Jeff Salyards's Blog
February 21, 2015
The publisher asked for an excerpt of Chains of the Heretic for sales material, and I just tweaked a chapter and sent it over. It feels very strange to let some of it out of my hands–this is the first time anyone else has seen more than a snippet. It’s sort of like watching a baby bird step out of the nest, hoping it can fly. And also not get eaten by a hawk or crash into a sliding glass door. Because those are really tricky, even for adult birds.
So, here is a chapter from the WIP. Bear in mind, it’s still rough around the edges, but for those who want an early taste of the next book. . .
February 12, 2015
There’s been a lot of talk about “grimdark” of late in the old blogosphere. Assertions, contentions, defamation, an inability to agree on a definition, all over the map really. Some folks describe grimdark as any fantasy that exhibits rampant nihilism, a miserable setting overflowing with depravity, gratuitous violence, gleeful misogyny, filled with characters that are twelve shades of villain or possibly anti-hero, but no shades of decent human being or “good guy.” Others subscribe to the idea that it’s just a natural counterpoint to over-sanitized high or heroic fantasy—grittier, dirtier, more “real” (whatever the hell that means), and unafraid to explore the ugly side of humanity, but not necessarily gutted and hopeless. I’m sure there are probably other theories besides.
But regardless of how you define grimdark or whether you think it is cathartic, irredeemable, honest, or monstrous—that kind of storytelling isn’t anything radically new. Tales of horror, xenophobia, misery, woe and wrath, vengeance and terror, cynicism and calamity have enjoyed stretches of popularity since the dawn of storytelling.
There are plenty of stories in the Bible that are more gruesome than anything I’ve read in the last twenty years. It’s chock full of genocide, fratricide, rape, mass extinction, fun stuff like that. Leave it to Lego to capture some of the heavy hitters, but that obviously doesn’t do real justice to just how awful and terrifying a lot of biblical stories are. Adam and Eve mucked everything up, begetting Cain and Abel and some other guy, and Cain brained his brother just to show, yep, we’re all damaged goods. There is a whole lot more begetting in there, and some sunshine now and again, but the lesson learned over and over is that humanity excels at sucking and dooming itself, no matter how many chances it gets.
And the grumpy Old Testament God might have been the original grimdark author, but inspired plenty more. Greek tragedies don’t get as much play nowadays as they used to, but there is a very good reason “tragedy” is part of that descriptor, as they cover chilling and lurid events that inspired countless authors and storytellers ever since (well, the depraved ones, of course): there is no shortage of mutilations, mistaken identities leading to awful and brutal murders, dismembered corpses, cannibalism, the Fates grinding down men to bloody stumps, and yes, reference to (gasp!) vulgar language. And it’s not just the wicked getting punished and beat down—there is collateral damage out the wazoo. Sure, plenty happened off stage in original productions, but that doesn’t lessen the lesson of doom.
Fast forwarding a couple of millennia, and wouldn’t you know it, tragedies are still in vogue. There were plenty of playwrights cranking them out, and some bloke named Billy Shakespeare penned a fair number of them, but few as grotesquely violent as Titus Andronicus, with horrific happenings that make Abercrombie and Lawrence look like Jane Austen—a raped woman has her tongue and hands cut off and has to write a message about her rapists in the dirt with a stick in her bloody mouth; a man feeds the bodies of his enemy’s sons to him in pies and then revels in that revelation; more limbs get lopped off; innocents are slain; someone is buried to the neck and left to die of starvation; and there is so much perverse bloodletting the stage crew must have been stained red head to toe.
While nihilism is a fairly modern term, before that they just called it tragedy. Worlds where loyalty, lust, love, hope, treachery, hatred, and ambition are mixed in a blender by the Chorus or Fates or Just Shitty Luck and served to the audience like bloody marys, who slurp it down in delight/transfixed horror, watching the protagonists, antagonists, and unlucky passerbys get offed in obscenely graphic fashion. You think the Red Wedding is bad? That looks like a preschool graduation ceremony compared to Titus.
