More Than Meets the Eye (Or, What Lies Behind the Horn-Rimmed Glasses . . .)

She was quiet, so quiet, in fact, that sometimes it seemed she wasn’t even there.  It was as if she blended in with the beige walls, the gray metallic chairs, the very molecules and atoms in the air.  The other students would criticize and argue and critique–but she barely said a word.  The professor, a bald man originally from London and since moved to western New York State. would sometimes single her out.  “To prime your pump,” he would explain.  It was a creative writing workshop, after all.  Students were expected to participate, not just sit there, looking down at the small wooden desk attached to the right arm of the chair.

workshop

 

Her name was Renee.  Her wardrobe was as subdued as her manner–plain, dark clothes, sweaters, usually, and a pair of retro, black, horn-rimmed glasses that gave her the look and feel of someone from a generation three decades earlier.  She would spend much of the class period adjusting those glasses as they continually slid down the bridge of her nose.

glasses

 

The chairs were arranged in a semicircle, encouraging face-to-face interaction as we discussed and dissected each other’s short stories.  Renee would always sit at the back corner of the semicircle, as far away from the professor as she could arrange herself.  Every class period, four students would turn in a new story, distributing a copy to the teacher and each student in the class.  The following week, the four stories handed out in the previous class would be critiqued.  Additionally, each member of the class would write comments on the hard copy of the story, and return them to the author once the oral critique was finished.  For those students who did not participate so much verbally, this offered a way to express their opinions in a more comfortable manner.

critique

 

But Renee didn’ t even do that.  Not only didn’t she participate in class, but her written comments were, to put it mildly, brief.  After I had turned in my first story of the semester, she had written, “Cool,” on the top of the first page, emphasizing it with a loopily-drawn smiley face.  That was it.  She hadn’t jotted one word in the margins, and nothing at the end.  I asked others in the class if she had offered anything more on their stories.  She hadn’t.  She just continued to blend in to the background, gray on gray.  Even the instructor seemed to give up.  By the semester’s second month, he no longer called on her.  She just sat there, period after period, saying nothing.  A locked, featureless door.

door

 

Then the day came when she was scheduled to share one of her own stories with the class.  I overheard a student, who sat close to me, whispering to another, “I bet it’s probably like two pages or something.”

But it was not two pages.  And it was not what anyone had expected . . .

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Throughout the opening chapters of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton each dream of the girl with the blue, swirling eyes.   The “ghost girl,” they call her.  After all, in their dreams (or are they more than dreams?), she appears less like a flesh-and-blood creature of this earth and more like a wisp, a breath, a denizen of the spirit world.  They fear she is a ghost who is haunting their dreams.

ghost

 

But is she?  Is their first impression the right one?  Or is she less than she seems?  Or, perhaps, more than she seems?

And once they are transported through the void and find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they encounter many other things that cause them to question their surroundings, their perceptions, at times even their own sanity.  Science wiz Marc Kuslanski is there, too, and he offers (or tries to offer) a sensible, rational, scientific reason for everything.  But as he learns over the course of the novel, not everything can be explained away.  Not everything can be pigeon-holed and classified and packed neatly into its own box.

Not everything is what it appears to be at first glance.

illusions

 

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When I took Renee’s story home that day, I honestly did not have high expectations.  I guessed reading her story would be a chore, just something to get through.  And her title, “Dead Man Walking,” struck me as cliched.  I did not give her the benefit of the doubt.

Then I read the first paragraph.  It drew me right in to a brutal world, where a dead man walks among the living, works with them, looks like them, loves them, hates them, and, every now and again, eats them.  He isn’t a vampire.  He isn’t quite a zombie.  He’s just . . . dead.  But not dead.  It was a graphically violent story, merciless in its portrayal of the lead character and the people he comes across in his experiences.  From our perspective today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a story like this may sound derivative, or least inspired by, the zombie and “undead” mania caused by hit shows such as The Walking Dead.

walkingdead

 

But this was back in the mid-1990s.  Renee’s story was, without question, her own, and she had a very distinct and original voice.  Her prose was edgy, yet literary, vulgar, yet elegant.  In a word, it was riveting.

When the following week’s workshop met again, there was a buzz among the students.  Even the professor, an unflappable sort, seemed off his game.

He cleared his throat, his way of signaling it was time to begin.  The whisperings and murmerings among the students came to a stop.  We all looked at the instructor, waiting.

“Our first story to look at today is ‘Dead Man Walking.'”  He cleared his throat again, glanced at Renee.  “And as we always do, we’ll let the author have the first word.  Renee?”

The class looked at her, and she looked up, meeting our eyes for what seemed like the first time all term.

“Well,” she said, with a smile, “as you probably know by now, my stories tend to be a little bit crazy.  And loud.  Very, very loud.”

For a moment, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.  But then someone laughed, and then another, and then another.  Renee joined them.

And here we’d all thought she was just the quiet girl with the horn-rimmed glasses who sat at the back of the room. . . .

istimp

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the End of the Day . . .

When I was a graduate student, I had a professor in a creative writing workshop who would occasionally pick apart someone’s story in front of the entire class.  It wasn’t for the faint of heart.  But it was educational.  There were about fifteen of us in the class, aspiring writers all.  We would craft short stories, bring them to class, and share them with each other, critiquing our stories and writing comments in the margins.  For the most part, the professor,  a balding, bespectacled gent originally from London, served only as a moderator, facilitating the discussions and making sure the group stayed on topic.  But every now and then, he would decide to single out a particular story, and use it as an illustration of what not to do.

