Archive | August, 2011

Seriously Cute Blogger Award

28 Aug

My delightfully dark genius writer friend Anne Michaud honored me with this award.  Where would I be without her?  Blogless – in fact!

Puppy Club rules are:

1st RULE: You do not talk about Puppy Club.

2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Puppy Club.

3rd RULE: You talk about 5 books/films/TV shows you’ve read or watched in the last 12 months.

So here’s my list of five books/films/TV shows I’ve read or watched in the last 12 months.  I don’t watch much TV except for 60 Minutes and whatever event Anderson Cooper just happens to be covering, so I’ll stick to movies and books.  Now Anne’s already covered The Fire in Fiction by the glorious Donald Maass.  So I can’t go on and on about how much I love that book.  Or can I?

1)      The Fighter.  Stranger than fiction story-line about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward.  Great soundtrack, by the way.  Gotta love the reintroduction of the word “skank” into the popular vocabulary.  Oscars all around, if I had a say in the matter.

2)     Old Man’s War.   I couldn’t get past chapter one, the first time I picked it up.  It simply hurt too much to continue.  John Scalzi’s a master of sci-fi.  If there was a book I wish I wrote myself, this would be the one.

3)     Into Thin Air.  This gripping story about the 1996 Everest disaster, told from the inside, leaves no room for ego.  Jon Krakauer tells it from the heart.  Sometime I had to put the book aside, to consider that what was happening was real.

4)     Stardust by Neil Gaiman.  Not ashamed to say the end made me cry like a little baby.  Original, poetic, sexy, and smart.  And also a great movie (with a very young Ben Barnes).

5)     Dorian Gray.  Modern remake of the 1891 classic Oscar Wilde horror.  Don’t forget that book landed him a jail sentence.  Talk about suffering for your art.  The movie stars the wonderful Colin Firth as Wotton, corrupting a dashing Ben Barnes – as Dorian – on the art of seducing old ladies (‘nuf said) and everybody else.  Is it any good?  I’ll watch it one more time, and let you know…

A Year in the OWG

23 Aug

August marks the one-year point of my joining the Kelley Armstrong Writers Forum.  Kelley has created this marvellous place for us writers to hang out in, to exchange information and techniques.  I cannot express enough gratitude for her investment in the concept.

One of the things we do in the OWG is critique each other’s work.  It’s an interesting and enlightening concept.  So far this year I have had the privilege of beta- reading two novels written by fellow OWG’ers – Ken and Anne – two novels I’m sure will land on the bookshelves.  It’s exciting, being a part of the creative process.  I appreciate the confidence they had in me, in sharing their work and trusting the feedback I gave them.  It’s not easy, handing over your project for someone to review.

I’m better at critiquing than I was a year ago.  Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way:

 Arm yourself with knowledge.  You can’t give advice if you don’t understand the mechanics of writing.  So read a few textbooks, study up on the subject.  It will make you a better critiquer, and writer, too.

Leave your ego at the door.  It’s just your opinion.  The author ultimately has the final say.

Remember your agenda.  Having a bad day?  Don’t take it out on the writer.  Maybe you don’t like their work, but you don’t need to be rude or cruel.

Take the high road.  If you feel someone has gone off the deep end critiquing your post, you don’t need to retaliate with a scathing review of their work.

Three is enough.  If someone is repeatedly making the same error, point out three examples – and stop.  They will either get the point, or not.

Give what you want to receive.  If you do a half-hearted review, that’s what you’ll get back – if you’re lucky.   You might just get completely ignored.

It’s not your homework.   Offer suggestions or examples, but you’re not here to rewrite someone else’s novel.  Save this for your kids, but they’ll probably fail the final exam if you do their homework for them.

No deletes, please.  If you think something should be deleted, then mention it – but don’t alter the original document.  Would you like it if a random stranger suddenly decided to give you a haircut?

Find something to love.  Maybe you don’t like the genre, or the style, but you can find some things that are working.  Point them out.

Wander by Newbie Island, now and then.   Remember your first few months there?  Make a new friend.

Now what other points would you add to this list?

