Carving the Ice

The alpha reader responses have come trickling in and I’ve been lapping them up like a thirst-starved desert dweller. Although, I supposed I should really be calling them beta readers as the book had already gone through a couple of drafts before they got their eyes on it. Technically, the only alpha reader was yours truly.

Semantics. Gotta love ’em.

Or don’t.

The responses have been overwhelmingly good which has definitely calmed my blood pressure some. Sending this out was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. No. That’s probably a lie. I have twin babies at home. I’m sure they’re up there too, those adorable monsters.

They’ve all liked the story a great deal, but the readers have pointed out some important but glass-shattering issues that have to be dealt with before I can take Fairfax Cleaners to the next level. It’s always intimidating seeing how much work needs to be done on a project I’d previously assumed to be “almost finished,” but while yes, I’m collecting opinions, it’s important to remember that the readers aren’t wrong. I don’t need to go back and fix every little thing they had issue with, but a few of the more common and glaring examples tend to stand out.

I’m of the mind that it doesn’t matter my intention while writing the work. If I ever have to explain myself for clarity about why something is the way it is, it means I’ve failed as a writer. I’m not going to write to thousands of individuals and answer all of their questions about how I dropped the ball in making something clear. This is a humbling experience. Critique by nature is uncomfortable. No one likes to be judged. But it’s not me, personally, on the pedestal, it’s the story. And even then, no one is saying they don’t like that story. But when someone points out that I had a character say “you can’t go to the police because they bad guys own the police” and then the police NEVER play a role in the story whatsoever … that my friends is a problem.

It’s always interesting to me too what people pick up on. One of my male readers, a close personal friend, found two side characters to be redundant and brought nothing to the story. But when I asked one of my female readers about them, she said, please don’t cut them. They’re definitely needed because they help explain/progress the relationships between many of the other characters. If you ever wanted proof that male and female readers can want different things, there you have it. One was only looking at it from an action perspective, the other was focused on the character growth. Both were right in their way as the scene in question does need work, but I already know how to better integrate it into the overall story that doesn’t involve cutting anyone out. The problem was in my failure to make it abundantly clear in the first place.

This process is also helping me carve the iceberg. You’ve probably heard that backstory and worldbuilding are like an iceberg where only 10% of it ends up in the story, but the author needs to know the other 90% to make the characters believable. While I’ve certainly tried to input what was needed, I probably only ended up putting 7% in and some things that were crystal clear in my mind came out opaque to others.

All that said, I’m invigorated like a shot of adrenaline to keep going forward. My writer sleeves are already rolled up and I’m prepping the surgical gloves to go in elbows deep. I’m waiting to hear back from two more readers – one of which I know is taking incredibly detailed notes – and then its open heart surgery on this beast.

Advertisements

Blue Moon

Over the holidays I got to spend some time with some friends and to “remeet” their daughter who’s now 11 months old and interactive. Anyway, as most 11 month olds are, she got a bit uppity and I overheard the parents scold her with the whole first name-middle name thing. I’d never known her middle name until that point. It was Kristin.

In the summer of 2005, my friend Kristin was killed in a traffic accident. It was just before my junior year of college and I was back in Pennsylvania to be part of the community theater’s production of Damn Yankees. We all went to different colleges, but we’d get back together for the summers and usually end up at the community theater. One evening, Kristin was running late to practice, didn’t see the blinking lights at a railroad crossing and never made it.

That was the first time someone close to me had ever died. I’d lost my grandfather before then, but it didn’t feel like this. I still remember the night it happened. She never showed up to practice. I’d just gotten home around 10pm when the assistant director called me. I guess he called me first because he didn’t think he could make the rounds and call other people. My dad was sitting on the couch when my phone rang. I took the call and had to go to the other room. The next hour was horrible, calling my closest friends to tell them the tragic news. My best friend’s mother told me to “shut up” in disbelief.

No one wanted to be alone, so by midnight, we all reunited at Liz’s house to just sort of sit together. We didn’t tell stories or talk about anything, really. It was too early for that. We just sat in a darkened room being alone together.

Going back to college in the fall was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. What happened to Kristin united all of us in a way like nothing else. It also didn’t help matters that there was a girl involved (of course) and what would have been a summer fling ended up getting ramped up to enormous heights. That fling chose the other guy in the end which was nice icing on the shit cake, so by the time I got back to Chicago, I was utterly heartbroken, depressed and had never felt more alone in my entire life. To this day, I carry around a betting ticket from the last time Kristin and I went to the track together. She was a cool girl. She taught me how to bet on horses.

