The Monster in My Office

after Monstra Humana by Münster

There’s a monster in my office, and it gnaws at me.

This monster dwells in the twilight world between life and death, never daring to crawl out of the shadows. It’s too hideous for the light of day; bloated and grotesque, its malformed appendages flap spastically. No wonder I keep it in the dark.

If you ever looked more closely, as several people have, you would see that its individual parts are quite lovely, even if they don’t fit together like clockwork. Were the extraneous bits sliced away and the remainder stitched up neatly, we could see what massive reconstructive surgery might get this creature on its feet.

For now, the monster remains in the shadows. I lock the bottom drawer to keep it from wandering out.

It’s my first novel, The Wine Ghost, in which we consider the terrible freedom of Frank Boyles, the last Baby Boomer. Set in Arizona, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand, The Wine Ghost was twelve years in the making. I wrote at least 350,000 words on three continents to get the present 110,000, and I learned lessons in writing that no classroom can contain. The Wine Ghost is so dense, challenging, and chaotic that it’s unpublishable in its present form, but writers who’ve read the whole thing (and the handful of agents who’ve read the pitch and substantial excerpts) have said it’s a remarkable achievement, despite the fatal flaws.

Here are some of those fatal flaws (from my current perspective):

• The first half of the novel is a nosedive, and readers begin to wish for the final collision 30 pages in. As it is, it takes 60,000 words for Frank Boyles to fall off Japan.
• The upward spiral of the second half provides stronger structure, and it’s less relentlessly depressing than the first half, but the pacing is crippled by chapters up to 9,500 words in length.
• Those overlong chapters end like short stories, depriving readers of thrills, chills, or cliff-hangers that might help them keep turning the pages.
• Even at a slim 110,000, it’s nearly Dickensian in the number of characters and subplots, a ridiculously overdrawn expat milieu that drowns a simple tale of disgrace and redemption.
• Its many stylistic indiscretions (i.e., showing off) brand it as an irretrievable semi-autobiographical first novel from a boy who had read too damned much Cormac McCarthy and far too little Hemingway.

Well, what to do with a monster like this? “Kill your darlings” comes to mind, but there’s still good meat on those awkward bones. I’d be a fool to just delete it.

Five ways I’m putting The Wine Ghost to work:

• plucking out whole works of short fiction
Done and done. From The Wine Ghost, I’ve harvested short fiction (“Dry Wash” in The Bicycle Review, “Coolie Tales” in not from here, are you?, “The Belly Lesson” and “Tracy-baby Tells a Ghost Story” in a for-the-love online litmag) and poetry (“The Algerian Witch’s Abandoned Brood” in Hauptfriedhoff, for which I also penned the foreword). This is good exposure and possibly good advance PR, as long as I credit these appearances in my final MS.
Oh, and as long as I eventually rewrite and sell the book.

• repurposing plot, setting, and character
Check. If The Wine Ghost is to become a viable novel, I must cut 40,000 words of extraneous characters and subplots, and I’ll be damned if they’re going to waste. Almost all of that 40,000 words, including an entire valley and one of the most frightening maniacs I’ve ever written, is going into my paranormal thriller series. A no-brainer, as they say.

• entering first-chapter contests
Consider this: your first novel, like mine, may be unpublishable in its current condition, but you polished the living daylights out of that first chapter, didn’t you? Despite structural flaws in the work-as-a-whole, you might still get some cash out of that first chapter. Dr. John Yeoman has put out a straightforward, thoughtful guide titled “How to Win Writing Contests for Profit.”
Now you know.

• thematic analysis: the rut or the sweet spot?
We make and break patterns in our writing over the years. Sometimes patterns emerge because we’re caught in the loop of trying and failing to get it right, and sometimes such patterns remain because we got it right the first time and it works so damned well. Because we’re swinging for the fences and bursting with things to say, our first novels are perfect for spotting the beginnings of larger thematic patterns in our writing.

