Happy Revenge of the 5th!

Mask up, wash hands, social distance. “Why?” You ask. Vaccination does not keep you from getting COVID-19. It keeps you from dying from it. Nationally overly 100mm people have yet to be vaccinated. Locally, only 25% of Harris County, (Houston, 4th largest city in the U.S.) has been vaccinated, about the same as the state average. There is no telling how many people will refuse vaccination.

How NOT to Inflict Trauma on Your Readers

Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that, they don’t. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

—Nikki Giovanni

Empathy is a big part of what we do as writers. It is empathy that holds us true to a character or idea. Not to be confused with ego which is what leads us to dig in our heels rather than cut that clever turn of phrase or the 8000 words of backstory we painstakingly researched and have decided IS the hill we shall die upon.

Some of us will never see a word published rather than compromise our empathy for the characters in our work and/or the ideas that inspired them. Some of us manage to thread that needle and publish our story within the foul lines to whatever degree of success the story finds. Still others lose—or sell—their empathy in the chase for a payday or their name on a book cover. 

But empathy is also consideration for the reader. 

This will come as no surprise to 99.99% of writers but I steal conversations. I think that 99.99% of other writers do the same. That conversation may simply be used for deep background on a conversation you craft or it may be a conversation you strip-mine and shoehorn into your WIP because you want to play that out in your world. I don’t (as far as you know) judge.  I regularly do the former but a hostile reaction broke me, (like, forever) of doing the latter. 

Once upon a time, a coworker told me of a situation they witnessed, involving severe abuse and a subsequent suicide attempt. Yes, this is purposely vague. Being the intrepid writerly type that I am, I thought this would be excellent “color” for a character that read “flat” to me. 

The dudes in my crit group nodded approvingly and congratulated me on the “gritty realism,” other folks in the crit group, (men and women but not “dudes”) were appalled. The as-told-to anecdote did nothing to advance the plot, did nothing to further character understanding, in short I subjected my readers to very real pain for NO GOOD PURPOSE. 

Of course, I’m not alone in my creative malpractice. 

Did anyone need the Waingro subplot in Heat? If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t google that reference. I was raised on that side of the tracks and the violence I saw, (often) there informs my writing and I didn’t need that Waingro subplot. It does nothing to advance the main plot. It tells us NOTHING we didn’t already know about Waingro, (in desperate need of a .45-caliber craniotomy). In short, that subplot inflicts injury without benefit of progress.

The same is (mostly) true for Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. I say mostly because if you’ve read Conroy at all, you’re not likely to be ambushed by his prose. You know you’re in for a certain amount of violence, (emotional, at the very least). Also, the violence Conroy inflicts is (mostly) in service to the story. How much of that is absolutely necessary to the story and how much really belongs in a therapy session is debatable.

By contrast, novelist Russell Banks and director Paul Schrader did a much better job in the implied abuse NOT expressly depicted in Affliction. You get a very real idea of the abuse X suffered without suffering the detailed trauma. This isn’t a censorship rant as much as a balancing act. So is much of the fiction we write. 

So goes the old saw, “there’s a time and place for everything.” Would Hannibal Lecter still be Hannibal Lecter without Sergeant Pimbry’s face? Would Bastard Out of Carolina—? You know, let’s table that one. The point is you have to tell the story in your head. The balance is giving your reader something of benefit (plot, character, etc.) in return for inflicting trauma on your reader. Especially if is your personal trauma, as is the case with Conroy.

Who decides where the balance is? You do. The reader takes it from there. If you want to go full Jim Thompson, knock yourself out. It’s your story—but it’s your readers’ psyche. Most readers enjoy a challenge, while not enjoyable, a dark-night-of-the-soul which leads to a new perspective is no less valuable to most readers. However, no reader enjoys being assaulted. 

Needless to say, I excised that scene from my work and I approach all further work with an idea of measuring audience against objective. Even when the trauma is personal and shapes, if not fills out the world I write in, I maintain a keen self-editing razor to cut what is salacious, exploitive, or just unredeeming. In short, we must rely on empathy to save the reader and ourselves (we are our own first readers) from the excesses of ego. 

The above image, Trauma-shears, is in the public domain. Details here.

