This is the opening to Chuck Palahniuk’s novel DAMNED, a story about an angsty teen dead girl and her journey through Hell. Or more accurately, the story I’d have written if I’d been, you know, a better writer.
My new years resolution to make my writing a priority ended the moment I finished the book DAMNED, and was forced to face the reality that my writing sucks balls compared to Chuck Palahniuk’s.
I’d like to tell you this revelation prompted me to get busy on a book of my own, working with all the drive and ambition of a writer inspired by Palahniuk’s genius to, as Neil Gaiman put it, “Make good art.” But it didn’t. Instead I curled up in a ball and cried like the giant hack baby that I am. I also haven’t written a word since.
That’s because I have my own personal cock-blocker, and his name is Chuck Palahniuk.
So why all the literary flacidity, you ask? Well I’ll tell you why.
[I’m going to give you my answer at the end of this next passage because it builds suspense. It’s a technique good writers use, or so I’ve heard]
The book world is filled with writers whose work makes me feel like I’ve been junk-punched in the literary genitals. One of them is James Ellroy. Take for example the opening of his pulp-fiction inspired novel, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL:
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
Only Ellroy can write a 78-word sentence about grizzly murder and police brutality and craft it to read as high poetry. In lesser hands this opening would have been a disaster. I am sure if I were tasked with the challenge of writing this novel I’d have Bucknered all over it (for all you non-New Englanders out there scratching your collective heads at the word BUCKNER, click HERE and feel my pain).
Another dream-crusher is Chuck Bukowski. Take for example his poem SOME PEOPLE:
some people never go crazy.
me, sometimes I’ll lie down behind the couch
for 3 or 4 days.
they’ll find me there.
it’s Cherub, they’ll say, and
they pour wine down my throat
rub my chest
sprinkle me with oils.
then, I’ll rise with a roar,
rant, rage –
curse them and the universe
as I send them scattering over the
I’ll feel much better,
sit down to toast and eggs,
hum a little tune,
suddenly become as lovable as a
some people never go crazy.
what truly horrible lives
they must lead.
I doubt Nicholas Sparks ever wrote a poem like that, the epic tool. Now I’ll admit that Bukowski is not for everyone, but personally, I cannot get enough of him. Seriously people, I hear Roberta Flack’s voice inside my head whenever I read his work. Whenever I read my stuff all I hear is Bobcat Goldthwait.
I admire Stephen King for his mastery of characterization and worship Neil Gaiman for, well, everything, but Chuck Palahniuk is the only writer who ever made me WANT to write. His literary voice and story lines are so eerily similar to mine that I have to wonder if we are related somehow. For me, reading one of his novels is like reliving painful childhood memories spent with a better-looking, ultra-talented sibling, feeling the push-pull of striving to be like him only to hate him when I fail in comparison. Now I truly know how it feels to be an Oakland Raiders fan.
So at the end of the day what does all this self-contemplation/flagellation mean? Why it means I am an insipid douche-bag writer, that’s what it means. It means that instead of wasting my time lamenting why I will never be as successful as my heroes, I need to get busy, you know, writing. It means it’s time to get my head out of my ass and get my ass to my desk.
Yeah. Easier said than done.
The author of this particular piece is tomorrow’s featured Twisted Fictioneer. Can you guess who it is?
Good morning! I have landed an exclusive with a personality not often featured in the stories concerning Santa Claus and the ongoing drama surrounding him. Today, I am interviewing Lashonda Jefferson, otherwise known as Brown Shugga. Good morning La… uhm, Ms. Shugga.
B.S.: You can call me, Shugga honey. Everybody does.
H.E.: I have to ask up front, what got you into this life, and why did you pick a corner in the North Pole?
B.S.: Baby, that’s one hell of a long story involving wayward elves and their love of…well, let’s just say they like them some brown shugga, you know what I’m sayin’ honey? Anyways, it’s damn cold on up in here if you don’t have nothin’ to keep you warm at night, and that Mrs. Claus, well she’s just plain crazy, you feel me? One of them elves just decided that Santa needed some good ol’ fashioned TLC if you get my drift, and he dragged my ass up and I’ve been here ever since. Can’t seem to get nobody to take me back and I can’t say I evah want to leave.
