Look at me, I’m an e-book!

The act of writing isn’t hard – well, isn’t always hard – but telling your relatives that you like to write is. Most often, the easiest way to relate with that tidbit is to come back with an acknowledgement that someone else also writes. “You know, Mary Anne also likes to write.” You have a book? they ask rhetorically. Mary Anne has five.

Or better, I also have an idea for a  book. Let me tell you the saga of its people.

I lead with this not as a complaint, but to frame my reservation to announcing my publication. Because publishing a book carries two very distinct stereotypes – that a gatekeeper in New York is FedExing me money for my young adult novel, or that I wrote a story about a dog detective in three days and haven’t yet used spell check. To most people, I am Mary Anne, an anecdote in conversation without real context.

TLLG-Cover-Draft-3I started writing my book, The Late Lord Glass, in 2011. The previous year I had written a novel for my undergraduate thesis, featuring time travel and absolutely no plot. It was atrocious and I highly doubt my thesis committee read it in it’s entirety. I would not. In fact, if time travel were possible, I would use it to stop that committee from ever forming.

After college, I was teaching English in Turkey, isolated in the southeastern part of the country. I spent several months overhauling my thesis (adding things like, say, a plot) and began fiddling with a story about someone coming home after being away a long time. You can see a connection to real life: in Turkey, part of me was becoming afraid that because of my separate, bizarre experiences – and because I was missing all the experiences shared by my old community – that I wouldn’t fit in when I came back. That’s where The Late Lord Glass came in.

Obviously, presenting only the existential experience is boring. So I added things I liked: pirates, princes, swordfights, conspiracies, more pirates. I wrote the book I wanted to read, one that stole from other books like Captain Blood and The Count of Monte Cristo and Princess Bride (it was a book first).

Over the next three years, the book came off and went back on a shelf as I learned things about life and how women think (the early version of the female lead was not very accurate). The book was also read, front to back, by a dozen people, each with grammatical and thematic suggestions. Finally, a few months ago, the book seemed whole to me.

It’s on Amazon now, for ninety-nine cents. I earn thirty-five cents for every one sold – so, this will never make me any money. However, it’s not the exercise of a whim, either. It’s just something I’m passionate about and it felt sad to never share it, like the story never existed in the first place. So judge for yourself. Don’t let yourself hear it first from your uncle.



Elementary Story Telling

I’ve been asked twice to speak to a friend’s elementary classes about writing. They all want to meet her “writer friend.” When I arrive, the first question is always, “What book did you write?” Kids. Worse than adults. This is why I don’t talk about my dreams at Christmas gatherings.

After deflecting a few of the more on-the-nose question – including, “How much money do you make with words” – I’m asked to tell a story. The challenge is always the same: the current group of eight-year-olds will provide me with characters, a setting and a problem and without further ado, I tell them a story.

The first time I did this I had to include Psy, a momentarily famous Korean rapper, alongside a flying monkey bellhop and a popular video game enemy, a Creeper (I am told they behave very much like zombies). Psy had forgotten how to dance (that was the given problem) and, alongside a shambling and depressed Creeper, they stayed at a cave-hotel ran by the aforementioned monkey and discovered a crystal that released music into the world.

The second classroom I spoke to gave me a “fat momma”, a goblin named Pip and Mean Pickle Ted. I was assured that it was an inside joke. Pip had too many chickens, so I was told, and I related the story of how he gave half of the chickens away to Mean Pickle Ted only to have the other half run away – attempting to rescue the first half. There was a lot of context about human-goblin relations and the chicken market, but I won’t waste time on that now. After I finished, two children hugged my legs as I left.

I like to tell stories and I secretly write but I don’t speak about it much, anxious about the very same questions I fielded from first-graders. However, as my friend the elementary teacher broke down my stories, she asked her students why my stories were good. The students said that they liked the details. Psy had a blue axe that was shaped like a music note. Ted the Mean Pickle smelled like shoelaces. Human-goblin relations were precarious. Though it came from children who imagine Mean Pickle Ted as a hilarious and intimidating villain, it did provide a brief ego boost.

I enjoyed the exercise so much that I practiced it with our after-school program. After gathering suggestions, I told the story of Derek the jellyfish, who had to rescue his best friend the whale shark from a mysterious monster in a subterranean lake in Antartica. A little full of myself, I gave Derek a little bit too much backstory and lost my elementary-age audience. To win them back, I had the evil monster vomit up all his previous victims. That garnered modest applause, I’m happy to report.

