A Not So Simple Case of Stage Fright (Encore edition)

Here’s something a little different. And seeing as how my new book is told from the point of view of two teens, I thought it appropriate to share this little story again. Please, let me know what you think.

“I’m done for,” Jack told himself. “If I weren’t such a chicken, I’d take my bike out on the interstate until somebody ran over me.”

“What’re you mumblin’ about, Jerko?”

”Nuthin’.”

Rotten to begin with, Jack’s day had just gotten worse with the arrival of the last person on Earth he wanted to see, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik.

“Look at me, Jerko,” the Beast said. “I want an answer.”

Jack knew what he really wanted was an excuse to punch Jack’s lights out. And any excuse would do.

“It’s nothing important.”

“So, you got my grade fixed?”

There it was, the grade thing. If only Jack hadn’t opened his mouth; if only he hadn’t claimed he knew how to change data in a spreadsheet. If only…. “Yeah, about that,” he began.

“You didn’t do it, did ya?” More statement than question, the Beast delivered his opinion with a quick shove and a dose of halitosis, both well-known Blatnik trademarks.

“The thing is, I got caught,” Jack said, trying to hold his breath long enough for the Beast’s breath to dissipate.

The Beast showed him a fist. “You better not have ratted me out to Mizz M.”

“I didn’t. Honest. I told her I was just lookin’. I wasn’t trying to change anything.”

“Did she believe you?”

Jack shrugged. Mrs. Melchior could be a mystery sometimes, especially when it came to doling out punishment. The one she’d given him was clearly over the top. Super, extra over the top.

“At least you didn’t get suspended,” opined the Beast.

“That would’ve been a lot better than what she came up with.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’ve gotta play the part of Romeo in the year-end class play.”

The Beast laughed so hard Jack knew everyone in the whole school could hear him, and thanks to the magic of junior high physics, everyone would know exactly why he was laughing.

“C’mon, man. Gimme a break.”

The Beast struggled to control himself. “I heard Four Eyes is gonna be Juliet.” He doubled over once more. “Oh, that’s frickin’ awesome. I can’t wait to see you smoochin’ up 4E.”

“I don’t think that’s required,” Jack said, though he doubted his own words.

The Beast poked Jack’s sternum. “Just don’t forget to fix my grade before the end of the term.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Melchior will notice?”

“Ain’t my problem, Jerko. Do it, or else.”

~*~

Jack put in more hours than he cared to count in an effort to memorize his lines, but when it came time to recite them, he struggled. It didn’t help that most of the class had front-row seats for his mortification. And smack in the middle, where Jack could smell his rank, nasty breath, sat Myron “the Beast” Blatnik, laughing harder than everyone else.

4E, on the other hand, knew every line as if she were reading from a script. It wasn’t fair by a long shot. When Mrs. Melchior finally granted him a reprieve and ended the rehearsal, Jack wasted no time following his Juliet to her locker, hoping to learn her secret.

“How do you do it?” he asked the tall, dark‑haired girl whom everyone but the teacher called 4E. “How can you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s easy. Where I come from, everyone can do it. You just have to give the words a special look.”

Jack had no idea where she came from, but he was absolutely sure it wasn’t anyplace nearby. She had a vaguely Asian look, and one of his friends pegged her as, “Cute, but not Miss Universe.” Jack hadn’t formed an opinion about her since he hadn’t quite gotten into the whole girl and guy thing yet, much to the amusement of his alleged pals.

“That’s fine for you,” he said. “But what about me?”

“I guess you’ll just have to work harder.”

“Aw geez, 4E. I’m already workin’ overtime.”

She just shrugged and walked away, leaving Jack sad and frustrated. At least she didn’t seem to care about her nickname like some kids did. He figured that was because no one, including Mrs. Melchior, knew exactly how to pronounce her real name.

~*~

A few more days passed, and on the eve of the dress rehearsal, Jack concluded his situation was hopeless. He had even given serious thought to running away to someplace where nobody knew him. His overwhelming gloom drove him close to tears as he stood beside his locker and contemplated various forms of pain-free suicide.

“Wow,” said 4E as she sidled up to him in the hallway, “you look like you just received a death sentence.”

“Might as well have,” he muttered. “Every time I think I’ve got my lines down pat, somebody looks at me funny, or makes a joke, or sticks their tongue out at me, and then I can’t even remember what day it is.”

4E stepped closer to him and crossed her arms. “Since you’ve been pretty nice to me, I’ll do you a favor.”

Jack gave her his full attention. “What kinda favor?”

“If you can give me some kind of sign when you need help, I can give you your lines.”

“A sign?”

“Sure. You could wink or something.”

Jack’s laugh held little mirth. “I can just imagine how everyone would react to that! They’d never stop laughing at me. Couldn’t I just rub my nose?”

“Based on the way it’s been going, you’ll rub it completely off by the time we get to the end of the first scene.”

Jack felt tears beginning to form. He had no intention of crying in front of a classmate, let alone a girl, but he had nowhere to hide.

“I’ve got a better idea,” 4E said. “At the dress rehearsal, whenever you need the next line, just start thinking of something really, really weird and specific.”

“Like Eddie Bogart’s funky ear?”

