Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

I’m looking at a list I’ve scrawled in one of my notebooks. It details the novels I’ve written since I hunkered down to write Cobalt City Blues somewhere around 12-13 years ago. It’s been a good run, even if I count the wrecks that fell apart before the midpoint, or the ones that limped across the finish line to be abandoned.

Books that I can call finished–by that I mean a finished first draft with no gaps–average just over one a year.

Fourteen novels. There are two that are objectively horrible, and a few that would need to be rewritten from the ground up if I were to do anything with them (which I actually did with one of them a year or two ago.)

And then there’s Ravensgate.

I’ve been working on the Ravensgate books in some capacity for three years or more. That doesn’t even account for the world building that I did. It was always conceived as three books, first as a trilogy, then as a triptych. Things got shuffled around. Themes were uncovered. They got broken apart and shuffled again, leaving me with most of the first book and chunks of the second and third. I finished the first one, Of Rooks and Ravens. Then I rewrote it in first person rather than third person and gave it yet one more edit pass.

It was my big fuck-all fantasy series. The kind you’re supposed to write. Except it wasn’t going to be just like every other fantasy series. And I still think in many ways I managed that. The three separate narratives spread out over three books, each with their own theme and feel, and one angry old god returned to tie it all together. I had my diverse characters, my broken characters, my unique races, my political and cultural conflicts…

Then a market opened up and I took a hard look at submitting the first book. The second book was halfway done already, the third about a quarter of the way there. I can write like the devil himself when properly motivated. So I took a hard, critical look at Of Rooks and Ravens. I cut the first chapter out entirely. It was too much like a prologue. I looked at the now first chapter, which I had written and rewritten and rewritten again so many times.

And I ended up not submitting.

Because as much as I love that book. As much as I love the characters and their arcs and the weird genre things and world building I got to do there, Of Rooks and Ravens just wasn’t good enough.

Who really wants another fuck-all fantasy series, anyway?

Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t GOOD. There’s some outright great stuff in there. There are scenes that make me tear up every time I re-read. But I genuinely despair that fundamentally, it’s just like every other fuck-all fantasy series out there. And in order to stand out, it has to be better than good. It has to be extra-ordinary. It isn’t there. I don’t know if I’m capable of getting it there. Not at this point, at any rate. And holy shit is that frustrating.

Maybe some day I’ll boil the meat off its bones and build it up again like the beautiful Promethium beast it wants to be. Maybe some day I’ll do the other two books: Redemption of the Yellow Wolf and Sea In his Blood. Maybe I’ll even spin Preston out into her continuing series where she’s building a network of spies to challenge Yuri Vostov at his own game.


For now, the Ravensgate series is going into a digital trunk. All 120,000+ words of it plus all the world building documents. Maybe less hypercritical eyes than mine will read it and kick some sense into me. But there is no shortage of other novels demanding my attention. So I’m going to give them my attention instead.

Ravensgate will abide. It’s what it does.

Neighborhood Eagle

Guardian Sculpture

I grew up in the land of cowboys and Indians.

This is not hyperbole. The cowboy part of the equation included several western wear shops in town, at least one annual rodeo, and I knew many people who wore cowboy boots unironically and rode horses. There was even a western movie hero named after my hometown–The Durango Kid–who was featured in 65 movies from Columbia Pictures. And with both the Southern Ute and Navajo reservations very close by, I knew several Native Americans growing up. With the usual myopia of childhood, I figured my childhood was more or less universal.

See, even growing up in a western town, I figured I had an idea of what the “Old West” was like, though this vision was largely informed by movies and television and the cultural makeup of small-town Colorado in the 70’s-80’s. And that vision was, by and large, white. Growing up in Durango, our minorities were Hispanic or Native American. Black people in Durango? They were mythical and lived only in cities or television. In the “West”–in the land where regional TV networks would have “Put up your Dukes Week” where they showed John Wayne movies every afternoon for a week–black people didn’t exist.

Of course, Hollywood lied.

The truth of the matter is quite different. For starters, the Cowboy evolved from the Mexican/Spanish vaqueros, a tradition which dates back to the 16th century.

Cattle ranching, particularly cattle drives, was damn hard work. And most of the time that work fell to black cowhands who, during “peak cowboy” numbered as many as 1-in-4 (some say as high as high as 1-in-3 in some areas). There is even some speculation that the word itself was used to distinguish black cowhands from their white counterparts, though I have been unable to find a reliable confirmation of that. The number of Mexican cowhands was even higher which shouldn’t come as a surprise as much of the Southwest had been part of Mexico as recently as the 1840’s. That means less than half of the buckaroos on a cattle drive were typically white.

And then you have Bass Reeves, the legendary U.S. Marshal who, over the course of his career arrested over 3,000 felons and killed 14 outlaws in self defense. There is some speculation that he was one of the inspirations for the Lone Ranger.

Not that you’d learn how diverse the real west was from watching Rio Bravo. (And for what it’s worth, Rio Bravo is a damn perfect Western, but it’s as historically representative as Lord of the Rings.)

