Unreliable Narrators, ‘Pet Themes’, and Other NaNo Miscellanea

Warning: the following post is long, self-indulgent nonsense I basically did to check off another box on my list of 100 Ridiculous Ways To Procrastinate. If you want to read any of it… I think the quoted bits are pretty good; that’s why I included them. I don’t reckon the rest of this makes much sense, tho…

Going over my notes in preparation for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and parsing out my ideas for Where The Light Gets In with you guys last post, I’ve noticed a pattern that’s manifested itself in all 3 full drafts I’ve produced since becoming “serious” about publishing. Fair warning! I’m probably overindulging my own gross self-fascination with this post 😉 . But I’ve found it interesting to think about how layers of our subconscious shape the way we produce art, and how looking over our own work with critical distance can provide insights into our psychological makeup– when we notice odd repetitions and mirror-images, draw lines of connection, find ourselves returning to the same elementary concerns again and again with an obsessive drive.

What I’ve picked up on in this case is how each of my would-be novels, while in slotting into wildly different genres (gothic fantasy, mystery, and erotica respectively) actually share an identical structure. All three pieces focus with intimate detail on a central relationship, between the protagonist and a male friend with whom they are (consciously or subconsciously) romantically and sexually obsessed. Much of the novel is then spent exploring the nature of the connection between the principals: its development, its deepening, the obstacles it faces. And then, at a critical moment, it is revealed that the viewpoint character was deceived, in some fundamental way, about the nature of his/her friend, whose motives are revealed to be darker than they could have ever fathomed. They are then left to process this new information, and attempt to confront the woundedness at the heart of their own character, which, up until that point, they had been (ineffectually) bandaging with the positive feelings they’d derived from their relationship with the other lead.

…What does this say about me?!?! lol~

I’ve always been consciously playing with the idea that all narrators (or viewpoint characters) are, by their nature as human beings, unreliable, and using that unreliability as a tool to explore their existential loneliness/isolation… but I’ve never realized until now how deeply the similarities between my projects ran. Not that this is a bad thing. I don’t know that it would be that obvious to anyone unless it was pointed out; they all read very differently, I think. One of my favorite authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, has a similar approach, in that he explores the similar themes again and again, but through different lenses, different genres, with different prose styles, and (to my mind at least) he does this effectively. I think most artists have preoccupations that will crop up across their works– but perhaps not as blatantly as mine have so far…

For anyone who’s curious, I’ll include some snippets about the central “couples” in each of my projects, going from most developed to least.

I’d advise you not to read further if (for some reason, since these aren’t really real books yet) you don’t want to be “spoiled” on crucial plot points, or, more importantly, if you don’t feel comfortable reading about abusive relationships, sexual assault, or graphic violence.

Heaven Beside You

POV Character: Gareth

Object of His Affection: Justinian

Gareth is an orphan in Pseudo Medieval Europe who, at age 16, is conscripted into the military and forced to wage war in a foreign land. He’s one of those types who seem to crop up more commonly in fiction than real life; a pacifist at heart who nevertheless finds he has the potential to be a talented killer.Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.22.42 AM

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… BAMF…?

Through a series of plot conveniences, he ends up working as a servant for the Lord Commander– Justinian– and, being an isolated individual with a weakness for kind, attractive dudes (especially authoritative types), he develops an overpowering crush on the commander, despite their considerable difference in age (Justinian’s 24 when they meet), social position, romantic experience, religion (Justinian’s Christianity is central to his identity, while Gareth doesn’t believe in god and is pretty smug about it)… aaand pretty much everything else.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.23.13 AM

“Gareth + Justinian = <3,” he scribbled furiously in his algebra textbook…

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/facepalm

Despite these obstacles, over the course of about a year they form a deep attachment that eventually blossoms into mutual love, and they feel comfortable enough with one another to confess their ~feelings~Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.23.50 AMIt’s all very cute. But while the two of them enjoy their Jane Eyre-style (b)romance, the reader knows something’s going to go very wrong, because the chapters about the romance are flashbacks, framed by chapters in the “present day”, less than five years later, when Gareth’s being held prisoner, awaiting his execution… and has been informed that Justinian’s the one who will carry out the sentence (gasp!!!)