Does Your Story Have an Adult in the Room?

2010 Voice Awards-Paramount Studios-Hollywood

Acclaimed film director Garry Marshall once said he tried to cast at least one adult in every movie he made. Most commonly, that adult was Héctor Elizondo. In fact, Mr. Elizondo was in every feature film that Garry Marshall directed. 

Charismatic, good looking, with presence far exceeding his stature, Mr. Elizondo has something else that few actors have, self-possessed maturity. No matter the role—hotel manager, garbage man, doctor—his characters know their place in the world and in relation to the other characters. His voice of reason is never whiny or stilted from a stick up the anatomy. 

Part of that, of course, is direction. Part is the script. But the biggest part is Mr. Elizondo and his approach to inhabiting a role. He’s never the bellowing police lieutenant in the buddy picture. Purportedly he won’t take roles punched out of stereotypes or demeaning to latinos. That self-respect, along with a healthy dose of “no small roles, only small actors” lends great gravity to his work. 

More than lending a hand

Often dismissed as the bumbling sidekick, Watson is the rent-come-due-practical adult in the room who keeps Sherlock Holmes from flying off the rails. By contrast, in Caleb Carr’s update his Holmes surrogate, Dr. Kreizler is the adult and the chief detective in a disparate squad of sleuths. More than simple hierarchy or narrative choice, Kreizler is just as traumatized and scarred as his fellows but he has mastered his emotions, his desires, and his psyche. 

Sometimes the adult is the mentor 

Gere and Roberts shine in Pretty Woman but it is the afore-mentioned Mr. Elizondo who is the bedrock of Mr. Marshall’s best-known film. More professional than paternal, Barney Thompson, (Elizondo) the  hotel manager is primarily interested in providing his customer (Gere) with a pleasant hotel-stay, while establishing that he will not tolerate a prostitute (Roberts) frequenting his establishment. He instructs Vivian in decorum as an authority figure, working within the bounds of his responsibility, not from the deep well of ego or affection. 

Sometimes the adult is the protagonist 

It should be apparent as often as I cite the film that Michael Mann’s Thief is a favorite. In Frank’s world, you are either a predator or you are prey. Frank is a highly specialized predator and he works deep to avoid much larger predators, (the Chicago mob) as well as predators of attrition, (the police). He knows his niche and sticks to it—until he sees a chance to catch up on decades of life lost to prison. Unwilling to be a piece in someone else’ game, Frank pays a heavy price to live as a grown up.

Sometimes the adult is the baddie

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim does not cast herself as Jessica’s tormentor no more than she considers herself Paul Atriades’ nemesis. Much like Barney Thompson, she’s simply the sheriff who keeps the peace and enforces the law. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, (more intellectual geneticists than religious order) has determined that the survival of mankind depends on a strict breeding program. Her role is to prevent deviations from the program and, failing that, preventing deviations from compounding into disasters. It’s thankless work. 

Multiple adults in the room does not ensure a productive environment

In Ridley Scott’s genre-crossing masterpiece Alien we have three grown ups—surprisingly enough they don’t play nice. Captain Dallas, (Tom Skerrit)  is a journeyman. He doesn’t own the ship he skippers, he didn’t pick his crew, and when he is ordered to investigate a distress call, he certainly doesn’t have the authority to decline. What he has is the power of personality to compel his band of skeptical, irreverent civilians to follow orders. Chief Engineer Parker, (Yaphet Kotto, RIP) is the career technician. He knows his job, like the ship, inside-out and won’t budge on his principles—until countered by an overwhelming, or-you’re-fired force. Warrant Officer Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver) is the new blood. A young, skilled-professional woman, she is by-the-book even (especially?) when it draws her into conflict with everyone. Hers is the voice of reason that is ignored to everyone’s detriment. It’s not a coincidence that she is the only surviving Nostromo crew member.

Ultimately, your story needs an adult to address the elephant in the room. Warning: the following examples are wildly paraphrased and any likeness to actual dialogue (living or dead) is purely coincidental. 

