Elbows, and Aliens Leave A Note

I knew an actor once, not a particularly good actor, who carried all the tension in his entire body in the points of his elbows and in the space directly above his hips.

When he attempted to express emotion on the stage–which was often–he locked his joints without meaning to and became like an unhinged puppet, hardening almost to the point that he looked like a wooden doll.

He was, as I said, not a very good actor.

He was tall, though, and he had an even skin tone that cooperated with the texture of his hair to make him look decent under stage lights. The combination of his height with his looks meant that he got consistent parts.

He mangled the parts after he had them, but he got them.

The reason I’m talking about this guy is because of the energy structure indicated by his perpetually stiff elbows and hips.

I’ve never seen anyone attempt to purge emotion off through the points of their elbows before, aside from him. It’s about the most useless area in the human body for trying to press through fear or pain, and the way the joint moves, and the lack of muscular padding and plump, breathable area in that spot means that you can’t really express any deeply-held emotion there.

The odd part was that he didn’t put energy that was wholesome or bright into his elbows. For example, giddiness or interest can be pushed into the arms and flow over the elbow joints, and then you get a coherent picture, but he put all the bright, sparkling emotions into two strips just above his hips, along his lower back.

Everything in his energy carriage was in contradiction to practicality and functional use.

Why?

Well, my theory is that he was raised by sadists and he hid all his functional emotions in the wrong places so that he wouldn’t be as much of a target.

More Diana

Diana stared up into the alien’s eyes and waited for him–she didn’t know if it was a him–to answer.

Stuart gripped her hand with his bitten one and glared at the aliens with a smile.

“You said she was your life match,” one of the three other aliens said, turning to look with lopsided eyes at Stuart, who grinned harder.

“He lied,” Diana said quickly. “He’s in love with me. He wants me to be in love with him, and I’m not. I hate him,” she added with a brilliant and genuine smile of her own.

The four aliens looked at her, and then at Stuart, who looked appalled and terrified, and then a strange, chuffing kind of laughter burst out of the alien in front.

Diana wrestled her hand away from Stuart and the aliens vanished. She blinked. They had disintegrated somehow, leaving nothing behind to show they’d just stood there. The grass was unbent, the alien ship had made no reappearance, and Stuart gaped at the now-empty courtyard of trees.

A thick backpack made of some strange, metallic substance appeared before their feet. There was a paper note tied to the handle with yellow string. Diana glanced at Stuart, who looked as if he’d gone into some kind of shock, and then she bent down and picked up the folded note.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, trouble is slowly brewing between Dylan and Steve, who have some interrelational dynamics to resolve. (They’re on the same security team, and work for Pops.)

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Flavors of Underpinning Tone

Every story has an overarching flavor of tone, of longing for something, even if that something is nothing. There is quite a bit of fiction (and nonfiction) that reaches desperately for annihilation in tone.

But my point is, every story has something reaching through the core, underpinning the words. This tone has a way of expressing itself subtly most of the time; you might be able to find glimpses of it through the types of adjectives selected in a scene, or in the repeated motifs of character interaction.

The salient takeaway, though, is that you’ve really got to be at least moderately aware of what tone you’re shooting for in your work.

The worst thing that can possibly happen in a piece of fiction is an uncontrolled and subconscious shift in tone.

Purposeful shifts in tone make for masterpieces, or for very compelling light fiction.

Accidental shifts in tone destroy story and cause contempt to spring up in the heart of ye olde discerning reader.

Even if a reader couldn’t tell you what a tone was with words, they know why they’re reading, in their hearts, and they get sort of betrayed and vitriolic, even if quietly so, when the author up and changes the goalposts in the middle of a tale.

So, what are some examples?

Loneliness as an overall tone:

I missed the way his fur got all over the couch cushions. My wife kept telling me to go ahead and adopt a kitten, but I didn’t want a kitten. I hadn’t actually enjoyed having an animal in the house, but once Mr. Butter Paws had passed into the great cat castle in the sky, and his earthly marks had finished being worn off through repeated and routine vacuuming, I found myself touching the cushions and trying to find those irritating flicks of brown hair.

Frantic pursuit of hilarity:

Bryan raked through the earth, his fingers scrabbling over the pebbles and loose clods of dirt. His hands caught continually against the delicate tendrils of tree roots, and he let out an impatient noise and tore through them, searching deeper, harder.

