Tag Archives: death penalty

Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

Downtown Griffin, GA by Amber Rhea

Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.

My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.

“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”

Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.

Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.

“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.

“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”

We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.

(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)

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This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.

Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”

I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.

Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.

(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)

For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.

Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.

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Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectifymy favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).

And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.

“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”

And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”

And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.

Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.

For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.

How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?

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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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You Stole My Story

(Disclaimer: I now illuminate the sarcasm warning, the spoiler warning, and feel the need to assure you that I love Gillian Flynn because clearly, girl’s got some good ideas. Author Bashing is never excusable.)

 

Alright Gillian that’s enough.

Stop reading my notes.

Stop reading my thoughts.

And for goodness’ sake. . . stop stealing my stories!

*breathes menacingly for thirty seconds*

I was fine with your repeated mentions of the Death Penalty. Ditto the sociopath framing someone for murder. That’s what sociopaths do, right? Heck, I just finished watching Hannibal, that great NBC show about Dr. Lecter and his pet FBI Special Agent Will Graham, and, not to give anything way, but. . . that’s what sociopaths do. Bad things they can blame on others. So you’re fine there.

I was also okay with the creepy southern towns and abandoned buildings, the Flannery O’Connor vibe, distant mothers and challenging views of women. All very reasonable things that do not upset me.

But I just got to the part in Dark Places were Diondra rubs her belly and says the baby’s kicking. That she’s pregnant. That her teenage boyfriend impregnated her, moments after he’s accused of molesting 10-year-olds and hours before he’s arrested for grisly grisly murder that ruins his life.

What gives, eh? I just wrote that, like, last week. After working it out in my head for years.

It’s bad enough that your structure is dangerously close to my structure (which now I probably have to change, no thanks to you), with those chapters alternating between the day of the murders and present-day characters working to solve them. Whose idea was that, anyway? I thought I was being pretty clever with that. Printz Award clever? Perhaps, but now we’ll never know, will we?

But BABY?

That was the opening hook, the setup for the rest of the novel, my entire main character. And now you stole it. You stole my story. You stole my freaking teenage pregnancy you story-stealing, incredibly talented author-person you.

(At least I still have graffiti and Led Zeppelin. If you take those, so help me, I’m gonna go John Shooter on you. And don’t. . . don’t touch the Death Penalty. I see you eyeing it. Death Penalty’s mine. You coulda had your chance, but you put Kansas in a moratorium so there. Chance blown.)

But, really? The chapters alternating between past and present, explaining all the circumstantial evidence they used to put him away? Brilliant. If a little hard to get through and somewhat suspense-deflating. Same problem I’ve been having, so it’s good to know maybe it’s not just me.

(You no-good-story-stealing-teenage-pregnancy-ripping-idea-sucking-incredibly-talented-author-person you.)

And I’m only halfway through Dark Places. Who knows what else of mine you’ve got in there? Been kinda fun discovering it all.

(Again Disclaimer: I mean this solely in good fun and don’t plan on going John Shooter on anyone. It’s actually kinda cool she’s got some of the same ideas as me–just sucks cause she got to them first!)

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