Friday, April 24, 2020

Pushing Water Chapter One

Pushing Water drops from Down & Out Books on May 4; you can pre-order it any time you want. Today’s blog post is the opening chapter, to see if it piques your interest.



Jacques Lelievre pushed a ten across the bar, tapped it with an index finger.
“Thanks, Larry.” Don Kwiatkowski tipped his fresh beer in Jacques’s direction. Under the impression Jacques’s name was Larry Robinson. A reasonable mistake: that’s what Jacques had told him.
“You ever hear of a guy named Elmore Leonard?” Jacques careful to keep his French Canadian accent under control.
Don swallowed. Showed thought. “He a fighter? Sounds like a fighter’s name.”
“Writer. I think he did some time, though. Writes a lot of books about guys who did time and knows how they think.”
Don swallowed. Set the glass on the bar. “You know much about guys that did time?”
“Got a lot of convict friends, do you?”
“Not a lot. Some.”
“Where’d you get to know not a lot, but some convicts?”
Jacques sipped his drink. “Prison.”
Don took his time with another swallow, cagey like. “So you’re saying you’re a convict. That’s how you know about this Elmore guy.”
“I’m not saying anything. Being a con isn’t the kind of thing you brag aboot.” Jacques flinched inwardly.
Don took a few seconds to really look at Jacques for the first time that night. “Where you from, exactly?”
“Vermont. Way the fuck up by Canada. Got tired of freezing my cock off seven months a year and moved to Florida. Got so hot there I had to change clothes three times a day. Now I drive truck and move around a lot. Get a little of everything.” Jacques really had gotten tired of freezing his cock off, though it had been somewhat north of Vermont.
“What’d you do to get put in prison?”
“Does it matter?”
The pause told Jacques snap judgments weren’t Don’s strong suit. “Not really, I guess. No. It don’t matter at all.”
“That’s good,” Jacques said. “I’d hate to think you were close-minded.”
“Not me.” Don finished his beer. Looked at Jacques’s Crown Royal sitting half-full on the bar. Jacques slugged it back and held up two fingers, pointed to his glass and Don’s. Don said, “I’m pretty liberal when it comes to shit like that. This Elmore you mentioned. What about him?”
“He write a book about a guy who has rules for armed robbery. Makes a lot of sense.”
“You know a lot about armed robbery?”
Don welcomed his fresh beer like a cousin he hadn’t seen in years. “Why’re you telling me?”
Jacques pretended to think about what to say. “You’re on strike from that steel mill across the river, right?”
“We ain’t on strike, goddammit. We’re locked out. The union’s willing to work without a contract while things get settled, but those cocksuckers want givebacks. Locked us out and brought in scabs.” Then, into his beer: “Cocksuckers.”
“Pay’s about the same, though. Locked out or on strike?”
“You just now drunk enough to break my balls, or is there a point here?”
“I’m not drunk.” Jacques gave Don time to make eye contact. “Funny thing, towns without much money usually got plenty of cash. Hard to get credit for people out of work or part-time. People who write money orders don’t take checks. Payday loan places have to keep lots of cash on hand. The less money a town has, the more cash is in circulation.”
Jacques needed Don to be stupid enough, but not too stupid. Not as sure now which side of the line he fell on. “All that cash? It’s not nailed down. It has to be available for people to use. That makes it available for everyone.”
The lightbulb came on over Don’s head. Sixty watts, tops. With a dimmer. “That time you did. Wasn’t for robbery, was it?”
Jacques sipped his drink. Smiled.
Don said, “Why are you telling me?”
Jacques let the anticipation build a few seconds. “It takes two men to do it right.”
Don gave a long hard look. “What makes you think I’m the kind of guy robs people?”
“What kind of guy is that? A guy who robs people. They look different? Have three eyes? Gun permanent attached to their hand? You know who armed robbers are? People who need money. You know anyone like that?”
Don’s beer sat forgotten on the bar. “You didn’t say nothing about armed robbery before.”
“You know another way people give you money don’t belong to you?” Left time for Don to speak up. “I didn’t think so. The difference between an armed robber and any of these doncs around us is ambition. You think there’s anyone in here don’t need money?”
Don looked around at Fat Jimmy’s usual clientele. “Some of these guys do all right.”
Jacques snorted. “They wouldn’t drink in this toilet if they had money to go anyplace else. We been talking here over an hour. You got truck payment, you got child support, you got rent. All you don’t got right now is a job.”
“I got a fucking job.”
“I’m sorry. You got a job. What you don’t got is income.” Let that one lay on the bar to see if Don picked it up. “I got an idea for income. But I need another guy.”
Don turned on his barstool to face Jacques, closing them off from the other drinkers. “I ain’t got a problem with…taking some money. But armed robbery? That’s an extra five years in this state, I think.”
Jacques knew he had a partner as soon as the conversation turned to specifics. “Doesn’t matter. No one is going to give you the money if they don’t think you got a gun, and that’s all it takes. Even you put your finger in your pocket like this—pretend gun—if they think you have a gun, the law says you do. Least that’s how it is in Vermont.”
“Yeah. Here, too, I think.”
Jacques sipped his Crown Royal. “It’s funny, when you think about it. They make a big deal about how much more serious is armed robbery, then they write the law so pretty much any robbery is one. You want to call it just robbery? Fine. I’ll be armed. You do what you want.”
Don’s beer sat unattended, nearing room temperature. Jacques finished his drink. Let the warmth flow down his throat. Relaxed and in his element. Hoped Don asked the question before he exploded.
“How do we do it?”
“The first thing is to always be polite on the job. Say please and thank you.”

