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.

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 2 – Shifting Furies

Shifting Furies started life as The Ghost and the Shifter, but early in the draft, I realized my friend Bobbi Holmes names her books similarly. She was absolutely fine about it, but I was a bit mortified and felt like I was inadvertently copying her titling system, so I came up with an alternative – Shifting Furies, so named because of the shapeshifter and a plot element revolving around Brianna. That’s one of the best things to have happened to the series – I stride now to be more original and striking with the names of my books, and this was a first step in that direction.

Shifting_Furies2.0
The cover for Shifting Furies was created by RAZ Designs.

Some of my best work comes not from a place of creativity, but from a sense of flippancy. Shifting Furies is a case study of that. I don’t particularly care about shapeshifters, as I’ve mentioned before. They can be a striking figure in storytelling devices – see An American Werewolf in London or the first season of Hemlock Grove – but they’ve almost been ruined for me by being turned into a nonstop flood of alpha male types that never stray far from the shifter romance mold. “Oh, he’s a bad boy who melts for his sexy girl-next-door type? Original!”

So when I set out to write a novel about a shapeshifter, I wanted something abnormal. I had the idea in mind that it would be hunting a politician – who became the philanthropist Hammond Stroud – because of elements I liked from the original draft of The Ghost at His Back. But why was this shapeshifter hunting Stroud? Who was it – or her, as she generally identified herself?

From that stemmed a flood of possibilities, ones I didn’t really think were as impactful as they seemed to turn out. Most of the shapeshifter’s backstory ended up on the page almost by accident. I liked the idea of the various forms she assumed slowly eating away at her memories, and having her backstory be murky and clouded was a lot of fun, but I didn’t play much with it. I had a vague idea of her first shapeshifting “turn,” and ran with the idea that she was actually a wild thing, a creature of the woods that encountered a teenage girl and fell in love.

That led to the shapeshifter more or less becoming a sort of bisexual being, but with a definite emphasis towards lesbianism. None of the LGBTQ characters in my novels were by design. They all just felt natural to the characters, and so I wound up with quite a few of them – Froggy, Blake, August, the shapeshifter, and more. I don’t think of it as a political or cultural thing – after all, Garrett is almost staunchly anti-yuppie and hippie, and actively makes decisions that probably aren’t great for the environment, Stephanie is a heavily-implied Republican stalwart, and various other leanings are all represented. None of these novels are meant to deliver a message like that. These are simply characters leading lives based on the events that have happened to them, or based on who they are at their core.

Speaking of, let’s get back to Hammond Stroud, one of my surprise favorites from the novels. Hammond generally is – spoilers (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you plan on reading Shifting Furies) – a decent man. Capturing the shapeshifter isn’t an act of villainy but a simple response to the tragic events of his life. He put his trust in Garrett and Brianna, and they failed him, so he does the best he can do as his grief overwhelms him. Same goes with protecting his brother for as long as he does – Hammond doesn’t want to believe his brother is the target of the shapeshifter, because that would wreck the walls he’s built up in his own mind about who his brother really is and what he’s capable of doing. The event that transpires at the end of Hammond and Clancy’s arc is one of the darkest moments of the series because of its spiritual and philosophical implications, and in that regard, I’m hugely proud of those two characters.

SPOILERS OVER

I’ve always been a bit bewildered at the positive response to Shifting Furies. On Amazon, it’s stayed strong at a solid 4.8 out of 5 stars from six reviews, and on Goodreads, it’s managed a 4.64 average rating based off 14 reviews. I don’t say that to brag, but because I find it kind of crazy for a book with one huge, glaring flaw:

Brianna and Garrett essentially throw Monica – and to a lesser extent, Kel Morgan – to the wolves.

In retrospect, it’s one of the series’ most glaring plot flaws, other than the ill-advised sex subplot from Band of Fallen Princes (more on that in a few days). For those that haven’t read it, Garrett’s first encounter with the novel’s antagonist goes bad. Garrett gets his ass handed to him in a protracted fight, and as he’s getting patched up by Monica and Brianna, the three of them agree that it’s best Garrett and Brianna go on a vacation.

