My apologies for the much delayed post, I’ve had a moderately busy day: my visit to the optometrist took a bit longer than I’d anticipated, and I’ve started writing this far later than I’d originally planned. Today’s topic is all about how frustrating I find writing the middle of Last Days of Loneliness.
If you followed that link (or remember the other earlier posts), you should have a pretty good idea of the shape of the story that I’m writing. Like those posts, this one is going to be full of spoilers… so if you really want to shield yourself you should probably just stop reading. If you want to read my thoughts as I try to solve the trouble that I’ve run into while trying to make the middle of the book live up to the promise of the premise, you know what to do.
First of all, like I mentioned in the original post, the middle has already been altered significantly from the original concept. Back when I was first writing Last Days of Loneliness (when it was still called “Cult High School” :P ), I tried making Amanda a little more like a Lovecraftian narrator. She was encouraged by her mother to take up extra-curricular activities, things like art and shop, and pushed to study hard. The denouement of the piece relied on Amanda discovering the truth behind the town’s cult all on her own, just through doing research in the local library. It was… profoundly boring. Go figure.
I have the feeling that I might have been able to save that version of the story, somehow, but I don’t think it’s worth it. I mean, why bother? There are a few details that I’ve kept from the various stories that I thought up for Amanda to learn about, things that I’m not sure how or where to add in the current version. For example, I thought that I should bring up mysterious disappearances of hikers in the local hills as a relatively normal event. Some of them could really have been people who fell into old collapsed mineshafts, but a number of them would be people who had either been sacrificed or who had decided to create trouble for the town’s cult. Similarly, there was a formal investigation a while back, presumably spurred by Mr. Felber’s first attempt to get some form of justice or revenge after his high school boyfriend committed suicide by volunteering to be sacrificed, but nothing ever came of it. Actually, that investigation may have happened after Mr. Felber’s return to the town, which is another thing that I’ve debated for quite a while. This is no doubt all a bit confusing, since I’m mostly muttering to myself.
Anyway, at this point I’m not sure whether or not I should add them at all. It’s not clear to me that they need to be part of the story in any way. If anything, I think Mr. Felber might introduce them in conversation after Amanda has confronted him about the truth.
Right, so, I was facing the problem of how Amanda should learn about the town’s cult (beyond witnessing her teacher’s murder). I solved the first problem I had by having her confront Mr. Felber, Mr. Picket’s boyfriend. It occurs to me that I never addressed why she would know that she could ask him about the town’s cult, but I think there’s a simple enough answer to that; all I need to do is make sure that Amanda knows that Mr. Felber has lived in the town for most of his life, and she can put two and two together to get “he must know about this stuff.” Alternatively, and more melodramatically, I could have her notice him watching the ceremony from the edges, like her, unseen by the other people there, but that seems more contrived. Besides, I don’t think Mr. Felber would be able to face the death of his boyfriend in exactly the same way that he saw his first boyfriend killed.
But this brings up another problem: my current backstory for Douglas Felber has him leaving Loneliness to join the military when he was young (which makes sense, given that he’s relatively old, there was a draft, and he would have wanted to flee Loneliness as fast as he could). His departure from Loneliness only sets the stage for the bigger problem, namely why the hell did he ever come back? It’s much easier for him to have never left Loneliness than for him to come back after he’s already suffered so much trauma because of the town.
What if he left, and didn’t come back until after he’d already met William Picket? He and Will could have met and had a wonderful time together somewhere else, always talking about having a place together off in the woods somewhere where Will could do his art. The problem would always be money, but then Will finds out that this isolated town in Pennsylvania (where his boyfriend grew up, no less!) is looking for an art teacher…
They end up getting into a fight about it, with Doug saying that there’s no way in hell that he’ll ever go back to the town where he grew up, while Will doesn’t understand what’s wrong with moving there. Nothing like showing up happy and content to show those old prudes a thing or two, and they could have their dream home too. Doug, of course, learned his lesson years ago and will never say that they murder people there, because that will just make him sound crazy in front of the man that he loves. Will is pushy, and decides that he’s going to go ahead and take the job, because it’s exactly the chance that they’ve been looking for and he’s certain that Doug will eventually come around. Thus starts their personal tragedy.
When Amanda arrives in Loneliness, Doug and Will have been there for several years already. Doug has continued waiting for something terrible to happen, but thus far he’s managed to keep Will and himself safe. He’s got an understanding of sorts with Roger Lafferty, the current cult leader and principal of the high school, and has made it clear that he’ll keep Will in the dark and away from the creepy cult stuff provided that neither of them is targeted for anything by the cult. Roger accepts, though it does mean that he has to find a new sacrifice rather than relying on having William for that year’s victim. This continues for a while, until Amanda’s family arrives, ready to be used as sacrificial victims from the get-go.
Here things get a little wonky again. At the moment, I have Amanda falling for and dating Richard Mayhew, a descendent of the original cult leader who has been marked for future leadership. Richard uses his pull with the cult to get Amanda’s family some protection, but this happens too late in the year for the cult to arrange a different sacrifice. This is why the cult targets William Picket instead.
This works, but I think that the Richard Mayhew bit could be improved. Maybe it’s actually his sister Betty Mayhew? Maybe they’re just friends? I need someone to intercede on Amanda’s behalf and prevent her from being picked for sacrifice, because I want her to live and I want Mr. Picket to die (poor Mr. Picket).
But what I’ve just come up with works far better than what I had before. I can have Doug come back to town without it feeling horribly out of character, and he can be ready to tell Amanda everything when she confronts him about what happened.
The next items for me to solve/improve are: Amanda’s intercessor, settling how much Doug Felber actually knows about the cult, and figuring out how they come up with the idea of destroying the eggs as a route to destroying the cult (and how they know that this will destroy the town).
I want Amanda to be the one to come up with destroying the eggs, and the one to push for that course of action even after Doug lets her know that doing that will probably destroy the entire town. Self-justified revenge that results in mass-murder is far more interesting when it’s done (pushed for, even) by the protagonist.
I mean, that’s really kind of the whole point of the piece, right? I’m not actually aiming for Lovecraftian horror in the original nihilistic-alienating-incomprehensible-universe sense. At this point, I think the horror of the piece revolves around writing Amanda as a protagonist that you can identify or empathize with, and then showing her do some truly reprehensible things that are morally questionable. And honestly, the true horror there has nothing to do with her killing two men in a snowy parking lot, no matter how disturbing that may be on reflection.
Ok, I’m rambling. Goodness. I hope you found this interesting, because I suspect I’ll do it again while I’m struggling with further story details.