Archive for the ‘Nick Slosser’ Category

“Slaughter, Slaughter, Everywhere” by Nick Slosser

I think it’s fair to say that Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 rekindled our love of zombies.  The film demonstrated that zombies need not be the slow-moving easy targets of earlier films, and that zombie apocalypses have much to offer—at least, for storytellers.  The movie created a wave of enthusiasm that’s still going strong:  Battlefield Baseball (2003), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Land of the Dead (2005), Slither (2006), Planet Terror (2007), Dead Snow (2008), Zombieland (2009), The Crazies (2010), and the upcoming Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament and World War Z to name a few.  Wikipedia lists over 180 movies with zombies made between 2008 and 2010.  Contrast that to an earlier heyday, 1984 to 1986, which produced such titles as The Return of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., Night of the Comet, and Night of the Creeps, but yielded a total of only 17 movies.

True, our love of zombies was more undead than dead, but for a long time George Romero, John Russo, and Lucio Fulci seemed to have had the last word on the subject.  But since 28 Days Later.  And now even publishing companies have caught the bug and zombie fiction is spreading like a zombie plague.  From straightforward narratives like World War Z to zombie POVs like Breathers to literary mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, from anthologies like The Living Dead to graphic novels like The Walking Dead to choose-your-own-adventures like Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?, zombie fiction is hot.

But while vampires are essentially malleable—they can be scary, sexy, romantic, funny, metaphoric, anti-heroic, or even sparkly—zombies have fewer inherent possibilities.  So why the craze and how long will it last—i.e. should I jump on board?

Perhaps it was, as Publisher’s Weekly suggests, a response to the September 11 attacks:  “Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the national fear of a faceless horde of enemies slavishly obedient to their objective of dishing out extreme violence.  Suddenly, the zombie became a monster for our time.”  It is notable that 28 Days Later hit the theatres that very next year.  And its raging zombies were neither slow-moving, nor easy targets—a closer approximation to terrorists than, say, Romero’s stumbling, fumbling meat-puppets.

But I wonder why, if terrorists really are behind our collective anxiety, the ‘alien among us’ story—e.g. The Faculty—didn’t take off as well.  Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflected our fear of communist infiltration during the early years of the Cold War, and updated versions of these stories could have done the same for our fear of highly-planned attacks by single-minded fanatics using our own institutions and technologies against us.  And better, I think, than zombie stories.

So I wonder, in the case of the zombie, if it’s not the “faceless horde” that actually scares us, but rather the upending of our world as we know it.  Think about some of our major crises:  terrorism and war in the Middle East; a depressed national economy with an uncertain future as a former superpower; environmental destruction and global climate change…just to name a few.  I wonder if it’s not the apocalypse in zombie apocalypse that’s really what gets us in the gonads.

Still, how long can the trend last?  Some publishing executives will tell you that it’s coming to an end.  On the one hand, I agree.  There’s only so much you can do with zombies.

But it’s interesting to note some other trends in fantasy fiction:  vampires (a perennial), steampunk, and young adult romance with angels—not guardian angels, but sexy fallen angels who become smitten with teenage girls.  Hell, it worked for a sparkly emo vampire named Edward, so why not an angsty angel?  This last trend is truly interesting.  Belief in angels seems to be on the rise.  According to a Time magazine article in September 2008, over half of 1,700 respondents believed in the existence of angels.  Could it be that the face of these crises, people are turning to religion for answers?  And getting angels in return?

The ebbs and flows in the popularity of horror, crime fiction, and film noir are easily traceable to periods of collective anxiety over issues too big for most people to fully comprehend, let alone influence—issues like the Red Scare and the Atomic Bomb in the 40’s and 50’s, the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 70’s, the War on Terror, Global Climate Change, and China as the Next Great Superpower today.  Perhaps belief in angels and interest in angel fiction fall into that same category and reflect widespread anxiety in the extreme.

