Books as Butterflies: Aftershock Takes Wing


A couple of summers ago, my galpal Alice planted many milkweed plants in our flower beds and yard. Milkweed, besides having some lovely flowers, is a nesting site of sorts for monarch butterflies. Those fluttering lovelies lay their eggs on the flowers, eggs that produce some seriously striped caterpillars, who then devour the leaves like pizza from the heavens.

Nature, that big show-off, then insists that those caterpillars pupate: they manage to form themselves into a chrysalis, a stylish little pouch like the one above, which was hanging from our water valve fixture. If you look closely, you can see the faint outlines of the butterfly-to-be’s wings. Nature, also host to many outrages, sacrificed that chrysalis to some other hungry creature, but we have another in a more protected spot, who is much further along, the wings darkly defined.

We’ve been checking in on it many times a day, because pupas are supposed to hatch into mighty monarchs in a couple of weeks—and this dude is due.

What Strained Metaphor Is He Going to Use to Talk About His Book?

Glad you asked. The way we’ve been anxiously awaiting the emergence of the butterfly is akin to what I’ve done with a book of mine I’ve been messing with for years. Its chrysalis period has been longer than our monarchial one, but hey, time compresses and dilates, as you know. The important part is that the book is about to take wing.

I set up my new novel, Aftershock, for pre-order on Amazon. You can see its handsome cover above. I’m giving the first 10 blog readers who request a PDF copy of the book a chance to read it for free. All I ask of you is to consider reviewing the book on Amazon on or not long after the day of its release, which is March 10. You won’t be able to post a review until official publication.

No obligation to write a favorable review (or any review at all), of course, but if you do write one, please note therein that you were given an advance copy, so that no Amazonian shoots me with an arrow for being deceptive about my promotion.

Write to me at bentguy@charter.net if you’re interested. I will nag you once the day before publication about the review, but you are welcome to ignore me. Alice does it all the time.

Oh, and if you were wondering what the monarch larva look like before they spin their chrysalis, check it out:

Handsome devil, eh? Books as butterflies—what a concept.

Stories Sleep in Your Mind’s Cellar—Wake Them!

I was on a press trip in Las Vegas this past weekend, where my moldering memories mingled with the city’s current offering of craziness. Memories because my parents used the excuse that it was a perfect 2- or 3-day rest stop on the way driving with us kids across the country to their parents every couple of summers. And my sister was a reporter there for years, and for a while in the 70s, I lived there myself. So I know its chimerical aspects pretty well, its indelicacies and its promise, its fevered optimism and its crushing defeats, its up-front impossible glitz and the behind-the-scenes muscular shoulders of its workers making that impossible possible.

I return every few years to see how the city has reinvented itself, because that’s what it does, tearing down an aging illusion and putting up another with fresher makeup. Press trips in and of themselves are a particularly concentrated form of madness, where we media types are wheeled from venue to venue, tasting full menus’ worth of fabulous food, offered the snappiest of snappy cocktails, given front-and-center seats to the most beguiling of entertainments.

One of those entertainments was VIP admission to the Bellagio performance of “O” by Cirque du Soleil. One of its perks was photos with some of the remarkable athletes who dazzle at every show. This post’s photo is that of some of the performers and yours truly; I am the tallest of the clowns.

Stories at Rest and in Motion

This is my windy way of getting to the point: your mind’s building has several floors of storage, and some lower-level memories are more cobwebbed than others. Many might never see surface light again, unless triggered by a fortuitous association. As I lay in my hotel room after a long day of press tripping, near insensate from the last meal, which had at least six desserts (and yes, I tried them all), a flash came to me of someone I hadn’t thought of in a gazillion years, back when I lived in Vegas. His name was Michael, and my best friend and I chanced upon him there while playing Frisbee—in 108-degree weather, mind you—in a public park.

The cuckoo part of the story is that my friend had known him from many years back, in the little town of Cranbrook, British Colombia, where I’d met him too. They’d long been out of touch; it was sheer coincidence that we all met again in Vegas. But here’s the story part: even though I’d barely known him in Canada, since I was just visiting my friend there who knew him much better, I recognized that Michael had an almost other-worldly charm. Women loved him, and unabashedly let him know it. He was a handsome guy, and genuinely friendly, but there was something much more than that.

And when we met up with him again in Vegas, that “much more than that” manifested again and again. I won’t go into a lot of details, but Michael was the only man I’ve known who would have women hoot at him from their cars when we crossed a street at a stoplight. That happened more than once. But it wasn’t just women: men immediately liked him, wanted to take him into their confidence, perhaps hoping that some of the gold dust on him would rub off.