Bill Davidson Will Take Back His Land

At our Ozone clubs, we often play silly or gross games, conjuring images of time spent at summer camp. However, I often lean towards activities that require a measure or two of creativity. In my bias, that often means the creation involves words.

I love nothing more than to hang pictures drawn by our elementary students and ask our teenagers to write a six word story about it while listening to oddly loud instrumental music. That has led to such gems as I have hung on my office corkboard: “Slowly leave something that is loved” and “Gazing serpent gazes at what was.”

Both of those were written about a basilisk fighting a robot, pictured in crayon.

This week we played a variation of Balderdash, the game that gives an obscure title or phrase from which the player must puzzle out meaning (or bluff very well). As I explained the goal – to either correctly describe a movie plot or to make up a feasible plot that matches the title – the students were confident. Most assured me that whatever the movie was, they had seen it.

51NxKqb3IxL._SX500_“Ready?” I asked. “The movie is – The Hudsucker Proxy.

As they stared, glassy-eyed, at their blank papers, I tried to help them along. “Who is the main character? Is it the Hudsucker Proxy? Or is the main character trying to find the Proxy? Maybe destroy it? Fall in love with it? Protect it?

“Is the Hudsucker Proxy a place? A spaceship? An idea? Is it in Canada? Or in King Arthur’s Court? Or on a moon of Jupiter? Maybe it’s in each of us.”

Obviously, none had heard of it. And no one was even close to the actual plot – a mailroom worker is promoted to CEO because the company’s exec board thinks he’s a schmuck. One-half of all submissions had to do with either the Hudson River or a vampire that sucked the heads of his/her victims.

In both our middle school and high school club meetings, there were some winners. These were ones with believable plots that at least tangentially involved a Hudsucking Proxy.

“Mr. Hudsucker is a jail escape artist who’s escaped from jail 20 times. And in his worst nightmare, he’s being chased by the proxyman. Despite the proxyman’s cuddly appearance, he can rip the flesh of a human with his bare hands. Mr. Hudsucker must escape from him and find his real world (not the proxy world).”

Very Inception-esque. I’d watch it. And if the proxyman looks like Mr. Hudsucker (which the definition would suggest so, though the author didn’t know it), I’d say the title is right on the money.

“A robot has to guard a dragon-princess, but he doesn’t want to. So he says to a human, ‘Hey guard this princess,’ and the human says, ‘Okay.’ Will the human do it? Will the robot get fired? Find out at the Hudsucker Proxy.”

Okay, so not even tangentially involving the HP, but I’m amazed at the fantastic cast of characters written against a mind-numbingly mundane plot.

“A hunter is attacked by a beast called a Proxy. So he has to fight back. It takes place in  a dark forest where there is no sight of light! So in the end is he lost forever. But before then he kills the Proxy on mistake! But it was a good thing.”

The reversal that killing the Proxy was a mistake makes me think the hunter came to love the beast – or at least respect it. However, as in White Fang, it would never work. Also, the fact that he’s lost forever and now alone is quite disturbing.

“There are only two people left. There is no one else in the world. And they are on opposite sides of the world. The movie is about their journey to find each other. When they meet, they are brother and sister.”

Again, no HP, but the omission of how everyone on the planet died is captivating, as is the final twist that the two are brother and sister. Along with the writing, we held a movie poster competition. The poster for this plot won.

“During a normal shiny Tuesday morning, a flock of wasps takes over the world. They turn humans into other wasps and the world becomes ruled by wasps. Only one human survived the Hudsucker Proxy, and Bill Davidson will take back his land. He will have to survive these vicious wasps. He is willing to survive and he will. Watch to find out if this brave man will take back the Earth.”

For me, this is the clear winner. It includes the HP in a non-detrimental way (too many plots were horribly transfigured by jamming the HP in). It also sounds like a smashing movie trailer, with the expert introduction of Bill Davidson. And slowly enlarging his goal from “his land” to “the Earth” sets it up for a sequel.

Targeting the Audience

On Saturday, summer camp ended for the season. We went out with an awards dinner and a skit revue titled, “Encores.” I co-wrote this year’s, like last year’s, and modeled it after Saturday Night Live. There was “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Weekend Update” as well as a musical guest.

Afterwards, the camp director approached me and said it was one of the best he’d ever seen. “Except for one thing,” he added. “That Drunk Uncle guy. I didn’t really understand that.” He was referring to a reoccuring character on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Their version of Drunk Uncle complains mostly about the state of youth today. One of my co-workers has a solid impression and we ran with it. He complained about the coaching in campers’ tribal competition.

“So you didn’t like it?” I repeated dumbly.

“No, no I didn’t really see the point,” the director said. “But I’m not your target audience.”

