Thursday, December 27, 2012

Please Welcome Debut Novelist Harrison Demchick

Omnimystery News: Guest Author Post
by Harrison Demchick

We are delighted to welcome debut novelist Harrison Demchick as our guest.

Harrison's new book, The Listeners (Bancroft Press, December 2012 hardcover and ebook formats), was born in an independent study in fiction during Harrison's senior semester at Oberlin College. Originally a series of interconnected short stories, it was adapted first into a screenplay, and then, from the screenplay, into his first novel.

Today Harrison tells us about how much to reveal in a book … and when.

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The question, oftentimes, is not so much what you're going to reveal, but when.

Harrison Demchick
Photo provided courtesy of
Harrison Demchick

My novel, The Listeners, is about a borough quarantined due to an airborne illness that causes deformity, insanity, and death. A fourteen-year-old boy named Daniel, orphaned by the plague, is taken in by a cult called the Listeners, marked by the ceremonial removal of their right ears. But all he really wants is to find his best friend Katie, trapped elsewhere in the quarantine.

The premise alone raises a crucial question: Does Daniel find Katie?

That question raised a couple more for me, as the writer: When do I ask it? And when do I provide the answer?

The most routine way to tell a story, of course, is linearly. Tell the story in the way and order in which it happens. In this scenario, the question is raised when it comes up — as soon as Katie is mentioned in the narration, and as soon as we know that Daniel wants to see Katie again.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this. Most stories are told in a linear fashion, including a great many truly brilliant ones, but there's a reason a lot of stories also start in medias res — in the middle of things. What information readers are provided — and when — drastically changes how they read the story to come.

For example: Daniel does find Katie.

Spoiler alert.

Except it's not. Because this happens in the first chapter. This happens before page 5. And then we flash back to what came before.

This was not always the case. The entire first draft of the novel kept Katie out of the picture until, from a linear standpoint, Daniel arrived at her apartment. In that draft, until late in the first part, the narrative was driven by the question of whether Daniel would ever find Katie.

So why get rid of that? Why answer the question?

Because answering the question raises different questions. Because Daniel doesn't just find Katie. He finds her as the Listeners lead him, violently, into her apartment. He finds her with armed, one-eared men seeking Katie's police officer father.

Suddenly, the question is not whether Daniel will find Katie. The question is: Who are these people? Why do they have one ear? How did we get to this point — and what's going to happen next?

And now, from here on out, the more we learn about the character of Daniel and his relationship with Katie, the more readers fear the moment they know is coming.

Or at least that's the hope!

One mystery is sacrificed for another. One source of tension gives way and a different one takes its place.

That's writing. Writing — and this is true whether it's mystery, or horror, or literary fiction or romance or chick-lit or high fantasy or anything in-between — is a series of choices, not just about what story to tell but how you're going to tell it. You give up something that wasn't working, or even something that mostly was, for something that will work better, and then you hope you made the right decision.

Every book is filled with decisions like this. Mine sure is. Take Daniel's ear. In that first scene, we see him with the Listeners. Does that mean he, too, has one ear? We don't know. It isn't revealed yet — and it isn't revealed linearly either.

What happens when we catch up to the scene that opened the novel? Do we get another glimpse of the future and spend the rest of the book wondering how we get to that point, or do we leave the rest of the novel as one big question mark?

And how about that plague? Where does it come from? Do we answer that question at all?

You pick the questions you want to answer and the ones you don't. You raise the tension you choose and abandon that which you decide you don't need. You throw it all together and hope most readers (because it will never be all) respond well to the choices you've made.

Whether or not Daniel finds Katie was always going to be revealed. I made the choice to reveal it before page 5. And I've made the choice, here and now, to reveal it to you before page 1.

If you still want to read The Listeners, then maybe it was the right call.

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Raised in Baltimore, Maryland on a steady diet of magical realism, literary fiction, science-fiction, and Spider-Man comics, Harrison Demchick spent most of his formative years inside his own head, working out strange thoughts and ideas that would eventually make their way into stories, screenplays, and songs.

He went to Oberlin College to attain one of today's most notoriously useless degrees, a BA in English with a creative writing concentration, but then actually used it, working the last seven years as a book editor. Harrison is also a screenwriter, and the winner of the 2011 Baltimore Screenwriters Competition.

To learn more about Harrison and his new book, visit his website at HarrisonDemchick.com.

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The Listeners by Harrison Demchick

The Listeners
Harrison Demchick

Before the plague, and the quarantine, fourteen-year-old Daniel Raymond had only heard of the Listeners. They were a gang, or at least that's what his best friend Katie's police officer father had said. They were criminals, thieves, monsters — deadly men clearly identifiable by the removal of their right ears.

That's what Daniel had heard. But he didn't know.

He didn't know much in those early days. He didn't know how the plague began, but then, no one did. The doctors and emergency medical personnel said it was airborne, and highly contagious. They said those infected became distorted both inside and out, and very, very dangerous.

Then the helicopters came and took the doctors away, and no one said much of anything after that.

Except the police officers. They said they'd provide food and order, in exchange for guns and, ultimately, anything else they felt like taking.

Daniel's mother went out for toilet paper. She never came back. He hasn't heard from Katie since the phones went dead. And with his real family gone and surrogate family unreachable, Daniel, scared and alone, has nothing except the walls of his apartment, the window shattered, the poisonous air seeping in.

That's when the Listeners arrive. Derek, the one-eared man with the big, soulful eyes, promises protection, and hope, and the choice not to sit alone and wait to die in some horrific way. He offers a brotherhood under the watch of their leader, the prophet Adam. He offers a place in the world to come.

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