October 31, 2007

Tagged By A Friend: A Desktop Meme

My Friend Lisa McGlaun who publishes the inspirational Lifeprints blog tagged me with a meme; and, needless to say that I am flattered. I am relatively new to blogging in this format, and having such talented and generous folks such as Lisa as a supporter is uplifting.

This meme is called "What is the personality of your computer?" I'm supposed to take a snapshot of my computer desktop, and attempt to explain what it means about me. For the purposes of this exercise, I chose my laptop because my work computer has information on it I wouldn't want to disclose to the public, and because my laptop is the only computer in my home which my wife and children haven't completely hijacked.

Note the Joe Girardi baseball card as my desktop wallpaper. Yankees fans will know that just this week, one of the greatest Yankees managers of all time, Joe Torre, delined the Yankees offer of a one year contract and could be managing the Dodgers next year. Joe Girardi, one of my favorite Yankees, although his career in pinstripes lasted only three years, has taken over as the new Yankees' skipper. Baseball is a huge part of my life, and this blog began as a baseball blog (though I failed miserably at it). Much of what I read, listen to, watch, and discuss with my friends revolves around baseball. Lately, I've taken to football, just to give my pals a break. But, don't expect to see any Eli Manning wallpaper any time soon.

Many of the files and folders on the desktop contain my writing and images for this blog. I have two, full length novel manuscripts residing on this hard drive (backed up elsewhere) and hundreds of family photos. The desktop itself may appear boring, but inside every megabyte of that hard disk is a scene from one of my character’s lives. At the point when this snapshot was taken, there may have been one of my protagonists getting shot, or losing a family member, or just plain being happy. There's an unseen world happening behind that baseball card on the screen. I liken it to an apartment building hiding in plain sight in the skyline of a city. There are families within, each with their daily dramas occurring just out of view of the hundreds of thousands of commuters whose eyes can't see past their windshields to notice them. Yet, there they are, my notes, manuscripts, and outlines, like news stories within the folds of a newspaper, on my desktop waiting impatiently for you, my blog visitors, to read them.

This has been a fun experience for me, this meme; and, I want to once again thank Lisa at Lifeprints for giving me the opportunity to tell a little about myself. It has been an honor to receive comments from such friendly voices, the good folks who take the time to read my posts, that I am determined to keep writing to the best of my ability.

To keep spreading the fun, I'd like to tag some new blogging friends I've made over the past few months to continue this meme. Please feel free to opt out of this, as it is only good fun, and there is no pressure to to do this. Also, let me know if you've already participated in this meme. There's a writer who visits here often and I'd like to extend an invitation to Kristyn over at Kristyn Writes, who is a terrific writer to keep this meme going. Also, I'd like to ask Elaine over at Elaine's Place to help out, and finally, I'd like to Invite Eng Foo Tiam at Beautiful World to participate as well.

Thank you, everyone, for being a loyal readers of Mr. Grudge.

October 26, 2007

Write Whatever You %$#@*%$! Want

My former career as a police officer seemed like an alluring one to many. All the way back to the old 1951 TV series "Dragnet" with Jack Webb, and later on with 1968 to "Adam-12" with Martin Milner and Kent McCord, these shows planted an image of police officers as curt professionals in the minds of the public. Their language was official, and they were all business. Jack Webb's character, Sgt. Joe Friday, made "Just the facts, Ma'am" part of the American lexicon. The awful truth however, is that cops have filthy mouths. Also, the criminals that police interact with tend to spew obscenities as a second language. Together, police and "suspects" become a cursing, swearing, and profane, mega-force whose power doesn’t always switch off in polite company. I’ve been to many an occasion where I had to suddenly remember "where I was" and not drop the "F-Bomb" at my wife's, Grandmother's 83rd birthday party.

Since I left the police department in 1999, I switched careers and now work in the information technology field. Still, I am a writer as much as I was a cop or a computer geek. Much of my writing revolves around the world of crime, patrol officers, and the occasional shootout. But, to balance my credibility with the reader and the dialogue between my characters, I am very selective with my use of profanity. It is said that a good novel is not what you put into it, but what you take out of it. So, in order to allow my characters to converse with each other without my story reading like a wall in a public restroom, I save the vulgarities for moments where it would have the most impact.

For example, in my most recent story, my protagonist is a retired cop who lost his wife and daughter to a drunk driver. His best friend is a retired detective whose lover died of cancer. They bond because of their loneliness, but have to defend themselves from the organized crime figures who wish to take revenge against the detective for arresting them decades earlier and landing them in prison. My original draft had the two of them cursing, swearing, and expressing themselves with incredible vulgarity to the point where it became tedious, boring, and ultimately ineffective. In the end, I deleted all of the four letter words and discovered that in some scenes they really weren’t saying much of anything each other, let alone the reader, and that much of the dialogue was worthless. After scrapping much of the unnecessary bad language, I began to write more dramatic discourse without the F-word and the like, and I told the story with a fresh voice.

Towards the climax of the story, where my protagonist is confronted by the murderer of his wife and daughter, I finally allowed my character to unleash his rage, and he did it with every available tool on his belt, including the four-letter variety. The words became more vile, hurtful, and effective because the reader hadn’t seen them for most of the book and they come on as a bit of a surprise. At least that’s the feedback I’ve received from those who have read the manuscript already. So, I’m glad I held back, trusted my instincts, and washed my characters' mouths out with soap.

Am I saying that a writer shouldn’t allow his or her characters to curse? Of course not. As always, these articles reflect my method of writing. If anyone finds any of this useful, I am happy to have helped. If you think that I am being too careful and that you can have your characters curse early and often in your stories, then go ahead. Do whatever the fuck you want.

