Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” People have told me I’m different; you won’t find many people who collect Mylar balloons the way I do. Whenever I go to a supermarket, a balloon follows me and my cart to the cashier.
And so it goes with the protagonists in my newly-released, SF anthology, The Forgotten People. A lone woman grieving over her father’s death seeks comfort in painting. Another mourns the loss of her husband so much that she can’t focus, thus jeopardizing her job. It was as if someone from another planet had dropped these people off on Earth, leaving them to fend for themselves.
Perhaps the music they hear may come from an alternate universe. And, speaking of Mylar balloons, Chloe discovers balloons galore in “Popple Land.” However, the tales of The Forgotten People are not all balloonery and fluff. Some of the characters come packing heat. Two of the tales, in particular, “The Forgotten Ward,” occur in the future at a time when Medicaid stops. Without cash or health insurance, the indigent patients must go without treatment. The protagonist, a nurse, gets a front-row seat to the horrors of watching the sick being evicted to the Forgotten Ward, where all treatments stop. In recent years, evictions of the poor have occurred in some nursing homes and “The Forgotten Ward” is a depiction of what could happen if this is allowed to continue.
Is there a solution? I’d like to think most problems have answers; and with the Forgotten People, the boundaries are so thin, anything can happen. What if their circumstances changed? Suppose one of the loner’s paintings attracted the attention of visitors from outer space? What would happen if our nurse managed to smuggle medical aid to the poor?
Of people who march to a different drummer, Thoreau says, “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” So I shall continue to waltz to the music my Mylar balloons play just as the characters in The Forgotten People will dance to the tune they hear.
The old writing tip, “write what you know,” is valid for character creation. I believe all writers put elements of themselves into at least one or two of the protagonists in their work. The personalities of other characters can come from people we know or have known in the past: an old romantic interest… a teacher from grade school… a friend or family member… the list goes on.
The key to making things interesting and believable is to have a different personality and dialog style for each character. Ideally, the reader should be able to identify the speaker of longer passages without being told who the character is. This can be a difficult goal to achieve, but it helps if you define the character’s personality early in the writing process.
One way to do this is to establish the character’s belief system. Are they passionate about a certain subject? Are they recognized as an expert in their field? Do their actions affect others around them? Do they have clout, i.e., are they able to persuade others to take action that will help them to achieve their own ends? Do other characters speak about them, even when the character in question is not in the scene?
Every good story has conflict. Most conflict comes from competing agendas between individuals or groups. In some cases the agenda is fought for the common good. In others, the motives are selfish. It is usually more interesting if there is a mixture of both. In other words, no character is completely evil or completely good.
The machine believed it knew best how to save humanity… even if doing so meant destroying half the population. Astrophysicist Doug Lockwood’s unusual discovery during his observation of the sun kicks off a chain of events that nobody could have foreseen. The powerful political and military influences that compete to deal with his discovery set Lockwood on a course which will carry him across worlds, and into the grasp of a formidable new intelligence bent on accomplishing its goal at any cost. With Earth itself at stake and time running out, Lockwood and his team must find a way to counter this unprecedented threat before the powerful new enemy completes its plan. Two civilizations are pitted against each other in a desperate struggle for survival.
Christopher A. Gray is a professional freelance writer living in Toronto. He has been a sales agent, project manager, actor, filmmaker, comedy writer & performer and world traveler.
“Increase buffer bandwidth to maximum,” Nick ordered his assistant, Anders.
“I already tried that, it makes no difference!” Anders replied, a trace of panic in his voice.
Nick turned to the astrophysicist that was monitoring the moon’s position.
“What will the orbit be if no action is taken?”
The astrophysicist looked at him, incredulous.
“I don’t need to tell you what the outcome will be.”
“Is there at least a chance it will settle into a stable orbit? The speed is right.”
“The angle is off by three degrees! If it isn’t corrected the moon will pass within seventy thousand kilometers of the Earth. That’s less than one-fifth of its normal distance!”
Nick stared blankly at his expert, not wishing to believe what he was being told. The astrophysicist shook his head.
“With the increased gravitational and tidal effect, there will be a massive world-wide earthquake, and that’s just the beginning. The orbit will be highly elliptical, and will degrade further. We’ll have bi-weekly earthquakes and tsunamis, much worse than we have ever experienced. There is an 80% chance that within four months the moon will collide with us!”
“We’ll all be dead long before the collision,” said Anders, his voice shaking. “We may not even survive when the moon makes its first pass, six days from now.”
Another assistant looked over at Nick.
“We’re getting the same report from our observatory in Arizona. They’ve noticed the angle and are asking questions. How do you want me to reply?”
Nick broke out into a cold sweat. He didn’t know what to do.