We must make our stand here, on this little moon, against the ultimate power in the galaxy, or more planets will suffer the fate of Alderaan. —General Leia Organa, Princess of Alderaan

No, we’re not trained investigators, we’re not the killer’s target, and we certainly have no actual authority but if we don’t stop this Jack-the-Ripper in New York, more children will be viciously slaughtered. —Dr. Laszlo Kreizler

This hotel caters to specific clientele. Our guests expect the best service possible and we make allowances to ensure that they enjoy their stay. Mr. Lewis is just such a guest. I am willing to accept you here to make Mr. Lewis happy just as long as you and I understand that once Mr. Lewis is gone, you will be too. —Barney Thompson

Ultimately, the adult in the room is not for the good girl/guy, the bad guy/girl, or even in service to them. The adult in the room is in the room in service to the reader.

The photo above: 2010 Voice Awards: Lou Gossett, Jr. and Hector Elizondo, is in the public domain and covered by fair use. Details, here.

Author Interview: Sofie LeCoeur

We’re talking with Sofie LeCoeur, writer of erotica and master of short fiction. I’ve known Sofie from twitter for several years now. What drew me to Sofie’s writing is her ability to do SO much with brevity and clarity. 

Tell us about yourself. 

Believe it or not, under another name, I write children’s books – looking for an agent as we speak. Other than writing, I adore editing – nothing ruins good erotica like bad grammar.

You’re quite prolific. Did you write your stories in advance, (like weeks/months) of posting? 

I wrote the 5 stories I have available on Literotica over the course of the last six months. It took me a while to be comfortable posting them – it can be incredibly intimidating to put yourself out there.

Reading your work, I can see your focus and your word economy sharpen. Is that based on the constraints of short form?

Absolutely. It’s a fun exercise for me to create as much of a “world” as I can with just a few pages.

Have you considered long-form fiction or are short stories your thing?

I write long form YA and fantasy (in the middle of 2 books now – also under another name for obvious reasons). But with erotica I like to keep my writing more like a snack than a meal. I find that when I’m reading erotica myself I prefer the short story format, and it also allows me to explore a wider variety of scenarios and kinks.

What are your challenges as a writer?

The biggest thing in erotica is that people’s desires and what turns them on is an incredibly wide spectrum. It’s hard (no pun intended) to know how much of an audience any given piece will have. Additionally, I sometimes write commissions for others where the specific kink isn’t something that does anything for me personally. Creating a vivid, appealing scene when I’m not turned on by it requires a great deal more attention and focus.

Who do you consider the key writer in your genre?

Honestly, most of the erotica I read is short stories scattered over a variety of platforms. But as far as inspirations,believe it or not, Anne Rice. The way she weaves various aspects of sexuality into her stories has always appealed to me.

What was your, “You know what, I can write this story…” moment?

A friend of mine was having a rough go of things, and I wanted to cheer them up. They have some fairly niche sexual interests, so I decided to gift them with a custom piece. I was surprised by how easily it came to me (I wish my other writing flowed as easily). As far as actually putting my work out there, I shared a piece with the writer friend who inspired it, and their response was “you should publish this somewhere.” 

Have you gotten feedback on your work and how meaningful is that to you?

I do get feedback from a variety of people. Other writers for formatting and flow, a few friends to see if it “works”. It’s so important because if you’re going to put your writing out there, you can’t trust your own perception of it. I know my stories like I know the contents of my junk drawer – intimately. So I can’t be objective and need unbiased thoughts.

What can we expect from you next?

Three of my stories currently up on literotica are about “Mason’s Academy for Wayward Girls” – a college level finishing school centered around sexual prowess and the development of expert level subs. I’m putting together a collection of stories at the academy, which I intend to publish on Amazon once I have enough of them. Each will be a standalone – long enough for plot development but short enough that if you happen to finish quickly, you aren’t in the middle of it.

And finally are you a dessert person if so, what? If not WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

I’m far more easily tempted by savory than sweet, but my go-to dessert (which, yes, I know is a bit on the nose as a Canadian erotica writer) is a maple-covered cream filled donut.

Check out Sofie’s erotic short stories, here.

