In Praise of Short Stories

I’ve been stalling out working on novel-length stuff lately, but I have been working on short stories.

I’ve always liked short stories. I enjoy being able to get in, tell a story,  and get out. You don’t have to worry about setting things up for the next book in the series or building a massive, epic narrative. You can tell small, simple stories that are complete in and of themselves.

I often use short stories to experiment with themes, narrative devices, and storytelling styles. The Hazzard Pay novels have a very specific tone and style to them that doesn’t allow for me to try lots of new things from book to book, unfortunately. And while I definitely enjoy writing in Eddie Hazzard’s voice, it’s fun to try out different things sometimes, different tones and genres and narrative conventions. And since they’re experiments, if they fail? No big deal.

Anyway, I’ll probably put up one of the stories I’ve written lately here on the website in the next week or so.

 

Death Comes Calling

The new book, Death Comes Calling, is out today! Go pick up your copy from Amazon right now! Tell your friends! Tell your family! Tell random strangers you encounter on the street! Shout it from rooftops and with bullhorns and while frothing at the mouth and grabbing people by their lapels!

Well, okay, maybe not that last one. But definitely the rest of them!

Review: Steen Jones, The Lost Door

About a year ago, I reviewed Steen Jones’s debut novel, The Door Keeper. There was a lot to love about it: the characters were great, the plot was tight, and the story kept me engaged from the very first line. So I was pretty excited when, a few weeks ago, she released the sequel with little-to-no-fanfare.

The new book, The Lost Door, picks up seven years after the end of The Door Keeper. Life for Eden and her family – both the one she’s made for herself on Earth and the one she rediscovered in the first book on the world of Caelum – is good.

Then mysterious things start to happen with the doors, and Eden rushes off to solve the mystery. Instead, she’s kidnapped by a new foe who wants to use her unique gifts to open up other worlds to allow him to conquer them. Together with her family – especially her daughter, Gabby, who discovers her own gifts this time around – Eden must protect the doors and save the day.

I’m not doing the plot justice. It’s both more complex and much simpler than how I’d describing it. Steen Jones remains an excellent plotter; the action comes quickly but isn’t rushed, and the only lulls in the action are of the “calm before the storm” variety.

Steen splits the first-person point of view between Eden, the protagonist from the first book, and her daughter Gabby. Both characters have distinctive, separate voices, and the trading off of POV doesn’t distract as it can often do. It’s never easy to pull off the multiple POV trick, but it’s to Steen Jones’s credit that she makes it look effortless.

In addition to the main characters carried over from the first novel, there’s a whole host of new protagonists and a new antagonist. Steen manages to set up the new antagonist, Aslek, as both a sympathetic individual and an evil, dastardly villain. She walks a fine line, but sticks the landing on it. I was a bit surprised when his character seemed to disappear about halfway through the book, to be replaced by a secondary antagonist left over from the first book, but Aslek does manage to loom over the proceedings despite receiving very little actual time in front of the reader.

I do have a few points of criticism, though most of them have nothing to do with the story or its characters. I love those things. But it feels like the book needed another round of editing to be ready. Really obvious mistakes – consistently misspelling lightning as lightening, misplaced apostrophes in plural possessive words (making the words singular possessive instead), rod iron instead of wrought iron – cropped up every few pages. Lord knows my own novels have typos in them (there’s probably at least two just in this review, I betcha), but a good editor should have caught these. Most of them are consistent, recurring mistakes, especially the lightning/lightening thing. The errors rarely impeded my ability to understand what the author was trying to say, but it did happen on occasion and I did sometimes have to go back and re-read sentences to make sure I understood what they were trying to say.

Overall, The Lost Door is a fun, adventurous sequel to Steen Jones’s The Door Keeper. It’s fun, fast-paced, and enjoyable. It’s nice seeing characters who make an effort to understand one another, whose relationships are driven by character and genuine emotions rather than what would be narratively convenient. Everyone’s actions make sense, their choices feel genuine, and the story leaves me wanting more. I can’t wait for the final act in the trilogy.

Epithets

I’ve been teaching my World History I classes about the Middle Ages the past week or two, which led to a brief discussion on epithets. Y’know, those descriptors folks had back in the day instead of a family name, it seems? Eric the Red, or Charles the Bald, or Charles Martel (which means “the Hammer” and is my favorite)…everyone seemed to have one back in the day. Brandon the Bearded. Lothar the Dungstomper. Steve the Exceptionally Irritating.

