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DEXTER, ANTI-HEROES, AND RESONANCE

Trust me, no spoilers.

A few weeks ago, I watched the series finale of Dexter. Eight seasons of storytelling about America’s favorite serial killer came to an end. I stayed with the show, even though the last two seasons were less than stellar. This final season in particular just never felt right: plot points that made no sense, subplots that went nowhere, weirder than normal voice-overs, characters that were…well, out of character.

Through it all, lead actor Michael C. Hall did his best to keep the serial killer brooding in the character of Dexter. At the same time, he made me understand the struggle we all feel when we can’t understand why life throws its full weight at us. I think this is why Dexter was such a popular TV show and was well-loved, even when the story went Six Feet Under. Say hello to the human condition. We bandy that term around a lot, and when I throw it back every fall at my AP students, they can’t tell me what it really means.

Dexter is the poster child for the human condition. He knows how he should act. He even has a code. Of a sorts. But he has this unmistakable urge to give in to the dark side of the Force. He wants to blame everything on his Dark Passenger. He’s blood spatter, and we, the viewing audience, analyze him relentlessly, hoping something good will come out of him. Dexter is likable. He resonates with us. He evokes strong emotions from us. We’re pulling for him. We’re worried to death that he’s going to get caught when he makes a decision that puts his whole cover in danger.

Secretly—although we don’t go around murdering folks—we fight dark urges. We have our own demons. We can’t seem to get our  heads wrapped around the idea that we know what’s right, while fearing we could do wrong at any moment. We wonder why we’re here, we wonder where we’re going, we wonder what life is all about, and—just why the hell don’t we have our own set of those cool Dexter blood slide coasters…

Look. You and me, we want to be saved. Dexter wants to be saved. Throughout the series, he wants to find that blood work that will help him, when all he’s had before this was his dad’s teachings and, ultimately, the support of his sister. What the anti-hero teaches us is that, in the end, no one really is going to save us. We have to save ourselves. We are the heroes of our own lives.

There weren’t many resonant moments this final season, which bothered me more than anything. Say what you will about this season’s storylines and subplots: through it all, although too often downplayed, Dexter searches for a way to redeem himself. At the same time, he is relentless in his quest to keep his loved ones safe. He is haunted by monsters, he is covered in shadows, but he knows enough to help others realize that shadows are not scary. They’re just the absence of light.

Despite many fans’ displeasure with the finale, I found that those last 55 minutes had more resonance than the rest of the season combined. The acting, strong visuals, unique camera angles, powerful music—it all contributed to my understanding of Dexter, and it gave me a bit more insight into myself. Throughout the episode, it was the use of silence—with actions trumping dialogue and voice-overs—that made me appreciate the absence of the obvious.

Remember your monsters. And thanks, Dexter.

 

WRANGLING WRITING AND WORK

Most writers have a day job. If lucky, they might have a working spouse.

I have a day job. I teach English Language Arts at a high school, and I’ve been teaching now for 28+ years. My writing languished for many, many years. Admitedly, I threw it off the rails myself, in 1995, when I began a small press magazine called Talebones. And then, in 2000, a small press book line, Fairwood Press. And then…

Teaching is draining. Heck, most career jobs are draining, aren’t they? Anyway, suffice to say, I wasn’t writing. When I sold my novel last year to Tor, my agent said that my editor had told him he’d been waiting for this book for 15 years! Ooops. Had it been that long from the time I’d sent the same editor a (thankfully unpublished) novel? Uh, actually? It was longer. The same 25,000 words of The Ultra Thin Man had sat there, waiting. Oh, indeed, I worked on it. The same 25,000 words, that is. By the time I’d pick the book up again, a year or two later, I was definitely not happy with those 25K words. REWRITE.  A year later….Ack, no. What was I thinking? REWRITE.

But there was something there. I’m not an outliner, so I’m not sure where the book was going, but it seemed promising. Still, I wasn’t making time to write. Something had to go. I had to stop saying YES to everything thrown my way. In 2009, I decided to say goodbye to Talebones. I started writing a little bit that summer, during my summer break. Not a lot, and much of it was back to that first 25K again, but there was some new stuff.