The Wine Ghost is no exception. My old friend, developmental editor Zak Johnson, says this: “I think you’ve mined your Wine Ghost for more than you even realize. (the evil uncle from “Dry Wash”) has reappeared as the obscene old man in many of your works … if you do (rewrite The Wine Ghost as a commercially viable novel), keep the original as a relic of the exorcism that brought it out of you.”

Or as a standalone shrine to my daddy issues. Enough said there.

A re-read of that novel may show you patterns to build upon or abandon. Don’t just write it all off as juvenilia.

• just one more draft, I promise
After 30 years as a professional writer and editor, I put The Wine Ghost aside and started submitting fiction in 2009. I have a completed and competitive genre novel making the rounds of publishers, and I’m halfway done with the sequel. I can’t drop that to start draft five of The Wine Ghost, especially knowing that it would take a sixth and seventh draft to get this beast on its feet. I have too much going on. I sometimes want to just strip off everything I can repurpose from The Wine Ghost and leave it like a car on cinderblocks. I’ve moved on, I tell myself.

If only I could. I’ve planted crossover elements in my paranormal thriller series such that it occupies the same time and space as The Wine Ghost. It’s not just the paranormal thriller series, either. I’m constantly laying Easter eggs and setting breadcrumb trails that lead back to the monster in the bottom drawer.

I don’t kid myself that The Wine Ghost will ever, ever make more money or even gain more critical acclaim than a genre book. It’s not that I miss the freshness and urgency of the literary expression that led to my writing The Wine Ghost; I’m a much better writer now than even a few years ago, when I wrapped up the fourth draft.

The dreadful fact is that it’s an important book, the book that called me to write it because it may speak to some teenager as confused and depressed as I was when I first got a little relief by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren or Lord Dunsany’s Pegana tales. It may show some kid a path out of a darkness that almost took my sanity and my life.

This monster gnaws to tell me that I must keep honing my craft in order to do the story justice. Every genre chapter I write, every blog post I submit, every short story that goes over some indifferent editor’s transom — it’s all surgical training to reanimate the monster in my office.

I’m lifting weights here, people.

And it may sound perverse, but I hope you have a monster in your office to keep you moving as well.

Visit it sometimes. Thank it for keeping you working. Promise it that you’ll stop by more often and that you’ll eventually bring it to life and set it free on an unsuspecting world.

It doesn’t hurt to make these promises, even if you don’t intend to keep them.

And don’t worry if you forget to go to see your monster every once in a while.

If your monster is anything like mine, it will come to see you.

Versions of this post have appeared in Blood-Red Pencil and Write Now, Right Now

Have a novel languishing in the bottom drawer? Feel free to post ideas about putting it to work in the comments below.
Posted in Writing Life

Blame Horror Movies, Pt. I: The Mystery of Dead Ernest

"Watch This Channel Grow!"

an early 1970s ad for Ted Turner’s WTCG 17

For decades, Atlantans argued that Dead Ernest was none other than Ted Turner. That’s right. We honestly believed that before satellite Superstation WTBS, before CNN or The Cartoon Network, before Turner Network Television or Turner Classic Movies, this media mogul had dressed as a warbling backwoods ghoul to introduce the Friday night horror movie. It was an irresistible rumor.

It was plausible, too. There are no clips or stills of Dead Ernest, nothing to mark his passage, and that fits with the story that Dead Ernest was chiseled from the obelisk as an embarrassing relic of Turner’s small-time UHF past. Even the time frame was an estimate: Dead Ernest hosted Friday Night Frights on Turner’s channel 17, WTCG (“Watch This Channel Grow!”) from around 1972 to 1974 or 1975. Nobody seems to remember exactly when it started or ended (although some will remember that the slick intro superseding Dead Ernest’s stint on Friday Night Frights was just a collection of ominous video effects set to “Bruce’s Theme” from Jaws).

Who wouldn’t want to erase the memory of playing Dead Ernest? He rose from a plywood coffin wearing a tie-on cape, pasty make-up and a pair of dime-store vampire fangs. Thanks to the fangs and his thick southern drawl, his agonizingly drawn-out patter was nearly unintelligible. He was a joke, a bizarre waste of airtime, an excuse to go get another popsicle during the station identification break. We called him “Count Crackula from Peckervania,” but we showed up at the tube faithfully, every Friday night at 7:30.