But that dark spirit pervades storytelling right on up the line. . . Grimm’s fairy tales (before Disney scrubbed them clean and threw glitter on them), gory operas like Elektra that harken back to the Greek roots or invent brand new stories of wretchedness, 20th century fantasists like Howard and Moorcock that excelled at depicting antiheroes, film noir, tons of dystopian science fiction, and finally, most recently, those naughty, naughty “grimdark” authors.
It’s shortsighted or neglectful of narrative history to think of any recent offerings as somehow more hopeless or unconscionable or extreme than everything that has preceded them. There was darker and grimmer stuff long before “grimdark” became so bloody popular.
October 6, 2014
OK, my poor blog has been seriously neglected here. The dust bunnies are armed and dangerous, and they are riding dust rhinos into battle. The summer was madness—both in the manic day job, as that was the busiest time of year, and in trying to crank away at Chains of the Heretic in order to get it out on schedule November 2015. That’s not really an excuse. It’s barely an explanation. But there it is.
Oh yeah, that was the title I decided on for Book 3 and the publisher green lit: Chains of the Heretic.
This is basically just to say I have returned from my hermitage, unshaven, stinky, and in rags. I’d like to affirm that I am wiser and more grounded, but that is crazy talk. Anyway, I’ll try to post something or more substance soon. But in the meantime, for anyone who happens to land here wondering how Veil of the Deserters is doing now that it’s been out for a few months, here are some pretty damn wonderful reviews.
June 7, 2014
NOTE: This originally appeared on A Fantasy Reader.
Memorial Day twenty-eight years ago was unquestionably the most devastating day of my life.
My mother and father had been divorced for years, and my father usually picked me up on Wednesday night for dinner and then had me on the weekends. Right before Memorial Day Weekend, he called and told me has wasn’t feeling great but he still hoped to pick me up on the holiday, since it was probably just a cold.
While my father didn’t exactly partake in what most people call “exercise,” he was still active, working on his old jeep or boat, fixing one thing or another in the house, doing photography shoots, wrangling me. But he also ate what his stomach told him to, and didn’t exactly have the healthiest tastes—he was the kind of guy who liked Velveeta and Spam sandwiches on Wonder Bread. What? That isn’t a type, that was just him? Well. There you go. He also drank fairly regularly, and smoked. Not a great combination.
Still, he was generally (and surprisingly) healthy as a horse, and wouldn’t go to the doctor unless a bone was sticking out of his body or he was bleeding out his ears. And maybe not even then. Stubborn as all get out, and that surely is a type, as I know all too well, as I fall in that camp, and karmically enough, so do my daughters.
And more than anything else, when my dad told me he was going to do something, he did it. So I fully expected he would rebound and get better and pick me up. I didn’t hear from him that morning, and while he was sometimes late, and this was still the era before cell phones (yes, that WAS an era), so I shouldn’t have been worried, I was. I couldn’t explain it, but I had the awful feeling that something was wrong.
I called his house, hoping to get my stepmom, and she didn’t pick up. And for some reason, that’s when I absolutely knew. I told myself it was crazy, he wasn’t that late, everything was probably fine, but somehow I just knew for a certainty that I was lying to myself and that the worst had happened.
When I called my grandmother’s house to see if she knew anything, it was confirmed immediately, as she picked up and couldn’t put two sentences together. I don’t even remember who took the phone and told me the news, my stepsister or stepmom, only that someone was crying when they said that my father had suffered a massive heart attack. He was dead.
The rest is a blur. I dropped the phone, walked aimlessly as I started to cry, and then as the enormity of the news hit, I grabbed my nephew’s baseball bat, ran out of the house, and started bashing nearby trees until my hands were slick with blood as my skin tore open and I collapsed for a time in the bark and broken branches.
I’d lost people before. My grandfather and aunt both died from cancer. But I was young and didn’t comprehend much besides the way those deaths impacted others and made them incredibly sad.
And I would lose people after. My brother died from severe complications due to a rampant case of diabetes when I was 18, my grandmothers and uncle died as the years rolled on, and most recently, my mother a handful of years ago.
