Verbal Sparring 101: English proficiency is required

I was in Subway yesterday, waiting patiently in line to order my roast beef on wheat, when the customer in front of me decided that it was time to act like a jerk. Dissatisfied with the number of cucumbers that had been placed upon his sandwich, he said, “What? You can’t give me no more cucumbers?” “Sure, no problem,” the employee responded, more patient than I could have ever been. Not only were his choice of words offensive, but his tone and demeanor screamed condescension.

A few moments later, when the amount of Southwest sauce was also inadequate in the customer’s estimation, he spoke up again. “What’s your problem? You can’t give me no more sauce?”

Again, the employee responded with a polite and apologetic tone.

When the customer reached for a cup and began filling it with Coke, the employee moved over to the register and asked, “Did you want the meal, sir?”

“What’s it look like?” Mr. Meany Pants shot back, shoving the cash into the employee’s hand.

In a situation like this, I would normally come to the defense of the employee, launching some type of verbal assault against the offender in hopes that bystanders might join my cause.  They usually don’t, but I do manage to receive quite a few nods of appreciation in these types of situations, and that’s usually enough for me to press on.

I know that many might consider my potential involvement in this type of situation to be sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but I disagree. This type of behavior should never be tolerated. Unfortunately for the Subway employee, she was unable to defend herself without risking her job, so that is normally where we all must step in. Defending those who cannot defend themselves.

In this case, however, I restrained myself, adhering to one of my rules on verbal sparring:

Avoid verbal confrontations when your opponent lacks command of the English language.

Based upon his constant use of double-negatives, I doubted Mr. Meany Pants’s ability to converse effectively in English. In this type of situation, the nuances of my verbal sparring would be lost on the individual, resulting in an inarticulate, profanity-laced shouting match, with neither combatant gaining the upper hand.


The same rules apply when playing poker. Don’t check-raise a novice player, for example, because he or she won’t understand the meaning of a check-raise. When dealing with an amateur, play it straight or don’t play at all.

So rather than entering into battle with this man, I waited until he had left and then praised the employee for her cool-headedness and patience in the face of such despicable rudeness.

She seemed pleased.

This afternoon was an entirely different story.

Upon pulling into a parking space at Stop and Shop, I noted an older gentleman pulling his Buick alongside my car into one of those spots reserved for customers who are saddled with infants. Noting that this man was without infant, I jumped out of my car quickened my pace until I was walking beside him.

“You really shouldn’t keep kids in the trunk,” I said to him as we approached the doors.


“I said that you really shouldn’t keep kids in the trunk of your car.”

“What?” the man asked, genuinely confused.

“Well, I noticed that you parked in the spot reserved for people with infants, and since I didn’t see a baby in your arms or in the car, I’m assuming that you put the poor little thing in the trunk.”

“Go to hell,” the man shot back, realization washing across his face. “Just go to goddamn hell.”

‘Don’t be too long!” I warned the man as he entered the store a couple steps ahead of me. “I’m just making a deposit at the bank, and there’s no telling what I may do once I leave the store, especially if I see a mother walking halfway across the lot with her baby!”

I’m not sure if he heard everything I said (I’m deeply saddened if he didn’t), but I was pretty loud and the man seemed genuinely embarrassed by my comments as he turned the corner, heading toward the produce aisle.

I know there will be some who will say that my remarks were just as rude as the man’s decision to park in the reserved spot. But again, I disagree. I believe that we have an obligation to stand up against these inconsiderate people, particularly when the victims of their inconsideration cannot defend themselves. And in this case, it’s even more difficult for these victims to stand up and defend themselves.

First, a person with an infant is significantly less likely to engage anyone in a verbal battle. Even I adhere to this rule when I’m with my children.

Second, these parents or babysitters would have no idea that this man had infringed upon their rights. Unless they actually saw him entering or exiting his Buick, they would see his car and likely assume that the driver was also accompanying an infant. Therefore they would never have the opportunity to challenge him.

Admittedly, I’m not always thinking of the victim when engaging in these confrontations. In fact, more often than not, I’m not thinking about the victims at all. I enjoy these verbal battles. I can’t imagine you how much satisfaction I get from a well-timed quip or a stinging barb. This afternoon’s confrontation with the old man was the highlight of my day. The way that guy went from confusion to outrage to embarrassment in less than minute was priceless.

I’ve had a skip in my step ever since.

