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!

March 03, 2019

Hard Truth Opening Chapter

This is the opening to my first fiction novel, Hard Truth. Available now from Amazon (.com or .ca), Barnes & Noble, Indigo, Walmart, iTunes, 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!


Monday, July 10, 11:30 a.m.       

Thomas held his sleeping mother's hand as she lay motionless in her fancy medical bed. Her face wore an expression of pain and discomfort. Even with the oxygen mask, she had difficulty.
The nurse was singing a song and folding laundry. Sandra was putting a perfectly folded fitted sheet onto a pile of flat sheets and pillow cases forming on top of the dresser.
"Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?" Thomas offered.
"That’s very generous of you, sir, but it’s not necessary. Go to the office or go buy your wife something pretty, I’m sure she’ll appreciate that," Sandra suggested.
"Yes, I’m sure she would, but I want to spend some time with my mother during the day for a change. How’s she doing today, anyway?"
"Not great, but you know she’s been having ups and downs for a while now."
"I should have expected a downturn. She had a couple good days in a row and it was probably too much for her to put together one more. Go home."
"Are you quite sure?"
"Yeah, I’ll be staying here for the remainder of the day and at least until Mrs. Van Steen or Brittany get back."
"As you wish. I’ll just finish with this laundry and then be on my way."
"Sounds good. I’m just going to hop in the shower. If I’m not out by the time you’re done, just let yourself out and we’ll see you tomorrow."
He retreated to his washroom to clean up and throw on some casual clothes. It wasn't often he got to wear jeans on a Tuesday. When he came out of his bedroom dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of well-worn Levi’s 501s, the nurse was gone. There was a basket of perfectly folded laundry on the coffee table with a note that read, "She didn’t eat much breakfast so she might be hungry. There’s soup in the fridge. Thank you! Sandra."
Thomas took the note and threw it in the garbage and checked the fridge. There was a bowl of soup with a plastic lid and another note on top that read, "For Mother."
Thomas checked his watch and saw that it was just about time for lunch so he pulled the soup out of the fridge and microwaved it for a few minutes, which turned out to be entirely too long, as the bowl was too hot to the touch when it was done being nuked. He grabbed a dish towel from the handle of the oven door and wrapped his hands around the bowl before shuffling back the way he came with extreme caution. He didn’t spill a drop. 
He walked like a tightrope performer around the corner and into the room, nudging the door open with his knee. She didn't budge as he fumbled his way to her side, ensuring he took a wide berth around her bed to avoid a hot soup disaster. Setting the bowl down on the nightstand and pulling up the rocking chair, he sat down, closed his eyes, and rocked himself for a few seconds. The quiet was nice.
The cell phone in his pocket rang with the chorus to Sweet Caroline blasting through the faded denim. He jumped up to silence the phone and his knee caught the edge of the nightstand and knocked a glop of soup onto the hardcover copy of Dickens as well as the alarm clock. He pressed the answer button on his phone as he reached to the floor where he dropped the dishtowel after delivering the soup.
"What?" he whispered.
"Thomas? It’s Roger from Doodlepants Toys and Collectibles. I have some news about your costs."
"Yeah, it's me. Just dealing with a, uh, situation here." Thomas wiped the soup off the book. "Lay it on me, how bad is it?"
"It’s bad. After your up-front capital costs for basic materials and transportation…"
Thomas flinched and bumped the bowl of soup as he was trying to clean up his mess and sent more spilling onto the alarm clock, table, and floor.
"God damn it. Go on, but hurry it up. My situation got worse."
"Want me to call you back?"
"No, I need to know now."
"Well, after the up-front capital costs for basic materials and transportation it’s going to cost at least three times what you budgeted for the manufacturing and distribution."
"What? Did you say three times?"
"At least."
"Jesus Christ. What the hell happened?"
"An earthquake. It damaged the manufacturing plant. No casualties, but no production for a while either."
"Son of a—"
"Listen, if there’s any way to get out of that contract I’d find it. You’ll be lucky to make a third of what you were hoping."
"Fuck."
He ended the call, slumped down in the antique rocker, put his head in his hands, and rubbed his forehead. The flashing blue light on his phone caught his attention and the little envelope icon indicated he had a voicemail. He dialed and wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder to listen to the message. As he leaned forward to mop up the soup, his hand pressed a button on the alarm clock and the radio started blasting.
"For the love of—"  He scrambled to unplug the alarm clock as he listened.
"Thomas, it’s Stephen. I’m still waiting for the contract. I thought Jenny was supposed to make copies and fax them over before she left the office. Get me back with the status ASAP. I'll be in class so send a text or leave a message."
He looked down at his sleeping mother with a big grin on his face. "She hasn’t faxed it." His hand found a cord behind the night side table. He gave it a yank and his mother’s ventilator started beeping loudly. "For fuck’s sake." She stirred in the bed and he reached down and yanked the plug out of the wall for the clock and fished around for the cord to her machine. Soup was everywhere. His fingers found his target and he felt his way down the wall until they touched a wall plate. After two tries the machine's quiet hum and her labored breathing were the only sounds in the room. He checked his watch and calculated twenty minutes to get to the office—if traffic cooperated. He kissed his mother on the forehead and bolted out the door.
He waited only a minute for the elevator to arrive and in that time he left a voice mail for Jenny to not fax the contract. The elevator doors opened as he cursed Jenny for not being in the office or answering her cell phone. He stepped in and pushed the button for the lobby, the last floor for his elevator, and cursed the design of the building for having a separate elevator to take you to the parking level
He hammered on the door close button in false belief that this would result in the doors taking less time to shut. The automated voiced announced he was passing the ninth floor, the lights turned off and the elevator came to an abrupt stop. There was a moment of total darkness before the emergency light came on. "You gotta be fucking kidding me." He slammed an open hand against the elevator wall. "Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck fucking fuck!" He pushed the emergency call button and nothing happened. There was no beep or buzz or ringing or any indication at all that it was working.
He turned on the security monitors in the elevator and cycled through the floors until the image on the black and white monitor showed the lobby. It was a wide shot of the foyer with the security desk in the corner and Mitch out around the other side gyrating and twitching like he was having a seizure.
"Answer the call button, you worthless idiot."
He pressed the audio button and the blues-driven sounds of Keith Richards's guitar penetrated the steel box. The sound had a distinct echo, as if it were broadcasting out of a giant tin can, or say a small metal box eight-and-a-half floors above ground.
"Screw you, Mitch. You’re a terrible Mick Jagger."
Mitch ran to the other side of the desk and picked up the security phone, and Thomas, watching and listening to the conversation, tried something different.
Thomas took out his cell phone and checked for a signal and was immediately disappointed. There was no cell coverage and he was out of Wi-Fi range for his unit or anyone else’s. On top of that his battery was sitting at less than ten percent.
"Shit."
He closed his eyes and fought to remember if he plugged mother's machine back into the proper socket—the one hooked up to the backup power. He was so angry and flustered that he couldn't visualize where his hand was on the wall. Normally the alarm clock plugged into the regular socket so it would have been easy to tell, but with the phone call and the soup debacle both were unplugged. He furrowed his brow, squeezed his eyes closed more tightly, and rubbed his temples. Even plugged into the wrong socket the battery backup would last about half an hour.
He started to hyperventilate and his chest became tight. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and he pulled at the collar of his shirt. He checked his watch and his hand shook as he looked at the time. It was 12:02.
Mother had twenty-eight minutes to live.