Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz

WEST BY SOUTHWEST

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I’m on a plane again, heading west, Southwest Airlines, Denver to L.A. Last week it was Phoenix to L.A. The week before that, Salt Lake City. Albuquerque. Minneapolis.

Next week Seattle. Phoenix. Vegas. Portland.

Traveling for the day job. My willingness to travel is what makes me marketable, employable, desirable to the employer who would need an experienced traveller. I know the ins and outs of airports, I’m George Clooney in Up in the Air. I know what to wear and how to pack and what line to choose when entering security and where to find the hand sanitizer when I need it. I know where to look for my books if my books are there to be found and I’ve even found them, once, on the shelves of a bookstore at San Francisco International, the day before Bouchercon.

I’ve travelled most of the U.S. and Canada. Sales jobs, running the country or a region, meeting the reps, seeing the sights. I don’t let it go to waste, these paid-for trips, these lonely journeys flying alone and away.

I’ve worked New England three times and each time I force a sales rep to drive me to Lowell, Massachusetts, so I can sit beside Jack Kerouac’s grave. When I worked New Hampshire I took a side trip to Thoreau’s home where I swam Walden Pond end-to-end. I made my New York rep take me to Niagara Falls so I could call my wife and say, “Happy Anniversary, babe!”

I had an idea to write a short story about turkey hunting, so I called my Alabama rep and set a date to make sales calls during turkey hunting season. We spent a day in the woods above Huntsville and I got all the research I needed. When I worked Oklahoma City I had my rep take me to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building where I walked the memorial and cried like I child. I did the same with my rep in Manhattan, staring at pictures of the lost and dead on a chain-link fence circling the empty pit that had once been the Twin Towers. On another work trip, years before that, I spent three days driving a rental car through Amish farmland in Ohio after the grounding of the planes. It was another world; probably the most peaceful place on Earth at the time.

I worked Nashville, visiting the Grande Ole Opry after hours. I hit the local bars to get a taste of Southern music. I did the same in New Orleans. And in Austin. And in Memphis, where I also visited the home of the King. I worked the Midwest and visited the St. Louis Arch. The Petrified Forest. Fargo, North Dakota. The Mall of America. Navy Pier. Mile High Stadium. The Indianapolis Speedway. Boys Town in Omaha. Georgia O’keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The glaciers of Kalispell. Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. Pike Place Market in Seattle. Pikes Peak in Colorado. Alligator Alley in Florida. Pier 39 in San Francisco.

I’ve seen America on the company dime.

I’ve been put up in some nice places, too. The Waldorf Hotel in New York City. The Palmer in Chicago. The Peabody in Tennessee. The St. Francis, San Francisco.

And the airports, I’ve seen them all. LAX and SFO, Bob Hope International (Burbank), Sea-Tac (Seattle), Denver International, Dallas Fort-Worth, Atlanta, Houston, JFK. From the big hubs to the dirt runways. I’ve sat in just about every plane Boeing makes, from the comfey 777 to the fifteen-seat prop plane that took me from Boise to Butte, riding turbulence all the way.

I keep thinking I’ll do some writing in those airports, with all the time I spend waiting. Instead, I stare at the myriad human activity around me. Business men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor, tied to their laptops and iPads, guarding electrical sockets like eggs in the nest. College boys and girls traveling to destinations of youth, their eager, earnest energy cutting a path through the rest of us. Toddlers hop-scotching cracks in the tiles, their effervescent eyes open to everything they see, arms outstretched, hands waving, smiles enlarged with loud sing-song yelps that become screeching tantrums on the floor. Young parents happy and gay then suddenly stressed beyond imagination, tugging at their hair, doing deals with neighboring parents for an extra diaper or a few drops of Benadryl. Babies in their carriages or slings, sleepy eyes blinking, mouths suckling plastic nipples. Tough guys and gals with tattoos on their arms and bluetooths in their ears. Mousey house-wives reading every shade of gray. Elderly couples holding hands, some content, others quietly sparring, using words weighted with years of resentment. Retirees in a group, clutching tubes containing fishing poles for their trips to the Great Lakes or Montana or that small island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

I’ve found that I can’t write in the airports because I’m too busy watching, which, in truth, is a form of writing-to-be. Observation is the author’s greatest gift.

I try to write when I’m on the road and at times I’ve managed it well. But the temptation to sit and listen is often unbearable. I’ve sat in so many cafes – in Columbus, Ohio, in Boise, Idaho, in Baton Rouge, in Missoula, in Omaha, in Boston, in Tallahassee – and eavesdropped on conversations that held me breathless. I’ve heard tales of grief and stories of inspiration. I’m determined to write a book called, Overheard in Cafes Across America, a cross between the works of Charles Kuralt and Studs Terkel. Something I’ll do on my own time, since my agent already advised me to write something else.

There’s no doubt about it, my travels as a salesman have benefitted my work as a writer. It’s a strange push-me-pull-you relationship I both love and detest. No matter how hard I try I seem stuck to this life. It’s like my writer-self knows that it grounds me. I’ve spent days in cars with salesmen crossing one end of a state to the other, all the while peeling back the layers of their lives, learning how true human character works, that individuals are messes of irrational thought governed by reflections on personal experience. Everyone comes with baggage and their baggage defines them. Their depth is deep and circular, and infinite. This I learn not from books on how to write good character, but from observing real people in action. Through observation I’ve learned that the human condition is complicated and universal, that our differences are many, but all can be bridged by attempting to find common ground, somewhere, somehow. And when I bridge that gap, when I see the world through the eyes of someone so different from me, from a turkey hunter, perhaps, then I can write that character from the inside out.

My day job is not for everyone. I’m employed largely because I can hold up under the weight of changing time zones, cancelled flight schedules and car rental conundrums. I can take being thrown under the bus, into the firing squad of emergency sales meetings or a Colosseum of frenzied customers. I manage because it funnels into the molten pit of my writing.

I need the job and the job needs me. We have a symbiotic relationship. I’ll bitch and scream about having a day job, but inside I know the truth. It’s not the cash. Or the health insurance. Or the expense account. It’s the perspective I get when I watch, observe and participate. Life in the air is what grounds me.

THE THINGS WE DO WE NEVER THOUGHT WE’D DO

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, James Dean, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Heath Ledger, Notorious B.I.G., Tupak Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, Buddy Holly, Aaliyah, John Lennon, Reggie Lewis, Ritchie Valens, Bob Marley, Jim Croce, Bruce Lee, Charlie Parker, John Belushi, Martin Luther King, Rudolph Valentino, Eva Peron, Alexander the Great, King Tut and Jesus Christ.

They all died too young. They died in the prime of their lives. They became icons and heros for the things they did during their short stay on planet Earth.

But if any of them had been allowed to live deep into old age, would they have retained that sheen of heroism? Would Sid Vicious be doing late night infomercials selling CD sets of classic rock, like Roger Daltry? Did Roger see that one coming? Makes me wonder about that lyric of his, “Hope I die before I get old…”

Remember how pissed off Jim Morrison got when his band members sold “Light My Fire” to Muzak for a car commercial? This was long before Eric Clapton did those fucking beer commercials. We called that “selling out,” back in the day. Now it’s called “a diversified portfolio.”

If Jim Morrison hadn’t died young, would he have lived long enough to embarrass his younger self? Even though he died drunk and fat, he still died a rock star. He didn’t go out selling used cars.

