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  • Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    by Craig Terlson

    A collection of short stories where the humour runs dark and the slipstream bubbles up.

     

    ...imagine if Raymond Carver called up George Saunders and Joe Lansdale, and they all went drinking with Neil Gaiman.

  • Correction Line
    Correction Line
    by Craig Terlson

    “… it's clear that Terlson is way ahead of the curve in terms of crafting an engaging premise that reaches for elevated territory and reinvents enduring archetypes of action and suspense.”  J. Schoenfelder


    "Sometimes brutal, often demanding and always complex, this novel will repay the reader who likes their assumptions challenged and is happy to walk away from a book with minor questions unanswered but the big ones definitely dealt with! It’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy Hammet and/or Philip K Dick and who like their fiction very noir indeed."   Kay Sexton

     

    "I love a novel that you can't put down, and this is one of them."  L. Cihlar

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Friday
Jan062017

What Matters

I stopped myself from putting a question mark after this post's title – because I want to state what matters, not ask you, dear reader, the question. I came across a quote on the old fbook that went like this:
"Write like it matters, and it will." (Libby Bray). (h/t Patti Parkinson)

This connects to a lot of my thinking over the last two weeks, or ten years, either and both. Why do I write what I write, and does it matter? For sure, certain authors (Richard Ford) have been asking and telling me: why write stuff that doesn't matter to you? In other words, don't write for the market, write for yourself. Write the book you want to read.

But what if I want to read about skateboarding zombies with laser eyes and the ghosts that fight them. Hmm, wait a sec, jotting that one down. Plot ideas for next novel...

Well, I guess the question is: does what you are writing matter to you? And then the corollary always is: does it matter to anyone else?

So don't get me wrong. I love reading from all kinds of genres. Joe Lansdale's crime-fiction series with Hap and Leonard are some of my favorite novels. And I've long been a huge fan of all things Tolkien, and PK Dick continues to be an influence in ways I don't even understand. So when I say "matters" don't get all hoighty-toighty, and reach for your Henry James and Dostoyevsky... just hold on there pardner (hmm, L'Amour wrote a lot of fine books, too) – in terms of matters, I mean, do you care about this? If you don't, then why are you writing it?

Over the holidays I reacquainted myself with Flannery O'Connor. And by reacquainted, I mean obsessed on. (See: DeLillo, Marquez, Carver, Ford, Saunders and Munro, for other examples of previous "acquaintances") Someone gifted me her book of letters, the Habit of Being (pubbed after her death... no I can't spell posthumousyl).

As I delved into it, I realized here was a person diagnosed at an early age with a terminal disease, who went on to write some of the best fiction of the 20th Century - and man, does her work matter. I'd read her before, loved Wise Blood, quoted a Good Man is Hard to Find too often (She would have been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life), and had certainly read a number of her other stories. But somehow her stories struck me anew. The work was beautifully rendered, the writing exquisite in its clarity, and wonderful in character and storytelling. But what nailed me was its ferocity.

I picked up The Complete Stories (winner of National Book Award, also post-h, and named the best of 50 years of National Book Awards), and I started to read and re-read her fiction. One thing I loved was reading a letter about a certain story, and then reading that story, and then going back to the letter. It's hard for me to articulate the inspiration I found in her writing - but ferocity comes close.

Ms. Snark/Janet Reid had a great post recently (h/t to my friend Mark Conard), where she talked about wanting to read something that made her gasp. I knew exactly what she meant. The last book that really had me gasping was Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad. So when I got nailed by O'Connor's, The Artificial Nigger, the gasp reminded me that it had been a long time since the last gasp.

When the grandfather denies that he knows his own grandson in an intense moment, the onlookers in the scene audibly gasp (or so I imagine) – I did too. What struck me here, was reading a piece of fiction that had an impact beyond sheer storytelling (though, I don't want to underplay that value). The whole "human condition" thing has been repeated to the point of parody, or at least boredom. As in: you need to write work that espouses what can be known of the human condition, that which we collectively hold together in our Jungian consciousness.