If that’s true, then I wonder if the zombie craze is indeed coming to an end.  Fads may come and go.  And there are certainly aspects of this zombie trend that are fad-like—the literary mash-ups, for one.  But if, as I suspect, the interest in apocalypse fiction (and angels) is rooted in fears deeper and greater than that of terrorists plotting in our backyards, and realizing that the crises underlying these fears will not simply fade away, then I would argue that this zombie fiction trend might have a longer lifespan than God or nature had intended.


On Music

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Nick Slosser, The Whole Works

“On Music” by Nick Slosser

In an earlier blog post, Jim Smiley talked a lot about mood music, listing various songs and artists he might listen to while writing a piece with a particular mood.  Aaron Hilton responded enthusiastically with his own list of songs and artists.  Writing with Aaron on a regular basis, I’ve gained some insight into his musical predilections, which include among other things an extensive soundtrack collection.  And I believe it works for him…and probably Jim Smiley too.

I also love music and have plenty of it to fit almost any mood, and occasionally I do just that.  For example, a gloomy, not-bound-for-a-happy-ending story might call for Concrete Blonde or Mazzy Star or the soundtrack to Chinatown.  More often, though, I’ll match the music to my story’s setting.  If I’m trying to cast my mind back to the early decades of the last century, then popular jazz is my weapon of choice.  Nothing puts me there quicker and with less pain than old-school crooners and husky-voiced torch singers.  And if my story is set in the 70’s or 80’s—post-Vietnam and Watergate, pre-cell phone and Internet—I favor bands with plenty of adolescent Cold War angst like Blondie, The Clash, Television, or X, while for 21st century stories, I might punch in The White Stripes, The Black Keys, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But music is a tough one for me.  It can hinder as well as help, feeding the need to create the right atmosphere before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), which can turn into a deadly trap.  Finding time is difficult enough already.  If I suddenly realize I have a free hour or two, I’ve got to be locked and loaded, ready to fire.  I cannot allow myself to think there’s too much noise, not enough light, too many people, not enough cushion beneath me, or it’s the wrong time of day or the wrong kind of music or the wrong kind of pen and paper.  Worrying about too much/not enough/the wrong kind of anything only obstructs the writing.  It is nice when it all comes together, and the music and mood and time of day and everything else contribute to productive vomiting, but it’s not necessary.  And if you’re in the habit of going to a coffee shop, as I am, then you don’t always have a choice in the music being played.

While music can set a mood, it can also be distracting.  If Blondie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing, I’m very likely singing along—at least in my own head—which is certainly not good for word-smithing.  Worse, music can alter or limit the writing.  Ever hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” and not think of that scene in Reservoir Dogs?  Listening to an evocative soundtrack, like Reservoir Dogs, can dampen the creative possibilities by evoking too many associations—associations that might creep into your story, or worse, push it toward the derivative.

Most often I like music to be simply background noise that allows me to focus when silence would be distracting.  But to be background noise, the music must not be distracting or tied to the story.  So there are times when I listen to punk or funk or surf or southern rock or anything but the logical, predictable choice.  Example:  Tejano music.  Aside from the few videos I’ve seen on mounted TVs while waiting for my bean burrito and Coke with real sugar, Tejano music does not carry with it strong visual or narrative associations.  And neither do the lyrics, which are ninety percent indecipherable to me anyway.  Tejano music is neither distracting nor does it nudge my story in any direction by dredging up images and clichés that are better left lying dormant.  So when I’m writing a story, sometimes the best music for me to write by would be my last choice for the soundtrack.

“The Proposition” by Nick Slosser

“I got a proposition for you,” said the fat man in the purple track suit sitting in my favorite chair and fumbling with my remote controls.  The chair was one thing, but fucking with the remote controls—of which there were four—was just not right.

“Well?” he said, as if I wasn’t paying attention.

“Well, what?” I said, feeling surly.

