Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Evocation

This is not usually the music I listen to, but the folksy/stripped down sounds often contain a level of emotion I rarely find in other genres. Occasionally, I will come across songs that, either by harmony, melody, or lyrics, strike me in such a way as to become statuesque and listen to the song repeatedly to make sure I get the full experience. This is one of the reasons I write while listening to instrumental music; there is an inherent heart-string pulling aspect that lets the brain reach deep down and chew on memories for awhile...



Snailhouse - "Clean Water"

"The Grim Reaper sees the movie of his life
As it flashes before him
Right in the moment he dies." 

What to say about this one other than it snuck up on me. That they're playing in a bathroom only adds to the haunting nature of the song. The melody is absurdly beautiful throughout.




Jeff Buckley - "Lover, You Should've Come Over"

"My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder...
All my riches for her smiles when I slept so soft against her...
All my blood for the sweetness of her laughter...
She's the tear that hangs inside my soul forever."

I picked up Buckley's debut album "Grace" in 1995. It has remained in my top ten favorite albums of all time. The songs are powerful without being overly sentimental or cliched. Buckley's voice has an effortless confidence across every register and no song gets skipped - this is 'play all the way through' album for me. Just phenomenal from front to back. Sadly, Buckley's accidental drowning a year or two later halted what could have been a ridiculously prolific career. Pick this album up immediately. 






"I found an excuse. And you found another way to tell the truth."

Watching this piece reminded me of all the musicians I knew back in Kansas City. I could see a lot of them doing something like this and it was a comforting thought. The song itself is wonderful; part Etta James, part 50's doo-wop, all excellence. I don't know how many people they crammed into that studio, but the lead singer was right...it's a beautiful wall of sound that's perfectly fitting for the song.



Elliot Smith - "Miss Misery"

"Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?"

If you didn't bother watching "Good Will Hunting," go do that first. Then when you hear this song, I think you'll have a better appreciation for it. The movie didn't influence the song and I have no idea if the reverse is true, but this is easily Smith's most recognizable songs and for good reason.





Chris Cornell - "Seasons (Live @ the AT&T Ball Room Sessions)

"Now I wanna fly above the storm
But you can't grow feathers in the rain."

Like most of the rest of my generation at the time, I was full on into the grunge sound in the early 90's. Pearl Jam, Green River, Malfunksun, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees...you get the idea. So when the soundtrack for the movie "Singles" came out, I was straight up giddy. Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden, had a couple acoustic songs on the album and this was one of them. I fell in love with it immediately. It's dark and oppressively beautiful. Having learned how to play the bass by tablature of their heavy dirge-like album "badmotorfinger," this song was a pleasant surprise.





Andy McKee - "Drifting"

no lyrics 


No idea where this cat is from, but a friend sent this video to me and I was immediately impressed. Besides turning the guitar into a full on percussive instrument, the song is wonderful and the title is more than apt. A lot of his other stuff is of the same variety. I don't believe he does any singing, but really...I don't think I'd want him to. The music says enough all on its own.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Craft - Pt. 6 / Write the Easy Stuff First...

...then complicate the hell out of it

Writing a first draft of a novel can feel like an incredibly Sisyphean task. You start with your idea and maybe a few images and lines and eventually, you work towards a very skeletal version of the actual story. Not unlike life itself, it's in our nature to conquer the easiest problems first; one at a time on down the line until we create solutions for each looming issue.

I've got completed first drafts of three or four novels I've written over the last 5 years. Only one is worth showing people right now and even that is incredibly anemic in parts. I worked all last summer on "Impasto" and "Rise" at the same time, and came to some pretty interesting conclusions for both stories. "Impasto" had been started the November before and "Rise" was conceived in March or April, just a few months before. Both were around the 120-140 page range and, up until August, solid endings were nowhere to be found. I was writing the stories moment to moment, wherever inspiration hit me hardest, and not writing towards specific conclusions. This is both frustrating and liberating.

This approach can be liberating because I'm of the belief that the story lays itself bare for you. This is one of the many reasons I've learned to simply let go of organizing the story past a certain point; if I'm at least giving myself over to the will of the story, the natural endings and complications reveal themselves when they're ready. Over-thinking a story in its infancy will halt progress just as easily as staring at a blank page with no idea of how to fill it. That you even have an idea for a story and want to attempt to write it all down is huge.

I have removed all bubble thought idea charts, detailed notes of characters, plot-lines and anything that breaks the story down to its most microscopic moments. I just write. It usually starts with an idea or a first line (like the name of this blog) and builds from there. The more I write, the more the story comes into focus, but I like to see where things go while it's all still fuzzy. Writing towards the moment rather than writing towards the ending - this is my approach.

This way can be frustrating, however. It seemed like several months where I wasn't writing anything this Spring. Not a page, not a paragraph, not a line, nothing. The creative well done gone dry for whatever reason. This is the pratfall of not keeping notes or not creating idea bubbles; once you get stuck, you're stuck. You almost HAVE to engage in one of the hundreds of writing prompts available to you. I decided to buy a white board and some dry erase markers. I changed my sleeping habits and would fill the white board in about half an hour with a multitude of ways things could occur in both novels. I broke down characters and actions, town names, complications. I deconstructed "Impasto" to find the real story and finally it hit, and when it hit...damn. I saw how certain complications would bring my incredibly thin story to something more interesting and beefy on an emotional level. Now the piece had, not necessarily a message, but a point.

This meant scrapping sections and completely revamping sections to make room for the new ones. This meant taking bits of the old and mixing it with the new in order to form something more coherent. This meant I now had a destination in mind, which only served to speed up the process. My thesis adviser this summer (and my workshop last semester) were instrumental in helping get "Impasto" closer to being the story it should be. I knew that my original ending was terrible. It lacked any kind of emotional oomph and was poorly written, so I apologized to them when they read it, knowing that it was easily the weakest section of the book. They all agreed and said "do it again." Finally I found an ending that makes sense psychologically and will, hopefully, tug a bit emotionally. It complicates all the characters involved and finally makes them feel like real people with real feelings at stake.


So don't get discouraged. It's okay to have a first draft that's not good. I can't think of anyone that DOES write a good first draft. It'll change on you, it'll morph and adapt to different things that happen.

Let it.

It's easy to write something cliched and simple once you start writing. But it's during the editing and revision process that you should take the time to complicate things. The characters might be stock or the plot very traditional, but turn them all into something complex and your story will thank you for it. The true mark of this happening is when the story surprises even the person writing it. That's the sweet spot and that's exactly where you want to be.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Great First Lines

My friend Theresa reminded me that there are a ton of great first lines of novels out there. I've constantly tried to make sure that my opening lines are eye-catching and memorable. Most recently, I've started trying to find a way to make my first lines tell the reader everything they need to know about the book. Those that  encapsulate the very essence of the books they precede, I believe, contain the greatest amount of power. To have completely summarized the emotional and possible physical action of your book in a first line or paragraph is an incredibly hard thing to do, but oh so satisfying when you've nailed it. Here are some of my favorite first lines and why. This will be part book review/part spoiler, so if you plan on reading any of these books and don't want the end ruined, don't read much farther.




 "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."

"The Dark Tower Series: Book One - The Gunslinger" 
by Stephen King

I should preface this one by saying that I normally can't stand King's horror/terror/suspense work. Though I've read most of them at least once, it's his more traditional stories I find the most interesting. Even this series, about a gunslinger in a post-apocalyptic kind of magical world, is more engaging than his suspense. I've read all 7 books in the series at least 8 times. I'll probably pick them up again near the end of the year. But this first line says EVERYTHING about the series. For 7 books, Roland Deschain chases a wizard across his world in hope of avenging the deaths of his parents. That's the real simple summary. Anything more specific would need several blog posts and really, you should just pick up the series.




"It was a pleasure to burn."

