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 . . .

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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

“Super,” “Fantastic,” and “Batty”? — Milestones All Around!

It was a gala event, an anniversary for DC Comics’ signature hero, and the creative team made sure to announce it to the world.

When Superman number 100 hit the newsstands in the late summer of 1955, the title had been going strong for sixteen years, and the character (introduced in Action Comics number 1, in 1938) for seventeen.

action1

 

The 100th issue would serve as a celebration of what the cover proudly proclaimed to be the “World’s Greatest Adventure Character!”

superman100

 

In 1955, this sort of special anniversary issue was a new phenomenon, in part because the comic book industry had yet to become the collectible gold mine it would morph into several decades hence, but also because most titles simply hadn’t been around long enough to feature major anniversary issues.  But the celebration of the Man of Steel’s status kicked off a trend in the industry.

supermanannual1gala

 

The following year, it was Batman’s turn.  The Caped Crusader’s title hit number 100 in the spring of 1956, and just as with Superman, Batman’s title was celebrating sixteen years at the time issue number 100 rolled around.  (The character of Batman had been around one year longer, introduced in 1939 with Detective Comics number 27.)

detective27

 

Once again, DC pulled out all the stops.  “Batty” stuff indeed . . .

batman100

 

Meanwhile, and several years later, another powerhouse in the comic book field–Marvel Comics–was marking the anniversaries of some of its signature titles:  The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, and Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four. All hit their 100th issue in the early and mid 1970s.  By this time, it was fully expected that such a milestone issue would be celebrated with pomp and circumstance . . .

spiderman100

avengers100

xmen100

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The stories housed within these special anniversary issues may or may not have been among the best of the genre.  In some ways, it didn’t matter.  More than anything, a title’s 100th issue represented a benchmark, a reminder, if you will, that the heroes had been able to stand the test of time and that the writers and artists involved still possessed a passion for storytelling and a desire to press on.

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

I began The Eye-Dancers blog in the summer of 2012, a complete novice to the blogosphere.  If you were to look up the word “blogging newbie” that summer, my picture probably would have been looking back at you.

me

(Okay, so putting my kindergarten picture here is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  Chalk it up to poetic license!)

I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused as I launched the blog.  I was about to release The Eye-Dancers, the novel, and I knew I wanted to “get the word out,” but how would I manage to do that?  And how many original posts would I be able to come up with?

eyedancerscover

 

So I thought about it, and struggled through the first few months, still grasping for blogging ideas, flailing and poking and writing posts that I doubted anyone other than myself would read.  I’d hit the Publish button and imagine the words drifting outward, not to other bloggers, but to some nowhere zone at the center of a lost cyber-galaxy, an eternally hungry black hole that feasted on unread sentences and paragraphs.

blackhole

 

But then I would see a Like appear, and before long a few intrepid fellow bloggers began to follow the blog.  Very few at first, but their support filled me with enthusiasm and optimism.  Someone out there was reading my words.  Encouraged, I again thought about what I could do, how I could potentially blog for the long haul.  And I decided–why not just write about things that interest me?  Sure, I would want them to tie in to The Eye-Dancers, the novel, in some way, but even so, the possibilities seemed endless.  I dove in, and a remarkable thing happened.  The insecurity lessened, the ideas started to arrive in waves, and I had a blast!  It was fun.  And more surprising still, more and more bloggers began following The Eye-Dancers.  Suddenly that black hole I had initially imagined disappeared, and an ongoing and wonderful adventure kicked into high gear.

endlesspossibilities

 

And now, four years after its inception, The Eye-Dancers blog has reached 5,000 followers. If someone had told me in the summer of 2012 that, by 2016, The Eye-Dancers would be fortunate enough to acquire such a following, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  But that’s been the great thing about these four years.  The WordPress community welcomed me with open arms, and things just continued to get better and better.