Thankfully, historians are starting to address the imbalance and recover the real Old West that Hollywood fictionalized. CNN did a lovely piece on it not too long ago. The Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado is also a great resource. The Real Cowboy Association hosts the annual National Black Rodeo, which only makes sense as bulldogging steers (jumping from a horse to grab a steer by the horns and wrestle it to the ground) was invented by black cowboy Bill Picket. And there is the Federation of Black Cowboys based out Queens, New York (of all places) keeping the tradition alive.

And if you want to correct the balance by watching some pre-Django westerns with a more diverse main cast, here’s a great list to start with.

But the important thing is to understand that history isn’t a science: it’s a narrative. We need to examine it from time to time, consider where that history comes from and who is telling it. Because it is full of biases, some intentional, some purely accidental. And the deeper you dig, the more fascinating, rich, and complicated that history is revealed to be. It’s a rewarding experience.

Cody the Timid Pirate Sample Page

Cody the Timid Pirate goes adventuring. Art by Jeremy Madmardigan Matthews

You feel that on the air? That’s the anticipation of this year’s Norwescon, though the convention itself isn’t until the final weekend of March. This will be the 39th Norwescon, it would seem. After this year it be early bedtimes and complaining about how everything hurts. Or is that just what happened to me when I turned 40?

This year’s theme is “Remembering the Future” and features guests of honor Tanya Huff, Janny Wurts, and William Hartmann. Norwescon is a great convention, and draws a good crowd of pros and fans alike. There seems to be something for everyone who is eager to let their geek flag fly.

Except karaoke, sadly. Why they haven’t thought to bring in a karaoke company for one night up in Maxi’s, the lovely lounge in the sky, is beyond me. I can’t be the only one wanting to bust out some Ziggy Stardust. Especially not this month!

This marks my second year putting together the Horror track, which feels weirdly apropos as I just wrapped an edit pass on my haunted house novel The Lictonwood. We had some great panels last year, and this year looks like it could be even better. In fact, most of the tracks have some inspired panels. If you’re a geek about town, Norwescon is going to be the best convention bang for your buck in the Northwest if not further.

But primary reason for this post is to let my rabid fan base…no…um, morbidly curious stalkers? That seems off too. Um, how about “those who might give a crap?” Yes. Better. This is to let those who might give a crap a heads up on my panel schedule along with a bit of a sneak preview.

  • Thursday – 5 pm – Cascade 10: Horror’s Fantasy Roots. Join moderator Logan L. Masterson, K. M. Alexander, Jason Vanhee, and myself as we take a look back at some of the fantasy influences that help make horror what it is today.
  • Thursday – 10 pm – Cascade 10: Let’s Do some Comics Fancasting. I won’t lie. This is the panel I was born to do. Judging from the other names on the panel, you should show up for the romp. There might be some out-of-the-box actors bandied about! The amazing Mickey Shultz will lead myself and Logan L. Masterson in a journey down the casting rabbit hole!
  • Thursday – 11 pm – Cascade 10: Son of Terror in Space. This will be the follow up to last year’s Terror in Space which I missed out on. Expect a rousing hour geeking out about sci-fi horror with me, Jason Bourget, and Burton Gamble.
  • Friday – 4 pm – Cascade 9: You Are What You Eat: Cannibal Horror. Things might get freaky here, just in time for dinner! We have a great group of panelists with a wide range of experience–not in eating people, I hope, but in the sub-genre. I’ll be joined by Lisa Bolekaja, Jason Bourget, and the fabulous Arrin Dembo moderating.
  • Saturday – 10 am – Cascade 1: Story time! I’ve got half an hour to read and say howdy. Due to the early time of day, I will not be reading anything as dark as last year’s “Hell is a Parade,” but I will most likely be reading “The Last Real Man” from the Selfies from the End of the World anthology. Other possibilities are a novel chapter from Ink Calls to Ink or Ties that Bind. We’ll see.
  • Saturday – 2 pm – Cascade 9: The Ghostbusters Effect. With the new movie coming out, what better time to look back on the effect this classic had on not only horror but on the study of paranormal science? Ghostbusters expert Christopher Stewart will moderate a panel consisting of me, Amber Clark, and Nina Post.
  • Sunday – 11 am – Cascade 13: Worldbuilding: Standards of Beauty in Secondary Worlds. Alex C. Renwick will ride rein on a panel consisting of myself, Rhiannon Held, David J. Peterson, and Sar Surmick. I’m thrilled to be on this panel. It should be fun and informative for writer and readers alike!

Unlike previous years, my schedule is really front-loaded on Thursday, with all the other days spread out and earlier in the day. This will free up the rest of my weekend to haunt other panels, readings, parties, and should they bring in karaoke, the microphone.

If you don’t have your ticket now, get it.

It’s going to be one hell of a time!


The Importance of Being Earnest

Posted: January 2, 2016 in Uncategorized
Strange things afoot at the carnival

Beware the wonders you are about to behold!

First off, sorry if I pulled the bait and switch on you here, but this will not be a review or critique of the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde which is a delightful play you should all check out at some point.

Let’s start with the definition of “earnest,” shall we?

Resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.

It’s feels a bit outdated, doesn’t it? The world often feels too cynical for sincerity, let alone sincere conviction. Perhaps the word and what it represents have fallen somewhat out of fashion. Honestly, it had kind of moved to the back of my lexicon outside of the comic strip Frank and Ernest (which is not only a great play on words, it’s usually a guaranteed chuckle).