"Farenheit 451" 
by Ray Bradbury

Man! What a great first line. Probably one of my favorites on this little list. Fire or heat are often viewed as cleansers of a sort; burning and boiling eliminate germs and spores or completely decimate objects. But in this classic by Ray Bradbury, it's used by the government to eliminate ideas and words. Special firemen are dispatched to the homes of individuals suspected to have libraries. Once they've confirmed, they burn not only the books, but often the houses as well. One of the firemen begins reading some of the material up for burning and finds that he doesn't understand why the books are being destroyed as he reads more and more. That a colony of people, each sanctioned to memorize one book out of the millions available, springs up from this government vs. the people dystopian-esque society is no surprise.

Fire, fire everywhere, and not a book to read...






 "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
  
"The Metamorphosis" 
by Franz Kafka 

Easily one of the most classic pieces of literature, one so strange that it's bizarre so many people are required to read it at so early an age. A man wakes up no longer a man, but as a beetle, in his parents' house. His struggle to adapt to his new form along with wondering how to get along with his family in this new shape create an atmosphere of the true outsider, despite Gregor being a member of the family. Where the title "Choke" (see below) failed as both a metaphor and hint at the physical and emotional natures of its text, "The Metamorphosis" excels. Gregor learns to utilize his new body in ways he couldn't have before, but the fascinating parts are the family members slowly losing their interest in him as a member of the family. They begin to treat him like the bug he has become. Immediately, this first line sets up the entire premise of the book. Kafka gives it all to us right up front without reason or warning; it is simply the situation.



"On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the street before he could get back."

"I Am Legend"
by Richard Matheson

Before you roll your eyes and judge this book based on the three movies it's been adapted into, let me tell you that all three movies completely missed the entire point of the book. The novel finds us right with Robert Neville, one of the only men left alive and still human after an outbreak. The beauty of the novel is in the ending, which hasn't shown itself on the silver screen yet; Neville has been captured by the creatures and stares out through barred windows. The roles of monster and man have been reversed. Neville is now the "monster" to the ever-growing population of creatures (who have become the norm rather than the exception). To arrive at this ending, Matheson writes an incredibly captivating book where you care for the main character, but eventually end up understanding (if not flat out siding with) the creatures who constantly hunt him down. This first line sets up a kind of parameter for the novel to work within; daylight is important for Neville's survival against whatever "they" seem to be.




 "If you’re going to read this, don’t bother."

"Choke"
by Chuck Palahniuk

This was the book by Chuck P. that finally made me say "enough." For me, his opening line was prophetic and I should've paid attention. Palahniuk gets progressively worse with every new book; characters with such bizarre traits and severely flawed moralities (typically) put themselves into weird situations. Even on a story level, the title barely touches on the interesting (if not despicable) notion of the main character pretending to choke in restaurants, getting saved by patrons, and collecting money from them later. When used as a metaphor for the emotional content of the book, the phrase 'choke' is even worse. This character works crap jobs, does crap things, all while his mother is in the hospital. And yet again, we have a sex addict. *Snooze* This was easily one of the least interesting, conceptually, of Palahniuk's books.

I read it. I shouldn't have bothered.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Influential

My homeboy Surya recently got me thinking about a lot of the things I read as a kid and there were a few books that stood out to me in the conversation, or rather they were the ones that bubbled up to the surface from so long ago.  So here's a list of some of the books or series of books that influenced me as I was growing up.

Some I found in the library at school, others were bought from the old Scholastic Fairs that would come to school for a week or two, and others were found at the library we'd go to every weekend. I remember a reading program called "Book It" that was involved with all of the local libraries, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, and some bank in Oklahoma City at the time. If you read "x" number of books you got a prize, if you read "x" number of books higher, you got a better prize, so on and so forth. Needless to say, our mother got us hooked on that program pretty early on. We'd spend hours in our rooms reading. One could make the argument that she was a good mother by enrolling us in this program and fostering the good habit of reading at an early age; I think she just wanted a quiet house for longer than half an hour (we were noisy, argumentative kids...pains in the ass for sure).



Ul de Rico - "The Rainbow Goblins"

Probably one of the craziest books I've ever read in my entire life. Also one of the most spectacularly visual. De Rico not only wrote the book, but he painted every page within. That's his art that you're reading AND seeing. Imagine that there are 7 goblins in the world, each a different color of the rainbow. Now imagine that these goblins survive by drinking up the pigment of rainbows that appear after storms. They catch the color in nets and drink it up like alcoholics. Now imagine that the undergrowth and root system of the natural world hears about your plan to steal the next rainbow and hatches a plot to save the rainbow so you can't have it. This is that book. Here's just one of the many, many gorgeous pictures from inside:










Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators

This was a fun series of books. Three friends, who kept their "Headquarters" in a junkyard, investigate mysteries. The books were pretty longish for kids books of the time, but I'm almost positive I read every one of them. Every time we went to the library, I'd try to find more that I hadn't read before. Now I'm on the hunt to find them online and buy them all up again, but it looks like they're quite the collector's items and haven't been reissued. Not only did I read these, but I read almost all the old Hardy Boys books, Nancy Drew, and had nearly all the Choose Your Own Adventure books too. Now I wish I had held onto them all when we moved to Kansas City.


















  Howard Pyle - "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood"

I couldn't recall one of the stories out of this book when asked, but I vividly remember staying up late at night reading it by moonlight on the top bunk of the bunk bed my brother and I used to share. I'm sure this idiotic practice was a good part of why I wear glasses today.






Norton Juster - "The Phantom Tollbooth"

God, this book was so good. A bored kid one day finds a box in his bedroom. In it, he finds a car and a tollbooth. He drives the car through the tollbooth and finds himself in a nonsensical world based on grammar, syntax, and proper use of English. In a strange way, this book is a very teachable one in that it actually helps to solidify a lot of the rules of English in the reader's brain while remaining an entertaining story. This will be required reading when I finally (if ever) have kids.






Shel Silverstein - "Where the Sidewalk Ends"

This book was forever checked out of the school library. If it was ever on the shelf, it wasn't there long. It wouldn't surprise me if this book had been checked out by every reading-aged kid in the school at least twice, if not three times. Some of the greatest pieces of poetry, limericks, and hilarious pictures to show up in kid lit. Shel Silverstein was a scary looking dude but wrote some really great stuff.






Donald J. Sobol - "Encyclopedia Brown" 

Apparently I had a thing for detective novels as a kid. Encyclopedia Brown was a super attentive boy who helps people around his neighborhood by solving minor crimes. The books were broken up into three separate (and sometimes interrelated) stories. Each story ended before the case was solved, leaving the reader to attempt to solve the puzzle (though the solutions were in the back of the book). I think I read all of these as well.




Feel free to leave a comment about any of the books you remember being influential to you as a kid. I'm actually reading more kid lit these days for no real apparent reason and I would love to check out some more.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Current Reading List

I'm the kind of person that reads several books at the same time. It hovers around 5, but typically sticks around 3 when I'm busy. Right now, this is a list of the things I currently find myself in the middle of finishing and some initial impressions.


This has been a fairly interesting read. Rather than approach rap purely from its historical origins, Bradley and DuBois break down the lyricism into its poetic parts. This reads more like a treatise on how rap is poetry (it is) rather than a simple listing of classic song lyrics laid out on the page. I haven't gotten terribly far into it, but the introduction and foreword are terribly interesting reads.



I bought up a ton of Barthelme's writing two years ago and found myself too busy at the time to really get into it. Reading his works is no easy task. He is complicated, confusing, and often frustrating. The man wrote according to his own brand of storytelling and to be honest with you, I find myself scratching my head at most of his passages, especially in "The Dead Father."



