What a blur, these last two weeks. I finished Bitterwood, pushing it up to 116k words. I feel confident in saying that Bitterwood is the most fleshed out work of fiction I've ever created. Nobody Gets the Girl was written with a rather minimalist style. Comic book writing is actually rather terse; having to keep you dialogue into word balloons forces comic writers to be lean and mean. Of course, they have the advantage of art surrounding the word balloons. They don't have to describe a characters, a room, or an action sequence. It's all drawn out for them. With Nobody, I used my prose as a pencil, sketching out a lot of quick outlines and backgrounds, not adding a lot of color, presenting a world composed mostly of shades of grays. Dialogue carries much of the action and reveals most of the characters' thoughts.
Bitterwood, on the otherhand, is a painted novel. It involves races of dragons, in emerald, ruby, and azure hues. The characters in Nobody seldom think about eating; in Bitterwood, primary characters sometimes pause to savor licking the drying blood from beneath their claws. In a world dominated by inhuman creatures, I tried to weave a tapestry of tastes, odors, and textures to bring to life the sensual environment of the dragons.
Perhaps it would be easier to illustrate with examples. The following is the first scene from the first chapter of Bitterwood: (Note: This hasn't been professionally edited yet... any typos or infelicities are entirely my fault.)
The sad little fire gave out more smoke than warmth. The hunter crouched before it, turning a chunk of ash-flecked meat on the flat stone he’d placed amidst the coals. The movement of the stone stirred more smoke. The hunter coughed, and wiped soot from his eyes. He stretched his bony, knotted fingers above the embers, fighting off the chill. He was a thin man, hair shoulder-length and gray, the deep lines of his leathery face forming a permanent frown. He pulled his heavy cloak more tightly around him.
In the tree above him hung the body of a dragon, blood dripping from its mouth.
The creature was a sky-dragon--the smallest of the winged dragon species. Strip away the ten-foot wings and the long tail and a sky-dragon was no bigger than a man, and half again as light. They were known as sky-dragons both for their prowess in flight and their coloring, the pale, perfect blue of a cloudless day. The hunter had killed many sky-dragons over the years. They weren’t particularly dangerous. Despite talons ending in two-inch claws and crocodilian jaws full of saw-like teeth, sky-dragons prided themselves on being civilized. The beasts fancied themselves as artists, poets, and scholars; they considered it beneath their dignity to engage in such menial work as hunting.
The hunter had brought the sky-dragon down with a single arrow, expertly placed on the underside of the jaw, the iron tip coming to rest dead center in the dragon's brain. The beast had fallen from the air like a suddenly dead thing, catching in the crook of a tree. The hunter had climbed the tree and retrieved the leather satchel the dragon had slung over its back. He'd tugged at the beast's body, but found the corpse jammed too tight to budge. Lowering himself even with the beast's head, he'd stared into its glassy, cat-like eyes. Sky-dragon heads always reminded him of goat heads, albeit goats covered in smooth, opalescent scales. With a grunt, he'd cut out the beast’s tongue.
Moments later, he'd built a fire, and now the tongue sizzled on the flat rock at the center, giving the smoke an oily, fishy tinge. To pass the time as the tongue cooked, the hunter searched the contents of the dragon’s satchel. Food, of course. A bottle of wine wrapped in burlap, a loaf of rock hard bread powdered with flour, two apples, some eel jerky. He also discovered a fist-sized crock capped with oily parchment bound on with a string. He punched through the parchment and recoiled at the stench. The crock was filled with strong-smelling horch, a sort of paste that dragons loved that consisted of sardines, olives, and chilies, all ground together then buried in a ceramic jar and fermented. The hunter tossed the jar as far into the woods as his arm could heave it.
Turning his attention once more to the satchel, the hunter found a map, a rolled up blanket of padded green silk, and a small jar of ink. He sniffed the cap, and judged the ink to be made from vinegar and walnut husks. Several quills crafted from the dragon's own feather-scales were in the bag. No wonder the beasts fancied themselves scholars--they were covered with the tools of writing.
The hunter paused to examine a leather-bound book, the linen paper a pristine white, the opening pages covered with sketches and notes about flowers. The drawings were meticulous. Rendered in dark walnut ink, the flowers had a life and beauty. The blossoms swelled on the page seductively enough to tempt bees.
