Dork Wednesday: Just an Ork


One of my favorite paint and conversion jobs. Imagine your best Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons voice as you read about how this is an ork from the Blood Axe Clan, a faction within the Warhammer 40k game universe. His bolter dates back to the 1st or 2nd edition of the game, so it required a major overhaul with the customized barrel to put it on par with the scale of contemporary ork arsenals. The old figures were substantially smaller with hands that looked like Mickey Mouse gloves, so it can be a challenge to reconcile the bits and pieces when bastardizing models. I added some fun details with him toting around a Space Marine backpack and shoulder pad, because my rank-and-file troops are obviously murdering humanity’s finest in droves. I am most satisfied with the color scheme and little details on the base, and I’m sure this guy will look great as part of a unit if I weren’t painting at the rate of one miniature about every month or so. Maybe some day I’ll even play again!


Safe Words in Writing and How to Stretch an Analogy Past the Breaking Point

The Hellraiser franchise. It’s like S&M in “Fifty Shades of Gray” but more realistic.

When having sex, a “safe word” is used by one partner to indicate that a kinky act has transcended what is fun and pleasurable and veered into the realm of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. So, in addition to “no” meaning “no,” “avocado” means “put out the candles, turn off the cattle prod, and let’s focus for now on inserting traditional appendages into traditional orifices.”

Fiction writers have their own sets of safe words, although they exist in a slightly different context, because a literal parallel would be unnerving. The written page looks up at its author and says, “suddenly!” Suddenly, and the author knows to put the brakes on the prose and bust out the repair kit.

suddenly_something_happenedfinal2“Suddenly, Gerard Petersmith stepped into the room. The assembled bohemians regarded him with sudden alarm, their expressions suddenly shifting from complacency to the aforementioned alarm in the most redundant fashion. ‘It all happened very suddenly,’ witnesses would later explain to the police who had arrived quite suddenly, as though they had not been there five minutes earlier. It is amazing how suddenly lives can change, things can happen, and people can change their minds or move their hands. She looked at him with eyes so damp a toddler must have drooled into them and said, ‘I don’t know. It all seems so . . . expected?’ Gerard nodded, glad for his own complete and utter lack of spontaneity.”

Every writer gravitates toward a handful or two of safe words, go-to, comfortable language that flows faster than conscious thought from the brain to the keyboard. Although “suddenly” is an offender endemic to novice and veteran writers alike, every author has a unique cozy sweater knitted together from their off-the-cuff vocabulary. My own characters were once prone to “turn their attention” to and “regard” far too much in spans of “five minutes” while “nodding.” Staring back at me, the page cries out a litany of safe words, signaling that this pleasurable act of unfettered writing must now be tempered into the dutiful missionary position of editing and revision.

The tragedy is reading a published work peppered with unheeded safe words, glaringly redundant and hackneyed, and realizing that nobody ever loved the book enough to notice its many cries for help. Love your work, and you can share a cigarette afterwards.

[I originally posted a less sensual version of this article on the Bedford Writer’s Group blog.]


Rue 21, Body Shaming, and a Time Travel Adventure

I do most of the shopping for our children, and there aren’t a lot of apparel options in our small town, so I occasionally end up at Rue 21 where their body shaming sizing scheme works out in our favor. My svelte daughter is eight-years-old, which is to say, their size small. I always feel a twinge of regret when I enter the store, thinking of the bulimic twenty-some struggling to fit into a shirt that is a perfect fit for a third-grader.

What really got me curious though was the aesthetics of their clothing lines. Fashion tends to trickle down to small towns, so I imagine that our city’s dominant trend of pajama pants, flip-flops, and despair is a decade or two behind what is popular in major metropolises.

Rue 21 is different though. They sell men’s clothing that I swear I have seen in family photos from the 1980s. I asked the manager about it. “How is it that so many of these clothes look so . . . vintage?”

“Let me show you,” she said, and right away, I established that this was nothing sexual and showed her my wedding ring, because my wife is insanely jealous.

