Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Meme

Yes, I'm late on this. It charmed me, and I'm doing it anyway. So there. ;-)

The original argument:
Here's what you're supposed to do, and try not to be a SCROOGE!!! Just copy this entire note and paste as a new note on your Facebook page blog. Change all the answers so that they apply to you. Then tag this note to a bunch of people you know, INCLUDING the person that sent it to you...'Tis the Season to be NICE! OK, if you're reading this, feel free to cut and paste for your own blog.

My answers:

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

I *love* wrapping. Probably my favorite part of the season!

2. Real tree or Artificial?

A real tree (regardless of size) is under $20 here. I'm digging that real pine smell, baby!

3. When do you put up the tree?

December, prefer before mid-month...

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th-- Three Kings or Twelfth Night, as you prefer

5. Do you like eggnog?

It is a very fond memory, though I wonder how all that heavy cream would go over in the middle of summer...

6. Favorite gift received as a child?

I think I was eight or nine when my parents gave me a wee plaque that read "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it because he dances to a different drummer. Let him march to the music he hears, however measured or far away." It was the closest my parents ever got to acknowledging the freak flag I fly, and that plaque still hangs on the wall in my home.

7. Hardest person to buy for?

I do pretty good, I think. Mostly. Except when I don't. What am I talking about-- who doesn't like pine tree deodorizers and wiper blade refills?!

8. Easiest person to buy for?

My parents: they get a phone call.

9. Do you have a nativity scene?


10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Not this year. Christmas kinda snuck up on me and everything was last minute...

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Such a long line of parental 'Why can't you just be normal' gifts to choose from...

12. Favorite Christmas Movies?

Freaking "A Christmas Story"!!!!

Like Highlander, there can be only one!!!!

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

Wiper blades and Pine Tree Deodorizers give you any idea?

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

See previous answer.

15. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?

Lift the other end of the dinner table. I'll unhinge my lower jaw and you just let the food slide on in there!

16. Color of Lights on the tree?

Lots of colors. Pretty Colors. The more I drink, the pretty they get...

17. Favorite Christmas song? Dublin BLues, by Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

Where's the option for Wrestle the Cops on the Front Lawn?

19. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer?

(Stares into space) "On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and Vixen, on Comet on Cupid on Donder and Blitzen!" And of course, that alcoholic corporate whore, Rudolph.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?


21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?

Christmas morning. Santa takes his time reaching the Antipodes.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?

Every year, some knucklehead wants a 20-30 hour tattoo in time for Christmas dinner. They usually wander in with incoherent ravings and cocktail-napkin scrawls sometime around the 23rd...

23. Favorite ornament, theme, or color?

I'd like to hear more about those X-rated ornaments Charles mentioned earlier.

24. Favorite for Christmas Eve Dinner?

Does bourbon and Vicodin count??

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

To finally beat elderly Grandma Dynamo's record for the annual Christmas Day Police Wrassle. It's no use, though: she's wrinkly and stretchy, she's old and naked, and she refuses to share her recipe for body grease!

26. What is your wish for Christmas?

Refer to previous question.

That was fun! Now... who's got a hatchet?! :)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Apparently, it's no longer Halloween...

I realize I've been distracted lately. I started a new business. Raised my art to a whole new level. I'm having one hell of a time writing this novel. So maybe it's no wonder I'm not always entirely... present.

For instance, I forgot to renew my car registration. And I paid my last power bill late. Not for lack of money, just forgot.

Also, I failed to notice the wagons. Their colors were certainly bright enough, but I had that witchy pinup to do. At night, I was so tired I slept right through the violins, the dancing, and the strange, sad chanting of the Clans Dynamo.

Working my way through a thorny bit of dialogue, I wandered right past the Uncles Dynamo, Sergei and Volstov. Didn't even occur to me to wonder why they were throwing a goat.

Other people were running around buying presents. Carols were piped in on sound systems everywhere. I didn't notice, any more than I noticed the fire department's recent agitation or the night Mad Uncle Ludwig drew the lightning down to Castle Dynamo.

But now Great Aunt Agatha Dynamo is here. And there is no ignoring Great Aunt Agatha. If nothing else, the erratic beeping of her court-ordered ankle bracelet (a memento of the last Gathering of the Clan Dynamo) makes it difficult. As does the juggling. And that horrible thing she does with the horseshoe.

But the knives are the worst. She has dozens of them hidden in the folds of her dress, and she's a dead shot.

She keeps thumbing the edge of her favourite blade and chuckling softly to herself.

That's when it hit me: Christmas. Of course.

So now I'm off to bed to listen for the sound of reindeer hooves. It's that or stay awake and listen for the sounds of Aunt Agatha padding barefoot down the hall.

I hope the Clan like their gifts this year: I see myself giving wiper blade refills and pine tree deodorizers...

Oh dear.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Combining Characters

So the new reboot is going well. Thorny and tangled at times, but that's writing, innit?

I'm a big believer in the saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Mostly, I think the teachers are all around us, waiting for us to notice, but that's another story.

This time, the teacher was Donald Maas's book Writing the Breakout Novel. Three bits of advice gave me so much to think about that I'll probably be years digesting them. One sentence in particular struck me with the queasy truth of the sound of an elevator cable snapping:

Anywhere you can combine characters, you should.

Basically, the idea is that too many characters in fiction are flat and cardboard. One way to achieve depth and complexity is to have one character fill two or more roles. For example, I've read a lot of thrillers/detective stories where the hero has a Mentor, a Love Interest and a Bete Noir-- usually three different people who walk on and speak their parts and then are heard no more. Only Silence of the Lambs combined all three to create Hannibal Lector.

Or look at Pride and Prejudice-- where Love Interest Darcy is also an Antagonist when he comes down hard on Jane's romance with Bingley. For that matter, he also appears as a Powerful Ally/Deus Ex Machina when that little git (I forget her name) runs off with that asshole Wickham.

