Brainstorming with the hive mind

Yesterday I was floundering a bit in my writing. I still really had no firm vision of act 2 and all I did know—that Batarel was trying to kill Daniel and Jack was trying to catch Daniel and Daniel was trying to be neither killed nor caught—didn’t seem like it was much to go on. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a Benny Hill skit. And that wasn’t what I wanted.

It occurred to me that part of the problem was that I didn’t know how Daniel was actually going to kill Batarel. In the original book, the immortals could be killed by reducing them to tiny pieces and then burning the pieces. A run of the mill RPG could do this in one efficient step. But this time around, post-9/11, with grenade launchers so commonly available around the world, that seemed too easy. But because I was too close to the source material, I couldn’t think of another way to do it. So I asked Twitter.

jeffkirvin
How would you kill something that had nanites in its blood that repair damage (injuries, aging) almost as fast as they happen? #research

kdaleauthor
@jeffkirvin Petrify instead of kill… figure out what the nanites use for fuel and disrupt it in a definitive, fast way… umm *runs out*

nlowell
@jeffkirvin suffocation #research

Alli_Flowers
@jeffkirvin Simple. Watch Stargate and see how they finally did it.

kdaleauthor
@jeffkirvin Computer virus vs. nanites… opposing nanites… remove all blood (if they’re only in the blood)

dmcduck
@jeffkirvin Irradiate the nanites? Large magnetic force?

instanteternity
@jeffkirvin Acid? Emp? Impact? Maybe disable the nanites before you can do anything else? Depends on how drastic an injury they can fix.

crimsonsky76
@jeffkirvin Trying to figure out how to kill your immortals? I guess the whole "There can be only one" thing doesn’t work here, huh? 🙂

nickolaswriter
@jeffkirvin Seal them in a vacuum and deny them access to raw materials.

dgawlik324
@jeffkirvin the the new Outer Limits addressed this once…shock therapy to fry the little bastards…

crimsonsky76
@jeffkirvin How about a virus – worked against the original Visitors in V and the Borg. Sounds like you’ve made them too powerful for less.

Smallmedium
@jeffkirvin A wooden steak in its heart or a silver bullet.

Not all of these suggestions were usable, but they got me thinking. Some of them, like the EMP idea, were brilliant, but won’t work in Revelation because our heroes don’t know why the immortals are immortal yet. They won’t learn about the nanites until they get to examine some demon blood in Crusade, the next book in the series. But there were enough valid tactics and false positives to give me some ideas on how Daniel could have several try/fail cycles in Act 2.

Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work." Daniel and company will be doing the same in Act 2. They’ll be trying to find a successful way to kill a demon. And they’ll be trying not to get killed themselves in the process. Add to that my realization that they no longer have any reason why they have to stay in DC, and get an Act 2 that looks like this.

  • Daniel and Co. go on the run
  • Jack gets a lead that Daniel is still in the metro area, wonders why
  • Daniel and co find Batarel’s house emptied and for sale, seller is some anonymous holding company
  • Batarel follows the RV from his house
  • Jack investigates
  • Batarel attacks, gets beheaded, puts head back on, heroes escape to Baltimore
  • Jack investigates
  • Heroes try to drown Batarel
  • Jack investigates
  • Electrocution in Philadelphia
  • Jack investigates
  • Radiation in New York
  • Jack sees evidence that Batarel isn’t human
  • Blow up, but not completely, in Newark
  • Jack finds Daniel just as Daniel attacks Batarel in a Bethlehem Pennsylvania steel mill
  • Dissolve/Melt/Burn/Vaporize
  • Daniel, Jeff and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it

There’s still a lot of stuff missing from this. I know that Susan needs to play a bigger part, and I’m thinking she’ll be blogging about the entire experience as well as uploading videos to YouTube as soon as I can figure out how she can do that without tipping off the FBI to their whereabouts (I think this is why they hop from one major metro area to another; it would be too easy to track her signal in a rural environment). I’m also thinking Jack needs to nearly catch Daniel at some point, shades of that scene in “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in the drainage pipe.

I also like a lot of the little touches, like trying to electrocute Batarel in the home town of Ben Franklin, and ending it and meeting the Archangel Uriel in a city called Bethlehem (not far from where I went to high school, as it turns out). Little things like that, which weren’t initially intended, tell me that the story is taking on a life of its own, that it’s an organic thing unto itself. A good outline doesn’t preclude organic writing, it just provides a skeleton on which to base it.

