Many thanks to RJ Champion who has sent us an excerpt from his novel in progress, Mountain of Souls. (If you missed the feedback on our last free critique post, it’s now available here). Please share your constructive comments below and then consider sharing your own work for critique (see here for all the necessary information).
R.J. Champion is currently working on his first novel, provisionally entitled Mountain of Souls. RJ Champion has taught and travelled around the world. including Peru (the inspiration for his first novel), Jordan, Tanzania and the Czech Republic. Rob has also lectured in History Education at the University of Exeter. R J Champion is currently completing a MA in English at the University of Hull. You can find him online at www.rjchampion.com and he tweets at @r_j_champion.
Mountain of Souls will be an 80,000 word political and historical suspense thriller aimed at an adult readership.
(Please note that in the extract that follows, the swear words have been partially obscured by us, only to stop the post being blocked by corporate profanity filters and over-zealous parental controls – sorry!)
1. The Philosopher
Maximum Security Prison, El Callao Naval Base, San Juan de Lurigancho, Callao, Peru.
The clouds were grey overhead and so thick they moulded into one covering the sky from horizon to horizon. The man walked into his private exercise cage. From afar he had an aspect that would pass for an ascetic medieval friar. Kept separate from the other inmates this was as close to society as he could get. The guards, ever watchful, ever suspicious, waited just inside. He sat on the plastic chair. His body ached. He was old. The wind blew straight off the cold sea of the Pacific Ocean right into the central area where his cage was located. Taking a look around the deserted courtyard he took the tobacco and papers from his right trouser pocket and began to roll a cigarette. This was the only view he had had for the last twenty-four years. The adobe blockhouses, some derelict, some more so. All drab. He let out a sigh which became a cough. A long hacking cough. ‘Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over’, he thought to himself. He placed the newly rolled cigarette in his mouth and fumbled for his matches. With difficulty he lit the cigarette and sat back in the plastic chair. He looked around at his cage, two metres by four metres, not much he thought and let out a long sigh.
Looking up he tried to shake himself out of his depression. He was in a place far removed from his own, on a world that weighted him down with its intricacy, among people whose hatred and fear of him were never hidden. The bland adobe towers that surrounded him oppressed him; the whole unheeding life of a high-security prison cast him into the horrible gloom of isolation and pygmyish unimportance. ‘No more’, he thought, ‘here is my court, and here is my empire.’
Somewhere behind him, from inside, a heavy door opened, he heard voices. He winced at the sound of the door closing. Footsteps echoed out and two other guards he didn’t recognise came to the door to the cage and looked in. They stepped back, more voices, then softer feet. Light feet, the feet of a ballerina. He continued to stare ahead. He pondered whether to get up and keep pushing forward or just give up and fade into oblivion. ‘No, I will not succumb to despair. I will find the antidote for the emptiness of my existence.’ he thought. She came over behind him and kissed his meagre hair. “He is coming”, she said. He looked up at his wife and smiled. ‘What I miss most are new memories’ he said looking out across the Spartan courtyard. He sighed again before relaxing deeply into the chair. He took a long drag on his cigarette and closed his eyes. It was time to turn the pages of History a little faster.
2: The Professor
Murphy’s Irish Bar, Main Concourse, Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport.
The Professor sat cautiously in the dark recesses of the bar. Pulling up the collar on his blue/grey overcoat he took a long deep sip of his Guinness. Eyes shutting he could see her face pleading, stubborn. Telling him to go. There he had stood in silence, tears caressing his cheeks Broken-hearted, a hollow shadow of a love had that would be severed for years.
He looked around eyes glazing. Skirting the barrier of tears. Oblivious to all but his thoughts. A sip and a return to his thoughts. The secret trysts, his apartment, her apartment, a hotel room in Boston here, Miami there. Private study sessions turned to intimate love making ones. His silent grieving, a decade longing.
Tears form. Another sip, Last time. That was, this will be the last time. Until the next last time. To see Her, to greet Her. Silence and tears. Silence and tears it was all he had been left with. Tears and silence.
Wiping his eyes with his fingers and taking another sip he looked around the bar, furtively, as if the people surrounding him could break into the prison of his mind. He looked behind him and reached into the pocket of his brown jeans and pulled out his phone. A couple of presses and swipes later he was looking at the email that had precipitated this journey.