So I came up with a short activity: the students had to think about five adjectives that could serve as their epithets, then pick one and explain why that’s the one that they think best describes them. I’m not sure how seriously they’re taking the assignment (or any assignment I give them; this is a tough freshman class, y’all), but it got me thinking about my own description. What epithet would they give me, if I were a king or other important personage? Would I be Charlie the Wise? Charlie the Educated? Or maybe Charlie the Amiable. Charlie the Anxious. Charlie the Storyteller. Charlie the Diabetic. Charlie the Hopeless with Maintaining Basic Routines (that one is maybe a little unwieldy for daily usage). Charlie the Inept.

Epithets were both boasts and pejoratives, an elevation of character and a verbal jab at weaknesses. And I’m not so sure of myself that I’d be certain my epithet would necessarily be a positive one. I’m sure everyone thinks about their legacy and how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone. I’m not unique in that respect (or, possibly, any other respect. But that could be the depression talking). How would those who knew me best remember me? How would my students or coworkers remember me? Or my readers? It’s a frustrating question to ask, because there’s no one right answer to it and no way for me to know before I’m gone. I hope – as do most people, I’m sure – that I’ve left a positive impression in my time on earth. Or any impression. Being forgotten seems more than a little sad to me.

What would your epithet be?

Format

I’ve been busy since last week, getting files formatted and polished for the upcoming release. Book 3’s Kindle .mobi file is all formatted and uploaded; I’m currently looking at a PDF of the paperback version to make sure everything is in order there before final approval (which, thank goodness I am, ’cause I just noticed a pretty glaring typo in the title for Part Three of the book).

It’s got me going back to reexamine the eBook files for the first two books, just to ensure consistency (I did this with the paperbacks already; when I got the rights back to The Invisible Crown, I re-formatted the paperback completely so I could (1) understand how book formatting really worked and (2) so I could credit the new cover artist). What I’ve discovered is that I…wasn’t very consistent with how I set up the first two books’ .mobi files.

Yesterday, I fixed up The Hidden Throne‘s eBook file and re-uploaded it; that corrected version is now the one available on Amazon.

But I apparently never did anything to Book 1 other than slap a new cover on it and call it a day (probably because I didn’t put the new cover on it until a few months after the rights had reverted back to me). I’m having to go back and create a whole new .mobi file from the original text, setting up all the chapter breaks and the hyperlinked table of contents and all that. Thankfully, it’s a simple matter of copying and pasting from the original Word document into a Scrivener file, though I then have to fiddle with all sorts of formatting details to make it look right.

The upshot will be greater consistency in formatting and styling across the three books. The downside is it’s a tedious pain in the ass. But I think it will ultimately be worth it when everything is all done and all the books have a more uniform formatting.

Book Three Cover Reveal (and Release Date!)

I’ve been toiling away behind the scenes, getting things done on the third Hazzard Pay book. The good news is, all that hard work is paying off! The book is almost ready to release into the wild that is Amazon, where hopefully it won’t be eaten by wolves (or a grue. Those things are mean).

Anyway! I’m not the only one who has been hard at work. So has my cover artist, the always-wonderful rebecacovers over at fiverr.com. She’s put together a pretty awesome cover for the new book, which is titled Death Comes Calling. Care to have a look?

Charlie_Cottrell_1_ebook

Spooky and awesome, right? Here’s the blurb that goes along with said book:

Death stalks the streets of Arcadia, and no one is safe.

Eddie Hazzard’s mentor-turned-nemesis, John Bodewell, is out on parole and on his last legs. He’s looking to make amends, but Eddie isn’t having it.

Then Bodewell turns up dead, and Eddie is left with a cryptic message from his old partner hinting that a secret of epic proportions is out there, just waiting to be discovered. Whether he likes it or not, Eddie has to solve the mystery Bodewell’s death left behind. But Eddie’s not the only one after Bodewell’s treasure. If he’s not careful, Eddie might end up just as dead as his old mentor.

Now, for the fun part: the book will be release on March 27th of this year. Hey, that’s my birthday! What wacky guy planned that, I wonder? It’ll be $2.99 for the eBook and $11.99 for the dead tree edition.

So, tell your friends, tell your family, tell your neighbor who loves mysteries but hates having to leave the house: Death Comes Calling on March 27th! It’s definitely not a pointed commentary on my own aging and impending mortality.

Book 3 Status Update

Just got word this morning from my editor that he’s done with Book 3! As soon as I’ve sent him his money, I’ll get the manuscript back, and then begins the arduous task of making corrections.

