Braxton

EAB Publishing’s first novel was David Atkinson’s The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes. Though publishing this surrealistic answer to  Waiting for Godot was a joint decision between myself, EAB president Tim Benson, and the other editors, I pushed for it. I explain why here.

Since many people have told me it is nice to read my explanation about why I picked Atkinson’s book for publication, I thought I’d do it for Braxton to.

Like to read it? Here it goes . . . .

When Benson brought Braxton to my attention, I was not eager to read it. A vampire hunter book? I thought. Seriously? If it isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayerwhat’s the point? But I gave it a try because Benson is my boss and Jeremy Morong, the talented man who wrote it, was, at the time, an acquaintance.  I’d like to think he has since become a friend. But that’s another story for another time.

Anyway.

As soon as I opened the manuscript I was pulled into a strange new world of monsters and monster hunters, a world that has a surreal, frightening, and fun feel to it. In a way, it is a world that reminds me of Sunnydale, CA, only in a different time. The characters are as realistic as the characters who inhabit that town after all, and the scenarios are just as otherworldly. A few hours after starting the manuscript, I looked up from my computer screen to see how long it had been. At this point, I was about halfway through the book and wanted to call Benson to say, “Yes,” but, being a true editor, I had to finish it first. So I returned to the story.

When I was done, I wished I had saved the last few chapters to finish some other time. So I told Benson EAB should publish this book. And I think that’s my litmus test. If I find myself reading for enjoyment instead of out of my editorial duty, I know I’ve hit on a story I love.

But what is it that makes The Adventures of Braxton Revere so lovable? Honestly, it’s a little bit of everything but most significantly, the characters. As has been noted by at least one reviewer, the characters aren’t really characters at all, but real people. This, dear reader, is worth about a million hit points in your literary arsenal. Our hero, Braxton, is a man unsure of himself, but determined to do right. Is he a great man? No. His hamartia is evident in all of his actions. This, of course, humanizes him more than most pulp heroes. His friend and only sympathizer, Taylor, brings comedy and complexity to the story. Finally Patch, an homage to everyone’s favorite science experiment gone wrong (Frankenstein’s monster), helps throw not only Braxton’s concept of monster out the window, but readers’ as well.

What I mean to say is that the beauty of this novel lies in its characters’ tricky complexities. Yes, it is a fun adventure that is readily readable for pretty much anyone old enough to handle some undead action. I mean, this should be evidenced by its release. Did you know it has an exclusive one-time-only O Comic Con variant cover that you can no longer purchase? It does. I have it. It’s totally awesome and looks like a classic video game cartridge. It’s whatever. No big deal.

Here it is:

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So it looks like a fun read, and to be sure it is. But there is more going on here . . . .

The story begins in medias res with this brilliant quote:

  • “When word was brought to me of the von Braun tragedy, I wasted no time springing to action. I saddled Midnight and together we stormed toward New London. The sleepy burg had once had big ideas of being something more. Don’t we all?”

This line’s greatness lives in its dual complexity/simplicity. On the surface, its meaning is obvious. Readers know something bad has happened and the narrator (Braxton) wants to help. But dig deeper and it’s clear this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill pulp adventure. In these few sentences, readers also learn Braxton has a  somewhat self-defeatist mindset and perhaps something of a grudge against New London. We wonder why. We want more.

Morong delivers. His voice is strong. His point is clear. Though this is an adventure/journey story on par with some of the best pulp I’ve read, with twists and turns, talking skulls, witches, vampires, and all sorts of things that go bump in the night, that isn’t all there is to this tale. There is something about friendship and camaraderie that can’t be denied. There is something about acceptance and family. There is something good. No, it isn’t a book that wears its messages on its sleeve, but that’s only because Morong is too good of a writer to do that. He manipulates us into becoming friends with Braxton and crew. He manipulates us into caring whether or not they defeat the great evil that is Ralugard the vampire. Morong manipulates us into believing it’s all real.

That’s why I like this book of a rough and rugged vampire hunter with a fool and a monster for best friends. Sure, it may seem like simply a fun pulp adventure (and there would be nothing wrong with that). But like I said, there is something more. It’s Morong’s heart and beliefs opened up for all to see; but done in such a way that we do not know we are looking at it. We are simply spending time with our friends as they try to save each other and mankind from the monster under our collective bed.

For the next week, EAB Publishing is letting the digital copy of this book go for only $1.00. I suggest you give it a gander.

