In Comes Romeo, he’s moaning…

(Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.  If not, click here).

I think by now we all know I’m a Shakespeare fan – I’m not a true Shakespeare nerd, because I haven’t read and seen them all, but I am a fan.  And one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Romeo & Juliet … at least in theory.

I say “at least in theory” because I have so rarely seen a performance of the play that even came close to doing it justice.  Romeo & Juliet isn’t a Harlequin Romance Novel or Disney Princess Movie that incongruously ends with everyone dead.  It’s a tragedy, and a far more brutal tragedy than MacBeth or Hamlet, because the violence doesn’t just kill people, it kills love and hope.  It ends, not with a sword fight, but with a suicide.  It consumes the city of Verona with a hatred so deep it becomes unconscious and dehumanizing.

The opening conversation between (Act I, Scene i) two Capulet servants is often omitted or cut to little more than an issued challenge, but it is by far the most telling and important conversation in the play.  I’ve quoted the most relevant part below.  You can find the whole script here.

SAMPSON A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.

GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

So they’re standing around talking smack about the Montagues, Gregory’s egging Sampson on by questioning his courage.  Sampson is bragging about how he will kill the Montague men and then rape and/or kill the Montague women.  “Maidenhead,” as you know, is Elizabethan-era slang for the hymen in particular and virginity in general.  This is basically two guys out on the street talking smack … glorifying the rape and murder of the Montagues.  Gregory and Sampson aren’t actually Capulets; they’re servants of the Capulets.  They barely even have any stake in this feud, but the generational feud has generated such an atmosphere of hatred that this is what they talk about when they’re not working: rape and murder.

The premise of Romeo & Juliet isn’t that love conquers all: it most assuredly does not.  The moral is that an unwillingness to forgive will destroy everything that you love, leaving nothing but guilt and grief behind, and that the cycle of hate and destruction will not end until both sides have suffered enough to learn to forgive.  Considering the 20th century’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Shakespeare’s ending may have actually been overly optimistic.

It drives me straight up the wall to see this play watered down, presented like a love story, stripped of all the violence and ugliness of the vendetta.  I’ve seen the Royal Shakespearean company do this (I almost thought they’d just misprinted the programs, and I was really watching Much Ado About Nothing until the end, when everyone died), I’ve seen Hollywood do this (more than once, though I’ll admit that Gnomeo and Juliet won me over, despite it all).

The only version I’ve ever seen that captured the violence and ugliness was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean script but used modern-day settings, clothes, etc.  The Sampson and Gregory dialogue was replaced by a fairly brutal, extended fight that conveyed the same information to audiences who might not know what “maidenhead” meant or get the significance of pushing people “to the wall” or “off the walls.”

A lot of people criticize this film for using modern sets and costumes, but ironically, it’s the only production of the play I have ever seen that is actually faithful to the script.

Luhrmann’s film to emphasize the feud’s engrained violence, the privilege of nobility, and the crushing atmosphere this provided, creating an atmosphere so full of hate and vengeance that love may well have been the ultimate rebellion.

So… you may be asking, what has this got to do with anything?

Well, the message of Romeo & Juliet is a powerfully moral one, one that we can all learn from: if we cannot learn to forgive, we will destroy everything we love.  But that message cannot shine out if  someone, for whatever reason, blunts the darkness and ugliness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, Romeo and Juliet’s love becomes just another love story, not a singular point of light in a violent, hateful, ugly city of darkness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, the destruction of their love seems just like a bummer, and ending that doesn’t make sense, something Shakespeare should have revised.  Or worse, their deaths seem romantic, like the end of Wuthering Heights, and the entire point is lost.

You all know I’ve been wrestling with my writing – harsh language, the darkness of the subject matter, the violence itself (especially in my Blood Oath trilogy).  And thinking about Romeo & Juliet has made me reconsider another angle.  I can’t self-censor to the point that the most important part of the story gets lost, muddled in a respectable, slightly dim haze.  If I have any light to share, I must show it as truthfully as possible, even if that means going into a dark, violent, ugly place.  And I won’t feel ashamed about it, either.