She shook her head. “Nah. It needs to be something nobody else is likely to think about.” Her lips twisted to one side as she gave it more thought. “How ‘bout pickles on ice cream?”

“What good is that supposed to do?”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, my name’s not Four Eyes.” She then uttered something that included two tongue clicks and a short, breathy whistle.

Jack decided he’d stick with 4E.

~*~

At the dress rehearsal, Jack donned his costume as if it were required for the guest of honor at a firing squad. Nervous sweat dripped from everywhere, soaking his tights and his short jacket. The only thing which stayed dry was the feather in his monumentally stupid hat.

Somehow he staggered out on the stage where 4E waited for him dressed in similar period clothing. But just as she had no problems with her lines, her costume looked great. In fact, without her big glasses, she was edging closer to Miss Universe territory, and he told her so.

Her smile made her look even prettier. “Now don’t forget what I told you to do if you forget something,” she said.

He couldn’t begin to imagine how thinking of something stupid‑‑like pickles on ice cream‑‑could possibly make any difference, but he agreed. Since he was about to perish on stage anyway, in front of everyone he knew, what difference did it make? On the plus side, by dying out there, Myron Blatnik would be deprived of his main goal in life, Jack’s torture.

Jack somehow managed the first few of his lines without difficulty, but he made the mistake of looking at the Beast squatting at the edge of the stage making faces at him. The curtain shielded Blatnik from the teacher giving him a clear line of sight to the actors. Suddenly, Jack couldn’t remember anything.

His skin grew clammy, and he began shaking and stammering. The worse he got, the more the Beast laughed. Jack stared at 4E in desperation.

She smiled and winked at him which seemed to break the spell.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on a huge bowl of fudge ripple ice cream with sliced pickles piled on top. Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head. It was her!

He opened his eyes to see if she was talking, but she was just smiling, and he could still hear her speaking his lines!

Jack looked around to see if anyone else heard her, too, but it seemed clear no one else could. Mrs. M had grown impatient; the other kids didn’t bother to try and hide their giggles, and the Beast grinned and gave him the finger.

Finally, Jack blurted out his lines, just as 4E had recited them to him.

From then on, with 4E’s help, he made it through the rest of the rehearsal. At the end, Mrs. Melchior complemented both of her star players. The other students, with the exception of the Beast, crowded around them, clapping them on the back and telling them how great they were. Jack even began to believe them.

Once everyone packed up and started leaving, Jack hurried to find and thank 4E as she stood beside her hall locker.

“How can I thank you?” he asked.

“I’m not saying another word until you call me by my proper name,” she said. “It’s–” She rattled off a few syllables punctuated with clicks and a whistle.

“I– I don’t think I–“

“Adios,” she said, turning away. She didn’t seem to notice the smattering of kids who had hung around to watch them.

“Wait,” Jack said and gave it a try.

“That’s close,” she said. “Try again.”

Despite the laughter and the noise of the other kids, Jack did give it another try. And then another. And another. Until he got it right.

“That’s it!” she said, her smile wider than ever.

Jack wiped his forehead. “Okay then. How can I really thank you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “A kiss will do.”

The gang surrounding them thought this new development was insanely funny, and they all burst out laughing, especially the Beast.

Jack merely hitched up his tights, cleared his throat and said, “That’s fine with me, Juliet.” Then he kissed her full on the lips.

It was a long kiss.

Some of the boys continued to giggle, but the girls in the crowd elbowed them into silence.

By the time they finished that one, long kiss, Jack’s world had expanded exponentially.

~*~

With his confidence restored and his fear under control, Jack managed to play his role quite convincingly to a girl he now realized he adored. As a result, they both turned in performances that could only be described as masterful, even for junior high schoolers.

Afterward, at the cast party, the Beast pushed his way between Jack and 4E’s newly found admirers. “Hey, Jerko. You finished with our other project yet?”

With 4E holding his hand, Jack didn’t flinch as he looked the Beast square in the eye. “Before I answer, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like ice cream? I mean, as big as you are, you probably eat a lot of it.”

The Beast seemed to expand right where he stood. “So what?”

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Vanilla. What of it?”

“Stay with me now,” Jack said, ready to launch into the tactic 4E suggested before the show. She had seen the effect the Beast had on him. He stared hard at Blatnik. “Try thinking of that big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream just smothered in pickles.”

Pickles?

“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Jack said. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid.”

The Beast actually growled at him. “Yer in for it now.”

“Oh, puh-leeze. Just take two seconds to think about that ice cream with lovely green pickle slices sliding down on all sides. C’mon. Give it a try.”

4E squeezed Jack’s hand as she smiled, not saying a word.

Suddenly, the Beast looked nervous, and his face reflected a growing fear. He glanced from side to side as if seeking an excape route or an emergency exit.

4E continued to smile, while Jack held his ground and then, at the appropriate moment, cracked his knuckles.

With that, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik reached the breaking point and pushed his way back out of the small crowd.

“Catch ya later,” Jack called out after him.

The Beast didn’t respond.

~*~

Jack walked 4E home a short while later. On the way he couldn’t help but comment, “I still don’t understand what you did to him.”

She chuckled. “Once you got him to focus on something odd, I was able to put a suggestion in his mind.”

“What kinda suggestion?”

