Chapters 3 and 4 of the latest work in progress. Refer to the last post for the beginning. Let me know what you think!
The words jar me from my own homicidal fantasy. The class looks to me with a sort of bored impatience, part of their minds wanting to have the basic questions answered but another part wanting to leave and get to whatever social event they have planned. I shoot a look to Gary, who, after my hand slam upon his desk is at his fullest attention, before walking to my desk and seizing the stack of syllabi. I pass one to the gentleman in the front row and they circulate around the class.
Losing one’s self in fantasies can be an effective way for an author to immerse himself in his craft. By imagining what I could do to Gary and the hysterical fallout that would follow, I become closer to my character, Thomas. By experiencing such a vivid fantasy, I can aptly describe such a scene in my book, shocking the readers and drawing them in further as they question what such an unstable character may do next.
Despite this course being pure research on my end, I’ve put effort in to make Writing for Commercial Publication a worthwhile seminar. I will cover the how to’s of the writing industry, including submissions to literary magazines, the ins and outs of writer’s groups, landing an agent for literary representation, etcetera, before getting to the actual process of writing. The students will be working on various short story assignments with peer editors, however the bulk of the course’s grade will come from a single capstone project, a fifty page sample of a novel or story they will be writing.
A few students linger as I dismiss the class early, though most of them gather up their supplies and hurry out. Two of the lingerers ask more questions about the syllabus and I put on a friendly face and answer them. Once they’re gone, there’s one student left in the classroom, studying me up and down, the smallest of smiles creasing her face.
It’s Melody Brooks.
“Should I call you Professor White or Dorian?” she asks. “I figure a famous author like yourself has an affinity for his namesake.”
“Let’s go with professor, and keep it formal for now,” I say.
Her face crinkles up in a smile. She’s of average height, thin but with subtle curves. Her face is soft in an angelic sort of way, with eyes matching the color and depth of her mahogany hair.
“I took this class because I saw you were teaching it,” Melody says. “I have to admit, you’re my favorite author, and by a long shot.”
“Why thank you,” I say. “That means alot to me, I try to really impact my audience.”
I stare at this beautiful young fan and wonder if my character would have an attraction to her. To her taut body and lovely features, her witty personality and fine taste in literature. Thomas would be cantankerous certainly, but he’d present well, being charming and alluring enough to catch a young woman’s eye. He’d let her in, let her close, but then when she saw too much…
Well, you get the idea.
“You certainly make an impact,” Melody says. “In Step Ahead, I was floored by the twist! The fact that Detective Brannigan was so obsessed with finding the killer, that his entire career was staked on it, and it turned out to be him all along. It dazzled me that you were able to present such a disturbed character with a split personality so effectively.”
“It was really meant to show the duality of our nature. That we can be so driven to be one person while simultaneously hiding from who we really are, even though the evidence was there all along.”
Melody tilts her head. “That’s exactly what I took away from it. The duality of our nature, the traumas we’ve suffered through refusing to be buried away, coming out in such stark ways. I think anyone who has a bit of darkness in them can relate.”
“You’re far too kind,” I say. “My critics certainly don’t agree with you. It’s nice to hear what I do is resonating with some people.”
“Pardon my language but your critics are talking out of their asses,” Melody says. “When I saw that you were teaching a course my heart fluttered. You’re definitely my favorite author. Wow, I bet I sound like a giddy school girl.”
“That’s just being human,” I say, patting her shoulder. “We all have people we’re fans of, myself included. And who knows, maybe after this, I’ll be a fan of your writing.”
Melody blushes and shakes her head. “I’m more of a reader than a writer,” she confesses. “I have some interesting ideas, especially inspired from what I read, but while it all looks good on my head it just…”
“Doesn’t come out,” I finish.
“Exactly. I love what I think but hate what comes out.”
I explain to Melody that many talented authors hate what comes out in their first draft. The ideas may be there but the execution is lacking. The difference between good and great writers is the time they put into their craft. Like exercise, routine and repetition is key, and the more one writes and edits, the better the future results are.
King said the first million words are just practice, after all.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Melody says. “And I’ll keep practicing, though I have to admit,” she looks down, “I’m a little nervous to have you see my work. Having your idol review what you come up with? Daunting to say the least.”
Little things like Melody looking away, blushing, deflecting a compliment, they all say something about her without actually explicitly saying anything. Sometimes, the most subtle movement, gesture, or observation can illuminate a character more than their direct thoughts and feelings can.
This is called showing instead of telling.