If you’re asking yourself right now, “Wait, what the hell?” then congratulations, you’re on my side in all this. Because it makes no damn sense.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that – Brianna’s basically been fighting a mental breakdown for the whole length of the novel, while Garrett needs to make a trip to Vegas to bolster his appearance as a semi-retired card player. The trip has been planned for a while, and they spend time after the fight with the shapeshifter trying to make sure the thing was gone for good. So it’s not as entirely WTF-ish as I’ve mentioned above, but the trip to Vegas after such an insane fight is weirdly out of character for these two.

But in my mind, despite my attempts to justify the trip and the additional backstory it creates for Garrett by fleshing out Blake and Froggy, his two mentors – the Vegas trip throws the story completely out of whack. It lacks the character building necessity of the Florida trip in the first novel, and it just feels like Garrett and Brianna are telling their friends, “Well, there’s a threat out there we can’t tell you about, so good luck dealing with it. Oh, we’ll bring you back something shiny too.”

But readers in general seem to like this one the best. One of my tst readers claims Smyle is the best to date, so we’ll have to wait and see on how the public at large responds to it, but for now, baffling me at least, Shifting Furies stands as the generally accepted favorite among my readers.

You’re all bananas because the actual best is going to be featured tomorrow.

Saying Goodbye to Ghosts, Pt. 1 – The Ghost at His Back

In nine days, I’ll be hitting the publish button on Plague of Life, the final Rankin Flats supernatural thriller, at least in its current incarnation.

It was never supposed to end.

I didn’t like The Ghost at His Back’s premise. I didn’t care about ghosts, or gyms, or psychotic breakdowns of programmers. I saw an opportunity to create something that hadn’t really been done before, as far as I knew, and I thought – perhaps mistakenly – there was a bigger market for it. The plan was to write as many of these as readers liked, in an emulation of John Sandford’s Prey novels, just with a vigilante and his ghostly friends.

Ghost_3It’s funny now in retrospect. The Ghost at His Back and Shifting Furies were written entirely with future profits in mind, but both of them – and every novel to follow – wound up mattering more to me than any other work I’ve done before. Along the way, Garrett, Brianna, Murphy, and all the side characters dragged me kicking and screaming into loving them now and always. And once I did realize I loved them, loved all of them, I realized I had to let them have their end. A journey is wonderful, but a destination is closure. My characters deserved that.

The beginnings of The Ghost at His Back are murky in the back of my mind. The “real” first draft didn’t start until January of 2016, but the ever-helpful Facebook “memories” feature helped remind me that I did, in fact, write two chapters of the story way back in the beginning of 2015, nearly a year before my lizard brain thinks I started writing it.

In its earliest form, The Ghost at His Back was really The Ghost at My Back, a first-person narrative in the vein of Charlie Huston. The first chapter very much mirrored what you can read on paper today, minus the character Monica, who wasn’t a part of the novel until its real second draft in March of 2016. That first draft featured Murphy and Garrett breaking into the same barbershop – though this time the evil barber’s name was Emmerich.

The second chapter jumped quite a ways ahead of what you’d find now in a scene that killed my forward momentum in a hurry. The basics of it were that Garrett was playing poker with Danny – the same Danny from the published edition – along with several of their friends and acquaintances. This poker game, as poorly written as it was, set up wone of the more minor antagonists of the series, Ben the “Professor,” who is jealous of Garrett in all his successes and would have wound up betraying him.

The second half of the chapter introduces Brianna much earlier in the plot, as she joins her dad and the others for the poker game. Brianna in this version is a much “sexier” character, without the scars and with a few more curves than she wound up with in the final product. In this iteration, interestingly enough, she was a pastor, brought in straight out of college to a failing church. The original idea was to make her Garrett’s confessor of sorts. The idea, though, fell flat when I realized how many urban fantasy novels play on the same archetype. It stopped my progress on the novel for nearly a year, until one day, in the shower, I thought about why ghosts would be stuck here on Earth. They wouldn’t be good enough to go to heaven, or evil enough to drop to Hell, so…

“Ghosts are assholes.”