“He now believes you’ve got a black belt in karate and could break his arms and legs as easily as you destroy pine boards.”

“No kidding? I don’t know anything about karate.”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “Just in case.”

Jack realized he’d been holding her hand the entire time they’d been walking, and when they reached her house, he was reluctant to let go. “This whole thing has been amazing. And I still don’t know how you were able to memorize your lines so well.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “Where I come from, everyone can do it.”

Her response sounded familiar, and Jack squinted at her. “Just where, exactly, do you come from?”

“Promise you won’t tell?”

He nodded.

“I come from the fourth planet orbiting the star Earth people call Alpha Centauri.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, where do you come from?”

4E wasn’t laughing. “That is where I come from.”

“Right,” Jack said, still trying to make light of it. “I thought all you space aliens were supposed to be green or look like reptiles or something.”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “Although we do have one thing that humans don’t have.” She pulled the hair back from her forehead to reveal a third eye. “Any time I need to remember something forever, I give it a special look.”

~End~

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A guest blog! Where do ideas come from?

I’m pleased to introduce Jack Bowie, a good friend and a wonderful writer. We’ve both been working on the craft long enough to have learned a few things. We’ve probably even mastered one or two. But the topic all writers face at one time or another is what Jack’s writing about today. Have at it!

Greetings. Your host was kind enough to ask me to join him on this post. As some background, I’m a hard-core techy whose career spans researcher, engineer, and high-tech executive. A lifelong reader, I love the novels by Ludlum, Clancy, Baldacci, and Silva. As I approached retirement, I decided I’d better get started on that political techo-thriller I had promised myself I would write. Well, seven books later, I’m still at it and enjoying every minute, mostly. 😉

Jack's latest

Writers often get asked how they come up with their story ideas. I have my own way and wanted to share it in this post. Now I have on occasion accused Josh of getting his ideas from nightmares after a long night out, but, to be honest, mine tend to come from articles I read. Real life is full of fascinating events, coincidences, and surprises. You just have to see them the right way. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

One of my daughters works for a company that coordinates clinical trials for drugs in low- and middle-income countries. All good. But what if the drug/chemical company was testing biological weapons, not drugs? Then what if the CEO of the trials company suspected this but wasn’t sure, and she asked a college friend, who is an investigator, to come in undercover. That has promise. To learn more, check out The Bergen Legacy.

I read one day that my college alma mater once had a secret society. Think Yale’s Skull and Bones but without the money. It was disbanded in the 1960s.  What if it was resurrected with alumni? And what if one of those alumni used the group to influence public policy and enrich their company? Even to the detriment of our country. Find out what happens in The Osiris Inquiry.

I think you get the idea. It’s all about using your imagination and asking what if?

Now here’s one for you. I have a high school reunion coming up, and I received an email from aJack classmate. She said she had been going back through her yearbooks, saw a nice note I had written, and wanted to thank me. That sounds innocuous enough. But what if the note hadn’t been so nice? Could it have referred to an event she had mostly forgotten? Where would you take this?

Hope I’ve given you some ideas for that next novel. What are you waiting for? Get back to writing!

Keep on reading (and writing),

Jack

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I know I’m repeating myself, but in case you missed this yesterday, TODAY is the day!

Hopefully, I’m not wearing my faithful out with repeated posts about Hyde and Zeke, but I can’t help it. I’ve started getting reviews, and they’ve been very positive, which is good because I think this is one of the best stories I’ve ever dreamed up. 

Now, because my marketing campaign still isn’t geared up completely, I feel the need to keep spreading the word here, and when possible give my readers a chance to get a copy of the book… for FREE!

And yes, there is a catch. It’ll only be available as a free download for 24 hours, TODAY: Monday, Sept. 12th (PST).

Zeke front coverI would dearly love to see that everyone who follows my blog takes advantage of this opportunity. And tell all your family and friends! Seriously, this book has got something for everyone–action, adventure, romance, suspense, humor, and surprises–right up to the end.

One extremely kind reviewer said she’s ready for a sequel! That’s really the kind of thing writers love to hear. (Seriously, you liked it that much? Awesome!)

So please, either save the link below, or come back here tomorrow and click on it. You’ll arrive at the Amazon page for the book, and you can download your copy on the spot.

And once you’ve finished reading it, please take a minute or two to post a review. You can’t imagine how helpful that will be. [Smile]

I’ll be back next week with something writerly, I promise!

The link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BB1634BR

–Josh

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One Day Only! (Man, talk about old school…)

Seriously? Is anyone still doing that anymore? Well, yeah. Me!

Hopefully, I’m not wearing my faithful out with repeated posts about Hyde and Zeke, but I can’t help it. I’ve started getting reviews, and they’ve been very positive, which is good because I think this is one of the best stories I’ve ever dreamed up. 

Now, because my marketing campaign still isn’t geared up completely, I feel the need to keep spreading the word here, and when possible give my readers a chance to get a copy of the book… for FREE!

And yes, there is a catch. It’ll only be available as a free download for 24 hours, TODAY: Monday, Sept. 12th (PST).

Zeke front coverI would dearly love to see that everyone who follows my blog takes advantage of this opportunity. And tell all your family and friends! Seriously, this book has got something for everyone–action, adventure, romance, suspense, humor, and surprises–right up to the end.