Sneak Peek at Chago 2

18 Aug

andes-shot.jpg

Photo Credit: Jeff Waye

Imagine spending an entire year – or longer – working on a novel and then having to sell it based on the first 250 words.

Now those first 250 words are essential.  A potential reader could be standing in a bookstore, skimming over that first page, and make a snap decision whether to purchase that random book by some unknown author.  I didn’t realize how important those first few lines were, until I found out about the Secret Agent Contest.  It’s a blog where writers can compete to post their 250 word start to their novel, and an unknown agent picks a few to review.  When I scanned through the entries, the whole exercise became a eureka moment.  Yes, I could quickly decide – from that short sample – which books I wanted to read, and which ones I would pass on.

Securing an agent and selling a book is hard work – full of mind-numbing rejection and countless attempts at rewriting.  It’s harder than writing the book itself.  Now the sample below clocks in at roughly 680 words, but right away you could decide if you want to buy this book, or pass.  It’s the opening passage to Shot at Redemption, the fourth story of the Shadow People series, and the sequel to Chago’s Shades of Grey.  And it’s all an agent might look at, to pass on or consider my novel.  Bring on the pressure!

 

SHOT AT REDEMPTION

Contains some violence and strong language.

“You’ve got an anger management problem, you psycho bastard.  You threw me through a plate-glass window.”

I shook myself free of Lloyd’s grip.  “I manage my anger quite well.  Right now I would like to throttle your scrawny neck for blowing my cover.  And yet, you live.”

“Gentlemen, please.  Can we resolve this civilly?”  Cassidy closed the mini-blinds in a last-ditch attempt for privacy.  People were staring through the office windows at the three of us.  The walls may be soundproof, but they wouldn’t stop the emotions flooding out.  I didn’t envy her job as peacemaker.  You couldn’t pay me enough for that task.

But there was no making peace with Lloyd.  “I want a new partner.”

“That can be arranged.”

“Chago – sarcasm isn’t helping.”  I hated when Cassidy called me by my first name.  It implied an intimacy, an understanding between us, when none existed.

Lloyd jabbed a finger at my chest right into my torn-up blood-stained shirt, like it was my fault – not his – this disaster happened.  “I’m done with you.”

“Ditto.”

He stormed from the room and slammed the door, sending the secretaries in the typing pool flying for cover.

I grabbed my jacket from the coat rack and turned to leave.

“Just a minute, Chago.  We’re not finished, here.”

“Is this going to take long?  I’d like to take a shower – wash this gore from my skin.”

“Sit down.”

Shit.  It must be bad news, if Cassidy wanted me to sit in one of her fancy leather chairs in my filthy condition.  More than just a mission gone sour.  I reached out and played with the artefacts on her desk – Guatemalan worry people, African tribal masks.  My favourite was the genuine shrunken human head inside a glass case.  Something new was in the mix, looking suspiciously like a voodoo doll.

I waggled it.  “Anybody I know?”

“How many partners have you gone through, Chago?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you do.  How about ten – in the last four years.  Sounds like you have some issues besides anger management.”

“We all have issues.  It’s part of the job.  Soldiers of misfortune.”

“Is that what you think you are?  A soldier?”

“Can you come up with a better word for what I do?  I’ve spent the last ninety years purging this planet of monsters.  Lucky for me, there never seems to be a shortage.”

“And what do you do besides work?  When was the last time you took a vacation?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you do.  How about 1939?”

I scraped the dirt out from under my nails.

“Take some time off.  Consider it a vacation.”

“I don’t need a vacation.”

“It’s not a request.”

“Fuck.”

So this is what happens when you get a dumb-ass for a partner who thinks he can take on a warehouse full of drug dealers.  I told Lloyd to let the humans clean up their own mess.  But no.  He had to get all idealistic on me, feed me some garbage about their mess being our mess.  They would have killed him if I hadn’t tossed him through that window – they were about to blow his head off, anyways.  I saved his life.  And this is the thanks I got.

I should have defended myself, but instead I fell back on old habits – like pride – and said nothing.

“How about we start with six months of leave – see how it goes.  Take it from there.”

“Six months?”

“Human Resources says you’ve got over three years vacation owing to you.”

