What’s Wrong With This Picture?

20170111_133804It might be difficult to see what this is, but I’ll save you from the suspense–It’s replacement razor heads for my electric shaver. What you probably don’t know is that there are three replacement heads in the small blue box, each about the size of a quarter and about twice as thick. I had imagined that I would find a padded envelope in my mailbox one afternoon, and I’d be excited to receive my stupid-expensive replacement heads inside with a note that said they were “Lovingly packed by Gladys.”

I was very excited when I saw a large box on my front step, because for a minute, I thought my wife bought me something cool like a new Dewalt Miter Saw, or a collection of books, or maybe some new chrome parts for my Fairlane that I still hope will have license plates again some day. Then, I saw the label. Oh. It’s from… what? They’ve shipped the wrong stuff. Probably.

Shock One: They shipped that little blue box to me in that ginormous box. The loaded box was actually lighter than the empty box, because they filled it with bags of air. Not just any air, but the special kind of air used to keep UPS trucks filled to capacity. So if you were the UPS guy, wouldn’t you be a little bit ticked that you had to lug around these giant boxes surrounding something the size of three quarters? I could have bought 200 sets of replacement razor heads (except that would have cost me $5,000), and they could have shipped them all in the same box.

But Shock Two: Come on, Philips Norelco… If you’re going to ship the heads with ten backs of self-contained protective wind, at least get the dumb things into the middle of the box.


There’s Bound to Be a Story Behind This

Giraffe on the HighwayMy drive down Route 32 each morning is often eventful, usually tedious, and sometimes there’s just crazy stuff. It’s a major roadway, so as with any major roadway, there are often critters who just weren’t fast enough to outrun one of the vehicles.

Deer seem to be the most cocky. “I can beat that thing,” they think. But they’re usually wrong. About a year ago, one who must have been especially bad at timing his entrance to the highway, smashed into the door of the Lexus in front of me, showering the driver with glass and crushing her door. The deer? Yeah, he didn’t fare well. But in addition to the deer, I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, vultures, and heck. . . I’ve even seen a small black bear once, adorning the shoulder of Rt. 32.

But today was the strangest. The first thing I saw appeared to be a very small deer, which wouldn’t have been at all unusual, except a hundred yards down the road, there lay a giraffe. Another hundred yards, a small bear. And then a hundred yards later, a large yellow emoji (I couldn’t tell whether it was still smiling). You’ve probably figured out that these were stuffed animals. Well, and a stuffed emoji.

So what’s the deal with that? The first thing I thought of was that the Eggman Movers truck from Toy Story was somewhere in front of me and the animals were escaping. I was being extra careful just in case RC was zooming up behind me trying to catch up to Woody and his friends.

Then I thought, well that’s silly. It was probably a pickup truck full of boxes of stuff, and the lid from the stuffed animal box blew off and animals were bouncing out along the highway. I was sure the driver’s wife had told him to tie the boxes down so the lids wouldn’t blow off. I imagined the driver telling his wife that she worried too much, and that there’s no way the lids could blow off. She looked at him, the way wives really look at their husbands when the husband is absolutely confident that they’re not about to make a big mistake. Before you say it, no I . . . okay, yes, I’ve been in almost exactly this situation. Never mind that!

But, what I decided to believe was this—there were two kids in the back of a Tahoe, the older boy (they must be boys) was sitting by the open window, and he was tossing his little brother’s toys out the window. Yes. That’s my final answer. I have no proof of this, but I watched intently the right side of the Tahoe in front of me hoping to see the stuffed projectiles arcing toward the shoulder. But, I didn’t see that at all. Not for real, anyway. In my mind, I imagined seeing a stuffed Olaf, a Mickey Mouse, or maybe Mom’s purse launched out the window. This is how I make this drive bearable every day, pardon the pun.

Killing My Darlings

As many of you are aware, I’ve written a full, young adult, Sci-Fi adventure, called SubAqua. Technically, I wrote it in November of 2014 during the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event. I wasn’t registered for the event, but who cares? I did it anyway. Long story short, I have beaten this manuscript to death. I probably have about a dozen distinctly different drafts, and even more first chapters. I had a critique of my first ten pages from a professional literary agent, and although it was generally positive, I still (as always) had some work to do. So, I did it. It took me about six months, but I finally got through the whole manuscript, which now sits at just under 87,000 words.