Jealousy: An Artist’s Lament

I have many vices. If you’ve been following this blog for some time, you probably already know that. I drink too much. I am easily sucked into stupid television shows. I stay up later than I should and oftentimes wake up far too early. I have trouble focussing for too long. I love grilling but am horrible at it. I love video games but am horrible at them. Speaking of horror, B-horror movies are my jam. I tell my children boredom is beneath them but oftentimes find myself listless and (yes) bored. I drive my motorcycle too fast and listen to my music too loud. I workout, not because I like it but because I’m afraid of getting old (and what comes after). I’ve made money and garnered a little bit of literary recognition by writing stories some have said glorify drug use. I believe they are a realistic portrayal of drug use and if those critics think that is a glorification then maybe their the ones with the problem.

Anyway.

None of that matters though because I got real problems you guys. Or rather, I got one real problem.

Jealousy.

It rears its ugly head sometimes and when it does I feel it there, peeking out over the horizon of my psyche like some kind of twisted version of an imaginary friend. It isn’t pleasant. It’s a creepy little monster who comes out when I see friends posting on Facebook all about their great adventures. Or when they discuss their book deals and their artist seminars and their acceptance letters to writers retreats and such. I see them bragging (rightly so) about movie studios optioning their novels. Sometimes I see them wax philosophical about their careers as college professors or guest artists. They travel the country, teaching their craft, lecturing on their craft, and generally being superstar writers. And don’t even get me started about my feelings when someone posts something about how it’s hard to choose between the agents fighting over him.

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Then I turn to my writing life and I see a struggle. I see nights when I can’t bring myself to look at the computer for fear it will taunt me with a vast landscape of nothingness masked to look like entertainment. I feel the distraction dancing around the edges of my mind like some kind of Faustian demon. Or maybe it’s more like Screwtape, giggling at my idiocy . . . . I see my books languishing near the bottom of the sales list on Amazon. I see my, like, 10 reviews and I think, “Damn, can’t a few more people say something kind of nice about my books?” I see my day job where I teach filmmaking, photography, and design classes . . . .

Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I enjoy teaching these classes. That said, while my endorsement claims I’m qualified to teach them (because of their connection to language arts) I have no formal training in them. I am a writer after all. I can dissect the classics like a biology teacher can a frog. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m not a photographer. I’m not a designer. Thank God I’m a teacher, right? Otherwise those kids in my classes wouldn’t learn a thing . . . .

Anyway.

That jealousy guy doh. He’s there and he’s angry and he tries to tell me I suck. He says things like, “Look at all those comic books and all those stupid shirts you wear and your hair.” He says, “Jesus Christ, your hair. Grow up, loser, and maybe you’ll get a tenure track job at a college instead of intermittent adjunct positions.” And that little bastard can be convincing.

But when I feel him (he’s a him, you guys, we all know it) there, gaining power, I’ve learned to take a step back. I’ve learned to understand that success comes in many different models. I’ve learned that, despite how I sometimes feel, I am, indeed, a success.

I have a nice little house in a quiet neighborhood, I have a beautiful, intelligent, and supportive wife, I have two great kids . . . . I also have a sweet day job teaching high school kids how to make movies and design magazines and the like. I get to make a yearbook and high school literary magazine, maintain a student journalistic website, and produce a video yearbook every school year. I have had two books published (and one on the way). I’m a managing editor at a small press that has been around for over two years. For those of you who don’t know, that, in and of itself, is something of a feat.

Hell, there are probably people who envy me.

So true, I may be 38 years old and still writing when I find time as opposed to every day from 8:00am-12:00pm like Stephen King. I may be 38 years old and reading comic books. I may be 38 years old and not where I want to be as a writer. But you know what? I’m not a failure and I’m not dead yet. And, most importantly, everyone’s story is different.

Isn’t that the great thing about writing?

My Summer with the Solomons

Beware, what some might consider spoilers lie ahead.

At the end of the 2014-2015 school year I intended to binge watch Mad Men. I made it through the first three seasons and two episodes of the fourth before I stopped, fed up with Don Draper and his band of miscreants, misogynists, and meatheads. I fully intend to finish the series but I had to take some time away. In case you haven’t figured it out, despite the amazing storytelling and acting, I found myself loathing most of the characters. At least with Breaking Bad, every time I watch,  I become hooked by the hope that Walter White will somehow stop his downward spiral. Sure, he never does, but there is enough humanity peeking through his thicker and thicker hide of evil that hope springs eternal (or at least until the last few episodes when I realize I’m only watching to see how his clusterfuck of a life will end).

Anyway.

