S.G. Browne

Beyond the Keyboard: Less Than Hero

B82pUXECAAAKNl3This is the next installment of my Beyond the Keyboard series, where I pull back the curtain, so to speak, on the ideas that inspired my novels and provide a peek into the creative process behind them. (You can find my previous posts for Breathers, Fated, Lucky Bastard, and Big Egos by clicking on the titles.

Up next, my new dark comedy and social satire about superheroes and our country’s love affair with prescription drugs: Less Than Hero.

The Pharmaceutical Seed is Planted

Back on October 4, 2003, I was sitting in a hotel room in Ventura watching TV at 10pm when a commercial came on for some kind of prescription drug that promised to help cure abdominal cramping with one of the side effects being that it might cause abdominal cramping. I found this both asinine and amusing and wrote it down in my journal, although I wouldn’t come back to it for nearly five years.

It’s relevant to mention here that in 1997, the FDA approved Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products in the United States. Prior to that, there were no TV commercials for prescription drugs. And the proliferation of ads for prescription drugs continued on cable and network television so that by 2008, you couldn’t watch the boob tube for twenty minutes without being told that you might be really sick and need the latest miracle drug.

Guinea Pig, Guinea Pig, Let Me In!

Sometime in 2008, I came across several articles about professional guinea pigs: people who make a living on the margins of society by volunteering for paid clinical trials where they beta test pharmaceutical drugs being developed for consumers. These Phase I clinical trials test the efficacy and side effects of a drug on more or less healthy subjects, paying anywhere from $200 to $10,000 depending on the length and requirements of the clinical trial.

The idea for doing something centered around prescription drugs had been percolating and when I read about this fringe culture of professional pharmaceutical drug volunteers, I knew I had to do something with it. The question was: What?

The Superhero Connection

For a number of years I’d toyed with the idea of writing some kind of superhero story, but none of the ideas resonated or seemed original. While I was (and am) a fan of the superhero genre (specifically films and TV shows rather than comic books) and enjoyed the standard superhero films (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), none of them resonated with me on a creative level.

Instead, I was more inspired by films like Mystery Men, with its humor and heroes who were ordinary people with odd talents who just wanted to make a difference; X-Men, which appealed to me with the concept of mutants and its social commentary on prejudice and discrimination; and Unbreakable, because it was about an ordinary man discovering his extraordinary abilities and, eventually, a purpose that gave his life meaning.

So at some point in the creative process, I realized that these guinea pigs, at least the fictional ones gestating in my head, would be my superheroes. They would develop mutated abilities from all of the prescription drugs they’d tested. And I would use them to make social commentary on the pharmaceutical industry and the over-medication of our society. So in a way, the three films that inspired me helped to shape Less Than Hero, which, to an extent, encompasses aspects of all three films.

Fun Facts

  • The genesis/inspiration for both Fated and for Less Than Hero occurred at 10pm exactly 30 days apart, which is relevant because…
  • Less Than Hero, which takes place in New York and deals with issues of fate and destiny, shares the same time and universe as Fated
  • So for those who have read Fated, you might notice cameos by Fabio, Destiny, Karma, and others, as well as several shared scenes
  • All of the superhero names given to the characters in the novel share the same first letter as their regular names
  • While the novel is narrated in first-person POV by Lloyd, there are six interludes in the novel narrated in third-person POV
  • All of the possible side effects of drugs mentioned in the novel were taken from pharmaceutical company websites and from Drugs.com
  • The only two countries that allow Direct-to-Consumer marketing of pharmaceutical drugs are New Zealand and the United States
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Beyond the Keyboard: Big Egos

Big EgosSometimes readers want to know a little more about what went into writing a novel. The background and back story. The inspirations and process. How the author came up with the idea and executed said idea.

And by “executed,” I mean “accomplished” or “produced in accordance with a plan or design” rather than “beheaded.” Though I suppose that would be interesting, too.

Previously I’ve written posts in which I’ve shared insights into the creation of Breathers, Fated, and Lucky Bastard. What I’ve called my Beyond the Keyboard series. Up next, my dark comedy about identity: Big Egos.

If I Only Had a Brain

In 1997 I wrote a short story titled “If I Only Had a Brain” about a futuristic product called Designer Brains—a DNA-laced cocktail that allows the user to become a fictional character or dead celebrity.