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On Symbolism (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about symbolism lately, and the different forms it can take, specifically, how to do it well or poorly as a writer.  Of course, I’m writing this with myself in mind: your mileage may vary, I am not a lifecoach, etc… but this is what I like to read and how I like to write.

People sometimes like to read a complex symbolism into every possible detail of a story.  That’s fine, if they get more out of the story that way, but I don’t think writers should necessarily write with this in mind.  For example, Flannery O’Connor was once interviewed by a reporter who seemed fixated on the color of Misfit’s hat (in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find).  He kept asking, rephrasing, and re-asking why the murderous man wore a black hat, until O’Connor famously replied, “To cover his head!”  Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud.

That said, symbolism can be a good thing, since it can add complexity and emotional depth to a story, if it’s done well.  Basically, there are two ways to do symbolism: internal and external symbolism (I believe these are my terms, but I may be borrowing them without remembering where I heard them).

External symbolism involves the use of common symbols, colors, visuals, etc. that will hopefully convey meaning to the readers.  This would include such things as the color of a character’s hat or eyes, meaningful character names, etc.  Generally, this kind of symbolism is the only kind available to artists, poets, songwriters, and others who work in direct media.

External symbolism can be powerful, if it is used well.  Sometimes it works perfectly within the setting: Benedict wears a long, black coat to conceal the weapons he carries, a completely practical reason.  But anyone who’s ever heard Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” (which itself references John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” will recognize the similarity.  Everyone else will see the resemblance to the black cloak worn by the grim reaper, the black coats worn by gunslingers in old western movies, black as the color of mourning and grief, etc.  Long black (coat/cloak/dress/veil) represents death, but from Benedict’s perspective, he just needs a place to hide his guns and machete.

Naming children after saints was a common practice in the Middle Ages, and so we have Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana.  I almost backed away from this, because ‘meaningful’ names are just about the most hokey and overused piece of external symbolism out there.  The truth is, I couldn’t imagine any other names for them.  These were their names, and everything else seemed terribly false.  Still, I tried to stay away from anything symbolic in other characters’ names.

I believe that authors need to keep external symbolism on a short leash, because it has the tendency to get very hokey and pretentious very quickly.  However, as fiction writers, we have the power to use internal symbolism.

Internal symbolism involves things that are symbolic to the characters:  A pair of ravens follow, haunt, and help direct Benedict, so he nicknames them Memory and Thought, after the two ravens that attended Odin … and because memories of what he has lost haunt him, and thoughts of revenge drive him onward.  He buys a pair of high-powered pistols, and has them engraved with silver raven’s heads and wings, naming one Memory and the other Thought.

You could even call Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana’s names examples of internal symbolism: their parents named them after saints, hoping to encourage righteousness and (perhaps superstitiously) to ensure good fortune, borrowing a bit of the saints’ surplus grace and favor with God by attaching their names to their children.

At first this seemed to be going well: Benedict was a womanizer, but he was a strong man, a warrior, and possessed enough tactical and logistical sense to take over the knightly estate when his father passed.  Augustine was studying to go into the priesthood, since rules of primogeniture meant the elder son (Benedict) inherited the entire estate, and Augustine just got the family name.  Juliana wanted to join a convent, but had submitted to her father’s will that she marry another nobleman’s son, to help unite their fiefdoms and build their fortunes together.

Then it all fell apart.  Juliana was murdered, Augustine became a vampire lord, immortal and incredibly powerful for a millennium, and Benedict swore revenge, if it took a thousand years.  Now, Juliana is dead, Augustine is a creature of darkness, and Benedict is a vengeful, wandering killer.  That they carry the names of the saints is a bitter irony, especially to Benedict, who once believed in the church with superstitious fervor (clearly, that belief didn’t extend to sober living or chastity, but that is so often the case), and now finds himself as alienated from church and God as his brother.

