Putting the Face to the Name, or the Cover to the Book

When I first got out of college, I found a part-time job as a legislative aide for the City of Rochester, New York.  It wasn’t exactly the field of my choice, but it did involve some writing, and it served as worthwhile experience.  I was thankful to have the job.

 

I didn’t stay there long–only seven months.  But while my tenure as a legislative aide was brief, it was not without a healthy helping of intrigue, office politics, and political pugilism, as I served as the buffer (i.e., punching bag!) between the councilwoman (who was rarely in her office) and her constituents.  Indeed, one of my job responsibilities was to man the councilwoman’s phone, talking one-on-one with the residents of her district.  Some of the calls were low-key; but many were heated, with angry residents giving me an earful about perceived slights and local policies they disagreed with.  Each new day was an adventure.

 

There was one person who stood out from the pack, though.  His name was Terry, and he called several times per week, sometimes several times per day.  He had a laundry list of complaints, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them to me, usually with a raised voice.  One issue in particular that irked him was a pothole on his street.  “It’s huge!” he’d yell at me.  “You gotta fix it!  It’s gonna wreck my struts.  I ain’t rich, you know.  Tell ‘er that!”  (He always referred to the councilwoman as “she” or “her,” or some variant thereof–never by name.)

 

I listened to him as long as I could, letting Terry vent his frustrations.  Sometimes, though, he would start attacking me, personally.  “Do something about it!” he’d say.  “Don’t just sit there in that cushy office of yours.  Lift a finger for the people in your district for a change!”  I reminded him that I wasn’t on the city council.  I was only an office worker.  I couldn’t make or change policy, couldn’t direct the road crews to alter their service schedules.

 

One day, it was too much.  Terry berated me with four-letter words and insults directed at family members of mine he didn’t know and had never met.  “Sorry,” I told him.  “This isn’t going anywhere.”  I wanted to say so much more, but had no choice but to bite my tongue.  One thing I could do, however, was hang up the phone–which I did.

 

He called back immediately, yelled at me some more.  I hung up again.  He called back.  Yelled.  I hung up.  Finally, the phone stopped ringing. I tossed a crumpled piece of paper into the wastebasket, counted to ten.  Terry had a way of pushing my buttons.

 

I had long since created a mental picture of him.  I’d never seen Terry, but, based on his voice and his very direct and colorful vocabulary, I imagined him to be stocky, burly, with short, sandy hair, a thick, retro’80s-style mustache, and a perpetual scowl on his face.  If I wanted to, I would have been able to sketch a picture of him–he was that clearly defined in my mind’s eye.

 

Consider my surprise, then, when, later that same day, a tall, rail-thin bald guy showed up at the councilwoman’s office.  Of course, the councilwoman wasn’t there.  I was.

“Can I help you?” I said.

And the guy introduced himself as Terry.  I did a double-take.  He couldn’t have looked more unlike the Terry I had imagined.  Stocky?  The man standing before me now was easily six foot four if he was an inch.  Burly?  He had the girth and width of a rail spike.  Sandy hair?  Try no hair.  Mustache?  His face was clean-shaven, not a whisker in sight.  And a scowl?  He was actually smiling!

 

He extended a hand.  Discombobulated, I took it.

“I just wanted to apologize,” he said, looking at his shoes.  “Was in the area just now, and wanted to stop.  I know I got a little carried away on the phone today.  I know you can’t do nothin’ about nothin’.  It’s not your job.  So I just . . .”

I shrugged.  It was hard to find the words.  Finally, I told him not to worry about it.

“I ain’t sayin’ I won’t call again,” he said.  “You’ll hear from me until she does something.”

He smiled again, and this time I returned it.  “It’s good to put a face to the name of my highest-volume caller,” I said.  And it was.

 

Terry called the next day, complaining about the pothole.

***********************************

Books can share certain characteristics with constituents.  They don’t scream at you, the way Terry sometimes laid into me, but they might make you want to scream.  They have value, share opinions and knowledge, and express a point of view.  What’s more, they are incomplete without a face, or a cover.

The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–is nearing its release date.  It’s still on target for publication at the very end of the year or within the first few days of 2018.  And now, as the day of publication approaches, the cover is complete.