I bet David Lee Roth thought he’d be a rock star forever, and then he became DJ “Diamond” Dave doing Top Forty Faves.

Sometimes it’s best to die young, if you really care about leaving a legacy behind.

Of course, you have to have a huge impact doing something first or else dying young is just really pathetically sad. So, to become an icon, one must first capture the attention of the world, and then suddenly, tragically, die. Young.

If one continues to live, one must constantly reinvent oneself in order to recapture the attention of the world. Like Madonna. She’s fighting it all the way to the grave. If she dies suddenly her obit will still say that she died in her prime.

And there’s nothing worse than watching our great icons not-die, instead drifting into oblivion, or drug-addiction (sans overdose), or hoarding or, finally, reality TV.

I find it terribly difficult to watch Howard Stern and Steve Tyler clown-up for what is essentially a new wave of The Gong Show remakes. We know they’re only doing it for the almighty dollar, which makes it seem like our heros can be bought and sold. I think Jimi Hendrix thanks God every day for taking his life before American Idol came knocking. Would he have resisted? We’ll never know.

It all just makes me think about the things we do that we never thought we’d do when we were young. And they’re not bad things, necessarily, just different things. Sometimes they actually prove our growth as human beings.

Like, I never thought I’d be a fan of Mariachi music. I mean, really. I grew up on rock and then had a healthy education of classical and jazz. When my younger son, Noah, began violin lessons I was excited about someday hearing him play in a string quartet. But, no, his music teacher put him into a Mariachi band (really?) and he’s hooked. So, now I hang out at the local church or crash the Quinceanera in hopes of catching a blast of trumpets and strumming guitarrons.

I also never thought I’d fall out of shape. That’s another way of dying young, I suppose. Elvis didn’t die quite young enough, so he bloated up. Like Orson Welles. Their bodies were saying, “Give up already! You’ve gone on ten years longer than you should have. Don’t you want to be an icon?”

I think it’s interesting that we remember Elvis young and thin, while our image of Orson Welles is quite the opposite (“We will sell no wine before its time”).

Since I haven’t done anything iconic yet I can afford to fall out of shape and work my way back into shape again before I make an impact on American society. I still have the opportunity to die young (well, relatively) and/or bloat up for ten years before bursting a liver.

Or maybe I’ll age gracefully after having a solid career in the arts. Like Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope or Elmore Leonard or Michael Connelly. That’s classy, but not quite as dramatic as hearing the sirens approach Chateau Marmont after John Belushi’s demise.

And don’t you think it’s kind of weird that Elton John and David Bowie are still around, all mellow and out-of-touch, after the fuss they made when they were young? They could have been truly iconic, but they missed their chance. I mean, geez, Elton’s got a high-end retail clothing store in Caesar’s Palace. And he’s been knighted, for godsakes.  By the Queen of England.  Did he see that coming? He could have been the Pinball Wizard forever, if only he’d died young.

I just hope I live long enough to get my own page on Wikipedia. Then I’ll know I’ve made a difference.

Or maybe I should just forget all this nonsense and finish my book.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

FAUST!

A Wild Card Tuesday Special brought to you by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

You are about to get a real treat. The lovely and talented Christa Faust is in the room.

When I first began my trip into authordom I asked fellow authors whose works I should read. One author’s name came up time and again, and the “must-read” novel was Money Shot.

I read the book and fell instantly in love with Angel Dare, Christa’s kick-ass protagonist. The novel struck me as high-calibre literature, filled with sharp, witty, gritty lines and real, three-dimensional characters with real, three-dimensional problems. Christa’s style is a nod to old, L.A. pulp noir, but her voice is entirely her own. I became an instant fan and told everyone I knew about the gem I had found. (Everyone who hadn’t already told me about Christa’s work, that is).

I can’t remember exactly where I finally met her – it could’ve been Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, or the Mystery Bookstore party the night before the L.A. Times Festival of Books. I do remember the fanboy grin I had on my face the day I got her to sign my copy of Money Shot, though. I can’t help it, her work evokes that kind of response.

So do me a favor. Check out the interview. Then check out her website, which is about as cool as websites get.

Then buy her books. You won’t be disappointed.

                                                                 *    *    *

Stephen: Christa, you are about as unique as an author gets. There are many of us who play at being tough and cool and hip, but, in my opinion, you're the real deal. You exude a confidence I've only seen in a handful of writers. Have you always been this way? Was there ever a point in your writing career where you were timid and insecure?

Christa: I don’t know about tough, cool or hip, but I’ve always been confident about everything, not just my writing. That’s just a natural part of who I am. It’s not that I think every word I write is genius and that I’m always perfect, I just don’t sweat my own fuck ups and don’t take criticism personally. People are entitled to not like my work and if one guy doesn’t like my book, it doesn’t mean that book is no good. It just means that one guy doesn’t like it.

In this like-button world we live in now, it seems as if 90% of reviews boil down to “this is cool” or “this sucks.” My advice to fledgling writers is not to take either one too seriously. I’m not saying that you should ignore thoughtful criticism from people you trust, just don’t base your sense of self worth on how many people “like” you or how many stars you have on Amazon.

Stephen: How did you get your education as a writer? Did you go to college, study literature and creative writing? How did you develop your style?

Christa: I never made any kind of conscious decision to develop my style. I just tell the stories I want to tell using the voice I have. That voice has grown and developed over the years because I’ve grown and developed as a person.

I did go to college and enjoyed exploring a variety of subjects just to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, but I didn’t learn a single practical thing about being a professional writer. I’ve never had a publisher ask to see my diploma before cutting me a check. The most valuable lessons I learned about the craft of writing were learned on the job, working on novelizations and tie ins.

Stephen: What are media tie-ins and how did you get involved in this arena?

Christa: There are two types of licensed, media-related books. The first is novelizations, like the one I did for Snakes on a Plane. That means that I take a preexisting script for a feature film (often months before it’s even cast, let alone shot) and translate it into prose, embellishing and adding detail and backstory until I reach the required word count, usually 95K.

Tie-ins are books that follow the further adventures of franchise characters, like my novel Coyote’s Kiss, featuring Sam and Dean Winchester from the television show Supernatural. While tie-ins must take into account what has already happened in the existing film or show and what may be planned for the next sequel or season, they are original stories invented by the author.

The most important thing to understand about this kind of work is that, unlike unofficial fan-fiction, it’s licensed and contracted by the franchise owner and you don’t get to pick which characters you will be chosen to write about. Sometimes you might be given a choice between show A or movie B and you are always free to say no to any job if it’s a property you really hate, but you can’t just call up your editor and say “I love Star Wars, so I want to write a Star Wars tie-in.”

As far as how I got into doing this kind of work, a friend of mine got asked to do a tie in and was unable to take the job. He recommended me. I took the job. Once the editors saw that I was fast and solid and could be relied upon to hit those skintight deadlines, they started piling work on me. It was like learning how to swim by being dropped out of a helicopter into the ocean, but that’s how I made my bones as a pulp writer.

The thing I like about writing these kinds of books is the mental workout. It’s like weight lifting for your writing muscles. It might seem simple and repetitive and you’re exhausted  and sore after you’re done, but when it comes time to get in the ring with one of your own original stories, you’re a lean mean writing machine.

