“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?”

“Shelley?”

“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.

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No More Excuses

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“NO MORE EXCUSES” by Jim Ehmann

The cheapest and easiest thing in the realm of human experience is an excuse. More particularly, an excuse NOT to do something. In any random situation, most of us can almost instantly come up with a list of reasons NOT to do just about anything. Unfortunately, I have known a few individuals close to me who took this “art” to a sad extreme, finding sufficient excuses to essentially do nothing at all with their lives, despite adequate capabilities.

I’m getting old. Maybe even cranky. One thing I have lost tolerance for is excuses. I must try to reserve judgment on other people and their excuses – who really knows the lives of others well enough? So I can only be hardcore with myself.

This post is a follow-up to my November 20 blog titled “What Next?” I have been writing fiction, sporadically at best, for two and a half years. I do feel that I have progressed. I have learned some things about writing and I have learned some things about myself. So far I have only written short stories – my longest piece is a mere 5,000 words. However, based on observation, personal reflection, and discussion with writers and friends, I now question whether I should stay on that particular path. I have been published several times, but I do not feel I have been read. Other than family and friends who accepted invitations to read my stories, I lack hard evidence that anyone has read my stories at all.

On the internet there has been a relatively strong market recently for very short “flash” fiction, but otherwise short stories have been declining in popularity for decades. I’m guessing the 1960s and 1970s were the heyday for short stories. Fiction readers today simply prefer novels. Commuting in Portland, it is great to see so many people reading books on the bus. But for every person reading a short story collection, there are at least ten, or more likely twenty, people reading a novel.

So perhaps I should try writing a novel.

There are so many excuses NOT to write a novel…

I have read shockingly few novels in my life, and practically none of the “classics.”

I have never read a book or taken a class on how to write a novel.

I already feel I have inadequate time to pursue my various interests and hobbies – how can I find time for a novel?

Only a microscopic percentage of novels ever get significantly published.

Well, well, well. That seals it – easy decision, right? Too hard, too unrealistic, too little of a chance for success, too much of a lifestyle change.

My most recent excuse was that I had another writing project to do instead. I have been shopping a good short story around for over two years, and it has been rejected about seven times. I had decided to try expanding it into a novelette and was ready to start on it. But today I received an email that the original short story has finally been accepted for a print anthology, derailing the need to revise the story.

I choose to take that as a sign.

So I’m writing this blog partly as self-motivation. If I put it in writing, I will feel more committed – hopefully.  I will try to write a novel. I have a basic concept for the book. I will attempt to educate myself somewhat about novel-writing. I will do outlining this spring. I will need to do physical research involving travel this summer and fall. I will give up my Portland TrailBlazers season ticket next winter so I will have time to write. And by the summer of 2012, I will have a novel.

Thanks to all who have encouraged me to come this far. I look forward to a day when I can show you my work.

“Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” by Aaron Hilton

A submission response from the editor of a mid-list publisher I received this last weekend compelled me to make a hard and wise decision regarding the self-publication date for my crime thriller.

Dear Mr. Hilton:

Thank you for sending the materials for your novel, THE GRUNGE OPERATIVES, which we discussed at the Willamette Writers Conference.  I apologize for taking so long with it, and thank you for your patience in waiting for a response.  I find the central idea of an “alternative” detective agency very intriguing, and think there is a definite market for this type of crime story.  Unfortunately I think the manuscript needs a little more work.  I found the plot rather overloaded—clearly you are not lacking for original ideas, but you may want to consider reserving some for future books in order to sharpen the focus and maintain a consistent narrative thread to keep the reader turning the pages.  Also, I think that your prose could use a little more showing as opposed to telling; descriptions often came across list-like as opposed to being portrayed in a more fluid, evocative manner.

I’m sorry this ultimately wasn’t for me, but I thank you again for the look and wish you all the best with it.

Sincerely,

This is hands down the best rejection letter I have ever received. The editor obviously read the synopsis and sample chapters I sent. The criticism wasn’t all negative either.

‘I find the central idea for an “alternative” detective agency very intriguing, and think there is a definite market for this type of crime store.’