“Don’t be worried,” I say. “This is about growth, about improvement, and every student in here will have room to do that. Why don’t you drop by my office during office hours tomorrow and we’ll talk about your ideas for the course? Stories, goals, ambitions, and then see how we can help you out.”
“Yes!” Melody says. “That would be wonderful, thank you so much!”
“Just trying to embrace my role as a professor,” I say. “Plus, I have plenty of time for such a wonderful fan.”
Melody beams. “Sounds great, I’m looking forward to it, and this course.”
We walk towards the door together and I speak lightly.
“Oh, so am I, Melody, so am I.”
I sit in my office and stare out the window, a light mist drizzling down from a milky gray sky, pattering my window with dots of rain. It’s a breezy fall afternoon, thick layers of clouds blanketing downtown Drayton in a scene many would describe as dreary but one that I find serene. The view is limited, encompassing only the sides of a few buildings, but is pleasant enough, with a view of the street below, abound with students hurriedly crossing en route to their next destination.
My office is small, boxy, but with enough room for a bookcase stocked with some classics, the works of Dostoyevsky and Poe mingling with more contemporaries such as Palahniuk, Vonnegut, and King. Besides that it is relatively bare, a small plant on my desk and my diploma hung up on the wall, giving the office some semblance of authenticity.
I think about Melody Brooks and find it convenient that she wandered into my life on the first day of class. I jot down notes of how she can fit into my story, potential roles for her to fill during my time at the university. From protege to lover, the options seem ripe with possibility, all worthwhile research to be incorporated into my masterpiece.
Notes and outlines are important to some writers in order to provide a framework, a sense of organization for the entire novel. By laying out plot lines and character development, the author can layer what happens and present the story in an intriguing, intentional manner. By listing Melody’s character traits (attractive, creative, bright, fan of dark novels) I can realistically portray her, creating a believable character progression, especially if/when her weaknesses (naivete, amourous) are exploited, pulling her into a nightmarish situation right out of her favorite books.
It’s almost too good to be true.
I’m laying out how she may be roped into all this, scrawling notes in every direction, when I’m interrupted by the sound of my office door opening and someone stepping inside.
I look up as the interloper closes the door behind him. He stands with a firm yet amused look on his face, blue eyes dancing with a condescending sort of mischief behind his wire-frame glasses. His salt-and pepper mustache is thick, matching in color with his hair, and proudly stands above his lips as bold statement against all things fashionable and attractive.
“Dr. John Halstrom, what a pleasant surprise,” I say.
“Dorian White, I must say, I never expected to see you back here,” Halstrom says with an irritating grin.
“All thanks to your tutelage,” I shoot back. His expression barely creases.
“I always thought it would be Sam Hamilton who’d hit it big in writing,” Halstrom says. “You remember how vivid and detailed his short stories were, and he was a hit with the campus literary magazine. He’s just an editor of a small online magazine now, but look at you. Just goes to show how fickle the public is. Never can quite tell what suits their tastes.”
Apparently good ol’ John hasn’t changed a bit since he was my professor for three courses during my time at the university. As crass as he is dim-witted, John Halstrom is the type who believes his Ph.D in literature means he has the utmost authority in declaring what writing is good and which is trash. He held that air of superiority throughout my time as his student, putting down my work at every possible turn. He ridiculed my dark voice as being edgy for edgy’s sake. He said my work lacked substance and authenticity, that my style was too minimal, my writing was mostly choppy, and he called my tendency to throw in single line paragraphs gimmicky, attention-grabbing at best.
“I’ve been fortunate,” I say. “Readers were eager for a new dark voice, one that spoke to what lurks in the inner recesses of their minds. It’s going well, I almost can’t believe how far I’ve come since I was a clueless kid sitting in your class. How have you been? Has your writing worked out at all?”
Halstrom’s face scrunches up in a way that makes him look like he’s trying to eat his own mustache. His voice is gruff yet wet, like someone recovering from a long standing cold. “Oh, it’s going well enough. A few pieces published here and there, you know, I’ve built quite a name for myself with my short stories, particularly those in the fantasy genre. Even a few award nominations. The public, as you know, isn’t always ready for true work, actual artistry, and often accepts whatever recycled trash the big publishers throw at them.”
Halstrom is bitter because he’s never been able to break into the big time, despite his repeated attempts at publishing novels through the Big Five publishers. He’s published two through small indie presses, but both were panned by readers, hosting pitiful reviews on Amazon. The man writes like an academic, as if there’s a defined system and structure to a good novel.