It shouldn’t take more than a week or so to get the corrections and changes made, at which point I can start formatting. Once formatting is done, I can get the cover made. I already know what I want it to look like (a rough sketch is featured above), and I’ve got the stock photo all picked out. My cover artist has a pretty damn fast turn-around, so best estimate is that the book will be ready to go before my birthday at the end of March. And what better birthday present than a new book?

Sorry

A brief poem for you on this last day of January.

Sorry for the
Things I said
When I was angry.

They were just
My real thoughts
Unfiltered.

Anniversary Gifts

I recently celebrated my 11th wedding anniversary with my lovely wife. in the process of buying gifts for one another, we were reminded of the fact that we are not, in any sense of the word, all that traditional.

See, traditional wedding gifts (in the Western European tradition) are a well-established list by now. There’s an updated list as well, but it’s the same sort of stuff, really. You’ve got various materials (wool, paper, wood, various metals and alloys), or you’ve got items like various gemstones or clocks or whatever.

Now me, I have a very specific set of likes and dislikes. The traditional presents aren’t going to do much for me, at least not until I get my loom set up and start weaving my own textiles with the wool. So the wife and I came up with what we think are an excellent list of new anniversary presents for couples to buy each other. They are full of practicality and whimsy. See for yourself:

  1. Office Supplies
  2. Something practical but fun
  3. Books
  4. Groupon Jewelry
  5. Something whimsical and impractical
  6. Cat-themed
  7. Phone cases
  8. Matching Tattoos
  9. Face mug
  10. Write a song or poem
  11. Comic Books
  12. Cardigans
  13. Video Games
  14. Funky Glasses
  15. Tombstones because OMG we are old
  16. Better office supplies you’re fucking adults now
  17. Fun socks

Any other suggestions?

Poem – “Instagram”

I tend to work out my anxiety and depression through poetry, because I’m a tremendously original individual who does things in a way that no one else ever has. Anyway, here’s a poem that’s a work in progress to kick off the new year. It’s about hypocrisy, I think.

I saw the photo you posted online
The one with your head titled just so
And the filter that made it look old-fashioned,
The reds bleeding over into everything
And giving the whole photo the patina
Of 1974.
You weren’t even born until 1994.

I saw the photo you posted online
The one of your cat being cute,
Lying in a sunbeam on a crisp autumn day,
The dust motes playing across the shaft of light
And the warmth of kitten belly evident in the pixels.
You don’t like your cat. You call him “Asshole.”

I saw the photo you posted online
The one of the meal you were about to enjoy
Delicious proclamations of your support of farm-to-table
And locally-sourced, non-GMO food stuffs.
You say you’re going vegan,
But I saw you eat that McDonald’s hamburger last night.

“Even the Losers”

Since Tom Petty’s untimely death a few months back, I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of his stuff. All of it, really. It takes a while to digest that many songs, but I started to notice patterns and tropes and themes. He’s always enjoyed telling stories in his songs, and he populates the lyrics with characters who are flawed and funny and all-too-human. Let’s take a quick spin through some of it, shall we?

First and foremost, Tom Petty characters are very flawed. Narrators are open about their foibles — the guy in “The Waiting” openly admits, “Yeah, I might’a chased a couple women around/All it ever got me was down,” while the narrator of “Don’t Do Me Like That” receives a warning from his friend: “Then he said, ‘You better watch your step/Or you’re gonna get hurt yourself/Someone’s gonna tell you a lie/Cut you down to size,” clearly implying the narrator thinks far too much of himself and his abilities with the ladies, but even he won’t be immune when a woman far more clever and uncaring than he rolls around.

We can especially see the flaws when Petty tells a story. In “Something Big,” the main character — known as Speedball — checks into a hotel while he works on…well, something big, just like the title says. There’s no indication of what that something is — it’s implied to be less-than-completely-legal and probably along the lines of a get rich quick scheme — or what, exactly, Speedball is doing to hit that something big, but he’s definitely working on it…until he simply disappears. As the maids clean his room, one of them wonders who he was and what he was doing. Her coworker dismisses Speedball as just another guy “workin’ on something big,” and leaves it at that.

There’s a world-weariness to a lot of Petty’s characters. Even the ones who start out optimistic and full of hope — Eddie in “Into the Great Wide Open,” for instance — end up getting chewed up by the machinery of life and left cynical and apathetic. We see it clearly with Eddie: the youthful optimism as he moves out to Hollywood, gets a tattoo, and learns to play the guitar from his girlfriend, which all gives way to increasing disconnect from his roots as he becomes a big deal and gets a “leather jacket” with “chains that would jingle,” while his A&R representative starts to chide him for not creating a radio single. Eddie, like so many other Petty characters, has the optimism and naivete worn out of him. His wide-eyed enthusiasm for being a big star is ground down to a weary apathy by the end of the song.

