Scene From a Waiting Room

Two of my favorite hobbies have always been people watching and eavesdropping, long before I declared myself a writer and could claim such behavior as “research.” In fact, if I watch people long enough I’ll usually give them names, and sometimes even backstories.

For instance: I have a neighbor I named Jim, who I decided works for the water department and recently went through a nasty divorce, after he caught his ex-wife cheating on him with a 19 year old from the Geek Squad. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of that is true (although it certainly could be), but that’s what I came up with one day, when I saw him standing outside his apartment angrily smoking a cigarette.

So, it is with great delight that I share one of the best conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening in on. This was Friday morning.

A crowded waiting room, full of mostly miserable people. The morning is stormy on and off; many in the cramped sitting area still have rain drying on their clothes. Across from me sit two people appearing not to have much in common: One a young black man, mid-twenties. He’s clean shaven, short hair, wearing beige cargo-style pants and a gray hoodie. He’s holding a hardcover book with a library barcode across the cover. Specifically, it’s The Widow by Fiona Barton. I decide he looks like a Kevin.

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A book that, I find out later, is a New York Times bestseller and came out just five months ago, which leaves me feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it.

The other, a fifty-ish white guy who looks like he’s seen better days. His hair is greasy and slicked back. He has a bushy mustache, his cheeks look like salt-and-pepper colored coarse grit sandpaper. Grease stains and paint spot his jeans up and down the legs. He’s quite tan, with pronounced crow’s feet and deep wrinkles in his forehead. Despite being  rather small, I decide he worked construction when he was young and verile, and wonder if he works now. Possibly a house painter, I think, judging from the paint. I name him Larry.

Kevin initiates the conversation, which for some reason surprises me. It starts, as most conversations between strangers seem to, with the weather. Larry replies amicably, and they exchange observations about the rain that had fallen and what that means in regard to the heat and humidity once the sun eventually comes out (spoiler alert: miserable). Before long, however, it becomes clear that Kevin has a bit of a one track mind.

“I’m reading this book, The Widow, have you heard of it?”

Larry says he hasn’t.

“It’s pretty good so far, I like it. What do you like to read, fiction or non-fiction?”

Larry mumbles something I can’t make out, then says non-fiction. I wonder if his answer is an attempt to politely indicate to Kevin that this is not a subject to which he can easily contribute.

“Oh yeah, non-fiction?” Kevin says. “I don’t like non-fiction too much. I love fiction, though. What’s your favorite book?”

Larry again mumbles something incomprehensible, perhaps as a stalling tactic. I wonder if he has a favorite book. He finally comes up with an answer, which I don’t hear, that apparently is about space travel. Kevin shows interest and asks him a follow up question about science fiction, and Larry remarks how incredible it is that things that seemed futuristic in books when he was a kid are becoming reality.

Kevin nods, then moves on to describing the plot of The Widow, which he likens to Gone Girl, but without all the big plot twists. It’s clear from the look on his face that Larry is not familiar with Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book or David Fincher’s film adaptation.

Larry seems clearly uncomfortable with the topic at hand and manages to turn the conversation back to the weather, saying he rode his bike in the rain to get there. Kevin says he used to ride his bike a lot but turned to running instead. I wonder for a moment if Kevin realizes that for him biking was recreational exercise while for Larry it’s apparently his primary mode of transportation.

There’s a slight look of relief in Larry’s eyes, though, perhaps because he thinks there might be a chance of turning the conversation back to a subject (bikes or weather) he can more easily speak to. There’s a beat of silence, then Kevin asks another question. The relief leaves Larry’s eyes as quickly as it had arrived.

“So, which do you like better, ebooks or printed books?”

At this point I smile, stifling a laugh.

Larry replies with something about “real books.”

Kevin agrees, stating that in his opinion, while ebooks provide a convenience that is unmatched, there is nothing quite like the feel of a printed book in your hands (an opinion I happen to share). He then gushes about the smell of books, and how, above all else, it is that smell which makes printed books superior.

Not long after this (perhaps due to Larry’s increasing lack of response) Kevin finally relents some. He steers the conversation away from books and reading, telling Larry a little about himself. He says that he works full time in the evening and goes to school full time during the day. He’s just gotten his Bachelor’s Degree and is now pursuing his Master’s, with hopes of going on to get a PhD. (I desperately wish I could’ve heard what he does for a living and his field of study at school–for once these are two items I’d rather not make up.) He says he goes to school, goes to work, then with what little free time he has–I’m assuming somewhere around 1 or 2am–he enjoys some form of entertainment, typically a movie or (big surprise) reading. The conversation dwindles, then Kevin’s number is called. He bids Larry good day and walks off. I feel a little tinge of sadness as he goes.