A few years ago, I was talking to a co-worker who I quite liked, who I generally thought of as cool. They were plugged into the heavy metal scene and hosted a long-running heavy metal show on a local station. Now, admittedly, I’m not the biggest heavy metal fan. My favorite metal is the kind of stuff that looks good painted on the side of a van–wizards, dragons, over-muscled warriors.

But I do have this favorite band, New Model Army that is kind of metal adjacent. Technically I guess they’d fall into more of a post-punk category. Angry and political with a great bass line and sharp lyrics. I’ve been a fan for over a quarter century now, and my first tattoo was the Celtic knot from their Thunder and Consolation album cover. They’re not that well known despite having been around for over 30 years now. But this co-worker knew them and was immediately dismissive, waving them off as goofy.

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And I get that not everyone who knows who the band is aren’t fans. But “goofy” is not a word I would have ever associated with New Model Army. They take themselves pretty seriously. No costumes, no flash. Just music. I don’t think I said anything, but she saw my confusion and clarified, “They’re just so earnest!”

I should have seen that for the red flag that it was at the time. But I’ll get back to that.

Last night I rewatched High School Musical for the first time in about ten years. I was one of those people who stumbled onto it before it was a phenomenon. Skimming through the channels, I clicked into our two leads, total strangers, being pressured into singing a karaoke duet at a party. I like karaoke. The song was reasonably catchy, so it hooked me for the rest of the movie. It was only later I realized this was the second broadcast and it had since become something of a “big deal” for Disney. I enjoyed the movie. I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t rank it in my top ten musicals, or even the top twenty. But I do own three songs from it courtesy of iTunes that I listen to from time to time.

So determined to start off 2016 with something positive, (and unable to find my first two choices), I swung back around to High School Musical. Yeah, it’s a flawed, simple movie. Gee, you’d think it was made for television or something! And yes, Zac Efron didn’t do most of his own singing. I don’t honestly care. It’s no more simplistic than a lot of crap out there that people are more than happy to give a free pass. But the music is good, I like the story, and the central message is one I honestly think we need to do a better job of communicating to kids.

That message is that we’re all complex people with complex interests, and that sometimes those conflict with how people see us. For instance Zeke from the basketball team who loves to bake. Or our heroes Troy and Gabriella who realize that they enjoy singing as much, if not more than the narrow jock/mathlete niche everyone would rather stick them in. It suggests that we be genuine with who we are, what we like, and not try to be someone other people want us to be. And most importantly, it encourages us to support our friends when they figure their own shit out.

It’s a sweet film. And it’s so goddamned earnest!

And here, kids, is the real takeaway.

Fuck being cool. Seriously. Chasing after “cool means spending energy worrying about how others view you. It’s not genuine, and it never lasts.

However being genuine, sincere, and yes, earnest, is the gift that keeps on giving. Yeah, you might lose a few friends. I don’t talk with the co-worker who thinks being earnest is a negative. At one point I thought that we were friends, but slowly they revealed themselves to be more interested in the superficial trappings of things, more interested in being cool than invested. This person is no longer a part of my circle or my life, and I don’t miss them. Instead, my life is filled with weird, creative people who are passionate about all kinds of weird stuff. And I support that. It makes for a better world.

Embrace the genuine. Be your best, most real you. Life’s too short to be anything other than earnest.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

Last night I celebrated New Years in the traditional manner: booze and dystopian sci-fi. Nothing makes you feel more thankful for the future when the new year rolls around and it’s not as bad as Brazil, Strange Days, or Clockwork Orange.

The cinematic viking funeral for 2015 turned out to be a strange trip. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York from 1981 followed by The Visitor from 1979. Escape from New York is a personal favorite that I hadn’t seen for several years. It was one of my dad’s favorite movies. In fact he once owned a VHS tape with Escape, Blade Runner, and Road Warrior on it, all taped off HBO one month.

But I’d never seen The Visitor. In some circles, it’s kind of a well known film, but I don’t think of it as a well regarded film. More a cult “classic.” But weirdly enough, I was able to glean a little bit of writing/publishing wisdom from watching it. Most important being, there is more value than risk in doing your own thing.

I found it impossible to watch The Visitor without thinking of it as an attempt to capitalize on the success of recent movies. And who could blame them, really? I frequently think of Star Wars, which came out just two years prior to The Visitor as a game changer for sci-fi films for a few decades. Everyone wanted a piece of that pie. But you also had movies like The Omen (1976) generating a huge buzz with veteran actors and a God vs. Evil narrative. As a producer in the late seventies, how much must it have sucked to try and chase those tigers?

We see that in the fiction game now. Vampires were huge, everyone started writing/publishing vampire novels. Then zombies. Then apocalypse. There are cycles and trends. There are always people leading the charge with original ideas that they’re passionate about and a bunch of people ready to surf the wave with similar projects that they’ve either had ready or have planned for a while. And then there are the ones chasing that wave not really clear what that wave was.

The Visitor is a prime example of the latter.

Here’s the IMDB description for those too lazy to have clicked through on the above link:

The soul of a young girl with telekinetic powers becomes the prize in a fight between forces of God and the Devil.

