Is this a reboot, a remake or a sequel?

Yesterday at about 3:45 p.m. Central, I had the sudden urge to get to the water.

I can’t explain it: I usually avoid the Lake Michigan beaches like the plague, even in times that aren’t a plague. Call it residual hesitancy from a childhood where summer night news reports would announce that the fecal matter count was creeping up toward unsafe levels (because there’s a safe level?).

A 25-minute walk later, and I was back on the path that I used to run in pre-COVID days, staring out at the water:

Thursday afternoons in September are clearly a great time to go sit by the fickly fecal-infested lake.

Never before have I had such an intense need to get to this view before, and I still don’t know what drew me to it. If we’re being honest, the past 24 hours had been wrought with some personal drama and much-necessary self-reflection, none of which I feel like boring you with #onhere. Maybe it was an innate need to exhale all the drama and angst over Lake Michigan so that the breeze would carry it over to Indiana while I went back home to rewatch Oceans Thirteen only to realize I had actually never seen it and, two hours later, that who I thought was a budget Al Pacino actually was Al Pacino.

That’s just a snapshot of yesterday, and I don’t know why I decided to open with it on this post, apart from how it gave me an hour of a walk to think about how it was Thursday and another Friday was about to pass without me publishing anything to Convincing the Muse, making it nine weeks since my last substantive post.

I could lie and say I’ve been absent because I was reassessing what this blog is and why I contribute creative blood, sweat and tears to it for little in return. I could also lie and say it’s because I’ve been busy with a summer that I overfilled due to an already underdeveloped sense of mortality stunted even further by two jabs of Pfizer and the promise of a booster shot.

But I refuse to lie, and that’s why I’m not using this post to make any promises about a return to weekly Friday posts, or more substantive short stories, or constant NaNoWriMo updates come November. You might see more personal pieces a la Sara Benincasa or Samantha Irby (my new favorite essayist — please pick up her books ASAP). Maybe some updates on my newfound vim and vigor around querying Omaha. More Axiom Thorne entries from our now two-years-and-running D&D campaign, found fiction from the annals of my high school creative writing notebooks, and book and music recommendations.

Or maybe I just won’t post anything until after my sister’s wedding in two weeks because do you know how crazy wedding planning is, even when you’re merely the maid of honor and the bachelorette party has already been a success?

Maybe my 115 or so followers will unsubscribe from those WordPress email alerts. Maybe I’ll successfully kill this website by the end of the year and be out the 18 bucks I put down in July to renew the domain name. Maybe these posts will give my boyfriend a chuckle (and that’s worth it, honestly) or a fellow writer an idea for a story (go for it, fam) or the NSA something else to put in my file (eat my Google search dust, feds). Possibly all of the above, come to think of it.

Pitter-patter, let’s get at ’er.

Axiom Thorne: An ACTUAL Portrait of a Lady Unraveling

We’re about to hit the two-year mark on our Dungeons & Dragons campaign for which I created (and re-created, and continue to create) Axiom Thorne, and I’ve grown so attached to her that I commissioned a drawing of her from artist Chris Leverett.

Based on the information I gave him (that’s also included in this post), here is what he created:

All credit goes to Chris Leverett on this masterpiece.

Chris is a great artist to work with (he’s doing portraits of almost all the player characters in our campaign!). Here’s how you can contact him to commission a piece:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/chrisleverettart

Scene of the Write: Observations on a train to St. Louis

The following are observations made from a late June train trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Just outside of Chicago: A boat graveyard, shells of old hulls and schloops tagged with graffiti inside a barbed-wire playpen. A shredded down comforter dangles from the wire, grayish-white stuffing droopy like mid-February snow drifts.

About an hour later, we’re stopped because they “have an issue on the train” they need to deal with. Anti-masker, perhaps — we just picked up some people in Joliet — but my brain is concocting a number of Mission: Impossible scenarios. Just outside the window is a country road flanked by stone pillars. The inscription is too small to read from here, but it’s fun watching as the drivers of cars are getting out and socializing while they wait for us to move out. There’s a man in a white sedan taking selfies, and a white limo with a driver dressed to the nines, taking his chances on getting out into the humid air.

