Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 9 – One Last Thought

I’m exhausted. I’m writing this with a pounding headache and a mind that feels like it’s wading through a pool filled with cotton balls. I’ve written nine books in two years and published eight. As much as I joke about not being able to actually take a vacation, it’s apparent to me how much of a rest I need. With Plague of Life, I know I’m not crossing the finish line at a full sprint. It’s not the book you’ll want. But it is the conclusion I’ve known for a while now, and it’s as true to me and this series as I can write. In great pain, we find the greatest beauty.

That’s what this series has been about, I guess. It’s what the last two and a half years of my life have been about.

Garrett Moranis is, at his worst, a Mary Sue. I make no bones about that, and no apologies. I’ll do better with future protagonists, but in him, there are moments of myself reflected that shouldn’t go into the ethos without me mentioning them.

There are two in particular that come to mind, and neither are what you’d expect.

In the Ghost at His Back, there’s this moment in the middle of Garrett’s first date with Brianna when Murphy pulls him back to reality, and Garrett realizes looking in on Brianna he won’t have her. Not can’t. Won’t. The distinction there is subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world. He knows who he is, the pain he’ll cause her. And in the end, he’s right. Brianna Reeve suffers for having known him, for having fallen in love with him.

That scene always made me emotional to edit, because it’s the truest moment of Garrett’s in that first book. And it’s not so secretly one of my favorite scenes because of it. It’s painful. It’s also why I’m so glad I never went with a will they/won’t they in these novels. Because I do believe in true love. I do believe there’s someone out there who will be able to look past that part of me that always says, “This won’t work.”

If you’ve read the rest of the novels, it should come as no surprise then that the other truest moment of Garrett’s that I love is the Thanksgiving scene in Bone Carvers – er, his Thanksgiving scene, not Fletcher Brown’s.

The general idea is that Garrett, who has been alone for so long apart from Murphy, is finally surrounded during one of his favorite holidays by family he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years, his fiance, and friends who love and care for him. He should feel on top of the world, but awash in a sea of people, he doesn’t. He feels utterly, terribly alone, even as he realizes these feelings are just in his head. It’s a terribly sad moment, and almost a throwaway paragraph considering the rest of the events of that novel, but it is, to me, one of the most personal, intimate looks we get into Garrett’s soul and the real damage that has been done to him throughout the years.

Of the trio of protagonists in the novels, Garrett’s definitely the worst. He’s cardboard. He’s two dimensional. He’s both hyperviolent and impossibly good. I know all this, and yet… I don’t know. He’s not so much a wish fulfillment character as he is a bundle of my innermost thoughts laid out on the page with a Batman-esque trapping. And I don’t even particularly like Batman.

And… that’s it, I think. Unless anyone has questions over the years, I don’t see much else here I could talk about. If you’ve made it this far in this blog series, thanks for reading. I hope I’ve entertained you.

Goodbye, Garrett. Thank you for being my mental ride these last couple of years.

 

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 8 – The Music

Due to the nature of the playlists, major spoilers lie ahead for Shifting Furies and Band of Fallen Princes. It’s recommended you skip this blog if you intend to read those.

Throughout the Rankin Flats novels, I kept a running master list of the music that inspired scenes or whole books – sometimes even multiple books. I’ve also created a few playlists lifted directly from the pages of the novels themselves, namely Brianna’s engagement and wedding playlists. They helped me get in her mindset.

The following, if I’m doing this right, is the master list of songs that inspired scenes directly or were just a bit of pleasantry that I was listening to during the series:

The Ghost at His Back (Howell Designs):

Probably the most influential song on GAHB is Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London, which in the originally published draft was the song Garrett heard being crooned to him during his nightmarish trip through the Howell Designs building. In later drafts, I was concerned about breaking copyright laws (there were only a few words used, but still), so this was edited out to a generic “honky tonk tune.”

I tend to think of this as the song of the unnamed big bad of the series, the half-asleep red giant Virgil sees in Bone Carvers, but it bleeds over to several villains throughout the series as well. Any time you read a villain humming or thinking about a honky tonk tune, this is pretty much implied to be the song.