What Grey’s Anatomy Can Teach Us About Writing Friendships

I have a love/eye-roll relationship with Grey’s Anatomy. In the early seasons Shonda Rhimes drama about Meredith Grey’s journey from intern to attending physician is some of the best writing you’ll see on television. Sadly, as the series progressed the writing became more stunts and less substance. Different rant, different time.

Obviously, there will be ten-and-fifteen-year-old spoilers. Read accordingly.

However, one of the things that has remained consistent about the writing on Grey’s Anatomy is how the writers treat friendships. Grey’s began with the idea of friendships sustaining people through the head-spinning highs as well as the soul-crushing lows. Meredith begins the series moving into a huge house she inherited and then offering her co-interns free rent and a short commute so she doesn’t have to live alone with her memories. They all become friends, posthaste—as will happen when someone saves someone else a fuckton of money and time. 

But Meredith’s best friend, her “person” is fellow intern, Cristina Yang. Ironically, Cristina is the only one of Meredith’s circle of friends who doesn’t live with her. Over the course of five seasons the friendships evolve, dynamics shift, ties are strained, and ultimately, broken.

Yes, I’ve read the gossip and I know that much of the writing came in the form of salvage for Human Resources issues.  I’m tempted to type “aside from egos and shitty behavior,” but really that is the point. What the scripters constructed are exactly what everyone else does, we rewrite our lives in response to how our friendships change.

What Grey’s does (did?) best is to take the trope of ride-or-die-eternal best friend and rough it up with some reality. One of the reasons Cristina is Meredith’s best friend is because Cristina doesn’t need housing, a short commute, or a study buddy. Cristina, like Meredith, (unlike Stevens, O’Mally, and Karev) is brilliant. Like Meredith, she comes from money, attended the finest schools, and is ambitious. Unlike Meredith, Cristina is ruthlessly ambitious.  

While they share visions of aging together, Cristina never pauses, never hesitates in pursuit of advancing her career. After a plane crash demoralizes her fellow residents, Cristina seizes an opportunity at the Mayo Clinic. She only returns to Seattle after her mentor at Mayo dies. When she loses an award for surgical innovation because of her ties to the hospital, Christina says “goodbye” and leaves Seattle Grace to head up her own program. 

So, egos…

Is this end of personhood an anomaly? Hardly. Izzie Stevens nearly dies from a rare cancer, (after weeks of delusional psychosis). With fresh perspective and several damaged relationships, (mostly damaged by herself) Izzie leaves Seattle Grace with the declaration that it was just a place she worked, not her home. 

Years later, Alex Karev (the character with the arc of a straight edge) abandons a woman he professed undying love for, his career, and his “person” (Meredith) to flee Seattle Grace for a second chance with Izzie. Yes, the woman that he told wasn’t good enough for him. And, yes, people do horrible crap like that to each other and then end up together, regularly. That’s why God gave us divorce attorneys. 

It’s funny because it hurts

George O’Malley is everyone’s confidant. Supportive, kind, and loving, George is like a puppy. Meredith, Izzie, Alex, and Cristina, kick him like one, too. They ridicule George—for not attending an Ivy League (or even a top) medical school—to the point of labeling him “007” or licensed to kill. When George follows Cristina’s advice to date a woman in his “league” Alex has sex with said woman, passing on an STD. When George marries, his friends (who never missed him before) actively campaign to wreck his marriage. When George dies saving a pedestrian he never met, Meredith and Cristina attend his funeral only to laugh at the pedestrian for expressing more grief than they can muster. For the successive twelve (12!) seasons, it’s like George never existed. 

Just like in real life…

You’ll notice at no point did I criticize the writing. Because from the first time I saw these episodes to this typing, the writing rings true to my experience. The childhood best friend is really just a friend of proximity. As your circle (and range of motion) expands that friendship fades or expires. The friends you endured the horrors of adolescence or worse, early adulthood with are same ones you dodge on social media.

Even so-called adult friendships are impermanent. Maybe their jokes become painfully, unfunny. Maybe you just realized that you seem to always be the butt of the joke. Or, maybe, you’ve made them the butt of your jokes for years but realize that you lack respect for them and you don’t want to be in the bully-victim dynamic, victim participation or not. 

Mistakes are made, character is developed, bonds come unbound. My father talked about serving with men who saved his life during warfare. He never saw them again after they left the service and wouldn’t have known what to say to them if he did.

