Buy Hemovore ebook at MyBookstoreAndMore and other fine ebook sellers. Paperback available Spring 2010.
a vampire thriller
by Jordan Castillo Price
Hemovore Under the Hood
For writers, and for readers who are curious about the writing process, I've written a series of writing articles using examples from the novel.
quirky vs. annoying
It’s a fine line, I think, between a memorable character with a distinctive voice, and a character who annoys a reader so badly that they have to go have an Internet rant at the author’s expense. The fact that many popular characters delight some readers while making other readers cringe goes to show that intriguing and annoying are in pretty close proximity of each other on the target range.
I did a lot of tweaking with Mark Hansen to make sure he had a strong personality without turning people off. Because the story is in his first-person viewpoint, it was critical the reader cared about him, and looked on his flaws as tolerable and understandable rather than turn-offs.
He’s smart and resourceful and he knows it. One woman in my early writing group was really turned off by his, “I’ve got to do everything around here?” attitude. I opted not to tone it down, but to try to show the reason he was such a perfectionist, and to add some humor to it so that it was funny and over-the-top if he cleaned the same thing three times, and then psyched himself out into doing it yet again.
Designer clothes were always a big part of his persona, because pretty much any guy will look awesome in the right suit. I saw Mark, like myself, as someone who’d really love to be in shape, but despite the good intentions, can’t quite manage. He makes up for his insecurity about his looks by being a clothes snob. Originally, I’d stopped there. But pretty soon I realized it was a good opportunity to add another humanizing element to him, and I tweaked the story so that not only did he love fine clothes, but he was spending beyond his means to have them. (Probably dangerously close to making him a wallbanger, but the whole story went to another level when I decided he and Jonathan weren’t well-to-do. Another post on wealth in fiction later this week.)
Giving Mark the personality traits of being confident and critical shaped his arc for the whole story. He begins as someone in charge of his life, and then the control is taken away from him and he needs to learn how to rely on someone else—Jonathan. (Who turns out to be frighteningly competent in his own way, which I think is a 180 that readers will enjoy.) Ultimate control is then taken from him when he’s injured and needs to be hospitalized.
In the final third of the book, Mark needs to rally even though his entire world is upside down and make sure Jonathan isn’t found guilty of the crimes he’s been framed for. The experiences he’s had to that point have made him even stronger, even more resourceful than he ever knew he was—and a new and deep-down trust of himself allows him to ensure the safety of him and the people he cares about once and for all. If you compare Mark from this portion of the novel to earlier, you’ll see he’s less talk and more action. It’s as if hardship has grown him into the person he always thought he was.
how to bury your worldbuilding
Show, don't tell. Writing advice books have been giving us this order for so long it's lost its meaning, kind of like if you say the word "cheese" over and over until it doesn't sound like a word anymore. (Or, if you really want to freak yourself out, you can do it with "the." But I digress...)
So if "show don't tell" is so old-hat that it no longer means anything, then what's the whole deal with exposition, and why should we care?
Exposition is when you tell readers what's going on rather than writing a scene so that a movie unfolds in their heads. It's not that you can't ever use exposition, but you paint a heck of a lot more vivid picture if you can figure out a way to demonstrate this thing you're going to show rather than "telling" about it.
As I readied Hemovore to send to the editor, I opened up the document to give it a readthrough and was dismayed to discover it was bursting at the seams with exposition. No, no, no. Exposition is the kiss of death, especially when worldbuilding is involved, and Hemovore has a lot of worldbuilding happening. I could see right away that I needed to immerse the reader in the world, rather than explaining how the world came to be. Let me show you the original first page.
It’s amazing, the flaws a good suit once camouflaged. Love handles? Gone. Paunch? Covered. Nonexistent derriere? No problem.
Suits are cut much slimmer nowadays. The dwindling of roomy suits was probably precipitated by the Human Hemovore Virus, which leaves its few lucky survivors gallivanting around in trim, toned bodies. Vogue Magazine claims that menswear silhouettes had been growing sleeker throughout the end of the twentieth century even before the virus reared its fanged head. Maybe. I still say suits got skinny because of vampires.