The Butcher:

I mean, it’s a character named the Butcher. How am I not going to think of Butcher Pete when I’m writing this character? Thanks, Fallout.

Garrett and Murphy:

Right around the time I was coming up with the earliest parts of The Ghost at His Back (then The Ghost at My Back), I was (still am) in love with Tales from the Borderlands, a Telltale adventure game. One of the best parts of that game was the music selections for the intros and credits, and one of those songs was Jungle’s Busy Earnin’. Fast forward four years, and I still think of it as Garrett and Murphy’s song. It suits the two of them perfect, especially in their early days when Garrett was focused on building a bankroll, learning how to survive, and figuring out what he and Murphy would become vigilantes.

Brianna Reeve:

Despite being the arguably most bombastic main character in the series, I tend to think of Brianna’s theme as being soft and meditative. Although she shows more signs of wear and tear than anyone in the novels, she’s the rock. She’s the center. These novels are not so secretly not about a ghost and a vigilante, but about her, and in that regard, I tend to think of Goldmund’s Threnody as her theme.

Rankin Flats:

Again, we have a theme influenced directly by video games – in this case, Grand Theft Auto V’s excellent “Welcome to Los Santos.” That’s sort of the grimy underbelly song I needed to define this swelling, decaying city. Rankin Flats is this great big all-consuming thing showing no signs of stopping, and it needed a great underworld theme to it. That’s Welcome to Los Santos.

Shifting Furies:

There are two themes that come to mind when I think about Shifting Furies. The first is White Arcades, a haunting, soft melody that I tend to associate with Brianna’s mental breakdown. She’s seen horrors and can’t speak about them to anyone but her boyfriend, the guy who got her into all this. Her mind is slowly cracking, and White Arcades does a great job in my mind of demonstrating that.

As for the second song, this very much belongs to xx’s Infinity. This book’s secondary theme, that of love between couples even in the most trying of situations, suits this song perfectly. It’s the song I thought about exclusively during Garrett and Rose’s dance at the beginning of the novel.

Clancy Stroud:

Clancy’s particular brand of soulless insanity is perfectly suited to Big Data’s Dangerous. It’s exactly the sort of song I could see him playing on endless repeat while he stalks the endless streams of data within his bunker.

Rowen:

Rowen’s song, without question, is American Dollar’s Anything You Synthesize. I want to say it was playing just before I wrote her rescue scene, and I mentally latched onto it. It’s a beautifully simple song, it’s sweet, it’s thought-provoking, it’s… Rowen.

Sloan May/Bryant and Desmond:

Iggy Pop’s The Passenger is maybe a bit on the nose, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfect for Sloan and the creature she’s made her dark pact with.

Murphy and Jade:

One of my favorite unplanned surprises in the books was the relationship between Murphy and Jade. I had no idea they’d wind up “together” in the second novel. That was entirely an example of letting the characters guide me to a better book. Obviously, both of them being ghosts, they couldn’t be further away from each other even if they’re standing side-by-side, so in that regard, I tend to think of Clem Leek’s You’re So Very Far Away.

Bone Carvers:

Interestingly, I associate no particular song with Bone Carvers or its characters. I think putting music to this one would be difficult. It’s very much a howling cacophony of noise as opposed to music. If you want a song to listen to during this one, find a one year old, give him a wooden spoon and a pot, and go nuts.

The Band of Princes:

Again, we have another song that’s a bit too spot-on, but for Maddox Iver, Ronnie Cooperman, Dash Pendleton, and Brett York, there’s no finer song than Tears for Fear’s Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Somewhat ironically, the power these men hold isn’t what they’re actually after. It’s a safe life, rich and comfortable away from crime that they want. It’s just that they happen to be phenomenal at being criminals, so that’s what they are – together.

The Marriage:

Yes, Kyle Gass Band is a real thing. And yes, they’re awesome. And yes, Bro Ho is the song that stands out most for me when I think of Brianna and Garrett’s marriage.

Rhys:

I never do anything quite the way you’ve read them before, and that extends to vampires too. With his thirst for killing and the power it gives him, Rhys is my version of a bloodsucker. He also needed something gritty and a little insane, and in that regard, Eels’ Fresh Blood fits the role nicely for him.