A classic of classics. A bumbling old man who fancies himself a knight of the Spanish countryside with his sidekick Pancho, a punching bag of a realist who seems to be along for the ride just to make sure the old man doesn't hurt himself. If you ever wondered where the phrase "tilting at windmills" comes from, read this book and you'll understand.



This was one of those drunken City Lights purchases so many moons ago with Surya. I've just recently cracked it open (it's some 600+ pages) and while the prose is good, Adrian seems to want to overpower the reader with long passages of background on every character. While interesting, most of them are unnecessary and have forced me to put the book down more often than I'd like. Partly told from the perspective of an angel and part from the perspective of a nurse in the hospital, this is a Noah's Ark-esque story set in modern times.



The 8th book in a set of 13, these kids books are pretty entertaining. Snicket (aka, Daniel Handler) uses everyday adult aphorisms and then explains them in ridiculous terms so that kids can understand their meaning. While each book is somewhat formulaic, the series has been pretty entertaining and definitely shows a great imagination on the part of Handler, most notably in his final messages to his editors at the end of each book. These preface the next story in the series in strange and often hilarious ways.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craft - Pt. 5 / The Ending

I don't care how prolific someone may be, the ending is always the hardest thing to write. I've only gotten to a true ending once and it took me entirely too long to get there. Every other piece I've done remains unfinished because of any number of reasons; either I've lost passion for the piece (unlikely) or I just want to make sure the ending is worth someone reading "x" number of pages to get to. I can think of nothing more offensive than buying a book that reads so well up until the disappointing ending comes. This is when I want to throw the book across the room in anger. If the same amount of time and care had been used to craft the ending as was used to craft the entire rest of the book, the work in its entirety could have been more respected.




I recently finished Kevin Brockmeier's "Brief History of the Dead." Really interesting concept about how the memories of the living affect the afterlife progress of the dead. Until the dead have no one else on earth to remember them, they're stuck in a kind of expanding and contracting purgatory. Once any memory of them is gone from the earth, their spirit passes on to what I'll call the next level of the afterlife.

Brockmeier creates an incredibly vibrant and interesting afterlife that mimics that of the physical world. Characters meet up with their long lost family members or engage in occupations that they wanted to while alive, but couldn't for whatever reason. The concept is super engaging but the ending falls so far short of what I was hoping. Split into two separate alternating stories, the earth has been consumed by a fast acting virus that's eliminating the populace. With so many people dying all at once, the expanding/contracting purgatory starts overflowing with confused people. As more people on Earth die, more people in purgatory move on to Next Heaven, until there remains a large group of people in purgatory. This means there is a survivor on Earth...and she is a scientist working in the arctic circle, completely away from the rest of the infected.

I knew from the outset of the novel that the parts of the book focused on the main character lost in the arctic circle were going to be rough and often slow going. But I pressed on because I felt the concept was interesting enough that the ending would live up to everything up to that point. Main characters moved on without much explanation, loose ends weren't tied up as nicely as expected and the book felt as if it just kind of ended rather than eased the reader out. This angered me as I'd spent so much time trudging through the really pedantic parts of the story, the parts that REALLY slowed the prose down and made the book difficult to finish. People should never be subjected to an unsatisfying ending; not in books, not in the movies, nowhere.

A professor of mine says we should "always be aware of the 'Spielberg line'," meaning you don't want to have your ending lead up to some absurdly overly-sentimental tripe that tries to pull at the heartstrings. That kind of ending works for some people (okay, for a LOT of people), but it's not always the most interesting or surprising.


Yes, I LOVED the Harry Potter series of books. Aimed at more youthful readers, J.K. Rowling's books showed her writing getting better and better with each successive chapter in the series. By the time we get to the end, there is a great deal of emotional investment in all of the characters involved. We know the intricacies of the world she's created and while we probably know going into it that the good guys win, the ending still packs a powerful punch. That Harry defeats Voldemort in a final battle is unsurprising, nor is the epilogue that follows, but the endings are SATISFYING. The loose ends that Rowling leaves scattered throughout all seven books are tied up, there is emotion, and the writing is solid. I don't know of anyone who has read the series that was disappointed in the ending. I wouldn't call the series masterful, but considering the age group it was geared towards, that it fulfilled both young adult AND adult tastes...that's pretty close.

Bottom line: I knew when I turned in the ending of "Impasto" this last semester that it was terrible. I knew that the payoff for all the work my readers had done wasn't going to be worth a damn. The ending was some of the worst, cliched writing I've ever done and the comments I received deservedly reflected the terrible writing. I had led my class to believe that my book was worth reading, but then gave them a turd of an ending as if to say "your time is irrelevant, this is the end." Thankfully, that ending has been changed since then into something much deeper, more emotionally satisfying and with characters people will (hopefully) care about to some extent. Loose ends are tied up, plot holes are filled, so on and so forth. There was serious effort on my part to make sure I'm not wasting the reader's time.

Because really...you've already spent who knows how many months or years crafting the book. What's another month or another year to make sure that ending is right if you've already gotten everything else where you want it? The ending is the taste you'll leave in the reader's mouth once the book is closed and you want that to be as delicious and enticing as possible.

2011 Albums of Note

I'm a huge music nerd. As a deejay for 10 years, I've been exposed to a ton of music, which opened me up to influences spanning damn near every genre. I don't usually pay attention to a lot of new music; I typically just stumble on to things via Pandora (an amazing site) or Youtube videos posted up on Facebook. I wouldn't really call this a top albums of the last year, per se. This is more of an "I got turned on to these albums this year" kinda thing.


Flying Lotus - "Cosmogramma"

I've seen this guy a few times now and the show is always pretty out there. He's certainly spearheaded the glitch genre up from underground status to the more publicly accessible, though there are hundreds that have come before him. All of his albums up to this point have been super on point and this one is no different. The standout track for me was "MmmHmm." I'm not sure if it was because it was the first video released off the album or if because the video below was so bizarrely spectacular.







TOKImonsta - "Midnight Menu"

I got sucker punched by this album. I was searching for more "like sounding" stuff on Amazon using Flying Lotus as my jump off. TOKImonsta is now on Flying Lotus's brainfeeder label and this album succeeds for me personally where some of Flying Lotus's stuff falls short. I'm a sucker for deep, emotional melodies and this album holds them in spades. The second track of the album, "Sweet Day," begins with old Chicago-style horns and then slides into a syrupy synth soliloquy that doesn't lose it's power throughout the track. "Madness" is another good one, beginning with epic strings that change completely into what I imagine an old spy detective movie would have as it's theme these days. But it's "Bready Soul," the video below, that really slayed me.







Dam-Funk - "toeachizown vol.1: LAtrik"

Two words: robot porn. Dude plays a keytar. Some of the nastiest basslines I've heard in a very long time. This is the music blacksploitation movies will use several hundred years in the future. Seriously. Buy every one of his albums immediately. He's so sick, I'm posting two videos.









Toro y Moi - "Under the Pine"

Take the best parts of hipster indie rock and the best parts of funk and disco, lay some nearly ethereal vocals over the top and this is what you get. Great party music for when you want people to feel like the decision between making out and dancing is a genuinely difficult one. The video below is actually off the album "Causers of This," but is an excellent representation of their entire discography.








Digable Planets - "Blowout Comb"

Admittedly, I've been a Digable Planets fan since day one. I was on a school field trip in D.C. when I first bought "Reachin': A New Refutation of Time & Space," their first album. I listened to that thing so much, I nearly had all the lyrics memorized by the time I returned home. The problem is that these cats got slept on; gangster rap made its rise up into the public consciousness not long after their first album came out, so when this one showed up, only the heads payed attention. Sampling from pretty much every jazz great possible, the DPs brought a unique style and flair to the rap game rivaled only by many in the Native Tongues crew around the same time in New York City. This album is dark without being violent, beautiful without being saccharine, and lyrical without being pretentious.







