(Trans) Fat Cat
This was an entry in a contest at A Word With You Press in the summer of 2010. Contest title: “Cat Tales: Stories of Feline Virtue & Vice” (but…I also wrote to a last minute scenario suggested by author Victor Villasenor: “A cat disappears for two years, then returns…”)
It was a dark and stormy night on the backside of Palomar Mountain when the pet door slammed open with a loud BANG! The gray heads of the man and woman whipped away from “Easy Rider” on the TV. That door hadn’t swung in two years. The couple, aging flower children, squinted through the smoke that shoaled through the wan TV light.
“My God! Is that?…it is!…it’s…it’s…” the woman stammered.
“Lucifer!” the man finished for her.
A large, magnificent cat stood in the entryway, oblivious to the howling of the coyotes outside, head high and proud, tail twitching, his fur gleaming blue-black in the smoke-dappled TV light.
“’S’up, people?” inquired the cat.
Eyes wide, hands shaking, the woman fished half of a gigantic doobie from the ashtray and rekindled it. She inhaled deeply, and stared at the cat, even after the man plucked the joint from her fingers. In the glow of the splif, the cat’s scars became visible, one over the left eye, another a diagonal slash from the corner of his eye, across his nose, to his mouth.
“But…uh…c-cats can’t talk…” the woman stammered, as the man gagged on the ash of the now fully consumed blunt.
“Babe,” replied Lucifer, “where I’ve been…you don’t just have to walk the walk, you gotta talk the talk.”
“But…b-but…, “the woman continued, “the coyotes got you! We heard ’em wailing that night! I cried over you for three days! I lit incense! I…”
“Coyotes are punks,” interrupted the cat, his lips twisting in contempt. He glanced casually at the claws of his right paw, then continued. “They weren’t out to eat me. They were working for a chain of Korean fast food joints, if you get my drift. I wasn’t ready for them that night and they bagged me and had me on a flight to Seoul in a heartbeat. But like I said…punks. Careless. I was ready for them when they opened the bag…so, pow…right in the eye, the first one.” He made a nasty hiss and extended his claws again. “His buddy was even dumber and slower. So I skated. Hooked up with some cool locals…got my first line on some work.”
The old hippies stared, mouths slack. “Work?” the man managed.
“Oh yeah. The ’nip dens. Big biz in the East. Those cats get wasted, man…and crazy when they don’t get their ’nip.” Lucifer gestured to the scars on his face. “But it’s big, big money.” The cat shook his head. “Sad to see, though, really. So sad, I had to move on. Local cat hooked me up with a gig in the Middle East.”
“But, b-but…,” stammered the woman, as if she were practicing stammering, as if it were a skill she was cultivating.
“Those Persian cats pay a huge premium to get to the Eurocenter. Mega business. But you know, after a while, it got like the ’nip thing. Couldn’t hang with the skin trade.” He gave an ironic shrug. “So, color me sentimental.”
“But, b-b-but…” said the old, stoned hippie chick.
“Next stop was Noo Yawk,” The cat grinned, Cheshire-style, as he said the name with the local accent. “Cat there had a lab. His process started with margarine, and the end product looked like cream. But the shit had a kick, let me tell you. Cats’d kill for the stuff, and I’m not speaking figuratively.” The couple seemed to overcome, momentarily, their chronic astonishment and exchanged looks of budding, if benumbed interest.
“So I was back where I’d started–in pharmaceuticals. And again, big dollars.”
“Like cr-e-e-a-m…,” crooned the old pony-tailer, a wistful grin blooming on his face.
The cat rolled his eyes and continued, “So before I knew it, I’d made my heap, and figured, what the hey, wonder how the old folks on Mount P are doing, so I might as well finish that trip around the world. So here I am. And there you are…’bout like I remember.”
“B-b-b-b…” stammered the ancient Joni Mitchell wannabe.
“So…d’ja, like, bring any o’ that..cream with ya?” asked the faded facsimile of David Crosby.
