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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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Thursday
Jan262017

Go to the page grasshopper

Ok, warning, this post might get all Kung Fu mystic  – I'd say Zen, but I think there's already enough misunderstandings about Zen Buddhist principles out there... so let's stick with TV.
Sometimes writing craft is full of sayings that have the feel of Zen koan.

Show don't tell.

Find the conflict.

Release the hounds.

Ok, maybe not that last one. But can't you just see the master telling Caine to obey these principles. Snatch the misplaced modifier from my hand, grasshopper.

Figured I'd start with my digressions - get it out of the way. Okay, so what's the profundity here?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the discipline of writing. I work full time at a University, so it can be hard to find the time to write – especially after a long day. So I decided a few years to, ugh, get up in the morning. I am not one of those savages who loves the early morning hours when all is asleep in the world or some poetic crap like that— no, it's as simple as, if I don't get up, no writing will happen that day.

At the end of a work day, and lots of other commitments (including a new love and discipline of learning Tai Chi), there's just not much juice in the tank. Sometimes I can edit, or think of story ideas, or write various correspondence. But for the actual words on the page, it's up at 6:00 AM, baby. And when I say baby, I mean, I'd rather stay in bed sleeping like one.

So bleary-eyed, I munch on the raisin toast and wait for the caffeine to kick in. I really don't know what will happen when I come to the page, but I have learned I have to keep returning to it.

Go to the page.

That's my mantra these days. Sometimes I go and the words just fly out of me. Sometimes they are like week- old gummies stuck on a sneaker and pried off with a dull butter knife. But I have to keep going to the page.

When things are happening, and maybe even when they are not, my subconscious kicks in. Those times it feel like I'm not really writing – I am just observing. I'm watching a character, seeing what he or she thinks, or much better, what they do. If I follow them long enough and they aren't doing anything, I'll throw something at them.... say, a flaming cat. That should get things going.

But sometimes, after multiple fiery felines, at least two of Chekhov's guns, an earthquake, and a roller skating vampire that sings show tunes... well, still nothing is happening. And then I have to call it a day, or a morning at least. Get ready for work, and leave the page. 

But in the morning, I gotta go back. Don't get me wrong, I am not some stoic where the discipline always wins. Yes, I believe I should write every day – I've seen how that changes things. It's what "real writers do". I put it in quotes because I was relieved to read that there are authors out there that don't believe in the whole write everyday thing. Breaks are taken. But the problem begins when the breaks become too often, and too long.

I remember Stephen King saying (I think in On Writing) that he feels you should be able to bang out a novel first draft in a few months, if you are disciplined (it also helps if you happen to be Stephen King). But it was his other comment about this process that struck me. To paraphrase, he said that if you take too long to write a first draft, or take long spaces in-between, all of your novel's characters start to feel like European relatives. You know they exist, they are out there, but they are distant, and you don't really know them.

You have to go to the page. Daily if possible. If not possible, do it anyway. (Zen cheerleading koan).

But why? Why do I have to do it? Well, you just never now what might spill out of that subconscious. I believe there is a certain fear in that blank page - I've seen it a lot in younger writers. And I think I used to have it. But when I decide to just face into it, and begin to write, no matter how crappy it is, something may come of it. Something usually does.

So grasshopper... wait, why is he called that? Do we ever know? Why did the master choose that name? Why couldn't he be "Ant" (more industrious), or "Beetle" (tough, hard shell, fun to step on) - or why bug at all? Why couldn't he be Skippy?

Because he wasn't. Sheesh. Now grasshopper, get your ass to the page.

Huh - I guess there was an explanation for the name. Have a look...

 

 

Sunday
Jan152017

Write to the beat, man.

 

You probably noticed the latest fbook trend—and it was a good one: without thinking too much, list off your top ten albums in high school.

