“A vividly described journey through Peru’s underbelly as the narrative gains momentum, hurtling toward a dramatic climax.”
Read the book that Kirkus listed as one of the top 100 Indie novels of 2012 – for 99 cents.
“A vividly described journey through Peru’s underbelly as the narrative gains momentum, hurtling toward a dramatic climax.”
Read the book that Kirkus listed as one of the top 100 Indie novels of 2012 – for 99 cents.
I finally read this classic and was immediately swept away by the tale of young Henry Fleming (often referred to as ‘the youth’ in Red Badge of Courage), who itches to go to war, despite his mother’s wishes.
Stephen Crane’s writing has aged gracefully since the novel was first published in 1893. The forbidding atmosphere of war is ideally suited to a style that might be considered florid by today’s standards. The potent tone fits the story but the writing still feels current, authentic and devoid of sentimentality.
Henry’s character is laid bare as he experiences both cowardice and bravery in battle. Both emotions are seen as almost uncontrollable responses in times of war and the author doesn’t pass judgment, letting subtle ironies prevail instead. Red Badge of Courage is as much a psychological novel as a war story. And faced with what Henry and many of his comrades confronted, the reader might well have turned and headed for the trees as well.
Images of war are lightly rendered in comparison to modern novels but just as jarring. In one scene the wounded trudge to their impending deaths (as anyone injured in battle during the Civil War frequently had mere hours to live), and young Henry describes a soldier he encounters who has two wounds, ‘one in the head, bound with a blood-soaked rag, and the other in the arm, making that member dangle like a broken bough.’
Hemingway said that Red Badge of Courage was ‘one of the finest books of American literature.’ Reading Crane’s prose, it’s easy to see precursors of Hemingway’s own style:
‘It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky.’
Stephen Crane modestly stated that he wanted to write a war story reminiscent of the books he read as a boy, and ended up penning an adventure story that doubles as fine literature and perhaps the ultimate anti-war novel.
I’ve been tagged to tell you how I do what I do when it comes to doing what I love best to do: writing. Specifically, my writing process – or lack of one. But I’m happy to make something up. Well, I am a fiction writer.
For the trail of this writing process request chain see Mark Miller, who referred me, and whose entry you may read by clicking said link. You will discover that Mark can really write, not only because he’s good, but also because he writes non-fiction, which requires sticking to the facts.
I truly admire anyone who can turn the truth into something readable as I find it a little – er – restrictive. I’m like the Irishman who had such a respect for the truth that he was known to use it in emergencies. Anyway, I digress. Which is part of my writing process actually: digression. Call it exploration. Research. But, back to the truth – briefly – to quote my old writing teacher, the stalwart Jim Frey. (No, not that Jim Frey, who committed a disgracia on Oprah. Talk about not sticking to the truth.) I mean the Jim Frey of ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’, who said ‘if your story needs a BART station in Golden Gate Park, then there’s a BART station in Golden Gate Park.’ (There isn’t, by the way, for those of you who don’t live in the People’s Republic of San Francisco.) The point is, it’s FICTION. It doesn’t have to be true, just believable. And sometimes, the more outlandish, the more believable.
I’m work-shopping a Noir novel at the moment, channeling the demons of Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith and corralling them into a ’70s biker novel with a woman bent on revenge, and I can’t believe my fellow work-shoppers are buying some of the things Colleen Hayes, who gets out of prison and goes hunting for her wayward teenage daughter, gets up to. They don’t seem to have issue with the ‘fact’ that a bascially nice person goes nuts with a shotgun, but more with the very basic aspects of character – motivation, capacity, growth – that affect all characters in all novels under development. Like they say, if you can make a reader (or viewer) believe a man can fly, they must want to believe it.
But I digress.
Like the man said, who wants to read about people who never really existed, doing things that never really happened? I do. And so do a lot of you. And I want to write about it, too. What an arrogant thought, really, thinking that someone wants to read something you just made up. But they do. If it connects. And, to do that, it has to connect with the author. So that’s part of the reason my writing process might seem so fluid. Because looking for inspiration, that little nugget, requires a lot of wild casting and hoping the line doesn’t get snagged in a tree. Or around your neck. But if it does – so what? Print is cheap. You’re not shooting a movie. Go big.
In my other life, the one where I make money, I’m a computer programmer, and one of the tenets of modern software development is to iterate. Start with something and keep refactoring it, until it works. Don’t shoot for perfection right off. To me, writing fiction and code have much in common that way. All programmers write code their own way too.
Some rules I follow but not always:
1. Don’t keep going back to the beginning of your draft every time you sit down in front of your computer (or pen and paper). Push ahead.
2. But do sit down at your computer (or pen and paper) as much as possible. Some people say every day but if you work for a living this may not be doable. But half an hour writing is better than half an hour not writing.
3. Be prepared to throw away most of what you write. Keith Richards jammed for hours – months, in many cases – to come up with a riff for one of those three minute gems. It was worth it. Segovia practiced for five hours per day. Write a lot and be prepared to write a lot of sh*t. It’s good enough for Henning Mankell.
4. Read as much as you can. Read what you want to write. For me, those are my heroes (Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith) but I also read the odd classic and I even read some junk. I’m an American author and popular fiction (and culture) is ingrained in me. I draw the line at Sasquatch erotica however.
5. Work-shop your work. If you don’t, you’re an amateur. Listen to the critiques. If more than two critiquers make the same comment, they’re right. Sorry, Hemingway, you got to kill your darlings.
6. There is no rule six.
7. I like to write early in the morning, mostly because that’s when I have time but also because my mind isn’t clogged with mundane garbage yet. I don’t check my stocks before I write, read email, or do anything that pulls me out of the ‘fictive dream.’
