Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Traveling Companions

Master Toady was riding his turtle beneath the hot Texas sun. Two hours they'd been plodding along Hwy 29, being careful to stay far enough out of the slipstream of thundering autos so they could maintain what trifle remained of their collective sanity. Not to mention, the auto drafts had the propensity of turning Toady's pink parasol wrongside out. And no respectable Toad can deal with that. It's 92.78% about appearance when it comes to Toads.

Turtle was getting tired. He was always the one who carried the load, like some sort of turtle Sherpa, and that was getting old. His bunions were acting up and his football knee was a royal pain in the tortoise butt. But he was a player and was also receiving teamsters wages for hauling that lazy-ass Toad around. Despite the heat, it was good work if you could get it. He was humming as they plodded onward in the noonday heat.

"Wha chu humming there, Tortoise?" asked Toady.
"He ain't heavy, he's my bruvver," replied Tortoise, hoping to keep the ironic inflection from his tonality.
"I doan like it," says Toad. "Do you know any Elton John?"

Tortoise craned his supple neck back to look at that ungrateful carrion he was carrying.

"Tumbleweed Connection. I know the entire album."
"Don't like it," replied that bastard Toad.
"Where are hawks when you really need them?" It was a rhetorical question at best -- one posed by tortoises for millennium.
"What say?" asked Master Toady.
"Din't say nuthin," grumbled the turtle, contemplating suicide beneath the tires of a passing eighteen wheeler.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wanted: A Two-Book Deal

I’ve obviously taken a vow of silence without being aware of it. I sit at my keyboard or with an open legal pad in front of me and…


What happened to all my ideas? Where do those ideas skitter off to? They remind me of autumn leaves racing away upon the wind, migrating across the lawn one step ahead of my rake.

Think you have a lot of ideas? Just try writing about them. That seems to be the fastest way to assassinate them; tame them like toothless dogs. I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, you’re a writer. Listen, I have a really good idea for a book.” (Not a novel, memoir, or self-help…simply a ‘book’). Of course, I’m not convinced at this point, so I remain non-committal. “All I need is for someone to flesh it out. I’m sure it would be a bestseller.”

They want someone to do what they consider to be the easy lifting—the actual writing. I want to say, “Hey, no problem. I’ll just whip it out in my spare time now that you’ve graced me with the idea for a blockbuster. We’ll both be millionaires in no time.”

If it were only that easy I’d have quit my day job a long time ago.

Everyone thinks they have the idea for a bestseller, a hit sitcom, a grand slam new reality show. But that’s about the place their little idea car sputters to the side of the road, out of gas.

Writing is (usually) enjoyable, but it still feels like work most of the time. And most of it is work done on a speculative basis. It’s similar to writing a dissertation only you don’t get the doctorate until a publisher picks you up. And guess what? A lot of us optimistic masochists would still write. What’s up with that?

I’m one of those strange people who isn’t overly afraid of risk. I’m in the design/build business and sometimes build homes on a speculative basis. They can take almost as long as a ‘book’ by the time I scout locations, plod through the financing and closing process, design it, budget it out, and then get to the ‘easy lifting’ – the actual construction phase. I also get to tie up most of our savings and then leverage myself into debt up to my armpits. The difference is that at the end of the process I have an actual asset with a tangible value. Even if I have to hold it for a while, I can generally sell it for a profit. When the market is good, I build a lot; when it’s bad I don’t. Pretty simple dynamic.

Now let’s look at spec writing.

At the end of a year or more (usually a lot more) of writing, my asset consists of something the size of a ream of paper, or a CD disc if it isn’t committed to paper form. What’s the value of my asset? Nada. Zip. Nothing…unless I can sell it. And nobody knows what that market is doing, especially not the publishers themselves. It isn’t as if there’s an up or down market. From my experience, it’s always a buyer’s market when it comes to ‘books’. In home building, I don’t build speculatively when it’s a buyers market. I have to sell in order to feed my family and buy myself more ‘books’.

