CHAPTER ONE
PINNACLE

Gun drawn, Chuck Zahorski stepped over the body parts strewn across the smoldering hallway and called out for survivors. A damaged klaxon brayed like a wounded donkey from somewhere on an upper floor. Ahead, through a wall of smoky water spraying from the ceiling sprinklers, Agent Higgs shepherded a line of executives out the auditorium. Zahorski nodded to him, let the civilians pass, pressed forward into the water, into the smoke.
Haze hung in the air of the blasted amphitheater thick as wool. Spent sprinklers had doused the fires leaving behind an ankle-deep sludge of ash, melted plastic and blood. More bodies amid the charred bleachers and rubble. How many explosions had he counted? Four? Six? Disgust bubbled up from his guts and coated his tongue with a coppery film. How’d they allow this to happen? Where was Lammin? Was Dallas still alive? The SNA executives? Please, God, don’t let them all be dead.
Footfalls behind him. Zahorski spun around, aimed, recognized his senior partner, and lowered his Kelbra .45. “Lammin?”
“Secure and away,” Dallas said. “Daughter missing.”
Zahorski shuddered as if he’d been slammed in the face with an ice block. He shook it off, said, “You pass Higgs?”
“Yeah. Don’t know who else survived. Internal coms down.”
“Wanna fan out? Find the girl?” Zahorski said and forearmed sweat from the side of his shaved head.
Dallas nodded coolly. The taller, older man seemed bent and hollowed-out by the sudden ruin all around; his thick hair and moustache ashy white with plaster dust, ghostlike. For the first time to Zahorski’s eyes, his partner looked old.
Dallas said, “I’ll double back to the stairs, see what’s above.”
“I’m garage and basement,” Zahorski said and sprinted across the auditorium past sparking wires to a side exit. He navigated his way through more fiery debris to an emergency stairwell that led three levels down to the executive car park.
Emergency lighting swathed the garage in carmine. Stacks of cars snug in their robotic parking cradles felt overly ordered on such a mess of a day. The car stacks formed isles Zahorski had to traverse, every corner a blind spot, a potential ambush point. The air was clearer here, though; a relief from the soot of the upper floors. Zahorski weaved between the towers of vehicles until bumping into a parking attendant armed with a tire iron.
“SNA Security,” Zahorski said and raised his weapon. “Show me your ID.”
“What’s going on in there?” the man said and handed Zahorski his name tag with its official SNA insignias and employee numbers.
“What do you think’s going on?” Zahorski said, handed him his identification back.
“Why am I—”
Zahorski heard a metal door clang shut a few yards past the parking cradles. “Get out through the auditorium,” he advised and headed off in the opposite direction toward the sound. Adrenaline coursed through his body and tensed his muscles. His firearm shook in his grip. No way to control it. After taking a deep breath to center himself, he progressed through the labyrinth of stacked vehicles to an emergency door set in a cement bulkhead.
Checked left and right. Made his way to the door. Pressed his back against the wall. Pushed the door ajar. Pistol still shaky, he entered the stairwell leading to the utility basement. Uncertainty broke away from his mind to lodge in his throat. Ahead of him he could hear footfalls pounding down the stairs. He leaned over an iron railing to try to catch a glimpse of who was running to the basement. A spark flashed from the dimness below followed by the report of a gunshot.
Zahorski fell back against the far wall in the stairwell, hand to the side of his face. A bullet had ricocheted off the railing into his right cheekbone. The nub of lead was a deformed tooth growing out his zygomatic arch. He dropped his gun, pressed two fingers over the bullet hole and slid along the bulwark into a squat. He looked at his palms, chuckled. They were slick with blood.
Blood. Lammin’s daughter, Carrie, wasn’t it? The image of the pretty little mixed Asian girl sprouted in his mind only to be trampled by a herd of questions. Was she still alive? Did they take her into that dungeon of a utility basement below the car park? Or had they already done her?
Plug up that ugly head of yours and move, he thought to himself. He tore a ribbon of cloth off his dress shirt and jammed it into the bullet hole in his cheek. He retrieved his gun, spat tooth grit and rechecked the landing. The terrorist had gone through the door below into the basement. One question answered. He descended the stairs, yanked open the basement door, and entered.
The red lighting of the parking garage gave way to the ghost-green of caged mercury vapor industrial lamps. Bent low, Zahorski found cover behind the steam turbine of a cobwebbed generator. He had never been this deep beneath Excelsior Tower Four. His eyes slowly adjusted to the oppressive dimness.