8. I read my work out loud.
9. I listen to all the critique but in the end it’s my story. I need to decide what happens. This is so hard but for me was the breakthrough that made my work better (IMHO). Trust your instincts. ‘Write from the fingertips’ Jim Frey says.
10. I write thrillers and mysteries. It’s important to stay within the genre, whatever genre you choose. Literary fiction is a genre, by the way. But by the same token, you need to break the genre, just a little, to make your story fresh.
11. I try to have fun and remember why I write. I get disappointed and frustrated just like everyone else but if the entire world isn’t in love with my books, that’s their problem. And it’s a first world problem to be wallowing in writer’s angst.
12. I do quite a lot of research (hasn’t Google made research easier, everyone?) For my biker Noir novel, I read more than I wanted on the history of Meth in this country and all I can tell you is that fiction ain’t got nothin’ on the truth. I’m still trying to get some of those images out of my mind. Much of my research is on the page in early drafts but eliminated as I rewrite. Tip of the iceberg is what I aim for. Elmore Leonard is a master at including that one detail that brings a scene or character to life.
13. There is no such thing as writer’s block. As Jim Frey said, what would you say to a plumber who said that he (or she) had ‘plumber’s block?’ You’re a plumber. Get to work. If you can’t be wonderfully creative today, do some low-level self-editing. There’s always something to do to make your novel better.
So there you have it.
I want to call out three fellow authors I think are innovative and pass the baton, and hope they follow suit and tell us how they write. (It’s a chain letter. If we all do this the entire world will be inundated with blog posts about writing. And then what? A few million authors at the end of the chain will be stuck and the internet will probably break. But if my three chosen authors wish to participate I look forward to their secrets for success.)
If you write, I hope my humble thoughts have encouraged you in some way. We all do it differently but we all do a lot of it the same. What an arrogant thing to think that someone will want to read something you made up.
But I digress.
¡vivan los escritores!
Posted by Max Tomlinson | June 22, 2014 | Categories: Indie authoring, on writing, Uncategorized | Tags: #amwriting, anne-rae vasquez, elmore leonard, jill nojack, patricia high smith, stephen king, Tess Collins | 6 Comments
If you read suspense and have not read Patricia Highsmith, first of all, shame on you and second, you have some weird and wonderful (and terrifying) books ahead. No one wrote like Highsmith. Her novels deliver in the classic thriller/mystery/suspense department for those simply looking for an edgy ride but they’re also literate and truly unique. Her characters are odd, not in the quirky sense, but disturbed and wretched. And real.
Highsmith wasn’t afraid to take time to get a story rolling, as many authors are (especially nowadays) and although that may fail her from time to time, the reader has time to soak in the world she creates with those deviant but everyday characters. She’s written a dog or two (IMHO) but every great author has. It’s part of reaching for the kind of stories that, more often than not, leave a mark.
About a third of the way through The Glass Cell, I thought I was reading one of Highsmith’s dogs. I’ve already read all her well-known work (Strangers on a Train is a must-read. If you don’t believe me, believe Hitchcock who made Highsmith’s first novel into an excellent movie) and thought I was scraping the bottom of the Highsmith barrel.
There are real flaws with the first third of Glass Cell, the story of a man who goes to prison for six years on a fraudulent charge. Key events happen off camera, important characters are not physically described, and Highsmith’s slow-burn prose feels like it’s meandering.
But then Philip Carter, our ill-fated anti-hero, gets out of prison, physically and mentally damaged, craving morphine, and learns that his beautiful wife has most likely been having a six-year-long affair with his lawyer. Then the people who set Carter up come back into the picture. It seems inevitable that Carter does some of the things he does.
And the reader ends up rooting for a milquetoast turned drug-addled psychopath. I was never a huge fan of Ripley, one of Highsmith’s more fantastic characters, but Carter had my complete sympathy no matter what he did to those who treated him so poorly. Highsmith is famous for her Ripley books (and the first one should be on everyone’s to-read list) but whereas Ripley is prickly and frightening, Carter is your unstable friend who just can’t catch a break.
Stay inside The Glass Cell and you won’t be disappointed.
¿Quién es más macho?
Fans of the original Saturday Night Live may remember a skit in which contestants were asked by Bill Murray, speaking Semester II Spanish, to select the most macho of actors: David Janssen, Lloyd Bridges or Jack (‘Yack’) Lord.
Although this month’s guest is a writer, he is definitely a contender. Not because he wore cool suits and uttered such iconic phrases as ‘Book ‘em, Dano.’ But because he has honed a writing style that is both analytical and provocative, regardless of your politics.
And also because he used to water-ski on agricultural canals.
Tom Garrison, welcome to Behind the Page.
Q: Water-skiing on agricultural canals? Hemingway would surely be envious.
While not quite the 10,000 degree temperature of the sun’s photosphere, summer in California’s southern Central Valley was hot. You and your teenage buddies needed a break.
The Central Valley is crisscrossed by several major irrigation canals. The canals run 20 to 25 feet across, up to ten feet deep, and, best of all, have dirt roads on each bank. Upon someone getting their driver’s license, we would all pile into the wreck of a car they finagled from their parents and go canal water-skiing.
Here is how it goes: position the skier on the far side of the canal, tie a tow line to the car bumper, throw the line to the skier, yell at the idiot, excuse me-skier-to get ready, then take off and drive as fast as possible on a narrow dirt road that has a four feet embankment on one side and a canal full of water on the other. Note that every mile or so a large standpipe juts a few feet above the water line.
Add alcohol and now you have true water-skiing, not some sissy sport on a peaceful lake.