Stop That Movie—There’s a Story There

So, as the sweetest surging of sugar pulsed through my blood in my hotel room, it came to me in that glorious way that, if you’re lucky, stories sometimes come: Michael, the golden boy in the golden town, the mystery behind his magic, its effect on people, the problems that ensued, and the story’s end. But whether that’s sad or glad, you won’t know until I write it. But the heart of the tale, the character, the conflict, the marrow of it, came to me in a moment, courtesy of being in Las Vegas once again. (And maybe courtesy of the last cocktail I’d had that night, perfectly named Comfortably Numb.)

I love this gift of how stories come to us, sometimes from this layer cake of our experience, and how they suddenly leap out from the cake’s center. I don’t know yet if Michael’s tale is a long short story or a novella, or something else, but it’s something, and I will map it out soon.

Do stories jump out at you from old closets too?

(And if you want to read a Vegas story I wrote many, many years ago as a callow college student, which was published years later in The Labletter literary journal, try this: Unmarked Highway)

The Strange, Wonderful, Is That Poop I Smell Year


Photo Credit: jadiwangi Flickr via Compfight cc

It’s been a strange year. One where the word “strange” can’t contain its multitudes, a year where the globe itself seemed to be ripping at the seams, or be one of those cartoon images where a character is literally steaming, smoke out the ears, fire-engine face, sure to blow. That kind of year.

Many, many people have written about our president, much more eloquently than me. I’ll keep it contained: our president is an extraordinary liar, a man of the shallowest conceits, a man with no concept of decency. I believe he has taken our country to dangerous places, to uncharted immoral waters, the consequences of which will affect us for long time to come.

But I am complicit. I’ve allowed this administration to get deep in my head, so that it’s affected my well-being, my sense of self and yes, certainly my writing. I’ve participated in the collective howl against the regressive tide, but other than signing many petitions, contributing to a few progressive causes, and making bitter statements in the grotto of my skull, I’ve done nothing. Well, I have done something—I’ve ceded a lot of my thinking and consciousness over to anxiety, and mostly pointless anxiety.

Anxiety Lacks Nutrients (But Could Fuel Some Writing)
I’m not going to be as generous with consenting to this fruitless anxiety over government malfeasance, though I will continue to resist the lies of our original fake news purveyor. But of more use to me as a writer, I’m going to turn some of that stomach churn to the keyboard, and see if there’s redemption there.

There’s a quote from poet Jane Hirshfield in the latest Poets and Writers that reads thusly:

“Remind yourself why it is you wanted to write in the first place. That might be done by revisiting work by others you find awakening and electrifying, or find disturbing in useful ways, the ways disturbed soil can become receptive ground for new seeds.”

I’ve been disturbed all right, and this year’s soil has smelled distressingly of poop, but there has to be some flower potential in there. With all the earthquakes and floods, and California burning, so much has seemed apocalyptic. But the year’s not a total wash: lots of good things written, lots of good things read, travel to the Caribbean and Europe, my mother, at 95, still alive and happy. Still moving, still drinking—er, I mean thinking—still seeing sparkling mornings.

There’s still plenty left to write about. Join me—let’s type together in the new year. (Oh, but I’ve got dibs on the “e” key.)

Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Tiny Islands Can Bite, But Robert Louis Stevenson Sailed On

You might think that’s a paddle for the kayak, but it’s a mosquito swatter

When I screeched in displeasure and slapped yet another mosquito (this time, the evildoer biting my bony knee) today, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed into my mind. That mind of mine has been salty of late, because the insects are winning here: “here” being a house-sit on a small, lovely island, Bequia, in the Caribbean.

Small, lovely tropical islands often have lots of small, unlovely pests, and the mosquitoes here have been ravenous, particularly lately, where my twice-daily bathings in Deet (not recommended if you want to handle power tools later in life, or perhaps play effective chess) are now failing to take effect. Well, they do have an effect: they make me feel ill, and they provide a slick surface for the mosquitos to ski on my skin, before they dip in their murderous prongs.

I thought of Stevenson, because while my aggrieved groans probably echo all the way back to Santa Cruz, Stevenson, a Scot, author of Treasure Island and other charms, was a dedicated traveler in an era when traveling itself—much less traveling to distant lands with no comforts—was complex and effortful. Stevenson was a sickly child (lungs) and a sickly adult, but he took up world travel early, and had a few bouts of near-incapacitating illnesses during and after his early journeys.

