The Phantom in the Pit – A New Short Story

While searching for the title of my first novel, I have taken to stretching my writing legs on a regular basis. With two screenplays finished and another in the early development stages, I decided to write a short story that I outlined way back when I was in high school.

A little background, I am a huge fan of The Twilight Zone.

Even at the age of fifteen, this black and white golden oldie with its clever social parables and morality tales wrapped up in the guise of fantasy always intrigued me, keeping me on edge waiting for every twist and turn it promised from the opening credits. Of course it inspired me to throw together several stories of my own. All told, I conceptualized about 78 of them for a proposed television series I dubbed The Darkest Corners.

Of course, being in high school and having not heard of three act structure, character arcs and other such niceties to be found in literature, most of them were clumsy, forgettable, or downright preachy.

One tale told of an abusive man who beats his girlfriend, but soon mysteriously begins to take on her injuries. Another told a group of friends who are promised millions if they spend one night in an abandoned house, only to find they are intended as food for a monster hiding in the woods. Looking over them now, they were not nearly as interesting as I had once thought.

Except one. One that was originally entitled Two, but has since been re-named The Phantom in the Pit.

This horror story is the bizarre little tale of Phillip, a man with multiple personality disorder, and Joshua, one of Phillip’s delusions. One night, Phillip goes on a crime spree, killing several people after a perceived rejection at work. Ironically it is Joshua, not Phillip, who has a conscience and desires for Phillip to stop. The bitter conflict escalates into a war where the winner will control Phillip’s body.

The Phantom in the Pit does have some cerebral elements that rekindled my interest. The story is told from Joshua’s point of view, where he is confined to a section of Phillip’s mind that he calls The Pit, a prison of sorts within which he can only communicate with Phillip, not control him. Joshua recalls for the reader his sad existence as Phillip’s delusion, telling how he watched his vessel slowly throw his life away and drag him down right along with him. Joshua even contemplates if he truly exists, or if he is just a product of Phillip’s own internal battle.

I have been working on this story off and on for the past few weeks. I have so far written 7000 words for the story, bringing it to about 20 pages, so I am a little over halfway done with it. Once this draft is completed, I will let it sit for a spell, then go over it a second time to polish it before posting it here.

Working on it has been quite fun, and oddly energizing. Writing is a lot of hard work, and sometimes it is easy to forget just how fun it is when you really get in that state where the words just leap from your mind to the page.

Expect to be reading The Phantom in the Pit very soon.

The MacGuffin: Have We Found a Title?

 

A month ago, I had a talk with a friend of mine about my troubles. Having finished writing my first book, I was getting a ton of rejection letters from various agents, and wondered if there was anything I could do to improve the pitch. I sent over my query letters and asked for a few tips. He got back pretty quick with a few tips. Mostly presentation and wording. One tip really cut deep though.

“You need a new title.”

I of course thought the journey would be fun, and coming up with alternate titles would be a nice way to stretch my creative legs before continuing the query process and eventually continuing on to book 2 of this series.

It turned out to be a lot harder. As of the writing of this post, 273 alternate titles were written. A lot of them came in groups, 10 titles being variations on the same ones, switching out one or two words or altering their order to see if a different combination worked, but a different title is a different title, and I have 273 of them.

A title should capture the essence of a story. It should tell the reader what they are in for, reveal some small part of the story to them, tell of a character’s arc, illustrate a concept that gives a narrative its meat. There are numerous examples of perfect titles in books, film and others. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple

There is also another kind of title. The MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is a narrative device to drive the plot by use of an important object or artifact. Famous MacGuffins are too numerous to name off here, with examples including the rug in The Big Lebowski, a missing woman in The Lady Vanishes, a dead body in Stand By Me. It is the thing that gets the characters to go where you want, when you want them to get there.

It can also, as mentioned above, be a pretty nifty title. It is after all the thing that gets the characters’ attention, so why not your audience? The titular statue in The Maltese Falcon is the source of much murder and intrigue in the classic film. And that if just for starters.