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October 22, 2007

A Halo Among The Branches

There was a story I heard when I was a young boy about the statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard of our church. Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church had a long, concrete pathway leading up to a raised, brick and mortar platform where one could walk up and kneel before the statue of the Blessed Mother. Her arms were outstretched towards those her beseeched her in prayer.

I remember her image distinctly, as well as the story which became a soft-spoken legend among the parishioners of the parish. Behind the raised area which the figure sat upon is a row of large pine trees. There was no fence there at the time, and their limbs were allowed to grow much closer to the sculpture than the the fence now permits. So it was said by the faithful, when kneeling before the sculpture of The Virgin Mary, if they looked up, the boughs of the trees would form a halo around her head.

There is another local fable which pertained to the same statue. It had to do with a crown on Mary's head, again caused by the trees behind her. This time, it was said that when the figure was first erected (I believe it was in the 1930's and when I am not too lazy, I'll look it up) a young boy looked over his shoulder while walking away from the altar with his family one Sunday morning and said "Look Mommy, look Daddy! Mary has a crown! From a child's vantage point, looking up the walkway, one could envision the tops of the pine trees forming the points of a crown above her head, floating ever so high above towards the heavens.

Why am I writing about this? In recent years, the weather-worn statue of the Virgin Mary has been replaced with a statue of Jesus Christ. The trees have been pruned back, and there is a wrought iron fence between the pines, the altar, and the new statue keeping the sturdy tree limbs at bay. The myths of the crown and the halo offered me comfort during some difficult years of my childhood. Many a Sunday, I'd peek over my shoulder at the Blessed Mother as I walked with my family towards our station wagon in the parking lot, and squint in the sunlight at the crown on her head as I was too far away to kneel before her and marvel at her aura. Now, this story has all but disappeared from neighborhood folklore.

I'm two generations removed from the current congregation. The parish in the town where I currently live is only a few years old; and, there are no such folk stories relating to its sparkling, glass windows, and the statue paused at the entrance to our tiny, church building. So, I remain rooted, spiritually, to the concrete and brick altar on the lawn of the house of worship where I spent my formative years learning about God.

Back in August of 2006, I went to Our Lady of the Assumption to rescue my brother and his fiancé because his car wouldn't start after mass. In a torrential downpour, I went to jump start his car in my giant, extended, Chevy Trailblazer. I glanced toward the yard with the outdoor altar in hopes of catching something marvelous out of the corner of my eye. There was merely the recently erected, yet still beautiful statue of Jesus on the spot where my faith was formed, decades earlier.

Once his car was started, I wanted to go inside the church to say a prayer and light a candle for our mother who was home, dying of cancer. Our family had been assembled there for a week or so, keeping vigil at her bedside as she was nearing the end. My brother asked where I was going and I told him. He said, "No, we need a priest." And so he marched toward the Rectory in search of the pastor to come offer our mother absolution. No sooner than when my brother asked, a young priest, Father Paul who hailed from Poland, said he would come with us to see our mother. There was no hesitation except he needed to enter the church to bring communion wafers for those in our family who would want to recive Holy Communion.

The scene at my parents house was solemn, dignified, and ultimately the saddest event in my life. I drove Father Paul back to the church afterward and he tried hard to cheer me up.

"I like your car." he said.
"Thanks." I didn't feel like talking, but I'm not one to be rude, especially to a priest.
"A lot of people get a new car and they want me to bless it." he said. I just looked at him and smiled in acknowledgement, thinking that it was a dumb idea to get one's car blessed as God should have better things to do than to make sure your brand new Corvette doesn't get dinged by a shopping cart at Stop-N-Shop.
"I tell them that I'll bless the car, but it only works if you don't break traffic laws."

He made me laugh, and he genuinely cared and wanted to make sure that I was okay. I asked him if he'd heard the story of the statue of Mary in the courtyard with the trees forming a halo around her head, or the crown of tree tops one saw from down the walkway looking up. He said no, and that he'd ask some of the "older" parishioners if they had heard of the story. He agreed it was a wonderful tale, but with the statue of Mary replaced, it would be difficult to relate to. I dropped off the good Father Paul, and sat in my car and watched him jog through the rain to the door of the rectory. Once he was inside, I decided to take a slow drive back to my parent's house.

I drove around the corner on the street behind the courtyard and looked through the pine trees at the likeness of Jesus from the rear. As a boy, whenever we were ready to leave after Sunday morning service, I’d wander through the arm-like branches, drooping as they were, long and un-cropped. The mystery of the space between the monument and the trees made the story of the halo even more intriguing, causing me to pause long enough for my Dad to call out my name one more time.

I sat in my car, gazing through my rain streaked window, and between the wavering pines at a somewhat different churchyard from those long ago days when God, Jesus, and Mary had me enthralled. This was no longer my town, or my church. The folks who prayed at that tiny, outdoor altar weren’t my friends or neighbors, and they didn’t live there when my parents moved in. There was a new statue, and a fence which kept me away as I searched in vain for a halo among the branches.

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October 19, 2007

"Tine Funing" Your Manuscript

Within the next week or so, I’m going to begin the anxious process of submitting my latest manuscript to agents, publishers, anyone who knows an agent or publisher, or anyone who ever sat next to one on a bus. This means my work has to be impeccable, with no mistakes, and without typographical errors and writer’s gaffes that tell the reader that I’m just not trying hard enough. I have a writer friend who also is ready to submit his work to agents and he jokingly tells me he’s in the process of “tine funing” his story. Oh boy.

He does that a lot, mispronouncing words, or mixing up sentences in a weak attempt to humorously demonstrate common writing errors. He’s a good friend, and as much as I want to laugh at loud whenever he says his giving his pages some “tinishing fouches,” or something like that, I cringe instead. I’ve read a lot of what he writes, and thankfully, he doesn’t inject those kinds of jokes into his submissions to agents. Not that I’m funny. My jokes are pretty dry and work a lot better in person and when my audience has a couple of drinks in them. But his sense of humor is just plain embarrassing.