The basement had low seven foot ceilings lined with flex ducts that led to oversized HVAC metal head-of-wall joints. Colonnades of massive cement cylinders painted with stripes in international orange divided the disorienting space; between the columns were shadowy storage alcoves packed with discarded office equipment and unmarked cardboard boxes half-rotted to ruin. The cement floor was slick with mold.
Zahorski pulled the blood-soaked cloth out of his bullet wound, tore off another piece of shirt and stuffed the fresh stopper into the hole in his cheek. As he double-checked his weapon, a girl wailed a high-pitched scream somewhere amid the rows of cement columns. The shriek shot between the colonnades and struck Zahorski in his heart. Carrie Lammin? Had to be. Second question answered. Whole plan was probably to kill Lammin and barring that kidnap a family member to extort The Board.
“These are my demands…” a woman’s voice echoed from a far corner of the basement, hollow and final as a gravestone chucked into a wishing well. “I’ve got the Lammin girl. We are to be airlifted to the SNA rooftop runway where we will take an Aurora—”
“Show me the girl first,” Zahorski shouted back.
After a few heartbeats, an eight-year-old girl was pushed out from behind a pillar 15 yards ahead. Before the girl could even consider running, a hand reached out from the shadows and yanked her back by the pigtails.
“—spaceplane,” the woman continued. “Not one of those junk cargo ships either; I want a Wasp Class. Me and the girl and all of my remaining comrades will be flown to Mauritius where…”
Someone made a soft tongue clicking noise behind him now. Zahorski, already knowing it was Dallas, cranked his head to face him.
Dallas peered at him, his eyes asking the obvious questions.
Zahorski nodded.
The unspoken plan was clear: Zahorski would jaw with the terrorist, keep her distracted; Dallas would work his way to her rear flank through the far colonnades and from there, well, they’d have to improvise.
Zahorski spat a wad of blood and despite his speech being impeded by the loss of teeth, managed to say, “Your attack was extremely effective. Most of our communications are down. People are panicked up there. It will take a little time to get you what you want.”
“You better get me what I want immediately or the girl dies here, now. Death to the corporate machine! Death to The Board!”
Zahorski pressed his hand against his wound. Pain was beginning to starburst from his cheek to engulf his entire head, neck, and shoulders. He snorted like a bull, fought through the agony, said, “I’m gonna approach you slowly, unarmed, and we can discuss things rationally.” He hesitated. “Do not shoot me again.”
“No, you come near and I’ll blow this kid’s brains out all over the floor.”
“Then you and your comrades get nothing. I only want to talk, find out exactly what you require, and—”
“You’re alone?”
“I am,” he said, stepping out into the open, his gun more casual in his grip than a glass of ice tea.
“You have a radio?”
“I do,” he lied.
The terrorist, Lammin’s daughter in front of her as a human shield, stepped out from behind the cement column; she was a chubby woman in her early 30s. Long black hair under a knit cap. Eyes wide and wild. Dangerous. “Drop that gun,” she demanded and pressed the nozzle of her own weapon against Carrie’s temple.
When Zahorski bent at the waist, pretending to lay his weapon on the floor, Dallas rushed out from the shadows and yanked the Lammin girl away. As the terrorist turned to blow Dallas into confetti, Zahorski took a shot and blasted her hand off at the wrist; her gun, still gripped by the severed appendage, spun off into the dark. Without a blink, Zahorski settled into a crouch, aimed, and let off three more rounds.
The woman sprawled across the floor. Blood gushed from the dime-sized hole in her neck. Somewhere in the shadows of the colonnades, Carrie Lammin was screaming in Dallas’s arms.
Zahorski approached the fallen fighter. She was still alive, but wouldn’t be for long. Her chest was heaving, hand to her throat, stump waving in the air, eyes wide; convulsing now and… smiling. Zahorski squinted in the dark, noticed she wasn’t chubby at all, merely padded up—a suicide vest.
“Bomb!” he screamed.
With the little girl over his shoulder now, Dallas appeared from behind a row of columns five yards ahead.
“Spook’s wired!” Zahorski shouted to him.
They ran hell-for-leather for the door.
The horrific explosion, the sixth of the day, engulfed the basement, shaking the 300 storied Excelsior Tower Four like a Champaign flute on a cement mixer. The entire city trembled from the blast. Still, the skyscraper stood tall. The corporations knew how to build something that could take a hit. And keep going.
★ ★ ★

