The Weekly Re-Motivator: Finish Lines

I’m very close to the end of my 2nd book.

When I was close to the end of my first book, I recalled something I read in Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open: that the end of a big match is like a magnet, both pulling you in and repelling you at the same time. The closer you get to the end of the project, the more your momentum builds, but the less you actually want to cross the finish line. Like a magnet, spinning off its poles until it doesn’t know which way to turn.

So, here, at the end of my second novel, I guess the muddled feeling in my head is to be expected. This week I’m writing the climax of the book, and while that’s incredibly energizing and the energy has me completing my daily writing goal in about thirty minutes, it’s also pretty terrifying. Because when I finish the draft, the only thing looming for me is the Edit.

And the edit is a fearsome beast, indeed.

Editing this thing will be a monster, because I’ve made so many changes along the way that the project probably looks like a plateful of soggy scrambled eggs in the rear view mirror. The list of fixes to make will be longer than a five-hour drive to the beach, to be sure. But I know that’s coming.

What I didn’t see coming — what was surprisingly and delightfully unexpected — was the series of things I’ve learned from writing this draft, as opposed to my first. My first novel was largely plotted out before I ever started writing it. This one… well, let’s say that it was about 10% plotted and it’s 90% off-the-cuff. I’m not a good planner to begin with, but this has been an exercise in embracing the whim of the moment and charging fearlessly into the dark.

Well, I can’t say fearlessly. Every step has been filled with doubt like the Kool-Aid man is filled with creepy Kool-Aid blood, but that hasn’t stopped me from hurling myself into the unknown. There have been a ton of missteps along the way. Lots of dead ends, lots of pitfalls, lots of bottomless cliffs disguised as comfy places to rest. But I think that there may be some sparkling gems hidden in the shrapnel of my passage. There just may be enough salvageable junk to build a functional story out of.

What’s the takeaway? Well, I guess in fairness, I can’t quite rightly say yet — I’ll check back in a couple weeks when the project is well and truly finished. (Or rather, when this leg of the project is well and truly finished.) But having one draft in the bag has taught me enough that any future writing project will be just about equal parts expected and unexpected.

Best you can hope for is to buckle up and enjoy the ride.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Terrible Reviews: Welcome to Limetown

There’s this thing I’ve been looking for for a long time.

It’s something missing in contemporary media.

We have fantastic books, mind-blowing films, life-encompassing television shows, soul-consuming video games. The literature and stories are awesome. But one medium has fallen by the wayside: media for the ear.

Storytelling has become more and more visual as cameras and the ability to broadcast have become accessible for any berk with a smartphone and internet access. And that’s a good thing, awesome even. But for years before the television came around, it was stories for the ear that captivated audiences; stories where only the actors’ voices, soundtrack, and sound effects told the story. It’s hard to believe that we could be so captivated these days. But that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Podcasts are taking us back in that direction — just look at the success of Serial to see that. And I loved Serial. But, at its heart, Serial was a detached look into a cold case twenty years gone; an examination of facts and places and names and events, kept at a journalist’s clinical distance.

But I wanted something that went one step further. Something that would tell a story that would suck me in, a story where I could care about the characters, where there was a lingering behind-the-scenes mystery, where there’s that unease and tension that can only be crafted by a master storyteller.

Well, it’s here.

I discovered Limetown yesterday while my wife and I were looking for something to listen to on the drive out to Grandma’s house. Today, I listened to the second episode.

And I am hurting. HURTING. For the next episode.

From their website, Limetown Stories:

Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again.

In this seven-part podcast, American Public Radio host Lia Haddock asks the question once more, “What happened to the people of Limetown?”

The show begins in that clinical sense that Serial and This American Life use, but by the end of the first and carrying on over into the second episode, the show takes a hard left and the story comes to life. I won’t be sharing spoilers here, because you really owe it to yourself to go and have a listen. But this is that thing I’ve been looking for.