Mr. Smyle:

Coincidence or not? When I was plotting out Smyle, I heard Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me for the very first time. And it couldn’t be a better theme for the most dangerous villain in Garrett’s rogue gallery.

Now, that said, there are moments of horrific villainy committed by Rhys and Mr. Smyle, and I wouldn’t score those. Not for a second.

Brianna’s Road to the Furniture Store Mix:

If you’ve read Shifting Furies, you’ll know what the hell I’m talking about with that header. For one of the most uplifting parts of the novels, Brianna had to make a playlist, and so I deliver it to you.

Brianna and Garrett’s Barn Rattling Mega Mix:

Much like with the prior song list, if you read Band of Fallen Princes, this song list was made when I wrote the ending to that novel. I spent hours on this thing – no, really, hours, all for something maybe all of two people have listened to. Enjoy!

That’s going to do it for this blog. Plague of Life drops Thursday!

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 7 – Smyle

Since Smyle is still a relatively new release for me, I’m not going to spoil anything major here. Instead, let’s talk about what the plan initially was between Band of Fallen Princes and Smyle.

Smyle 2While On Hallowed Lanes was a failure in my eyes,, it helped me realize that it was time to try my hand with a romance novel. You can read about Forever and Farewell elsewhere, but I’ll say this – it was a breath of fresh air writing in a genre outside my wheelhouse, and it made me realize I needed to put a clock on the Rankin Flats stuff.

Initially, I thought that meant a total of four books beyond Band of Fallen Princes. These were going to include a novel introducing a life-giving character who suffers the ill-effects of the people he heals. This guy was going to be one of Annalise Fox’s first recruits for a new task force, and would be put in Garrett’s charge so he could gain a better idea of how the man functioned.

It was a great idea, capped off by a fantastic character swerve at the end of the novel (no, not a villainous one) that I don’t want to reveal here because if I revisit the Rankin Flats universe, this is probably an idea I’d like to revisit. The only elements of this novel idea to really survive were the Ranch and the villain, the Plague Mistress.

That was originally going to be titled Plague of Life. Are you seeing a pattern here of me cannibalizing my old ideas for title names and characters? I’m guessing it’s a thing all writers do. Very very minor plot spoiler here for Smyle, but this would’ve also been the novel where Smyle deduces who the vigilante of Rankin Flats was.

That novel, what would have been Rankin Flats #6, would be followed by an untitled darker book centered around a mind-controlling woman who breaks Garrett’s closest loved ones. I liked the idea of her mind control powers – it’s more like a gaseous fog she emits than anything directly controlling them, which gave people a realistic chance of fighting back against her powers. This was going to be a grim novel, possibly ending with Garrett and Brianna’s separation and/or divorce after Brianna cheats on Garrett with none other than Ed. They would’ve been mind-controlled, of course, but that would have left the doors wide open for Garrett to go solo again with Murphy in time for Smyle, when the real villain is revealed and Garrett tries to rebuild all he has lost.

They were pretty solid ideas, actually, and like I say, they’re ones I might revisit with future characters in this universe. But the more I plotted them out, the more I realized they felt like I was playing out the clock on Garrett, Brianna, and Murphy. These stories deserved fresh characters and ideas, and so I shuffled them to the back of my mind while trying to figure out what the next real step would be.

Then it hit me – why not pull the trigger on Smyle finding out who Garrett really is within the very first chapter? What kind of chaos would that bring? The idea took root, and from it, Smyle was born.

I don’t want to say too much more here about it. I think it’s one of the top novels in the series, up there with FATSOM and Bone Carvers. If you read it, you’ll have to let me know what you think.

Plague of Life will be here soon. You can now find it up for pre-order on Amazon. I’m days away from having a complete series done. That’s pretty damned crazy.

Tomorrow, I’ll touch on some musical inspirations for the Rankin Flats novels. Thanks for reading!

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 6 – On Hallowed Lanes

Oh, my sweet, ugly duckling On Hallowed Lanes.

