Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

Part II: SETTING & WORLD BUILDING

Have you ever read a novel in which setting was an afterthought? Where the sense of place, like a backdrop in a photographer’s studio, could be swapped for another without any real change in the conflict?

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How about a story in which the world was so thoroughly enmeshed with plot that no skilled surgeon could ever hope to carve the one from the other?

Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut, by D.G. Lamb is such a book, and I hope to explore some lessons about world building and setting by examining a few excerpts.

Joshua stood transfixed by the sensation of heat on his cheek from the sun! He followed the golden beam’s path back up to where it gloriously streamed down from a small patch of sapphire blue sky, the sun just peeking over the hard golden edge of the covering cloud. He marveled as the mists separated to reveal the upper slopes of Mount Lipsig looming to the north of New Cincinnati. He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts. Joshua was amazed he could actually see the train sliding up the silver monorail strand that curved above the dense jungles surrounding the colony. Several large rusty horizontal gashes in the mountainside marked the extensive mining operations, the reddish earth in sharp contrast to the surrounding verdant vegetation. But the magnificent view paled in significance to what had just happened: for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.

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What can we learn from this excerpt?

First of all, we’re getting a lot of detail here. Having read the story in its entirety, I can tell you what we’re not getting: filler. Some of the descriptions might not be strictly necessary to the story (do we need to know the dirt is red?), but here the foundation is laid for a setting that proves to be integral to the plot—even if you can’t see how yet.

So, one takeaway would be to make sure you develop plot with setting in mind (and vice versa). However, even if the plot and setting are inextricably entwined, what does any of it matter if the characters are nothing more than shifting pawns? Which brings me to my second point and my first Wired for Story quote:

Lisa Cron says, “Story is how what happens [PLOT] affects someone [CHARACTER] who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.”

With that definition in mind, never forget that any story element—be it plot or anything else—is completely irrelevant if it has no impact on the character. Lisa even goes so far as to say, “Every single thing in a story—including subplots, weather, setting, even tone—must have a clear impact on what the reader is dying to know: Will the protagonist achieve [his] goal?”

Anything that thwarts the character’s goal will certainly impact that character, but the effect doesn’t have to be external (physical). It could be emotional or mental instead.

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Now… Reread that last sentence from the excerpt: “for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.” Think on that for just a moment… Can you imagine never feeling the sun? Do you suppose Joshua was affected by that singular event? I sure do. And not in the same way you or I would be affected because—and this is important—you and I didn’t grow up on Cypress Grove. A character is, in large part, a product of his or her experience, which includes environmental factors as much as events. So, to fully explore characterization, writers need to give flesh to whatever world our protagonists inhabit. Also, to make the best use of setting, let no detail grace the page without making it integral to either character or plot.

On a final note… lest you think it’s not enough for Joshua to merely appreciate the moment, the burst of sunshine also speaks directly to his current goal of helping himself and his mother escape the pungent stink and shame of their swamp-adjacent housing. Joshua was, in fact, on a mission to win bets for his mother’s Café Fund when he witnessed the miracle—and then this: “A groan escaped Joshua as he realized… [A] man had used his sheet to video the rare direct sunshine and would now likely make… 20, no—50 times what Joshua could make from winning bets at a pickup stickball match.”

For me, that revelation was a sucker punch to the gut, drawn from a universal emotion: the if only of regret. And that scene wasn’t the last time the author achieved that particular effect—not just for Joshua, but for me as well.

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In my final comment for this excerpt, let’s have a second look at a single line: “He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts.”

Sparkling explosion… Metallic microfibers… Permacrete monorail posts. Each of these descriptions is specific, concrete, and—therefore—vivid.

Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer explains how to make writing more vivid as follows: “You present your story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch… Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business. Your two key tools are nouns and verbs… The nouns you want are pictorial nouns: nouns that flash pictures, images, into your reader’s mind. The more specific, concrete, and definite…the more vivid the picture. The noun rhinoceros flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture to your reader than does the noun animal.”

Let’s have a look at another excerpt to see how D.G. Lamb’s mastery of sensory details accentuates his created world:

Time slowed almost to a stop. This had never happened before. The aura of an altered reality strengthened. Details shifted into clean focus: the musky odor…; the rolling sheen on the small segments of chitin that covered the main body of the spiderviper; the slow snicking sounds as they compressed together to form a locked shell; the inverted V shape of the two hind legs on each side of the animal, articulated and proportioned like a spider’s, but covered in skin with tiny tufts of hair increasing in density down to tiny paws that were covered in fur…; a large rubbery lip pulled back above a dripping circular mouth filled with teeth, revealing a black fang tipped tongue where a nose should be…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need the author to convey what Joshua’s thinking here. I can already feel it myself. The vivid details plant my feet in the same space with that deadly creature, and the slow description coupled with implicit negative expectations increases strain to the point of rupture. Which leads me to another aspect of storytelling this author excels at…

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TENSION

Janice Hardy, in her book Plotting your Novel, defines tension as “the sense of something about to happen.” K.M. Weiland differentiates between conflict and tension as follows: “Conflict indicates outright confrontation… Tension, on the other hand, is what I like to think of as the threat of conflict… Tension allows you to dial down the excitement and the altercations without losing reader attention. In fact, tension-heavy scenes can often be more gripping, simply because readers know the conflict is coming and they can’t do anything to stop it.”