Regardless of the reason for my attack, I believe that my remarks may have made a difference in the world. Even the most hardened skeptic must admit that the likelihood of that man parking his Buick in those reserved spots again is significantly reduced because of my interference. He will certainly think twice before doing so.

And as a result, a mother with an infant is more likely to find that reserved spot available when they arrive.

Sometimes the ends do justify the means.

My book has been hijacked by a couple of no-nothings.

I have been betrayed by my book. 

As I come closer and closer to completing the manuscript to CHIKCEN SHACK, the story continues to veer off in unintended directions.  When I began writing  a year ago, I thought I’d be telling the story of two rival brothers and how their familial relationship did not preclude them from being ruthless and cruel to one another.  I wanted to demonstrate how friends can sometimes be more loyal and loving than family and that genetic similarity is not always a good reason to remain close to a person. 

Then the brothers in my story began growing closer, even as I tried like hell to force them apart.  It’s instead becoming a story about reconciliation, forgiveness and acceptance, at least in terms of these two brothers, and as much as I like the story and feel that this is the correct direction, I don’t like it. 

It’s not what I had planned.

I wanted the book to reflect my feelings on the issue of friends and family, but instead, the characters took a life of their own and stopped listening to me.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true, and it annoys me.   

In the past, I’ve taken some criticism for the value that I place upon friends. Having come from a family that is not terribly close-knit, I have relied upon my friends for much throughout my life and have never been let down. In fact, during every crisis and time of need in my life, I can point to a friend or friends who played a crucial role in helping me get through. For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, this has prompted some to take offense to the elevated status of friends in my life, presuming that I undervalue family as a result.

While I have assured these people that this is not the case, perhaps it should be.

Research reported on in the New York Times seems to indicate that friends are significantly more beneficial to a long and happy life than family, and that close ties to family can actually reduce lifespan and overall wellness.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

Research, for example, has demonstrated that people with friends are less likely to catch colds and are more likely to enjoy reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and greater measures of happiness. A Swedish study found that only smoking has a greater impact on the likelihood for a man to suffer from coronary disease that friendship. And all the research demonstrates that people with friends live longer lives.

Conversely, research has also found people with close ties to family often suffer from higher blood pressure, increased stress levels, and shorter life spans.

In short, your family will someday be the death of you.

This makes sense. Right?  Everyone knows how crazy your family, or certain family members, can make you. And while you may have friends who do the same, most people are eventually able to cut those poisonous friends out of their lives, while those rotten, good-for-nothing family members linger on like a festering sore. In fact, I might argue that the meanest, most despicable comments and actions that I have ever seen or heard have taken place between members of a family and not between any friends who I know.

Does this mean that I undervalue family? Of course not, but I have actively eliminated ties with family members who I would not otherwise befriend, and I will continue to do so. Family is an opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with people, but it is not a requirement. While there are members of my family who I cherish, I do not find the genetic or societal links to family strong enough to allow rotten people into my life. So I simply treat my family as I do my friends: If I like you, you’re in. If I don’t like you, I don’t waste my time on you.

And based upon the research, it turns out that I may live a longer, happier life as a result of this philosophy.

Unfortunately, the brothers in my book seem to be unaware of this research, so despite their obvious differences, they are struggling to make their relationship work, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to stop them.  Ironically, my agent and a couple of my friends saw this as a story about two brothers coming together long before I ever did.

I suspect that it was my inability to see the forest through the trees that caused me to misread the direction of the story, but I’m still annoyed nonetheless. 

It’s my story.  Not theirs.   

Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing

Elmore Leonard posited some writing rules in the New York Times way back in July of 2001, when the towers still stood and water boarding was presumed to be an odd reference to surfing. 

I just found his list of rules today.  For the most part, I agree with Leonard’s assertions.  Several even echo Stephen King’s sentiments in his invaluable book ON WRITING.

I thought Leonard’s fifth and sixth rules were especially amusing:

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''

“This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use suddenly tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

While amusing, I tend to think that we should not eliminate an entire word like suddenly from our writing vocabulary.  While I can certainly imagine the horrors of its overuse, it seems to me that it is a perfectly reasonable word to use when the occasion calls for it.

That said, I immediately turned to CHCIKEN SHACK to find out how many times I have used the word suddenly in the 55,000 words that I have written.  Eight times.  I eliminated five of them.   

Leonard’s second rule is:

2.  Avoid prologues.

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO has a prologue, but it does not serve as backstory.  In fact, the prologue is a flash-forward to a scene that is yet to come.  I opted to use a prologue (my agent’s suggestion, if I remember correctly) in order to give the story a bit of a jump start.  A vision of what is to come.  A promise of great things ahead. 

