Review–When You Cross That Line

The short line-up of characters in Sam Slaughter’s collection lead lives you’d rather not lead yourself, and therein lies the charm.

The unnamed narrator of When You Cross That Line is moving to Florida when he has a run-in with an alligator salesman. The episode turns from odd to ugly, leaving the narrator in search of a swamp, hopeless of finding normalcy in his new adoptive state.

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Next James and Grunt get out their power equipment to take care of a facial tattoo, and later the sword-wielding Mr. Gordon strips off his kimono in the middle of the street, forgetting to take his sword with him when he’s shooed back inside.

I empathized most with World War II vet Paul, who fought for your freedoms and will gladly smash your face in if you abuse them. Stupid mid-day drunken salesmen.

The final story, A Bear in the Trunk, works least well. But there’s a guy named Tonka and a drug dealer named Clyde who gives away beer at Gary’s Saloon. Again we aren’t privy to the narrator’s name but it hardly matters: things don’t turn out too well for him, and I’m not convinced the ending really works. I’m not convinced it doesn’t.

And that’s the nature of this short collection of clear-eyed writing. The prose is under control, the characters are unusual, and the reader is grateful to observe from afar: “I bet none of your northern friends have ever held a gator. Be the first.” He pushed on the word northern like it was an intruder.

Strong writing about wart-covered characters, straight out the swamps of Central Florida.

The Short Happy Life of Cecil the Lion

In Hemingway’s masterpiece The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, the eponymous American who goes off hunting lions in Africa is really just a pathetic cuckold pretending at manliness. And when he does man up at the end of the story, he gets cut down by a real predator. It seems he’d taken his eyes off what was truly dangerous.

Now, I’m sad as the next guy that Cecil the lion got shot. I’m sore as hell that he was shot by a freaking dentist. And don’t even talk to me about the fact that Cecil’s dear sweet cubs will be offed by their mother’s next likely suitor. That’s the law of the jungle, after all.

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But honestly? The most troubling part of Cecil’s death in Zimbabwe is the bloody loud hue and cry about Cecil’s death in Zimbabwe. If we are going to cry about misery and death in Zimbabwe, why don’t we cry about human misery and death? Why don’t we spend some grief and sorrow addressing human rights abuses by a geriatric, repressive regime, or on the death of children from preventable problems like malnutrition?

Is that also the law of the jungle: that we become inured to the suffering of mankind to such an extent that we care more about the freaking death of Cecil the lion at the hands of a dentist playing Great White Hunter in Zimbabwe?

I would like to thank all the media organizations, nutty celebrities, and selfish politicians who are turning the death of a lion in Zimbabwe into an international tragedy, while they ignore the chronic misery of 14 million humans. These folks remind me of a certain weak-kneed protagonist, Francis Macomber, showboating on safari while they ignore the real danger.

Wattpad: Library, Roller Rink, or Click Farm?

Ok, it’s time I got this outta the way. I’ve put off posting my thoughts about Wattpad because I prefer the positive when it comes to writing. But what positive thing is there to say about Wattpad?

Well, there’s this: Wattpad is like the local library combined with a 70’s roller rink. The core concept is cerebral, but the net result is disco. It’s nerdy but its “cool”, lame but fab. It’s literacy dressed up in strobe lights and unvaried counter-clockwise motion. Tens of millions of people are doing it today, but in 30 or 40 years everyone will stand back and hold their noses. “I can’t believe we did that!” we’ll say, shaking our sad grey hair, or whatever’s left of it.

Chicago's Gerry Murray, (L) and Brooklyn's Annabelle Kealey collide with the rail, 1946. Credit http://www.vintag.es/2015/01/32-interesting-vintage-photos-of-roller.html

skaters collide with the rail, 1946. Credit http://goo.gl/bTOHcs

That’s the best I can say about Wattpad. Here’s the rest.

Simply put, Wattpad is a click farm. From what I’ve seen of the work posted there, users are little inspired to put up quality writing. They are inspired, instead, to click. Click to view. Click to vote. Click to comment. It’s get busy writing, or get busy clicking, and everybody’s busy clicking. Click, click, click.

I get it—their model for success mirrors the rest of the Internet and social media in general. Clicks beget clicks. Rise to the top on Wattpad by having other users click your stuff because you clicked theirs. Click me and I’ll click you. It’s a clickotocracy. Clickety clack. Click my back, I’ll click yours. Misery loves company, and this is some miserable company.

