Neat Writing Tricks From “The Ruins” (If you are from Ireland and usually read this, you are my sole reader from Ireland. Thanks for reading!)

13 01 2022

While I had COVID, I took a gift card I had won at a work-place raffle and I ordered some books. The first to arrive (used from ThriftBooks) was “The Ruins” by Scott Smith. A movie had been made and is available for streaming. I had watched the movie and was really impressed. Over the years, many writers I respect had claimed that the novel itself was a compelling page-turner.

They weren’t kidding! It’s 500 pages and I tore through it in 24 hours. I hadn’t read a novel so eagerly since I was a kid. Despite knowing how the novel was going to end. Despite the characters being obvious redshirt/victims and the monster being a Pottsylvania Creeper that can do impressions.

SPOILERS

The plot: six generic white college age tourists in Mexico go off the beaten track, ignore multiple harbingers, and find themselves forced to stay in Mayan ruins covered with vines that are predatory, carnivorous, and intelligent. The natives know the vines are dangerous and will not let the kids leave the ruins, lest a tendril hitch a ride on them. Lacking resources or means to call for help, the six die rather quickly. You’d think that this plot couldn’t last longer than a Tales From The Crypt episode. But Smith makes it a compelling read over 500 pages.

How did Smith do this? I studied the book as I read and have some answers. Let’s look at style and structure first.

The POV shifts in third-person limited between the six characters. The language is contemporary with little artistic flourish. There are no chapter breaks. There is very little to break the narrative flow. I skimmed the prose easily. Jumping POVs kept scenes from being too long and gave moments where characters could assess a situation from different perspectives.

The plot is a basic Four Beat Structure. The McGuffin for going to The Ruins was to find a missing brother. That drew the plot up to Beat One about 20% in. The brother’s body is found literally when a character notices the vines seems crowding him. The plot questions shifts from “Where Is?” to “How?”. Within that 20%, all the plot elements have been established: a phone ringing in a deep pit, birdcalls from within the vines, and the vines’ peculiar growth.

The other three beats are Reveals Of Horror and the characters’ reactions. Beat Two is discovering the vines are acidic and grow quickly to eat any meat. Beat Three reveals the starving characters discovering the bird calls are actually coming from the vines’ blossoms, and that the vines are as fast as snakes. In Beat Four, the ringing phone is also a mimicry to lure them into the pit to be digested. Characters die on the way, of course, and after each horrid realization there is a POV change where the next character summarizes anew the whole dire situation.

Another group of tourists is supposed to come looking for the doomed, but even that isn’t taken seriously. That group shows up at the end much too late, only to climb The Ruins to presumably seal their own fate.

I noted the McGuffin handoff when the missing brother is found dead. That handoff is made into a “What Is Happening” through the world-building of The Ruins themselves. The brother is found amid the wreckage of an archeological dig. No other bodies are found. There are notebooks, though, and passports and other documents. I was waiting for them to try to piece together the clues. But Smith quite rightly made the paperwork a tease to keep my attention and concentrated on the character interaction. It was the same when the archeologists remains were found, when the natives (rendered in ways sympathetic and distinct) organized, and in examining The Ruins themselves. Just enough world-building to create believability, then moving on with the plot.

The most important aspect of the novel comes with establishing the six redshirt/victims themselves. We learn about them through description and behavior. There is almost no dialogue for the first forty pages. This perspective one step removed shows that this is “an ensemble” so to speak and there is no main character. What is vital is that it sets us up as watchers and not sympathizers. We are set up to watch flawed WASP college kids get drunk, make a lot of assumptions, and Get What’s Coming To Drunk Assuming WASP College Kids.

One could argue that what kills them is White Privilege and this is addressed in the book. It’s touched on only briefly, because deep sociological reflection would create sympathy and ruin plot momentum.

The first forty pages also set tone really well. From the first sentence, the characters spend their time with churning hangovers, sizzling sunburns, bleary from lack of sleep, resentful of another’s actions, menaced by snarling dogs, unsettled by disease and poverty. I’m going to pay more attention to using environment to create tone.

The horror I felt for their fate came through the sensory descriptions. Tendrils squirmed under skin. Acidic sap burned hands. Hopes dropped into chilled horror. Amputations cracked and snapped. I found myself thinking “these guys were dopes, but day-um they didn’t deserve all this.”

This is a good book. The movie has a better ending, in that it follows a Main Character out of the six who becomes the sensory touchstone for the viewer.





My Creative Process: Generating Ideas

8 07 2021

A stage magician’s soul is forced into a grub eating his mother’s corpse. An abused housemaid is drawn into a world within a kaleidoscope. A steamship doomed by the ghosts of colonialism and personal trauma.