We showed up despite Dead Ernest. We showed up for the movies, which were wonderful. AIP or Amicus to start, with racier Hammer films topping off the double bills. Toward the end of the evening, the station identification breaks featured Dead Ernest reading the newspaper or pretending to bathe in his coffin as if he had run out of his limited schtick by the end of the first feature. He was no Robert Osborne.

He was no Ted Turner, either. Diligent researchers at E-Gor’s Chamber of TV Horror Hosts reveal that he was Bob Chesson (he passed away in 1990), then an employee of Turner’s Charlotte, N.C., Channel 36 WRET (“Robert Edward Turner”). The segments were pre-recorded to run in Charlotte one weekend and then sent USPS to Atlanta for the following weekend.

The mystery has been solved, whether Atlantans want to believe it or not.

Of course, what with his AOL/Time Warner shares going tits-up, Turner might consider revisiting the Dead Ernest option….

Ever wonder about your local TV horror host? Check out E-Gor’s Vault @ http://myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tvhorrorhosts/index.html.

Also, watch American Scary, a loving tribute to the men and women who hosted our late-night horror movies, from Vampira to Son of Svengoolie. Streaming on Netflix.

Posted in Entertainment

The Role of the Troll

Albert Jærn, from Asbjørnsen and Moe's classic fairy tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff

I rest easy in the long, lonesome place between completing a novel and making the sale, all thanks to a forum troll.

It’s not fun, mind you. Agents queried thus far have passed. Contests and direct submissions aren’t panning out either. It’s disappointing, but it’s just business, and these people are polite and professional.

I rest easy mainly because I have faith in the project but also because a troll fulfilled his role. I’m inoculated. If my own dear mother called to say I should give up this writing business, I would smile and nod and keep right on doing what I do.

But let me just tell you the story:

In 2009, my favorite online home-away-from-home was a fan forum for XTC (the band, not the drug). This unique bunch, XTC fans of all ages from Scandinavia to the Antipodes, are by far the wittiest, most knowledgeable and kindest online family it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. I count several of them as “actual” friends, not just online friends, and in the days before Facebook, we shared personal details on the forum we wouldn’t share online today. It’s a pretty tight group.

I took several months offline to complete the first draft of The Drowning God, a paranormal thriller. When I got back online, I was eager to tell my fellow fans about the novel and other projects. It went something like:

(between chapters of The Drowning God)… I also wrote something much more Gothic and ornate: an eight-part 1930s-serial-style Lovecraft Mythos/Clive Barker mash-up. It’s about 18k of crazy layered with Lovecraftian paranoid prose, teased with a dash of Borges, and topped with Stephen King/Michael Crichton “actual doc” verisimilitude frosting. Yum.

Yes, this was very silly (although it’s an accurate description of In the Red, my 2009 novella), but keep in mind that these are my people. We’re the last hardcore fans of XTC, a British punk band that went pastoral and even orchestral and survived till 2006, and we’ve survived with them. On that level — our shared obsession with the sublime and sometimes frightening music of Andy Partridge and XTC — no one understands us as we understand one another. So silliness is not out of bounds there. We’re an odd online family, but family’s what we are.

Except for one spiteful and maladjusted bastard stepchild who called himself H0neyc0mb Jack. Jack lurked on the “friends” forum, which he had chosen not to join. He responded the next day on the “official” forum, an entirely different entity:

Hay Guys!
Good to be back! I’ve been away researching my new novel and its a spinecrackler! At least three (Count’em, losers) internet publisher ibook download companies have picked up on the idea and guess what?! I’ve actually written it and people are telling me it IS good! I cannot believe I am this close to the Booker Prize at age fifty laugh.gif . My first novel!!! Based on black and white films catapulted into a Die Hard present mixed with Sopranos vava voom and tossed off with words written in another style, I cannot BELIEVE the hum it is stirring blink.gif blink.gif . If you had asked me at age seventeen when the sap was still rising if I could have written anything so erudite and funny and musical and in touch; well, I would have said…NO WAY laugh.gif laugh.gif laugh.gif
Thanks for the support guys, because without you all,there is no way I would have written this blink.gif blink.gif
Peace wub.gif

Juvenile mockery, but it was good enough. The troll fulfilled his role.