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Finished the first draft of my new novel “Zahorski’s War”.  I feel like a friend has moved away.  I really enjoy the protagonist–his toughness, his stupidity, his honesty.  I’ll miss that little world and will only be able to visit it now in editing.

When I had outlined the novel three months ago, everything fell into logical place to a nice, solid conclusion, but when I tried to write it, I was just bored.  The ending made sense and fit well, but maybe that was the problem.

So, I took a risk and wrotea massive twist ending that was floating in the back of my mind for several weeks, but I didn’t dare think about really even attempting.  Well, I went for it.  People might actually get angry by it, but it is not dull.

As a writer, I believe you have to even make yourself uncomfortable if it means pushing the story to its limits without breaking it.  Maybe I broke it, I don’t know, but I’d rather break it than be timid.

 

 

I’m currently having my last novel, “Waceland”, beta read and professionally edited.  It takes a long time, so while that novel is being worked on by others, I decided to… start a new novel, of course!  What else?  I want to be a professional novelist, so that means I have to write novels.  How lucky am I?!

One thing I’ve learned is that there is a direct correlation between how structured and organized you are, to how many words you can produce in a day.  The more you invest in preparation of scenes, the easier they are to write, and that translates to more words a day.  With my latest methods, I’ve been able to increase my daily word count by about 40%.  I’m not working any harder either, just smarter.  I’ve been working on my new novel for about three weeks, and have nearly 30K words!  Not bad for just starting a new full time job two weeks ago.

So, I’d like to share my latest process and hope it can help others achieve their goals in writing.

After coming up with a solid one-sentence premise, and fleshing out the main characters a bit, I used Scrivener (the writing software I highly recommend) to lay out 60 scenes.  If each scene is about 1500 words, that gives you about a 90K novel.

I decided to use a somewhat unique four act structure, with two goals (a false goal followed by a twist in the middle of the third act which initiates the true goal).  I’ll post more details about this structure later, but now I’d like to concentrate on how I structure scenes themselves to help increase my productivity.

For each scene, I give a descriptive little title to help summarize what the scene is about.  For example, Scene 45 might read, “Car chase, hero run off road, plunges into river.”

For the scene, I then include:

POV (Through which character’s eyes do we experience the scene)?

Goal:  What does the main character in the scene want?

Conflict:  What/ who is stopping the main character from reaching his goal?

Resolution:  What is the result of the conflict?  99% of the time, this is a worsening of the situation for the character.  Often, writers use the term “disaster”, but this is a bit extreme in my view.  All that matters is your character in some way is a little worse off than he was the scene before.

So, we have the main points of our scene laid out.  Now is it time to stare at the blank screen?  How do you begin and how do you keep going?  Is POV, Goal, Conflict, Resolution enough?  Often, yes, but let’s be consistent and stick to a method that helps us increase our productivity by 25 to even 50%.  I’ve gone from struggling to reach 1800 words in a day to, with the same effort, kicking out 2500 words a day.  A few days ago, I wrote 4K words in one day, and didn’t work too hard to do it either.

The method I used began with learning about MRUs, or “Motivation Response Units” developed by Dwight V. Swain in his great book, “Techniques of the Selling Writer”.  Basically, it’s all about stimulus and response.  There’s an external stimulus that triggers for the main character of a scene an emotion, followed by thought, followed by an action.  That’s how people process information.

