July 17, 2014 / 3 Comments

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

            Classic movie reference.  Come on, broaden your horizons.  Watch something made before 1976.
           Anyway, I’d like to start today by telling a story or two.  They’re examples of a problem I see crop up now and then, and one I just finished wrestling with myself.  It’s one of those issues where it’s easy to either write myself into a corner or (worse yet) write something where characters are acting in an unbelievable way.
            Oh, and by the way, before I forget, there’s a thermonuclear warhead in the apartment next door.  Something like ten megatons, if I read the specs right.  Armed and everything.  Just thought you should know.
            Anyway, let me tell you the first story.
            In my often-referenced novel The Suffering Map (unpublished, for good reason), one of the main antagonists is Uncle Louis.  Louis is an old-school mobster with a legendary temper, and he’s rather upset that someone (we’ll call him Rob) threatened his niece (who’s in her late fifties).  He sends a man to rough Rob up a bit, and that man ends up dead with his body horribly mutilated.  So Louis sends two men to kill Rob.  They both end up dead and mutilated.  And when this news reaches Louis he decides…
            Well, actually, he decided to wait for three days and then go after Rob.
            See, I had this whole structure of days worked out, and it turned into kind of a vicious circle.  I needed three days to pass, so Louis had to wait.  Which meant I needed to come up with stuff for everyone else to be doing.  By the time I abandoned that structure, though, I’d grown kind of fond of the reveals and character moments I’d created.  Now Louis had to wait so I’d have room for those bits, no matter how strange and out of character it seemed.  It wasn’t until my fifth draft that I realized this was just dragging things and creating a huge lag in the plot.
            Though not as huge as that bomb sitting next door.  I looked it up.  That’s almost fifty times the size of the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki.  Think about that.  I mean, I think it’s small compared to some missiles and such, but right here in the middle of Los Angeles that could still kill a lot of people.  Millions, easy.
            Anyway, back on track.
            Here’s another example of what I wanted to talk about today.
            A few years back a woman I knew wrote an urban fantasy story and asked me to look at it.  A single mom activates a portal and she and her kids are transferred to a mystical realm.  There’s some magic, some disobeyed instructions, and all three kids vanish.  Invisible?  Teleported?  Dead?  We don’t know, and Phoebe, our heroine, was desperate to find out.
            Well… until she ran into the handsome barbarian chieftain, anyway.  Then Phoebe became aware of just how shredded and torn her clothes were after coming through the portal… and how much skin they exposed… and how much skin the chieftain was showing.  Tight, tanned, well-muscled skin, and Phoebe started wondering if there was a Mrs. Chieftain, and if not… just how prudish were people in this semi-medieval world?
            Speaking of kids…  Hmmmm.  Sounds like one of the little kids next door is hitting the warhead with something.  Maybe a hammer.  Yeah, there are kids next door, too.  Didn’t I mention that before?  I guess one’s technically an infant and the little girl’s a toddler, but they third one is seven or eight.  He’s hammer-competent.
            Well, probably can’t do anything about it.  At best, he might turn on the timer.  If he hasn’t already.
            But I’m wandering away from the point again…
            Or am I…?
            Y’see, Timmy, there are some threats that are just too huge for me to ignore.  Either as physical threats or emotional ones.  One of my children vanishing.  A man in a hockey mask stalking toward me through the forest.  An armed nuclear bomb. 
            Once I know about these things… that’s that.  I can’t establish a huge threat and then ignore it.  If I tell you there’s a nuclear bomb next door, that has to be the priority.  Not being polite.  Not property laws.  Not getting a good night’s sleep and dealing with it in the morning. 
            In my new book, the characters found out about an immediate global threat.  Not a ten years down the road thing—this time tomorrow half the planet will be dead and by the weekend all of it will be.  And it put me in an awkward spot when they did, because at that point nothing else could matter.  Nothing.  Once they realized how big that threat was, they couldn’t be thinking about anything except taking care of it.  Yeah, they could have little asides or chuckles, but nothing that distracted them. 
            It forced me to restructure the end of my story.  But it also made the end much stronger.  And nobody’s standing around wondering about that bomb next door.
            Alas, I’m going to miss next week because of the San Diego ComicCon.  Please swing by the Random House area (technically the Crown/Broadway booth) on Friday after 2:00, say “hullo,” and call me a talentless hack in front of important people.
            When I come back, odds are I’m going to be very fatigued.
            Until then, go write.

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