You were partially good. The basic idea of Brianna and Garrett taking a road trip together sans ghosts (kind of) was a fun idea for a novella that both unfortunately ballooned out unnecessarily and never found its way until the very last few chapters.

I liked the actual road trip part of you. Thanks to friends from Canada like Andy Shelgrove, whop provided me with an awesome, exhaustively-researched theoretical list of must-see places around Alberta, I had a great selection of places Brianna and Garrett would go on their month long vacation.

I loved, absolutely loved, researching those towns, cities, and parks, and then implementing minutia into the novel. Even if I’ve never been to Canada, there was a coolness to being able to watch Point A to Point B videos on Youtube and being absolutely certain I had the lanes of traffic right, or what the wilderness or plains looked like. In a very fun way, On Hallowed Lanes was a road trip from the comfort of my office chair.

I looked up scores of restaurants, hotels, city parks, local tourist sites, and shopping centers. Dozens of places I’d love to visit myself someday got mentions. It was a joy to write about all these places, about their journey through Alberta and the British Columbia.

And it was a joy too to write about Garrett and Brianna’s conflict. For the first time since Shifting Furies, we see them arguing – real arguing, relationship arguing – as the honeymoon, both literally and metaphorically, comes to an end. They wind up stronger for it, despite having shouted the truth of their darkest, angriest feelings at one another.

That last bit, that was the main thrust of the “monster” plot, which turned out kinda cool and might see the light in a future novel. The gist is that a powerful teenage empathic vampire of sorts (she feeds off others emotions) is rendered comatose in an accident. Her body winds up in the hands of the Not Right Man, a jarringly disgusting taxidermist who has, through alchemy, kept the young woman alive as he poses her body in his basement for the use of his small town’s sickos.

None of that is revealed until the final few chapters. The Not Right Man barely gets a mention at all, actually – he’s in a total of three scenes, which ended up being a surprisingly decent decision. The focus on the monster end of things became the young woman’s spirit, which has been caught in limbo here on Earth – and which has lost its mind. Still in control over her powers, she murders those she deems guilty, and latches onto Garrett Moranis instinctively both because of his guilt and his sight.

In essence, she is slowly feeding on both Garrett and Brianna throughout their road trip, leaving their emotions raw and unchecked. In fits of rage at two points, they admit their worst feelings about each other, nearly dying as the teenager ghost thing feeds on their rage and anger and guilt before Garrett realizes what’s happening.

All that made for a pretty decent plot, all told, with another “monster” people could empathize with when the truth is revealed and a true monster behind the scenes.

But.

Half of the plot was also Garrett Moranis relating a story about how he obtained a gold cross in his safe. It was meant to be a warming story, told in broad tall tale strokes throughout the book only to reveal a much more boring truth at the end. If I had kept it grounded, it might have worked, but it torpedoed the novel in a hurry.

The idea is that Garrett is roped into helping an aging woman steal a book from a rich man’s library during a fundraiser. This escalates into an Ocean’s Eleven type break from the fundraiser’s security room, escalating into a pursuit (as Garrett drunkenly adds more and more to the story) by robots, snipers, and dozens of corrupt police officers.

The one thing I’ve found with the Rankin Flats novels is that the more absurd they get, the more I struggle writing them. For books about monsters and guys who see ghosts, the best moments are the simple ones about love, brotherhood, and the cost of doing the right thing. In that regard, writing the chapters about the gold cross became a slog. I had no fun writing them and it showed on the page. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem if these chapters were isolated – simply cutting them out and replacing them with the eventual truth would have been easy (which was that Garrett saw an elderly woman pickpocketing things from a fundraiser, caught her doing it, was accused of it himself, and took the blame to let her escape, since she was clearly suffering from a mental fugue – and that when he eventually returned to his hotel, he found both a wallet the woman had stolen from him as well as a gold cross).

Instead, though, this is a story Garrett and Brianna actively talk about throughout their road trip. I’ll maybe someday go back and do a thorough edit to the story, and reduce it to the novella it was originally meant to be, but the task is, frankly, not worth the effort. If I ever develop a rabid fanbase who adore the Rankin Flats novels so much they demand it, sure, I guess. It’s really not a bad novel at heart. It’s just riddled with problems.

