Saturday, November 19, 2011

I'm More Versatile Than You Are

Stacey Turner recently sent me the Versatile Writer Award. Previously it was handed to me by Larry Kollar, Mari Juniper and Helen Howell, so at this point I’m going to believe consensus and be flattered. While the rules of the game have warped over time, it remains that you’re supposed to share seven things about yourself. Let’s see if I can keep this entertaining.
1. When I grow my facial hair, my mustache comes in blonde and my beard is red, while my hair is brown. I'm a human sampler pack.

2. Not only did playing Dynasty Warriors get me to read Luo Guanzhong's classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but sharing the game also spurred five friends to try it as well. Only one of us finished it.

3. In middle school I took a general intelligence test that put me at a genius level. I then attempted to exit the building by pushing through a door labeled PULL.

4. In my early teens my passion for writing was equaled by my aspirations to be a comic book artist. It was only after I was rejected from an art show and took stock of several years of drawings that I realized I utterly lacked talent at one of these passions. I might not have become a versatile writer at all if I’d just figured out how to draw hands.

5. As a child I watched Disney's Peter Pan seven times before giving up hope that Captain Hook could win this once. I still rooted for him afterwards, but only in a primitive fan fiction context.

6. I have run naked from the shower or bath tub to my computer to type out ideas multiple times. Conservatively, it's in double digits.

7. On the way back from a midnight screening of Spider-Man 2, I took a shortcut through the woods. A deer leaped in front of my car. I stopped in time, but the critter froze. I rolled down my window and hollered for it move. It refused. Flashing my high beams did no better. I wound up leaning out the window and pitching my idea of Spider-Man 3 to it until it got bored and left. I still think my plot had some heart.

Thanks again, Stacey. I hope I’ve entertained you all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Helping the Nice Guy

Inning waited in the booth, looking out the window while hunched so that others might not see him through it. His Christian name was Inigo, but everyone had called him Inning on account of a childhood aspiration to play pro ball. Apparently he lacked the hand-eye coordination for it and three years of failed tryouts broke his spirit, but the nickname lingered.

Inning only relaxed when he saw Aldo’s red Mercedes pull up. Aldo emerged, all three hundred pounds of potential cardiac arrest stuffed into a tweed winter coat.

Aldo didn’t look at him through the window. He didn’t even look for him as he entered the restaurant, choosing instead to order his midday steak sandwich at the counter. After a minute of small talk with the pretty teen waitress who showed more interest in her cell phone, he waddled down the row of booths until he found Inning.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “Thank you for inviting me to lunch. It’s been a while.”

“They set my car on fi—”

Aldo thumped his hand on the table to stop him.

“Good afternoon,” he said again, then wedged his girth into the booth. His belly caught in the table and rose like bread dough.

“Good afternoon,” Inning said.

The waitress finished texting and brought over a house beer. Aldo thanked her and she scampered to the back to make his order. The restaurant was suddenly vacant.

Aldo said, “I presume this is about the nice guy.”

"They set my car on fire, Aldo. I didn't even know Families did that this century. They burned up my ride all over some pick pocketing. You can make this go away, right?"

"You don't understand. You picked on the nice guy."

"So what if I steal a wise guy's wallet? They're loaded. They can swallow the loss."

Aldo held up a finger. "Firstly, a wise guy kills people who steal his wallet precisely because he's a wise guy. Families don’t respect a lazy wise guy."

Before Inning could complain, he held up a second finger. His middle finger.

"Secondly, I said 'nice guy.' An innocent in this scum hole. They are the few people who get invited to Family weddings that never realize the deals being made around them. They always go to dinner and they never pay. They don't steal. They don't sell merchandise. They don't do hits. Their worst activity is unwittingly carrying something in their luggage once or twice in their lives. They do it unwittingly because they'd never agree to do it consciously."

Inning shook his head. "So I pick pocketed a dumb ass?"

"You pick pocketed a guy so friendly that hardened criminals pay for his dinner. And to do it while he was Christmas shopping for his kids? Come on."