It seems that my lot in life to write novels that are more in tune with eighteenth century sensibilities.  I prefer a slowly developing, occasionally meandering story while today’s readers expect the novel to hit the ground running.  In SOMETHING MISSING, this meant moving a pivotal chapter (the toothbrush scene) closer to the front of the book.  In UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, this meant offering the reader a prologue as a guarantee that the story will eventually get roaring down the tracks.  And I think it works well. 

I suspect, however, that Elmore Leonard with disapprove of the use of prologues for this reason as well.

My abyss

Nathan Bransford writes about the nervousness that he feels when starting a new book.  He writes:

“I liken it to staring down at a deep, dark abyss. You know it's a long way down and it's pretty scary to jump.”

I have never felt this way.  In fact for me, it’s completely the opposite.  I have about a dozen ideas for books rattling around in my head, and I’m ready to start almost any of them on a moments notice.  I can’t wait.   

For me, the abyss begins to loom around the halfway point of a book, knowing that I have fewer and fewer pages left to uncover a satisfying ending.  Not knowing where a story will take me, I become disconcerted around the 40,000-60,000 word point, when the pieces of the plot haven’t quite clicked into place yet and the expected crescendo to a satisfying conclusion has yet to happen. 

Stephen King once described this feeling while writing THE STAND.  Midway through his 1,100 page novel, he had lost the thread of the story, unsure where it was supposed to go, and like me, he bean to panic, fearful that he was losing his story. 

I was feeling this way about CHICKEN SHACK for the last month of so, wondering where the hell the story was supposed to go.  I had about 45,000 words written and worried that my story was petering out just when it was supposed to be hitting third gear.  I fumbled around for a while, revising an earlier chapter and taking some hesitant, tentative steps forward until this past week, when I found the thread again, watched the pieces fall into place, and uncovered what will likely be the ending.

And once this happens, the book tends to wrap up rather quickly.  It’s taken me about eight months to write about 50,000 words, but I expect that the second half of the book will come fairly quickly and I have a decent shot to finish by my birthday in mid-February.

Abyss successfully traversed.  Writing is fun again.   

I can’t help it.

I logged onto Facebook this morning while walking my dog and saw that most of my friends had posted wishes for a happy new year. 

These status updates seemed benign enough, but instantly, I felt the need to do the opposite.  Reject the norm.  Resist the pull of the majority.  Post a status update to the contrary.  

I can’t explain why I feel this way, but I always have.  My mother used to refer to me as The Instigator.  Others have used less polite language to describe my propensity to contrariness.  Either way, it’s always been my inclination to swim against the stream and disagree for the sake of disagreeing.  It’s not purposeful or planned.  It’s just how I think.  And while I tend to like this part of my personality, it has also brought me trouble from time to time. 

My former evil stepfather used to say that I’d make a “damn good defense attorney but nothing else.”

This innate pull toward nonconformity is one of the many themes that I am dealing with in CHICKEN SHACK.  Like my previous protagonists, Wyatt naturally assumes some of my own characteristics, some purposefully and some unintentionally.  I’ve found that it’s unavoidable.  In this case, Wyatt shares my insatiable desire to be different.  Fight authority.  Resist conformity.  And like me, it is this innate desire to be different that causes trouble and serves as the impetus for the central conflict of the story. 

It’s also made it more difficult for me to present Wyatt as a likable character, which I fear may say something about me as well. 

Yikes.  Am I really this difficult to like?      

If Wyatt had logged onto Facebook this morning and read all of those “Happy New Year!” status updates, he would have felt the same desire to post the opposite.

Eventually, I did, just as my walk around the block was coming to an end.  It reads:

Wishing people a Happy New Year is unrealistic. There's 365 days in a year. 525,600 minutes. That's a lot of happiness. Too much to reasonably expect. Plus, what if we only have so many wishes in life? Wasting a finite number of wishes on the improbable seems a little silly.

Honesty gets you nowhere

I must have been living in a cave four years ago when Ayelet Waldman published this piece in which she says that she loves her husband more than her children.  In talking about it now with friends, it seems as if everyone was aware of it at the time.  Except me.   

Of course, in reading about the history of the story and the reaction to it now, it seems as if most of the media attention came from sources like Oprah and The View

Not my usual media outlets. 