Now, as far as the cons are concerned, the editor is right. The current draft of The Grunge Operatives is overloaded with an assortment of cases connected by too many plot threads that do not allow the reader to focus. Then there’s the observation about my prose needing more show than tell to engage the reader in an evocative manner, rather than just giving them a list of what’s going down.

I did some research on how show vs. tell can be implemented. I need to engage the senses. If you would like to read an example of this check out the recent post (A Writer’s Bout: Show vs. Tell) at my personal blog, Musings of Mayhem.

So, back to how this effects the release date for The Grunge Operatives. I had planned on releasing it on March 25th, but taking into account the overloaded story, and my mantra of ‘show more than tell’ in need of sharpening, I’ve pushed the release date for The Grunge Operatives back to later this year. I hope to have it published shortly before Halloween.

Also, to correct the overabundance of ideas, the three cases in the book will be divided up into two novels. This means the Alternative Investigations cycle will contain six (perhaps even seven) books.

These choices were hard to make and I finally swallowed them, thinking of the thugs in The Crow chasing bullets with shots of liquor. Ultimately these decisions are the best path to take if I want to gather an audience and develop a professional brand.

Please keep checking back for updates.

I’ll have a cover for The Grunge Operatives to share with you soon.

Embrace the Chaos

Posted: January 18, 2011 in Jim Smiley, The Whole Works

“Embrace the Chaos” by Jim Smiley

Scratch. Scratch.

You know it is there, and it isn’t your head finally coming unraveled after six shots of espresso. You try to ignore the hell out of it, because you know your wife left an hour ago. You aren’t expecting anyone. But what the devil is it?

You check the door, expecting– what? The Reformed Church of Satan? The Coalition to Ban Free Will? None of the above.

Her eyes meet yours in an ageless, knowing hunger. You sag, defeated.

“Very well, Charlene. Breakfast is on me. Please don’t climb on any more fire extinguishers.”

She chitters and barks her hello. Fucking squirrel.

Nothing really to prove here, just a point of illustration. Adventure (and good ideas, and quiet dreams of stillness) are where you might find them. There is no hard and fast rule for where inspirations might be found.

An exercise I like to call, “The Stalker’s Lament” goes like this. You see a random person, and you take a mental snapshot. You never look at them again. You construct an elaborate story around them, with motivations and complications.

How is this random or chaotic? The very act of them being in that one place for you to see them is an act of randomness. The only thing left for you to do as a writer is to jump off that particular cliff.

“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.

“After Midnight” by John C. Caruso

After midnight the warehouse district down by the train yard has a haunting deserted stillness to it.  Although the day’s long rain has stopped for the moment, the pavement of streets is still slick with dark standing water.  Deep puddles swell the gutters at corners where leaves and litter have clogged the drains.

The cool night air has a hushed quality to it, interrupted only by the faint hum of a solitary streetlamp, reaching its lighted arm high over the street and standing tall in the yellow pool of its own light glaring off the wet pavement.

In the distance, approaching gradually from where a small cluster of dive bars and pool halls huddle together down by the waterfront a mile or so away, a faint and rhythmic noise edges softly into hearing range. As it nears, the noise slowly builds into an actual sound – the sound of shoes striking the pavement.  Someone is running.  The footfalls come fast together.  The person is moving fast, running as hard as they can.  But the shoes repeatedly striking on the pavement don’t have the padded squeak of athletic cross-trainers.  No, these shoes make the sharper clapping sound of leather soles, like men’s dress shoes.  Someone is running as fast as he can in a pair of leather oxfords.

As the sound of these feet striking pavement nears it grows louder, and another softer rasp becomes audible as well.  The second sound is wetter and warmer than the first, but like the first it has a desperate, insistent rhythm to it, coming quick.  It has a jagged quality to it, like someone tearing a wet cotton sheet into long strips, and only as this sound arrives and rises in volume does it make itself clear as the frantic, breathless gasps of this man in dress shoes running as fast as he possibly can.