H.E.: Can you relate to the audience how the night of Mr. Claus’ arrest went down?
B.S.: I know that Kris is pissed at Brown Shugga, but I never set nobody up to take no fall! He was out, ya know lookin’ to score some Shugga *wink* and some coke. Of course, Shugga always takes care of her clients…especially them ‘high profile’ ones…Some bitch who was lookin’ to take over ma territory and ma man come outta nowhere and offered Kris her stuff!! Can you imagine?!! Well, I ain’t dealin’ with that bitch and I beat her ass. She tryin’ to hustle poor Kris into thinkin’ that she…that…that….HO! Fuckin’ whitey she was…she was a plant, a fuckin’ cop, I know it! I can smell a pig…anyways, next thing ya know me and Santa Baby in cuffs and bein’ dragged down to the station like common criminals! He was downright mean and nasty after that! Whew, baby you ain’t seen nobody with a temper like that fucker…
H.E.: I see. And you were then released with charges dropped in exchange for your information, true?
B.S.: Baby, Brown Shugga ain’t been charged with nothin’ and ain’t gonna be charged with nothin’. I was simply providin’ a service. Good ol’ fashioned satisfyin’ the demands of the area, if ya get ma drift. As for white bitch, she got what was comin’ to her…I got yo information right here, baby! (clutches her crotch) Hehehe..no, really. I gots lots of information and it’s all written down in ma – well, let’s just say Shugga is well protected.
H.E.: I have sources that also maintain that you and a certain D.A. have an ongoing ‘special relationship.’ Can you comment on that?
B.S.: Oh, ya mean…well, we been friends for years. He and I have an understandin’….he lets me live ma life and I give him some well-deserved R&R if you feel me…he certainly does…hehehe…hey. You hungry? You little on the thin side…want some of my tuna salad? I made it this mornin’ while I was takin’ a break…
H.E.: Oh… no. I just do not like tuna, thanks. Moving on, what is the nature of your relationship to LeMonjello Otis?
B.S.: Oh, dear LeMon he been tailin’ ma ass for years. He can’t hurt nobody, fucked up little fool. He talks big and all, but he’s really small in the, ya know, dick department. Shugga knows how to make him feel more like a man, but fuck, he’s really sm-
H.E.: Are the rumors of you launching a daytime talk show on the Oprah Network true?
B.S.: Oprah?! Baby, me and Oprah are like THAT (crosses fingers) Sista knows how to talk and Shugga is more than willin’ to let her all the way to Shugga’s bank account….anywho, it’s just talk right now. We’ll see how things go, ya know with Kris and his problems an’ all…crazy bitch wife ain’t makin’ easy on ‘im though…fucker needs some good lawyerin’ up…
H.E.: One last question – just how big is Santa’s – er, sleigh?
B.S.: Honey, Shugga don’t kiss an’ tell…but I can say he ain’t no magical elf for nothin’…hehehe…
STAY TUNED FOR OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SANTA SHAME SPIRAL WHERE WE SIT DOWN WITH NONE OTHER THAN RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER!
One of the oddest things about my blog is that I rarely utilize it for what it was originally intended- namely, sharing my writing. Since I’m nearly finished with REAPERS TWO, I decided I would share some of the writing techniques I used in the conception of that novella, and hopefully get new ideas from other writers about their character-building habits and techniques.
Today I thought I’d share a specific technique I use for conceiving characters: I assign them a song.
On the surface this may seem counter-intuitive since music is capable of conveying emotion without words, but I find that the perfect song will reveal emotions or behaviors in the characters I create long before I construct a single sentence. The right song can encapsulate a single moment or an entire lifetime of a person’s emotional experience (recent birthday boy ElGuapo knows what I’m talking about). With that in mind, I’ll describe two different ways I use music to build characters.