But as terrible as they each were in their own way, losing my father at 14 had the most impact on me. It wrecked me for a time. Indiana Jones was the only one who gave him a run for his money in the hero department (I bought the fedora, leather jacket, and a 14 foot bullwhip even), but my father stood above everyone else. I was old enough to know he wasn’t infallible, but he was insanely smart, terribly funny, gentle and patient and strong. My father was and always would be my hero. And losing him right on the cusp of 8th grade graduation, at a time in my life when I probably needed him the most, well, words can’t adequately describe the devastation or the depth of loss.
What does any of this have to do with fiction? Well, a lot right now, as it happens. At least my fiction.
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, as my immediate reaction to people spilling the beans is the desire to punch them in the nose. But just to be safe, if you haven’t read Scourge of the Betrayer or Veil of the Deserters, you might want to stop reading as I slyly try to allude to aspects of either books without, you know, actually coming right out and spoiling anything. I like my nose.
When I first started Bloodsounder’s Arc, I knew there was going to be violence. Battles, skirmishes, duels, sieges, pitched battles.—they would all appear on the page at some point. And I was committed to presenting those things as realistically as possible. I know not all readers even like battles—some of them fall asleep the first time a sword is drawn, or consider fighting something to be endured until the next great character moment or plot twist arrives. And there are some readers that love action in their novels but prefer it to be the stuff of legend or high fantasy, with heroic champions wading into the mix, dispatching foes by the hundreds, or wizards going mano y mano while riding griffins of the wind itself, hurling eldritch fury at one another, tearing the fabric of the universe asunder in the process.
I get it: realistic battles are absolutely not everyone’s cup of grog. But that was the kind of story I wanted to tell, doing my best to put the readers right there in the middle of the chaos with Arki, feeling arrows whizzing past or thunking into a post right near his head, watching armor fend off blows the way it was intended, but also feeling and seeing the terrible results when it failed to. I wanted it to be as visceral as possible. And even in Veil, where memory magic features prominently, it’s not the stuff of fireballs and lightning storms of even Otto’s Irresistible Dance, but more subdued, even when it is sometimes deadly. My objective was to paint the battles as they actually occur with armored men and women trying desperately to kill each other, even when magic is in the mix.
I didn’t want to revel in the violence or gratuitously heap more terrible details on more terrible details like a pile of severed limbs outside a surgeon’s tent (see, that was unnecessary!). At no point did I try to glamorize it, or escalate it with the intent of turning stomachs. That said, I wanted every bit of combat to feel weighty, real, significant.
But I also knew that if I was going to write about these hardened soldiers and the harsh realities of what it’s like to stab or bludgeon each other to death, I couldn’t shy away from the aftermath of that either. There are wounds, casualties, and deaths of course, and a complete shortage of healing potions or potent clerics wandering the battlefield rescuing anyone. No one is completely safe. But just as important, I wanted to show the emotional wounds. It would feel dishonest to portray combat as realistically as I can and then fail to explore the personal impact this has, both on those who deal in it, and those who lose someone.
Since the narrative funnels though Arki, he of course wrestles with everything he sees, completely out of his depth, not trained for warfare, especially the kind waged by the Syldoon soldiers, who are the ultimate pragmatists. His sensibilities frequently clash with the company he keeps (hopefully in engaging and compelling ways), but more than that, I wanted him to both experience and witness grief.
To paraphrase the good captain, there are a variety of griefs—loss of love, trust, honor, home. It is always about loss, dealing with absence. The most terrible being the loss of life, as it is irrevocable.
One old fiction workshop sawhorse is “write what you know.” But taken literally, that would mean every college freshmen short story would be about hazing, beer bongs, condoms breaking, tests flunked, procrastination, and homesickness. There are plenty of ways to know something—obviously first-hand experience is a primary source, but you can also witness things, research things, and simply imagine your way into situations based on good intuition or instincts. So I don’t presume to be any more equipped to write about grief than any other writer simply because I’ve experienced some. But it has made its way into my writing, and no place more keenly than Bloodsounder’s Arc.
