When I was ten years old, my aunt gave me a brass box. She was a dealer in antiques and passed the box on to me. I wasn’t sure why she gave me the box. It is lost somewhere in my attic. But, this past week I was thinking about story ideas. Where do ideas come from? How do you start a story? Sometimes, for me, it is a mystery. Specifically, a mystery box as J. J. Abrams has spoken about. What is in the box? It can be a literal box or a figurative box. Whatever is in the box is the great motivator for the story. So, just for fun, I present to you the beginnings of a story. I thought about that brass box of mine somewhere lost in my attic and wondered what was originally is this box. So, here it is. The beginning of a story. Read it and ask yourself, how would you end the story? What do you think is in the box? What is the mystery here? Just for fun, stretch your storytelling ability and drop me a comment and tell me what you think.
The box spoke to me in the middle of the night. It was not the first time.
The box is four inches tall by eight inches wide by six inches deep. It is covered in a beaten brass shell. The box is sealed and cannot be opened. On the top of the box is the impression of an American Indian in full headdress hovering over a boulder in the desert. Sitting atop the boulder is the skull of an animal. The animal is not of this earth.
I was thrashing about in my bed, suspended between the world of nightmare and the world of reality when I heard the box call my name. I arose from my bed and held a candle to the clock on the mantle above the fireplace. Three A. M. The box always spoke at three A. M. I slipped on my robe and made my way quietly down the hallway and passed by the nursery. Richard and Nathaniel were deeply asleep woven into a tapestry of dreams of soldiers and infantry. I eased down the stairs to the foyer and stood at the entry to my study.
Bloody light diffused across the mounted antelope head above the fireplace. When the box speaks, it glows a golden crimson and there is music unlike any music human ear has heard. My heart raced and I felt sweat trickle down my back.
“Michael. Michael. Michael.” The voice was soft, pleading and feminine. It rose gently against the rhythm of the unearthly music. It wove the threads of my name amongst the chords. I moved carefully around my desk and sunk into the leather chair. The box sat in the center of my desk. Pulsing; glowing; singing; calling my name.
“I am here.” I whispered.
The voice ceased its pleading. The pulsing crimson light faded. The room filled again with empty, cold shadows and the box sat there. I swallowed and reached a shaking finger to touch the face of the Indian on the top. The metal was as cold as ice and I withdrew my finger quickly. At times, the box was hot. At times only lukewarm. At times, I had felt nothing at all, not even the slightly rough texture of its surface.
I ran my index finger along the seam around the top of the box. It was growing warmer, returning to room temperature. The seam was barely palpable. I had tried many flat edged devices to open the seam. All had been unsuccessful.
“Why do you call to me?” I leaned forward over the box. “What are you?”
I jerked up in surprise shoving the chair backwards. It clattered against the windowsill of my study. Nathaniel stood in the entryway. His night shirt was pale and wrinkled and his blonde hair coiled around his head in disarray.
“I heard something, Papa.” Nathaniel stumbled sleepily into the room. He was only eight and yet already, he had grown six inches since his last birthday. I was beginning to see his mother’s willowy figure in his body language. It made me sad. Nathaniel wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his head in my chest.
“I heard mother, Papa. I heard mother.”
I gasped and combed his hair with my fingers. “Mother is in heaven, Nathaniel. You know that.”
He pulled his head away from my chest and gazed into my eyes. In the weak light of the moon coming in through the window behind me, his eyes were maroon and filled with moisture. “But, she called to me in my dreams. I heard her, Papa. I heard her.”
James Bell Scott in his excellent book, “Plot & Structure” defines plot very simply: “The what happens is your plot”. What happens? In my editing of “The 12th Demon” I learned some powerful lessons about plot and today I wanted to talk about the three “C”s of plot.
Is you plot coherent? Is it believable? Does it make sense? In one scene in my upcoming book, I have a new character grab two men by the neck and use them like clubs to knock people out of his way. Now, that might work for the Hulk, but it is not a real life possibility. I had to change this part of my plot because it was not believable.
In “The 13th Demon” I originally had an angel appear and save the day. But, my editor suggested this was too much of a deus ex machina. What is this? Here is what our venerable Wikipedia has to say:
”god out of the machine” is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.
Such a device is not coherent, it does not make sense and is too far fetched to be believable. Make sure your plot stays believable in the context of your story. Plot movement should make sense based on what has happened just before. If I wanted to bring in an angel, I needed to hint early on that such an intervention was possible so the audience would then be anticipating such an event.