On the way to Bloomington we pass a barn that looks like a drunk giant stepped into it, splintering half the roof and one wall down while the belfry still stands, weathered but intact.

Shortly after 5:15, the man sitting next to me — the one in bright green Chuck Taylor high-tops, with a copy of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that he’s halfway through, with a kid on the way and a weekend at the Cards game with some friends before he becomes a dad (all of which I learned by eavesdropping on his phone call for the first two hours of the trip) — offers me a shot of Bulleit Bourbon from a sealed bottle. I decline and watch as he proceeds to make a bourbon and coke in a thermos mug.

It’s happy hour on a Friday in the tiny towns we pass, too. A group sits in lawn chairs next to an above-ground pool in Macoupin County, a couple igloo coolers warming in the low evening sun. It makes me wonder what would be different about me if I had grown up in a town with a grain silo next door and Amtrak route cutting through my subdivision. Or if I’d be one of those people knocking back a Bud in the summer evening, watching the train from Chicago click-clack past, wondering what life would be like if I was on it.

Music of the Write: “Wolf Like Me” by Lera Lynn and Shovels & Rope

Two weeks ago as I prepped my current project for my beta readers, I found myself playing a single song on repeat — if it doesn’t land on my Spotify Wrap-Up in December, I would be surprised.

“Wolf Like Me” is originally a TV on the Radio song but I had no idea of its alternative rock origins when I started annoying my neighbors with Lera Lynn and Shovels & Rope’s cover. For some reason, the sound of Lynn’s voice, the harmonies, the arrangement and the growing tempo and strength of the track provided the perfect drumbeat by which to slice and dice, shuffle and scuffle, reword and rewrite the first half of Lucky Ellis’ story.

So I’m sharing it here: Maybe someone else will find they experience the same strange calming and energizing effect within its four minutes.

(And if you like Lera Lynn, check out all the music she made for True Detective, including “My Least Favorite Life,” which is also on the Lucky Ellis playlist.)

Music of the Write: “Haunted” by Poe

I recently finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. If you haven’t read it before but enjoy writing and reading horror, literary analysis, family drama, dysfunctional romance, mythology or surrealism — you might want to pick up a copy. Just be aware: It’s a job.

House of Leaves is ergodic fiction, which means that it’s written in a way other than the traditional way, where you read page one and keep turning pages until you reach the end. Instead, it’s told in the form of letters, manuscripts, asides, footnotes, poems and extensive appendices and exhibits tucked in the back of the book. Prep yourself with three bookmarks so you can track where you are as you jump back and forth between the multiple storylines explored.

Is all that work worth it? At some points I’d say “no.” There’s parts that were hard (for my end-of-the-day brain, anyway) to navigate, and I have to admit I merely skimmed the pages and pages of “Pelican Poems” in the appendix. But the story lines — one about a family whose house has an invisible labyrinth within it that changes as you explore it, one about how that family’s house is the subject of a documentary that doesn’t actually exist but was being analyzed and written up by an old blind man before he died, and one about the tattoo artist/apprentice trying to preserve the old man’s manuscript while running from his own demons — are equally fascinating, even though they occasionally dip into what I call “late-1990s cishet male angst.” Think High Fidelity but 80 times longer and without confusingly charming John Cusack.

Close to finishing the book, a friend introduced me to Poe’s Haunted album, which was entirely based on the book. Turns out that the artist is Danielewski’s sister, which means she had a leg up on creating what I think is not just a fantastic concept album, but also a great guide for understanding the book. Think SparksNotes but song in a way that Fiona Apple and/or the Cranberries would have done it.

Anyway, I haven’t listened to the album while writing (yet — there are some tracks like “Dear Johnny” and “Spanish Doll” that could end up in a project playlist or two), but it got me thinking about how a writer’s work can inspire other artists to create. Film adaptations tend to be the first thing to enter our heads, but an album? Now that’s a labyrinth I could get lost in for a while…

Poe’s full album is available on YouTube, but be a good sport and buy it from iTunes if you can. Support artists!

