Sunday, November 25, 2012

How animation legend Chuck Jones influenced "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!"

I've spoken before about the rules legendary animator Chuck Jones established for his Roadrunner cartoons. He insisted that the roadrunner not speak - only Meep; the roadrunner had to stay on the road; the coyote would always fall the same number of frames. To Chuck those strictures freed the creativity of the artists within that context. It was very structured.

Some would say rigid.

But it worked. The Roadrunner - (And Pepe Le Pew, which was similar) is extremely popular. When I interviewed him for "The Hand Behind the Mouse" he reaffirmed those rules as a creativity-enhancing device. For me, that's what my little experiment with Tolstoy was all about - working within a structure.

Each line for me was like one of Chuck's rules. It may have limited my options, but it also forced all of my thought processes to be concentrated on the content and the story - instead of rhythms, parts of speech or anything of the sort. All of that was already done for me. The process was enabled in some ways by the choice I made to have O'Ryan be integral to every chapter. With the exception of the opening chapter at his funeral - and the final scene in the hospital - the viewpoint is limited omniscient. I write from his perspective, feeling his pain.

So knowing the subject was O'Ryan, and the sentence structure I needed, I merely had to fill in action verbs and pretty it up with the filigree of adjectives and adverbs as prescribed by Tolstoy's word choices.

"Merely," the man said. "Merely!" Hah! Darned hard work actually. But that hard work was between the lines. Not external. Everything that suffered my restless nights was what was truly important - the story itself.

Not that I would do it again. But it was certainly an interesting process.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Creating the Unexpected when so much is Known...

One of the immense challenges with writing "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!" - aside from the Tolstoy sentence structure - was in creating a narrative that was somehow interesting when so much was known from the start. Heavens, the very title tells you all you need to know, doesn't it?

Or does it?

If that were the case, why write the story at all? Indeed. O'Ryan Ross lived; then he died. Big surprise.

But it is that journey from A to B that is revelatory. How and (more importantly) why did he die? Part of that is explained away in the opening scene which takes place at O'Ryan's funeral. We know he committed suicide, we know he used a gun, we know he's dead. Done, done, and done...!

But despite that fore-knowledge, there is much we don't know as well. We are given some hints in that opening scene, and the stage is certainly set, but with a work that is so dogmatic as is this - it is so very important to add surprises where possible, just to maintain the reader interest. Even up to the final line, I have tried to do that.

One thing I have attempted to do is to slightly skew events by having unreliable narrators at times. It is more fun if even I don't know precisely what is happening and when. By having characters be self-delusional (O'Ryan Ross, Jadwin Ross) or simply mistaken (Peter Ivanovich, Alwyn Ross, Professor Hays), we are able to keep that suspense evident along the way.

Or so I hope.

By writing with this in mind, I feel I have veered a couple of times from where I thought the story was going. Several of the twists were un-explored when I began and only revealed themselves with the writing of each scene. What made this interesting was that I did not write "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!" in sequence - but rather, I wrote Chapter One, Twelve, Nine, Two, Three, Eleven, Four, Five, Ten, Six, Seven, Eight. So surprises had to be consistent with the continuity without mucking up something already written. Fortunately there were few instances where I had to rewrite an existing section of an existing chapter.

Adding to this continuity challenge was that at about Chapter Six in my writing, I began to work on "silent words..." which added a layer. That companion book didn't really alter the original concepts of "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!" which is a much more vital book in my mind (right up there with "The Missionary and the Brute" for me) - but it did add some nuance and a sense of symbiosis. In a way, "silent words..." is a parasite-pecking bird on the back of the crusty-backed rhinoceros that is "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!", but the relationship hopefully benefits both works.

Coming soon: How animation legend Chuck Jones influenced "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


With "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!" set to be published this week (I expect to see it on Amazon by Friday, and it can be pre-ordered here directly more quickly) I have been thinking a lot about the source material of this little work. As I have said, it is based on a sentence-by-sentence exploration of Tolstoy's novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilych."

Now I've never really been a Russian Literature buff, bigger on American Lit actually. But there are a lot of folks whom I admire that rave over Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev and of course - Leo Tolstoy. So I figured that I had to read me some Tolstoy. My cocky, confident side thought I should tackle "War and Peace," but good common sense prevailed and I chose "Ivan Ilych" instead. It was the smallest Tolstoy in the bookstore!

Even though it was small, I found the concepts and the writing to be quite large. Ambitious, dense, huge. The sentence structure was amazing to me - and I wasn't certain if it was the translator or Leo that had made it so. I tend to give Tolstoy the credit.

