Maplewoods Mirror Number 6 - October 2006

 

The last Maplewoods Mirror had a lot of information, so this one is shorter.  I also realized I should mention my website, which I never have done.  If you’ve never seen the site, peek at www.chrismeeks.com.  The site has links there, too, to fun video interviews about The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. One interview, at http://tinyurl.com/ty3vx, is with an amazing service called Expanded Books.  I felt I was in a Ken Burns documentary. Check out Expanded Books other, mostly nonfiction book interviews, too, at http://www.expandedbooks.com/index.php.

 

“You’re Not a Magician”

 

This summer when I was in New York, a good friend took me to a lecture by magician Dave Williamson, author of Williamson’s Wonders and a performer known for his humor and amazing sleight of hand. The lecture was for fellow magicians only, not open to the public, but my friend is an amazing magician, and his word to his cohorts was good enough to gain me entrance.  What I saw left me in awe.  I still flash on Williamson’s presentation, not because he has any superpowers but because what he does relates to professional writing perfectly.

 

One thing I learned is that each trick he showed took him hundreds of hours to perfect.  Magic didn’t come painlessly, but when he performs it, he makes it seem as if it’s an amazing accident.  In fact, his performance is designed to appear as if he’s astonished himself.  As he said, “There’s nothing worse than an arrogant magician.  If as a performer, you come across better than your audience, they’ll want you to fail.  However, if you look a bit inept, they’ll be that much more surprised.”  While writers should not appear inept, I’m of the opinion that the best writing isn’t showing off but rather is easy to read like John Updike’s, Lorrie Moore’s, and Hemingway’s—and then you astound your readers with sharp perceptions or a particularly apt simile.

 

Another thing I learned is that magic’s power is in subtlety.  One trick included turning the deck from blue-backed cards into red-backed cards.  He said, “Don’t hold the cards before your audience and say, ‘See.  See, they have blue backs.’”  Rather, it’s better to shuffle as you chatter about life’s absurdities, and as you shuffle, the audience notices peripherally that the cards are blue-backed.  You’re proving over and over all the blue backs.  When you announce you’re going to try to change it to red, they doubt you but know they’re all blue now.  Voila: red.    Writing, too, should have foreshadowing and subtle layers built in, things that can play on a reader’s subconscious, and things readers can discover upon rereading.  Voila: it’s read.

 

The trick that sits with me the most was when Williamson appeared to push a ping-pong ball through a cup’s bottom to land on the upside-down bottom of a second cup underneath.  He emphasized to his peers that when they reveal the ball underneath, the ball should be moving slightly.  It’s that subtle extra thing to make it appear that the ball just went through the cup.  To make the ball move, however, requires a lot of deft and subtle handwork that I can’t reveal.  He said, however, he worked on that part alone as a young magician for weeks.  “I’ve seen this trick performed hundreds of times,” said Williamson, “and many magicians don’t show the ball moving.  It’s not important to them.  To me it’s everything.  If it’s not moving, you’re not a magician.” 

 

What I realize is that many writers, some of them my students, don’t see that what writers do is magic, too.  We’re just putting ink on a page.  The letters arranged make people think they’re in another place, yet it’s so easy to dispel that notion with bad grammar, awkward phrases, or even the misplaced comma.  I quiz my English students on commas.  If you don’t care about this stuff, if you don’t care for punctuation, you’re not a writer.

 

AMAZON SHORTS

 

A little over a year ago, Amazon.com introduced Amazon Shorts, exclusive pieces of short fiction and short essays that sell for next to nothing: 49 cents each.  I heard about it early, and soon I learned firsthand how it works for both authors and readers.

 

At first, I kept putting off trying Amazon Shorts as a reader.  I use Amazon.com all the time and, in fact, discovered that buying used books there has been wonderful.  Sometimes used books are only a few bucks and as little as a penny, and with $3.50 in shipping, a used book can be extremely affordable and convenient: in my mailbox in about a week, which is usually sooner than my getting to a bookstore.  Amazon Shorts, in contrast, are not delivered by mail but by computer.  It’s instant.  Even so, I haven’t been a fan of reading anything long on screen. I hesitated.  I bought books instead.