One extremely kind reviewer said she’s ready for a sequel! That’s really the kind of thing writers love to hear. (Seriously, you liked it that much? Awesome!)

So please, either save the link below, or come back here tomorrow and click on it. You’ll arrive at the Amazon page for the book, and you can download your copy on the spot.

And once you’ve finished reading it, please take a minute or two to post a review. You can’t imagine how helpful that will be. [Smile]

I’ll be back next week with something writerly, I promise!

The link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BB1634BR

–Josh

Posted in Writing, novel writing, Historical writing, short fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Is Your Sex Scene Worthwhile? (Encore)

When working with beginning novelists and reviewing their work, I’m often tasked with reading their very first sex scenes. One might be tempted to say, “Oh, you dawg! You get to jump straight to the good stuff.” But, one would be dead wrong. Reading these fledgling efforts rarely amounts to a privilege.

What I typically encounter are vague scenes loaded with tired, adverb-packed phrases. It often feels as if the writer thought using the word “passionately” would somehow make the scene steamy. Yet, there’s rarely any passion on display at all. No steam, not even a whistle. Worse still, there’s not much creativity, either.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating detailed descriptions of body parts, their dimensions, or their disposition. I’m talking about setting aside one’s fear of writing a sensual scene and instead, using the opportunity to develop both characters and plot. In most cases, the actual sex is secondary. And yet the very prospect of writing about it often leaves those new to the craft sweatier and more nervous than the typical young lovers they’re trying to depict. “What will granny say when she reads this?”

A good writer uses setting, emotion, and motive to give full-bodied life to these scenes. Why empty the toolkit simply because the story demands that one character must jump into bed with another? The bed, of course, is figurative. It could be a hayloft, the back seat of a Chevy, a kitchen counter in a Manhattan deli, or anywhere else. With a little creativity, where the action takes place becomes as important as who’s involved.

So, you’ve got two players destined to make the grand connection. Must they be housed in a nice, private room somewhere? Hell, no! Maybe their best bet is a church pew or a bench in Grand Central Station. Maybe it’s a semi-private hospital room: “Excuse me, Mr. Frobish, I’m just going to pull this curtain around my bed for a few minutes. This won’t take long, and then we can continue our conversation about your collection of vintage teacups.”

“Yes, Padre, I know this is a sacred place, but these pew cushions you had installed are truly awesome.”

“Oops! Here comes the conductor. Pull the blanket back in place and pretend you’re studying the timetable.”

There should always be a motive. Real people rarely do things for no reason (despite what your childhood sibling once claimed). The motive could be–and all too often is–infatuation. “My God, you’re gorgeous. Let’s make love right now!” That’s as silly as it sounds, but it ends up being at the heart of too many of the scenes first-time novelists write.

How much better would these encounters be if the players involved had some reasons other than unbridled libidos? This is hardly a new concept, and one can find a bazillion stories where one character uses sex to trap another, whether the trap in question is a pregnancy, an intimidating photo, the need to inspire jealousy or some other common plot device. Here’s where creativity and imagination come into play. Find a rationale that hasn’t already been done to death. (I’ve always been partial to the concept that if Character A is busy having sex with Character B, he or she can’t simultaneously be murdering Characters X, Y, or Z. Unless, of course… Et voila! And we’re on our way.)

I’ve saved emotion for last because even if neither setting or motive comes into play, what goes through the mind of a viewpoint character should be explored. Such thoughts might be entirely coherent and focused on the moment, but they could also drift.

Sensory input isn’t blocked during sex, at least not completely. Textures, odors, tastes, and sounds are likely to be present no matter where the scene takes place. Use them, for cryin’ out loud! Maybe water is dripping from a faucet, and the rhythm mimics that of the couple. Maybe birds are chirping, or an ambulance screams by. Maybe the toast is burning, or the dog is scratching at the door. Maybe the radio is on in the neighboring suite, and mighty Casey is at bat in the bottom of the ninth.

Whatever you do, take the time to explore the options. Don’t settle for a clichéd bit of prose that will satisfy no one. Instead, be a writer!

–Josh

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Historical fiction, or hysterical? One more time…

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my next writing project. Now that Hyde and Zeke is on the market, albeit waiting for an official launch (Oct. 9th, hopefully), I’m giving serious thought to doing another historical novel. And why not? After all, I co-wrote a trilogy of lengthy novels set in the first century BC and followed those with two more written solely by me–one set in colonial America and the other set in Georgia during WWII. Plus, Hyde and Zeke took place in the 80s. If the reviews those books have gotten are any measure of success, then all are doing quite well. Readers like them.

Then, just as I’d convinced myself I’d become something of an expert on the topic, I thought of a film that came out several years ago based on a book published two years earlier. The title: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Was this historical fiction, too? Will I be expected to take real historical characters and have them doing things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened, at least not in the world I inhabit? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Sure. Why not?

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or watched the film about Lincoln’s vampire adventures, and I doubt I ever will. Vampire stories just don’t do anything for me. The old Bela Lugosi films were enough. But the very idea had me thinking about the role of history in fiction. What would be the point of trying to put limits on it? Why should historical fiction be limited to someone’s arbitrary constraints?