Now, keep in mind I don’t actually believe in ghosts or the paranormal. Well… to a certain extent. I believe there are probably some kernels of truth to certain mythologies about creatures, probably thanks to dying species of animals our ancestors saw in their last days on Earth that were then blown up into typical human bullshittery. You can see the same phenomena when it’s hunting season. Two-point deer suddenly become six-point monstrosities that the hunter “just missed.” In the same manner do I believe in mythologies. Was there probably some leathery winged creature that, from a distance, could be mistaken for something as big as a dragon? Sure! Why not? Do I believe these things exist now? Oh hell no.

Anyways, back to the process. The plot for the first draft of The Ghost at His Back revolved around a politician on a meteoric rise and whose house was protected by a ghost-killing smoke monster entity. Weird enough for you? Just wait. It gets worse.

Garrett, Murphy, and Brianna – now the daughter of a gym owner – take on the politician along with Padraig, the Scottish ghost who goes rogue on them in the draft you might have read. In that draft, Padraig is a coward, but he’s convinced by Murphy to help scout out the house. They find out the politician is a cannibal, belonging to the Legion (who are much the same as you’ve read in the final draft), and he has a shrine to a Legion dark entity in his basement (much the same as what lies under the school in Bone Carvers).

Here’s where things get really weird.

In order to stop the soul-killing smoke monster thing, Padraig sacrifices himself in an attempt to drag it to heaven (sound familiar?). Murphy realizes Padraig’s on the right track, and helps him, abandoning Garrett and Brianna but not before warning them that the Legion are bringing in trucks filled with bombs because… I don’t know why. That plot point was shaky at best. Something to do with killing Garrett, but why they didn’t just hire a sniper or something, I have no idea. Look, it was a bad first draft.

Anyways, Garrett and an FBI agent (not Shannon Oliver, but a sort of super-genius guy who sniffs out the vigilante) track down the trucks, but realize it’s a trap at the very last second. The trucks detonate, and the two are captured by the politician’s henchmen and dragged down to the basement of the politician’s house, where they’ll be sacrificed.

Cue Brianna and Stephanie, who have been waiting in the wings. When the bombs go off and Garrett hasn’t checked in, Garrett’s girlfriend and his sister come to rescue him… except Brianna’s killed by the politician after it seems the day has been saved. The idea was that “The Ghost at His Back” wasn’t Murphy, but Brianna, starting a bittersweet love story across the novels where they still were together, but unable to touch.

It was bad. And, weirdly enough, I’d really fallen for Brianna myself. Most of the men in the novels are based off someone, but I have such vivid imagery of the women I’ve written about that I don’t really need it. I’d created… well, not my ideal woman, but a beautiful one, flawed and spirited and more than willing to fight for what was good and right. I couldn’t kill her in The Ghost at HIs Back.

What came after that draft was a whirlwind of a complete rewrite to what you’re basically holding in your hand now. Elements were added – Monica’s part was fleshed out, the male FBI agent and the stupid bomb plot was dropped altogether, and I added Shannon Oliver and Annalise Fox, two of the biggest characters of the series, though their roles were admittedly a little small in that first novel.

On June 1st, I hit the publish button. It was premature – on the very first page, there was an error, and the whole book was riddled with more. I hadn’t proofread properly, but I was learning. I began work on a sequel immediately, a strange little thing that would continue the Shannon Oliver overarching plot while introducing new villains and allies.

And its name? The Ghost and the Shifter. More on that tomorrow.

The Fit Hit – Mar. 12, 2018

Been a while, but I’ve been on the mend from a fall on the ice and my workouts haven’t been great. Happy to report I’m good now.

And as an added bonus, it seems our endless winter is finally easing up a little. My folks bought me a ten day swim pass at the local Spa Motel, fed naturally by sulfur hot springs in the area (if you’ve read The Ghost at His Back, it’s mentioned in there). The winter’s been so bad I haven’t had a chance to use it once – and get this, the motel’s only a block away. The ice has been that bad.

You wouldn’t think it to look at me now, but I used to be a hell of a swimmer. I could paddle around a pool before I could walk, thanks to my grandparents on my dad’s side and their pools. Nowadays, thanks to my weight and my ankylosing spondylitis, I’m not great at it anymore, but it’s still my favorite exercise, by far.

Which leads me to workouts. Ugh, I need to push myself harder with winter cardio. As boring as it might be to walk in place in front of a TV, I need to do it. How are your own workouts coming? Feel free to brag it up in the comments.