,” she said, removing her hand from my shoulder.
“I hope you are.”
“It’s all those Twilight movies. And then they got shows on TV. Lots of rip-offs. It’s all pop-culture now. Can’t escape it. So many sexy vampire hunks and sexy vampire vixens. The Vampire Diaries; that’s what it’s called. Ever see it? Oh, and another show: True Blood. And I got a paperback out in the car that’s a vampire story. Heart Search is the name. Vampires in love.”
I remained unamused.
“Don’t worry, Stefan. I didn’t mean to tease you. It’s just a...a trend society is going through. You know, one of those vampire hunks is named Stefan, also?”

My original idea for the climax and conclusion of the novel did not please me once I got there. I struggled with what the characters were experiencing. Then, like so many other nights, a dream saved me. I awoke and went immediately to the computer to rewrite the penultimate chapter and make changes in other chapters to connect with the new storyline. That made the novel into a beautiful allegory. 

As such, you may find the number 3 used a lot in the sense of the Christian trinity. There are three acts. Key events happen at 3:33 a.m. or p.m. Our hero stays in three hospitals, meets three women, and so on. He visits three countries in Europe: Germany, Hungary, and Croatia. And he converses with God: at first teasing, then as equals, then humbly, making deals, begging to be saved from his affliction. This is not intended, however, to be a "Christian fiction" book.

Another interesting trivia thing that I noticed but did not really contrive to put in is the variety of modes of transportation our hero, Stefan Szekely, uses throughout the novel.

1. by foot
2. by bicycle
3. by personal car
4. by SUV
5. by rental car (twice)
6. by airplane (a few times)
7. by cargo ship
8. by express train
9. by local line train
10. by street car/tram

As a bonus, our hero, Stefan Szekely, flirts with riding a horse, but--pay attention, trivia gamblers; you could win a bet someday--the horse is spooked by his evil presence and so he cannot actually ride the horse!

NEXT TIME: Cover reveal and official blurb!

NOTE: My gamma reader approved the so-called final draft but then I took a knife to it anyway, trimming more fat here and there, a single word or sentence at a time. It is now in the hands of my delta reader...who [trivia note] is the model for Mother Park in the book.

(C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

14 July 2014

One Thing Never to Blog About: Reviews

You know how things happen when you least expect them to but they leave you with a feeling like you just gotta say something? 

Yes? Well, here's my something. It will read like a rant, for which I must apologize. However, I assure you that I was probably drunk at the time so it's not really my fault. I should probably blame Facebook, where it is so easy to post things you regret the next morning. In the end, I intended no offense to anyone, anywhere. Honestly.

One of these days I'm going to remember to promote my novels again. Until such a time, look me up at Amazon. And if you can add to my review tally, I'll send you the book of your choice as a Kindle gift to read. 
Top of Form

[Returning to that Facebook post the next day...]

Oh dear. Did I really post that? I thought I was drunk. 

But, yes, I had a fair number of reviews before the great Amazon purge, when they removed everyone's reviews, believing they were all fake. I only had two novels out at that time but lost about a dozen reviews.

Then I got lazy. For me, being lazy means locked in my own mental ward writing something new...which is always preferable to doing the promotion thing. Besides, I'm rather altruistic and introverted when it comes to promotion; hate to foist anything upon anyone. And there's no accounting for taste; sometimes a story is just not someone's cup of tea, no matter how well written it may be.

I've always written stories that interested me, following the axiom of write the kind of stories you want to read. I've been very good about following that idea. Whether others want to read them is, of course, another fair question. But, really, that is the lesser question because I have always, right from the start, written to entertain myself and gave little thought to what to do with them next. Maybe I'll be accused of coming to this conclusion after not selling massive amounts of books, like it's a kind of salve for the soul. Possibly; only a psychiatrist would know. Perhaps I came to this conclusion while deep in a meditative pose? Would that make it more or less valid?