This summer I also wrote Eagle Tales, the skit series that camp uses to teach the Christian gospel and camping values. In the past, Eagle Tales was a disjointed group of skits with consistent characters but an unconnected plot. That’s not me. Instead, I wrote a six part series that followed young Finneas the Knight, his twin sister Quintus the Archer, and Steve the Wizard. Steve spoke like Satchmo in a wizard hat and cast spells from an electric guitar. He was inspired by a picture of actor Ian McKellan in sunglasses For some reason, Steve was the absolute star.

In each episode, Steve had maybe four or five lines – half of which were always “STEVE!” Regardless of depth of character, campers loved him. Before some performances they would chant, “WE WANT STEVE” so loud that my character, a puppet named Blizz the Well Informed, would have to quiet them.

“Silence, children,” Blizz would squeal.

“Orange elmo!” campers would cry back.

The adventurers traveled a long way to slay a dragon and rescue a princess. Along the way they crossed the Bridge of Broken Rainbows, were captured by Rothgar the Pantsless, dueled Joe Jonas, and recited numerous puns and Star Wars references. Yet all the kids wanted was Steve.

I think the most frustrating thing involved in directing Eagle Tales was that no one appreciated my humor. Not only the kids, but even counselors didn’t recognize the deep pool of kill puns (Sorry to cut it short, I hope you get the point, Let me put a bow on it). It wasn’t until August until I realized that I missed my target audience. In my effort to craft the show that would make me laugh the hardest, I forgot that eight year olds don’t really have the cultural back ground for things like, “He’s all tied up at the moment!” All they wanted was a quirky wizard with a funny name.

In the last two weeks I finally gave the actor playing Steve carte blanche to say his name as many times per episode as he wanted. It was our most successful run to date. No person has yet to recognize the Star Wars quote in each episode.

Welcome Back to Camp!

I like to blog because funny things happen. I must tell someone. However, working at a summer camp introduces new difficulties. The camp-cultural background required to appreciate what these kids say and do, as well as the legal restrictions of privacy and concerns about context create obstacles in the way of making people laugh. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t laughed in July.

I, at the bottom right, practice a camp skit called the “Rocking Car.” It’s performed once every session. I just drove the car for the thirtieth time. It always ends the same way.

For two weeks, all summer staff at camp played a game of Assassins. You receive a water pistol and a secret target, and you spend your off-time trying to assassinate him or her, just as someone is secretly after you. In my six summers at War Eagle I have never made a kill. So when I was the first male killed out of a hundred and fifty males, I was unphased. As heavy footsteps sounded behind me, I thought, “Of course this happens to me.”

My wife Holly, however, chose to take the game seriously this year. She killed four targets before bowing out because of a possible rules infraction (she had rifled through someone’s luggage, looking for car keys so she could hide in the back of the target’s Civic). At one point she spent the two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight hiding under the bunk of a victim because her target locked the cabin at night.

I wrote a novel during fifth session, in outline form. Black pen marks cover the front and back of 22 pages of computer paper. My superiors were curious why I did so much paper work. It’s about a man from the future who falls into a portal, transporting him to a more medieval time, a la A Connecticut Yankee… or Timeline. All the characters have last names taken from campers in the cabins that I managed: Mondragon, Goforth, Overturf. Look no further than the real world for fantasy.

I like portal stories. I think it fulfills my own daydreams and fantasies.

I also drew several maps of the magical land. And invented a language. Tevwoshi-Elvish. “Ma’fest mish” – I go to death, as Skillian Underturf, the grizzled old dwarf says. The language itself has only one parsed tense and relies on prefixes to denote time or objectivity. It also has no prepositions, which I appreciate. Sometimes prepositions overwhelm me.

There’s only one week of camp left before I start my new job working for Ozone, War Eagle’s year-round outreach program. I will be a city director in Rogers, maintaining the camp experience all year for any attending kids. And at club, announcements will be in English and Tevwoshi-Elvish both.

The Schmeding Center

I was asked to write an entry about my short story, “The Schmeding Center,” for One Weird Idea, the magazine publishing it. If that’s what it takes to get non-relatives to read my blog stories, then so be it.

I wrote “The Schmeding Center” in my senior year of college. It was different then – it started on a moonbase. Now there is no moon – well, it’s there, you just can’t see it when you look at the story on paper. However, the idea behind the story is the same. It’s about how relationship must change.