To begin with, it’s not legal.
Possible outcomes: the car veers off the dirt road, or the skier falls, or the skier weaves back and forth, kicking up huge rooster tails before smashing into a standpipe.
OR the skier completes the run, releases the tow line, cruises to the dirt bank, and steps out of the skis onto dry land without anything other than their lower legs getting wet.
That is a “ten” run.
Canal water-skiing was a rite of passage.
Q: “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” Thoughts?
I use a similar quote in my book Why We Left the Left: Personal Stories by Leftists/Liberals Who Evolved to Embrace Libertarianism.
Youth is a time of rebellion, when actions are often dictated by emotions. Action and slogans take precedent over reasoned analysis. Young people generally have little at stake in “the system” and a lot of free time. I saw this repeatedly when I was an active socialist in Santa Barbara. Younger “fellow travelers” would drop into our Socialist Party group, hang around for a few months then drop out when the emotional high receded.
As people age, many begin to question their former views, especially when they see concomitant big government solutions (e.g. Obamacare or crony capitalism) become complex and fraught with unanticipated consequences. This realization tends to make one more cautious in advocating radical solutions. (And who, besides Warren Buffet, advocates “taxing the hell out of the rich” when they have a job that may put them in the “rich” category?)
I believe this saying applies primarily to “normal” people. Political ideologues, Right or Left, seldom change their stripes. For an intense political person to change politically later in life takes self-confidence, introspection, and guts. And most of your former “comrades” will disown you. I know.
Q: Beatles or Stones? Or …?
I turned 18 in 1970. My teens were dominated by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The early work for both groups was simple rock and roll. However, the Beatles evolved a slicker, “prettier” sound while the Stones wallowed in the energy of unadulterated rock.
Listening to the Beatles after the mid-60s was like taking a hike in a coastal wooded area—lots of green, eroded smooth mountains, cool temperatures, little danger. Listening to the Stones belt out “Sympathy for the Devil” was like a desert hike—jagged mountains, the earth sans the makeup of vegetation, potential danger from flash floods in slot canyons (which I love to explore), poisonous critters, and raw vistas.
Since I prefer desert hiking my obvious choice is the Stones. As I write this and silently sing the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man,” the hairs on my arms stand to attention. That song was important in my prepping for speeches in the mid-1980s.
But since the end of the New Wave era (Devo, Talking Heads, B-52s, Clash, Eurythmics, and others) I haven’t paid much attention to music. I mean, who the hell is Miley Cyrus?
Q: What made you realize you were a writer? When?
From 1982 to 2000 I was editor, managing editor, and finally, editorial director of a political science journal based in Santa Barbara. Professors of the social sciences, in particular political science, tend to be fairly inept writers. (Try reading the American Political Science Review.) I ended up not just editing, but often rewriting many scholarly articles. I also had essays and letters published in leftist/progressive newsletters, local newspapers, and journals.
Was I writer? Not yet.
In December 2010 I had two political essays published: one in the Salt Lake Tribune, another in The Spectrum (the St. George Utah daily newspaper). A beginning.
My wife Deb and I love to hike. My first paid hiking story was published in The Spectrum in May 2011. Since then my stories have appeared every month. That made me consider myself a writer.
Since then I have had political and humorous essays published, have entered and won several writing contests, and published two books.
But being an author/writer is only one facet of my identity. Being retired I am fortunate that I do not have to depend upon writing for income. If I did, I would be living in a cardboard box under a bridge with Dave the Wonder Cat.
Q: Author(s) who inspire you?
I read just about anything: books, cereal boxes, the more interesting stuff on paper place mats at diners. The author I try to emulate the most is Hunter S. Thompson. I’d like to think at least some of my writing is similar to gonzo journalism. Gonzo journalism, according to Wikipedia “…has been defined in academic literature as an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and which draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.”
I write in the first person, love social critique, and have plenty of foibles of which to make fun.
And so far I have been successful in avoiding the drunken, lunatic nature of Thompson’s last couple of decades. And I have no plans to go out by shooting myself in the head.
Q: What makes it worth eleven and a half US dollars to sit in a theater behind someone who shouts at the screen?
Hey, don’t be too hard on the screen shouters. I was one of the original audience participants for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “There’s a light…” (film dialogue) was followed by the entire audience flicking their Bics. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has be the best science fiction/horror/musical film ever produced.
But that was decades ago. I don’t mind someone making a quiet, clever comment about a film in a theater but unfortunately, that is seldom the case anymore.
We very much enjoy a few series on TV. Who doesn’t love Dexter, the likeable and troubled serial killer? Or The Walking Dead? What is better than smashing a few zombies all the while dealing with some moral dilemma in your survivor group? Or watching Billy Bob Thorton do his weird thing in Fargo?
Q:. The hardest part of writing a book is …
Getting started. Once I’ve opened the correct file, the keyboard beg for a pounding. (My typing style is more touch pounding than touch typing.) I quickly enter a sort of Zen state and the words flow.
Unfortunately none of this happens until all other potential work is completed—dishes washed, Amazon Author Central checked for the eight time, every weed pulled from our garden, research completed on the most minor point in the story/chapter, and so on.
Q: ‘Writing is a mental disorder’. What say you?
Not at all. Reading what I write may be a sign of an unbalanced individual. But nonfiction writing is simply communicating something the writer believes is important to an audience.
I put a lot of myself into each story and book. I know sometimes it will be slammed for political reasons. Perhaps that’s a sign of some mental disorder.
On the other hand, this helps develop a thick skin and I’m pleased to say the majority of comments about my work have been positive.
