Second Draft Share: The Hell I Burn Through (Chapter One: Part One)

Second Draft Share: The Hell I Burn Through (Chapter One: Part One)

Continuing with the Southern Gothic theme of the last post, here is the current opening of the novelette I mentioned, The Hell I Burn Through.

Chapter One: Part One

Incense mingled with the smell of soil, salt, roses, and graveyard dust, filling Sula’s nostrils, as She sat in the darkness of the parlor. She exhaled, holding her hands out over the water bowl in front of her with her eyes closed. She inhaled again, and got a strong whiff of the graveyard, mossy, yet almost like rotten thyme and cooked spinach. Maybe it was strange she’d come to like it, but growing up around goofer dust,taken from old cemeteries, had that effect on those who’d grown up in that world. Miss Faye hated that word, goofer. Apparently it sounded far too low country for her tastes. No matter what you called it, Sula found its comfort. Somehow it still didn’t feel like she could breathe the air, despite this being her element, her birthright. The tension in the house was already thick, and it felt all the thicker when Miss Faye gave her work. But that was simply what life in the house entailed, and always had.

In her mind, Sula saw the room as though her eyes were wide open. Sula knew which way the flame of each of the twenty seven white and black candles around the room flickered, and she knew what direction Miss Faye, in her ocean blue headscarf and yellow flowers chose to pace. She could see herself too, sitting at the little table at the center of the room with the bowl in front of her, the woven dime bag satchel of whatever bodily matter brought to use to the right of the bowl, and the burning incense in front of the bowl. The bowl held filtered rain water and her reflection, which was almost perfectly still due to the bowls construction. Supposedly, according to Miss Faye, it’d been a gift for Sula though Sula was only allowed to use it when Miss Faye asked. Some people called helping themselves a gift, Sula knew, and Miss Faye had always been one of those. Well, at least, as long as Sula had been alive. Sula peered directly at herself, and realized she still had some sleep dust in the corner of her eye and that if the shoulder of her blouse fell you could see where Miss Faye had taken a switch to her shoulder yesterday. The bruise was a deep purple against her brown skin.

If Sula couldn’t do what Miss Faye wanted today? Well, then she’d be in for a world of hurtin. She had to focus. She had to breathe. There was nowhere else. No one else. There was life and there was death. There were no borders except the ones she’d been taught, and she’d been taught to break them down to find the universal connections between past and present; here and there. Somewhere a distant ancestor’s breath matched her own. Somewhere a flower blossomed. Somewhere became everywhere, and Sula breathed. From the recesses of her mind her grandfather whispered “Let yourself fall,” and she, ever the obedient girl, slipped down into everything. Before her eyes, in the dark, glitter began to flicker and there came her target, Mr. Johnson. He was a kind man to children, and often gave Sula fresh fudge from his cart for free every Christmas, and whenever he’d been by to see Miss Faye. His bald held gleamed, his once muscular body stretched from a yawn so big his fifty year old round belly jiggled. Once upon a time Miss Faye had been crazy about him, but she’d been crazier about the social club Mrs. Johnson headed.

Sula was gonna miss that chocolate and gooey fudge.

**Chapter One Part One of Draft 2**
The Hell I Burn Through is a southern gothic of intriguing whimsy and fascination with the world of southern high society, african american conjure, mojo, sensuous affairs, innocent loves, and good down home  cooking. 

The Hell I burn Promo
The promotional cover! Coming this Fall to a Kindle near you.

Reblog: Self-Published Fantasy Blog-OFf

So, this is a slightly belated introduction/ post on the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2017, Mark Lawrence’s third annual self-publishing competition extravaganza. 300 fantasy novels are sent to 10 different bloggers who will, over the course of 2017, choose 1 winner. The one book to rule us all. Or something. As Mark Lawrence himself says: “There’s no […]

via Indie Spotlight 1: Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off — Antonio Urias

This sounds really fascinating to me. Who knows we may discover some new and exciting authors! I’m rather excited to check this out

Flash Fiction: Looking for Kansas

The depths of the cave seemed endless, as she trudged through the knee deep slime that coated the floor. She tried not to look directly down too often. Instead she focused on the bright light illuminating the footprints in front of her from her cell phone. Truthfully she hadn’t known that cave existed before. Of course Kansas would find some rinky-dink little hole. Why did she encourage her to play adventurer? Ah because she believed in dreams. Stupid.

The sound or rain became a distant memory, and soon only the sticky echo of her steps filled the air. With each step the mud got deeper, reaching her mid calves and she wondered how the ten year old would have managed. Hell, how was she managing when her legs were beginning to feel so strained? Worse, the sloping ground made every step harder than the last. She chuckled as she imagined herself on a plane nose diving towards the ocean floor. She breathed again and coughed. She stopped, swallowing a gulp of damp wet air that choked her throat. She never should have let Kansas play outside. She never should have encouraged her. That sort of thing got Amelia Earnheart killed probably. Why did she think it was a good idea?

