Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dreaming in Text

When I was younger, my English/Creative Writing teachers talked a lot about symbolism in literature. At the time, I thought it sounded like a load of pretentious crap, to be perfectly honest. I swore to myself that I would always be a down to earth storyteller who stayed away from such ostentatious trappings. To paraphrase an Internet meme passed among authors, my curtains would be blue because that’s what color they were… not to illustrate my character’s underlying depression.

Now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), I think I understand the role of literary symbolism a little more clearly. No one disputes the subconscious messages conveyed to us through our nightly dreams. It’s a stereotypical staple of psychoanalysis and hundreds of books have been written to help us understand what the hidden parts of our minds are trying to communicate. Think about it: how many times have you shared the details of a particularly odd or disturbing dream only to have the person you’re speaking to immediately ask, “So, what do you think it means?”

The reason I mention this is we, as authors, are basically dreaming in text. When we’re really on a roll, we don’t have to stop and consider what word, phrase, or sentence comes next; it simply flows from our fingertips to the keyboard and appears on our screens as if by magic. In these instances, we’re giving our imaginations and, in turn, subconscious free reign in the waking world. When this is done, it seems only natural the same type of symbolic imagery that peppers our dream worlds would carry over into our written creations.

This was really driven home when I wrote my second novel, Cry Havoc. I decided to challenge myself a bit with that one and see if I could write a 40,000 word rough draft within a consecutive 24 hour period. When I began this formidable task, all I knew about the story was I wanted the book to start with a city embroiled in urban warfare. I had no idea whom the characters were, what the plot would be, or where this scene of street fighting would lead, but trusted these details would reveal themselves as I wrote.

When I was editing the initial draft, things began to pop out at me. I noticed a reoccurrence of the color yellow within the pages and realized that as long as that color was associated with a character they were safe; but the moment yellow was removed from the situation, things rapidly devolved into brutality and violence. In my early 20s I’d worked in a chemical plant and after having my finger crushed by machinery was assigned “light duty”, which involved painting scaffolding and ladder cages; the color of paint I used was called Safety Yellow.

In another scene in the book, one of my main characters, Richard, had just returned to his apartment after a particularly harrowing experience. To be specific, he’d just killed an old man and looted his box of rations and supplies, despite the fact that he’d been a very civilized and sophisticated man for his entire life. An argument ensued with his roommates and Richard ended up slamming the boxes down upon a coffee table shaped like the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, shattering the table in the process. Yin-Yang is a symbol of balance between dark and light and once that table broke, things were never the same for Richard again.

Even though I hadn’t intentionally added symbolism to my work, it still asserted itself and what my teachers and professors had been talking about finally clicked into place. Symbolism isn’t a show of pretension … it’s simply the way our brains are wired. So keep dreaming in text, authors, and trust that your subconscious will lead the way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Forest of Waiting Souls: A True Story

When I was very young, too young to really understand the concept of death (much less reincarnation), I had a dream.  In this dream, my sister, my aunt Connie, and I were camping in a damp cave. We'd laid out our sleeping bags near the mouth of the cave and I remember looking out upon the tops of mountains rolling as far as the eye could see.  Since we were pretty much level with all these mountains, I knew the cave we were camping in was high above the earth.  Our fire cracked and popped as shadows danced over the rock formations and somewhere way back in the darkness the plinking of condensation echoed.  The fire turned to glowing embers and my aunt and sister slept soundly while I laid awake, gazing out through the mouth of the cave at a sky brimming with stars.  As I watched, a large shadow passed, momentarily blacking out the entire view and a shiver coursed through my tiny body.  I knew whatever had blocked the entrance of the cave must have been massive and fear squeezed the breath from my body.  I pretended to sleep within this dream and, at some point, must have.

The dream, however, immediately cut to the next night.  Again the fire had all but burnt out. Again my sister and aunt were sleeping while I watched the mouth of the cave, wide awake.  Again the monstrous shadow passed and again I was paralyzed with fear.  But again the dream fast-forwarded to the next night and all of the details were the same.  Only this time my curiosity got the better of me (as it often does) and when the shadow passed I somehow mustered the courage to crawl out of my sleeping bag and approach the mouth of the cave.

My heart raced as I left the safety of our campsite behind and I felt as if I were about to throw up.  But I had to know.  I had to see what it was that had passed the mouth of our cave for three nights running.

Stepping out onto a ledge, I saw the world's largest T-Rex yards away.  As soon as I was exposed, its massive head whipped toward me as its gigantic mouth opened, revealing rows of sharp teeth that were as large as trees.  It roared and its rancid breath blew like a hot, mighty wind.  The force of the wind, coupled with panic, caused me to stumble backward and the next thing I know the edge of the cliff crumbled beneath my feet and I found myself falling, plummeting toward the hard, unforgiving earth below as wind whistled in my ears.

I knew there was no way I could survive. I knew, somehow, that I was going to die.

There was a flash of brilliant light and suddenly I was walking through a lush forest.  Birds twittered and chirped overhead and the air was scented with the most delicate and beautiful fragrance I'd ever smelled. Alabaster statues were scattered among wildflowers and fountains gurgled streams of water so clear it sparkled in the dappled sunlight.

I followed a path of crushed gravel through this forest until I came to a clearing.  In the center of the clearing was a semi-circle of concrete benches and seated upon these benches were people of every imaginable race and age.  I sat in the only open spot and listened as each person told the story of how they had died, patiently awaiting my turn.  After telling my tale, the beautiful brunette sitting beside me took my small hand in hers and smiled.  She told me I could stay in the forest for as long as I wanted, but when I was ready I would have to return to the living as a new baby.  But I would return, she said, I would always return....

True story.

What's in a name?

When I wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, I thought I'd come up with a pretty good title. My wife, however, never cared much forit. Don't get me wrong; she loves that book and it is by far her favorite thing I've written to date. But she's never cared for the title. In retrospect, I think I should have listened to her. It never occurred to me that people might get the wrong impression. It's. Not a parody of a self help book; it's not a mash up of zombies and the book from which its title was inspired. It's a dark and gritty tale with themes ranging from matricide to unspeakable acts committed in the name of survival. There's drug addiction, premeditated stalking and homicide, and a lot of moral ambiguity going down within those pages. If I had it all to do over again, I think I would name it something else. I've been told the title is clever and maybe it is. But it's not really a good indication of what lays in store once you begin reading it. What would I change the title to? That's a good question. Perhaps The Tides of Time since that's what I plan on calling the series. Perhaps something different. So here's a question: if you were to rename this book, what would. You call it?


On Sunday, October 7th from 9:00 to 11:00 PM, Jackie Chin will be hosting Zombiepalooza over on ztalkradio.com. The show will feature a live roundtable discussion with Permuted Press authors Scot Thomas, R. Thomas Riley, Scott M Baker, myself, and others. Tune in, call in, and join the party! More information can be found at the following link: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Zombiepalooza-Dead-Again/437569786279838