My longtime friend Matt Gaston, who also created the cover for The Eye-Dancers, has worked his magic again on the cover for The Singularity Wheel.  And here it is.

 

Thanks, Matt, for all your help–with both novels.

I think even Terry would approve.

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

“You Can’t Get There from Here” (But You Can . . . with Some Delay)

It was one of those lazy, hazy midsummer days in the Northeast, when the humidity hangs thick and wet over the land.  I was driving through the back roads of central Vermont, looking for a particular house–an address tucked away on a dirt lane far from the beaten path.  These were the years before I had settled in this area and called it home.  I didn’t know my way around.

 

Sure enough, as I came to an unmarked intersection, I took a wrong turn.  I didn’t know it at first.  It took a couple of minutes.  But when I drove several more miles and didn’t have a clue where I was, I decided to stop in the gravel parking lot of a country store.  It was the only place I saw, aside from isolated farmhouses and old, weathered barns, that might offer the hope of someone providing directions to steer me back along the right route.

 

I parked in front of the store, a clapboarded single-story structure with white peeling paint and two ancient gas pumps out back.  They looked like something out of the 1950s.  I had no idea if they were operational, and had no intention of finding out.

 

The door was open, without a screen, and I walked in.  The interior was small and cramped, complete with wooden shelves, a pot-bellied stove in the corner, and thick bark-covered beams overhead.  Beside the unlit stove, four men sat at a round table.  Each eyed me suspiciously.

 

I approached the table.  The men, three of whom were seniors, and the fourth perhaps in his thirties, continued to eye me.  There were poker chips gathered in the middle of the table, and the men were holding playing cards in their hands.  Already uncomfortable at the intrusion, now I felt worse.  I was interrupting their game.

 

“Excuse me,” I said.  My voice sounded too loud in the close, warm space.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find an address.  I thought I had everything mapped out, but I guess I was wrong.”

The men just sat there, motionless, looking me over as if I were a specimen to be driven over to the town taxidermist.  One of them cleared his throat.  A second placed his cards, facedown, onto the table.  The other two just stared.

 

I gave it a few seconds, and when no one said a word, I took a step back and turned toward the door.  I guessed I’d go knock on a farmhouse door and hope for a more cordial response.

 

That was when someone finally spoke up.

“Where ya headin’?” the younger guy said.

I turned back around, told them the address.  This brought on another round of silence.

Then, the oldest-looking guy seated at the table, a gaunt fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, said, “Thing is–if you was a bird, it’d be easy to get where you’re wantin’ to go.  But if you have to take the roads–it’s a field.  Fact is, you can’t get there from here.”

 

One of the other men smirked.  Another one coughed.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I realized I was the amusement for the day.  There was no reason to hang around.  I’d just have to go back the way I had come and re-map the journey.

 

But then the younger guy held up his hand, and proceeded to give me the directions I needed.  He used short, staccato phrases, offering only the barest of minimums.  But I thought I had it when he was through.

I thanked him for his help.

“Would be easier if you was a bird,” the older man said again.

When I walked back through the doorway, I was sure I could hear them laughing.

As I got behind the wheel of my car and pulled away, I wondered if they had given me the wrong directions–just to further the joke.  But they hadn’t.  Twenty minutes later, I found the place I was looking for.  The directions were accurate.

 

“Though roundabout,” I was told later by someone in the know.  “He led you out of your way.”

But at least I’d made it–delay or no delay.

************************************

And that also accurately sums up the writing and editing process I have undertaken on The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It was a surprise project from the get-go.  I hadn’t even envisioned there would be a sequel–but then, out of the ether, an idea struck that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t let go, and I had to write it.

 

When I began the book, over four years ago (!), I had no way of knowing how winding, circuitous, and bumpy the road would be.  I first announced the sequel’s existence in a blog post in the spring of 2014.  “It’ll take another year to write, no sweat,” I thought at the time.  But then 2014 bled into 2015, which morphed into 2016–and still, the book wasn’t finished!  There were character crises, plot points that needed wholesale makeovers, and twists and turns in the story line that needed alterations.  It was, and has been, the most challenging writing project I have ever undertaken.