Stephen: To my understanding, you were the first (perhaps only?) female author to be published by Hard Case Crime. How did you come to be published by Hard Case and how did it make you feel?

Christa: I am, as of yet, the only female author in the Hard Case line up. Which is not to say that there aren’t other amazing women writing in the genre right now, like Megan Abbott and Cathi Unsworth. I just got lucky and got their first. I like to think that other women, maybe new writers none of us have even heard of yet, might eventually follow in my high-heeled footsteps.

I got asked to submit to Hard Case in a funny roundabout kind of way. I was all fired up about the HCC re-release of the Richard Prather standalone novel The Peddler and so I posted on my blog about it. Ardai read my post and responded saying that I should submit something of my own. I didn’t have anything ready to go, but I turned around and banged out Money Shot in about 6 weeks. To my surprise, he liked it and bought it.

Being a part of that stellar line-up made me feel honored and proud and kind of like a freshman crashing a senior party. I still get such a kick out of seeing my books on the same shelf as some of my hardboiled heroes.

Stephen: You've lived through some pretty fascinating experiences, Christa. Most authors would call that "research," and a handful of us would have to attend twelve step meetings to make up for it. What has your experience as a Times Square peep show girl, a fetish model, and a Dominatrix added to your work as an author?

Christa: It’s funny that you say “lived through” as opposed to “enjoyed” or better yet “continue to enjoy.” While I haven’t worked the peep booths in twenty years and don’t do much in the way of modeling these days, I’m still active in the BDSM scene both in my private life and as a professional Dominatrix.

I see booking pro fetish sessions as kind of like writing tie-ins. You don’t get to pick the characters, but you are still free to be creative and have fun within the confines of that set storyline.

But back to experience and writing, I think everyone’s personal life experiences can and do influence their fiction. But I also don’t think writers should be limited to writing only about themselves. I’m not a fighter, but I was able to write about that world by talking to and spending time with fighters. I’ve never killed anyone either, but I’ve never had any problem writing about murder.

Stephen: Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite novels are I always include Money Shot. Your voice is crisp, authentic and timeless. I've read your early novel, Control Freak, which I also loved, but your voice seems to have coalesced in the pages of Money Shot. How did your style evolve between the writing of these two novels? What influenced your voice in Money Shot?

Christa: As I said earlier, I think my style evolved because I evolved. I was 21 years old when I wrote the first draft of Control Freak. I was pretty green and hadn’t made my bones as a pro. I was reading mostly Splatterpunk horror novels and that influence is strongly evident. As I got older, I found myself reading more vintage pulp and hardboiled novels and falling in love with that genre and it’s tougher, leaner kind of prose. But none of this was planned or on purpose. Mostly I just think it’s a combination of life experience and building up those writing muscles over the past 20 years.

I will say this, Money Shot and Choke Hold are both written in the first person, which probably makes them feel more intimate and immediate.

Stephen: Your recent novel, Choke Hold, is a sequel to Money Shot. Will there be more in this series? When can we expect to see the next one?

Christa: Man, I hope so. I don’t have a regular day job so I’m constantly hustling to make the bills. Side projects, tie-ins, teaching, and my BDSM sessions. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough money saved up to take off the time I’d need to work on another Angel Dare book and I’ve never been able to work on two or more books at once. Especially not a more intense, personal project like that. Hard Case Crime is fantastic and Ardai is hands down the best editor I’ve ever worked with, but he doesn’t have a huge budget. The advances aren’t enough to live on. I wish money weren’t a factor, but it is. A writer’s gotta eat.

So if you want another Angel Dare book, buy the shit out of the current Butch Fatale novel, Double D Double Cross.

Buy six copies. Tell all your friends to buy six copies. Or your mom. Or your dog. You know the drill.

I’m being facetious here, obviously. But in all seriousness, if you love a writer, support them by buying their work. It seems like basic common sense, but there’s been this unfortunate trend towards viewing writers as a kind of free reality entertainment on social networks. If everybody who “likes” me on facebook or follows me on twitter actually bought a copy of Double D Double Cross, I’d be able to write that third Angel Dare book.

Stephen: Could you tell us a bit about Double D Double Cross? Where did this idea come from? How did it develop? Will it continue as a series?

Christa: The idea for Butch Fatale series has been brewing for more than 10 years. It’s basically my tribute to the Shell Scott novels by Richard Prather. Only I put a butch lesbian in the role of the private eye and I don’t cut to the blowing curtains during the sex scenes.

In most pulp and hardboiled fiction, queer characters are usually villains or comic relief. If they’re main characters, they tend to get cured and made normal or utterly destroyed by their “sickness.” I wanted to make the queer character the hero. And while I was at it, I wanted to entertain the hell out of the reader along the way.

Stephen: Are you experimenting with different publishing platforms? What do you think about the e-book phenomenon?

Christa: A quirky little pet project like the Butch Fatale series seemed like the perfect way for me to test drive the concept of e-publishing. It’s been quite a learning curve, and I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m having fun with it. Not a kindle millionaire yet, but should be any day now, right?

We really are living in interesting times. What it means to be a professional writer has changed more in the past few years than in the whole rest of my life. It’s exciting and intimidating and challenging and I don’t have any idea where this bus is ultimately going. But I’m going to find out and I hope all my readers will come along for the ride.

Stephen: I've never met an author so fully actualized in life and career. Are you happy? Are you doing what you want in life? What else do you want to do?

Christa: I’d like to be less broke. To be able to spend less time hustling to make rent and focus more on just telling the stories that really matter to me. Healthcare would be nice too. And more shoes.

Stephen: What is a typical day like in the life of Christa Faust? A typical week?

Christa: Write, write, write, walk the dog, write, write, write, foot worship, write, write, sleep. Repeat.

I’m basically a hermit. I spend the majority of my time alone at my desk. Not very sexy or bad-ass, but unfortunately true.

Stephen: What are you working on currently?

Christa: I just kickstarted a second Butch Fatale novel called The Big Sister, which was a whole other new and curious experience in this brave new world of internet-era fiction. In addition to the e-book version, I’m also creating a special Ace Double style paper edition that will contain Double D Double Cross and The Big Sister. I’m hoping to have that one available by December to the people who chipped in to get it off the ground and shortly thereafter to everyone else. You can read more about it here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/310000831/butch-fatale-dyke-dick-book-2-the-big-sister 

Thanks, Christa, for giving us a peek into your life and your process as an author! And thanks for sticking around to answer questions from our Murderati authors and readers. We appreciate it!

WHERE THINGS STAND

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I’ve had a lot of people ask when my next book will be out. “What, the book I’m still writing?” I ask.

Well, I hope to have it finished by the end of the year. However, I’m not on contract, so the first place it goes is to my agent, who has to love it if it goes any further. Then he’s got to sell it. That deal will take as long as it takes and then I’ll have to work with a new editor, who may or may not want me to make significant changes. Then he/she must put her/his stamp of approval on the book before the book goes into production. The book ends up on the shelves about a year after that. So, if I finish it by the end of the year it will be another year and a half before it hits the stores.

God, that’s depressing. Will there even be bookstores two years from now?

Or I could go the self-publishing ebook route, like other authors I know. Then I could have the book available a couple months after it’s done. I’d have it out in less than a year.