I’ve submitted to around 15 agents, and entered the manuscript into #PitchWars, which is a Twitter event designed to hook up writers and mentors, and eventually agents. I submitted to an additional six mentors. I’ve not had any requests for additional pages. As an aside, my new goal is to get someone to ask for page 11, as almost everyone wants the first 10 pages of a manuscript for submissions. (Mine will go to eleven. Get it? Spinal Tap? Anyone?) I’ve been given some good feedback and positive comments, but I also get comments like, “I couldn’t get fully absorbed in the story.” So in my mind . . . let’s fix those ten pages. In Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” this is what he calls killing your darlings—all those words you worked so hard to get right.

I recently read my first ten pages to some new critique partners, and was advised to rethink where I started my manuscript. I’ve tried this before and absolutely hated . . . HATED . . . what I’d done to my story. This time, I was advised to start with the actual explosion rather than the aftermath (I know this is kinda cryptic), and I was having trouble putting the story together from that point. But, I thought about it overnight. I thought about it while trying to sleep. I came up with a plan.

So, I dragged my laptop into my basement writing lair, fired up the Keurig, put on a “Coffee Shop” soundtrack (Yep, that’s a real thing), and stared at the screen. Damn you, fingers! And then, I got some words to come out. It started to gel, and I wrote about six completely new pages to start my story from where my critique partners thought it should start. I split the previous first chapter into two, and rewrote parts of that. I found a great new place for chapter breaks, and I even found a “better motivation” for why my protagonist is getting drawn into the story in the first place. All this rewriting stuff has happened today, so I’m sure I have a really “Shitty First Draft” (as it is commonly known) of the first couple of chapters.

But the result of all this was that I was fired up about my manuscript today. It’s hard to stay excited about anything after thirteen revisions, but today, I was all pumped up about tearing holes in (a copy of) my manuscript. I want to share two relevant quotes:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas Edison

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ― Thomas Edison

I’m not giving up on this until you see a hard cover book with my name on it on the shelves of your local Target.

Potty Humor

We have had indoor plumbing in our country for about 150 years. Suffice it to say, the plumbing we have today should work pretty darned well, don’t you think? For the most part, it actually does. The plumbing in my house works just like it’s supposed to. Turn the handle, out comes water. Easy. Peazy.

So why, then, does the plumbing system at work have to be so complicated? Keep in mind, our building was built in the 60’s (the 1960’s), and we still have pull chain lights. But the plumbing fixtures in the men’s room are all relatively new. What got me in this goofy mood was Sink #2. It doesn’t drain, so someone put a trash bag into the sink (The universal sign for a broken sink. . . kind of like hanging a t-shirt from your car window to signal your car is broken, and not that you just decided to park on the shoulder at Mile Marker 27 and try to find a Royal Farm Store at Exit 12 fifteen miles down the road. But I digress.) The bag isn’t that funny. It was the sign fastened to the faucet that read:

“Do Not Use. Sink Broken.”

You see, I figured this out without the sign. Then I thought about the sign. Like the warning label on the hair dryer. . . a device used to dry hair. . . cautioning me to NOT use it in the shower, where my sole purpose is to get wet, never mind the fact that I know—even without trying—that electricity is no substitute for shampoo. Someone, somewhere, must have plugged that hair dryer in and walked into their shower, so now. . .WARNING!  I pictured someone standing at the broken sink, filled with an empty plastic garbage bag in the bowl and wrapped around the faucet, trying to wash his hands, getting frustrated. . . then pissed. (Sorry. . . you can use ‘agitated’ if you like)

WASHER: “So if it’s broken, I should NOT use it, right?”

OBSERVER: “Well, it isn’t that you’re not allowed to use it. It’s broken, so you CAN’T use it.”

WASHER: “Wait, I thought you said I could?”

And so it goes. . . It made me laugh. Sadly, it’s not the only thing in there that ever makes me laugh, so I’ve decided that it is socially acceptable to laugh in the men’s room. Also related to plumbing, Sink #3 only started working when Sink #2 stopped. I can’t explain that. But then there’s Sink #4. It has the sensor so the water starts when you place your soapy hands under the faucet. Once there’s a stream of water (coming from the faucet), the water itself is now triggering the sensor, so it runs on and on. Sink #5, as we all know, provides water hot enough to make tea, while #6 will turn your fingers blue.