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Then again, there’s no need for me to break out the past tense here.  I’m not going anywhere.  The sequel to The Eye-Dancers–as long as the literary stars stay aligned–will be due to come out during the early portion of 2017, and I will certainly be blogging about that, as well as many other things, in the months ahead.

starsaligned

 

It is my great hope that you all will continue to read and follow these ramblings and ruminations of mine.  Certainly, The Eye-Dancers doesn’t compare with the great superhero icons and their anniversaries from yesteryear, but your ongoing encouragement has often been as much a tonic for me as any radioactive spider bite or red Kryptonian sunlight.  You are the reason this blog is so enjoyable for me, and you are without a doubt the reason The Eye-Dancers blog is still going strong four years in.  I can’t thank you enough for all your support over these past four years.  You are all the best.

redsun

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait to get started on the next four years!

–Mike

From Smartphones to Biscuit Pants and Three Finger Brown

When Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are transported to a parallel universe in The Eye-Dancers, they soon discover that the world in which they find themselves is devoid of computers, cell phones, and digital technology of any kind.  This was not an accident or the result of some spur-of-the-moment detail that manifested itself in the flow of a first draft.  It was something I had deliberately chosen to do.

parallelworldintro

 

At first, in the earliest conception of the story, I toyed with the idea of making the lack of digital technology a key element in the plot, perhaps elevating its importance right up there with swirling, hypnotic blue eyes and dreams and nightmares that seem to come to life.  But I eventually pocketed that notion, and the lack of PCs and cell phones became a smaller piece of the puzzle–still there, still relevant, but not paramount.  Through it all, though, I never once considered removing this detail from the novel.

dreamsandnightmares

 

The variant town of Colbyville, and the world that surrounds it, was always destined to be a place where smartphones do not exist and cannot function.

smartphonesbeforefirstbreak

 

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

I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as anti-technology.  Far from it.  After all, how could I possibly rail against 21st-century digital innovation when I have published an e-book, readable on a handheld device, and have blogged for four years within the wonderful WordPress community, enjoying every minute of it?  No.  I am not opposed to the electronic wonders of our age.

wordpresscommunity

 

But I do fondly recall an earlier period–not so long ago on the one hand, millennia ago on the other.  I grew up in the 1980s, where at-home digital innovation consisted of the Commodore 64 my parents bought for us in 1984, complete with its DOS screens, ’80s-style video games, and pre-Windows platform.  At the time, of course, the old Commodore seemed a marvel, a technological triumph that represented the blossoming and realization of the robotic age.  Today, it is a relic, an artifact, an odd, cumbersome thing more an amusement than a tool of technology.  A twelve-year-old coming face-to-face with this ancient archaeopteryx of the computer world would likely stare at it in disbelief, wondering how such an antique ever worked at all.

archeopteryx

 

It’s not so much that I want us to return to the days of the Commodore 64 (though it’s hard to top such video-game classics as Jumpman, Donkey Kong, and Zork!), eschewing all the digital advancements of the past thirty years.  But sometimes I wonder.  Is there a price we’re paying in our Wi-Fi society, waist-deep as we are in hyper-convenience, where vast pieces of information or merchandise or virtually anything under the sun (and some things beyond) are available at the merest click?  In a world of endless apps, ubiquitous social media, prolific texting, and data overload–is there something missing?

donkeykong

 

It is, ultimately, a matter of perspective and opinion, of course.  But as I ponder it, I can’t seem to get away from the specter of Three Finger.

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

On a spring day in 1888, a young boy lost parts of two fingers in a farming accident.  As it turned out, though, the boy used the accident as a springboard to greatness.  He took up the game of baseball, learned to pitch, and for over a decade in the early years of the 20th century, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown baffled opposing hitters.  With two of his fingers on his pitching hand shortened and mangled due to his old accident, Brown was able to put mind-boggling spin on the ball, becoming one of the greatest pitchers of his era.  And the nickname “Three Finger” was a natural.  It stuck with Brown for the duration of his career, and beyond, following him right into Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

threefingerbrown

 

Indeed, there was a time when virtually ever ballplayer had a nickname–almost a personal brand, something acquired at a young age, never to be relinquished.  Some of the nicknames were original, some were inspired by admiration for the player’s skills, some were downright silly, but almost all were fun.  Here are a few:

Frankie Frisch–The Fordham Flash.