In Scourge, one character loses another, and I tried to capture this as truthfully as possible. But the aperture on everything widens a bit in Veil—worldbuilding, magic, intrigue, characters—and this holds true for grief as well. Much like the portrayal of violence itself, I didn’t want to wallow in grief or let it dominate the narrative or anything. But I tried to capture it as honestly as I could, as several characters have lost people close to them, recently and deep in the past. As Arki gains the trust of the members of the company, becomes more embedded, he is privy to more of their stories, the things that shaped them, damaged them, maybe even strengthened them.
While I never saw a relative murdered in front of me, and I’ve never lost a friend in the middle of combat, there are different ways of “knowing” as mentioned, and I did the best I could to make these moments feel as authentic as possible. But I absolutely know what it means to put loved ones in the ground or scatter their ashes, and I drew on that as much as I could, trying to render it realistically as these characters revealed and shared their own pain in various ways.
And for the first time in my life, I used fiction to directly deal with losing my father, to infuse that loss into something I created. Twenty-eight years is a long time—the absence is no longer sharp and crippling, but I still vividly remember it, and I wanted to use that in my portrayal of characters who also deal with tremendous grief.
May 23, 2014
It’s graduation season. Time to hand out Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and smell the fresh-cut grass and dream of bigger and better things in whatever comes next. Also a time to be a jackass.
My wife dug up a photo from my high school graduation I hadn’t seen or thought about in years. One look, and the entire episode came back in a glorious flash.
Our high school class was full of characters and criminals (the quarterback got arrested for stealing a beer truck; I got arrested for, well, other things that I’m not going into right now), partiers and truants, burnouts and early pregnancies. We were so bad in fact, that leading up to graduation our superintendent, principal, and anyone with an Administrator cap told us during an anti-pep rally that we were the worst class to go through the school in decades. And they weren’t kidding. So they warned us that that they would not tolerate a single shenanigan during the graduation ceremony—we were to behave ourselves or else. Of course someone asked, “Or else what?” And they told us in no uncertain terms that if anyone so much as blew a bubble or put a funny sign on the top of their cap, they would not receive their diploma. They would be held back. Maybe everyone would be held back—I forget the specifics of the threat, only that they were trying to instill fear and trembling.
Now, most of us were just glad to be getting out of there, and there were a few good citizens who hadn’t intended to act up, so everyone seemed content to toe the line. But I’m a Salyards, coming from a long line of Salyards who, upon considering a smart play and a dumb play, will routinely choose the dumb play. Genetics or learned behavior or a terrible mix of both, but it is our legacy, and who am I to disappoint my ancestors.
The threats were repeated during rehearsal the day before, so that night, my friend Jason and I sat around brainstorming what idiotic thing I could do to thumb my nose at the fun-hating Man. We tossed around several ideas, but none really had the verve I was looking for. I had a couple of nicknames in high school—Lurch was the more popular, but Superman got some action, too. And when we thought about the ruby red color of the caps and gowns, it suddenly clicked. I’d draw an iconic emblem on my chest, pin it to a blue shirt, keep it under cover until I got to the podium, and then unzip and reveal my true identity at just the right time.
We drove to the school and it was a lovely day—sunny, warm, but not too hot (which was good, as the only blue shirt I had on hand was a sweatshirt). As we lined up, the Administrators (yes, capital “A”, fitting for supervillains), starting spot checking, asking folks to unzip, checking for paraphernalia of any kind. I held my breath as they got close, tried to look nonchalant. They hit someone just in front of me, and then some kid a couple behind and kept going down the line.
They must have thought they cowed us all into behaving, but really they ought to have frisked every single one of us and had tazers on hand. Some other classmates knew what I planned, and most didn’t think I would go through with it. I should have reminded them of the Salyards legacy, but I just smiled and bided my time.
The ceremony was outside, and it felt like an eternity as I waited. When my name was finally called, with the sun inching towards the horizon, I slowly walked up the stairs, savoring the moment, wondering just how stupid I was truly being, but knowing it was too late to turn back.