This isn’t to say I didn’t try clicking. I tried to find things to click on, stories to view, writing to vote for. Nothing struck me. So I wrote a few comments, in hopes of some decent exchange. But I soon felt out of my depth, a lonely pedant, an awkward old man shushing the kids in the library. I felt like a high-brow killjoy, a grumpy old fart. Worse, I began to feel like a trench-coated old perv among children at the roller rink, a giraffe on skates.

I took note of examples but they’re not worth posting: anybody who wants to see the gore resulting from this roller derby collision will have to look elsewhere. I won’t insult your eyes with the tripe: the misspellings, the awful grammar, the awkward construction (“…she was sweet yet innocent…”). A quick browse through the cover art will leave you feeling dirty and in need of a shower.

I feel so bad to have orphaned my story, One Dead Cop, to a miserable place like Wattpad. Poor Sammy Darko, the one clean cop murdered by his corrupt cop brethren. Art, as always, mirroring life.

The Unexpected

Ben:

This post moved me to emotion I seldom tolerate in others, let alone myself. But here I am with swollen eyes and wet cheeks at these memories of our dear companion, Paul Sanchez. I love seeing his face here above these lines. Proud to have known him, and glad to have the memory of his joyous, smiling face. A personality to match the sun itself. Rest in Peace, Paul.

Originally posted on diplomomdotcom:

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Well, I was preparing a post about our beach vacation – kids riding waves, boardwalk adventures, and all the general beachy, fun, summery stuff, but it’s not going to happen. Because I don’t feel like it, and hey – it’s my blog. I’m sad today, and my summer feels ruined, because The Unexpected happened today.

For every person in the Foreign Service, there is The Post. Our “The Post” is Accra, Ghana. At The Post, you make the closest friends imaginable – the ones who you turn to first in your Foreign Service Family. It’s where you found the girlfriends who you email, message, or ring when you have good news, bad news, or just want to catch up and you know they are the ones to call. It’s where you had a baby, or where your kid graduated high school, or where your spouse got that one BIG promotion…

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One Dead Cop: the Wattpad Experiment

My Wattpad experiment comes to an end. I’ll publish my conclusions next week. For now, here is the rest of One Dead Cop. Pick up where you left off below, or read from Part I.

One Dead Cop

4 Palm Massacre

Darko’s voice comes hushed and urgent over the phone. I have something for you.

An accident? Fitch asks the Deputy Commissioner. A baby’s crying in the background. Fitch asks, How’s the kid?

Godwin’s fine. But accident? No. Your young American… CID’s at the Royal Palm Hotel investigating four dead Obroni. Darko means white foreigner

American?

It is not known.

Dead how?

Massacre. Wild gunfire.

Does CID have suspects? Witnesses? Anyone in custody?

Can’t talk now, Darko whispers. I can meet you at the Palm. But you have to be discreet. It’s a drugs case. CID Chief Bonsu himself is there. Four bloody corpses, not African. A load of powder. Coke or heroin, is not yet known.

Fitch hangs up feeling hinky. The cable has Gordon, Jr. traveling from the Palm. And if Bonsu’s involved, another crime’s about to be committed: cover up.

He calls Poltz and fills the embassy security chief in. Poltz emerges from sleep and rises quickly to rage.

Poltz howls, GPF doesn’t know how to investigate! CID’s totally corrupt. When this place goes narco, it’ll be thanks to CID. Government can’t pay what the traffickers pay.

Easy, boss.

I’ll meet you at the Palm. Have you called the Peace Corps? Call Mimi Rogers. Tell her I’ll stop by for Gordon’s photo.

Already pulled it, boss. Fitch feels the storm clouds gathering, an impending confrontation between his boss and the head of CID. Their mutual loathing, come to near blows on earlier cases, already epic in the tabloids.

The rest.

Short Fiction on Wattpad

Appreciate those of you following my  experiment on Wattpad. Here’s the shape my story’s in midway through the first week’s publication cycle. I’d love it if you tuned in at WP either now or this afternoon for the next brief installment!

-ben

ONE DEAD COP

One Dead Cop

1 Roadblock

Taillights cut a pool of red in the dark. Three African heavies in cop clothes man a makeshift roadblock. Two cars up, a fourth figure looms over the driver’s door.

The cops hold their rifles clumsily. Probably they’re cops, Fitch thinks. Criminals in Ghana handle weapons better than the law.

They move alongside scrutinizing his car, take positions at the rear. Fitch decides against running the blockade.

Checks his mirrors, all black; his watch, a faint glow. He taps the wheel. Half-past midnight. Five minutes since he left the club. Ten since Ops called about an action cable from HQ.