I used to wear suits because it was expected of me, not because anything on me needed to be hidden. This was back in the days when I’d just completed my mediocre stint at a so-so college and had a perfectly useless BA in Art History to hang on the wall, before I’d started working in the private sector.
Fast forward eighteen years. Now, I jump at the chance to wear a suit. Even though suits are no longer the bastions of structure and padding they once were, I still look a hell of a lot better in a suit than I do in a T-shirt. I cut a stunning figure in a charcoal gray Prada, gliding across the carpet in my handmade Tanino Crisci oxfords that, as the shoe salesman assured me back when I’d plunked down three paychecks on them, have never gone out of style.
Of course, now one is expected to wear gloves with a suit. Because one is expected to wear gloves with everything. Suits. T-shirts. Tube tops.
And to think, there was once a day when gloves were worn only to high tea or Olympic skiing events. How sad.
I had the narrator Mark's voice down pat, obviously. But right at the beginning was not the time to give you a window into his personality (that he was addicted to clothes) or worse, his whole friggin' history.
That's okay. That's what word processors are for. Saving iteration after iteration so you don't have to be scared of starting things over. I did start over. In fact, I re-wrote the first fifty pages of the book from approximately two pages of longhand notes and a bunch of Post-Its. I only saved lines that were so memorable that I was able to search them. (In this case, I did save the original first paragraph about the slimming of suits. But I presented it farther into the story, after you've gotten a chance to watch Mark navigate his day to day life for a while. And while he's suiting up for an important occasion, where his thoughts about suits actually feel relevant.
This was...not my second try, because friends, I've been re-writing this story forever trying to nail it. Let's say it's my twelfth try. Or my twentieth. But either way, it was my most recent try, and I was bound and determined to tell the story right. I started with my favorite scene, the supermarket scene, and I let it rip.
THE UMPTEENTH TRY:
The blood is the life.
So Hollywood’s been telling us, ever since the advent of the talkies. But like so many of the vampire myths, Hollywood got that one wrong. Because blood low in fat, low in calories — and unless you’re a South American bat, the quantity it would take to sustain life, all by itself, is staggering.
The vampiric diet is more of a triumvirate of water, oil and blood. Water for hydration. Oil for calories. And blood for…well, it’s been nearly eight years now, and researchers still haven’t figured out what, exactly, the V-positive folks get from blood. Whatever it is, the clotting action of platelets negates it.
And whatever it is, they sure do suffer without it.
Maybe the blood really is the life. A day or two without a fresh dose of the red stuff, and a vampire will get week and woozy. Blood, oil and water. A vampire’s food pyramid makes my dietary needs, as a regular, run-of-the-mill, uninfected V-negative look more like a skewed quadrilateral.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s more of a straight line, since I live on Lean Cuisines. Though sometimes I have to eat three or four so I don’t feel as if I’m starving to death. I have greater caloric needs than your average-sized person. I’m male, so add an extra Chicken Florentine right there. Big-boned, too. And tall, annoyingly tall, tall enough that everyone assumes I played basketball in high school or college (and makes a point of asking me about it), along with the current state of the weather “up there.” So on a particularly lengthy, solitary, empty night, I might need an extra Penne Carbonara or Shrimp Scampi or perhaps a few French Bread Pizzas to fill the void.
A shopping cart rattled as it swerved around me on shaky wheels. How long had I been standing there, glued to my cart, staring at the bottled water aisle?
Yes, a whole aisle with nothing but water. Hollywood may have gotten vampirism wrong, but the marketing execs at the big ad agencies? They had their fingers on the pulse of a whole nation of consumers. Because if you could buy a product related to your condition, then everything must be okay.
So here's the crazy part. Even after I had re-written the first fifty pages, I read through it again, and lo and behold, the fucking thing was STILL swarming with exposition, for about the first 20 pages. Here's what clued me in. If I had to describe the action and nothing more, I would regretfully need to say, "Mark is standing there looking at something and thinking." There's a clue!