The next piece of the puzzle for me was to breakdown exactly what I was trying to achieve.  I knew i had 60 scenes, and that I would need about 1500 words a scene to reach around 90K words for my novel.  I looked at my old work and saw I wrote about 1800 to 2500 words for each scene, so 1500 was an easy goal to achieve for a single scene, give or take depending on what happened in the scene, its importance, the need for description, etc.  I looked at other novels from authors I admired, and I realized they have about 10 to 15 paragraphs per scene.

So now suddenly the problem of getting ink to paper seemed easier.  I was breaking down the problem of writing into much more manageable parts.  Yes, a full scene when you’re tired after working all day at the office seems impossible… but, I asked myself, can I write one stinky little paragraph?  Four sentences, and you’re done, you have a paragraph.  OK, fine, yes, I can do that, thank you… but how about two?  Can I write two stinky measly little paragraphs after a hard day’s night?

What I realized is each paragraph or block of pararaphs and dialogue that hang together in some way, are actually prompted by external stimuli which the main character reacts to.  This goes back to Swain’s MRUs.

So, I was stuck and decided just to break the problem down and wrote:

1. External Stimulus

-Emotion

-Thought

-Action.

I repeated this 10 times, so I had ten paragraphs outlined.  Each paragraph started with some kind of external stimulus, usually part of the conflict against my main character’s goal, followed by his internal reaction to this stimulus (first emotion followed by thought), finalized by his action.

I made sure the first paragraph began with some kind of mystery or hook to lead the reader in, and ended with a cliff hanger or some king of burning question.  What I wrote as a note to myself was:  “Why must reader turn page for next scene?”

I wrote several scenes this way, worried that I was being too robotic.  What I found was it’s a great way to get going, but don’t be afraid to let your structure go when the words start popping all on their own.

Now, what I have been doing is simply the following (I’ll make up a car chase scene as an example)

POV: Chase McRoadster, protagonist

Goal: Escape the Banshee motorcycle gang

Resolution: Chase loses control of his car, ends up in a river trapped and sinking.

1. Head Banshee biker sees hero drive by

2. Chase begins on country road

3. weaves between caravan of semi trucks and ends up on highway

4. Police give chase but bikers shoot out their tires with shotguns.

5. Construction ahead, forced down into small town streets

6. Notices car almost out of gas

7. Two bikers go to shoot out his tires but he slams brakes and they end up shooting each other dead, big bike crash

8. Biker leader becomes furious, somehow forces McRoadster off the road and crashing into river below bridge

9. Car fills with water, stuck in seat belt, McRoadster is drowning.

So that’s the main secret.  Each of those numbers represents about 1 to 3 paragraphs, or a block of dialogue.  Instead of thinking about the entire scene when I go to write, and freezing up or feeling overwhelmed, now I just look at the first task and try to make the best single paragraph or two I can on that topic or unit.  I don’t worry about the following prompts or the prior prompts:  this is the stimulus, my character will have some kind of internal reaction that is probably expressed externally anyway, and he’ll do something physical based on that stimulus.  I make sure the setting and goals are clear, usually in the first paragraph, and that I end with something exciting.  The middle bit is a back and forth between the protagonist and his opponents.

Often, I follow the plan exactly, but sometimes the scene takes a more unique track, and I simply go with the flow.  I recommend writing out each of these external stimuli as I have given in the example, and using it as a springboard to help guide your writing, keeping in mind the internal reactions followed by the external reactions of your main character.  So instead of wasting time sitting at your desk, staring at the screen unsure how the scene will unfold, pre-plan it then write it.  You can always change it, but start with a solid structure, then just fill in the blanks and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to solve the problem after you break it down into its basic elements.

 

 

Well, I’ve been very inactive in terms of editing my novel.  I took some time off to travel, and when I came back worked on painting the entire interior of my house, and taking care of a sick child, and on and on with stresses at work.  I’m finally getting back in the swing of things, and foresee finishing the first edit job of the novel in the next few weeks.

The key is to not let TOO much time go by.  Maybe taking more time away actually was a blessing, allowing me to come back to the novel with fresher eyes.  Still, I would have rather finished the first major edit by now.

Again, never give up, do what you have to do with “regular life”, but get back to writing, writing, writing.