Anyway, I’m ready to plunge, once again, into the milieu of query letters, plot summaries, and the “first five pages." Interesting note about sending the first five pages, I used to wonder how someone can make a judgment about an entire 75,000 word document by skimming the opening paragraphs. Then, it dawned on me: I do it too. Whenever I’m searching for something to read in the library or the bookstore, I’ll pick up a book, read the inside flap and then the back cover; and if it still interests me, I look at the first page. If I’m really dedicated, I’ll stick with it through the second page. Talk about agents being choosy, I’m just as guilty.

Honestly, an agent or a publisher asks for the first five to ten pages because they are professionals who are able to assess your skill as a writer by reading a few paragraphs. The idea is that if you make mistakes in the opening pages of your story, they are going to be present throughout the entire text. If you commit common spelling and grammatical errors right off the bat, then there’s an excellent chance they will be present throughout. Finally, if your story does not grab them immediately, then they won’t bother with it as they have so many more submissions to go through.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I don’t purport to be an expert on my craft. In fact, I am a student who will forever be catching up on the basics and striving to advance my ability. Is this blog perfect? No way. But I give it time and effort as I do have folks who generously stop by and read my posts and offer kind and constructive comments. If there is anyone out there who wants to unfairly criticize the writing in this blog, remember one thing before you do so: This blog is a freebie. Anything I wish to sell gets my complete, professional attention. It takes me months to write the first draft of a novel, and years to re-write, edit and polish it. These blog posts I bang out in a few minutes. Go ahead and tear me apart and I'll accept what is fair; but, make sure you leave the link to your own blog for good measure. I get an awful lot of "anonymous" advice.

Still, I do want to make a good impression here. My “voice” on this blog is casual, and I write many of my posts with my tongue in my cheek. With that said, in much the same way I want to make sure that I don’t insult my blog visitors by not caring about sentence structure or grammar, I want to impress literary agents by showing them that I don't make amateurish mistakes, at least not in the first five to ten pages anyway.

October 18, 2007

Writer's Plot Notes: "Someone Has to Die"

With my method of writing, I try to construct my story in a manner that efficiently moves the plot along without bogging the reader down in unnecessary details. Unfortunately, a few people get hurt or killed along the way. It's not like I'm a boy sadistically stomping on ants in the backyard; I am a writer who needs to knock off a few decent, and sometimes not-so decent folks every once in a while to tell a compelling story.

Of all the tales I've authored, I can't think of any which could be considered extremely violent. My first story has a victim who is viciously stabbed and raped and one homicide by way of gunfire. In the court of public opinion, I couldn't be accused of writing something sensational just to attract an audience. To support that claim, I didn't find any audience for that story. I was turned down so many times, I had to fit all of the rejection letters into two, giant manila envelopes, meaning I didn't create anything which stood out among all of the other stacks printed, 12 point type in the slush pile.

My second work of fiction deals with a character who winds up in Hell. But, Hell is supposed to be a bad place, isn't it? Three people were murdered in that story and I still don't think I meant it to be an overly-brutal narrative as it is a theme about redemption. My last novel has three people getting attacked, with only one of the gunshot victims succumbing to his wounds. Maybe my characters have lousy aim; but, I couldn't bear to kill the protagonist as he had to survive to be the hero. My point? Authors are Gods in their worlds, and we have the power of life and death over our characters. The question is, how to dispatch them?

There are those who can coldy kill off their characters in hideous, evil ways. Think of Saddam's torture rooms, shut your eyes, and cup your hands over your ears. This writer can't travel down that road toward hideous torture and greusome death. Maybe if I'm tailgated again on the way home from work by some idiot on the Long Island Expressway I might become inspired to...forget it. I'm not that type of writer.

Still, I was stunned when I took inventory of all the acts of agression in my stories. Yes, the protaganists in all three of my novels are police officers as I excercise the old "write what you know" concept. I figure it'd be easier for an ex-cop to get police stories published than to entice a literary agent with a medical thriller. There is an inherant amount of danger in police work, so it stands to reason that there is the potential for gunplay in a any scene where an officer strolls in a building as a drug dealer hides, panting and sweaty, behind a doorway waiting for him to approach.

Yet, the question remains, how do I kill off my future charcters? I'm sort of weak-willed when it comes to death. Bullets are clean, easy, and impersonal in a way. It was many years ago when I wrote a chapter where a poor woman was dragged into a wooded area, stabbed repeatedly, and savagely raped. When I go back and re-read that portion of the manuscript, I get a bit queasy. That's not because I am such a powerful writer, it's because I had to imagine all of the gory, terrorizing details and hurt someone I cared about. Yet, as sure as I sit here typing this blog post about inserting murder and death into one's writing, someone is going to get hurt in my next novel. I have an idea who it is, and I don't like him. Maybe you'll read about it one day. Whether or not this one gets published remains to be seen; but, either way....it's going to be murder.

October 16, 2007

An Old Short Story: Baby Boyfriend

Dear Readers,
I’m taking a huge risk here. Digging through my old notebooks, I found a story I wrote all the way back in 1987. The few people who read it thought it was okay. Now, all these years later I’m publishing it on my blog where I’d have more success getting others to read it if I spray painted it on the side of a building. Anyway, the story is called “Baby Boyfriend,” and it was inspired by a relationship I had with a girl I dated when I was a young, nerdy, college kid who was a sucker for any woman wearing a tube top. By the way, because one reader who commented asked me this, Richard, the protagaonist, is not an actual baby. I was referring to his demeanor. It’s both nostalgic and frightening to unearth articles and stories which I wrote in my youth. On the one hand, I rediscover something which I may, or may not be still proud of. On the other, I kind of hope I matured as a writer. I never used so many exclamation points before, or since writing this one. Hope you like it.