But I wish I had been following the story four years ago, because I cannot help but admire Waldman’s naked, unabashed honesty. 

Many did not.  It would seem that publishing a piece so unpopular was not easy.

I mentioned this piece to some of my former students this week, and for the most part, they stood behind Waldman, expressing their belief that she was entitled to her own opinion and even understanding and agreeing with her position in some cases.  In fact, the student most critical of Waldman only went so far as to say that it’s okay to love your husband more than your children, but you probably shouldn't let your kids know about it. 

This is  far cry from the critics, mostly mothers, who accused Waldman of being sick, twisted and evil. 

"People were telling me that they were going to report me to the Department of Social Services, that my children should be taken away," Waldman said. Later she found a note on her gate expressing similar sentiments and adding, unnecessarily, "I know where you live."

This is an issue central to CHICKEN SHACK, and so it is one that I find fascinating.  The reaction that people have toward an unpopular, unusual or contrarian viewpoint can vary by wide margins, but at times, it can be downright scary, as Waldman discovered when she expressed an opinion divergent from the norm.  The power of the the mob, the unrestrained destructiveness of anonymity, and the perceived importance of conformity in our society are all issues with which one must grapple when expressing an opinion or conceiving of an idea that is not welcomed or appreciated.

Waldman discovered this the hard way, as does my protagonist in CHICKEN SHACK.  Happily, it would seem as if Waldman has risen above the controversy and criticism and is now the stronger for it. 

As for Wyatt, my protagonist, I am not sure.  I haven’t reached the end of his story yet. 

Kate DiCamillo summed it up best in her novel THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX:

“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.”     


This morning, as I was getting dressed, I turned on the television. The channel was tuned to HBO, which was airing a movie that I later identified as Bride Wars.

Based upon the scene that I watched, I will not be watching this film anytime soon. But I did catch a piece of dialogue, a phrase really, that I liked a lot. In the midst of a verbal confrontation between two characters, one woman accused the other of “people-pleasing” her way through life.

I love this line, despite the paucity of good dialogue surrounding it.

Like the angry female character in the film, I am also not a fan of people-pleasers, and in many ways, CHICKEN SHACK addresses my distaste for this brand of human being.

I define people-pleasers as those individuals who construct their lives in such a way as to constantly conform to the expectations and ideals of others. These are the people who believe that all manner of pomp and circumstance must be adhered to without exception, lest the offending party be judged as uncivilized, uncouth or just plain rude. Proper dress and appropriate decorum are goals for which these people-pleasers strive feverishly. Rather than allowing themselves to be judged upon originality, creativity, or authenticity, people-pleasers purposefully amalgamate their persona into cookie-cutter constructs of those around them. They base their entire existence upon inflexible tradition, a rigid set of cultural norms, a stringent and assiduous devotion to proper etiquette and comportment, a blind and unquestioning adherence to religious doctrine, and an enthusiastic embrace of popular culture.

These are the people who purchase gifts based upon numerical equity and perceived expectation, find great comfort on the social acceptance that comes with the well-timed thank you note, and throw elaborate birthday and graduation parties so their equally uninteresting children can achieve their own station on the social ladder. These are the societal wonks of the world who would never dare to break a dress code and only listen to music on Top-40 radio stations, shunning anything that might be perceived as weird, different or unpopular. Image is everything to the people-pleaser. Without even being aware of it, their goal is to become as unmemorable as possible in their constant attempt to look and sound like everyone else around them. They avoid confrontation and controversy at all costs, dodging the honesty and forthrightness that can sometimes result in animosity in favor of behind-the-back sniping and anonymous cruelty.

As you can probably tell, I do not like this kind of person at all. People-pleasers make it difficult for quirky, odd, strange and unique individuals to be themselves. They demand conformity and often vilify those who do not meet this exigency.

Most of all, I just don’t understand people-pleasers. I cannot imagine why anyone would invest so much of themselves into the opinions of others. Admittedly, they are easy targets for my novel, but I have also discovered that their righteous indignation and overwhelming numbers can be dangerous to the less-than-conforming souls of the world. This is an issue at the heart of CHICKEN SHACK.

Nicholson Baker said it well: There is a feeble urgency behind all forced mannerisms of finery- haste and pomp cannot coincide.

Ambrose Pierce did as well: Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

Potato chips, dead people and armed barbers

CHICKEN SHACK, the working title of the book that I am currently writing, features a combination funeral home and fried chicken restaurant.  The idea came to me while driving through my hometown of Blackstone, Massachusetts one day with my wife. 