Jonsi - "Go"


This is the solo outing for Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi. He, like the rest of his band, is from Swedend and they've been putting out music for years that would make angels cry unstoppable tears. Both orchestral and powerful, Jonsi and crew's music is absurdly cinematic and provocative. Especially considering he often sings in his own made-up language.






Death Cab for Cutie - "Narrow Stairs"

I try not to listen to the radio, of if I do, I'll try to listen to the retro station where I know that the ratio of stuff I want to listen to vs. the stuff I wouldn't mind listening to is high. Hearing the same songs on the hour every hour pisses me off and these guys have often fallen into that category of bands that get played repeatedly, so I REALLY didn't want to like them or this album. After checking out a few of the other songs on Youtube, I realized this was probably a pretty solid album and gave the whole thing a listen. While not my favorite album ever, the writing is phenomenal. The lyrics are both playful and sad at the same time while being undeniably smart and witty. Not so much the album you want to listen to after a break-up, but a good one nonetheless.






Damu the Fudgemunk - "Spare Time"

I first heard about this dude about two months ago. No idea why I'd never heard of him before since he seems to have that same kind of Nujabes/Madlib style of producing about him. Super solid joints, most of them instrumental. I heard this album and had to check out all the others, which all turned out to be super jazzy hip hop beats perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon bbq session with the family. Some very ill stuff on these records.






Hum - "Downward is Heavenward"

So yeah. One of my favorite bands, these guys haven't put out anything new since 1998, but I'd put this album up against anything coming out today. They're playing a reunion show in Kansas City on November 4th and I'm definitely flying home to see them with every one of my homeboys who got me hip to this album. It'll be like our own little strange family reunion. Hum has been making what I'd call "Space Rock" music since 1989. They haven't done much since '98, however, other than a smattering of random shows. These guys are like a wall of sound put on compact disc. If you're not blown away by these cats, I don't know what to tell you...though you may want to turn it up louder.



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Writers as Friends, Friends as Writers

aka, "The Need For Non-Academic Editing in a Post-Academic/Pre-Publishing Time"

or

"How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Edit Bomb"


I can't even count on all my fingers and toes how often I've written something, stood up from the computer, did a little "Rocky" dance, and thought I had just crapped literary gold out onto the page only to find that my peers agreed with everything except the "literary gold" part. And I've yet to experience a workshop that wasn't more than half-right on every occasion.

It's taken me the better part of my last 6 years to respect the editing process. I never did it and was reminded constantly of its importance, but now things have changed. Having small classes seemed to foster a kind of unity and camaraderie, a trust, that (for me at least) allowed more honest criticism to come through. If I was the subject of any kind of snarky or severely biased feedback, I either didn't notice or didn't care.



I have two friends I met through this program who give it to me straight on everything of mine they read. Likewise, I do the same for them when they give me pages. All three of us understand that confidence-boosting comments are necessary, but only if they come alongside the spotlighting of issues in the work. Plot holes, actions that don't make sense, odd phrasings...these are all evident in every manuscript. And they will probably remain a problem for us well into whatever state of publishing career we find ourselves...which is why we need each other.

Yes, Virginia, egos exist in a writing program, but so do people who know when to put them aside in order to make someone else's text better. If you are writing (and you should be) and you're allowing people to read what you're writing (you should, maybe) and you're genuinely listening to their comments and their comments are helping you, then you should trust those people. They're not writing your manuscript, you are, and if they're the kind of people that won't sugar-coat things, they'll pick up on all the small nuances that you KNOW should be there, but may not be. They read the story with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. They don't have the story's plot branching off into 30 different possibilities because the only possible plot the story could have is the one you've just given to them.

Having readers you can trust is absolutely essential because they'll tell you when your writing sucks and they'll do it in a way that's not condescending or insulting; they're genuine in their intent to make your manuscript something worth reading. And they'll force you to go back and edit that "literary gold" flaked turd of a submission until it's closer to precious metal than wastebasket filler. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Any Dogmatic Approach to Writing is a Lie

Dogma; some people use it like a cane during old age. Me? I'm more of a "what works for you may not necessarily work for me" kinda guy. My father called me the Crapshoot King last night, reasoning correctly that I tend to just do things at my own pace and the proper events transpire like some kind of effortless midas touch even though there is a great deal of effort behind everything I do.

I took a "Teaching Creative Writing" class this last Spring. It was good and informative and I had to teach two classes (one on poetry, one on a David Foster Wallace non-fiction piece) and also run a workshop on a student's piece. I may never get comfortable with the idea of lecturing or speaking in front of a group of people in a formal setting, but the class taught me a great deal. What it did not teach me, however, was something I felt I knew going into it - there is no one way to write.

There have been many styles over the years: romanticism, transcendalism, surreal, etc, and within those particular styles there is a kind of form or structure (or lack thereof) that places them firmly in the genre or discipline. But ultimately, no one way is the right one, only the one that you choose for yourself. Some people prefer the more traditional forms of storytelling (exposition, character dialogue, mental soliloquies, end), but in the last few years I've moved my writing further and further to the strange side of things, which has helped me as an individual stand out. You would certainly be able to tell my writing from other people, which is what the whole process of writing should entail. Tell the story that YOU want to tell, not the one you think people want.

I've known people over the years who, after having some highly interesting and engaging pieces get ripped apart in workshop, completely scrap the project in favor of something safer or more readily accessible. I can't even begin to tell you how sad this makes me. A piece with such promise gets lost in the shuffle in exchange for something we've all read a hundred times before simply to appease the masses. We as readers (and writers) should expect more from other writers. Even if a piece is confusing and maybe a little heavy-handed, if the idea is solid and interesting, we should foster it and help make it less confusing and less pedantic. Don't we all just want to read some interesting texts? I'd rather be engaged than bored to tears.

This year has been pretty terrible, in comparison to the last 3, for my writing. I wasn't pumping out nearly the amount of pages I had the year before or the year before that. I was stuck and needed to change up my writing habits somehow. I stopped writing on my bed and moved to the kitchen table. When that didn't work, I tried wine, then moved on to vodka. When that didn't work, I knew there was something wrong. No amount of conversation in the workshops was helping to propel my own drive to put words to page.

I realized I was distracted.

In order to help alleviate the distractions, I had my best friend back home in Kansas City lock me out of my Facebook account for a month. This helped a bit, but not completely. Then I remembered that I wrote most of my second book at his place during the latest part of the evening when it was quiet. I started training my body to go to bed at 7pm, would wake up at 2am and write until I went to work at 7am. It sounds like a ridiculous timetable, but it was efficient and productive.

Saying there is no dogmatic approach to writing is, in a way, it's own dogma. But if you're running into issues, ask other writers how they go about solving the problem. It may take you several outside-the-box solutions to find one that fits. Or maybe you'll find that three solutions together form a delicious unity of productivity. Regardless, you should be writing more and that is the truth.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Under the Influence

"Write drunk; edit sober."

I'd be surprised if you haven't heard this Hemingway quote before, especially if you're a writer. Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that writers are such notorious boozehounds. "The old guard pulled it off, so why shouldn't we be able to do the same?" might be the subversive psychology behind it. Poe had his narcotics, Hemingway and Cheever had booze, so on and so forth. Perhaps the use of substance simply comes with the territory of having the artist's ego, a kind of "look what I did" mentality when a work is finished (whether that be painting or writing or anything of a creative nature). I'll be the first to admit it; I like hearing that people enjoy what I write. The essence is pure "me" on the page and the validation of that being worth something to someone is gratifying for sure.

For most of the writing I've done since starting a strange and unfinished novel called "Lex Talionis" during my undergraduate days, it hasn't been uncommon for me to have an ashtray and an adult beverage next to my laptop. The smoking helped force me to stop and re-read what I'd written and the booze...well, I like to think it helped me move past whatever reservations I may have had about certain passages. I have written many pages sober for sure, but when first putting ideas on paper, I've found that being a little mentally loosey-goosey has evoked some interesting out-of-the-box ideas, most of which have become integral to the new pieces. 