The story, which clocked in at just under 3,000 words, takes place primarily at a party in the Hollywood Hills with the main character having injected the Designer Brain of James Bond. “If I Only Had A Brain” was published in the anthology Royal Aspirations III in 2001. Big Egos3
The original short story remained virtually intact when it became Chapter 20 of Big Egos.

At the time I wrote “If I Only Had a Brain,” I felt there was something more worth exploring, particularly the concept of identity and sense of self and what happens when you’re constantly pretending to be someone you’re not. This would end up being the main theme of Big Egos.

Insert Chapter HERE

Most of the time when I write a novel I don’t know how it’s going to end. However, with Big Egos, I knew exactly where I was going. I just had no idea how to get there.

In my original drafts, the novel starts at the end. Without giving any spoilers, the narrator of the story is processing his surroundings and trying to figure out how he ended up there. The problem is, his memory isn’t cooperating and he’s having trouble keeping things straight. Each memory leads to another memory to another memory. And so on and so on and so on. Kind of like a Faberge shampoo commercial, only with a lot more blood and confusion.

I envisioned the novel as sort of a trip through the narrator’s memories, piecing together how he ended up in his current situation. To do this, each chapter ended with a phrase or a sound or a thought that would trigger another memory, with the next chapter leading off with the same or similar line that ended the previous chapter.

Big Egos2In order to keep track of the memories, I color-coded the chapters based on the narrator’s memories as they related to certain periods of his life. Rose for the present. Orange for childhood memories. Blue for high school/college memories. Light yellow for more recent memories. Light turquoise for surreal memories. And bright green for the chapters when he was someone else.

It looked something like that on the left.

The fun part was when I had to move a chapter around, as this entailed rewriting the beginning and ending for not only the chapter I moved, but for the chapters on either side of where the chapter used to reside in addition to the chapters on either side of its new location.

All counted, I have over twenty files of revised chapter orders. And although I eventually abandoned my initial premise for the narrative structure, I was still moving chapters around right up until the final copy edits.

Let’s Change Everything!

When my agent read what was approximately the fifth or sixth draft of Big Egos, she indicated that she liked the concept but was having difficulty with the clarity of the narrative. Initially I wanted to crawl into a dark place and hibernate for a few years. Eventually, however, I decided that what I needed to do was create a more linear narrative to hold the story together, while keeping the memories peppered in throughout.

In other words, I took it all apart and put it back together again. Naturally, this meant moving the chapters around and rewriting the beginning and ending of just about each chapter. While it was more of a grind than any of my other novels, it was also singularly gratifying once I managed to get all of the pieces into place. Though, as I mentioned, I was still tinkering and reconfiguring almost right up to the end.

Thanks for the Inspiration

It’s rare that I sit down to write a novel or a short story and have any idea where it’s going or what kind of novel it’s going to be, but I knew from the start that Big Egos would focus on the loss of identity and the culture of celebrity worship.

As I began writing the novel and finding the voice and discovering the characters who would populate the story (as I don’t tend to plot or do character sketches but rather meet the characters when they show up on the page), it also became clear to me that Big Egos was inspired and influenced by two novels: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

Big Egos4

While Big Egos doesn’t claim to be either of these novels, the narrator is quite unreliable and grows more so as the story progresses. And he most definitely, in his own way, becomes unstuck in time.

Fun Facts

  • I started writing Big Egos in September 2010 and finished in February 2012.
  • The last line from the short story “If I Only Had a Brain” is the last line of Big Egos.
  • Big Egos went through thirteen revisions before it went to my editor, then another three revisions after that before it was published.
  • There are seven chapters in Big Egos written from the perspective of a real or fictional person: Elvis Presley, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Captain Kirk, Holden Caulfield, Jim Morrison, and Philip K. Dick.
  • In addition to doing research for the seven chapters listed above, during the writing of Big Egos I read up on Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Buddhism, 1970s pop culture, DNA replication, Shakespeare, Santa Claus, Greek mythology, silverback gorillas, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Starbucks, the Formosa Cafe, Indiana Jones, Oscar Wilde, blood donation, and countries that don’t have extradition treaties with the United States. Among other things.
  • Chapter 59 was originally written as Stephen King, but when my editor suggested that might create some legal issues, I changed it to Phillip K. Dick, which actually tied into the whole concept of identity and reality. Bonus.
  • While Fated remains my favorite of my novels published to date, Big Egos is a close second. Call them 1A and 1B.
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Filed under: Beyond the Keyboard,Big Egos,The Writing Life — Tags: — S.G. Browne @ 10:51 pm

