Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Movie Screen In My Head

One of the most commonly asked questions I am asked during interviews or from fans in emails is how do I write my novels. Do I plot it all out?  Do I just wing it?  How do I create my characters?  Are they based on me?  Other people?  How does it all happen?

Honestly, I always feel like the stories I write just emerge from the ether.  They just appear in my mind, either while I'm sleeping, or listening to music, or just randomly as I'm going about my daily business.  It's literally like a movie screen pops up in my head and starts showing a new feature I have never seen before.  My stories just appear.

I have read where other authors sit down and think of themes and scenarios that intrigue them, or decide they want to write about a particular region, or decide they want to create a character based on someone they know or an aspect of themselves.  They meticulously create a character description and details, outline the plot, and carefully construct their manuscript based on all their notes.  Frankly, I wouldn't even know how to begin to do that.  Not that what they are doing is wrong, or anything like that.  But that process is so far removed from how my stories come into fruition it's like I'm trying to understand someone speaking to me in a language I don't know.

The movie screen in my head has always been there.  When I was kid I always had stories running on it.  As I grew older, those stories became more intricate and epic.  My imagination entertained me through many hours of boring classes in school or long road trips.  I was so accustomed to the movie screen in my head I was surprised when other people told me they didn't have one.  Most of my friends thought I was a bit loopy when I described how my imagination worked.  Though we all liked to play make-believe as kids, I realized that something about my own worlds of make-believe were quite different.

Readers and writers are always intrigued by the writing process of some of their favorite authors.   I've read various accounts of how my own favs construct their worlds, or discover them.  Every writer has their own process or way of unearthing their stories.

I thought I would share a few ways I have uncovered some of my stories.

THE FIRST DAYS (Book 1 of the AS THE WORLD DIES trilogy)

So small.
So very, very small.
The fingers pressed under the front door of her home were so very small. She could not stop staring at those baby fingers straining frantically to reach her as she stood shivering on the porch. The cool morning air lightly puffed out her pink nightgown as her own pale fingers clutched the thin bathrobe closed at her throat. Texas weather could change so fast, and this early March morning was crisp.
The opening scene of THE FIRST DAYS reads exactly how I saw it one day when I was sitting at my desk at work.  One second I was staring at a spreadsheet trying to sort out what I needed from a client when suddenly the movie screen in my head flashed on.  I saw in my head those tiny fingers then my mind's eye-camera panned out to show me Jenni.  The image was so vivid, so intense, it was if I was enmeshed in that world for a few scant seconds.  

As soon as my break arrived, I wrote the opening to my now epic zombie story.  At first I thought it was just a short story, but by the end of the day I had the whole story playing on the screen in my head.  


When she began to stir from her deep slumber, she had no idea she was buried under several feet of moist, dark earth.  Curled into a tight ball with one hand over her face, she shivered as her brain slowly switched on.  Flashes of random memories full of distorted images burst through her mind.
Time to wake up, a voice whispered.
Her eyelids fluttered.
 Before she could fully awaken, her body was seized tight in a spasm of pain.  Her body contorted in on itself as her hands trembled around her face.  The seizure released her and, slowly, she opened her eyes.
Darkness greeted her.
Trembling, she strained to see into the blackness that enshrouded her.  She could barely make out the outline of her fingers curled over her face.  Something heavy and moist was pressing down on her.
Suddenly claustrophobic, she thrust her left arm upward in a desperate attempt to throw off whatever was covering her.
Dirt poured into the tiny space around her face and filled her mouth and nose.  Terrified, she plunged her arm into the earth, trying to push it away.  She tried to roll onto her back and shoved upward with her other hand.  Warm, wet earth pressed down all around her body.
The opening two chapters of PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES were a dream I survived.  Yes, survived.

The dream was terrifying and completely enveloped my mind.  I thought it was real.  I had no idea I was dreaming as I experienced waking up being buried alive and fighting my way out of the forest floor.  My confusion and fear were very real emotions.  The worse part of the dream was when I had thought I had killed people.  It was only then I woke up and realized it had all been a dream.

I was so traumatized by the dream I knew instantly it was the beginning of a story I wanted to uncover. I wanted to know the story of the young woman who woke up buried in the forest.  Once I wrote out my dream, the rest of the story flowed onto the screen in my head.  In this case I had no idea where it was going until I had reached the end.  It was one helluva ride.

THE LAST BASTION OF THE LIVING (futuristic zombie novel work in progress)

The fan sputtered, then died as the rolling blackout hit her section of the city.  With a groan, Maria peeled the covers from her damp body and sat at the edge of the bed.  Her silky black hair fell over one shoulder, covering her bare breast.  The heat was already rising in her small flat.  The metal walls and high windows made the narrow room claustrophobic and, once the power cut out, stifling."Another glorious day in hell," Dwayne muttered beside her.  He peered at her from under the arm thrown over his face to shield his blue eyes from the sunlight beginning to pour through the window above the rumpled bed.Maria yawned.  "You mean a glorious day in the last great bastion of humanity?""That speech last night really did suck," Dwayne decided, laughing."Our fearless leader is full of shit."  Maria stood up, stretching out her lean, muscular body.  "He's not the best liar. That whole line about 'our time of crisis being at an end' was ridiculous."She sensed Dwayne making a grab for her ass and easily stepped out of reach. He groaned with frustration, then dragged his body out of bed. Scars crisscrossed his muscled arms and chest, a terrible reminder of the day he had almost died while fighting the undead. She had her own scars, her darker skin rising into hard keloids. They were fading slowly, but would never completely leave her.  A panicked soldier had tossed a grenade at the wrong time during the last great battle against the Inferi. Only their battle suits had kept Maria and Dwayne from being ripped to pieces, but some of the shrapnel had managed to pierce through the aging armor.  It had been a terrifying twenty-four hours before they were cleared of the Inferi Plague Virus infection.  Oddly, it was the time in the hospital that had laid the foundation for Dwayne and Maria's relationship.  "Our fearless leader may be full of shit, but it is in everyone's best interest to keep the civilians calm.  We don't need riots in the streets again," Dwayne said, yawning. "I think I'm just tired of being lied to. And to make it worse I have to defend those lies because it’s my duty." Maria twisted her hair back from her face and flipped it over one shoulder. She wasn't vain by nature, but her hair was the one aspect of her looks she actually cared about. It was very long, glossy black, and thick with just a slight wave to it. "We all do what we have to," Dwayne answered with a sigh.
Though my latest work in progress, THE LAST BASTION OF THE LIVING, opens with a very exciting (and gory) battle scene, I dreamed the first chapter of the book when taking a nap one day.  Instead of being in the lead character's head, I watched them as though they were on a movie screen in my head.  I loved their interaction with each other and the sense that they had a rich history between them.  I loved the world Maria woke up in and wanted to make her story into a short story for an anthology.  That failed very quickly. The story was much larger than that.  So I tried for a novella for another anthology.  That failed as well.  The story of Maria, Dwayne and the last bastion of humanity was epic in scale.  I stopped fighting to whittle the story down and embraced it fully.

Though I wrote the first few chapters around two years ago, I had to set aside the project to concentrate on the AS THE WORLD DIES books for Tor's reissue of all three books.  I am now moving swiftly through the novel and I hope to have it done by the end of the month.

The delay between when the story was conceived and now has allowed me to do a lot of background work on the story and for once I actually have a synopsis to look at.  Of course, I have already had unexpected characters show up and new scenes, but the gist of the story is already laid out.

So in answer to the question "how does it all come together?"  my answer is that I really don't know. All I know is that the movie screen on my head is always active and all I have to do is pay attention.

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