It’s masterfully crafted. It’s believably voiced. It’s beautifully soundtracked. It’s science fiction, thriller, suspense, human interest, all in one. And it has its hooks in me something fierce. It’s like This American Life meets Welcome to Night ValeSerial meets The X-Files. Your local nightly news broadcast meets Fringe. If you like science fiction, if you like the unexplained and the inexplicable, you’ll love this. If you enjoy the fiction I post up here, Limetown is right up your alley.

There are only two episodes out so far, with another five slated for the coming months, and they cannot get here soon enough.

If you are listening to podcasts, you need to be listening to Limetown. Seriously. Go get it.

Terrible Reviews: Once A Runner

I feel a little silly putting up a review for a book that’s over thirty years old, but then again, if there’s a book that deserves to be on this site, which is primarily about writing and running, it’s this one: a book written by a runner about running.

No, not Born to Run. This is Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.

I had heard about this book several times over the last couple of years since I’ve started running. It’s been touted as one of the best books ever written about running by Runners’ World magazine. Other readers have said that the book changed their whole perception of running and runners.  And the accolades stretch out like miles on a dusty highway. So when a fellow runner — a race director at a local event I’ve run four times now — offered to loan me the book, I happily accepted. “I’ve bought this book five times,” he said, with a hint of admonition in his voice, “because nobody I’ve loaned it to has returned it.” Presumably, I figured, that’s because the book was so awesome that they kept it to read again and again.

I devoured the book in about five nights, which is pretty good for me. I do most of my reading right before bed, and I go as far as I can manage before I descend into the dreamland that can only come to a parent of two, which is to say, sleep comes on fast and hard.

So, let’s get into it.

The Good.

The book is an absolute joy to read.The prose is gorgeous, playing off the brain like a mountain stream wending its way across pebbles and fallen branches. The characters are larger than life, and seem ready to step off the page and into the real world. The book is fictional, but the characters feel like they must be caricatures of real people, owing to their completeness and strangeness.

The book also captures something which is pretty difficult to accurately convey — the simultaneous despair, pain, joy, and calm that a distance runner feels in the midst of a run long enough to make the average person’s eyes go glassy. Parker is a poet when it comes to this stuff:

Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.

And he somehow maintains that level of tone, that balance between philosophical meditation and gritty truth grinder, for the entire book.

The Bad.

It’s a good thing the book is such a joy to read, because narratively, I found it to be a mess. The primary conflict doesn’t begin until almost two-thirds of the way into the book. Instead, the first half and change of the book is given over to anecdotes of the track team and its follies and foibles. Now, those stories are good, and as I mentioned above, they are beautifully written, but as a contemporary reader, it’s incredibly frustrating, and by the third or fourth chapter, I found myself wondering just where the hell is this story going? I had to check the book jacket to see what the blurb said the book was all about: a collegiate runner who gets kicked off his school team and then returns to run the race of his life. Okay, great. But by the halfway point of the book, the main character is still on the team. When your inciting incident takes more than half the book to happen, that’s a problem, and it’s one that no amount of beautiful language can make me look past.

The Ugly.

Worse, the first half of the book doesn’t seem to connect in any meaningful way with the second, outside of introducing the characters. Parker spends enough time on five or six characters to make us believe they matter to the narrative, but ultimately only three do: Quenton, the protagonist and the same prodigal runner from the blurb above; Bruce, another runner and ultimately Quenton’s mentor; and Prigman, the hard-nosed athletic director who kicks Quenton off the team. Everybody else is just window dressing, alternately dispensing roadside philosophy or helping Quenton pull off pranks in the athletic dorms. It’s all amusing, even at times inspiring, but again, it’s all tangential to the main plot, and I ended up feeling cheated by having been forced to take stock in all these characters that came to nothing in the end. And if there’s one thing I hate as a reader, it’s having my time wasted.

The Verdict.

As I look back over my thoughts on this book, the word that jumps out at me the most is “frustrated.” That’s pretty telling. It’s been a while since I’ve been so conflicted about a book while reading it, and I’m still conflicted now, writing about it. Because I’m torn about it. Being a runner, I really wanted to enjoy it. And I did… but as a writer, I couldn’t get past the flaws in plot, structure, and pacing. Then again, I liked the book enough to burn through it in just a few days.