Blackstone, a tiny town on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, had a population of about 5,000 people when I was growing up in the 1980s, and the only thing that the town was known for was their potato chips:

Blackstone Potato Chips

Today, the town’s claim to fame, according to its Wikipedia page, is that it is the only municipality in Massachusetts to employ automatic cameras in traffic enforcement. 

Seriously.  That’s the third sentence in its Wikipedia listing, and the only item of note for the entire town.

Blackstone Potato Chips is gone, but in one of the buildings that it once occupied along Main Street is a funeral home.  Driving by it one day and noticing the surprising change from salty potatoes to decaying beef, I said to my wife, “That used to be a potato chip factory.  Wouldn’t it be funny if they still sold potato chips during wakes and funerals?”

Thus my idea for CHICKEN SHACK was born.  Replace potato chips with fried chicken (because fried chicken from a funeral home just sounds funnier) and I had the beginnings of a novel.

Since starting to write the book, I’ve found other odd business combinations, including a movie theatre/hotel, a laundromat/restaurant/bar, and a publishing house/tutoring center/pirate supply shop.

And now, perhaps the strangest of all:


Where have all the rebels gone?

Blogger Jason Kottke recently wrote about the differing approaches to "being an adult." In his post, he establishes two kinds of adults: A: Those who have set aside their childish ways

B: Those who rebel against the lack of freedom of childhood.

“Basically opposite approaches,” he writes. “Responsible adulthood and irresponsible adulthood.”

Kottke continues:

The A people feel that being an adult means eating healthfully, being financially responsible, dressing to meet the expectations of others, flossing regularly, servicing your vehicle regularly, etc.

Folks who take the B approach feel that adulthood means that you can eat candy for breakfast, drink too much, fail to keep careful track of your finances, stay up late, play hours of video games a day, skip dental cleanings for three years, order the steak instead of the salad, etc.

This issue is actually at the center of my current manuscript, so the post appealed to me a great deal. But I don’t entirely agree with Kottke’s distinctions.

I tend to be someone who constantly wonders where all the rebels have gone. I cannot understand what causes the adolescent hellion, the twenty-something non-conformist and the teenage idealist to suddenly accept, embrace and surrender to the traditions and mores of modern society. I marvel at people who are my age; former activists, dreamers, militants and all-around challengers of authority, who have become so thoroughly invested in suburban conformity, expectations of appearance, the etiquette of the masses, and an overall concern with the opinions and values of the majority that they have begun to resemble the conservative, staid, judgmental, risk-free nature of their parents.

Have they forgotten the vows made as teenagers and young adults?

Have they chosen to ignore the disdain that they once felt for the rigidity and formality of the adult world?

Have they failed to remember the anthems of their youth?

I think so, and it makes me crazy. I thought that I would be a member of the generation that would tip conformity and convention on its head. I have been disappointed. The majority of people who are my age seem to have eased themselves into the stream of the compliance and traditionalism. This is why clever websites like My Parents Were Awesome even exist. As the site says:

Before the fanny packs and Andrea Bocelli concerts, your parents (and grandparents) were once free-wheeling, fashion-forward, and super awesome.

I agree, but look at the majority of them now. Free-wheeling? Super awesome? That’s starting to become a hard thing to say about people my age, and I’m still barely out of my thirties.

I tend to lean towards non-conformity. I challenge conventional wisdom whenever possible. I question the most basic rituals and procedures of society. I dress for comfort and personal preference rather than the expectations of others. I refuse to wear any item of clothing (save sneakers) that that is adorned with a designer label. I no longer wear ties, finding them to be little more than decorated nooses with no discernible purpose. I don’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol. I still write embarrassing comments in the Memo sections of my checks when presenting them to a friend as payment. When I guy shakes my hand with excessive force, I whine like a little girl, asking him why he’s so mean. When someone knocks on a locked bathroom door, I respond with Monty Python quotes. I still play video games with my friends from time to time (and would do so more often if I had the time). I think that dessert can be a part of breakfast, and I long for the day when I am still hungry enough to enjoy a slice of pie after my eggs and toast.

If you were to ask my friends, they would likely identify me as one of Kottke’s type B adults.

Yet I floss regularly. I like to think that I am financially responsible. I may not eat as well as I should, but I try, and I work out at the gym almost daily. The distinctions that Kottke makes, responsible versus irresponsible, are not quite accurate when describing these two forms of adults, but they are close.

