The last Monday in July

It’s the last Monday of July 2013 today. It’s 103 here in Phoenix, which isn’t really too bad. The trees are getting that tired, dusty look. I don’t notice the cicadas anymore, I’m so used to them. My cockatiel has begun his fall molt.

Across all my blogs, across the country, everybody’s chickens are molting. It gives me hope that the end of summer isn’t far off. Of course, down here in the desert it won’t cool off until November, but I like to pretend that September means fall.

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The August meteor shower starts the week of the 13th, and I’m sure we’ll be having major monsoons by then. I’m debating taking the kids out this week, while it’s dry and clear, to stargaze and watch for shooting stars. We have a pretty good view of the sky if we lay out in the volleyball sand pit.

Of course, the sand pit is also inhabited by red ants. Out here the red ants are black. They’re the ghetto cousins of California ants. If you look close, they’re very dark red with black abdomens. But when you look down and see them biting you, they just look black. And they’re bigger, too.

So I’ll inspect he area for ants before we do any stargazing.

Is astronomy a good school subject? I think we’ll add it to our lesson plan. 🙂

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Cicadas are weird

Last night I was sitting here typing away on the computer. It was quiet. The kids were in bed and my hubby was in the other room.

Then something started knocking on the window.

It was kind of irregular, so I figured it was a bug of some kind. I went and looked outside. Nothing out there. I returned to my chair.

After a minute, the knocking resumed. I went on so long that I went and looked out the window again.

First thing I saw was our neighbor’s cat right beneath the window. Her eyes were enormous moons and her tail was lashing like crazy. She was hunting my mysterious insectoid knocker. So I started looking around at the window.

I spotted this guy. A cicada.

Cicada by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons
Cicada by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons

Aren’t they bizarre? Looking them up on Wikipedia (that bastion of truth) says that there’s lots of different species of cicadas. What we have out here are the desert variety, which actually “sweat” to cool themselves off. They extrude moisture and have to drink lots of tree sap.

I’ve sat out with the kids at the pool and listened to them call. They talk to each other. There’s always one cicada per tree, and one will call, then another will answer and the first one will go quiet and listen. They buzz back and forth to each other.

They also make funny clicking sounds when they fly, like an in-flight call. They were pretty upset during our last storm. The thunder would boom and the cicadas would fly around and click like agitated birds. If birds clicked.

We were making cicada jokes on Facebook.

I wondered why my ears were ringing. Then I realized it was the cicadas.

I thought there was something wrong with the lights. Then I realized it was the cicadas.

I wondered why I could hear high-tension power lines. Then I realized it was the cicadas.

I wondered which anime I’d left on in the background, then I realized it was the cicadas.

I thought the hotdogs were going crazy under the broiler. Then I realized it was the cicadas.
I thought I was in Hell. Then I realized it was the cicadas.

Show me the awesome

I was talking to a friend and explaining what I’ve been writing lately. How I was building up to the climax, which consists of the hero and villain.

Who fall off the edge of the world.

And have a knife fight.

In free fall.

AWESOME!

I was also trying to describe a monster they encounter. Its working name is an air hydra. Imagine a Portuguese man o’war (a killer jellyfish), only its gas bag is filled with hydrogen and it floats in the air. And instead of tentacles, it has dragon heads on long, snake-like necks. The military uses them like living zeppelins.

I love reading awesome. Like, the kind that literally makes you sit up and go, Holy crap, am I seriously reading this? And what’s more, in the story’s context, I’m totally buying it?

Sometimes the awesome gets out of hand and kind of takes a turn toward stupid. That’s my big gripe with Starswarm, when they sneak into the bad guys’ base by delivering pizza. It has to be baked into the story ahead of time. (Haha! Pizza! Baked!)

In the second book of Scott Westerfield’s steam punk trilogy, Behemoth, we’ve already seen the dragon train and the giant robots. So in the finale, when the dragon train crashes itself into the giant robots, it works! And it’s also FREAKING AWESOME. Also that’s not much of a spoiler because I didn’t tell you why it happened. Read the books.

