Vampires, Dicks and Scouts: 3 Heroes

dracula_bela_lugosi_103Marlowescout

 

 

 

 

 

Dracula, Marlowe and Scout. Oh my. A bloodsucker, an SOB and a kid. A true range of characters, that is. Proof that when it comes to heroes, anything goes.

I’m talking about traditional narrative, as I see it. I see it from a lifetime of learning outside the classroom. From movies and comic books and television and comic strips and books. Following the teachings of everything from The Brothers Karamazov to The Brothers Warner, there are three standard molds from which our fictional heroes are stamped.

You, Me, the Girl Next Door
Look down in the street. It’s a worm. It’s a pain. It’s everyman.

Think Scout, Dorothy, Huck, George Bailey. Characters you’re drawn to rooting for because they are you. Sure, you can relate to their ups and downs, their dreams, their conflicts. You want them to make out just like you want yourself to make out.

Here I Come to Save the Day
Look at the way he saves the poor damsel from being flattened by the oncoming train. Dig the way she stands up to authority and sticks it to the establishment. You have to admire the way he seeks truth, justice, etcetera.

Some heroes are truly heroic. Mythic, even. You admire their ethics and principles, their honesty and grit, their pretty costumes and cleft chins. We’re talking knights that slay dragons and bring civilization to heathens. We’re talking renegades who rob from the rich and give to the poor. We’re talking tough hombres whose reason for living is to find justice where none exists, whether its the wild frontier of the Old West or the boulevards of post-World War II Los Angeles. A bigger than life story calls for a bigger than life protagonist, right?

Fascinating Rhythmmightymouse
Then there’s that Dracula bit. Not exactly the man in the street. Not your go-to guy when the planet’s being threatened by some intergalactic hoodoo. He’s just so damn fascinating. I mean, he’s the undead, for chrissake. He drinks human blood and turns into a bat and can’t use mirrors. Hannibal Lecter’s pure evil and purely intriguing. Even more everyday monsters like the Corleones are riveting stuff.

Most of us regular folk don’t relate to these kinds of heroes. We can’t root for them, either. But we’ll follow their adventures because they make us so damn curious.

Hybrids
John and Jane Doe, Superman and Mike Hammer, Raskolnikov and Jordan Belfort represent the old guard. The basics. The tried and true stuff of narrative heroes. If you can truly create any of these, you’ve got it knocked. But what if you mix and match? Can you summon up a hero who’s part monster, part everyone? Pull that one off and maybe you’ll find you’ve got a Travis Bickle or a Humbert Humbert. Maybe even King Kong.

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Publish It Yourself and Welcome to Hell

Maybe you don’t know which side is up. A bit dazed. A bit confused. Punch-drunk, even. Shall we say, perhaps, bewitched, bothered and bewildered? Sure. Let’s say that.

The author on a good day.

The author on a good day.

If that’s the case and you’re wondering where to turn next, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve got just the gig for you. The perfect enterprise. The supreme undertaking that’ll spin your wheels like they’ve never been spun before. Sure.

Yes, you too can put your best frazzled foot forward when you self-publish your own book. The mind-boggling, overwhelming bottomless pit of indecision can be yours if you act now. Platforms, formats, editors, designers and distributors are standing by. But act now before submission guidelines change every couple of minutes.

Publishing’s the true trick in this scenario. Cranking out the book itself is a comparative snap. Sure, writing the great American novel’s the easy part. Millions are doing it each and every day. And if English is your second language, don’t let that stop you. Who said the great American novel has to be in American, anyway?  Give me your tired, your poor, your pigeon English—didn’t Hunter S. Thompson say that? In Gonzo English?

These things run in cycles, in case you hadn’t noticed. A few cycles back everyone and their mother had a movie script. The next “Gone With the Gravity Unchained in Twelve Years.” But we did that one to death and turned to talk shows. If Johnny, Merv and Dave can do it, why not Rosie, Grodin and Conan? Right now, books are the new black, and indie publishing is the new purgatory.

With self-publishing comes one, big daddy catch, too. See, there’s a gazillion questions involved. If you go the physical book route, there’s all those decisions about page count, font size, leading, etc. Around and around she goes. Paper or e-book, you’re still going to need a cover. You’ll need a snappy title, too. And a cover graphic. And a pithy blurb from pithyblurbs.com. And that’s not to mention your pen name. For instance, you know how many different Ben Solomons you’ll find on Amazon alone? Christie, Chandler, Steele—seems like the best authors are already taken. Are you going to distribute your book on your lonesome or go the way of Smashwords or Untreed Reads or Lulu or around and around it goes? I could go on. You get the idea.