"So they burned my…”

The door behind the counter opened. The waitress trotted out with Aldo’s food. An instant of assuring her tip later, she was gone.

Aldo bit in, taking a fifth of his long sandwich in one bite. Inning had ordered the same sandwich an hour ago and more of it still sat on his plate than Aldo had left in his hands.

“They can't possibly go after me over that. It’s just a wallet. How did they even figure out I was the one who took it?"

“Using his credit card was a bad idea,” Aldo replied around a mouthful. “You think just because it’s shipped to Sherry’s loft that they’re not going to figure it out?”

“But he’s just some dumb ass.”

"You're not listening, Inning. When your first baby is born, the first person you call is a guy at the hospital. The Family has connections and he'll make sure everything God didn't make rough Himself goes smoothly. The second person you call is your Ma, because she'd never forgive you otherwise. The third person you call is a nice guy, because he's the first person who comes to mind. That is who you stole from. You are lucky you did not steal his cell phone. The numbers on there?" Aldo's eyes lolled around in his head and he mopped his brow with the remains of the sandwich, as though the idea had given him a sudden fever. "Oof."

"I still wouldn't light a car on fire over that."

"That's because you're a greasefingers. You're not in a Family business. If some moron wronged one of my good friends, I would shoot him straight in the chest."

Aldo gestured at Inning’s chest with his sandwich. A bit of steak fell out of the tip, plopping onto his plate. It dribbled brown juice.

Inning grumbled. "Well I appreciate having you on my side."

"That brings us to this."

Aldo shifted. One hand secured the sandwich so he could continue feeding, while the other reached into his coat. He produced a black Beretta, placing it flat on the table. His fingers spread over its side, index away from the trigger, but near enough.

“You see, I know this dumb ass.”

Inning tensed, hands moving to his sides. He didn’t bolt from the booth, but looked ready.

"Don't be stupid, Inning," warned Aldo. "You know his name and address because they were in the wallet. So was a week's pay, cashed just an hour before you lifted it. Since you already know where he lives, you're going to go give it back and apologize."

The pickpocket remained tense. He looked like a deer immediately after hearing a rifle shot, trapped in that instant before leaping. Since he didn’t speak, Aldo elaborated.

"If you do that, no one else will put a gun on a table near you and the next car you lease will be less flammable. I make you this offer because you are my friend. Now are you going to give him his wallet back?"

Inning pressed his lips together.


"With two weeks pay in it?"

"I thought it was one weeks pay."

"Two weeks pay, plus what you spent on his cards. You hand it all to him and say you found it under a bench in that mall.”

Inning looked at the black gun, then to his old friend.

"Aldo, why?”

“Why did I beg them to wait until you left the car to torch it? Or why am I giving you such stellar advice when I could be bored at home?”

Inning didn’t answer. Aldo finished the sandwich, licked his fingers and took a long pull on the beer.

“I am doing this because when Aldo Junior was born, this dumb ass was the third person I called.”

Inning wiped the sweat from his palms, then put them together like he was praying at the fat man.

“I’ll go today. I’ll go to the bank first, then to his house. I’ll tell him I found it in the mall bathroom, next to the toilet. Things fall out of pockets in there all the time. I only opened it to find the owner. I hope everything’s in there.”

"Thank you, Inning.” Aldo gathered the gun into his coat. As though answering either the prayer or the departure of the gun, the front door jingled with the first true lunch hour patrons.

“You can go now if you want. It’s a long walk. I'll pick up the check."

(Helping the Nice Guy original appeared at

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Lesson from The Great Ghost

“Never before six-thirty. Never before dusk. Never under anything but the moon. No investigations, no public appearance, and not one square inch of spandex. It’s something I learned from The Great Ghost. He said there was no difference between an alcoholic and a twenty-four/seven superhero. You don’t drink at lunch, and you don’t go lunch in costume. It’s got to be professional. It’s got to be ritualized. They catch onto rituals and fear them, and rituals catch on to you and keep you straight. We work at night because I work at night. You work during the day, then there isn’t any ‘we.’ Simple as that.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interviewed About Possible Origins for Him

We're on Day 3 of unintentional non-Bathroom Monologue Bathroom Monologues here at The Bathroom Monologues. I swear there'll be fiction tomorrow.