In a word, balloons. I’m referring to “Familiar Stranger,” which takes up two-thirds of the novella. Like me, the protag Cassandra can’t pass a gift shop without stopping in to buy a Mylar balloon. Her apartment is a rainbow-colored forest. It contains balloon trees in each room and Cassandra admires the Mylar fruits that grow on them. At night, nightmares about her uncertain past trouble Cassandra unless she’s got six to eight balloons surrounding her head. Their soft feel and shushing sounds lull her to sleep. Believe me, I know. I used to have a lot of nightmares about Mike’s health until I started sleeping with balloons around my head.
People have said they’re looking for a good juvenile balloon tale from me. I’ve got balloons galore in “Familiar Stranger,” but it’s not a kiddie tale. The helium in them serves as a lethal weapon. Good thing, too, because the bite of the alien centipedes, or hydeons, carries a deadly poison. “Familiar Stranger” originally appeared as “Echoes from a Different World” in Alien Worlds. The anthology got a four-star review; but thought nagged at me that Cassandra developed this close friendship with Yarol, and he traveled all the way to Earth to warn her about the evil Kronos. Cassandra, a nurse, didn’t have political connections. Why didn’t he contact the President or other US official? There had to be some romance to motivate his approaching her. Cassandra and Yarol didn’t exactly play Tiddlywinks when they were alone.
“Familiar Stranger” explores the romantic angle, but the danger remains. Cassandra’s survival depends on whether she’s willing to face her past. To find that out, you’ll have to read the book.
Close Liaisons is available on Kindle. You may download it here.
When I began submitting short stories, the editors bounced them back with comments such as “characters not believable” or “no suspension of disbelief.” This usually happened when I included a real-life event. I never understood why using real events didn’t work, but I found that embellishing the details helped my cause.
All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. Basically, we’re trying to convince the reader that the characters and settings in our stories are real, and that the events depicted could happen in everyday life. In horror, fantasy, and science fiction, we’re talking about a giant suspension of disbelief.
We can convince readers our stories are believable by testing details for plausibility and proving that each event is a natural outgrowth from the one preceding it in the novel. For example, I wouldn’t have a blizzard in Florida or palm trees in Alaska, unless I prepared a foundation in my story to make that possible.
Genre fiction introduces a new world with new rules. Once you’ve set up your world and establish your rules, you have to consistently follow your rules if you want your story to be believable. For example, you can’t have a vampire shy away from religious objects in Chapter One and wear them in Chapter Five unless you’ve established a profound change in him.
One thing that I’ve struggled with is inconsistency in characters. I see this flaw in many books and movies, too. I could never understand how someone could be next to dying on television, and then two days later, back on the job. It doesn’t work that way in a real-life hospital. At least have the hero do some time in Physical Therapy.
If I’m reading a book about a hero with a phobia of heights, and by Chapter Five, he’s scampering up a ten-story building to rescue his beloved, I start to wonder. That character had better be sweating putty balls as he climbs. If he goes up the building calm and cool, that’s going to ruin my suspension of disbelief. I will probably set down the book and head for the nearest balloon store.
My Steel Rose protag has severe hand arthritis. Does she battle a monster? Of course. She has to draw on her strengths to fight. I gave her a long nap before the attack so she could stay alert and think fast. I’m not going to tell you if she survives because that’d be giving away the story.
I’m struggling with inconsistency now in my current WOP, and my writer buddies calls me on it when my protag acts out of character. That is a good critique group. One thing I’ve found helpful was using a calendar. Keeping track of the months in which events happen enables me to write the setting appropriately.
How do you deal with suspension of disbelief and consistency with your characters? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
In June, 2012, I posted a blog titled “Healthcare Workers and Zombies” in Charles Wellston’s Grits n Gravy page. My anthology, City of Brotherly Death, called for a reality check when I considered how modern-day people would respond to a zombie invasion. Eternal Press has slated Steel Rose for publication in February 2013. I anticipate more editing before the book goes to press. Another reality check.
The Kryszka aliens of Steel Rose, at least the bad guys, make zombies by injecting captured humans with a chemical to alter their brain function. The renegades starve their prisoners, gauge out their eyes, cut them, etc. When they’re through, the victim resembles one huge gaping sore. Afterwards, the soldiers will soak the prisoner with cadaverine and putrescine, chemicals found in decaying corpses. All the torture, brain damage and cell alteration strips away judgment and thinking, leaving behind an angry specimen starving for human flesh. At that point, people had better look out.
Unlike traditional zombies, the ones in Steel Rose breathe and have a pulse. They look and smell many days’ dead, but when they’re awake, they’re deadly. The chemical administered incites aggression, anger, and a craving that won’t quit. They only know hunger and will kill to satisfy it. Kryszka natives who ingest this chemical experience the craving, too.