So back to that big daddy catch. Multiply all those above factors by infinity and you get an idea of the noose you’re tying. And that’s not to mention publicity and promotion. You’ve got press releases and interviews and advertising. There are reviewers and blogs and social media—before you’re done it’ll feel like  anti-social media. I could go on. You get the idea.

So back to that big daddy catch. With all of that to contend with, and then some, it comes down to this: there is no right way. No two indie ventures are the same, successes and flops alike. On the one hand, you have to respect the hell out anyone who’s managed even a nominal victory in all this. On the other hand, you’ve got every justification to fall flat on your face—you didn’t know any better the same as everyone else.

So let’s take a bath together. Jump in face first. Dive, even. The water’s fine. Or maybe there’s no water at all. Sure.

 

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The Hell With Worms

The smallest things can do a number on you. Fill you up or tear you down. Rip you up, apart, sideways. Blow you away, blow you to kingdom come, blow your mind. It doesn’t take much.

A couple nights ago I dropped in at a nearby reading series. Good stuff for the soul. The guys who run it don’t know me that well, so they’re still glad to see me. I find it a welcome escape from the isolation routine of writing. They welcome me, and they read to me. They present original things—some more original than others—things they’ve created, things they’re serious about, things they’re excited about. For me, that’s better than a bottle of Centrum or a hoity-toity cocktail.worms

So this one egg gets up. His piece recounts a half-year in his life as a grade school teacher. Maybe he’s not the next F. Scott Hemingway, but who is? He pulls off some nice gags, works in a poignant moment or two, and it’s got a good beat to it. I’ll bet he’ll never believe what bit threw me for a loop.

This is a local guy, right? He’s local, I’m local. That’s what you get most of the time at these readings, but not entirely. You can’t count on it. You never know. But in this case, sure, the bird’s local. He’s so local that, when I least expected it, he references this neighborhood park just two blocks from my house. Just a small thing. An easy thing. A throw away bit.

I smiled out of recognition. Actually, I downright beamed. In the midst of this writer’s foreign experiences, this moment hit home big time. I experienced a great dose of pleasure in sharing recognition for the familiar plot of land at the end of my street. Then zoom! It hit me. It struck me. Like a flash. I won’t go around the bend and talk thunderbolts, but zounds if it wasn’t good enough to spark a low-watt bulb.

The moment struck a chord, and that chord connected me to the format of his presentation, to reading, to writing, to literature, to all of goddamn art. And the humble idea that washed over me was this: that very moment is what art’s about.

I’m not talking about glib references to local haunts or shallow name dropping. I’m talking about that feeling of recognition. Can you pull off that recognition moment with an observation, a bit of dialogue, a particular series of actions or the denouement?

If you can make a reader register hard with some form of truth, then you’ve really done something. That’s something to shoot for, baby. But you’ve got to aim high. Awful high. Who wants to aim low, anyway? All you’ll hit is dirt. Maybe bag a worm. Worms ain’t for me. Sure.

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Money is Art Shmart?

Do you like dough as much as the next guy? Apparently the next guy likes it like a kid likes fun. Blind, unthinking, hypnotized. He needs it like a wildfire needs some schmuck with a match.

I belong to lots of writers groups. I get a lot of links from writers. I scan, skim and read tons of industry blogs and put in plenty of related research. I know it’s a business. I know that side of the endeavor’s the point for most of these groups and posts. But I can’t help but reel from the abundance of crass commercialism.

Do not pass go, etc.

Do not pass go, etc.

Here’s a big-daddy tip to keep your readers turning pages. Find out how to generate more five-star reviews on Amazon. Here’s how to suck up to an agent or a publisher. I get that. There’s a major business side to this business. But once in a while, at least every blue moon or so, just as an exceptional goddamn change of pace, could someone hint that there’s an art aspect to all this?

That hint is out there if you look for it. If you’ve got a high-powered sight on your browser or your RSS feed. If you can weed through ninety percent of the cold, harsh, show me the money takes out there.

I’m sure there’s plenty of starry-eyed sights and blogs out there, all about dreamy aspirations, inexperienced hopes and unprofessional, uncommitted wannabes with naive principles and the raw inspiration to match. That’s swell, and let them have at.

I’m talking about writers who are “out there,” the pros and seasoned authors hitting their heads against the walls of keyboards and publishers and agents and magazines and ebook distributors. Do they still have the fire in the belly? The magic in their fingertips waiting to cut loose? A lit spirit drunk on the idea of achieving the purely creative?