But today I was interview by reader, writer and physicist Michael Tate about the Possible Origins for Him series. Michael enjoyed chapter 18 so much he gave me his Friday Flash of the Month award, then had me over to chat about the series, comics and writing in general. If you want some Easter eggs uncovered, to see how The Joker got me compared to John Updike, or just to know how the series came about, pop over there. We'll both appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Confessions of the Unread

I had a copy of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens for a decade before I read it. I owned it by accident, and owned it for two years before I learned that "Terry Pratchett" was a man, not a woman. There must have been at least a hundred books that came into my possession and were somehow read before it, with no intentionality or purpose against Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Pratchett.

According to Goodreads, I present possess 141 books that I haven’t read. The desire to read everything I hear about is so strong that even if I only borrow, buy or steal a small fraction of it, I wind up with boxes of books. And among those books are a few that I feel particularly ashamed for not yet reading. Most of these are hard classics. Some are so long that I argued myself into reading long works from my industry instead. Such excuses work in the short term. In the long term, literary guilt is powerful. I'm publishing this list to further pressure myself to get some culture.

-Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
-Roots by Alex Haley
-Middlemarch by George Eliot (only just learned on Sunday that George was a woman)
-Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
-Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
-Master and Margarita by Mihael Bulgakov
-War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (sent to me as a Christmas gift and embarrassing number of Decembers ago)
-Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
-The Quitter by Harvey Pekar
-The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
-Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
-God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
-Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
-The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
-Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Mallory
-The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson
-The World According to Garp by John Irving
-Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
-The Voice of the Poet by Langston Hughes

I most recently scratched Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale off my list. I think Solaris is next. Please feel free to check off which books you've read, or add your own list of shame. Commiseration can be good. What we really need is a National Novel Reading Month.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Making Ideas

Writers get asked about imagination a lot. Where do you get your ideas? I believe that most good fiction comes from the same place, be it humor or Horror, scientifically plausible or downright impossible. You have to experience, read and study enough to get the raw materials that compose a novel story. But the genesis of good fiction is simple: it results from giving something in a different way than the way you got it.

When I look at my childhood, there was always some Fantasy: Smurfs on TV, Land Before Time in movie theatres, Hercules in books and Robin Hood games in the backyard. These deviated from my life in fantastic ways. The fantastic deviation was attractive.

I recognized more kinds of attractive deviation in my teens. In M*A*S*H you had lighthearted banter while stitching up dying tween soldiers. The novels of Douglas Adams were wildly imaginative, on one page disproving God by demonstrating His existence, then disproving the usefulness of logic in the next. These cases went against convention in amusing ways. Their deviations weren’t that different from Stephen King making a wind-up monkey scary, though turning the positive into the negative like he did was overwhelmingly more popular than the reverse (and it still is).

There was this whole other realm of reactions that everyday people simply didn’t exercise, particularly the options of amusement. You could react differently than everyone else if you just stopped giving in to cultural peer pressure. I needed to do that in my everyday life, but I also needed to pursue it in my fiction. This was how I could write different things.

I remember watching The Matrix and thinking that sea of black leather jackets desperately needed somebody to show up in a Hawaiian shirt. And I actually wore one to the midnight premiere of the second movie. But that wasn’t my moment of emergence. Neither was rewriting Macbeth as a short story starring a magic detective.

Those were petty rebellions; I needed to write original stuff that was about what I wanted out of fiction, not what I hated in it. Instead of looking at a story and thinking how I’d change it, I could get the idea for my own story from just one scene or detail of someone else’s. A favorite hobby at college movie screenings was to anticipate how I wanted the plot to go, and if it didn’t go that way, to write an outline based on my guess that night. That imaginary plot was mine.

Soon it wasn’t that difficult to look at life and think that I hadn’t read a story about X lately. And by X, I don’t mean a fight with the driving instructor. I mean the driving instructor purposefully giving you wrong directions and kidnapping you.