Unlike the home building business, anyone can be a writer. I don’t recall any government entity requiring a license, or liability insurance, or a performance bond to write. You just open a vein and go for it. What makes it that much harder for all of us hardcore word addicts is that there are a lot of vanity writers clogging up the blogosphere and driving agents nuts with silly queries. Ever heard of vanity builders – people who go through the heartbreak of it all because, well they just “like to build”? I suppose there are a few, but we refer to them as ‘rich people’. Bored doctors’ wives and the like. There’s no shortage of writers who for some reason, act as if they don’t care if they ever sell anything. That’s crazy. Could you see me doing that with houses? Money for your work is a kind of barometer of how your work is accepted. At least in the building business.

I’m one of those mercenaries who would like to be paid for my work. I get two house deals fairly often. I design/build for a client and their friend now wants me to design/build for them. It’s cool. It’s called making a living. I’d like the same opportunity when I write.

I have two novels sitting vacant right now. Anybody have a good two book deal for me?

You can move in tomorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hey Folks, It's Excerpt Time

An excerpt from Grand Finale


            Ray knocked on Johnny’s side door. 
“It’s open.”  He was cleaning the snake charmer at the kitchen table.  A handful of thin red cartridges sat in the middle like so many pick-up-stix.  The pungent smell of nitro solvent and gun oil filled the space.  “How’s Annie?”
“She’s still sleeping.  I think she’ll be okay.  Face is a mess though.”
Ray looked around the room.  A collection of cereal boxes were arranged on the Formica countertop like library books on a shelf.  An insurance company calendar and a photo of Pope John Paul were the only decorations on the visible walls.  Bright light streamed in through the lace curtains of the breakfast room window, illuminating the shotgun shells and a garish ceramic rooster centerpiece.  The lace curtains and rooster seemed oddly effeminate to Ray.  The old man’s head was cocked to the right to keep smoke from the dangling cigarette from streaming into his watering eyes.  The morning light reflected silver off the days-old whiskers on Johnny’s wrinkled neck.  A packet of smokes, a Zippo lighter, and an overflowing penguin ashtray were arranged next to the cleaning swabs. 
Johnny peered at Ray for a moment.  “You look like shit.”
            “Should have seen me before I showered.”
            “Ain’t you got a doctor?” 
            “I did.  They’re probably wondering where the hell I disappeared to.”  Ray sighed deeply.  He decided to fill Johnny in on his entire backstory – the job, Jen, the ever-increasing headaches, Bahrani’s diagnosis.  The old man continued cleaning the shotgun,  listening without interrupting.  “So I’m afraid to go back to Kansas City,” Ray concluded.  “Afraid they’ll take me in to run tests, do biopsies, do whatever the hell they do and I won’t get out again.  Maybe if I ignore it, it’ll go away.”
            “Don’t you figure they’re trying to find you?  Your wife?  Somebody?” 
            Ray shrugged.  “Yeah, I suppose.  But I really don’t think they give a shit if they find me or not.  That’s the feeling I’ve had the past couple of years.  Like I could fade away and it might be months before anyone noticed.  This, what should I call it…death sentence, has only exacerbated the feeling.”
            “It ain’t a death sentence yet,” said Johnny.  “I got to tell you, Ray, whining don’t become you.”
Ray didn’t speak for a few moments.  It sure felt like a death sentence.  And now these feelings for Annie were complicating his plan to head into the Canyon.  Today he wasn’t so certain he was ready for death whereas last week he was confident about the plan.  Christ!  Last week?  Had he only been in Las Vegas for a week?  Any events older than that seemed to be pages from someone else’s story.  He hadn’t thought of any of it since he’d come home with Annie.  This new life felt like home.
“So you’re still thinking about the Grand Canyon.”  It was a statement, not a question.  The old man laughed.  “Going off to die like an old dog.”
Johnny lit another cigarette.  A thin cloud of blue haze hung in the kitchen air.  He peered at Ray through eyes half-closed against the smoke.  “You know, we ain’t so different as you would think.  Neither one of us has shit to live for.  Except Annie and Rachel.”  He glanced at Ray’s poker face.  “C’mon, I seen the way you look at Annie.  I may be a dinosaur, but I ain’t without sensitivity.
