A Deeper Look At Focus Lost…Characters

The parallels to Milton’s Paradise Lost in Focus Lost extend well beyond the title. Just as Milton expands the story of Adam, Eve, and Satan as told in Genesis into a detailed, narrative poem, Focus Lost draws inspiration from the same tale and extends it into a full-length, modern literary thriller.

The main characters Gabe Adams, Eva Florez and Levi Combs symbolize, in name and action, Adam, Eve, and Satan in this contemporary Fall of Man story set in Los Angeles.

  • Gabe Adams: Nature photographer Gabe Adams aspires to be as the name Adam suggests: son of the earth. Thrust into the role of guardian of his younger sister after the death of their parents, Gabe, similar to archangel Gabriel, is a protector and represents mercy, joy, truth, and dreams. Focused on landscape, coastline, and waterfall photography, he has never even heard of movie star Levi Combs and definitely didn’t have any interest in celebrity photos. But when he inadvertently photographs Levi and underage starlet Emily James at a waterfall in the California wilderness and those photos get sold to the Forbidden Fotos tabloid site by Gabe’s sister, the focus of all of their lives transform from passion to obsession to revenge.
  • Eva Florez: Eva, an alternative form of Eve, means life and evokes purity and strength. Her last name Florez representative of the Spanish Flores, is the plural of flower and another allusion to the Garden of Eden. But much like her archetypal namesake, she is more complex than her simple name suggests and is manipulative and an agent of temptation. She discovered Levi on the big screen at a college football game and built his and her career from nothing. Power-hungry and controlling, Eva’s loyalties are only to herself, and she is willing to do whatever it takes, whether that means seducing Gabe or sabotaging Levi’s career, to protect what she has built.
  • Levi Combs: An anagram of “evil”, Levi, when combined with the sound of his last name Combs intimates the foreboding warning “evil comes”. Levi, which means joined or attached, never wanted to be famous, but once he achieves A-list celebrity status, he will do anything to hold his position among the stars. But when the photos of him with Emily surface and the public relations and legal issues mount, Levi is cast from the celestial world of stardom, much like Satan was from Heaven. With his life spiraling out of control and unwilling to take responsibility for any of his actions, he vows revenge and retribution for those he blames for his fall.

The allegory and symbolism with the characters do not stop with these three. Read Focus Lost to find the clues and meanings of other characters like the previously mentioned young starlet Emily James, Gabe’s sister Abbie, Deputy District Attorney Marcus Ambrose, Hannah, Levi’s pet water python, and more. Share your findings in the comments and on social media with hashtag #deeperlook.

A Deeper Look At Outside In…Didacticism and Allegory

DidacticismThis is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.

In writing Outside In, I wanted to create a modern myth of a person’s search for identity and responsibility using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey of departure initiation, and return with the contemporary trials of alcohol, drugs, and sexual experimentation. Told in first-person present tense, Outside In was intended to enable readers to embark on Brad’s journey through his thoughts, perceptions, and encounters, thereby confronting readers with difficult questions that lie at the core of not only the individual, but society in general.

This type of literature is often referred to as didacticism and allegory. Didacticism emphasizes that the literature intends to offer something more to the readers other than pleasure and entertainment. This is a slippery slope. At its best, it gives readers a change to live vicariously through the characters and learn about aspects of life outside of their spheres of control and influence. Unfortunately, it too often reduces the literature to a boring, dull tool overloaded with information. The goal is to weave the information and instruction in and out of interesting characters and events to be entertaining as well as enlightening.

The morality plays of medieval Europe were examples of didactic literature. They were theatrical performances which used allegorical characters to teach the audience a moral lesson. Common themes included the seven deadly sins and repentance and redemption. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the litany of Dr. Seuss stories are more current examples of didacticism.

Allegory is similar and often confused with symbolism because an allegory can use symbols, but allegory is a complete narrative which involves characters and events representing abstract ideas and events. Symbolism can be used within any work for one object to represent another and give it a particular meaning. Animal Farm, in addition to being didactic is also an example of allegory. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is another example of a classic allegory. More modern examples include the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dune.

