52 Turns Around the Sun: Lessons Learned

I read it written once that nothing can be worse than self-denial. This is not true. Worse than self-denial is the painfully disproportionate bill that comes due for self-destructive behavior. Yes, this is a continuation in theme from last year. But so is life, isn’t it?

As stated above, many of us are prone to excesses as coping mechanisms for the adversity we survived. We don’t term it that way, of course. We “owe it” to ourselves, we say. We “deserve” it, we say. My biological father served in World War II and the Korean War. Though he was high-functioning, I don’t think that man ever saw a (voluntary) sober day in his life after those horrors. More common than war is the nightmare-childhoods borne of poverty and/or disfunction.

At one point I weighed four bills and I smoked. A lot. There’s all kinds of reasons behind my behaviors but the short of it was a depressive cycle of self-comforting and self-destruction. At 35 I made the first change and began the journey that would result in a 150 pound weight loss, (sustained). At 44, after the death of my mother, I made the second change and quit smoking for good.

End of story, happily ever-after, right? Not quite. While I have (thus far) dodged Type-II Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, I am still at significantly higher risk for all-of-the above than men at a healthy weight who have never smoked or weighed 400 pounds. Meanwhile, I still suffer with digestive problems, chronic pain, and many other issues from decades of self-destruction.

And, the bad impulses are always there. There are days when breakfast tacos from Laredo Taqueria win over my vegan oatmeal. I still want to smoke. Hell, I still dream of smoking. I still gravitate to sketchy people. In short, I’m still vulnerable to bad behaviors and bad choices. But every denial, (smokes, food, people) is a win that makes the next episode of self-discipline (or self-care) less of a battle.

It gets easier. Don’t give up on yourself.

TMI Tuesday—Books, a Love Story

*Trigger Warning* there are accounts of domestic violence and child abuse. If these topics harm you, move along. I wrote it and damn-near moved along, myself.

My parents fought, like, a lot. My stepfather was a violent ex-con. My mom had an undiagnosed/untreated personality disorder. Obviously, they lacked the skills to discuss issues and vent emotions rationally or constructively. 

After a week of high-functioning alcoholism my old man would go on a bender every weekend. My mom was violently jealous so she went on the bender right along with him. Most of their fights were slap matches but swollen eyes and lumpy noggins were not uncommon. At least once a year things would get bloody. There was a stabbing and a shooting. 

As a result of witnessing 95% of this dysfunction, I developed what I thought was a sixth sense or super power. Somewhere a day or two before, I KNEW when a bad fight was coming. I could feel it in my gut. Literally, I got physically ill and agitated. As soon as I got home from school I would unload the guns, hide the ammo, and the large knives. I stashed jugs of water along with a blanket in one of the wreck cars behind our house. 

Something-something-decades later I realized that what I felt was an anxiety attack. Those attacks still plague me to this day. What was true then and remains true now is the anxiety is much worse than the event itself. Though the aftermath is no fun either. 

With no close siblings and no friends, it was comic books that got me through the scary hours before it all started. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Michelinie and Layton’s Iron Man, Simonson’s Thor, et al, sustained me through those horrible, horrible anxiety episodes and the bomb-crater aftermath. 

Fast forward five years and my folks had split, we had lost everything to the “Reagan Recovery,” (different trauma, different time) and my mom was attempting a start over. The only problem was that my strong, resilient mother, who managed restaurants and bars, who won the knife fight and did the shooting, (in case you were wondering) still “needed” a man. So she found one even worse than my stepfather. 

Meanwhile, I was no longer cute and cuddly, no longer her baby. A brand-new teen I was antagonistic and demanding. Selfishly, I expected consistent utility service and food. Unreceptive to that noise, my mom got me a fake ID, told a restaurant owner I was sixteen-years old, and suddenly I had a job to buy my own food and and electricity with.

After too much administrative attention, (they tend to notice black eyes and split lips on 8th graders) I dropped out of school. Upside: I did look older than the average truant so no one called anyone. Also, Denton, Texas had a SPLENDID library. 

