It’s been a few years since I’ve attempted National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those who don’t know, it’s an annual challenge to write 50,000 words in November. Some common criticisms are that the challenge seems like a way of putting quantity over quality and that any story written in a month won’t be ready for publishing. Both are fair points. This year I met the 50,000 word requirement but the story isn’t complete. A few years ago I made it to 50,000 words and that story is complete, but it needs editing and has been untouched ever since. Even though neither of my attempts resulted in a useful product, they were still worthwhile.
The benefit this year didn’t come at the end of the month. It came during the month, on days when I don’t usually write. Too often I put projects aside with the excuse that it’s too late and I’m too tired to focus on anything. This year proved that excuse to be inadequate. Even on late nights, I was still able to add to my word count. I admit the quality was poor. There were a few nights when I was writing with my eyes closed, and one night when I snapped them open and realized I’d accidentally been writing about my day, but the important thing is that I was active. I realize now that there is no reason to write less than 1000 words a night and if I can hold on to the energy that I got from NaNoWriMo this year I should have another book completed in no time.
That’s the let down of research. The concepts are amazing to think about but most of the work comes down to turning on a machine and waiting for a printer to spit out a graph. That was always an issue for me when taking chemistry courses. In a drug design class I found studying exactly how and why compounds affect people interesting, but the processes of producing them tedious (and mistakes too easy to make).I turned to creative writing as a way of keeping things interesting by only focusing on the fun stuff.
This approach might sound appropriate for writing science fiction novels. For a while I wanted Mystic Rampage to be a sci-fi. In an earlier draft I did a lot of research and tried to explain the fantastic parts to make them more believable. However, putting too much explanation in the middle of a battle distracted from the action, and by the end things became too ridiculous for the word ‘science’ to be related to the story anyway. Flarence has a coil gun powerful enough to be used in self-defense, but it’s small enough to fit in his pocket. Soleil fights by throwing toxins, but he keeps them in palm-sized vials. In real life a coil gun would have to be massive to generate an electromagnetic field strong enough to be used the way it is in the book, and the quantity of compounds Soleil uses would not be enough to impact a roomful of people. I’m aware that nothing in this story is practical, but making it realistic wasn’t my goal. I wanted to take real concepts and exaggerate them to make the fight scenes fun. I hope it’s fun enough for any readers to forgive the creative privileges I’ve taken. I hope that in the end people will mostly remember the conflicts.
I I feel monster and serial killer stories work best when the reader has a front row seat to the action. This is especially popular in extreme horror where the author describes every blood spatter and scream. While this is an effective method and respect authors who use it, I found it difficult to emulate. I have a character named John Klarbel, also known as the Tool Shed Killer because he kills people with power tools. I tried to dive into detail during one of his murder scenes but I was not comfortable writing that level of gore. There are authors who can make it work, but when I tried it just felt forced. So I took it out. There are still some deaths in my book, but they either happen quickly or the brutal parts are skipped.
While I removed the over-the-top bloody scenes, I didn’t want to give up on the horror genre altogether. To make up for the lost material from the murders, I emphasized other things that would make the chapters memorable. I gave the Genies special weapons and described the mechanics of how they were used. I also gave them special outfits to make them stand out. The more I worked on it, the more I realized something I hadn’t considered before: how similar horror movie monsters are to superheroes. They have signature looks, sometimes masks, along with a weapon of choice, a set of powers and weaknesses, and some have a tragic backstory. There have even been crossovers having the famous ones fighting each other. (I hope there are more of those someday. I’d pay to see Wishmaster vs. Pinhead).
After editing it seemed the main difference between a horror story and superhero story was the amount of gore the author was willing to provide, so it was not a difficult transition to make. Reading through it now I feel like it works better as a fantasy/action instead of a gore novel. There is still a serial killer and a shootout, so the publisher labeled it a fantasy/thriller on the cover, but from my perspective Soleil, Flarence, and Darren are all heroes in their own way and I’ll always see them as such.
I decided to base Mystic Rampage in Illinois, but not strictly Chicago. The hotel where Flarence and Clare stay is based on The Drake, but the path that leads to Soleil’s Café is based on a trail in Dekalb. In book 2 the Genies raid an adhesive factory which is based on a place in Montgomery where I worked briefly. This method of combining multiple settings might seem inconsistent to some readers. One chapter paints a picture of a densely populated city with cars lining the streets, and in the next people are firing shotguns in their backyard and nobody is around to hear them go off. Even though this does all take place in one city, the kinds of places the characters live are intended to emphasize their personality. Soleil is the quiet type so his house is secluded, while Darren is more sociable so he lives close to other people.
It might still seem strange to read about people with such different lifestyles living so close to each other, but it isn’t so far from reality. Illinois is a big state and the scenery changes quickly. Keep driving and pretty soon you go from the part of the city filled with hipsters and sports fanatics to rail yards and closed down factories. Before you know it, there’s no infrastructure at all and you’re surrounded by fields of corn and soybean fields that seem to never end. I feel that using different settings to bring out aspects of my characters helped incorporate the different aspects my home state as well. A pair of towns separated by only a sixty minute drive can seem worlds apart. It’s my hope that my characters seem worlds apart based on the kind of house and neighborhood they live in.