It wasn’t a long encounter, definitely less than ten minutes even with awkward pauses sprinkled in, but it had a pretty big effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult–male or female, black or white–show that much enthusiasm for books and reading. It almost thawed the cold, black stone in my chest that passes for a heart (almost). It wasn’t just that he had such passion, it was that he unabashedly shared that passion with a perfect stranger, in the form of Larry. That’s awesome. I wondered if after Larry left his appointment he might think about his conversation with Kevin and ride his bike over to the library to look for a book to check out. I wonder if he’d like The Martian.

Surely there’s something to take away from this encounter, right? There must be.

I guess it’s this: Don’t be afraid to share your passion with people, whatever it is. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think about the stuff you like. Don’t stop yourself in the middle of what you’re saying and apologize, or say “I know, it’s dumb.” It’s not dumb. Who knows, you might make an impact on the person you’re talking to, or the introverted weirdo who appears to be staring with serial killer intensity at his phone but is actually listening to everything you say. Either way, don’t be shy about it. Let your freak flag fly–spread that passion around, and liberally. Be a Kevin.

 

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Wonderbook: Worth its Weight in Gold

We all had the “cool” teacher in school—do you remember yours? Mine was Coach Mahr (I think that’s how he spelled it). He taught anatomy and physiology, and was also the track/cross country coach at our high school. He was younger than a lot of the other teachers (probably mid-thirties), and could often be seen out on the track, running alongside his team. In the classroom, he was funny and engaging, and his class was a lot of fun. In contrast, my 12th grade English teacher was Mrs. Simons, was an uptight Irish woman who ran a tight ship and made her class dreadfully boring to attend.

In books about writing, we have Strunk and White on one end of the spectrum (indispensable as it is, The Elements of Style is a bore—stuffy, and a chore to actually try and read), and on the other end, the “cool” one, is Jeff VanderMeer and his awesome writing tutorial Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

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Have you ever had the experience of intrinsically knowing something, and the first time you hear or see that something explained a flash bulb goes off in your brain? That’s kind of what reading Wonderbook has been like for me.

See, one of the most common pieces of advice for writers is, ‘you have to read a lot.’ And that’s good advice, because it’s really the only way to see what you do and don’t like, what you think works and what doesn’t, etc. But in the end you pick a lot of those things up almost subconsciously, to the point that you may know what to do but you may not be sure just why (or sometimes, how). Then along comes the amazing, all-knowing wizard Jeff VanderMeer to break it all down for you.

This book explains things I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to explain before (and believe me, I’ve done my share of research and studying). Most writing books lean more to the Strunk and White side of things—a focus on grammar rather than constructing a story. VanderMeer talks about all aspects of creating: from story structure and pacing to character development, and even the act of creating itself, and recognizing and nurturing your own imagination to be your most productive. What’s more, there are a multitude of essays from renowned authors such as Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, to name but a few.

Wonderbook is also chock full of illustrations, some to help drive certain points home, but also just to keep your brain engaged and make the book entertaining. I’m sure I’m probably violating some kind of copyright laws by putting this on my blog, but somehow I think Mr. VanderMeer would be okay with it. It’s one of my favorites:

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The book is chock full of similar illustrations, getting even more bizarre and surreal. The book is so densely packed with useful information that within the first few pages I was asking where this marvelous thing had been all my life. It’s also worth noting that I haven’t even finished the book yet. I was going to wait until I was done to write up this piece, but I soon realized I’ll never really “finish” it, because aside from the text, there are also writing exercises and supplemental online content to further the Wonderbook experience. Not to mention the fact that Wonderbook will also serve as a sort of reference manual for me for years to come.

Add to all this the fact that Jeff VanderMeer isn’t just some guy telling other people how to do what he hasn’t had success doing. If you’re not familiar with the name, you may recognize his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—which came out to rave reviews last year and are now on track to become a series of movies as well. It gives the advice in Wonderbook a little more weight, somehow.

If you’re a writer or know someone who is (or is thinking about becoming one), they need this book, even if they don’t know it. It’s slightly geared toward fantasy and sci-fi writers, but they’re hardly the only people who will benefit from reading it. I can’t think of a single more useful tool to writers at all levels of competency, and in all genres.

Check it out at amazon here.

A Night of Subverted Expectations

This is a sort of pop culture wrap-up for my Saturday (and again, my Saturday=your Sunday). I finished the book I was reading and my wife and I squeezed in three—count ’em, three—movies, and it turned out to be a mini James Gandolfini marathon. Aside from the movie Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter and a teenage Evan Rachel Wood (which was a good fly-on-the-wall look at a good girl’s turn toward the dark side, and is BOJ certified as recommended, but didn’t knock my socks off), the book and both Gandolfini movies subverted my expectations, for better or for worse. I’ll start with the ‘for worse.’