I still LOVED the comic books but I became curious about references to other stories. By that point I had discovered references in Neal Peart’s whip-crack smart lyrics, too. Ms. Jewel, the nice librarian I had a crush on, helped me find the novels and epics referenced in the pulp pages and prog-rock songs. Many mornings, I walked directly from the all-night diner to the library, still funky from cooking and cleaning all night, rather than go to my mom’s house. Once the library opened, I could get a book, find a chair near the heating vent, and read/nap until the boyfriend sobered up enough to go “look” for work and I could go to bed without a fight.

Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Octavia Butler, and countless others gave me the benefit of other people dealing with much worse crap—and coming out the other end. But Frank Herbert gave me more than hope. Frank gave me a plan. 

Herbert’s seminal work of science fiction, Dune, broke ground in multiple directions and is widely loved for it. Some love it for Herbert’s mind-bending take on prescience, others for his prescient view of drugs and genetics, some for his decades-forward depiction of women, and others for the fearless embrace of humanity in control of, or subject to, all of the boogie-men we’ve staked up for millenia. Politics, religion, sex—Herbert showed the yoke in each, the harness we willingly cinch into as beasts of burden or cinch-strap others into as manipulative masters. 

Honestly, 75% of all of that was lost on 14-year-old me. I was weepy for tragic Leto, (first and second) Paul, the once and forever king, inspired by galant Duncan Idaho and (more the pragmatic) Gurney Halleck, and simply HEART SICK for Lady Jessica. But like a fly in the library, one word, Simulflow, continually cut through the prose and took me out of the scenes. 

A process of following multiple threads of consciousness, Herbert’s sublime sisterhood, the Bene Gesserits, developed the foundations of simulflow in their novices. They hammered it and tempered it like steel in their acolytes. They polished and honed it in their adepts. Once the adept uses the spice melange to unlock genetic memories, they perfect the simulflow process giving them computer-like memory and computer-like processing abilities. 

But the root of simulflow is imagination. When Bene Gesserit novice, Darwi Odrade dreams of escaping the Bene Gesserit Chapterhouse and returning to her foster family by the sea, the sisterhood encourages her daydreams. They are rudimentary problem solving and rudimentary simulflow. 

Between the kitchen and the library, the bed and back to the kitchen, I dreamed of escaping. I wanted away from the fights, the burns, and always being cold and hungry. Mostly, I wanted away from the goddamned misery. Herbert taught me to question those daydreams to ask, “but how would you really do it?” I began to do more than just dream, I began to plan. 

I left Denton after a particularly bad beating. But I left with a few dollars in my pocket, a pack of clothes, and provisions for my dog. Hitchhiking is tough under normal circumstances and with a mashed up face it took me nearly three days to get to Houston. When I got home, I knew where I would stay, who I would contact for a job, and how I would get my own place. Neal Peart and Victor Hugo wrote that “anything can happen,” but Frank Herbert showed me how to make it happen for myself. 

Remember that when you think your story is going nowhere. Because I promise you that if you put it out there it will give comfort, if not aid, to someone in desperate need. Other people’s stories sustained my spirit and Frank Herbert’s stories taught me how to dream-up a ladder. Never quit.

The photo above, books and lifelines, by yours truly.

Trade Secrets! An Interview with Mary Vettel

I’ve known Mary Vettel for something-something years. She was one of the first people I met on Query Tracker and remains one of my dearest scribble siblings. We’ve traded ink and scribe-tears. Mary is a gifted writer with a middle-grade book that the world needs to read among a host of other stories. Today Mary talks shop with me about her experiences as an indie-author and the eternal, (infernal?) paper chase for traditional publication.

First, the obligatory: tell us about yourself? 

Native New Yorker, Anglophile, major Beatles fan, mother to two lovely daughters, mother-in-law to wonderful fella who’s more like a son than in-law, and doting grandmother to a 5-year-old.

What does it mean to be a writer? 

Writing means I get to escape into whatever world I am moved to create and inhabit with whomever I please. I get to stare off into space and the family knows I’m writing, not stroking out.

What’s a genre you enjoy reading? 

I like reading mysteries, from Sherlock Holmes to cozies like Miss Marple.

Who is an author you’d rather not read? 

James Patterson doesn’t seem to care that his formula is showing. I could be totally wrong on this, but that’s how it strikes me.

Is there one thing you judge a story—yours and others—by? 

Dialogue. If it doesn’t ring true, I could hurl the book across the room.