She brought me to a secluded back room. I displayed my wedding ring again and pointed several times to my daughter, a byproduct of me having a wife. She moved aside a velour curtain to reveal what was clearly the time machine from the 1960s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. I noticed several modifications, most notably what looked like a dryer vent hose projecting from the front of the device, along with a sign that read, “Fashion Output. Caution:  Apparel May Be Hot.”

“This is where we get out merchandise,” the manager said. “As you seem to have guessed, we have exploited a temporal rift to suction our clothing directly from the mid-’80s. Occasionally, we get people too . . . or parts of them, since the hose is pretty small. I think they were Asian factory workers, which is sad.”

“You have a time machine?”


“And you use it to suck clothes here from the past.”

“In layman’s terms. It’s the same place that JC Penny stocks their women’s clearance rack from.”

“Why the ’80s?”

“That’s how time machines work. It’s not like there is some lever or dial that allows you to adjust the temporal coordinates.”

“Yes, there is! It’s right there!” I am not an expert on time travel, but I’ve seen enough episodes of the original Doctor Who to know what’s-what (as opposed to the new episodes that teaches absolutely nothing practical).

“Huhn? I’ll be damned. Yeah, looks like we can set it to any year we want.”

“Can I buy some parachute pants from the ’90s then?”

“I don’t see why not.” She began fiddling with the dials and levers, which were totally intuitive and self-explanatory. “This should do it!”

It did not do it. We ended up with two dozen Cortinthian helmets with the heads still inside of them. The stream of ancient Grecian helmets continued unabated with no sign of stopping, and we were forced away from the machine by the steadily accumulating deluge.


I tried to lighten the mood by holding up one of the helmets and saying, “This is Sparta!” The manager did not laugh. She would probably lose her job over this stunt, and so I decided not to follow things up by saying, “I’ll take two,” even though I actually did want a couple — assuming they were reasonably priced and the heads could be cleaned out of them.

Two weeks later, I drove by and saw that the store’s signage had been replaced with a hastily strung banner, which read, “Corinthian Helmet Outlet Center.” A line of nerds extended out the door and wrapped around the block, so I suppose everything worked out for the best in the end. There was an article in the newspaper the next day about an employee at the neighboring Walmart who discovered numerous garbage bags of severed heads in their dumpsters, each marked “Grade B, Not For Experimentation” on the forehead.


Stranded on a Desert Island: Deconstructing a Stupid Question

“If you were stranded on a desert island, which three people would you want with you?” We have all been asked that question, or one like it, at some point in our lives. Far too many people give terrifyingly egocentric answers.

Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump . . . I don’t know, Charles Manson. Those are logical answers with potentially global consequences for the common good. On the other hand, a best friend, loved one, spouse, child, or celebrity. Answers like those beg the question, “You do understand that you are sentencing these people to a slow death by dehydration or starvation, right?”

Of course, it is all a matter of perspective. “What if?” exercises like these demonstrate how forcefully a person’s ego can assert itself on a theoretical environment. A self-centered respondent will inevitably provide self-satisfying answers that would be horrifying if realized in real life, while an optimist would be more prone to envision a “desert island” as a picturesque Gilligan’s Island rather than the desolate patch of sand without ready food, shelter, or potable water that a pessimist would expect.

Optimism versus Pragmatism

The optimist expects the best of any theoretical scenario. Asked what they would do with six months left to live, the optimist isn’t going to plan a bucket list around the medical condition that is killing him. The optimist will climb a mountain assuming that health won’t be an issue, unworried about their access to the prescription drugs and medical facilities that a dying person tends to favor. It’s a theoretical scenario, which means an opportunity to explore boundless hope and joyful abstractions. A desert island seems more like a weekend retreat for people whose perception of fantasy is disconnected from real world considerations.