“Gordon,” he said, still eyeing my home electronics, and fireworks lit up my brainpan and thunder echoed around inside it.  Gordon was the four-foot-ten-inch hunk of raw, deformed beef standing behind me, waiting to smack the back of my head with an open hand that could have been a phonebook.  Plus, I think he wore a ring, one of those heavy class rings they sell graduates for not thinking.  I hated Gordon and his medieval hands and his stupid suburban name:  Gor…don.  Now, I watched The Sopranos.  I would take it from a Vinnie or a Tony or even a Paulie, but a Gor…don?  Fuck that noise.

I rubbed my head and sat up, wondering what the fat man had pushed to get what sounded like Russian to spew from my speakers.

“Well?” the fat man said again.

“Well, what?” I said just to antagonize him.

I heard Gordon shift his weight, ready to strike, but I was ready to dodge this time.  If Gordon hit only air, I might have the few seconds necessary to fundamentally alter the situation.

But Gordon never tried, because the fat man started laughing like a tree-dwelling monkey:  whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.

“You are tough, I’ll give you that.  That’s probably the army in you.  Special Forces, right?”

I shrugged.  So was my roommate.  So were many of the guys in the building.  My landlord favored veterans.  He was a no-load, a John Wayne freak who’d never been in uniform, but we didn’t complain:  rent was low and he often treated us to beer and hot wings.

“Maybe the sources were right about you.”  I had no idea what this guy was talking about:  who would recommend me, for what, or why this guy might doubt them.  I had no idea who this guy even was.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Never mind that.  You want the job or not?”

“No.  But thanks anyway.”

The fat man stared at me in disbelief, then laughed again.

“Real fucking asshole, you are,” he said, “but I like you.”  He nodded to Gordon, which caught me off-guard, and I flinched.  “Relax, cowboy.  Take a look.”

From over my shoulder appeared a brown paper bag, roughly in the shape of a stack of bills—a hundred of them or more.

“Not interested,” I said, though I kind of was.

“So you said, but look inside.”

“Listen, I’m not going to say it ag—”

Gordon had dropped the bag into my lap and it hurt.  It wasn’t paper, it was lead.  Where the corner had hit, my leg would be bruised.

“What do you think?” he asked.

I opened the bag and pulled out a bar of what must have been gold—I’d never seen any before, not it real life, anyway, and it was much duller than in the movies.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You eat it.  Sprinkle it over your cereal.  Spread it over saltines.”  He laughed, thinking he was funny and nodding to Gordon so he’d laugh too.  “Dip it in your coffee.  Soak up your egg yolk with it.  What do you think you do with it?”

I stared at him blankly, glad he’d stopped listing foods, though I was getting hungry.

“Here, give it back,” he said, obviously disappointed.  “This is just a sample.  So you know what we’re talking about.”

“What are we talking about?”

“We’re talking about a score…a big one.  An armored car that’s never found again.”  He watched the effect that had on me.

I nodded stupidly.

He went on:  “Here’s the number.”  Over my shoulder, Gordon held a small slip of paper.  “You call it and identify yourself, and you’ll be told what to do and when.  Don’t write it down, just commit what he says to memory.  And don’t try calling a second time.  Got it?”

I nodded.

“The man you’ll be dealing with has no compunction.  You know what I mean—no compunction?”

I just kept nodding.

“Good, now we’re getting somewhere.”  He stood, hitching his pants around his bloated middle.  He handed the gold back to Gordon, who tucked it into an inside jacket pocket.  The jacket hung goofily to one side, which explained why I thought Gordon was deformed.

“Make the call tomorrow afternoon.  Got it?”

“Who should I say gave me the number?”

He smiled, first at Gordon, then at me.  “See you ‘round.”

Not five minutes after those guys left, my roommate came home.  I was still trying to undo what they’d done to the remote.

“What happened to the TV?” he asked.

I smiled.  “You know that girl from the pool hall?”


“Yeah, that one.  She was here last night.  She screwed it up trying to watch Sex in the City or something.  I still haven’t figured out what she did.”

He smiled, but I could tell he was jealous.  We both wanted Shelley, and up till now I bet he thought he’d be the one to get her.  Well, it’s not my fault if he takes my word for it, thinks I’ve already been there, and sets his sights somewhere else.  Besides, all the better for me if he does.