Soon his fingers scraped against something that was definitely not dirt or stone. It was soft, and it was foamy. Yes! Bryan thought, and he scrambling to unearth the moldy Nerf football he had buried only fifteen short months before.

Those are only a couple of examples, but the takeaway is that you are always, always writing down an underpinning tone, and if you aren’t aware of the style you’re using, it may work against you, and if you shift tones because of personal mood changes, your story will struggle to maintain any rhetorical coherency or fluidity in overall structure.

Underpinning tone is mainly subconscious in the creation process, but you can learn to subsume and control your inputs, and thereby eventually exert considerable influence over your resultant tone.

And now, some Diana:

The four aliens were horrible to look at. Diana thought, when their four shrunken faces emerged from their deep, shadowy hoods, that they were shaped as if some mildly drugged insane person had shoved dough around with a spoon and then fired the matter and called the end result faces.

They had eyes, sort of, but they were of various numbers and sizes and seemed to have been shoved in here and there with no regularity or rhythm. They had mouths, but three of the aliens wore their mouths sideways, stretching from one jaw up to an ear. The fourth alien had an unfortunate mouth in the lump that passed for his forehead.

They didn’t have noses.

Diana stared.

One of the aliens, the one with a mouth in his forehead, spoke to her with an awful sound like cat’s claws on a chalk board.

“You are Diana Vassel,” the alien said.

Diana winced so hard that she nearly burst out laughing, just to relieve the stress she felt from how horrible the noise was. Diana had laughed at awful things ever since she’d been a kid; she barely held in a peal of giggles now because she was so taken aback.

“Yeah, that’s me,” Diana said, straightening out her face and trying to look sober. She could feel Stuart glaring at her, and she was completely sure he was thinking hard thoughts at her for wanting to laugh. “Hi. What do you want?” Diana asked the huge alien, which tilted its head to one side and narrowed its four lopsided eyes.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I just made some noodles and eggs. Also, in my current novel, Barton is streamlining the dynamics in his team. Barton’s the head of security for a gangster.

Emotional Causation in Fiction

Reading is about creating a shared emotional experience, a vicarious intimacy through imagination and targeted internal exposure on the part of the characters.

The exposure can occur in a straightforward way:

Susan felt sad.

or be conveyed by situational placement:

Susan lay over the chair with red eyes and shivering breath, a pool of soggy tissues strewn about her on the floor.

and we, as readers, only start to feel in tune with a character’s experience when we hook in to their internal state of being and their subjective emotional filter.

At this moment, beyond a sort of anonymous empathy, we don’t feel any vested interest in Susan’s apparent misery.

Creating emotional intimacy comes through honing in on an element of sameness, or universal experience. There aren’t a whole lot of things that are universal, so then we come back to family, rejection, death, the hunger for love, and other very basic drives within humans as inherently social creatures.

We could set Susan up with a dead baby, with a broken engagement to her true love, or in the midst of a war (and her two brothers are fighting on opposite sides), and there would already be more juice to the sharing of her story.

But the creation of a character doesn’t matter to us until we identify with the character and find similarities to ourselves, which means going deeper into the musculature of Susan’s body and displaying the current status of her emotional expression.

Observe:

Susan drew a slow breath. All the weight of the sky seemed to press in on her shoulders, and into her lungs. The feeling of being alone, not only bereft of companionship but of the ability to be understood, crept through her skin like the roots of persistent and noxious weeds.

She scrubbed her fingertip over the oak arm of her chair, and the wood may as well have been a razor length of ice. Her skin shivered, and the regular knocking of hailstones against her roof made her bones ache.

Have to stop feeling sorry for myself, Susan thought, and she pushed herself up out of the chair. Her body screamed at the motion and she slumped back with a laugh, feeling pins and needles shoot through her stiff joints.

Susan at this point is a floating character, a sketch without a setting or a grounding purpose. If we added in some pressing conflict, we would, in addition to feeling physical sympathy with her, begin to wonder what she’ll do (and what we’ll feel like inhabiting her) in response to the stimulus of disaster.

Some more Diana:

Diana bit down on Stuart’s hand, and she was truly impressed to find that he didn’t pull back or fight her off. He took advantage of her occupied mouth to whisper in her ear.