This is obviously not a healthy way of turning a hobby into something more, but really...if you're gonna drink, isn't it better to be productive while you do it? Sure you'll find pages in dire need of editing the next day, but at least you'll have pages to edit. There's nothing more frustrating than sitting in front of the empty white space and finding you have NOTHING to say. The page isn't going to fill itself and sometimes, being a little inebriated can unblock those self-doubts a bit. It's like putting on your beer-goggles at the bar except you can delete the bad decisions you made on the page. Deleting the bad decisions you made the night before in the bar is a little more difficult.

There will inevitably be that intoxicated moment where you say "Damn, this is great!" only to wake up the next morning to re-read it and say "Holy crap, this is terrible." But again, at least you'll have something to read, some jump-off point to work from. Thirty pages of crap is still workable; thirty pages of blank requires so much more effort to change.

Craft - Pt. 4 / Conflict

No life is complete without it. There are forces constantly backing us into different corners and the way we handle ourselves during these conflicts is what helps shape who we are as individuals. Conflict in fiction should be taken as seriously as the conflict(s) in your own life. This is the push/pull of individual vs. idea and can often be the epitome of the will in action.

When beginning with the idea for "Impasto," I had to figure out who my players were (since I usually start with characters first). If "Event X" is the driving momentum of the story, the reason the story exists, then Conflict for me comes shortly after. It is the action/reaction conversation the characters have with themselves or with others in the story. "Event X" affects the characters in different ways, evokes different (and often surprising or frustrating) emotions in the people you've created on the page. My married characters have a fractured history to them that I felt was necessary in order to create later conflicts in the book. The unwed characters as well, but there is a certain kind of emotional bond within a marriage or civil union that can create deeper, more meaningful conflicts. This is simply my own personal opinion. Arguments can certainly be made for other kinds of interpersonal relationships (friend to friend, lover to lover, parent to child, etc.)

When you know the full history of the characters you're creating, it's easier to have these conflicts rise up naturally in the text to block the forward progress of the characters. Conflict complicates, and complicated characters are so much more interesting and engaging to read on the page. When they make hard choices or act in a surprising way, conflict helps to further engender the characters with the reader. They become easy to relate to because the reader understands the character's mindset based on history and past actions during minor conflicts (a non-injury car crash, being dumped by a lover, a paycheck not arriving on time, etc.).



I've been reading the Lemony Snicket "A Series of Unfortunate Events" book series for the last couple of months. I'm on book 8 now and still enjoying them. It's a children's series about three orphans who get moved from foster home to foster home while being chased by a man named Count Olaf, who is trying to kill them in order to get their inheritance. As separate novels, each book is fairly formulaic with the others in the series. But the children are constantly put into situations where they have to act like the adults in order to save themselves. The adults are painted as either dimwitted and friendly or intelligent and evil. For the age range of these books, it works. In the name of Conflict, it becomes very easy to have these dimwitted adults unintentionally block the forward progress of the children in keeping Count Olaf away from them. Snicket creates intentional conflicts to continuously show us the character of these children, which always ends up propelling the story forward.





"The Hunger Games" trilogy is another set of books based towards young adult readers that does a great job of inserting well-placed and ethically interesting conflicts in the paths of the characters. Set in a future dystopian society, two kids are chosen from each of the 12 remaining "districts" that make up this post-war U.S. and forced to fight in arena battles to the death. The one winner, who has killed off the rest of the contestants, is given a home to live in and food enough for their district to survive on until the next round of Hunger Games. I'd love to give a deeper synopsis of the book, but I genuinely don't want to ruin it for those of you that haven't read them yet. Suffice it to say, while there were a few tiny plot holes here and there, I was so engrossed in the story that I went through all 1200+ pages in the course of two and a half days. I almost called in sick to work purely to finish the last novel. Everyone I've recommended this series to has fallen in love with it.

Collins does some really amazing layering of conflict upon conflict upon conflict in order to bring out interesting nuances in the actions of her characters. With so much going on, it can be easy to weigh the prose down and drag the story on and on, but Collins keeps it moving quickly without the solutions being easy to choose or carry out. She complicates the hell out of every character, which builds them up into well rounded individuals while making the reader sympathetic to their situations. The conflicts draw the reader in closer so that when the hard choices are made by the characters, we're right there with them, torn and hopeful that the decision is the right one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Craft - Pt. 3 / Setting

I've made it a point over the years to write by certain personal guidelines:

1.) I never write anything personal.
2.) I rarely, if ever, highlight any kind of technology in my stories.
3.) I leave my setting vague unless the setting is necessary for the story to unfold.


I learned guideline number one the hard way and won't be falling back on it anytime soon. I've had professors tell me they want more of my personal background on the page. I tell them it's there, just not the way they want. I made mistakes, I moved on. It's unlikely you will ever hear about me writing a memoir of my life. Ever. 

The second guideline falls into my overall aesthetic of writing. I find that the stories I read that highlight or rely upon current technological advances tend to feel less "universal" or "timeless" as the years go on. In fact, some of them feel absurdly dated and laughable. A story should work no matter which end of a millennium it pops up. This timelessness is what I try to achieve with all of my pieces. I can think of nothing worse than writing something that gets overlooked because the topic was a fad for a few years and its time has passed. Don't mistake this aesthetic as leading to boring writing.

Thirdly, depending upon the story I'm writing, the setting can be an afterthought. If the story is believable and true and emotional, then the setting, honestly, is irrelevant only in that it's where you, the writer, want the story to take place. My thesis about an art theft makes more logical sense being set in a museum. My magical realism novel, "Rise," could be set anywhere with jungles and rivers and heat, but I chose a South American locale as the basis for the setting. The point is this - setting is important once you figure out what your story is REALLY about and once you figure out what's at stake for your characters. Unless the fate of your story absolutely has to rest on the setting, it can be ignored for a bit. I love good landscape descriptions, but I continue reading a book because of how the characters interact and very rarely because of the scenery around them.

I'm reading the first couple of chapters of a friend's manuscript at the moment. Like my own "Rise," it's a magical realism piece. Where I fall flat on my own scenic descriptions, she is flourishing on the page. I can see and smell nearly everything to the point of almost tasting it on my tongue; she takes the proper amount of time setting a scene, something that I have always had problems with for one reason or another. Setting is important for just this reason. You want the reader to be COMPLETELY immersed in the world that you've created, even if it is a fictional one.

One of the biggest critiques of my thesis over the last couple of semesters was the lack of scene setting that I'd done. As bizarre as it may sound, the writer needs to be at one with both the characters and the scene. With the characters, writers need to know everything about the people on the page. Birth, death, past, important moments that shaped them, physical tics, speech patterns, etc. With scene, the writer needs to be just as close, as if they're standing right in the middle of everything while describing it to the blind (the reader). The more detail one can produce, the more lush and real the scene becomes.

There is the issue of over-describing. When this happens, the prose slows down and the story comes to a halt; the momentum disappears and it's hard to pick it back up again. Rather than describe an entire scene all at once, I've found it easier to break up the descriptions between bits of dialogue or plot exposition. This keeps the momentum moving and the reader doesn't become mired in landscape moments that may have little to do with the overall arc of the story.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 5th MFA Mixer: Video of Me Reading from "Rise"

A little clip of me reading at the last MFA Mixer at the Bollywood Cafe. This is the first chapter of another novel in progress called "Rise." The sound is a little muddled unfortunately, but still kinda nice to have some video of me out there doing a reading.





Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Soundtracks, Pt. 1

I stated in my first post that oftentimes, music is the impetus for possible story ideas for me. When music is not the grand inspiration, the story usually begins with a line that I can't get out of my head or an image so pervasive that it must be described immediately. In these latter instances, my process changes.