And as I ponder my own thoughts on the book, I read other reviews and see some people gushing over it, and others, like me, sort of holding their noses and suffering through it. On the whole, though, people seem to like it. So maybe I’m being too harsh, but I like to think that I’m holding the stories I read to a not-unreasonable standard of cohesion and unity.

What it comes down to, I think, is that if you like sports movies and sports books, you’ll probably enjoy this. The descriptions of running in general — Quenton’s tribulations in the “trial of miles” — are spot-on, and the race at the end of the book lives up to its hype.  Plus, the first half of the book has the great sense of hanging around in a locker room and swapping stories.

Outside of that, however, I’m afraid the book comes up a little flat-footed.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Neat Little Boxes

The blarg has been populated overmuch lately with thoughts of death and of passing, and this is the last post on the subject, I promise. Happier topics are on the horizon.

But in the meantime, I have to reflect on the subject of burials. As much as I understand and appreciate the power and the lure of tradition and ceremony, I just don’t understand it. I never have, and I don’t know that I ever will.

There is something strange — I’ll even say, for me, unnatural — about making all this fuss over a dearly departed loved one’s body, draining it of its fluids and preserving it, saying these lovely things over it, reflecting on the life lived, and then carrying said loved one up the side of a hill to leave them in the ground.

Shakespeare once said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “…We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”

Moby said, “We are all made of stars.”

The things that make us up — the energy, the atoms, the dark unknowable forces of creation, whatever — move out of phase with our bodies as we die and return to the chaos that spawned us. Burial maybe slows that process down a little bit, but in the end, we all turn to dust. I don’t understand the point in putting it off by putting a body in a neat little box.

We are humans. We are more than the skin we inhabit. We deserve more than a six foot by three foot plot in the ground when we meet our end.

When I go, I want to be scattered over the ocean or over a mountaintop or maybe in the coffee of a bunch of pretentious coffee snobs.

…This doesn’t particularly jive with my theme of writing motivationals. Or maybe it does. But I think maybe mostly it doesn’t.

Ho hum. Regular programming will return next week.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate

I sweep into the office a few minutes early, grab a cup of horrible coffee from the community pot, and sit down at my desk. I brush aside the unfinished manuscripts and dog-eared personal edits to have a look at the morning’s headlines: The usual mish-mash of impending deadlines, panicky calls for help with snarled projects, each message carrying behind it that familiar whiff of desperation. I’ve been in this business for so many years now, it’s all mundane enough to make me want to walk right back out the front door.

But wait — here’s something different.

Emergency. Project out of control. Please help. Then a phone number.

It’s so simple, so concise. Your typical distress call is couched in enough flowery language to choke a goat with an unreasonable appetite, the panicky flailings of a fledgling author out to prove himself while admitting he is totally out of his depth.

But this one has the sense not to waste words. It’s intriguing. I hop up from my desk, make a few rounds of the office, ask if anybody’s checking up on this case. Nobody is. Projects of their own. Ongoing calls. November’s just around the corner, so we’re all a bit on edge for the rush that’ll be coming. Nobody wants to pick up extra work, especially a call so vague it could be anything.

But it’s just that unknowable nothing that has me piqued. I pick up the phone, dial the number.

The voice on the other end is haggard, like he’s had about eighteen cups of coffee on two hours of sleep. “Hello?”

I tap a pen on my desk, prepare a notecard to jot down some vitals. “This is Ella Lucida, with 2nd Street, calling for Geoff Owens?”

A sigh of relief on the other end, and a scrambling clatter, like a bunch of cans being shoved off a desktop. “Yes. Oh, Jesus. That’s me.” A pause. “Can you help me?”

“That depends.”


Every once in a while, a call takes me to a nice place. Penthouse apartment, or mansion set way off away from the traffic and hurly-burly. This is not one of those calls. Geoff’s place is yet another shitty fifth-floor walk-up in a career full of shitty fifth-floor walk-ups. The building looks like if a few more windows were knocked out or a few more vagrants were sleeping in the lobby it could be condemned. But it isn’t, apparently, because the lights are on, and when I reach Geoff’s door, it’s locked, deadbolted, and safety-chained shut. It’s quiet inside, the quiet of a house with a sleeping newborn in the back room, the parents terrified to make a peep.