Many people liked my novel “The Flesh Sutra” for the same reason I enjoyed writing it: it had a few digressive “Monsters of the Week” (or rather “of the Chapter”) which added depth and variety to the world, and frankly were also really cool ideas.

I’m working on a sequel and a re-release of an improved “Flesh Sutra”. The sequel’s plot has been fun so far. But the plot is moving too quickly and I think I and the characters need a breather. So I want a “Monster of the Chapter”.

The plot so far: A woman named Gretchen is possessed by Olivia, a transcended spiritualist. Olivia has had keepsakes taken from her and Gretchen is driving across country in a used car, from San Diego to Hartford, to retrieve an item. Olivia is a Strange Attractor and Gretchen sees into the spirit realm. What happens during the road trip? I didn’t want to play where anyone else had played.

The first thing I did was track that trip with Google Maps. I noted what was on that route every mile of the 3000+ drive. (I had decided to keep their car a safe space so as to not disrupt the actual progress). I came up with this list. Then I highlighted the places where I had personal experience. And noted items that would be seen along the way.

List of things along highways: 

Cemeteries, factories, grain silos, truck stops, suburban developments (if you lived here, you’d be home by now), South of the Border, Tourist traps, airports, bays and inlets, bridges (truck hanging off bridge, suicide attempt), railroad, military bases, prisons, rest stops, corn and wheat fields, dangerous turns, crumbling infrastructure, cities, slums, museums, gas stations, zoos, state parks, police barracks, refineries, overpasses driving over neighborhoods (car drives off overpass and disappears), billboard, fairground, racetrack, campground, reservations, recreational farms, casinos, horseback riding services, hospitals, Hard Rock casino, Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, Blue Gate Resaturant, university, wildlife area, Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay, sports complex, golf course, Splash Lagoon, little colleges, Veterans Administration, museum of glass, Howe Caverns, a museum for an author I found witty but penurious in outlook 

The yellow signifies places where I have personal experience. I put “billboards” in purple because it is a recurring sight and has some horrific potential. The “museum for an author” is the Mark Twain Museum, which Olivia would have an opinion about.

Then I mined TVTropes.com. This wiki is awesome. Its contributors drill down into all media, define their correlations, and link similarities. You can lose hours of your life just wandering through educational, witty, startling critiques. David Lynch talks about “gathering wood” for inspiration, that is, pulling together inspirations. Here’s what I gathered and may use.

An ad for The BBC had a head made of disembodied heads. People complained. 

This Duracell Ultra commercial accidentally evokes this trope. In some of those shots, those little pink Duracell Bunnies look more like a mass of squirming maggots. 

A public service announcement from the USDA APHIS regarding accidentally bringing in invasive species was spoken by a man made out of various insects wearing gentlemanly clothes. He talks to the camera about his desire to spread himself elsewhere, then lifts up an arm and disperses the insects it’s made of. This was intentionally played for creeps. He’s basically the Affably Evil spokesman for their “Hungry Pests” campaign. 

Downplayed example: Azhi Dahaka, a three-headed dragon associated with the Zoroastrian apocalypse, has scorpions instead of blood. 

The Portuguese Man o’ War looks like a floating jellyfish, but is, in fact, a colony of four organisms known as polyps. Its tentacles can grow to twenty metres in length (ten is the average) with a sting that can be very painful. Definitely not something you want to get tangled up with, especially since Portuguese Men o’ War are most commonly found in large groups. 

The Portuguese Man o’ War is one of a number of creatures in the order Siphonophorae, of which there are three suborders. Counted among them is the gigantic Praya dubia, which can grow to lengths of 130ft/40 metres, making them the second-longest marine organism on the planet. 

Clinic is a short film about a series of bizarre, Medical Horror-themed nightmares had by an elderly patient in a hospital. 

Zdzisław Beksiński 

Francisco de Goya‘s “Black Period”. 

Come and See uneasily swirls together the nightmare reality of war with the surreal weirdness of regularnightmares to very disturbing effect. Several sequences in the movie are implausible and downright surreal, and intentionally so. 

The Third Policeman is a darkly comic novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien, best known for his earlier work At Swim-Two-Birds. Written between 1939 and 1940, it didn’t receive publication until 1967, after the author’s death. 