Maybe it comes of watching too many action movies with superheroes in my youth. But if I find a book that takes risks and does crazy things, like you usually only see on the big screen, well, I get excited.

What’s more, I want to write those kinds of books. The ones that blow your hair back and leave you panting at the end of the last page.

I know not everybody can handle the awesome. I don’t like it all the time, myself. But sometimes a romance novel just needs a big dragon to come stomping through.

Lord of the Rings horror/comfort cycle

There’s a lot of great analysis of Lord of the Rings. But none of them (that I’ve read) have ever touched on what I call the horror/comfort cycle.

This is something I wish all epic fantasy writers would use. I’d love to encounter it elsewhere than Tolkien’s work, but nobody anywhere has ever touched on it. So I’ll do my best to explain it.

In all fiction, conflict is explained in a try/fail cycle. The heroes try something and blow it and try again. That’s basic plot.

Tolkien’s plot ran on a different structure. Maybe it was typical of the epics, I don’t know. But his stories run on a horror/comfort cycle.

It starts very small, with comfort. Bilbo’s birthday party. The horror arises when Bilbo refuses to give up the ring. Quickly resolved, we enter the next comfort phase of Frodo taking over.

Next horror cycle–the Ring’s backstory. It’s slightly stronger than the previous one. So the comfort is greater–Frodo and the gang moving and going on a walking tour of the Shire.

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Next Horror cycle, which is bigger–Black Riders on the Road. Its corresponding comfort is Farmer Maggot. Next Horror is the Old Forest, balanced by Bombadil, trumped by the Barrowdowns, trumped by Bombadil again, one upped by what happens in Bree, trumped by Strider and his leadership.

On we go through Weathertop and Frodo’s wound, which is balances by Rivendell and the Council. Moria is very dark and is balanced by the wonder of Lothlorien.

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Back and forth the pendulum goes, getting higher with each swing. Awfulness is always balanced with greater good, which is beset by still greater evil. In the end, good wins, but at a cost.

In modern fantasy, nobody follows this progression or even seems aware of it. Mostly one horrible thing happens after another with no rest in between. Even Christian fantasy, which in particular should be aware of things like this, in my opinion.

The horror/comfort like a really big version of the scene/sequel structure, except Tolkien took us to wonderful places right along with the horrible.

I don’t write epic fantasy, but I’d love to read some that follows this. I wonder if other genres could benefit from the horror/comfort cycle?

Unlikeable protagonists

In all of our writing training, we’re told how our protagonists have to be likeable. The first thing our reader will notice is our hero! If they don’t like your hero, it’s curtains for your book!

I’m reading a book right now with a hero who is a whiny angry jerk. But I’m sticking with it because I like the story and supporting characters.

It got me thinking about numerous other protagonists I disliked and still read their books. All of Stephen Lawhead’s antihero protagonists are that way. Harry Potter had book 5 where I just wanted to smack him. Twilight has Bella. I don’t think there’s ever been a Ted Dekker book where I liked his protagonist.

But often the supporting characters are awesome. The jerk hero is having an amazing adventure with amazing people. I can put up with his jerk-ness for their sake.

I want to say this is a literary device, but correct me if I’m wrong. Books like Pride and Prejudice start off by showing you the characters’ faults (Mr. Darcy is a BUTT and Lizzy isn’t much better). But then the author starts showing their good qualities, too, and by the end of the book, you love them.

Sometimes that does happen in modern books. When I meet a jerk protagonist, I hope they’ll improve and stick with them. Usually they do become slightly less odious by the end. Sometimes they don’t. But if their supporting cast and adventures are good enough, I don’t mind much.

Have you noticed yourself sticking with a book, not because you like the hero, but because the story is compelling? Who’s the last hero you remember not liking much at the beginning?

Monsoony

In Bakersfield, we get weather from two directions: cool air from the coast to the west, and monsoon moisture from the tropics down south. We much prefer the beach weather because it’s ever so much cooler without the hideous humidity.