The door crashed open. Seven burly men in black, bristling with weapons, burst into the cabin. Three held the stunned old stoners against the wall while three more took the cat down and cuffed him. The remaining invader stood over the cat and growled, “DEA, Luke. Got an extradition order from Mayor Bloomberg’s Food Police. You got any idea how much trans fat’s in margarine? You’re goin’ down for a l-o-o-o-ng time.”
I can’t add anything meaningful to the dozens of tributes already on the Internet, but I can’t let the occasion of Captain LeFon’s passing go unmentioned. Known to most as “Lex,” he was a retired naval aviator, a widely read and admired milblogger (as “Neptunus Lex“) and most recently, a civilian contractor flying as an adversary at the Naval Fighter Weapons School at NAS Fallon, NV. He died there on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in an operational accident involving the F-21 Kfir jet fighter he was piloting.
I never met Lex, though we corresponded by email a couple of times during the three years or so that I was a daily reader of his blog. He graciously accepted my offer of a copy of The Lowlands of Heaven last year–one San Diego writer to another. But though we never met, I was surprised at how deeply I was affected by his passing. It was as if an old and dear friend had died.
Lex was widely admired for both his wisdom and the distinctive style of his writing. Many of his posts read like novels, some approach the lyricism of poetry. His subject matter ranged wide, including memoirs of his service in the US Navy, general aviation, current events, the wild world of politics, science, and the ever-popular “plane prOn.”
Lex leaves his wife and three children. He is deeply missed by many. Truly, we will not see his like again. Go with God, Captain.
Here’s a bit of Christmas Cheer for you–made up of excerpts from The Lowlands of Heaven–as the story arrives at Christmas Eve…
In the 1930s and early ’40s, Americans welcomed Christmas more gratefully than they had in better times. The present was squeezed between a past haunted by the specter of the Depression, and a future that loomed black with the threat of war, so the spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men resonated more deeply than it had during times in which prosperity and security were more easily taken for granted. So despite the anxiety that beset daily life, San Diego, in the Christmas Season of 1940, carried on, donned its holiday livery, and showed the world a cheerful face.
In much the same way, Laurel carried on her search for Kate.
Her wandering led her to the downtown district where strings of colored lights, wreaths, and garlands of evergreen transformed the storefronts, and the sound of carols filled the streets. The strains of “O Holy Night” drew her to a shop where a gaily decorated Christmas tree glittered in the window. She sank down on the display window’s wide sill, leaned back on the plate glass and breathed in the healing music.
After a bit, another sound caught her attention: a ringing that reminded her of the bells of the locomotives she’d heard during her travels on the rails linking San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. She followed the sound, finally turning a corner to discover a red-nosed Santa Claus resignedly clanging away beside his collection bucket, which, despite obviously having seen better days, was made festive with some sprigs of holly and a red ribbon. Laurel watched as a passerby clinked a coin into the battered but gaily decorated vessel.
When the traffic thinned for a moment, the old fellow darted a look this way and that, slipped a flask from his pocket, and took a nip, missing not a stroke of the bell. As Laurel’s eyes caught his, he jammed the flask back into his pocket in one quick motion, and winked.
Laurel regarded him a moment, the parchment skin, the rheumy eyes, the grog-blossom nose. She remembered, with a tremor of apprehension, the “rumdums,” as Tony had called them, on the train from San Francisco. But recognizing the old man’s weariness, and—with a remnant of her fraying angelic sensitivity—feeling his essential good nature, her fear fell away.
“Merry Christmas!” she called to him.
“Merry Christmas, yourself, sweetheart!” replied Santa, with a smile that was disarming in such a rough-looking old fellow.
“You look tired,” she said. “Why don’t you take a rest?”
With a wry grin, he replied, “Strikes me as a fine idea, Love, but if I wanna fill the bucket, I gotta make the racket.”
“Let me, then,” said Laurel, setting the violin case on the pavement and undoing the latches. Santa watched her tweak the pegs and tighten the bow. He ceased ringing when she began to play Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He smiled and sat on the beat-up little box in which he carried his bucket and bell. Caught up in the Christmas spirit, passersby stopped to listen and to drop a little something into Santa’s bucket. A few coins landed in the violin case, too.