“We have a Human Resources Department?  Since when?”

She tapped her pen against the manila file folder on her desk, the one with my name on it.  Of course, the real question was how did she get stuck trying to rehabilitate somebody like me?

“Go lay on the beach.  Drink some margaritas.  Play your guitar.  But if I find out you’re busting heads somewhere, then I’m going to haul your ass over the coals.  Do we have an understanding?”

“Sure.”

But no voodoo witch-doctor psycho therapist was going to tell me how to spend my vacation.

Filters and Barriers

10 Aug

The most outrageous things can happen to a character in a novel.  They can smoke pot, indulge in hookers, choke someone with their bare hands.  The more eccentric and controversial, the better.  And this all happens at a comfortable distance, filtered through fiction.  I’m just reporting the action, not passing judgement on the character’s behaviour.  That job is for the reader.

But it’s something else to write about yourself.  Suddenly that filter, that barrier, comes down.  And for someone who prefers to be the interviewer rather than the interviewed, it leaves me rather tongue-tied sometimes.  This is what blogging feels like – what’s up there is just pure me.  I can no longer rely on my characters to get me through the day – it’s my opinion, my voice.  Stage fright sets in quickly.

When I sent a short piece to a writer friend of mine, she didn’t recognize it as non-fiction because she’s accustomed to me writing in the first person.  She suggested I post the piece on my blog.  I responded with a very definitive: But that would be like running around naked in a mall parking lot on Boxing Day!   Cold and exposing.

Some of my favourite books are written in the first person.  The stories feel intimate, like listening to a close friend talk.  It becomes even more immediate when the story is non-fiction.  Suddenly what’s at stake is real.  I applaud the candour and honesty of writers like Jon Krakauer and Joe Simpson, who told their personal survival stories and lived with the fall-out.  That takes courage of a special kind.

So to honour that motto of mine – do something every day that scares you –  I will post that personal piece of mine, the piece that made me realize how filters and barriers affect all of us, colour everything we see.  Pass or fail – I’ll have to live with the fall-out.  Wish me luck.

Short Story for the Month – August

1 Aug

SAGARMATHA

This story was inspired by Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, and – of course – Jeff’s photo.  Special thanks to Anne Michaud, for her relentless editing talents.

Photo credit:  Jeff Waye

 Jeff's shots 8

Stone monuments to the dead line the path to Everest.  There’s no way past them, no moving beyond the reminder that one in four people will die in the attempt to summit and return.  I remember resting a hand on those rough stones, breathing a muted prayer to the souls that walked this route before me.  The little colourful flags danced in the breeze.  Fog hung heavy, obscuring and softening the verdant valley.

That was the last time I saw colour.  It seems fitting that in my final moment, those prayer flags would be the image lingering in my mind.

Whiteness.  Nothing but shades of white – swirling, dancing, colliding and hammering against my face.  I reached into my pocket for a cigarette.  I’d promised to give them up, but it didn’t really matter anymore.  Pungent tobacco bit through air so thin and sterile, it wouldn’t carry any scent I didn’t bring along with me:  fear, sweat, laundry soap, wet wool.

Fingers stiff and white, the blackening notes of frostbite forming on the tips, I fumbled with the lighter.  It snapped and sparked, finally bearing a pathetic flame.  I sucked at my smoke, gave my butt to the wind, and tucked my stubby digits into my mitts.  I cursed my bad luck, my stupidity, my physical inadequacies; the guide who abandoned me.

There was no point to going on.  I was lost, and left behind.  So much for Joe’s promise to get me home.  My fault, for choosing to climb without canned air.  The guide made the right decision: sacrifice the idiot, spare the team.  A quiet comfortable sleepiness stole over me.  No pain, no drama.  A gentle surrender.

“Mister Alex.  Wake up.  Come now.”

I raised my head and rubbed my eyes.  “Sherpa Joe.  You came back for me.”

“Yes.”

“Where’s everybody else?”

“Down below,” he said.  I shuffled along in his wake, the hunched form of his backpack making him look misshapen.  He paused whenever I lagged behind, and waved a hand.  “Not far now.”