“Hey, anybody stop by for me?” he asked.  “Maybe a fat guy?”

I stared at him blankly and shook my head.  “Not today.”

“Oh.  Well, if anybody does, just holler.  I’ll be in my room.”

“You got it.”  I laid the remote on the coffee table and picked up the slip of paper Gor…don had handed me.  All the better for me, I thought, and stuck it down my front shirt pocket.

“Average Joe and the Hero” by Nick Slosser

Joe is an average guy.  Not too tall, not too short.  Not too dumb, not too smart.  Joe watches football on Mondays and sit-coms the rest of the week.  He has a cubicle job drawing up schematics for grocery store product resets.  His co-workers like Joe, though not enough to give him a nickname or remember his birthday.  Joe is apolitical and likes hamburgers.

One day Joe sees a woman running down the street looking over her shoulder.  She approaches him and asks for a lift.  She’s pretty, and it’s been a while, so he agrees.  But she doesn’t want to go home, she wants to see his place, which is fine with him.  But the next day he wakes up, thinks he hears sirens, and finds her lying beside him…dead.

So what does Joe do?  Does he track down her killer?  Does he hide the body in an insane attempt to avoid prosecution?  Does lam out of town, leaving behind everything—his job, home, friends, family, and money?  Does he obsess over this woman and seek to learn everything about her?  Would you believe it if he did?

The thing about Joe, and characters like Joe, is that Joe is not a hero.  Joe might be realistic, might even represent a huge portion of the population suffering from a modern American malaise, but it’s impossible to picture Joe purposely embarking on an adventure.  He’s just not that kind of guy.

If a person is going to track down a killer, or break the law, or start a new life, or even harbor an obsession, that person must be extraordinary.  The reader must believe that beneath the mild-mannered exterior lies a pit bull that once awakened will bite—and I mean bite hard—and not let go.  The reader must believe the person would keep pushing in spite of the danger.  With a guy like Joe, that’s a tough sell.  It’s hard to imagine him doing anything in this situation except panic, become the prime murder suspect, and possibly even get killed along the way.  Joe’s just not a hero.

Does that mean the character must be a martial arts expert who speaks several languages and holds a degree in medicine and flies her own airplane?  No.  Those characters are boring.  That sort of James Bond sheen only works in escapist movies with exotic locales and sexy actors.  Readers actually want to identify with the protagonist, and wealthy, know-it-alls who have no fear or weakness are hard to relate to.  So the challenge for the writer is to make the character relatable without making her wimpy.

Even in the great “ordinary man in an extraordinary situation” stories, like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or most of Harrison Ford’s movies, the protagonist is a hero.  He just hasn’t had a chance to prove it yet.  Unlike Joe, who seems to be content with whatever life deals him, the Roger Thornhills and Dr. Kimbles of the world actually do stuff.  They appear ordinary only because the situation demands it.  As soon as the situation changes and life is threatened, their inner heroes come out.

A great example is Jim Rockford, a P.I. at 200 dollars-a-day plus expenses (which he is rarely paid).  He lives in a mobile home by the beach, drives a Pontiac Firebird, gets beat up often, and is constantly broke (as evidenced by his phone messages).  Rockford is the opposite of the wealthy, know-it-all who has no fear or weakness.  Rockford’s an everyman and relating to him is a cinch.  Even so, Rockford’s inherent stubbornness is so apparent that when he sees a case through despite the dangers, we firmly believe it.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is another great example.  Likeable, unaffected, and brave, though not fearless, Millhone refuses to be scared off a case not because she’s stubborn, but because she follows her own moral compass, regardless of the danger.  Grafton even admits that her character hangs around danger long after the author herself would have bowed out.  And this is what makes Millhone heroic.

It’s also what keeps readers coming back for more.  Readers don’t want to read about normal people who wisely and realistically avoid danger.  Readers want to read about a person who fights to the bitter end, a person who becomes extraordinary when the situation demands it.  In short, readers want to read about a hero.