I bring all of this up to help illustrate that my memories of Kristen have always been bittersweet. She was a lovely person and I’ve been thinking about all the sadness that came from her death since then. Hearing that little girl’s middle name brought it all back.

Flash forward to yesterday.

My friend at work was telling me about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest and all of the great bands that’ll be there this year. We got to reminiscing about all the concerts we’d ever been too and it got me thinking about the Bethlehem Musikfest I used to go to every year with my dad. It was a two hour trip each way, but we’d go ever year to see the Red Elvises.

Ever wonder what a bunch of Russian guys singing rockabilly sounds like? Then wonder no more, my friends. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Red Elvises are fucking great. Seriously.

Anyway, I was telling my friend all about the glories of I Wanna See You Belly Dance and their awesome rendition of Blue Moon when I remembered the last time I’d ever seen the band.

It must have been the summer of 2004. Maybe even 2003. I’d recently graduated high school – I know that much, and I graduated in ’03 – and that same group of friends rented a cabin in the Poconos for a long weekend. It just so happened to coincide with the weekend the Elvises would be appearing at Musikfest. So I ditched everybody for an evening and drove an hour and a half each way through parts unknown to find Bethlehem. I offered an open invitation to anyone with me to come along, but I guess they didn’t share the same love of rockabilly that I did. They all said no. All except Kristin.

I’d completely forgotten about all of this. The fest that year was great and the band was amazing. Right before they went on stage, I saw some of the Elvises walking around behind the scenes and I had a mini geek-out session when I spied Oleg, the base player. I was seriously star struck.

Before I knew it, Kristin was calling him over and I now have a picture with the coolest bass player there ever was. Don’t believe me? The guy uses a converted balalaika as a bass.

Anyway, all of that came rushing back yesterday and I couldn’t help but laugh. I’ve been carrying around all of these heavy memories of Kristin all these years and here I’ve had this golden one all along. That was still a hard summer and I’ll never forget her, but here I am all these years later and Kristin still finds a way of making me smile.

Wherever you are, Kristin, I hope you’re good. Also, betting on a horse just because it has superhero bridling has proven to be a bad decision time and again. Just an FYI …

 

Parallels

It happened again.

I could tell by the mattress springs. I didn’t even have to open my eyes. Then came the smells. Wool and dust. A hint of cinnamon apple from a long extinguished candle. I knew it all immediately and couldn’t stave off the panic. I squeezed my eyes tight, praying sleep would take me once more.

The mattress groaned as she shifted next to me in her sleep. Please, don’t let her wake up. Her name was Sarah. The first time I switched, I had to look at a piece of mail for clues. Thank you, Discover Card. I know her, but her voice still sounds strange to me. I had expected it to trigger some kind of lingering familiarity, but dreams don’t carry sound.

I need to go back. This wasn’t mine. The face in the mirror would be me, but the woman and the children were his. How could they not know? They had to suspect something from my stumbling. I was never a good improviser. My eyelids were growing rosy from the morning sun. My hands balled into fists as I ground my face against the pillow.

This wasn’t like that movie. This wasn’t a dream. I knew that much. This was real. A kind of real, maybe, but not my real. I missed Tiff and Cooper and Julie. The times between were growing longer. What if I couldn’t get back?

It didn’t make any sense as I was in the same situation, but the thought of him in bed with Trish punched a hole in my gut. He had to have figured out what was going on too. It wasn’t like I could talk to him. He was stranded like me.

I heard another groan, Sarah, and felt smooth arms slide underneath my own, hugging my chest. “Morning,” she mumbled.

I was shaking. I felt tears in the corners of my eyes, but I still didn’t open them. I didn’t dare. Once I did, I was awake and then … and then I’d be stuck here. Again. Maybe for the last time.

“Morning,” I whispered back, hoping she didn’t hear the fear in my voice.

It was a voice she’d heard a million times. She had to know there were days her husband loved her and other days he didn’t. Trish would know. I never asked her. She wouldn’t believe me. But she’d have to know something was off.

It always started with the dream. Snapshots of another life. A beach. A blue house. A street with birch trees.