What this description leaves out is an alien bloodline, space Jesus, psychic control of birds and a few hits of acid out of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s private stash. It also features veteran actor/director and champion beard grower John Huston as this khaki-clad eponymous “visitor” come to mentor/kill/confound the central young girl. Speaking of, the young girl bears an uncanny resemblance to another troubled young girl *Cough*Exorcist*Cough*. Like The Omen, you also get old-school Hollywood mainstays Glen Ford, Mel Ferrer, and Shelly Winters, plus a young, evil Lance Henrickson. You get this weird light show near the climax that evokes Close Encounters of the Third Kind so hard it’s impossible for me to think it’s coincidental. You get an alien psychic bloodline with a bearded mentor that might as well be carrying a light saber. And let me say it again because it bears repeating: space Jesus.

Despite a few well shot scenes, it’s a largely incoherent and crazy as fuck. The music defies description. Sort of a seventies action movie vibe with a disco element. And it’s dropped into the movie without any rhyme or reason. Here’s 10 minutes of it to satisfy your curiosity:

Even now in the brilliant sunshine of the first day of 2016, I don’t really know what the hell I saw. I don’t know if I liked it. But it was fascinating in the way a fatal circus accident is fascinating. For fucksake, it had a cameo from Kareem Adbul Jabar in a basketball sequence early in the movie (one of my favorite in the movie, weird and unnecessary as it was).

I wish I knew what kind of movie this would have been if it hadn’t been built on the ideas and expectations of the movies that came before. But I also don’t know if The Visitor could exist without the DNA of all those other movies. Take away all those influences and I’m not sure what’s left.

Ultimately it failed in it’s primary mission–to get a piece of that fat Star Wars pie. It wasn’t an expensive movie to make. IMDB estimates put the budget at around $800,000, which wasn’t even a lot by 1979 movie budget standards. Alien, the other sci-fi horror of note to come out that year had a budget in the $11 million range. But even so, The Visitor failed to make a mark as anything other than an oddity. And I doubt they made their money back. Alien, however did okay.

And here’s the weird thing–Alien itself was built on other influences, namely the art of H.R. Geiger and the 1965 Mario Bava film Planet of the Vampires. But these influences were used to inspire a entirely original masterpiece an not a mishmash of dissimilar elements. Also, watch Planet of the Vampires. It’s not as extreme as Bava’s more straight up horror films which require a strong stomach.

Oh, and the number 1 film for 1979 for the curious among you? Kramer vs. Kramer. A movie that could not possibly be further from everything The Visitor was trying to be.

The Dark of the Year

Posted: December 29, 2015 in Anthologies, Novels, Short Fiction

Time is never on our side.

It seems like it’s been a year since we’ve done this. It was, in point of fact, almost a year, since I sat here and looked back at the year that was and the year to come. The dark of the year provides a good opportunity for perspective, like standing on a high peak, the world spread out around you.

I had hoped we’d make progress as a nation in confronting systemic racism and a murderous (and unjust) criminal justice system. Instead, it appears to be getting even worse, black and brown men, women, children gunned down by police, arrested for no cause, left to die. Coupled with bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia digging in like a stubborn tick, 2015 has been a challenging, and for far too many, a deadly year.

America, get your shit together. You can do better. You NEED to.

Ok. I’m getting off the soap box. That’s not why y’all come here anyway. Let’s take stock of the personal and professional milestones of the year that was 2015.

I had planned on finishing Rooks and Ravens and publishing the latest Cobalt City novel both of which happened, though the title changed on the later project to Ties that Bind. But Rooks is not ready for submission yet, and though Ties sold a handful (literally, a handful, as in less than 5) of copies, I have no reason to believe anyone has read it. Not that I can blame them, really. I love the book, but the subject matter is bleak, and the desire for escapism in the bleak year that was 2015 makes a lot of sense. I did not touch the novella trilogy at all until a week ago, so I’m kind of beating myself up over that. I wrote only one new short story, “The Last Real Man” which was published in the fantastic Selfies from the End of the World anthology. And instead of writing a new Cobalt City book in November, I wrote my first full horror novel, the haunted house story The Lictonwood. Time will tell if anything will come of that.

The biggest writing news in the last year was that Ink Calls to Ink, which I was afraid I’d eventually have to self-publish, was picked up and published by CHBB Publishing in July to rave reviews. It has made for an interesting year in which I learned a lot about marketing and promotion. And people seem to love the book, so I feel vindicated there.

The less sunny writing news from 2015 is that I spent a lot of time feeling like I was spinning my wheels as a writer. There were a lot of false starts, a lot of abandoned projects. I spent too many days in the last year feeling like a fraud–even a few where I contemplated giving up on writing entirely. It didn’t last. It never does. But it was a rough year. I had two novels and one novella that started off in a blaze of excitement die before they found their legs. I might be able to go back and resurrect one or two of them. I don’t know.

Other sad news was the untimely death of my favorite local karaoke bar. Though it was reborn newer, slicker, and cleaner (with better food), the community that had grown up there has largely scattered. The drinks are more expensive, the bar stools aren’t held together with duct tape, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” vibe is gone. I still do karaoke at the new location, but it’s been a rough transition. I miss my karaoke family.

Looking forward into 2016, I’m starting off the year driving my son back to Colorado before he flies to Florida for a great new job opportunity. Our schedules made it difficult for us to see each other when he was here, but I still loved having him in Seattle. It’s our loss, but it’s Florida’s, and his, gain.