I knock.

There’s a scuffling of feet inside, a shuffling of papers, the sound of clicks and jangles as chains and bolts are slid back. The door cracks, and a wily eye peers out at me.


The guy’s clearly been through it, judging from the bags under his eyes and the dusting of stubble under his chin. I nod.

“Come in.”

Inside looks about like you’d expect. Peeling floral-print wallpaper, revealing even worse psychedelic-striped wallpaper beneath. Piles of paper covered with notes and heavily-used paperbacks tossed all over the place. Overpowering stink of stale cigarette smoke. I’m about to ask him to crack a window when I notice they’re nailed shut.

We’ve been through it already, but I find it helps to let a client talk it out first. So I ask him to tell me again.

“My story,” he flashes his tongue across his lips, “has a demon.”


He spins out the tale in a rush, his hushed whispers barely stirring the ashy dust caught in the sunlight through the window. I nod and listen and purse my lips thoughtfully here and there, pausing to write down what he thinks are notes but what are actually meaningless scribbles. It’s become clear to me that there’s nothing special going on here; he’s just another neurotic writer who believes that the problems of his story have gotten out of hand because of some magic. He talks about characters acting strangely. Plot lines that he can’t resolve. Antagonists who talk too much. A shadowy figure that he didn’t write flitting through his scenes and replacing his carefully crafted text with gibberish.

“Wait a second.” He didn’t mention that on the phone. “What did you say?”

“I’m writing a simple love story. Boy meets girl — zombie apocalypse happens — girl devours boy’s brains — girl and boy unlive happily ever after.”

“I got that part.” It’s among the more terrible premises for a book that I’ve heard lately, but it’s not the worst. “Tell me about the figure.”

“So the book has zombies, sure. And werewolves. And one guy who might be a vampire or maybe he just has alopecia.” A nervous shrug. “I haven’t decided.”

“The figure,” I insist.

“When I go back and read my work, there’s this… thing. It appears in scenes out of nowhere and… look, it’s easier if I just show you.”

It’s dangerous work diving into an unknown author’s work. You never know what to expect. So as he boots up the laptop, I unpack my kit, laying the tools of my trade on the desktop. Spell-correcting goggles, because the average new author has the spelling ability of an ADD sixth-grader. A high-diffusion plot-detangler, which can sniff out and eliminate an extraneous development before you can explain that it’s necessary for character development. A de-purpling prosometer, which cleans all the adverbs and adjectives right out of a paragraph. And finally, my correct-all quill. I haven’t used it in years — not since the great Wikipedia overflowing of 2012, where an overly ambitious author cleverly began rewriting entries in iambic pentameter and couldn’t stop. It took seven agents to subdue him, and I fancy I can still see bits of the de-versed Shakespearean entries about penguin mating habits swimming in the beads of ink at its tip. I won’t use it, but any author worth his salt recognizes a powerful instrument when he sees it.

Geoff’s eyes linger on the quill. Not all authors know about the syndicate, and fewer still know all the tools we carry, but somehow, he does. “Is that thing for real?” He asks.

I nod. “Wanna touch it?”

Fear replaces wonder in a heartbeat. His eyes get wide and he stammers uselessly for a moment before declining. His manuscript has opened on the laptop. He steps back and I begin to read.

It’s as idiotic as I expected. Another zombie outbreak story, ho-hum. But as I’m reading, I get this weird impression of a figure all in black lurking at the edges of each scene. I re-read, but there’s nothing there. Strange.

Then, at the end of the third chapter, suddenly there’s a blank page before the fourth. “Did you leave this gap here?”

“What? No, I — Oh god, he’s eating whole pages now!”

I return to the manuscript. The seventh chapter has been replaced with a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, complete with illustrations. Chapter ten is nothing but ones and zeroes. Chapter thirteen is ASCII art of a donkey’s privates.

“It’s getting worse,” Geoff moans.

That much is clear. I reach for the prosometer and aim it squarely at the screen. The ASCII art rearranges itself into a fist with a defiantly extended middle finger.