The entire Indiana Jones series centers around Indy’s search for various MacGuffins, the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail and so forth. The first such MacGuffin also provides the original film with its title. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

 

Another well known example is Lord of The Rings. The quest to destroy the One Ring may not sound like much, but the journey it takes the characters on remains to this day one of the best epics ever put to the page or screen. That it is all for a single piece of jewelry is a testament to how effective this literary trope can be.

If you are looking for a more contemporary example, the first Harry Potter book is a good place to look, its MacGuffin also proudly displayed on its jacket. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or Sorcerer’s Stone depending on which side of the pond you live.

MacGuffins are a tried and true literary trope that have been passed down through the ages via pen and parchment, keyboard and printer. So of course a MacGuffin would make its way into my story. It is after all inspired by the Indiana Jones series. It would almost be a crime not to include one.

It follows the If Bad Guys Get Thing, Bad Things Happen trope of MacGuffins, and is a key element to the universe mythos. My main series villain, as you can read in the Villains article, brought with him the components of a machine that would act as a beacon to call others of his kind to my world. It is an act akin to opening the gates of Hell, only this Hell comes not from below, but above.

After the apparent death of the villain, the machine was disassembled and scattered to the four winds. Over the centuries, the loyalists of my villain have been questing for these pieces, a trip that has given them much excuse to do some very bad things. They have collected all of the pieces.

All except one.

One single, tiny fragment without which the machine cannot run. A small black shard that once possessed by the loyalists of my villain, will surely spell oblivion for my world.

It is an important object for the entire series. The race to locate this piece is the driving force in the first book, and several key moments in the series involve what amounts to an epic game of ‘keep away’, with the artifact changing hands before eventually coming into play in the finale.

Though ultimately the characters and their journey are the most important thing, sometimes a MacGuffin can be a good way to rope in an audience. After all, no one knew who Indiana Jones was in 1981, one of the reasons his name wasn’t included in the title of the first film. But everyone knew what the Lost Ark was, and the prospect of a bunch of raiders chasing it down sounded pretty interesting.

The search for this title has been tough. The journey was grueling. There were times when it got depressing and I sunk into stupors of self loathing and hopelessness that I would never find it, leaving the story that had become my whole world doomed to forever sit unread and unloved.

I began the journey on the 19th of October, 2015. It is now November 22nd, 2015, and for the first time, I have looked at one of those scribbled down names and smiled.

Villains

After many delays, the character bios for the villains are completed. You can view them along with the heroes in the character bios section. The art in this section will be subject to revision, and any updates will be posted.

Enjoy the article.

Villains

My Protagonist Gets a Facelift and Other News

The saga for my first book continues with the latest illustration moving along nicely and the search for a title ongoing.

Our massive lead got a slight face lift, you might say. A few days ago while I was at work, David Spada hit me up about a tiny issue he had with his design for our fire breathing star. He felt Zhyx’s nostrils were far too high up on his face, so they seemed to not really be connected with anything. Looking at the design now, one can see why he might take issue with it.

Wordpress 7

Because of this, David put forward that we do a very slight alteration of the design. Simply lower the nostril. It certainly wasn’t too much to ask. We have only completed two illustrations and are in the middle of a third at the moment. He sent me these quick doodles to show what he was talking about.

Zhyx Nose

I liked the change a lot and sent it to Joe, who will be incorporating it into his designs from now on.

This sort of thing does happen a lot in art. They go through constant changes that never stop until it hits the presses. A re-design for the book’s villains is also underway, and I look forward to sharing those with you once they are available.

In other news, we are on the home stretch for the illustration for chapter 3. What I really like about this illustration is you get a real sense of Zhyx’s size from it, and it showcases his first meeting with someone who promises to be a longtime companion.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 8.03.42 AM

In other news, work on the villains article has begun. It had been delayed for a while due to other writing projects, life, and career pursuits, but it will be up sometime in the next week, finally rounding out the characters section of the blog.

Also, the illustration for chapter 2 will be altered slightly, with some touch up work being done on Zhyx’s horns and additional color added to Saar’Jya. We should be able to knock that out pretty quickly once the chapter 3 illustration is finished.

Thanks for reading with brief update and I look forward to talking with all of you later.