Bonus Xmas Fiction

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Nick Slosser, The Whole Works

“The House on Candy Cane Lane” by Nick Slosser

Mrs. Jones knew all was not well when she saw Mr. Shiborski from across the street beating her five-foot tall snowman into frosty powder with a heavy shovel.

From her vantage in the bay window, where she sipped an eggnog latte in her seasonal housecoat atop the cushion with its seasonal slipcover, she had observed him carrying the snow shovel like a double-barreled shotgun and thought he’d gone homicidal for her.  He stalked across the street, staring right at her, and veered only at the last possible moment to square off against the defenseless snowman.

Aside from the marine-in-combat expression, he wore a patched tartan bathrobe, fur-lined winter cap with earflaps, and brown galoshes—purposely untied—all of which appeared to her to be nothing more than thumbing his nose at the rest of the neighborhood.  She took comfort from the fact that the neighborhood children were at school and not witnesses to this spectacle.

By the time he finished, the only remains were the snow pile that might have fallen off a tree branch and the designer extras (acquired from one of her many catalogs)—a ceramic carrot for the nose, ceramic chunks of coal for eyes, mouth, and buttons, plastic twigs for arms, black canvas top hat—designed to attach easily, withstand the weather, and generally make the season brighter.

The carnage done, he snarled at her, waving the shovel mightily, and stomped toward home.

Obviously, her husband Darryl’s method of going through normal channels—specifically, the neighborhood association—was not going to solve the problem.  She would have to deal with Mr. Shiborski in her own way, if only for the sake of the children.  And as far as she was concerned, the children were all that mattered.

“Candy Cane Lane,” as the street was referred to in the weeks approaching Christmas, had actually begun to rival “Mistletoe Loop” across town for the title of Most Visited Street of Holiday Lights.  Come December 18th, when they planned to block the streets for pedestrians from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm daily, a full hour longer than last year, people would find a neighborhood unified in the glory and electricity of Christmas.

Most of the neighbors had already decorated, from the Wilsons on one end to the Morgans on the other—Mr. Shiborski being the one exception.  More importantly, each had decorated within the specifications outlined by the neighborhood association—specifications drafted and adopted in a campaign spearheaded by Mrs. Jones herself.  It had taken time to convince the others—though she never understood how anyone could argue against the children—and there had been a few foot-draggers, but in the end, they had all come around to seeing it her way.

The last holdout had been her immediate neighbor, Mrs. Kibbel—Mrs. Quibble, more like—but even she had caved when Mrs. Jones threatened to tell Mr. Kibbel about pictures taken when his wife was nineteen years old and under the influence of chemicals and her Bohemian boyfriend.  In a fit of honesty fueled by too many cosmopolitans, Mrs. Kibbel had revealed to Mrs. Jones that those negatives had been sold to a magazine back in the seventies, and that to this day she went around to the seedier bookstores and antique shops to buy up any worn copies that surfaced.

The last holdout, that is, until Mr. Shiborski moved in.

Mrs. Jones sipped her latte contentedly.  Neighborhood politics were her passion and her forte.  With her husband at work, and the household chores down to a science, she had time and energy to weigh in on important neighborhood matters.  And what could be more important than uniting under the banner of Christmas to delight children, regardless of creed, with the universal message of peace and joy?

Mrs. Kibbel pointed out that Mr. Shiborski might be Jewish, emphasizing a candleholder in his window, but what Mrs. Jones saw was only a fire hazard.  Even so, she thought, that was no reason to turn Grinch, and if Mr. Shiborski didn’t shape up, she’d sic the fire department on him.  But not before she’d exhausted subtler means.

For the past week, she’d been going over after dark to decorate his lawn—at her own expense—by way of example, much as a parent encourages a child to eat by spooning a bite into her mouth and saying, “Mmm-mmm.”  She employed a different theme each night, hoping eventually to land an acceptable one, only to see her good work undone by morning, her selflessness lying in the garbage, strands of lights and tinsel hanging pitifully over the rim.  He had even replaced her ‘Joy to the World’ decoration—not once, but twice—with one saying, ‘Bah! Humbug!’—a clear and repeated violation of neighborhood association bylaws.