Friday, April 17, 2020


The Beloved Spouse™ and I completed watching all seven seasons of Sons of Anarchy last weekend. I should have reviewed each season separately; I didn’t. Here’s the Campbell’s version. (Condensed.)

(There are at least the hints of spoilers here.)

Production Values
Outstanding. SOA must have been a high-budget show by FX standards, as the budget for fake blood alone must have run five figures a week. I’m not a vroom-vroom guy by modern standards, but I got into the fishtailing cars and motorcycles darting in between traffic. Full marks.

Generally good. I’ve been a Jimmy Smits fan for years but this was a revelation. His expressions and little mannerisms helped to make Nero the most compelling character in the show for me.

Katey Sagal was very good as Gemma, but the character wore thin after a while, as there are only so many ways to spin Cruella DeVil’s evil sister. By the time she did get to do something with more depth, her acceptance of her fate wasn’t credible. I kept waiting for her to try one more lie. In fairness, that’s not Katey’s fault, it’s the writers’. More on that later.

Dayton Callie maintained the same core of humanity as he did with Charlie Utter in Deadwood, and remained one of the few characters worth rooting for.

Charlie Hunnam was solid as Jax, though he never quite got the hang of the American R at the end of words.

Ron Perlman was born to be Clay. I read several places that they shot much of the pilot with Scott Glenn in the role. I love Scott Glenn—and not just because he’s from Pittsburgh—but Perlman is Clay Morrow.

Uneven. Season One’s dialog lacked life, but as the years moved along the banter and offhand humor between characters improved; maybe Kurt Sutter started watching Justified.

Action was too often a substitute for suspense. Good as the action was, new story lines sprung up and ran their course faster than erections in a whorehouse. Problems that arose ten minutes into an episode resolved themselves by the forty-minute mark, usually in a hail of gunfire.

That brings us to the show’s two greatest failings: timelines and credibility. The Sons—especially Jax—go from mayhem to mayhem at least twice a day. There were time when they stopped off to kill someone on their way to killing someone else. Star Trek doesn’t move people around with transporters any faster. One memorable scene has Jax and the Sons at the marina. Bad guys show up to blow up the boat. The Sons see them. The bad guys split. The Sons give chase, except for Jax and Clay, who still have business at the boat. Next thing we see is Jax leading the pursuit. This is but the most memorable occurrence of a common practice.