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(Yes, I know, it’s all dreadfully melodramatic, isn’t it? But in my defense, it’s a gothic romance, so it’s mostly on purpose.  And I’ve tried to make all the heavy Plot! Coincidences! seem naturalistic in context.

I shan’t go into every twist and turn, but the moral of the story (insofar as there is one) is basically that those swooning romances in the style of Jane Eyre (not to shade Jane Eyre, it’s a masterpiece!), with couples who overcome the gaping power differentials between the two parties (Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, I’m looking at you) are totes unrealistic, not really romantic at all, and often downright abusive when you closely examine the dynamics at play.

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Like here…

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… and here :/

Gareth’s smart, he’s got a strong sense of self, he’s gone through more at 16 than most people in our day do at 70, and he and Justinian have a lot to teach one another. But their relationship is unhealthy and Justinian, despite the best of intentions, manipulates, controls, and wears away at Gareth’s sense of identity, because he has literally all the power. Not only is he much older, but he was born with every advantage over Gareth, and has nothing to lose if their relationship doesn’t work, whereas Gareth can’t help but grow to rely on him utterly, because he quite literally has no one else to depend upon. And, although he fancies himself quite the grizzled cynic at 16, he’s utterly naive to the world and its ways, especially where it concerns affairs of the heart.

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Gareth… dialogue like this is why you can’t have nice things.

Where The Light Gets In

POV Character: Bernard

Object of his Affection: Jace

Bernard and Jace have been best friends since kindergarten. Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.25.43 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.25.55 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.26.07 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.26.15 AMThey gravitate towards one another because they’re both more than a little socially hapless, although, in their younger years, Jace is definitely the more vulnerable of the pair.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.27.00 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.27.16 AMBernard considers himself a natural empath. Certainly, he is an intensely nurturing individual. Throughout their friendship, he’s extremely protective of Jace: attentive, helpful, emotionally available, endlessly understanding and forgiving. He takes an irrational pride in offering literal, unconditional friendship– asking nothing, giving everything, never dealing out guilt or judgement. To fall short this ideal of selflessness, to his mind, would be a failure to love truly, or well enough.Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.26.39 AM

Both guys are repressed. Bernard is blind to the fact that his feelings for Jace as they develop over the years are romantic in nature. If you asked him, he’d just say he’s a Very Good Friend. He’s also asexual (although he doesn’t identify as such/know that the orientation exists for most of the novel) which makes it easier to for him to deny to himself that he wants a romantic relationship, since he’s never stricken by sexual attraction. Jace is bi, but unfortunately also quite homophobic, so he never admits this even to himself– so Bernard doesn’t have a clue.

At one point in college they drunkenly make out, and Bernard begins to get an inkling that he might be in loveScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.27.28 AMbut Jace shuts the whole thing down emphatically when they sober up, while Bernard can’t bring himself to even attempt to express his own feelings…Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.28.02 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.28.49 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.29.54 AM… and the two spend the next couple of years drifting apart as Jace spends more time with his fraternity brothers, then away at an internship, and with a variety of short-term girlfriends. When they’re both 25, he lashes out at Bernard for being too clingy and codependent. Bernard moves across the country shortly thereafter.

Most of the novel takes place 5 years after this fight, and the pair haven’t communicated in all that time. The action begins when Bernard finds out that Jace has gone missing. Desperate to find his friend and set things right between him, he spends most of the novel trying to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. Over the long course of the investigation, he learns that he never knew Jace as well as he thought, and, ultimately, that the people responsible were seeking to punish Jace for a past crime (filming the sexual assault of a young woman at a frat party, and then refusing to come forward with the evidence that could have helped convict the others responsible.) Bernard is left trying to understand what his life means, in the aftermath of discovering that his most important relationship was with a person flawed in ways he would have never imagined,

[I’d include some quotes here, but I haven’t written a draft this version yet!]