Still, she persevered.  But when the wooden reindeer she’d mounted were found next morning mounting each other she realized she must escalate.  After restoring decorum to her decorations, she built him a snowman in policeman’s cap and badge wielding a plastic-wrapped copy of the Neighborhood Association Handbook of Rules and Bylaws.  Then she retired to her bay window to sip latte and observe his reaction.

That was when Mr. Shiborski pulverized her snowman.

Undaunted, she decided it was time to remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas.  So that night in his yard she erected a complete Nativity scene, even going so far as to march up his steps to hang a crucifix on his front door.

‘Deface that,’ she thought, as she watched through her bay window, hoping to catch him in the act.  Admittedly, she had never actually witnessed him altering the decorations, only taunting her after the fact.  She couldn’t stay up all night, though, not without involving her husband, who was completely incapable of seeing the dire in the situation.  She’d just have to wait till morning, that’s all.  She had drawn a line—a line between her neighborhood and chaos—and she would stand by it.

She woke early, her husband still snoring.  A fire engine and ambulance clogged the street.  Mrs. Kibbel was there in heavy overcoat and slippers, hunching her shoulders against the wind.  Other neighbors were standing there too, and, unless she was being paranoid, they were staring at her.  She donned her seasonal housecoat—she never missed a chance to flaunt it—and red rubber boots and joined the crowd outside Mr. Shiborski’s house.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Like you don’t already know,” someone answered.


“We saw you,” someone else said.  “We all saw you.”

“Saw me what?”

Then paramedics wheeled out Mr. Shiborski on a gurney—his thin arm and bony fist raised against her—and she felt she understood.  Some misfortune had befallen Mr. Shiborski, and everyone blamed her.  Well, it wasn’t her fault he had been careless.  She couldn’t be held responsible, even if she had maddened him with her activities.  She’d done it for the right reasons.  If you asked her, she’d bent over backwards to help him.  Maybe that made her a busybody, but so be it.  All would be well in the end, of that she was certain—it was Christmas, after all.

She appealed to Mrs. Kibbel, who silently turned her back and strolled home.

“Mrs. Jones?” said a man in a trench coat and brown flannel suit.  “Would you please step over here?”


“Yes, you.  Over here, please.”

“I’ve been meaning to call about those candles.”

“Never mind the candles.”

“I warned him they’d cause a fire.”

“Where were you last night?”

“Last night?”

“Yes, last night.  Where were you?”

“At home, of course.”

“Uh-huh.  Did you go out?”

“No.  Why?”

“You didn’t go out, say, to redecorate Mr. Shiborski’s lawn?”

“Oh, that.  But that was nothing.  You see, in our neighborhood association bylaws, we require—”

“Do your bylaws allow for reckless endangerment?”

She gasped, clutching the collar of her housecoat.  “Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean, do your bylaws allow you to spray water over your neighbor’s steps so they’ll freeze and cause him to slip and break a rib?”

“I don’t know—”

“Are those your footprints?”

“I—I don’t—”

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t think so.”

“No?  Then how did that cross get up there?  Mr. Shiborski being Jewish and all.”

“Well, I—I put that there…for Christmas.”

“But those aren’t your footprints?”

Her voice was getting weaker.  “Yes, they are.  But—”

“Mrs. Jones, do you see what I see?”

She just stared at him.

“I see one set of footprints—yours—leading up to the porch.  Many footprints over there, but only yours and Shiborski’s on the steps.  So unless someone stood over there and watered the steps with a bucket and four-foot spout, I got to look hard at you, don’t I?  Now, do you hear what I hear?”

Her mouth hung open.

“I hear that you and Shiborski were having some sort of yuletide feud.”

Her eyes flashed as she snapped, “But the children were coming!”