The pragmatist is drawing up a will and meticulously planning out his last six months in a fantasy scenario bound in anchor chain to real world considerations. It’s not quite pessimism, but having to pick three people to be stranded on a desert island with is pragmatically equivalent to being asked who you’d want piling on top if you had to jump on a grenade. There’s no dental care on that island. Survivor’s accounts are rife with despair and madness. Who would you wish that on?

These characteristics define two very different types of readers and media consumers. Understanding their needs helps an author to plot out how much suspension of disbelief they must sustain.

Altruism versus Egocentricity

If I were “Lost” on an island, the first person I’d want to bring would be a megalomaniac convinced that he is the main character in our story. That would be dandy.

An optimist and pragmatist may both agree in answering that they would bring a survival expert, doctor, and shipwright, but such an answer still suggests a strong degree of egocentricity. What the respondents are really asking for are caregivers and providers, a sort of hazily-defined island welfare system dedicated explicitly to their own support and well-being. It would be a singular person who suggests, “I’d want to be stranded with a survival expert who will go off on his own and leave me to die, a doctor whose own survival skills will be sub-par to my own but who will nonetheless expect me to demur to his authority on account of his social standing, and then a shipwright who will have a far easier time crafting a boat for himself, although he will promise to send someone looking for us as soon as he finds help.” Egocentric people don’t walk away from such questions thinking how useless they would be outside of their specialized environment.

A novel is often an exercise in stranding people on literal or figurative desert islands. Understanding the interplay between altruism and egocentricity gives character depth but also allows authors to identify the biases in the own worldview.  It helps authors to avoid writing “protagonists” who are actually complete assholes, like Jack Shepherd in “Lost.”


Survival 101:  America? Check!!!

The sycophant is best exemplified by the alternate version of the desert island question, “What three things do you bring?” Well, the Bible, the American Constitution, and a spare Bible, obviously. Not because the sycophant really spends much time reading either of those documents, nor because of their pertinence to the scenario, but because it’s the “right” answer, the crowd-pleaser for their immediate group. Whereas others find an opportunity to satisfy their own internal sense of wonder and curiosity, the sycophant uses theoretical quandaries as another method of fitting in without any actual sense of self-expression. Someone like that would write great copy for Bill O’Reilly but isn’t quite cut out for fiction.

The Tower of Biblioteca

“And books — she swallows like dumplings.”
— Sholem Aleichem

According to Bowker (the company that issues ISBN numbers), 316,480 new titles were produced in the United States in 2010 alone, which was up from 302,410 in 2009. That figure does not include the “non-traditional sector,” which includes print-on-demand and self-published books, which had increased 169% from the previous year to 2,776,260 titles in 2010. That’s more titles issued in 2010 than there were people living in the United States. Self-publishing has grown more than 375% since then.
Somebody caught on fire, but it isn’t sultry firefighter, Jane Coolwater . . . unless you count her fiery romance with the burn victim she just rescued.

Read whatever you want, but considering those numbers, is it really possible for the casual reader to connect with those authors best suited to them? Even the most devoted bibliophile must, out of pure necessity, breeze past dozens of bookstore titles without a second glance, never knowing which of them could have been life-changers. There are only so many books that one person can read in a lifetime, so many that will fit on a shelf. Few people can accommodate all of the recommendations from friends, family, colleagues, and well-meaning strangers into their busy schedules. Too many classics and “must-reads” serve more as cultural anchors, engendering a shared water cooler experience, rather than speaking to the intellectual and emotional needs of the individual.

Readers waste too much precious time sifting the wheat from the chaff, particularly when so much of the chaff is backed by savvy marketing campaigns. The fiction market really isn’t all that different from any other in that regard. Performers, like Justin Beiber or Kanye West, are just front men for their respective teams of producers, songwriters, lyricists, sound engineers, stage managers, etc. who are responsible for crafting the product and building the brand. The end product damn well better be palatable, because a huge amount of money goes into polishing the turd.

“I’m sensing things more clearly than I ever have in all of my life. I think that it is ‘you’ who should get out of his car and join me on this road to better understand the importance of the choices that we make in our lives.”