Just because my previous books don’t portray actual historical characters doing bizarre things, doesn’t mean my new material should follow suit. Why not write a story about a 19th-century, American politician who chases vampires? Or Werewolves? Or unicorns? Hell, why not Pokemon, too? (Uh, no. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.) Evidently, werewolf and vampire stories sell pretty well.

I suspect that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the Lincoln story (and collaborated on the screenplay), took a great deal of care with the setting. Lincoln may be chasing vampires, but I’ll bet he isn’t doing it from the back of a Ford convertible, or checking his wristwatch to count the hours before midnight. And I’m certain the ol’ rail-splitter never tripped over Pokemon. All other fantasies aside, some things just didn’t exist in the 19th century. Something in the story must be historically accurate, and I imagine Grahame-Smith made sure there were plenty of such somethings. That’s what makes this kind of story fun. Is it great literature? No, but who cares?

There’s a great deal of charm in the idea that the history we know may not have happened quite the way we learned it in school. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. Maybe it was something far more sinister, something that merely adopted the appearance of a cherry tree. <cue evil laughter>

Does this revelation change my thinking? Maybe. It might open up an array of possibilities–and possible stories. My job will be to find the right one.

At its core, fiction is about entertainment. I like historical fiction because it adds the opportunity to educate and challenge preconceptions, too. That’s a wonderful thing. Books don’t need to provide the same mind-numbing pablum we get from television. More and better writers will generate more readers, and hopefully, more enlightened ones.

When I review my own history, much of which was spent in the company of heroes from books, movies, TV, and even a few 78-RPM records, I have questions. Who dreamed up the backstory for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans? Why couldn’t the bad guys ever hit a target? It’s a mystery to me. Do you suppose it was the presence of vampires which prompted the Lone Ranger to use only silver bullets?

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Finally–the Quokka Saga is done. (Wait. Huh?)

My brand new book, Hyde and Zeke, is done. Done!

It was a struggle at times, and there were moments when I felt like giving up. But then I’d look at the cover draft and gaze into the eyes of the little critter there, and realize I just couldn’t quit. That cover, by the way, has been updated just a smidge and now looks like the one below.

While the official book launch won’t happen until October 9th (assuming everything goes according to plan), you can get a copy of this delightful tale now (in either paperback or ebook formats) by clicking on this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1737823748

Zeke front coverIn all fairness, I should share a bit of background about the little fellow on the cover–not the creepy guy in the background, the furry one up front. That’s Zeke, or as close to him as I could get. The fictional character is descended from an endearing little Australian animal called a quokka. They’re marsupials, like wallabies, kangaroos, and koala bears. Only they’re way cuter. In fact, if there was an award category based on adorableness, the quokka would win it, hands-down, every time.

Good books offer up characters readers love and characters they’d never want to meet in real life–bad guys. There are plenty of both in this book. If, like me, you enjoy seeing bullies get what they deserve, you’re going to love this book. And while I think Zeke is a character you’ll really like, he’s not alone. There are others, including Denver, the young man who tells this story.

So, to give you a little taste of both the tale and the teller, I’m presenting the first two scenes right here. Nothing would please me more than knowing my friends and followers got a kick out of this one. If you do, please post a review!

Herewith, scenes one and two of Hyde and Zeke:

Chapter One

“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

–Winston Churchill

Granville, Georgia. 1981 — It began during my senior year in high school….

Despite everything that’s happened over the years, and that’s saying a lot, Zeke is still my best friend. I couldn’t have said that in the beginning, of course, because… Well, let’s just say we got off to a weird start.

I remember it clearly. Malindi Moore had just announced we were through, and I was in a desperately rotten mood. She claimed it wasn’t anything I said or did. She “just needed her space.” She “needed to experience more of the world.” I think what really happened is that she heard the school yearbook layout was done, and she no longer needed to spend time with the yearbook photographer, me.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Malindi made being shallow an art form. When I no longer proved useful, she discarded me like an old lens cloth. Zeke would have tried to warn me if we’d known each other back when Malindi and I first got together. But, of course, that didn’t happen.

Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. I do that a lot, so rather than apologizing all the time, you’ll just have to get used to it.

So, Zeke. He came into my life right about the time Malindi left it. And if she hadn’t dumped me as cruelly as she did, he and I would never have met.

When Malindi dropped me, I headed straight for the woods. It was right next to my house, and I’d spent plenty of time there in the past experimenting with nature shots. But I didn’t bring a camera then. I just needed some privacy. I figured if I shed a tear or two, nobody would see it and realize what a complete loser I am—well, was. See, Malindi was my first real girlfriend. She wasn’t my first big crush; that was Miss Lovingood, my World History teacher. She wasn’t a bad teacher for someone fresh out of college, but she’d have been an absolutely awesome swimsuit model.

Malindi wasn’t in the same league as Miss Lovingood, but she was really cute, and that should have been a warning sign. Back then, really cute girls just didn’t dig guys like me. It’s not in their genes. Zeke could have told me that. Not then, of course, but later, when he learned to communicate.