At any rate, selling some and having the readers express enjoyment of them is the most basic measure of success to me. My only rule is that I will never make a book free--unless given as a gift to a specific person, of course. I believe "free" cheapens the product, and for what it's worth, I put in a lot of time and effort to produce a novel, as all writers do. It's worth at least the token 99 cents.

I must be drunk again to write a rant such as this. Never mind. I've got my latest novel, the vampire story, locked away for the two-week crap test. If it survives, I'll seek a gamma reader and go from there. Onward and upward. The day job awaits!

[And returning the following day...]

It occurred to me this morning as I was preparing to go to school for the summer class I'm teaching, that someone will remind me to consider the reader or some variation on that meme.

The quick and easy answer is I do consider the reader. I consider the reader during revision, editing, and proofreading. The first draft, however, belongs to me: I am trying to please myself and not really thinking of who else may one day read it. Only later do I take on the role of objective reader and try to shape the manuscript into something perhaps more palatable.

The longer and more complex answer is that there is a fine line between challenging the reader and, for lack of a better phrasing, making it easy for the reader. I see the dumbing down of education every day and I am swept along with that tide. One sign is the reluctance of young people to read anything which requires sustained attention and reflection. The Tweet is the perfect medium for these people.

So should an author make it easy for a reader? I'm sure if I tried I could boil down a novel into a paragraph, but it would necessarily lose a lot of deeper meaning, nuances, the beauty of the language, and heart and soul of the fictional people dealing with their crises.

I prefer to lean toward challenging. Not challenging in the way, say, James Joyce did with Finnegan's Wake. I want the text to be clear, certainly, and the meaning not obscured. But the story must flow with its own inner fire and sometimes that means the reader must meet the author half-way, at least.

In fact, what keeps a reader going? It's bizarre enough that someone willingly chooses to read about something he/she already knows is a lie. Fiction is a lie we accept for the sake of entertainment...and perhaps some kind of catharsis. So it's rather like a performance, a stage play: Here is the play which I have created. Sit back and enjoy it. If by the end, or somewhere in the middle, it is not to your liking, you are free to leave. It would not be the same medium if a reader could intervene in a novel.

Unlike the interactive video games available today, can we allow the reader to decide at any point in the story what a character should say or do, or how the plot should turn or twist, or who actually is killed in the end? No, it's already set, just like performing a play. You can have endless debates afterward, of course, but in the product itself (a play or a novel) the performance is already done and the reader must experience it as it unfolds according to the instructions of the author.

Yes, there's plenty of room for self-indulgence in the author's tasks, but most of us weed out those examples of purple prose and kill our darlings to a reasonable degree. (I wrote about this in a recent blog post.) But how are we as a society, as a civilization, as the keepers of literary culture supposed to go on without some maintenance of the standard, any standard, which assures our performance on the page is welcomed and ultimately appreciated?

New things always come and then, for better or worse, always go. Ebooks then self-publishing then whatever is next occupy our attention, but the imagination, the construction of texts never ends.

Sorry for all the literary criticism jabs. I was considering my readers when I decided to make short paragraphs and add blank lines between them to make the reading easier. 

(C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

06 July 2014

How to Make Purple Prose a little more Blue

Dear Blog Readers, once again Yours Truly has been accused (albeit in a playful manner) of writing Purple Prose! 

Pshaw! My first thought was about which color might be in question because my usual font color is black. But it quickly occurred to me that I really do tend, at times, to lean toward the morbidly obese when it comes to richly compiled sentences. What I have just written may be an unworthy example of it.

I suppose we are all guilty of flowery language and purple prose when we are writing. At least at some time or other. It's not really that we want to show off. It's not that the scene or the character really needs it in order to be authentic. And we know what it is and that we should avoid it. After all, it slows down the reading, makes the reader have to work harder to comprehend what is happening, and in the end does not afford us any kudos for our highly honed verbal wordplay.

Recently, I had such a linguistic joust with a writer colleague who swears she is going to have her own blog post on the subject. One thing that came from that exchange was the idea of metaphors and, in particular, how a writer can build a beautiful, poignant metaphor (perhaps even one that advances the story) as a substitute for using purple prose or flowery language. 