Willie Mays–The Say Hey Kid.

williemays

 

Charlie Gehringer–The Mechanical Man.

Burleigh Grimes–Ol’ Stubblebeard.

Gabby Hartnett–Old Tomato Face.

Ernie Banks–Mr. Sunshine.

Joe Jackson–Shoeless Joe.

shoelessjoe

 

Bris Lord–The Human Eyeball.

Chuck Klein–The Hoosier Hammerer.

Henry Aaron–Hammerin’ Hank.

Mickey Mantle–The Commerce Comet.

mickeymantle

 

Al Simmons–Bucketfoot Al.

Luke Appling–Old Aches and Pains.

And these represent just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  There were hundreds of others, from Arkys to Rubes to Dazzys.  There were even Dizzys!

dizzydean

 

And of course Lou Gehrig’s famous nickname–The Iron Horse–was earned due to his remarkable streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, over a span of fifteen seasons.  But he was also known as Buster and Biscuit Pants.

In 2016, there are certainly still some amusing baseball nicknames, but they are much fewer and farther between than they used to be.  There just aren’t any Sparkys or Scooters or Slugs anymore.  In their place, we have analytics and digital trends and statistics galore.  If you want to know a player’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or ERA, all you have to do is pull out your mobile device, click on a link or two, and voila.  There you have it.  Some of my friends have apps installed so when their favorite team scores a run, their phone dings to let them know.  We have so much data and knowledge at our fingertips in any given moment, it would surely make “The Georgia Peach’s” head spin.

datacobbheadspin

 

And again, this is a great thing.  I am not knocking it.  But then I wonder–would there even be a place for a Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in our world today?  Or would such a moniker be deemed inappropriate somehow?  Maybe he’d just be called Mordy for short, and leave it at that.  Even if he did play, and thrive, and win, would the majority of fans be enthralled solely by his virtually unhittable pitches, or would his exploits too often be relegated to the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately real-time scoring apps of fantasy baseball leagues?

fantasybaseball

 

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for WHIPs or DIPs or dERAs or any of the other sabermetric markers that are all the rage today in baseball.  We live in a world of constantly evolving digital technology, where last week’s app is suddenly outdated and last year’s Windows update is a dried-out and decaying fossil.  Technological advancement is an ever-changing phenomenon.

sabermetrics

 

But through it all, I hope we can sometimes take a step back, take a deep breath, and reflect.  Even in this age of smartphones and Twitter, and soon-t0-be driverless cars, there is always a place for Biscuit Pants.

biscuitpantsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

Embracing Your Inner Grogg, Zog, and Groot!

There are so many aspects, so many parts to the process.  An idea strikes, giving birth to a story–perhaps it’s a short story that can be crafted in a day; perhaps it’s a novel that will take months, even years to complete.  But here, now, at the outset, that’s not important.  All that matters is the desire, the need, to write.

idea

 

It doesn’t take long for that to change, and for the situation to become more complicated.  I know, for me, if I have written a short story, there is the initial euphoria of finishing it.  A job well done.  But now–where to submit it?  Will anyone want to publish it?  A dozen rejection slips later, a crisis of confidence hits.  Who was I fooling?  It isn’t any good.  Maybe it’s not as polished as I thought–so I go back, edit it some more, and then resubmit to a dozen more magazines.  Eventually, I have so many rejection slips and form letters, I can wallpaper my office with them.  But I keep submitting, keep believing.  It just takes one . . .

rejectionslips

 

And as for the novel . . . multiply the above by a thousand.  Whereas the short story is a sprint, a forty-yard dash, the novel is a marathon, a test of endurance.  At some point, I know, I will question the entire project.  There will come a low point, when energy reserves have been depleted, when ideas hide underneath rocks and behind thick, impenetrable walls, when I ask myself–“Is this story going anywhere?  Where do I take it?  What do I write next?”  Writer’s block, while in the middle of a novel, is a grim feeling.  All the work already put forth now appears for naught, stuck in the middle of a chapter that refuses to cooperate.

index

 

I had to confront this middle-of-the-story crossroads while writing The Eye-Dancers–the point where the novel will either take off and infuse me with a literary second wind, or die on the vine, withering under a sweltering summer sun, thirsting for ideas that never arrive.  For me, and for The Eye-Dancers, this defining moment occurred in chapter 18.