Out here in Phoenix, in the desert, we only get cool(ish) air from one place–the tropical monsoons. The weird nature of the desert and its tendency to heat up or cool off at the drop of a hat means that a thunderstorm radically cools the air for a few hours.

So, naturally, after a week or so of 110+ temps, the whole state is hoping for monsoons. Apparently, this week we’re having some!

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This morning when I went outside to check the clouds for signs of precipitation, I found the youngest diligently pouring dirt on our neighbor’s cat.

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The cat just sat there and put up with it. She’s a very mellow cat.

Surreal

The kids came down with colds last week. Naturally I’ve had it all this week. Mine, of course, turned into a sinus infection, because a cold is never just a cold.

So it’s made the week kind of surreal. Between being sick, my husband’s crazy work schedule, and sick kids, I feel like I’ve barely been scraping by.

I got on our library’s online catalog and downloaded some ebooks. I found The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones, which I’d never read. Tip: don’t read it with a sinus infection. I felt exactly like the ghost–muddled and unable to think straight. It was like I was living the book, and it’s not exactly the most sunshiny book in the world, either.

So then yesterday, I was crawling around, assembling the pieces of my life again. The kids went over to their friend’s house and all was well. I went out to check on them after a while. One of the neighbor girls came running up to me all dramatically to tell me that her mom had gotten an alert on her phone–some kid had been kidnapped.

Even Ryan got this alert, so it must have gone to everyone with a cellphone (I.e. not me). A little while later, I had a random lady beating my door down because Clair had walked the sidewalk loop by herself. Which is in full view of my windows. By the time the lady showed up, Claire was already back with the other kids, who I could also see from my windows.

But everybody was so upset by that kidnapping alert, I looked it up.

A mom kidnapped her own kid from daycare to keep CPS from taking him.

And I was all, “Really? This is what all the fuss has been about?” But that phone alert doesn’t give you any details aside from time and the description of the car. So it sounded truly terrifying.

So this has been a surreal week. I’m ready to be well.

The structure of horror fiction

I want to try my hand at writing a psychological horror story. With a UFO. I don’t know about you, but UFOs smack of that Otherness that everybody from the Exorcist to Lovecraft have tapped into. We see things we can’t explain–especially those UFOs that change shapes or break into bits and fly in different directions.

So I started researching the structure of the horror story. I mean the thriller kind–not the splatterpunk Hollywood is so fond of. I’ve found some interesting things.

Horror story formula, from Chillers and Thrillers:

I. General Horror Formula

A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.
The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).
Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).

Examples: It, Summer of Night, The Exorcist

Some very helpful advice regarding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fears, from the Thrill of Fear blog:

1 Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
2 Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
3 Belongingness and Love needs – work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
4 Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
5 Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

It follows that humans’ fears are directly related to their needs. Fear of pain is the fear of not being able to fulfill our Physiological needs. Fear of public speaking is a mixture of our fear of losing our current Self-Esteem, not being loved, or losing out feeling of belonging.

With every monster and scary situation, look at it in terms of what needs it threatens. A possessed house? Considering we need shelter, and on a lesser level need safety and stability, this can be a scary prospect. Possessed daughter? That threatens our need for family and affection.

But I wanted to know how folks like Lovecraft did it. Fortunately, I found his formula pretty easily.

From Byzantine Reality:

Lovecraft tends to follow a fairly predictable formula in his works, which goes something like this:

Protagonist is a rational person who thinks spiritual things are silly
Protagonist is volunteered to investigate the bizarre happenings of a town and help the inhabitants overcome their irrational fears
Protagonist learns that there is indeed something spooky going on
Protagonist sees a glimpse of the true horrifying nature of reality, driving him insane

Then I tried looking up Arthur Machen’s horror (the guy who Lovecraft ripped off wholesale, and who was also a committed Anglican and worked his faith into his horror). Funny, not as many people talk about him. No idea why, because I’ve read some of his stories and they’re every bit as intellectually creepy as Lovecraft’s.