Baby Boyfriend

Well Doctor, do you want to hear my story? It’s kind of long and boring, but I don’t suppose you’ll mind being as that I’m paying you to listen and all.

Gina brushed her hair in long, even strokes as she spoke aloud. Those big, quizzical, brown eyes of hers wandered aimlessly around her messy, little bedroom. Finally, they settled upon me. I was sitting on the edge of her bed counting the number of times I could kick one of her slippers back and forth between my feet without breaking my rhythm.

“Don’t you think so, Richard?”
“Huh?” I answered, startled.

She was actually asking my opinion on something and I wasn’t paying attention.

“Well Gina, I don’t know, really.” I said. That was my standard response in those situations. She could get very annoyed at my daydreaming; and, that left me wide open for plenty of her whining and complaining about me not caring about her pathetic, miserable life. I decided it was best to look at her as she continued to ramble on about whatever the hell she was prattling on about.

This was typical of our relationship. She’d invite me over to her apartment with the suggestion that anything could happen; and me, the “Strike-out King” would arrive at her front door before she had a chance to hang up the phone for another libido-killing, monk-making evening centered on Gina’s monologues. No detail was too small or insignificant to be left out. Soon, I was on intimate terms with all of the players in Gina’s wild world of semi-evolved relatives, circus-geek girlfriends, and a long list of ex-boyfriends who are targets in the federal war on crime.

“I was talking to Billy before you came over.” She continued. “He’s leaving Little Billy with his ex-girlfriend’s fiancĂ© to come over here because I owe him five dollars. I told him that I’m not giving it to him unless he gives me Little Billy back.”

“Oh really?” I chirped. I became more alert. Billy is her on again, off again common law husband, who also just happens to be her step-brother from her mother’s former marriage to his ex-foster father. No one is actually sure who Little Billy, their son, belongs to biologically. But, Gina’s mother, who is equipped with the only active brain cell in the entire brood, swears that it is impossible for Gina and Billy to go off to one of their week long, hippie, drug, love-ins and return as the proud parents of a three year old boy. But, since they honestly believe the kid is theirs, or, they wrongly think they brought him there in the first place, and since nobody is claiming the boy, they now have a son. You figure it out.

“He’s coming here?” I asked in horror.
“Sure.” she said. “And, I need you to stick up for me.”

My God, it was serious. I had every reason to fear this bruiser. The last time I saw Billy, he said the next time he saw me, he was going to turn me into one of those springy, horsey rides you see kids bouncing on in the park.

“He’s coming here?” I asked a bit more frantically.
“What? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of him?” she snapped.
“Afraid of Billy? No, no. I can get along with him, I guess.” I was stammering. “Hey, look at the time. I told my neighbor I’d help him plunge his toilet.”

“Listen…” she cried. “Don’t be such a wimp. You can take him. You’re both the same size.”

I said nothing as I sat there and hugged myself while rocking back and forth.

“Hey,” Gina said as she leaned over to me and lowered her voice. “Do you want a knife?”

“Knife?” I yelped. “No knife, no knife.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Actually, there was a lot of banging at the door. I sprang to my feet and Gina ran down the hallway to answer it.

My worst fears were realized. It was Billy. I could do nothing but stand in silent terror as the two of them screamed at each other at the tops of their lungs. Then, he smacked her, real good too. She hit him back and he just roared in loud, mocking laughter.

“Help me!” she cried, “Help me!” I was her cavalry; her own little General Custer.

Billy stopped laughing and shot me a cold stare.

“What are you going to do, wimp?” he said.

“Oh God, he sees me.” I said with a gulp.
“What did you say, punk? You some sort of tough guy, supposed to beat me up?”

“Get him!” Gina yelled. “Get him now!”

“Shut up!” Billy roared, and he smacked her again. Gina ran from the apartment with her bathrobe open and nothing on underneath. Billy started toads me, slowly at first. He kept flexing his muscles saying: “Come on punk, show me what you got.”

And then, he charged at me, full speed ahead. I had no other choice but to jump out the bedroom window from three stories up. Lucky for me a guy delivering balloons for a birthday party broke my fall.

So Doctor, here I am. By he way, Billy and I are on good terms now. He couldn't stop laughing at the way I hit the ground with the balloons popping and all. So, now we’re pals because this caveman thinks I’m hysterically funny and I’m only being kept alive to entertain this goon.

Also, Gina and Billy are back together. They’re suing the landlord for not having protective bars over the windows of the apartment. They’re cutting me for a third of the settlement s long as I agree to watch Little Billy while they go to another one of their week long, hippie, drug, love-ins.

Do you want to sign my cast?

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October 14, 2007

She Saw Dead People

The story I am posting here is difficult to write because there it is very emotional, has many details to track, and because it is true. There is another forum where I posted this narrative about a year ago; but, I dispensed with many details as there was a space limitation. Let me begin by stating that I do not believe in ghosts, nor do I accept that people can speak to the dead. However, I believe that this particular tale is indeed true as it happened to my wife and daughter. Here is what I posted on the other forum:

My wife recalls a time when she was young and her father was still alive when he was kidding her about what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was about five years old and she sat at the kitchen table and talked to her father about making a lot of money when she grew up. Her dad told her that she had to pay taxes on what she earned. He said that just to tease her, and her reaction made him laugh. My wife remembers getting very upset that she had to pay taxes exclaiming to her rather amused father "but, it's my money." She can also still recall him smiling wide and winking at her.

Her father died six months before we were married and both of her brothers walked her down the aisle in place of their beloved, late father. About eight years ago, when our daughter was around four years old, my wife told a group of friends at her job that she would love to get a sign from her father that he was okay. Even though he had been dead for many years, she wanted to know if he was alright.