The moral of this story (again insofar as there is a moral?) Probably that you should be wary if you’re in a largely one-sided friendship with someone who’s emotionally withholding and closed-minded, rather than romanticising their objectively unkind behavior. In a relationship where you’d rather try to erase your own emotional needs than admit they’re not being met? That means the other person’s not treating you well… and they’re probably not as great as you’re making them out to be

oversimplification for the win! lol

The Sea Is Not Full

POV Character: Yukiko

Object of her Affection: Sebastian

I’ve only got a bare bones, flawed first draft completed for this manuscript, so this won’t be nearly as detailed, lucky for you, theoretical reader who’s made it this far 😉

The main difference between Yukiko and my two male protagonists is that Yukiko is not an innocent — actually, she’s the clear antagonist of the story, even while she has some sympathetic qualities. It’s a role-reversal of my earlier projects, in a way, because it’s Sebastian’s doe-eyed naivete that attracts Yukiko to him. Ultimately, though, he’s made of sterner stuff than she anticipates.

She spends the majority of her time preoccupied with the constructions of her decadent, romantic inner world, mostly because reality does not live up to her aspirations. It is when she solipsistically attempts to impose her vision of the ideal on actual human beings, like the impressionable student Sebastian, that the main conflict of the novel arises. Her attraction to the tragic, a source of endless erotic fascination and beauty in her imagination, leads only to Sebastian’s degradation and eventual ruin. As she discovers too late, it provides her no fulfillment, no catharsis; only the most fleeting and hollow of pleasures.Screenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.31.03 AMScreenshot 2016-06-10 at 6.31.09 AMA question I plan on exploring is why we gravitate to characters who suffer – why is beauty so often found in the saddest of stories? Why are we fascinated by tragedy?

Or, more particularly, why do I find myself repeatedly writing novels where my sweet, hapless main characters get emotionally tortured for 300 pages, and then betrayed by the people they trust the most? It’s a fair question! So in some ways, Yukiko’s character is a comment on my own propensities as a writer, putting my protagonists through hell for the sake of pathos.

By the end of the novel, however, the audience realizes that, not only has Sebastian caught on to the fact that Yukiko’s been manipulating him for kicks, but he’s essentially been deceiving her for half the novel, and by the end has beaten her at her own game. By allowing Sebastian to finally triumph over manipulative, sadistic Yukiko, I hope I’m giving the long-suffering naive protagonists of my prior novels a chance at revenge.

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July Camp NaNoWriMo

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so I figured I’d stop by give an update on what I’ve been working on since I wrote last.

Currently, I’m mired in indecision when it comes to selecting which project to take on for Camp Nano, which somehow is already less than a month away. Out of the two manuscripts (Heaven Beside You and Where The Light Gets InI’m considering revising next month, I’m leaning towards the latter because there’s a lot more actual rewriting that needs to happen. Heaven Beside You needs some tweaks for historical accuracy and tightening– more finicky, less fun.

On the other hand, I’ve got a much clearer vision of what needs to be done to polish up HBY, and it would be nice to push through and get that taken care of once and for all. I still haven’t landed on a consistent tone for Where The Light Gets In, figured out how much magical realism the story requires, hammered out all the plot details, or grappled with (after all the changes I’ve made since the first draft) what exactly the book’s even trying to say anymore. Both books deal with a lot of heavy material, but I’m more confident that HBY deals responsibly with the issues it raises.