Regaining her bearings with a grimace, she got back to moving. Nervous sweat trickled down her neck until her curls clung to her flesh. Down and Down to the hungry bowels of the Earth, but that wasn’t a cheerful thought. She’d find the girl and chastise her for exploring too far from the cottage. Then they’d have dinner. The haddock should’ve been defrosted by then, but that girl wasn’t getting Mac n’ Cheese at this rate. Mac n’ Cheese was for good girls. Her palms stung with sweat.

“Kansas?” she called.

Further and down, with bats fluttering above, leading her to descend, into the hungry bowels of the Earth. She hadn’t seen her niece since lunch, but she saw those prints and she was a good auntie. She had to be even if fear sank into her flesh, even if her shoulders twitched every time she heard a bat, and even if it felt like she’d been walking way too far for that cave. She was a good auntie.

But then the prints stopped dead in the middle of the cave. The mud sat perfectly undisturbed.

“What the hell?” She nervously forced a foot forward through the mud, praying she wouldn’t hit anything hard or human shaped. She shone her light around only to see more tunnel.

But she hit nothing, and confusion began to ravage her thoughts. Should she had gone back and called the police? What would she say? A gentle huff of air rolled over her shoulder, and she almost jumped out of her boots. She started to call out, her finger hitting the 911.

All she heard was silence.

All she saw was amber eyes and a red raincoat on the cave’s ceiling.

Building Better Dystopias

Building Better Dystopias

Dystopian fiction is the artistic expression of our fascination with ruin, of our societal/political/economic fears, and in a way an exciting coping mechanism that allows us to peer back at our world and question it. From Animal Farm to Hunger Games, dystopian fiction is almost inescapable. These days it may be the realm of YA fiction, but dystopian worlds have always been in our minds. To some it comes on judgement day, and to others it looms nearer the more we deny climate change. One thing all dystopias have in common is this…the world is fucked. For characters and stories to make sense and thrive writers have to know how to build that world. That is hard.

For the last few months I’ve been going through my old files, and found an a story I wrote a few years ago set in a world where the U.S government had broken down, the U.S had been attacked, and in the chaos civil wars and gang fights became normalized. The story is honestly loosely based on a “what-if” involving a lot of personal struggles and fears. Maya the main character and her husband Tucker are an interracial couple who moved from the east coast further inward to avoid conflict. They’re free of literally all their burdens after being separated from family, and as Maya jokes “hey no student loans”. But the question becomes what do they do now. As time goes on Maya wants a baby, and unfortunately they realize that where once common medical practice may have helped they are at the will of nature even more than man. The mundane truly becomes the desired, as they struggle to stay alive in a world where it wouldn’t be abnormal for someone to call Tucker a race traitor or for someone to barter for band-aids. As I was rereading my work I noticed a few problems but two hit me in the face with a baseball bat.

  1. The vagueness of the world hurt the themes.
  2. The mundane aspects of the world were what set it apart.

These realizations prompted me to revise the story and include it in my short story anthology Reality Echoes, which I will be self-publishing by the end of the year. With that said I am basically rewriting 90% of the story because it was weak, slow, and at points became dull. Some writers have a nasty habit of becoming so invested in the inner lives of their characters, and then flopping with anything that makes those lives interesting in the context of the world. As a teenager I wrote so many stories without story because of that fact. How many did I write? Well there’s a large cardboard box in the middle of my room at my mother’s house filled to the top with only my notebooks from ages 12 to 18. None of those stories ever got done. Why? Because they sucked. Well, they didn’t suck(I think. I hope.), but they weren’t exactly fleshed out stories. Even the best writer has to be able to give a sense of story even if that story is utter nonsense, and if you’re writing genre then you better make it clear where that story sits in the world you make.Over the years I’ve begun a studious practice of expanding my work, focusing on plot and world building.

But somehow I dropped the ball with this dystopia.

It wasn’t the vagueness of how it came to be that hurt the story though it didn’t help. The reader would be left wondering, as the workshop I wrote it for was, what makes life so difficult…and what makes everyone play into the system, try to maintain the old way of life, not be able to maintain the old way of life, etc. in order to contextualize what Maya and Tucker were going through. And that workshop group didn’t want paragraphs. They knew they didn’t need them, but they needed more world building for me to be able to successfully tell a character story.