Well, this has turned into an unusually long post.  I’ll leave it here, and perhaps return to it soon.  I haven’t touched on the symbolism in The Red Lands yet, and I haven’t given any advice on where the line is between too much and just right (in part because I’ve hardly “proven in” enough to be giving advice, and in part because that line is pretty subjective).  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.

Reference:

I’ve heard about this from a number of places, but the source that really taught me the most is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel.  I ordinarily don’t recommend books on writing by people who aren’t currently making a living as fiction writers (Frey is making bank from writing books about writing now, and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t published any novels in over a decade), but this is a good book by a novelist who did quite well for himself for many years, written when that fiction success was still quite fresh.  In some ways, it’s a bit dated, and in others, I just outright disagree (Rewriting is not writing.  Period.  It’s editing, and not all writers are good editors.  Dean Wesley Smith is 100% right on this one).

Meet the Cast: Ramsey Duvall

Sometimes opposites attract.  Maybe that’s why Ramsey and Benedict became such fast friends.  Ramsey is everything Benedict is not: fun-loving, dashing, charming, a little vain, and utterly un-tortured.  A former musketeer, Ramsey served King Louis XIV in life, and has continued his swashbuckling ways since … to the point that someone (perhaps Ramsey himself, perhaps a mortal) wrote a series of dime novels inspired by his life and exploits as “The Immortal Swordsman.”

While Benedict is driven by an oath of vengeance and protects the innocent almost incidentally, Ramsey lives by a sense of chivalry more at home in an Errol Flynn movie than a European battlefield (no matter what year).  He enjoys everything about his immortality, from the consensual blood-taking intimacies that sustain him to the strength that allows him to defend the weak, challenge the cruel, and come away laughing.

Ramsey wears his hair long, dresses finely but flamboyantly, and covers the scent of death that clings to all vampires with Farina’s 1709, Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite cologne.  He’s quick with a laugh, almost annoyingly charming, lethal in a swordfight, and he smells like violets and oranges.

But Ramsey Duvall is not completely devoid of sadness.  Like all his kind, he passed through the ceremony of innocence; no one becomes a vampire without shedding innocent blood, without becoming a murderer.  True, that was nearly three hundred years ago, and he has mostly forgiven himself, but that shadow will never completely pass.  Likewise, he may never completely get used to the modern world, changing so rapidly, leaving the flintlock-and-aristocracy world of his mortal life in the dust, racing toward a mechanized and post-industrial future.  To Benedict, technology simply means more weapons in his thousand-year war; his oath is the one true constant, and everything else is just a means to that end.  But Ramsey actually lives in this world, and seeing it change so quickly can be dizzying.

Still, Ramsey presses on, holding his head high, keeping his sword-cane within reach, and smelling like violets and oranges.  I think that’s why I love writing him so much.  He’s going to be a part of Benedict’s story to the very end.

Blood for Blood is UP!

I am extremely excited right now.  Blood for Blood is now up on the Kindle Store!  (you can find it here).  I’m also working on getting it up on Smashwords and Pubit, and hope to have that done by the end of the week.

If you haven’t gone through the process, learning to format a document for Smashwords is a bit of a learning curve.  It’s not bad, per se, but there’s a lot to do, a lot to read, and, if you’ve been using Word or OpenOffice in the “default” way that so many people do (using “tabs” for paragraph indents, spacing with spaces, etc.), you’re going to have to go through and fix some things.  Fortunately, the Smashwords guidebook is very helpful, and is available for free here.

The good thing about formatting for Smashwords is that what you end up with will work for almost any e-publishing site, with very minor adjustments.  It’s been a blast, and I’ve been learning quite a lot about formatting, what works on e-readers and what doesn’t.

I’m also really excited because of the other works I have that are almost ready.  I have pretty much finished up the second book in the Blood Oath trilogy, Blood Guilt.  I’m also working on a “supplemental story” that takes place during the “gaps” in the trilogy.  It doesn’t really relate that closely to the larger conflict, and is hardly necessary to understand the others, but it’s fun.  It’s got a good story, and I’m able to do a lot of worldbuilding that I haven’t otherwise done because of the intense pace of the trilogy.