I haven’t even been thinking of traditional publishing versus ebook self-publishing. I’ve only been concentrating on writing a good book, no matter how long it takes. But it’s been a long time now and ultimately my decision might rest on expediency and control (ebooks) over the glamour of seeing my hardcover in stores and reading reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist (traditional publishing).

Does not having a new book on the shelves every year mean I’m not in the game?

I don’t know. Now that I’ve learned a little bit about the world of publishing I don’t have the same mad desire to rush my work into publication, the way I did for Boulevard and Beat. I was living on the dream that being published would change my world, that it would bring vast riches and movie deals and an international fan base. I’ve learned that, while these things can in fact occur, they generally take many years and many, many novels in the pipeline. I’m no longer willing to put my friends and family aside to juggle a full-time day job and a full-time writing career that eats every evening, weekend and holiday. My kids are twelve and fourteen now and I only have so much time to be their daddy. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who lived hunched in a chair behind the night-time glow of a computer screen.

I’ve simply decided to take it slower. And it’s not like I haven’t been working. This past year I wrote and rewrote a feature screenplay on assignment and I had essays and poetry published in numerous print publications, including the “Now, Write” series, “Writers on the Edge” (22 writers talking about addiction), and Gerald So’s “The Line-Up.” I’ve been active in oodles of events for Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and I’ve committed to projects for Thrillerfest and other organizations. And I’ve written the first full draft of my new novel, which I’m basically tossing into the trash in favor of a new take on the story. So, I’ve been active, I just haven’t finished my fucking novel.

And yet that’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Pumping out the pulps? Everything else seems like busy work. Everything else is a distraction.

I wonder how long I can live on the reputation of my first two novels. A long time, I hope. Because it’s going to be a while before you have another Schwartz book in your hands.

Hopefully, it’s worth the wait. These things, these books, are forever, you know. I think I’d rather write six or eight really, really good books than twenty or thirty novels that blend into one, underwhelming conversation. And that means I’ll probably always have to have a day job. And maybe that’s okay. It keeps the writing pure. It means I’m doing it for the right reasons. I still only want to write novels that I want to write. I can write screenplays on assignment, no problem. There’s no love lost in writing for the screen. It’s just a paycheck and I’ll take it if I can get it. But the novel is my heart and soul. As personal as a saxophone solo in a bebop garage band. No one’s gonna tell Charlie Parker to play a catchier tune. “You know, the kind the fans can sing along with.”

So, the big news is that I’ve yet again changed the venue of my current novel. You know, the one set in Amsterdam? Only I re-set it in Las Vegas a few months ago. Last week I re-set it in San Francisco. I was in the City for a couple days and on the phone with my wife, just rattling off the passion I have for the magical city and then I hear her timid little voice saying, “Maybe you should just set it in San Francisco and be done with it.” And, as usual, she’s right. I love the city, I know the city, I have contacts at the SFPD and FBI in the city. I hooked up with my police friends while I was there and suddenly I was introduced to the Chief of Police and I was invited to sit in on a press conference he held regarding a recent police-involved shooting. I got the red-carpet treatment. And I ran story ideas by my cop friends and they offered the solutions to all of my problems – exciting, new locales in the city, operational secrets, “insider” information. It would take me months, maybe years, to acquire this kind of access in Las Vegas.

It’s a process, man. I’m actually glad I’m not writing on contract now. I’m glad I don’t have a deadline. It’s taken all of two years to discover the story I want to tell. And the book will be better for it.

It takes what it takes to get it right.

And that’s simply where things stand.

GHOSTING

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Forgive me for repeating myself, but due to time constraints, I’m re-posting a blog I wrote a while back.  I was preparing a new blog about how music has influenced my writing and I just couldn’t get it right, at least not in time for deadline.  This one, however, does the trick.  So, if you haven’t read it before, consider it brand spanking new.  Thanks for the leeway.

Here’s yet another example of how music has influenced the way I think about writing.  There’s a musical term, called “ghosting,” that describes a particular style of jazz improvisation. Let’s say there’s a musical phrase, or “lick,” that stretches over a number of bars.  When a musician “ghosts” that phrase, he whips through the notes, punctuating certain notes while passing over others on his way to the end of the phrase.  He might not even express the notes he passes over, he might merely suggest them by fingering the corresponding keys or allowing a very small amount of air into the instrument (if it is a saxophone or trumpet) in order to give the impression that the note was sounded. 

It’s kind of hard to describe this in words, but if you take a listen to Charlie Parker playing Au Privave, you’ll get the gist.  The music starts off with the melody line, which is repeated once.  Then Charlie improvises, and you can hear how he “ghosts” the musical phrases.

Even though we don’t hear all the notes he’s playing, we sense their existence in the context of the musical phrase.  The notes are felt, even though they might not be audible.

I realized how this concept applied to writing when I was working as a development executive and a writer I knew was having trouble cutting back a long scene.  She was reluctant to let go of the back-story she had written into the scene, thinking the reader would be lost if things weren’t spelled out clearly.

“Cut it,” I said.  “All you need is a word here and there to suggest the extensive back-story you’ve written.  Your dialogue already contains subtle references to it.  The ghost of what you’ve written will remain.”

I was discovering the musical connection even as I was saying it.  Teaching works that way, you don’t know what you know until you try explaining it to others.  She liked the concept and went off to do her rewrites.  When she finished, her script was vastly improved.  It said more, with fewer words.  And she didn’t just cut the back-story, she “ghosted” it.

I started thinking about how ghosting plays a role in other aspects of our lives.  For instance, anyone who has had to deliver a hundred-word bio goes through the process of ghosting.  Take mine, for example, with its emphasis on my development work with Wolfgang Petersen.  That was over ten years ago already, yet it influenced my life in ways that the jobs I held thereafter did not.  What about the “day job” I’m currently in?  It doesn’t show up in the bio, except for the line, “Mr. Schwartz traveled the United States extensively…”  That was for the day job.  The traveling influenced the writer I would become, but the job itself…fuggedaboudit.  Ghost it.

And how many of us have written three or four completely different resumes, each in their own way accurate in their description of our work history, accomplishments and goals?  We present different images of ourselves for different purposes.  The full story of my life exists in the combination of all the resumes, but that would be too much information, and probably too confusing.  Ghost it.

And what about our memories?  Don’t we remember the big events, the things that are really significant in our lives, while letting the less significant ones disappear in a haze of gray?  You can’t tell someone the story of your life without ghosting. 

I used to keep a recording device with me so I could capture every “great” idea that came into my head.  Then one day I was having lunch with another writer and he pulled his own tape-recorder from a hidden pocket, hit the record button, and said something to the effect of, “Note to self:  the protagonist should have a bouquet of flowers in his hands when the gunmen approach.”  Click, he slipped the recording device back into his pocket while turning to me with an innocent, “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

I ditched the tape recorder after that.  I realized that the good thoughts stick around.  Recording them or instantly jotting them down seemed redundant.  If the idea was still in my head after a week I knew it was something worth using.  If I forgot it ten minutes later then it probably wasn’t that important.  Kinda like the time I did shrooms and was absolutely fascinated with a glowing filament encased in a glass capsule, I spent hours marveling at it’s unique, sleek design and the God-inspired wisdom that caused it to come into existence.  The next morning I looked at the device again and said, “Oh yeah, a light bulb.”