I am convinced that when you start a novel, you simply can't help it. As the author, you have the worldbuilding going on in your head, and there are facts you need to convey to the reader, and no matter how you slice it, the exposition's gonna leak out there.
Enter the big yellow highlighter. I printed out those twenty pages and highlighted everything expository, whether I enjoyed the narrator's voice during the exposition or not, and I proceeded to figure out ways to show all those things happening, rather than just narrating them. It was pretty awful looking at all that yellow. (It was on ballerina pink parchment paper, which is another whole story, though not a very interesting one.)
The blood is the life.
So Hollywood’s been telling us, and maybe it’s true, but water is where the real money’s being made. Water should be free—it falls from the sky, after all—but there it was on the shelf in slick, designer-looking bottles, selling for four, five bucks apiece. Water. It had become the fastest-growing, highest-grossing product on the market.
I felt vaguely guilty as I steered my shopping cart full of Lean Cuisines down the water aisle, but only vaguely. Jonathan had never forbidden me to shop in the water aisle—only the vampire aisle. Though you could argue that they were practically one and the same, especially since water now came in such flavors as Dew Kissed Pear Orchard and…Meatball Hoagie.
I did a double take. Yes indeed, I’d read the label correctly. Meatball Hoagie De-Lite. I rotated a bottle so I could read the label. The first ingredient was water. That was encouraging. A bunch of scientific-sounding words followed. Additives? Preservatives? Hard to say. All I knew was, that bottle of flavored water had more chemicals in it than my Aunt Trixie at the last ill-fated Hansen family Thanksgiving gathering.
The shelf had a bright orange tag dangling from the edge. Meatball Hoagie De-Lite was on sale, three for $11—which was irritating, since eleven isn’t readily divisible by three, and which, I suspected, was the very reason it had been priced that way. It couldn’t hurt to try it, since it was on sale and all, but I wasn’t about to put it on Jonathan’s credit card with the rest of our food. Maybe he looked at the receipts, or maybe he shoved them all into a shoebox for his accountant to handle, but either way, I didn’t want to be stuck explaining my sudden perverse desire to taste sandwich-flavored water.
Maybe I had some cash.
I dealt with the specifics of the vampire diet later, when there was an actual vampire in the room freaking out because his blood supply was all clotted.
So why bother? Why re-write something eight million times to lose that exposition? Readers read your stuff for the characters, right?
Yes, and no. They do read for character. But characters come alive when they're doing things. Not when the history of something is being told. Not when an etymology is being given. Not when a geography or politics lesson is occurring. People doing stuff. It all boils down to that.
And if your scene involves people thinking, remembering, or reflecting, it's probably time to whip out that big yellow highlighter. It hurts, I know—believe me, I know—but it's for the best.
money's more fun in real life than fiction
The first novel an author writes is usually not fit for publication. I'm no exception! I have three novels that are never going to end up in anyone's shopping cart, and probably about six novels-worth of fanfic that I practiced on before I came up with Among the Living.
One of those long ago novels was about a woman whose estranged father owned a factory. He'd had a stroke, and she had to come home and handle his business because her brother was too self-centered to deal with it. The intention was to have dirty business partners employing zombies. The novel never quite got there, though I did use the zombie employee concept in Body & Soul.
Reflecting back on the many ways in which the novel failed, I realized something. I had the brother, sister and dad in a big house with a private nurse. The factory (I don't even remember what it manufactured) was doing well. But as I pondered how flat the story was, I thought to myself...what if things weren't so easy? What if the house was too small for all of them and falling apart at the seams because the dad couldn't afford repairs? What if the business had been failing for a while, and he'd stopped cashing his own paychecks a year ago to ensure that he could pay his employees. And what if the daughter walked into THAT?
I'll tell you what: so much juicy conflict the story would fly right off the page.
I decided that money was the key.