 

Even so, as 2017 dawned, I was almost finished!  And in April, the first draft was finally complete.  I was at last able to key in the words, “The End.”  I even posted about it at the time.  So okay–I would release The Singularity Wheel at the end of summer!  Piece of cake!

 

During the editing process, however, I found that more changes still needed to be made than I’d realized.  Time slipped past, summer came and went.  Then again, The Eye-Dancers was originally published in November 2012.  I liked the symmetry.  Why not release The Singularity Wheel in November 2017?  It would be perfect.  Five years of real time had passed–and, in the story itself, five years of fictional time had also passed from the conclusion of the first book to the start of the second.  Everything was coming full circle.

 

But now–here we are, in November, and just like my journey through the back roads of Vermont that summer day years ago, I have discovered that “as the bird flies” isn’t always the way a story will proceed.  I am right now in the final edit/proofreading/copy editing stage.  The endgame.  But even here, I have found a few last wrinkles that need to be ironed out, a few tweaks that need to be inserted, a last assortment of fixes that need to be made.  Grudgingly, I have come to realize that the November release is too ambitious.  The project has been “a field” as the old-timer at the country store said to me once.  A field, indeed.

 

That said, the eleventh-hour adjustments are minor in nature.  Ninety-nine percent of the work has been put in.  It’s just a matter of trying to finish strong and present the best possible product I can upon publication.  As much as I wanted to meet my own self-imposed November deadline, I didn’t want to rush it now, at the end, after such a long journey getting here.

The delay will be one month.  And this time, there won’t be any further postponements!  The Singularity Wheel will be released prior to January 1, 2018.  I don’t have a single, specific date in mind–but it will be in December.  This time, I promise.

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you who have read and still read this blog and who have supported The Eye-Dancers these past five years.

 

Writing a sequel has been a long, long process, often beset with speed bumps and deep, tire-puncturing potholes, but, to paraphrase my old country-store friend, I have, at long last, “gotten here from there.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Haunted Houses, Coming Full Circle, and the Echoes of Ghost Wolves

Up the road from where I live, there is an old, abandoned house.  It sits back from the road, with overgrown shrubs obscuring the windows, a sagging front porch, a rusty metal roof, and an unlocked bulkhead that leads to what surely is an unfinished basement with a dirt floor and perhaps a tight crawlspace.  I know the bulkhead is unlocked because I tried it once.  It squeaked open without resistance, revealing a descent into darkness.  It was a descent I did not take.

 

The house, you see, is haunted.

Or, at least, some of the locals say it is.  And I don’t doubt them. It’s flanked by mature woodlands that encroach closer and closer with each passing year.  There are no nearby neighbors.  Rarely have I heard the birds sing when I visit the property, as if even they, on an instinctual level, detect a sense of malice and ill will about the place.  Yet, for all that, I feel drawn to the house.  I never go more than a month or two without stopping and looking and wondering.

 

And remembering . . .

********************************

“Hey, let’s go inside!”

My friend Matt uttered these words, but I doubted he wanted to act out on them.  He and I had taken a stroll through the neighborhood.  We didn’t really have a destination or a plan–we were eleven years old.  Who needed plans?  But as if guided by an invisible magnet that zeroed in on preteen boys, we found ourselves in front of the Ivy House.

 

The Ivy House was so named because rows of leafy, green ivy climbed up its clapboard siding like a pack of pythons seeking an unseen but sought-after prey.  It sat at the end of the street, with several tall maples providing shade and making the yard perpetually dark and cool.  It was also empty.  It had been unoccupied as long as I had been alive, and years before, to boot.

 

More riveting still, it was rumored to be cursed.  Stories varied depending on who you talked to.  My brother had told me a murder had occurred at the Ivy House in the 1920s, and the victim’s ghost wandered the rooms and halls, seeking vengeance on anyone she came across.  Matt’s brother had told him an old man once lived there, friendless and ornery.  He ate raw squirrels and racoon hearts, and fed the leftovers to a pet wolf.  This seemed far-fetched, even to my eleven-year-old, imagination-always-on-overdrive brain.  But Matt vouched for its veracity.  “It’s the truth,” he said, solemn as a tax return.  “A wolf.  People used to hear it howl at night.”

 

I nodded.  I still wasn’t sure I believed him.  But I wanted to.