I’m happy to say that certain elements wind up in other stories. In particular, I managed to salvage what is probably the best single section in the entire series for a flashback scene in Plague of Life. I’ve also posted snippets from it elsewhere on this blog, portions of the novel I don’t want to sink into nothingness.

So goodbye, On Hallowed Lanes. You were a great idea, and I’m sorry I couldn’t do you justice.

Tomorrow, we get into the meat of the most currently published novel in the series, Smyle. And whoooo boy, are we gonna get dark. Stay tuned, and be sure to look out for Plague of Life, coming the 21st (barring any problems).

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 5 – Butt Sex (or Band of Fallen Princes)

People pick the strangest battles.

You’d think the horror and violence would garner the most visceral reaction from readers – and it does, but it’s mostly limited to the first novel in my Rankin Flats series. They read that – or part of it – and realize the depth of violence and horror isn’t their thing. That’s fine! If I was a reader who didn’t like those things, I’d want to read a few reviews pointing them out too.

Same goes with my profanity and sex. Usually if people don’t like either in my novels, they know the books aren’t for them by the end of the first book. I’m cool with that too.

What I didn’t entirely anticipate was the visceral reaction I received about two partners talking candidly about anal sex. That, apparently, is The Line Which Cannot Be Crossed.

Wait… what?

Fallen_Princes FinalMy series, to the point of Band of Fallen Princes, has had cannibals eating living people. It’s had shapeshifters ripping a man’s jawbone out. It’s had murders, psychics, and a brutal couple of torture scenes. But butt sex, that’s the kicker for folks, apparently. And the funny thing is, some of the most offended? Haven’t even read the books. Just referencing the scene on Facebook netted me dire warnings about the dangers of anal sex. Which is fair, but I’ve also not received warnings about the risks of regular sex between any of my characters. Or the oral sex that happens. See how that can feel a little morally picky?

It’s sex. Between consensual partners looking to try something new out. And it’s not even done in the novel – it’s just talked about.

Yeah. That’s where individuals wanted to plant their flag about the horrors of reading my books. So be warned, I suppose, for the dangers to your soul. Because of butt sex. Riiiight.

Now keep in mind, I’m actually kind of regretting one of the scenes featuring the talk about butt sex, because it’s largely plot filler. A reviewer left me a comment saying basically that the heroes talk more about sex than they do the case, which is a pretty damned valid point. There’s also another running joke in the novel not related to anal sex about the couple being abstinent in the last few weeks while bodily teasing each other. It’s cute, but in retrospect, it didn’t need to dominate the protagonists’ story that much. These are valid complaints.

A better way of going about the novel would have been to focus on the much more interesting villains, the four of whom form sort of the antithesis of the It boys. Together, they form some of the more interesting villains of my series, especially in that they have no powers of their own. They’re not special, they’re not supernatural, they’re just four men who formed a bond early in life to always look out for each other while they took what they could from life. It’s also the first time a villain’s demise in my novels wound up hitting me hard, emotionally, to write about.

Exploring how these kids went from geeks and outsiders to full-blown psychopaths (and make no mistake, they are evil and psychotic, to a man) was strangely cathartic in a way. A lot of my emotions about being endlessly bullied as a teenager went into the early parts of this one (though nothing done to me was nearly as bad as what happened to Ronnie Cooperman). Exploring those emotions and then twisting them on the page into how they could make a person into a career villain was a fascinating process. “Okay, at least I didn’t turn out that way” was a thought I had more than once during the process of writing Band of Fallen Princes.

And in the end, they’re tragic figures, save perhaps for the manipulative leader of the bunch. They formed such a bond as friends that nothing came between them. Not wives, not the law, not any sort of morals. They are insanely devoted to their friendship, to the point where they actively help each other pursue or cover up their vices and mental sicknesses. In retrospect, the novel should have been all theirs, with appearances from Garrett, Brianna, and Murphy only introduced to break up the action – at least up until that epilogue.

