Prelude to Southern Blood (part 2 of 3)

Start with part 1. This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.

His other fears about the position had been farther from the mark. True, it was quite hot here, but one acclimated. His quarters beside the river caught the breeze from the water, and the workers, being native, seemed to hold up well in the heat.

And certainly Paris was far away, but Marrakech had its own delights and it was only a dusty hour’s drive to that retreat. Alard had first met the young lady beside him only six months ago, on one of his visits to Marrakech. She was a lovely Berber flower, sixteen years old then, and shy around the few men of France who made their way into the dingy brasserie where she was serving.

He had smiled at her, and treated her gently. He could never be entirely sure if it was his respectable position or the presence of his security detail, but when he inquired as to her cooking and cleaning skills they parted with her easily enough. She had ridden in the back of the truck when he returned to the labor camp the next day.

He had made her bathe, of course, and instructed her in how he expected his house kept and what spices he liked and didn’t like in his food. He was especially clear regarding how she was to treat the officials who would come from time to time to check on his progress.

That night, he had given her her first wine. She had tried to refuse it, being musulman, and he had been forced to strike her once. She was not a stubborn girl and, after that, he had no further difficulties with her. He smiled and smoothed her hair tenderly as she sniffled and grimaced her way through first one glass, and then another. When her eyes had begun to lose focus, he took her to his bed.

She had cried a little, that first time, but he was more than twice her age and knew that this was normal. She would need time to learn the things that pleased him.

Six months later they were stretched out on the boards at the end of the scaffolding, high in the air, under a blazing field of stars, and he told her that she had made him very, very happy indeed. He buried his face in her hair, softly tasted her lips, and caressed the slight swelling of her belly that he had noticed only the night before.

With only the gentlest pressure — just enough to communicate his desire, and no more — he guided her face between his legs. While she took him in her mouth and did what she had become so very good at, he lay back and considered that he was really in no hurry to get back to Paris.

He savored every moment and made it last for as long as possible. She did as he had taught her, and stayed on him until his last shudder had quieted. When she sat up at last, it was with the grace that only the young retain after bending for so long.

He planted his foot below her breasts and shoved her backwards. She was gone before she’d finished wiping her mouth.

Afterward, he finished the wine and dropped the bottle into the diversion channel far below. He was vaguely disappointed that he couldn’t hear the glass shatter over the sound of the water pouring through the rocks. As he made his way back along the scaffolding, he was already planning his next trip to Marrakech.

One bottle of wine was not enough to prepare him to find her waiting for him in the truck.

Prelude to Southern Blood (part 1 of 3)

Southern Blood was the working title of a thriller that I started and shelved. I hadn’t yet learned the benefits of outlining and the story wandered off into the weeds somewhere around the half-way point, never to return. Still, there were parts that I liked, and it seems a shame to let them rot in a file.

The prelude to Southern Blood is self-contained enough that I can share it as a series of short posts, so I thought it would be fun to dust it off and put it out there for you.

This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.

Morocco – August 1931

The steel scaffolding rattled in the dark. Every footstep started shivers that some quirk of the design would amplify, raising metallic pops and squeaks from two or three tiers away — just far enough that one could never tell where they were coming from.

It was easy to forget that the huge structure supported hundreds of men and tons of equipment all day, every day. That it had done so for almost three years with never a failure. Things were always different at night.

Alard Joubert had counted on that, and deliberately left his flashlight locked in his truck. The light would have spoiled the ambiance, and worse, might have been spotted from the labor camp… which would only have led to awkward questions. He didn’t need it anyway: The sky was thick with stars, and he knew every board and brace.

Besides, with a young lady clutching delightfully at one arm, he needed his other hand to carry the wine.

He had had grim notions when he accepted this position. Five years — maybe longer — at the edge of a brutal desert, surrounded by ignorant natives, eating camp food. And so far from the lights of Paris! In the end he had reluctantly agreed because his father-in-law had gone to great lengths to secure this commission for him, and it would catapult him far above his peers when he finally returned.

Already the dam was taking shape. Even from the heights of the scaffolding, he could hear the water of the N’Fiss churning through the diversion channels and smell the wet concrete of the evening pour. There had been setbacks, as there always were in an undertaking of such scope, but the universal cures for such things were simple diligence and a refusal to tolerate laziness and excuses.

He had learned the hard way that the Moroccan reputation for superstition was well-earned: For the first three months they were chronically behind schedule because some worker would refuse to drill or blast for fear of upsetting the jinn that he thought lived in this or that hole in the ground. They would still be digging the first diversion channel if he hadn’t had the Adjudant deal with the problem. No one had expressed a concern about the jinn since.

Planning your novel with Janice Hardy

You may already be familiar with Janice Hardy from her Fiction University blog. If not, it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

This morning, I was able to attend a workshop that Janice hosted titled Planning Your Novel in 10 Easy Steps. I thought it would be worthwhile to post a mini-review for those of you who might be looking for novel-planning assistance.

Janice herself is friendly, level-headed and calm under pressure. I know this because I arrived early and got to watch her deal with the inevitable last-minute computer/projector issues that Murphy throws at every presenter. She had her act together, and got everything sorted out well before the workshop was to start without ever losing her cool.