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Killing Them Softly had been on our DVR for quite awhile—if you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a sucker for gritty crime drama, noir, hitmen, etc. When you have a cast as strong as this one—Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta—I’m in.

It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just seemed to miss the mark a little bit. The plot is as follows: three men are responsible for knocking off an illegal gambling ring, knowing the head of said gambling ring (Liotta) will take the fall. Pitt’s character is brought in by an attorney to the mafia (Jenkins) to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and who’s going to die. Gandolfini’s character is brought in to help carry out one of the hits.

What seemed like it should’ve been a pretty straightforward plot was unnecessarily messy and hard to follow, ending rather abruptly and leaving my wife and I with questions like, “What happened to ____?” and “Who the hell was _____, anyway?”

It was also a bit heavy-handed with political tie-ins—the movie takes place during the McCain-Obama campaign run, and ends on election night. At the very end it becomes more clear why the tie-ins are there, but it still could’ve been handled with a little more subtlety.

It felt at times like a Tarantino/Scorcese-light kind of movie: aiming high but falling short. If you’re into these kinds of movies like I am I would still give it a go. It’s well-shot (with some stomach-turning graphic violence handled nicely, in my opinion), and well-acted. James Gandolfini is awesome (if ultimately irrelevant to the plot) as the unhinged, unstable hit man brought in to help Pitt’s character. If you don’t typically like these kinds of movies, you probably won’t care much for it.

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Chuck Palahniuk seems to be what I’d call an “avocado” author: people tend to either love him or hate him. I can’t fully fall on the love side, but I like a lot of his work. I’d heard Rant was really good without really knowing much about the plot at all, so when I got the chance to check out the e-book from my library, I took it.

**(side note: did you all know you could recommend e-books to your local library for them to purchase using the Overdrive app? I don’t know about other cities, but the lovely folks at the Wichita Public Library have bought two books on my recommendation, and I think that’s downright awesome)

It starts as a character study of Buster “Rant” Casey, a backwoods country bumpkin who as a kid has an affinity for getting bitten by insects and vermin, picking his nose and sticking the boogers on his wall, and finding valuable coins.

We follow Rant to an early diploma from high school, where he moves to the city and the story takes a turn into sci-fi territory, as we learn society has been divided between the respected “Daytimers” and the lowly “Nighttimers”, with a strict curfew to keep the two groups from intermingling. Rant falls in with the Nighttimers and into a social circle known as Party Crashers—an organized sort of after-hours demolition derby that takes place on the city streets. To give much more away would ruin the book.

About 2/3 of the way through the book I was interested in the story, but starting to get a little bored. After reading the last third in one long stretch, I felt dizzy. The book goes from taking a turn here or there to spinning like a top until you don’t know up from down, left from right, or father from son.

The “hook” of Rant is in the way the story is told. The official title is Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, the key words being ‘an oral history.’ The book constantly changes perspective as different characters give their accounts of the events that unfolded in Rant’s life, sometimes outright contradicting each other. Kind of like a documentary or a special on TV, the way they jump from one talking head to the next. It’s used to great effect, but also made me wonder—

Where’s the line between originality and gimmickry? One of the complaints I hear about Palahniuk is that he’s a gimmick writer, with nearly every novel using some kind of cheesy narrative device to tell the story. There’s no denying he uses different techniques to tell his stories, and I can see the ‘gimmick label’ being applied. The thing is, is it only a gimmick if it doesn’t work?

Pygmy, Palahniuk’s widely hated 2009 novel told via the journal entries of a 13 year-old foreign exchange student/terrorist in badly broken English, is downright tough to read (I think I liked it more than most), and dismissed as a gimmick. Rant, on the other hand, is held in much higher regard, and the ‘oral history’ gimmick isn’t mentioned as much. I don’t necessarily think every book by an author has to have some kind of gimmick to tell its story (I sure hope not, because my storytelling thus far is pretty straight ahead), but wouldn’t the literary world be a boring place if there weren’t people like Palahniuk taking chances with their stories?

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The last subverted expectation was also the most pleasant surprise. I suppose it would come as no shock that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “chick flicks,” but I try not to discount them altogether, because I know there are some good ones out there. I’ve confessed before my liking for my wife’s favorite chick flick, Return to Me, and last night found one I liked just as well, if not better, with Enough Said.

