Monday, June 24, 2013

Chelsea


Written on the evening of June 22, 2013. I typed until my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking.

I took a wrong turn a few hours ago and found out my friend was dead.

I was out running errands with my mom. She turned the car down a random side street near her home and was having a little trouble finding her way back. I knew the area—I used to bike those streets, and my mentor lived there—so I was directing her … and then we noticed a little makeshift memorial on a corner. A woman was just stepping out of a car to lay a bouquet of flowers against a street sign. There was a white cutout of a bicycle leaning against the pole, with flowers and candles around it.

My mom said, “I think this is the corner where that girl died.”

I said, “I guess so. That would explain the ghost bike and the flowers. What girl?”

Mom: “I don’t know. It made the news. She was riding her bike and a truck hit her.”

We rolled closer to the makeshift memorial. The girl’s name was written on the bike, along with her date of death and the words “Watch For Bicyclists”. Her first name was Chelsea.

Me: “I hope it’s not that Chelsea. I know it’s horrible, but I hope it’s not the Chelsea I know. Did the news say whether she had long red hair?”

Mom: “No. They just said she was 20, and not in school.”

Me: “Well, that’s good. Chelsea’s older than that, and she went to college.”


I went home, reasonably sure I hadn’t just passed a memorial to a friend. But now, as I Google the name on the bike and the limited number of accidents involving bikes and trucks in that town, it looks like my mom was wrong about her age and I was wrong about her still being alive. It was that Chelsea. My Chelsea, although she was never anybody’s but her own.

I’ve lived pretty much my entire life under the threat of imminent death. (Short version for those late to the party: I have a medical condition that is either going to kill me so dead one day that I won’t live long enough to hit the floor breathing, or going to let me live a hundred years.) I know that I walk around every day with the Grim Reaper for a shadow. But I forget sometimes—often, really—that everyone else does too. All you normallish people, you die too.

I didn’t know Chelsea well. We were in a study group together; I attended regularly, and she came when her schedule allowed. It’s easy to remember when Chelsea was there and when she wasn’t; she had long curly red hair that trailed behind her wherever she went, like the tail of a comet. I’d see her walking through the neighborhood sometimes, or riding her bike to class, with that hair whipping in the breeze behind her. I still can’t imagine that the truck driver didn’t see her. It seemed to me that everyone, everywhere she went, always saw her. Sometimes they saw nothing else.

Chelsea was studious and serious, with a streak of wicked wit that showed itself in bright flashes. She was slow to talk about her personal life, from what I remember, but when she did speak, she always had something worthwhile to say. She was several years younger than I, and I kept forgetting it because she was so solemn, and so wise. She was a fantastically talented musician; she played jazz clarinet in local combos under the terribly appropriate name Chelsea Joy. Even in college, she was a regular performer in demand at the town’s one and only good jazz club, which was why she couldn’t always make the meetings. I imagine she said things through that clarinet that she didn’t feel like saying in words. I regret that I don’t understand music well enough to have heard them.

The group broke up a few years ago, but I met her by chance in the library on March 17, 2012. I was up to my eyeballs in a manuscript, but I caught a flash of copper in my peripheral vision and looked up. I ran halfway across the reading room to catch her, because Chelsea was worth running after, and we chatted. She talked about graduating from college, about future plans. I don’t remember a lot of it. She had to leave after only a few minutes; her mother was waiting. I only know the date now because I turned around after she said goodbye, saw something striking on the cover of a magazine, and snapped a picture of it with my cellphone. The picture’s still in the phone’s memory, and so I have a picture of a magazine cover instead of a picture of Chelsea.

I don’t yet know how I’m supposed to feel about this. Obviously I wasn’t in Chelsea’s immediate social circle; I hadn’t even seen her in over a year, and didn’t find out about her death until two days after it happened. But I feel like the world is missing a piece I didn’t even know was there. A few notes have fallen out of the symphony when nobody was looking, and now it just sounds … wrong.

I avoid discussing religion in this blog; my beliefs are my own, I want readers of all faiths (including None of the Above) to feel welcome here, and I’m not interested in having theological debates with the internet. Chelsea believed in an afterlife, though—not loudly or fervently, but with a bone-deep conviction, quiet and solid as granite. I’m fairly sure she’s there now, in the finest heaven in creation, probably in an endless, fantastical jam session with a thousand brilliant musicians and every eye in the place secretly on her. She was like that when she played on earth; the ultimate transformation would change that but little. But she isn’t playing here, where I can hear her. I won’t hear her again for a good long while … unless, of course, I do.