Blocked by fear of writer’s block?

This is weird. I’m not actually blocked. I know exactly what comes next in my story, and it should actually be a fun scene to write. I like writing action scenes, and this is the first time we really see what a demon can do in a fight. Basically, he’s going to wipe the floor with Daniel. And what’s better than beating the crap out of your main character, really?

Only here’s the thing. I’m terrified of what comes after the scenes I’m writing now. Here’s the outline I have so far. It should look at least vaguely familiar to folks who read Between Heaven and Hell.

  • ACT 1
  • Daniel helps at a wreck, freaks out when he sees a man with a fatal injury walk away and gets himself arrested
  • Police interrogate Daniel, find out why he indentified himself as a doctor; Daniel escapes en route to psychiatric eval; cops “make the call” as Daniel “fits the profile”
  • We meet Susan, a right wing Christian blogger
  • Daniel investigates the strange life of Hendriks, the dead man
  • Susan looks for Daniel
  • We meet Jeff Frankel, a crazy old Viet Nam vet
  • Baterel meets with senior demon, told to kill Cho, but make him disappear so the police think he’s still out there
  • Daniel goes to the library to search the Google, finds Susan’s article, and contacts her.
  • Jack gets a lead on Daniel
  • Susan meets Daniel
  • Jeff arrives in DC
  • Susan decides to help Daniel
  • Jack finds Daniel; Daniel and Susan go on the run
  • Daniel meets Jeff at the Arlington Days Inn
  • Batarel attacks; Jeff rescues Daniel and Susan from Batarel
  • Batarel kills the motel manager in frustration
  • Jeff establishes that “angels and demons as flesh and blood immortals in the granddaddy of all secret societies” is an existing meme, attributes what they saw to that
  • Jack investigates the motel manager’s death and the carnage from the fight
  • ACT 2
  • Daniel and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it
  • ACT3
  • Jack changes sides
  • Our heroes meet Uriel
  • Demons kill Daniel’s family
  • Susan gets a copy of the database
  • Jack takes Daniel, Susan and Jeff to Iraq
  • Jeff meets with Mullah Hassan Mohammad, the keeper of the lost gospel
  • Mohammad shows Daniel the lost gospel and the angelic helmet, an ancient Sumerian artifact that seems to contain microcircuitry
  • Demons attack the mosque (to prevent the gospel from getting out?)
  • Our heroes escape from Iraq
  • Susan publishes her proof
  • The media runs with it, and public opinion wakes up to the immortal threat
  • Jack recruits Daniel into a force to combat the demons

Acts 1 & 3 are strong and make sense. I’ve always been good at beginnings and endings. But the middle, that’s a problem. Act 2 should be the meat of the book, all the complications and redirection that makes a novel so rich and enjoyable. It should also, in general, be roughly half the page count, 50% compared to 25% each for Acts 1 and 3. So the fact that my Act 2 basically consists of “HERE BE MONSTYRS” is… alarming? terrifying? scaring me out of my gorram mind?

I know, in broad strokes, and we’re taking rollers here, what has to happen in Act 2. Batarel, my angry, implacable, immortal demon, keeps trying to kill Daniel and failing, while Daniel tries to both capture Batarel and avoid being captured by Jack, who is now an FBI agent in this version of the story. So the first half or so of Act 2 should be a merry chase, with both Batarel and Jack chasing Daniel, Jeff and Susan. One of the biggest hit movies of my formative years was “Cannonball Run,” so I should have an intuitive sense for chase stories. It could be all I’m missing is to visualize Daniel as Dom DeLuise. (this is probably a bad idea)

At roughly the halfway point, Daniel has to turn the tables on the demon and become the chaser, or at least start fighting back. At some point in there Jack has to see Batarel for what he is, and realize there’s a lot more going on here than just a terrorist fugitive on the run. And then after Daniel figures out how to kill a demon, Jack has to arrive at that final battle between Daniel and Batarel and join Daniel’s side. I’m not sure how Daniel’s going to figure out how to kill a demon, which was explained by the lost gospel in the original book, given that the Archangel Uriel doesn’t show up and give them the database and the location of the gospel now until after they prove themselves worthy by killing Batarel, but I’m willing to accept that the story will me that. There was absolutely nothing in my original outline for Homeworld, my Mars novel, that suggested the characters fly to Kazakhstan and buy an old Soviet nuclear sub reactor on the black market, but when the story called for one and they couldn’t get one from NASA, well, a character’s gotta do what a character’s gotta do. So I can take a leap of faith on that. My characters have proven time and again that they’re smarter than me, so I can trust that.