I've always been very into music. It's been a part of who I am since an early age when I played the violin and later, the bass guitar for 15 years. Then as a dj, my tastes opened up and expanded, allowed the old classics in and influenced me even more. So before every writing session, I take a step back and think about the project as a whole.

What kind of emotion am I trying to convey with this piece? Is it happy, sad, or terrifying? Whatever the answer is, I try to find its musical equivalent. I'll spend several hours putting together a playlist of instrumental music that directly influences these emotions so that my state of mind while writing stays emotionally true. I use only instrumental music (whether it be rock or hip hop or whatever) because I don't want someone else's lyrics influencing the words I put down on the page. Not to mention, listening to singing while trying to write is pretty distracting in general.

My magical realism book with the South American setting has a playlist of more latin sounds and rhythms so that the feelings evoked spill out through my fingers onto the page. My current thesis, a novel about art theft and lost loves, contains a lot of old jazz. Miles, Kenny Burrell, Ornette Coleman, etc. Rather than utilize the more upbeat and happy tunes, I've chosen the bluesier, more somber pieces from the artists. The book is not a happy one, so the music should reflect that.

What I've done here is post up some albums that fall into my playlists almost consistently. They are all instrumental and they are all, for me, emotionally provocative. I would encourage you to check them all out, even if it's just on youtube. The Cinematic Orchestra, I swear to God, lives up to its name in the greatest of ways.


Dj Cam - "Mad Blunted Jazz" 

This is one of those albums that has, from my very first listen, reminded me of what a sky full of angels sounds like during the most beautiful of sunsets. It is French hip hop, but pulls from so much of the old jazz records. With few vocals and a lot of incredible samples, Cam blew me away with this production. I recommend this album to everyone I meet.





Miles Davis - "Nefertiti" & "Bitches Brew"

Even if you haven't listened to jazz long (or at all), it's easy to hear a Miles Davis lick. He might use the same horns and plugs as every other jazz trumpeter on the planet, but he plays it in a very Miles Davis way that's distinct and gut-wrenching. "Nefertiti" is the more "accessible" of the two albums for those just getting into jazz ("Bitches Brew" is more fusion/experimental and without as much formalized structure as "Nefertiti"). Of all the tracks on both albums, "Pinnochio" and "Fall" are the two that hit the hardest for me, primarily because they are two of the earliest Davis songs I ever heard and have some pretty great memories attached to them.




The Cinematic Orchestra - "Motion" 

This was one of the first LPs I bought when I first bought my turntables back in 1999. I had no idea who they were or what they sounded like, but with a name like The Cinematic Orchestra, it had to be good. It was one of the best buys I ever made and the album absolutely lives up to its name. Sweeping strings and horns over hushed vocals and lush syrupy hip hop beats, this is another album that I recommend to almost everyone who enjoys their music a little on the more downtempo side.



Explosions In the Sky - "The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place"

If you had just lost the love of your life and found yourself stranded in the desert on a mild night with the stars lighting your way across the sandy landscape...this would be the soundtrack the moon would play for you in the hopes that it would cheer you up and steel your resolve.



Godspeed You, Black Emperor! - "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to the Sky"

Clocking in at almost two hours long, these four songs run the sonic and emotional gamut; from silence to chaos, from lovely to loud. If there are rapidly vacillating emotions and actions in a piece that I'm working on, this instrumental rock album is not only phenomenal, but quickly rising as one of my favorite albums.




Dj Shadow - "Endtroducing"


The debut album released by this HipHop/Trip Hop legend. Besides racking up acclaim in almost every music magazine across the globe, Shadow's productions layer sample upon sample. Most of the tracks are 5+ minutes long, but never feel as if they go on too long. The album feels more like Shadow is letting the songs wind their way around the listener before being completely inhaled rather than choking the listener with repetitive rhythms.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Prologue to "Impasto"

It's a weird thing to think that this project is the culmination of my last two years of graduate work. I wouldn't have minded if our thesis requirements were more academic in nature (see: a dry research paper), but despite all my bitching, pissing, and moaning about this thing for the last several months, I'm actually quite proud of this piece. Before I moved to San Francisco, I don't know that I would've even come up with this kind of idea for a novel, much less the different ways of formatting all of the paintings' sections.

However, as promised, here is the final copy of my prologue to my novel-as-thesis titled "Impasto." Enjoy...and please feel free to comment/critique.


            The name on his door read “Leonard Dellsin, Head Curator” and he despised rainy days second only to the icy ones like today. With advertising proofs in his hand, he turned towards the window and saw the lawn of the Chicago Metropolitan Museum of Art, a wide expanse of white nothing that seemed to glisten dangerously. The trees wore sleeves of ice on every limb, each bobbing up and down in the late afternoon breeze. How long would it take for one of the branches to finally give out, to give way under the weight of the fallen weather, before it cracked and plummeted to the ground?
            A day like this used to make for a good excuse; sledding with his college mates way back when or even an afternoon in front of the fire with Marj later on in life. She had liked that. He’d spend an hour cutting limbs and branches from the tree in the backyard while she cozied up the living room with blankets and pillows and made sure hot chocolate was ready when he was done outside. He’d come in, red-faced and breathless, to the sound of Charlie Parker on the stereo. Marj would be sprawled out under blankets close to the hearth, waiting for him to return with a bundle in his arms and she’d watch patiently as he got the fire started. But the hearth hadn’t seen fire in many years and he was glad to not be at the house.
            In the space of a moment, he thought about cider drinks, nogs, the crackle of wood spitting out of the fireplace, the angry red of split wood burning slow into ash, warm brandy coating the throat, a shared cigarette passed from hand to hand in the twilight hours,  icicles as long as a man’s leg, ice forts and slushy streets which evolved into thoughts of stalled engines, and wet shoes from the walk through the snow-covered parking lot before realizing he would have to finish the workday in soaked socks, an uncomfortable feeling he detested.  
            The space heater at his feet had already dried his shoes and socks hours ago, but it felt good against his toes, warmed his body from the bottom up as he tried to focus on the text options in his hands. The whimsy of a possible snow day had been replaced with the work spread out across his desk. In six months, the pieces from the Pushkin collection would be hanging on Leonard’s walls. In five months, the second floor would be completely devoid of anything, blank walls as far as one could see from every direction as the museum’s crew replaced the current exhibits with the ones arriving. In four months, Leonard would have littered the city’s billboards and buses with posters and banners proclaiming the importance of the works on loan from Russia. As always, everything had to be close to perfection, but this new exhibit had lit a fire within him. Picasso, Matisse, Degas, a Rothko or four…it would be Christmas in June as far as he was concerned.
            He took a sip of his coffee and winced. A tiny globule of powdered creamer stuck in his back teeth. The flavor was…flavorless, really, a gooey nothing taking up space in his mouth and ruining his fifth cup of the day. He tossed it into the trashcan without looking. Shelley could make another pot. It was going to be a late night anyway.
He hadn’t hired Shelley because of her experience (she had less than he would’ve liked) or because of her looks (though she was a young and terribly pretty brunette with the largest hazel eyes he’d ever seen), but because she didn’t seem to fear him. She had moxie and more than a little fight in her, but she knew when to use it and when to keep it under wraps. He didn’t want another assistant that always agreed with him. The last four had been tragically boring despite being very efficient at the job.
            “Go with Georgia, go with Impact, go with Verdana,” he said, turning his chair away from the window and towards the desk. “Any of those are suitable – they’re clean, concise, and readable. This…this…this illegible rubbish of a font you’ve got here is unacceptable.” His fingers flitted across the proof in his hand as if he didn’t even want to touch it.
            “Perhaps the Grumpy Wizard style of text would be more fitting,” Shelley said with a smirk. She held the empty manila folder against her chest.
            Leonard looked at his assistant over the top of his glasses and kept his face blank. “Shelley, are you trying to get a rise out of me today? I get the feeling you made that one up just so you could poke the bear a little.”
            “But sir, I only have a year left before you retire. I have to get my cheap jabs in now while opportunity allows.”
            Leonard snorted as he compiled the proofs on his desk into one stack. “Do me a favor. Hold off until the exhibit opens, then you may have at me, yes?” he said unsmiling. He looked the ads over once more and then handed them to her. “Perhaps I’ll bite back appropriately and make it worth your time.”
            Shelley slid the proofs into the folder. “Fair enough, sir. Anything else I can do for you at the moment?”
            Leonard leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead. “No more of that powdered creamer in my coffee in the morning,” he said, waving his free hand. “It makes the coffee taste like plastic and clumps up at the bottom. Just liquid creamer from here on out.”
            “And if there is no liquid creamer?”
            “I’ll deal with straight black. Better to be bitter than clumpy. Tell them to go with Verdana. It’s a strong, visible font and commands the kind of respect and power this collection demands. The text needs to convey that. You’d think the people who put these together would understand the concept of words linked to images.”
            “Yes, sir. Is that all?”
            “No. Tonight, you leave when I leave and it’s going to be a late one.”
            He had known she was busy tonight. Shelley made a point of letting him know yesterday so this wouldn’t happen. She kept her voice even in the hopes it would sound reasonable without being whiny. “But sir, I had dinner plans this evening.”
            “Then we’ll order in. That’s all.” Leonard leaned forward in his chair as Shelley nodded and turned to leave without another word. When the door shut behind her, Leonard pulled out a thick, leather-bound photograph album filled with glossy pictures of the works arriving in a few short months. He ran his fingers across the glossy plastic covers keeping the pictures protected and in place, turned each page slowly and then lost himself in the images for the next hour. Yes, this collection would be an important one to have housed in his museum. Just touching the pictures here caused his heart rate to spike in the most delicious of ways.