Beyond the Keyboard: Lucky Bastard

Lucky Bastard - trade paperbackSome novels develop over a short period of time, like embryonic ideas that are nurtured and gradually grow into fully-formed creations.

Other novels are more like Frankenstein’s monster, with ideas harvested from seemingly unrelated moments of inspiration until it all comes alive with a jolt of creativity.

Next up in my Beyond the Keyboard series, my homage to the hard-boiled detective novel that was harvested from various inspirations: Lucky Bastard.

The Short Story, Part I

Sometime in 2001-2002, I started an untitled short story about two brothers and their grandfather who live together in Central California. I wrote about five pages and liked the characters and what was happening but I didn’t know where the story was going or what it was about. All I knew for sure was that I was sold on the opening line: “Grandpa only had one finger left and it was pointing at the door.”

The Amsterdam Connection

In October 2002 I took a trip to Amsterdam, where I found myself in a coffee shop called Softland, so called because it had a bunch of soft, comfy pillows for patrons to sit on while they enjoyed their coffee. I believe the coffee I consumed was a mellow blend called White Widow. I brought a souvenir from Softland back with me that would sit in my desk drawer for six months or so before I took it out.

Softland1

The Short Story, Part II

I was still trying to figure out what to do with my short story I’d started more than a year earlier, which had a working title that I can’t recall. But when I took out the lighter from Softland, something clicked and I decided to adopt the Amsterdam coffee shop name as the title for my story. Now all I needed was a reason for the story to exist.

The Spanish Connection

intactoAround this time, I saw a Spanish film titled Intacto, which came out in 2001 and dealt with the concept of luck as a commodity. In the film, the main premise centers around underground games of chance in which the losers surrender their amassed good luck to the winners, usually resulting in their death. One of the characters, the hero of the film, has the ability to steal luck from others.

The film didn’t spend much time on this unique ability or how it might have come to exist, but I was intrigued with the concept and decided it would be fun to create my own mythology about luck poachers.

And just like that, “Softland” had it’s premise: a family of luck poachers. A year later, in 2004, I finished what at the time was the final draft. Eight years later, “Softland” would appear for the first time in print in my eBook short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel.

The Journal Entry

Lucky Bastard1In July 2006, during a free-flowing writing exercise for my weekly writing group, I came up with the opening line: “It’s my understanding that naked women don’t generally tend to carry knives.”

From there I wrote a scene about a man confronted by an angry naked woman with a knife while on the roof of The Windsor Hotel. At the time I didn’t think it would go any further than that, but something about the scene tugged at me until eventually I decided to do something more with it.

When Ideas Collide

I always felt that “Softland” aspired to be more than just a short story but I didn’t know where to go with the two brothers and their grandfather. And while it took me a while to figure it out, I realized I didn’t have to continue their story. I could instead expand on the mythology of luck poaching. And my journal entry proved to be the jumping off point for that exploration.

But the plot, characters, and storyline for what would eventually become Lucky Bastard didn’t take shape until three years later when I was compelled to write a synopsis for my unwritten third novel.

The Synopsis

In April 2009, while negotiating the sale of Fated to Penguin/NAL, my agent asked me if I had an idea for another novel that we might be able to pitch for a possible two book deal. At the time I didn’t have much more than a dozen pages written and I wasn’t sure how to make the story work. And since I don’t plot out my novels, I’d never written a synopsis for a book I hadn’t written yet. The synopsis always came later.

So I sat down and wrote a two-page synopsis about this private detective who stole luck, had an affinity for Lucky Charms and mochas and corporate coffee-house baristas, and who got caught up in a big luck fiasco with the feds and a Chinatown mob boss. I also had him meeting a kid with the purest luck he’d ever encountered.