I have a novella that’s almost ready to publish, called Toward Darkness.  It’s the first in a new series, The Red Lands (which does not involve vampires or the Blood Oath setting.  Instead, it’s worlds-crossing action-horror with post-apocalyptic and Arthurian elements).  The second novella in that series is probably less than 20 hours away from being ready to release.  I’m not sure what to call it, though.

I was busy during the Blood for Blood hiatus, which you can read about here and here, if you haven’t already.

I plan on finishing up the supplemental story I’m working on (right now it’s called Blood Guilt: Knights and Shadows, to let everyone know where it falls in relation to the trilogy), and I plan to finish the trilogy, writing the last Blood Oath book (which I might call Blood Oath, sort to round out the trilogy.  I’m not sure about the title, and I’ve only written a tiny bit of the book.  I’m a little nervous about it, but I think it will turn out well).  I also plan on getting the novellas ready and releasing them.

My plan is to release no fewer than six novel or novel-length works this year: Blood for Blood, Toward Darkness, Blood Guilt, Blood Guilt: Knights and Shadows, the second novella, whose name is still undetermined, and finally Blood Oath, the final book in Benedict’s Blood Oath trilogy.

What can I say, it’s time to let the birdies out of the nest…

Drum Roll Please (Judge a Book by its Cover)

I’m proud to unveil the cover for my first novel, Blood for Blood.  After much angst and drama, I’ve finally reached the point that I’m ready to release it into the wild (by “the wild,” I mean the Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, and Smashwords, which will get it pretty much everywhere else).

Of course, I can’t release the novel naked; it needs a cover.  Viola!

book cover for Blood for Blood

I designed it myself, in part because I like the control, in part because I’m a computer geek, and in part because I want to bootstrap this writing enterprise, doing as much of the work as I can to begin with, keeping my expenses to a dead minimum, at least until I have come money coming in.

That’s something I love about the indie publishing game: you can have total control and no financial risk.  It’s a Dave Ramsey-listening, overconfident, jack-of-all-trades author’s dream.

A New Era

In my last post, I mentioned that Blood for Blood was the first book of my “New Era.”  I imagine that either sailed right by you or left you asking ‘what new era is this dude talking about?’  Well, here goes:

Prior to 2009, I had pretty much lost my love of writing.  I didn’t have a firm grasp on how to do plots, I spent more time rewriting than writing, and I “polished” things until they were homogenous lumps, because that’s what I thought I was “supposed” to do.

In other words, I had no story, and I had no voice.

It’s no wonder I lost my love of writing.  Fortunately, and I have no idea how it happened other than divine intervention, I stumbled across Dean Wesley Smith’s blog.  Being liberated from what writing meant, I was able to start writing again.  I did, and I found that I really enjoyed it.  I was writing, mostly longhand on paper, with very little editing (pen and paper allows for very little editing: sometimes I think word processing applications are as much hurdle as boon to writers today).  I actually created the character of Benedict during this time (Spring 2009, as I remember).

It started with a quote from Stephen Jay Gould, which I heard in a statistics class.  “Central tendency is an abstraction, variability the reality.”  I understood its meaning in relationship to the stats we were studying, but the lyricism of the quote set off the writer in me.  I imagined a figure in a “long black coat” (to quote Bob Dylan – or, if you prefer, Joan Osborne) staring down through a skylight at a scene below, ready to intervene, saying or thinking of that quote, almost philosophically, thinking how everyone he’s ever met has been, at heart, some kind of freak, “searching and yearning for acceptance, hurting others, from time to time, to ease our own pain,” remembering people (vampires and humans) he’s lost, killed, or pushed away.  Then, he jumped down into the midst of six vampires to rescue one human.