What would you tell 20-year-old you? 

Take as many writing classes as possible. Learn your craft now. I cringe to confess I was still head-hopping until a few years ago until my friend Will Tinkham told me to knock it off.

What was the last good story you read/saw/heard? 

“Episodes.” A UK series with Tamsin Grieg, Stephen Mangan, and Matt LeBlanc. Well written, well acted. Believable. Their chemistry was excellent.

How do you deal with the roadblocks of writing? 

Please forgive the cliché, but, more coffee, more chocolate. As for writing, or not having the time to write, I dictate notes to my phone whilst driving, (hands-free of course) and jot things down on whatever’s handy.

Presuming that you are afflicted with myriad story ideas, how do you decide on which to follow? 

The one that’s the squeaky wheel and keeps raising its hand from the back of the room going, “Ooh! Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!”

What was your biggest challenge as an indie-author? 

If you mean self-publishing, it’s the whole ball of wax. And what exactly does that mean? Why would you have a ball of wax? What’s its purpose? From creating a cover and making it look like a ‘real’ book, but not having the time or inkling how to market it or get people to buy it/read it, it is ALL hard.

What has been your biggest challenge as a traditional author? 

Still not having cracked the secret code to writing a decent, i.e., agent-grabbing query, synopsis, blurb, despite the numerous articles I’ve read and templates I’ve filled in/out. Hence, I remain unagented at this very late stage of the game but hold out hope that with this latest, just-completed novel, they’ll be clamoring to sign me. 

Finally, are you a dessert person and if so, what? If not WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? And, um, can I have yours? 

Yes, I am a dessert person. And key lime pie is my choice. I even forgo a traditional birthday cake and opt for the KLP. Yum. Sorry, you may not have mine, but I will put aside a wedge for you.

Mary Vettel is the author of Death at the Drive-In, novel, as well as countless as-yet unreleased works of brilliance. You can find her book here: https://smile.amazon.com/Death-at-Drive-Mary-Vettel/dp/1514366878/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=mary+vettel&qid=1626229684&sr=8-1

The photo at the top is Mary’s fur babies and is used with her kind permission. The captions (a.k.a. feeble attempts at humor are all mine). This piece has been edited for content and clarity.

By All Means, Do Feed The Sexy Trolls

For the last something-something weeks I have been studying for a professional certification exam. Anyone following the game at home will know that the score stands at 0-1, exam. Somewhere, amid the whining, gnashing of hair, and pulling of teeth, I think I mentioned that to de-stress, I noodle around with short stories completely outside my criminal wheelhouse. 

Those stories will never see the light of day. Mostly because when I write anything remotely, ahem, suggestive, I turn beet-red and giggle like a boozy goose. That said, I did briefly consider posting on a nifty site called “Literotica,” where my scribble buddy Sofie LeCoeure publishes her work. 

Literotical encompasses a cross-section of erotica writers publishing across myriad subgenres. Like Amazon, skills on Literotica run from sophomore (we all started there) to master-level. Writers on Amazon and Literotica have something else in common—what all writers have in common—readers. 

Just like Amazon, there are WAY more readers on Literotica than writers. That may seem unlikely with the number of books/stories on Amazon. But I encourage you to look at the reviews/comments. There are multitudes of readers, looking for something in their little neck of the genre woods. Same with Literotica. That is both good and bad.

I always start with the bad. Yeah, I’m a “hoot” at parties but anyway… Just like on Amazon, there are a lot of people writing reviews on Literotica who haven’t written their name since direct deposit became a thing. They have opinions with little/no idea of how difficult it is to tell a story. We won’t even get into the skills necessary to convey a cogent idea.

Before you get the wrong idea, the comments/reviews on Literotica are actually more objective, even generous than much of what you see on Amazon. In truth, most are even keeled if brief, “I liked it,” or “Good story,” or “I didn’t like it,” or “Too short.” Some are more pointed, and I paraphrase, “You started off good but you screwed it up by rushing the ending.” This concludes the “bad.” Yep, that’s it. Meanwhile, I once read a book review on Amazon that concerned the “reviewer’s” inability to buy the 36-count of Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits. I wish I was making that up as a joke.