That evening, when she was home alone with our daughter (I was at work), my daughter was playing along side my wife in our den. My wife told me that suddenly, our daughter stopped what she was doing and looked over by the sliding doors which were closed and had the curtains drawn. Our daughter never knew her grandfather and only saw pictures of him around the house. She said "Look mommy, there's grandpa." My wife froze and asked "What?” Our daughter repeated "There's grandpa, he's talking to me." My wife looked around the room, saw nothing, and began to get nervous. Our daughter continued "Grandpa has something he wants me to tell you." she said. My wife remained quiet, and sat there with her eyes fixed on our little girl. Our daughter looked away, then back at my wife and said "He says, you don't have to pay taxes up here." Then our daughter sat down and went back to her dolls. My wife started to cry and left the room. That little scene, my wife believes, is a sign from her father. She's at peace now because she knows he's in a better place.

What I left out of that first version posted on the other website was the fact that it was my brother in law, my wife's older brother, who asked their father for a sign just a moment before he passed away. I was there with the whole family in the hospital for his final moments and witnessed him bend over and whisper into his father's ear. No one knew what he said, and we did not find out until the next morning at around six a.m. when he called his mother and his siblings in an excited state. My father in law died at around three thirty in the afternoon. My brother in law claims that he whispered to his father "When you get to the other side, when you are finally where you are going, give me a sign. Tell me you're okay." He claims that at around five a.m. the next morning, he awoke to the sound of music playing in a bedroom down the hall. He and his wife moved into their new home only months earlier and still were not finished unpacking as Dad's illness consumed their lives as well as the rest of us. In this particular bedroom, they placed all of the boxes they planned to "get to" when they had time. With the impending death of his dad, that time wasn't coming any time soon. He said that before he entered the bedroom, the door was shut, and he heard a music box. Across the room, on the window sill, was a small music box all wound up and cheerfully playing even though no one was in the room for weeks. The carton it was in was on the floor, and had been opened. Immediately, he ran from the room and woke up is wife, crying to her saying he received his sign and that is father was okay.

Another detail I omitted from the original post was that my wife sat with friends in the lunch room at her place of employment and told them the story about her brother asking for a sign at their father’s death bed years after it happened. Her co-workers were all moved by the story, especially her brother's satisfaction in hearing the music box chiming away in the unused bedroom of their new home. My wife laughed and said "If I had known that you could ask someone for a sign when they were dying, I'd have asked my father for one too. Leave it to my brother not to tell s he wanted to do that." It was later that night that our daughter claimed to see her grandfather.

One final element was left out. Our daughter did not see just her grandfather that night; she also saw her great-grandfather who died the year before. My daughter never knew her grandfather as he left us four years before she was born. She only saw pictures of him, and never saw any video with him in it because we don't have any. She did know her paternal grandfather whom she referred to as "G-G Pop." The "G G" stands for "Great Grandpa." She stopped playing and told my wife that she "saw G-G Pop, and someone is with him. It's Grandpa. He has something he wants to say to you." Then she paused and looked at my wife and told her "He says you don't have to pay taxes up here." Of course G-G Pop would talk to her first, she knew him. Grandpa couldn't appear on his own or he would scare her.

You can see why I truncated the version I posted last year on the other forum. This tale is not only a lengthy piece to type out as a document; it takes a several minutes to tell in polite company. There have been a few times I’ve been asked to entertain the crowd with this yarn at various functions and gatherings we’ve been invited to over the years and the results have ranged from awkward, to tedious, to awe-inspiring. Many times, due to the short attention spans of some of those asked to listen, I’ve been interrupted while drawing a breath by someone eager to tell their own “creepy story.” Other times, I’m cut short by rude “crashers” who see me deeply engrossed in my story-telling who come over and loudly ask “Hey, what’s going on here?”, or words to that effect. Then there are those folks who react with suspicion, or those who believe right away. My wife has no more success than I do recalling this memory as she has so much more emotion; and, it saddens her to summon up even the happier moment with her dad at the kitchen table when he teased her about paying taxes on all of her money. Still, this story should be told every once in a while, and it is also a good exercise for a writer, such as myself, who needs to practice keeping track of numerous details. I’m working on that part.

Who knows why our little girl claimed to see both her great-grandfather and her grandfather that day? She was happily playing with her toys in the den alongside her mother when she stopped suddenly. It could be argued that she heard something about taxes on TV and decided to make a joke about it as only a three and a half year old child could. Nevertheless it is a bizarre set of coincidences that pieces together this story to make it seem like our daughter, as a toddler, was able to see and speak to her dead grandfather and great-grandfather and relay to her mother a message which only she understood. It can be a mere coincidence that this happened on the same day my wife told her friends the story about the sign her brother got from her father and that she was upset that she did not think to ask for one. But, what an extraordinary fluke that is? Yet, we all get gut feelings. These are emotions which we can’t articulate, but believe to be true. I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, or that we are capable of talking to he deceased. However, my gut tells me that this in fact occurred. My daughter, now twelve years old, does not remember any of it.

October 11, 2007

Don't Be Afraid To Write About...You Know

As a writer who is woefully terrible with quotes, I am going to paraphrase this one and give credit to the first author who lays claim to it: "A person does not really become a writer until their parents die." It's a funny line, and I'm willing to bet that there are a few of you out there who get it right away. What that quote means to me is that writers often edit themselves and don't write anything too controversial as not to embarrass themselves, or their readers. Only when that writer's mother and father are gone, can that person feel relaxed enough to author content which may make Aunt Bessie red-faced if she saw it. My biggest hang-up has always been the sex scene. In my case, as a side note, I still have to pretend that my wife is never going to read anything which can be considered “adult” for fear that she may think that I’m really writing about my own fantasies. I can see the scene playing out between the two of us if she ever read the stuff I edit out of a story.