Laurel concluded Jesu to enthusiastic applause and as she segued into “O Come All Ye Faithful” the crowd joined in singing. As the crowd grew, so did the reach of their sound and their spirit, which drew yet more people. New arrivals would feed Santa’s bucket or Laurel’s violin case, or both, and then add their voices to the choir.
Finally, remembering her purpose, Laurel brought the concert to a close. She began to put the violin away, and was astonished to find the case half-filled with coins—and even a few bills, a kind of generosity scarcely heard of in those hard days. She stared at the jackpot for a second, then with an air of decision, picked up the case and tilted it over Santa’s bucket.
…continued, in The Lowlands of Heaven.
A Christmas excerpt from The Lowlands of Heaven: most of Chapter 24, in which Jack helps Laurel prepare for her journey from San Francisco to San Diego.
Jack and Laurel walked past Market Street’s shops, all gaily decorated for Christmas. Laurel lingered for a moment at a newsstand, somber, scanning front-page accounts of the London blitz.
The healthful effects of her communion with the street players were beginning to fade, and she struggled to keep up with Jack. Faint shadows again lay beneath her eyes, and she’d been wracked by occasional sneezes.
Jack, moving ahead, stopped in front of a pawn shop. He stepped inside, and after a few seconds poked his head out and waved for Laurel to join him.
He stood between two tables stacked with second-hand clothing. After sizing Laurel up for a moment, he began rummaging through the old clothes. Laurel picked through them too, only mildly interested, fashion decisions being of small concern to angels.
Her attention wandered, and then she spied something that did indeed inflame her interest. She made a beeline for the back wall of the shop, which was crowded with musical instruments, among them many violins.
She at once identified the best fiddle and the best bow—which is to say only the best of a bad lot. She plucked them off the wall, tightened the bow and tuned the violin. Now, what shall it be? Bach…but which? She remembered the newspaper stories of the London battles, which recalled to her the terrible scenes revealed in the pool at Branch 92. She shivered and her breath halted; she closed her eyes and, after a moment of perfect stillness, drew the bow. The somber Partita in D minor, Allemanda filled the shop.
Heads turned and people gathered. A supernatural calm fell over Laurel, and the crowd grew as she spun out the stately melody. At the end of the first theme, she looked up to see a throng of grave faces surrounding her. This won’t do…
She acknowledged the people with a nod, and then began “The First Noel.” She played a chorus and a verse, and a few among the growing crowd tentatively sang along.
She segued into the “Wexford Carol,” and a small, bent Irishman who had come to San Francisco in the previous century wept a little, as he always did when he heard the ancient melody. A woman who taught music admired the way the child added a stern, stepwise bass in the second verse and noted the way she suggested, as in the manner of Zen painters, the inside voices, just the well-placed note or two, to richen the music. The old teacher’s practiced eye knew the fiddle for the low, pawnshop relic that it was, and marveled at the brightness and élan she heard now, so like that of the young prodigies, and the smooth, assured gravity, so like that of the older masters that she had heard, when she could afford to, in the less expensive seats high in the back of the symphony hall.
Laurel moved seamlessly to “O Holy Night.” The crowd joined her, sounding finer than anyone could expect of a random gathering. Concluding the carol, she left the singers behind as she wove a handful of Christmas melodies into a shimmering tapestry, transfixing the still growing crowd.
She brought her improvisation to a triumphant climax, then reprised the individual carols. The gathering joined together with unbridled passion, sounding like virtuosi who had sung together all their days, and the dingy little space rang with their voices.
Soon, the pawnshop nearly burst with the crowd. More and more people flocked in from the sidewalk, listened in wonder to the extemporaneous chorus, and then joined it. At the middle of it all, Laurel, like the sun, anchored them like planets in their orbits. They were hers—but for one: a tall, pale man in a long dark coat who stood unmoving at the rear of the crowd, his face half-shadowed by the brim of his hat.