“What’s the good news,” you ask? On Literotica, like Amazon, like KOBO, and probably dozens more venues—THERE ARE READERS WHO WANT TO READ WHAT YOU WRITE. They’re hungry for your stories. Plus, the folks on Literotica are not pedantic twits. They want the story more than they want to correct your grammar and spelling. In short, it is an opportunity for support and an opportunity for growth. 

There are countless fan-fiction sites where you can stretch your writer-legs, get some feedback, and engage a community of people with similar interests. There is interest. There is support. There is a hunger for your work. Even the trolls want to read your work. So get to it.

The image above is not mine, I just added the text. The image is used for educational and illustrative purposes only which is covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Writing: An Escape Plan

If you ask twelve writers why they write, you’ll get fourteen different responses. But there is a time-tested tradition of writing as a form of escape. Seriously, have you read the Brontë sisters? 

Many are familiar with Poe’s themes of loss, chiefly in his seminal poem, The Raven. However Poe experienced a series of losses that predated the death of his wife by several decades. His father abandoned the family when Poe was scarcely a year old. Barely a year later, his mother died. Poe’s foster parents were in turns overly indulgent and draconian. While never diagnosed, his behavior, (near-pathological lying, gambling, and alcoholism) suggest emotional problems if not clinical depression. 

Poe relied on writing, first as stable employment and ultimately for social stability. While he failed as a scholar, a soldier, and a gambler he succeeded as a writer. The 1830s were a difficult time for writers as publishers and periodical editors regularly shunned American writers while stealing from English authors. Others simply refused to pay. Through this, Poe managed to support himself as a writer, one of the first to do so in the states. He worked consistently until his wife’s death. 

More recently, Anne Rice turned to writing to combat both generational alcoholism and the staggering loss of her toddler. But as with Poe, the tragedies of Rice’s life predate the horror of a child’s death. Her mother literally drank herself to death when Rice was 14. Her father placed Anne and her sister in a girl’s school in New Orleans which Rice referred to as something out of Jane Eyre. Her family moved from New Orleans to the cultural desert of north Texas. She struggled to complete her education. 

Rice said after her daughter’s death she had no identity. In her words, she wasn’t a mother, she wasn’t a scholar, she wasn’t even a writer. But she could write. Rice began expanding a short story and found that through working she could delay the point in the day in which she started drinking. 

Many people turn to print to escape difficult times. The majority are content to escape through reading other folks’ work. A select few of us decide things are not hard enough and we should also attempt to write a story. Kidding. Mostly.

I knew early on that I wanted to tell stories and (to steal blatantly) I didn’t want to make eye contact to do it. So, I’ve been noodling around one thing or another since I was 15, through desperate familial dysfunction, cyclical homelessness, and the baggage that comes gratis with both. Those bathic, abortive efforts at creation gave me something to do that wasn’t illegal or self-destructive. I created worlds that I could control and in the process worked through the things that were (seemingly) out of my hands.

While I’m a bit north of 15, the struggles continue. At the spritely-young age of 45, I went back to school for a new profession. I’ve been in my new gig for five years now and I thoroughly enjoy it. Numbers are SO much easier than people. However, the new gig involves a series of professional certifications. The first, while not a walk in the park, came and went with nary a hiccup.

The second certification involves three exams and costs more than I paid for my first motorcycle. Don’t get me started on the price of the review, (more than my first three cars). Unlike the first certification, I struggled to find a study rhythm and when I did find my pace it seemed like it was right on the doorstep of the exam. 

I’d love to tell you that I hit it out of the park and am marching at the second exam like Grant through Richmond but I try not to lie to folks that I don’t owe money to. When the dust settled, I missed the mark by nine, (9) points. I can retake the exam in 60 days. Meanwhile, I’m reviewing for the second exam with a clear strategy and more time.

Writing at something is both my reward and my detox from work, study, and the damn kitchen that simply will NOT stay clean. I don’t have the time or concentration to fu—ool around with my WIP, a multi-POV crime/thriller set in 1977. If I’m opening two screens for research and writing, I need a couple of uninterrupted hours and I kinda need it daily. That’s simply not happening right now. So, I noodle around with stuff I NEVER write. To date, I’ve written an erotic short story of 7K words. I’m working on another that is currently around 6K words and thinking of a part two. Neither require a great deal of research or plotting. Neither will EVER be read. This is just an exercise. One part can I write this? and one part engage imagination, turn off thinky-thoughty thingy. Scribbling away for an hour or thirty minutes or even ten minutes has helped me clear my anxiety and “first-thing in the morning” thoughts enough to unwind and sleep.