The first way I do this is to create a generic version of a character in my head, and then find a song that suits him/her after the rough draft is written. I find this works best for when I really want to “flesh out” a character by layering dimension over the bare bones of the initial conception. One of the characters that benefited most from this technique was the character of Raphael in THE GODS OF ASPHALT. Because his character was the most like me, I found that he was the hardest to flesh out. You’d think he’d be the easiest since I ought to know him so well, right? He wasn’t. I suppose that is because it is always easiest to hide our truest selves from ourselves. Well that, and the fact that I had never planned for him to resemble me in the first place. By the time I did my first run-though edit it was painfully obvious that I had captured myself in print.
I struggled for what seemed like forever to find something, anything, about myself in Raphael that I could use to turn him from an angry, closed-off parent into a character with true dimension. Finally I discovered that what made his character and myself alike was our inner struggle with our ethnicity. Being raised as an American in a household filled with Old-World ideals made it hard for me to know who I really was and where my loyalties lay. I was constantly conflicted and to this day struggle for a sense of equilibrium. Without realizing it I had passed that same internal struggle onto Raphael.
Once his (our) internal conflict had been revealed, I searched for music that would tell the story of a compelling character- one who grew from a disgruntled Midwestern teen into a man struggling to find peace as a proud Spanish father. Rodrigo y Gabriela’s cover of the Metallica classic ORION instantly became that song for me.
From that moment on, every time I wrote Raphael I would listen to that song. The music brought him to life for me; from the timbre of his voice to picturing the way he walked. ORION became the soundtrack to every scene Raphael was in and helped me navigate his character through the story.
Rodrigo y Gabriela – ORION
This next example illustrates the same technique, although switched-up a bit. That example is the character of Lucifer in THE REAPERS WITH ISSUES Series.
Unlike the example above where I conceived of a character before assigning him/her a song, with REAPERS I was faced with the challenge of re-characterizing established characters. The one that gave me the most trouble was Lucifer. The difficulty lie in the fact that Lucifer is more than established; he is downright iconic. There isn’t a culture on the planet that doesn’t have a vision of evil-incarnate, so how was I to reinvent him?
I knew that within the context of the story I would have to humanize him to some degree, so I decided to portray my version of Lucifer not as purely evil, but simply as…a dick. I also knew that to “flesh” him out would not be to layer dimension onto him, but to reveal him; to strip away his skin and discover what makes him tick.
I failed epically.
Every version of Lucifer that sprung to mind was a stereotypical construct from the deepest, most generic part of my brain. I had nearly lost all hope when I came up with a solution: I’d do it all backwards and let Lucifer pick his own music. Sounds crazy, right? Well it worked. I turned on my music, closed my eyes and listened to every song I could think of that wasn’t evil, dark or brooding until Lucifer revealed his song. That song, believe it or not, was CLINT EASTWOOD by the Gorillaz.
Why that song? I have no idea (I let Lucifer pick, remember?). But I will tell you that things became instantly clearer for me whenever I listened to it. I easily pictured the way he walked [slightly slouching] to the way he spoke [slightly spoiled] and imagined a dozen tiny little habits [folding origami] the instant that song became a part of his character. But as great as that song was, it wasn’t exactly right. I needed a version of that near-perfect song to do more than just bring Lucifer to life. I needed Lucifer to be reborn.
Words + Music = Art
I enlisted the help of a musician to remix CLINT EASTWOOD into something that sounded slightly more sinister, slightly more spoiled, and slightly more modern. Below is that song: Lucifer’s Remix conceived of by production musician extraordinaire, DJ Casper. Believe me when I tell you that to my mind, this song IS Lucifer.
DJ Casper – LUCIFER’S REMIX
I imagine the idea of using music to inspire or create words on a page may seem unconventional or downright bizarre, but to me it is the most natural thing in the world. I chalk it up to spending too much time on the road as a kid with nothing by my father’s music and my imagination to keep me company. I firmly blame my inability to finish GOA2 on the fact that I can’t figure out what kind of music River listens to. Like Lucifer, I’ve decided to let River choose. I am praying he’s not into Rap.