Let’s talk about how to build some dystopian visions…

When building a dystopia you have to be able to explain to yourself how that world came to be, and why people allowed it. If conditions become so intolerable that people feel they have nothing to lose then they will revolt. We see this in every nation and every culture. So if you’re writing a world similar to the Hunger Games you have to make it very clear. Why do the citizens do nothing? Why do they let their children be taken? Because until the first movie they feared those who had left their districts in shambles from a past war. When you, in your story, detail that you don’t have to give a detailed explanation, but you have to make that clear. They feared the awesome firepower of the wealthy and their forces. When *SPOILER* a particular character dies after trying to just stay alive, after the world sees a child die in the hands of another child when they were once strangers…the people begin to see their conditions as intolerable. There’s nothing to lose because what little they have can be taken in a heartbeat. The personal life of Katniss and Rue’s untimely death are personal character arches the propel the world forward. While Rue’s death certainly had troubling racial implications her death served as a catalyst (it also gave a rare example of a black character being pure and innocent without being infantile). The world was given full and undiluted context of the level of sadness and violence that existed within it in one powerful moment.

In Brave New World, the personal beliefs of that world are the reason for not revolting. People are built, and they are told they are valued without actually being truly valued as individuals. Everyone is given the same lie that life needs order only provided by a tyrannical system. In real world North Korea harsh generational punishments and constant propaganda about North Korea, about the U.S wanting to destroy the people, and misinformation keep the population in check. The revolting elements are seen as fruitless, but more so the alternative to dictatorship is an unknown with an enemy waiting for weakness outside the nation. Is that true? Not exactly, but it feels real. Dystopia isn’t the natural result of a society falling apart. Anarchy isn’t natural to humans. We build communities, families, hierarchies, and societies because that’s the best way for us to survive and find contentment. We come together to fight against that which threatens survival and that contentment both in our daily lives and as large groups.

So when you say your world is dystopian you need to understand and convey to your reader why it stays that way.

For worlds like in my story where society crumbles things can be more vague far more easily, but that doesn’t take the burden off. Truthfully, it is worse because you have to really dig into the darker impulses of humanity as a response to survival. That’s not saying every world should be gritty and dark. Ugh anything but. There can be marvelous diversity in environment. Yet you have to convey what people have done and will do to survive. What in this world makes your characters able to survive, or even thrive in a disorder wasteland?

In my world the country is messed up. In some places the government is still in some control, in other places militias have taken over, racial and ethnic hate groups aren’t in hiding, supplies aren’t able to cross country. This world is a result of spiraling events from a series of terrorist attacks, a surge in hate groups, a government whose heads of state and seat of government is left tattered, and coasts under threat from missile strikes. That is what takes a  suburban black woman and her white husband to the heart of America to live on a farm, to sleep with guns under their heads, and an RV constantly at the ready if they need to leave. The sudden entourage of events gave them opportunities, and they both saw that they needed to least the east coast even though in some ways they were safer from militias. People were in a panic and did obvious things in their panic, while (and here comes the character development) Maya and Tucker did not obvious things. They stole an RV, they searched garages where they knew people had mowers and gasoline. They raided plant nurseries, libraries, and even school cafeterias before risking their lives in a mass loot of the nearest Wal-Mart. Why were they able to do this? The world descended so quickly and people didn’t know what to do…so they did what they’d seen on television and movies.

Because of how I’m clarifying the world through this revision I am better able to convey my characters’ skills, interests, and needs. The actions that characters take demand to be reflected in how they view the wastelands around them. What can they expect? What would be the worst possible scenario for your characters in this horrible environment? Is this their normal? Is it so close to before everything fell apart that saying “Well this is normal now” makes them want to cry? If yes, do you demonstrate why to your readers? If not then you may want to consider that in your revisions.

Now, some stories rely on ambiguity for how the world came to be, and that can be some powerful story telling. For stories like that…you still need to answer those questions. How did this world come to be? Why/how do people cope with it? Etc. Etc. Answering those questions will better enable you to convey setting, which is what these stories tend to do in place of explanation. Desolate landscapes covered in ice like Snowpiercer give us story and context to the everything that happens. We don’t see the U.N fighting over climate change resolutions. We don’t see the train being drafted and made, or the people who called the idea insane. Not because those things are uninteresting, but because for the story they aren’t necessary and the environment of frozen buildings and toppled lights only held up by packed snow tells you so much more. Thematically, the contrast between the cold outside world and the various interiors of the train cars evoke various levels of disconnect. It’s not an accident the back car residents seem to wear both thick and thin clothing. The heat of abusive industrialism and being packed like sardines is paired with the cold of the outside. Visually you question if there is really any difference between the back cars and the frozen Earth. Its subtle but there.

It may sound like a lot of work when you just want to tell a story, but even if you don’t share everything with your readers you have to answer world building questions. I didn’t do enough that, so now its rewriting a story I rather like. The exciting thing is I am discovering new ways to tell the story and make it so much more than it once was. So maybe take the time to outline major events in that world and the impacts on different groups of people. Maybe write out a small world history starting as the dystopia begins to rise to its inevitable existence. If you take the time to put together your dystopian vision beyond the surface and explore the world deeply you can push your story farther into greatness.

Good luck.


P.S got opinions, feedback, or want to talk shop? Leave a comment. I only bite if you ask me to 😉