“Look, Ray, let’s cut to the chase.  Tact ain’t never been one of my strong suits.  Or so they tell me.  You got a brain tumor and I’m old as salt with heart problems to boot, so I’m thinking we both got one foot in the grave.”  
Ray wanted to protest Johnny’s hard take on their situation, but blunt as it was, the old man was right.  Ray wasn’t ready to hear it stated that directly.  It sounded morbidly final to hear someone else vocalize what he had only thought to himself.  He started to speak but Johnny waved him off.
“Hear me out, Ray.  We got a little problem here in the form of Mr. Winston C. Culpepper, bad-assed pimp with a nasty habit of beating on women.  Other women I don’t really care about, but one I do.  I’m thinking that neither one of us has much to lose so maybe we should be men enough to take this bastard out.”
“Take him out…like kill him?” 
Ray wanted to pay back in spades anyone who would hurt Annie, but he was the guy who had once rushed a rabbit with a broken leg to the veterinarian.  A rabbit he’d found on the roadside.  The only person he’d ever seriously considered killing was Paul Provenzano but that had been figurative.  He was a spineless coward, no doubt about it.
Johnny formed a pistol out of his thumb and index finger, pointed it at Ray like he was shooting.  “Bingo.”
“Can’t we just have him arrested for assault?  Get him out of the picture?  Johnny, killing a man has never even been on my radar, even if he damn well deserved it.  Maybe it’d be easier if I was in the mob like you.”
Johnny chuckled.  “You mean the witness protection thing?”
Ray nodded.
“There ain’t no witness protection thing, kid.  It’s a story I made up so people would leave me the hell alone.  It ain’t like you have to go into any detail with a story like that.  You just let out some hints and ain’t nobody going to ask you shit about it for fear you might go John Gotti on them or something.”
“You weren’t in the mob?”
“I’m a teamster from Chicago.  Closest thing I got to the mob was seeing Jimmy Hoffa once.  I retired.  My wife died.  I came west.  End of story.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Ray.  “You had me believing.”
“I got a lot of people believing.  It’s a good racket.”
Ray placed his elbows on the table and supported his head in his hands, thinking.  All his life he had avoided confrontation even when confrontation would have been the appropriate response.  Inside he despised himself for backing down, for refusing to stand his ground, but he could rarely find the fortitude if it meant creating a scene. 
You’re fucking dying, Ray.  How much more time you think you have to make a stand, to erase all the bullshit times you wimped away?  His stomach churned with nervous energy just to think about going after a pimp.  A street-wise, probably armed and dangerous pimp, who had no qualms about beating women.  He felt nauseated.  When do you stop this shit, Ray?  Are you going to go to your grave afraid?  He took a long deep breath and slowly let it out.  He saw Annie’s battered face in his mind’s eye.  He thought about this bastard tormenting her after he left Vegas.  Fuck it.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m in.  But you’ll have to do it, Johnny.  The actual killing part.”
“All right,” beamed Johnny.  “Don’t worry.  I don’t have any qualms about killing him.  I was in the Corps.”  He reached a hand across the table, and Ray shook it.  “Look, forever ain’t that far away for the two of us.  Let’s do something honorable.”
            Ray felt surprisingly lighter.  Honorable.  It had a certain lofty sound to it.  Much better than murder. “You have a plan?”
            “Not presently.”
            “Well, the start of a plan,” said Johnny, looking more animated.  “Tonight we’ll go down to Fremont Street and observe our man.  We’ll come up with something.  If not, we’ll just shoot the sonofabitch and be done with it!”
            “That would simplify it.”
            “I believe in directness, but that would be too easy on the bastard.  I want him to squirm a little.  To feel some fear.”  Johnny pushed back from the table.  “I got errands to run.  Don’t say anything to Annie.  She don’t need the worry.”
            Ray nodded.  He stood and walked to the back door, pausing in the sunlight.  “Johnny, this goes against everything I believe in.”  The old man started to say something, but Ray held up his hand.  “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it.  I just said it goes against everything for me, and I mean it.  I’ll help how I can, for Annie, but you’ll have to do the dirty work.”
            Johnny winked at him.  “Okay, kid.  I don’t want you getting your hands dirty.  We’ll head out about eleven, after Rachel’s asleep. You take care.”