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.)

No Advice At All

So I’m thinking about this guy I used to know and his wife. They had a weird relationship. What I’m thinking about just now is the power dynamic. She was mostly in charge, and he did this thing where he had dreams and was super talented, and she supported him without breaking him enough to make him succeed.

Does that make sense?

What I’m saying is, he kept failing, and he had all the parts necessary for success except that motivating partner section that gives you a foundation from which to take risks that work. The physical support was there but the emotional grit was missing.

I don’t think he wanted to let go of his father’s disapproval. He had a super screwed up family, the kind that looks normal until you stick around for six years and start to see the big picture, and the patterns that emerge over time.

What I’m wondering is what it would have taken, in the situation he was in, for him to have broken from talented and promising into actual success. He didn’t want success enough to reach out and take it in a forceful way, and I don’t know if his wife was emotionally lacking in support because he didn’t want support or because she didn’t want him to succeed. I think it was because he didn’t want that kind of support, which is sort of sad.

Although, why should other people giving up make me sad, if they’re willfully clinging to dysfunctional relatives instead of cutting loose and becoming independent (emotionally) and successful (in the sense of achieving what they want)?

That’s illogical, to be sad for people choosing what they want, even if what they want is misery. More power to them, right?

Anyway, here’s a sample.

Diana is Alone:

Diana moved down the darkened hallway of the junior high with a thundering heart and prickles of fear on her palms. The aliens had come yesterday, and now the world was frozen with ice, but this school, because of a quirk in the ground below the foundation, had stayed warm.

She’d only found out about the junior high being left alone because the mass text from the city had alerted everyone to the situation before her phone had died. Everyone’s phone had died. Cars had frozen, too. She’d walked here through the thinning crowds and the white, icy wasteland and found no one in the building when she’d arrived.

People had started to vanish partway through her walk, blipping away without a sound. She hadn’t thought it was really happening until her friend, Jasmine, who had been talking loudly just beside her, went away. More people, and then more, disappearing without any sign. Nothing was left behind.

Well, except for Diana.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my book that I’m working on right now, Carrie is talking about his several piercings, how he got them and why.

Pride and Vanity

Something I found while I was working on performance creation was that while some actors were proud of themselves, very few of them had functional vanity.

So let’s talk about selfishness.

Being selfish is bad, right? Except it’s not. Unless it is.

The morality of self-absorption is contextual. Let’s look at an example, and we’ll see if we can get the story to illustrate for us.

Examples

BAD writing:

George was so full of himself that he never thought about other people. He spent way too long over the way he dressed and over his hair. He was vain! Also, he never gave other people compliments. That was bad!

George had a job, but he never did more than was precisely expected, because he valued his time far too highly to spend his effort on stuff that wasn’t directly connected to him. George was a snob! He would probably fail in relationships, if he took the time to form any. Alas, George was too busy admiring himself to make friends or attachments that way. He liked to look at himself in mirrors, too.

GOOD writing: 

George avoided the crowded compartment on the train and sat down at the end, next to the smelly, homeless-looking people. He didn’t mind the smell so long as he could keep about three feet between himself and anyone else, no matter who they were. He smiled at everyone, and they glared suspiciously back at his effortless, glossy business clothes, and then George pulled out his latest self-improvement book and buried himself in How To Talk Kindly To Yourself In Your Thoughts.

When George left the train, he stepped around the spots of grease on the sidewalk. It was a game he’d picked up as a kid; he pretended that any dirt outdoors was a kind of virulent poison that would eat away his clothes and mar the scrupulous cleanliness of his skin. He wasn’t obsessed at all, and didn’t play every moment, but when he was thinking, which was most of the time, he liked to study the pavement and find clean patches. Safe, safe, oh no! Poison! George thought as he wove his way, smiling, through the crowded pedestrians.

Victor Poole, That George Character Wasn’t Selfish!

Yeah, he was. He was self-absorbed in a healthy way. Did you notice how he didn’t talk to any of the people on the train? Or how he wasn’t making sure to walk so that everyone else on the sidewalk had plenty of space? He was weaving all over the place on the sidewalk! Selfish!

Let’s look at another example.

BAD writing:

George met the landlady outside his apartment door.

“Oh, hello,” George said, his heart falling.

“I need help with some chores,” the landlady said.

“I don’t have time to help you, though,” George said.

“I’m so old. I’m probably dying soon. Don’t you want to be a good person who helps old people?” the landlady demanded. George sighed.

“No, Mrs. Brickenhoft, I’m too busy for anyone, even old people,” George said.

“I’ll make you cookies,” she said.

“What kind, though? And how many?” George asked, folding his arms.

GOOD writing: 

George walked slowly up his stairs daydreaming about the concerto he’d been composing in the evenings. Tonight he was going to work on a complicated passage in the string section. George held in a sigh and shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking about the wealthy music aficionado who had promised to look at the concerto in the spring.

Mrs. Brickenhoft was looming outside George’s apartment door, looking like a diseased spider.

“Morning,” George murmured, though it was evening now.

“I need your help,” the landlady announced, as if it was a roll-call in a church school. George unlocked his door and Mrs. Brickenhoft put a hand out. George slipped into his apartment and shut the door in her face. She knocked on the door.

“If you knock for more than five minutes, lady, I’m calling the cops,” George called, setting down his work bag and loosening his tie. There were no more knocks, as George had called the police twice on Mrs. Brickenhoft for harassing him in the past. George smiled, shed his clothes on his way to the bedroom, laid out his sheet music, and started to tinker contentedly with his violin.

That Was A Silly Example, Victor. You’re Just Making Stuff Up

When I worked with actors, both becoming a better performer myself and teaching others what I was learning, I found that there were a lot of selfish actors who were vain the bad ways, in the poisonous, not-glowing ways.

There were a few, though, who had managed to hit on boundaries, self-respect, and actual vanity, which is essential for even rudimentary performance.

Anyone who is standing up in front of other people, through writing or acting or anything else, has to have enough internal pressure to withstand the outer pressure of observation and unavoidable criticism.

Pride can be toxic or beautiful. Selfishness can be necessary and good or damaging and bad. Vanity is essential to the accomplishment of anything in your life.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Finch the assassin is about to bring an invalid some ice cream (butterscotch, I believe).