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Writing Excuses 7.31: Project in Depth: Hollow City

Writing Excuses 7.31: Project in Depth: Hollow City


Key questions: Why isn't this the 4th book about John Cleaver? How do you write about a main character who doesn't have much freedom of action? Can other people see the monsters? How did you decide that? Did you use an outline? How many endings did you try? Did you have trouble separating this main character from John Cleaver? How did you come up with this main character? Did you write your way into this character? You use popular male names, but does Michael have more weight behind it?

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 31, Project in Depth, Hollow City.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And I'm not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Dan!
[Dan] Yes!
[Brandon] We're going to talk about your funky, crazy book.
[Dan] Yes, we are.
[Brandon] Give me an overview.
[Dan] If you haven't seen the other in-depth episodes that we've done, what we're going to do is take about 20 minutes, and they're going to grill me on this book I wrote, and why I wrote it, and how I wrote it, and everything, and we're going to spoil the crud out of it. So, be forewarned.
[Howard] Okay. First question. Why isn't this the fourth book in the John Cleaver trilogy?
[Dan] Yeah. You've read all my German reviews. That's all they said about it, too. No, they really liked it, but they're like, "But we want more John Cleaver." Okay. So, that actually goes back to a big part of why I wrote this, is because I had the John Cleaver books come out. They were big hits. People really liked them. They specifically really liked John Cleaver. So I wanted to be able to follow this, but I didn't want to get pigeonholed as the guy who writes about serial killers every time, and writes the same genre.
[Howard] Can I recommend that maybe you get a new twitter handle?
[Brandon] See, I... But you did not seem to mind [being] the I write about creepy weird psychological diseases person?
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] You would rather go that direction.
[Dan] Well, so, I kind of designed this book. I thought this would be a nice step because it's similar enough to the others. It is a supernatural thriller. It's our world, but with some monsters in it. It also has this very tight psychological focus to it. Rather than sociopathy, the Hollow City is about schizophrenia. It's about a guy with schizophrenia who realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. So I thought it would be close enough, but at the same time branching off into other directions that it would be weird. So, my books are all weird anyway. So if I'm being pigeonholed as anything, it's the guy who writes weird stuff, but... Brief overview of the book. It's about a guy named Michael who actually begins the book in the hospital having lost some memory because of an accident. He doesn't remember where he was. He is diagnosed as schizophrenic, and put into a mental hospital. Over the course of about half the book, he... The first half of the book is his treatment, then the second half of the book after he's been more or less... His brain's been normalized, the drugs are working, he's not hallucinating anymore. Then he still sees one of the monsters and thanks, "Well, maybe they're real. Maybe I need to look into this more, and figure out what they're planning and what they're trying to do." So is my take on schizophrenia mixed with the conspiracy story of everyone's out to get you, but it may or may not actually be real, so...