“They don’t hear too well from far off, I think. Now, I told them that we’re partners, like true love matches. Shush! They can read emotions, and we have a lot of passion between us. Play along or we’ll be put into experiment tubes with the rest. They’ll kill us if we aren’t what I said. So just play along with me,” Stuart hissed.

Diana had stopped biting in the middle of this speech, and she turned around and glared at Stuart.

“Can they understand English, then?” Diana asked.

“Yeah,” Stuart said.

“Okay, I’ll play along,” Diana said with a bright smile. Stuart narrowed his eyes and glared at her. “What?” Diana asked.

The four hulking, dark aliens approached, their limbs hidden under massive, shifting cloaks that seemed to be sewn of the night sky.

Stuart grabbed Diana’s hand and pasted what she decided he thought was a romantic smile on his face.

Diana was mostly thinking about betraying Stuart to the aliens. She wasn’t sure yet if she felt enough personal danger to want to purchase safety herself at the cost of saving Stuart being tubed, whatever that meant.

She stared up at the aliens’ faces, which emerged with one motion out of their dark hoods, and her fingers tightened around Stuart’s hand.

“Hi,” Diana said.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Mr. Dropwater is meditating on his many errors of judgment and attempting with great success to reform his character.

I am so tired right now

Let’s talk about me more. Why not? I get into these cycles where the leftover maladjustment builds up and I can’t sleep, because processing the awful parts is too difficult.

Like, for example, the other day I had one of the old nightmares, but at the end of it, in the dream, I totally whipped out a phone and called the police, which is a big development for my psyche. Of course I woke up right after that, since my experience of asking people for help doesn’t ever pan out to my good, but the fact of actually calling in a dream was a big step towards a better understanding of what was happening in the first place.

My situation is ironic and sort of awful.

Oh, look, I don’t want to talk about myself anymore! The short version is that I’m tired and sleep deprived (synonyms!), and emotional damage can’t process without sleep, which leaves me swinging about in a morass of unfinished icky feelings.

Here’s a dragon sketch, though.

a13 copy

I am so tired that my brain just kind of goes on a loop of ‘tired, tired, tired,’ which is repetitive and which so far does not make me sleep more. Yay!

Here’s another chunk of Diana with the aliens:

First Encounter

She stood in the center of the green courtyard and stared up with an open mouth at the ship, which was very obviously alien, had fifteen whirling little squares around the bottom edges, and which hovered about thirty feet above the ground.

“Hey!” a voice called from behind Diana. She whirled and saw one human boy close to her age and four very large, frightening sorts of black shadows, which she assumed were aliens.

“You!” Diana said, because she recognized the boy, and wasn’t happy to see him.

“I told you it was me,” the kid said with a half-shrug, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Diana was filled with enough indignant rage to overcome any curiosity she might have felt towards the mysterious aliens, and she spun on her heel and stalked towards one of the glass doors to go back into the junior high.

She was startled to find the boy materialize in front of her.

“Just hear me out, Di,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“You can’t call me that, Stuart,” Diana snapped, her heart boiling with rage.

“Look, they think we’re friends. Just shut up and hear me out,” Stuart hissed. Diana glared at him. She considered dodging around him to reach the doors, but she had attempted to outmaneuver Stuart in close quarters before, and had never found much success that way. She spun around.

“He’s not–” she began, meaning to explain to the four giant black beings that she and Stuart were certainly not friends, but Stuart reached around her and clamped a hand over her mouth.

“Shut up! Listen for two seconds, you idiot!” Stuart hissed. Diana bit his hand.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Gint is taking care of  John again, though John insists he does not need help (he does).

Ramblings, etc.

I got something in my eye yesterday and now I’m crying continuously. Ugh.

I’m thinking about how people change, and how their core composition stays the same. I was thinking the other day about a female person I knew a long time ago. She was married for a while to a man, and then their financial situation took a nose dive and she got into … wait, I have to say that they got divorced first. So female, married to a guy, they had money problems and got divorced, and then later on she took up with an older woman with teenage kids who was milking an ex-husband for a living with spousal support, yadda yadda.

The whole transaction rotated on money, and I was thinking about how the need for immediate money shapes people’s behavior. Well, I don’t know about shapes so much as drives development and calls attention to different areas of current character and resilience.