In an episode of The Book Group, a BBC television series, an aspiring author has just completed his first novel. At a meeting with a prospective publisher, he asks the editor what he thinks. “I think it’s not very good,” the editor replies after several significant pauses. “It’s bad. It’s really quite bad.” Following a thorough denunciation of the book, he goes on to say, “I think there’s a market for it. People who read a lot are by-and-large very stupid people. I mean, have you seen what’s on the bestseller’s list in this country?” He agrees to publish the book as yet another “affront to contemporary literature.”

It’s not about what’s “good,” but rather what sells. The strong surge in Young Adult fiction sales coincides with statistical evidence from the Literacy Project Foundation indicating that half of our country’s adult population would struggle to read a book written at a higher level. People want to read. The desire is evident, but we are a culture of readers rarely pushed to achieve past ninth-grade comprehension. Nearly half of American households neither read nor buy a single book in a year, not even weird sex tales about dinosaurs. We are #1 in war and #12 globally in reading how to wage it.

A person who “don’t like to read” is generally part of that passive audience who had a few not-so-great novels forced into their unwilling hands and then judged the whole of literature according to that standard. The same is true about all of us in terms of one thing or another. Whether it is a matter of time or inclination, few people are open-minded about everything. Socrates was famously quoted as saying, “I don’t like Mexican food,” to which Plato replied, “Well, then you have never tried Don Gilipollas!” It’s like that with books. Even when someone breaks down and accepts the recommendation, there is the chance that tastes will clash and the reluctant reader’s aversion becomes further entrenched.

Any problem can be solved by applying as much force as possible with no fear of overkill or collateral damage. If you see an obstacle, run at it full force, windmilling both arms and screaming. Understand, that this book was mostly written about keeping neighborhood cats off your lawn.

Of course, as an unsuccessful author (or emerging writer, depending on perspective), I have a vested interest in people trying new things and discovering new stories. I’d rather not be one of those writers who struggles his whole lifetime with depression and amazingly fun drinking binges only to publish a solitary book that may or may not be recognized as having literary merit a century after I’ve died in the gutter — oh, I just got it now, it’s penniless, not penis-less in the gutter. At least, that’s a relief!

Kitten Fangs: A Tale of Cats, Chocolate, and Disgustingly Lurid Vampire Romance (part II: The Middle)

<<< Chapter 2

Chapter 3:  The Hot Morbidity of Cats and Cushions

“That’s what we should be doing.
I don’t want to use the word “screwed,”
but I screwed him. That’s what we should be doing.”
— Donald Trump

They were making out hardcore by the time that Melantha and Salvador arrived at her second floor apartment. The otherwise unremarkable complex neighbored a haunted amusement park that had been leased out to an eccentric mortician, as well as a deep and terrifying lagoon, so the rent was quite affordable. But the dozens of annual disappearances and grizzly murders in her neighborhood were the last thing on either of their minds.

With their lips locked, Melantha fumbled to open the door while Salvador’s icy hands worked her nipples into rock-hard passion knobs. He toggled them with the eagerness of a teenager working a console game controller and was on his way to earning the high score. Their clothes just seemed to fall off with a life of their own, which added urgency to them actually getting inside her apartment, as Mrs. Halls was watching them from her open doorway with a look that bordered between disgust and awe. Then again, she’d had a stroke last month, which left her facial expressions open to interpretation. Melantha was fairly sure that she had been Mrs. Halls in a former life.

NoskittenThey practically fell through the door — not literally, as in, they did not physically pass through the material of the door, but as it opened, they stumbled through in a semi-sexual position expurgated from the Kama Sutra for its absurdness and impracticality, what was once known as “Stork Plucks a Weird Lily With Pants Around Its Ankles.” It was gross and weird. Mrs. Halls definitely felt disgust even if she could only emote moist bemusement.