The story concerns an unnamed narrator and his tenant John Divney, both of whom are in dire need of funds (the narrator wishes to publish a commentary on the writings of a philosopher named de Selby; Divney wishes to get married). Divney proposes killing the local miser, Philip Mathers, and stealing his cash-box. However, while the narrator is in the process of retrieving the cash-box, he encounters the ghost of Mathers. Thus begins a series of surreal, disturbing and hilarious adventures as he attempts to recover the money. 

sudden falling 

K-2 is synthetic marijuana that has been banned from Michigan. The drug seems to slow time like regular marijuana, but it gives an extreme high that lasts a short period. It can react poorly in some people and cause them to be confused and dangerous to themselves and the people around them. People who take it can still move freely (if they don’t faint) and can become easily frightened by the strange sensations they are experiencing. Non-violent people will suddenly assault seven people in half an hour. The experience messes with time perception and memory so badly, it can feel like a person has been trapped in some kind of prison for years. It can also cause a user to have periods of what feels like a panic attack monthsafter use. 

There’s also Salvia divinorum, which takes the horror to even more horrifying degrees than K-2. 

These invoked some dread and nausea. Some seemed related to the terrain being crossed, in that the US is steeped in drugs and war. I avoid social issues in writing, because I don’t do it very well. But the drug description had some potential and the war…well…old battlefields and old hatreds fuel a lot of ghost stories.

My next step is to explore this stuff until I’m bored with it. I set it aside and see what ideas pop up this week, next week, whenever.

If you’re interested, I ‘ll keep you posted on what appears.





Trying Advertising Campaigns and BOOK TWO IS GO!

29 10 2018

I’m trying Amazon Sales Marketing to promote Lampreyhead Book Two. I have set a “per-click” budget of 22 cents per click with a limit of $100. The goal is to see if the twenty two cents brings in a purchase at $2.99. If not, I will have to change tactics, or ad copy, or maybe even venues.

The audio book is on hold until I can get the advertsingbudget established. My dayjob is in retail. I do not want to take out of savings, because I already did that to do the cover art.

So! Book Two is out!

“The action scenes are fantastic! Wow. The story really pulled me in.” – Dona Fox, Amazon horror author

Ned didn’t dare turn to look. He burst through the doors and out the back door. Sprayed the threshold.
He scooped up the bag he’d left at the door. Ran around the side of the store to the front.
Bag bouncing in left hand and squirt gun raised in his right, Ned clenched his jaw and rounded the corner to the side of the store. He slowed as he approached the next corner. He crouched and peered.
The glass doors glowed with divine light. Along the door sat several white propane tanks, obviously brought by the Banquet.
Hands at his eyes, Bogen snarled. “Let us in!”
The other three played with Don like cats with a mouse. The woman seized his face. She lifted him from his feet. She reached under her hem and produced a gleaming knife. She lowered her mouth onto his. Waggled her head in mockery of a passionate kiss as the knife came down onto his face. Don thrashed and kicked.
What do I do? I can’t let him die!
She dropped him, Don’s face black with gore. His lips seemed impossibly wide, showing blackened teeth in the blue light.
She sliced his lips off.
The rest fell upon him.
Pieces flew. Something like cloth flipped away then flopped like a wet towel.
Don’s legs kicked in electric agony.
Above the scene, a voice called in their strange, hissing language.
Atop the roof, glowing sickly yellow from the Top Tech sign, the Judas in a chef’s hat waved a white-clad arm. He thrust a white arm behind him to the roof.
The skylights!
Ned cursed himself.
The roof had a dozen skylights. Each were protected only by a grill of thin iron.
I have to shut him up!
It was easily twenty feet up to the roof. Ned didn’t remember the last time he’d leapt that high.
He set down his bag and took out the jug of holy water.
He crouched. Hesitated. Took three steps back. Cursed himself and ran to the wall. Stomped with all his strength.
Mid-air, his foot as his work shoe went flying. The jug loosened in his grip.
For a hysterical moment, the jug gurgled inches from his face. He bobbled it and thrust it above his head.
He landed on the roof off balance. His right foot slid from beneath him and he landed on his ass. The plastic jug skittered away against the tar paper.
The chef hissed again, joyful and grotesque.
His white ass pointed at Ned.
Scooping up the jug, Ned removed the cap. A beam of light shot from within. He held the jug at arm’s length.
Ned crept behind the chef. He threw the plastic bottle and ducked away.
The chef’s back exploded.
The chef screamed. He clawed at his back as the holy water savaged him. Scrabbling and twisting, he lost his footing. The chef tumbled over the edge of the building.
Ned gained a lease on his lamprey-themed, vampire-prototype life. His new handler Amanda is ready with fashion advice, business acumen, or her gun. He provides days-long orgasms to now higher-paying clients. Ned wants to bury his selfish past. Thanks to his new magic books, he resolves to fight his family of fellow prototypes, the Formulae.
When Amanda finds Evil at a big box electronics store, Ned leaps in ready to fight and get that employee discount. But the best employees disappear. Mysterious customers buy startling amounts of stuff. TVs show visions of cannibal blood-feasts. Spirits say the store is doomed.
Are the Formulae involved?
In the spirit of Clive Barker and Stephen King, Ned gets fishy. Can he save the missing employees? Save the store from massacre? Or will he just swim away with quality electronics at a low price?