Familiar and not-very-interesting troll strategies here:
• posting on a different forum for deniability (“Dear boy, my post had nothing to do with you! Just trumpeting my successes and whatnot. But what is this? Do you scribble as well? What a coincidence!”)
• exaggerating the target’s claims (“But of course you’re shooting for the Booker Prize, old sock. What young Turk like yourself would not?”)
• and the troll’s best game, playing on my perceived weaknesses: academia’s scorn of genre writing, the rapidly changing publishing market, my advanced years (I was 47 at the time, not 50), my lack of contacts, and my wide-eyed naïveté.

I kept on writing and submitting. Several friends PM’d to commiserate about his unwarranted cross-forum cruelty, but I held my tongue. That in itself was unusual. At the time, I loved an occasional wee online dust-up, and I’ve never been one to let a bully have the last word, online or off. But this was different because there was something to be learned here. This troll had touched a nerve somehow, and I sucked it all in and examined it instead of lashing out.

I kept on writing and submitting. I looked up the Booker Prize to see how hard he was mocking me.

And I kept on writing and submitting. With a full-time job, a new baby, three moves, and an overlong sojourn in the barren gulag archipelago of for-the-love online litmags, I kept on writing and submitting. I joined a professional writing organization, The Horror Writers Association, and a couple of local writers’ clubs. I put out 80,000 words of short stories, essays, and reviews, and I polished The Drowning God to within an inch of its life.

That was the lesson. I kept on writing and submitting. Over time, the truth in the action dispelled the troll’s lies.

Think of it this way: every environment has a scavenger, a bottom-feeder that turns dead matter and excreta into energy. In the process, it removes toxins and debris to make room for new life.

Trolls and haters are good for the writer’s mental environment. They uncover the fears, thus helping to turn toxins and debris into new energy and new work.

Thank you, bottom-feeding scavengers.

Thank you, H0neyc0mb Jack, wherever you are.

As for Kendley Fiction, I will meet meaner, stronger, smarter trolls. That’s part of the deal.

I write.
I submit.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.
I write.
I submit.
I am rejected.
I am disappointed.

Lather-rinse-repeat.

I write for today. I also have hopes for the future, but I write for today.

Oh, the future:
Every dog has his day.
Kendleyness is next to dogliness.
Therefore, I will have my day.
Quod erat demonstrandum.

[update 10/11/2013: I wrote this post assuming that H0neyc0mb Jack pissed off into the ether on Jan. 31, 2011 either because he tired of trolling well-adjusted adults or because forum admins finally booted him. However, astute forum members correlated Jack’s disappearance with the suicide of a long-time XTC fan, a man with a similarly troubled online history. Honeycomb Jack seems to have taken his own life. Weirder still: at one point, the troubled XTC fan in question, the man who was probably Honeycomb Jack, friended me on Facebook.]

Have a troll story to share? Feel free to post it in the comments below.
Posted in Writing Life

…always with you…

kendley.com on a mobile device

kendley.com is mobile.
Now I
go anywhere you go.

As a matter of fact,
I’m right behind you.

Posted in annonce - Ankündigung - 発表 - announcements - news

Guest post: Radio-reared

45adapterKendley knows nothing about music. He is a radio-reared musical dilettante.

Kendley, as he has chosen to call himself here, has only two vinyl LPs: Black Sea and Skylarking. Kendley has said he bought Black Sea in late 2006 mainly for the irony; despite the sheer brilliance of the album, itself being Kendley’s gateway to XTC, this copy is a cutout. It hangs above his desk, green outer sleeve safely tucked away in the frame, the “cutout” hole in the corner clearly visible. That hole, to Kendley, constitutes irony.