But I still have to have some idea of where they’re going. Let’s see, based on my ramblings above, I have:

  • ACT 1
  • Daniel helps at a wreck, freaks out when he sees a man with a fatal injury walk away and gets himself arrested
  • Police interrogate Daniel, find out why he indentified himself as a doctor; Daniel escapes en route to psychiatric eval; cops “make the call” as Daniel “fits the profile”
  • We meet Susan, a right wing Christian blogger
  • Daniel investigates the strange life of Hendriks, the dead man
  • Susan looks for Daniel
  • We meet Jeff Frankel, a crazy old Viet Nam vet
  • Baterel meets with senior demon, told to kill Cho, but make him disappear so the police think he’s still out there
  • Daniel goes to the library to search the Google, finds Susan’s article, and contacts her.
  • Jack gets a lead on Daniel
  • Susan meets Daniel
  • Jeff arrives in DC
  • Susan decides to help Daniel
  • Jack finds Daniel; Daniel and Susan go on the run
  • Daniel meets Jeff at the Arlington Days Inn
  • Batarel attacks; Jeff rescues Daniel and Susan from Batarel
  • Batarel kills the motel manager in frustration
  • Jeff establishes that “angels and demons as flesh and blood immortals in the granddaddy of all secret societies” is an existing meme, attributes what they saw to that
  • Jack investigates the motel manager’s death and the carnage from the fight
  • ACT 2
  • Daniel and Co. go on the run
  • Jack chases Daniel
  • Batarel chases Daniel
  • Daniel eludes Jack
  • Daniel goes on the offensive
  • Jack sees evidence that Batarel isn’t human
  • Daniel discovers how Batarel could be killed
  • Jack finds Daniel just as Daniel attacks Batarel
  • Daniel and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it
  • ACT3
  • Jack changes sides
  • Our heroes meet Uriel
  • Demons kill Daniel’s family
  • Susan gets a copy of the database
  • Jack takes Daniel, Susan and Jeff to Iraq
  • Jeff meets with Mullah Hassan Mohammad, the keeper of the lost gospel
  • Mohammad shows Daniel the lost gospel and the angelic helmet, an ancient Sumerian artifact that seems to contain microcircuitry
  • Demons attack the mosque (to prevent the gospel from getting out?)
  • Our heroes escape from Iraq
  • Susan publishes her proof
  • The media runs with it, and public opinion wakes up to the immortal threat
  • Jack leaves the FBI to join a UN anti-demon task force
  • Jack recruits Daniel

Act 2 is still thin, and I’m obviously missing some scenes, but at least’s it’s coherent, and it follows causality. I can see how the characters get from A to Z, rather than A to G, then a whole bunch of hieroglyphics, then Q to Z. It’s not perfect, but it might be enough to overcome my screamin’ willies (Nelson being the most disturbing) and get me back to writing.

Lessons from week one

Cracked 15,000 yesterday, which is an acceptable pace. I full thousand less than the 2k per day I set out for, but no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And so, I thought I’d share the observations I’ve already figured out, now that I’ve had a week of writing like a professional writer.

1. I am not a morning person.

This may not actually help you in your writing all that much, but it bears stating anyway. My plan going into this was to wake up at 6am every day and pound out 2000 words before breakfast. Then I could go about my day, and if opportunities arose to get some extra word count, well, so much the better.

Well, as it turns out, I haven’t done this once. The alarm goes off at 6am every morning, but not once have I sat down and wrote before leaving the house. Sometimes I’ll leave the house and write somewhere else before work while I eat breakfast. Sometimes, too often really, I’ll still be at word zero for the day by the time I settle into my cubicle. And on those days, I’ve had to grind the words out other ways. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, I’ve written very little while actually on the job. I’ve found that I can squeeze in 500-700 words at Chipotle on my lunch break, and I’ve found lots of places to write after work. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve even found that writing can be energizing after work, no matter how tired I might be going into it.

I’m going to give morning writing one more shot before adjusting my schedule to get up later and stay up later, writing at night.