But the other plumbing phenomenon is the waterless urinal. I know, it sounds gross. But there’s a sign over it that touts its water saving superpower. Something like, “This waterless urinal saves the environment 64,000 gallons of water every year.” That would be great, except the toilets flush three times before you can get out of the stall. It’s like they’re telling ol’ waterless, “Don’t worry, buddy! We got ya covered!”

This multi-flush tendency is well-known by the regulars, and we all know to avoid Stall #1. Stall #1, you see, flushes at random times. It seems to sense that precise moment when you’re distracted, and then suddenly, WHOOSH! It’s like Russian Roulette. Probably the best part is when a newbie is in Stall #1 and you’re in Stall #2. You hear the WHOOSH! And see the other guy’s feet come up off the floor. Now that’s funny right there, and I don’t care who you are. . .

I Visited My Shop This Morning…

My wood shop calls out to me like a haunting voice across the moors. “Mi-ike. . . Miiii-iiike.” It’s three in the morning, and I wake up in a cold sweat, shaking. I throw of my CPAP mask, unrestrained air barges from the flexible tubing. I whip off the covers and fold them back neatly against my pillow.

“What’s wrong?” She’s not really awake. I could say anything here, and she won’t remember. Oh wait, strike that. There was that time I woke up and told her I imagined a spider was hanging over the bed. We flipped on the lights and had to strips the sheets off the bed until we were sure there was no spider. I learned from that.

“Nothing, honey. Go back to sleep. I’ll be fine.” I grab the flashlight that magnetically clings to the bottom of my bed rail. My wife has already fallen back to sleep. I ease the door closed behind me, inch down the stairs, and creep through the kitchen.

I twist the knob on the basement door, and hear the hum of a distant table saw echoing up the stairs. At the bottom, a beam of light oozes from beneath the door. “Mi-ike.”

Cobwebs cover the doorknob, and cling to the door frame, stretching in front of me as the door swings wide. Foolishly, I walk through them anyway, and then claw at my face to get the cobwebs out of my eyebrows and off my lips. The faint image of an old man laughs at me from behind the ShopSmith.

“Have I always looked that clueless?” he says to me. “Ha ha HA! Ha huh huh huh HAAA!” Then, he disappears, leaving a twinkling outline of his body—sawdust, that falls to the floor a second later.

For a moment, I’m excited. Did he finish the blanket chest? You know, like those elves made all those shoes while the shoemaker slept? Nope. I sift through the pile of incomplete projects resting on the sawhorses and pull off the boards I glued up a few months ago. Warped. Damn you, evil, incompetent, eerie, dusty shadow of myself! Now I’ll have to cut it apart, re-joint the edges, re-glue, and re-sand it! I’ll get you!

That’s when my wife smacks me on the CPAP mask. “That thing’s making that stupid noise again!”

“What?” Oh. I’m still in bed. I readjust the mask so it doesn’t make that fart sound, and seat it against my face in such a way that it doesn’t force cold air under my eyelids. “That better?” My voice is muffled under the mask.

“Yeah.” Then she rolls over and goes back to sleep. I spend the next hour awake, wondering if that board really is warped.

It is, by the way. And I still have a blanket chest to make.

Revising – The Hardest Part of Writing

It has taken me close to two weeks (closer to three, but adjusted for the holidays) to get to this point, but I am satisfied with my first chapter. What helped it the most was just deleting the damned thing. I had received some advice to add a new first chapter to SubAqua to help introduce my protagonist, give the reader a sense of what he’s all about, and define the world he’s living in, which by the way, is a really cool, underwater city known as Aquataine. That was good advice. But, after making numerous revisions, and changing the order of things, and shortening it, and lengthening it, and using different phrases. . . I just hated it. It’s gone.

Stephen King in “On Writing” calls this murdering your darlings, but I’ve never liked this chapter enough to call it a darling. You see, even boring information can be written well. The first chapter of an action/adventure novel should not read like an Ikea instruction manual. In other words, it should not suck, even by accident.

But that meant that I had to do all that introducing stuff somewhere else in my manuscript, and I’m happy to say that I found a way to work most of those details into my original first chapter. That allowed me to open with action (like I wanted to), and still introduce Phelan’s character and his world by showing his reactions to that action. I think it really works, and I hope when I’m finished with the other 25 chapters, that I feel this satisfied with them too.