Make no mistake, writing is NOT a substitute for conversations with friends, (not that many writers are even remotely interested in that sort of thing). Nor is writing a substitute for professional help. It certainly does not “cure” you of your problems. 

Spoiler alert!

Poe’s near-life-long instability only intensified after his wife’s death. He struggled to maintain employment. His drinking increased. Poe died four days after he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in “great distress,” in clothes that were not his. 

Writing certainly did NOT cure Anne Rice of alcoholism. With the birth of another child, she stopped drinking to spare that child from growing up, as she had, with an alcoholic mother. She continued to struggle with mental health issues. 

Writing does not cure my anxiety. Every task looms large (er) in my imagination and weighs on my chest. I still avoid gatherings, even more since the pandemic hit. While I do enjoy seeing friends and family I still need hours of quiet time to de-stress. I can’t imagine that has changed since the Missus and I self-exiled.

But curatives was never the point of writing. The point is telling a story. Taking the reader with you when you go somewhere else and do something else. That is the escape that writing gives us that makes up for the myriad hassles of writing. That is writing’s magic.

The image above is not mine. I simply added the text. The image is used for illustrative/educational purposes only which is covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Where do You Get Down?

It should come as no surprise that I LOVE theater. Musical theater, drama, dance, I love every bit of it. When I listen to music from Hamilton or recall the great Lauren Anderson dancing Cleopatra or recall Blair Underwood giving Stanley Kowalski humanity in a split-second humorous aside, I dream. 

No joke, right? That’s the purpose of theater. To make us dream.

I dream of opening-night magic. Dreams of theater family and theater triumphs, of divine performances and stolen scenes are as sweet as stolen kisses. But that’s not my stage.

It’s not my art and it’s not my world. I create my world from my art, from memories, experiences, and the way things should be. I don’t sing or dance. My characters sing in loss and dance in pain. 

I’ll never know footlights or red carpets. Truly, painfully introverted as I am, I’ll leave that to Fulton Fry, thespian extraordinaire. However I am the best crime writer that Eastwood, 2nd Ward EVER produced. That is my stage. That’s where I get down.

Where do you get down?

The photo above is from John Cassavetes’ EXCELLENT film. If you haven’t seen it, go, now and rectify that. Oh, the photo is in the public domain.

Fiona Quinn Has a Better One

While I’m grinding away on a review for a professional certification, (gotta keep that kibble and treats fund banked up, yo) I did manage to write a nifty little post about something or the other. Then I read what Fiona Quinn wrote about muscle memory, reflex conditioning, and my arch nemesis: dancing. I like her post better and so, sharing.

I STRONGLY encourage you to check out her article here: http://thrillwriting.blogspot.com/2021/06/if-your-character-is-monkey-hes-going.html You’ll be SO glad you did.

The above banner is from Fiona’s blog and we’ll just go with the idea that I’m using this with her permission. ~wink, wink~ Mums the word.

Hollywood Crime Myths: Crime Organizations

If you’ve watched a crime movie or read a crime novel in the last 80 years or so, you come away with the perception of organized crime as  monolithic, omnipotent organizations composed of brilliant, ruthless, and unstoppable villains. For several decades, Mario Puzo’s book, (and subsequent Francis Ford Coppola movie) The Godfather has been the blueprint for this archetype. Published the year before Puzo’s highly stylized work of historical fiction Peter Maas biography of Joe Valachi, The Valachi Papers is neither epic nor stylized. It is prison-food honest. It has also been all-but ignored in favor of neo-Romans with great dialogue and sharp suits. 

While the Italians are best represented in American popular culture, (why we’re primarily focusing on them) make no mistake just about every nationality has it’s organized crime faction. In Russia it’s the Bratva, the Yakuza in Japan, and the Triads in China. That leaves hundreds if not thousands in the southern hemisphere I have no knowledge of. There are different traditions, mores, and rules but certain occupational truths: they are far from all-powerful, they are seldom the best/brightest, and the term “organization” is used loosely. 