Let’s revisit the hospital I mentioned in Grits n Gravy. Suppose our respiratory therapist is caring for someone who’s been “doctored” by the Kryszka renegades. Our doctors examine him, treat his wounds as best they can, and keep him sedated. The chemical coursing through his blood will never show in his lab reports. Our equipment, primitive by Kryszka standards, cannot isolate and identify the mysterious chemical. Keep in mind that hospital personnel are overworked and burned out as it is. When the patient wakes up and tries to bite people, most caregivers will label it “change of mental status” and restrain the patient. That’s the best case scenario.
Worst case? Our patient is sedated, breathing through a tracheotomy tube with mechanical ventilation. His respiratory therapist must suction his airway and mouth. This goes doubly so if his EEG fails to show brainwave activity and the doctors expect to harvest viable organs. No one will suspect aliens or zombies, even when he wakes, yanks out his tube, and bites the hapless therapist.
Let’s backtrack to possible events leading to the patient’s admission. Perhaps an innocent Joe gets into a fight with a Kryszka renegade, and manages to shoot and kill him. Alas, many aliens travel in pairs. At least the Kryszka do. The renegade’s backup injects our citizen with the chemical and carts him off to aliens’ underground compound for the zombie treatment. Later, someone finds his body in an alley and calls the police. The paramedics put him on a ventilator and rush him to a hospital. The doctors may appreciate the severity of his injuries, his emaciated state, and then blame a wild animal for the attack.
The hospital in Steel Rose has an advantage because a refugee Kryszka doctor works there. He trains the other doctors well, and they learn to detect foreign chemicals in the blood. Treating casualties by Kryszka renegades becomes a routine event. Still, traditional rules prevail; guns are banned. People dumb enough to obey the no-weapons rule become a Blue Plate Special for the invading zombies. Administration hates spending money for competent officers, and the security guards employed pick up their marbles and run home. They might be able to handle one Steel Rose zombie, and I repeat one. Not a whole slew of them.
Then I started wondering. What would I do if a horde of zombies broke into the hospital where I worked? In my fantasy world, I’d run to the gift shop and hide behind the Mylar balloons. That might not be so bad. The helium in those balloons is lethal to the Kryszka soldiers who lead these zombies. A few inhalations from a punctured balloon will kill them. As for the zombies? Different story. Reality check: adrenaline enables people to do surprising things – either speed run or fight like hell. No one can predict what they’d do until the zombies show.
Our staff therapist could run. He could try to fight back. As I mentioned in my other post, his tools, like scissors and a screwdriver, won’t get him far with zombies. If he’s lucky, he will get underground employment by a zombie squad. That’s probably the only way he’ll survive.
Steel Rose portrays a scene where our protagonist shoves an administrator into the path of the zombies. Uh, oh.
The helium in these balloons is lethal to the Kryszka alien.
I got the edits back on Steel Rose, and was glad I had an editor look over the book. Maura Anderson has done a thorough job on Steel Rose, and Toni Rakestraw has done well by me on the stories for City of Brotherly Death. For me to edit my own work would be like a doctor treating his relatives. In both cases, we’re too close to the relatives (or book, in my case) to make wise choices.
One of my major weaknesses was inconsistency. Example: Laurel is my villain, and her negligence causes a patient’s death. The boss fires her and orders two security officers to walk her to her car. All well and good, but two pages later, when Laurel muttered a plan to kill people and dented a car on her way out of the garage, I failed to mention the guards. “What happened to the guards?” asked my editor in her thought balloon. “Surely, they would be watching Laurel.”
So I revised that scene, and upon further thought, I realized that several chapters later, when the police interview the protagonist Alexis about Laurel, they might mention that Laurel is wanted for fleeing the scene of an accident. So I will revise that section also.
It’s not enough that Laurel got fired. When negligence results in a patient’s death in a hospital, the employer is required to report this to the state license board. I know this full well, being a registered respiratory therapist. Alas, I did not include this in the scene where the boss fires Laurel, and the editor called me on it. I might have called my writers for NTD on similar issues. But like many writers, I find it hard to see my own mistakes.
Another area I struggle with is the need to kill my darlings. No, seriously. I love “cute” expressions, but I had to ditch a lot of them because they confused the reader. Example, I typed, “The essence of Laurel wafted her way.” The editor crossed out “essence of Laurel” and replaced it with “Laurel’s smell.” Toni and other editors have called me on my tendency to use too many metaphors, too. I had Yeron, Alexis’ alien lover, thinking the zombies were “wearing death like an overcoat in February.” Us humans might think that way, but not aliens. Hereafter I will save the “cuteness” for my Mylar balloons.
One thing Maura recommended was a timeline, and this advice ties in with a suggestion that author / agent Marie Lamba gave at the Writer’s Coffeehouse meeting about using a calendar to keep track of seasons and important dates for your protagonist. Hereafter I will consider outlining chapters.
I’d like to hear about your struggles with the writing process? Do you outline, and if you do, how has it worked for you? Do you find it hard to kill your darlings? Any other struggles? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.