But I digress.  We were talking about ghosting. 

So, ghosting in writing could be described as an intentional suppression of information that allows for the seeping through of certain elements of that information in order to suggest the existence of a deeper, fuller background than what is written on the page.

Man, I want a spot on the next Webster’s Dictionary writing gig.

What about unintentional ghosting?  I was having a conversation with a friend recently and he told me about his father’s Alzheimer’s.  It’s in the early stages—the man still remembers his family members and most of the important moments in his life.  But if you ask him what he had for lunch he’ll just make shit up.  He’ll give a whole schpeil about the fictitious dining experience he didn’t have.  Brushing over the fact that he doesn’t remember a thing about it.  Unintentional ghosting?

Does anyone out there in Murderati Land have any cool made-up words that almost make sense?  Or something you’ve taken from a different medium and applied it to writing?

POINT OF VIEW

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

BOULEVARD was the first novel I’d ever written or even tried to write and after it sold and the hoopla died down I got a call from my editor who said, “Okay, now we have to figure out your story’s point of view.”

“Umm…point of view?” I said.

“Yeah, you’ve got third person close, third person omniscient and first person. It’s a bit messy. I think it wants to be third person close.”

I didn’t want to embarrass myself by saying I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Third person close…to what? Omniscient sounded like something I understood – a narrator, like God, who knows everybody’s thoughts. And first person I knew, but didn’t really care for. But third person close?

After my hemming and hawing he figured I needed an education. He explained that third person close meant the story is written in third person, but it feels like first person. The narrator doesn’t know any more than the protagonist. Therefore, I can’t cut away to another character’s perspective, and I certainly can’t cut away to scenes that don’t include my protagonist. Unless, of course, I choose, stylistically, to incorporate chapters of third person close with alternating chapters of third person omniscient. But that has to be a conscious decision; I can’t just throw point of view around willy nilly.

My editor’s instincts were right. The story wanted to be third person close. It felt good to me. I like to keep the reader a bit in the dark, not knowing what’s coming around the corner. As my protagonist is surprised, so is the reader. So I had to go through the entire book and take out the handful of scenes that didn’t include Hayden Glass and find ways to incorporate that information into scenes that included Hayden Glass. It was difficult at first, but soon my brain eased into the process. By the time I jumped into my second novel, BEAT, I had it down. Third person close became the way to tell Hayden’s story.

And now I sit with my third novel in various stages of development. It’s a standalone, with all new characters. Its history is odd.

It began with my agent saying, “Okay, your two-book deal is over so you have to write a proposal. Why don’t you do another Hayden Glass book, but bigger. International. Like maybe he ends up in Bangkok and his addiction really gets tested.”

Bangkok? How does my LAPD detective end up in Bangkok? Well, he does go to San Francisco in BEAT. So, maybe he gets called for a special assignment, or he is required to bring back a perp who fled L.A. after committing a crime. I can work with this.

“Okay,” I said. “I can see him going international. But not Bangkok. Everyone I know is doing Bangkok. Besides, Hayden likes the blondes. I see him in Amsterdam. That’s where I’d be tested.”

“Yeah, Amsterdam! Great idea! But you should probably also have something ready in case the publisher doesn’t want to move forward with Hayden Glass.”

“Wait,” I said, “that could happen?”

“That could happen.”

So, I went to work on two book proposals. They were two very similar stories – one was a Hayden Glass novel and the other was about a young FBI agent who was made to bring back a fugitive that fled to Amsterdam. I liked both stories, but I was partial to the new one, with the FBI agent. It was a bit like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold meets 3:10 to Yuma. That became my pitch line.

I finished the proposals and handed them to my agent. He loved them both and sent the Hayden Glass one to my editor. My editor loved it and pitched his boss and…it happened. The publisher decided not to do another Hayden Glass novel.

“Okay,” I said to my agent, my voice weighted with disappointment. “Now we send him the other one, right?”

“No,” he said. “I think you should just write the other one. Write me a best-seller and I’ll take it out for bid!”

Write it? Without a contract? A spec novel, again?

I eventually got behind the idea and started doing my research. I spent a week in Amsterdam, met and interviewed lots of interesting Dutch folk, met and interviewed many interesting FBI folk, read tons of books, did interviews, etc. As I sat down to write I considered what my point of view would be for this story. I wanted to capture that same feeling of tension that existed in my other books, that sense of surprise, but I also wanted to introduce an antagonist in omniscient, in alternating chapters. I was considering going close third with these chapters, but opted against it because my protagonist assumes certain things about the antagonist and they may or may not be true. If I wrote the antagonist in close third I couldn’t avoid getting into his thought process, which would give away the truth about his character. I want this truth to be a surprise to my protagonist and to the reader.

And so I wrote the damn thing in third person close. At least the first draft. When I was done it seemed flat. I realized that, while I can write the perspective of an American lost in Amsterdam (I was that American, for a week), I had trouble writing all the other Dutch characters. They all read like American characters with Dutch names. And just about every other character in the piece had to be Dutch. I felt like I needed to spend six months getting to know the city before I could write it with any sense of authority.

So, I dropped the project and began writing a crime thriller set in L.A. and the Central Coast of California. I got a few chapters in when my wife told me I had to go back to the Amsterdam piece. She suggested I change the venue from Amsterdam to Las Vegas, which would allow me to write American characters in a town I know well (some would say too well). I returned to the Amsterdam piece, which was called TRIPLE X (the Amsterdam flag is three X’s – I’ve since changed the title, but will have to sit with it for a while to see if it works.)

Now I’m re-developing the story and rewriting it. Las Vegas serves the story just as well as Amsterdam. The venue has to be a place without rules where my protagonist feels like an outsider. While the change complicates some of the plot ideas, it also solves some of the problems I had writing an FBI agent working on his own in a foreign country. Even my FBI contacts thought it was better to keep him in America.

I rewrote the first fifty pages or so and then last week I was writing a sentence and it came out in FIRST PERSON, PRESENT TENSE.

I stared at it for a moment and thought, “Oh, shit. This feels right. Dammit.”

Now I’m back at the beginning, rewriting it in first person, present tense.

And I like the immediacy of the thing.

I mean, look at one of the lines and see if you feel the difference:

“He opened his eyes and stepped away. He kept to the balls of his feet, avoiding the things that might be collected as evidence.”

Versus:

“I open my eyes and step away. Keeping to the balls of my feet, avoiding the things that might be collected as evidence.”

Or –

“Bill caught his attention from the door. He seemed disappointed, as if Hoffman’s presence in the crime scene reflected poorly on his judgement.”

Versus:

“Bill catches my attention from the door. He seems disappointed, as if my presence in the crime scene reflects poorly on his judgement.”

I feel like I’m right with the character, walking in his footsteps.

Present tense basically tells the reader that things aren’t necessarily going to be okay in the end. I mean, we don’t know how this is going to end, do we? It’s happening right now. Past tense tends to infer that things turned out well – after all, I’m telling you what happened, aren’t I? So, if it’s in the past then my character must have made it out alive.

Past tense seems so 2008.

It might seem strange for some to write in present tense, but it doesn’t feel odd to me. Screenplays are written in present tense, and I’ve written more screenplays than novels. It’s the first person thing that I need to get used to. Now I’m really in my character’s head. And all the things that go on are subject to the mental state he’s in. To me, that’s interesting. I don’t know why I’ve always preferred reading third person to first person – maybe being in a character’s head seemed too daunting. What if the character is crazy? How do I deal with this as a reader? Exactly.