Angry wife: “So you want to bang the baby sitter? You pervert!”
Me: (sweaty brow, hands shielding my face): “No honey, not me…the guy I’m writing about wants to. I think our baby sitter is ugly.” (Gulp)

Okay, I’m exaggerating. She supports what I do, and understands the process, I hope. But, I digress.

We all “do it”, ya know. Even our (gasp!) parents “did it” or else you wouldn’t be here, duh. So, naturally our characters are going to feel a bit romantic for each other and want to act on it every once in a while. My goals when typing out a “roll in the hay” scene between two characters is to have them learn something about each other, or to illustrate a plot point. Mostly, I want them to be complete human beings who react as the rest of us three dimensional individuals do when we’re around other people. I wouldn't want to turn one of my stories into an orgy fest; but, I think that at least one person in each of my stories would like to see another one naked.

How you actually describe the scene is up to you. Your technique can be to chronicle the entire event from the awkward first kiss, all the way around third base and across home plate. You can be vulgar, or clinical in your description of body parts, or follow the amorous couple as he carries her upstairs to the bedroom and slams the door in your face, leaving you, the reader to guess what's going on inside. All of this is relative to your skillfulness as a writer, and how much of a risk you wish to take. Even the voice used to tell the story has influence on what verbiage is used or how graphic it becomes. A wedding night between newlyweds may be narrated differently than the new inmate's first visit to the prison shower where there's a welcome party awaiting him. But the point of this article is not to lay out how to write a sex scene; it is basically to encourage you to write about what is perfectly acceptable. Also, you don’t have to kill your parents in order to work up the nerve to write that scene between the young woman behind the counter at the local deli who always wears a tube top, and the beer delivery guy.

Your audience has to remember that you're writing about human beings, and a complete human character needs water, food, shelter, clothing, etc. They even want to get frisky with each other. Those are all elements of good drama. You should feel free to sketch your characters to a point where your readers will be able to handle it if a twenty-year old Au Pair strikes a pose on the living room couch in her nightgown while watching Conan O’Brien, and then Dad wanders downstairs for a late night snack. Au Pairs can help a lot around the house and we can afford one, right honey?


October 8, 2007

The Toughest Thing To Write, Was Not

Writers are often called upon to perform unpleasant tasks, such as write an obituary, or to report on a tragic news story. For me, the most emotional, yet easiest piece I ever wrote was the eulogy for my mother. For many years, she battled both cancer and systemic Lupus. Unfortunately, there was plenty of time for her and the rest of us to contemplate her death. There was no hope, as the oncologist told her: "Ann, there is nothing we can do for you."

As I and my family kept vigil at her bedside, there was no avoiding the fact that she was going to pass on. Somewhere in my mind, I began to formulate the words which were to become her eulogy. As morbid as that sounds, she was my mother, and in those final, meditative moments of her life, I had time to summarize all that she meant to me and to the rest of us. From there, I was able to envision my thoughts and emotions, and ultimately put them on paper.

In fact, because I am one of those fiction writers who often insert my actual memories into the many pieces I author, I was able to steal a vignette from a short story I typed out on an old Smith Corona typewriter before I was married. On the way home from my parents house on the night my mother passed away, that scene played out in my head just as I wrote it all those years earlier, but the reasons why I opted to put it on paper were just as valid then as on the day she died when I chose to put it into her tribute.

The scene in my short story was crafted from a memory I had as a small boy. I couldn't have been older than the age of five because my little brother was an infant then. I can still see myself sitting in a chair at the kitchen table of our home as my mother cooked dinner for all of us. She was tired and her back was hurting, but she seemed happy. Dad came home from work, and he walked up behind her and kissed her on the cheek. When he walked away into their bedroom, my mother began to sing, softly to herself. I don't think she knew she was singing, or that I was there watching her, in awe of her beautiful voice. The song she sang was "Ave Maria." Perry Como would sing it on his Easter special every year, and my mother would never miss a performance. At times, she would sing along with him, the light from the television reflecting on her face, revealing her misty eyes.

She stayed like that in my mind for decades with her bright red hair pulled back, and with her family all coming home to enjoy her delicious cooking. She was at peace with herself, and I always look back on that moment whenever I’m feeling depressed or going through a hard time for inspiration.

My mother suffered a myriad of illnesses for most of her adult life which can now be attributed to Lupus. Her fight with cancer lasted well over ten years, and she needed at least three surgeries on her spine. Still, just being home and cooking for her family was enough to make her smile and sing the only song she loved so much it made her cry.

It was natural then, on my ride home the night she died, that I chose to immortalize that memory and share it with all of our friends and loved ones who came to show their respects for her at her wake. I removed that scene from that short story, in effect killing the fictional character that lived it in typeset, and returned it to its rightful owners. You see, I was the young voyeur that day, watching from my chair as she inspired me with her beauty and toughness. However, she was the one who lived through the pain and discomfort and became the example to us all. Her eulogy then, was easy to compose, as I had been writing it for my entire life in all of my stories and essays. She was one of my major influences, and she was my inspiration for that short story which was actually all about her in the first place.

As an author, I imagine everything, and yet, create nothing. As for every project I begin, I start from my birth, borrowing from all of my experiences until I've completed my latest manuscript. With the toughest assignment I ever undertook, it was, ironically, the easiest, because my writing was always inspired by my mother. I merely needed to summarize everything she was and will still be to all of us who remain. One day, when my own story ends, perhaps someone will be kind and pen a few words about me. Hopefully this won't be difficult for that person, as I wish to live my life with dignity and leave a proper example for my children, just as my mom did for me.