As we stood there, the wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket in tighter.  It was early November, barely above freezing, winter’s approach unmistakable in the air.  Dried, fallen leaves swirled along the street, crackling.

 

“So, you really want to go inside?” I said then.  A woman walking her dog strolled past, giving us a sideways glance, surely wondering what we were doing loitering in front of the Ivy House.

 

Matt hesitated.  Shrugged.

“Chicken,” I said.  The house brooded in front of us, hidden behind the ivy.

You’re the chicken,” he shot back.  I bet you wouldn’t go in there.”

He had a point.  I couldn’t really refute his logic.  But if we both went, together . . .

We didn’t.  We never did.

The Ivy House was torn down a decade later.  A new, cookie-cutter ranch home now sits in its place, the maple trees in the front yard gone, the ivy a memory, a ghost from childhood, an echo whispering across the years.

 

**************************

It’s late October 2017.  On my way to work, early, the sun still a rumor, the sky dark and speckled with stars, I pull over in front of the abandoned house and get out of the car.  I am ahead of schedule on this day.  I have the time.

 

I walk through the front yard, up to the door.  Haunted, is it?  And I remember the Ivy House, the way it seemed animate to me in my boyhood, a living, sentient thing with a heartbeat and a soul.  This house is no different.  Perhaps all houses are alive.  Especially the old ones.

 

As I stand there, a hoot owl calls out, and I hear a rustling in the woods off to the right.  A fisher cat on the prowl?  A rodent rummaging for food?  Pennywise the Dancing Clown, come to Vermont from Derry, Maine?  But nothing emerges, and everything goes silent once again.

 

And I ponder–about life, about time, about the way things often come full circle.  Take Mitchell Brant, for instance.  Nine years ago, I began writing The Eye-Dancers, and the book began with Mitchell.  Now, on the verge of finishing the final edits, of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s for The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I am ending where I began–with Mitchell Brant.  The story ends with him.  He was there at the start.  He is there at the end.  He’s been with me, in spirit, on the written page, vying for my attention and understanding, for nearly a decade.

 

I tip an invisible cap to Mitchell.  To childhood.  To legends and ghosts.  To haunted houses.  To the unlimited vistas of the imagination.  To explorations of the mind and the universe.

 

To the creative life.

And somewhere, in the distance, despite the geographical impossibility of it, I am sure I can hear the howling of a wolf.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

On Symmetry (Or, There’s Something about November)

“Hey, how about that?” I said when I received the schedule for my senior year in high school.  I had been waiting for it for a few days, eager to see who my teachers were and what order my classes would be in.  (Mind you, these were the days, in that long-ago 20th century, when class schedules were snail-mailed.)  For three days, I had been watching for the mailman, a rotund fellow by the name of Al, to deliver it.  Finally, the schedule had arrived.

 

The first thing I noticed was that one of my teachers would be someone I knew well, someone who had taught me in a different class as a freshman.  I will call him Mr. D.  And back in my freshman year, he taught English and unlocked for the class the treasures of great literature and the colors of the writing rainbow.  But now, in my senior year, he would be teaching a class called Current Events.  Great, I thought.  I always liked Mr. D.

 

On the first day of school, I lingered after class for a couple of minutes, talked with him about what might be in store for the semester, reminisced about ninth grade.  “Freshmen,” he said with a roll of his eyes.  He still taught freshman English, too.  In fact, even as we spoke, the first brave souls of his freshman English class began to trickle in to the room.

 

I told him about the impact his writing rainbow lesson had on me, how I still thought about it, still tried to live it, and always would.  That made him smile.  I asked him if he still talked about writing rainbows and creativity and reaching for your best to the current crop of freshmen.  “Indeed, I do,” he said.  I was glad to hear it, and hoped some of the wary underclassmen filtering into the room, eyeing me suspiciously as I conversed with the teacher at his desk, would be as motivated by the lesson as I had been.

 

“Well, it’s good being back in your class,” I said then, knowing I needed to go.  If I didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my next period.  “I look forward to the semester.”