What really got me, and finally wore down TBS, is the things that just can’t happen. Twice the Sons are thisclose to going down on a RICO beef based on the testimony of a single witness. RICO cases take years, under the best of circumstances. Trial dates move forward or back to suit the plot. The DA orders around sheriff’s deputies; we never see, or even hear from, the sheriff. All feds are even more vicious and duplicitous than any of the MCs. Or the Taliban, for that matter. About the closest the show gets to actual police procedure is using telephones to speak into. It wore me down after a while.

The weaving of multiple plot thread in Season Seven was outstanding in how they were woven together to credibly solve two problems in one fell swoop. The ending had a certain elegance, as well, though the final chase scene too way too long and the final shot was maudlin. (SOA could have benefitted from a Sopranos ending as Jax raised his arms before driving into the truck.)

There are plenty of other things to talk about in a show that ran seven years. With a few exceptions they’d be more of the same. The show took a detour to Ireland in Season Three and never quite found its way after that. As The Guardian said, “when it existed in its own self-contained Stateside world of dive bars, strip clubs and motorcycle clubhouses, Sons of Anarchy was just fine.” SAMCRO* came back from the auld sod less about mayhem—which is fine—and more about gratuitous bloodletting. The offbeat charm was gone.

I’m not sorry I watched Sons of Anarchy, but I was ready for it to be over and see no need to watch it again. TBS and I started right into to re-watching Justified. The difference between SOA and Justified is that one watches Sons to see what’s going to happen and one watches Justified to enjoy what’s happening.

Three stars of five.

(*--Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Why the Blog is Back

An existential reason sent the blog into a coma over the winter: Do I have a point? It’s not like some fledgling writer in Goodland KS is wondering what I think about the Oxford comma. No reader in Pahokee FL waits for my opinion before purchasing a book. Too many of my justifications for continuing sounded like ego gratification, and god knows we don’t need any more people exposing us to masturbatory exhibitions of their self-perceived greatness.

Two things changed my mind. Primary was that I work out ideas better when I apply myself to writing about them. Bullshitting among friends is one thing, but I have internal standards—as all writers should—that demand anything written down needs to be well thought out, especially if others might see it. Continuing on with the blog should be a learning experience for me more than anyone, and I truly believe a day spent without learning something is a day wasted. Given my age and the current world health situation, the time I have available for wasting does not yawn ahead into infinity.

Another reason came to mind as I looked through the archives for a post a few weeks ago. I’ll admit I don’t read as many blogs as I used to, mainly because much of what I read in them are things I already know, or made up my mind about, long ago. Among the reasons I stopped posting was because the world didn’t need another blog not to read.

If I had to pick one vocation I am best suited for, it’s not writing; nor was it music. I’m a teacher. Few things give me more satisfaction than sharing my knowledge. It’s an infinite resource, as the surest way to learn something is to teach it. (Thanks to Dr. Sole Heir™ for reminding me.) There is nothing in the world better than seeing the look on a student’s face when an elusive concept snaps into place. (Laughing babies is close.) Many of my fondest memories of The Sole Heir™ (pre-doctor) are of teaching her things, or, even better, helping her figure something out. I am beyond proud when I see her use concepts and methods we worked on now that she and Lieutenant (j.g.) Sole Son-in-Law™ move through life together.

It also occurred to me that, while the bulk of my author contacts are people of experience who now take many of these thoughts for granted, we didn’t always. There are writers today who might benefit from some of what I’ve discovered for myself, and, as a teacher, that’s where the payoff lies.

Not that I’m a better teacher than anyone else, or even as good. I’m different. I’ve learned that how something is phrased can make all the difference. When is important, too, as students often aren’t ready to assimilate imparted knowledge the first (second, fourth, twentieth) time they’re exposed to it.

