Tell me if you share this pet peeve: you're reading along in a new mystery or suspense novel, enjoying the characters that the author has brought to life and then, wham! There is a scene so disturbing and horrible that you're completely thrown off-track. An in-your-face rape scene that's so well described you feel dirty after reading it, the torture of a character in such great detail that you are nauseous. Or so many details about the blood, gore and/or dismemberment of someone that you slam the book shut.
I hate that.
It really makes me angry, too. As readers, we are more vulnerable than TV watchers of movie-goers because we can't just cover our eyes/plug our ears and wait for the disgusting part to be over. And unlike in movies, there is no thematic music cuing us as to when things might get grisly. There are also no ratings on books or warnings like, "This book contains disturbing sexual violence against women" or "This novel has a torture scene so terrible it would make Himmler blush." Nope, none of that.
Now, understand this: I'm not against any of these things ending up in literature. I mean, the Bible is filled with such descriptions, for pity's sake! And I'm certainly not advocating book banning or book burning (shudder, shudder). But it does bother me that there is no warning for hapless readers, who would like to know about this type of stuff up front and don't.
So, I decided to do something about it and created a new Goodreads group, Suspense for Sensitive Readers. I hope you'll check it out and if you like mystery/suspense without the frivolous use of gore/torture/dismemberment, maybe you'll join us. Would love that!
Remember those "choose your own ending" stories that you read as a kid? You get to a critical point in the story and can choose for your character to do a) or b). I loved those!
Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to James Schannep, author of the Click Your Poison books and zombie-aficionado. James's most recent book, Infected, will have zombie-lovers hearts all atwitter (is that even a real word?).
I would love to explain James's process to you but it's quite complicated. He'll do a much better job.
Reigning in Parallel Worlds
by James Schannep
The main characters in INFECTED choose to wait out the zombie apocalypse inside their home, boarded up and barricaded, with enough supplies to wait out doomsday. They also leave the city in search of fellow survivors and greener pastures. Oh, and they also become zombies themselves.
No, my characters are not schizophrenic (and neither am I!), they just exist in parallel worlds.
What do I mean? Click Your Poison books are gamebooks—wherein you, the reader, choose how the story progresses. Each CYP title has three unique storylines and over fifty possible endings. Because of this “many possibilities” quality to interactive fiction, different readers will experience different outcomes and have a rather different reading experience from one another. It’s my job, as the author, to keep all these parallel worlds straight.
The problem is, every decision expands the storylines; sometimes familiar to one another, but other times they become drastically altered. Their worlds grow too large to exist solely within the confines of my head! I literally can’t keep them all straight; not by memory alone. So how do I do it? Just like in the real world—I use maps. Almost on a daily basis I’m forced to pause, stop writing, and think, “Wait, is this person dead here? And does this other character currently hate you or love you?” That’s when I check the maps.
Level one is my world map: the outline. In any novel, you need a beginning, middle, and end, with a logical pathway through the three. At the most basic level, the outline keeps the overarching plot on track towards the eventual destination(s).
Level two, interstates and roadside attractions: the chronology. Here I’ll keep a chart in Excel. Important plot points form the x-axis (time) and major storylines/characters form the y-axis (events). This helps me know which events happen at what time.
Level three, city streets, dark alleys, slums and shortcuts: the flowchart. This is my bread and butter. Without the flowchart, none of the other maps matter. The flowchart tells me, if you make decision A (attempt to play dead to avoid zombies), it will lead to outcome B (get eaten!). Often times the path will change slightly and I’ll have to go back, edit the story, and change outcomes. Without the flowchart, that would be impossible. Below, you can see a rough scrap from my latest CYP book as an example.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” If my process sounds excruciatingly difficult, good. My job (in addition to keeping the parallel worlds straight), is to make it look effortless inside the story. Your experience making decisions as reader should be smooth and clean, despite the complexity and ambiguity of the actual decisions themselves.
The real test of all this behind-the-scenes planning is your experience. So go ahead, dive into INFECTED and see if you have what it takes to survive the zombie apocalypse!
***Thanks so much, James, that was awesome. Love seeing how writer's minds work and yours is obviously going at warp speed!
If you have a second, readers, be sure to check out the very cool (and short!) trailer below. Thanks for reading along and please feel free to ask James questions or leave some feedback in the comments. You can also click here to visit his very informative website.
Remember serial stories in the newspaper? Below is the second installment of "Family Heirloom," a personalized short story that I created for Lisa Ackel Judge, winner of the personalized story contest held earlier this summer.
(If you missed Part I, click here to get caught up.)
Family Heirloom: Part II
A loud pop emanated from the beauty salon followed by a chorus of screams. Most were from inside, but a few came from people standing near the makeshift barricade. The police woman looked away for an instant, distracted by the noise. Lisa made her move, sliding under the plastic tape and launching herself through the door of the salon before the officer even blinked.
“Hey!” Lisa heard behind her and she yanked the door closed. One gunman turned, mouth gaping open through the nylons he’d pulled over his face. The other one, smaller and female, held a larger gun. She was faced away from Lisa and did not have nylons or any other type of mask over her head. The sound of the jingling bells slapping against the glass door drew her attention, though. The figure whirled around and Lisa nearly screamed in disbelief.
“Samantha, what are you doing? I can’t believe this!”
“Not now, Auntie, I’m a little busy.