The black-white sky flashed.  Thunder rumbled, echoing into the longer chaos of another avalanche.  Fear paralysed my limbs, shutting me down, until Joe’s words broke the spell.

“Hurry.  Not far now.”

I clung to his voice, the only shred of sanity in the swirling blizzard.

The air thickened as we descended.  My lungs gratefully sucked in the extra oxygen.  Muscles burned in fatigue; I wanted to lie down and quit.  But hope won when the humped forms of tents rose from windswept rock.  We’d made it all the way past Camp Four, down to Camp Three.  I’d been too tired to notice the passing of the time.  It could have been an hour, or the whole night.  My headlamp winked out, battery dead.

“Now you can sleep,” Sherpa Joe said, as he unzipped my tent.

I gripped his hand.  Tears stung my eyes, wasted moisture in my dehydrated, delirious state.  “Thank you for coming back for me.”

“I promised you, Mister Alex.  I swore on Sagarmatha.  Now put your hands like this.”  He stuffed his fingers into his armpits.

I wondered where everyone else was, why it was so quiet.  No sounds of snoring, talking, swearing; no drone of radio cutting the silence.  They must all be exhausted beyond belief.  I crawled into the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, and let go of the world.

The moisture in my breath clung to the insides of the tent, snowing down when I bumped my head against the canvas.  My fingers hurt.  I tugged at the mitts, afraid to look, but they weren’t any worse than yesterday.  Maybe I’d get to keep them.

Pristine white greeted me everywhere I looked; barely a sign of our tents popped up sun-bleached red and khaki between drifts.  The campsite was deserted – not even marred by track marks of the quiet, competent Sherpa Joe.

I couldn’t find my lighter, but there was a spare in somebody else’s pack.  I lit a fire on the campstove, melted some water, and shovelled a can of cold beans down my throat.  Bland and tasteless, like the water.

I waited the whole day, alone, while the mountain hung silent and brooding.  The weather was perfect for climbing, inviting, like a Venus fly trap, alluring, beautiful, welcoming – until it snaps down its jaws.

The last rays of sunlight bathed the peaks in glowing orange and pink.  I slept fitfully, the wind howling spirit sounds, tangling and invading my dreams.  Agony, pain, all mixed up in a haunting melody.

The loneliness was oppressive; I could not endure another day in this stark solitude.  I packed up my few things, rolled up my sleeping bag, and headed down for Base Camp.  It was frightening being alone again, lost like before Joe found me, my mortality dangling with each tentative footstep and handgrip.  The mountain reigned like a living menace, eyes boring into my back, sending rocks and boulders tumbling as if to hurry me off the barren slopes.

Shattered nerves, shaking hands, eyes burning from the glare, but I made it.  The tang of unwashed bodies rose on the breeze.  Pots clattered, voices rose and fell; music buzzed on a radio.

Silence descended as all eyes fell on me.  I could understand the shocked expressions – I’d been written off as another casualty of arrogance.  But where were my friends, my team mates?  The guide who left me behind?  Where was Sherpa Joe?

They’d all perished in the avalanche that took out Camp Four.  While I was having my pity party on the ridge, they were gasping their last breaths under a crushing blanket of snow.  The bodies were retrieved, one by one, lined up for identification.  Arms cradling skulls, legs curled; fear, horror, resignation etched on frozen faces.  And there was Sherpa Joe, my cigarette lighter in his pocket, the only one peaceful like a sleeping child.

There are plenty of ways to explain what happened, and they all involve human error.  Maybe I was wrong about seeing Sherpa Joe.  He couldn’t have come back for me – he was already dead.  Maybe it was my imagination, bizarre hallucinations from the dehydration and fatigue, the lack of oxygen messing with my brain.  Maybe the radio dispatcher got the times wrong, or the translator got some of the words mixed up.

But I saw Joe standing next to the stone monuments, a smile lighting up his earnest, serious face.  He faded away as I drew near.  He’d made a promise to me – an oath on his sacred Sagarmatha – and he hadn’t failed to get me home.

I grabbed a rock, the biggest one I could lift, and started building Joe his own monument.  Rest in peace, my friend.