And some of my favorite books are written in first person – John Fowles’ The Collector, Nabokov’s Lolita, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. All deal with the paranoia of unreliable narrators. I kinda dig that. I like presenting my protagonist’s tweaked view of the world as truth, then forcing him (and the reader) to witness the real truth as the world unravels around him. To see and feel it as he sees and feels it. That excites me.

We’ll see if it sticks. I might get two hundred pages in and realize I have to experiment with yet another point of view to make it work. Who knows? It’s a journey, right?

Now I know why people write sequels. A lot of the hard stuff has already been done. I’m looking forward to writing the next Hayden Glass novel, which I’ll jump into as soon as I finish this standalone. I’ll probably publish it as an ebook, the way Brett Battles now does with his Jonathan Quinn series. That way it will publish quickly. Hell, that way it will publish at all.

So Hayden might still end up in Amsterdam. I’ll tell you what I know – when he gets there, he’ll be in third person close.

BATTLES REPORTS FROM THE FRONT LINES

A Stephen Jay Schwartz Exclusive

Many authors kvetch and scream and cry about the changing world of publishing. They worry about the shrinking market for hardcover and paperback releases, the reduction in the number of publishing deals, the reluctance for publishers to support an author’s desire to deviate from the strict guidelines of their genre, the shrinking size of their advances. Many authors, myself included, seem stuck in a quagmire between old world tradition and new world opportunity.

There are also a number of authors who push forward, paving the way for the rest of us to proceed. They put in the hard, hard work necessary to take control of their careers, freeing themselves from the rules and restrictions placed on authors since the first days of publishing.

Brett Battles is one of these authors. What Brett has been able to accomplish in just a year’s time has given hope to all of us. In my opinion, Brett is one of the leaders of the new age of self-publishing, and he comes to it after a successful (and frustrating) career as a traditionally published author. Brett speaks from experience and he speaks from the heart.

I am honored to reintroduce my good friend and fellow Murderati, Brett Battles…

 

Hello Murderati! Nice to pop back for a visit.

It’s been an interesting year since I was last here. I call it my Wild eBook Adventure, and Steve thought you might like to hear about it and what I’ve learned along the way.

Twelve months ago, I had one simple goal: To continue to be able to write full time.

Looking at the publishing landscape, it was clear that if I was going to accomplish that, it wouldn’t be by the same means I’d used in the past, i.e. via a traditional deal. The dollars were getting smaller, and who knew how long it might take to hook up with a new publisher (assuming I could.) As I saw it, ebooks could provide me the opportunity I was looking for. No, I didn’t think it was guaranteed, but I felt it was well worth the try.

When I left Murderati last June, I had just released my first three self-published titles: LITTLE GIRL GONE, SICK, and HERE COMES MR. TROUBLE. Thankfully, they began selling right away, and I was actually making some decent money. It wasn’t enough to live on though. To do that, I needed to have more titles for sale, and I don’t mean just one or two.

Putting the old nose to the grindstone, I set a schedule that has seen me release six more novels between last June and today (my latest, PALE HORSE, came out over the weekend). Yes, that’s a lot, but it plays directly to what I’ve learned about the ebook world.

And what would that be you ask? Here you go, the top six in no particular order:

Nothing is more important that writing a good book. That sounds obvious, but it needs to be said.

Editing, especially copy editing, is not a step to ever be taken lightly. Pay the money. It’s worth the cost

Covers are incredibly important. A cover should look like it could be on a book out of one of the Big 6. Pay the money. It’s worth the cost.

Your virtual bookshelf is forever. The more (quality) work you get up there, the better you’re going to do. A book in a brick and mortar store is lucky to stay on a shelf for more than a month. In cyberspace, it never goes away, so if someone stumbles upon one of your books, likes it, then wants to buy more, they can do it immediately. AND they do.

Your virtual bookshelf mean your books have the ability to sell month after month after month. My books that have been out over a year still sell at a steady monthly rate.

Experiment: with promo opportunities, with pricing, with covers, with product descriptions. A tweak to a book not selling this month, might help it sell well next.

For the rest of last year, as I worked to build up my virtual shelf, I struggled financially month-to-month. I mean really struggled. The ebook money was coming in at a nice rate, and was even increasing each month, but it was not enough yet to make my monthly nut, so I was using what savings I had to cover the difference. There was one month in the fall that was I down to less than I would need for rent, but the ebook month came in at the end of month and I squeezed by.

But then last November, I actually made more than I needed for the first time. I was numb when I realized this. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to work, and I would be able to keep doing what I loved full time.

December was down just a bit, but not much. Then came 2012.

To say this has been a better year than 2011 would be a massive understatement. I attributed that to a few things. The first and foremost: having more books up that people can purchase. This way no one title has to carry the load. Think of it as a small snowball rolling down the hill that is slowly growing and growing. The father it goes, the more formidable it becomes, taking on a life of its own. Second: changing my novel prices from $2.99 to $3.99. Both are low prices and there has been absolutely no fall off from the increase. Third: giving books away through the Kindle Select Program. This method has become a little more iffy lately, but what basically has happened in the past is that once you put your book in the program (giving Amazon a 90 day exclusive), two important things happen: one, Kindle Prime members can now borrow your book for free while Amazon will pay you an amount that is usually somewhere between $2.15 to 2.50 per book; and two, you can give your book away for free to anyone for up to 5 days during the 90 day period. If you’re able to give away a ton of copies (I’m talking 30 grand or more), and you can get in the top ten or so on the free list, there’s a good chance your book will go pretty high when it goes back on sale.

Sample: BECOMING QUINN. I gave it away for three days in early March, ending up with about 32,000 takers. By the end of the month I had sold over 6,000 copies, for which I make a little more than $2 a copy. You can do the math. Also note that my other titles continued to sell.

March was a very good month for me. As was April. As was May.

I mentioned that the giveaway seems a bit iffy now. In the last month or two, the giving away option isn’t always seeing quite the success on the selling front as it had before. Two exceptions to this are our own Rob Browne’s first self-published title TRIAL JUNKIES, and Ann Voss Peterson’s PUSHED TOO FAR. They’ve both done very well.

Because of this, I’ve decided to try it again. Blatant self promo part here: I’m giving away the Kindle version of my novel SICK, the first of my Project Eden Books, today through Thursday. You can click on this link and download it for free, no strings. I would actually appreciate it if you would. Every free download helps, and—BONUS—you’re going to get a book I think is one of the most suspenseful I’ve ever written.

I’m sure a lot of you are saying “I can’t write six books in a year.”

Don’t worry, we all write at our own pace (a pace that should not sacrifice quality). Just write at the pace you can and see if you can pick it up a bit. Instead of one book a year, try one and half or two.

Others might be saying, “But you already had a following, so you had a leg up. Didn’t you read that article where a majority of self-published authors aren’t even making $500 a year?”

Let’s talk about a following first. Yes, I do believe mine has helped, but I also know I have gained a ton of new readers I never had before who knew nothing about me. Also there are plenty of examples of authors who had no following and are now doing well. And I did see that article, and it didn’t surprise me. It depends on the genre someone’s writing (thrillers and romances do better than a lot of other areas), the quality of the work (refer back to the what I’ve learned list above), and how many titles they have available (same note).