Salvador screamed as his flesh burst into flames. He smelled like grilled bratwurst, which in this context was gross. He looked increasingly like questionable meatloaf from a substandard restaurant overcooked to the point of still being on fire.

“Oh! Sorry, sorry! I forgot to invite you in.” Their passion dampened, Melantha rushed to think of a solution or at least remember where the fire extinguisher was.

“Do it then!” Salvador howled.

“Do what?”

“Invite me in!”

“I thought I just did!”

“You only said you forgot to!” Salvador’s eyes sizzled and then burst out of their sockets. It was a total mood killer. His blazing flesh was melting from his bones and dripping onto the floor. There was a fat chance in hell that Melantha would ever get her security deposit back, but at least she knew that her smoke alarm was working

“Oh . . . welcome to my home. I — I invite you in!” Melantha said, which extinguished her vampiric companion instantly. There was really no need for him to get pissy about anything. Vampires caught on fire all of the time. He would heal just fine.

“Dammit!” Salvador shouted. “I can’t watch Lethal Weapon without my eyes! Even if I’ve seen them a million times, it’s a visual experience.”

“How about The Golden Girls then?”

“That will suffice. I enjoy the comedy, but I do not like looking at their aged flesh.”

“It disgusts you?”

“It reminds me that I must live an eternity, never growing old, without the promise of an end to to my tormented existence, never qualifying for AARP or Social Security benefits. The curse of my dark secret mandates that I pay full price at the cinema even though I am eligible for senior rates.”

Melantha felt pity more than arousal, as though Salvador were a co-worker who had invited her out to drinks after work. She was still going to have sex with him, but now she was going to have to put it off until later to ensure that she stayed classy and kept his respect. Unless he made her into a vampire, in which case she would fuck him into orbit.

“It smells like death in here,” Salvador said as he plopped down onto the sofa that she’d found abandoned by the dumpster and then had reupholstered with Doctor Who print polyester fleece that was now half cat hair. It was amazing that he could smell anything other than the stink of his own immolated body.

“There’s probably another dead cat under the couch.” Melantha stepped into the kitchen to put some popcorn into the microwave and pour a couple glasses of . . . well, all that she had was diet cola. Fortunately, vampires drink diet cola. “They climb up into the underside and get caught up there sometimes. I have so many of them that I usually don’t even notice until I find a skeleton.”

“You are a woman with many hidden corners. I like your casual attitudes about death.”

Melantha paused. She set the timer on the microwave, and then paused again. Was she really so casual about death? Sure, she thought it was funny to lick the deceased while paying respects at a funeral, but that was more about her being a free spirit. She’d had sex with a corpse, but again . . . free spirit, and also kind of an accident. She’d see a fatal car crash and laugh a little, but . . . that was more like giggling than guffawing . . . and well, the popcorn was ready, so that was enough personal insight for the day.

“I’m a free spirit.”

“I could tell by your jewelry. Did you make it yourself?”

“Yes. I pick out the beads, and the order that I string them in tells a story about what beads were available at the craft store and how much money I had on that day. I call this one Clearance Bin on Payday. The big green bead has an Asian symbol for ‘Bird Rice Demon’ on it. I’m not sure what that means.”

“I wish that I could see it. I wish . . . that I could see your face, but it will be some time before my injuries are fully healed. The only thing that could speed my recovery is . . . blood? Sorry. That sounded like a question. It’s blood. I need that, but I can not drink your blood. When a vampire is this injured, he must drain every last drop of his victim. I would kill you. Some chocolate would be great too though, and if I could hold one of your cats, one or two.”

“I can get you the cats,” and I certainly have enough chocolate, Melantha accidentally thought to Bill Gates instead of herself. Fortunately, her misdirected thoughts rarely made it past the windows. “And, you know what, I think that I may have a way to get you all of the blood that you need.”

Salvador thought that was super funny. He laughed, and Melantha laughed along with him. They laughed for like five-minutes straight, which felt pretty good. Maybe she could make this relationship last after all.