2. You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.

I assumed going into this that I knew my characters pretty well. I should, given that they’re based on characters I’ve known for 15 years. But as I get into this book, I’m learning that this Jeff Frankel is a very different person than the original, that this Susan Richardson is more interesting and more driven than her counterpart in Between Heaven and Hell, that this Jack Harris, introduced just 12,000 words into Revelation rather than the beginning of Crusade, is a more thoughtful and resourceful guy than I expected, and that yes, even Daniel Cho, the man who changes the world forever, who sets in motion a series of events that changes the Milky Way galaxy forever, is not quite who I thought he was. This Daniel is more somber, more tortured by the failures of his past, and yet stronger and more directed than the original.

In every case, I have stronger, more interesting characters. Characters who have already surprised me as a writer and set the plot moving in a slightly different direction. Which brings me to…

3. The map is not the territory.

I’ve talked before about how I don’t write detailed outlines anymore. And yet, the bare bones bulleted list I started this project with has already changed a lot. I’ve deleted scenes that are no longer necessary. I’ve added new scenes dictated by the actions of the characters. And I’ve also been forced to rip a major set piece out of the middle of the book when I realized that it was what was making me afraid to get past the next few chapters.

In the original book, Daniel and company find out about a big meeting of all the demons and arrange to be there and film it. It was a major turning point and thus was part of the outline for this version. I moved the meeting to Denver instead of D.C., but kept the idea. I wasn’t sure how our characters, hunted by both the demons and the FBI, would make it to Denver, but I was confident the story would tell me. Early on in the week, I felt vindicated by the fact that the characters were telling me things about the story I didn’t know going in.

But one of the things I learned was that the demons are organized like terrorist cells, with a very decentralized and “need to know” structure. In fact, in the book, modern day terrorists got that idea from demons in the first place. (why do you think we keep reporting that we killed the same number 2 al Qaeda guy over and over? because he’s immortal) So it followed from that that they would never have a big demon pow wow. But if they don’t have the meeting, then Daniel can’t go, and if he doesn’t go HOLYCRAPIAMLOSINGMYBOOK

Then I took a step back and thought about it. I went back to the end of the book. What has to happen at the end? Susan goes public with her data proving that immortals exist, that we know them as angels and demons and they’ve been messing with us since before recorded history. Jack leaves the FBI and heads up a new UN organization to root out and destroy the demons, and he recruits Daniel to the cause. This all has to happen to set up the second book, Crusade.

But how I get there is entirely fluid. I don’t have to keep anything from Between Heaven and Hell that no longer makes sense. So in order to have that ending, what do the characters need?

They need videographic proof of an immortal shrugging off and healing a mortal wound, something they can post on YouTube (and yes, Google, blogs and Twitter have already been featured in the book). Susan needs a database of all the known demons, their current identities and all the aliases they’ve used through the centuries. And they need the Lost Gospel, an ancient scroll detailing in ancient Hebrew the war between the angels and demons, including the fall of Lucifer, in much more detail than we’ve ever seen before, including details on how an immortal can be killed permanently.

As I looked over that list, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to stick to the original path, and a new way to get there started forming in my head. I had always thought the database came from the demons themselves, because it did in the original. But now I realized that not only would the demons probably not have such a record at all, but that the angels, with their almost OCD devotion to order, almost certainly would. So the database and the location of the Lost Gospel (currently forgotten under a mosque in Iraq) would probably come from the angels, probably from Uriel, the archangel who has been watching them. And when would he give them this information? After they prove on their own that they’re worthy of it by killing Batarel, the demon that’s stalking Daniel.

And poof! Just like that, the book popped back into place, the outline rewrote itself and just about everything about my act 2 got stronger. And, most importantly, I’m not subconsciously dreading going past the next few chapters, into the void in my original outline that just read “here be monsters”. Now I know that Daniel, Susan and Jeff have to run from both Batarel and Jack until they can turn the tables on Batarel and destroy him, an effort Jack finds himself helping with. After that, Uriel can swoop in (as angels are wont to do) and send them off in a new direction. I can see, in vague, looming shapes, all the way to the end of the book now, and it looks solid. It looks good.

Of course, I realize that any and all of this is subject to change if the characters, yet again, find a better way to get there. But I’m starting off week 2 much more confident in the book as a whole than I was before, and that’s a good feeling.

Outline or fossil?

Okay, I’ve got the character, setting and initial situation. Is that all I need to start writing a novel? What about outlining? What about writing scenes on index cards? Who’s driving this ship, anyway?