 

In some of my searches on authors, however, I’d run into an Amazon Short.  For instance, I teach contemporary novels in my English classes at Santa Monica College, and I decided to teach The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  When I brought the book up on Amazon, I saw three things: new, the book was 40% off at $8.40, used was $3.50, and Niffenegger had an Amazon Short, a story called “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels.”  Forty-nine cents.  I bought her book used and threw in the short story—and loved both.

 

I’ve since learned there are many contemporary authors’ short stories and essays on Amazon.  I found “Faces” by David McCullough (author of 1776), who says of his Short, “I strongly believe all of us should know and remember how great were the hardships endured by the very real-life men and women of America's founding time and how much of our way of life and our freedoms we owe to their sacrifices and steadfastness.” Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York), has a Short, as do Caroline Leavitt (Girls in Trouble), Grant Jarrett (More Towels), Robin Cook (Fever), James Lee Burke (Last Car to Elysian Fields), and many more authors.  In fact, one of the requirements for having a Short is that you have a book selling on Amazon.com.  The next big requirement is that it is interesting enough to be accepted by the people who run Amazon Shorts.

 

I discovered that Shorts are delivered three ways: downloaded to your computer as a PDF file, downloaded to your e-mail as plain text, or you can simply read it online (HTML format).  Any story you buy is in an Amazon file forever, available for you to retrieve forever, even if you download the stories as I do.  The first time you buy a story, you have to fill in your credit card information, billing address and more.  Amazon can keep the information, encoded, so that future stories are a mere click away.  After you read one or two, you’ll see how easy—and often wonderful—these shorts are.

 

I happen to like the PDF version of stories because it’s formatted as if in a book with a big and readable font, and, if you choose as I do, you can print it out.  Niffenegger’s story, for instance, prints to six pages.  It’s a hilarious story about a man who finds angels living in his attic, and they’re becoming a bother.  He wants them exterminated.

 

To get a sense of all the offerings, go to Amazon.com, and near the top of the screen is a tab marked “See All Product Categories.”  Click on the tab, and at the bottom of the first left column is Amazon Shorts.  Or just click here: http://tinyurl.com/y59x98.  Once you’re there, notice the many categories of shorts.  I happen to like “Literature and Fiction,” where I found and loved Warren Alder’s “Good Neighbors.”  He is author of War of the Roses, which was turned into the memorable movie with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.  Click on the sports category, and you’ll find “My Year of Skiing Dangerously” by Robert Westbrook.

 

Early on, I wanted to get a short story on Amazon Shorts. I found information on it at http://tinyurl.com/y9degb.  I’m happy to say my story “Dracula Slinks Into the Night” is an Amazon Editors’ Pick right now.  You can see it at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000IMV3EC.

 

Basically, Amazon Shorts considers any previously unpublished short-form work (2,000 - 10,000 words, fiction or nonfiction) that readers might find interesting.  If accepted, your Short needs to be exclusive on Amazon for at least six months.  After six months, it can be published anywhere.  Authors get twenty cents for each short sold.  You have to hope for volume.  It also helps draw people to your books.  If readers like your short, they’re more likely to buy your book.

 

I now have two Amazon Shorts.  My other one is “The Sun is a Billiard Ball,” one of my longer short stories at over 30 pages.  I pulled it at the last minute from The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it just didn’t fit with the rest of the book, though I liked it.  I’d been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” from his collection, Nine Stories.  What happens to the protagonist, Seymour Glass, had haunted me for years, and my short story was an exploration of the unexplainable.

 

My newest short story, “Dracula Slinks Into the Night,” was loosely based on a Halloween party my wife and I went to a year ago this month where I ended up breaking a rib.  A good party.  In my story, the protagonist is a lawyer, and his wife works at Forest Lawn Mortuaries.  To get to either Short, go to http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000IMV3EC.