And I did.  I meant it.  And it didn’t disappoint.  Mr. D. didn’t disappoint.  Throughout the term, he assigned for us to read through issues of Time and Newsweek, and report on the news, every week.  (Again, this was early 1990s education!  No Googling.)  Frequently, my worldview clashed with his, and we’d have spirited debates.  He’d write in the margins of my handwritten essays that he disagreed with my interpretation of events but that he supported my right to hold views contrary to his own.  We argued, we clashed about politics, but I enjoyed the class.  And, I like to think old Mr. D. enjoyed having me as his student again.

 

One morning, a frosty, early November, hint-of-winter morning, I arrived in his class a few minutes early.  Since it was the first period of the day, there were no departing students from a previous class.  It was just Mr. D. seated at his desk.

 

I approached, and we started talking.  I mentioned again how it was good having the opportunity to take a class he taught.  “I never thought I’d be in your class again,” I said.  “Freshmen year and now senior year . . .”

“There’s a kind of symmetry to it,” Mr. D. said.  “You got stuck with me at the start, and at the end, of your high school career.”

 

A kind of symmetry, yes.  I liked the sound of that.

*******************

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since I published the e-book version of The Eye-Dancers.  Time continues to speed along on rapidly fluttering wings.  I remember well the stops and starts that led up to publication day.  There were hiccups, hurdles, and unexpected delays.  But eventually, release day arrived–in November 2012.

 

So it seems fitting somehow that, five years later, there have been delays and hurdles and hiccups with the sequel, as well.  Editing has taken longer than expected.  The writing process has taken longer.  And of course sometimes things simply crop up, a week’s delay here, a month’s there.  The end result has been a later-than-originally-anticipated release date.  But The Singularity Wheel is getting close!  I am working through the final substantive edits this week and next.  Following that, a few heaven-sent beta readers will comb through the manuscript.  Once they are done reading and offer feedback, I will do a final, final round of edits followed by a thorough copy edit/proofread.  The cover will be completed.  The file readied for publication.  And . . .

 

A November release date is planned.  Five years, to the month, following the release of The Eye-Dancers.

There is something about November, indeed.

 

As Mr. D. might say, there’s a kind of symmetry to it.

Thanks so much to everyone for all your ongoing support.  It means the world.  And thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

 

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Gas ‘N Go, Seeds from a Stem, and Lumberjack’s Reward (Or, Of Mystery Dinners and Storytelling)

“So, Michael, what do you think?” my mother asked me.  “Do you want to be a waiter?”

I couldn’t say with any enthusiasm that I did–even if it was just for one day.

My mother had decided to host a mystery dinner.  She invited our neighbors, a few close friends, some friends of friends, not to mention a few relatives.  It was going to be a big affair, and she needed all the help she could get.

mysterydinnerstart

 

But I had other ideas.  It was summer, the weather had been picture-perfect, with no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.  And, at twelve years old, there were many other things I would have rather been doing.  Some of the kids in the neighborhood (including my friends who ultimately inspired the main characters in The Eye-Dancers) were setting up a kickball game at a local playground.  I didn’t want to miss that.

kickball

 

“I could really use your help,” Mom went on.  “And it’ll be fun.  When you serve the guests food, they might not have any silverware to eat it with.”

silverware

 

Hmm.  Things suddenly sounded more interesting!  I asked her to tell me more.

Turns out, a mystery dinner was a good time.  Who knew?  I did decide to serve as a waiter that evening, back in the now-vintage 1980s.  My friends gave me guff the next day, informing me I had missed an incredible kickball game, but I told them I’d play in the next one.  Even back then, I knew I’d never forget that day, that dinner . . .

mysterymenu

 

The concept of a mystery dinner is simple.  Guests are provided a coded menu.  There are a set number of courses for the meal.  My mother’s mystery dinner had ten courses.  Her menu had thirty items on it–so, three items were served per course.  What really made it interesting, though, was that the dinner guests had no way of knowing what they were ordering.  The menu didn’t have words like “potatoes, peas, chicken, or water” on it.  Rather, it contained cryptic descriptions such as, “gas ‘n go,” “seeds from a stem,” and “lovers cuddle.”  Seeing that the guests didn’t start the dinner out with silverware (forks and spoons and napkins needed to be selected from the menu), it was inevitable that some of them would be served mashed potatoes without a fork or a spoon; or butter without anything to spread it on; or a fork, a stick of celery, and a straw.  Each course was an adventure.  I remember a lot of laughing that evening.

butter

 

I also remember the moment when I passed out the menus.  As the guests read through the nonsensical items, they questioned what it was they were looking at.