The film takes what on paper sounds like a fairly standard chick flick or rom com plot—masseuse meets a man and woman separately, begins dating the man and takes on the woman as a client/friend, only to find out they’re ex-husband and wife—and handles it fairly realistically, playing it straight for the most part, but with plenty of chuckles thrown in (and one moment involving a baseball in a drawer that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair, thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery).

All the characters in the movie felt like real people, not one dimensional and flat or caricatures like in a lot of movies (and books, for that matter), and the dialogue felt realistic and smart. There was also a subplot I liked with Dreyfus’s character subconsciously replacing her daughter, who was preparing to move off to college, with her daughter’s friend. None of the characters were perfect, none of them were total a-holes (although I must admit I didn’t care for Catherine Keener’s ex-wife famous poet character—I’m beginning to wonder if I just don’t like Catherine Keener), they were just fairly normal people with flaws like anybody else. It was well-written and wonderfully acted, and I was glad I watched it. I had expected to look up from Rant every so often to make sure I was following along with the movie, but found myself with my book (phone) in my lap, all my attention devoted to the movie.

 All in all a great night with my favorite person, and a good way to recharge the batteries for writing and some very likely overtime in the coming week.

Get to the point already!

Taking a break from rewrites today for two reasons: 1) the synapses just aren’t all firing—chalk it up to exhaustion following a busy work week (I’m writing this on my Saturday, which is Sunday for you M-F’ers, even though you’ll be reading it on your Monday, which is my Sunday, got it?), and 2) I don’t want to neglect the blog, so when I got an idea for a post I decided to hurry and write it up.

I haven’t written anything new for quite a while. I’m still trying to get the same batch of 4 short stories published (the oldest of which has been bouncing around for almost a year now), considering final tweaks on novel #1 before finally calling it officially done (I recently had a light bulb moment regarding the final act and may have to rewrite some of the book’s climax), and rewriting novel #2 (#1=Snakebit and #2=Liberating Oz, for those of you keeping score at home). What this means is that I’ve been in an editing frame of mind for quite a while, and will be for at least a couple more months.

On top of that, I just finished Stephen King’s latest novel, Revival, and had a brief discussion on Facebook with my friend and fellow writer (as well as my go-to movie and music expert) Jeff, in which we agreed that Mr. King has an issue with being excessively wordy and needs to keep someone around to tell him when it’s time to cut the crap and get to the point.

How cool is that? Also, if anyone cares, this is an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.
How cool is this? This is an animated GIF of an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of Revival, but it’s by no means a bad book. The first third or so had me riveted as I waited patiently to see how all the backstory would pay off. And the ending was quite good, if you like things dark and twisted like I do. Especially coming from King, it was a satisfying (which in this case means unsettling) ending, and yet I was still a little frustrated when I finished it. Because the rest of it—from about 1/3 of the way through until the last 30 pages or so? Ugh. It was still interesting, at least to me as a musician, but it started to drag on, and on, AND ON, until I started thinking, ‘Good God, when is something going to finally happen?’

A brief word about my job (it ties in, trust me): I’ve completed training and am now a full-fledged Fire and EMS dispatcher, so when calls come in for medical and/or fire-related emergencies, I’m one of the people going out on the radio and telling the units where to go and what’s going on there. It can be stressful (and is, fairly regularly), but it’s actually also a boatload of fun, if you can believe that. But the thing is, among all that chaos I still have to take 911 calls as well and juggle all of it simultaneously. What this has meant is that when I’m on the phone with a caller I have a newfound sense of urgency—I need to get the pertinent information and get off the phone as quick as I can so I’m available on the radio if units need to tell me or ask me something. I feel like a lot of writers could benefit from having a similar sense of urgency in telling their stories.

Elmore Leonard had the advice that aspiring writers have probably read a thousand times, “Try and leave out the parts that readers skip.” I wish more writers would take that advice. Now, I’m not opposed to taking some time to give some backstory, or maybe a lot of attention to detail in certain scenes if it’s called for, but for the most part I like stories that cut to the chase and keep the ball rolling, like that big boulder at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Liberating Oz is written in the first person, and it’s the first extended piece (meaning longer than a short story) I’ve written from that POV. The fist third-to-half of the book is setting up events that unfold in the second half, and for some reason it feels at times like I’m rambling and not staying on task when telling the story. Deep down, I don’t really think I am (I won’t know for sure until I sit down with my reading cap on versus my writing/editing cap), after all the thing’s barely novel-length as it is, but still, I wonder. In my conversation with Jeff about Revival, I said to him, “It would’ve made a killer novella.” I don’t want the same thing said about my own work. I’d rather write a killer novella than a too-long novel that bores people.