Whoa. That's pretty fucking deep right there. Especially the part about espousing, and that Jung stuff. Note to self: stop being so pretentious and finish the post, Craig. Also, I don't think that's a proper use of espouse - but it's a helluva word anyway.

You were waiting for the digression weren't you?

Anyway, read the Artificial Nigger - or just about any of her stories, and I think you will see what I'm talking about. Writing what matters is about taking the work seriously, no matter what the genre or subject matter is. I found when I wrote Surf City Acid Drop, my nod to the 70s detective novel, that I set out to write a fast paced, drinking, shooting, fighting, and more drinking type novel (yes, I did call it beer-fiction at one point). What surprised me in writing the main character, Luke Fischer, was that I wanted to know more about him. Where did he come from? Why did he do the things he did? Who really was this guy, and what was he about?

Wait a sec... holy crap, I'm espousing the human condition!

So yes, I discovered that Luke Fischer mattered to me - and still does - even more so in the follow-up I am writing to Surf City.

But to finish off, it was the O'Connor work that reminded me of what matters to me as a writer. She lived every ounce of her life, and all she believed and cared about, was poured into her fiction (and her letters and essays). She was on the planet for much too short a time (she died at 39), but her impact is immeasurable. I know she has made me think deeply about the words I am writing, and why I'm choosing those - why this story, and why at this time?

It is quite something for a writer, one who has been gone for as long as I have been alive, to affect me all these years later. What a gift she left behind.

Here is a link to the beginning of the doc on her life, Uncommon Grace (that I can't seem to find the rest of - please let me know if you know where I can find it.)

 


 

 

Monday
Dec192016

Telling the Truth (with Auggie Wren's Christmas)

"The fiction writer’s task is not only to invite the reader into the world of fiction, but also to permit the reader, once he has entered, to believe in its reality; the writer’s task is to create the illusion of truth, a story to believe."

From: The Reader at Play in "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" by Paul Auster.

 

I don't know of many really great Christmas stories –  for sure Dickens comes to mind, and even more so, the brilliant performances of Alastair Sim and George C. Scott in that famous role. And then there is my family tradition of reading Leacock's Hoodoo McFiggin (best sad/funny Xmas story of all time). For me, to complete the trilogy of awesomeness, it has to be Auster's Auggie Wren story.

 

To wind it back a bit...
Even though the idea of becoming a writer was in the vestiges of my brain ever since I was a kid, there were three moments that I can remember, quite clearly, that told me... okay, I need to write.

Moment one was reading Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude. I'll write about that in another post some time, but it was life changing. Moment two came around the same time - in my early 20s - when I finally read Catcher in the Rye for the first time. Also life changing, and somehow bringing me closer to the idea that I could write something, or better, I needed to write something. But I was busy drawing and painting stuff as an illustrator, and deeply involved in that passion (and my sole source of income for a couple of decades.)

Moment three was unexpected. And it came in 1995, when I was 32 (did some quick math there). I went to a movie by myself, a smaller independent film, starring Harey Keitel and William Hurt. the moive was called, Smoke. And it was written by Paul Auster, directed by Wayne Wang. It was much later that I discovered the original Auggie Wren story from which Smoke emerged (Wren played by Keitel). But the particulars don't matter. What did matter was that exact moment when I walked out of the theatre, my head filled with one thought, "OK, enough fucking around. You need to write."

That was a while ago (I'm not doing the math), but I still recall that it was the storytelling that nailed me. Jump some years later when I disappear into Raymond Carver, and then Richard Ford, and re-visit Hemingway, and read more Marquez, and, and, and... the world of story somehow just opened for me. As much as I loved sci-fi, fantasy, and all sorts of genres, the ones that always got me were the "real stories."