Speaking of:

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE END OF BAND OF FALLEN PRINCES:

I loved writing the wedding scene of Band of Fallen Princes. It’s self-indulgent as hell, but everything about it was fun to research and even more fun to write. The church in it is 100% real – you can find it in Lennep, Montana, and it is gorgeous. The food and drinks were researched with the help of an awesome local baker. The music was something I actually curated myself, and you can find the playlist on Spotify (here’s a link if you’re interested in giving it a listen).

I loved the culmination of all Garrett’s fears and worries as he waited at the altar. I loved the little character moments of all my personal favorites – with a few even getting more attention than I thought they would (see: Jin and Wendy). I loved the conclusion to Monica and Sloan’s story arc for that novel, and wasn’t sure where it would go until I actually wrote the thing. Collectively, that scene, despite its unnecessary length and detail, is one of my favorites from the series.

That scene ended up influencing my decision to write a honeymoon novel. More on that tomorrow when we talk about the failure that was the unpublished On Hallowed Lanes.

Thanks for reading, and remember, Plague of Life drops next week!

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 4 – Bone Carvers

Bone Carvers is secretly the oldest book I’ve ever written – and in its original iteration, it was terrible.

Once upon a time, my mom and I drove to Missouri – or from Missouri, I don’t recall which way we were pointed – to drop me off at college. Along the way, we pulled off for gas at a tiny little town that shall remain unnamed. A mile or so from the Interstate, Anonymous immediately creeped us out, and never stopped. The houses universally had cracked stone foundations. The few people out and about stared, and not just in the curious rubbernecker all small towns off the beaten path share. These people actively looked pissed, like we were intruding on some great and secret thing. Weirdest of all was the feeling of disuse.

Bone_Carvers coverI’m going to try to explain that last part by describing something completely different. Have you ever watched a film supposedly dating back decades, but every car in the movie looks brand new and pristine? How the environments lack a completely lived-in look? Anonymous was the complete opposite of that. Things that felt like they should have been new or healthy had this strange feel to them like nothing had ever been used quite the way it was meant to. Trees hung instead of reaching to the sun. Plants looked as though they wanted to strangle each other. Windows were almost uniformly grimy or dirty. And I say that not to insult their economic condition, because you walk one block in any direction from my home town’s main street and you’ll find evidence of horrible economic straits. I say it to paint a picture. This place was the very definition of “not right.”

We got our gas. I got a Pepsi – a year or so out of date, if I remember right – and we got the hell out of there before the locals came at us. On our way again, my mom said to me, “You should write a book about that place.”

Six years later, I did just that. Originally titled Hamber, it was a novella (more or less, I think it was 60k long or so) about a series of people pulled to a small, disturbing town ostensibly to help a man find his lost daughter, who had been kidnapped by the locals. As it turns out, the people haven’t stumbled into town on accident – they’ve been drawn there by the mystical powers of the town itself, to be sacrificed in a series of sick games-playing by the locals.

Sound sort of familiar? Sure. And there were more elements that share some basic DNA with the final product. As it turns out, the daughter is to be made a sacrifice to a living organism that turns out to be the town itself. She’s being kept in the deep heart of the town, well underneath the surface, and is already being grotesquely conjoined to the being when her father finds her. He kills her, thinking he’s doing the right thing, but in fact, he’s making the sacrifice the town needs to be sated, and the whole process will start itself again with a new batch of people.

It was terrible in that it was basically torture porn without any real plot to it. The experimental head-hopping I did – basically third person omniscient with rapid-fire paragraph hopping – was far too confusing and would’ve been dizzying as a reader.

The one highlight was the father-daughter relationship, built on a brutal death. The mother, suffering from brain cancer, became abusive and vicious, often beating her daughter when she was in a mood, which was frequently. The father, to spare the daughter, murders his wife with pills, and tells his daughter it was just her time. The daughter, struck mute by the abuse, becomes something of a shut-in, and her father is barely clinging to his own sanity, haunted by visions of his dead wife coming for him. By the end of the novel, the horrors of what he’s inflicted on both his wife and daughter lead him to welcome whatever unnamed plans the Hamber people have for him.