I believe that a type B adult, the kind who does not conform to society’s expectations and challenges convention, can still be responsible when it comes to taking care of him or herself. Despite my desire to tip the world on its head, I don’t want my teeth to fall out, my house to be foreclosed upon, and my heart to explode at the age of 45. I would argue that a person can reject the traditional construct of adulthood while still maintaining a healthy, financially independent lifestyle.

One does not need to live in sloth and destitution in order to be, as someone described me recently, “interesting but difficult.”

A person can reject the trappings of adulthood and still floss regularly.

I wish more would. In both regards.


I’m in the process of debating over the multiple careers of protagonist Wyatt Mason in THE CHICKEN SHACK. Wyatt is the owner of The Chicken Shack, but he is also a part-time English teacher at a local community college, an occasional freelance magazine writer, a member of the Town Council and the local vigilante. I’ve worried that this might seem like too much, and that Wyatt’s life will come across as convoluted and unrealistic.

At the same time, I find myself justifying Wyatt’s multitude of career paths by citing my own.

At the moment, I am a fifth grade school teacher, the owner and operator of a mobile DJ service, a secular minister who performs marriages and baby naming ceremonies, an author who has published one book, sold another and is at work on a third, and a fledgling life coach.

In addition to these careers, I am a blogger, the writer of the occasional Op-Ed piece, and I am attempting to write the libretto of a rock opera. I have also been publicizing my book through speaking appearances at libraries and book stores throughout New England and am an avid golfer and poker player.

I am also pondering the possibility of hosting some writing clinics in the area for writers who are looking to improve their skills and get their work published. I met a photographer at a recent wedding who conducts about three seminars a year on wedding photography and seems to make a solid profit from her efforts.

I figured that I might be able to do the same.

Oh yeah, and I’m married with a daughter who is eight months old.

Does Wyatt’s life really seem so complicated in comparison?

Of course, I must also be careful not to justify the legitimacy of a character or an event based upon my own life or the life of one person somewhere in the world. “But I once knew a guy who did the same thing!” is a familiar refrain in writing workshops as writers attempt to explain away the improbable or fantastic, and even I have been guilty of this kind of justification in the past.

But just because one man once survived a fall from 10,000 feet when his parachute failed to open doesn’t mean that it will be plausible in your book.

So what to do with Wyatt? So far I’ve switched him to an ex-Town Councilman, but his job at the college, his ownership of The Chicken Shack, and his sputtering writing career will probably remain intact.

It’s who he is, like it or not.

Stranger than fiction

My new book, tentatively titled THE CHICKEN SHACK, is about a combined funeral home and chicken shack.  Since I began writing the book, combination business like fictional creation seem to have been popping up everywhere. 

In June, I attended a bookseller’s conference in Vermont, staying at a combination movie theater/hotel.

My own town of Newington, CT boasts a clever and constantly bustling laundromat/bar/restaurant combination.   

Now we have Dave Eggers, writer and educator who founded a publishing house/tutoring center/pirate supply shop.  Watch the video. It’s well worth the eighteen minutes of time that you will invest.

More importantly, a chicken shack/funeral home isn’t seeming so odd after all.

First sentences, now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!

Back in March, I wrote about the first sentences in books. I’m expanding on that post a bit here as the topic has recently been tickling my brain cells again:

I like the first sentence of THE CHICKEN SHACK, the book I’m currently writing, a lot. 

They tried not to receive corpses on the same day as chicken, but since it was impossible to predict when a logger might fall from his bucket truck and break his neck, the two deliveries occasionally coincided.

I like to think that it works because it’s unexpected, a little mysterious, but contains enough specificity to make the initial image real for the reader.  Why chicken and corpses would arrive anyplace on the same day is strange, but the specific image of the logger’s fall is enough to also establish the reader within the story. 

At least I hope. 

I also like the first sentence of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO:

The moment that Milo Slade had attempted to avoid for nearly his entire life finally arrived under the sodium glow of a parking lot florescent at a Burger King just south of Washington, DC along interstate 95.

Again, the sentence contains that combination of mystery and specificity that I like.  The moment that Milo has been trying to avoid for his entire life is left undefined, but the setting is clearly established.  In doing these two things simultaneously, I like to think that I both intrigue and ground the reader in the story at the same time. 