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Amazon Review: FIVE STARS for Lampreyhead Book One!

24 10 2018

He was created to please Satan, then – abandoned. Our hero is an abominable creature who, though…

Says author Dona Fox!

Click it! Click it and read!

My romp has emotional underpinnings that may out-Herzog Herzog. If you like the idea of Herzog creating a “Buffy” episode, it seems this may be the series for you.

Find out for yourself! Click the cover to read on Kindle Unlimited or purchase it outright. It’s just in time for Halloween. Takes only three hours to read. Try it today.

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942 Downloads! Be The First To Review!

10 10 2018

The launch of “Fishtown Blood Bath” couldn’t have gone better, y’all!

As of this morning, 942 of you have downloaded the free Kindle book and are racing to be the cool kid with the first review.

At 36,000 words, it’s a quick, rowdy read. See weird vampires, guns, magic, and very nearly the end of the world.

It’ll be an afternoon well spent. Download a free copy now. Offer ends Saturday.

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Get Your “Lampreyhead” On Today!

9 10 2018

The buzz is getting buzzier! Page reads are flying on Kindle Unlimited. Says a reviewer:

I could see this as a series on SyFy.

Starring Bruce Campbell? Swoon!

Is the reader right? Could this be sponsored by Geico?

Have a look for yourself. It’s on Kindle Unlimited or get it for free on today!

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Tomorrow Get “A Toothsome Romp”! For FREE!

8 10 2018

A reader declared “Fishtown Blood Bath: Lampreyhead Book One”:

A toothsome romp from start to finish. Juicy but not too gory.

Don’t miss out on a book filled with vampire prototypes, evil magic, the personal growth regimen of the undead, and why Satan hasn’t shown up on Earth yet. Read it for free starting Tuesday. Or click below and read it on Kindle Unlimited today.

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Which Would Be The Better Vampire?

1 06 2018

There’s a vampire who has existed for centuries. He is fluent in a dozen languages. He has traveled the world. He has been present at all major historic events. He is expert in the humanities and sciences. He plays several musical instruments so well he can move you to tears. He is suave, unflappable, and incredibly smug.

Would it better if he fed by ramming his head up his victim’s butt, or for his butt to expand cartoonishly to engulf his victim?

Update: I got one vote for each so far.





In Totally Insulated, Unrelated-To-World News, I’ve Got Another Novel and…

10 11 2016

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…I’ve gotten to 13K words in NaNoWriMo.
You all know NaNoWriMo. It’s my first time. I needed some sort of boost, because I’m two novels behind in my Five Year Plan, which ends in December. I’d be needing Beta Readers to give me critiques. Would you like to read the draft?
So far, having a deadline’s been working pretty well. Due to genetics and upbringing, I am suspicious of any sort of organized “fun” activity, but this is working out.
This novel is a sequel to my Stoker long-listed novel “The Flesh Sutra”, which is set in 1890s San Francisco and contains body horror, Tantric sex, ruminations about romantic love, and a dysfunctional relationship between two increasingly powerful mystics. Would you like to be a Beta Reader?
This new novel has a working title “The Flesh Frequency” and is set in 1971 San Francisco.
Weird Stuff count so far:

  • A Jim Morrisson/Brian Wilson analog has his soul imbued in his last recording, to have that recording duplicated over-and-over, so that he is doing the same song over-and-over until his torment goes multi-Platinum.
  • An antiquarian who likes young flesh realizes what coins and lovers have in common, and molds so medallions of smelted gold upon his own body.
  • An aspiring Satanist steals the wrong body and discovers enlightenment is infinitesimally different than death.
  • The protagonist has to choose between a passionless existence and a greater meaning placing all humanity at risk.

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  • Remember Olivia? One word: sokushinbutsu

I have to get to 50K by the end of a holiday month.
Would any of you good people like to be a Beta Reader?

Header photo courtesy of this rather interesting story.





Chewing Out From An Eyesocket Soon At A Bargain Rate

25 09 2016

and other sad fates await later this week! On the preliminary ballot for the 2014 Stoker Awards and ready for your eager eyes. Only $.99 this coming Friday.

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