A lot of fiction I read features well-to-do characters. Lawyers. Businessmen. The perennial favorite: nightclub owners. Unless we're talking lawyers written by real life lawyers like James Buchanan or John Grisham, the characters don't typically rise above what any of us could glean from watching a few episodes of Law & Order. And have many of the authors run a large company? Unlikely. How about a nightclub? I knew a nightclub owner, and her job seemed a heck of a lot more tedious, dirty and exhausting than the nightclub owners I read about in fiction, who all have secret luxury rooms in the basement and sex partners out the wazoo.
And then there's the money.
All these protagonists have so much money. So whenever there is a conflict in the story, I think to myself, "Can't you just pay someone to deal with that?" If it's an emotional conflict, and the character can afford a therapist, you have to wonder why they don't have one. And I'll be honest: a protagonist buying and selling companies is so abstract to me, as a person, that I get more involved with characters buying and selling used underwear on eBay. At least I'd be able to empathize with some poor sap trying to get lucky and have his online auction take off! The guy who just bought a third world country? Not so much. In fact, I'm more likely to assume he's a douchebag.
So how does that relate to Hemovore?
First, instead of making Jonathan a bazillionaire, as I did originally, I decided that he had enough money to hire an assistant, but not enough for that assistant to lounge around and look pretty all day. I wanted Mark to feel like he had to work to sell those black paintings he couldn't even see. I wanted Mark to be uncomfortable about carrying around that fat roll of twenties so he could pay the cat blood dealer. (This detail was inspired by real life. I used to live in a neighborhood so bad that my landlady wanted the rent in small bills because no local store would break a hundred. I finally negotiated paying her via check a week early so I didn't have to walk home from the bus stop waiting for someone to mug me with that money wad in my pocket. )
Once Jonathan's money reserves were finite, suddenly the first meeting with the art buyer at Beacon gallery became more important. It wasn't just an, "Oh, who likes my paintings?" artistic curiosity. Instead, it felt more like, "Holy crap, this sale is a big honking deal."
And when they get the news that the paintings sell, the joy and excitement become more palpable, because it's a really huge deal. It's like winning the lottery. Maybe not the Powerball, but definitely like a nice Pick-4.
Even Mark originally had more money than he knew what to do with. It seemed like a good way to show that he didn't really have much of a life, outside work. (Remember...show, don't tell.) But come on. How many of us really have MONEY lying around that we can't think of perfectly legitimate uses for? Not me, that's for sure.
So when I took away Mark's financial security net, I could then do things like shut his cable TV off. That shows how neglected his apartment had become much better than a mountain of "extra money" in his savings account. I also think it humanized him as a character to have a taste for clothes and shoes that were well above his price range, but that he bought anyway. We all know people like this. Maybe we are people like this. Maybe I personally can take or leave clothing, but my Achilles' heel is computer equipment. We've all got our weaknesses. And I'd bet that weakness isn't "letting that pesky money accumulate."
One thing to be aware of. Just because your character has an actual job to do that doesn't involve personal jets and vague business mergers does not mean the tedious details of his day-to-day job are interesting. I think that many people try to write what they know—another well-worn writing adage—and they end up including job details that weigh down the story. If you find yourself writing about your own profession and explaining some inner working, and if that inner working isn't relevant to the plot, take a good look at it and be honest with yourself. Is it boring? Does it matter?
Hint: if you are wanking on about your real life job, chances are you're doing it in an expository way and the yellow highlighter will catch it for you. You DID go grab yourself a yellow highlighter, right???
how to cheat on settings
I lived in various Chicago neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Humboldt Park to Lincoln Square, for fourteen years. Hemovore is specifically Chicago. Several of the settings that were prominent in the book couldn't have been anywhere else in the world.
- The bridge over the Chicago river with the El running past, and Merchandise Mart overlooking it - particularly how slippery it gets in the winter, how "dead" the traffic becomes in the middle of the night, and the white lights they put in all the trees in the winter
- Grant Park abutting Michigan Avenue - with the commuter railroad station below street level - we used to shoot photos down there in undergrad
- The strip of 1950's motels between Chicago and Lincolnwood on Lincoln Avenue - I rode a bus past them for a job I held a few months and was always fascinated by them
- The Currency Exchange - these seem indigenous to inner city Chicago, suburban Chicago and northern Indiana, especially in poor neighborhoods where people don't have bank accounts
- The old access tunnels alongside the subway - the coolest setting ever!