Other hot-ticket calendar items include Norwescon 39 over Easter weekend. I put together the Horror track for them in 2015 and it went well enough that I was invited to come back and do it again. I’m thrilled with the lineup of panels and panelists. That weekend is going to be outstanding.

As for writing, I’m still doing it. Finishing something in November put a bit of a fire in me. I’m letting The Lictonwood sit for a few months before giving it a hard second draft. Then it’s off to beta readers and a third draft before I submit. At this point, at least, I think it’s an entirely marketable horror novel. I guess we’ll see what the beta readers think. While it sits and rests, I’m writing A Winter Lullaby, which is less urban fantasy than it is rock ‘n roll fable. I’m making good progress and hope to have the first draft done by end of February. I’ve also dug out the novella, the first part of the Shadows of Architecture. I think there’s life in it. I’m giving it one more edit pass and then sending it around. Time permitting, I’ll write the other two parts, and if no one bites on the novella, I will combine it all into a novel. Like motherfucking Voltron. I’m sure another novel lies in wait for next November, maybe even sooner. Time will tell what shape that takes.

I have no plans for short stories at the moment. But I do have four out making the rounds now. My short fiction has been hard to slot into a category or genre lately, so it’s been more difficult to sell. I’ll still write it if the story is there, but it’s taking up far less of my focus these days, and that’s okay.

Finally, the last new thing I’m writing is comedy. Yeah. You heard me right. I’ve been flirting with the idea of trying my hand at stand-up comedy since World Fantasy in Toronto a few years back. But I never followed through. Turns out one of my friends from karaoke also has the comedy bug, so we’re going to workshop a few things, put together a tight set, and try our hands at open mic somewhere in Seattle.

Because if we need anything in our lives right now, it might be a little bit of light, joy, and humor.

See you in 2016.

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I’ve done an update. November can get like that around these parts. So let’s take stock of creative projects and give y’all a glimpse behind the curtain.

My November novel (i.e. NaNoWriMo novel), The Lictonwood, was finished on schedule, much to everyone’s surprise–especially my own. And by finished, I mean I hit my word count goal. I still have a short final chapter to write, but I’m glad I didn’t rush to write that section immediately following the preceding chapters. If I had, the shape of it would have been very different from what I now know it needs to be. I’m going to let it sit for a while and then write the final chapter after I’ve re-read the whole thing sometime in February.

At that point, I’m going to give it a solid second draft rewrite, then a hard third draft polish, and at that point get it out to a few beta readers. Since it’s a horror novel set in Detroit that involves home reconstruction, ideally I’ll find a few betas who: 1) love horror, 2) know a bit about construction, and/or 3) know a bit about Detroit. Interested parties should contact me. They will be rewarded with a mention in the book and a bag of candy.

Once I’ve done a post-beta rewrite, I’m going to get The Lictonwood submitted out. The market is ripe for horror novels right now, and at this stage at least I’m really pretty happy with how this one turned out. It has a great heroic lead in Navajo construction worker Daryl Chee, and I’ve had the titular building spinning around in my brain for almost a decade now. The timing for setting this in Detroit, with the city rebuilding and reinventing itself, made it kind of perfect.

Now that I’ve set that aside to pickle for a month or two, I’ve moved on to the next book. Just in time for winter.

Entitled A Winter Lullaby, it features a faded black punk rocker at the tail end of an in-glamorous career as the New England leg of his tour falls apart. Forced by circumstance to stay with his estranged sister in the mysterious town of Devil’s Gap, Connecticut, he has to wrestle with past mistakes and a lifetime of hard choices. But things are not as they seem in this sleepy town. And as the first snow approaches, something powerful and ancient is returning to Devil’s Gap.

Pitched as a rock ‘n roll fable, A Winter Lullaby will examine how growing old is not the same as growing up, the fine line between leaving a toxic situation and running away from your problems, and what price we’re willing to pay for our security.

I love this cast of characters, from musician Calvin James Lincoln who feels forgotten for being both black and gay in a genre that tends to overlook both, to Nathan Pembroke, the 92yr old painter who lost his hearing during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but knows more about the town’s secrets than he can ever express.

I’m currently two chapters in and aim to have it finished by the end of February. At approximately the same length of The Lictonwood, two and a half months should be ample time to knock out a draft. Maybe I’m a bit crazy, but due to the subject matter and setting, I’d really love to get the draft finished during the winter.

In the meantime, I should get back to writing.

If you don’t hear from me again in the next two weeks, have a wonderful holidays!

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

This is, in part, a review of the new Amazon Prime series Red Oaks. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in the necessity of narrative consistency. There will be some mild spoilers, but i argue that I’m only spoiling something rotten–the bruise on the banana that is best cut out and avoided so you can enjoy the rest.

Read at your own risk.

So, a bit of background: Amazon is producing it’s own programming now, shown as part of their Amazon Prime digital video. It’s kind of ambitious, and they have thrown several things at the wall to see what sticks. Some of what I’ve watched has been great. In fact, of the programs that did interest me, they were as good if not better than network programming. And like Netflix original programming, they make the entire season available at once.