The new school year started. I was going to be busy again. I might have quit the magazine work, but I still found myself pressed for time. I needed a consistent block of time to write every day. What to do? Here it is: (Don’t tell on me, fellow English teachers at Riverside reading this…) Between 2007-09, I worked with a “1.2” contract. That is, instead of teaching 5 periods and having 1 planning period (1.0 equivalent), I taught classes all six periods, adding the .2. It was extra money, and the administration found it more advantageous than hiring a part-time teacher. During those two years, I learned to plan outside of the school day: after school, before school, Sunday nights…whenever I could, because I knew I wouldn’t have my planning period.

With that in mind, I decided to approach the 2009-10 schedule the same, even though I was no longer working the 1.2. I decided: I’m going to keep planning and grading the way I’ve done the past two years, even though I have my planning period back. I was going to take that same 55 minutes every day, 3rd period, and write. More often it was 45-50 minutes. But I was not going to plan during that time. Trust me, I put in plenty of hours planning and grading outside the school day–more than usual by a long shot.

September came around, and I threw a seemingly impossible goal out there: to finish the first draft of the novel before New Year’s. I made it! 75,000 words in less than 4 months after letting the first 25,000 words sit there all lonely-like for years.

So I’m here to tell you that if you want to write, or engage in whatever creative endeavor suits your fancy, or any seemingly time-consuming tasks you want to do outside your work day, you can do it. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours at a time. I’m not contracted for a second book as yet, and I’ve not yet gone back to that one-hour-each-day-at-work schedule with the determination I did in 2009, but at least while I’m waiting for my first novel to come out, I’m writing with more regularity.

I can’t afford to wait 15 years to finish the next book.

SUMMERTIME BLUES AND THE FALL OF MY DISCONTENT

It was a whirlwind summer, full of writing opportunities and workshops and conventions and…

Well. The blog post title sounds kind of gloomy, so let me explain. Tomorrow I head back to school to greet students for the new year. (It will be only a partial day of classes since much of the first part of the day is reserved for the incoming freshmen.) I always feel blue as the summer comes to an end, for a variety of reasons. This year, I am bummed I didn’t get more writing done than I did. I’m bummed I won’t see some of my writing friends and convention compadres for a while.

But: It was a whirlwind of a summer, as I said. I attended Clarion West get-togethers ands various author readings. I managed to catch up with a lot of work related to my small book publishing company, Fairwood Press. I got to meet my agent, who was in Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and I got to attend and be a workshop leader for the Cascade Writers Workshop in Portland Oregon. I traveled to Calgary, Alberta to take part in When Words Collide, a genre convention for writers. I went to Montana to visit my family. I had lots of time hanging out with my son Orion. And just this weekend I traveled to San Antonio for the 71st Worldcon, and even got to hold a Hugo Award won by Joss Whedon for The Avengers. (He wasn’t there, so the award was accepted by someone else. I managed to wrest it away for a few minutes.)

I’m excited for the new school year, I really am. It’ll just take some time to adjust. Mostly, I have to adjust my sleep schedule, which is completely contrary to my natural pattern of night owlness. I’ve got good classes, a lot of eager students (I’m overloaded in three of the classes at the moment), and plenty of learning to pass on. I also, as usual, find myself a bit innundated with more Fairwood to-dos. And due to a lackluster summer of writing, I’ll have to crank up the heat on writing book two.

Sleep can sometimes be a premium during the school year. How often do you give up on a few hours of shut-eye to get things done? It seems almost a given. I still put in a few all-nighters during the year just to catch up with the tasks that stack up.

I was at school most of the day, and dragged myself back home by 11 p.m. And now it’s officially tomorrow, just past midnight. There’s a late load of laundry going right now, still in the wash cycle. Oops! Gotta get those bills paid for the month too.

What am I doing here writing this blog? I’ve got work to do!

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FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENTS: BOOK SERENITY

No, this isn’t a Firefly post.

With the demise of Borders, and the “iffy” future of Barnes & Noble, many book buyers who love to frequent brick-and-mortar stores are nervous about what is to come. Will they have to buy every print book online? (Well, there are those discounts, and fast shipping.) Will they soon have to read everything in e-format?

How can a traditioanl paper book buyer find any peace?