Following are examples of didacticism and allegory in Outside In:

  1. Allegorical Characters: As detailed in the deeper look on the characters in Outside In, each of the supporting characters surrounding Brad represent a conflicting emotion. They make up four points of a moral compass pulling him in a distinct direction through the course of the story. Astrid (hope), Haley (despair), Caldwell (Respect), and Cinch (irreverence). It is Brad’s connection to all of them — the good and the bad — that help him discover and accept the person he is.
  2. Excess and Instant Gratification: Outside In proposes identity can’t be found or fabricated but emerges from within when one has the courage to let go. This letting go for many of the characters in Outside In translates to a hedonistic pursuit involving alcohol, sex, and drugs, the vices so readily available to a person who wants to forget. These vices symbolize the modern trials people face in their journeys of becoming. What starts as recreational experimentation and the exploration of new experiences transform to obsession and complete loss of self. This descent into excess and instant gratification is meant to raise awareness of current societal issues with addiction and self-medication and pose the question.
  3. Identity As A Process: After the tragic death of a student and the loss of his teaching job, Brad loses his faith and sense of identity and has a quarter-life crisis. His reaction is to escape to the island community of Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie to rediscover who he is and what life has to offer. Along the way he learns identity cannot be found or fabricated, but emerges from within when a person has the courage to let go. This is the overall theme and moral of the novel that identity is not a fixed goal or an end but rather a process that continually unfolds and is defined by our connections and responsibility to the people, places and things around us.
  4. Island Characteristics: The unique attributes of isolation, finite resources, and the influence of water have always made islands an ideal setting for stories. They represent a mandala and symbol of the effort to unify self. Why I chose Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island for the setting of Outside In is for the Battle of Lake Erie History. Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous quote “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” from the historic battle is representative of the characters inner struggles to face and conquer their demons on their paths of self-discovery.
  5. Manifest Destiny Contrast: In the 1800’s Manifest Destiny captivated the imagination and drive of the American people by creating the belief that it was America’s mission to expand throughout the continent. By starting the journey of the protagonist in St. Louis, known as the Gateway to the West, but rather than forging west in search of a better life, he delves deeper into the middle of the country, it is a direct contrast to the concept of Manifest Destiny. With minimal external unexplored land and frontier remaining, the character’s path represents the need to look deeper in oneself to find the answers to problems and that dreams don’t lie on the horizon; they lie within.

Stay connected to this website or follow me on Facebook @ByCooper, on Twitter @ByCoop, or on Instagram @dougiecoop for more deeper looks at aspects of Outside In.

A Deeper Look At Outside In…Research

Research DetectiveThis is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.

One of the frequent questions all writers get is, Where do your ideas come from? The more realistic and visceral the writing is, the more that question becomes, Is the story autobiographical? I mean, writers write about what they know, right? Well, sort of.

Since my novel Outside In is told in first person present tense about a teacher becoming lost in a haze of alcohol, drugs and sexual experimentation after a student dies of a drug overdose in the teacher’s classroom, I get the latter question… A LOT. While I’ll never admit what actually happened and what is pure fiction, I would like to discuss how I research a novel.

Regardless of type or genre, all writing can be placed on a continuum between actual experience and imagination. Whether it’s a reporter relaying facts, a non-fiction writer describing a historical event, or a fiction writer creating a dystopian future, there will be interpretation of experience and use of imagination in assembling the narrative to relay the desired message.

Following are the four main types of research I perform in crafting a novel with an example for each from Outside In:

1) Empirical: Derived from direct or sensory experience, this is the method writer who lives the experiences and writes about them. The best way to capture the smells, light, sounds, people, and energy of an experience is to actually live it. While this technique leads to the most authentic writing, it also carries the greatest risk, time and financial investment.

Example: To capture the settings for both Outside In and the novel I am currently working on, The Investment Club, I lived at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie and in Las Vegas, respectively. Setting is like another character. It provides readers another way to identify and connect with the story and also serves as a natural platform from which to sell. While brief visits may provide insight to an environment, to get setting right one must walk the streets, breathe the air, and interact with the people over an extended time.

2) Repurposed: If direct experience is not a viable option, then perhaps a similar experience can be repurposed to put the mind in a similar space and capture the desired feelings. As a writer, I’m always recording. When I meet someone, travel to a place, or have any type of unique experience, regardless of context, I file it away to use later.

Example: Without revealing any spoilers, let me just say I didn’t experience all the sexual encounters first-hand. I might have had similar experiences there or elsewhere, and in reflecting on those experiences, I adapted and transferred the core feelings from one situation to the next to capture the details and emotion. In doing this, many of the repurposed sex scenes are actually more stimulating than those that I actually experienced because in writing the repurposed situations I was experiencing them for the first time rather than recalling from memory.