Fortunately he never gave me wrong directions, and the plot was mine. It’s yours, too, if you want it. Let me know how it turns out in the Comments section.

Instead of asking about plausibility or good stories, ask yourself what you want to read. What would make the best escapism for you? What’s funniest to you? What would you most want readers to experience? Sometimes you want to share a personal tragedy about racism, but sometimes what you really want is a dragon running for mayor so she can order the knights to stop coming after her. I hope to finish one of those two stories soon.

Some people are inhibited from writing Fantasy and its related genres because these aren’t realistic. Never mind that they don’t watch realistic stuff on TV (C.S.I. and Dexter are about as likely to happen as The Chronicles of Narnia). But the real question is what you want out of your compositions. If you want something way out of your experience, you can write that. Research it if it’s real or think it through if it’s not. J.R.R. Tolkien put decades into Middle Earth, and it was worth it. If you don’t want something so exhaustive, there are simpler, far shorter ideas. Today I wrote a first person monologue defending snake oil salesmen because, in their opinion, snakes need oiling. Taking things too literally, or not literally enough, or connecting things that aren't normally connected gets easier the more you do it and the less you follow the convention of writing everything based on personal experience.

Much like the barriers of realism and keeping your prose cynical or morose, grounding everything in your personal experience can prevent take-off. Everything you write will be the result of your life anyway – your nature, nurture and decisions make up what you want. But what you write doesn’t have to conform to what you’ve seen and done. Ben Hur was written by a guy in Indiana in 1880. Shakespeare wrote about fairies and nobles of previous centuries in countries he never visited. Douglas Adams was never on a spaceship powered by improbability.

Let me close with a recent example to show you exactly where some of my ideas come from.

I sat in a waiting room of Westchester Medical Center waiting for my mother’s cancer screening to end. It took over an hour and eventually I got the urge to write. I looked at the door and asked myself, “What is the creepiest thing that could walk through the door right now?”

There’s your deviation.

I wrote for a few lines about something morbid and disgusting. It didn’t take and the inspiration faded.

So I closed my eyes and reclined. I was on a row of chairs, though the waiting room was almost empty.

Okay. If this seat could be anywhere, not just in a hospital, who would be funny if they sat down next to me?

That one worked, and I wound up with micro-fiction about an Islamic gorgon (she likes the veil) on an Amtrak train. In the course of writing, I was replaced by a dryad boy. I let it shift third person, changed settings and swapped myself out without questioning it, because that’s what I felt like experiencing. All I had to do was cross things out and make notes of what to rewrite later so it would make sense.

You may stop and say, “Okay, you can imagine things anywhere. But how do I get an Islamic gorgon? I don’t imagine that kind of stuff.”

The point isn’t to get an Islamic gorgon in a hospital or Ben Hur in Indiana. The point is to imagine whatever interests you no matter how far removed from your life it is. It doesn’t matter if it seems absurd. If it amuses, entertain the thought. If it goes away in a few sentences? There are other things to write about. If it’s too embarrassing for you to share? You can keep it in your desk and never show it to another soul. But if you’re too intimidated to write about what actually entertains you, or are too scared to admit what you enjoy to other people, perhaps you should reevaluate more than just your fiction.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Thoughtful Bear

My teddy bear is acting funny. He used to need me to pull his chair out for him. Before Wednesday, he definitely needed me to hold the cup to his muzzle so he could drink his tea. Now he makes the tea. He also makes my bed. He likes the corners tucked snug. I dug his box out of the trash, and it doesn’t say he’s supposed to do that. Plus I keep waking up and he’ll be gone from the bed. Usually he’s by my closet door, his paws against it like he’s holding it shut. My closet’s haunted my demons, so it’s not surprising he’d want to hold it shut, but he never used to do that. My parents don’t believe about my closet. Neither does Tim. For the longest time it was just me; now it’s me and the teddy bear. Does this make me crazy? And if so, is it okay that I kind of like it? He’s growing into such a thoughtful bear.
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