No writing I have ever encountered has featured such convoluted run-on sentences within sentences within parenthetical phrases within asides and lists and more lists. Being almost dialogue-free, it practically scared me off. I was tentative of digging in, but it was ultimately well worth it. I felt it was almost precisely opposite of my usual way of writing. I tend to truncate. Eliminate articles, subjects, predicates.

So I started dissecting it clinically. Then it hit me. To take that structure, but me-ify it. It was some of the most tedious writing that I've yet encountered. But still I feel that I found my voice within it, and began to feel that rhythm strike me. It fit the tone of the story I wanted to tell, and it fit me. Fantastic exercise, and an incredible experience all the way around.

It isn't a perfect mirror of the original by any means, but then again it was never meant to be. Ultimately, it was meant to be book that I hope you will all want to read. I know it is the book I wanted to write.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Ross Chronology... as it stands...

Did you miss them? The Rosses, I mean. The last we saw, Jadwin Ross was flying back from Africa in "The Missionary and The Brute" and Alwyn Ross was interviewing animators in "Animated Lives!" but O'Ryan Ross? Who in the name of William Faulkner is that?

Before we go too far, perhaps we should lay out the chronology we are encountering here. There are four Ross siblings (as far as we know). In descending order of age they are: O'Ryan, Jadwin, Dottie, Alwyn... When I was writing "The Missionary and the Brute" I quite deliberately avoided any semblance of backstory. I wanted the novel to be set in the universal NOW with no encumbrances of time or history to intercede on the reader's interpretation.

Now however, I have discovered that all of my books are inter-linked, and they ARE the backstory to one another. Jadwin Ross is a character in the upcoming "The Death of O'Ryan Ross" as is Alwyn. But 30 years or so before the events that take place in Missionary and Animated Lives!

Placed upon a rather shaky chronology and always subject to change, the Saga looks something like this:

"Ira, the Seeker and the Kid" - 2017
Timeframe: 1800s
Primary character(s): Ira Haseltine
Secondary character(s): Alwyn Ross, Ethan Ross
Minor/Mentions: None

"The Death of O'Ryan Ross" - 2012
Timeframe: Mostly O'Ryan and Jadwin's college years.
Primary character(s): O'Ryan Ross
Secondary character(s): Jadwin Ross, Sarah B., Professor Hays 
Minor/Mentions: Alwyn Ross, Dottie Ross

"silent words..." - 2012
Timeframe: O'Ryan's college years as viewed from Alwyn today.
Primary character(s): O'Ryan Ross, Alwyn Ross, Sarah B.
Secondary character(s): None
Minor/Mentions: Jadwin Ross, Dottie Ross

"Man-soldier" - 2017
Timeframe: O'Ryan's college years
Primary character(s): Man-soldier, Slade
Secondary character(s): O'Ryan Ross, Jadwin Ross, Sarah B.
Minor/Mentions: Alwyn Ross, Dottie Ross

"Reject from Retard School" - 2013
Timeframe: Mostly Alwyn's Middle School and High School years.
Primary character(s): Alwyn Ross, GranPap Ross
Secondary character(s): Dottie Ross
Minor/Mentions: O'Ryan Ross, Jadwin Ross

"Straw Man" - 2014
Timeframe: Mid 2005
Primary character(s): Dottie Ross, Professor Hays
Secondary character(s): None
Minor/Mentions: None

"Animated Lives!"- 2011
Timeframe: 2009
Primary character(s): Alwyn Ross
Secondary character(s): None
Minor/Mentions: Dottie Ross

"The Missionary and the Brute" - 2011
Timeframe: 2010
Primary character(s): Jadwin Ross
Secondary character(s): Rev. Kweka, Godsend
Minor/Mentions: None

"The Blue Man" -2013
Timeframe: 2012 and 1930s (Alwyn's research)
Primary character(s): Alwyn Ross
Secondary character(s): Karen Wilcox
Minor/Mentions: Dottie Ross

"A Harlot's Diary" - 2015
Timeframe: 2013
Primary character(s): Sarah B.
Secondary character(s): Alwyn Ross
Minor/Mentions: O'Ryan Ross, Jadwin Ross, Professor Hays

"Chiaroscuro Bums" - 2014
Timeframe: 2013
Primary character(s): Jadwin Ross
Secondary character(s): Not telling
Minor/Mentions: None

"Believer" - 2015
Timeframe: 2014
Primary character(s): Alwyn Ross, Sarah B.
Secondary character(s): Dottie Ross
Minor/Mentions: None

"Lifecycle" - 2016
Timeframe: 2015
Primary character(s): None
Secondary character(s): Alwyn Ross
Minor/Mentions: None

"Shorts" - 2013
Timeframe: Multiple
Primary character(s): Alwyn Ross, Dottie Ross, Jadwin Ross
Secondary character(s): Godsend
Minor/Mentions: None