Maybe most of these people and places still got it. Maybe they simply don’t get around to expressing art for art’s sake, for one reason or another. Could be a matter of time, platform and format, or I might be missing a trick altogether. Sure.

But I’d sure like to read about it every once in a great while. I can’t expect to achieve any kind of literary greatness. That’s beside the point. It’s what I strive for. That’s the point. Something special in the words, the flow, the ideas and their translation to the page. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why I do what I do. I’m compelled, riveted by it, obsessed with it and hooked like a strung-out addict.

And as long as I’m at it, how about making as much money as the next guy? I wouldn’t kick.

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On a Roll and Keeping It There

The wondrous free-form, ambiguous, loop-the-loop writer’s life. Freedom and shackles. Self-imposed, self-made and selfish. No grounding, no way, no how. It’s another dimension of space and time way beyond taking hold of your television set. It’s all that and a bag of chips with a double espresso and four fingers of  hooch thrown in.

Whoever said freelance got that right. Free is right. All ways round. Time, pay, you name it.

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race

That's life...

That’s life…

It’s all in for me. I don’t know any other way to do it. Load the chambers and start blasting. Throw your hat in the ring without taking it off first. Go gangbusters. Go for broke. Throw in the kitchen sink and jump right in after with a good plunger. Sure.

If you throw enough stuff at the wall, will any of it inevitably stick? Depends on the wall. Depends on the stuff. Maybe it depends on your throwing arm.

Talking for myself—maybe I’ll talk for you another time—everything in this life is subjective, relative, a matter of perspective. With that in mind, I’ve been on something of a roll as of late. I just took a quick look-see at my honor roll of writing to glean I’ve had nine pieces published in 2014. So far. On the boards are an anthology and two podcasts. Maybe a podcast series. And I’ve got my first book up my sleeve, though it’s scratching me like the devil.

Attaboy stuff? Rah rah? Go get ‘em? Maybe. Very tentatively maybe. This writer’s routine is being entombed in a vacuum chamber. And some lug nut forgot to install the off switch. I’m talking isolation with a capital I. Solitary confinement with pages for walls, words for bars, and imagination for the key.

So I tell myself I’ve published more than one piece a month this year. And that sounds pretty good to me. Sounds like I’m on a roll. And it’s only natural to wonder if I can keep it up. The whammy is not leaving it up to publishers and e-zines and magazines and the like.

Jellyroll, sesame seed? Writing roll, piano roll? The matter of getting on one, finding your balance and staying there—in the end it’s not up to anyone else. It’s up to me, baby.

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Three Wishes

Sure, I got my world view. I can be big about things. Of course I wish the world would stop kicking itself in the keister every chance it gets. But most waking hours find me in the all-American, tunnel vision, pass the blinders mode.

There’s no shortage of wishes out there. I don’t have to tell you that. There’s big wishes and little wishes. There’s even ‘tweener wishes. There’s so much stuff to this existence—no lack of dreaming or hoping or hungering. Could be the simplest of things, materialistic possessions, things that go bump and grind, aspirations, flights of fancy.

You can't blame a fella for dreaming big.

You can’t blame a fella for dreaming big.

I can dream big with the best of them. I could go on about books and television series and movies. I could weave you tales from philanthropy to philistinism. The choices are endless, and so are the wishes.

If I’m anyone to go by, the romanticism of dreaming big never stops. The visions, voices, instincts remain intact. What does change is perspective. I’m all about perspective. You kick around long enough in this world and your daydreams learn to take a backseat. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about abandoning any level of fantasy. My dreams occupy a special, cherished portion of my psyche. What’s changed is that I’m increasingly preoccupied with more tangible pursuits—tag it small wishful thinking.

I wish I was smarter. A whole lot cleverer. I really do. I’d love to have a knack for devising locked-door mysteries. I wish I read more, learned more, was more literate-like. I know I must be able to write faster. And a hell of a lot better. Sure. I could go on.

So here’s the punchline. The funny thing about all this. The gag, the kicker, the crazy thing. My wildest dreams are exactly that—wild, fantastic, practically beyond approach. Taking them on is like going Ming. Remember Ming? Flash Gordon’s worst, bald-headed nightmare? What do you think was at the top of Ming’s to-do list?

  1. Conquer the universe

Show me the action plan to make that happen and you’ll be getting somewhere. Maybe my daydreams lack a tad of Ming’s ambition, but they’re far-fetched enough, thanks. Not exactly the most realistic of expectations to bring to your life-coach. If you had a life-coach. Maybe you wish you had a life-coach.