It was his turn to stare at her.

“We mustn’t forget the children.”

“Yeah, Merry Christmas, kids.  Patrolman, please cart this one to the station.  And don’t forget to Mirandize her.”

“Wait, what are you doing?”

“Placing you under arrest for criminal mischief and reckless endangerment and whatever else our legal elves come up with.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look around.  There are a dozen witnesses who state that they saw you in your…” he searched for the word to describe her housecoat, “…snazzy get-up, messing with Mr. Shiborski all last week, escalating each day.  Further, they saw you around midnight last night carrying a bucket to Mr. Shiborski’s, and this morning found Shiborski half-frozen to death after slipping on that ice.  You’re just lucky that man’s alive.”  He took a calming breath that clouded the air.  “So, Mrs. Jones, you’re going to jail.”

She was stunned.  “But—but it’s Christmas!”

“I’m Unitarian-Universalist.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means, Happy Chalica, Mrs. Jones.”


Her words were cut off when he slammed the car door.  She turned to look out the back at her neighbors, but they were dispersing.  She tried to find a friendly face, but there were none.  No one made eye-contact.

Then, through a second-story window, she saw Mrs. Kibbel in a housecoat exactly like hers, watering a hanging plant with a bucket and four-foot spout.  The woman even smiled and waved at her as the patrol car drove away.

Read, Read, Read

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Nick Slosser, The Whole Works

“Read, read, read…and not just the good stuff” by Nick Slosser

Have you ever noticed how the authors you hold in high esteem do what they do, but you can’t quite pin down exactly how they do it?  Hemingway’s short sentences aim straight for the gut, but how does it he do it?  For a sentence of only five words, how does he choose which ones should be the five?  Steinbeck’s characters live and breathe and sweat and stink and generally occupy more space than most real-life people I know.  Some best-selling authors can eat up half the dictionary trying to flesh out a single character, but Steinbeck doesn’t need to.  His characters flesh out by themselves.  So how does he do it?  Raymond Chandler sends his P.I. into a posh L.A. hotel or down through Laurel Canyon and you the reader hear Marlowe’s footsteps reverberating against the high, gilded ceiling or feel the ocean breeze and smell the manzanita, scrub oak, and sage.  Chandler renders his fictional L.A. more vividly than the real thing.  Again, the question is how?  How do they do it and yet make it look so easy?

And that is the problem.  We might recognize the greatness of 1984, The Three Musketeers, Lonesome Dove, Fahrenheit 451, The Maltese Falcon, or To Kill a Mockingbird, but we won’t necessarily be able to tease out just how the author accomplished it.  Still, maybe some of that greatness will rub off, so by all means, read the good stuff, kneel before the altar.  Just don’t forget to read the other stuff too:  the guilty pleasures and the brain candy.  Often those works can be just as instructive as the masterpieces they imitate.

Two things can be learned from a not-so-great novel.  First, what not to do.  It’s fine to say things like, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ but what does that really mean?  Well, read a bad book and find out.  Often the hero (or hero and sidekick) must travel from Point A to Point B, but the trip ends up little more than directions from  “They drove west on Burnside, hung a left on MLK, merged to the far right lane, passed Belmont, Hawthorne, and Division, took a right on Powell, crossed the Willamette River…”  Please, please make it stop!  Don’t tell me where they went.  Show me—like Chandler does.  When Chandler writes it, a drive through L.A. evokes the senses.  Not that writers should (or could) imitate Chandler’s writing, but we can at least avoid the pitfalls of the laundry-list drive we had to wade through in that book that was good, but not great.

Second, we can learn (or at least be reminded of) the things we should do.  A well-written novel succeeds on numerous fronts:  plot, character, dialogue, description, theme, social relevance, sense of place, beauty and clarity of language, resolution of the conflicts.  An author has many ducks to keep in a row, and these ducks like to stray.  But even not-so-great writers have certain skills and moments of brilliance.  The difference is these authors rarely make it look so effortless.  Their work tends to be more transparent:  the cliffhanger chapter endings make obvious hooks, the killer’s full moon fetish acts as ticking time bomb and an obvious tension-builder, the hero’s fear of heights or snakes or math provides the ultimate test of her mettle and the all-important inner conflict.  In a lesser book, these devices can be easier to recognize, which is good, because it makes apparent the craft underlying the finished piece—what works and why.  So I say, read, but read widely…and not just the good stuff.