The Grey’s writers get it. People evolve, devolve, or otherwise change. People grow, often apart. In short, you are your own person.

The photo above is promotion material used for educational and illustrative purposes and covered in the public domain. Details, here.

Tips for the Neophyte Novel Writer

Fit a Genre

Line up a row of agents, (it helps if you have booze and treats) and one of the big complaints is the author who can’t define their work. The agent needs a line to cast in order to land a publisher. Upmarket fiction? The agent doesn’t want to pitch that to Hard Case Crime or Avon Romance. If you don’t want the agent to assign your genre, (provided you pitch your book to the appropriate agent) you need to tend to this matter first.

Read Your Genre, Know Your Genre

See a theme? I have read the good, the bad, and the ugly in my genre, enough to know my norms, (tropes, length, etc.). While one-hundred-ten-thousand words may be the sweet spot for epic fantasy, the agent is rejecting a 110K-word mystery novel at the query-letter stage. 

Think Big

I once read a science fiction novel in which the emperor of the known universe plays what appears to be billiards on a miniature table with tiny cues, while conversing with his deadly assassin. This conversation could’ve taken place on the grasslands of a Savannah-like moon, orbiting a gas giant, with a lavender horizon. Why wouldn’t you do that, (instead of playing with the type of toy nobody wanted for Christmas)? It’s not like you have to get approval for a travel budget. Not writing science fiction? The Bridges of Madison County is about a family secret. All the Pretty Horses is about a teen unable to accept change. The Color Purple is about an awakening from a life of abuse. All are simple stories told in EPIC terms. 

Train your Hero

Because: mentally ill, addicted, or “not thinking” is lazy writing. Achilles knew his doom: glory. John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport is one step from the psychos he hunts. Clarice Starling’s yearning for excellence continually exceeds all reason (and self-preservation). 

Love Your Villain

If the big-bad is shallow, so is your story. Maleficient said, “A villain is just a victim who’s story hasn’t been told.” I tend to subscribe to the idea that the villain (mostly) is a hero taken to their logical extreme. Magneto is a pragmatic Charles Xavier with a much lower “had ‘nough,” threshold. In Ryan Murphy’s Pose, Elektra Abundance is Blanca Evangelista without an Elektra to blaze the trail for her.

Complicate

Forget Hawkeye and Cora, we only cry for Uncas and Alice. Likewise, by season two of The Umbrella Academy, I was GOOD and over Luther and Allison but desperately wanted Vanya and Sissy to have a happily-ever-after, (Hazel and Agnes, too).

Repetition is the Enemy

Edit ruthlessly. Identify duplicates, sift out the strongest and cut the rest. If you have to “catch the reader up,” consider more massive cuts. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga is immense—but he writes it lean and relies on compelling stories and characters to hold the readers’ interest.

Clean it Up

Whatever you do with subplots, don’t just drop them. Examples of how it’s done right include George R.R. Martin, Alice Walker, and Chris Claremont. If you can’t tie off a subplot, cut it. Full stop. 

POV is Your Discipline

You can have one or two or twenty-two POV characters, (hey, it’s your sanity). But you must be consistent in each POV character’s tone and use. Whatever you do, DO NOT jump POV in mid-scene and NEVER in conversation or you run the risk losing your reader. 

Conflict is the Heart

Physical conflict, verbal conflict, and soul scouring internal conflict—it’s the meat of your matter. Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre is a master class on conflict variety. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books take it all to the back alley. 

The above graphic is by yours truly and was created using Excel because accounting classes can be artistic AF.

Partners In Crime: The Case for Critique Groups, Beta Readers, and Faith

I recently read an article by a writer who joined an MFA, (master of fine arts grad degree) peer-group for short fiction to get critiques on her novel. The group critiqued her work, (a chapter at a time) every once-in-a-blue-moon Sunday. As you might imagine, the resulting critiques were conflicting, confusing, and the writer ultimately abandoned the project. 

Of course there are multiple takeaways from this experience. My take is you have to know what level you are as a writer and match up with with the support you need. Square pegs will not fit in a round hole.