So back to that small wishful thinking I mentioned. I can do something about each of those wishes. At least I can try. And every last one of them could play a role in my reaching my most fantastic dreams. From little acorns, baby. Slow and steady. And smoke ‘em if you got ‘em—I just wanted to write that one.

So if a curious lamp tumbles into my possession, I’ll apply a little Brasso and a little elbow grease. Sure. And if some Persian-carpeted version of Robin Williams or Barbara Eden wafts my way, I won’t kick. Suppose they give me three wishes. Maybe I’ll settle for a little better brain power or a flourish of creativity. I’ll be better off and I’ll still have my dreams.

 

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Take Your Best Shot

Dead in the water. Before you start. You’ve got about as much of a chance as a cheerleader for electroshock therapy. Sure.

Independent publishing ain’t the future. It’s here. It’s now. It’s happening. It’s the revolution that everyone and their Aunt Sylvia has been waiting for, right? Come on in, the water’s fine. The more the merrier. You can’t have too much of a good thing. Maybe. Maybe not.

I’m thinking of the old line about a tree falling in the forest. Today, there are so many people in the forest, so many trees toppling, you couldn’t hear one from another if you tried. But what else can you do but try?Target

The catch has always been getting noticed. That’s assuming you’ve got something worth noticing. In the old days, meaning a couple years ago, you had to get the attention of agents and publishers. Any way you could. By hook or by crook. Today, going the self-publishing route, you’re looking to garner the attention of John and Jane Doe.

Indie publishing feels a whole lot more direct. More immediate. And that’s potentially more rewarding. But it’s a cinch that marketing and promoting yourself can be just as daunting as it ever was.

If you’re a writer, what else can you do? If translating those voices in your head to the blank page is what you do, you’ve got to take your best shot…whatever the hell that is. And you’re completely on your own to figure it out.

One thing’s for sure—nothing’s for sure. There’s no right or wrong, no up or down, no absolutes in the world of writing, whether it’s regarding artistic or business aspects. There’s no roadmap, no one-size-fits-all “Successful Publishing for Dummies.” I can’t tell you the way to do it. No one can tell you the way to do it. Therein lies the remarkable leveler.

The playing field’s the same for all us wannabe self-publishers. It’s fair game for everyone. Anyone can do it. Everyone’s got a shot.

So you keep writing. Write your best. And take your best shot.

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Bang—You’re Alive

Sometimes you’ve got hold of something. Something special. Maybe not special enough to cause men to forgo sex and women to forgo chocolate. But something uncommon enough to keep you from interrupting to refill your coffee, or special enough to make you put off that meal for an extra hour, or five, or six.

At a minimum, I write three three short stories every month for my subscription series. That’s about 15,000 words right there. Month in, month out. Add to that other assignments and projects, and you can imagine my head’s pretty well buried in the keyboard. It’s a crazy mix of artistic pursuit and work ethic. And it doesn’t allow a whole lot of room for sightseeing, detours or prima donna moments. But that’s how you do it. Whether you’re full time, part time or any time you can make the time. You’re always at it.EH

Working “short” as I do, I’m winging it most of the time. Usually some sort of hook starts it off. A choice bit of dialogue, a clever murder gag, an inventive piece of hard-boiled action. Deadlines force me to run with it and run with until I run out of time, pounding it out as best as I can until the very end.

Those are a lot of the practical aspects of my work. The artistic portion might prove a heap less romantic than many might think. At its simplest, the ongoing challenges don’t get any more basic. Can I write better? Can I make a particular piece better? How do I make this scene or dialogue play?

There are also larger lines at play, artistic aspirations that weave through isolated sentences and paragraphs as well as entire bodies of work. Can I write a yarn that centers on ethnic differences without referring to the likes of skin color? Can a hard-boiled yarn address euthanasia? Can I craft a certain story backwards and tell it as end, middle and beginning?

All those artsy-shmartzy and working stiff approaches rolled into one can feel like a journeyman experience. Hour by hour, day by day, plugging away. Nose to the grindstone while putting your heart and soul into it. That’s one peculiar mix. It can become cool at times, a reserved undertaking, no different than putting in a shift, only the shift never ends.

But once in a while you get a breakthrough. Or that cliche aha, eureka moment. You find yourself in the midst of a scene or an arc or a story idea that shakes you up like a mixmaster. That’s a moment that blasts through the daily regimen like a cold shower. It wakes you up, stirs you up, sets your heads and fingers on fire.

That’s when the new pressure kicks in. Now you’ve got to fulfill that promise. Now you’ve got to make it sing. Sure. Bang—you’re alive.

 

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Writing by Accident and a Pop Device

It happened by accident. Just a trifle. A commercial ploy. A pop hook. I suppose I could have resisted, but I decided to give in.

It came up as I dashed out the first story of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Mind you, it wasn’t a series yet. Just an idea for a short story. A romp. A gas. I was having a blast ripping off a tale of false identities, blackmail and murder. All in a throwback, corkscrew style as a valentine to Chandler, Hammett, Cagney, Bogart.

I’m cranking out dialogue for an interview scene between our nameless, P.I. hero and a new, hardheaded client. The detective’s already long on attitude, fueled further by a customer who’s got something to hide. It all seemed like a natural bit of writing. Organic. Nothing contrived about it.

“You want the old man shadowed,” I nodded. “What for, Mrs. Leblanc?”
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, “I want you to catch him with her.”
“That is delicate,” I said. “You don’t strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc.”
With abrupt confidence she replied, “You strike me as the impertinent type.”
“Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“Does it?”
“I’ve been working it into a big ad campaign I’m planning: ‘Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.’ Catchy, don’t you think?”

I thought nothing of it at the time. I liked the exchange between the characters, gave the screen a nice fat smile, and kept writing.

After wrapping up the yarn, I decided to craft another. The first go-round proved such a trip to write that the juices flowed, all right. I had barely an outline in mind for the second story. Merely the loosest notion of plot points. What sprung to mind immediately was an allusion to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”—it’s hard to punch out hard-boiled prose and not see the words of the genre’s big boys before your eyes. So I penned the opening lines:

It’s bad business to plug your client. It’s bad business, bad for P.I.’s everywhere, just plain bad all around.

As a short, first paragraph, I liked its grab. But it needed a quick wrap, a final punch, a knockout line. That’s when that dialogue came back to me. I could see where I was going, but it seemed as perfect a fit as Edward G. Robinson in a bowler. Or Harlow in a teddy. I typed in a closing line to the paragraph:

Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

Now I’d done it. I’d given my hard-nosed gumshoe a tagline all his own. Hadn’t planned to. Hadn’t meant to. But writing’s a funny practice. I don’t pretend to understand the creative process. Once in a great while a literary gem seems to appear right before your eyes. On other occasions, the most shallow devices cry out for use. You bat away and hack and slash and keep at it.

There’s not a whole lot of planning that goes into my craft. I’m winging it as best I can. Sometimes it’s gold. Sometimes it crap. All I can do is give it my best shot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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May 2014: A Good Month

Always another shot. Another chance. As long as you’re still breathing.

May’s been a good one. More opportunities, more successes, more dream food. My arms are up and swinging, and I’ve landed a few jabs. I haven’t pulled off any knockout punches, but I haven’t hit the mat, either. Sure.

TakeoutI’ve got several things about to pop. The District of Wonders podcast network has slated two of my works for airing. One of my yarns will soon be running on “Tales to Terrify” and another on “Crime City Central.” The latter’s also considering the idea of featuring “The Hard-Boiled Detective” on a monthly basis. The idea of hearing my stories narrated sounds like a gas. Yeah, that’s a pun. I’d like to find out what kind of following they get, but it’s exciting stuff for me to be in that kind of company. Keeps the juices flowing.

I’ve also got a story about to hit the “Near to the Knuckle” website. That’s an important step to me. It’s an established site that’s well regarded for its niche and its following. Land a story there and you say to yourself, “Maybe I’ve arrived. Kind of. After a fashion.”

There’s Onyx Neon, too. This ebook publisher has just launched a new singles series. I’ve seen the cover design for the first “Hard-Boiled Detective” selection, and it’s a beaut. I’m awful curious to see how this one pans out, but they’ve impressed me a lot.

I shouldn’t leave out the anthologies. “The Hard-Boiled Detective” will soon strut its stuff in “The Shamus Sampler 2″ and “Drag Noir.” I’m humbled to be included in the first collection, and surprised I was even considered for the second.

And then there’s the book. The first published collection from “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Polishing and editing is ongoing, and better than half-way done. The writing’s the thing, but I’m not so concerned with that. Sounds screwy, doesn’t it? I’m worried about the cover, first, and then pulling together the promotion plan and tracking all those dizzying elements.

In the mean time, the beat goes on, and so does “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’m currently wrapping up this month’s trio of tales, somewhat staggered the way all the work adds up. This’ll make 51 short stories to date in the series. You look in the rearview mirror and what you see is familiar, all right. But you don’t exactly recall it, either. Was I just there? Maybe better to  watch the road. Concentrate on traffic. Make up the roadmap on the fly.

Got a dream? Doing anything about it? You better get going.

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