Where The Light Gets In has a reveal 3/4 through the story that one of the main characters (presented in an extremely sympathetic light by the narrator until that point) is actually a criminal who’s done some despicable, unforgivable things. The idea behind the reveal is that it makes the narrator/MC confront the fact that he’s never been as perceptive as he’s fancied himself, and grapple with his existential loneliness; the unknowability of others’ minds, etc. He realizes that he’s been making excuses for behavior on the part of this other character that, in light of this revelations, was quite apparently unhealthy and harmful, and struggles to come to term with the fact that he’s spent years of his life loving an idea of this person that didn’t reflect reality.

You know what, I was going to avoid specifics because “spoilers,” but none of y’all care, lol, so I’ll elaborate on what I mean.

In light of the Brock Turner case that’s been getting so much attention in the news that past few days — and the statement given by the woman he raped, who articulates with devastating honesty how vile his attack on her was, and how warped it is that throughout the trial the case was consistently framed as being about him and how the “mistake” he made would affect his life, rather than that vileness — I’ve become concerned that the story, as I’ve conceived it, will be playing right into this warped narrative our culture has on rapists. Does the POV of the novel inherently do disservice to rape victims, since it’s all about the guy who committed the crime, and cannot by its very nature give an equal voice to the woman whose assault he is a party to? (I’m not mincing words for the heck of it; he films the assault and makes dismissive, joking comments about it, but doesn’t actively participate. He’s basically a coward who uses his passivity and indifference as a shield from criticism/blame throughout his life.)

The book is supposed to be, in part, about toxic masculinity and misogyny, so I’m scared of undercutting my intentions by writing a book that just amounts to excuses for a young man’s cruelty towards women. Am I subverting expectations by setting up this character as a tragic figure and then exposing his true nature, or am I basically inviting people to identify with him at the expense of the woman whose life he rips apart? If so, how do I fix this without scrapping the entire project? I’ve thought about working in some scenes where we get to know the woman, and to also hear her perspective on the assault, but that just seems kind of ham-handed. And like I’m frantically scrambling to cover my ass. (Which I suppose I am). I dunno.

And entirely by coincidence, this character’s name is Jace Brock. Which I may have to change now.

Beyond that, I’m still having trouble working out the structure of the mystery portion of the novel, weaving it in with the more personal/nostalgic elements of the flashbacks (which are important to the plot– but it doesn’t become obvious why until more than halfway through), and figuring out how to tie all the disparate elements together in a satisfactory way without making it too neat and cute.

Waiting patiently for a breakthrough… *ahem* *nudges muse*

haibun 5.24.16

Day 24, another haibun. (This one more unwieldy and undisciplined than yesterday’s, unfortunately.) This is also for a dVerse challenge “I want you to write a poem about the farewell you gave but didn’t mean to – the good-bye you said but hoped that you will meet again at the crossroads.” You should come join the fun!

I had to really rush this one, but I might come back later for a second attempt, because I completely love this prompt. By virtue of this rushed-ness, the haiku at the end of the piece is recycled from earlier in the month. The haibun is kind of an expansion on it… meh. Anyways…

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PS: If anyone visiting from dVerse is interested, this song feels like it could have been written specifically for this challenge, and I immediately thought of it when I saw the topic– so if the prompt’s put you in the mood to get misty-eyed, I figured I’d share

Dead Leaves

Day 23

This one’s for the Haibun Monday Challenge over at dVerse! The challenge was to write about what you do to empty your mind and relax. Since I have a difficult time getting my inner monologue to shut up even for a minute, I wrote about sitting at a cafe with a pot of tea and a good book — the best I can do to tune out my brain’s constant yammering is to replace it with someone else’s! And even then I don’t do such a good job 😉

Springsnow

haiku sequence 5.21.16

Day 21

castlevania-lords-of-shadow-snow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

tanka 5.20.16

Day 20

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Lovers in a Wood, 1873

crushed

Day 19

Wrote this simultaneously for the Blogging University Poetry Day 3 challenge (writing about a friend), and the dVerse challenge, which was to create an Etheree