I could probably think of more, but as is so often the case these days, the Hour of the Needles (i.e. time to go to work) closes in.

In my own case, I had a Good Girl/Sidekick (poor Lila, who featured in my previous post) and a Bad Girl/Femme Fatale. Classic dichotomy, and boring as hell. The moment I started thinking, 'What if the Bad Girl was also the Sidekick?' things got... INTERESTING.

I have to admit, I started the rewrite with no idea how I was going to pull it off, only the conviction that this was the right way to go. This week, things started to click: The Bad Girl really is a rotten human being, but she really does like our hero. She's using him, but she's also in love with him. And in a way, he's using her too. A bond is forming between the two, and both of them realize they may just have to turn on the other. The relationships have gone from being all crisp and clear to being messy, heartbreaking and human.

I'm having fun again...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Fragmentary Ghost

Lila's gone in the new draft. Everything's different between Dan and Brian. This wee fragment -- unedited, not even spellchecked -- is the only airing her ghost will ever ever see....

Watching Brian do his thing wasn’t exactly exciting. After awhile, he looked up from his keyboard and told me to get lost, he’d call when he had anything.

So I dropped in to see Lila.

Her room was a big change from Brian’s. There was light and air for one thing, and a view of trees out her window, the first leaves already shading to red and gold. Her room smelled like candlewax and sandalwood incense, and her walls were hung with posters of the Misfits and the Distillers, a shirtless Henry Rollins and a vampire girl in a corset. Mixed in, you could still see traces of the little girl that was: stuffed animals on a shelf over her bed, a couple of pony toys and karate trophies on the dresser and an old friendship bracelet, fraying at the ends.

Lila surprised me when I came over. On the phone she’d told me to give her ten minutes, but when I showed up she was just sitting on her bed tapping away in her FaceBook account. She flipped the laptop closed as soon as she saw me, flashed a smile that was wet and red warm. She wore a ripped tee shirt and a pleated mini that was very nearly a belt, and I could swear I caught a faint hint of perfume when she took my hand and pulled me to sit down beside her. For someone who’d been sitting around doing nothing, the hair was damp at her temples from perspiration.

We sat together on the bed. Our weight on the mattress pulled it down in the middle, pushed the warmth of Lila’s body up against my shoulder.

“Hey,” she said.


Her eyes were full of something I could not define. As I watched her expression solidified into something I knew all too well: pain.

She thumped herself back against the pillows, arms folded, staring at the wall.

“Shouldn’t you be off with your Little Golden Whore?”

“We kind of broke up last night.”

Lila snorted, It was an ugly, ugly sound.

“Told you she’d use you and throw you away.”

“It was, it was kind of a mutual thing.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You used to be friends with her, didn’t you?”

“Is that why you came over, to pump me for information?”

“Why are you so mad? What’s Stacey Burrell ever done to you?”

“You even care she’s making a fool of you?”

“I think she might be in some kind of trouble,” I said.

“So leave her to it. She’ll be fine-- she’s Stacey freaking Burrell.”

“You and her and Blaire, you guys used to be really tight.”

“When we were like six.”

“No, it was longer than that, I think. Didn’t the three of you get caught picking flowers at the
library when we were twelve or thirteen?”

For the first time, since I’d walked in, a smile ghosted across Lila’s lips.

“It was Mrs Paulson, the librarian’s yard, and we were eleven.”

“You guys were good friends for such a long time. What happened?”

Lila heaved a sigh and unfolded her arms. One hand picked at the hem of her skirt.

“I don’t know. Life, I guess. They got boobs and I got these. Blaire got a nose job and Stacey looked like Stacey always looked. Next thing I knew, they were running around with juniors and seniors and college guys, and I was still picking flowers.”

I thought of Brian back in his dark and smelly room, doing me a favor because I asked. When we were little, the differences between us hadn’t been any kind of a big deal. But somewhere along the way, the baseball team made me their pitcher and Brian moved deeper into his own world.

A piece at a time, we stopped calling, stopped hanging out. I’d missed him, but there was always more important stuff going on. I wondered if he felt the same sense of loss.

Thanksgiving Values

I missed the turkey this year, but kept the, ahem, *proper* sentiment...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Little Early Christmas

This is how I want Christmas to roll in my house. I've already got the accordion....

(The writing goes well...)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009



The inimitable Mighty Proctor, She of the Many Names (CS Harris, Candice Proctor, CS Graham, and many, many other aliases) was right: The godawful slowdown I've been suffering was in fact my subconscious trying to clue me in to certain, um, *problems* in my story.

Of course, the subconscious mind being the Creepy Wee Beastie that it is, the poor thing has trouble communicating with this thin skim of gray matter that walks in the light and believes it is all that exists. In short, I got bad sleep and bad dreams, bad writing and no writing, all of it getting worse and worse until finally I was at my wits' end and the Creepy Wee Beastie was able to speak clearly.

My problems were three. And they were important.

One. My protagonist was not outsider enough. Not by half.

Two. One of my subplots stank. Really, really stank. That is to say, it contributed nothing to the central thrust of the book, and if anything muddied the waters of the themes as I see them.

and Three. My Act I climax *needed* to hit A LOT sooner. Which meant collapsing some of the early 'action' (which, frankly, could afford to be collapsed), which led to old characters saying and doing different things, and to new characters coming in to make things happen.

Of course, fixing Problem #1 meant amplifying and creating problems, and fixing #2 meant writing out a character I was rather fond of anyway.

Needless to say, the result is a complete, from-page-one reboot of my manuscript.

I think I may be able to save a few paragraphs here and there.

So it goes.