I sat on that draft for six years without a rewrite. It was bad enough that I didn’t think the idea would ever see the light of day, until I had a chance to reintroduce the idea of Hamber in The Ghost at His Back, and later in its own novel Bone Carvers.

Even the name Bone Carvers isn’t original to this novel. That stemmed from a failed sci-fi novel I wrote back in… 2013 or so, which won’t be shared here because I think it’s going to be a project I revisit in a year or two. But almost everything about the plot was dropped or refitted to match the current universe and the plot needs of the Rankin Flats series, becoming the grim, fast-paced novel it is today.

Bone Carvers is one of the more technically solid novels in the series. I think if I had to do it over again, I’d have extended Garrett’s stay in Hamber and let the residents psychologically torture him some more before he finds the tub.

Speaking of which, let’s get gruesome.

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BONE CARVERS

As I’ve mentioned before, in every novel, at one point or another, I penciled in a way Brianna could die. In no book is that so evident as Bone Carvers. In fact, right up until I wrote the first draft, the plan was for Brianna to never know if she was the “real” Brianna or not. That’s why in the final draft, the doppelganger is having those mysterious cramps and pains when she’s shapeshifting. The plan was for her to change one last time into Brianna, and find she was incapable of changing back, and then leave it as a complete unsolved mystery as to who was the real Brianna and who lived at the end of the novel.

For a standalone novel, that would have been a FANTASTIC ending. But I was already running full-tilt at darker themes, and after the emotional gut-punch that was For All the Sins of Man, I wanted to end on a slightly happier note.

In any case, scaphism is not a new torture method, but it was certainly new to me when I researched the topic for this novel. Its actual use is somewhat steeped in ambiguity, but if it was used, it seems to have started with the Persians. They would coat their victims in honey and milk, and leave them between two boats or in a tub-like container to rot. No, literally, to rot. Flies would be attracted to the milk and honey. In the meantime, the victim festered in his own feces and urine. Open sores would eventually fester, maggots would eat the flesh, and the victim would essentially be eaten alive incredibly slowly.

It was disturbing enough that if Garrett was to walk in and see it, it would shatter his mind. In short, it was perfect. Disturbing. But perfect.

END SPOILERS

One of my favorite elements from Bone Carvers is the messed-up star-crossed lovers Fletcher Brown and Holly Callahan. I love writing about villains with backstories, and these two practically fell onto the page together. Fletcher’s start as an unwitting criminal – a bad guy, but perhaps redeemable – is based off my own discomfort with scenes in movies where characters heads spin and whip around at furious speeds (see: Legion – I know, I know). His visions mark him as one of the universe’s psychics, along with the likes of Sloan and Rhys.

His journey, and that of Holly’s, is dark and creepy and winds up influencing the end of one of my favorite characters from the series. I don’t generally like audience stand-in characters as a rule, but I’m awfully proud of the way Fletcher Brown turned out.

And then there’s the end of the novel. If you’re reading my series for the first time, pay attention to those last few chapters. There’s something special being built there, something that gets paid off in a big way in later novels. Or I hope you see it that way, anyways.

Yeah. In retrospect, Bone Carvers is a solid entry. It’s not my favorite in the series, but purely from a thriller perspective, I think it has the strongest backbone.

Tomorrow, we talk about Band of Fallen Princes – and how alienating butt sex jokes can be. Stay tuned!

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 3 – For All the Sins of Man

Rowen.

Some characters take me a few books to come to love – Monica, namely. Some, a book. Some a few chapters. Only one of them has made me love her from the very introduction, and that’s little Rowen. From the moment she whispers, “Daddy’s sick,” in regards to her drug addict father and takes Garrett’s hand so she can be rescued, I loved this character. No one, not Brianna, not Murphy, not Sloan, won me over so completely in the series as Rowen.