The shop’s owner, a florid, heavy-set man, a man not much concerned with appearances, emerged from a back room, astonished at the spontaneous concert that had taken over his rooms. He was a man who, from long experience, could shrewdly assess what sort of price a run-of-the-mill trumpet or banjo or fiddle might bring, but there was not so much as a speck of music in his heart. He was a businessman first and last—and yet he joined this glorious, ever-enlarging celebration of Christmas that had invaded and occupied his dingy little shop. For the first time in many years, he sang.
He’d sung only a few lines, though, before the tall, pale man pinned him in his gaze. His voice halted as a sensation as of ice water pouring down his back made him gasp. The spiritual gravity of Laurel’s music was powerful, however, and the heavy man found himself uncommonly stressed, as if he were a planet caught simultaneously in two mighty gravitational fields—Laurel’s sun-like influence on the one hand, and that of a black hole on the other. His mouth opened and closed like that of a fish drowning in air, but he couldn’t manage to produce so much as a syllable. His eyes, too, were fish-like, wide and blank under the baleful stare of the tall, pale presence across the room.
Laurel intended only the merest sliver of time between one piece and the next, but as she finished a carol, that tiny lull was all the pale man needed. In that slice of silence, as his eyes transfixed the heavy man, he raised his hand, so slightly, and made a fist.
Instantly the shop owner’s mien changed from mesmerized to menacing. He spun toward Laurel as she began “Joy to the World.” Stronger than ever, the joyous throng raised their voices in company with Laurel as the newly-mad man began to shove his way through them.
Near the front of the shop, Jack completed Laurel’s new traveling wardrobe. He set a pair of small boots on top of a short stack of shirts, socks, coveralls, and a few other odds and ends. Then he pulled a handful of coins from his pocket and counted. Should be enough. He started toward the counter at the rear of the shop—and found himself, like the others, compelled to join in the singing.
Suddenly, the shop owner stood glowering before Laurel. Eyes closed, soaring on waves of glorious music, she was oblivious to the threatening bulk before her.
Lunatic fire filled the man’s eyes as he roared, “Whaddya think yer doin’?” and snatched the violin and bow from Laurel’s grasp. Stunned, she could only stare at this unexpected nemesis.
The crowd went silent but for a few isolated murmurs. The unhinged man waggled the bow in Laurel’s face and raged, “This ain’t for kids, dammit! This here’s a fine old instrument! Ya keep yer little mitts…”
Laurel took a step back. The absurdity of the man’s claim about the violin, which he clutched as if it were a chicken he was about to strangle for his supper, stunned her.
“Fine?” she said at last, cutting him off, incredulous. She leaned forward. “It’s junk!”
The madman exploded. “You don’t talk back to me, missy!”
He had gone, in mere moments, from confused to indignant to possessive to enraged to apoplectic—some of hell’s proudest offerings to the human condition. His face was purple.
“You’re a runaway, ain’t’cha? Stolen coat ya got there, huh? Three sizes too big! Robbed a sailor, now you think yer gonna rob me too, do ya?”
Laurel took a step back. Madhouse…
The man raved on. “Well I’ll turn ya in, see!” He took another step toward her. “I’ll have ya locked up…like ya belong!”
With “locked up” he had her complete attention. She was at last wholly present, back from Music, and fully on guard.
Her mind focused. Locked up! …Kate…go…NOW. She shot a glance over her shoulder—and saw the way out. She took a step back. Huey’s wings buzzed within her cowl.
The poor bedeviled shop owner lunged. He grabbed air as Laurel hopped backward out of reach. Huey launched out of her cowl—straight at the man’s eyes—with a pulsing, menacing drone. The unexpected aerial assault broke the man’s thrust, and sent him reeling backwards, hands flailing to save his eyes. Laurel turned and ran for the door.