We could discuss in greater detail the “irony” of many aspects of Kendley’s so-called life, the most recent and most obvious being his implied criticism of Western actors pimping tobacco products in Japan even though he smoked for twenty (20) years, and he smoked like a chimney for the first half of his stay in those mysterious isles despite knowing full well that his refined and noble Western features and his status as a university lecturer (don’t even get me started) could possibly influence his impressionable young students to take up the filthy and dangerous habit.

Irony or hypocrisy?

No, let us set that question aside. Let us discuss instead the irony of Kendley’s purchase of Black Sea.

Let us also preface this consideration with the fact that Kendley has never owned a turntable of any kind.

Never.

Of any kind.

He stumbled through the basic manipulation of audio equipment ranging from the neighbor’s Kenner Close n’ Play to his mother’s Sears portable (stereophonic…with auotchanger!) to college roommates’ AudioTechnica and Marantz turntables, but he has never owned any sort of turntable of his own.

Despite this, he has owned a handful of records:

45s:

“Jungle Boogie” / “Hollywood Squares” — Kool and the Gang

“Shine On” / “Mr. Prettyboy” — Grand Funk Railroad

“Sister Mary Elephant” — Cheech & Chong

“Earache My Eye” — Cheech & Chong

LPs:

Tubular Bells twice (worn out on mother’s portable)

Hergest Ridge, also Oldfield, also twice (mother’s portable was hard on vinyl)

Derringer Live — Rick Derringer (he still cannot sufficiently explain this choice)

English Settlement twice (worn to bits both times)

Obviously, Kendley is unfit to comment on albums in any capacity. He is, essentially, a product of the AM singles-format era who remained unfazed by and largely oblivious to the FM album format. In that respect, he is an anachronism whose time has at long last come again; he can stream on a whim without any regard to album sequencing, thematic unity, etc., concepts to which he was blind and deaf anyway. To this day, he has never purchased, in any medium, a prog-rock “concept album,” unless you count Brain Salad Surgery on cassette. The closest to a concept album he owns is a CD of Dark Side of the Moon, requested for Christmas in 2004 to check out the Wizard of Oz synchronicity.

Yes, his interest in album thematic unity is that shallow.

There were a few 8-tracks, many cassettes, all gone (the only one he seems to miss is a dub of XTC’s Live and More), and there are now several hundred CDs, but his head is still all about radio; he is the sort of “surprise me” non-aficionado of music for whom streaming channels were invented. When one artist or association piques his interest, he may tunnel into it, pursue the artist’s influences and collaborations, make a few connections that satisfy his shallow and narrowly-conceived curiosity, then drift, inevitably, back into the soothing radio stream.

It is possible that radio, and therefore music itself, still represents to Kendley an invisible and infinite potentiality beyond daily experience, whereas the LP was his mother’s medium. Although she introduced him to Danse Macabre and Peter and the Wolf in vinyl, he most closely associated vinyl to her music: Les Brown and his Band of Renown; Kay Kaiser’s College of Musical Knowledge; Mitch Miller; Dorothy Shay (the Park Avenue Hillbilly — the medium was circular, but to Kendley, the content was decidedly square.

Radio, on the other hand, was fluid and unpredictable. It was different every time he turned it on. The dashboard radio in his father’s Chevy Bel Air picked up Mexican radio on clear nights, and he lay in the front seat listening to corrido and mariachi overlaid with a tinny shriek of cosmic interference, the signal from the world outside accompanied by the sun itself strumming the ionosphere. The pop stations of his older siblings were background noise to him until, one night, Roy Orbison’s voice floated from the tiny speaker like the keening of some mournful and beautiful ghost beckoning Kendley to a larger realm. He began to listen in earnest.