“What the –”

Then I see it.

I didn’t even think those things existed, but there it is, just to the side of the blinking cursor, hiding behind it as it winks in and out of existence underneath the pile of rudely arranged punctuation. A GrammaDemon.

It’s rumored that GrammaDemons are single-handedly responsible for the loss of all the greatest literature the world has ever known. The missing counterparts of the Rosetta Stone. Cardenio. And now there’s a GrammaDemon lurking in a godawful zombie story written by a nobody in the middle of nowhere.

The demon winks at me — it actually winks — and begins filling the next page with arcane scribblings in symbols I can’t even hope to read. It’s trying to come through, I realize.

I don the spell-fixing goggles and begin to type. The only hope is to contain the monster before it can escape the page and wreak hell in the literaverse. I conjure a hero with a flaming sword to attack the demon — the demon washes the hero aside in an effortless wave of capital A’s. Sweat breaking out on my brow, I try another tack — into the setting I write a bottomless pit for the demon to fall into, but the little bastard is too fast for me; out of the pit fly a thousand unicorns that buoy him, cackling, up and around the page. The demonic symbols have spilled over from the word processor and are covering the desktop now; there isn’t much time.

I aim the prosometer at the page and fire; the symbols scatter from the blast, but they don’t disappear — instead, they begin to leak out of the side of the screen and congeal on the desktop. I raise the de-tangler and level it at the pool of inky blackness, but a hand congeals out of the babble and slaps the device across the room. It hits Geoff between the eyes and he drops like a sackful of query letters.

With horror, I back away from the desk. The hand has become an arm and a shoulder, steeped in inky ichor, rasping in a voice like the turning of a thousand pages and smelling like rotted parchment.

My eye falls on the quill. If ever there were a time, it’s now.

I hurl myself at the desk, ducking under the swiping arm of the GrammaDemon. My fingers close around the shank. Its ink runs thick and viscous over my hand, like the blood of a ravenous beast. I snarl and swing my arm around just as the demon kicks me across the room with a foot made entirely of the word “the”. I crack my head on the rim of the trashcan by the door. My vision goes blurry. The last thing I see is the quill, embedded in the GrammaDemon’s chest. Then there’s a loud crack, and everything goes black.


It feels like I’ve lost consciousness, but I haven’t. I feel Geoff tugging at my arm and realize that I’m wide awake, I just can’t see. I wipe my eyes — they’re covered with ink, just like everything else in the room. The laptop, the desk, Geoff, the windows — all are dripping with ink and congealed random letters: the lifeblood of the slain GrammaDemon.

“Are you all right?” Geoff asks. I put a hand to my head — it comes away soaked in ink, rather than blood. I nod.

“Your manuscript,” I say.

He runs to his desk, wipes the sheen of ink off the screen. Gone are the demonic symbols, the ASCII art, the ones and zeroes, the eggs, the ham. All that’s left is his horrible story.

“You did it,” he says, and before I can stop him, he’s hugging me. Ink is on his shoulders and in my hair and squishing out between our shoulders.

I pack up my things, cleaning off as much of the ink as I can. The quill is ruined: the shaft shattered, the plumules scattered around the room, sticking up at haphazard angles out of the ink. I don’t pity Geoff the cleaning bill he’ll have, but then again, the black is an improvement over the wallpaper. I leave him hunched over his laptop, finishing his manuscript, giddy — or maybe just lightheaded — on the fumes of the slain GrammaDemon.

As I hit the street, my cell chimes. There’s an APB out on somebody rewriting the lower third of the news broadcast in Gaelic. I check my watch. Not lunchtime yet.

I wipe a smudge of ink from my eyebrow and hail a cab. It’s gonna be a long day.


Chuck’s challenge this week was to take a title created by another author and spin it into a story. I picked, obviously, “The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate,” offered by one David Marks. I had more fun writing this than I care to admit. It probably needs some work, but writing it was a creative and cathartic burst that I needed this week. Hope you enjoy!

This story was influenced more than a little by Jasper Fforde’s works about literary detective, Thursday Next.


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