Now, Richard Ford would haul off and smack me one if I even uttered the phrase "dirty realism" – and rightfully so. Because good fiction isn't real, it only seems that way. John Gardner's Art of Fiction talks about the fictional dream, and many writers will tell you how they are in the business of lying. But it is in lying well, and making the fake become real (in fact, you don't want the fake at all!) In a word as simple and complex and profound, and yes, pretentious, great fiction seeks the truth. It's Hemingway's "one true sentence" played out in its largest form.

If you're familiar with either the movie Smoke, or the Auggie Wren story Auster did for the New York Times, then you know how it is a story within a story. Incidentally, I found out they made this story into a short book, complete with illustrations. That kind of shit really burns me. When publishers take a thing that is beautifully short, and just fine in its own form, and put it between some hard covers (make the type extra big, so you don't figure out how little you're getting), and maybe a few drawings or photos to plump it up. The worst is when they take Vonnegut's or Elmore Leonard's writing rules, and because they know us writers are desperate for any craft words from the masters, they slap a fat price tag on it, and we can't buy it fast enough. Or else a well meaning friend gifts it to us. Uh, yeah, I liked it the first 300 times I read it on the internet. Nice font though.

I digress. Or rant. It's hard to tell sometimes. 

And no, I am not linking to any of those books.

In the story, the main character (writer Paul Auster, as himself), talks with his friend the cigar store owner Auggie Wren (who I always think of as Harvey Keitel because I saw the movie before I read the story) about being commissioned by the New York Times to write a Christmas story. Auggie says this:

"A Christmas story?" he said after I had finished. "Is that all? If you buy me lunch, my friend, I'll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. And I guarantee that every word of it is true." 

It's the every word of it is true that gets me. Because without realizing it we all lean in, just the like the fictional writer does. Why? Because we are about to be told something that is true. A true story. Who doesn't love that? Now, it is important to say that Auster's superb craft in everything leading up to this point, and everything after, is what convinces us of the truth in this story. It is in there right from the beginning of the story:

I heard this story from Auggie Wren. Since Auggie doesn't come off too well in it, at least not as well as he'd like to, he's asked me not to use his real name. Other than that, the whole business about the lost wallet and the blind woman and the Christmas dinner is just as he told it to me. 

If you want to disappear into literature geekdom, follow the link to essay above, where the writer expounds on the idea of "storylistening". For me, this is at the heart of what I try to do with my stories - I am trying to make something real. Yeah, yeah, "true' - but even writing that out seems so damn inflated.

One of my favourite instances of this is at the beginning of Twain's Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. 

So that sums up all you need to do in your writing: tell the truth. Easy-peasy lemon squeezey.

 

Here's a link to the full text of Auggie Wren's Christmas Story by Paul Auster – read it to your family this Christmas eve.

 

And here is that amazing clip from Smoke, where Auggie tells his story. Enjoy. (Also great Xmas viewing)

 

Sunday
Dec112016

The Art of Heavy Lifting

Okay, it's hero time again, no, no, not George Saunders, the other guy. On a sentence by sentence, pure writing form, I think Richard Ford is probably my biggest influence. That's not to say I write like him - but who does? He is one writer that I love to read slowly, just to soak in his words. There's a Globe and Mail interview that asks writers who writes the best sentences – for me, it's always Ford.

I also love to listen to him in interviews. He has lost most of the Southern accent (at least to my ears), but he has a voice that is so full of integrity somehow. Maybe that sounds weird or pretentious. But Ford is the guy that makes me want to be a better writer, and like George Saunders, a better human.

His book, Rock Springs is my favourite short story collection of all time (and not just mine, it shows up on a lot best of lists). In an interview from Smokelong Quarterly, I said it was the book I obsessed about the most.

But to cut to it, Ford acts as my writerly conscious. Whenever I'm feeling a bit underwhelmed by what I'm writing, or attempting to write, there can be the temptation to just say, "ah well, good enough. Let's just get this puppy done."