By the time he was six, in 1968, even AM radio was on fire. It was the year of the White Album and Electric Ladyland, as if Kendley cared, and even on WABB in Mobile, there was serious airplay of the Stones, the Who, Janice Joplin w/Big Brother etc., Cream, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Birds, The Doors, Dr. John, The Zombies, Marvin Gaye, the late, great Otis Redding, Creedence, Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, Deep Purple, Donovan, Steppenwolf, Amboy Dukes, Status Quo, Archie Bell and the Drells, and many, many more.

There was also serious airplay of Iron Butterfly, Jeannie C. Riley, and Tiny Tim, but even a rube like Kendley knew novelty acts when he heard them (hence his later dislike of the Beastie Boys). No matter what was playing, he was glued to his sister’s portable radio. There were battery issues, but no assaults.

By the time he was nine, in 1971, his mother had to chase him out of the house on Sunday afternoons so he didn’t spend the day listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. He was mesmerized by Kasem’s analysis of “American Pie.”

By 1977, he had moved grudgingly to FM stations, mainly due to peer pressure. However, he found bright spots in the ponderous and oppressive world of album-format FM radio. He stayed up listening to King Biscuit Flour Hour, Doctor Demento, and Firesign Theater.

In 1980, a malfunctioning tuner piping Captain Beefheart’s “Ashtray Heart” through a home intercom system introduced him to college radio.

In Athens, Ga., he kept up with local bands largely by radio. Bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., and the B-52’s ruled, along with acts that never went much farther than Athens: Pylon, Love Tractor, Little Tigers, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. He knew some of these musicians, saw them all in concert. But he still loved them best on “the last one left,” 90.5 FM.

This is partly because Kendley is a born introvert. For this we cannot fault him; like about 25 percent of the U.S. population, he is sensitive to light and noise, and his responses slow in proportion to the degree of sensory input around him. His tolerance of crowds is low at best. Add lights and noise…well, sometimes the best thing about a show is stepping out into the cool night air where one can breathe and think. Radio, on the other hand, offered him a gracious remove from overstimulation.

And so for the last quarter century, just as an alcoholic’s favorite drink is, “What are you having?”, so Kendley’s favorite music source has been the nearest radio station he could stomach. In Japan, he listened to U.S. Armed Forces Radio on a shortwave set he found in the trash, but he inevitably began to wander up and down the dial, listening to Chinese, Korean, and Japanese transmissions just as he had listened to Mexican radio thirty years before.

And despite his lack of “purism,” he does have some sort of standards. In Portland, Ore., it got personal; he insulted a young DJ by suggesting that overplay of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” was misplaced nostalgia for a fumbled, sweaty handjob in a dormitory stairwell. Or something like that. Since then, he has chosen simply to “vote with the tuning dial.”

As for purchased music, his favorite record store of all times was a small shop in the basement of a department store in Fukuoka, Japan. In the used bin, he found CDs (prized, of course, for their individual tracks, not as unified works) by Harold Budd, Budd & Partridge, Budd & Cocteau Twins, Julian Lloyd Webber and Gavin Bryers, H.K. Schmidt, Faye Wong, Shan Shan Typhoon, YMO, Ondekoza, and many, many more. Always on Wednesdays. He went once on a Tuesday to see if he could identify the patron who traded in such tasty and eclectic music, but it was a half-hearted effort. He didn’t want to find the source; he wanted to dip anonymously into the stream, just as he did with radio.

So, he has never owned a turntable, has owned only a few records, clearly has no background or inclination to appreciate the LP as a musical medium, and shows no intention of investing in stereo equipment. Yet he bought Black Sea in 2006.

That, liebchen, is irony, and it may herald other “ironies” to come.

He is an unreliable witness to himself, and his various explanations of why he bought the LP simply don’t make sense. I would argue that deep inside, Kendley knows that he is a radio-fed musical dilettante, and he has pretensions to appear to be something he is not. He has misrepresented himself in person in Japan and Southeast Asia (lying about his journalistic credentials to the crown prince of Selangor, just for starters!), and he will misrepresent himself here, if you allow him.

 

Ignore anything he says about LPs.

 

Or music.

 

Or mushrooms. Listening to anything he says about mushrooms could get you dead.

 

Posted in Entertainment
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