There were a few other steps involved in getting to this point, too. Take adverbs, for example. A way to find adverbs in your writing is to search for “ly,” since many adverbs end in ly. I searched for “ly “ (there’s a space there), “ly,” (comma), and “ly.” (period). I had 833 ly’s in roughly 84,000 words. I reduced them by 45 percent. But wait just a second. Some of the adverbs can stay in a few examples, like probably, possibly, only, and a couple of reallys, especially since most of these are in dialogue, whether spoken or in my protagonist’s inner voice. I kept some of the adverbs like quickly, suddenly, and calmly. Sometimes, especially in the dialogue, these words just work better than saying something like, “He walked with the speed of a hungry cheetah, stalking his prey.” Maybe it’s not a crucial detail for the story, but I still want you to know that “he walked quickly.” I’m happy with the 50 or so actual adverbs I’ve left in. I like Grammar Girl’s site on Eliminating Adverbs for advice on this one.

Exclamation points are another sore spot. I went from 244 to 94. I killed 150 of them! I found killing these suckers to be a bit easier than the adverbs, but there is some really good guidance on the web, and I want to highlight the one site I found most useful. So I will. Here: Too Many Exclamation Points! is K.M. Weiland’s posting on most common writing mistakes. She says it’s okay to use an exclamation point when your characters are raising their voices (which mine seem to do a lot). I agree with her, but I still trimmed as many as I could. I found that I overdid it in a couple of spots. A little. Sometimes.

I research the crap out of this stuff, and I’ve decided that I have to read ten posts on whatever subject is at hand, in this case, adverbs and exclamation points. I found a great article on showing versus telling, but did I bookmark that one? Nope. But never mind. . . Of the ten posts, five will make good points, and the other five will make “other” points. I’ll read about ten posts, and one of them will always come out on top. Is that authoritative? Heck no. But what is? Nothing. That’s what. Every rule gets broken.

Writing is hard work. Reading should be fun. As I tell my family, this book will be finished when you can pick up a hardcover book off the shelf at Target. Until then, write, rewrite, revise, repeat.


The Aquaccino

It has been pointed out a couple of times that I might have mentioned food a couple of times in my Young Adult manuscript, SubAqua. The story takes place 220 years from now, when Baltimore is underwater, covered by a dome. Over the course of twenty or so revisions, I have become a regular at a few of the eating establishments that are featured in the city now known as Aquataine.

One such place–my favorite, perhaps–is ‘All About the Bean,’ a coffee shop run by a supporting character named Annie. When Phelan, my protagonist, needs a place to get a bite without being recognized, his love interest Ariana suggests The Bean as a friendly place. Annie is sympathetic to Phelan’s cause, and after the second visit, Annie presents Phelan with an Aquaccino, a concoction she’s mixed up special for the occasion.

Annie describes an Aquaccino in chapter 18, as “Swiss Chocolate, shaved coconut, and Jamaican rum extract in a rich, dark roast with frothy cream.” I was feeling guilty about including this, because I’d never actually had one. Until… tonight.

The fact that I hadn’t tasted an Aquaccino has been bothering the crap out of me for some time now. I’ve been bothered enough that a few weeks ago, I bought a French Press for the sole purpose of layering and frothing the milk. A week or so back, I picked up some coconut extract. But, I stared at the little tag below the rum extract for a couple seconds. “You know, six bucks is a bit steep for something called ‘extract,’ don’t you think?” Yes, Captain Morgan, I hear you.

So here’s what you need:

Annie’s Aquaccino – Owner, All About the Bean, Aquataine

  • About three-quarters of a mug of delicious instant Maxwell House (please do substitute coffee of your choice).
  • Sugar/sweetener to taste (I used a teaspoon of sugar)
  • A splash of rum for flavor (perhaps half a shot)
  • In a separate mug, heat a couple tablespoons of cream, heated for around 40 seconds in the microwave. (Not too much heat, or it will burn and stink. You don’t want stinky cream.)
  • Add a few drops of coconut extract to the cream and dump that into your French Press.
  • Gently floof the handle of the press. Floofing is a term I am making up for adding air bubbles to your cream mixture. You’ll see. The press (I think ‘layers’ is the right term) layers the cream and makes it all frothy.
  • Add your perfectly floofed cream to your coffee, nice and slow.
  • Sprinkle a little bit of chocolate on top. I actually used a sprinkle of baking cocoa, because well, I didn’t have anything else handy.

You know what? It’s pretty darned good!