I didn’t know if any of that was going to stick. It was just what stuck when I threw a bunch of ideas on a blank piece of paper. As it turned out, I ended up using almost everything in the synopsis. Go figure.

The Chandler Connection

Big_SleepWhile preparing to write Lucky Bastard, I picked up The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler to get some ideas about writing a detective novel. I’d never read Chandler and fell in love with his writing immediately.

In addition to Chandler, I also read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (about a narcoleptic detective in Boston), and Marlowe and the Spacewoman by Ian M. Dudley (a futuristic detective novel that was work-shopped in my writer’s group).

So after all of those detective novels, it was unavoidable that my main protagonist in Lucky Bastard would be a private eye. The only problem was, I needed the right name.

The Screenplay

Back in 1991, while living and working in Hollywood, I wrote a screenplay titled A Fish Out of Water about a private detective in Chicago trying to track down a rare Asiatic myna bird that had been bird-napped. The script was inspired by the Airplane! and Naked Gun films with lots of goofy gags and clever/silly wordplay.

My protagonist was a semi-competent private detective named Nick Monday, while his leggy and sexy client was named Tuesday Knight. The script never got bought but I loved the names and wanted to find a way to use them. Since I’d decided my main character in Lucky Bastard would be a private detective, I borrowed the name from my screenplay and brought Tuesday Knight along for the ride as a femme fatale.

And that’s how Nick Monday got his name.

The Final Jolt of Creativity

Even with all of the pieces in place, the novel didn’t come to life until I brought everything together and sat down to write it. And although I’d written a synopsis that included a lot of plot elements, many of the other supporting characters showed up in the first draft unexpectedly, including Bow Wow, Scooter Girl, and the proprietor of The Starlight Room.

For those of you who have read Lucky Bastard, when Nick first meets the woman at the bar in the nightclub atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, I was probably just as surprised as you to find out who she was.

And setting the story in San Francisco was a lot of fun, since I live here. Researching all of the locations and sitting in Huntington Park or at O’Reilly’s Irish Pub and writing several scenes made the story come alive that much more for me.

If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour of some of the San Francisco locations that appear in Lucky Bastard, I did a series of blog posts under the category Lucky Bastard San Francisco Blog Tour.

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Beyond the Keyboard: Fated

media-upload-2This is Round #2 in my Beyond the Keyboard series of blog posts in which I’ll share some insights into the background and creation of my novels. I’ll even include pictures of the original journal entries that eventually spawned Andy Warner, Nick Monday, and Fabio.

Last week we kicked things off with my debut novel Breathers. This week, we’re talking about my second novel, Fated.

A Tale of Two Journal Entries

At 10:00pm on the night of September 10, 2003, I came up with what seemed like a brilliant idea and started to write it down in my journal. I’d turned on ESPN just before getting this brilliant idea and got distracted by my desire to check the baseball scores.

After nearly a page it became clear that the “brilliant” idea I’d come up with had sounded better in my head before I wrote it down. I even commented on this fact in my journal.

So I spun that lost and less-than-brilliant idea into another idea. The failed idea would be the story. And it would be about this character who lives in New York City and is involved in some supernatural events and who writes about them. Or tries to write about them because he has first-hand knowledge of them because this character is Fate. That’s a picture of the journal entry below.

Fated1

That was it. Or mostly it. I continued for another couple of pages but that was the first idea I had to write a story about Fate. I didn’t do anything more with the idea at the time. It was just an entry in my journal but it remained in the back of my head, lurking in the shadows.

Nearly a year later, in July 2004, I was sitting on a bench at an art festival watching people walk past and I wrote down a scene that starts out with the line:

“I look at people and see what they’re going to be like in twenty years.”

From there I went on to more or less describe the people Fate/Fabio would eventually see in the shopping mall in Paramus, NJ, in the opening chapter of Fated. While I still wasn’t sure what to do with the idea, I thought this could tie in somehow with my journal entry from the previous September.

Fabio Gets His Name

Fast-forward to December 2006. I’d finished Breathers six months earlier and decided it was time to get started on another novel. So I dug through my notes and journals and came across my scene from nearly 2004 with Fate sitting on the bench watching people.