“Write, Write, Write…but When?” by Nick Slosser

Recently, John Caruso blogged about finding the time to write.  Although he beat me to the punch, I think I’ll go ahead and comment on the same subject, because more than any other potential roadblock, making time—productive time—is the single deadliest one (for me, anyway).  Like John, I don’t get to choose how many of my waking hours are devoted to writing, nor even which ones.  Sometimes the only hours I can scrounge fall between my wife falling asleep and me falling asleep.  Although I can do the night owl thing and still function the next day, not everybody can, and even I find some daylight time is required.  But when?  And how?

Read:  Here I agree with John one-hundred percent.  Nothing makes me want write like reading a good story, especially a short story.  When I read a story, good or bad, from start to finish, invariably—and I mean invariably—something will have taken root in my brain that I can cultivate into something writable.  It doesn’t always have to be a whole story idea.  Maybe it’s just a nifty title or a brilliant description or a whole scene of fresh and provocative dialogue.  Or maybe it’s a clever twist as yet unknown to the world that only needs every other aspect of the story to lead up to it.  Regardless, reading inspires writing.  But reading alone doesn’t solve the problem.

Refuse (as in the verb, not the noun):  If you’ve set aside a chunk of time to write, and you’ve been planning for it all week, refuse to change your plans.  Things come up; they always do.  Maybe it’s work to do around the house, maybe it’s something fun, like hiking with friends or getting smashed at an all-day beerfest.  Sometimes it’s hard to say, ‘No thanks,’ when it means missing out.  But if you let them, these other things can hijack all your daylight hours, leaving only late-night scraps for writing.

Relocate:  When there are so many pressing things to do, writing can often come last.  Consequently, trying to write at home can be difficult.  Dishes need washing.  Clothes need washing.  Dogs need washing.  (I don’t have a dog, but I have cats who like to sit on my arms when I’m trying to type.  I’m not kidding.)  When I have a chunk of time, I tend to travel to a laptop-friendly coffeehouse with nothing except the story I plan to work on.  If I bring other stuff—bills, a reading book, sudoku puzzles, etc.—then I accomplish nothing.  The point is to avoid the distractions of home—all of them.  Sometimes I don’t even bring my cell phone, but I only recommend that for advanced luddites.

Reserve:  Ernest Hemingway said that he learned to stop writing before he finished a section or chapter, and that way, when he started up again he would know exactly where to start and would waste no time getting on with it.  This actually works.  Instead of facing a blank page, wondering how to begin, if you reserve the last several paragraphs for the following day, then sitting down to write becomes a much less daunting task.  If that doesn’t feel right, then at the very least, think about the next section throughout the day, so that when you do sit down to write, you’re not sitting down cold.

Regorge:  In another blog entry, John mentions “vomiting in the morning and cleaning up at noon.”  (Okay, regorging and vomiting are not the same thing, but I had the ‘re–’ thing going, so bare with me.)  Some of my best progress has come from spewing chunky bits onto the page, then rewriting it all later.  I’ve discarded whole passages—long passages—sometimes entire chapters—and yet as I was doing it felt that I was making progress.  Just figuring out the passage didn’t work usually meant I’d gained a clearer idea of what I was trying to do and how I wanted to do it.  Beginning sentences are especially tough, and I’ve found vomiting to be the surest way around them.

Rest:  Sometimes the writing is just not working.  Then take a break.  Let it lie.  Work on another project or get up and take a walk.  Recharge the batteries.  Forcing it won’t work, especially if you’ve been burning the midnight oil too much.  Sometimes not writing is the best thing you can do for your writing.