Five words was all it took. Five words after 10 years. Five words out of the blue. Five words to change everything. Just five words: ‘Come now. I need you.’ It was, of course, from Her. Who else could it be? He replied as compassionately as he could to anther mans loved one. When someone else’s arms had been around her, when before it was his arms. It was hard to be compassionate. He protested. Yet he had once made a promise to her when they parted and again when he left Peru that he would be there for her whenever she needed him. A blank cheque he wanted Her to cash until she cashed it. He remembered that promise and he felt the deep well inside of his stomach as the embers of his love rekindled. How it was that she could still do this to him? He did not know.
Taking deep gulps of his drink he sat back in his chair closed his eyes and instantly was taken back to those years when their affair had burnt the brightest. He could picture it all, though he had forced it out of his mind. Indelibly it was imprinted there no matter how hard he tried to hide it away and convince himself that he no longer cared. Her face was seared into the backs of his eyelids. The face he saw as she stood standing outside his apartment, the face she made when she was lost in thought, her face getting closer as they kissed, looking into her eyes as they made love.
‘For f### sake’ he cursed under his breath as he stood. ‘Why do you do this to me?’ It could have been addressed to her, it could equally have been addressed to the cosmos. He downed the contents of his drink, put the phone back into his pocket, took the handle of his carry-on case and walked the long Schiphol walk to his departure gate.
Flight KL 0743 Amsterdam-Schiphol to Lima-Jorge Chavez (1230-1810)
He took a deep breath and looked out of the window. And looked, and looked before closing his eyes to the world. The world that got in the way. She ended it. She said it wasn’t her choice. It sure as hell wasn’t his. She f###ing ended it. They had promised each other forever. No matter what others, what the world would think. She. F###ing Ended It. Their affair had been secret and furtive. A love, and a lust, of furtive glances, soft brushes which lingered a little more than was appropriate. The secret side of their public meeting had made their private encounters aflame with passion, an all-encompassing need to be surrounded by the other. When she was in his apartment, then they were free, to talk, to kiss to make love. Never freer never so much as when they were together. We were never allowed to enjoy our time together. Was it right? Was it wrong? He remembered a quote she had sent him “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”. Absence had become presence; presence absence. The third reality, his reality. The professor breathed in. The Professor missed his student.
3. The Chasqui
San Isidro district, Lima, Peru
The children struggled. The children were happy. The children were happy as they struggled. Being tied up together in the trunk of the car made them struggle. The drink and drugs they had been given made them happy.
The light made them stop struggling. The light made them look. Looking made their eyes hurt. Like moths it didn’t stop them.
Without a word the man picked them up from the trunk and told them to stand. One, two, three. If the children’s eyes had adjusted they would have seen the man look across the garage to another man, who smiled and looked to the sky. He returned his smile and returned to the car. The chasqui was on his way again.
Here’s an overview of the full piece: Mountain of Souls is a fast-paced thriller set in contemporary Peru. The Professor responding to an urgent text from a former student and lover returns to Peru to find himself trapped in a maelstrom of events which trace their antecedents to the execution of the last Inca Túpac Amaru II and the ritual of child sacrifice known as Capacocha. Accused of cocaine smuggling the Professor must clear his name deal with the philosopher king who leads the Shining Path terrorist group from his prison cell, as well as the descendants of conquistadors who still control contemporary Peru.
Now let us know what you think in the comments below – thanks! 🙂
Hi R.J. Thanks so much for sharing Mountain of Souls – I’ll be very excited to see how this novel will turn out. I think you have a great plot in a fantastic setting, and this is a book that strikes me as having big commercial potential. Like so many of the best thrillers, it has layers of plot that go deeper and deeper into the past.
It’s also very interesting stylistically. You write in staccato bursts, using fragments, repetition, and sentence reversals to create a relentless rhythm. The rhythm of the sentences reinforces the pace of the plot, if that makes sense. The style is very distinctive. It reminds me a bit of David Peace, but it’s very much your own voice.
Thanks to Lucy for her comments. Clearly, Lucy jumped straight to the story with no interest in what I’d added by way of description and synopsis at the beginning and end! Grrr 😉 Hence some confusion about how the sections relate to each other. However, that confusion is interesting in itself. The novel strikes me as quite cinematic in terms of its cuts. We jump from place to place and the narrative is mimetic – i.e. we are looking at the characters in a particular time and place and following their actions in ‘real time.’ It can be difficult to write a whole novel that way, and two things to consider are the use of summary, and linking sentences.