*          *          *

            Shelley Morris, a young blonde two years out of her graduate internship at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, left Leonard’s office and decided to take the short way down the employee stairwell. Normally, she’d take her time and walk across the museum’s main floor to the public stairwell, but she wanted to get back upstairs quickly. Could she get through writing all the notes in time to leave here at a decent hour? She knew dinner was out of the question now, but maybe she’d get out in time to meet up with Andrew for drinks.
At some point, she’d have to call him and cancel dinner. Again. It was bad enough she had to ask Andrew out in the first place since he didn’t have the balls to make the first move, but getting a third date had taken an absurd amount of phone tag coupled with apologies he had probably tired of hearing by now. “You should let me talk to your boss,” he’d said in a half-threatening, half-joking manner when they spoke about tonight’s dinner date two days ago.
            God, how Andrew would be pissed. Shelley had gotten used to the strange hours during campaign time, but still. Having a social life outside of work was hard anyway. Making it work around a slave-driver of a boss’s agenda made it damn near impossible. Had he really complained about powdered coffee creamer just now? He could be such a fussy diva.
            Shelley reached the bottom of the stairwell and opened up the heavy metal door that led into the long hallway of offices. Only a few of the doors were propped open, but the PR&A, per usual, had theirs shut tight. Until a campaign was finished, the two departments liked to keep new projects under lock and key before the art and text had been approved. Like they were some kind of spy agency or something, even though nobody down here could keep a secret to save their life. Shelley snorted at the thought and then shook her head as she entered the offices.
            No typing, no inter-office meeting, nobody on the phones, nothing. The offices were unusually quiet. Behind the partial cubicles, desks were covered in other proofs and folders, staplers and post-its ringing the edge of computer screens. One desk, Nancy’s, had three small plants placed between pen holders and boxes of paper clips. Shelley kept meaning to ask how she grew them in an office with no windows.
            She walked towards the doorway on the right leading into another room full of cubicles, all with three full walls and a partial fourth that made a doorway of sorts. She stood on her toes and looked over into the corner, spying Monty’s scruffy head of blond hair poking up out of his cubicle.
            “Let me guess,” he said without looking at her, “he wants something boring, but big.”
            “How did you even know I was here?” Shelley asked, sidling up to Monty’s desk. His notebook of font styles was spread open and several printouts of various text scattered across the desktop. He had drawn thick black lines through, what she assumed were, fonts he found unacceptable. The beard he began growing in the fall was now unkempt and bushy, but covered an otherwise childlike face. If one were to ask, she preferred him clean shaven.
            “I heard the door open. Everyone else took an hour to go celebrate Gabriel’s birthday, but they’ll be back to finish up the evening.”
            “And you’re the only one here because…”
            Monty shrugged. “They’re bringing food back for me. I wanted to get some extra work done in the hopes of leaving early, which I know is ridiculous, but that’s how I’m justifying it. Plus you know I’m not a big fan of Gabriel anyway. Or snow.”
            “So you’ve said. Many, many, many times. More times than there are fonts in the world. More times than there are languages in the world, in fact.. And yes, Curator Buzzkill wants Verdana.”
            Monty let his head fall back against the chair and pretended to snore. “That man is such a snoozefest. Verdana. So boring and yet, so unsurprisingly him.”
            Shelley smiled as she leaned up against the cubicle entryway. “Not five minutes ago, he complained about the consistency of the powdered creamer in his coffee. He said he’d rather have it bitter than lumpy. I thought to myself, you got the bitter part down.” Monty laughed and shook his head as she continued. “So Verdana it is then. Just give me a holler when you’ve got something else for me to take to him. I’ve got to get back upstairs and finish his thank you notes.”
            Monty’s eyes widened. “His what?”
            Shelley moved closer and whispered. “It was his birthday last week, but I forgot, so I didn’t get him anything until his wife reminded me in passing a day later.”
            “What does one get their hateful boss after working for him for so long? A tie? A nice desk pen? A cravat?” Monty asked.
            Shelley bit her lip, wanting to laugh. “It was this really terrible cologne. I just wanted to get him something, anything at that point. I already felt bad for forgetting. He definitely hasn’t worn it to the office yet.”
            Monty shook his head. “So he’s punishing you, huh? For the gift or for the forgetting?”
            “That’s not even the worst part. On the list of people he’s sending his notes to, I’m the last person on the list. I’m writing my own thank you note. How fucked is that?”
            Monty’s eyes widened and he whistled. “The man’s got balls. Makes you wonder how he ever got married.”