Monday, October 26, 2009


About a year ago (or was it two? They all blend together sometimes), I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham. For those of you who don't know, Mark is an actor, stand-up comic and bestselling crime writer. It wasn't surprising that his talk was entertaining, funny and on point.

Something he said stuck with me. More accurately, his remark bounced around in the back of my head for eleven-and-something months until it finally hit me in the bath tonight. And the nature of this wonder comment?

A murder mystery is like a joke. In both cases, the storyteller sets up a situation, carefully leads the audience down a false path only to deliver a big twist at the end. We know we're being duped, and we go along willingly, happily even! That gap between expectation and delivery touches some deep and primal sense of human enjoyment.

With a joke, the gap is a twist of words ('Nope, I'm a frayed knot'), of situation ('Shut up and keep swimming') or perception ('But this one's eating my popcorn!'). With a mystery, the twist is finding out who the *real* killer is, and why. In both cases, the storyteller is deliberately lying to the audience, and the audience is happy to go along with the lie.

The full truth of this finally occurred to me tonight. Call me slow, but there you are. :)

One further insight: I realized I also structure my chapters this way. I'm just coming up to the end of a chapter, and the cliffhanger-y, suspense-y note I decided to go out on is also something of a punchline-- a small reveal that shows the situation is not what the reader thought.

You see, story is a protagonist wanting something, and being frustrated in the getting. Each scene plays out need, action and frustrated desire. And as part of that old adage 'Enter late, leave early', I try to leave scenes at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways.

(And yes, I am feeling rather well rested at the moment: last night I fell away from the earth for eight or nine solid hours. Like a switch being thrown, it was though for a few short hours I ceased to exist...)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Anybody who wants to learn to write can do worse than to study Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Deepening Madness

So here I am in Act II. Still approaching my Big Middle, already deep in the belly of the Big Madness.

Maybe it's because I plotted this one out first, but this time the madness took me quite early. I was barely a few chapters in when I hit my first bad morning-- instead of my usual 1000 words I did something like 100. This kept up for two, maybe three days before I had hit my first sleepless night. I got a lot written that night, dragged my ass through the next day.

Since then, this has become my process. I'm averaging two or three insomniac episodes a week. It's thrown my sleep patterns all out of whack-- I fall asleep suddenly, completely, and briefly, like someone stuck a naptime pin in my voodoo doll. Most days, my fatigue drags behind me like a black and rusted chain.

I tell you, it's enough to make me nostalgic for my razor-mania...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Topic Free Frippery

I've been stuck for a bloggable topic lately, most likely

because I'm coming up to my Big Middle and stuck deep,

deep, *deep* in the throes of Second Act Insanity. So, in an effort to break the Bloggy Ice, I thought I'd do this meme I stole from Charles and Candy.

Reading Habits

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
I read whenever, feeding times included. My favorite reading snack would be beer. My most likely would be coffee.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I'm not much for marking.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
Bookmark, or, in an effort to foster neuronal connection and stave off dementia, one simply remembers one's page.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
Both. Most books I read are fiction these days, since I got the hang of using the interwebs to do nonfiction research...

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
I can put a book down whenever I need to, though I do prefer to at least reach a scene break.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
Nope. Sadly, I tend to drop the word and the context in which it was used in a sort of mental file, that I may bring it out later, often horribly misused.

What are you currently reading?
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (an old friend and constant comfort in times of darkness)
a biography of Henry Miller, title and author of which escape me

What is the last book you bought?
The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

Are you the type of person who reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
I’ll frequently have several going at a time. But one will usually be my main focus.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
I grabs it where I finds it.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
I'm easy.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

How do you organize your books?(by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)
Organization is a strong word for what I do. A *very* strong word. There are... groupings, but attributing any intelligent design to my shelves is like seeing a sense of purpose in the formation of a sand dune...

Monday, September 21, 2009


Photo credit: The Tiny Dynamo!
The bulbs are blooming. Buddy's better.

And the novel moves along, slow and steady.

The New and Improved, Steampunk Wordcount-O-Meter stands at 22,000 words. I've made my peace with my pace.

Though not with my tendency to alliteration...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Failing Well

One great secret to success in life: Failure.

More specifically, the ability to fail well. To shrug off your failure and come back just as hard as the first time. It's what makes champion sportsmen, successful inventors and industrialists and every career artist/writer/actor/dancer/musician/creative type you'll ever meet.

Thing is, that's harder than it sounds. Failure is hard on the ego, and failing at something you really, deeply care about can be devastating.

Or not. Thomas Edison failed something like 3000 times before he got a light bulb to work. Walt Disney was turned down by over 100 banks before he was able to finance his first amusement park. Actors get turned down at one heck of a lot of auditions for every part they get, and there isn't a writer alive, no matter how bestselling, without a fair-sized stack of rejection letters behind them.

Failure is how we succeed, *if* we don't let it get the best of us. And how do we do that? How do we take those rejections, those hard knocks, and come right back swinging?

The key is how we explain our failures to ourselves.

The ones who stay down when they fall, or need MUCH more time to get back up, are those who see their failures as Pervasive, Powerful and Permanent. For example, Joe Writer gets a rejection letter. He thinks, "I suck at everything (Pervasive), this letter proves it (Powerful). I'll *never* be any good as a writer (Permanent)." It takes him a week to work up the nerve to send the next submission, if he doesn't just stick his manuscript in a drawer and give up. After all, he's no good, right?

Those who bounce back do it first in their heads. The better they see their failures as Isolated, Weak and Temporary, the better they do on their next performance. Jane Scribbler gets her rejection letter too, but she is able to think, "It's only one letter (Isolated), and just one market (Weak). Somebody's bound to say 'yes'."

I know, this perspective is easier to say than to do, especially when your latest setback has you feeling like you've been kicked in the guts. But, if you want to succeed, learning to fail well is vital.