In college I lived on the same street that I grew up on. Three blocks down, in a tiny, beautiful brick house with a dying metal railing around the concrete front porch. But I managed to stay separate from my parents, dropping by for meals or cable television (we only had a record player. It sounds hipster but we couldn’t afford anything else). Usually I came when I needed something – often that was as much emotional as anything else. And then there was a day when I couldn’t get what I needed, emotionally. My mom didn’t notice it. Neither did her cat, Gigi, whom she adopted to replace my married sister. Gigi is French; my mom speaks to it in a French accent.

Regardless, I left unfulfilled and generally frustrated for no definable reason. Pondering it in silence (because it cost too much money to turn on the record player), I eventually realized that I was still behaving like I was a dependent. Not the food or the cable – I can get that stuff from my grandmother at Christmas – but the emotional demand I placed on going home. I wanted the same sort of sustenance that I was used to when I’d walk home in my white collared uniform from St. Joesph’s Elementary. Part of becoming a man is letting go of that. At least that’s what I’ve heard from television.

The emotional give and take of going home doesn’t go away, but it does have to evolve. Part of the way I found that out was by writing this story, the first draft of which came a couple of hours after I went home. But it originally took place on a moonbase.

The story itself takes place in a majestic and peaceful storage facility – the Schmeding Center collect and save personalities of dead people. With a monthly subscription, a client can visit the files of his dead relatives. Hijinks ensue, in the form of emotional epiphanies and a deceased mafia don sub-plot that I eventually edited out.

There’s an actual Schmeiding Center (with a well placed ‘i’ in the middle) – it’s a center for the elderly near my hometown in Northwest Arkansas. In the late stages of her Alzeheimer’s, we often took my grandmother there. She was a wonderful wobbling woman with a mental box full of catchphrases that the disease could never take away. She used to sing loudly, “There she is, Ms. America!” when my sister entered the room. In her last few months she’d sing that very thing when my brother brought her soup. She never did it to me; I look too much like my grandfather.

I’ve talked myself into a circle – I wanted to say something about the story I wrote, the first story I sold, but I’ve forgotten what. This is my first acceptance out of eighteen rejections on multiple stories – “The Schmeding Center” changed every time until someone thought I got it right. My sister, who paints, got a side job writing an art article called “Fancy Frugal” in the Central Arkansas lifestyle magazine. It was infuriating at the time, because she beat me to publication. It seems I’ll have the last laugh, because not only will I go to press, but she was long ago replaced in our family by a cat.

The first issue of One Weird Idea can be purchased with 99 cents for e-readers everywhere on May 22nd.

Mission Accomplishedish

I still have three weeks before I go home (though my students don’t know it – I may a few creditors in town, and I plan on giving them the slip…of paper with my forwarding address). However, when I got to Van and realized how much there really was to do here – look at cats, eat breakfast, remain completely motionless – I set a goal for myself. I wanted to get one short story accepted for publication before I left Turkey.

And look at me now, high school bullies who thought spaceships were a stupid thing to doodle in my American Government notebook.  I finally succeeded.

A story I wrote about storing dead people on hard drives (laughter! romance! intrigue!) is being published in the inaugural issue of One Weird Idea. What are they paying me, you might ask. I have no idea. They don’t either, since it’s the first issue, but I’m less money conscious now that I keep all mine in a sock underneath my mattress. The students who work at the hotel where I live still haven’t found it.

The initial e-mail I got started with, “Ms. Trumbo – ” and went on to say, though the story was great and altogether accepted, the maleness of the narrator was a little unconvincing. While that was a blow to my masculinity, the editor was actually much more helpful than if I just tried to decide what was manly on my own.

Look me in the beard and call me Ms. Trumbo

The magazine is electronic only, and it can be had on e-readers galaxy-wide on May 22nd for 99 cents. That’s the price of four gumballs, two Turkish bus rides, or the TV that I stole and then accidentally dropped four quarters.

Consider the Average Reader

One of my favorite books is Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, which is part time travel story, part memoir. In fifty years when everyone’s forgot about it, I’m going to write my own. With dragons. That breath time.

Anyway, in Timequake Vonnegut says that every author writes for one specific person. He claimed he wrote for his sister Alice, who died decades before this particular book came out. KV, as I call him when I visit his grave, said that every author crafts the story so that this one specific person will enjoy it.

I like to write (SURPRISE! I also like to steal, but I have medication for that), and I like to think I write with my mother in mind. She’s very easy to please. The two leads must be happy at the end. Evil must be vanquished, and if someone falls down and it’s funny, so much the better.

Recently back in Arkansas where my parents live, there have been nasty snowstorms. Wood is scarce, and no one leaves their houses for fear of frost giants. Though they don’t have cable, my parents do have Netflix, and in the course of the blizzard have watched many movies, including The Last Airbender. Afterward, my mother emailed me to ask some questions (she incorrectly references the movie as The Last Hairbender).