“Wait and see,” I told them.  “Just make sure you only circle three items at a time!”

Of course, the guests chatted among themselves, trying to figure out the mystery terms.  What was a lumberjack’s reward?  A devil’s advocate?  How about a degreaser or golden rods?  If their subsequent orders were any measuring stick, however, they didn’t decode the terms successfully!

chocolatecakedevilsadvocate

 

At the end of the dinner, many of the guests vowed they would need to throw their own mystery dinner.

“I can’t wait to fool my neighbors!” one of our friends said, smiling.  “Eating mashed potatoes with a toothpick . . . I’d like to be on the other side of the menu the next time!”

toothpickeatingmashedpotatoes

 

I’m not sure if she ever went on to host a mystery dinner.

But I do know a thing or two about being fooled.

******************

We often think about being fooled as readers.  We become engrossed in the plot of a novel, following the course of events, and then–wham!  Something happens that we never saw coming, and we feel as though we’ve been felled by a two-by-four.  Sometimes the surprise is troubling, and we may even put the book down without finishing it.  How could she have done that?  How did he get away with that?  No way!  But just as often, and probably more so, the surprise is welcome.  Predictability, after all, is rarely the hallmark of compelling literature.

plottwistsasreaders

 

But it isn’t only reading that oftentimes throws a mystery-dinner-like nugget our way.  Writing offers its own collection of surprising twists and developments.

When I begin a new writing project, I usually have a broad outline–not overly detailed, but nevertheless something I can use as a guideline of sorts, a plan designed on the macro-, as opposed to the micro-level.  Without such an outline (which is by no means formal; my outlines generally consist of a series of scratchy hand-scrawled notes organized in such a fashion that probably only I can decipher them!), I would feel lost, like a ship at sea without any navigational equipment.  On the other hand, if I crafted a super-detailed, point-by-point outline, I would feel stifled, and would run the risk of not allowing the natural creativity of the writing process to flourish midstream.

outline

 

And that writing-process creativity often strikes at the least-expected times.  The muse is nothing if not capricious.  For example, as I started writing The Eye-Dancers, it never occurred to me that two of the main characters–Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski–would turn out to be friends.  At the start of the book, they were acquaintances, classmates, who rarely spoke to each other.  And the fact that they would soon be thrust into a literally otherworldly adventure together didn’t mean they would suddenly become kindred spirits.  I envisioned them trying to join their heads together to solve their problem, work toward finding a way through the interdimensional void and back home–nothing more, and nothing less.  But a funny thing happened along the way.

thevoidgetbackhome

 

In chapter 14, on their first morning in the alternate town of Colbyville, Mitchell and Marc chat by the banks of a stream.  They discuss their opposing viewpoints on what happened to them and how they ended up in this world on the other side of creation.  They bicker, they argue, and . . . they bond.  I envisioned the bickering and arguing.  But the bonding?  Not so much.

streambanks

 

Confronted with this, I had a choice to make.  Revert back to my original broad outline, which did not include Marc and Mitchell bonding.  Or–allow the characters themselves, as they transformed right there on the page, to dictate the course of events.  It really wasn’t a hard decision.  Marc and Mitchell had spoken, outline or no outline!  There was a natural give-and-take between these two.  In a way I hadn’t foreseen, and despite being on the surface polar opposites, they were able to relate to each other.  It would not only be a mistake, it would be dishonest to deep-six this organic and spontaneous story development.

The creative process always has surprises in store for us.  And while sometimes it may seem chaotic to alter our original plans halfway through, for the most part such changes generally strengthen our works-in-progress, giving them a malleability and integrity they would otherwise lack.

slinkymallebale

 

A menu of green beans and mashed potatoes and brown gravy is surely needed to organize thoughts and point the way for a successful literary endeavor.  But along the way, don’t forget to sprinkle in a dash of lumberjack’s rewards, a touch of rolling stones, and a mix of sailor’s crumbs.

cracketrsend-ofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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