Q: How do you prevent from becoming old and decrepit like the rest of us?
I can’t do much about the old part, but I refuse to be decrepit.
Think of all the interesting looking places you pass on the road while traveling. The world’s best checker-playing chicken (there’s more than one, apparently). A national park you don’t have the time to explore. Deb and I used to say, “someday we will check out the chicken.” Well, with retirement, “someday” has arrived. No more passing up checker-playing chickens.
Deb and I love to play in the dirt and have become gardeners extraordinaire. Desert gardening is a challenge. Another outdoor activity is occasional target shooting. Gotta keep those self-defense skills sharp.
I love cats and dogs (we currently have two animal companions, Dave the Wonder Cat and Molly the cat) and regularly volunteer at PAWS (Providing Animals With Support)—a non-governmental rescue/shelter organization.
I devour books, especially mystery/thrillers and science fiction. I currently serve as the vice president of my local writers group.
I also still consider myself politically active.
And most days I find time to write.
Q: ‘Why We Left the Left’? Why did you leave the Left?
I was a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party (SP) for more than a dozen years. Deb and I helped found the Santa Barbara SP Chapter in 1983. From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s I was intensely active in leftist causes. I was arrested for civil disobedience, a board member of the local tenants union, twice ran openly as a socialist for Santa Barbara City Council, revitalized a moribund Santa Barbara County Peace and Freedom Party, worked closely with the local Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, gave dozens of speeches promoting socialism, and organized public events, all while holding down a full-time job editing a political science journal.
Basically there are four characteristics of the Left that made it impossible to continue my affiliation: (1) a lack of respect for and understanding of the concept of personal responsibility for one’s own actions, (2) habitual dishonesty, which undermines the democratic process, (3) a slavish adherence to “affirmative action” preferences, identity politics, and multicultural “diversity”, (4) and a strong intolerance for real diversity of ideas.
Lying about one’s principal political affiliation has a long tradition on the Left. There may have been justification for underground political work in Czarist Russia or 1980s El Salvador. But in 1980s America?
In the late 80s I twice ran for Santa Barbara City Council as a socialist. Keep in mind that this was the apogee of the Reagan-Bush years and I was running in Ronald Reagan’s adopted home town. As a member of the California Peace and Freedom Party and the Socialist Party, USA, I never had a hassle from the public for promoting socialism. I think my campaigns and other political work in our local socialist group greatly benefited from our directness about what we represented. I was treated with respect by moderates and conservatives and the local media. And I had many intense (yet civil) discussions with capitalists and other “running dogs”. The only real problem came from liberals who wanted me to say I was simply another “progressive” Democrat. I was not a Democrat and was not about to lie concerning my basic political affiliations, even though I surely would have received more votes if I did. It would have been a betrayal of the public trust and my own values.
How can voters make an informed choice without all relevant knowledge?
Bottom line: any decent Marxist should also be some sort of libertarian. Marx’s vision included a withering away of the state and voluntary cooperation among free acting individuals and groups. What is more libertarian than that?
Q: What can you tell us about your recent memoir?
I am part of a vast group known as the Baby Boomers (estimated at 75 million) who became politically active in the 1960s and 1970s. The sheer size of this human tsunami rolled through American society, fueling the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Women’s movements. We fought against war. The Baby Boomers also coincided with (caused?) loosening social mores, the sexual revolution, widespread recreational drug use, political correctness, identity politics, diminished personal responsibility, and excesses in many areas.
The 1960s mantra of “Challenge Authority” was the basis of my political activism and the title of my memoir. What exactly does “challenge authority” mean? More than disobeying your parents as a kid. Or calling the police “pigs.” Those are juvenile acts of rebellion. A key component is resisting the temptation to act impulsively. It’s okay to break certain rules. But know why the rule exists, and have a good reason for breaking them.
I firmly believe challenging authority should involve nonviolent direct action.
Actively challenging the status quo has always been the first step in important societal change.
My life has been punctuated by episodes of challenging authority. In the early 1970s I battled The Draft. I was a conscientious objector willing to do non-military service. The Selective Service System disagreed.
Challenging the authority of my first wife’s parents by marrying their daughter was not such a good idea. They, and others, said it would not work. Damn, they were right!
There are many other aspects of this topic that I cover in my book. I hope that readers will check it out and am excited to hear their comments.
Q: Latest work in progress?
The local daily newspaper, The Spectrum, has published a hiking story of mine every month since May 2011. I’m compiling these stories together into a hiking book tentatively titled Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas.
Q: On one of your hikes, you find a crumpled paper bag with a million dollars in it. You try to return it but no one will take it. Now what?
Since I don’t do drugs anymore (nothing is worse that the downside of a Bolivian marching powder binge), one can only play so much casino video poker, and Deb and I don’t need any expensive material goodies.
First, use a chunk of the money for a new facility for PAWS (Providing Animal With Support) where I volunteer.
Secondly, give some healthy donations to non-governmental organizations I support such as The Nature Conservancy and The Wildlife Federation.
Finally, provide the maximum legal contribution to two or three libertarian candidates who have a chance of winning.
Q: Sorry, there was only a five dollar bill and some crumpled ones. Now what happens?
To hell with philanthropy. I’m off to Vegas!
Q: “Why We Left the Right?” Any plans for a follow-up to your collection of personal essays?
Nope. I came from the New Left and understand leftists pretty well. Few leftists become libertarians, so a book on why they did so has value. Conservative/rightists becoming libertarians is pretty common. Once they understand that the state has no business in who marries whom, what you put in your body, and give up crony capitalism, they often make the shift.
Q: If you could only do one thing, what would it be?