Where I grew up we were always getting "puppies done" – sporting games that needed finishing, holes that needed digging, beers that needed drinking (those might have been called dead soldiers instead of puppies - because, dead puppies? Ew.), and generally tasks that just needed getting done were sometimes referred in that way. Let's get that puppy done.

I digress. In a nostalgic way.

I picture Ford over my shoulder, or maybe even on my shoulder, gently chastising me in that wonderfully sonorous voice, really Craig? Is that good enough? Are you writing something that matters? Because if you're not, then why aren't you. There are plenty of other careers or pursuits that one can attend to. In fact---

All right all right all right, RICHARD. I got it! I need to do better. I need to do the heavy lifting.

People ask me if I find writing hard. Or more often, they are about to embark on their own writerly quest (hey, I've got a novel in my head, and I just need to put it down on paper.). It's not that hard is it? I remember the Samuel Jackson character in an Elmore Leonard movie (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, maybe?), waxing on how writing is easy, you just put down the story and then you get some other dude to put in the punctuation and shit. (Wrong - see below)

Edit - Geez louise, I can't believe I got this wrong. This great piece was done by the amazing Delroy Lindo in Get Shorty - talking with John Travolta about screenplays. "That's what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn't like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn't you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas . . . where they belong, if you aren't positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I've even seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don't think it's too important."

Well, Delroy, and the dude with the novel in your head, here's the deal. It's hard. No wait, it's really hard. No, better, writing a novel is probably the single hardest thing I've done. Heavy lifting? Yeah, get ready. In fact, maybe you should stretch.

Another writer that I admire deeply is Don DeLillo. He was asked once why his books were so hard (DeLillo can be dense, and difficult to read, especially if you are looking to breeze through a narrative.) He said, "truth should be hard."

Now maybe you think that sounds a bit much. But I don't think he was being pretentious or arrogant – if you are a writer, and have attempted to do the required heavy lifting, you know exactly what he was getting at. Ford (in the interview below) downplays his own intelligence, saying that writing is a physical act for him because he's not very smart. And he says other writers might be more deft, make things look easy. He also quotes Hemingway's, never let them see you sweat. And Ford says, I don't want them (the reader) to see me sweat, but I don't mind sweating. In truth, writing requires a helluva lot of sweating. You better have some towels on hand.

There was an animated meme going around where two big-headed creatures spoke in robotic voices – and one told the other they were going to write a novel. And it would be easy, and he would make millions of dollars, and it would only take him a few days to do it. Maybe you saw it. Or maybe after viewing, you heard the collective cry of all those authors that were reliving those cocktail parties where people, upon finding out you were a writer, went on to tell you about the novel they had in their head.

Seriously – all these people with novels in your heads. What's the deal? Isn't there someway we can tap into that? An Amazon of the mind. New this fall, the book in Bob's head. Plug it into your MindReader © if you want to download it directly from Bob's head.
Hmm, I may be onto something. Yes, that is my copyright symbol, so back off that puppy.

So dear blog reader, what's the lesson here? Writing is hard as fuck. Hmm, that doesn't sound that helpful. Can you lighten that up a bit? No. 

I guess, this isn't a cry for writers to be lofted up, or placed into some hard workers club – there's lot of people that are hard workers, in different ways, mental, physical, emotional. My wife worked as an ER nurse for ten years. You want hard? No, this is more of a know what you're signing up for when you begin to learn the art and craft of writing. And it's my admonishment to myself, when I slack off, and try to get my lackluster, or even semi-lustered work out the door. For me, that rich voice of Richard Ford is always telling me gently, but insistently, you can do better.

Here is a fairly recent interview from the Danish literary festival, in Copenhagen, Denmark (called the Louisiana Literature Festival – after the Danish museum), where he talks about the heavy lifting. It is only 12 minutes, and definitely worth the time - but if you want to jump ahead to where he talks about this it's around the 7 minute mark. But then stick around for his story of the first serious art he encountered - sitting on the amp of Howlin' Wolf.
Now, that would be a story.