Red Oaks is described as a “coming-of-age comedy set in the ‘go-go’ 80s about a college student enjoying a last hurrah before summer comes to an end–and the future begins.” It has a great cast (shout outs to long time favorites Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey as the parents, Paul Reiser as the club president and supplemental father figure, and Teen Wolf alum Gage Golightly as the aerobics instructor girlfriend with epic 80’s hair). It has a fine stable of directors such as David Gordon Green, Hal Hartley, and Amy Heckerling. And the soundtrack is an astounding playlist of music from my misspent youth–some painfully familiar, and some I haven’t heard in 30 years.

Overall, the series strikes a tone of the typical sentimental coming-of-age story. 20-something kid takes summer job, putting him in contact with both peers he grew up with and a new world that is promised by the range of experiences and new contacts made at the job. Red Oaks is not trying to break new ground here.

Nor is it trying to go for a laugh-a-minute sit-com. In fact, it isn’t interested in telling jokes. Yes. It’s funny. But it’s a soft, character driven humor. If it weren’t for fact that episodes were only 30 minutes long, I’d almost characterize this as light drama than comedy. Several of the characters are painted a bit larger than life–the accountant dad who wants the son to follow in his footsteps despite the son being bad at math and uninterested in being an accountant, the chubby best-friend pot dealer/valet in love with the hot lifeguard, the sleazy photographer with his eyes on the sweet and perhaps too-naive girlfriend, the mysterious, worldly daddy’s girl. But despite the reliance on these archetypes, the series remains pretty grounded, telling believable stories you can relate to if you were ever a white kid from the lower-middle class in the eighties.

And here’s where the series fails.

In episode seven, the family goes to a Benihana style restaurant, where father and son are having a failure to connect. Now, it’s only natural things are somewhat strained between the two. The series opens with dad having a mild heart attack while they’re playing tennis and, fearing the end is here, spills everything about his doubts and fears, including details about his unhappy marriage and how he thinks his wife, the mother, might be a lesbian. Further, the son is realizing more and more that there is a big world out there, and being an accountant like his dad is not at all what he wants to do–he just doesn’t know what the answer is, yet, and is feeling trapped.

And then the mysterious old Asian man steps in with a special birthday drink, some kind of liquor with a humpback whale on the label, forcing father and son to share three shots of the “special birthday drink.” We fade to black, and when the characters wake up, they find that they have magically switched bodies.

Imagine the sound of a record scratching to a stop. This is, essentially, what happened to my brain. The fact that this episode was directed by the gifted Amy Heckerling could in no way save it. It doesn’t matter how well acted it is (and both Richard Kind and Craig Roberts do outstanding jobs here), or how well scripted it is (which it isn’t, to be honest). The trust has been broken. For one, the strange, magical Asian guy trope is dated at the very least, if not flat out racist. But also, the rules of the world, set up in the previous six episodes, have been broken, only to be returned to status quo at the end of the episode with no consequences.

It’s such a bizarre choice it makes me wonder if someone lost a bet. Yes, the body-swap story is a classic of the 80’s. But the movies that tell that story are self-contained. They make sense within the fucked-up rules of that particular world. Even the TV show Community knew that when they did a body-swap story during the “Gas Leak” year that was season 4, making the body-swap not a magical occurrence, but a way for Troy to run away from responsibilities while Abed played along for the sake of his friend (and because he always wanted to do a body-swap episode.)

But you can’t introduce blatant magic into the middle of a story that hasn’t even hinted at it, and then pretend it never happened in the next episode. Imagine if they had an episode of Law & Order involving Satanic sacrifice where Satan actually shows up, and then the next episode it’s back to the status quo.

Fuck you, Red Oaks.

Specifically, fuck you episode 7.

Other than that, I highly recommend the series. I love the pacing and the character development. I’m even willing to overlook the manic pixie dream girl/rich daddy’s girl trope as most of the characters are painted with pretty broad strokes. They do some smart things I’m not used to seeing. The friend’s pursuit of the life-guard is a sweet and well done arc. The trajectory of Nash, the tennis pro who is looking to better his situation, was surprisingly charming. The parents coming to terms with what’s going wrong in their marriage was sad and strangely perfect. And Craig Roberts who plays the lead, David, is outstanding. I’ll watch him in anything now.

All in all, it was a great way to spend 4 1/2 hours.

But seriously, skip episode 7. You’re not going to miss anything.

Authorial Essentials

Authorial Essentials

There are a several checkpoints when you’re an author–little squares on the career Bingo card that are pretty much inevitable. They’re marked with things like “Join Writing Group,” or “Submitted First Short Story,” or “Finished First Novel.”

One that all writers who’ve been in the game long enough encounter is the one marked “Meet person who dismissively says that they could write a novel.” Now, I won’t lie, there used to be time when I met that statement with a bit if ire. No one wants to have their accomplishments dismissed, diminished.

And let’s be clear. Writing novel is an accomplishment. Doesn’t matter if it’s good. Sitting down and putting in that kind of effort, word after word after word–at least 50,000 of them, for example–that’s something to be proud of.

To have someone who, to the best of your knowledge has written nothing since college, proclaim that they can do what you just slaved over, and do it like it’s nothing. Well, yeah. It can hurt.

But I’ve learned to take a different track when I hear this. Because I’m never going to stop hearing it. And I’ll be damned if I want to be dismissive of someone’s goals!