The big cop waves him up. Palm down, fingers wagging. Fitch lowers his tinted window. Sweat and booze-reek pour through the window on humid air. The cop pulls a sinister grin, round face glistening with sweat in the red-tinged dark.

Evening boss, Fitch says.

Cop asks, Black American? The red tags on Fitch’ 325.i mark him as an American. What you do in my country?

Embassy work, boss. Proud civil servant, just like you.

These streets dangerous after dark. The smell of booze pours off him. He rests a forearm where the roof meets the door, leans in close. Why you come out now?

Embassy business.

At this hour?

At all hours.

You a spy?

We are all spies.

 

2 Guns, Drugs, Bribes

The cop takes a long look at Fitch; the car; expensive watch. He rubs thumb and forefinger. Asks, My friend, where my visa?

Fitch settles. Not a criminal shakedown. Just simple cops looking for bribes. With all the coke and heroin pouring through the country, working for the law’s never been so lucrative.

The cop grins a big, greedy grin. His face is sandwiched between a tight garrison cap and a triple chin pushing up from his starched blue tunic. Fitch goes on the offensive, sure of who he’s dealing with.

Lucky tonight, boss?

No luck.

No guns?

No.

No drugs?

No drugs.

No big dash?

Nothing. The cop rubs his thumb and forefinger. Not yet big dash. You are not starting the coup tonight? You would not like protection?

Am I not protected?

No man here is guaranteed protection.

Surely the Ghana Police Force here to protect a diplomat?

The cop laughs a big belly laugh. He waves to the cop by the drop arm. Fitch is on his way.

Checks his watch, revs the engine. Warm night air pours through the open window. Cable would’ve arrived ten minutes ago. His career, an assignment in Europe, a life outside dirty, corrupt West Africa ticks further off with each minute the congressman awaits news of his son.

 

3 Midnight Communiqué—the 419 (528)

Fitch approaches the Embassy. The modern structure’s protected by double-high walls of blast proof concrete. He parks and enters the guardhouse where two locals drowse behind a counter. One nods, buzzes Fitch in.

Fitch crosses the lobby, dimly lit by emergency lights. A Marine stands post behind ballistic glass, blinking lights and monitors glowing all around.

What’s up tonight, Dorn?

Through the intercom: Saturday night in the armpit.

By armpit, you mean the box? Or the country?

Whole damn place.

Dorn clicks the lock and admits Fitch through the heavy chancery door. Fitch takes the back staircase at the far end of the marble atrium. He punches a code on the pad at the third floor. Inside the comms room, the communicator hands Fitch a cable, barely turning from his monitor.

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED

SECSTATE WASHDC
PRIORITY: NIACT IMMEDIATE
AMEMBACCRA; USMECOWAS; AFCOLLECTIVE; PEACECORPSAF

SUBJECT: CONGRESSIONAL INQUIRY–WELFARE AND WHEREABOUTS

1. SUMMARY: THIS IS AN ACTION MESSAGE, PARA SIX. LATE NIGHT PHONE CALL PROMPTS CONGRESSIONAL INQUIRY INTO WELFARE AND WHEREABOUTS OF AMCIT CHARLIE GORDON, JR, SON OF U.S. CONGRESSMAN CHARLIE “CHUCK” GORDON (D, LOUISIANA).

2. GORDON WAS CONTACTED BY A WEST AFRICAN CALLER SELF-IDENTIFIED AS “PETER”. CALLER CLAIMED TO BE TRAVELING IN A BUS WITH GORDON, JR. EN ROUTE FROM THE ROYAL PALM HOTEL TO THE AIRPORT IN ACCRA WHEN THEIR VEHICLE WAS STRUCK BY A GHANAIN ARMY LORRY.

3. CALLER CLAIMED GORDON, JR. SUSTAINED “SEVERE, LIFE-THREATENING INJURIES TO THE HEAD AND CHEST”, AND ACCOMPANIED HIM TO THE HOSPITAL. A POOR CONNECTION PREVENTED IDENTIFICATION OF LOCATION.

4. PETER REQUESTED THAT $10,000 BE SENT IMMEDIATELY

-Fitch stops. He’s seen this scam before: American called in dead of night. Loved one in trouble in Ghana. Money’s wired, nobody hears from the caller again. Few days later, loved one turns up, no idea they’ve been reported DOA. Lost their phone in the bush, on the road, in a club. Two dozen calls like that a week. The 419 scam.

Fitch turns to the commo guy. “For real?”