The lady, for example, the one who got divorced and then became a kind of honorary scapegoat/submissive to this older woman who wanted a token lover and housemaid, had been in a very vulnerable position financially for most of her adult life, from the bits she told me about. I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t have any money when I knew her, so she wasn’t super interested in cultivating a friendship with me.

The thing that’s interesting about the whole situation was the way the children took it; with a blasé and partially resigned sense of ‘Oh well,’ as if they were detained in a bus station and had nowhere to go and nothing to do until their way out arrived.

The dad was lame, and I think most of the situation was his fault. He did this irritating thing where he complained and gave up instead of doing things to make the money problems better, which led, like a gradual avalanche, to his divorce and the total ruin of his life.

Lack of money was the root of the issue, from my admittedly very limited perspective on the situation.

One of the things that separates shallow fiction from much-better fiction is a grounded, complete awareness of the fiduciary impact of circumstances on character development.

Here’s another bit from Diana:

Sample

Diana Talks Back

“Hello?” Diana called, shivers of terror moving through her spine.

Before her eyes, the white letters on the glass display case vanished, the writing slipping away without any kind of sign of what was happening to them. Diana imagined some being peeling back a layer of time, making it so that the white words had never been there at all.

New letters appeared all at once, and Diana jumped, letting out a yelp.

Meet me in the courtyard.

The white letters were still sloppy and friendly, with a tidy circle forming the period. Diana thought about going to an exit and leaving the school. She got so far as to walk to a window and look out at the frosted wilderness outside. The junior high was not cold at all, and Diana shivered at the build up of snow and ice that coated the world outside. She then turned and headed towards the courtyard.

She came within sight of the big glass windows that opened onto the central yard and was shocked and pleased to see that the trees and grass were still green; no touch of frost or chill had adjusted the life there, though the courtyard was open to the sky.

Diana circled the courtyard from inside the building, looking into every corner of the green space. She couldn’t see anyone. I’m crazy if I go out there, Diana told herself, but she went to the glass doors and opened one.

A rush of warm, sweet air hit her face. She hadn’t realized how much the ice and sudden snow had gotten to her, but she relaxed in the enveloping greenery.

“Hello?” Diana called. It wasn’t until she walked to the center of the courtyard that she heard the hum, and looked up to see the ship.

Oh dear, Diana thought.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Simon the doctor is asking Claire to look into the future for him. (She doesn’t want to.)

Meanderings and More Diana

I’ve only ever been teased twice in my life, in the way I understand peer-based teasing. I don’t want to sound like I’m obsessed with myself or anything, but I was thinking about this dynamic recently, between me and other young ruffians my age.

The first time somebody teased me it was my best friend, soon to be my former best friend, who had recently discovered the interesting joy of exclusionary bullying. I formed a convenient target because I was a polite child. He stole my stuff and threw it about, and then giggled at me with his new, pro-bullying best friend. It took me a time or two to familiarize myself to the new landscape of being the less-favored best friend and I made myself scarce. I count the whole experience as one instance of teasing, as it was an exploration of a singular dynamic that stretched over a few days.

I figured out that I was the stinky gum stuck under the bus seat and absented myself from further opportunities. The guy, my former best friend, moved some distance away and then reappeared suddenly in high school. Meeting former best friends in later years has been a very strange experience for me. There was another kid who’d been my best friend (I averaged one best friend per year, drawing on the constantly shuffling population of my assigned classroom) who moved actually far away and then came back suddenly in high school, and that was weird, too.

This is boring, isn’t it? I mean, me talking about myself is boring. Maybe it isn’t, though. I’m working on expanding my internal repertoire of sharing, and it’s my darn blog, so I’ll keep going anyway.

The thing that was weird about both these instances of disappearing and then reappearing best friends (I had two old friends who moved and then came back as semi-adults) was the way both people looked past me, with a kind of ‘Don’t see me! Don’t remember me!’ glaze in their eyes.

Maybe it’s clear by this point that I see into people, or through people. Being a polite crustacean, I quietly acquiesced to their obvious desire for nonentity-ship in our renewed social contact, and we pretended not to really know each other.

But it was weird. This is a gap of about six years I’m talking about. Not literally six years for either of them, probably, but I’m not going to sit about and do the math in my head.