Sarah’s hand rubbed my chest and I knew she wouldn’t be going back to sleep. Neither would I. Frustrated, I squeezed her hand in greeting and got up to go to the bathroom. The face in the mirror was me. Sighing, I rubbed my eyes and checked the medicine cabinet.

Inside the pill bottle was the note I’d written last time. “You work at Slott and Stegman’s on Harris Ave. You don’t like ties. The car keys are in the bowl by the sink. Sarah. Maddie and Gracie.”

Did he have a note too, helping him through the motions? Was he as scared as I was? I folded the well-creased slip of paper and hid it amongst the painkillers once more.

“Hurry up,” Sarah said through the door. “I need to go too. Can you start pancakes?”

It must be Saturday. They always had pancakes on Saturday. I couldn’t fight the flare of panic. That meant more time at home.

“Sure,” I said, staring at the pill bottle. The panic brought something else too. I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before.

Rummaging through the basket of reading material by the toilet, I found one of those subscription postcards that had fallen out of a magazine and a pencil. Sarah was waiting for me when I opened the door. She was pretty but she was no Trish.

I kissed her on the cheek and brushed by her before she could answer. Luckily she was preoccupied. I heard noises downstairs. Maddie and Gracie were probably up. The shower started. I let out the first sigh of relief I’d felt all morning and began scribbling on the postcard.

“Tom, my name is Brett, but you probably know that. Am I doing this or are you? Do you know why this is happening? How do we go back?”

I hesitated. What if he didn’t want this to end? No, I decided. Judging by how his family looked at him, Tom would be as scared as I was. He’d have to be.

Without giving it a second thought, I tucked the postcard under the pillow and went downstairs to make pancakes. The mix was in the Lazy Susan on the left.

Elusivity

My New Years’ resolution was to blog more consistently.

OK. It wasn’t. But I still want to post more consistently anyway.

Life at the Melnick household has been a bit rough lately. The Missus is super sick. I mean when stuff gets in your chest and ears kind of sick. The babies have also picked up little baby versions of this illness in the form of stuffy noses, sniffles and even more spitting up. Yep. That’s just what babies needed: MORE spitting up. It’s lead to a lot of sleepless nights and me running around trying to make sure everyone else gets as much sleep as they can.

As I type this, I can feel the telltale tickle in the back of my throat. The number at the deli counter just rolled over one digit closer to the matching one on my ticket.

I hope everyone had some happy holidays. In between traveling and illnesses, I’ve been daydreaming about getting back to Fairfax Cleaners and brainstorming for novel #5. I’ve decided that my alpha readers have had over a month now to read the draft and while that’s not a lot of time in this busy time of our lives, it’s been long enough that I can hassle them for an update to at least let me know WHEN they’re finished. I don’t mind waiting around and working on other things as long as I’ve got something out there dangling. But if I’m not fishing, I’m not being productive.

I’m still doing research on the next book and I think I’ve got the plot basically figured out. I’m about ready for the outlining phase. This one’s been a lot quicker than usual since I’m adapting a screenplay awhile ago I wrote into a novel. I’ve basically changed the entire story with the exception of the core concept, but I’ve had this character’s voice in my head for years. Writing in first person – fingers crossed – should alleviate some of those professional pressures that have started to creep in without a pitch-worthy product.

So far, I’ve only been scratching that writing itch through mental exercises. I would love to sit down and fire off a short story or two, but that’s just not my style. I outline too much. Coming up with a plot is the hardest part for me for any book, so you’d think that something smaller would be easier, but it’s the opposite. Usually, I can propose a scenario to myself and ask “what happens next?” OK. “What happens after that?” And follow that story down the natural rabbit hole. But with short fiction, I end up doing so much brainstorming, I’m developing material for a full length novel and I’ve forgotten what it was about the short story that grabbed me in the first place.

I’m hoping to kick that habit. I had a pretty vivid dream the other night that’s still haunting me. I thought it would make a great idea for a romantic comedy at the time so I wrote it down in case I ever wanted to tackle a screenplay pretty far outside my genre as an exercise. Then I massaged it into drama shape for kicks. And now, I’ve basically rebuilt it into a science fiction piece. I like the central concept, but it’s that illusive plot thing that’s tripping me up. I supposed I’ll keep working on it in the hopes that I see an end in sight.

I’ll let you know how it goes.