October 5, 2007

Incriminating Evidence

One of the methods I use to get that sort of sweaty, pulse-pounding emotion that writer's hope to achieve when creating fiction, is to write about people in my life and create events which I pray to God never happen, or would never do myself because it would be so, so wrong. I perform an exercise where I work out plot details by pretending to do some of the bad things my characters are going to commit by placing myself in their shoes. In order to generate an authentic environment for myself, I take real people from my life and put them into situations with myself as the actor so I can achieve an understanding of how it may feel for my character to do the same thing.

If I have a character who wants to kill his best friend, I’ll boot up my computer and type out a scenario where my buddy Frank gets on my nerves and I will go nuts, grab a rifle and…you know. Of course, no one, not even my wife reads these texts as she would never understand what it is I am doing. It'd be a bit hard to explain that I really don’t have a crush on the woman I bring my dry cleaning to.

The girl at the dry cleaners is in her twenties, thin with a dancer's build, dark hair, single, and has at least one tattoo I noticed on the small of her back. Her skin seems to be permanently tanned, even in the winter, and she is always happy to see me. In truth, she's happy to see anybody. But, when I am working on characters, I imagine more. One of the stories I am crafting at this moment involves a police officer who is cheating on his wife with his partner's wife. There's a lot more to my new story than mere infidelity (as if that weren't enough) but I wanted to make sure I knew what is was to actually cheat on my wife without going out and having a bona-fide affair. That's where Leah, the dry cleaning "hot babe" comes in.

On paper (okay, in Microsoft Word) I drop off my dry cleaning one day and notice Leah bending over in front of me to write up the receipt. Her blouse is opened a bit more than usual and I can see an ample amount of cleavage. Her bra, black, with spaghetti-thin straps is also a tad loose and there is a nipple slip. There are no tan lines, and my eyes are fixed on her breasts. Leah looks up and notices that I was peeking. Looking away, I'm embarrassed. My face feels warm, and my mouth begins to spew out all kinds of nonsense about baseball, the weather...anything. Leah smiles, and bends over again. Now what do I do?

This simple, married, slightly over-weight, middle aged guy can take this many different directions. Does Leah want me to see more of her and less of her clothing somewhere more private? Or is Leah oblivious to the fact that she is exposed? What if I go in there again and we begin some sort of heavy flirting? All of this can be written out and lead to something that reads like a porno movie script, but, it is not the text that is the point. The objective is to vicariously experience cheating without actually doing it.

In real life, Leah would probably smack me if I looked down her shirt. I'd be a fool to believe that I had any sort of a chance with someone like her, and I'd never flirt with any woman while my wife was still living. Nevertheless, this sort of exercise can be used to imagine murder, betrayal, abuse of different kinds (No, I am not a good father after all, you rotten kids) and the key is that I involve real people whom I know so that I can relate to what happens on a very personal level. This becomes the grist for my writing which contains even more emotion because I can readily imagine what the characters are going through.

Leah will not show up as a character in this story. Still, I used her because she is forbidden not only because I'm married, but because she is twenty years younger than me and she is way out of my league looks-wise. This example with Leah is more than just a mere sex fantasy; it is taking my normal encounters with her and attempting to establish a believable context where the two of us could be together for an illicit affair. In my effort to create a "suspension of disbelief" in which the reader would go along with the premise that a forty-four year old man can seduce a twenty-four year old woman, I plotted this out with someone I know in order to create an air of authenticity. The character for my story is my age, and his new partner is a rookie in his twenties as well as his young wife who is beautiful. That is why it was necessary for me to choose someone like Leah because she the same age as the person my protagonist will be having a licentious affair with. But, no one will ever read the actual piece about me and Leah, especially my wife.

So far, these exercises where I work out plot details using friends, relatives, and acquaintances of mine has worked; at least from my standpoint. It is fun, in a way to take innocuous dealings with my friends, family, and acquaintances and carry them to extremes. It is also imperative that I keep these notes private. If my wife ever got a hold of my secret "files" and read them not understanding how I employ this technique, I'd find myself in divorce court the next day and she'd be looking over her shoulder for a hit man, testing the brakes on her car, and having the dog taste all of her food. After all, I can't offer to drive Leah home from work after her car's engine mysteriously siezes if my wife's alive, can I? That would be cheating.


October 3, 2007

Don't Drive Your Money

The neighborhood I live in is an affluent one. That is why it is baffling to me that I was able to buy a house there to begin with. Sixteen years ago, while my lovely wife and I were mere newlyweds, we bought the fixer-upper which we currently reside in (it is in the "mid-fixed-up" stage at the moment) and settled down there to raise a family and grow old together. Of course, we've become friendly with the neighbors, but it gets uncomfortable when we socialize with some of the parents of our children’s friends. Our kids can't seem to hang out with anyone whose parents aren't well-off.

I always joke because the new homes which are being built just down the road from us cost just under $1 million dollars. With improvements over the basic amenities the builder offers, each unit can fetch well over a million. In my opinion, If I have a million bucks to blow on a home, I don't want to live down the block from the likes of me. The folks who have moved in all have children the same ages as our own; and these youngsters have latched onto my good looking and gregarious offspring. They want to come over for play dates, sleepovers, have dinner at each other's homes, etc, while I don't want their parents to even step foot in our front door and see the 1970's vintage kitchen we still have, complete with avocado-green appliances. You get the idea. I've been in some of the “McMansions" owned by the rich folks, and I blush whenever I go inside. Trust me, I'm all for having lots of cash, but I just can't compete with them.

Did you ever wonder why whenever a builder wants to construct luxury homes in an area and some goody-two shoes, feel-good group assembles in front of Town Hall with picket signs and demands that the contractor should also build "low income housing" in the same neighborhood, that others object to the cheaper homes being built nearby? You want to murder your self esteem? Go ahead and live in the cottage at the foot of Hearst Castle. See if you can be good neighbors with the Howell’s from Gilligan’s Island on a civil servant’s wages. Welcome Bill Gates and his family to the neighborhood with an Entenmanns’s crumb cake in your hands. Like it or not, there’s a class system in this country, and it’s because we live in a capitalist society and there’s nothing wrong with that. The guys at the yacht club shouldn’t have to pal around with the man who washes their cars for a living. It’d be nice if they did; but it would get a bit awkward when they ask him if he wants to come along as they get away for the weekend at some resort he’d have to save a year’s salary to be able to afford.