“What about luck?”

Yeah, there’s probably some involved. But I believe we make our own luck. You’ve got to keep plugging away even if it’s not working right now, because I can guarantee one thing, if you don’t work hard at it (or whatever it is you want to do) you WILL fail.

Me, I’m still plugging away. Yes, I’ve had a few very good months, but I can’t just sit back and expect that to happen all the time. I need to continue to expand my virtual bookshelf. To that end, I’m in the middle of a personal three year plan where I’m trying to release at least four books a year. At some point in 2013 I’ll assess where I’m at and see if that pace needs to continue, but, no matter what, I still plan on putting out at least two or three a year for the rest of my life.

It’s kind of weird to just discuss this in financial terms, because I’m not doing it just for the money. I’d write whether I was getting paid or not. I can’t not write. Of all my (limited) skills, writing is what I do best. I’m not trying to claim I’m the best writer, just that when measuring my strengths, it’s at the top.

Okay, here are a few things I love about self-publishing in the new e-reality:

Writing what I want to write. No one is telling me my idea won’t sell, or isn’t big enough, or anything like that. If I want to write a story that I know will have a limited audience? So what? I will. If I want to write a book in a different genre? Same answer.

 – A series never has to end until the AUTHOR wants it to.  In the past my popular Quinn series would prbably have died after I parted ways with my old publisher.  Now I can continue writing it as long as I want.  Case in point:  I’ve released BECOMING QUINN and just this last spring THE DESTROYED myself.

The ability to release a book as soon as it’s ready. My books usually come out a day or two after the copy edit is done, and within a few months of when I actually started writing it in the first place. I love that.

The ability to release as many books as I want in a given year. The only limitation is my own abilities.

Controlling all the creative aspects of my book. Cover, editing, formatting, print versions, I either hire the people to help me or do the items I’m capable of myself (specifically formatting for ebook and print).

Getting paid every month. Amazon and Barnes & Noble pay every month with a two month delay, meaning at the end of June I’ll receive the money I made in April, end of July the money from May, and so on.

Here’s the bottom line. I am the small business owner of a small creative business. I work everyday like all small business owners—even on weekends and vacations. But, my God, I’m writing. Nothing else makes me as happy.

Let me be clear. I don’t think everyone will be able to write full time, but I think this new world means that there will be more of us who can. And even those who aren’t able to achieve full-time status, a writer who puts out a good book or two a year could still make a nice extra income. Will some succeed and others fail? Yes. But, let’s be honest, that’s the same in traditional publishing.

eRead on everyone! And don’t forget to download SICK, it’s free! Who doesn’t like free?

 

BEAUTIFUL CORPSE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I’ve passed another birthday and there are lyrics in my head:

“…another day older and deeper in debt…” Tennessee Ernie Ford

“What a drag it is getting old” – Rolling Stones

“Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…” – Neil Young

“Hope I die before I get old” – The Who

“Too old to rock n’ roll, too young to die” – Jethro Tull

And don’t those artists just scream AARP?

I’ve decided it’s my last chance to put a choke-hold on youth. I’ve got a bit of a paunch and some high blood pressure and a cholesterol issue and why the fuck does it take so long to pee and I’m certainly not the guy I thought I’d be when I was looking forward at age sixteen. In high school I lifted weights. I did a few body-building competitions, but was never serious enough to shave my chest and arms. Or work my legs, for that matter. Too much effort. I looked great down to the hips and then you saw a pair of Big Bird legs. That hasn’t changed. Fortunately, sweats cost about $14.99.

Our author brother Brett Battles proved it could be done. He lost all his weight in just a few months and now he’s the Marlboro Man. Thank you, Brett, for the inspiration.

It helps that I just got a gym membership for the entire family. Now I don’t have to choose between spending time with the wife and kids and spending time alone with the dumbbells. I’ve worked out twice now, with my older son, Ben. It’s a bonding experience, like what I had with my dad when we went to the racquetball courts when I was twelve. He was a pediatrician and a kind and gentle soul until he lifted that racquet and I witnessed the kind of competitive nature that gets a guy through medical school.

I didn’t realize how my body has been starved for pumping iron. Last night I found that familiar rack of pulleys and push-yous that form the lat and triceps arena. Lats and triceps – two of my favorite muscle groups. You work the lats and you get that nice “V” shape and since the triceps are a large muscle they grow fast and make the arms look twice their size in a very short time. I need visual incentive – I don’t really get hooked until about eight work-outs in, when my body begins to show me the money.

It was great walking my son through the exercises, teaching him how to isolate the muscle using lighter weights, focusing on form and technique, seeing him “get it.” So many lifters go for the heavy weights because they look good, then end up hurting themselves from trying to heft all the weight using the wrong sets of muscles.

Mind you, I haven’t worked out seriously for over twenty years. I’ve been going to pot daily, one Kit-Kat at a time.

But God, it feels good. That ripping sensation in the back of the arms, that tearing of the pecs. I look from one machine to the next – “Oh, I remember that! I gotta get over to that machine NOW!” I have to be careful to pace myself or I’ll find my next set of machines in the ER.

It ain’t easy, this path I’m taking. The belly’s a real challenge. I’ve grown accustomed to my diet of daily pasta. And desserts are a magnificent invention. I’m their greatest admirer.

I’ve been blessed with youthful hair and the ability to stand erect. It seems a shame not to give it a go, to try to capture my youth in a bottle, if only for a moment, before the thyroid and ulcers and enlarging prostate have their way with me. When I go I want to go like Jack Lalanne, pulling twenty boats across the English Channel with my teeth. Or maybe it’s the River Styx I’ll be crossing.

I was actually rather relieved when I stopped the body-building some many years ago. In case you haven’t heard, I’ve got a bit of an addictive personality, and weightlifting can get addictive. It ruled my life for a time and it felt nice to finally break free. Now that I’ve had a chance to let other addictions rule my life I don’t mind turning things over to a little obsessive exercise again.

You know, we writers sit on our cans a lot. We give ourselves the big guilt trip about what it takes to be a professional. Our communal motto is “Put Butt in Chair.” In other words, no excuses, sit down and write. I’ve taken that to heart, and my heart just won’t take it anymore.

The truth is I’m starting to resent the writing. Just a bit. You see, I gave up so much to get those books written. Every day after the day job, I’d arrive at the cafe at 6:00 pm, stay until it closed at 10:00. Or I’d go to the all-night cafes and push on. Every weekend, another ten, twelve hours a day. Every sick day. Every holiday. All my vacation time. I did this for years. Disconnected from the family. Drifted away from my friends. Writing was all-consuming, there wasn’t room for anything else.

I pushed hard and produced two novels, all while I had the day job. So I took a year off just to write. I wrote a screenplay on assignment and most of novel number three. More time sitting on my butt. Watching that waist-line expand. And the money didn’t come and I’m back to having a day job while I write.

I don’t want to be a slave to my writing. I want to spend my vacation time doing vacation things. I want to go dancing with the wife. I want to help educate my kids. I don’t want to be remembered as the dad with his nose in the laptop, seen only in the moments before he goes to work and when he returns late at night. Unfortunately, my writing often takes me away from the OTHER things I love.