So anyway, there I was in the woods, sobbing and sniffling, and doing the love-sick moron thing. That’s what you’re supposed to do after a cataclysmic breakup, right? Weep. Moan. Eventually pour out your tale of woe in song lyrics. Constantly relive the misery in a ballad. With harmony. Make it sound really good. Get a recording contract. Achieve stardom, and then get revenge by marrying your former true love’s best friend.

To be honest, I doubt Malindi had a best friend, and if she did, he or she would probably have been just as shallow. Birds of a feather, right? Probably vultures.

Whatever. Anyway, there I was, firmly embedded in nature and busy agonizing over the demise of my love life. I’d settled myself on the trunk of a fallen tree, head in hands, and figured I could bask in my wretchedness a while longer, though I needed to get back to civilization before dusk. Folks have seen bears in those woods. I’m not a fan of omnivorous critters bigger than gerbils, especially not after dark.

Which, when I think back on it, makes my introduction to Zeke even stranger.

He was a whole lot smaller than he is now, and not in the least bit intimidating. He looked as pitiful as I felt. I didn’t know he was a “he” at the time, and I’ve got to admit, I’m still not sure that label is accurate. It probably doesn’t apply to his species, whatever it is.

Way back then, he gave off a sad puppy vibe. We’ve all seen it—mournful eyes, trembling lip, soft fur. Okay, I may have imagined the trembling lip thing; I haven’t seen him do it since. Anyway, just looking at him, I felt absolutely sure he’d been dumped, too. Abandoned. Probably by someone like Malindi. Kindred spirits, no?

“What are you doing out here?” I asked.

He didn’t vocalize, but looked right at me. The eyes got me. They were… I dunno, soulful.

I reached out to him, slowly. Scaring him wouldn’t do. But he didn’t seem intimidated at all. He sniffed my hand and must have sensed I didn’t intend to eat him because he wiggled close enough to rub himself against my knuckles.

He didn’t look anything like a mink, probably because of the extra legs, but I imagined he felt like one—maybe on steroids. He wrapped himself around my outstretched hand like a mitten of stunningly soft, thick fluff.

And then he sighed.

“My name’s Denver,” I said. “Most folks call me Denny, ‘cause I think they know I hate it.”

And then he sighed again, and it sounded like he said, “Zeke” in a quiet, breathy kind of voice that dwelt on the vowel sound.

That clinched it; we were formally introduced. He had a name, and he had me. No way could I leave him there, all alone in the woods. With the bears. Or worse. If Malindi found him, she’d have him skinned and turned into ear muffs or something. So, I took him home.

And that’s how Zeke and I got started.

~*~

To keep this in perspective, I need to step back a few months. Bear with me; it’ll all make sense eventually.

Miss Lovingood asked me, “How’d you like to join the Gangway staff?”

The question took me totally by surprise. I never thought Miss Lovingood would say two words to me outside of class. I had no idea she was the faculty advisor for the school yearbook.

I’m not much of a joiner, but the thought of working alongside Miss Lovingood had me all but drooling. “Uh, doing what?”

“Some of the kids say you’re a whiz with a camera,” she said. “We need someone with skills like that to create a photographic record of all the cool stuff that goes on here at Herbert Hoover High.”

Cool stuff? I wasn’t aware of anything like that. Mostly, I suspect, because the cool stuff was committed by the cool people, and I definitely wasn’t one of them. The cool people did cool things and had cool nicknames for all of it. They never said Herbert Hoover High; it was always H3. So… cool.

“Well, what do you say?” she asked, all smiles. Dazzling smiles; narrow-waisted and D-cupped.

Dazzling smiles mind you; dazzling me. There wasn’t a microscopic chance in hell that I’d pass up an opportunity to spend time with the most desirable female on planet Earth. “You bet,” I said. “That’d be… Uhm. Cool.”

I couldn’t believe that was the best thing I could come up with. But then, I’d been ambushed. It wasn’t like I had time to think of something clever.

“Excellent!” she said. “Our first staff meeting is at three this afternoon, in the library, right after school.”

I watched her walk away, mesmerized by the sight of her retreating figure—a graduate-level course in celestial mechanics. Utterly awe inspiring. At that precise moment, Malindi Moore stepped between us, and my focus abruptly shifted back to the real world.

She actually batted her eyelashes at me, and she had the cupid lips thing going full throttle. “So,” she said, her smile accentuated by bright lip gloss and perfect, brace-free teeth, “you’re going to take pictures for The Gangway?”

“Yeah,” I stammered. “I guess so.” Master of the understatement, that’s me.

“Do you know if they’ll use pictures students provide? I’ve got some really good ones.”

I could only imagine how good they were, and suddenly I realized she was posing for me: pouty lips, hair “just so,” one hand parked strategically on her hip. “Uh, maybe,” I said. “I don’t know how anything works yet. I just—”

“But you have a camera, right?”

“Sure! It’s a Nikon with—”

“Great—you can take some pictures of me!” She fluffed her hair and did some kind of wiggle thing that left me distinctly short of words. And breath.

“Okay,” I managed. “You wanna do it… here?”

She looked around, slowly, as if hoping to spot something interesting, a virtual impossibility on the ground-floor hallway of H3. “Here would work, I guess. Provided you can do some special effects stuff; you know, like make the hallway out of focus.”

Finally, something I was good at. “I can do better than that! With a little planning, I can change the background completely. How does a beach in Hawaii sound?”