Jack saw most of this and, overcoming his astonishment, fired a deadly look at the madman. Inspired, he overturned a long table loaded with pots, pans and other assorted metal ware. The man whirled toward the deafening, jangling crash, dithered between that chaos and the rapidly retreating waif until he was overwhelmed by another series of fast, hot hummingbird attacks.
Jack scanned the shop, saw Laurel moving fast toward him. Their eyes met and he jabbed his thumb toward the door. In less than a second she was out and racing down Market Street. Huey zoomed past Jack like a winged bullet, out the door and after Laurel. Jack sprinted out last, clutching the bundle of things he had gathered for Laurel. The three hustled down Market Street for a couple of blocks before ducking into an alley.
Catching his breath, Jack eyed Laurel with grave concern. “That’s the second time you’ve gotten all carried away with your music. If Kate really needs you…well, you’d better try to get a grip on yourself.” Laurel’s gaze met his briefly, then she closed her eyes as she sank to the pavement, her head in her hands.
Jack continued, “He really could’ve had you locked up, you know, and as far as I can tell, you’ve got no help…no folks, no money, no friends. If the cops put you in the lockup, how are you gonna help Kate? See what I mean?”
She finally looked up at him, desolate.
“Let me tell you something…you want nothing to do with cops. Doesn’t matter that you haven’t done anything wrong. The best that can happen is they’ll slow you down. And you don’t have any time to lose, right?” She nodded. He smiled, trying to look more confident than he felt. “Well, let’s go.”
Rejection. It’s always been an occupational hazard of writers. Agents reject you. Publishers reject you. If you enter your book in contests, judges reject everyone but the handful of winners. If you survive all of this rejection and get published, some reviewers reject you. And then, perhaps, the Bad Thing happens: you begin to reject yourself. It’s enough to make you want to get a day job. Or slit your wrists.
Wait! Put down the razor! Think for a moment of those M.C. Escher pictures. Remember how they seem to be one thing one moment, but then morph into another thing even as you peer at them? Let me suggest that you view rejection as you would view one of those images, and allow yourself to see a different thing in it. To do so will lead you to a much more comfortable place–a place I stumbled on about the time I finished writing The Lowlands of Heaven and which recently has been mentioned by no less an authority than John Locke (How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months!), the eighth author to sell a million e-books on Amazon and the first independent author to do so.
If you feel you’re dying of rejection, you’re simply looking at things from the wrong perspective. You’re laboring under an illusion, an unstated premise. Without really thinking about it, you have defined success as the state in which everyone in the world loves your book. You can begin to dispel that delusion right now: Go to Amazon.com and browse the Bestsellers list. How many one- and two-star reviews do you see? Right. Clearly, many of the most popular books have inspired not only love but hate, too–some of them a good bit of it.
The point? You must reject as unattainable your unspoken goal of being universally loved. Assuming your book isn’t a seething dunghill of purple adverbs, non-sequiturs, grammatical felonies, crimes against orthography, insupportable demands on the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief, cringe-worthy dialogue, a plot so absurd it would make your goldfish hurl the book from her bowl, is not bloated with overly long sentences (well…maybe a few long sentences won’t hurt) in other words, if your book is of publishable quality, your need is not universal adulation. Your need is to identify your target audience.
How many people have read your book? (Do not count your mother.) I’m not a statistician, but it seems reasonable to conclude that if 20 people you can trust to give you honest feedback have read it, and 12 to 15 looked you dead in the eye and said they liked it, there is likely a demographic out there who will be happy to pay a reasonable price for it. What about the few who didn’t care for your book? Doesn’t matter–that only means that they’re not a part of your target audience. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal…it’s just demographics.” John Locke says something quite similar in How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months at location 1382, Kindle edition.
So, now that you’ve crushed your self-destructive delusion regarding universal acclaim, what’s next? Consider publishing independently. My opinion, from what I can make out of current trends, is that if you pursue the traditional publishing model you will likely experience a high level of rejection, but which reveals more about the declining state of the industry than about the quality of your writing or the existence of your target demographic. Who needs that?