The hunter ripped out the pages and fed them to the crackling fire. The paper writhed as if alive, curling, crumbling into large black leaves that wafted upward with the smoke, the inky designs still faintly visible until they vanished in the dark sky.
The hunter used his knife to retrieve the roasted tongue and sat back against the tree, oblivious to the blood soaking the trunk. As he chewed his meal, he stared at the inkbottle. It stirred memories. Memories for the hunter were never a good thing.
After he finished the tongue, he wiped his fingers on his grungy cloak. He picked up the book, contemplating the blank pages. Opening the ink, he dipped the quill and drew a jagged, uneven line upon the page. He tried again, drawing a circle, the line flowing more evenly this time. Across the top of the page he began to write A B C D E . . . and it all came back to him.
Dipping the quill once more, he turned the page, and wrote in cautious, even letters, “In the beginning.” He stopped, and drew a line through the words. He turned the page, and stared at the fresh parchment, so white. White like an apple blossom. White like a young bride’s skin. He lowered the quill to the page.
I have thought of you often. What I would say if I could see you again. What I should have said those many years ago.
Twenty years. Twenty years since last I heard your voice. Twenty years I’ve been at war, alone.
Here the hunter stopped. If only. These were weak words, regretful. They had no room in his heart. This was not a night to lose himself in memory and melancholy. Tomorrow was an important day. The most honored ritual of the dragons was scheduled, and he had a special, unscripted role to play.
The hunter closed the cover on those cursed words, and placed the book upon the coals.
Flames licked the edges, dancing before his eyes like ghosts.
Compare this with the opening scene of the first chapter of Nobody Gets the Girl. Again, this is from the unedited version of the original draft, since it's what I had a copy of on this computer. The actual print version varied a bit, but you'll get the gist of the different stylistic approaches, I think:
"Yeah, all my life I've been lucky," Richard said, transitioning from jokes about driving into current event jokes. "Lucky I don't live in DC for one thing. You been following this? The dome?"
There were maybe twelve people in the audience now. A few were still laughing from the last punchline. A handful nodded their heads at the mention of the dome.
"I mean talk about a waste of money," said Richard. "Seventeen billion dollars this thing’s costing. Gonna put a big old dome over the entire city. Climate control year round. There's, what? Two million people living under this thing? Three million? You could buy umbrellas for everybody for a lot less than seventeen billion. Or maybe not, if the Pentagon was in charge of it. Then we'd be buying the XJ-11 combat ready umbrella. Not only rain proof but bullet proof. They'd weigh 45 pounds each."
He wielded the mike-stand like a very heavy umbrella and staggered a few feet across the stage, grunting under its weight. The audience laughed hard. One of the first lessons Richard had learned about stand-up comedy was that he could make anything seem funny if he attached it to a silly walk.
He straightened up and put the mike back into the stand. "Thanks! You've been a great audience! I'm Richard Rogers! I'll be back here next month!"
He bounded from the stage and shook a few hands. He felt wired, buzzing, full of the same manic energy that always hit him after a set. The charge was the same with twelve people in the audience as with a hundred. This is why he'd drive four hours on a weeknight to perform at the Stokesville Ramada's comedy bar open mike.
Making his way through the small crowd, he arrived at the bar.
"Good set," said Billy, the bartender, who was already filling a glass with Richard's usual beer.
"Thanks," said Richard as he took the glass. "Small crowd though."
"Eh," said Billy. "It's raining. Never a big crowd when it's this nasty out."
"Maybe I'll start driving to DC," said Richard. "Not many nasty nights there anymore."
"Thought you didn't like the dome," said Billy.
"Ah, who cares. It’s too weird to get really worked up about. Everyday I watch the news and think, 'They're just making this stuff up.’ They’ve a bunch of ex-comic book writers sitting in the back room cranking out these stories. Probably cheaper than hiring reporters."
Richard grew aware of a presence behind him as he spoke, someone stepping a little too closely into his personal space. He looked over his shoulder. It was a woman. She'd caught his eye a few times when he was on stage. She was tall, good looking, maybe a few years older than him, but very attractive.
"You were good up there," she said, taking the stool next to him. "My name's Rose."
"Thanks," he said. "I'm Richard."
"So what are you doing here on an open mike night?" she asked. "You're better than most of the pro's I've seen in here. You should be paid for this."
"Thanks again," said Richard. "I don't suppose you'd happen to be an agent, would you?"
