“So what about the others then?” the boy asked.

“Denver,” Merrick said and gulped down a mouthful of beer. “Bunch of people scattered around. Place was a goddamned war zone.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it looked like Iraq or something. I could tell from fifteen miles out that it had gone to shit because you could see this gargantuan black cloud hanging over the place and when I got closer, I understood why. The city was destroyed, man. Buildings crumbled to the ground. Buildings on fire. And almost nobody there. The freeways were practically empty. It was beyond surreal. Like a movie.”

“What the hell happened?”

Merrick looked at him. “Take a guess.”

Zephyr could only conjure images of battlefields and bombs. “I have no idea. Just tell me.”

“Think nine-eleven, kid.”

He thought about it. “Planes?”

“Bingo. Fell right out of the sky when everyone disappeared and let me tell you, Denver took a goddamned beating. Don’t know if it was one plane or fifteen. Only saw the remnants of one, but one of the survivors I met said there were at least two that he saw himself. Difference is, no fire departments to the rescue. Not enough people left to put out a bonfire, let alone the firestorm that must’ve blazed after the planes came down. So everything just burned. And from the looks of it, the fire spread.”

“Yikes,” the boy said in total disbelief.

“Yeah.”

“What happened to the survivors?”

“What do you mean?”

“The survivors you met in Denver. Where’d they go?” Zephyr asked.

“What do you mean ‘where’d the go?’ I assume they’re still there.”

“Why didn’t any of them come with you?”

“Oh. Well, I wasn’t exactly advertising my taxi services like I was for you and I don’t think anybody would’ve come with me even if I had,” Merrick said. “Everybody I met led me to believe they wanted to be there — that it was the smartest place they could be.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think they’re all hoping help is coming and they don’t have any intention of missing it.”

“What about you?”

“Not really sure what to think,” he said. “But I guess I wouldn’t be on the road right now if I really believed that.”

My Favorite Openers

Posted: April 9, 2013 in Dead Weight
Tags: ,

A good book should hook its reader from the first sentence — the lofty goal of every author, aspiring and accomplished alike.

Of course, I’ve read plenty of fantastic novels that took their time with that initial hook — not hidden within the first 10 pages, let alone the first paragraph. But two books did nab me from the onset.

The Dark Tower is one of them. The series as a whole is not without a few hiccups — Song of Susannah, for instance — and yet the first three books border on genius. My older brother turned me onto The Gunslinger when I was a kid and I can actually remember listening to the audiobook for the first time. It must’ve been two in the morning, I was tossing and turning in his water bed — he had spent the night at his girlfriend’s — and I decided to play the first cassette tape in his dusty clock stereo. (Yes. It was that long ago.) I looked at the cover earlier in the day and knew it had something to do with a cowboy, which wasn’t at first blush altogether compelling. I decided to give it a shot anyway. And this is how it opened:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. 

Pretty perfect opening. In one sentence, we meet the protagonist and antagonist of the book. Not only that, but we want to know more. Who is the gunslinger, and why is he following this man in black? King has a great many imaginative, engrossing books, and yet none open so eloquently, in my opinion.

The other is from The Road. I read this one — no cassette tape or even MP3 download, thank you very much — well into fatherhood, and the first sentence not only grabbed me, but also profoundly connected with me. Here it is:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

It’s powerful. In one sentence, we know discover these characters are in some turmoil, and furthermore, that a man is desperate to protect a child. It’s what’s inferred, though, that really gets me. Love and fear in 25 words.

The Process and the Math

Posted: February 5, 2013 in Dead Weight

I like to think that I can write under some pretty chaotic circumstances. I used to turn out time-critical stories from not-so-comfy exhibition hall floors while crowds of smelly people stepped over my outstretched legs. A sixth of this novel was written in Mark Bozon’s cramped kitchen while he played Call of Duty — the volume turned well up — only a few feet away. Occasionally, I still escape to a local coffee shop to do some undisturbed writing because even an overpopulated place of business drowned in shitty music is preferable to three laughing, screaming and usually-crying kids as one tries to get any measure of work done.

But my favorite place is simply a quiet, best-when-blockaded room where I won’t be disturbed. When I’m sure nobody will be visiting unexpectedly, I don a pair of bulky headphones, play some ambient soundtrack and try to knock out a bare minimum of 1,000 words. That’s always the low goal and I will not pull myself away from the computer until it’s achieved. Sometimes I’ll knock out two, three or maybe even four times that number, but most of the time I hit the low target and that is perfectly okay. That’s more than enough to keep the story flowing. Barring variables, which is hardly realistic, here is how the math should work:

300-400 words = 1 page in a book

Write 1,000 words a bare minimum of 5 days per week = 5,000 words

5,000 words divided by roughly 300 words = 16 pages

5,000 words divided by roughly 400 words = 12.5 pages

Even at the low end, 1,000 words a day will get you 50 pages a month.

A half year later, you should have a 300-page book. A year later, 600 pages.

But alas, there are the variables. A night out to the movies. Sick children. A party here, a vacation there, and the worst culprit of all, procrastination. My book has taken much longer than it needed to — not because I ever came down with a bad case of writer’s block, but because Homeland was on television, or Ready Player One was too good to put down.

Meet the Characters

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Dead Weight

characters“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” — Stephen King

This is the second time I’ve referenced King, who I do believe is one of the great storytellers still breathing. I think there are dozens of takeaways from his book On Writing, but two in particular really struck a nerve with me.