“With me dressed like this?” She waved the idea off, thought for a moment, then said, “Have you ever looked at a fashion magazine?”

I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t. “I’m more into… you know… Photography Today or maybe—”

“I’m talking about fashion, Denver.” She paused, thinking. “It is Denver, isn’t it? Like, in Wyoming?”

“More like the one in Colorado,” I said, immediately wishing I’d said something cool instead, but she didn’t seem to notice I’d corrected her.

“So, where’s your camera? I’m ready.”

“Uhm. Well… See, I don’t usually bring it to school. The halls are always crowded, and if somebody knocked it outta my hands or something, I—”

“Well, bring it tomorrow, for sure. Okay?” She winked at me.

Oh, my God, she winked at me! “Uh, right. No problem.”

“I’ll meet you here,” she said tapping on one of the five zillion identical metal doors that lined the hallway. “My locker. Right after classes.”

I’d miss the bus, but I didn’t care; I’d walked home before. Now however, I had a reason: Malindi Moore, locker number 1222, wanted to pose for me. Life was good.

Of course, back then, I was pretty stupid.

~End of excerpt~

Here’s the link again, if you’d like to get your copy now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1737823748

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Idea mining. [Encore]

The process of creating character motivations, actions, and consequences naturally demands ideas, and this is where weak, uninspired and/or derivative plots evolve. I rarely trust the first idea I have for anything. I urge all writers, and most especially beginning writers, to adopt this attitude.is it a good idea

Idea mining generally means digging deep to get at the “good stuff.” Ideas found in the topsoil are those that anybody is likely to have. They’re rarely original, and readers will easily recognize where they lead. Digging down below the topsoil gets you into richer territory. Ideas found here will likely work for most readers. Alas, they’re very likely to be old hat for editors, agents and manuscript buyers. These folks have seen a lot of second layer stuff, and chances are, anything you find there won’t be original to them.

That means if you want to find something unique, you have to dig way down, through the subsoil, and into bedrock. And when you get there you’ll likely have to chip away at it until the gem you need gets knocked loose. It’s work–a helluva lot of work–but it’s worth it. This is the zone that generates plot twists that no one sees coming. It’s where motivations don’t just feel right on the surface; they resonate all the way through a character, and the actions the character takes, as a result, will both intrigue and engage readers.

For example, let’s assume I’ve decided to write a romance, and I’m determined to use the time-tested meme of “boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back.”

You and I wHappy Dancers with Rose in Mouthill probably never extract the same gems from the bedrock of the idea mine, and just because I find something doesn’t mean it’s the best or the only gem available. Hopefully, you’ll find something much better.

First, I need to tackle the boy meets girl part. I could opt for easy–they were sweethearts in school–or I could go the opposite route–she’s a nun, and he’s a gang-banger from the worst slum on Earth; they meet in the emergency room of a charity hospital where he’s being treated for a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting. Or maybe I’ll find something in-between: she’s an exotic dancer hired to entertain at a bachelor party he attends. Obviously, there are a gazillion variations available, but readers have seen almost all of them, so I’ll have to dig deep to find something original. Maybe they meet at a special school for deaf-mutes. (How’s that for a challenge!)

Obviously, how they meet will impact the how and why of their mandatory separation. Again, finding the unconventional will require effort. In scenario one, my first impulse would be to have one of them move away. Yawn. [Insert your fave clichè about trite plot points.] Better to have one of them kidnapped by terrorists, a crazed school board member, or aliens from the seventh planet.

Man Harrassing a TransvestiteIn the nun/gangbanger scenario, a rival gang could abduct her; a crusading district attorney could target her, or the person in charge of her Order could ship her off to tend to ebola patients somewhere in Africa. Or something could happen to him–like prison, or paralysis, or conversion to Islam. Again, choices abound, even though the basic plot hasn’t changed since the earliest cave dwellers gathered around a fire to tell lies, impress cave babes, and entertain each other.

How in the world will these star-crossed lovers be reunited, thus fulfilling the third leg of the plot stool? [Ew–he said “stool.”] I don’t have a clue. But I can guarantee I’d grind a heap of bedrock before I worked it out.

Here’s a thought: why don’t you take a shot at coming up with a “boy regains girl” ending for one of the scenarios above? Let’s see how creative you can be. Post your thoughts in a comment below. If I get enough responses in the next few days, I’ll choose a couple and test drive ’em here.

Y’all hit that keyboard now, y’hear?

–Josh

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Okay, I’m Done. Now What?

You’re “done” you say? That begs a few questions. Like:

  • Are you finished with the rough draft/first “complete” manuscript?
  • Are you finished with all the updates of your first draft?
  • Have you given up altogether?
  • Are you ready to start on another title?
  • What’s next?

First draft finish line reached!

Typing “The End” at the bottom of the last page can be extremely satisfying. It’s not as mind-blowing as holding a copy of your first book in your hands, but it’s still pretty darn cool. And it deserves a celebration of some kind. Take your significant other out for dinner or go play golf with the gang you’ve been ignoring for the past several months. Play with your kids, if you have any, or try making some. <shrug> Walk the dog. Enjoy life away from the keyboard for a while.