It’s odd when people ask me about my hobbies and all I can say is “writing.” I write, I read. I write more. I’m compulsive about writing. Most authors are. We are fanatic in our discipline. We write eight thousand words a day and raise our fists to the Gods.

I’m tired of sprinting. I’ll do the long-distance marathon for a while. So, I won’t be a one book-a-year kind-of guy. The books will come when I finish them.

I’m seeking balance.

I’ll start the normal lifestyle by getting back in shape.

I remember this kid in high school. A power-lifter and body-builder. He had an incredible body. He died suddenly our junior year. I heard he had some kind of condition, a ticking bomb in his head and he knew it. I remember the rest of us saying he’d left a beautiful corpse behind.

We admired what he’d accomplished.

I hope this doesn’t come off as a vapid, superficial post about physical beauty trumping the virtuous human mind. Then again, I am the guy who turned an alter-ego sex-addict into a franchise hero. Can’t do that without objectifying the mortal coil.

And that ends the thought of the day.

CONTINUUM

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

It’s not so much a dream as a vision.

It can come as a dream, at times, but mostly it’s the place my mind goes as I’m going to sleep.

Like last night – I saw a javelin fall from the sky and impale me in bed. Terrifying, but oddly comforting, as well.

All my life I’ve had visions of handling a sword. I remember the first time it really struck me – I was watching Oliver Stone’s Platoon and saw a scene where a battle-weary American soldier leans against a tree and falls asleep. Suddenly, his eyes pop open. The camera pushes in, then out, then in again, and he looks down to see that he is being bayonetted by a Vietnamese soldier. There’s nothing he can do but watch himself die.

At that moment I realized that, in a previous life, I had experienced a similar death.

My whole life I’ve felt the weight of a sword in my hand; like a phantom metal limb. When I feel anxious or encounter conflict I imagine wielding my sword and fighting off my oppressors. The sword-play feels graceful, as in a ballet.

Oddly, I’ve never explored this obsession outside my own thoughts. Only once, maybe twenty years ago, when the images of sword-fighting taunted me nightly. I went to a sword shop and explained my visions to the owner. I asked if I could handle a number of different swords. I knew I’d recognize the right sword by its weight. We tried a few and most were too heavy. Finally, he handed me one that felt like an extension of my hand. It was light and thin and had a silver, cupped hilt.

“This feels right,” I said.

“It’s a Spanish rapier,” he said. “What Zorro uses.”

That’s as far as I took it. I couldn’t afford the sword, so I didn’t buy it. And I’ve been too busy in life to take fencing lessons, or to justify taking the time away from more immediate concerns.

However, when I went to Scotland last year I visited the Edinburgh Castle and entered a room with hundreds, if not thousands, of original, period swords.

In addition to the giant Highland Claymores, I saw dozens of rapiers fitting the size and shape of the sword I held in the shop years before. I wanted to linger there forever, trying one sword after another. Only through trick photography did I achieve any satisfaction:

 

 

And the vision of being gutted continues. Every day, every night. I’m in battle, fencing like one of the Musketeers. Sometimes I prevail, other times I fail. The memory-thought of that sword sinking into my belly used to horrify me. Now, after all these years, it’s become an old friend. And why not? It was the key that opened the door to the life I would experience next.

Someday I’d like to explore this further. Get one of those past-life regressions. Take some fencing lessons. Buy a sword or two. It’s odd that, as persistent as this feeling is, I’ve never felt compelled to take real action. It’s remained my own private obsession.

I wonder what we bring from lives we’ve lived before. What events so punctuate our psyches that their ghosts follow us from one life to the next?

I think of other things that might have their genesis somewhere else. Like my passion for the color purple. Lavender, to be exact. Nothing compares to it. The color strikes my eye with such force that I imagine it as an opening to another dimension. When the Jacaranda trees bloom in Los Angeles, in the month of May, when the entire city erupts in lavender, I am born again.

I had a girlfriend in high school who used this knowledge to her advantage – she wore a pair of tight, purple Dittos to school almost every day. It worked like a charm.

I wonder if these obsessions have their origins in previous lives or if they develop early on, in our present (and perhaps only) life. How are we instilled with such absolute conviction?

At age seven I became a vegetarian. I remember the moment I discovered that meat came from animals. I was five years old, maybe younger. I was sitting on a counter-top and our house-keeper mentioned something about meat coming from cows. From killing cows, to be exact. I remember my feet swinging to a stop, and my face dropping, and my voice repeating the phrase as a question, “Meat comes from cows?”

A couple years later my sister, four years my senior, visited a meat-packing company on her sixth-grade field trip. (Really? You’re really going to take a bunch of sixth-grade kids on a field trip to a slaughter-house?) When she came home she told me what she saw. We both decided to become vegetarians on the spot. Two days later she was back to eating meat. Two weeks later my mom realized I was really serious about this thing.

It’s felt right, for forty years now.

Like the weight of that sword in my hand.

Like the flowering Jacaranda in May.

It makes you wonder where we get this stuff.

                                                               *    *    *

Do you have any life-long traits or obsessions that might come from a past life? Do you explore them or let them be? Do you use them in your writing?

WORD SPILL

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Sometimes I have no room for blog-thought.

Sometimes I just let the words spill…

 

1.

In this little beach town

on any given morning

and especially in the morning

the world is good

 

The sun shines

and enough people are unemployed or retired

to enjoy the day

 

Even the bums

on their benches

in their madness

seem content

 

In the morning

before the bars and restaurants open

(their owners sweeping sand off the steps)

the cafes sell their coffee and

croissants and wi-fi

and the rare business man walks by

in a suit

drawing stares

from the rest of us

in jeans and shorts and wetsuits

driving bicycles and rollerblades and surf boards

 

The old and young

sporting tattoos

walking their dogs and

grandchildren

 

It’s a different sound

in the morning

No drunken brawls over

women

Just the parrots

overhead

and the Coast Guard helicopter

and

in the morning

women dancing in the

streets

with babies in their arms.

 

2.

 

I have to remind myself

sometimes

that I want to write

 

that I do it because it’s what I want

to do

 

that it’s not a means to an end

 

that it’s not the

work

or

the deadline

or

the career

 

In those times I’ll pick up a pen

and a notebook

and write

what might be mistaken for

poetry

 

Because I know it won’t be sold or,

likely,

published

 

it’s just for me.

 

Because sometimes

I just want to write

 

3.

 

I’m never so happy as when I’m

petting a dog

 

The child in me erupts

 

I roll, laughing,

an idiot on the

sidewalk

wrestling the dog that only has eyes for me

 

“I’ve never seen him play like that”

 

“He usually doesn’t like men”

 

“Okay, I think it’s time we say goodbye”

 

The dog usually tires before I do

 

I’m never so happy as when I’m watching

the pelicans

fall

like Olympic divers

into the waves

their silly shapes and dangling legs

 

I’m never so happy as when children

catch my eye

 

And wave

and peek

and hide

and laugh

 

The laughter is the best

 

And when parents say

 

“She’s usually so shy”

 

“He’s really taken with you”

 

The kids

usually tire

before I do

 

I’m never so happy as when I watch

my own children

sleep

 

In quiet warm dreams

Eyes moving under the lids

Feet twitching

The dog curled between them

 

On occasion

I’ll have a day

like today

and know happiness

 

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