So I’m looking at the blog as more of a teaching/learning thing. I’ll reach into the archives at times, but those reaches may be to show my evolution, or even something I changed my mind about altogether. Long-time readers may think, “Meh. I know that already.” That’s cool. Quit reading when it sounds too familiar, but feel free to pass it along to someone it might help.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Just When I Think I'm Out...

I have a well-defined process for finishing a book. (Some might call it obsessive-compulsive. Reasonable people might think they’re right to do so. I prefer “well-defined.” You be the judge, then keep your opinion to yourself.)

Once I realize I have all the pieces in place and the writing is about as good as I can get it, I make up my mind that this next pass will be the last.

Day One: Read Chapter 1. Don’t do anything with it. Don’t even fix typos. Inevitably, things present themselves to be improved. Leave them be. Just read it so the writing ferments overnight.

Day Two: Edit Chapter 1 on the computer screen, most likely while reading sotto voce.
Read Chapter 2.

Day Three: Print Chapter 1 and read while reading aloud. Edit Chapter 2 on the screen. Read Chapter 3.

Day Four: Re-print Chapter 1 and read it aloud to The Beloved Spouse™; note problems and correct. (Shouldn’t be more than proofreading by now, but things sometimes pop up.) Print and edit Chapter 2 while reading aloud. Edit Chapter 3 on the screen. Read Chapter 4.

Repeat until, complete.

Then, and only then, can I type THE END.

This book is different. About two-thirds of the way through this process I realized the timelines were off. Nothing dramatic, and maybe I only noticed them because I’ve been bingeing Sons of Anarchy and their timelines make no sense at all, but it bothered me enough that I resolved to make another pass.

This is where things get messy. I essentially re-outlined the book, tore it apart, and put it back together in what I thought made more sense. This required stepping back and looking at the book as a whole; I needed to see the forest.

First I created a new set of index cards in Scrivener. (I did the first two drafts in Scrivener, then the serious editing in Word.) The plan was to paste the content back into Scrivener, re-arrange the cards as needed, then export back into Word for a final proofread. Problem: there are too many scenes to get them all onto one screen and still be able to read them easily.

Plan B was to put every chapter into an Excel spreadsheet. Same problem.

I ended up making a BFC (Big Fucking Calendar) on a three-foot-by-four-foot dry erase board in my office. Took notes on what had to go together and which had to happen before or after something else. No hurry to finish. I let things fall together as they wanted to. I know my process well enough to know that I work best in relatively short bursts, after which things can sit overnight.

Today I’m using a previously scheduled day off work to copy and paste what’s on the calendar into a new Word file. New chapter headings are needed, as I think the point I’m trying to make with all this obsessing agonizing over timing can be aided by not only marking each chapter with the date and time (hat tip to Mark Bergin and his fine novel Apprehension for the idea) but by noting which cops are involved so the reader can see how they get run around and how hard it is to focus on the task at hand sometimes.

It still won’t be done. I’ll edits to reflect chapters’ new positions. I’ll do searches for extraneous words that always sneak in, such as just, actually, enough, that. (If you’re not familiar with Allan Guthrie’s brilliant list of writing tips, “Hunting Down the Pleonasms,” you need to be.) A spell and grammar check. (Not that I love Word’s grammar but it does flag the passive sentences that slip in after spending all day writing shit for the government.) Then one more proof read to make sure the spell check hasn’t missed a word that’s spelled right but is the wrong word.

Then I can type THE END.

And fucking about time it will be. This book has taken me almost twice as long as anything else I’ve written. Some of that has to do with life’s interventions. I also can’t work as fast or as much at one stretch as I used to. The lion’s share is because this is in many ways the most ambitions book I’ve ever tried, a reach for me to see how many balls I can keep in the air. I think it’s come out pretty well, just as I’m also pretty sure I’ll not try one quite like it again.