I walked across the platform, knowing the photographer was in position, and then I paused, unzipped the gown in a flourish just as a wonderful cinematic breeze tugged it a little, setting it rustling better than I could have scripted, and then approached the superintendent.
He didn’t even force a fake smile—the super was well and truly pissed and didn’t bother to hide the fact. And while he couldn’t get out of shaking my hand, he did his best to try to break it. I squeezed back just as hard, mostly to protect myself, and gave him my best smirk right when the photo was taken.
As I walked down the other side of the platform and headed back to my assigned spot, the principal ran up to me and said, “You cover that up this instant, or you will not graduate!”
I don’t know about you, but I often think of the perfect response after the fact, when the opportunity is long gone, usually lying in bed and cursing myself for not being quicker. But this time, I actually acquitted myself pretty well. I stopped, turned to her, turned the smirk back on, and replied, “I don’t think so. You do NOT want me back here next year. I guarantee it.”
Most moments don’t work out exactly as you imagined them, but this was one of those rare exceptions.
May 20, 2014
It’s been a long time coming, but the ebook for Veil of the Deserters is out everywhere. The official release date for the hardcover is June 3, but Amazon, being Amazon, said, “Hey, we have these books in the warehouse ahead of schedule. That’s terrible. Johnson–sell those immediately, or you will be incinerated.”
And no one wants an incinerated Johnson, so you can pick up the hardcover at Amazon right now.
Thanks to everyone who waited patiently (and impatiently) for this book. I worked really hard to try and make this one better than the last, and feel like I accomplished that. I hope you do, too. If you read Scourge of the Betrayer or Veil of the Deserters, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite reader haunt.
April 30, 2014
I just got the jacket for the hardcover of Veil of the Deserters. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m thrilled to see this now, as it means I’ll be getting my author copies in May and can do a dopey, awkward, and somewhat frightening happy dance. And it also means readers can get the ebook May 19 or the hardcover June 3.
April 14, 2014
I don’t really know what makes the best excerpt. What is the ideal length? Do readers want something character-driven or a pulse-pounding action sequence? How do you show enough to intrigue or entice someone without getting all spoileriffic? I have no idea. About any of it. I’m not sure how long it would take a monkey tapping away at keys to actually write a good novel, but one could definitely select an excerpt faster than I did, and with a lot less second guessing and doubling back. It would be hyperbole to say I “agonized” over the excerpt choice, but I did go back and forth between several options before finally just saying screw it, this is the one.
To be fair, I do that at restaurants too. Should I go with the omelet or pancakes? If the omelet, will it be the Mediterranean or the western? Onions mess with my stomach but ham does sound good. But so do pancakes. Maybe whole wheat. That’s healthy, and will make up for my drowning the stack in syrup, right? I could get both. Except my eyes are almost always bigger than my stomach, and I’ll either leave half the omelet on the plate and feel guilty about all the starving people in the world, or I’ll put it away well after actually being full, and then feel guilty about being a glutton. Maybe a healthy scrambler with egg whites and chicken sausage. Mmmm. . . chicken sausage. . .
I digress. Anyway, here is the excerpt from Veil of the Deserters. Bon Appétit!
April 10, 2014
I have no sense of direction, a lousy sense of time, and very poor navigational skills. If I am on a highway or doing any travel that requires choices, I’m usually doomed. But even something as set, simple, and seemingly straightforward as riding the rails, where all I am required to do is get off at the correct stop, presents challenges I just simply can’t overcome most of the time. I’m just that big of an idiot.
A couple of years ago some work friends were going out for happy hour and invited me. With three young kids at home, I don’t do those nearly as often as I used to. And since my wife was battling a cold at the time, and would be wrangling the circus midgets herself, I assumed it was a no-go. But she was a champ and encouraged me to go blow off steam, just so long as I didn’t come home super late or get too drunk.
I had misgivings. For a hot minute. But I promised myself that I would watch the clock and not let things get out of hand.
Which is what I almost always promise before things get out of hand.