Anyway, but the second instance of teasing was right when I’d gone into a new school and people didn’t know me at all, and one pale, blonde female person started spreading these strange rumors about how I was secretly in love with one of the mentally delayed children in the school. That instance of teasing lasted about two days, and I was never singled out for social exploitation again.

It’s only interesting to me because after I grew up, you know, and got old enough to understand things about sex, I started to realize that I’d actually influenced and participated in the social dynamics around me. I’m so used to thinking of myself as a human equivalent of a rug that this was a novel perception to have.

Anyhow, here’s a brief sample.

More Diana

Creepy Alien Happenings

Diana explored the administrative offices and found no one. The junior high was completely abandoned. Diana started to ask herself why she, out of all the thousands of people who had originally been streaming towards the building, had been left behind.

She retraced her steps and glanced up at the ‘Hi.’ that had been written on the display case.

But it wasn’t there. In fact, not only was there no sign at all of the original white lettering, there were new words on the glass.

Diana’s heart sped up. She felt her fingers curl into fists. Her eyes traced over the words again and again, their sense filtering slowly through her mind, which was frozen with fear. She got calm enough to concentrate and read the words one more time.

It’s me. Can we talk?

Who’s me? Diana asked herself, studying the messy letters. She couldn’t think of anyone’s handwriting that she knew that looked that way, with a little circle forming the period and the dot beneath the question mark, and the sloppy squiggle of the letters.

“Hello?” Diana called. She hated how thin her voice sounded in the darkened halls of the junior high.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Crikey just threw one of his knives into a man’s chest.

Curating Depression

So I knew this guy years and years ago, and he was sooooo depressed. Like, that was what he talked about, and what he spent his time doing. He talked about his medications, and his latest failed therapy attempt, and his disappointed parents, on and on. His whole life was a big, complex drama about how he was depressed.

I was sympathetic. You know, because I’m not an asshole. I did the whole listening ear shtick. Again, not an asshole. I shared things. I was supportive. I made sure he ate food on occasion in a friendly sort of way. I was, I think, a decent friend.

Then, one day, we were in his car and going to a theatre thing together. A rehearsal, probably. He played a song for me that was from one of his favorite esoteric musicals and was sharing how significant the plot was.

The music was off-key and highly depressive. The lyrics were almost over-the-top, going-out-of-your-way emotional and misery-misery-miserable.

Something snapped for me.

The whole picture came together.

This is going to sound enormously judgy, but a whole lot of things cohered and I saw something about this guy that I’d been too blinded by niceness to see before.

He was deliberately cultivating depression. Like, it was an aesthetic for him. Suddenly I started remembering different little things, like how he strategically refused to eat and then magically binged on sugar when he knew it would make him crash. Like how he avoided the group of friends that were his active social network, actually went out of his way to steer clear of them over time, and hung out with another set who were unanimously anti-social and draggy-down-ish.

The biggest thing, though, was how he didn’t understand what I was talking about when he was asking for advice and I was talking to him about what was happening with his depression. It was like he’d missed the memo and didn’t actually understand the condition well enough to replicate the internal effects. I know lots of depressed people. I’ve been in demand as the on-call talk-this-person-out-of-feeling-so-sad friend a lot of times.

I know what the inside of a depressed person’s head feels like. I know the chain of broken impulses that move through the body of a depressed person.

And this guy … wasn’t actually depressed. He was wearing depression as a cloak, concealing a self-absorbed persona in a complex, shifting cloud of supporting behaviors that resulted in a depressed body and an active, calculating mind.

It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, like a man hiding out in a cave and destroying his body and mind just to say to himself that he accomplished something. Very strange.

Sample

Diana Receives a Message

She made it to the school and methodically went down every hall and into every room. The gym was empty, dark, and creepy. The swimming pool echoed with light slaps and the chug of the filters. The biology lab was full of floating frogs, half dissected in glasses.

Diana worked her way all the way down to the vice principal’s office, which was also empty, before turning the corner past the athletic trophy case.

Something white on the glass caught her eye.

Hi.

Someone had written, in what appeared to be white soap, the word ‘Hi,’ complete with a neat little circle for a period at the end.

Diana licked her lips and stared at the letters. That’s not a message for me, she told herself, but a shiver passed over her shoulders as she went past the case and into the secretary’s lounge.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in the book I’m working on at the moment, the dead doctor is coming back to life and having a small identity crisis because of his changed body.