"No. I'm the district sales rep for Oxford Financial. I travel a lot. When I'm in town I usually come here. Really, I've seen a lot of comedians, and you're very talented."
Richard shrugged. "I've thought about turning pro, but it's not likely to happen."
"Oh, you know. I didn't really discover I enjoyed doing this until I was already neck deep in something else. I'm a network manager at FirstSouth. I can't afford to quit that and hit the circuits in hope of some big break. For the time being, the Stokesville Ramada's as far as I travel."
"I wish this was as far as I traveled," said Rose. "My counterpart in the Carolina's quit so I'm covering four states now. Yeesh. But it's not all bad. Some parts of life on the road I really like."
"Meeting new people," said Rose. "I feel more like who I want to be when I'm talking to someone for the first time."
"Hmm," said Richard.
"You must understand," said Rose, lightly touching his arm. "Isn't it like you're a different person when you're on stage? On the road, you can be anyone you want to be."
Richard nodded. "Yeah. I do feel like a different person up there. Only it's not really different. It's like who I really am. It's everywhere else in my life I feel a bit out of place."
She touched his arm again. "So you do understand. Funny people are often the most insightful."
Richard looked at her hand on his arm. He suddenly felt rather warm.
"So," she said. "Do you have a room here?"
"Um," said Richard. "No. Actually I have to work in the morning. I'm driving home tonight."
"In this weather?" she asked. "Wouldn't you rather spend the night in a warm bed than out in that mess?"
Richard moved his left hand closer to her hand on his arm, to make sure she could see his wedding ring. "My wife would be worried," he said.
"Call her and tell you you're staying over because of the weather," said Rose.
"I'd never hear the end of it. You don't know my wife," said Richard.
"And you don't know my husband," said Rose with a sly grin, leaning closer. "Isn't it marvelous we have so much in common?"
She was looking directly into his eyes. Richard had a strong sense of déjà vu. This was a fantasy he'd played in his head many times over, being approached by a beautiful woman after he'd finished a set, a woman who found him sexy based purely on his ten minutes on stage. Now here his fantasy was, in the very attractive flesh. Did he dare pass this up?
He looked down at his wedding ring. Maybe Veronica wouldn't find out. One night, hours from home . . .. He shook his head.
"Sorry," he said. "I really need to be going."
Rose withdrew her arm. "Okay. Drive safe." She sounded a little miffed.
With Nobody, the world is our own modern, familiar world, with a slight comic book SF twist. I don't waste time describing a comedy club or the taste of a beer... I assume that the readers have experienced such things in their own life and can fill in the details.
Aside from the stylistic differences, and the fact that the two novels fit into two completely different genres, there are similarities between the two works that I hope readers of my work will recognize and identify with. In "Nobody," moral issues get muddied rather quickly. It's tough to say for certain who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, or even if the terms "good" and "bad" have any meaning at all. Yet, Nobody isn't a book dominated by people sitting around agonizing about what's right and wrong. It's driven by action and unfolding mysteries and plentiful cliffhangers. Bitterwood, despite the more textured prose, shares (I hope) the same page-turning pace as the protagonists struggle to survive in a world where everyone wants them dead. Once again, there are few easy moral choices. In a novel that boils down to dragons versus humans, it seems like a no-brainer that the humans should have our sympathy. Then again, dragons are just a helluva lot cooler than people, so they're easy to root for as well.
Both Nobody and Bitterwood are carried by protagonists who don't fit well into the label of 'hero." Nobody's Richard Rogers is, well, a nobody, completely overwhelmed by the strange superheroic world into which he's plunged. Bitterwood's protagonist is difficult to even pin down--is it the dragon king Albekizan, who seeks to avenge the murder of his beloved son at the hand of Bitterwood? Or is it Bitterwood, who seeks to avenge the murder of his family by the armies of Albekizan? Or is it Vendevorex, the dragon who, as Albekizan's most trusted advisor, has committed a long string of sinister deeds to help Albekizan grow in power, but now finds himself on the run after opposing Albekizan's latest schemes? Or Jandra, Vendevorex's human apprentice, who has been raised since infancy by Vendevorex and finds herself a permanent outcast, never able to be accepted by dragons as an equal, but also completely unable to connect with her fellow humans, who think of her only as Vendevorex's pet?
Whew! This has turned into a long post. I'll shut up now. More writing news will be revealed in the next few days, however. Also, a big Laura post coming up before the end of this week, I promise.