Saturday, April 9, 2016


I am loving the new HBO series VINYL. Bobby Cannavale is powerful playing the owner of a record label in the 1970's whose world is crashing down, but he's going down fighting fueled by cocaine, charm, and an ear for music. His frenetic thoughts and inflated feeling of supremacy is something he's got down after snorting some cocaine (the Bruce Lee scene could not have been done better) but when it comes to the actual snorting, when he violently jerks his head back in ecstasy: Overacted. If he was snorting crystal meth, then maybe, but not from cocaine. A small electric shiver would do. 

With that in mind, I thought I'd repost the article I wrote, called.....


One has to wonder what great works of art might not exist had certain authors never had a drink. Whiskey and writing are eternal companions.  Too much of the latter, however, and the former never happens. Back when I nearly drank and drugged myself to death, I liked to fancy myself a misunderstood artist, but with no art to actually misunderstand. My addiction left my bloody soul dangling from barb wire with vultures circling overhead, ready to feed soon as I passed.  Instead of dying, I made some changes, and have been blessed with 23 years of sobriety. By day, I work as a therapist, helping others struggling with addiction, but at night my obsession is writing novels. I’ve written 5 novels in the last 6 years, and plan to keep writing more.

Substance abuse and addiction play a major role in all of my books. On the Lips of Children features a crystal meth addict living in a drug-smuggling tunnel. My latest releases, MILK-BLOOD, and the sequel ALL SMOKE RISES, feature a ten year old girl addicted to heroin and raised amongst poverty and urban ghosts.

Writing about the power, pain and transformation of chemical dependency has certainly been personal and therapeutic.  Here are a few things I’ve come to believe when writing about addiction and substance use.

Addiction as Torture Device
Substance use is a great vehicle for any author to torture their protagonist and turn them inside out. Dropping some substances into your character’s life tosses them into a pot of boiling water, and their internal conflicts come bubbling up to the surface. Whether they have a longstanding addiction, are in recovery from addiction and relapse, or take their first hit of that strange looking pill, a character under the influence is a pivotal point in many stories. A drunk man tells no lies.  The filters are gone, the emotions are exaggerated, impulse control is low, libido may be ablaze. Memories and demons and actions they will later regret come rushing in.  

Amounts and Terms
Get it right. To make it feel truthful, characters should use the right amount, the right away, with the right terms. “Weed” is the common vernacular for marijuana, right? And Dope doesn’t mean “Weed” in my parts, maybe nowhere. Dope is particular to just heroin.  Crack rocks, depending on size, cost about $20, but once you start, you’ll spend hundreds and sell your kids Xbox collection to keep using. Of course, if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, this all changes. Spoiled milk got the aliens high in “Alien Nation.”  NZT-48 was an intellectual buzz in “Limitless” and Hobbits love their pipe-weed. In Wendig’s Blue Blazes, there’s a whole underworld of tweakers and creatures mining Cerulean deep under New York and then rubbing the blue substance on their temples. World-building can hinge on a whole drug culture.

What You Drop In Matters
All Substances are not equal. A tiny dot of crystal meth holds much more power than a drop of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the variances are tremendous. Social marijuana use and social alcohol use or quite possible, but write about social crack use and you’ll be run out of town as a fraud.

I’ve been around others who are drinking in my sobriety without a problem, but I never want to be in the same room as crystal meth again, for if I do not leave, there will be blood.

If your character is an addict trying to get sober, then you should go to some open AA/NA meetings. If your character is using a substance you’ve never used, find some YouTube videos of people using.  Listen to songs that capture the tone of the specific substance. (I listened to a ton of Velvet Underground writing Milk-Blood.)   Stare at images of the substance for hours without blinking until they soak into your brain and appear in your dreams. I’m not saying to go snort some coke, but, go snort some coke. No, don’t snort coke. Ask someone who snorted coke to edit your work.  Or of course you could just snort some coke. (No, don’t!) (really).

Addicts love rituals.  Alcoholics love the ding of the bell as they enter the party store, the smell of old mop soap, seeing all those little stogies at the counter. Heroin addicts come to welcome the prick of the needle into their flesh, and the comfort of patting their front pocket and knowing there’s a pack of dope inside. Some are universal, some are unique to the character. When we watched Rust Cohle from True Detective make little tin-men out of his Lone Star beer cans, you felt this was not the first time he had done so. Get the rituals right, and the passages will read true to the reader. 

The scariest moment is always just before you start
Which pill do you take, the red pill, or the green pill? (or no pill at all). The choice will change your character’s reality, and that moment of choice can be riveting. Laying out the temptation and creating the set-up is a great plot builder.  If you can get readers screaming at your character in their head, "No, don't do it, don't do it!” you've won them over. When recovering heroin addict Jane Margolis met Jessie Pinkman in Breaking Bad, you knew something had to give, but they let the moment play out over time. A character we care about acting against their best interest is reason to read on.

Perceptions and Prose
When characters uses substances, perceptions are altered, and this is where your prose should change. First person point of view will certainly change the most, followed by third person limited. The deeper you are in the POV the more affected the prose will be. 

Make the sentences reflect the substance: Drunkards will have big, bold dreams, or violent impulses. Any good drunk is always telling you how much they love you or how much they hate you.  Heroin will make you feel soft and warm, like a return to the womb where everything is beautiful and has its place. Cocaine will have your brain and tongue electric with tangential philosophies.  Dialogue that slurs might be as annoying to the reader as listening to a drunk in real life, but one can evoke drunken words without the slurs.

Of course, the pain of craving for and detoxing from these substances will have a visceral effect unique to the substances. Making your characters detox and crave is twice as much fun and much more intense than getting them high. The possibilities are endless, and characters going through the cycle of addiction transform as much as any werewolf. It’s a painful process and part of the torture chamber. Make the pages sweat and tremble.

Thought patterns and Narrator Reliability.
Characters getting high will rationalize insanity until their choices seem perfectly reasonable and actually preferable. Their internal dialogue will be filled with lies. Addicts lie, they deny, then they die, and listening to them bullshit themselves can create untrustworthy narrators who’s intent is hidden to both reader and themselves. What's more fun writing than that?

Unlike the pits of hell for murderers and rapists and plot spoilers, there is no need for fences in the pits of hell for addicts, for if an addict tries to climb out of their pit of hell, another addict grabs them by the ankle and pulls them back down. A miserable soul feeds of the misery of others. Want to put your characters around some nastiness and see how they respond? Send them to a crack house. Or a dive bar. Cavern scenes are the catalyst for characters in many plots. Think Martini’s Bar in “It’s A Wonderful Life” or the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. It’s a pot of bubbling madness in there, and your character will either get tested, or their own madness will boil right out of them.

There are my thoughts
Don’t kill your darlings, that’s letting them off easy. Get them drunk, get them high, stick a knife in their hearts, and spill it all right on the page.


No comments:

Stokercon 2024 in San Diego

 Spent last weekend in San Diego at Stokercon. What a fantastic time. Multiple panels, many conversations. Laughs, tears, books, conversatio...