On returning home, we watched the Last Hairbender…..and loved it!!!!!!  But i have some unanswered questions……
  • when will the little boy avatar learn to use his earth and fire bending skills?
  • Who will teach him?
  • Will the Prince of the Fire nation turn from the darkness to the light and become friends with the Avatar?
  • What happens to the white-haired water princess who gave her life for the glowing fish….will she be resurrected?
  • Does the majority of the people who see this movie understand the false theology sublimely embedded in the mystic spirituality of the film?
  • When is the next sequel coming out?

Since I haven’t seen it, I couldn’t answer her (maybe you can). But I look at these and see some basic elements that, when I write, I need to cover in order to make my mom happy, including closure and possibly a redemption plot. But she’s definitely hooked.

This is What I Want to do With My Life

Over Spring Break ten fraternity brothers and I watched two seasons of the television show Greek. I got it from my little frat brother Tim Yopp. He’s like Rudy – five foot nothing and a hundred and nothing. The past two Thanksgivings he’s loaned me his copy of Final Fantasy. He has them all.

The seasons are divided into two chapters each, and Tim gave me three chapters. I thought I would just watch one; it would be a pain just to watch one. Instead, we watched all three then watched the last ten episodes online.

Greek covers the social drama of two fraternities and a sorority. Many things that happen are impossible in real life, but we did get many ideas for new pledge activities. More importantly, we all agreed Rusty could have done better than Jen K. We loved Max and we were sad to watch him leave, and we really want Beaver and Betsy to get into a destructive, black hole type relationship.

I got these DVDs from Tim because one of the principal actors, Jacob Zachar, who plays Rusty, read a script I co-wrote. He liked it and wanted to make it. So I thought I’d do some research. Little did I know I would fall in love. Tale as old as television.

Because of his interest, we’re trying to kick up some fairy dust and advertise this project to investors. It’s called True Love Sucks; it’s basically a hipster Romeo and Juliet. It isn’t what I like to write, but that made it fun. And it turned out to sound a lot like myself. Example: I’ve been asked to run a blog of one of the characters from the script. It’s pretty much like this blog except instead of lying about somethings, I lie about everything. It’s ultimate freedom. You can read it at stevetbrenner.blogspot.com.

Final plug – we’re trying to raise money through a website called Kickstarter, which looks like a pyramid scheme but what the heck I’ve always wanted to be a part of a pyramid scheme. You can read about our project and, if you so chose, invest in the film. It can be found at here at Kickstarter.

Thesis Successfully Defended

I defended my thesis novel yesterday. My advisors came in and sat down, and after a small chat about what my sister is naming her baby (Cosette, like the girl from the musical Les Mis. She’s going to call her Coco, to go along with the baby’s older sister Zuzu. It’s like having two monkeys) they asked me to explain where I got the idea for my novel. So I began: “Two summers ago I was on a day off from camp, watching AMC, when this movie called Time Cop came on…”

The night before I went to see the band Passion Pit in Kansas City. Three of my brothers – all Eta class members, my pledges – went with me.

They all look like they’re off The Big Bang Theory, don’t they?The concert was general admission, which meant standing with no personal space in a crowd of three hundred. We ended up with a good spot, surrounded by a group of drunk girls. The most sober one was kind of cute. She said she was from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. She said it was spring break.

The most drunk of the girls, Holly, came in at this time and asked me where I went to school; Arkansas, I said. “ARKANSAS! I’m going there next year!” Her friend tried to recover, and say Holly had taken a semester off, but then Holly yelled, “What are you talking about? We’re in high school!” I threw up in my mouth.
The worst part was, my brothers didn’t care. They were all just a grade older than these girls, so their drunk flirting was at the very least flattering. I spent the concert brushing Holly’s hands away from my chest hair.

We got back into Fayetteville at 3:30 a.m. I had to defend my thesis in eight hours, and I felt like I had danced my way through a 5K and clocked a pretty respectable time. I got to my defense room half an hour early and took a power nap.

My committee were in agreement about several things. There are too many characters. The narrator is intrusive and needs to be cut. Everyone dies for way too long. The characters’ mission and enemy needs to be defined earlier. I told them most of the problems arose because I had watched too much Lost.

I don’t know my thesis score. They don’t tell you until graduation. What I do know is this: while I sat in the hallway, letting them deliberate, the only full sentence I heard was, “We can’t give him that score; he referenced Jean Claude Van Damme.”