Joshua happens upon that creature. Something is about to happen, but we don’t know what. The result? We’re riveted to the page with the need to know. BUT— How do we work tension into our own writing? → Drop hints to the reader about what might go wrong. Direct their attention, for example, to the shadows, the unidentified noises, the protagonist’s suspicions—to heighten foreboding and dread—as in the following examples:

As Joshua’s mother leaves to go to work: “The world felt …somehow… not quite normal, as if… it had stepped back to watch her.”

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Joshua came to a corner and looked up at the signpost across the pedway. His gut twisted as he recalled his mother’s look when she realized he had come to this place. The right half of a street sign hung on a rusty wire, occasionally tapping against a cracked security camera case that also dangled from the light pole. It stated simply: Ave. And whatever the maps said about the official name, that was what everyone called this stretch of pedway: The Avenue.

Everyone knew of the predatory spidervipers lurking in the jungle surrounding the city, but with The Avenue, the dark menace that hung in the air was personal. It came from an accumulation of the whispers and oblique hints of unspoken evil acts that had taken place there, from the look of fear and reproach that came over people’s faces when The Avenue was even mentioned.

And there Joshua stands—in the place his mother warned him against visiting. What’s going to happen? Something… Maybe not now, but eventually. Can’t you feel it in the tone?

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In a sense, these moments of tension, rich with world-building details (the mention of The Avenue and the spidervipers that serve to heighten a reader’s awareness), are nothing more than promises that whisper, “Trouble’s brewing. Are you ready?”

What do you think? How important is setting to you when you read and/or write? Are you ready to be immersed in Joshua’s world? Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a paperback (for U.S. residents only) of your choice of “Driven to the Hilt I” OR “Forging the Blade” AND a $10 Amazon gift card.

>>>>> ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE <<<<<


Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

driven-to-the-hilt-coverAlready a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld.

It is a tale of survival, a premature coming of age in an environment demanding resiliency, inventiveness, and self-reliance. But when teetering on the sharp edge of stark choices, decisions of life or death, can Joshua afford to consider questions of right and wrong, or does expediency rule the day?

Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.

(Available at Amazon. My official Goodreads review here.)

Driven to the Hilt: Forging the Blade

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An inscrutable stranger offers him a deal that seems too good to be true. And it is. Joshua soon faces new challenges to survive in a place he had not believed was even real.

Having successfully evaded the colony’s underworld and corrupt police, Joshua finds himself trapped alone in a sterile white room. But it is no ordinary room, changing and shifting in response to his reactions and behaviors. Ultimately, he will have to make a choice… one that will forever change the direction of his life.

DG Lamb creates a dynamic world full of new challenges and lessons for an endearing young hero. Lamb’s extensive experience as a clinical neuropsychologist and his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms injects psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua and a host of engaging new characters.

“I was immediately griped by the exquisite prose, the author’s ability to create vivid images in the minds of readers and to plunge them into the consciousness of the characters.” – Readers’ Favorite review

Available at Amazon.

 

Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

driven-to-the-hilt-cover“Already a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld…” (Full summary here.)

 


Part I: CHARACTERIZATION

I used to think of novels as being driven either by character or plot. Now I tend to think of character and plot as two interdependent cogs—interlocking gears in a whole. Characters drive plot via decision, where the choices they make are an extension of who they are. Likewise, plot affects characters: The best plots are personalized, designed (by their authors) to challenge the protagonist to their core.

I truly believe character is the lifeblood of every good story. So…

What makes a good character?

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I don’t know about you, but I find characterization to be one of the most difficult challenges of writing fiction, at least in terms of trying to describe how to do it well. Invent a world – check. Make stuff happen – check. Create a nuanced-but-not-inconsistent character with built-in experiences, fears, desires, and wounds, with whom readers can immediately sympathize – cheh—er—hmmm.

As The Deepest Cut’s back cover summary states: “Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.”

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If that description doesn’t make you want to read this book, I suspect you might be the exception… But do we all need a degree in psychology to create good characters? Given the plethora of fantastic personalities living between the pages of a myriad of different books—and the simple fact that not all successful authors are psychologists—I’d venture to say, “No.”

Whew!