And the answer is, of course, the story is driving the ship.

This is different from how I usually work. Historically, I’ve been an outliner, a planner. I’ve been the kind of writer who writes character sketches, outlines the scenes in ever chapter and generally spends so much time researching and “developing” a story that I never get around to actually writing it.

NaNoWriMo makes that mode of storytelling almost impossible. The overriding requirement to get 50,000 words in one month, over 1,667 words a day, every day, makes such planning an impossibly expensive use of my writing time. Because keep in mind, I have a day job and a social life, and will not be putting either on hold for NaNoWriMo.

Fortunately, meticulous planning isn’t the only way to tell a story. My other option is the fossil.

I’ve talked about this before. In his excellent On Writing–and if you’re serious about writing and you haven’t read this, you really should, no matter what you think of King as a writer–Stephen King likens stories to found things, like fossils in the ground. Writers don’t invent stories as much as we uncover the stories that were already there, lying quietly in our minds. The really good writers don’t break very much digging it up.

King starts all of his novels much as I’m starting Sins of the Mothers. He has a situation in mind, a character or two, and sets events in motion. Like a lot of writers, I’m sure he has an intuitive feel for where to start the action, but once it starts, he just keeps asking “and then what?” until the story plays itself out in his word processor. He says that only rarely does he have a definite ending in mind.

I’m doing things a little bit differently. I do know where I’m going to end the story, but only vaguely. I have a sense of supporting characters, both protagonist and antagonist, and what their motivations are. And I have a basic sense of how the story has to start. Here’s my “outline” for lack of a better word.

  • Start with Sophie learning about the end of the Nemesis war and the destruction of Earth.
  • Sophie learns that the Sendeni plan to kill her rather than figure out what to do with her.
  • Sophie goes on the run.
  • Sophie meets up with some male Sendeni, and is able through her telepathic abilities to communicate with them in a rudimentary way. I don’t know yet why they don’t just kill her on sight or why they decide to hide her.
  • A whole bunch of stuff happens, during which Sophie becomes a revolutionary leader for the male Sendeni.
  • Sophie is killed, maybe in battle, maybe assassinated. The story will tell me which.
  • Sophie’s lieutenants pick up where she left off and achieve their independence.

So you can see, I have a pretty clear big picture view of the first act, from the opening to Sophie joining forces with the males. I have a less clear but still relatively solid view of what act three has to contain. I have no gorram idea at all what will comprise act two, the bulk of the novel. Basically, I know where I’m going for my first 10,000 words and my last 20,000, but the 40-50k in the middle is a complete mystery to me.

And that’s as it should be. Between Heaven and Hell was rigorously plotted, down to 3-5 major scenes per chapter, 20 chapters per “book”. In a lot of ways, I wrote it like I was structuring a 3-season run of a TV show, because I was reading a lot of writing advice from Joe Straczynski at the time about how he did Babylon 5 and that’s all I had to go on as far as how to actually do this stuff. Since then, I’ve written “Do Over!”, a novella, and nearly completed two novels: Mistaken Identity, the sequel to Between Heaven and Hell and the start of the Nemesis War, and Homeworld, my Mars novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2006. In writing all of these I’ve learned that my instincts as a storyteller trump plot. The last ten thousand words or so of Between Heaven and Hell veered wildly from my outline because by then the story had me in its grip and I was just racing to write it all down. I got into that zone a lot earlier in Mistaken Identity, veering off track into a much better story than I had planned about 30,000 words in, and slipped into that intuitive mode almost right off the bat with Homeworld, because NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you time to plot.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. When I was a little kid, we’re talking maybe six or seven, teachers used to pull me out of class and take me up to the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. I’d stand there in front of a class full of kids over one and half times my age and ad lib fairy tells, complete with morals, right off the top of my head. I was born with a storyteller’s instincts, a fundamental understanding of Plato’s three act structure before I ever knew who the heck Plato was. And story is story, there’s no difference between a five minute oral fairy tale and a 100,000 word novel. Each is a fractal reflection of the other, and that fractal image is etched into my DNA.

Between now and November first, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I’m going to know as much about Sophie and the initial conditions of the novel as I can. I’m going to know as much about the Sendeni and their culture and government as I can. I’m going to craft a solid opening line. But no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no outline surives contact with the manuscript. Once I start writing, all this prep work drops away and it’s on.

All I need to do is get out of the story’s way as I’m writing it down.