He leaves out the soul.
“Glad to hear you’re finding your own sort of success, professor,” I say. “The writing world is truly a struggle. Do you have an agent? I could help you out with that, put in a good word.”
Color rises in Halstrom’s face. “Oh, no need. I haven’t tried in a while but I’m sure once I finish my next project I’ll have a few interested.”
In order to land a novel with mainstream publishers an author needs to acquire a literary agent. Major publishers will not review a manuscript that does not have representation. By sending out a query letter (usually two-hundred and fifty words summarizing the novel and your literary accomplishments) an author earns the right to wait anywhere from one day to one year for a response, at which point the agent will review a sample of the work or the full book itself. After another few months to a year, the agent may offer representation. Then, once submitted, if the book is accepted by an editor, it can be another one to three years before it is released to the public.
Halstrom hasn’t landed an agent.
99% of those who try don’t.
“I’m sure you’ll find your success,” I lie. “How are you holding things together at the university? I imagine the English program is top-notch, as always.”
“We have standards here,” Halstrom says. “Which is why I’m surprised they were so eager to bring a B student on board. I recommended to the chair that we didn’t hire you. I figured you were only in it for yourself.”
I laugh and shake my head. “Are you holding grudges, John? Because I told you off a few times back when I was a student? Because I followed my dreams? I understand your hesitancy to bring me aboard, especially with the content of what I write, but you can’t decry my qualifications.”
Halstrom laughs, a nasally tone carried by condescension. “Your writing is inauthentic. There’s no meat to it, just whatever gross, heinous thing your mind can create on a whim. It doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel deep, yet with your shocking subject matter and freshman level philosophy you’ve ensnared the attention of the nation.”
I walk over to Halstrom offering my hand. When he looks at it I kick his leg out from under him and he falls forward, bashing his head off the corner of my desk. The wet thunk that emanates sends thrilling sensations throughout my body. I grab him by the shirt collar and scruff of the neck, and as he lets out cry I drive his head into desk again. Blood oozes from his gash onto the desk, dripping down to the floor. Halstrom’s cry is shallow as I pull him back and slam his head into the corner again. The sound is wet and thick, like a pumpkin slammed to pavement.
This is called a simile.
I bash his head again.
As the splats rise in volume his cries diminish. Soon all I hear is wet thumping with the occasional crack splintered in. Fluid drips from his head down onto my hand, coating it in a sticky mess. His head goes concave and rubbery bits of brain leak out of his skull and onto the floor.
I bash his head again.
This is called repetition.
I drop his limp form to the floor. He collapses in a heap, and I feel a sense of vindication. The lowly maggot who had criticized me has been put in his place. He found out just where he belonged before I asserted my power over him.
Yes, this is exactly what a psychopath would think.
I make note to add this type of scene to my book.
“I’ll take that as a challenge, John,” I say, breaking from the daydream. “I will rise to the occasion and show my students can take away something meaningful from this.”
Halstrom chortles. “Now you’re really writing fiction. But if you need to know how these sort of things are done, let me know. Assignments, grading rubrics, guest speakers, I know the ropes and I can help make sure the course is done professionally.”
I smile. “Actually, that sounds great. I’ll make a list of things I need shortly. I appreciate the help.”
Halstrom’s eyes are narrow slits in his bowling ball head. “Of course. I’ll be around, keeping an eye on you if need something.”
“Thanks John. If you’re free we should catch up more, get coffee sometime.”
Halstrom nods before turning to take his leave. “Yeah, possibly,” he mumbles as he shuffles towards the door.
“Bye,” I say, and he closes the door behind him.
The fantasy has inspired me to write Halstrom as a character. In a transgressive novel, where the main character is an anti-hero, an antagonist can be used to help the reader sympathize with the main character. This type of person is rude, dismissive, and overly assuming with few or no redeemable traits.
I spend another twenty minutes finishing my notes about him and Melody. Both will add great layers of depth to my story and I’m satisfied with the progress. I’m really beginning to flesh things out, and when I grab my materials to leave for the day, a smile adorns my face.
As I’m exiting St. Thomas Hall, I feel a strange sensation wash over me. Call it Deja Vu, but a preliminary sense, like I’m already experiencing the impending storm. I know something is going to happen, something big, yet I am already going through it. I’m going somewhere, and it’s dark and wild, unexplored and uninhabited. I shake the feeling off as I exit, but make a note not to forget the strange sensation.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, after all.