Still, we can certainly learn from this author. Have a look at the excerpts below and see if you can quantify what exactly makes the characters so compelling:

Rachel turned to her son as their household computer paused the morning playlist. His eyes spread open again, not with feigned innocence, but in apprehension. Her heart twisted at what she saw. He’s still-…so young. His eleven-year-old face was open and vulnerable, miraculously not showing the scars from all that life had already put him through. And yet, …he’s not my little boy anymore. His upright posture and tendency to meet people’s gazes with his green-grey eyes combined with an above average height and athletic build to create the impression of a 13-or 14-year-old. His short hair was mostly her auburn, but had red highlights from his father. David.

It hit her in a flash: powerful arms encompassing her from behind, gently squeezing away her self-doubt, his warm breath flowing against her neck-

“Mom?”

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A little later in the same scene:

[Pondering her son’s deceit, Rachel] had decided on an educational approach, as was so often her way.

“Lying is still wrong even if you think something valuable will come from it. You obviously thought it was acceptable to break a rule and lie to me because doing so allowed you to get me a very nice gift. That’s called… using the ends to justify the means.” She tightened her lips to prevent a smile as her son frowned in concentration and silently mouthed the phrase to himself, committing it to memory. He obviously knew what came next.

Rachel’s head tilted forward and she looked up through her eyebrows. “Instead of having free time this afternoon, you will research and write a paper on the concept of the ‘ends justify the means,’ to include its origins and ramifications for moral philosophy. Hank, you may cue Joshua with the name Machiavelli later today if he asks, but nothing else.”

“Yes ma’am, provide the name Machiavelli if requested, but otherwise render no assistance on the topic of ‘the ends justify the means.’ ”

Her son held a very neutral expression. He thinks he is getting off light. …And maybe he’s right. -But I still need to get breakfast done and not be late for my first day of work at the Silver Lining Diner. She raised an eyebrow. “We shall see what else comes of this after I read your essay and see what you’ve learned.”

Rachel distributed half of the omelet to each of the plates Joshua had already set on the counter. He carried them to the table top that slid out from the cabinet between their Vertabed couches. As had become typical for them, they both paused to savor the first bite, taking a long moment to slowly chew with half closed eyes. After swallowing, they shared a contented smile. The ritual reminded her of how much closer they had become since David’s death. Rachel was again overtaken by the sudden fear that her son was growing up and would soon be leaving her…

She had almost finished eating when the missing puzzle piece unexpectedly clicked into place. Rachel looked up at Joshua as he speared his last bite, “So, just how big was this discount The Avenue merchant gave you?”

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Joshua looked up, blinked in confusion, and frowned, “Fort-no, ah… 60 percent off.”

“Wow. 60 percent off! That’s a really good deal.”

His face relaxed, “Yep. -I thought so too.”

“Hmmm, let’s see, 60 percent off of 16, that -would… be… six UDs and -hmm -40 cents, right?”

Joshua’s eyes began darting around the room like a cornered animal, “Would it? -I… ah -16? -That sounds like a lot. I don’t think… I’m n-”

“I know how much the SlipStone pans cost, Joshua, and I know how much spending money I give you. –Where did you get the extra money?”

His face contorted in anger. “Why can’t we just eat breakfast without you giving me the fifth degree?”

“It’s the third degree and I still need to know how you made the extra money.”

“OH. -Okay, –so do I need to write something about that, too? -Hank, remind me to write an essay on the third degree.”

“OK Joshua, I’ll remind you to write an essay on ‘the third degree’ later this afternoon.”

They sat frozen, Rachel in disbelief and Joshua glaring, with the tension mounting in the expanding silence. Finally, Joshua looked at the speared bite of omelet and eased his fork back to the plate. With hands in his lap, he looked up, but said nothing. That, of course, would not stand. Rachel’s mouth set into a thin determined line.

“Son?”

It was her turn to be thrown by a change in topic.

“Mom. My Orson 150 is… really …old. -…The clock rate on the processor –Ok -It’s just really slow, right? …So… that’s making it harder and harder for me to compete.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “Joshua, –please, –don’t tell me you’ve been gambling with stickball again.”

His face told her before his words, “I just want to help with the Café Fund, Mom.”

“We both know that has definitely not worked out well before.” Rachel felt the flush of anger on her face. “I do not–want to come home and find you like… thatever again!

“Mom. -I’m a lot more careful now. -I never bet so much that someone would want to fight after losin-”

The flat of her palm hit the table with a smack. “Joshua! I -will -not -have this!” Rachel pushed herself up and bent closer, “You will not bet on stickball! –Ever again, Son!”