However, this sentence was not originally the first sentence of the book.  Prior to the addition of the prologue, this sentence appeared closer to the end of the book than the beginning.  The original first sentence was:

When he spotted the video camera the first time, sitting on the end of the park bench beneath the dying elm, Milo didn’t take it.

While I like the new first sentence better, this isn’t bad.  The use of the phrase the first time lends an air of mystery, yet I again attempted to make the specifics of the scene (end of the park bench beneath the dying elm) clear to the reader. 

The first sentence of SOMETHING MISSING reads:

Martin opened the refrigerator and saw precisely what he had expected.

I don’t like this one nearly as much, but it accomplished the goal at the time.  Compared with the other two books, I put in significantly less thought into the first sentence of SOMETHING MISSING, but my intention was to begin with action, knowing how much of the story would take place within Martin’s head.  I also revised the sentence much later to include the words precisely and expected, knowing how appropriate they are to Martin’s character. 

One of my favorite first lines of a book comes from CHARLOTTE’S WEB:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

It’s probably my favorite because author EB White appears to have the same goal in mind as I do when writing a first sentence.  "Where’s Papa going with that ax?” is certainly intriguing, but White also firmly establishes character and setting in the second half of the sentence.

My wife’s favorite line is the classic line from PRIDE AND PREGUDICE:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I recently attempted to challenge this line, claiming that it may have a foundation in sexism, patriarchy, and/or materialism, but my wife threatened to go out to the shed and get Papa’s ax if I said another word.

But still, doesn’t it?

I’m currently reading PRIDE AND PREGUDICE AND ZOMBIES, the retelling of the Jane Austin classic with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem!”  Expectedly, the famous first line of Austin novel was re-written for this retelling:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

No question of sexism there.

Do you have a favorite first line to share?  If so, please do.

Odd business combinations. Again.

In the spirit of odd but perhaps brilliant business combinations, The Spin Cycle Cafe in Newington is a laundromat/bar/restaurant. They advertise dry cleaning beside the lunch specials.  Happy hour alongside wash-dry-fold.

I almost wish I didn’t own a washing machine and dryer. 

First a movie theatre/hotel.  Now laundry, chicken wings, and beer.  Ever since I began my new book, which centers on a combination chicken shack/funeral home, these unusual business combinations seem to keep popping up in my life. 

A good omen? 

Or perhaps a warning to finish the book before someone steals my idea in real life. 

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Product placement

In reading some of my Amazon reviews (I know I shouldn’t, but they’re still very good), I noticed that two people commented on the specificity to which I wrote about certain brand names in SOMETHING MISSING, wondering if I received money from the companies mentioned as a form of product placement.

Certainly a fascinating idea, and one that I wouldn’t mind pursuing in the future, but the reason behind my specificity is two-fold:

Martin, the protagonist in SOMETHING MISSING, is more detail-oriented than anyone I know, and though he doesn’t tell the story first-person, I attempted to imbue the omniscient narrator of the story (me, I guess) with his characteristic obsession for detail as a means of enhancing and infusing the story with his character. My friend, Shep, referred to it as Martin-speak, and he heartily approved of the decision. So the use of brand names (Subaru Outback instead of station wagon, for example) was an attempt to do just this.

Also, I like to think that the reference to a Subaru Outback paints a different and far more specific picture in the reader’s mind than the word station wagon. Having grown up in the 1980s in the “way back” of a long, wide, wood-paneled station wagon, the word station wagon paints a very different picture than a station wagon of today.

But the idea of product placement in a novel is an interesting one. Would advertisers be intrigued by this idea at all? Unlike commercials, the references to specific products in a book could not be skipped over, but then again, if taken to the extreme, stories might become a morass of brand names and commercialism.

But it might be something worth exploring. For example, in my current manuscript, my protagonist, Wyatt, will eventually be driving a car. Probably a pick-up truck. If Ford would like to pay me to make that truck an F-150, with at least six specific references to it in the book, why not? As long as it fit the context and original intent of the story, would this be bad?

The businessman in me says no, but the writer and artist in me is beginning to wonder…

Odd business combinations

I spent the evening at the Latchis Hotel in Brattleboro, Vermont, at a writing and booksellers’ conference. My publicist arranged the accommodations, so I was not familiar with the hotel when I arrived. It turns out that the Latchis, an art deco hotel according to its website, is actually a combination hotel and movie theater, and this unique redesign afforded some interesting architectural features.

For example, a square support beam, about two feet wide on each side, ran through my bathroom from the floor to the ceiling, nearly adjacent to the edge of the bathtub, which required me to walk around the beam in order to turn on the water for my shower, then turn and go back around the beam in order to get into the bathtub.