One side point: Denial, Distortion and Projection are also effective ways to deal with failure. Effective, but not exactly healthy. Refusing to allow that failure into your mental landscape (Denial), reshaping reality to meet our mental needs (Distortion) and pushing the causes of our failures outside ourselves (Projection-- often persecutory in nature), these are elemental ways our ego protects itself from damaging information.

Thing is, what protects our ego often blights our character. Blocking failure robs us of the opportunity to correct the causes of our failure and eventually succeed. Nothing good can come of this...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Losing It

Charles posted on writers who destroyed themselves when they felt their best work was behind them. The examples he used were vivid: Hemingway, Howard and London, two suicides and one who drank himself to death.

Truth is, Charles barely skimmed the surface, but he did make his point. Writers struggle with the idea that they've 'lost it'.

Reading his post, it occured to me that I might have a useful perspective on this. You see, I've lost it a few times in life. Sometimes lost and found it again. Others, just, well... lost.

Comics: I haven't drawn a comic in some years now. My last original work was two parts of a trilogy that still sits unfinished. I never meant to stop, it just sort of worked out that way. The stories that have come since then have been novels, or sometimes paintings, but no comics.

Painting: While I'm on the subject, I was a keen painter in my twenties (back when paint was a newfangled invention) but I somehow managed to go the best part of a decade without picking up a brush. Those rare occasions I did try to paint, the work simply wasn't up to scratch. I made up my mind that those particular guns had been hung up.

Then one day a couple-odd Christmases ago, paintings were requested as gifts. I dutifully strapped on my brushes and made a big old mess out of some canvases. The work lacked my old magic (whatever that was), but it was too late: I was once again in love.

I got back to painting. The magic wasn't there, but the love was back. Then Frank Frazetta's Painting With Fire gave me permission to paint like my new self, if that makes any sense. New magic came. Last year I did my best to date. This year, well... it remains to be seen.

Tattooing: I've also certainly had fallow periods in my tattooing. Times when the work I turned out was... uninspired. When I'd look at the next tattoo and think I just couldn't be bothered.

Couple of those times I took a sabbatical, lived off my savings, took in illustration work, whatever. The most recent one, I couldn't afford to quit. So I just kept on keeping on. One day, I found inspiration again, this time in the work of Guy Aitchison, Kat Von D and Nikko Hurtado. I remembered why I picked up the needles in the first place. My focus shifted. The magic returned.

Personally, I think plateaus are natural. Exercising and learning, the curve tends to be periods of sharp, upward development and long, flat stretches where what really counts is the will to continue. No reason to think that things should be any different for creative skills.

Who says we have to be fresh, always doing our best?

And who says we can't?

Any writer who worries that they've 'lost it' should look to Johnny Cash for inspiration. Johnny came out of the gate with a bang: the first few years of his career, he wrote Walk the Line, Cry Cry Cry, Folsom Prison Blues and most of his classics. It was an unbelievable streak of creative brilliance.

Thirty-odd years later, he was still playing those same songs. He'd had a few bright spots creativity-wise (as opposed to commercially), but by the late 80's he was well and truly in the has-been category.

He was sure his best days were behind him. He even thought he'd quit recording, spend his time doing live concerts performing the music from his glory days.

Enter Rick Rubin, and a different vision. Johnny stripped down to the absolute essentials: his guitar and his voice. American Recordings may or may not be the best work he ever did, but it sure as hell showed the world his best days were far from over.

Maybe for Johnny (as for me), it was permission to be himself. To be that old guy with all the hard miles on him, not trying to fit who he used to be or who the other singers around him were. I know for me, those times I 'found it' again were also times I realized I had to be me, not a knock-off, even of my own earlier self.

Maybe if Hemingway hadn't spent so much time trying to reiterate Fiesta and For Whom the Bell Tolls, he would have had more, and better, work than The Old Man and the Sea. And maybe he wouldn't have been so damned depressed that he got the electroshock that made him suicidal.

And yeah, the Steampunk Word-O-Meter stands at 12,800 words. I think it's the weekend (my busy time at work) that's the culprit, not the scenes themselves...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Topsy Turvy

This is nuts. I can't say if it's the plotting, the stresses of month five of small-business ownership or those of life in general, but writing this novel is completely wonky.

Normally, I sweat and strain and shear gears loose in my head trying to handle sequels and quiet moments in general. It's a real effort to do my 1000+ a day, until I get to the fist fights, car chases, gun battles, etc. when the work simply flies along.

Not this time.

I've flown through these early stages. As this one's a mystery, I'm introducing suspects and red herrings, planting false leads, all that good stuff. I'm even, thanks to having a handle on my plot first, able to think about stuff like vision systems and imagery as I work.

Until I hit the Sequence 1 Climax. It's a small thing, a fist fight. It serves to:
a) establish the hero as at least somewhat tough (to qualify the later stompings he'll receive)
b) frustrate his Plan
c) show a few of his flaws and issues, and
d) wake up those readers who haven't had enough action in the last 5000 words.

Normally, I'd fly through a scene like that. Instead, it was a horrible, painful grind. Best I could manage was 200-300 words a day. For five days!

Once I got past it, I was back on 1000+. Freaking ridiculous.

At any rate, on Day, let's see.... Day 12, the New and Improved, Steam-Powered Daily Wordcount-o-Meter stands on 11,200 words. Not happy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stage the Second

Yup, it doesn't stop with 3x5 cards. Once those are filled out, shuffled, crossed-through and flipped over to reuse, shuffled and rearranged, a few thrown in the fire and fresh cards begrudgingly trotted out to take their place, I have the bones of my plot. No trying-to-piece-together-a-complete-cromagnon-from-a-scrap-of jawbone for me-- I've got a reasonably complete skellington here to work with!