Yes, it's possible to craft a deep thought or feeling from plain, ordinary language.

Now that I've finished my Work-In-Progress (WIP), *A DRY PATCH OF SKIN
, which I now can refer to as my Work-Just-Finished (WJF), I was able to quickly pull out a couple of convenient examples. Let's deconstruct one of them to see how a simply-worded metaphor can stand in for flowery language or purple prose.

[Set-up: At this point in the story, the protagonist is facing a desperate situation and, with no other recourse, turns to God--with whom he has been feuding during his journey to seek a cure his for his fatal disease. The following paragraph comes after the end of the soliloquy (spoken aloud) but is in standard first-person narrative.]

A flake of snow alighted on my nose, then more flurries fell around me. Probably it was God sending me a sign, but as usual nicely disguised and suitably vague. But I did not stop to gaze at the snowflakes. I knew they would melt. They always do. And become someone’s tears.

Not a high-brow word in that entire paragraph. 

Sentence #1 is merely a statement about the weather. Some readers may instantly latch onto snow as a metaphor, but that would only be because we have been trained through all of our previous reading of the literary canon to think that way.

In Sentence #2, the protagonist himself makes the comparison between the snow and a message from God, and by extension, so does the reader. His personalized assessment of the message (disguised, vague) gives us some of his (the protagonist's) mindset, further building the metaphor. Hence, if the sudden snow falling upon him is a message from God it is typically vague, thus requiring him to do the interpreting of the message.

Sentence #3 is a bit of a switchback on the road to metaphor. He takes the snow as a message from God but refuses to get caught up in interpreting the message.

Sentence #4 becomes a rebuttal to Sentence #3: He did not concern himself with the snow because he knew the flakes would melt. In a metaphorical sense, the symbols that the snow flakes represent will melt, hence become nothing (in a moral sense)--or in a practical, realistic way, nothing of significance. 

Sentence #5 is simply a trailing fragment of Sentence #4 but, left as a fragment, it becomes a separate, added comment rather part of the original comment of Sentence #4. The effect is two separate ideas, not one combined idea. There is a difference. If one wanted to, a semi-colon would probably work just as well to join these two sentences.

A day after writing the paragraph, I returned to read through it and make sure it said what I wanted it to say and felt the way I wanted it to feel. Then I added the final sentence. Just four simple words.

Sentence #6. Here is the metaphor--the leap of link between a fact of snow falling, a character's thoughts about God that are sparked by the snow falling, then a rebuttal or dismissal of those thoughts, and finally that leap into the metaphor. Snow obviously does not become actual tears. That happens only in the imaginary sense. It is the character who, like many real people might, makes that comparison.

That is what metaphor is. 

I've been reading a fascinating book about metaphor (I is an Other) in which author James Geary declares that everything is a metaphor. That is, if it is not the actual, physical thing itself, it can only be a description of the thing (my words). He further elaborates on the brain's unique ability to form patterns from each and every experience we have. Then, upon encountering a new experience, the brain relies on the patterns it has stored to determine if the new thing is in any way like something previously encountered. Metaphor is that practice of pattern-forming. This is like that, therefore, I can identify certain properties of this new thing which match the old thing and I'm ahead in the game of identification. 

But I digress....

In fiction writing, we do not use metaphor for survival or to make patterns per se, but rather as shortcuts, as more interesting ways of introducing emotions, connections, and other perhaps esoteric claptrap. Sometimes they work, sometimes not.** But purple prose and flowery language can be dismissed in favor of the carefully constructed metaphor which, in the end, is usually going to be more powerful and more beautiful than a stream of beautiful words themselves.

*I hope to have this medical thriller/vampire tale available for end of year holiday shopping.

**My first novel, AFTER ILIUM, has sections of "flowery language"--'tis true--but I believed it was warranted and appropriate because it is reflecting the romantic hero's mindset as he works his way through a seduction and an affair. Conversely, once the affair ends and reality is thrust upon him, the writing style is quite lean, even terse--matching the survival effort he faces where there is no room for frivolous thought.

(C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.