3) Academic: This is the traditional research in which the writer reads other works on the subject or interviews people who have experience on the desired topic to gain the required level of understanding to give the writing authenticity.

Example: For Outside In, to learn the history and impact of cocaine, I read Dominic Streatfeild’s Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography. His research provided a comprehensive history from the jungles in Bolivia and Columbia to its past medicinal uses and over-the-counter availability to interviews in prisons to the inside of crackhouses. Ultimately I didn’t use a lot of this info, but it definitely contributed to the style and allowed me to develop a feel for the excess cocaine represents.

4) Inventive: This is research produced directly from the mind of the writer usually starting with, What if? It is often triggered by another event or a combination of actions that take the writer into open creative space.

Example: While I was a teacher for a brief time, I never had a student die in my classroom and was never forced out of a job. To capture the feelings of this experience in Outside In, I imagined a person who had done everything he was supposed to and dedicated his life to the pursuit of a career and thought, What if he started to have doubts about his choices and it was all taken away? What would he do? Where would he go? What would he be feeling? Once I was seeing things from this perspective, the bitterness, anger, and wanting to escape came naturally.

To decide the best method to use, I balance my desire to produce the most authentic writing with the practicality of the least time and financial investment and risk exposure required.

A Deeper Look At Outside In…5 Things To Consider


This is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel.

Reviews are such a big part of the book selling process. Whether the reviews are professional or amateur, from book critics, bloggers, or online posters, they all help create awareness for new books and guide prospective readers on what to buy. Authors and publishers accept this and prepare themselves that not everyone will like the book and criticism is a an integral part of the feedback loop. Ultimately criticism provides another lens through which to view the work and ultimately grow professionally.

Occasionally, however, facts and details about the story get misinterpreted or misunderstood and need to be clarified. As discussed in some of the other Deeper Look posts, following are the main reasons for my writing Outside In:

> Represent the Prevalence of Erik Erikson’s “Quarter-life Crises” Inducing Feelings of Isolation and Loneliness in Twenties to Early Thirties
> Draw Attention to the Immaturity and Delayed Rites of Passage Due to the Abundance of Choices and Extended Periods in Higher Education and Living at Home with Parents
> Raise Awareness of Societal Issues with Self-Medication and Addiction Through The Pursuit of Excess and Instant Gratification

Following are five things mentioned by reviewers to reconsider:

1) “The story is the author’s life story.” While I have used a few details from my own life, such as I was a teacher in St. Louis and I spent a few summers at Put-in-Bay, I am not the lead character Brad Shepherd. The details from my own life that I used were done so because they best fit the character or plot development and also, as mentioned in the Literary References blog post, I am paying tribute to The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce as he did the same in his creation of Stephen Dedalus, his fictional alter ego. In addition, I’m having fun with the tendency of first novels to be autobiographical, leaving it up to the reader decide what actually happened and what is fabricated for the story.
2) “I didn’t relate to the drug use.” Well, I should hope not. In addition to the third bullet above, the excessive alcohol and drug use are exaggerated to symbolize the modern trials people face in their journeys of becoming. They start as recreational experimentation and the exploration of new experiences and quickly escalate in amount and frequency. This is done to show how easily people can fall into addiction, not even realizing it and completely losing themselves in the process.
3) “The characters frustrated me.” This is another intended response. Much like many of the flawed characters in the current popular television dramas, the characters in Outside In are intended to reflect the proliferation of self-centered and excessive behavior in modern culture. The characters function as a mirror to show the less desirable traits we all possess, and all are in one way or another lost. To find their way, they put themselves in environments to create the image of who they think they should be instead of allowing their trues selves to emerge.
4) “The book was not a mystery.” While there is some uncertainty about what the lead character will do, Outside In was never intended to be a mystery. It is literary fiction, which could be further specialized in the emerging category of new adult focusing on characters in their twenties to thirties confronting issues with identity, career and relationships. It is also categorized as a bildungsroman (novel of becoming), more commonly referred to as a coming of age story, but focuses on the moral and psychological growth of the protagonist ten years later in life than the traditional works in the bildungsroman genre.
5) “Plot was lacking in direction.” This is also a conscious choice and related to Outside In’s categorization as literary fiction, which is more character-driven than plot-driven like mainstream or other fiction genres. The events and actions intentionally wander and unfold in a way to represent the lost and searching aspect of the characters. The characters talk more about passion and living life to the fullest rather than doing anything except escaping to whatever to whatever vice is available. It is this contradiction and the layered characters and complex emotions and what they mean in a broader societal context that are at the core of the story more than solving something by adding up a series of events.