First, the adverb is the devil, and should be avoided when at all possible. One doesn’t run briskly. One doesn’t run quickly. One just fucking runs — the pace is inherent. Conciseness is not my forte, but why add words when they aren’t even necessary?

The lovely, possibly-demoralizing quote above is the other. Apologies to all of you writers who live and die by outlines. There is no right or wrong to this, there are only the rights and the wrongs for you.

I happen to side with King here because when I’m writing, my brain doesn’t lead — my fingers do. I come to the page with the general idea formed, but nothing is solidified and oftentimes the words that come and the story that follows are vastly different from the original concept. That isn’t just okay — it’s the most satisfying part about the process for me. I love that feeling of discovery as you learn something new about your characters or story — something you didn’t even think was inside you, and yet it came out and surprised the hell out of you. There are dramatis personae in Dead Weight who died or lived when they shouldn’t have, simply because my fingers took me there. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I don’t keep character outlines, either, for the same reasons. I don’t know. Above everything else, writing a story shouldn’t feel mechanical. You shouldn’t have to refer to bios for your heroes and villains. You should just know them. You’re telling their stories. And now, I do. I have that confidence. But when I started Dead Weight, I thought I could use a little inspiration so I printed up a one-sheet with pictures of some major players based on some of their inspirations. Many of them are recognizable pop icons. Here they are in their original glory.

The Synopsis

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Dead Weight

Here’s the pitch:

When 17-year-old Zephyr Rockwell awakens from a camping trip in the woods, he discovers that nearly everyone in the world has disappeared and most of the luxuries mankind maintained are already breaking down. The boy soon embarks on a journey for answers and companionship in a new reality where great cities lay in ruins, food and water grow scarcer by the day, and every other survivor is a potential threat.

milestoneEstablished writers love to say that a good book is just as long as it needs to be. But when you’re a first-time author like me, you really don’t have the luxury of writing an 800-page epic, the likes of which would surely make Stephen King or J.K. Rowling beam with pride. Instead, there are all sorts of rules to abide by if you have any aspirations of seeing your work published traditionally. And I do have those aspirations. Otherwise, I would simply write stories and never show them to anybody. Any writer who says they create solely for themselves is likely a liar. As a result, I must abide by these sometimes-shortsighted rules.

Beyond the obvious necessities like a good story and the general ability to tell it, one’s first novel must supposedly weigh in between 70,000 and 120,000 words. There are, of course, always exceptions to this rule. A rare few writers debut with massive novels that don’t follow any of the accepted conventions or limitations, including word counts, but how they pull off these acts, I have no idea. I have nothing but respect for these authors, and by respect, I mean deep, seething jealousy.

There is an inexact science to these word counts, too. 80,000 words translates (in very rough territory) to a 240-page book. 120,000 words will get you a fatter 400-page novel. This is all give or take, of course. They say that writing is just reading and copying in some faint form. We all internalize, whether we know we’re doing it or not, and I can guarantee that if you grew up reading only Stephen King, your writing style will not inexplicably be a duplicate of Kerouac or Hemingway.

Well, I spent my youth and teenage years reading some of the most verbose writers imaginable, and the good and bad of it is that I hemorrhage words. Brevity is the setting sun, easily seen and seemingly nearby, but never really within my reach. Let this blog post speak to that. I’ve had to do a lot of post-editing and sometimes some painful chopping to stay somewhat succinct in the face of endless detail, but I’ve sort-of-kind-of done it. And at long last, I’m almost finished with my first book. Which is, I can tell you, a very original feeling fundamentally different from any work I’ve done as a journalist / editor before. A 15,000-word piece on Retro Studios is something that can be finished in a single day because all of the research, all of the talking points, all of the story is there for the taking. But conjuring something from thin air requires copious research on the back end and in categories oftentimes largely unfamiliar. I know the history of Metroid. I am, in contrast, not an expert on how long television channels might continue broadcasting when the intended viewership is suddenly wiped clean of the planet. Or how and when electricity might erode and fail.

All of this to say that I’m really pleased because I finally hit a great milestone last night: 100,000-plus words. Maybe this is meaningless to you. It just means that I have a 300-page book, which is already meatier than some. And it was the original goal I set for myself when I sat down to write Dead Weight. But most important of all, I can finally see the end.

Image  —  Posted: February 2, 2013 in Dead Weight

Beginnings

Posted: February 2, 2013 in Dead Weight

When I left IGN I started a blog called Mouth on Fire. That sad, neglected and ultimately forgotten publicly personal record looks a lot like this blog, actually (the magic of free templates will do that), but there is a distinction. While I will certainly interrupt the dedicated purpose of this destination with regular ramblings about topics that I can safely comment on, this blog mainly exists as a means to post about the writing process and more specifically my first novel, tentatively titled Dead Weight. If you’ve somehow found your way here and have some thin, wavering interest in this topic, I invite you to keep reading and comment when you can. I’ll do my best to answer any questions or address remarks and judgements as they come in.

If you are here instead for my opinion on Wii U, I’m afraid you won’t find this blog to your satisfaction. I will just say that I own one, plan on buying Nintendo’s Mario, Metroid and Zelda games when they come out, and leave it at that.

Supposing you haven’t already closed your browser and cursed my name under your breath, please do stay in touch. I wouldn’t have created a blog dedicated to my book if I didn’t value open discussion and feedback. I’ll fill in the details with regard to plot and character in another post, but until then, thanks for stopping by.