Cassandra Khaw: Five Things I Learned Writing Hammers On Bone

John Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He’s been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid’s stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He’s also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he’s hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

As Persons investigates the horrible McKinsey, he realizes that he carries something far darker. He’s infected with an alien presence, and he’s spreading that monstrosity far and wide. Luckily Persons is no stranger to the occult, being an ancient and magical intelligence himself. The question is whether the private dick can take down the abusive stepdad without releasing the holds on his own horrifying potential.

Words are hard (but not impossible)

When I first started out, I wrote about 200 to 300 words of fiction every other day or so. It was a good day when I hit 500 words. Which is a paltry sum compared to the output of true professionals. According to what I’ve heard, 2000 words is basically the industry average.

And that knowledge is intimidating. Like, seriously so. I spent more time agonizing about my output than anything else, I think. Not craft, not quality of prose, not narrative structuring. Those are skills you can learn, can workshop, can develop. But the idea of coming up with so many words every single day was daunting.

Coming from a journalism background, I’m used to producing content on a tight schedule. In other words, there’s really not much time to weave through drafts so I edit as I write. Which is a terrible idea in fiction, as anyone can tell you. But Hammers on Bone managed to propel me to a 1000 words-a-day average. (I’m slogging towards 2000 words a day. It’s long, sad climb.)

The weird thing about that was this: all that advice about making space for these words? It’s true. I wrote most of Hammers of Bone across the course of January, between navigating the spectacle of Las Vegas. I was bored. I wanted it done. (And to be honest, I think I wanted to prove to C.C Finlay that I knew how to let a story breathe.)

So I gave myself two weeks to hit 15,000 words. I sectioned off my day to include fiction. I made it a point to sit down and write. After all, if Ken Liu can carve a handful of minutes each day from a lawyer-y schedule and Chuck Wendig can write 10,000 words in a day, I could do something, right? [I almost never write 10k a day! — cw]

And it worked.

I know it sounds obvious on paper. Self-discipline? Of course, that’s how you do it. But when you’re faced with a blank document, with the idea of writing for weeks, with the thought of committing yourself to thousands of words that may never see publication? Common sense gets squeezed out of the window and anxieties set in. What I learned writing Hammers on Bone, though, is this: you can totally be the boss of those fears.

You need to give a story room to breathe (but not too much)

A story is a puppy: it starts out small and cuddly, full of potential, practically quivering with a rambunctious desire to please. You and your puppy – you can be anything, anyone. You can go anywhere, have a variety of adventures. You will be best friends.

Of course, puppies grow up, shedding their wobbly-legged cuteness in favor of whatever they were meant to be. And like dog owners, writers are going to need to adapt to these circumstances. A Pomeranian is going to be perfectly happy in a one-room studio, but a German Shepherd will quickly tire of the limited space, simultaneously withering in its confinement and laying havoc on the room.

Er.

Complicated metaphor aside, the point that I’m trying to make here is that stories always start out the same way: with the sense that anything can happen. Then, it gets going and what’s interesting is that the story doesn’t always accommodate us. Sure, we might say that this was intended to be a piece of flash fiction. Sure, we expected a 10,000-word novelette. And sometimes, that’s true. (For plotters, in fact, that might always be true.)

But sometimes, it’s not.

Hammers on Bone was a 3,000 word story that I wrote up in two weeks and sent to F&SF, hoping that it might resonate with editor C.C. Finlay. To an extent, it did. He rejected it, of course. But not without first telling me that this was a story that had merit, but also a story that needed room to breathe.

So I gave it room to breathe. Slightly begrudgingly, of course. I was the dog owner who’d expected a lap-puppy, but ended up with three-times-a-day walkies. But I let Hammers on Bone breathe. I mapped out spaces for tension. I gave Persons and McKinsey room to be alpha dogs at each other. I sketched in the world that existed in my head.

And then I stopped. Because I’d said everything I wanted to say about the story. Things had happened, events had transpired. It was time to go. Sure, I could have given the tale another POV character, maybe write in more lore, but this was a story with a limited time frame. It had to go from point A to point B very quickly, and any detours would cause some grumpiness.

Was I right about that? Was Charlie right about his critique? Yes, I guess. It found a home with a wonderful publisher, in the end. Stories really need space. Sometimes, 14,000 words worth of space.

Noir is very casually sexist

Classic film noir, along with the hardboiled fiction that inspired it, has always been exceedingly masculine in tone. The hero is inevitably an alpha male. He is ruthless, indomitable, alluring, immune to feminine wiles. He is the mercenary, the ronin, the man that will never be tied down, a creature of endless adventure, destined to just the right amount of hardship. In other words, he is a fantasy.

The problem with fantasies, though, is that they are intrinsically selfish. By and large, noir was disinterested in women, preferring to see them as either adversarial elements or objects of licentious desire. I like to imagine that this approach to female characters wasn’t always driven by ill intentions, that some of the authors were simply trying to stay true of the genre.

But regardless of how you cut in, the language of noir is very casually sexist. Women are never their names but instead a litany of diminutives: toots, babe, skirt, bird. You ‘shack up’ with a ‘roundheels,’ and ‘chew’ and ‘neck’ and ‘mash’ and ‘fumble’ your way into the boudoir of a saucy little ‘dish’ The sharp ones are always careful to be ‘sheiks,’ avoiding the trap of bar-haunting frills. Don’t be a ‘boob.’ You don’t want a ‘tramp’ to make you a ‘twist’, do you?