Now to my lovely notebook. And it is lovely: the wee red beasty has nice creamy paper, hard covers, a pocket in back, an elastic band to hold it shut and one of those sweet ribbons to mark my place. I freely confess to a certain sartorial streak in matters of my stationery. :)

Right, the notebook. Sitting down with trusty, lovely, 50-odd year old fountain pen (that sartorial streak again), I flesh out each note card. Usually 50-100 words, just enough to describe what'll be happening, key points to hit when I finally sit down to write my draft.

At this point I found problems that didn't show up in the note cards: night scenes in the middle of the day, suspects cleared then re-interviewed, a few plot holes. So back to work, shuffling, scribbling, shuffling. The plot hole gets filled but now I'm *awful* long between my Big Midpoint and my Act II Climax. I've become flabby about the middle. Shuffle, scribble, tear up a couple more cards. Scribble scribble, shuffle, scribble.

If this sounds like a lot of work, please remember this is usually a stage I go through AFTER I've written the damn novel. In fact, I'm sometimes finding these problems after several drafts. Compared to that, this is a piece of cake.

One odd bonus I hadn't predicted: I'm writing faster. On the one hand, I'm able to angle language, imagery, etc. to foreshadow what's to come. On the other, these poor characters have been jumping up and down in that diary, scene after scene, mute and waving for my attention. Now that I'm finally letting them talk and act and do stuff, they're going hard.

At the end of Day 3, the New and Improved Daily Wordcountometer (shown on the right) stands at 5,400 words. Now if you'll excuse me, I gots me some writing to do...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Oh Dear... Overboard?

Longtime readers will remember my days as a fierce advocate for writing by the seat of my pants. Recently, I turned a new leaf, gave plotting-ahead a bit of a go.

And like any addictive personality, I took it too far.

Or have I? Those are 80 notecards, 20 for Act I, 40 for Act II, and so on. Roughly one per thousand words of story. Working with them, I've been able to work on pacing, juggle scenes and sequels, space out character appearances/subplots/etc. so that we never go *too* long without hearing from the Duchess of Maldorff and the Subplot to Blackmail her Third Underbutler. Plants and payoffs (the ones I know I need anyway) have been inserted appropriately.

In short, all the headaches I go through in the editing stage are now happening before I write a single line of dialogue or description. If this works, my subsequent drafts will hopefully go a bit easier.

Will it work for me? I don't know. Seem worth trying? Heck yeah. I'll do just about *anything* to get these damn stories out of my head quicker, smoother, and closer to what I see playing on that Private Theatre for One...

PS. Those note cards are all filled in now, but I just had to go with this photo. Just like his siblings, Buddy is much mended and now up to the task of helping me write!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Icepicks and Chainsaws

Recently I've been reading both John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald novels, close together. At the moment Ross reigns supreme and JDM is in the shade. Maybe in a few years that pendulum will swing back the other way; I certainly hope so.

At any rate, something stood out reading the two back-to-back-to-back. Both are writing in the late 60's/early 70's, and both Lew Archer and Travis McGee share a certain world-weary, nihilistic, these-kids-these-days way of looking at the world. They deal with it in different way, but there's not enough different about these two heroes to justify the strange shift in favor.

The difference I see is in the writing. More specifically, metaphor.

Ross MacDonald uses metaphor like an icepick, where John D. MacDonald uses it like a chainsaw. Both write elegant, vivid, wonderful metaphors, the kind of images that stick with you a long time after you put their books down. RM uses metaphor like Ali jabbing in his heyday: sticking and moving, sticking and moving. JDM, think George Foreman and his knockout cross...

Right now I'm reading The Underground Man, and it's peppered with lovely little images, a yellow-tinged sky like cheap paper darkening in the sunlight, a pair of pistols gleaming like strange blue jewels, shadows of palms like splashes of dark liquid on the pavements. No one is super-haunting, but like Ali and that jab, the cumulative effect is telling.

JDM's style was more about the single powerful image: that poor, strangled girl with her Long Lavender Look, the showdown under that Dreadful Lemon Sky, walking off into that Lonely Silver Rain. This guy doesn't ladle on the poetic imagery, he picks one single, resonant image and lets it shine. And yeah, that image is usually powerful enough that it gets picked for the title. There are exceptions, sure, but the point remains: when it came to metaphor, JDM went for the knockout punch.

Come to think of it, this reminds me of an older mystery-author pairing: Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Chandler peppered his work with such classic lines as 'she had the kind of body to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window' and 'he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.' Hammet gave us the Glass Key and Red Harvest.

I'm guessing these days, the jab is in fashion, more than the cross. If you're the sort of writer who uses layer on layer of imagery to build a haunting effect, that's awesome. And if you're the sort to go for a single, powerful image, the kind that stays with the reader *years* after covers close, you might have a harder time getting your foot in the door. But if you develop that technique to its fullest, you just might blast that door off its hinges...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Plugging With Fire

Our friend Charles Gramlich has a new book out, Write With Fire. All of you who read Charles's blog that the man is full of truly excellent advice on everything about the writing life from craft to career.

Buy this book. I will.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Letting the Monster Out

Recently, Charles expressed his disappointment in a story he read. The lead character (name of Edge), a cold-eyed killer (and borderline psychopath) now retired, spends most of the book trying to stay out of trouble. Until, of course, it's time to strap on his guns again.

The formula is tried and true. Shane. Pale Rider. Unforgiven. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The Big Boss. Hell, the true story of Cincinnatus. One of drama's favorite 'guns on the mantelpiece' is the bad-ass who's trying to hold back.

The book Charles read didn't work, and I thought I knew why. The hero's arc failed in two places: the start and the end.