Sounds like a question for a beauty pageant: “Max, if I could only do one thing I would bring about world pizza. Tee, hee, I mean world peace.”
But if I could do one thing I would magically (I am a very amateur magician) make everyone pay heed to Oliver Cromwell’s 1650 warning to the Church of Scotland:
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Cromwell’s advice might go a long way in creating world pizza/peace.
Tom, I want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you. And for being so dang macho.
Want to get into contact with Tom Garrison?
You can email him at: ‘tomgarrison98 at yahoo dot com’ (replace ‘at’ with ‘@’ and ‘dot’ with ‘.’ and strip spaces e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org – this is to prevent spam engines)
OR check out Tom’s Facebook page.
Posted by Max Tomlinson | May 22, 2014 | Categories: Behind the Page, Interviews, Uncategorized | Tags: gonzo journalism, libertarian, Libertarianism, political science, socialism, why we left the left | Leave a comment
This fascinating account of one man’s service as a US Army infantryman (a ‘Rifleman’) in WW II Europe is a memoir that reads like a novel. The author, a retired history professor, documents his experiences meticulously with footnotes, communication transcripts and photographs but it’s the story of ordinary men slogging their way into Nazi Germany to defeat Hitler that truly captures the reader.
In RIFLEMEN the banal and bureaucratic rub shoulders with the horrors of war: fresh socks and showers delivered by truck once a week to troops in the field contrast trench foot and comrades suddenly vanishing with the blast of a mortar shell. Minesweeper tanks do a less thorough job when they aren’t supporting their own units, and men pay with their legs and lives. In one street battle, French armored units arrive, the soldiers half drunk, only to quickly leave when things turn ominous. The dual chain of command prevents anyone from telling them otherwise.
There are also tender moments: Riflemen deliberately saving scraps from their meals to give to hungry Italian children waiting on the edge of camp, a French-trained cook who whips up a gourmet meal using K-Rations for weary US infantrymen standing guard at a token roadblock where villagers not wishing to be stopped take the next street over. These details make RIFLEMEN as real as spending the night in a freezing foxhole while not far away US Army mail clerks read paperbacks in their cots by electric light. The author’s final brush with death is as ironic as fine fiction and, in his modest, factual recounting of the day-to-day service of an unsung hero, makes RIFLEMEN an excellent book for the casual reader and history buff alike.
¡viven los escritores!
Posted by Max Tomlinson | May 4, 2014 | Categories: book reviews, Uncategorized, war | Tags: 7th infantry regiment, anzio, battle of the bulge, company f, Ear Reitann, Earl A. Reitan (Author), normandy, third infantry division, US infantry, war memoir, world war II, wwIi | Leave a comment
Back in the old days, when all books were still printed on paper, I was fortunate enough to be a member of a writers’ workshop in Berkeley run by the infamous Jim Frey, who pulled zero punches when it came to manuscript critique. I, along with others, got ‘Freyed’ on more than one occasion and although it was painful and traumatic and I still wake up weeping from time to time, if I am a better writer today, much of it is due to Jim’s workshop and the enthusiasm of the other members who not only took their writing seriously and wrote well, but also gave excellent feedback.
One of those members is this month’s guest on Behind the Page.
While the rest of us were struggling to put in paragraph breaks and trying to cut the nine pages of description we thought essential to the beginning of every scene, Tess Collins was already publishing mysteries, writing plays and managing a theater in San Francisco. Plus she looked fabulous so you might have thought we all hated her. But she was just too nice and her feedback was top notch and thoughtful to boot.
Her latest novel – NOTOWN – has just won the ‘Crime Fiction and Regional’ categories in the Beverly Hills Book Awards.
Tess Collins, welcome to our humble forum.
I stopped in San Francisco thinking that a boyfriend would be following me out here, and we’d have a fantastical and charmed life living in the city by the bay. He never showed up, and for a while, I shivered, broken-hearted, on a street corner. His not showing up was the best thing that ever happened to me. I put all that angst to work in novels and such. The rest is history—or should I say her-story.
OMG, I am out-ed! I not only thought I was going to marry Davy Jones, but also Mark Lindsay, Sajid Kahn, Bobby Sherman—the list goes on. Not sure how I would marry all of them, but somehow it was going to work out. Today, I am still single. Music—anything ballad, from Madonna to Garth Brooks. I think because ballads tell a story. Started with Billie Joe McAllister. What’d they throw off that that darn bridge anyway? And why’d he jump? Had my butt swaying in that southern fried kind of way. But the story questions nagged in my mind, maybe encouraged a storyteller’s perception.
I’m big on popcorn and watching a movie. The trick is coconut oil and lots of pink salt. I’ve become a better cook as I’ve gotten older, and my perfect date is to make dinner together at home and watch the MMA fights.
Showing off—pfffff. If I want to show off, I put on a tight pair of jeans and sashay through a lobby of my hated enemies. I have a nice ass in my old age. But on to the stuff you really want to know about—I’d always thought I might like to start a small press when I retired. Something to keep the ole brain cells from deteriorating. I knew so many people that had good books molding on their computers, including me, and one day I woke up and said to meself, “What in piss’s name are you waiting for?” So, even though I’m overworked, I added ‘starting a small press’ to the list of things to do that day. I try to keep it manageable by only doing a couple books now and then, but probably will grow the company once I retire from my day job.
Can’t say that I really think of myself as a writer as much as I do a storyteller. I come from a long line of kin who could sit out on the front porch and tell you the life story of every ancestor they ever had—the rousers, the lovers, the misunderstood, and the ambitious. No boring people in my ancestry! My mother tells me that when I was a toddler, I’d make up stories about being a fairy princess and that I had to protect my brother from an evil witch—a part she kindly played. When I was cornered, I put a magical circle around us so she couldn’t get us. I’ve always had an imagination.