*          *          *

            Marjorie Dellsin stood in the center of the room with her hands on her hips and pursed her lips as if to chide the furniture surrounding her. The bookshelf and mantle looked clean, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d given them a thorough dusting. Leonard had complained about the mess this morning, but she couldn’t see what he was talking about. She got down on her hands and knees and lifted the skirt of the sofa, peering into the black underneath. Nothing there. He had a penchant for making mountains out of molehills, but it hadn’t always been this way. He was sweet once, when they were younger.
            She crawled over to his recliner and did the same, seeing nothing again. She stood up and ran a finger along the top of the bookshelf in the corner. Nothing. Museum life had made him uptight about the cleanliness of his own home and Marj couldn’t keep up. She wasn’t one of his restoration employees. The house didn’t need to be spotless at all times and it seemed more than acceptable right now. In fact, it was damn clean and nobody could argue differently. Except for Leonard.
            Marj moved to the entertainment system and turned on both the record player and the receiver. The platter’s tone arm lifted automatically, ready to play whatever she wanted. She leaned down to the shelf and picked out three records at random, wanting nothing more than to break the silence of the afternoon. Leonard had called and wouldn’t be home until after dinner, so a cocktail before dinner was definitely in order. Maybe two. No husband and no plans? This could turn out to be a lovely and quiet evening after all.
            She put on the first record, a Gil Evans album she and Leonard had bought at a garage sale what seemed like decades ago. Someone had gotten rid of their entire record collection and unceremoniously put a box of records out near the sidewalk for anyone to look through. Audiophile that he was, Leonard told her to pull over and almost didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out to scold the owners.
            “Hey! Why are these records out in the sun? You should really have them back there in the shade if you want them to be any good,” Marj could hear him say as she crossed the street.
            A kid in his mid-twenties stood up from the rickety porch steps of the house. His hair was a long, shaggy brown and his clothes had a dingy tint to them. Marj thought he looked high. “What’s that, mister?”
            “I said the sun is bad for vinyl. You’ll ruin these and no one will be able to play them. Vinyl melts, son. Don’t you know this?”
            The young man looked surprised, as if he hadn’t. Leonard knelt down to finger through the records, checking to make sure they were still playable. His fingers flew across the edges of the cardboard sleeves as Marj stood beside him, keeping her eye on the college-aged man. Though, she mused, he didn’t appear to have any collegiate aspirations, what with his torn up shorts and ratty shirt. A shower might have done his complexion some good, too.
            “Honey, don’t cause a scene,” Marj whispered. From the porch, the young man stared at her as Leonard pulled out several records and laid them on the grass beside them.
            “I’m not making a scene, dear. I just hate when people don’t take care of things the way they should be taken care of.” He grabbed the stack of records and turned to the young man. “How much for these eight records?”
            “Say, fifty cents a piece, so… three bucks.”
            Leonard snorted and handed the records to Marj. “Deal,” he said to the young man, pulling out his wallet and handing over three bills.
When they got back in the car, Leonard seemed fit to burst. “Kid couldn’t even do basic math. No wonder he didn’t appreciate these records. No class. Good lord.”
            And they had kept those records all these years, kept them in almost pristine condition. Well, Leonard had anyway. One was a little wobbly from the heat, but could still play just fine. The rest had been completely playable, but this was the one they enjoyed the most. Marj grabbed a glass from the kitchen and headed to the wet bar. Two fingers of vodka and some ice would do her nicely this afternoon. Forget a microwave dinner – she was going out for dinner. Somewhere nice and quiet.
            When she had filled her glass, she laid out on the recliner and let the music fill the room. The notes made her feel warm and cocooned, like the pure comfort of a hot bath. She sipped from her glass and picked up her cell phone, dialing the number for a restaurant she and Leonard tried out two weeks ago. She had loved it but he found his meal ‘underwhelming’ and made clear how much he never wanted to return.
            Leonard. So many late nights over the last few years. Was it really work related or was she deluded enough to let it slide to keep up the marriage fa├žade? He was either too dumb to have an affair or too smart to get caught, she thought. But that assistant of his was pretty. Maybe too pretty for him? Marj hated even having the thought, but couldn’t help it. Were other curator’s wives like this? Was the suspicion warranted or had she been played time and time again? Surely he had been faithful. He was too busy to be otherwise…right?
            She made her reservations for later and downed her drink as the first side of the record ended, leaving the needle to skip against the circular groove in the middle. She got up to turn the components off, put her glass in the kitchen, and headed upstairs to change. She had made reservations for one, but would end up sharing her table with a complete stranger by the time the night was over.

*          *          *

            To the casual observer, Frank Anjela stood out. The lone patron sitting at the bar, he wore what he considered a poor man’s suit – dark blue jeans, black work boots polished to a shine, and a grey houndstooth sport coat over a white polo. The outfit appeared haphazard, but Frank had chosen carefully. When a judge sees a man in a nice suit, he assumes the man has money. When a judge sees a man in street clothes, he assumes the man is poor or doesn’t respect the courtroom. An outfit like this, however, says a man is trying to respect the court, but isn’t rich enough for a three-piece. Frank didn’t care about the court, only its decision. And he wasn’t poor, not by any measure. The difference? His money never found its way into a bank. Paper trails made it easy to get caught and only the weak and unimaginative got caught.
The bartender watched as Frank guzzled down the last of his scotch. “Another?” he asked. Frank nodded and slid the empty towards the drink well.
            He hated Chicago. If it wasn’t too cold and windy, it was too hot and windy. If it wasn’t windy at all, it was humid. The city seemed to hate its inhabitants and had no qualms with using the weather to show it. The cuffs of Frank’s pants were still moist from the walk back from the courthouse. Six inches of snow turned an easy twenty minute walk into an hour’s worth of trudging and heavy breathing.
            The bartender noticed Frank watching and filled another rocks glass with ice and amber a finger’s width from the top. Sorry, pal. My wallet doesn’t stretch that wide, Frank thought. Not today.
The bartender placed the drink on the bar and smiled. Frank lifted the glass and tilted it toward him in salute before taking a plug. The burn was always a nice one, no matter the temperature. The bartender moved back down to the empty glass on the counter, washed it in the sink, rinsed it out and set to drying it with the towel cloth tucked into his belt.
“Is it always this dark in here?” Frank asked. The lighting seemed to have dimmed over the last hour. Surely he wasn’t already that drunk. Had it only been an hour? Longer? Not like he really had anywhere to go now. The rest of his night would be filled with room service and crappy cable television that he’d fall asleep watching.
The bartender looked up and out to the empty dining room before shrugging. “Managers think it sets the mood. Makes it harder for me to see what’s going on, ya know?”
Frank grunted. “It’s Friday night, where is everybody?”
The bartender put the dried glass down with several others stacked, top down, near the liquor well. “It’s Chicago. Visitors want to go out and taste the city, not the hotel menu. Get more people asking me about how to get to other restaurants than I do about what’s good on our menu. Things pick up around ten.”
“Ten seems kind of late for dinner,” Frank said before sipping his drink.
“Kitchen closes at nine and the whole place becomes a lounge. We get rid of some of the tables and then it’s all booze and piano music until two.”
Frank turned to look at the rest of the room. He saw tables on both sides of the curved, brass railings running along each side of the room. The shine of the brass formed an ovular shape around what he realized was a dance-floor. It was pretty tacky now that he saw it. Like an old disco joint, but classed up enough to hide the shameful homage. He saw the black piano pushed up into the far corner of the room. Almost unnoticeable with how dark it was in here.
More than half of the tables were empty. Of the ones occupied, only two had couples sitting and eating – the rest were all dining solo. One couple sat in the middle of the room, eating quietly. Neither seemed to be speaking to each other while they ate. On his right, a woman sat, resting her head on her hand as she stared out the bay window. He couldn’t tell if she was a blonde or older and graying, but she was striking from this distance. He followed the curve of her body downward and saw that she wore a knee-length black dress with matching heels. Frank wondered what the hell kind of woman wore heels during a Chicago winter.
“What brings you to the Windy City?” the bartender asked, breaking Frank’s musing.
Frank turned back to his drink. “Court. Custody battle. It’s been a swell time,” he said sarcastically. “I had to miss a few days of work to be here, so I’m hemorrhaging money right now.”
“What do you do for a living?” the bartender asked.
Frank looked back at the woman sitting alone by the bay window. She was sipping her coffee and toying with a cell phone on the table. He’d wager she got stood up by a date. Her body language told him everything; the way she traced the rim of her glass with a finger, the fidgeting with her phone. She was either an easy mark or someone he could have an evening with…vulnerable and emotionally malleable. Both sounded good after a day stuck in a federal building with his ex-wife, a woman who seemed to be taking him for everything he was worth. On paper, anyway.
“I acquire objects for other people,” Frank replied nonchalantly. “Money, jewelry, things, stuff, hearts, halos, pride, kisses, people’s thunder…you remember Morgan Freeman in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’?”
The bartender nodded. “Sure.”
“I’m a little like him, but for objects more valuable than rock hammers or posters of women.” Frank stood up from the barstool with the drink in his hand. “Excuse me, I shall return,” he said as he left the bar and walked over to the woman.