I am writing a book about death. The Resurrectionist’s Song has a lot of death in it, though it doesn’t always take. I have thought about death from every possible angle, from the point of view of everyone involved. But this is different. This is Chelsea.

That’s how it always is. It’s always different.

Selfishly, stupidly, I want to hear a jazz clarinet.


Monday, June 10, 2013

A little something different ...



Things went a tad off the rails last week. I got most of my planned paintings done, but a couple of them went wrong, and one was for that week’s chapter … yeah, it’s getting fixed. Sorry. But hey, look! It’s the Black Mask!

In the meantime, I was wondering what to blog about this week, and it occurred to me that I haven’t actually talked much about what’s in Teh Novel, which is currently working-titled The Resurrectionist’s Song. That’s deliberate, of course; I don’t want to give everything away, especially when things might get drastically changed once I start working with agents and editors and people. (Please note: I don’t actually have an agent or an editor at the moment. But if I manage to go the traditional publishing route on this book, I will, and I do have to think about them now.) 

But I am spending an awful lot of time in that world right now, and it seems only fair to give you guys a little taste of what’s making Masks turn up late from time to time. So while I can’t go into the whole plot of the book, I can give you a little taste of a central piece of the story, one that’s unlikely to change much in the rewrites—its protagonist and narrator, named …

Well, there’s my first big problem. He hasn’t got a name.

He cut his hair off with scissors. Really.
For my own convenience, I’ve been calling him by his nickname, Butterfly. And if that sounds to you like the worst name ever for a seventeen-year-old boy, you’re not alone. Still, it’s probably the most accurate name he could have. You see, the reason Butterfly doesn’t have a proper name of his own is that the people who made him (more on them in a moment) don’t consider him worthy of a name. He’s not a person, as far as they’re concerned. He’s a human experiment who has lived his entire life in a laboratory, surrounded by people who regard him as about half a step above a white rat.

There’s one person who doesn’t think of Butterfly as an animal—his handler, a rather strange man named Holland. Holland is a semi-evil genius who was originally given charge of Butterfly because Butterfly wasn’t expected to live long, or produce very important results. Basically, somebody handed a sickly infant to him to keep him busy. But something unexpected happened. Holland bonded with the kid and saw him as a little brother, or possibly a son. He took such good care of his young charge, including giving him the social interaction that none of the other experiments got, that Butterfly survived and grew up to produce some very interesting results indeed. Results that prompted Holland to give Butterfly his nickname.

Going into the precise nature of Butterfly’s experiment would spoil one of the main plot twists, but the way it all shook out is that Butterfly has the power to warp probability. Like the eponymous butterfly in chaos theory, he excels at making small moves that will produce big effects. A popular illustration of chaos theory describes a butterfly flapping its wings, causing ripples of air that eventually build into a storm system halfway across the world. A butterfly lands on a flower in Tennessee, and a typhoon flattens Singapore. Our friend Butterfly can, if asked to flatten Singapore, find exactly the right butterfly and poke it at exactly the right moment to make it flap its wings in exactly the right way. He doesn’t understand how poking a bug will cause a storm—just that it will. That’s a useful talent if you want to, say, raise the price of corn futures. Or start a war.

Now, Butterfly is mostly ignorant of all this. He knows that his talent works, and he knows that periodically he’s given assignments to complete or gets stuck with needles by people trying to find out what makes him tick, but the whys and wherefores don’t interest him very much—that is, until he gets an assignment that’s a little out of the ordinary. We don’t find out exactly what happens until fairly late in the story, but something Butterfly does has an unintended effect, and Butterfly—a sweet-natured, wisecracking, rather na├»ve teenage boy whose greatest pleasure in life is reading a new book in the library of the tower where he lives—discovers that his actions have put a little girl in terrible danger. He’s never met her, doesn’t even know her name, but he knows that she will die and it will be his fault unless he does something to fix his mistake. So he does what any sensible boy who’s lived his entire life in a laboratory would do.

He runs away.

Butterfly runs away, out into a dirty, complicated, wildly dystopian outer world he knows almost nothing about. He meets lots of interesting new people, many of whom try to kill him. And he follows his talent into the middle of nowhere, where he knows he’ll find this mysterious girl. The quiet, sickly boy with the magical talent has to learn how to drive a truck, cross a desert, win a knife fight. He has to learn how to deal with people, too which is considerably harder than any of the other things. He has to find the girl, and save her. And he has to do it all in just fifteen days, because one way or another that’s all the time he’s got.