Faster than would seem possible after the gradual build in the sounds of his approach, this man dressed in a dark suit splashes out of the darkness of the street to flash quickly through the yellow pool of light under one of the streetlamps.  His rain coat flaps behind him like a dark flag blowing in a stiff wind, but the night air is cool and still.  As soon as he’s there – a frozen silhouette of a suited man in full sprint – he’s gone again, the sound of him faintly retreating into the overcast darkness of the night.

The damp rasp of his breath has faded out of hearing range and the clap of his soles on the pavement has retreated to the edge of hearing when another soft set of sounds begins to emerge in his wake, just as rhythmic but with a different quality.  This time the approach is slower, more methodical, almost plodding, and it comes in a brief pattern of three repeated sounds: clomp, clack, scrape.  Only the third sound in the series is dragged out so that it’s twice as long as either of the other two sounds, like clomp, clack, scraaaaaaape.

Clomp, clack, scraaaaaaape.

Clomp, clack, scraaaaaaape.

This is the sound of the running man’s dogged pursuer.  It’s slow, almost ridiculously slow after the other man’s furious dash, but it’s relentless.  It keeps moving.  It will not tire.

And there, the second shadow appears briefly in the pool of yellow lamplight, a hunched figure draped with a long coat, a strong booted leg coming down with a heavy clomp, then a cane stabbing forward to clack sharply against the pavement, followed by the dragging scrape of a dead leg.  Clomp, clack, scrape, spotlighted for a moment as it moves slowly into the dark night.

The Ritual

Posted: January 11, 2011 in Aaron Hilton, The Whole Works

“The Ritual” by Aaron Hilton

You’ve seen Misery with Kathy Bates and James Caan.

One of my favorite scenes in that suspense thriller is James Caan’s Paul Sheldon character putting the finishing touches on a manuscript.

Remember? He’s in the secluded cabin in the snowy mountains. He’s got one cigarette and a wooden match next to a bottle of Dom chilling in an ice bucket, so that when he types ‘The End’ at the finish of his manuscript he can satisfy his superstitious tendencies.

As every journey has an ending, every journey has a beginning.

You wake up. Maybe the alarm clock beeps you out of your slumber in the morning. Perhaps you sleep in until noon. Have your upstairs neighbors ever woken you up banging their headboard, seeing how many orgasms they can share or hold onto?

For me the occasional case of insomnia makes my eyelids feel like they’re invisible.

I’ll climb out of bed and throw on some clothes. Sweats and a tank will do just fine, or maybe even a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Slipping my slippers on, I’ll pad out to the living room. You can skip the slippers if you wish, but a diabetic should never walk around in bare feet.

What time is it? Time is irrelevant. It’s time for coffee. Bust out the Stumptown coffee beans and fill the grinder; measuring is for people that like to see through their coffee. I’m a caffeinated writer that likes his coffee dark as the crimes in his imagination. Dump the grounds in the coffee maker and get the brew started.

As the drip begins, I’m recalling where I left off in the story last night.

My private eyes are working a stakeout in the Green Beans coffee shop when it used to be known as the Blend. The barista, an entrepreneur that owns a couple of cafe’s in the Portland area, and dyes her long hair a different color every month, has hired my protagonists to find out if a corporate coffee group has organized a group of thieves to steal laptops from her customers to drive the popularity of her independent shops down.

The detectives are skeptical, but it gets them free coffee, and a place where they can hang out to get some work done, because the summer is at its height in July, and the air conditioning in their offices is broken down, again.

This precursors a shocking discovery one of them makes in their e-mail.

Boot up the MacBook Pro, plug in headphones, open iTunes, then the Pages file of The Grunge Operatives. Select something alternative to match a pair of detectives that dress in grungy clothes with tattoos and body piercing. Nirvana. Maybe something a little more current like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. Turn up the volume to mask the loud upstairs neighbors that never learned how to walk and stomp around like drunken dinosaurs.

Pound the keys until the timer on the coffee maker turns the unit off and the first cup of coffee you pour has to be nuked in the microwave.

What’s your writing ritual?