At the time I had no idea where that scene would go, but as soon as Destiny showed up at the bottom of Page 2 I felt something click into place and I knew it was worth pursuing. And when Destiny called the narrator Fabio, drawing out the last syllable in a playful yet sarcastic tone, my main character had his moniker. And his foil.

Gluttony, Karma, and Death Walk Into a Bar…

Those of you familiar with my writing process know that I don’t tend to plot or outline my novels but rather I channel my inner Indiana Jones and make it up as I go. So originally I had no intention to fill Fated with Deadly Sins or characters who were attributes or intangible concepts, such as Lady Luck or Love. And I definitely didn’t plan to have God as a main character.

But as the story developed and Fabio took me along for a ride, I discovered that he was friends with Karma, hung out with Sloth and Gluttony, and had a five-hundred-year-old feud with Death.

Fated Outline 2As more characters showed up and their mythology and history developed, I realized I needed to clarify their roles. While some of them were already categorized for me (The Seven Deadly Sins), I grouped the others into their cosmic job responsibilities:

The Attributes (Honesty, Truth, Wisdom); The Emotives (Love); The Intangibles (Lady Luck); The Lesser Sins (Failure); and The Eventuals (Fate, Destiny, Death, Karma, and God). That’s a partial list there on the left.

I also had The Seven Heavenly Virtues, The Seven Contrary Virtues, and The Subversives (War, Hysteria, Paranoia), but none of them ever had a speaking part.

The Thing About Fated is…

If you’ve read Fated you know I use a recurring line throughout the novel to describe each of the characters. This wasn’t something I planned on but it just showed up at some point in the book and when it did, I realized I wanted to use it when introducing each immortal character.

But I didn’t want to just lazily tag each immortal character for the fun of it. I wanted their identifying features to be meaningful. I wanted to give each one of them a specific human flaw. I wanted to make theses immortal beings fallible, like the Greek Gods. Only instead of living on Mount Olympus, they live in Manhattan.

Rule #1: Don’t Get Involved

I also realized (with the help of my writing group) that in addition to creating defined roles for the different characters, I needed to create some rules for them and what they were in charge of doing. What could Fabio do as Fate? What were his limitations? Were they different than those of Gluttony or Secrecy or Lady Luck?

In my initial drafts of the novel I didn’t list specific rules and the novel didn’t start out with what would eventually become it’s opening line. It wasn’t until I defined these roles that I came up with some of the thematic meat of the story about humans and how we deal with what life throws at us, about how we choose to react to our failure or our lust or our greed that ultimately affects our fates and destinies.

A good potion of this happened in the rewrite phase, before the manuscript ever made it to my agent.

How Sara Got Her Groove

It took me three months to write the first 45,000 words of Fated (a little more than half the novel), then I spent the next nine months spinning my wheels, trying to figure out where it was going and what it wanted to be. During this time, I wrote another 15,000 words.

The biggest problem facing me was that, while I knew there was something special about Sara, I had no idea what that something was. I had some ideas but none of them excited me.

Then one day in late December of 2007, the last line of the novel popped into my head. It wasn’t something I’d thought about. It just showed up. And when it did, I thought: “I like this. But if this is the last line, then that means Sara is…” (I’m avoiding specifics and spoilers just in case someone hasn’t read the novel.)

After that, once I had that last line and Sara’s purpose, everything fell into place. I wrote 20,000 words in a month, finishing the last 5,000 words of the novel on the Friday and Saturday before the Super Bowl while fighting off a bad cold.

Fate and the Consumer Culture

When I started writing Fated in December 2006, I had no intention of writing a book about the consumer culture and how it affects our choices as humans and how we live our lives. But the more I wrote, the more it became apparent that this would be a recurring theme.

So perhaps it was destiny that I started my novel out with Fate sitting in a shopping mall. (Most of the social commentary about consumerism in the first chapter was added in later once I realized what the book was going to be about.)

But more than a social commentary on the consumer cultured, Fated is about finding something you enjoy doing, something that matters to you and fills you with a sense of purpose, rather than just living to work and working to live.