Does your plot hold together? Or, is it full of “plot holes”? In “The 12th Demon” I somehow had to get my main characters from Dallas, Texas to a foreign country. I couldn’t just drop them out of the air into the fray in, say, Transylvania. There had to be a reasonable string of actions leading to them arriving in the foreign country.
Also, there was an object/person very important to the final events in the book that I planted early on in the story. My editor heaped effusive praise on me for carefully planting this object early on so when it did appear it was not out of the blue but its journey through the story to the final events held together and made sense. That part of my story was cohesive.
For instance, Spock just happens to be on the very ice planet that Cadet Kirk is exiled to by the alternate time line Spock and there just happens to be a Federation Outpost with, wait for it, Lt. Montgomery Scott who just happens to have an old shuttle that just happens to have a transporter that can be configured to beam Kirk and Scott back onto . . . well you get it.
Continuity as it applies to characters. Because, characters can be used to advance the plot. In “The 12th Demon” I introduce an attorney whose function early on is to create a tension between Jonathan Steel and Josh Knight over the guardian issue. But, I also used this person in later plot developments. He became my “whipping boy”. Problem was, once I used him to advance plot I violated his basic character. In each subsequent scene he seemed to be a totally different person from the scene before. His character lacked continuity. I had to go back and recreate his character and make sure his use as a plot device showed continuity with his character.
So, there you have it. I learned these three “C”s in my editorial process. Make sure your plot is believable, that is COHERENT. Make sure your plot holds together without plot holes and is COHESIVE. And, finally, make sure your plot shows continuity particular with your characters.
Next, I’ll finish up with a discussion of those “characters”.
To all prospective writers today I start a new series of blogs dedicated to the process of taking a novel from a final draft to the finished, published project. To this end, I will share with you some of the comments I just received from my editor for my second book, “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon”. Don’t worry! There will be no spoilers. I want to dwell on the process so you can see what I see as I hack and hone the work to its final product.
Here is the opening paragraph of my editor’s letter to me regarding my final manuscript “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon” slated to debut in October, 2012:
What a pleasure to work with you again on this series. You’ve put together an excellent novel here—and I find the move to more of an action / thriller genre a good one. Horror protagonists tend to be pitiable, average Joes put in unfortunate circumstances, but Steel is the Jason Bourne of paranormal Christian fiction, and I love that you play to his (and your) strengths here.
Wow! That really pumped me up. Then came the next 14 pages. Yes, 14 pages of detailed suggestions on improving the novel. How would you react to receiving 14 pages of suggestions? At first, I was very overwhelmed when my editor sent me a similar set of pages for my first book, “The 13th Demon”. It was almost a year ago and I remember sitting at my desk stunned at the amount of work it was going to take to bring my novel to where my editor thought it should be. I almost called my publisher, Realms Books, and told them I would send back the advance check and could we please tear up the contract?
Isn’t it funny how easily we can be discouraged? I’ve found that one of Satan’s most powerful weapons is discouragement. Years ago, I wrote a short sketch. I played Satan and my friend, Mary come out on the stage holding a little candle. She was singing, “This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine . . .” I was dressed all in black and I leaned in and began whispering words of absolute doubt and self loathing in her ears. I kept it up until she stopped singing and I blew out her candle. She relit the candle two more times and each time I chose another area of her life to talk about such as her failures with her marriage, etc. and blew out her candle. At the end of the sketch, I went one last round of discouraging words and she blew out her own candle!
Satan discourages us, but ultimately we are our own worst enemy. We blow out our own candle. I realized Satan was whispering these words in my ears and I chased him away with some choice words, the name of Jesus, and a few scriptures. I sat down and completely rewrote most of my manuscript in six weeks until my editor and I completed the final product, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. After that rewrite, even though I had turned in the final manuscript for “The 12th Demon” I went back and took it through a similar process and rewrote it and sent it in to Realms this past November. Gratefully, they passed it on to my editor, Andy Meisenheimer and now I have twice as many suggestions as on the first book!
But, I am not in despair. You see, Andy told me in the email with the attached notes that he really liked this second book and wanted to really push me even harder than on the first book. Push me harder? Okaaaaay!
Lesson learned. You can always improve. You can always grow and be better. I strive to always remain teachable. Many of my favorite authors started out a book series with a book that was good, but had weaknesses. And, with time, their subsequent books just got better and better and better. This is what I want to do. I am hoping for that day when I have learned enough of the ropes of writing that the pages diminish, but the praise increases from my editor.
“Once I started “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye,” I could hardly put it down! I just had to read one more page and suddenly I found it was three a. m. and I had to start work in four hours. I can hardly wait for the next Jonathan Steel book, “The 12th Demon”.”