Grimm’s fairytales, anything by Thomas Hardy, who inspired me as a young author; I think John Irving spins a good tale; Dennis Lehane gives his stories depth beyond the typical crime drama. The BearCat authors are fantastic—Yves Fey, Richard Anderson, Beth Tashery Shannon; AND I was able to twist James N. Frey’s arm to give me a book of short stories that he did with his mentor Lester Gorn called ‘The Art of the Traditional Short Story’. I was so thrilled to be able to publish that book that I nearly fainted. While I don’t think it’s helpful to dish writers who you don’t get because let’s face it, writing is subjective and even the worse written novel in the world took a lot of work, I tend to put down any book that bores me in the first five chapters.
Geesh, you got me admitting all this stuff I’d never say out loud. I’ve watched the Harry Potter movies so many times I’ve got certain scenes memorized. Now, I’d never write anything like Harry Potter, maybe that’s why I like watching the movies. I don’t like to think too much when I watch a movie, maybe because I live so dangerously inside my head. So movies for me tend to be the ones that take me out of the mundane world and throw me in with hobbits and wizards and witches and all manner of magical creatures. I can stand some time in history too. I’m obsessed with the Tudors, the Rivers/Woodville family (that might have included a few witches on the mother’s side), and any time period that changed the tempo of the world.
The middle. Let’s face it, the middle sucks. I know A. I know Z. I just have to make sure getting to Z makes sense. Sometimes when the middle changes Z, the only thing you can do is bang your head against the nearest wall. Head bruises, that’s the hardest part of writing—the head bruises.
I don’t know who said, “if you don’t have to write, then don’t,” but no truer words have ever been spoken. So many people have come up to me with their idea for a novel and they’ve never taken a writing class, but they’re really sure they can write a novel. Well, we all know the ending to that story. I spent eight years in James N. Frey’s workshops before my first novel was published, not to mention the mentorship with Kentucky Poets laureate, James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman; and classes with novelist and essayist, Ed McClanahan while in college. You have to more than want to be a writer, you have to know that storytelling is in your soul, and to not give expression to those tales will send you to hell faster than a newbie on the Hogwarts Express. Then, once you know that, you have to learn the craft of making a story work: how to plot a scene, raise a conflict, exploit an objective correlative.
If I’m stressed I like floating in an isolation tank. It takes away the sense of responsibility for that one hour. I keep trying to think of what I do for fun, and nothing is popping into my head. Mostly I feel like I’m just behind in writing all the books that are piling up on my ‘to do’ list. Finishing off my growing list of books is a responsibility I take seriously, even if it is pisses me off that I’m so far behind.
I got my photo taken once with Hugh Jackman—take that femme-enemies. See his arm around my shoulder? Jealous much?
I’m an organized alpha female. Need I say more. Sigh. Get out of my way.
I grew up in a neighborhood called Noetown. It was known as the rough part of town. My granny, whom I lived with, slept with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson under her pillow. Now growing up in a place like that, you know there were stories to tell. I knew I had to give voice to that place, and once the decision was made, Noetown spoke to me like a goddess telling her tale of the heroic and the tragic. NOTOWN is the first of a quartet of books that take place in Midnight Valley. I’m working on the second one now that I think will come out in 2015.
Dude, I’m gonna sleep. Have to say the administrative work is more than I like to do, so a great company buying me out whom I know will support the BCP books the way they should be supported—that would be great! Gives me more time to write. Here’s the thing—I often hear best-selling writers say they’d be destitute if they didn’t write because it’s the only thing they know how to do. I always think—losers. I’m good at a lot of stuff, including operating businesses, adding numbers, keeping track of things. Not gonna scare me with a P&L. Hey, where’s my list of things to do?
I call up Mr. Morris and say ‘thank you’ because my mother taught me to be polite when plotting vengeance.
I guess if I really wanted to get married, I would have found a way to do it. I think at some point in my youth, I decided that I’d rather have a lot of lovers then one husband. As for “Old”—I prefer “Wise”. Women in my family don’t wrinkle, so as I age, I plan to be the wise crone whose magic you wished you had a piece of back in the day.
Quit, no, but I do watch TV between writing chapters. My current favorites are: Revenge, Once Upon a Time, The Good Wife, Justified, The Walking Dead and I’ve watched The Young and Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful for over thirty years. I watch a lot of TV between chapters. It’s a weakness, I know, but there are worse addictions.
Live with snow leopards.
Tess, I and my many readers want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you better when you could have been accepting another book award, or opening a film studio or an orphanage.
Visit Tess Collins’ website.
¡viven los escritores!
-Check out last month’s guest: Indie Author Anne-Rae Vasquez
Posted by Max Tomlinson | April 13, 2014 | Categories: Behind the Page, Indie authoring, Interviews, on writing, Uncategorized | Tags: appalachia, indie authors, jim frey, notown, Tess Collins | 2 Comments
OK, so it’s an analogy that dates me. But in olden times, when you took your rental tapes[*] back to the video store[*], the clerk with the nose ring would get annoyed if you didn’t rewind them. That was because the next renter would have to rewind the VHS[*] tape and this could take several minutes and wear out his/her VCR[*]. Sometimes you were charged a five dollar fee if you didn’t rewind. Hence the phrase: Be Kind-Rewind.
([*]: younger readers may have to Google these terms.)
This rule happens to be the reverse when it comes to writing a long piece, however – particularly an early draft of a novel.