Along the way, I found an interesting breakdown of atheist horror and Christian horror.

So, I have here the basic information to write a horror story. But it’s a vast topic. Mostly, to write really good creepy stuff, you have to dig down into those places inside you that give you the shivers. It’s why the Weeping Angels and the Silence from Doctor Who are so iconic. Weeping Angels–don’t blink or it’ll get you! The Silence–you forget them as soon as you look away, even if it’s coming to kill you.

Obviously I’m new to horror, though. Anybody have any other resources or add, or advice in general?

Hodgepodge Monday

I’ve been agonizing all day about what to blog about. I mean, it’s Monday! I also woke up with just enough of a cold to feel crummy. So feeling crummy and cleaning house don’t make for great blog posts. The kids are all hacking and sneezing, and I’ve wiped a lot of snot over the last weekend.

This July is also Camp Nanowrimo. I’m working on two stories at the same time–Dragonblood Vampire, and my third complete rewrite of Jake and Revi’s story, which still doesn’t have a proper title. To keep myself on track, I’ve been looking at Three Act Structure and the Plot Clock. James Scott Bell just detailed the Magical Midpoint Moment.

Altogether it’s been most helpful. I’m so thankful for the Internet, where people so easily share their vast stores of knowledge for free.

I’ve also discovered the wonderfulness of Goodreads for finding books similar to what I like. Specifically, the lists. You can start a list of a certain kind of books, and anybody can add to it and vote for their favorites. It’s a really interesting way of comparing books.

From what I’ve seen, Urban Fantasy usually goes like this.

Here’s a snarky dude. He’s usually a detective or a cop of some sort, and he’s always got a supernatural background–angel, demon, mage, druid, monster hunter. Now comes the conflict. Usually he’s been framed for some kind of crime, or his supernatural boss goes missing, or his girlfriend turns out to be a vampire or something. Anyway, now the guy is the only person standing between Earth and the apocalypse.

I’ve been chuckling a lot, because Storm Chase hits most of those high points. I guess it’s urban fantasy! Except Storm Chase isn’t dark and gritty, like a lot of these books. I guess it’s only Modern Fantasy.

Dragonblood Vampire, on the other hand, IS gritty. I feel like I’m writing some kind of crazy fanfic, because it’s just that much fun. And making one of the antagonists a furry was just the cherry on top of a delicious Chinese-flavored dessert. Here’s a sketch and an excerpt:

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She began to chant in Chinese. Almost from the first word the foxes came. I sat on the step and watched them, and the hairs on my neck stood up. The hair on my scalp tried to stand up, too.
Some of them looked like actual foxes. Little four-legged things with fluffy tails and little pixy faces. But other ones came with them–things like werewolves on two legs, with slavering jaws and dagger-like claws on their hands. Still more came, horse-sized things with long pointed faces, snake eyes and wavering, flaming coats. Tails waved behind them like hydra heads. All of them had a little ball of light floating over its head or burning on its chest.
As Jia-Li finished her chant, the ranks of fox-monsters parted, and Daji came.
I knew her because she was a furry. I’ve seen tons of creatures just like her on deviantArt. She had a smoking hot woman’s body with no clothing, only tufts of fur in strategic spots. Her face was entirely fox, with a teeny muzzle and nose, and great fluffy fur on her cheeks, and enormous ears. Nine tails floated behind her like a cloud. They changed colors the whole time she was there. Her ball of light was right in the middle of her forehead.
Jia-Li beckoned me forward. I didn’t want to get any closer to those monsters than I had to, and I didn’t like the way they all leered at me and licked their teeth.

When it comes to busting writer’s block, Wikipedia is a quick and dirty way to do it. I don’t trust more than a fraction of what I read on there for history, but for information on gods and monsters, the wilder the speculation, the better! I mean, I’m going to change these stories a lot as I include them in my writing anyway.

So that’s hodgepodge Monday.