This post is by no means intended to refute others’ opinions. All views are welcome and appreciated. These are just additional points to consider and an attempt to continue the dialogue and discussion regarding Outside In. Feel free to comment your views on the points above or pose new questions via FacebookTwitter, or Goodreads.


A Deeper Look At Outside In…Literary References

BooksThis is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of various aspects and characteristics of the novel. Warning! This article contains spoilers of events in the novel. 

Although on the surface, Outside In may appear to be simply a hedonistic pursuit of the endless summer, as the title suggests, one must look past the appearance to get to the true meaning at the core. Just as the characters wear masks and put themselves in situations to be the people they think they should be rather than letting go and allowing the person they really are to emerge from the inside, many of the events and actions have a  deeper meaning through their connection to other literary works.

Following are some of the literary references in Outside In:

1) A Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Both Scarlet and Outside In deal with sin, legalism, and guilt as major themes and the main characters are motivated to create a new life devoid of the shame of past experiences. One direct reference is in Chapter 11 when Brad, Cinch, Stein, Griffin and Birch are at Heineman’s Winery in the back courtyard playing the Name Game. After a trip to the restroom to balance their escalating alcohol buzz, the suggestion is made to join the others in the front bar. Griffin says, “You go ahead. I’m way too amped to be around those folks. I might as well tattoo a big red C on the end of my nose.” This is referencing the scarlet “A” Hester Prynne is forced to wear on her dress after being found guilty of adultery in Hawthorne’s 1850 work of romantic fiction. Just as Hester was cast out to live with the shame and guilt of her sin, Griffin fears he would be discovered and face consequences for his indulgence.

2) The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe: From the rhythmic passages to the supernatural atmosphere and frequent descent of the lead character into monomania and paranoia similar to Poe’s narrators, Outside In is loaded with references to The Tell Tale Heart and The Raven. During his drug-induced delusions and hallucinations, Brad suffers from the same “over-acuteness of the senses” that Poe’s narrator does in Tell Tale Heart. The opening and closing of doors to investigate and block out painful feelings is another connection between Outside In and Poe’s works. The smile Cinch hides behind when confronted by the police on the way back from the monument after being up all night and the one Brad casts into the night at the invisible surveilance team once he realizes there is nothing in the apartment to incriminate him allude to the narrator’s smile when the police come to search the place in Tell Tale Heart. One of the most glaring similarities is at the end of Outside In as grief-stricken Brad laments the loss of Cinch, the faint tapping and consistent gentle rapping from Cinch’s room that awakes Brad pays homage to the similar sounds in The Raven: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”

3) Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Similar to Joyce in Portrait, Outside In contains certain autobiographical facts from my life. By using factual details in Outside In, I am paying tribute to Portrait as Joyce did the same in his creation of Stephen Dedalus, his fictional alter ego, and also having fun with the tendency of first novels to be autobiographical, leaving it up to the reader decide what actually happened and what is fabricated for the story. Both stories incorporate the pursuit of sensual pleasures to initiate the awakening of the protagonist after a self-imposed exile and extensively use free indirect speech. Brad’s first visit to the top of Perry’s Monument is a direct reference to the classic Daedalus myth for which Joyce names his protagonist. At the top of the monument, Brad feels imprisoned by his family, the events of his past, and his culture in general. He contemplates how easy it would be to jump from the deck: “At the edge of the observation deck, only a four-foot concrete wall separates me from an attempt at flight. In just one motion I could be over the side. It would be so easy—too easy. I have to step back.” This alludes to how Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was imprisoned in a tower to prevent the knowledge of the labyrinth from spreading, and he created a set of wings for him and Icarus to escape. Also paying homage to Portrait are the boat ramp and cliff diving scenes in Outside In. Just as the leap from the rocks into the water in Portrait represented a rite of passage to freedom and independence so does it in Outside In. As the characters emerge from the water and Brad muses, “The moonlight reflects off the water on their skin, radiating a soft glow.”, this is a reference to how Dedalus remembers how they “gleamed with cold wet lustre” and “their bodies were heavy with cold seawater”.

These are just a few of the references to other classic works in Outside In. Others exist from William Blake to René Descartes and many more. Comment via Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads to offer your suggestions.

Pin It on Pinterest