Fated Fun Facts

  • Originally all of the immortal characters had pseudonyms that started with the same letter as their identity (Destiny/Desiree, Sloth/Seth, Gluttony/Gus), but I decided to scale back the pseudonyms because I thought it worked better to just have a few of them named, instead
  • Chapter 6, where Fabio is assigning fates on the computer at Starbucks and gets the message from Jerry about a big event coming, was added in rewrites
  • Some of my favorite chapters include: when Fabio goes to Jerry’s office for the first time; Fabio and Karma eating at Curry in a Hurry; the scene at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco; when Sara discovers Fabio’s identity; and pretty much every scene with Destiny
  • There really is a law on the books in the state of Minnesota that prohibits sex between humans and birds
  • In my fourth novel, Big Egos, Truth and Wisdom are sitting at the bar in Chapter 56 (page 306) during the scene at the Formosa Cafe
  • Death (aka Dennis) also makes a cameo in Big Egos at the Mythical Creatures party in Chapter 44
  • While I love all of my novels, Fated remains my favorite
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Filed under: Beyond the Keyboard,Fated,The Writing Life — Tags: , , , — S.G. Browne @ 10:50 pm

Beyond the Keyboard: Breathers

media-upload-3This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be doing called Beyond the Keyboard, in which I’ll share details about how I came to write each of my novels. The posts will vary in content but will include aspects involving background, development, process, and fun facts, with each post focusing on a different novel.

Since I’ve decided to go in chronological order of my professional bibliography, we’ll kick things off with my debut novel, Breathers.

Your Supernatural Roots Are Showing

In October 2002 I was thirteen years out of college and had spent all thirteen of those years working full-time jobs and writing in the mornings and evenings and weekends whenever possible in an attempt to make a living as a writer. At the time I was writing straight supernatural horror, as I’d been weaned on Creature Features and Saturday Afternoon Monster Matinees as a kid before consuming a steady diet of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and F. Paul Wilson novels.

By the fall of 2002 I’d written about four dozen short stories (ten of them published in small press publications) and three novels, the last of which I’d finished a couple of years earlier. While I’d landed an agent for my second novel and had a bunch of positive feedback on my third, I hadn’t been able to land a professional publishing contract and had earned a grand total of $500.00. Then my agent closed up shop.

Is That A Creative Crisis in Your Pocket…?

After pitching both of my novels to two different small press publishers at the Horror Writer’s Association conference in the early summer of 2002 and piquing their interest, I thought I finally had my first break. True, they were small press rather than New York publishing houses, but it was a start.

The problem was, when I sat down to polish the manuscripts before submitting them, I found myself hating what I was doing. Whereas for thirteen years I’d looked forward to sitting down at my computer to write, now I dreaded it. I hated the process. And I couldn’t stand what I was writing. I thought it was absolute crap. And I couldn’t make anything work.

In short, writing was no longer fun but instead had become a tedious, joyless grind.

So after several months of soul searching, I told both of the small press publishers that I would not be submitting my novels to them and decided to take a break from writing. It was weird because writing is what I was supposed to do,  but when what you’re supposed to do stops being fun, you tend to question your destiny.

Wherefore Art Thou, Inspiration?

Breathers5

In October 2002 (which is where this whole thing started a few paragraphs ago), I read Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk while on a plane to Paris. I’d never read any Palahniuk up to this point (or been to Paris), nor had I ever read something that combined dark comedy, social satire, and the supernatural. And I found myself intrigued, as I’d written several short stories that blended similar elements. I’d just never considered writing them in novel length. And Lullaby gave me the inspiration and courage to change that.

A little over a year earlier, I’d written a 2,042-word short story about a zombie who attended Undead Anonymous meetings with other zombies titled “A Zombie’s Lament.” (That’s the original finished draft of it above on the right.) With the story relatively fresh in my head, the idea percolated for nearly a year before I finally decided to take that short story and do something more with it.

Congratulations! It’s a Book!

Not everyone has physical evidence of where or when an idea was born, but in October 2003 I was in the habit of journaling on a fairly regular basis. And I dated most, if not all, of my journal entries. So here, on October 2, 2003, is the first known journal entry where the idea for the novel that would become Breathers first appeared.