A Complication of Bones

Not long after his marriage in California he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For years after that, he searched for a region and climate that would aid his flagging health, but to no avail. So, rather than bunker up in Europe or the States, he embarked on a series of long, hard voyages to Pacific islands.

Now, I lived on a small Pacific island for a year, and they had many modern conveniences, though we felt the sting of deprivation when the island ran out of beer. Stevenson, chronically ill, was taking arduous sails to remote places where beer—and probably most of the foods he was accustomed to—was a fantasy. In the meantime, while he traveled, this mere complication of cough and bones was writing acclaimed works.

He journeyed the Pacific for years, finally settling on Samoa, where gentleman’s clothes were likely a nuisance. He was 44 when he died there, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage. (Oddly enough, with all those South Seas travels, some literary historians have suggested that Stevenson was inspired to write Treasure Island based on a stay in the Monterey, CA area, having spent time at shimmering Pt. Lobos.)

At Least the Mosquitoes Don’t Have Lawyers

What am I getting at here? This: I have been heatedly complaining to my boon companion Alice about the dastardly mosquitoes for days now. Spiteful things they are, but I’ve really got to buck up a bit. Mr. Stevenson was just a bag of bones and he wandered the globe in a time when wandering took some real gumption. Here, there’s plenty of beer (though I’ve been leaning more toward the rums).

I’ve been saving up the material of the many island stays I’ve had—there’s the wet clay of a novel amid all of that sweating. But in the one I’ll write, the mosquitoes will all be butterflies.

A Writer’s Workshop: Memories and Memorial Days

Malibu, wondering if I would taste better with a steak sauce

Out and about for the Memorial Day weekend, we seemed to have a wand wave of favorable signs: There was the kite string that led up a rocky hill in a beautiful canyon at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park that I picked up and tugged and lo! a beautiful turtle kite sprung high in the air, heretofore unseen high on the cliff.

And then strolling that pretty beach, the amazement of three hang gliders very slowly moving past us above, so low that we could easily see their expressions. And then later, our first time at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (whose title might be bigger than the park), seeing a determined red-wing blackbird harass a big turkey vulture completely out to the park, and then fly back, very close to us, into the wetlands area he was defending. I’d seen small birds annoy hawks, but never one so focused on ushering a vulture to the door.

That seemed like a pretty good day of small wonders, and we settled in with the great Boulevardiers we’d barreled for a month to mellow appeal in our 3-liter barrel and toasted the glory of small things. When our cat brought the small bunny to our door to display her hunting talents, that’s when the wonders went awry, for us at least.

The Goddess of Small Dead Things

Our cat Malibu, who was semi-feral when we adopted her, spends a good deal of her time outside. We are grateful if rueful for the rats and gophers she eviscerates on our outside doormats, and more grateful yet that she seemingly has no talent for doing the same for birds—we don’t see any remains or feathers on the rural property.

But a bunny.

A young bunny, soft gray, its staring eyes knocked into forever, their last sight my cat’s flashing teeth. She’s never brought back a bunny. There’s a moral inequality there, of course, where we sigh over the gophers and forget them an hour later, but feel strong ethical queasiness about a young rabbit. The artificial hierarchy of living things expressed in the quick, unreflective emotion: oh god, she’s killed a bunny!

Writers Try to Capture Quicksilver

So, an interesting day for a writer—that childlike feeling of glee when I saw that kite rise out of nowhere, and the plunging dismay upon seeing my cat’s bloodletting. I have a sharp sense that writers should keep a look out for those instances, the reminders that we are animals as well, subject to those flights and grottoes of emotion, often multiple times in the same day.

To be able to describe how that works with characters in stories is tricky, because it’s easy to resort to a kind of “she felt a stabbing in her heart” kind of writing (if you’re in a close third-person narrative) rather than something that gets closer to those hummingbird wings of something that flashes and then is gone, but perhaps creates a layer that lingers.

And on this Memorial Day, I salute my father, gone now near seven years, who served in the Army Air Forces in WWII and the Air Force in Korea, a waist gunner in a B-17 for many runs in the European Theatre and Korea. Considering the precarious exposure of waist gunners. and how many didn’t come back, he may have been surprised he made it. But my mother, my three siblings and I are happy he did. Thanks, Dad.

I write because of the commas in the broccoli

Reedsy, the site that joins authors with editors and designers, has a nice promotion going on right (or should I say “write”) now: they will donate $10 to Room to Read,  a non-profit organization that seeks to provide girls in Africa and Asia with access to education, for every author who uploads a one-minute video explaining why they write.

I couldn’t resist.