One day, he chose the topic of cliches.

cliches1

 

“You should never insert cliches in your story,” he said.  “It’s okay to use them in some dialogue.  People, after all, frequently speak in cliches.  But never use them in your narrative description.  Avoid them like the plague.”  (I admit, I nearly raised my hand here to tell him he’d just used a cliche to make his point on avoiding them, but, wisely, I just listened.)

cliches2

 

He then proceeded to eviscerate one young woman’s story, pointing out no less than half a dozen time-worn phrases in her ten-page piece.  I felt bad for her–brilliant as he was, this professor was not known for his tact.  Nevertheless, some of his lessons have stuck with me over the years, and whenever I edit one of my stories, I tend to keep an eye out for cliches.

I can’t guarantee that The Eye-Dancers is cliche-free.  Far from it!  But, with hope, there are very few cliches in the book.  In fact, if anyone can spot a cliche in the first three chapters, which are included on this website, please contact me, and I will send you a copy of the book for free!  Let’s call it The Eye-Dancers cliche challenge.

This gets me thinking about the entire creative process–from typing that first word, to sharing your work with others, to submitting it for publication.  It’s a challenging thing.  Looking out for cliches can sometimes take a backseat to the seemingly more important items on the writing list.

I mean, executing a story idea is no small feat.  It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears.  Inspiration, after all, is 99% perspiration.  And coming up with a new twist for a story isn’t easy.  You have to push the envelope, think outside the box, and make sure you come up with an idea that hasn’t already jumped the shark.

Staring at a blank computer monitor, the cursor blinking, as if taunting you, can be intimidating, but trusting the creative process is essential.

blankscreen

 

The key is to type that first word and then keep going, keep working, and keep chopping wood.  If the idea takes flight, you will feel like a kid in a candy store–it’s almost too easy, too much fun!  Putting the pedal to the medal, you may speed right through the story, feeling like a champ.

But then you step back, inhale deeply, and take the time to read through what you’ve written during that whirlwind first-draft cyclone.  You may groan.  The rose-colored glasses are off now, and you see the results as clear as day.  The idea may have been worthwhile, the writing, in general, may even be passable.  But, being a first draft, the manuscript is littered with inconsistencies, poor sentence construction, the works.  The job of turning out a polished, completed story has only just begun.

snoopy

 

Knocking on wood, you hope you can start again at the top, put your nose to the grindstone, go the whole nine yards, and produce a top-notch piece of work.  There is still much to do, but it’s time to roll up the shirtsleeves, raise the bar, and shoot for the stars.  It’s easy at this stage to want to rush through the edits and just say the thing is done.  But patience is a virtue, and, if you’re planning on submitting the story for publication, well–you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Everything needs to be perfect, and you have to give 110%.

Finally, after a second and third, and fourth edit, the story is finished!  The problem?  You’ve read, reread, edited, and reedited the piece so many times, you’re bleary-eyed and tired of it.  You decide to set it aside for a day or two, then read it one last time before sending it out.

When you read it again three days later, you are satisfied–it’s ready.  It’s time to submit the story, sink or swim, do or die.  Who knows what the editor will think of it?  All you can do is send it off, and let the chips fall where they may.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And then you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait . . . and finally, after five months, a postcard arrives in the mail.

“Dear Writer,” it reads.  “Thank you for sending us your work and giving us the opportunity to read it.  However, we regret to inform you that it does not suit our needs at this time.  Thank you again for thinking of us.  Happy writing!”

You read the note again.  It’s frustrating.  After all the work, all the revisions, you don’t even receive a personal response.  Dejected, you wonder why you bother, but then you realize–there are so many other outlets where you can submit your story.  There are other fish in the sea!  Rejuvinated, you send the story to five other places within the next couple of days.  After all, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!  Besides, rejection is as much a part of the writing life as, well, writing.  It’s par for the course.  Some of the magazines you’re submitting to inform that they do not want simultaneous submissions–but this doesn’t seem fair.  So you simultaneously submit anyway!  Living dangerously can be fun.  And you need to break a few eggs if want to make an omelet.

Meanwhile, as you wait to hear back from these five new outlets, you are working on a novel–a vast, multi-layered tome that will likely take months, maybe years, to complete.  And then the process will begin anew–perhaps querying agents, publishers, networking.  Maybe you will try the indie author route.  So many options!  Life is a bowl of cherries.

One day, months later, while working on chapter twenty-one, you receive an email from one of the magazines where you submitted your short story.

“Dear Writer,

“We regret to inform you . . .”

rejection

 

You sigh, print the email, and toss it into a rejection pile on the edge of your desk.  You toy with the idea of wallpapering your room with these slips.  Oh well.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.  The story is still under review elsewhere.  Maybe someone is considering publishing it.  You never know.  Your fortune can change in the blink of an eye.  And truth is stranger than fiction.

A week later, another rejection slip–snail-mail.  But this one has a handwritten note!  “Great prose.  Keep up the good work.”  A rejection never felt so good.  You pin the slip on the wall, and get back to the novel.  There are still a dozen chapters to write, and hundreds of pages to edit, watching out for, among other things, all those pesky cliches!

“The life of a writer,” you say with a smile.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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