With Mad Men, though there are no completely evil characters lurking in the corners, there are also few likable ones. I can only take so much. So as the summer slowly slid by like some kind of hot, humid slug, I shifted my gaze from 1960s ad men to the 1990s aliens on Third Rock from the SunFor those of you who do not know, this little sitcom, starring John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ran for six hilarious seasons and was nominated and/or received several awards. Lithgow and gang portray aliens disguised as humans to study Earth and its people from the small, fictional college town of Rutherford, OH (52 miles outside of Cleveland). Lithgow is Dick Solomon, the high commander and mediocre to poor physics professor at the local university. Johnston is Sally Solomon, the security officer and Dick’s ‘sister,’ who has a handful of jobs throughout the series. She is in an on-again/off-again relationship with Officer Don Orville portrayed to perfection by Wayne Knight. The chemistry between these two is something to behold . . . . Stewart is Harry Solomon, who at one point goes to night school to get his high school diploma and at another becomes a bar tender. He also starts a romantic relationship with their landlady’s daughter, Vicki Dubcek played by the gone but never forgotten Jan Hooks. He is also the radio and Dick’s brother. Gordon-Levitt is Tommy Solomon, the information officer and Dick’s son. Though he is the oldest member of the team, he is tasked with being the teenager on the mission. Naturally, this leads to hilarity time and again. S3:E10 “Tom, Dick and Mary” is a  particularly funny example.

Anyway.

The ridiculous situations, pull me in. The bawdy–at times slapstick–comedy consistently makes me laugh. The show’s familial heart and warmth is also appealing in spite of its irony. So is its wisdom. But my affection for those crazy aliens is bigger still. The show premiered in 1996 and I was not an immediate fan. Truth be told, I knew little about it. In 1996 I was spending my first year out of high school ignoring the fact that I had to think about growing up. This, naturally, means I was at parties, hanging out into the wee hours of the morning, and sleeping all day. I had crappy jobs that paid crappy wages but kept me happy. Sitcoms weren’t interesting to me. By 1999 though, I had grown up some, gotten an apartment, and took my first anxious steps toward coming to terms with the fact that I was, indeed, an adult. After work one night while my roommate and I searched for something to watch, we found the show in syndication and were immediately hooked. It became something akin to a religion to us. Since there were two different stations airing Third Rock from the Sun at various times after 9pm every night, we could watch as many as four episodes an evening. Though I have never gone out of my way to compare, I can safely assume we became two of the show’s biggest fans.

Now, 15 years later, I am still hooked and The Big Giant Head must be smiling down upon me because Third Rock from the Sun is now on Netflix. And guess what? The show is still hilarious, subversive, and (somewhat sadly) ahead of its time. The nostalgia is what really gets me though. I learned to love the Solomons when I was entering adulthood, when my roommate and I could stay up into the wee hours of the morning no matter what day of the week it was, when the bills I had to pay were paltry compared to the ones I pay now. In short, when life was easier.

So this summer I left Don Draper’s critically acclaimed story about sordid sexual romps, egotistical ad men, and the put-upon women in their high rolling lives to binge watch Third Rock from the Sun. In doing so, I reveled in the sheer absurdity of what I consider to be six seasons of one of the purest, simplest (thought at times surprisingly complex), and most entertaining sitcoms ever produced.

It’s been a good summer, relatively stress free and full of laughs. Now that the school year is starting (students arrive tomorrow), I may go back to the show again from time to time.

Lord knows I’m going to need a stress reliever from time to time.

 

PS–How do you like the new look? Simplify, man.

Tolkien is right

You may have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien. I hope you have, particularly if you’re a writer of any sort. For Tolkien, you see, is a master.

Before I go any further with this I must pause and explain my tense. I know Tolkien is long dead but that does not lessen his impact. And anyway, his work still lives, thereby giving him life. So I write of him, the same way I write of his work–in the present. Also, if you haven’t read Tolkien’s work prepare for spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to it.

Tolkien is right. Reading through his body of work, I have determined that there are five writing lessons to be found in those pages. These lessons breed with each other, spawn new lessons, and continue a lesson genealogy that is unfathomably large. That said though, it all starts with five principles. From The Hobbit to The Silmarillion and everything in between, his work reads like one large, multi-volumed instruction manual on how to best tell a story. And spoiler alert, it isn’t complicated. Like I said, there are really only five principles.