“Too many cooks ruin the soup,” Joe Lansdale

I once asked multi-genre writer Joe Lansdale what he thought about critique (or crit) groups. He was less than enthusiastic. From personal experience, I can tell you that they are imperative. The crit group is typically made up of aspiring writers who exchange work and provide feedback. When the feedback is honest and constructive, the group can help one another learn genre norms, (from tropes down to paragraph/chapter/book length) the query processes, and, yes, even feedback on tone, plot, and character development. 

However from experience, I can also tell you that crit groups can be petty, cliquish, and discouraging. A poorly led group can also devolve into a mutual-admiration society, aka a circlejerk. As I’ve written previously, many new writers have a bad experience in a crit group and never put creative thought to medium again. 

Even when everything “clicks” for the writer, the crit group is not your destination. Under the best circumstances, groups have a short shelf life. Your skills should grow, your writing should improve, and you should level up—and out of the crit group.

“The best way to get something is to ask for it.” Morgan Hazelwood

In my journey, I went from the crit group straight to querying, with mixed results. After a number of rejection emails, I landed an agent for 15 minutes, (different rant different time). The agent pointed out that there was something wrong with the pacing in my story and that we needed to work on it. And then I never heard from the agent again. 

Since then I’ve run my story through a different kind of group: beta readers. Beta readers read your entire work as they would any other book. They give you broad feedback on tone, character development, plot, and pacing. Your friends, family, that coworker who once thought about writing a book will tell you “oh, it’s good, I liked it…” The beta reader will tell you when your ending fails, when your beginning underwhelms, and/or when your middle sags, (common in writers my age). Often the beta reader is also a writer but this is not as important as that they are SERIOUS READERS. They understand the genre you write in. They understand story structure, pace, and story/plot arc. Literally, they are worth their weight in gold. Morgan Hazelwood has an EXCELLENT primer for you to consider when approaching a beta reader to get the feedback you need, here.

Beta readers are simply the best help you can get short of a development editor and much more economical.  

Caveat: if not implicit, the beta reader is the person you go to when you have a completed manuscript and have done all the diligence you possibly can—and not before. You only get to waste a person’s time once. 

Caveat part two, the sequel: not every syllable of feedback will be helpful or even relevant. Thank them for their time and consideration. You are not required by law to implement the suggestions or argue the point. The most important lesson a crit group teaches will serve you well here: NO DEFENSE OF WORK. If you have to defend it, it doesn’t work.

Write a check.

The MFA peer review thingy is great…if you’re an MFA candidate. But if you’re at the point where you’ve done crit groups and beta readers but still need help, this would be when you seek out professional help. A development editor has been in the publishing game. They know your genre, the industry, and will fine-tune your writing skills. What a development editor is not is a writing instructor. Like the beta reader, you need to have a completed story, written to the very limit of your ability and thoughtfully revised. Otherwise you’re wasting their time and your money. 

In the end, all the hand-holding, guidance, and instruction does not change the fact that, eventually, you have to step out on your skills and trust your story. The crit group is to help you build your self-editing skills. The beta reader is the mirror that shows you the blindspots in your writing. The development editor is a diamond polisher who works your story into a shining gem. 

Nothing will improve your writing more than writing and ruthlessly self-editing. All the help in the world will not overcome self-doubt. Just know that if you found the story compelling enough to re-read it, (to rewrite it) dozens of times, there’s a good chance someone else will find your story just as compelling. But none of us will ever know unless you push on and get it out there.

The photo above is PurrC D’Kat McClellan in his natural habitat—where he’s not supposed to be.

Interview: Jennifer Worrell, Author of “Edge of Sundown”

We’re meeting today with my favorite new author, Jennifer Worrell. Edge of Sundown is Jennifer’s first book. See my review here. The interview has been edited for length and clarity, all typos and misspellings are my own.

Jennifer tell us about yourself.

That’s a hard one! I’m a pie-loving atheist from Chicago who loves anything pertaining to the study or practice medicine and waits impatiently for the day when cats start running things. In the BeforeTimes, (aka BC or “Before COVID”) I used to procrastinate writing with movies and live music. Those were the days.

Right? What was the “alright, enough of that” moment that spurred you to write?