Drama is about contrast. No matter what genre, the hero or heroine ends the story in a very different place from where they started. Bridget Jones starts her story miserable, alone and embarrassed at the turkey curry buffet, and she ends the next Christmas happy, in love and immune to anything her mother might say. We meet Harry Potter unloved, disregarded and the absolute bottom of the heap, positively hated by his adoptive parents and living in a cupboard under the stairs. By the end of that first story, he is the hero of his school, loved by all. Othello, on the other hand, starts his story a celebrated hero, saviour of the city with the most beautiful woman he's ever seen for his bride. By the end, both he and Desdemona are dead by his own hand.

Rule of thumb: the lower the hero starts, the higher he'll end up. Or vice versa. Sometimes, it can be both. The detective may end the story with all the answers and his life in ruins. All I'm saying, there's a reason you see a lot more rags-to-riches stories than rags-to-lower middle class.

Back to the Retired Gunslinger. This character always starts as a bad-ass held in check. Always.

Shane and the Preacher (the Mysterious Stranger in Pale Rider) are both introduced fronting off groups of thugs with little more than an icy glare and a palpable sense of menace. How do we know they're bad-asses? Groups of asshole bullies take one look at them and run away.

Chen (Bruce Lee's character in The Big Boss) and Dwight from A Dame to Kill For show the natures they're hiding in action. When Chen's cousins end up in a fight, Bruce Lee uses grace, skill and a deft comic touch to show us that he really could've whupped those bullies butts the whole time, only he promised his momma he wouldn't fight. Dwight stops an attempted murder with a single knockout blow, and his voiceover tells us directly how much he enjoys it, how tempting it is to 'let the monster out'. We soon learn he no longer drinks, smokes, won't even let himself exceed the speed limit for fear he'll turn that monster inside him loose.

Remember: the Retired Gunfighter is *not* a changed man. He may think he is. He may argue that he is, act like he is, do everything he believes a changed man would do. But *we* need to see that old Monster still lurking under his skin, sniffing the air and waiting for a chance to slip its chain.

We need to see that no matter how much the Retired Gunfighter might lie to himself, whatever it might cost him, part of him wants that monster loose.

And when our hero does finally let that monster out, WATCH OUT! We've watched our hero suffer through three-quarters of the story resisting his natural urges. His half-measure compromises have failed: the monster inside gloated and the villains still won. In the end, there's nothing left for it but to cut loose.

And here's the thing about cutting loose: you've gotta go big. BIG!

Shane guns down the hired killer, the ranch boss and everyone else in the saloon that night. Preacher blows up a strip-mine and wipes out the villain's whole gang. Dwight comes back with a brand new face, a duffel bag full of explosives, a ninja accomplice and a .25 automatic tucked up his sleeve. And in The Big Boss, Bruce Lee stabs the local drug lord to death with his own fingers.


I'm thinking this is why the book Charles read failed. The killer, Edge, starts out pretty whimpy (okay, cool), but he goes wrong in one important way. Maybe more: I don't know if we get to see what total bad-assery he's holding back, or if we get a sense for how very badly he wants to let that beast free. But I do know this: he carries his gun with him in a carpet bag.

To me, that's a fatal flaw.

And when the rough stuff does start again, he emerges quite a bit less violent than he used to be, with a greater regard for law and order. Wtf?

I call it 'muted arc', or rags-to-lower middle class: the character's changes simply aren't big enough. By keeping his pistol nearby (though not on his hip), Edge is making a definite statement. Contrast it with Preacher in the Pale Rider, who needs days of hard riding to reach the steel box where he's locked away his guns.

And Shane, Preacher, Chen, Dwight, any Retired Gunslinger you can think of, all give us a sense that their violence at the end is worse than they ever were back in their bad old days. They may suffer for unleashing their violence (Shane is badly wounded, maybe fatally. Chen goes to prison.), or they may simply have to live with this poisonous knowledge about themselves.

No way should it actually be better. Shane can't strap on his guns, give the hired killer a flesh wound and have the ranch owner surrender without further bloodshed. And then go off with the lesson that the answer is moderate amounts of violence...

Thursday, July 9, 2009


The tabby adopted us gradually. The latest Secret Headquarters has a cat door, so it was no surprise that at least a few li'l folks around the neighborhood use the Secret Headquarters as a Midnight Snack Bar. Only one was brave enough to raid the food bowls while the People were still awake.

Every now and then we'd catch a dark and tawny glimpse of our little raider. At first, any eye contact, the slightest movement, and the little stranger was gone. By slow, painful degrees, he learned that no one here meant him any harm. He also learned that breakfast is a fine meal for Midge and Butler, and that three dishes could go out as easily as two.

Before I knew it, he was sleeping in the house at night. One morning, bribed with fresh fish, he let me pet him. For maybe three seconds.

Did he have a home? Did anyone miss him? If he didn't have another family, where did he go when he left? Was I taking in a stray or stealing someone's beloved pet? I gave the little fellah the freedom of the house, long as he played nice with the others. As it happened, he was pretty mellow and played well with others. (Not 'played' the way Butler does-- I once saw him scare the hell out of a German Shepherd-- but you know, nicely.)

We got used to having the little guy around. Still not officially part of the household, he didn't have a name. I called him Tabby Cat, Buddy, Little Man.

One night he didn't show up for bedtime. The next morning, he wasn't at breakfast. No sign of him all the next day. I told myself he'd gone back to his 'other family', that it was just as well we hadn't named him anyway.

It was cold that night, the rain like ice. I heard the cat flap and ran to open the lounge door. Nothing. I moved further down the dark hallway. Wet fur brushed my leg in passing. My little buddy was home.

And limping. His right front paw was in bad shape, and one side of his face was covered in blood. He'd been hit by a car. I don't know how far he traveled to make it back to the house, but he curled up in the cat bed in front of the fire and passed out. I stroked his flank and prayed he'd live through the night.

I knew then he was our cat. That this really was his home.