The old access tunnels were especially dear to me. I learned they existed one year when a hole opened up in the tunnel wall—on my birthday—and the Chicago river flooded them. I was in grad school and I was supposed to give a lecture, and the city shut down all the trains, the downtown businesses and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and that was that. I was off the hook for a whole week!
I learned that Marshall Fields and Carson's and all the old department stores had sub-sub basements that were connected. Made you wonder what was in those subterranean rooms! Luckily there were websites that detailed the history of these bizarre tunnels, which were turn-of-the-century delivery systems, so I could research them. The bomb shelter Mark and Jonathan find is real! I would never have been bold enough to put one there so serendipitously if it wasn't real.
Better yet, when I researched the types of things that would be stored in a bomb shelter—especially an 80's-era abandoned bomb shelter—I was able to fill the tunnels with all sorts of weird, iodine-laced supplies.
Having all of these specific settings would seem to indicate that you can't write with confidence about any city unless you either live there or do a ton of research and then travel there to see the various points of interest with your own eyes.
However, when I considered other parts of the story, they certainly did fit into Chicago, but they were also ripe for improvisation.
- The Russian bakery - this was set in a neighborhood that I remember vividly, mostly Polish with some Spanish, some Russian and some Greek. But the bakery itself was pure invention, and you could set something like it in any city that you knew to have an ethnic population.
- The Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center - a real place, but I've never been inside. They have a website and a visitor's manual available for download, which was really helpful in Camp Hell when Vic went to see Roger Burke! In Hemovore, I have the prison totally "re-vamped" with plastic rooms and a special V-Positive ward, so it's pure invention.
- Jonathan's Studio - Whenever I pictured his studio in my head, it was on the corner of Adams and Wabash in an old 13-floor high rise where I used to work. Always. Not the specific apartment, and not even the underground garage, just the building itself. So it was grounded in a real place, but really, it could have been anywhere. Placing the studio where I did simply helped me to see it in my mind's eye. We can all imagine a lobby, a disused set of cement stairs, or a hallway in which we can hear our neighbors' TV sets playing.
Eventually even Chicago, with all its character and diversity, began to feel old for me after I set both Hemovore and the PsyCop series there. I didn't want it to seem like I was unable to write about any other place. And besides, I've been living in rural Wisconsin almost nine years now. Chicago's not even exactly the same as I remember it!
Lately I've tried to spread out my writing a little more and focus on specific details to give my stories a memorable sense of place. My thought is that if you get a building really right and you make sure the correct type of foliage and weather's outside, your readers will be willing to believe they're in whatever city you say they're in!
The key is getting detail, good detail, and really picturing the place in your mind's eye. Can you set something in the Louvre without having been there? Why not? Go to a local museum and see what details you might have taken for granted if you hadn't been looking specifically for them. On my latest trip to a local museum I saw little machines in the corners of the rooms measuring temperature and humidity, and I noticed the way all the guards lounged around the security monitors chatting with each other and not really watching the screens. The air smelled cool, dry and processed.
Take the details you've found locally, combine them with a few facts from the real place's website (so you're not putting in a basement where one doesn't exist, for instance, or you're not setting the building on the wrong side of town) and you've got yourself a location that feels real! Be sure not to over-explain. Just because you've seen the layout on a map doesn't mean you have to walk the reader through it step by step. Include the details that are relevant to your story and make them really good ones, and I doubt anyone will question the layout of the parking lot.
Of course, if you can finagle a "fact-finding" trip to the Louvre, that's even better....
I hope you've enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at Hemovore!
Where to find it
Buy at MyBookstoreAndMore or other ebook sellers
Coming Spring 2010 in paperback