I had an idea for about a decade but my soul-killing job made it hard to get motivated. When I left that job the idea reasserted itself. I said “I’ll wait for NaNoWriMo,” but my brain said, “get off your ass.”

Who  has been your biggest writer-influence?

That’s a tough one, because I learn stuff from everybody. I can’t read anymore without taking notes, either to write down stuff I like and want to explore in my own voice, finding what I hate and never want to do, or realizing I will never be as good as someone like Vince Gilligan or Jeanette Winterson.

What was the seed that Edge of Sundown sprang from?

A few different things. It started with a TV show and a movie, (that will go unnamed) with endings that disappointed me.  

I think I remember reading that Octavia Butler had a similar instigating moment for her first story.

There was also the news of the day. I can’t say which event of the time spurred me to add more subtext; it may have been the “death panels” hogwash. But the “what-ifs” kept building up. What if there actually was a group of covert killers who thought the government was spending more to keep you alive then you gave in return, and decided you were no longer worth the cost? I remember thinking, you better hurry up and finish this, before it sounds less like satire and more like nonsense.

Speaking of TV and movies, most of us are familiar with Chicago depictions on the screen. Your Chicago is on the edge of otherworldly. 

I’m delighted you think that, thank you!  It was a huge effort, so I’m breathing a sigh of relief.  

Was it an effort to get atmospheric or did the ‘tude flow with the prose?

The joke is on me, because I thought writing about my city would be easy. HA! Just the opposite: unless something changes, I didn’t notice as many details as I thought. So I really needed to write it like a tourist. I once sent it to a publisher and she returned it with notes on all I got wrong, and from that point forward I panicked over everything.

Sandra is a great character. What was the seed or inspiration for her?

Thank you! Nearly all the characters are based on at least one real person, but I think she started as an exercise. I wanted her to be strong but fallible. She’s also who I want to be when I grow up: isn’t afraid to live out loud, has the balls to sing in public, knows how to play an instrument, doesn’t take shit.

Oh, she was the heart of the story and I fell in love with her. As I read the book I continually felt a dread on the horizon. 

I am so inarticulate in politics/current events that I express myself through fiction. To figure out how we got to this place. There are a lot of factors, you can’t blame it all on one thing.

So it was a theme for the city and for the our hero?

Definitely. I tried to use Val’s decline as a metaphor, how one day you have all this confidence, this ease of being master of your craft, your profession, whatever, then discover it’s faded away. You try to get it back but it keeps slipping out of reach.  Younger people surpass you. One day you’re just not what you were and you can never pin down the exact point when it started.  Overnight, things are different.  You’re different.  It’s a terrifying thought.

If it’s not apparent from questions, I’m a big fan. 

Thanks so much!! I appreciate that.

What can we expect from you next?

I finished one picture book for kids and have three others in mind that get considerably darker. I have been puttering much too slowly on the next novel (what’s this I hear about needing a plot?) and a collection of short stories, but I’m getting there.

It would imagine it’s akin to picking your favorite pie.

Yes! Exactly! I can’t turn down pie. Well, maybe pecan. 

Yeah, no. Not a pecan pie fan, either. 

Fam!

Jennifer, thank you so much for speaking with us today we’ll be watching for your next work.

You can buy Jennifer’s book, here.

Yaphet Kotto: A Prince Among Supporting Actors

Yaphet Kotto has died. He was the rare actor who consistently elevated the supporting character to actual peer, (if not superior to) the protagonist. Writers should study his performances, especially in Alien (character motivation) and Report to the Commissioner (simply the only character in the movie who’s actions makes any sense) for a compact primer on writing supporting characters. His take on, Ivanhoe Washington, a cutting-room floor character is a two-minute (if that) character study and the best part of a white-fear-wish-fulfillment film called Fighting Back. His character is the standout from pimps, junkies, and thieves—yet refuses to play the Magic Negro to Tom Skerritt’s vigilante.

If you haven’t guessed, Mr. Kotto was in a lot of shabby productions that were green-lit in the wild-and-wooly 1970s and 80s. Though, no matter the material he was given to work with, he classed up every joint he was in.

The above photo is in the public domain, details here.