Lisa stood staring at the desk near the front door, unsure whether to laugh or cry. Drawers were pulled out and items hung from them like innards. Plastic capes, latex gloves, cords for curling irons and hair dryers. Curlers in pink, purple and blue were scattered all over the floor. Three women huddled near an overturned display of hairspray and gel while two others cowered beneath dryers on the floor. One of the dryers had fallen over, it’s plastic dome cracked.
“Um, why is your aunt here?” The guy with the pantyhose on his head asked. “Is this part of the plan?”
“No, you idiot!” Samantha yelled in response. Anger management had never been one of her strong suits. “I didn’t expect this. Just go back to looking.” She waved the gun toward the back of the room and several of the women gasped in response. Samantha sighed wearily, looking at Lisa in disappointment.
“I can’t find it. I know it’s here but I just can’t find it. And that stupid,” she drew the word out as through it was made of seven syllables, “woman isn’t telling me anything. I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said, teeth gritted. “But I will if I have to.” She waved the gun menacingly at the clustered women and one began to sob.
“I don’t know anything,” yelled the woman closest to Lisa’s niece. Lisa recognized Cyndi, the shop’s owner.
“I would tell you if I did, but I don’t! Do you really think I’d risk losing my life, all these peoples’ lives over this?” Cyndi’s tone was getting hysterical. “You really are crazy.”
“Shut up,” Samantha snarled and smashed the butt end of the gun into one of the large mirrors. The glass fractured and popped, splintering into a thousand pieces.
“Look, Sweetie,” Lisa said, moving closer to Samantha. “I’m sure if it were here then you’d have found it by now. When you talked about this, I thought you were just joking, you know, having a laugh. I didn’t think for a moment that you were serious.” Lisa paused to moisten dry lips. “This is bad, Samantha, really bad. It’s just a ring . . .”
“Just a ring?” Samantha whirled toward her aunt, the gun trembled in her palm.
Lisa swallowed hard. “There are a whole bunch of police officers outside. Why don’t you just give me the gun and we’ll go out together and talk to them.”
Samantha snorted, shook her head.
“Are you serious? They sent you in here, didn’t they? Wise aunt comes to rescue niece from tragic mistake.” Again, she shook her head. “I’m not leaving. Not until I’ve found it. And if that stupid witch isn’t going to hand it over than I’m going to tear every bit of this place apart until I . . .”
There was a sudden explosion near the back door. For an instant Lisa thought that the young man has accidently shot himself, or maybe a propane tank. Smoke poured out of the door and settled in the room like an uninvited guest.
The women began coughing, the smoke blinding. Samantha made a gagging sound and dropped to her knees, trying to see through the smoke, gun raised in her straight arms.
“Put down the gun! Put down the gun!” A loud male voice yelled. Samantha looked over her shoulder toward the front door, then to Lisa, and then to the rear of the salon. More officers cascaded into the room through the front door, smashing through the plate glass windows. Yells, more screams from the women, a moan from the first gunman who was trying to belly crawl to a nearby closet and was instead flattened like a bug by three cops. Eerie silence filled the beauty parlor. Samantha’s gun clattered to the floor as two officers pinned her to the linoleum. Lisa screamed, protective instincts clawed out of her throat.
“Please, don’t hurt her. Please!” Lisa yelled. Then an officer pushed Lisa to the wall face first, ordering her to keep her hands above her head.
The last she saw of Samantha was her niece struggling against the three cops holding her, screaming about the ring.
To be continued . . .
My boss is a slave driver. This is really bad considering that I'm self-employed. Strangely, I have a lot of the same tendencies as the bosses that I most disliked when I worked a job out in the "real world." I'm often stingy with compliments. I want things to be perfect, and use demeaning language when it isn't. I set deadlines and then browbeat myself into meeting them, even if it means that certain treats I was looking forward to (like a short afternoon break or longer lunch hour) are taken away.
Even though there is PROOF that employees on the job regularly waste time with personal phone calls, social media and chatting with co-workers, I refuse to accept that I should be allowed any time wasters in my day.
I am relentless. I am hard to please. I am a fish-wife.
One of the reasons that I wanted to be an EntreAuthor (entrepreneur + author) was out of excitement to be in charge of my career and my day. I envisioned typing away in front of the computer while soft music played, breathing in the scent of lavender (my favorite) oil and periodically going for long walks to clear my mind and allow creativity to flow.
Instead I spend most days in state of panic, with my gut tight, reminding myself to take deep breaths and that "It's all going to work out, just breathe, everything's going to be fine" while boss-from-hell voice reminds me (again) that I'm not working fast/hard enough and asking how in the world I ever plan to be successful if I have a work ethic which allows me to go on afternoon walks. How?
In light of this, and in light of the fact that I hope to make writing my career for many, many years to come, I've decided that things need to change. I need to change the way I work.
Rather than expecting myself to work for 6-8 hours straight just because I can, I'm going to set daily writing/marketing goals. When I meet them, I'm done for the day. As a matter of fact, I might even shut my laptop all the way down and (gasp!) refuse to re-open it until the next day of work.
Did you ever have a boss-from-hell? If so, how did you deal with him or her? How do you carve out times to re-center yourself during the day and remind yourself that you're not a machine? Would love to hear your comments on this.
Today I'm guest blogging at the Pen, Ink and Crimes site. Please stop over for a look at how to use social networking as a writer. Or not use, as the case may be. . .
Welcome to the website of author J.P. Choquette (pronounced, "show-kett"). Join the Reader Group and nab a free short story, along with the latest news, goodies, upcoming event announcements and more.
Already read a book? Have you checked out her other suspense novels?