But in this case, oddly enough, I was actually on my best behavior. I went out for a few hours, and did drink pretty fast, but even not in top drinking shape anymore, I had a lot of mass and bloodstream so it still takes a lot to do me in. And I kept my eye on the clock. When 8:15 hit, I told my friends I had to jet. They tried talking me out of it but I had a train to catch, and it was a 15 minute walk and 45 minute ride, and if I missed that one, the next wasn’t for another hour, so I stuck to the plan. I left, head held high, feeling pretty proud of myself.
I timed it just right, and would have made it to the train with a few minutes to spare. If the station doors I normally used were unlocked. Which they weren’t. I ran around the building, trying several other sets, also locked, and when I finally made it through an open door on the far side of the station and got to the platform, the train was gone.
An hour wait. Not ideal, but not the worst thing. I still wasn’t too far off my target.
I knew going back to the bar was certain disaster, so I stayed in station and just waited it out. However, that also proved to be a deceptively bad choice, as I got sleepier and sleepier just sitting there. When the next train finally pulled up I boarded, but the damage was done. Between the alcohol, the lethargy of sitting, and the lulling motion of the train, I passed out within minutes. Maybe seconds.
When I finally woke up, the train was empty, and the conductor was shaking my shoulder. I’d whizzed past my stop, and another hour’s worth of other stops, and I was at the end of the line. In Elburn. For those of you not familiar with northern Illinois, you’re not missing much. All you really need to know is there is a tiny bunker of a station in Elburn amid a lot of farms and fields, and not much else.
It was 11:30. Not tragically late, but factoring the train ride back towards Chicago, a few hours off the mark. So not great either. I texted my wife to explain and got no reply. I texted again while I was waiting. Nada. Now I was getting uneasy. I hadn’t done anything that doghouse worthy yet. Had I? Then again, being home alone sick with three kids, with a no-show husband, and texts hours late, I couldn’t blame her if she was pissed and ignoring me.
I looked at the schedule in the station, wondering when the return train was going to show up. And lo and behold, the next one was in the morning. Six hours away. All trains were done for the night.
Huh. I did NOT see that coming. I went through my mental list of people I knew, and none were close and nobody owed me a big enough favor to get out of bed at midnight and drive out to nowhere to pick their idiot friend up from the train station.
My wife had turned her cell off, and was likely fuming, so I was on my own. I considered trying to find a hotel, but money was tight, and more importantly, I liked being married. That was out. The only other recourse was a cab ride. Sure, it would still be pricey, maybe more than a hotel, but it would get me home in an hour and a half.
The problem was, I wasn’t getting any WiFi out there in the boondocks, so I resorted to calling the operator and trying to find a cab. There were none in the vicinity. Or the vicinity of the vicinity.
I kept calling places, and they either didn’t serve that area, or would take hours to show up. The shortest wait was 45 minutes, so that was that. I sat and waited and pinched my wrist to stay awake so I didn’t miss my cab.
The cab showed, we hit the deserted roads, and he drove me back to my suburb.
We pulled into the driveway after 1. I gave the guy my credit card. Only he was a contrarian and didn’t take cards. I argued with him, saying I was pretty sure he HAD to accept cards. Wasn’t it a law or something? He insisted cash only, and I was in a pickle. I would have just jumped out and ran, but since we were in front of my house that option was off the table. I cursed, and told him to drive me to the gas station where an ATM was. While the meter continued running.
And wouldn’t you know it, the ATM was out of order. So we drove another mile or so down the road until we found another one.
So, to recap: I left the bar in the eight o’clock hour, patting myself on the back, expecting to be home even earlier than expected, and instead, walked through the door nearly six hours later, $120 lighter for the cab ride alone, but remarkably sober.
I slipped into bed as quietly as I could. My wife didn’t stir a bit. I expected glacial stares in the morning or cat litter in my coffee. Instead, she asked, “What time did you get in last night? I took some Nyquil and totally passed out.”
Though I was tempting to say, “Nine!”, I told the whole story, knowing the ATM charge would rat me out in the long run anyway.
My wife laughed and said, “You should have just gone to a strip club. It would have been cheaper and you still would have been home earlier!”