So you’ve got thirty gifted—but rough—pages and you’ve submitted them to your critique group. They love your quirky Southern novel with its ensemble cast but there are clarity errors (it’s a first draft). And they bring up stuff that simply doesn’t work. And they have a few suggestions for improvements. Great! With their feedback, you’ve even got a few new ideas of your own. So back you go to page 1, to get it all right before you move on. It makes sense. You need a good foundation[**].
Before you know it, revision becomes rewrite.
But you get it all down and resubmit to your workgroup. Or your friends. If you have any left.
And so it goes.
Six months later you find yourself still working your first thirty pages. You need to get them right. It’s important (and it is—eventually). But for some reason you never reach the end of the first draft. The members of your critique group display forced smiles when you resubmit.
If this sounds familiar, you are in good company.
The risks of over-editing the beginning of an early draft are many:
1. You never get to page thirty-one. Or it takes you forever (and you end up changing the first thirty pages anyway, once you finally complete the drafts, now that you’ve driven the entire journey).
2. Your work suffers from workshop bloat. Each subsequent submission adds a layer of earnest explanation to your fiery prose and loses power with the reader, even trained readers like your stalwart writer friends.
3. Suggestions for improvement are sometimes not as valid as they could be as a result of seeing the work too often.
4. Key elements get left out because you cut them. But they are still locked in the minds of you and your critiquers. I had a pair of earrings in a work-in–progress that are essential to the plot yet they somehow disappeared from a scene and a new reader was confused. Previous readers had no issue–the earrings were still on camera because they had been seen before. They were in the first draft. But now they’re gone, thanks to my over-zealous rewriting.
5. The vibrancy fades. The Thrill is Gone, as BB King so bluntly put it. That’s because it suffocated due to premature over-editing, which sounds like something you might take little blue pills for. Remember that Southern novel? I was referring to a dear friend whose book opened with a terrific, wonderful, quirky scene set in a small town square. But there were a lot of characters and it was a little confusing. (It was a first draft.) But subsequent rapid edits without moving forward completely diminished this scene and it got chopped and buried in a lot of narrative that tried to clarify. The magic was gone, unbeknownst to the author.
“I honestly believe that the first draft—your instinctive, heartfelt product—is the best.” Lee Child said this, and he has sold a few (million) books. Make that tens of millions.
You MUST edit—like mad—eventually.
Under-edited books are the bane of the self-publishing world. IMO Indie authors must work even harder to combat the stigma of sloppy self-pubbers. As number two, we have to try harder.
James M. Cain said anyone who wasn’t prepared to rewrite a book fourteen times had no business writing it in the first place, but he was talking about an entire (i.e. completed) book. If the manuscript isn’t finished, don’t do it.
I view submissions like gold and try not to resubmit a section more than twice to my group, and twice only after a period of time has passed.
If you leave off at page thirty, start the next writing session on page twenty-nine (no earlier) and press on, until the draft is finished. If I have group feedback on earlier sections I leave myself a bullet list of notes before the offending section and forge ahead without any immediate revision until I am done and ready for the next draft.
Baby steps. In my other life I am a software engineer. People think I’m crazy when I say this but there are many similarities to writing a novel and writing a computer program. In software engineering there is the concept of ‘iterative development’, which boils down to ‘don’t try to do it all at once’. Write small improvements to the program with each successive iteration, making sure each ‘draft’ works until it all functions efficiently. Try to do it in one or two passes and most mortals will fail–or write a crappy program. I apply the same methodology to my fiction writing after my first drafts—(usually two). Sometimes I do temporal adjustment, getting all the dates and times in sync. Sometimes I just do dialog tags. A draft like that can take mere hours. Sometimes I flesh out a single character’s POV over a specific topic in a single draft and not bother with other themes or characters just yet. I do a lot of drafts but they feel manageable.
Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to write an entire novel that isn’t worth a second draft. I’ve done it, more than once, I’m sorry to say. But so have many successful authors. I once wrote a horror novel (I thought I wanted to write a horror novel and thought I could) but it simply didn’t work. It’s sitting somewhere on my hard drive collecting digital dust. But I don’t regret it (too much) and I didn’t spend a year on the first thirty pages. Henning Mankell said you have to write a lot of crap if you want to write something good. The Rolling Stones used to spend months in the studio just to come up with one three-minute gem. Be prepared to fail.
You’re not the first author to have the OCD early editing problem. The temptation to go back and revise is huge. It’s natural.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” said Terry Pratchett. They made him a knight so I guess he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no need to get your story right for everyone until you tell it to yourself. That can take a draft. Or even two.
¡viven los escritores!
** – not always – see my post first draft jitters and driving at night
This month I am beginning a new series called “Behind the Page” where I interview up-and-coming authors who deserve attention.
Anne-Rae Vasquez is an Indie author and filmmaker from Vancouver, BC. She has published half a dozen books and novels which include YA fiction, poetry, web design and cooking. She wrote AND directed Almost a Turkish Soap Opera, which won a slew of Indie film awards. She also blogs, reviews books, cooks, raises a family and … well, you get the idea – she generally puts most people’s work schedules to shame. I had the pleasure to first make Anne-Rae’s acquaintance on fiverr.com when she graciously agreed to put together a very cool book trailer for my latest novel (which, if you feel so inclined, you can see here). When I suggested that perhaps she might not have charged me sufficiently for all the terrific work she did, she replied ‘Oh no, you paid me enough’. She obviously has talent to spare and is generous to a fault with her fellow Indie authors. Let’s find out more about Anne-Rae Vasquez.
1. What’s it like to live in a communist country?
Actually Canada is a democracy although the political structure is quite different than the United States. Canada has far too many political parties, which makes the election process somewhat ineffectual. We do have a government administered health care system but it is NOT free, with the exception, I think, of a handful of provinces.