Because what? You can write a novel! It’s not like other arts where materials are expensive (for instance, my cohort might sell someone’s kidney for high-quality markers in the near future). Writing requires pens and paper at the very least, access to a computer with a word processor being even more ideal. That’s a threshold most people can reach. The only other thing that’s required is encouragement, an idea, and effort.

That’s why I love National Novel Writing Month so much. The goal is to write a novel in a month. 50,000 words. 1,667 on average every day for 30 days. It isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. It is both easier than you think and harder than you can ever imagine. And it’s a challenge I encourage everyone to take.

For everyone who thought they had a novel in them, this is their chance to find out. For everyone who needed an excuse to start that great book, get writing on November 1st. Don’t find time to write. Make it. Carve out and dedicate an hour before work or school, or maybe an hour when you’d usually watch television. There are a lot of empty hours we fill consuming media that you don’t actually need. An hour a day. More if you can. Aim for that 1,667 a day and don’t beat yourself up and quit if you fall behind. Look for a weekend to try and make up the deficit. You’ll get faster as the month goes on which will make up for the days when writing 100 words is as painful as peeing a flaming bowling ball. But you have a novel in you, and sometimes birth takes a bit of pain.

In short, put up or shut up.

Because I believe in you.

You can write a novel.

All it takes is to do it.

Taksara abides

Taksara abides

A continuation of the Drawlloween experiment. A short piece from what was originally an art prompt, each individual piece no more than 500 words. Fun-size, if you will.

This was where things began to take a strange turn for me, where the daily exercises became something different.

Parts 6-10 follow.


6 – Pumpkin

The key, his dad taught him before he could walk, was to be fast. Create the image of what you want to carve and hold onto it. Burn it into your mind. The triangle eyes. Goofy, toothless smile. Visualize and when you can draw it with your eyes closed, it’s time for the knife.

Not before.

Once it came time to cut, it was all fast strokes. No hesitation.

That’s why he was the best.

It was his favorite time of year. The sound of leaves under foot. The smell of the changing season. He missed the farm where he grew up, the harvest festivals. And everywhere, pumpkins.

He sat in the dark, fingers rubbing a groove in the black wood of the knife’s grip as he concentrated until his head hurt. The vision was perfect. The knife felt sure in his small hand. All he needed was a pumpkin.

He heard the jingle of keys in the hallway outside. The neighbor lady was finally home. His grandmother who had taken him in after the accident with his parents called her a “filthy hoor” but he didn’t really know what it meant. He figured it had something to do with her late hours. It was already past 2. His grandma had been asleep for hours already, breath heavy with her medicine.

The keys rattled in the lock.

Silent as a statue behind the arm of the sofa, he waited. The front door swung open, casting a silhouette of his neighbor across the floor in the hallway light. She stepped in and closed the door, not even bothering with the lights.

That was fine. He didn’t need light to carve the pumpkin. He was almost on top of her when she turned on the lamp and saw him, just shy of four feet in Sesame Street Underoos, blank face, wicked knife in his little hand. They both froze for a second before she started screaming. And then he moved, slashing a smile through her blue dress with deep, sure strokes.

7 – Haunted House

As haunted houses went, Mark Obiyashi had seen a lot worse. Wind howled through the windowless frames in the wall, a yawning abyss of darkness beyond. The lights flickered and swayed. Somewhere, deeper within the house, someone was sobbing, but he’d already checked those rooms and confirmed that he was alone.

“You sure this is the place?” Grandfather Yoshi said.

Well, alone except for the ghost of his grandfather, his near-constant companion for most of his life. But despite being a ghost himself, the former soldier was crap at picking up on others of his kind. He didn’t have the gift. Not like Mark. Otherwise he would have seen the matched set of tormented dead that had just appeared, cowering against the near wall.

They were both in pajamas, he in wide-lapel flannel, she in an ankle-length cotton nightshirt, sleeveless. Both of them bore the wounds that killed them, the by-now familiar knife wounds in their abdomens. The husband also had deep knife wounds across his bleeding palms, indicating he might have woken up and tried to block the blade. Husband and wife also had carved pumpkins worn over their dead faces.

“That’s a new one,” Mark muttered under his breath.

“You found the first ones?” Yoshi said. He sounded skeptical.

He ignored his grandfather and edged closer to the new ghosts. “I’m here to help,” he said calmly, palms out. He could feel the ectoplasm in the room, curling around his fingers like warm taffy. It was that same tenuous trail of ectoplasm which had led him here from his apartment, from the Screaming Woman. “You knew them. Whoever did this to you, you know them.”

The wife lowered her pumpkin head, shook it in denial. Mark figured she had likely been dead before she woke so she hadn’t seen the attack anyway. The husband whispered something. A single word slipping between pumpkin teeth.


“Who is Trevor?” Mark said, hoping the name might jar something loose in the wife as well.

“He’s just a boy,” the woman said.

Was just a boy, Mark figured. If Trevor was still alive at this point he’d be well into adulthood. The Screaming Woman had been sometime in the mid-80’s. These two, sometime before that. It had been a good thirty years. That was one hell of a head start, but at least he had a name now. With that and an approximate year, he could fill in the details. Not impossible, but difficult.

But if Mark was going to put Screaming Woman to rest, he had to try.