  1. It is all about the journey.

    • Christopher Vogler and Joseph Campbell will tell you the same thing in their respective celebrated works, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers and The Power of MythAnd though I respect their works, Tolkien’s is far more entertaining. Let’s lay down the facts. In his seminal The Lord of the Rings series in which Frodo Baggins and his fellowship make their way toward Mount Doom to destroy the one ring that has all of Sauron’s power in it, does anyone really think the ring won’t find its way to a fiery demise? The answer to that question is a resounding, “No!” folks. We all know the deed will be done. What we don’t know, upon opening the first page in the first book in the series (The Fellowship of the Ring for those keeping score), is how this is going to happen. We do not know what sort of adventures will take place. We do not know what kind of action will ensue. We do not know who will live and who will die. We have yet to have gone on the journey. This, dear friends, is what we want to do, which is why we picked up the book in the first place–to go on a journey, not to reach a destination.
  2. Meaningless death does not exist, for all death has meaning.

    • Many critics and fans alike have expressed anger over the deaths of Fili and Kili during the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Other than Thorin, these two dwarves are mentioned by name more than any of the others in the group adventuring with Bilbo to take their mountain home back from Smaug. Therefore, these two are the ones readers have found themselves most attached to over the years. “So why?” they plead of Tolkien. “Why kill them?” Some have even guessed at reasons–offering rather weak reckonings on age and blood lines and Tolkien’s narrative intentions for who should be king once Smaug is defeated . . . . These reasons, though grand in effort, fall flat because they ultimately miss one glaring fact: Tolkien is a writer. And writers, as we all know, have something to say. Fili and Kili die at the end of The Hobbit to remind readers that adventures are dangerous, that knowledge and power does not come without a price and that sadly, people die. But also these deaths make their lives all the more precious. Many writers have done just the same at the ends of their novels and films. J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedeon, George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins, the Cohen Brothers, Stephen King, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. It is as though they are all taking a nod from Tolkien and reminding us of Bilbo’s famous words: “It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
  3. There will be time for history later . . . or not . . . it doesn’t really matter . . . as long as the writer knows it

    • In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings readers are immersed in a fantastical world called Middle-Earth in which dwarves and elves live side by side with men. It is a world where tree herders wander the forest searching for their long-lost wives, a world where orcs wreak havoc on a populace protected by wizards. It is a world readers must accept. If the world is written well enough, if it is created in such a way, readers will be able to go along for the ride without too much historical aid. That said, Tolkien knows his history. He knows what blood lines lead to what kings and what family of hobbits has lived under what hill for however long. He knows the legends that helped build his world and he knows the past battles and governments and politics. He knows it all. With that knowledge comes a great power and with that power comes a great responsibility. He drops just enough of the tales of old in his narrative to remind readers the world we are in when we are reading is very real. Eventually all of that history is collected in The Silmarillion and those of us who are super fans enjoy it from time to time. But it is not necessary. Remember, much like Tolkien, you’re not writing a text-book on the history of your world, you’re writing a story. But you better damn well know the history in order to make your story more believable. It doesn’t matter if the dragons talk and the elves sail across an ocean to heaven. If you’ve created a real world with a real history, your readers will believe.
  4. Big events are best told through the eyes of the little guy.

    • In The Lord of the Rings the world is coming to an end. The greatest evil ever known has awoken from a long and fruitful slumber to curl his fingers up into fists and start pummeling his enemies (everyone) into submission. There are kings and knights riding against him. There are powerful wizards and mighty rulers leading armies to the gates of Mordor (the bad guy’s messed up kingdom of rot, orcs, ghost kings, and one particularly terrifying giant demon spider lady) to stop this encroaching villain. There are movers and shakers who make plans and arrange armies and generally act as rulers do. But what is Tolkien’s focus? Hobbits. The smallest of the small. Those hobbits, those tiny little insignificant creatures, are the ones who tell the greatest story and have the largest impact. Again, a vast array of writers have taken this concept and made it their own. It is the story of the little guy in the grand epoch. It is the living breathing symbol of all of our actions having meaning. The little guy–the nobody–makes a difference folks. It is no more evident than in Tolkien’s tales. But also, in works by Dan Simmons, Victor Hugo, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Jean M. Auel, and many others.
  5. There are really only three themes in great literature: love, death, and time.

    • These three concepts are everywhere constantly whether in the real world or the fiction one. People are on the look out for love, avoiding love, or basing their actions on love. Likewise, the specter of death haunts us all. Right there with death is the fear of time. There will never be enough. Tolkien knows all of this as he writes and it comes through in his characters’ relationships, actions, and behaviors. They should also come through in yours.

There you have it, folks. Tolkien is right. Simply put, the man knows how to tell a story.