Your question highlights what many people don’t understand: the differences between Communism, Socialism, and what-have-you, thus labeling all of this under Communism.
2. Beatles or Rolling Stones? Or is it more like Partridge Family vs. Monkees?
Beatles. Can’t believe you had to ask! Although for a brief period of my youth, I did have a thing for The Monkees, probably because they were on TV every day.
3. Almost a Turkish Soap Opera? You raised money to write and film this fascinating movie (which readers can watch on Anne-Rae’s site here), and filmed the dang thing yourself. You’re a ‘regular’ person, meaning you don’t own a film company and you work for a living and raise a family. What drove you to undertake such an effort?
I did not film “Almost a Turkish Soap Opera” by myself. I wrote the screenplay and directed but the production was handled by Joseph Khalil (Sababa Productions) and the wonderful cast and crew made the film something I’m proud of. I have been working behind the scenes in film production since high school and always dreamed of one day making and directing my own movie. The experience was a springboard to other creative projects.
4. Cupcakes or Cheetos?
Oatmeal chocolate chip, big top cupcakes. Love baking and eating them!
5. Doubt. Cristal. Resist. All are single word titles of yours that pack a punch. What’s in a title? How important is title to you as a writer? Do you agonize over them?
A good title that people can remember is essential. It needs to be catchy but also reflective of the story. It’s easier for people to search “Doubt” on Goodreads than “Doubting the Reality of It All”, don’t you think?
6. What made you realize you were a writer? And when?
I knew I was a writer in grade school, when my teacher asked the class to submit one paragraph to describe what we did on the weekend. I submitted a novella.
7. Author(s) who inspire you? One who doesn’t?
Anita Daimant, author of the “Red Tent” (a story told in the eyes of the women of Biblical times). Malka Marom, who wrote “Sulha” (which means “forgiveness” in both Hebrew and Arabic) and Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”). These writers craft culturally rich stories that show the reality of life from the perspective of people the mainstream media tends to ignore.
8. What makes it worth eleven dollars (US) for you to sit in a theater (theatre to you) with your shoes cemented to the floor with nacho cheese?
What doesn’t, you mean? ZERO movies in a theatre (theater:)). I prefer to watch at home on my 55″ flat screen TV with my family, eating popcorn I pop with real butter. Actually I’d rather watch an entire TV series in a marathon sitting, which you can do now. Stories told in an hour or two just don’t do anything for me anymore. There is so much more creativity in many TV shows these days and they are visually equal to what you’d see in the theatre.
9. The hardest part of writing a novel is … [fill in the blank]
10. ‘Writing is a mental disorder’ says one of my writing mentors (Jim Frey). What say you?
Writing is where my nightmares and dreams find immortality.
11. Do you water ski much?
For me water and ski don’t mix. For fun and relaxation, I go on film shoots.
12. Social media? How important in promoting your work? How much is too much?
I actually hate promoting anything. I prefer to share with others as much as I can which is why I did the fiverr gig. My editor (who doubles as my promotional manager) advised me to raise money for Doubt via kickstarter but I balked at the idea of begging people to fund my book. So I decided to leverage my film making experience to assist others and finance projects that way. An author acquaintance paid over $700 for her book trailer! When I saw the video, I couldn’t believe it. It looked like a high school student put it together. My fiverr gig costs a fraction of what my friend could have paid and provides an affordable alternative for authors.
13. You’re a techie by day. It’s no coincidence how many successful Indie authors are technically savvy. How important is this? Or does your day job just get in the way of creative stuff, like watching cat videos?
Techie means I can produce all my own work from A to Z. I don’t need to outsource book formatting or worry about who is going to make my promo videos. I often create my own book covers and it means more power to me and less expense.
14. How do you find time to write? How much do you write?
I only have a few hours a week but still manage to write two to three chapters. Then I meet with my editor and we do a rewrite together. She’s a tough Latina and sometimes we butt heads. But in the end the process feels great – magical.
15. ‘Doubt’ and the ‘Among Us’ series has just been picked up by Knopf Doubleday and you are now a multi-millionaire. What happens next?
I go and make a bunch of movies and at least one TV series, that’s what!
16. Sorry, I lied — trick question. But you have just won just *ten dollars* in a scratcher that you bought at a gas (petrol) station. What happens next?
I buy gas.
17. Most thrilling moment as a writer?
Every time a new fan writes a review. They don’t have to like everything about the book but knowing that they immersed themselves in my world and then took the time to write a review, well … that makes it worthwhile.
18. Least thrilling?
The final editing …
19. If you were put in charge of Canada, what’s the first thing you would change?
People in charge are frequently puppets of the rich and powerful. The world of politics is not a place I want to be.
20. I’m enjoying “Doubt”, even though I have to move my lips when I read. What inspired you to write a YA book about video gamers?
One day one of my kids came up and asked me: “Mom, why do you write books that we can’t read?” That’s when I decided to write a book that my kids could share with their friends. They all love playing video games. Personally I wondered about the benefits of being a gamer. Were there any? But after sitting with my kids and their friends and watching them play, I saw a LOT of skills that can be used for the greater good. Then I asked myself: could gamers save the world? And the answer was … well, you’ll just have to read the book.
Anne-Rae, I and my millions of readers want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you a little better when you could have been baking baklava.
Posted by Max Tomlinson | March 18, 2014 | Categories: anne-rae vasquez, Behind the Page, Indie authoring, Interviews, on writing, Uncategorized, YA, Young Adult | Tags: Turkish Soap Opera | 2 Comments