Petty himself was no stranger to the corporate cogs that ground down the likes of Eddie or the nameless rocker from “Money Becomes King” (who might well have been Eddie himself). His famous fight with his record company over album pricing, his resistance to the corporatization of rock and roll and radio, his insistence on retreating from the big shiny pop of Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open by following it up with the stripped-down Wildflowers…Tom Petty always did things the way he wanted to do them, the torpedoes be damned.

And despite it all — despite the cynicism and world-weariness in his characters, despite the victory of corporations over people so many times, despite the dehumanizing effect of so much of modern society — Petty always seemed kind of hopeful. He was a guy who truly believed in the power of music, especially rock and roll. While The Last DJ is by no means a good album (despite what my brother keeps insisting), the title track does send a thrill down the spine and remind you of the redemptive, almost religious power of music. Find the right song, sing the right words, and you can free the mind, body, and spirit. “Even the losers get lucky sometime,” he sang. “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I’ll/Stand my ground/And I won’t back down.” He may have sung songs about the downtrodden and the weary, about folks down on their luck and out on their asses, but he did it with a wry grin and the belief that you could recover from failure. It’s explicit in songs like “Climb That Hill,” with its admonition to “Get up/Climb that hill again.”

Back when Wildflowers came out, I listened to the album obsessively. It came out in 1994, when I was fourteen and the perfect age to obsessively listen to something. At the time, my least-favorite song on the album was the closer, “Wake Up Time.” It was slow, meditative, and not what a 14-year-old who wasn’t quite convinced of his own mortality yet really wanted to listen to. The album was, if I’m honest, too mature for me. I wasn’t ready for it. But that just means I’ve gone from giggling about the line about rolling a joint in “You Don’t Know How it Feels” to really, truly appreciating how heartbreakingly beautiful some of these songs truly are. I’ve been given a blessing, in a way: the opportunity to grow up with this amazing piece of music, to gain new insight and understanding into its songs as I’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser. And now, I’m better able to appreciate “Wake Up Time.” The first half of the last verse goes like so:

Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Wildflowers is a sad album, a lot of the time. It’s one of those divorce records that so many artists have made over the years (Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Beck’s Sea Change, & etc.). But, like so much else that he did, Petty couldn’t help but slip a bit of hope in there. Things are falling apart, yes, but there’s a chance you can put yourself back together afterwards. Not all is lost. And, ultimately, I think that’s the legacy of Petty’s songwriting: he was a guy who told stories that gave us hope. What better legacy could there be?

Not Giving Up

I’ll be honest: the past couple of months, I’ve thought about giving up on writing.

It’s all very self-pitying. Book Two has not been selling. At all. And that’s had my depression whispering in my ear that I’m not good enough and that I should just quit. It’s a seductive, nasty voice, one that I’ve worked hard over the years to learn to ignore. Nonetheless, it still pops up from time to time, still tells me I’m not good enough and that giving up would be so much easier.

Then I got a call from my brother over the weekend. He’s been one of my patrons over on Patreon, which is apparently in the middle of revising its approach to patron fees in a way that really screws over the folks who are supporting you. He wanted to let me know he was going to cancel his pledge due to the fees issue, but he still wanted to send me money every month.

“That’s not really necessary,” I said.

“No, it is,” he replied, and proceeded to explain:

Apparently, my niece, Annabelle, enjoys reading my comics every morning, but she really got excited when she found out I write books. She’s been trying to read one of them (which, um, she really shouldn’t. It’s not meant for five-year-olds), and has even started trying to write a book of her own.

And it just…well, I might’ve cried a bit, as I am wont to do.

It was encouraging, and reminded me why I enjoy writing so much in the first place. I love telling stories. I love inspiring people. And I love that my niece wants to write and read things I’ve written.

So, maybe I need to take a break from writing hard-boiled detective stories. I’ve got two more already written and ready to send to an editor, so I could take a break from Eddie and company and work on things more age-appropriate for my niece. I already have an idea. I already know what it’ll be about. It’ll be right up her alley, and it’ll be written so that she can read it and enjoy it.

And then, when she’s older, maybe she can read the Hazzard Pay books. Maybe.

Regardless, I’m not going to stop writing. I’m not giving up. That voice in my ear is strong and cruel, but I’m stronger. And I’m stubborn. I’ll keep plugging away until I accomplish what I want.