As an Indie, you’ll need to figure out some details: cover design, print, ebook or both, etc. But most important, you’ll need to become a social media expert, if you aren’t already, and you’ll need to develop a large circle of acquaintances in the book blogosphere, which is where you’ll find…drum roll…your demographic. Grow your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Then Google “book blogs” and get busy networking. See you out there.
Please join me in a prayer for those enduring the ongoing disaster of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 2011. Images of such horror naturally shock us out of complacency and invite those kinds of questions that usually lie beneath the noise of everyday life: Does God exist? If God is, why does He allow suffering?
These questions, in this context, called to mind a passage I read many years ago in a then popular book, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wherein the author relates an encounter at Benares Hindu University in India:
…one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus [as the author refers to himself in Z&AMM] raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes.
Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.
–Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A view similar to that of the Indian philosophy professor’s was known in the West before Materialism replaced Christianity as its religion. While not characterizing the world precisely as “illusory,” this Western view is that the human experience represents a lower order of reality than Eternity. The relevant point is that both views suggest that harms suffered in this world are not what human experience seems to tells us they are, which is the basis for hope.
If Phaedrus’ professor was right, those who have died in the Great Earthquake have awakened from their dream of the world and those who grieve the dead can take comfort in the prospect of their own eventual awakening and reunion with those who have gone before them. Similarly, the remaining faithful in the West are assured that out of death and chaos arises the life of spirit in Eternity.
Materialists like Phaedrus will accuse me of wishful or “magical” or superstitious thinking, but until they can demonstrate conclusively that such views are false–which for all their condescension they have not done–I’m happy to accept the hope to be found in the contemplation of Eternity. Neither believers nor materialists can demonstrate their respective positions to be true, but it may be that the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal had the right idea with his wager:
…even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
“Man bites dog” is, or used be, journalists’ jargon for an event whose improbability makes it newsworthy. With concern over cruelty to animals growing in recent times however, the old saw has lost some of its edge as real-world parallels have become more commonly reported. A disclaimer: I love animals. I’m a slave to a flock of hummingbirds who keep me running two or three times a day to keep their favorite feeder full. I don’t step on spiders in the house; I put them outside after catching them in an old paper towel tube set aside specifically for that purpose. I could go on.
But consider the case of Monique Smith, 19, of Brooklyn, the alleged murderer of the family hamster. (I can’t say “murderess,” can I?) Apparently it was a crime of misdirected passion; Ms. Smith allegedly killed the rodent in the course of an argument with members of her family in June 2010. She now faces felony charges that might get her two years in prison.
Now, consider the case of Alexander Harwell and Lorenzo Sepulveda, Jr., who were convicted in 2010 of the 2008 murder of Maria Padilla, 27. After shooting Padilla to death the killers dismembered her body and scattered the pieces in multiple locations, for which each was sentenced to 15 years, with the possibility of release in less than 10 years.
Back to the Brooklyn hamstercide case. Cute and cuddly as a hamster may be–and whose life expectancy is between two and three years–is its life worth two years of a human life? If in the present case a two-year prison term is possible, what if Ms. Smith had been a mass hamster murderer? If in our society the life of a hamster is so nearly equivalent to that of a man, might she have expected to do the same kind of time as Harwell and Sepulveda?
I’m sure I abhor Ms. Smith’s barbarous act as much as any ASPCA member does, and please don’t doubt that I think she should pay a penalty for it. Those of us who believe that the world of human experience is but a small part of a greater Reality trust that she will necessarily, in this world or the next, atone for her cruelty. But is it appropriate to expend this world’s already stressed judicial resources on a case like this? What does it say about a society in which adults who cold-bloodedly murder and then mutilate a fellow human being spend a few years in prison, and a kid who kills a rodent in an adolescent fit of rage faces two years inside? You tell me.