Donald Westlake wrote a vivid world of interconnected bad men with their own language and messaging system. I dearly LOVE those novels but, yeah, no. I come from that side of the tracks and there is no complex relay system for messages and “jobs” in search of high-functioning psychopaths who take down scores. Most “capers” are organized over beers in some dive bar, at the domino table outside of a car-detail shop, or ironically enough, jail. 

Likewise there is no international cabal of assassins and/or bounty hunters dealing death to enemies of one crime family or another. To paraphrase John Sandford, most gangsters are just guys sitting around watching sports until there’s an opportunity to turn a buck. Most are not especially good at violence nor is it the priority. The guy who knew how to rig the numbers racket, (Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, btw) was WAY more valuable to Dutch Schultz than the Dutchman’s deadliest killer, (Bo Weinberg).

So, why are they so feared? Well, there is an organization. 

Henry Hill, (of Goodfellas fame) knew a guy who owned a cabstand in his neighborhood. That guy, Paul Vario, was a capo in the Lucchese crime family. When 11-year-old Henry went looking for a job, Vario put him to work selling stolen cigarettes. Pro-tip, (white) kids under 18 seldom pull jail sentences for non-violent crime. 

That’s (sorta) how most guys ended up in the life. Thieves and borrowers, merchants and gamblers, assassins and addicts—they all have a need and La Cosa Nostra, or the Dixie Mob, or La Eme (the Mexican mob) fill that need. As long as everyone follows the rules. 

Customers, capos, and worker bees, all learn the organization’s rules early in their association. Often with fives and tens, thrown in for emphasis. One of the first things they learn is that the organization works especially well against members and clients of the organization. 

The old man who made book and lent money in my old man’s shop was 70, weighed about four bills and couldn’t see his shoes, let alone tie them. He wasn’t going to roll around in the dirt with you for not paying what you owed. He knew some guys. 

The guys he would send were hammer-heads, usually fresh out of jail. They were hungry or worse, owed or needed a favor. If it comes to a visit from one of those guys, you were truly screwed. You’re a tough guy? It doesn’t matter. You won’t see these guys coming. You’ll either wake up in the hospital or you’ll be identified by your tattoos, that’s if you’re found at all. Roy DeMeo, a Gambino family enforcer, was killed by his own crew under orders form his boss.

So, that’s why we have a witness security (or WITSEC) program? 

Well, sorta. The threats cited above mostly involve folks from the same city, borough, ward, or neighborhood. If all you’ve ever known is your town and your tribe, moving to East-Jesus, Kentucky is scary. If you don’t know the rules you won’t do well. So, WITSEC is more like social rehabilitation. Some need it, some don’t.

The upstanding citizens who stumble into criminal activity—think an accountant who figures out the books he’s keeping include criminal activity—need less from WITSEC. Those folks often fade into obscurity and their do-right lives are their protection. Allen Glick, (fictionalized as Phillip Green in Casino) testified against 15 members of the Chicago Outfit, The Kansas City Mob, and The Milwaukee Mob. Already forced out of the casinos he thought to be legitimate businesses, Glick moved to California and started a  real estate firm. No relocation, no name change. 

The criminal morons who are ducking prison or death need WITSEC, a lucky rabbit’s foot, and a set of prayer cards. They tend not to fade into obscurity. They gravitate back to crime. Henry Hill was arrested twice for smuggling and dealing drugs before he was booted out of the witness protection program. Even then, a reasonably competent private investigator, or debt collector could’ve located him but the Luccheses allowed him to die, in destitution if only because the damage was done and killing him would put them at risk for further prosecution. 

So, there have been high-water marks in organized crime. Paul Castellano, the purported inspiration for Michael Corleone, took steps to disassociate murder from business practices and expanded the Gambino family from street-level crme to white-collar business. But for every Castellano there are six knuckleheads who want to be on the front page of the New York Post. 

As much mileage as Hollywood has gotten out of all-powerful mobsters, a good writer could do some fantastic things with the gangs who can’t shoot straight. If you’re writing bad men, do a little true-crime research. You’ll be surprised where your imagination will take you. 

The above photo: Edward G. Robinson, is in the public domain, the photographer is unknown.