VIDEO – Temple of Doom and My Attempt at Internet Reviewing

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is one of my favorite pictures of all time, and while some of the criticisms against it are not without merit, I can’t help but think they often get a little too harsh. So I thought I would take a crack at this internet reviewing thing and offer some compliments to the film and some answers to the criticism. Was the end result a nice retrospective or an abysmal failure? You will have to click the link to find out.

VIDEO – Temple of Doom and My Attempt at Internet Reviewing

The Title Issue and Yes Men

Even if it hurts, sometimes constructive criticism is something you need to hear.

I very clearly remember when I came up with the name for my protagonist in the book.

It was winter, I was working at a hardware store chain and was charged with gathering carts out of the parking lot. It was a pretty easy job and yielded easy money, not a lot of human interaction and a metric ton of quiet. So of course I had a lot of time to think and brainstorm ideas for the story. Even take notes while I was about the lot.

I took notes on my cell phone, most of them trying to set some ground rules for my new proposed language for the dragon characters. I always loved new languages in stories. They give any universe an heir of authenticity that makes it seem all the more real, and plus, while hard work, writing a new language is a lot of fun.

I already figured the sound I wanted, with a large emphasis on the letters h, r, x, y and z, because once I figured out those rules, I would figure out my protagonist’s name. It wasn’t going to be a simple name though. A dragon will hardly have a name like Clarence. I had been taking notes in between waiting for carts when I randomly typed a word, and it just sort of jumped out at me.

Zhyx.

It just seemed so correct. It had everything I was looking for. It evoked the feel of another language , the pronunciation was simple and sharp, and there was something menacing and mysterious about it. Spoken like the ‘six’ spelled with a ‘z’, it just rolled off the tongue, and fit my lead perfectly.

Zhyx 8

Needless to say, the name grew on me quick, and I thought it would be a good idea to have it be the title. Such unusual titles had worked in the past, most notably JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Sure there had been less successful titles in that same vein, like Krull and C.H.U.D, but my eyes were full of stars. I could see it on the cover. A simple collection of letters over top a Drew Struzan style illustration that appropriately showed the adventurous contents bound inside.

I called it Zhyx: An Unusual Adventure. Given it was about a dragon’s turn into an action hero, it certainly was unusual.

Now several months since the manuscript was deemed more or less finished, I wonder if I have made a horrible mistake.

After thirteen rejection letters, I decided to talk with a friend and fellow writer about my queries. He offered many helpful tips that have defiantly put me on the right track, and I have even found several great resources to find potential agents, but one of the things he told me was the title was not terribly good.

“What does it mean? A title should tell the reader what they are in for.”

Of course he knew that was the lead character’s name, but anyone passing by a book shelf wouldn’t know that. How could they know without picking it up and looking inside? I asked him if the character’s name should be changed. He said no, but the title needed serious work.

It was only after this interaction that I realized I made a serious error. I never told the reader how to pronounce the name. How could they know? My friends and I all knew because we had been throwing the name around for the better part of two years. It was a simple word to pronounce, but it didn’t look simple. It boasted an almost silent ‘h’, and given the way it looked, it was entirely possible people would pronounce it like the literal pronunciation of the letter ‘i’. Pronounced like that, the name actually sounds pretty horrible.

After that talk, I hastily threw together this passage for the first page of the book, immediately after the narrator tells the reader his name.

         My name is the Saar word for the color red.

         Zhyx.

         I can already see you are struggling to pronounce the name properly. Rest assured, it is simple enough even for a creature such as yourself. The pronunciation is much like your word for the number ‘six’, but replace your letter ’s’ with your letter ‘z’ A little hiss of air before the vowel, and even you may manage a passable impression of a Saar.

It was such an easy fix. It is kind of a big deal when the name of your leading character might be hard to pronounce. Hell, even Voldemort is a much easier name to figure out.

Even if the character’s name is not an issue, the title certainly was. I have spent two months sending out this manuscript to agents who may well have turned it down on the basis of the title alone. But I thought too much of the contents in the book. I already knew what the title meant even if no one else did.

But that was my error. I knew and no one else did. I didn’t take the effort to introduce anyone to it.

When talking to my colleagues about it, I got a similar response. “We were going to talk to you about that.”

This of course left me wondering “When?”