Now, you might think this would be a learning moment, and that being a grown-ass man with a moderately high IQ, I’d be really unlikely to repeat this kind of mistake ever again. And you would be wrong. Who’s dumb now?
Several months later, on a very cold Thursday sometime in the middle of winter, the work crew invited me out to another happy hour. My wife was in good health, and amazingly enough the kids were too, so there wasn’t a compelling reason not to. Well, except for me. I should have been a compelling reason not to, but I ignored me.
My wife made a joke about the last adventure and not falling asleep this time. Work folk made several more jokes, also about setting my alarm or calling me en route to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. I laughed and drank and drank and laughed.
After a few hours, I headed to the train like the last time, but sure to do some things differently this go around…
1. Build in enough time to walk around the perimeter of the station to go through the only set of unlocked doors? Check.
2. Catch train on time? Check.
3. Set alarm on phone? Check.
Again, I nearly broke my arm patting myself on the back. I was smart! I was responsible! I had fun AND was being a good husband! I rocked!
Until I didn’t.
You see, I set the alarm for A.M. Which wasn’t altogether helpful on that evening train.
Sure enough, I passed out like I’d been hit by a tranquilizer dart set to take down a belligerent and drunken rhinoceros.
When I felt a hand shaking my shoulder, and looked around and saw the train car deserted except for one tiny old lady shuffling for the exit, and stared up into the conductor’s face, I knew with dawning horror I’d done it again. End of the line. No trains going the other way. Middle of winter. And basically broke. I said “Elburn!” with the same venom Seinfeld reserved for Newman.
I texted my wife. She texted back this time. And probably wished she didn’t. “You’re never going to believe it,” I texted. She believed it. And she stopped texting. I reviewed my options. Pay the idiot tax to the taxi driver and blow money we didn’t really have just then, or stay in the station and come back on the morning train.
I chose the latter. It was a bunker, but at least it was enclosed, and there was some heat hissing out a vent as I walked in, so I wouldn’t die. It stopped abruptly and didn’t kick on for another hour or two. Clearly they didn’t expect many people to be as stupid as I was and sleep in the bunker in the middle of nowhere.
I paced until I was too tired, and then sat back down and commenced shivering. I considered the idiot tax again, but I’d made my very cold bed and I was going to lie in it. Like a lot of train stations, this one had some books on a rickety rotating rack. I looked them over. All harlequin romance novels. Fantastic.
It was too damn cold to sleep, so I grabbed one and started reading to try to keep my mind off just how bad this all sucked. The book wasn’t even so awful it was good, it was just horrible. When the heat teased me by going off an hour later, I rushed over to the vent and just finished peeling off my gloves to warm my hands when it shut off again. That was it. A brief blast of hot air to make sure nobody had to remove my corpse in the morning.
I cursed a blue streak, kicked the cement wall and nearly broke my frigid toes, and then sat back down and continued reading about pulsing manhoods, quivering love holes, and stormy hair. Seriously. Stormy. Hair. I remember that one.
Somehow, hours later, despite the constant shivering and painful reading material, I started to nod off. And might have completely, except I noticed some movement right near my feet. Two little mice had discovered the large warm human space heater in their midst and were just about to climb up my pants. I stomped my feet and screamed at them and they ran away. Like mice do. But every time I sat back down for more than a minute, they came creeping back. So we did this dance all night long until the sun came up. They tried to stealthily climb Mt. Jeff, and I flailed and tried to stomp them to death, only I was so cold I moved on wooden legs, so never get within three feet each time they went running for cover and through the cracks in the wall.
If there were any video cameras in the station, the security guards or rail employees would have laughed themselves silly reviewing the tape the next day.
Mercifully, dawn meant the arrival of a train. When it pulled up. I was so angry with myself and filled with impotent rage towards mus musculus that I was wide awake, despite not sleeping a wink.
Of course, once I was on the warm train, I might as well have been hit with chloroform. When I woke up, I hadn’t made it all the way to the city, but had whizzed past my stop several stops ago. I couldn’t go back to work in the same clothes, reeking of alcohol and stupidity, so I got off the train at the next stop and took a cab ride home. That still cost $40.