…is the title of a just-released collection of short stories from A Word With You Press (AWWYP), a consortium of writers and artists that has sprung into being over the last few months. The Coffee Shop Chronicles is the result of a contest–or challenge–announced in February 2010 by Thornton Sully, Editor-in-Chief of AWWYP, wherein writers were invited to create a story touching upon “a cup of coffee.” Didn’t matter how coffee was involved, entrants could dwell on it, or merely touch upon it. From the AWWYP site:
An anthology of one-hundred best stories, that all start or end with a cup of coffee. They can be humorous and jittery, or about a life-changing event that is somehow linked to that magic brew.
Um, in the interest of full disclosure, yes, the volume contains a story of mine, “Cafe Zanzibar,” located last on the roster, I’m told, rather in the manner of the headliner at a concert. (Well, no, the editors didn’t actually say I was the headliner, but I rather like the notion.)
Kidding aside, one hundred gifted writers are represented, so please visit A Word With You Press and sample some of the treats on offer there. (http://bit.ly/aHxzzI) I’m confident that after you do, you’ll want to support this growing community of artists and writers by purchasing a copy of The Coffeeshop Chronicles, Volume 1: Oh, the Places I’ve Bean! –a lovely, paperback coffee table book:
While you’re there, check out the other contests that have come and gone through the year (see the list in right-hand sidebar). Who knows, you might want to join us and enter some of your own work in a current or upcoming contest. I hope you do!
PS: Don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter (click the link over there on the right) in which I’ll be posting updates regarding the launch of my novel, The Lowlands of Heaven, in addition to other items of interest.
Some books on which I’ve relied:
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman. This book is not about the techniques of writing–it’s about the reasons for writing. Postman’s premise should frighten writers–indeed, it should frighten everyone. He suggests, like Marshall McLuhan before him, that “the medium is the message,” that the content of our thought is shaped by the means through which it is expressed, and that we are in danger because the most popular medium of our time–television–is not capable of encompassing the scope of thought–of discourse–necessary to seek truth, necessary for self-knowledge–and for self-governance. In Postman’s words:
Orwell feared the future of those who would deprive us of information, books would be banned and that truth would be concealed from us. [Aldous] Huxley feared that we would be reduced to passivity; he feared the truth would be drowned in sea of irrelevance and therefore no one would want to read a book. In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World people are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, the book Amusing Ourselves to Death is based on the premise that Huxley, not Orwell, is correct.
–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Read this one to understand the importance–in a larger context–of being a writer. If you don’t read anything else on the list, read Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Writing a Novel, John Braine. Clear, concise, a step-by-step guide. An excellent roadmap for your first novel, and couldn’t hurt as a guide for subsequent ones.
The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist: A Book for Writers, Teachers, Publishers, Editors, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction, Thomas McCormack. A favorite. Can’t remember why, exactly–I just seemed somehow to have inhaled a breath of confidence after reading it.
On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner. Rather than the exploring the question of how to write a novel, this excellent book examines what makes a novelist.
On Moral Fiction, John Gardner. “True art is, by its nature, moral.” No craft hints here, rather, a philosophical reflection on the moral responsibilities of fiction authors and of artists in general.
On Writing, Stephen King. A good read, and a worthwhile discussion of craft, too, following the autobiographical part.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott. Source of one of the most helpful observations, ever, about writing: “You must give yourself permission to write a really [crappy] first draft.”
Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger. Aimed more at screenwriters than novelists or short story writers; nonetheless relevant for fiction writers of all genres.
Story, Robert McKee. Has value, but rather too much detail. To write according to the detailed diagrams here is to succumb to writing by formula. Give it a read, tuck a few points away in the back of your mind, then go your own way.
Screenplay, Syd Field. Though aimed at aspriring screenwriters, Field’s book has value for fiction writers of all genres. Screenplay provides basics of storyline construction.
The following are not specifically about writing fiction, but are useful tools that you may already be familiar with:
English Composition and Grammar: Complete Course, John E. Warriner
(If your participles are dangling, Warriner can help.)
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
Roget’s Thesaurus, (ed. Robert L. Chapman)
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, John Bartlett, gen. ed., Justin Kaplan
The Complete Manual of Typography, James Felici. Essential for independent publishers who intend to design the interior of their book.