 

Monday
Dec052016

Simple and interesting. Advice to a young writer.

I recently came across a list of advice to a young writer – it was the standard: read lots, shut off the TV, get a good thesaurus, learn the rules before you break them... all good stuff. A couple of new ones on the list caught my attention (or ones I had not seen before):

Find what interests both you and others.

Simplify.

These ones gave me pause, and then I went, yeah... that's right. The interest one might seem common sense, but I think I'm only finally learning it now. When I look back on some of my earliest works, I was big into what interested me, but I didn't give a wick about the reader. Hey, if this bores you, then move along buddy. Go find something in the romantic post-apocalyptic fiction section (is that a genre? Most likely. I love you Bob, but the world has ended. I love you too, Sue. See you in the radioactive desert later.)

Definitely you need to write about what interests you. I mean, if I'm boring myself, then sure as shinola I'm boring the crap out of everybody. I also won't finish anything I start.

Digression alert.

I have come to see the main difference between professional writers and wannabees is that the pros finish stuff. As simple as that. If I meet one more person that says they have a whole novel in their head and all they need to do is write it down, I'm gonna poke my eyes out with a burnt wiener stick. So here's maybe the most important advice I can give anyone wanting to become a real, honest-to-Pete, writer: finish shit.

Digression complete. For now. (More on who Pete is, later)

Back to the interest thing. In that first draft you gotta keep yourself interested, but it is in the rewriting where I start to look outward to a potential reader. It is really one of the hardest things to do. Are you able to judge objectively what is interesting to others? How do you take that step back?

I hired an editor for my latest novel (coming out this May, 2017 btw!!!) I hired her because I was having a hard time creating that objective view. I knew something was out of whack, but I didn't know what. One of the things that she pointed out, in her substantive edit (not a copy edit), was where she lost interest. She was too nice to say I was boring her – but that's what she meant. One of the main goals of the novel rewrite was to address those less interesting parts, or just cut them right out (which I ended up doing).

Often, we just can't see the boring parts. This is when you need another pair of trusted eyes. By trusted, I mean someone that you know is a skilled reader, but also someone who won't hold back. If all your beta-readers can say about your work is they like it and it's good (kinda like asking your spouse how she feels, and she says fine. Well, you know there is more under the surface of that).

I really do want someone to tell me - you know that whole chapter bored the complete shit out of me. I've read more interesting Algebra problems. It means I got some fixing to do.

Here is where the adage of putting a work in a drawer for a month or two really plays out. But sometimes even that isn't enough. I've said before how we all need editors - God, how we need them - but I guess I'm clarifying here, that the need is not just about fixing your misplaced modifiers, and dangling participles (I've heard you can get a cream for those.) Moreover, editors can tell you what interests them.

I just used "moreover" in a sentence. I feel like I've accomplished something here.

The other point about simplify also struck me. As talked about in a previous post, just like George Saunders I also had a Hemingway boner for the first five (ten?) years of my writing career. It's why I loved Carver and Ford and anyone that could strip stories, and better yet, sentences down to their simplest forms. Kill those modifiers on sight! I laughed when Saunders in an interview said that during his Hemingway phase a lot of his stuff sounded like this:
Bob went into the Walmart. It was pleasant.

Of course, when I revisit Hemingway, I see that he wasn't all that simple in his language. Sure, he cut to it, but the layers in the writing were deeply complex - his whole iceberg theory thing. So to simplify, even in terms of Hemingway-esque prose, means more than just sentence structure and word choice.

I'm just riffing here, but I wonder if it has to do with asking yourself: So what is this story about? Don't give me all you serpentine bullshit about the human condition. Just tell me what this is about. Simply.

Again, this is not a simple task. In fact, I think I've spent the last 16 years trying to figure it out. In an interview with my publisher, they asked me about my revision process.