Joshua also rose in frustration, his eyes glistening and his words loud, “This is… so unfair! -You are always telling me that I have to be more grown up, to be… responsible! -And I am! -I always try to do like you say, to act like the ‘man of the house.’ ”

Rachel’s mouth went slack, her shoulders sagged, and she thumped back into her chair. “I… I have never said that, Son. -It was something your father always said when he went on deployments.” A hollow pain filled her eyes, her words were sad and wistful, “Actually, …it was one of the few things we disagreed on.”

Joshua’s eyes opened wide in rage and defiance. His words came out hot,

“Yeah? –Well, Dad was right and I wish he was here…”

Rachel stared at the unspoken words that almost shimmered in the air between them and silently finished the sentence… instead of me.

The gut punch had driven the air out of her lungs. Rachel blinked rapidly, trying to understand what had just happened, surprised when a hot tear dropped onto her cheek. Through watery eyes, she saw awareness spread across Joshua’s face and he dropped his head in shame. She forced herself to breathe and searched for something to say, something to repair the rift, praying that this would not stand between them. What came to mind did not feel adequate, but it was what she felt at that moment. She hoped it would be enough, even while she feared it would not.

“Joshua, there is no amount of money -anywhere -that is worth the risk of losing you.”

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What can we learn?

First of all, the characters don’t exist in a vacuum. Even though readers never get to meet Joshua’s dad, we see the ripples of emotion he still casts across his family. In her son’s face, Rachel sees her dead husband. Even David’s parenting style lingers, adding conflict to the scene. We feel Rachel’s loss while also understanding her marriage wasn’t perfect—which adds to the realism. The lesson is this: If you want to write believable characters, you need to give the impression of a fully-realized past.

One of the other reasons this scene works so well is that it’s not a generic interaction that could take place between any mother-son pair—it’s specific. And that, my friends, is another key to good characterization. Rachel isn’t a cardboard cut-out of the average mom. She’s a former teacher. A colonist in a harsh environment. A widow struggling through her grief. A dedicated mom. And all those attributes are reflected in the way she interacts with her world and with Joshua. She’s not simply a pawn planted in the story with the sole purpose of serving the plot. Rather, who she is (character) determines where this scene can go (plot).

Another key to characterization is likeability. While not every character in your novel needs to be well-loved, it sure doesn’t hurt if readers form a favorable bond with the main character, in this case Joshua. In my opinion, he’s a sympathetic character for the following reasons:

  1. He cares about others → He wants to help with the Café Fund. → Likeable characters won’t be completely selfish.
  2. He’s not perfect → He has real struggles that make him seem like a real person. Still, even in the face of an almost-cruel mistake (wishing his Dad were there), we see his regret. → We all have flaws, so perfect characters are unrelatable. But make sure readers can see their redeemability as well.
  3. He’s experienced loss → Because this is something we can all relate to in one form or another, we sympathize.→ Give your character a universal wound and the bond with readers is almost guaranteed.
  4. Others care about him → His mother is desperate not to lose him. That makes me care too. → Demonstrating the protagonist’s value through another character’s eyes is an effective way of inviting readers to care.
  5. The protagonist is proactive—resolute → He’s not just a boy sitting around and doing what he’s told. He’s actively trying to help his mom pursue her dream while also pursuing his own.→ Characters without agency are harder to invest in.
  6. He has interests and talents that make him uniqueRead the free sample at Amazon for more about Joshua’s stickball skills. → (a) Don’t settle for generic and (b) give your protagonist a skill.
  7. His reactions are human → He dodges questions, he shows emotion, he blurts unkind words then shows regret. Sooo human. I can’t tell you how much I love this kid. Seriously… read the book.

 

In this same excerpt, we get a hint as to the theme, but that’s a topic for another day. And how about that emotion? Did you pick up on any universals? Be sure to come back next week for more writing lessons from Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest CutSETTING, WORLD BUILDING, & TENSION

Enter the Giveaways below for a chance to win a paperback copy of this spectacular novel (1 winner, U.S. residents only), a possible $10 Amazon gift card (with preorder), or an e-copy available NOW. And, as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


GIVEAWAYS

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3 e-books, claim now:

I loved this book so much I’m offering an e-copy to the first three people who respond to this offer:

Read my Goodreads review here then email me at storystormblog@gmail.com letting me know you’re okay with the kindle edition and are unconcerned by my slight caution regarding the story. (I’ll make a note in the comments below when all three e-copies have been claimed.)

Prefer a Paperback?

Enter the Paperback Giveaway here.

$10 Gift Card

Preorder the second e-book ($4.99) between now and June 15 for a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card (to be awarded on June 17). Simply forward your preorder confirmation email to storystormblog@gmail.com, forward the e-book delivery confirmation email when you receive the e-book on June 16, and be sure visit the Paperback Giveaway link since a confirmed preorder is worth 5 entries toward the Paperback Giveaway (Winner announced on June 20 and stay tuned for another blog and more giveaways).