An odd but memorable feature.

I also had the pleasure of catching the final minutes of The Hangover, a film I very much want to see. Sadly, I only caught the muffled sounds of the film’s audio track emanating through the wall, so following the plot was difficult.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. The hotel was clean, comfortable, and was equipped with Wi-Fi. And it was just a block from the site of the conference, in the center of Brattleboro, close to many restaurants and bookstores. 

What more could a guy want?

In fact, I found myself wondering if my publicist arranged this room on purpose, perhaps aware that my current manuscript centers on an equally odd combination of funeral home and chicken shack.

Wyatt of Rockport, Massachusetts

I spent the past week vacationing in Rockport, a seaside town on the north shore of Massachusetts. It’s a delightfully quaint and historic little town, its streets lined with tiny shops, each filled with tons of character and individuality. As we explored the town, dining in the restaurants and stopping in many of the shops, I came to realize that this was exactly the kind of town where I could one day set a story.

My newest novel takes place in the fictional town of Killingworth, Vermont and the protagonist of the story is a man named Wyatt. As my week in Rockport proceeded and I began to get to know the town better, I began thinking about the possibility of transplanting some of these tiny little shops and restaurants into my fictional Vermont town.

They were simply too good to pass up.

With this thought running through my mind, I entered a knickknack shop on our last day in town, planning to purchase a Christmas tree ornament as a souvenir. My wife and I pick up an ornament during each of our vacations as a means of reminiscing about our travels as we decorate our tree each December. The shop immediately appealed to me, with its eclectic collection of ornaments, trinkets, signage, and other odds and ends. An ancient, gold-plated cash register sat atop a high counter, and manning it was an equally ancient gentleman who was teaching a small boy to play dominos. It was just the kind of scene that would fit perfectly into my novel.

After choosing an ornament, I brought it to the counter in order to pay, anxious to see the mechanical cash register at work.

“Hello, sir,” the elderly man said, dropping his dominos in order to ring up my sale. “I was just teaching Wyatt here how to play dominos. A dying art, if you ask me.”

“Did you say Wyatt?” I asked.

“Yes, I did. This is Wyatt. My grandson.”


Coincidence? Fate? Serendipity?

Weird if nothing else.

First sentences

I have a friend named Charles who is a biophysicist, a professor, a songwriter, a musician (guitar, bagpipes, and God knows what else), a poet, and a writer of short fiction. He reads James Joyce and Jose Saramago for fun. He’s been known to brew his own beer.

He’s not a great poker player, but he’s probably not trying very hard.

Charles is also responsible for the title of SOMETHING MISSING. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he also makes a brief appearance as a character in MILO, a novel that perhaps he will assign a title as well.

Charles is a methodical writer, often making me feel like a lazy, good-for-nothing vomiter of words (though I have not actually vomited since 1983). He has worked for weeks on a single sentence, ensuring that it is just right. When I ask him how a story is progressing, he says things like, “I’ve not four sentences now!”

Yesterday I sent him the first sentence to my new book, THE CHICKEN SHACK. I’m quite proud of this collection of words. I actually wrote the sentence a few weeks ago when the seed to this story was first planted in my mind, but I was waiting to finish MILO before committing it to digital print. Charles made one suggestion but otherwise approved of the sentence as well.

The story is now hundred, perhaps thousands, of sentences long. I’ll be finished with the first chapter by the end of today. But here is the first, which includes Charles’s minor revision:

They tried not to receive corpses on the same day as chicken, but since it was impossible to predict when a logger might fall from his bucket truck and break his neck, the two deliveries occasionally coincided.

In SOMETHING MISSING, the first sentence was designed to bring the reader immediately into the precision and minutia of Martin Railsback, whose life is predicated on mountains of precise minutia.   

In MILO, the first sentence describes the catalyst of the entire book.  It is the moment upon which the entire story hinges. 

Both are sentences in which the protagonist is taking relatively ordinary action that ultimately leads to extraordinary results. The first line of THE CHICKEN SHACK is entirely different. 

But hopefully as successful.     

Just for the record, my wife's favorite first line comes from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  It is:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. 

I have no definite favorite, though I am partial to the first line of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE:

All this happened, more or less.

Also, FARENHEIT 451: 

It was a pleasure to burn.


Where's Papa going with that axe?

Anyone want to chime in with your favorites?