This displays one of the things that can really hurt a creative effort, the ‘yes man.’ Someone who outwardly agrees with you whether or not they actually feel that way. To be clear, I am not sure if this is what happened with me and my colleagues. They have after-all provided constructive criticism on a number of issues relating to the manuscript. Even so, it does provide a good opportunity to talk about ‘yes men’ and the damage they can cause. More often then not, if a single individual is given unquestioned creative control, things can go disastrously wrong.

While Star Wars was the brainchild of George Lucas, he had a lot of great people working with him on the first three films. Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, and directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, all of them had a hand in the creative pie. This was a saga made by a bunch of people getting together and pooling their resources to make something special. And it was special.

It was.

A lot of things went wrong in the Star Wars prequels, and it is not hard to figure out exactly why. All of them lacked the collaboration of the first three films. All were produced and directed only by Lucas, and with the exception of the second film, all were written by him as well. Watching the documentary on the making of The Phantom Menace, one can see people just agreeing with everything George says.

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Everything.

At no point did anyone say during the creative process “Hey George, this might not be a good idea.”, and honestly that would have been for the best. Had someone done that, this entire mess could have been avoided, or its impacts lessened at the very least.

Constructive criticism is sometimes painful, in particular if you really like an idea, But it is also a necessary part of the creative process. I had many conversations with Joseph, David and Cullen about my concerns, and always asked for input. They always gave me really good ideas and pointers that helped the manuscript become what it is now.

Maybe they thought the title was good too. Maybe they could see I was depressed at the time and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Maybe they were worried I would have taken it too hard. Who knows? Maybe I would have. I have an unhealthy habit of overeach when I hear such criticism. When someone says one idea is bad, I start thinking “Maybe this idea is bad too. Or this one, or this one, or this one.” It is a bad habit, and I am working on it.

Still, there is the wish that someone put their foot down a little while ago. I was still writing the book, and it would have given me something to think about while working. It may well have helped the creative process. It may also also have saved twelve query letters from being wasted. I need to be challenged. It is what helps the story get better, and that is what this is all about.

Now that the manuscript is done, this search for a title has me trapped .Until the problem is resolved, I cannot send out a single letter.

My search continues, and I am starting to get closer. I have been sampling with words like crimson and scarlet, and am going to try some options with flight, wing and a few others. It has gotten to be less depressing and more fun by now, which is what writing should be. I am approaching two hundred titles, and finally have a few that hold some promise.

And now it is time to start bouncing those off my colleagues. Together, we can find a good one.

Together is key.

I wouldn’t have made it this far alone.

Refurbished Website

When I started with blog wit the help of my dear friend David Spada, it was simply a means to promote and provide updates for my fantasy/adventure novel of a dragon turned action hero.

Now since the novel is done and the query process has begun, I have been working on getting it published as well as branching out to other projects, and thought it would be fun to talk about them as well, and also chime on on whatever was topical in geek culture at the moment.

Due to these new additions, the blog became somewhat of a disjointed mess, so I spent all day yesterday fixing it up and making it easier to navigate.

All of the sample chapters for the book for drafts 1 2 and 3 are now included under a single tab. All tabs relating directly to the book have been re-titled to move them closer together. You can view those tabs below.

Novel Sample Chapters

Novel Concept Art

Novel World Building

Novel Character Bios

Likewise, The Treasure Hoard was getting far too full, so its contents have been broken up into three categories, editorials, additional creative content, and an archive for the posts. All of those are available for viewing here. Editorials will deal with more in depth looks at writing, as well as views on culture and the occasional controversial topic. Scripts, Short Stories and Films will deal with any creative projects not directly related to the novel, and Post Archives are simply an index of all the posts for this page available for easy access.

Editorials

Scripts, Short Stories and Films

Post Archives

Needless to say, it is a vast improvement, and you won’t have to worry about getting lost.

My search for a new title for the book (and most likely this blog) continues. I am approaching 200 titles now, and for the first time, some good ones are starting to show up.

Since it has also been a while since the last illustration update for the novel, I will post this as well. Coloring will begin next week, so please enjoy this scene of Zhyx meeting River for the first time. It sure is coming along, and promises to be nothing short of spectacular when it is done.

Zhyx Meets River 9

Thank you all for reading and enjoy the new blog.