The next morning, the receptionist at the vet's asked for his name. For the first time, I had an answer.

"His name is Buddy."

Update: Buddy is well on the mend, now only favoring his paw when he wants an extra helping of wet food or a warm lap made available. That's right-- he's gone from spooking at every movement to deciding that laps are great places to sit!

Sunday, July 5, 2009


After a week without the net, I have finally convinced the 'technicians' that no, turning off the modem and turning it back on will not fix the problem and that, yes, the fault is in fact at their end of spaghetti wires.

Meantime, I have resorted to piracy, plundering an unsecured network that turns itself on and off at (to me) random. Dicey, at best.

The 'technicians' tell me my slick and lovely home wireless will be back up and running by tomorrow. Of course, they've been saying this all week...

Can't wait to get back to checking up on blogs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I call Shenanigans

Girl asks for 3 stars, wakes up with 56.

Fell asleep?! Are you *kidding* me?

Now, I've never tattooed anyone's face, but I do live in the land of Moko, have talked with clients who've had cosmetic tattooing done and seen a couple of guys get their heads tattooed above the hairline. Those guys were pretty tough characters, and they were in absolute AGONY when the tattooist got near their temples. Cosmetic tattooing is usually done with topical anesthetic. Ta Moko was, among many other things, a way of showing you could take some serious pain.

Somehow, I doubt this young lady 'slept through' what looks like an hour or two worth of work. The forehead and brow ridge, maybe the cheek and jaw I could buy, but the soft tissue under the eye?! The side of her nose?! If she's got something that let her sleep through that, I'd love to have a little for when I get my ribs finished...

And hand-drawn or stenciled, you might think she'd have noticed the design kind of, you know, 'going large'. Unless she was supposed to have slept through that, too. Bloody ridiculous!

Kimberley Vlamink isn't actually the one making me mad here. Young kid had what probably seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, that turned out to be pretty f**king stupid at the end of the day. Fine, we've all been there. Instead of fronting up, she spun out a threadbare version of 'I didn't know; an older boy made me do it'. Didn't work for me when I was eight and me and my friends got caught with our first Playboy, but then I'm guessing Kimberley's dad is a hell of a lot more gullible than my mom.

I'm pretty disappointed in her dad, both for buying that fib and for trying to cash in on it (though 10,000GBP might just be what tattoo removal costs there, I don't know. I'm very damn disappointed in the ass-clown who did the work, but look at the photo. What can you expect.

Mostly, I'm steamed-up at the glee with which this story has run across the news. It was a top story on Google and Yahoo's news services, and a 'find out tonight' teaser on my local news. I assume it's popping up in your local markets too-- Never fall asleep in a tattoo parlour (our local newscaster's words) has all the stuff of urban legend. I've seen so much glee at the idea that a tattooist might run amok on a helpless victim that very few reporters seem the least bit interested in asking if it's even possible.

One way to do a little fact-checking: see if Kimberley manages to sleep through the laser treatments. And if she does, I'd love it if she'd share whatever she's on. You see, over the next few months I'm hoping to finish my ribs...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Top Ten

So I was reading Alexandra Sokoloff's great series of columns on story structure. Her first word of advice is to put together a list of your ten favorite works in your chosen genre, or just your ten favorites altogether.

I haven't done my genre-specific favorite list, but I *did* sit down and write a list of ten books and/or movies I wish I'd written. I was surprised at some of my results:

High Noon (for my money, this movie is the most tightly-crafted thriller ever!)

Prayers for Rain (Dennis Lehane's prose has never been more haunting)

Shotgun Opera (Victor Gischler writes crisp, fast, sharp and vivid)

The Bottoms (Joe Lansdale's literary mystery stacks up against anything else I've ever read)

Coraline (something about the whimsy and magic in Gaiman's world...)

Silence of the Lambs (the movie, not the book-- oddly)

Strega (Andrew Vachss's second novel gave us a femme fatale who still haunts my idle nightmares)

Long Lavender Look (why THIS John D. MacDonald and not another, I'm at a loss to say. All the same, I stand by it.)

Fargo (a haunting, beautiful, grim and funny movie, and a story structure that ties my head in knots!)

The Crow (I just wish to hell I'd written this movie, okay?)

Certain readers might be surprised to see a few of my favorite authors missing. James M. Cain and Gil Brewer both wrote a hell of a story, but as much as their doomed heroes resonate with me, I don't wish I'd written them. Same is true in the other direction for Robert A. Heinlein, JK Rowling and Marian Keyes.

The exercise was also enlightening. Thomas Harris lost out to Ted Tally (writer of the screenplay for Silence of the Lambs) for two reasons: one was the tighter structure and visual system of the movie, and the other was that the movie flirts with the seductiveness of evil without ever rolling over and showing its belly to the darkness. Harris is WAY too enamored of the dark side for me.

One thing I'm still puzzling over is the absence of James Lee Burke. I mean, I LOVE the guy's fiction, would be proud to call any of his books my own, but after three days of working on that list, nothing of his made the cut.

I've got two theories. 1) I'm more in love with the overall body of work than with any single book, or 2) I'm just too intimidated to even list him.

So how bout y'all? What do you wish you'd written?

Visual artists and musicians, you can do this exercise in your chosen mediums too. Perhaps sometime I'll mention paintings or tattoos I wish I'd done....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Junky - Chasing That High

Addiction is strange. At its heart is the pleasure released when opiate chemicals flood the brain. Addicts' brains have certain chemistries in common, even though their pleasure-triggers can take many, sometimes weird forms. It seems strange to me that moments of pleasure can create lifetimes of damnation.

Most of us cross that dark threshhold in a rush of warmth and light. We spend the rest of our lives comparing every dull moment, every blunted, habituated high, to those early, golden days when the high was still new.