As I gather comments, and my own insights from leaving the manuscript rest for a while, I begin to revise by asking two main questions: “Why?” and “Is this true?”

This idea of making something simple reminds me of an anecdote I heard about the chef Marco Pierre White. To paraphrase... when asked about making something simple, like an egg. He said, "simple does not mean easy." Those are my quote marks, and TBH I'm not even sure it was White, but let's say it was. The whole point of the deal here is to create a simple beautiful story, or even just one sentence - Hemingway said (and this time I know it was him), “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Sounds easy right?

Oh, and make it interesting while you're at it.

 

Here's MPW putting some poor chefs through the wringer... about eggs.

 

 


Sunday
Nov272016

Pants or no Pants... that is the question.

 

 

Settle down, we're not talking pantaloons, trousers, or skinny jeans. A while back I came across the distinction of two different kinds of writers: Pantsers and Plotters.

Something I nabbed off the net best describes the difference:

Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people call themselves “plantsers,” which means they’re in a little of both. In reality, most people are plantsers, but some tend to lean heavily to one side.

(Thanks to thewritepractice)

Hmmm, so which way do I lean? Or lean heavily - hey, is that a weight joke?" Let's not go there. I'm pretty much always a pantsers until I run into the perennial pantser problem (the PPP): oh shit, I wrote myself into another corner.

And just to add, the title of this post has to do with that feeling when you get into that corner that everyone can see you sitting there, with nothing to say, and wearing nothing but your tighty-whiteys. For god's sake man, put on some trousers and be decent! There might be kids reading.

Okay, I digress... weirdly.

Anyway... as much as I love the thrill of never knowing what comes next, the danger is you start going down a path that seems very cool and twisty, and then proceeds to get darker, foggier, murkier... and you get the idea. While over at Mr. Plotter's house, he's just completed his third novel this week because he knew exactly how that sucker went, chapter by chapter. Sigh. I just can't do it. I've tried. Damn that Plotter and his efficient ways.

A couple of my fave pantsers Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King swear by the pantser motto - or so they say in interviews. Now, they are both hugely prolific, and probably have become masters of getting in and out of writing corners. Or like most of us, they simply bang their head against the keyboard until something emerges.

I don't want to run down my plotter pals (PP's), as they are way more efficient and professional in their techniques. Or so I am surmising. I am guessing that a lot of sci-fi, fantasy world-builder type authors have to be plotters. You can't just land on a planet and start shooting stuff, or eating stuff. Oh wait, that is the plot of most of the first generation Star Trek episodes... so maybe you can start doing that.

In truth, I'll admit to a bit of plotting (plansters alert) while writing my novel, Surf City Acid Drop. Even though, the novel originally was released serial fiction style on this blog, I did sketch a few scenes ahead of wherever I was in the story. I am currently working on the sequel to that novel, and I'm doing a bit of the same. I love the thrill of writing like your hair is on fire and only words can put it out (image above: the true pantser way). But in planning crime fiction, I need to be a few steps ahead of my protag, just to lessen the amount of corners and road blocks that I create for myself.

I haven't mentioned George Saunders yet, so it seems like about that time. My hero of late is a known pantser - though, I don't think I've heard him use the term. For him it is about a deep listening to a story, both to know where it going, and to know if it's any good. In an interview he decribed the process like watching crystals under a microscope, if you let them grow, they could turn into the most beautiful formations. I'm paraphrasing the quote, but basically it was about letting the subconscious be your guide - at least in the first draft. Then Saunders goes through 100 drafts (I am never sure if that is hyperbole), to hone the story into that perfect vision of what grew under the microscope.

I guess I am sort of in that plantsers camp - yet leaning heavily on the pantsers side. I think it was Lansdale who said that he'd totally bored by plotting. Why would you want to know everything that has happened before you wrote it?

So, I'm headed for those corners. Hopefully I can get better at writing my way out of them.

Here's a seasonal bedtime story written and read by George Saunders to Stephen Colbert.