A while back I contributed to a special section in Locus magazine about the small press and independent press. One of the questions asked about the future of publishing, and I have always thought that when the big chain stores go out of business, we’ll see a rise in the independent bookstore. Indeed, the early numbers are already bearing out that idea. Chains put a lot of the independent bookstores out of business. Amazon, ebook retailers, and other onlilne venues had a part to play in crippling the chains. So why not bring back the independents?

Just today I had lunch with my sister in my hometown of Kalispell, Montana, and afterward she took me across the street to their new bookstore. Before this, the city of Kalispell had a big Borders. It did indeed drive my sister (and others) crazy not being able to go inside a bookstore to browse. Now here was this independent store (Bookworks). Small, cozy, limited selection, but it absolutely bled charm. They knew my sister by name. They told her the book she’d ordered was on its way, and apologized for the delay. Granted, the science fiction section, tiny by most stores’ standards, had a lot of big name fantasy authors (Butcher, Martin, Brooks, etc), and a bunch of Orson Scott Card, some classic authors, and a few odds and ends. But there were some nice surprises. I saw a book on the shelf from a friend of mine, and one of the owners said those books were doing well for them. (I actually ended up buying something from the mystery section, Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, the first book in his Longmire series.)

There’s something to be said for the homegrown experience. Sure you’re paying full price for books. Sure you’re waiting a little longer for special orders. But in my opinion, nothing beats a good tour of a cozy bookstore. My sister didn’t hesitate to mention my book coming next summer from Tor. The owner said, “Oh, science fiction or fantasy?” She knew the imprint. She asked me for the title, and told my sister to make sure to remind them when it got closer to the pub date.

A friend of mine has a local bookstore he goes to in his hometown of Sumner, Washington. They know him by name. He orders books through them. They also have a thriving online business, which keeps the brick-and-mortar store going.

Don’t you wish you all had a corner independent bookstore just around the corner from you? Total serenity.

If you are one of the lucky ones who has the cool bookstore nearby, it’d be fun to hear about it in comments.

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*UTM* IS OFF TO NEXT STEP

Mostly, I’m doing this blog post as a test to make sure this is going to crosspost to Facebook and Twitter, as it’s supposed to. But I should put some content here beyond a behind-the-scenes PSA.

So what’s new with the novel’s journey? The edits were completed and the manuscript delivered and accepted. So  it’s now in the hands of the production department, as well as the art department. It will also be heading to a copyeditor, and I should get copyedits sometime in October, roughly.

Nothing to do now except work on book two, which I wish was farther along than it is as I approach summer’s end. But 3/4 of the rough draft of UTM was written in three months during the fall/winter while teaching, so I know I can accomplish much when I need to.

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THE WEBSITE GOES LIVE!

So on this day, summer of 2013, my author website goes live, with just one year to go before the publication of my first novel. And what’s more, I have a blog that will most likely crosspost to a few other venues, most notably Facebook and/or Twitter. There’s an old LiveJournal site still kicking around too that has gathered cobwebs since I joined Facebook, but maybe these posts will slip over there too.

This is a short catch-all post to start with. First off, I want to thank Jeremy Tolbert of Clockpunk Studios for the fine work (and the excellent instruction and support) getting this website off the ground. Even as I type this, he’s behind the scenes, giving feedback and adding those last little touches I’ll need on the admin side. It’s fabulous to have a site looking so snazzy.

I also want to thank Jordan Grimmer, who did the artwork for the banner. What a talented artist! There’s a link to his website at the bottom of the site. Since it’s too early for any kind of book cover artwork yet, I gave Jeremy some character and scene descriptions from The Ultra Thin Man to give to Jordan, and he got to work right away and nailed it. This has been a scene in my head for many years. Jeremy took that art and those colors and worked the site around it, including that cool thumbnail of two of the characters for new blog posts on the home page.  I’m pretty lucky. The plan was down the road to switch out this art for the cover art for the Tor book, but right now I can’t even imagine there being anything else there.

I couldn’t deal with the empty placesaver for the novel so I made a mockup cover with Jordan’s header art.

What a new process this all is, having a website strictly devoted to my writing, and primarily due to the sale of my first novel. Time will tell how it’s all going to pan out, but for now, I’m along for the ride. Hope you enjoy tagging along.

 

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