It's hard to explain, but I find it rough not being able to buy my each of kids their own Sony Play Station, IPOD, Game Cube, and other expensive toy, electronic gadget or gizmo when their friends all have these things. It's bad enough the parents of my children's friends kind of look at my wife and I as charity cases to begin with, but I have to let my kids use my own laptop instead of buying them one each for the two of them, I drive a battered 1997 Honda Civic which I bought brand new, while we have an '06 Chevy Trailblazer which we use for the family.

The sad part of it all is that my wife and I actually do very well for ourselves. I'm retired from the NYPD and I work in the Information Technology field, and my wife is a licensed, medical professional. The problem is we live on Long Island where it is very expensive to live, and my neighbors are really very comfortable. Either I have to move or realize that I'm never going to keep up the Jones’s. I'm happy with my life. My family is healthy, we take nice trips, our home is coming along as far as upgrades, paint, furnishings and the like are concerned, and we have money squirreled away for the kid's for college. But, just when I'm happy buying the children some cool thing from Target, the guy down the block got his kid something from The Sharper Image. I'm out of my league.

It shouldn't have to be like this. I shouldn't have to feel guilty for not being a millionaire. I did what I could to get where I am in life. For what it's worth, I did alright considering the circumstances I found myself in while growing up. But, when we're invited out to dinner, as we were last week with some well to do friends of ours, I had nothing to add to the conversation when it came to what kind of car I drive, what stocks I invest in, or if I plan on buying a summer condominium in Florida like the rest of them own. Out of the blue, I mentioned an article I read recently which stated that buying a new car every ten years or so instead of the national average of every three years saves consumers $30-$50 thousand dollars.

The two men I was seated next to, one is an attorney, and the other a commodities broker, both raised their eyebrows and nodded their heads in approval. You see, I wasn't chugging around in my trusty, dusty 1997 Honda Civic for nothing. I was banking cash...and lots of it. For a moment, I felt like a wise investor instead of a frugal worker ant. Was I really saving that much money? Because if that is true, I can buy my kids a new IPOD each, Play Stations, laptops computers, clothes from Hollister and Abercrombie. Oh well, I'll settle for a kitchen that's not avocado-green.

October 1, 2007

Writing in a Vacuum

Writers write...always. That’s the old adage I've been unable to attribute to anyone in particular. However, it works for me as I am always writing about something. With that said, if it wasn't for this blog--which is in its infancy--no one would read anything I put down on paper, or on my hard drive for that matter.

Writers are an arrogant bunch, really. We think that just because we authored something which we think it is wonderful, the rest of the world should line up before us to rip the pages from our grasp and scurry off to a corner to read it. Unless you work for an established newspaper or magazine with a built in audience, you're out of luck when asking anyone to take a look at what you've poured your heart and soul into. I've written three novel length manuscripts, along with several short stories, and dozens of posts on this blog. Unless I cram a hard copy into someone's hands and bribe or threaten them to read it, no one cares.

My first two novels were rejected hundreds of times by agents and publishers alike. That's not an exaggeration as I have the letters to prove it. It's becoming abundantly clear to me why those first two manuscripts were rejected as the pacing in the first novel was practically nonexistent (the action didn't begin until chapter two), and the second story didn't have a likeable protagonist. Even Tony Soprano, a murderer who cheated on his wife and ran an organized crime family was an affable, gregarious person who cared about his family. It was hard to dismiss or even dislike him. Tony Soprano was the classic anti-hero and I obviously was asleep for the lesson in writing class as I failed miserably with that second novel. My protagonist was a chump, plain and simple. No one likes a chump.

This latest manuscript is the one which will break through. I am convinced of that. I managed to find one person to read the story and he absolutely loved it. After interrogating him about the plot, characters and other details for weeks afterward, I'm convinced he really took the time to read it and he isn't lying when he says he enjoyed it. That leaves me back to my main point in this post: getting others to read what you wrote.

Yes, one guy I know took the time to read the story before I send it out to agents for potential representation. I want maybe two more opinions to work with, and my wife is a natural candidate for the job. I printed out a copy for her to read three weeks ago and she is on page fifty. She claims that it is 'very good" and that she can't wait to finish the "whole thing" but she's too busy "taking care of our children," blah blah blah, to read it. Another friend has a copy of my story and will read it as "soon as she has time." A lot of time has passed since July, but I am sure the day will come when she finds some extra time to turn the first page.

The problem most writers have is the medium we choose to work in. A terrible artist can display his or her artwork on easels on a street corner and attract attention and opinions from those who walk by, whether they are good or bad. Musicians can stand on the next street corner and play as badly as they want to and still get a reaction from a crowd who has no choice but to hear awful guitar strumming, or whatever. A writer couldn't do any of that. Try standing up the block from the musician or artist with a megaphone and read your work aloud. You'll get hauled away in handcuffs.

Blogs have helped the unpublished writer. Instead of agents and publishers, the language of the blogger contains words such as "search engine optimization," "links," and pings." I'm working on all of that. Many folks have stopped here and left comments and it has me encouraged. Still, I haven't given up on my dream of being published by a traditional publishing house. I have to work hard to perfect my craft and to appeal to the arbitrary and capricious whims of agents and publishers. I'm hoping that this will happen soon, but will be just as happy if it doesn't. Why? Because I have this quaint little blog, which to me is like standing on a street corner with a bullhorn, but I'm not likely to get arrested here.

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