The wife and kids were dressed and ready for their day when I walked in the door, and all my wife could do was shake her head. I was sorely tempted to call in sick with the brown bottle flu and go directly to bed, but I didn’t really feel I deserve it, so I cleaned up and headed back out to catch the next morning train into work.
Whenever I see a seedy romance novel, I get twitchy and imagine little furry friends trying to run up my pant legs and nestle in with my warm manhood.
If there is ever a Part III to this, I will jump in front of a train.
March 22, 2014
I think it’s important to be self-aware as a writer, identify your strengths and weaknesses and actively try to improve with every project, getting better at the stuff you are good at and really trying to develop those skills that are lacking. I have plenty of things I need to work on, but one thing I can usually fall back on is dialogue. Not saying I’m Tom Stoppard or anything, but I usually feel pretty confident that my dialogue at least won’t be abysmal. And I have to give a lot of credit to Ivan Davidson (aka “Mr. D.”). He was one of my favorite professors at Knox, teaching drama, theatre history, acting, playwrighting, directing. On top of being a wonderful professor, he is an amazing person and routinely brought out the best in me, even when I slacked off in other classes and did my best to be an assclown.
I loved Mr. D.’s playwrighting class, and it really helped refine any skill I had at writing dialogue. And while I learned a ton, several things he imparted always stuck with me.
1. Read every line of dialogue out loud. This is critical for plays and screenplays when the lines are intended to be spoken, but still really useful for fiction too. You catch all kinds of awkward construction and clunkers when you read the lines out loud (true for exposition too, but it really magnifies goofy lines of dialogue that look awesome on the page and somehow sound like hot garbage aloud).
2. If you block off the character’s name or identifying tags on the page (as an exercise, not permanently), you should still be able to always (or most of the time) immediately tell who is speaking. You want to try to give each character a distinctive patter, quirks and tendencies and rhythms and particular cadence or vocabulary, something that distinguishes them.
Some masters of dialogue excel at really stylized language (Edward Albee’s hyper-articulate characters spring to mind, or on the other end, David Mamet’s staccato bullet poetry), and others create something that has the illusion of being natural and authentic. I say illusion because real dialogue is often chaotic, confusing, repetitious, or hopelessly broken, and yet people still manage to communicate. It’s amazing, really. Read a transcript sometime of unscripted conversation—it can be a nightmare; half the time it doesn’t make any damn sense at all, or it’s dull. In plays and fiction, even if you are trying to capture that kind of naturalistic flavor, it usually has to be distilled so you don’t lose your audience of put them to sleep. But no matter what the style, cover up the character’s names and see if you can figure out who is who. If several characters easily blend together, you probably have more work to do.
3. Dialogue is ACTION (another writer from that class just reminding me of this one!). It shouldn’t just serve as telling stories of things that shaped the characters or to unspool exposition, or a way of just conveying information. Dialogue should propel the immediate here and now; characters want something—they’re trying to encourage, undermine, sway, console, brutalize, outsmart, or seduce each other, and dialogue should DO that. A plot and story are only as good as the tension and conflict, and this isn’t just people hitting each other in the face or someone getting junk punched in the man business—dialogue can be vicious or scintillating as characters with irreconcilable agendas square off.
4. Along the same lines, make dialogue do double (or triple) duty. Sure, it might be delivering some exposition, or revealing character, or even trying to accomplish something, right here and now (see above), but it can (and should!) hit more than one note at once. Maybe it’s foreshadowing, or slyly giving some subtext or hints of all the stuff that be boiling just under the surface. Maybe it appears to be providing some backstory when it’s also giving you a glimpse of things that will ignite in the third act (or last chapter). Sort of a subset of the Chekhov’s Gun principle—while you can mention something innocuous that doesn’t bear fruit later in the text, you can also plant seeds that lead to a crazy crop of holyhell leaf later on.
Mr. D.’s influence extended a lot further than anything I learned in class—he impacted me as a person as much if not more than he did as a student—but anytime anyone compliments me on the dialogue in my writing, I always think how lucky and grateful I am that I took his playwrighting courses.