If you’re really smart, you’ll ignore that manuscript for a couple weeks, maybe even a month, just to let it cool off. Even if you’re a big-time author–and if you are, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this–you need some objectivity. The cooling-off period will let you be more objective about what needs fixing, and there’s always something.

I suggest reading the full manuscript out loud, with feeling. Seriously. It’ll slow your brain down long enough to allow you to spot some errors. You won’t get them all; no one does. But you’ll get a bunch. Many writers decide on a re-write at this point. Many, like me, don’t. Some writers fill out missing chunks, add setting, trim dialog, hunt down adverbs and pet phrases, or focus on tightening text. You’ll need to do some or all of this. (How much? That’s hard to say. I just finished my eighteenth novel, and one of my readers found errors in the third revised manuscript.)

At some point, you’ll declare your brainchild ready for the world. It’s not. You still need to run it by your First Readers, that cadre of trusted souls who will crawl through your words in search of every niggling little booboo, every innocent tyop, and every literary faux pas they can find. When they do find them–and they will–praise them to the heavens. Treat them to chocolate and adult beverages, for they have done you an invaluable service; they’ve saved you from looking like an idiot, or worse.

Fix everything! Then, and only then, are you ready for the next step.

To hell with it! I’m done.

Sadly, quite a few writers give up before they reach the finish line. There’s no shame in that. Writing a novel is hard, and writing a good one is even harder. And just imagine how many people you know will be able to say “I told you so!” (They will, too, because they can; they’re not-so-secretly pleased that you failed at something they couldn’t even imagine doing.) But, if you’re still reading this, I suspect there’s a part of you that isn’t ready to abandon all the time and effort you’ve already spent on your project. Maybe you just need a break, a little time to get your head straight and your creative side re-energized. That’s okay, too.

While thus occupied, consider re-reading my thoughts on what to do when you’re stuck. You’ll find them here. You wouldn’t be the first writer to think about quitting just because the job turned out to be harder than you thought it would be. So give these possible fixes a shot. Who knows? You might find yourself moving forward again.

Ready to start on something new?

Cool! But before you jump headlong into the next project, give some thought to what you learned doing the last one. Were there mistakes you’d rather not repeat? Knowing what you know now, would you have approached your last book differently? How much of that will apply to the new project? Why not write those thoughts down so you can review them as you move on? You’ve written a book and learned some valuable lessons. Don’t ignore ’em!

Okay, manuscript, it’s time. Make me famous. Or rich. Or something.

Much as I’d like to squeeze this in here, it really deserves its own spot. So, I’ll tackle that next time. For now, I’m curious to know how other people feel when they reach the finish line for a first draft. Relief? Exuberance? Disappointment? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

–Josh

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A Back-to-Skool Shortie (Encore)

It’s Back-To-School season, and in honor of the occasion, I’ve got a charming little bit of super-short, flash fiction to help folks bring it into focus, especially since the topic du jour is an on-going teacher shortage. (My bride taught in public schools for a long time, and I suspect this little tale may help explain a lot about school administrators.)

“The Superintendent’s on the line,” said Carla Jefferson to her boss, Juan Deangelo. She held her hand over the receiver. “You want me to tell him you’re dead?”

Juan smiled. “Nah. I’ll take it. I’m not due to die until next week.”

Carla didn’t hesitate. “Don’t you go believin’ anything that white devil tries to tell you.  Like I’ve said a thousand times, if–“

“You can hang up now, Carla. I’ve got it.” Juan picked up his phone and waited for the profoundly loyal black woman to cradle hers.

“Like I said–“

“I know, Carla, I know.”

He put the phone to his ear. “Hello, Dr. Granger. What can I do for you?” He still had Carla’s attention and motioned for her to close his office door. He didn’t relax until it clicked shut.

“I’ve got wonderful news,” Superintendent Granger said, his voice unnaturally pleasant.

Juan remained cautious. Good news at Horatio Dunbar Memorial High School usually meant none of the students or faculty got shot over the weekend. “Indeed. Kindly define ‘wonderful’.”

“We’ve got your replacement staff.”

The beleaguered principal perked up. “Real teachers, or more warm bodies like last time?”

“Warm bodies! That’s a good one, Juan! But seriously, you know I’m not one to raise false hopes; you do know that, don’t you? I really believe these people, the ones we’ve got more or less lined up, can be of tremendous help to you down there.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Are ‘these people’ real teachers?”

There was only a short pause before Granger responded, but it was enough to bring Juan back down to Earth. Any teaching experience these people were likely to have probably didn’t include academics.

“They know their subject material,” Granger said. “In fact, most of them have advanced degrees.”

“And they’re willing to teach down here in the ghetto?” Juan pursed his lips. “What’s the catch?”

“Now Juan–“

“What’s the catch?”

“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to hire qualified–“

“What aren’t you telling me?” demanded Juan. “They’re all convicted felons? They’ve all got some dreaded disease? What?”

“It’s nothing like that,” Granger said. “I assure you.”

“Well then, what?”

“They’re uh…  They’re all….”

“What?”

“Vampires.”

~End~

And, just so you know, my newest novel, Hyde and Zeke, will be out in a very few weeks. Look for an email announcement soon. Here’s a quick peek at the cover:

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