Now after riffing on some serious Floyd, or the kinda sappy, (but beautifully profound) 10 CC, I wondered how, me, a prairie kid in smallsville Saskatchewan got into the first wave of ska music in the late 70's. (I blame Saturday Night Live, which The Specials appeared on, and as they say: changed everything. Who were these guys? What was this music? No one I knew was listening to it—what was it called? Ska. And I also knew it was about the coolest thing I'd ever heard and seen. Some guys in the band didn't play instruments, they just jumped around. And when the song was done they dropped their instruments, and walked off. Okay, okay, major ska digression. Send a message to Rudy... and I'm back).

So this all got me thinking about the importance relationship between music and writing. In so many ways these two go together. The best scenes flow like a great song, there is tension, release, a build, an overall mood, vibe, or groove. This vibe is on a sentence level, a paragraph, page, and whole chapter level—entire books have a soundtrack to them even if they never ever get made into a movie.

The idea of music in fiction really sunk into me when I was writing my first novel, Correction Line. A character has just escaped from a house that is about to blow up (long story why, read the novel, it's cool)—and he just about clears the area before... boom. Now, I pictured him not explosively flying across the field, but floating along in the air, dreamlike, the blast carrying him, and depositing him on a somewhat soft bush. Dean Martin singing "Sway" popped into my brain, and I said, yes. Like that. I actually have the character thinking about that song before he blacks out. But even if he never mentions the Dean Martin tune, the feeling of that song pervades the scene.

I've read about writers like Stephen King writing to hard rock while doing first drafts (or so I'm guessing it's first drafts—I am not sure how you could listen to music while doing hard editing... it's a different part of the brain.) Not everyone can do this, it requires an odd separation, you're listening to the music, but you're not listening at the same time. The music supplies a heart beat to the action. And if you get swayed over too much to the song, you get lost, and pause, stop, or just write drivel (hey, I write drivel when I'm not listening to music, too! So there's that.)

For my crime novel, Surf City Acid Drop, the name of the novel came from its soundtrack. It was a solid wall of surf rock whenever I started pounding out scenes with my protag Luke Fischer. I'd put on tunes by Dick Dale for the fight scenes or the Sandals when things got mellow, and maybe a bit romantic. The mellow vibe of the Theme from Endless Summer provided so much of the setting, and even what the main charactedr was all about, that I wanted to name the novel after the song. The only problem was Endless Summer sounded like a really cheesy 80s romance novel. I could picture the cover: flowing hair, biceps, and a setting sun across the pacific were involved.

Fall in One Day needed tunes from the era (mostly 1973) to get me in the mood, and create the right atmosphere. While writing the novel, I rediscovered my deep love of Steely Dan. in fact, I playing it so much while writing that at the end I loved them even more than when I first heard them. Geeky note: at one point, in an early draft, every chapter of Fall in One Day had a dedicated Steely Dan song. While reading, and rewriting these chapters, I would put that song on repeat, and see if it fit the chapter. Maybe I'll dig up those recipe cards at some point and show the evidence.

But like I said, when it comes time to rewrite and edit... I can't really listen to anything. Maybe to kickstart myself, but eventually it is just me, the story, and the clicking on my laptop. (Which, when I think of it would make a cool ska riff—just add horns, and a jumping around guy.)

In my WIP novel, I am still trying to find that soundtrack. I've bounced around with some alt-Country (Western States, a now defunct Canadian Band), Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale's amazing album: The Road to Escondido, and some mood music from The Great Lake Swimmers. I feel like when I finally nail the soundtrack for this new novel, then I will finally find its centre.

By the way, I attempted to write this blog post to music (video below), but it only somewhat worked. There was no groovy fight scene, or someone busting up a bar, or driving a car around a California ocean curve, in this post... but as I listened, damn, I wanted there to be.

Tell me what you listen to when you write, either in the comments, or jump over to twitter, and tell me your own writing vibe.

Here was my writing music for the post: the Kings - Switching to Glide.

 

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.

 

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