Breathers1

Journal Entry: October 2, 2003

And below, dated October 3, 2003, is the first draft of what was at the time the opening chapter of Breathers: the Undead Anonymous meeting where we first meet Rita, Jerry, Helen, and the others; though Jerry wasn’t Jerry and Helen was a man named Andrew Whittle. Andy wasn’t even Andy Warner. His name evolved from Andrew Whittle. The only character who jumped from my short story to Breathers was Rita, though she was painted with broad brushstrokes.

Breathers2

The birth of Breathers

It didn’t take me long to realize that I enjoyed writing dark comedy and social satire more than straight supernatural horror, although my roots are obviously still there. It was as though I’d been writing all those years in order to discover my voice.

Not Your Father’s Zombies

When I first sat down and started writing Breathers, I was intrigued with the idea of telling a zombie story from the POV of a zombie. The monster as protagonist. I wondered what it would be like if I was a zombie. But rather than your stereotypical Hollywood zombie, I was just a reanimated corpse with no rights who was gradually decomposing and I needed some serious therapy. How would society treat me? What would my parents think? Could I join a bowling league?

These were the questions I wanted to explore.

But I also wanted to write a novel where the reader would sympathize and empathize with the “monster” rather than being repulsed or frightened by him. My hope was that by the end of the novel, if he started to do what zombies tend to do, the reader would be on Andy’s side cheering him on instead of carrying a torch with the rest of the angry mob.

As I continued to write the novel and the characters and the story developed, I discovered that Breathers was a metaphor for prejudice and discrimination. But more than that, at it’s heart, it was–and is–a story about finding your purpose in a society in which you have no purpose.

Zombies Sticker Final

Third Act Rigor Mortis

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t plot out my stories but discover the story as I write it. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. I find that allowing the characters to tell the story allows for a more organic process and I just try to get out of the way. As such, I didn’t have a clue how Breathers was going to end when I started writing it. And more than two years later, in February 2006, I still had no idea how the novel was going to end.

Initially I had Andy getting involved in a big civil rights court case after his parents “disappeared,” but that just dragged along and felt dull and uninteresting and stiff. No pun intended. So instead I put Andy back in the SPCA where he faced a more immediate threat. When I came up with the idea for the media-driven frenzy about the poor orphaned zombie scheduled for destruction, the rest of the book just kind of took off from there.

I still had no idea who was going to live and who was going to die. Or, more technically, get destroyed because you can’t technically kill a zombie since they’re already dead. Undead. Whatever. But in my initial draft, while they still attacked the fraternity and were driven off in a S.W.A.T. van, there was no rescue party and no question as to whether or not any of the characters lived happily ever after. It was dark and it was final.

Breathers Notes

  • The last sentence of the original draft was: “At least we won’t end up in a petting zoo.” The “If you’ve never…” phrase that was peppered throughout the novel became the last sentence after one of the members of my writers’ group said he was expecting the novel to end that way. I decided he was right.
  • The opening chapter was originally the first Undead Anonymous meeting. The existing opening chapter with Andy waking up in the kitchen was added in rewrites, as was the chapter with Andy protesting out in front of his home and writing his Congressman, along with the chapter where Andy visits Ray by himself and is inspired by Ray’s philosophy.
  • The original opening line to Breathers was: “My name is Andrew and I’m a survivor.”
  • Before the first query was sent off to an agent, I’d edited the entire novel three times, then four more times over the next 17 months as I submitted the novel to 82 different agents, all of whom passed. By the time the 83rd agent said yes, the novel had been through seven revisions.
  • At the time I wrote Breathers, I lived in Santa Cruz, CA, where the novel took place. While many of the settings in the novel exist, the granary where Ray lived was my own invention.
  • Some of my favorite chapters include: when Andy’s mom calls him upstairs to help his father with the garbage disposal; when Andy goes for a walk and runs into Rita; the Thanksgiving chapter; the media frenzy chapters in the SPCA; when Rita and Andy hook up; and every chapter with Andy’s therapist.
  • I started writing Breathers in October 2003 and finished it in June 2006.

 

*If there’s something you’d like to know about Breathers that I didn’t cover, please feel free to ask your question in the comments section. I’ll do my best to answer in a timely manner. Also, if you feel like sharing this blog post with someone you think might enjoy it, please be my guest.

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Filed under: Beyond the Keyboard,Breathers,The Writing Life,Zombies — S.G. Browne @ 6:39 am