What’s also interesting is how easy it absorb all that by intellectual osmosis. While writing Hammers on Bone, I tried my best to keep the women in my book from suffering unnecessarily. After all, they were, by consequence of the plot, already going through horrific things. They didn’t need to be put down, objectified, reduced to a foil or a sex toy. But while the book was going through edits, I discovered something I hadn’t even really thought of. John Persons was still very flippantly chauvinistic. And it genuinely floored me as to how much.

Reading through the novella months later made me realize how much of that is true, and how much we glaze over things like that at first glance. I’ve thought about toning those elements of Persons down but for various reasons, I didn’t. Partly because it fit the plot, partly because it fit what I needed Persons to be, and partly because I wanted to remind myself of how easy it is for anyone to slip.

Shock factor is seductive

Hammers on Bone is a rough book. There is a lot of violence, both on-screen and off-screen. People get hurt in gruesome ways, and one of the climatic scenes in the end is straight out of my childhood nightmares of John Carpenter’s The Thing. (Thanks, mom. Thanks, dad. Having a 9-year old watch that movie was a great idea.)

That said, there are only three occasions where a woman is physically harmed in the novella. None of it is played for titillation. At least, I don’t think so. When I started writing, I made a promise with myself to not have the marginalized suffer gratuitously. If something happens to them, it won’t be in a space where it can be savoured, be reinterpreted into a cause for pleasure. (Thank you, college mates, for showing me that some people will publicly cheer at rape scenes. Ugh.)

Despite all those grandiose plans to do better, the temptation to play up certain scenes did manifest while I was writing Hammers on Bone. And it surprised me as to how easily that happened. Popular media had coded certain expectations into me: masculine character development is prefaced by a tormented woman.

Breaking it down, that trope makes a horrendous kind of sense. The desire to protect something weaker than yourself, to safeguard the vulnerable, to hold onto the people you love – these are the universal impulses that have fueled miracles. What better way to motivate someone than to tell them that everything that they love is at risk? What better way to prompt change than to take away everything that anchors a character to current reality?

Most importantly, it is an easy, reliable solution. In some ways, most of the work had been done already. Wasn’t I proof? For better or for worse, we all know that the pain of a woman kickstarts a revenge plot, or something subtler but no less potent.

So I wrote that.

I had wanted to create a tragic moment, something heart-wrenching. I wanted people to care. I wanted the characters to think about what they’d done, and who they were, and how all this affected their humanity. And then I looked down at what I’d written, retched a bit in my mouth, tore out the paragraphs, put them into a meat grinder, and sat in cold, clammy revulsion. Because I’d done that thing. I’d exploited one of my own characters. I had done it to shock, to appall, to move someone else’s character arc.

From a clinical perspective, it’s fascinating as to how that could even happen. As a queer Asian woman, you’d think I’d know better, especially since I had promised myself I wouldn’t do something like this. And I do.

But at the same time, decades of Hollywood and mainstream literature had apparently left an indelible impression. I had to catch myself. I guess my point here is that no matter where you’re coming from, there’s deprogramming to be done, there are biases and problematic thoughts to deconstruct. We’re all flawed people and no matter our good intentions, we will fuck up. So we better be watching for it, and we better be ready to fix it, and if it gets into the wild, we damn well better be ready to own up to it.

The world is full of monsters

Another no-brainer. At least, in theory. But we forget, sometimes. By and large, popular media defines our understanding of the world, flattens it to two-dimensionality. We buy into tropes, into the idea that our villains bristle with capes and menacing tattoos, that they announce their intentions in a dramatic manner, framed by the clamor of an unsuspecting city or a background of lightning.

We imagine child predators to be men in brown trenchcoats, balding and sweaty, possibly mustached, unmistakably creepy. We expect men with smiles like sharks. And it is always men because the sexual advances of a woman are never undesired, because men never say no to sex with a woman, and everyone knows that queerness is a joke to be played out on loop.

Popular media tells us we know who the bad guys are.

We don’t.

I’m writing a separate post somewhere else that digs into the statistics of domestic abuse, about how often the sexual assault of men and boys go unreported, and the culture that leads to this lack of visibility. As such, I’m not going to go into it too deeply here. But I wanted to touch on something related.

The story behind Hammers on Bone is real. There are two boys out there who were victimized for years, who went to school and met with their relatives, who had birthdays, who acted slightly-out-of-bounds but were largely treated as rambunctious kids, a little damaged from a difficult home situation but otherwise fine. There’s a woman who was afraid to leave, a woman who whispered about how her abusive partner got into her head, how he kept her pinned down with her own fears. There is a monster in London who is living quietly, awaiting proper conviction, gleefully unrepentant.

But you wouldn’t know he was a monster from looking at him. You wouldn’t have known that there were problems in that household. You would only have seen the family, only seen their outings together, only seen their laughter and all those things they wanted you to see. Because people are good at keeping their darker impulses under control. Tigers have their stripes. Humanity has a different kind of camouflage.

Predators need an edge, you see?

***

Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for Singaporean micropublisher Ysbryd Games. When not otherwise writing press releases, she writes fiction of grotesque dimensions. Her short stories can be found in places like Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and Fireside. HAMMERS ON BONE is her first novella with Tor.com

Cassandra Khaw: Website | Twitter | Facebook

Hammers on Bone: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads