June 01, 2019

Margaret E. Atwood Followed You

On November 14, 2010, I wrote a blog post titled Brick Walls, New Beginnings. In it, I wrote about Randy Pausch's last lecture and inspiration from seeing Kevin Smith at Kitchener's Centre in the Square. That was eight and a half years ago and recently I was at the Centre in the Square again, only this time I wasn't there to see a foul-mouthed filmmaker for whom I have a giant man-crush. This time I was there to see award-winning, critically acclaimed, world-renowned author and Canadian icon, Margaret Atwood.

I'm going to be 100% honest here and say that I've tried to read a number of her novels and have had a hard time with them. She's one hell of a writer, to be sure, but something about the books I picked up didn't resonate with me. Then, there's the Handmaid's Tale. That one positively shook me (seriously, you have to read that book). I am also a huge fan of all the editorials and articles she's written over the years, as well as her comic.

As a Canadian, a writer, an unabashed liberal, and an aspiring feminist, I could not pass up the opportunity to hear Ms. Atwood speak. I asked my 16-year-old daughter, who is also all those things (except she's an actual feminist and helping me on my journey toward being one as well) if she wanted to go with me and her response in the affirmative came in the snap of a finger. The stage was set.

Waiting for Atwood.
How much was I looking forward to this? Time for a little backstory:

In 2012 I followed a boatload of accounts on Twitter. Of them, well over a hundred were writers. One day I noticed that only three of them didn't follow me back: Amber Naslund, Neil Gaiman, and Margaret Atwood. In an effort to coerce the three non-following amigos to follow me on Twitter I sent out this tweet:

And wouldn't you know it, within minutes this notification popped up on my phone:
"I am suddenly very aware of all the words I plan to use on Twitter."

Suffice it to say, I lost my mind. The fact that she hasn't unfollowed me since then is somewhat of a miracle.

(If you're reading this, Margaret, please don't unfollow me)

So, how did it go?

I'm actually having a hard time describing it because it was just that fantastic. Atwood's sense of humour is razor sharp. The interviewer kept having to bring her back to the topic because she would run off on these wonderfully humourous tangents. Another thing that became apparent rather quickly, and it should be pointed out that this should be obvious to anyone who's ever even heard of her, is that Margaret Atwood is one hell of a storyteller. Wow. I mean, just wow. It was absolutely amazing.

She's also one of the most quotable people I've ever had the pleasure of hearing speak. I was going to write them all down so I could tweet them or post them as captions on photos for Instagram, but there were too many.

Diaene Vernile (left) talks with Margaret Atwood

She talked about growing up in Quebec without any of the big city conveniences that were starting to take hold. There was a lot of talk about how she became a writer and her influences. Talk eventually turned to the Handmaid's Tale and what was going on around her when she wrote it. Here's an interesting bit of information. Everything that happened in that book has actually happened at some time or place in human history. Everything. And if that's not enough to rock you to your core I don't know what is.

The thing about the whole evening was I learned as much about Margaret Atwood, the Canadian literary hero, as I did about myself, the struggling-to-make-it part-time writer, husband, and father of two.

I wish I could have recorded the entire session because I certainly would have been going back to it time after time to pick out those truly wonderful nuggets of inspiration or those key lessons about writing, which she didn't hit you over the head with but rather sprinkled in here and there so only those paying attention noticed them. As it was, there were two takeaways that I am prepared to share:
  1. She wrote her first book when she was 7. It was about an ant, and in her words (mostly, I think I remembered them correctly), "Nothing happened until the fourth quarter! As an egg, an ant does nothing. As a larva, an ant does nothing but eat and sleep. As a pupa, an ant does nothing. The only reason to keep turning pages was to find out if anything ever happens. I tell people, if you're writing a murder mystery, move up the corpse! People need to know about the dead body, or if there even is one, sooner than later."

  2. Work with what you've got and never give up. She grew up without electricity in the middle of a remote area of Quebec. There were books though, so she read them. There were pencils and paper, so she wrote. Her first novel, still to this day unpublished, was handwritten (because at that time she didn't know how to type) on blank exam booklets from the university where she was studying. "It just happened to work out that every chapter was exactly as long as one of those booklets." 
So, there you have it. A taste of what I experienced Thursday night. To share that moment with my daughter was indescribable and I will cherish the memory of it for the rest of my life. What it's also done is strengthened my resolve with respect to learning my craft. I have a story idea for something Margaret Atwood-ish. It's more a cross between 1984, Farenheight 451, The Handmaid's Tale, and Asimov's essay The Last Question, but the point is I am not ready to write it yet. I need to learn more, work harder, and make a metric tonne more mistakes before I can tackle it.

So I will.

~ Andrew

April 14, 2019

Hard Truth - Stephen

Another excerpt from my first fiction novel, Hard Truth. Available now from Amazon (.com or .ca), Barnes & NobleIndigoWalmartiTunes, and Google Play

You can get excerpts like this, blog posts, lyrics, and videos over at my Patreon page a full two months before you will see them here. Affordable tiers ($1, $3, $5) and something for everyone. Don't wait to see it on the blog, check it out on Patreon and stay ahead of the curve!


Stephen was a short man with thin shoulders, pointy elbows, and a ferocious comb-over. He sat in a leather guest chair and picked at his cuticles. He suspected the chair alone cost more than one of his mortgage payments. The monstrosity looked like it would swallow him at any second and his knee bounced up and down in quick staccato pulses. His business partner, Thomas, if you could call him that, was on the phone with someone who, based on the end of the conversation he could hear, was not his wife.

"Listen, babe, I’m going to have to call you back, all right?" There was a pause and then a high-pitched squeal. Thomas moved the receiver away from his ear and when the squealing subsided but the phone back in the crook of his neck. "Listen, babe… babe… babe, listen."

His voice rose with each syllable. He pressed the mute button and muttered expletives directed at no one in particular. Stephen folded his hands in his lap and looked over his right shoulder out at the vast expanse of New York City. He tried to envision what the home of the mistress of a wealthy businessman looked like.

Unmute. "No, I’m sorry I raised my voice, it’s just that I have a client here and it’s important…" Pause. "No, you’re important too. It’s just that..." Pause. "I understand." Pause. "I love you too, babe. I’ll be over after I hit the gym so you can get all sweaty and wet after I get all sweaty and wet." Thomas hung up his phone, raised both his hands palms up, and shrugged. "Chicks, eh?"

"Yeah, I hate it when they get all up in my grill like that," Stephen deadpanned.

Laughter echoed off the windows of the large corner office. "Did you seriously just say ‘get up in my grill’?"

"It’s urban. I can be urban."

"No, Stephen. No, you can’t be urban. You’re about as urban as John Deere. You’re a wet noodle, man, but that’s okay. You’ve got a great idea and we’re going to make a green and yellow truck full of money together. Then we’ll get you a protein shake, a gym membership, and a high-priced whore. You’ll look and feel like a million bucks!"

"Only a million?"

"Now that’s the fucking spirit, Steve-O! Smack the table and yell it."

He shrank into the chair. "What?"

Thomas slammed both of his hands down on the mahogany desk. "Only a million?" He brought his hands down onto the hard surface again, this time with a loud smack that shook the Tiffany lamp and elicited a flinch from Stephen. "Only a million? Come on, do it, Steve. Show me what you’re made of!"

Stephen reached out and smacked his palms down on the hard surface. “Only a million?” He sat back a concerned look as he stared down at his palms.

"Don’t worry, buddy, the cleaning ladies do a great job here. The best job. Now look here at the contracts and tell me what you think."


March 24, 2019

Painting Pictures With Words

This is a new thing for me. What I mean when I say a "new thing" is writing a blog post without using any inline images. Normally, I will break up a post here and there with either an image or a video or possibly some text formatting in order to give the piece a bit of shape.

Not today.

I'm taking a bit of risk with this. I get some fairly decent traffic, but it's still not enough to make a living on, so the desire for me to pretty this up with flashy images is high. I'm a writer, though, and pictures, for the most part, are not part of my standard operating procedures.

There's the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," and it's true. In fact, in 2011 I started a project where I would post a picture and people would submit a 100-word paragraph to me about it and I would stitch ten of them together to make a thousand-word essay about it. It was a cool exercise and it helped me get a sense of what words come to people's minds when they see an image. I found this quite relevant seeing that, as a writer, I'm responsible for performing that same act—only in reverse.

It's not an easy task.

Certainly, there are other ways to consume the written word besides reading them. There are many folks who enjoy audiobooks, many more still who listen to podcasts (which are just people speaking words), and there are even those who use braille, which for me represents the holy grail of users who provide feedback. You see, the world is dominated by the sighted. Just about every interaction we have involves a visual component. We even use phrases like, "See it in your mind." Well, what about those who have never seen anything? How would my work resonate with them? Would it resonate at all?

I don't have any of my work translated into braille (that I am aware of) but I would like to see how that works out one of these days. For now, I've decided that a decent half-measure would be to write a post and keep it as simple as I can. Words and characters as they would appear in a novel, with paragraph breaks and sentence length—and strategically placed em dashes—my only tools for altering the visual structure of the piece.

How'm I doing?

A common problem with many writers both new and old... er... experienced, is purple prose. It's also often referred to as "flowery". When trying to paint a picture for the reader it's easy to slip into the habit of tossing in descriptor after descriptor like rice at a wedding (or rice and toast when seeing a performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show).

"The woman glided across the sparkling marble floor, silently, on shimmering blue satin slippers as the brilliant midday sun shone through the only stain glass window in an otherwise gilded ceiling, which reflected the sunlight and sent it dancing throughout the room."

That might not be the best example, but you get the idea. When you try to dress up your text with a few fancy words, more than a few commas and end up telling the reader more things than you're showing them then you've got an issue. It's a constant struggle and when I am writing a novel it's always at the forefront of my mind. If I were to re-write that previous paragraph I'd go with something like this:

"The woman's slight frame combined with her satin slippers on the marble floor allowed her to move without sound. The midday sun shone through the stained glass window in the ceiling and it warmed her face. There were few shadows but that didn't mean there weren't places to hide. She tilted her head using small movements to improve her chances of picking up the sound of anyone lurking unseen in the nooks and crannies of the vast cathedral."

I think that's much better. Certainly not award-winning narrative, but you can see the difference, yes? In the second paragraph, we've learned much more about the character and the story than in the first one. She's moving without sound on purpose. We know she's in a church. We know it's a bright, sunny day. I don't know about you but I want to know more. Why is she walking quietly in a seemingly empty cathedral, but concerned that it isn't empty, in the middle of the day? There's more to this story and hopefully, it's written in such a way that the reader will want to find out more.

Question:
If they each were the opening paragraph of a book, which one would you be more likely to continue to read? (And no, there isn't a third choice of "neither").

The job I've committed to is putting together collections of words that don't paint a picture for the reader but help them paint the picture with me as we move through the piece together. If I feed them too much description then I'm stifling their imagination. I give this advice to other writers about writing sex into non-romance books: Less is more. If you give someone enough to get the idea of what's happening their mind will fill in the blanks better than any of your words will be able to. But, sex sells, right? Sure it does, but that doesn't mean you need to spill all the dirty details in order for it to be effective. It doesn't take much to go from engaging to gratuitous and when that happens you risk losing your reader.

So, it's a delicate balance that the writer must strike when they sit down at the keyboard and start their journey. I have got to tell you, though, when it works, when you get in that zone and you can close your eyes and let the visions in your head flow through your hands onto the page, there are precious few feelings as good. It's in those moments you're most likely to have painted a picture with your words and brought something into the world, not just for people to read, but for people to experience.



Links:

March 17, 2019

Patreon Video Greeting and WIP Excerpt

Greetings and Salutations


You can get excerpts like the one below, blog posts, lyrics, and videos like the one above over at my Patreon page a full two months before you will see them here. Affordable tiers ($1, $3, $5) and something for everyone. Don't wait to see it on the blog, check it out on Patreon!

Sometime in 2020 the first book in The "No" Conspiracies series, No Fixed Address, will hit the shelves. Here's your first look at the antagonist, Peter. Take note that this is an UNEDITED excerpt and may end up looking quite different after it goes through my editing team.



I am the only person in Dallas who has ever had this phone number. My dad pulled some strings for me when I moved here and he ensured that it had never before been in use. He also pays the bill. The only time it rings it when he calls me every Wednesday evening at seven PM.

The ring sounds like someone has let loose a compendium of three-year-olds with wooden spoons banging every pot and pan in the house. It is deafening. In the three years I have lived here, I have not been able to figure out how to turn down the volume and I am too lazy to replace the phone with something less obnoxious.

I am awakened from a deep dreamless sleep to the cookware cacophony that is my telephone. With my heart pounding like a bass drum in my chest at one hundred and eighty beats per minute my arm shoots out and knocks over my stack of bedtime reading comic books. Until that moment it was topped with my black hardcover engineering notebook. It makes a nice thwack as it slaps against the wall and slams to the floor.

I glance at the clock. Three PM. Four hours of sleep after writing code for the previous twenty does not feel like enough. I find and answer the phone without so much as clearing my throat.

"Hello?"

“Pete!”

The enthusiastic, high pitched squeal of my boss hits me like a steak knife on a stoneware plate. You have got to be fucking kidding me.

“Peter?”

At least the useless peon is correcting how he addresses me now. I am not a fan of short forms or nicknames. I empty my lungs with a long sigh. I cannot resist getting a quick dig in. The man loves to be called Rich.

“Yes, Richard?”

Incoherent mumbles come through the phone’s plastic receiver. Is he laughing? Heh. I hope he does not think I am being playful. The fact that an asshole as dim as a 4 Watt bulb is working that job never ceases to amaze me. The fact that he is an insufferable brownnoser makes it worse. The fact that I have to report into him makes me want to shove a Costco-sized bundle of sharpened number two pencils up his ass. Yes sir, one hundred and forty-four miniature graphite enemas coming right up. I should write that into the computer game I am working on.

“Pete—Sorry—Peter, are you there? We have a bit of a situation here. We need some WLCs to fill in for an Overnighter.”

WLC stands for Weekend and Leave Coverage; the Overnighters are the group that works the eleven P.M. to seven A.M. shift.

“How is this a situation? Our job is to cover off other people’s shifts. Why does it need to be me? Not interested”

“You’ve been specifically requested.”

“By whom?”

“You know how the hierarchical game is played, Peter. That’s not the direction this type of stuff flows.”

Richard is incapable of pronouncing hierarchical. Every time he tries, it comes out sounding like the name of some science fiction villain. Hire-arch-eee-cal. He uses big ten-dollar words all the time to make him sound managerial and important.

“I am intimately familiar with the office pyramid of accountability. How long are we talking?” Shit, I should not have asked that. Now I am negotiating. Never negotiate with terrorists or idiot supervisors. I look to my floor for my notebook, find it within an arm’s reach, and grab it.

“Well here’s the thing, it’s for the foreseeable future. Between you and me, it’s likely going to be permanent.”

I open my notebook with one hand and catch the pencil as it falls out from between the pages. “I am still not interested, Richard. I am not real keen on busting my ass as a full-timer and not getting any of the other benefits that come along with it.”

I am still not fully awake and my pencil leaves shaky scribbles of numbers on the page already cluttered with the last set of algorithms I am working on for a special assignment.

“You should be excited, Peter! Y’all are coming off weekends and leave.”

My grip on the handset tightens. The fake excitement in his voice makes me want to set my phaser a degree or two past stun and fire off a shot right at his throat. “You said ‘y’all’, Richard. Who is ‘y’all’?”



Thanks for reading!

~ Andrew

March 10, 2019

Opening From No Fixed Address

Sometime in 2020 the first book in The "No" Conspiracies series, No Fixed Address, will hit the shelves. Here's your first look at it. Take note that this is an UNEDITED excerpt and may end up looking quite different after it goes through my editing team.

You can get excerpts like this, blog posts, lyrics, and videos over at my Patreon page a full two months before you will see them here. Affordable tiers ($1, $3, $5) and something for everyone. Don't wait to see it on the blog, check it out on Patreon!
The table in this exam room is gray. The countertop is gray. There is a thin slice of scratchy gray paper between my butt and a cushioned if you could even call it that, gray table. Heck, there is even a gray paper towel dispenser dispensing gray paper towels.

Everything on the counter is perfectly aligned except for the biohazard box. All the jars with gray lids filled with cotton balls, long sticks with cotton on the tips, and tongue depressors are lined up with their sides touching and lettering exactly parallel to the edge of the counter. The bright red biohazard box with that funky symbol on it, however, is skewed to the left facing away from the others. It’s probably embarrassed. Everything inside it is sickly, or dirty, or lethal to anyone who comes in contact with it. I'd be embarrassed too if I was a walking death sentence, which for all I know I am.

I clench my fists and shove them under my legs to help stifle the urge to straighten it and instead focus on the mystery breeze blowing on my bare ass from an as yet undiscovered vent. I complain about the open-at-the-back gowns every trip I make to a clinic or hospital. Doesn’t everyone? Of course, what is the alternative? Open at the front? Ugh. 

A young doctor enters through the gray door. Stereotypical white lab coat? Check. Stethoscope hanging around her neck? Check. Friendly but detached expression trying to convey concern the same way you see a television doctor saving lives 60 minutes at a time, minus the commercials? Double check. 

I stifle a laugh-cough, but all it does is sound like I’m suppressing a belch. She directs her attention to her clipboard and flips to the second page and then back to the first.

“Good morning Mister...Um… Mister…” 

I’m not baling her out. She is on her own. She hasn’t bothered to update her office with a computer so the least she can do is put in a little effort to learn my name. Even if it is a pseudonym. If I didn’t think I was dying I'd get up and leave. 

“Mr. Phillips. Right. Mr. Phillips. Hey, there's a doctor named Phillips on that TV show.” 

“He's my cousin.” 

The Luddite doctor cackles and it sounds like my kindergarten teacher on the army base where I grew up. I wonder whatever happened to her. She has likely passed on. Cause of death: Got too close to the biohazard box at her last check-up. 

“My name is Doctor Jordan. What seems to be the trouble today?”

“I've got what appears to be a growth on my shoulder. It's probably cancer. I'd like you to take a look and refer me to someone who can remove it.” 

“Well let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Phillips. Take the top part of your gown off and we'll have a look-see. Where on your shoulder is it?” 

“Just around back near the top of the scapula is a gnarly looking brown lump. Asymmetrical, multi-colored, raised. Nasty looking.” 

“Hmm. Well, it definitely looks suspect. Let's book you for a consult with a dermatologist.” 

“Can't I just make an appointment to have it lanced, or scooped out with a grapefruit spoon or something and then sent for a biopsy? Wouldn't the most efficient path be to just lop it off and be done with it?” 

“It's not about efficiency, Mr. Phillips, it's about your overall health and wellbeing. We don't want to be any more invasive than we need to be. We'll have an expert take a look and we'll go from there, okay?” 

“Listen, one way or another, this thing is being cut out. I was going to do it myself but I thought it’d be worth the trip to see if you could recommend something less drastic than a fifth of Jack Daniels and my hunting knife.” 

“Do you often have the urge to cut yourself, Mr. Phillips?”

“No, I only have the urge to cut myself when I notice an abnormal growth sticking out of my shoulder!”



Thanks for reading!