For me, it started with Batman comics. Spiderman and the X-Men figured in there too. And Wonder Woman, who woke other, darker pleasures in my four year old breast.

Once I learned to read, I moved on to harder drugs. The way a heroin addict can tell you about their first really good high, or a hard-core alcoholic remembers the early days when every beer was his friend, I remember a book called Splinter in the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster. And Octagon House, by Andre Norton.

Those were the first books that really shook me. The ones that made the life outside go away, that cut me to the bone, that gave me that rush.

Today, I'm still chasing that rush. Trouble is, same as the drinker, the junkie, the problem gambler all habituate to their highs, I can't get that same rush in the places I used to. I get pleasure, sure. Quite a lot of pleasure.

But what I'm looking for is that serious, major, insane high. That up-all-night-call-in-sick-the-next-day-because-I-can't-close-this-book high. There are a handful of places where I know I can go for it, but those bastards right so damned slow! And too many of them are dead.

I've just finished Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child, Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and COld Flat Junction by Martha Grimes. Mighty fine, all of them, but none cut too deep. Today I'm returning to James M. Cain and Joe Lansdale's masterpiece, The Bottoms. The Tiny Dynamo is flying through the Harry Potters once again.

A little more leather and a little less bathing, we could be a literary Sid and Nancy...

Check that apply:
___ I frequently (once or twice a day) find that my
conversation centers on books or reading experiences.

___ I read to deal with tension or physical stress.

___ Most of my friends or acquaintances are people who read.

___ I have lost days of school/work because of reading.

___ I have had the shakes when going without a good book.

___ I regularly read upon awakening, before eating, or
while at school/work.

___ I have been arrested for Driving while reading.

___ I have periods of time that can't be remembered while
reading or buying books.

___ Family members think reading or book purchasing is a
problem for me.

___ I have tried to quit reading but cannot. (A good test
is voluntarily going for six weeks without a good book
and not experiencing physical or emotional distress.)

___ I often double up, reading two books at a time or
regularly read more books than others.

___ I often read to "get ready" for a social occasion.

___ I regularly hide books and reading material from those
close to me so that they will not know how much I am reading.

___ I often read by myself.

___ My reading or book buying has led to conflict with my friends
or family members.
Three or four 'yeses', you may have a problem. Five, get thee to a counselor!

In fact, go anyway. They have *great* promotional literature....

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Language is a storyteller's right arm. A knight's sword. A dancer's limbs.

Its use is also all but impossible to teach. Mostly, we ape the writers we admire, widening and narrowing our range of imitation until we are left with something that is 'us'. A natural way to learn, but we have to be careful to sample widely. And beautifully.

To learn language, image, rhythm, I read poetry. A poet can strike your soul the way a master swordsman cleaves flesh: you don't see the cut, only feel the blade lay open the bone...

"Behold, the grave of a wicked man"

by Stephen Crane

Behold, the grave of a wicked man,
And near it, a stern spirit.
There came a drooping maid with violets,
But the spirit grasped her arm.
“No flowers for him,” he said.
The maid wept:
“Ah, I loved him.”
But the spirit, grim and frowning:
“No flowers for him.”

Now, this is it —
If the spirit was just,
Why did the maid weep?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Abandoned Luggage

I've had a few impressionable ages in my life. Inflection points, if you will, where a small amount of pressure can drastically change the dynamics of the system.

One of those points, I happened to be reading Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein. There's a scene where the title character, Friday, is standing on the deck of a boat. The boats further up the river come under attack, and she jumps without hesitation. A slower-reacting friend is killed. Swimming away, Friday delivers one of Heinlein's favorite sayings:

'Sometimes, you have to be prepared to abandon your luggage.'

Originally, this post was going to be about how that scene, in that book, changed my life. I was going to wonder out loud whether reading that story, at that moment, had much to do with the restless, rootless, gypsy existence that has characterized so much of my adult life. I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure I was going to end on something about 'the power of fiction', or maybe a musing on whether I'm finally settled now or simply resting for the moment.

And then the boat upriver exploded.

Okay, not really so bad: but my laptop *did* suddenly give me a 'blue screen error' and, just....


My tech guy (Of course I've got a tech guy; *someone* has to maintain the frickin' laser beams on the frickin' sharks' foreheads.) says the hard drive should be replaceable under warranty, but the data on it is almost certainly a-goners.

That means: every new email address in the last year, every email I've received in the past year, all digital illustration work and tattoo designs in progress, every (EVERY) photo I've taken in the last year, the master copy of my (long-neglected) website and the first 15,000 words of a little project I was doodling around with.
Oh yeah, and my book.

Instead, I have the beat-up old laptop the new one replaced. Its USB ports don't work (read: no printing, no flash drives, no nothing), it only seems to work on dial-up, and even thn it has the charming habit of randomly SHUTTING ITSELF THE FUCK OFF in the middle of any important operation.


Three upsides:

1) I do have mulptiple backups of the new novel, though they are two drafts behind. Lucky me, I recently printed out a single clear copy of the latest draft for Her Tiny Majesty, the Great and Terrible Dynamo.

This draft, I get to re-type.

2) HTM, tGaTD likes me better now that I'm no longer 'on that bloody machine all the time'.

and 3)

"The phone appears not be working."

The Dynamo tapped a single foot: tiny, chilling.

"Any thoughts?"

"Ummm, I'm afraid I might've left the computer cable plugged in to the socket."

"Let me get this straight..." The rhythm speeded. "You took the car to work, left me with no transport and no telephone..."

I thought about her cellphone. I thought about her bike. I thought it might be better to live.

"Y'know," I said, "if our house was just fourteen bedrooms on a desolate moor and you were in a lacy nightgown--"
No need to say more. She was already laughing.

Now, if you'll all excuse me, I have some typing to do.