8 – Zombie

Jerry shuffled into the kitchen in the same jeans and t-shirt he had passed out on the den sofa wearing. He blinked against the morning sun streaming in the sliding glass door, searching for bacon, the scent of which had roused him in the first place.

“Bacon?” He mumbled to Wendy who was setting out plates on the kitchen table.

“In the oven,” she said. “And I’ll make eggs just as soon as you get back from the Millers.”

“The Millers?”

“You still owe them an apology for last night. I’d tell you to shower because you look like a damn zombie, but they love Halloween so, maybe that works to your benefit.”

He dimly remembered disrupting their backyard party. He smacked at the stank-mouth he woke up with and wondered how much of that had come from trying to kiss or maybe bite their big Golden Retriever, Michael. “I’ll be back,” he mumbled.

Slippers retrieved, he crossed the dewy front lawn to the Miller’s split-level tract home. They’d already gone all-out decorating for Halloween, despite it being two weeks away. Decorative pumpkins, some real, some plastic, littered the lawn. The man of the house was already up, sitting on the front porch with a cup of coffee next to him. A pumpkin sat on his lap. As Jerry approached, he saw Trevor Miller raise a wicked looking carving knife to the orange flesh of the pumpkin. He felt like he was interrupting something sacred, and his heart caught in his throat.

“Jerry,” Trevor said calmly.

“Hey, Trev. So, I screwed up last night. I went off my meds and…”

“This about the barbeque?”

“Yeah. I made an ass of myself and I’m so sorry.”

Trevor shrugged. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Jerry. His face was a void of emotion. “It’s not a problem, Jerry. No harm done.”

It was a huge relief. Or it should have felt like one. The way Trevor watched him still made Jerry nervous. The Millers had only been neighbors for about a year. And it wasn’t like they were close. “Great, Trevor. That’s great.”

The knife slipped effortlessly into the orange flesh of the pumpkin and Trevor smiled, eyes closing slightly. “I’ll be seeing you, Jerry. Happy Halloween.”

Jerry headed back home with more urgency in his step than before.

9 – Eyeball

The lights flickered on in the underground garage, though the big man didn’t need them to see. He was used to being a lot further underground than this. But his companion was still a creature of the light, though he had high hopes for her. He led her to a high shelf at the back of the space, their heels clicking and echoing off the perpetually damp concrete. He’d tried to do something about the moisture, but even Hell’s contractors had limitations. The miracle workers largely went to the other place.

“This is surprisingly serial killer of you,” the woman at his side said, voice tinged with respect. She stepped closer to the shelf overburdened with small boxes and jars. Some of the jars held dry items. A finger here, an insect husk there. Some contained objects in liquid, only a few of which were identifiable. She pointed to one wide, jar full of pale green liquid with thick shapes floating within. “What’s this?”

“Pickles,” the big man said. “This place in Brooklyn makes them. They’re out of this world. I always keep a jar handy.” He made a sound of discovery and retrieved a jar from high on the shelf. “Here. This is what I was looking for.”

She took the offered jar. It was small, like something you’d use to store gourmet jelly. A single eye floated within, the iris cornflower blue. “Who did this belong to?”

“A guy in Kansas who saw too much,” the big man said. “He made me a deal, and I got the eye when he died. If you’re going to work for me, you’ll need it.”

She held the eye up to her own eye, amused how it seemed to track the big man. Doubly amused with how even a disembodied eye could look scared. “I’m still not entirely sure what you want me for.”

“There’s this kid named Mark Obiyashi. He sees ghosts. It looks like he’s going to stick his stupid nose in something I’ve been setting up for thirty years. If I deal with it myself, I tip my hand.”

“So, Hell subcontracts?”

He smiled big and bright. “You my girl, May? You have the drive, the juju to stop a deadspeaker?”

“I’m your girl, sir.”

10 – Alien

Mark put the five lollipops on the gas station counter and fished cash out of his Velcro black and white checkerboard wallet. The candy stared up at him, the multi-colored alien faces seemingly indifferent to their eventual fate. He unwrapped one of the cinnamon flavored ones while the clerk counted back change.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting by the front door, and easily kept up as Mark dropped his longboard to skate back towards home. “How many do you think he killed?”

Mark was reluctant to give concrete numbers without counting the ghosts himself. An hour in the library with the assistance of a recently deceased reference librarian had given him a chilling estimate, however. “At least nine,” he said.

But he knew the real total was likely more. The most recent body had been found six years ago in Ohio and had been dead for a few more years before that. It was only fate that it got discovered at all. Over time, Trevor had gotten good at hiding his activities. After killing his parents and then a year later Jackie, the woman currently haunting his apartment, he’d gone to a psychiatric facility. He’d been released late November, 1995, theoretically cured. The second of November, 1996, another body turned up, torso carved like a jack o’lantern, but he was already long gone.

“It’s possible the Ohio murder was the last one,” Mark said around the cinnamon flavored alien head sucker. “It was nine years ago, and no more bodies have been found. So maybe he died. Or maybe he hides them better. But the fact that these ghosts are still out there looking for closure, I’m thinking he’s still alive.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” Mark kicked down the street. “Now we find as many of his ghosts as we can. We bring them home. And fast. Because Halloween is right around the corner.”