I ended up not using that scene in any of the novels, though it’s featured in a “supplemental material” novella I’m working on.  But it was my first image of Benedict, my first sure sign of who he was – part Bob Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, part Nick Cave’s man with the Red Right Hand, part Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, part Stephen King’s Gunslinger, part Andrew Vachss’s Burke, part Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and part Christopher Lambert’s Russell Nash – weathered, but with the strength of youth, largely alone, deadly, unattractive but somehow magnetic, a man of his word to a dangerous degree, torn between protecting the weak and upholding his oath of vengeance.  If mortals have nightmares about vampires, then vampires have nightmares about Benedict.

I knew that writing Benedict’s story would require me to go places I had been hesitant to go before, to write, as Nietzsche said, in blood, and not worry too much about who might get offended.  I also knew I needed to get more serious about writing regularly.

Eventually, the other important characters joined the story.  Augustine Sanguinis, the vampirelord, and his half-human daughter Anastasia, arrived from a story I’d written many years earlier, called “Dawn.”  The Sanguinises were nice enough to bring a lot of worldbuilding with them (don’t worry; that’s the last ‘nice’ thing they’ve done).

It then became clear that Augustine and Benedict were brothers, and so the theme of a thousand-year war between brothers was brought in (I had tried to write a story about that several years earlier, but didn’t have strong enough characters to make it happen.  Well, now I do).

So not only did I finally have the right leading man, but I had all these elements and supporting characters I’d been wanting to write about in the past, but didn’t know how.  Everything was ready for me to get started.

The only problem was, I still didn’t know how to do plots.  Fortunately, someone on Dean Wesley Smith’s site told me about Algis Budrys, and his wonderful book Writing to the Point (which I talk about  in more detail here).  It was absolutely the perfect remedial text for a wannabe writer who can’t do plots.  I mean, BAM!  I read that short little book, and it was like Popeye eating his spinach; I immediately figured out how to plot the Benedict stories.

Of course, that didn’t mean I’d mastered the art and craft of writing.  Once Blood for Blood was done, I realized I’d inadvertently put a frankly horrible message in there, so I trunked it for several months.  Then I realized how to fix it, simply by adding a few scenes, changing a couple of scenes, and placing it as the first book in a trilogy.  The dark outcome, the nihilistic message, vanished when it became ‘the first third of the story’ instead of ‘the whole story.’

I still had, and have, a lot to learn.  The point is, I’m finally learning, creating, building, and writing … and loving it.

This is a new age, and nothing I wrote before will be brought forward, except as raw material.  The Blood Oath Trilogy (Blood for Blood, the work-in-progress Blood Guilt, and the not yet begun Blood Oath) couldn’t exist if I hadn’t carved Dawn and the unnamed two brothers stories up, and there simply is no comparison between the quality; Blood Oath was worth the sacrifice.

More than that, the new happiness I have in my writing (both the process and the product) is worth any past works, writing theories, or practices I’ve left behind, a thousand times over.

Blood for Blood Finished! Woot!

Those of you who’ve been following my blog know all about the personal drama surrounding Blood for Blood, the first novel of my Blood Oath series, and the first novel of my “new era” (more on that later).

You know that I trunked Blood for Blood due to ethical concerns over its message, and that I subsequently figured out how to make it work with my personal beliefs (by making it the first part of a trilogy, in which its events can be viewed as a part of a larger perspective, reframes its message nicely. It only “doesn’t work” if it’s the final word on the subject).

Well, doing that reframe required some revisions, mostly in the form of new scenes, and I”m proud to announce that it’s finished!  All that’s left is for my first reader to catch any typos or inconsistencies.  I’m currently working on the book trailer, the cover, and the second book in the trilogy (I’ve actually been working on that one on the side, and so you might see a ‘Blood Guilt Finished!  Woot!’ post much sooner than you’d expect).

I’ll put it up on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook outlets (most likely through Smashwords, which should cover iBooks, Kobo, etc.) as soon as it’s proofed and covered.

Needless to say, I’m very excited, and I’ll keep you posted!

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