Monitor lights hitting off Commo’s thick lenses, eyes not visible. He grunts, Congressman.

Reminded of this, Fitch reads on.

5. QUESTIONS FROM CONGRESSMAN GORDON RESULTED IN VAGUE REPLIES OBSTRUCTED BY STATIC. THE SIX-MINUTE CALL WAS PLACED FROM A PHONE NUMBER MATCHING THE NUMBER USED BY GORDON, JR (+233-024-433-2479). ATTEMPTS TO REACH NUMBER UNSUCCESSFUL.

6. ACTION REQUEST: CHARLIE GORDON, JR, SERVES AS A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER IN CAPE COAST. CONGRESSMAN GORDON REQUESTS IMMEDIATE CONTACT BE MADE WITH GORDON, JR., AND REQUESTS TO SPEAK TO HIS SON UPON CONTACT. ADVISE PEACE CORPS GHANA IMMEDIATE.

## CLINTON

Simple. Fitch’ police and military contacts confirm whether or not a military vehicle’s been involved in an accident. He’ll have an answer in ten minutes and be back at Bliss in the Quarter. Won’t even have to call the Peace Corps director.

Fitch figures it, Junior got tired of the bush. Came to town to party. Phone got pinched by some hat check girl in the Quarter, her boyfriend a master of the 419. End of story.

Worst to come of this will be young Charlie Gordon has to call dear old dad, the congressman, with a nasty hangover.

Read the fourth installment now at Palm Massacre.

 

Whatt is Wattpad?

This week I’m exploring Wattpad. From what I understand, WP is both a publishing opportunity and a communication platform. It’s a place where writers can post completed, published works or try out new work as they develop it. Either way the forum helps authors build a following, and find new writers whose work they enjoy.

Standard posts seem to be weekly chapter-length updates. But because I’m impatient and want to familiarize myself with WP quickly, I’m trying something different. I’m posting a short story in flash components on a daily basis. In about two weeks, I’ll have put up two chapter’s worth of story—standard posting speed on balance. (Read here)

Wattpad-Logo

I’ve got a number of reasons for trying it this way. I believe it will suit the typical WP user demographic, and the devices on which they access the site. I’ve read that 85 percent of WP’s traffic and usage comes from mobile devices. Favored genres are romance, sci-fi, and YA, all geared towards the under 30 crowd.

I may be wrong, but it seems like young, mobile readers are people in a hurry, people with a lot on their minds, people who’d rather race through a quick post and move on to the next thing rather than linger with the voice of some tired old literary wannabe. Since I don’t write romance, sci-fi, or YA, I’ll tailor my international thriller for that demographic by giving it to them shorter, faster, NOW.

My experiment is simple (and unscientific). I’ll publish a completed story serially over the course of two weeks (or so). My self-imposed rules will be:

  • Post extremely short entries (250-500 words)
  • Post frequently: daily or every other day
  • Post forward-motion/action oriented entries
  • Leave on a hook
  • Share liberally across platforms
  • Read other Wattpad user’s content and engage
  • Repeat

I’m not as adventurous as I suppose some WP users to be: probing a story’s possibilities live for the first time. I’m going with the tried and true, posting a story already complete unto itself, yet with growth potential to a full-fledged book.

The completed story, published previously years ago in a very different form (at Umbrella Factory Magazine), has been overhauled according to principles I’ll detail on completion of the experiment. What I’m trying to determine is:

  • Did altering my story for the WP audience make it better, more enjoyable, and more widely read?
  • Did using WP as part of the process increase my readership?
  • Did the WP community contribute to the development of the story and my understanding of how the work is perceived?
  • What kinds of writers was I able to engage with as an active WP user?

That is all. Now, to it!

Heat Advisory: Interview with Preston Lang

I recently pretended to sit down with good friend and acclaimed crime writer Preston Lang to talk about a few things. We covered the emotional intelligence of peanut eaters, the role of fire hydrants in the government’s summer emergency plans, and the collected work of Franklin W. Dixon, among other things.

If you’re eager for more Preston Lang when you finish, check out his recent novels: The Carrier and The Blind Rooster.

Skipping the small talk and heading straight to it:

the-carrier

BE—You’ve published two novels. Why?

PL—Yeah, it does seem hard to defend the decision at times. I like to think they get out there into the world and people read and enjoy them.