Sins_of_Man
Cover by RAZ Designs

Even now, writing this about a year and a half after first publishing For All the Sins of Man, I think about her and get a little emotional. Rowen in her piss-stained jammies, with her hands misshapen from being beaten and broken, with cigarette burns on her arms from her “Auntie” Em, with a heart full of strength even when all hope is lost, could be the best thing I’ll ever write, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Because she is flawed and beautiful and there are millions of kids like her out there, kids who are facing even worse horrors, who won’t have a knight to rescue them. You ask why I write something so brutal and ugly as For All the Sins of Man, and it’s for them. It’s for every kid who’s been beaten, abused, exposed to drugs. It’s for the hopeless and the lost, who deserve to be on that page, who deserve to be the people being saved if just in my own mind.

For All the Sins of Man might not technically be the book I regard as the best among my efforts – that honorific probably goes to Forever and Farewell – but it is the living, beating heart of my writing, and by proxy, me. That book is my soul laid bare on the page. It’s me dropping all the jokes about how much I despise kids and showing you the fiercely paternal part of me, the part that sees the world’s abuses and wishes for nothing else so strongly as kids being able to sleep soundly at night without fear, without pain, without all the thousands and thousands of hurts we inflict on them.

For All the Sins of Man is about the real monsters in the closet.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

In retrospect, though, I’d have completely changed the end to Rowen’s story arc.

As it stands, I think it’s (unintentionally) lazy writing. Letting Rowen live would have been far more intriguing. At the time, I thought the two options were to either kill her off, or let her live and become Garrett’s ward. The latter felt much more emotionally resonant, so I went with that.

In retrospect, what I’d have probably done differently is let Garrett save her in the nick of time, take her back to her cousin’s, and explain what Ethan’s wife did for a few measly hundred bucks. It would have not only allowed Rowen to live, but opened the door for Garrett to have a brighter, less edgy future ahead of him, something I came to regret as the series wore on. As it stands, though, I made the best decision I could with what I was capable of writing at the time, and I don’t regret that.

Goodbye, Rowen. I love you.

END OF SPOILERS

Deep breath. Okay. Now onto the rest of it.

For All the Sins is deeply flawed in one particular regard, and that’s the Brianna subplot, which I think, while necessary to cap off the mental breakdown aspect of Shifting Furies, either needed to be fully fleshed out or slashed to a portion of what it was. Seth Roe is a terrific villain and either needed more time to shine or saved for another novel. As it stands, he barely qualifies as a footnote, which is a shame.

I will, however, freely admit to not being able to read Garrett and Brianna’s reunion scene without getting a little bit emotional. Other scenes to date that have done this to me:

  1. Florida and Galbraith’s last victim’s goodbye in The Ghost at His Back, and oddly enough, Garrett watching Brianna play pool when he thinks he has to cut her out of his life.
  2. THAT scene in For All the Sins.
  3. Brianna’s “It’s okay because you’ll be okay” in Bone Carvers, as well as the bath scene.
  4. A villain’s last goodbye in Band of Fallen Princes, as well as Garrett’s last hallucinations and the moments immediately thereafter.
  5. So, so much in Smyle.
  6. ??? from Plague of Life.

Getting back to FATSOM, the other aspect I need to cover is Sloan, one of my other favorite characters from the series. The abuse she suffers early sets a dark tone for the novel, bleaker than anything that’s come before. Twisting her revenge into her “villainous” character arc was a bit of a gamble. I didn’t want her to be a typical villain from the series, but she wasn’t exactly a bystander, either. Some of the atrocities she commits are her own decision, and not Desmond’s something that comes back to play a key role in her future development. She’s delightfully complex, and I hope she’s as well liked by readers as I loved writing about her.

Let’s see, what else should I mention? Oh, start to publication, FATSOM has the fastest turnaround time on any novel I’ve written to date. I finished the first draft in something like three weeks, had it out to readers within another week beyond that, and published it shortly thereafter. Smyle came close to matching that record, but didn’t quite make it.

So yeah. As uneven as For All the Sins of Man is, I think it’s the most heartfelt, genuine thing I’ve written. It’s the one book people tend to shy away from due to its themes, and I can’t blame them. It’s brutal and cold, but that also allows it the greatest heights of beauty I can manage as a writer. It’s funny to me then that the two best things I’ve written – this and Forever and Farewell – are the two novels I can’t convince people to read for the life of me. Oh well.