Regarding linking sentences, there is an option (not necessarily one you will want to use) to deploy an authorial voice almost like a kind of tour guide. Just as a tour guide might say, ‘if you’ll just come through to the grand hall then we can see the next thing’, an authorial voice might add at the start of section 2, ’10,000km away, the Professor sat alone. He had no idea the Philosopher existed. No idea how that existence would soon threaten his life.’ This sort of thing might make clear how the sections relate and might help to reassure readers that they’re in safe hands.
Regarding summary, the scene with the Professor has one purpose – to show how much he misses his former lover – but it’s only stylistic choice dictating that all his agonising over Her must be dealt with while he’s drinking a pint of Guinness. One could just as easily write something of the sort, ‘It had been ten years since the Professor broke up with his former student. Ten years of looking back at old photos. Destroying old photos. Reprinting old photos. Ten years of searching Her name on the internet. Maria Carceres [we don’t even have a name for her at this point] Ma-ri-a. Ten years of friending Her with fake Facebook accounts’ etc. And one could carry on like this until it’s time to explain how he got her message and decided to come to her aid. You could write the whole section without setting it in any one time or place.
If you do always set the story in a scene that takes place at a particular time in a particular place, then I think it’s important to choose the right scenes. The difficulty you have in the opening two sections is that both characters are alone, and neither has any short-term objective. They are both waiting. So, although this novel has a great plot overall, there actually isn’t any plot in these individual sections. And the difficulty with writing a scene in which a character is alone having a drink is that it doesn’t make for great drama: https://onlinewritingtips.com/2015/02/15/beyond-coffee-giving-characters-interesting-varied-action/
Consider if instead of merely waiting in his cage until something happens to him out of the blue (the guards bring his wife who has a message for him), the Philosopher has to actively try to get that message. For instance, he has to try to communicate with another prisoner by knocking messages out in Morse code along the pipes that connect their cells. In that example, he has an objective. There is a plot. Will he succeed in communicating or won’t he?
But because your characters don’t have much to do, you have nowhere to go except to describe actions that have little importance (sipping Guinness, breathing in, sighing) or to explore their minds. Now, I think you have a good sense of these characters, and I think you write their psychology well, and of course being able to explore thoughts as well as actions is one of the reasons why writing remains important in an era dominated by film and TV. Nevertheless, I do think it’s important not to spend too long on a character’s thoughts at the expense of seeing how they engage with the external world.
This is particularly true when it comes to conveying emotion. I felt that at times you were trying to use abstract descriptions to convey emotions: e.g., ‘Broken-hearted, a hollow shadow of a love had that would be severed for years.’ As I said at the talk in Hull, this is a wee bit like trying to convey a joke by saying ‘side-splittingly funny, a great raucous thunder of amusement.’ (See here: https://onlinewritingtips.com/2015/03/15/the-objective-correlative-tip-31/).
How best to make readers care? I think you tell the facts and hope that those facts are powerful for the readers. And this is my final point: I can’t care about people in the abstract. If you tell me a man was killed yesterday then I know that’s bad but I don’t feel sad and can’t get involved with the story. But if you tell me that an immigrant joiner was killed by police marksmen, in a case of mistaken identity, while he was on his way to buy wood so he could build a fort with his nine-year-old son who has lukemia – then I can begin to care. In other words, like most people I get emotionally involved with other’s lives in their specificity. At this stage I can’t care about the Professor and his ex because I don’t know anything about them (except that he wears an overcoat and drinks Guinness). I don’t even know their academic field. I don’t even know their names, ages, or nationalities.
There’s a lot to be said for Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘to hell with suspense.’ In most instances it’s probably true that any important information that the characters know should be shared with the readers as soon as possible and as clearly as possible. Suspense usually comes from caring about what will happen next, rather than wondering about the meaning of what is happening now.
I hope something in my rambling response is useful. Attached here you will find an annotated version of the story: Mountain of Souls feedback
It’s a great synopsis, and your writing has vigour and flair and energy. I see no reason why this book can’t be a big success, and I hope you’ll keep in touch and let us know its progress towards publication.
Thanks again for sharing your work and good luck with it 🙂