[Brandon] Now, my initial question for you is, reading this in writing group, it seemed like the biggest challenge for you as an author was to make your protagonist have things to do. Because he's lost in a mental institution, he's schizophrenic so he's reacting to all these crazy things that are happening to him, and he's basically locked up all day. So how did you approach writing a story about a person who had such a danger for being an inactive protagonist?
[Dan] My first instinct, and the way I wrote the first draft, was to have him see himself almost as a secret agent. Like he knows he's in a spy movie, so to speak. Not that it's ever that overt, but that he begins the story on the run from the evil conspiracy that's out to get him. So he spends all his time trying to out-think the doctors and trying to escape from the mental hospital. A lot of that got edited out in the final draft of it, the final revision. What we ended up is more of... It is him trying to work through his disease. What we ended up with... What ends up working is not the secret agent escaped from the bad guys, but the guy who's trying to decide if he's really crazy or not.
[Brandon] Why did that work so much better?
[Dan] In part because it was a much more personal conflict. It made it into more of a character-centric thing than an action thing. We still got to have some good set pieces. There is one point where he's able to escape temporarily. He gets into his doctor's office down the hall outside of the lockdown area. But, well, in that light, one of the other nice things of am I really crazy, making that the main focus rather than I need to escape... It gave him a cool character moment when he finally does escape, he's out of the lockdown, he's escaping the hospital. It gave him the chance to think, "Wait a minute. If I really am sane, if I'm really not crazy and this conspiracy really is real, I shouldn't be running away from it." So about halfway through, he has this kind of mini climax of his character arc where he takes control of his life, so to speak, and says, "If this is real, I'm going to go after them instead of just running and hiding."
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] And if it isn't real, I should stay in the hospital and get treated.
[Dan] Which he does hit that point as well. Once the drugs start working and he realizes... One of his doctors point out to him, "You used to use the faceless men you see as evidence that you're crazy. Now you're using them as evidence that you're not. You can't have it both ways. At some point in this scenario, you've been crazy, whether it's then or now." He kind of is forced to think, "Okay, you know what. I am." This is one of the great... The books actually dedicated to my friend Jancy, because she read the first draft of it at a point where I was really convinced that it was not working at all. We'd run it through my writing group. They kind of enjoyed it, but it still had a lot of problems. I wasn't convinced it was working. My friend Jancy who has struggled a great deal with depression and some other things like that, some similar but not the same issues. She said, "Not only is this good, but this is important." She said, "As someone with clinical depression, not being able to trust my own mind is the scariest thing in the entire world. This is a really good way of telling that story." Even though he's not specifically depressed. Now I can't remember how we got onto this topic. But...
[Mary] But it's interesting, so feel free to keep rambling. Or I can rescue you with a question.
[Dan] Please rescue me, because...
[Howard] You're up, Mary.

[Mary] So can other people see the monsters? How did you decide whether or not they could?
[Dan] What I did... When I was trying to figure out what the monsters were, I liked this idea of faceless men. This is actually kind of a cool backstory of how I came up with the monsters. At Conduit, which is Salt Lake City's local sci-fi convention, there's a guy who comes every year named Tom Carr who runs like a paranormal investigation... He's basically a ghost hunter, professionally. He was giving a talk in the Green Room to some interested people, which I happened to overhear. It was right at the time when TV and radio were switching over to an all digital model. It was all the HD or whatever. He said, "What that means is now we have the ability with some of our little electrical devices to pick up ghost signals, and occasionally hear ghosts and things like that." Once TV and radio are no longer using these massive bands of frequency that are currently filled, those will all be empty, and that will open up the opportunity to hear potentially so much more paranormal communication than we've ever heard before. That fascinated me, and I thought, "That's really cool." And my... So what I did... That idea itself did not survive into the final draft of the book. But I basically posited the existence of these... Here's the spoiler... They're aliens, so to speak. Or creatures that are electrical fields, sentient electrical fields that have been living on Earth forever, but as our society has advanced and we are using more and more electromagnetics, it's hurting them.
[Howard] Crowding them out?
[Dan] A cell phone call goes through them, and it will hurt them because it will disrupt their field. So I thought... The original idea was to have these monsters be behind the changeover of the frequencies, because then all of a sudden they're safe and they're not being bombarded by quite as much of it. That ended up not working for a lot of pragmatic reasons. But what remained was these... This idea of these electrical beings that are trying to get rid of us because of our technology, it's hurting them.
[Howard] So we were fine when we were making fire with sticks.
[Dan] Yeah. Back when we were just waving clubs around at the stars, we were okay. What... So to your question, about can people see the monsters, what's really going on here is what he sees as a faceless person is actually a human person who has been possessed by one of these. Which creates an electrical field right around their head, and since he also has one in him... Spoiler warning...
[Mary] I think it's [garbled -- spoiled?]
[Dan] He is able to recognize them. What he is actually seeing is not the absence of a face, but kind of a warping of the air around this face.
[Howard] The presence of interference.
[Dan] So he can see someone and know that they're one of these faceless men, whereas everyone else just sees a normal person.
[Mary] Interesting.

[Brandon] Dan, we're going to stop for our book of the week. And, Dan is going to give us our book of the week.
[Dan] Dan also has the book of the week! Our book of the week this week is Sucks to Be Me by Kimberly Pauley. Which is... I do not read a lot of paranormal YA, but I loved this one. It's about a teenage girl who is a vampire and is trying to deal with it. It was... It's a book not a lot of people have heard of, because it was one of the very last books Wizards of the Coast produced back when they still did non-D&D books. It was basically the last one they put out, and then its sequel later. Then that publishing arm kind of disappeared, so it didn't get publicized as well. But the reason it works for me where so many others don't is because it is funny. It is just hilarious. I love it. So I recommend highly Sucks to Be Me by Kimberly Pauley.
[Howard] Okay. Well, y'all go ahead and point your innertube at Start a 14 day free trial membership and download Sucks to Be Me as recommended by Dan Wells. Book by Kimberly Pauley. And...

[Brandon] Going back to Dan Wells, now.
[Dan] Oh, hey!
[Brandon] Did you use an outline for this book?
[Dan] I did use an outline for this book. One of the first things I did, because I was trying to figure out... I was trying to just try new things, because I always try to do that when I write books. So what I did with this is actually... I thought, "How cool would it be to have a fugue structure to it?" So I took... Now I can't remember the name of it, but one of Bach's really famous fugues... Du-du-du, dudududu, dududu. That one? I hope I sung that well enough for people to recognize it.
[Howard] We'll get that in the liner notes for you.
[Dan] And analyzed it. Here's where the theme appears, here's where it's repeated, here's where it's repeated, and then worked out is what every section means, and then how is that going to work. This portion of the orchestra is going to represent this plot. Did this entire elaborate thing, ran this through, and was very proud of it. Then it didn't work, it failed miserably.
[Dan] It produced this horrible, horrible book that just didn't make any sense. So that was the outline that I was working on. Really what it ended up with, because I still... Maybe this is a pie-in-the-sky dream, but I still would like to do something like that and make it work. What didn't work this time is that I was not differentiating the different scenes enough. So it ended up just being very repetitive as a book. Rather than having the same scenes repeated for different characters and situations, it was just the same back and forth I'm crazy, I'm not crazy, I'm crazy, I'm not crazy, and it got old. So what ended up happening is I outlined it that way, then cut about half of it out, and added a couple of extra characters and a prologue that's from a different perspective. That tied it all together.
[Howard] So you used the fugue as the beginning of a through composed theme and variations after editing all of the boring fugue-y bits?
[Dan] Yes. I ended up writing what I thought was cool, and then I cut out all the garbage, and ended up with a pretty good book.
[Mary] I was sitting here as you were describing the fugue structure thinking, "So you don't just write about crazy people, you are a crazy person."
[Dan] I... I... I am embarrassed to admit how much time I spent putting that fugue structure together.

[Howard] Okay. Question. The ending. How many endings did you throw out before you arrived at the ending you used?
[Dan] I don't know exactly, but I know that I threw out a few. The first ending was too long, the second ending was too small. What convinced me that I needed a big ending was actually the... I can't even remember which movie it was now, but it was a movie about aliens doing some kind of experimentation on people. By the time... When you see the actual reveal, it's so much bigger than the movie has led you to believe. It just kind of blows your mind. I thought, "That's what this is missing. I've been keeping it too small scale." What I ended up with is still not enormous, but it is at least world threatening once he finally sees it. That ended up working a lot better than the original ending, because it gave him a reason to be so desperate about it. It's not just... At some point, the question has to move from "what's wrong with me" to "it doesn't matter what's wrong with me, I have to save everybody else, whether they believe me or not." So adding that layer of world danger to it helped a lot.
[Howard] Upping the stakes.
[Dan] Yes. Thank you.

[Brandon] How... Do you have trouble creating another psychotic main character... single character driven book that did not overlap with John Cleaver? The voice of this character, or did it come very naturally?
[Dan] Not really. It wasn't a problem because John is an incredibly active character and a very closed character. He's very insular, he's very self-contained. He does not express emotion obviously. Whereas Michael's very different. Michael needs other people in his life. Michael is very... His heart is on his sleeve the whole time. All of his emotions and reactions are very broad. So maybe that was an actual reaction to having just written John Cleaver, but if it is, I didn't do it on purpose. I was mostly just trying to come up with somebody who would be interesting to watch for a while.

[Brandon] How did you come up with him?
[Dan] Well, I don't know.
[Brandon] Did you write your way into this character? It felt like you started with him much stronger, at least in the draft I read, than oftentimes you do with your characters.
[Dan] Yeah. Part of that, I think, is the draft you read, he was still a secret agent in the beginning of it. So I still... I had a better handle on who he was right off the bat. A lot of that ended up changing. I do tend to write myself into characters. What made this guy work for me was... I mean, all the problems that I had getting him to work as a character were not... Didn't have anything to do with him, it had to do with the way the book is narrated. It's first person from the point of view of a man who is hallucinating most of the time. So it was very confusing. It was very hard to figure out what was real. If he said something, how did you know you could trust it? The two fixes that I did in one of the major revisions... First of all, I added a prologue that was third person from outside. Some FBI agents are investigating something. Then you... That allowed you to have a very firm foothold going into the book. I know this stuff is real because sane people saw it. Then the other thing was, I threw in an extra character of a reporter who is trying to get the scoop and follow the story on this other mystery that is going on. There's a serial killer in it, because I had to put a serial killer into it. So she's trying to follow that. Michael is not entirely convinced that he's not the serial killer, because he's missing all these chunks of memory, and everything is intertwined at the end. So the reporter character was another way of grounding things in reality that made Michael's character, which was already pretty strong, readable enough to function for the audience.

[Mary] So this is a very mundane question, but names. I noticed that like John and Michael have two of the most popular male names. But John's name is very specific and plays a role in the serial killer books. Does Michael's name also have similar weight?
[Dan] Michael doesn't. Michael was basically chosen because it, like John, is a very common name. Then Shipman as his last name, I don't even remember where that came from. I may have some cool reason for it.
[Mary] We can go back and edit, so...
[Dan] We'll go back and add one in later. The readers will all tell us what his name means. His mind is a ship carrying all these extra hallucinations?
[Howard] All these extra men.
[Dan] There we go. No. Where the names come into play is... I... I did this mostly just for me, because I thought it would be neat. It's not really overt to readers. But... Like with the John Cleaver series, I tried to find a specific background. There's a very kind of Scandinavian flavor to most of the surnames of the people who live in Clayton. So I thought, "Well, let's do that again." But I'm... The story is set in Chicago, so obviously not everyone's going to have the same racial background. But I chose Czech... The Czech Republic... So basically everyone who is a faceless man or a hallucination at some point turns out to have a Czech last name or first name. That doesn't become obvious 'til the end, because as is typical in schizophrenia stories, you don't know who's real until the very end. But I liked throwing that in there, because it gave me, first of all, a sense of consistency across... That there's... It let me use different names that you wouldn't see very often. There's a police officer named Officer Kopecky, which I just thought was a really cool name. I thought, "Why don't we have more people named Kopecky? That's a cool name." But then by the time you get to the end, you realize that for whatever reason, all these... All the imaginary people and all the bad guys are Czech. I don't know what that says about me and Czech.
[Howard] Well, we'll see how your next book sells in Eastern Europe, won't we?
[Dan] Yeah. Hope that that goes over well. There actually is a very good reason for it, so...

[Brandon] All right. Howard, you seem to have a writing prompt?
[Howard] I've got a writing prompt. And it's a timely one. Go out there and find an interesting mental illness, before Dan takes all the good ones. Do a little research, and write yourself a chapter from the point of view of somebody who's not quite right in the head. But in writing this, don't tell us what's wrong. Just try and communicate through their point of view.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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