That’s really all I can hope for, because my books aren’t particularly educational and they don’t exactly expand the boundaries of what a novel can do or anything like that. There might be a hidden agenda in my writing. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

BE—Sure, no hidden agenda, but still very fun, very entertaining to read. I thought The Carrier’s finest asset was its various shades of low-key humor, deadpan delivery, and bizarre juxtaposition. I liked the contents of sex offender Danny Chin’s apartment for example: “…Other than a clarinet and a red cape there was nothing that really indicated this was the residence of a pervert.” You should give yourself a little more credit.

PL—Fair enough. Next question?

BE—I understand you’re a talented pianist. So which gives you greater satisfaction: music or writing?

PL— I don’t play as much as I once did, so it’s pretty much writing at this point.

BE—Why is that?

PL—I’ve got issues with neighbors, and my fingers have become thick and oddly shaped.

BE—That’s troubling. I heard something this week about people aging at different speeds. Maybe they also age in different body parts. I wonder if your thickening fingers is part of the natural aging process for you. Or maybe its a factor of diet. What’s your favorite low-fat food?

PL—I like peanuts a lot. They’re a very important part of my life. Are they low in fat?

BE—No, not at all. They’re high fat, but it’s the good kind. I say that because peanuts are natural.

PL—I once read that there’s a sharp divide between people who like peanuts and people who like pecans. The pecan people are arrogant, disingenuous elitists. The peanut people are decent, emotional, but a bit cryptic.

There are more of us Peanuts, but the Pecans are wealthier and better supplied. When it all goes down, choose your side wisely.

BE—Sometimes I add crushed pecans to our Saturday morning pancakes, but I prefer and more often use walnuts. Never peanuts. I do eat a lot of peanut butter, though. Tell me more about what you’re working on. When are you going to write a book about cigarettes?

The rest

Carnival Fiction

I’ve got some new short fiction over at Revolution John, a sample from my latest project: church shorts. Who doesn’t love the annual church bazaar?

Whack-a-Mole

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Full story 600 words.

Time to Write

Blog entries about writing I enjoy most treat the craft as work. Those I enjoy least lament a thing called writer’s block. For all those writers who suffer some form of blockage, I submit this photo from 2007.

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This neurotic-looking ledger of hours and minutes was my go-to mechanism for avoiding “the block.” I used it to ensure a workmanlike integrity when it came to putting in the hours. I didn’t wait for Inspiration to drive the process. I was beholden to Time.

First thing I did upon sitting at my desk was flip open the back of the journal and jot the hour and minute. When I finished, I wrote again the hour and minute. Some days I was lucky enough to do this only once for a long period. On Thursday of week XXXIV, for example, I wrote from 1:35 a.m. until 3:13. An hour 38 in one sitting!

Other days I wasn’t so lucky. The week before, it took me three tries to reach 1:32. Mondays…

As the years passed (2007 was far from the first year I used this technique; 2008 was the last) I added up the weekly totals and calculated the averages in five-week blocks. Some periods I averaged 10:41 for each of the five weeks; others only 5 hours a week. In a box somewhere is the original ledger bearing witness to my annual averages–3+ hours a week in 2001 and ever better from there. My goal at first was 7 hours a week; towards the end, 11. I wanted an hour a day for weekdays and 3 a day for the weekend. I never attained it over the course of a year, but there are five-week segments with 14-hour averages.

One noteworthy point on all this neurotic calculating: I didn’t cheat. If I started at 10:12, I wrote 10:12. An hour 38 minutes didn’t get rounded up to 1:40. Maybe, in a rush, I would note that I’d written for only 12 minutes without having put the start and stop time into black and white. Maybe those days I knew I just didn’t have the time.

Another point: I abandoned the technique years ago. A decade later, writing had become my native state. The turning wheels upstairs were configuring perceptions as if on the page. I had gone from “aspiring writer” to Writer. I had made myself a writer.

When I’m mid-stream on a novel, daily perceptions matter less. I’m focused on plot, which every day demands new material. If I’m not focused on plot I’m editing. Daily perceptions have little bearing on the process. When, as now, I’m between novels, the turning wheels matter more. Am I jotting some new short fiction? Am I reviewing a book? Am I posting my views on the latest freedom of speech rally, irksome advertisement, or miserable hip-hop artist?

I’ve discovered my life is more orderly but more stressful when I’m mid-novel: stress over the passing of time as the story remains within. When I’m off the beat, I feel footloose but scattered. Either way, writing is central. I’m always writing. There’s no taking note of the hours and minutes.

Boiled down, all a writer really needs is a workspace, a writing instrument, and time. The first two are easy. This post offers a remedy for finding more of the third.

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25 filled Moleskine Cahier ledgers from 2007-present, and the warm invitation of a fresh one!