Her delivery of her material—the workshop itself—was just as friendly. She was well-organized and approachable and did a good job fielding the off-the-cuff questions that the 65 attendees (that’s just my estimate… I did a quick count at one point) threw at her.

The content of the workshop (the “10 Easy Steps”) is drawn from her book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. As you would expect, the book goes into much more depth than she could cover in a two-hour workshop, but it is organized into 10 “workshops” (chapters) where each workshop is a combination of advice and practical exercises.

It’s been my experience that anything you don’t understand automatically seems complicated and, once you really understand something, it seems quite simple and you wonder why it seemed complicated before.  (I’m making a point; stick with me…)

When you read or listen to Janice’s material, you might come away with the feeling that it’s basic. I think it’s a testament to her that she’s able to make it basic. It seems to me that she pulls this off through a combination of:

  1. Not trying to cover everything in the universe of writing at one time.
  2. Being well-organized about what she does choose to cover.
  3. Really understanding what she’s talking about.

Bottom line: I recommend Janice’s material. She doesn’t pretend to cover all possible approaches, but she gives you an approach that is flexible enough for a wide variety of purposes and she presents it well.

(I took the water-garden picture above in Nha Trang, Vietnam. It seems like an appropriate analogy for novel-planning because you can see how they choose various elements and combined them in a way that makes them seem simple but beautiful.)

Why, when and how to use personification

If you write fiction for adults, you may heard this advice about personification: Don’t use it.

Personification has a justifiably bad reputation. It’s been used so badly, so often, that some readers (including some editors) have lost all taste for it. That means it’s out of fashion, and you use it at your own risk.

Still… maybe you’re not entirely ready to throw away a technique that has roots going back to pre-historic times. Or maybe, like me, you’re just a little suspicious of advice that’s completely open-and-shut.

I thought I’d dig a little deeper into this advice. After quite a bit of reading and discussion, this is what I’ve come up with. I’d be interested to know if you have a different perspective.

Why use personification?

You can express yourself without personification, so why use it? Because real people personify things. That’s it. You use it, and everyone you know uses it. It’s so easy to personify things that you do it without even thinking about it. Personification is just the natural human tendency to project our own feelings or characteristics onto non-living things.

When and How…

The problem is that personification in fiction is often forced, exaggerated and clumsy. The author is trying too hard to sound literary, or to come up with a new and different way of describing something. In real life, our use of personification is effortless and uncomplicated. It comes naturally out of the way we view the world.

If you decide you want to use personification in your fiction, here are some guidelines that should help you use it well:

In real life, the vast majority of personification is emotional. A typical example would be something like “Can you open this damn jar for me? It’s being stubborn.” There are exceptions, of course. A phrase like “Your office has been trying to reach you” is personifying the office even though it isn’t emotional.

Since it’s emotional, it has to come from a character. It should reflect the way that character responds to the world. This means that your reader will infer that your narrator has an emotional perspective if you have the narrator use personification. If you’re trying to convey that your narrative voice is objective and unbiased, then you’re giving us conflicting information if that voice uses personification.

Keep it simple. Real personification is immediate and direct. Your characters are not going to come up with elaborate forms of personification unless they’re poets, songwriters or comedians who are deliberately composing something. Always ask yourself if a real person would say this.

Don’t use it frequently. We all do it, but we don’t do it continuously. Even when we are doing it, we don’t always verbalize it, which is important to how personification is presented in fiction. Remember that stubborn jar? Your character doesn’t have to say out loud that the jar is being stubborn to personify it—he might just get mad at it and “punish” it by banging it on the counter.

Avoid clichés. In the name of all that’s holy, no one needs to read about waves dancing in the sun, or the sun dancing on the waves. No one wants to hear that your guns “bark” or “cough” when they’re fired. This should be a pretty easy guideline to follow if you stick to using personification the way that real people use it, since no one actually says things like that anyway.

Just for fun, here’s a 200-page academic study titled Recognition of personifications in fiction by non-expert readers that serious language nerds might find interesting. Among other things, it discusses the different types of personification.

(Seriously, what could better represent the topic of personification than a thinking statue? I took this picture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. This is The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin… one of the 28 castings of it that are scattered around the world.)

Making your own luck in publishing

Check out this great post by Kameron Hurley.

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of the phrase “you make your own luck.” Hemingway said it, and a bunch of other people have said essentially the same thing, but it’s easier to dispense sage advice than it is to apply it to your own life.

Kameron (we’ve never met, but I’m pretending that we’re on a first-name basis) is leading by example in this case, and it’s a lot more powerful to see someone walking the walk than just to hear them talking the talk.

Congratulations Kameron, and thank you.

(I took the photo above in the ruins of Chichen Itza. The persistence of the flowers growing in such a difficult place seemed reminiscent of Kameron’s lesson.)

The Dreaded First Post

It’s the first day of the year and it seems like a good time to start a new blog. Because, you know, there’s always room for one more.

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. They just don’t have a reputation for success. One study said that 88% of people who set them fail, and anyone who’s ever been in a gym knows that there’s a rush of new members at the beginning of the year… and most of them are gone by the end of January.

So starting a blog isn’t a resolution for me, even though today is New Year’s Day. It’s part of my all-year-long effort to do more. More writing, more learning, more life.