Writers out there: do you ever have any issues with feeling like you’re taking too long to get to where you’re going, be it first or third person? How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow?

Readers out there: what books can you think of that lost you along the way because they just took too long to get to the point? Or, conversely, what books got right to it like a gunshot and had you riveted from start to finish?

Until next time, I’m off to do a little reading, once I decide which of the remaining books I got for Christmas is next. What a nice problem to have.

Sleep, who needs it?

Subway is a nefarious band of lowly olive hoarders. This really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but I have to get it off my chest. With all the meats and cheeses they have that you would think cost them so much more, how has the simple black olive come to be the most valuable ingredient under their roof?

Black gold.
Subway’s black gold.

They put, like, six little rings on a footlong, and only a few more if you ask for extra. Maybe they’re regulated by the fearsome Black Olive Mafia (BOM, for short), and are only allowed one olive ring per two inches of sandwich, or risk severe fines and penalties. And you don’t want to piss off the BOM.

Anyway, moving on…

I did have one piece of writing-related news I forgot to mention in my last post: my short story Of the Beholder is being published in the horror anthology Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II, which is out in e-book format TODAY! (and coming soon in paperback) RoSV2 features 19 authors and is edited by Troy Blackford. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and I really like the story included for a couple of reasons:

1) It was the product of a writing prompt, which I had never thought of as a way to produce a good, viable story. I saw prompts just as a way for people to get over writer’s block and nothing more. I know now I was wrong.

2) I rewrote, edited, revised, and ultimately finished the story while I had a lot going on in my life, both personally and professionally. I had become incredibly unhappy at my job and was deliberating the pros and cons of looking for work elsewhere, and this was around the time my wife spent 3 nights in the ICU. Working on the story provided me with both a distraction from my problems and a release of frustration.

During the writing of this story I realized that writing was more than just something I did in my spare time. It had become a part of me and who I was—I realized I need to be writing to be happy (although for a few years writing was replaced by making music, so maybe I just need a creative outlet), and that’s around the time I really tried to kick myself into high gear in regard to my productivity, with mostly positive results.

I say all that so to say this: check out my story, Of the Beholder, in Robbed of Sleep: Stories to Stay Up For, Volume II. It’s an awesome assortment of scary stories told by some really talented writers. Besides, sleep is highly overrated anyway, don’t you think?

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (1991) — If anyone needs me, I’ll just be in the shower until Halloween

I’ve mentioned before my disdain for books that are slow going out of the gate. My patience is short if something doesn’t happen right away. If American Psycho’s reputation hadn’t preceded it, I may have given up on it as I read 40, 50, even 60 pages in and nothing of note had happened yet. However, knowing there was a lot coming down the line, I stuck it out and kept reading. Man, am I glad I did.

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I saw the film version a long time ago (so long ago that it was in theaters), and I didn’t remember a lot about it. One thing I did recall was some people calling the book ‘unfilmable.’ I never really got why until I read it. This book—the tale of Patrick Bateman, a yuppie Wall Street serial killer—is freakin’ crazy.

First, the good news: once you’re far enough into it, this book is completely captivating. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck—you may not want to look (read), but damn if you can’t take your eyes away. It takes some time to get there, but once it does it sucks you in like few books I’ve read do. Even though there are really no likable characters in the book, you still find yourself fascinated by them.

Now the bad news: it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a good book, but only if you can stomach it. Sex, violence, animal cruelty, all described in incredibly graphic detail. I would put it just slightly below The End of Alice on the skeevy scale I just made up. Which makes it all that much stranger to say, yes, it’s a really good book—you know, that one with the torture and cannibalism? Yeah, really good.

And while it’s not necessarily every reader’s cup of tea, I would recommend any writers out there read it, just to see how far Ellis pushes the reader. The narrative is kind of all over the place. One chapter has no real beginning or end, there are chapters devoted to 80’s pop music, and at one point in the height of the action it jumps inexplicably from 1st to 3rd person, then back again a couple pages later. It’s actually quite amazing what he does with this book.

It takes you on a ride, and whether you like it or not—the ending leaves you with more questions than answers—you won’t soon forget it.

Just in time for Halloween!

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Just a quickie to let y’all know issue #2 of Jitter Magazine hit newsstands today (do any of you have newsstands where you live? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one in person, other than at an airport—inquiring minds want to know!), and features my short story Randy’s Bad Day, as well as 18 other stories and poems from the world of horror.

Perfect timing, really. Get yourself in the Halloween spirit—read yourself some scary stuff and get your spook on here:Jitter Magazine #2.

(Did I really just write ‘get your spook on’?)

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