Writespiration: The Top 5 Tracks of NaNoWriMo 2020

This year for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’ve been working on my book about a woman who joins a train robbery gang to avoid having to marry an undertaker’s son. Of course, in the words of Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that,” with key intersectional feminist themes, critiques of wealth hoarding, etc. It also comes with an ever-growing 60-song-plus playlist, though I keep gravitating toward five key tracks that fit the characters, story and message. Here they are:

“Giant” by ZZ Ward

I trekked through a Chicago blizzard to see ZZ Ward play the House of Blues in 2018, and not once have I regretted my it. This track dropped earlier this year when I first started thinking about Lucinda “Lucky” Ellis, and it helped form how she perceives her new-found power once she leaves life as a rancher’s invisible daughter to become a force that baffles the marshals and locomotive companies.

“Song for Bob” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

I listened to the entire soundtrack from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for years before finally seeing the film this summer. Regardless of your feelings about the film (it took me four sittings to finish, but I found a weird peace in it during our crazy COVID times), the fact is that Lucky Ellis was born from that movie — particularly the musing of what would happen if one person on one of the trains that Jesse James robbed had stood up and said “Take me with you.” “Song for Bob” has been on repeat since then as I try to paint the picture of the Higgs Boys’ camp on the page using Times New Roman size 12.

“Rooted” by Ciara and Ester Dean

To know Ciara and Ester Dean’s “Rooted” is to know Ester Roth, the HBIC (head bandit in charge) of the gang that eventually adopts Lucky as their own. Ester is a modern humanist in the body of an 1870s descendent of free Black people living in the West. If that sounds far fetched, do some research: A quarter of cowboys on the Western side of the continent were Black.

“Pretty Waste” by BONES UK

What’s a playlist for one of my projects without a sardonic needle drop? BONES UK’s work has a special place in my heart as one of my top favorite sludge bands these days, but “Pretty Waste” is a fitting soundtrack for both train robberies and bodice rippings — both of which take a prominent place in Lucky’s story.

“Run Baby Run” by 2Wei and Ali Christenhusz

Another writing playlist staple: If it’s not the theme to season one of True Detective, it’s a 2Wei track (and usually more than one at that). This time it’s a toss-up between this piece from their album Emergence, which has echoed through the theater of the mind while plotting out train robbery action scenes, and their take on “Hit the Road, Jack.”

There’s plenty more music, and the list keeps growing. Check the full playlist out here, and follow it to get updates on when I add more (which is pretty much every other day).

Dottie’s Plot for Revenge

Yvette and her brother Mark sat across from the cemetery director, flipping through the pamphlets and doing the math in their heads of how much the endless fees would probably add up to, and whether it would be worth it.

“I suppose it’s odd,” Yvette said, tapping her toe nervously. “Most people who come here want to bury someone, and here we are, wanting to, to—”

“Exhume,” her brother finished for her.

“It’s really not that strange,” the cemetery director said. “We move people around all the time. Last month we had a couple remove both their sets of parents so they could be cremated and relocated to Georgia.”

“Well, we’re just hoping to move her a few plots over,” Mark said.

About fifty yards over, as she’d specified when she shattered the mirror over his fireplace, blasted them with Frank Sinatra and threw their Thanksgiving turkey out the window. The dead know what they want, but they have to resort to dramatic measures for anyone to notice.

~

This is a soap opera.

This is a soap opera starring nothing but people who are dead.

The setting: Somewhere on a different plane from here.

When Dottie Truman died, she knew her husband still had enough years ahead of him that he would need to find another companion. So rather than curse him to another two decades of lonely nights in front of late night television, she used her dying breath to tell Peter Truman to fall in love again.

Which he did, to a lovely woman named Beatrice Harper. And Peter and Beatrice were very much married and in love for fifteen years before they passed just weeks apart at the ages of 97 and 91, respectively.