You see, Butterfly’s a very complicated sort of lab rat. Every day of his life, he’s had to swallow pills and take injections and in general get medicated to the gills just to stay alive. Nobody’s supposed to have the kind of talent he does, and it’s all his creators can do to keep his body from rejecting it like a transplanted organ. When he runs away, the clock starts ticking. He’s running out of time. Holland goes after him, determined to save the only person in the world whom he loves, and who loves him, but Butterfly has his own plans and his own timetable. Holland did too good a job of raising this kid—so now Butterfly’s got a moral center that not even his “father” can shake. He knows that Holland will never let him do what he has in mind, he knows he’s going to get sicker and sicker and eventually drop dead, and he’s okay with that, because some things are more important than staying alive. He’s carrying a secret that the little girl can’t live without, and he chooses her over himself. Despite the best efforts of everyone around him, Butterfly is a hero.

Of course, then he actually meets the girl. And as anyone who’s read my stories can predict, she’s not quite what he expected. There’s an old military saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy; Butterfly’s plan won’t survive contact with the person it’s designed to save. Not least because of what happens on the day that they finally meet …

Why is this story called The Resurrectionist’s Song, you may ask? Well, aside from the fact that I had a devil of a time coming up with any title at all, I eventually settled on this one because there are two characters in the story who resurrect the dead, or do something like it. Butterfly is one of them, with his near-miraculous talent for changing the future (though he can’t change his own. He learns early on how his talent can bring death; his arc in the novel involves learning how to give back life, whether it’s to the girl or anyone else. As for the other … well, I’ll get to that later.

Oh, and then there’s the Song part. Butterfly has had very little exposure to music, and none at all to human singing, before he runs away. Combine that newborn fascination with his most prized possession—a mysterious book of poems that he plans to give to the girl—and you begin to see why songs will matter …

Monday, June 3, 2013

My week off in two pictures



There are times when your DIY art thing really doesn’t make sense to anybody but you. Last week was one of those times.

I took the week off from writing/posting chapters to work on art for Masks volume 2. And it’s getting done (slowly and behind schedule, like everything else. One of the results is this preliminary sketch of Mike, sitting on a familiar riverbank (note the bridge in the background):

Why, of all the images I could have chosen for that chapter, did I pick Mike? Well, for one thing, these early chapters involve a lot of people walking around in the dark and talking. That’s hard to draw, if you’re me. (Actually everything is hard to draw, if you’re me, but more about that later.) And Mike … well, he’ll be important later. That’s all I’m saying for now. Plus I didn’t have any art of him except for the dopey group shot in Volume 1, where he came out looking weirdly like Nightcrawler from X-Men: Evolution. I don’t know what was going on there.

The other thing I did this week was this:


Yeah, that’s 41 cards. It’s not a Masks saga—it’s Teh Novel, which had previously taken up about 20 cards. On the advice of a much better writer than I, I cut most of its chapters in half so readers wouldn’t blanch at the prospect of 4000 words before t heir next chapter break. (I’m used to reading books with 20-page chapters, or no chapters at all. Shut up.) The same stuff basically happens, though I’ve added a few events. But making an entirely new deck of scene cards, figuring out where the new chapter breaks would fall and doing the final placement of the four poems that appear over the course of the book (those are the cards with the blue stripes on the top), turned out to be a great exercise.

For one thing, I had to figure out how to work in the definition of the word resurrectionist if the book is to keep its current working title, The Resurrectionist’s Song. For another, I had to invent an arc for a minor character who kind of didn’t do anything in the previous draft except foam at the mouth on cue, stab the protagonist in the stomach, and then mysteriously stop foaming and stabbing in time for the finale. But more importantly …

As I was working on these cards, I found myself slowing down to reread sections of the previous draft. That’s always a good sign—like most writers (I suspect), I write first and foremost for my own entertainment, and getting distracted by my own story usually means it’s finally starting to work. And around about the time I got to the three-quarter mark in the deck (card 27, right before the third blue poem card—and yes, that brown/orange stripe means it’s an emotional crisis and a physical fight scene), I noticed that I could hear my heart thumping in my ears. It was louder than it had been on the elliptical machine in the gym the previous night, right before I realized I couldn’t breathe and had to drop off. I’m pretty sure I don’t have an undiagnosed heart condition (I am very careful about that kind of thing—long story), which basically meant my book was getting me more worked up than an actual workout.

Good signs. But nothing terribly photogenic (or blogogenic, I suppose). So that’s what I’ve been up to. More stuff soon …