I was slightly more than halfway through the novel, and felt pretty good about what I had so far.  But chapter 18 was a quagmire.  It was a pivotal chapter, and one of the longest in the novel.  I couldn’t seem to get it right–everything I wrote came up flat, like soda left out on the porch all night long.  I wrote a first draft–ugh.  Lifeless and forced.  Reluctantly, bemoaning the wasted effort, I deleted every word of the chapter and began anew.  The second draft proved no better.  I threw my hands up, literally.  Was my concept wrong?  Should I take a step back and rethink the whole thing?  I remember taking a long walk, thinking, figuring, looking at the impasse from all angles.  But nothing came to me.  Nothing sounded right.

crossroads

 

It brought to mind something George Orwell once said:  “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

orwell

 

Later that day, at a total loss, I flipped through some of my old comic books, looking for something, anything.

I found it.

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

When I was in junior high school and began collecting comic books seriously, I never thought I would buy any issues that weren’t superhero-related.  The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and later Batman and Superman were my focus.  But as I learned more about the history of the medium, realizing how rich and layered old comics were, I decided to branch out.  One of the gems I later discovered was what collectors often refer to as “pre-hero Marvels.”

spiderman

 

Prior to The Fantastic Four number 1 (November 1961), Marvel Comics published a small line of adventure and sci-fi comics–certainly not unique in those days.  Even DC, creator of Superman and Batman, incorporated a quality line of non-hero comic books.  But what made the Marvels special were the monsters . . .

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With names like Grogg, Groot, and Zog, just to name a few, these larger-than-life creatures jumped off the page.

st83grogg

 

tta13groot

 

I can easily imagine an exuberant ten-year-old in 1960, at the height of the phenomenon, spinning the comics rack at the local corner store, trying to decide which monster-book to plunk his dime on.

jim56zog

 

The stories, with titles such as  “I created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die,” were formulaic, silly, and, frankly, ridiculous.  But they were magic, too.

goliath

 

What’s more, they were fun.

tta34

 

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

That particular day, seeking something of an escape from the writing process, I opened Tales of Suspense number 29 (February 1962).  Tales of Suspense is the same title that, ten issues and just over one year later, would introduce the world to Iron Man–but I wasn’t thinking of the Golden Avenger as I flipped through the story, laughing and smiling all the way through “The Martian Who Stole a City.”

TOS29

 

The story was dated, predictable, and by no means a masterpiece.  But it was just the tonic I needed.  It made me feel twelve years old again.  It infused me with optimism, a sense of wonder, and it instilled in me a belief that anything was possible, and that any obstacle to creativity can be hurdled and left far behind in a sun-streaked rearview mirror.

Energized, invigorated, I went back to the book, dared to key in the first word of the revised and revised and revised again chapter 18, which expanded to the first sentence and then the first paragraph.  Two pages later, I paused, pumped a fist.  The logjam had broken.  The mind-block had lifted, disintegrated, like smoke on the wind.

smokeonwind

 

It was a necessary reminder that, no matter what our Amazon sales ranking, no matter what or how many reviews we have, no matter how hard it sometimes is to get our thoughts and visions onto the page, when it’s all said and done, we are doing something we were born to do.  Something we need to do.  Something we love.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Zest.  Gusto.  How rarely one hears these words used.  How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them.  Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto. . . . For the first thing a writer should be is–excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”

As I continued to type, the words now pouring out of me like lava, the classic issue of Tales of Suspense number 29 still lay there, in full view, on my desk.

enthusiasms

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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