Dottie watched all of this from her little ethereal plot of the afterlife. She cried with a mix of joy and sentimentality at their sweet little wedding at the Beech Tree Shoals Retirement Home. When Peter went first, she prepared to meet him with one eye on his funeral, where Beatrice had to be helped by her son Tyrone and stepson Mark across the rolling field of the cemetery. Dottie was so busy checking her face and straightening her dress that she didn’t notice right away that instead of in the grave next to hers, he was being interred half a football field away, surrounded by gravestones marked “Harper.”

But when she did finally notice? Had anyone been near her own grave, they would have noticed the dirt above her coffin roil like the angry sea. Later on the groundskeeper would think that the black bear rumored to roam the woods around the perimeter of the cemetery had gotten in and started foraging.

“Trying to do my job for me?” He muttered as he set about seeding the grass in the disturbed dirt. “Wrong plot — no one’s due to be buried here anytime soon.”

See, Dottie was buried with the Trumans in a double plot that her husband was supposed to return to once he died. But that bitch Beatrice either didn’t know or didn’t care, and now she had absconded with Dottie’s husband of 49 years to her own plot.

As far as the logistics of the afterlife went, the location of someone’s grave didn’t affect where they could or couldn’t go in the next plane of existence. But that didn’t matter to Dottie: She was confident that being buried with his second wife, away from the Truman family plot and away from Dottie, was doing nothing to coax him back to his first love and the mother of his children.

And anyway, the Trumans had always been a stuffy bunch, and Dottie hated being buried alone with them for all these years. The least Peter could have done, if he had known he’d be buried with some Boca Raton bimbo named Beatrice (which, of course, he didn’t, but try telling Dottie that), was put Dottie in the ground with her own family.

So after five years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting in the afterlife for her husband to come back to her, she decided to get her childrens’ ever-divided attention. It started with turning their TVs at random times, to random channels, but she was so appalled at what she saw across the channels that she decided that was causing more harm to her sense of the world than good. So she resorted to other poltergeist-inspired chicanery: She would tip over a coatrack (which would be blamed on the dog), turn on lights during the night (which would be blamed on the house’s electrician), explode soda cans (which would be blamed on PepsiCo) and burn food in the oven within minutes of it getting hot (which would be blamed on whoever was cooking). Eventually she decided that Thanksgiving would give her the biggest and best audience, so she went nuts: Shattered a mirror, changed the stereo to her favorite Frank Sinatra tune and blasted it, and even threw the half-cooked turkey out the window before using the grease and drippings in the pan to write on the walls “BURY ME WITH YOUR FATHER. LOVE, MOM.”

Dottie wanted to add “AND MOVE THAT BITCH BEATRICE TO THE PLOT NEXT TO THE BATHROOMS” but ran out of grease.

Unfortunately, now that she was watching Mark and Yvette sit with the cemetery director, that wasn’t quite a possibility. Peter Truman, it turned out, had been buried with his second wife on one side, and an empty plot on the other. And that plot was saved for Beatrice’s son, Tyrone.

Who was far from dying.

And who had moved off the grid, never to be heard from again.

At least, not until Dottie decided she had to pay someone a visit. It was time to introduce someone to Old Blue Eyes, backed by a full orchestra, belting out “Strangers in the Night” at top volume around 3 a.m.

5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

Music of the Write: “Appetite” by Casey Edwards and Ali Edwards

Spotify threw this one into “My Weekly Discovery” a couple weeks ago as I worked on Camp NaNoWriMo planning, and it seems like the music streaming service might know my work-in-progress better than I do.

Now that I’m committing to my house exorcist mystery, “Appetite” is a fitting theme for how Agatha succumbs to obsession while shadowing Handel and Maeve’s work driving demons from suburban homes. It sounds like something Billie Eilish would record after she graduated from college, joined a coven and opened a unisex haberdashery with a backroom full of spell and potion ingredients (actually — that’s not a half-bad story idea).

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.