Work

I make it a priority to avoid doing too much with my high school teaching job during the month of June and very little those first couple of weeks of July. I won’t apologize for the weeks away from work I have every summer. I also won’t defend it by claiming I spend all the time stressing about the upcoming year, learning new ways to teach, and generally ignoring every other aspect of my life in order to make myself a better teacher. I don’t.

As I mentioned last week, I’m a lot of bad things, folks, but I’m not a liar.

Now that June is over though and July is creeping to a close, I have to turn my eye toward Bellevue West High and begin preparation. It is not something I’m fond of doing. In fact, I look at it as a necessary evil. I see some of my colleagues start happily prepping for the upcoming school year in February. Some of them are even excited, talking about what they’ve learned and what they will teach and all sorts of in-service bullshit jargon that literally is so painful to listen to it makes my body start shutting down. Luckily for me I feel the shut down process begin and get away as fast as I can! Then there are the other teachers who shrug at the thought of preparation because they’re too busy madly dashing from website to co-workers’ classrooms in search of lesson plans. High quality teaching there, folks, let me tell you. Perhaps if they would do less shrugging and more preparing they wouldn’t be in a panicked mess throughout most of the school year . . . .

Anyway.

I probably have more in common with the latter in that my dislike of prep work. On the other hand, I’m a lot like the former in that I understand its importance. So don’t bother me folks. For, as I finish binge watching Third Rock from the Sun, look fondly toward the release of my next novel, and eek out every bit of relaxation time I can from the last few weeks of summer break, I will also be preparing and planning and making ready because I don’t want to metaphorically freeze to death like that grasshopper from that fable.

Liars and Deceivers

No.

I’m not writing about politicians.

Zing! Hey-Ho!

I’m writing about fiction writers. I’m not going to build up to it, folks. Here it is: writers are liars and deceivers. That’s right. We’re bad, bad people.

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We make a living (in some cases, just barely) by lying to our readers. Our stories can be fantastical with dragons and zombies. They can be representations of everyday life and tumultuous events like divorce or death. They can be funny. They can be sad. They can be scary. They can be somber. The one thing they all have in common though is that they are all lies. 

Also, even those of us who tell true stories, such as memoirists, lie to a certain degree. Here is one of my only pieces of published non-fiction. It is about my son’s birth and it is . . . not 100% true. Yes, he was born dead with a congenital heart defect. Yes, there were several moments of intense worry as I watched doctors and nurses try to revive him. And finally yes they succeeded and I did believe in “magic, real magic,” as I say in the little tale. There is, however, imagery in that story that did not take place during the actual event. There are snippets of dialogue that are built on the backs of half-dazed memories and shocked, willful forgetfulness. So, to those keeping track, to those stern guardians of nobility, those puritanical guardians of the actual truth, this story–though true to my mind–might be considered a lie. 

Such is life.

But what I do with that lie is tell my truth. I tell my truth of the experience. I tell my truth of the emotions. I tell my truth of the most painful and happy day of my life. And I am specific, for specificity in writing leads to universality in understanding. I do the same thing in my novels The ABCs of Dinkology: Life and The ABCs of Dinkology: Time In-Between. Sure, those stories are completely made up, but in them I get at a specific truth. I ponder what it might be like for a young man struggling with his sexuality at the turn of the century. I ask how a kid with an already fragile psyche would cope with his father’s terminal illness. I wonder what it would be like to live through some rough, rough times (truth be told, I do take many aspects of my life to answer these questions I ask). Hopefully, there is something universal about that. 

It’s simple really. There are times when writers, such as myself, have to lie to get at that universal truth. That is what good writing does and I will not apologize for being a liar and deceiver for that simply means I’m a good writer.

Also, you know, I promised myself I would do my best to post weekly for the rest of summer and I failed. So this is kind of me defending myself against myself . . . . I’m not sure if it worked.

Anyway.

Presence

I don’t have a lot to write about this week, but I swore I would maintain this weekly blog (at least for a spell). So even though I’m exhausted from last week’s travels, grading, and writing I decided to write something. I think this is something a writer should always do though. Don’t you? I mean, decide to write despite the fact that it feels impossible.

But I’m also uninspired. This blog started because an editor told me I needed an internet presence. She told me it didn’t have to be about anything. She told me it could be about everything. She told me to “just write my thoughts.” And I’ve done that.

But lately it feels like I’m running out of anything and everything. With this blog . . . I’m on ‘E’ and thinking about turning it into a vlog.  Talk about presence, right? I mean, my pretty face isn’t on the internet enough yet, is it?