 

Once my first story was accepted, I had to fill out many forms, such as agreeing to the royalty and payment methods and explaining what led me to writing this particular story in the first place. 

 

If you’re unpublished, by the way, there’s still a method for getting a short into the site.  Gather.com has a monthly writing competition, and the four best shorts are accepted as Amazon Shorts.  For more information, go to http://tinyurl.com/y82m5q

 

As an aside, I happen to constantly switch contemporary novels in my English classes.  For me, it’s a way to keep on my toes and read a lot of fiction.  If you’re curious to what other books besides The Time Traveler’s Wife have been popular with my students over the last eight years, check out my list at http://tinyurl.com/y56rqv.

 

 

A COLLEAGUE

 

I first “met” Henry Baum this summer in Ireland when I stumbled upon an Internet café and checked to see if I had any e-mail.  I did, and one was from Henry Baum, who I’d just heard about before Ann, Ellen, and I headed for Europe.  Baum’s book, North of Sunset, and four other books including mine, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, all from print-on-demand presses, were featured as BEST in an Entertainment Weekly article, which I’d written about here previously.  Henry introduced himself, and we decided to swap books.  Upon return, I read Mr. Baum's book right away and enjoyed it a great deal. There's darkness north of Sunset.

North on Sunset focuses on movie star Michael Sennet whose career dropped into his lap as he hoped and expected. The world watches his every move and every magazine cover, and now he's bored. Enter the Vanity Plate Killer, who is randomly targeting and killing people with vanity plates such as those owned by Michael as well as by the local beach bum with a Ford Festiva. If anything, the Vanity Plate Killer is a cultural critic with a deadly knife. If you're already connecting the dots, you're wrong. You'll be surprised.

North of Sunset reminds me of John Rechy's work where the characters are not particularly likeable, but they're damn compelling and you need to find out what they do. I was drawn throughout the book to strong moments, usually realizations, that had me admiring Baum's craft. His chapter endings tend to have a twist that make you keep reading. I particularly liked the ending. Before I reached the end, I mapped out the possibilities, and it was none of them. The conclusion features a disturbing, tantalizing set of actions, fully motivated.

I also loved Baum's references to the writing life.  One killer who is writing a journal reflects, "At least with killing, you were sharing it with another person. With writing, you could only entertain yourself." Writing, however, thinks a main character, is more satisfying because you don't have to leave the apartment.

Baum also writes, "movies make a book legitimate." This book is legitimate now. It's also quite visual--perfect for a director who might fashion film noir correctly in the way that Brian Depalma's The Black Dahlia did not.  If you’re looking for a new and dark book, this is the one.

 

ANOTHER COLLEAGUE

 

Lee Wochner, a playwright, producer and director who teaches playwriting in USC’s Professional Writing Program, has a fabulous and eclectic blog mostly about writing at http://www.leewochner.com/blog/index.php.  He also has a passion for comic books, which he writes about, and he’s the person to suggest that I write this newsletter.  He has a newsletter, too, with writing tips, resources, and more, and to have it delivered to you without cost, go to http://leewochner.com/newsletter.html.

 

TOOTING MY FORMER STUDENT’S HORN

 

I just learned that one of my UCLA Extension students from two years ago, Mary Feuer, who took my class, “The Writer’s Workout,” as her first fiction class, has recently won the Grand Prize in the Writer's Digest annual writing competition. Her short story, "House on Fire," was selected from 19,419 entries (yes, almost double the previously reported 10,000) for this honor. The story and an accompanying interview appear in the December issue of Writer's Digest, which is already available at many newsstands, as well as at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and all great bookstores.  This is Mary’s first published piece of fiction.  Pick it up if you get a chance, if only to see the spectacular layout. 

 

Perhaps this is a good spot to mention that my next UCLA “Writer’s Workout” will start in January at the Occidental College campus in Eagle Rock.  I can’t guarantee results like Mary’s, but if you go with the whole “Workout,” you should have material to send out.  I’ll give more specifics next month.