Does The Lamb Buy the Farm?

February 2, 2012 § 42 Comments

My friend Jennifer recently read an advance copy of my upcoming novel, Blue Asylum, while on vacation in Hawaii. She texted me anxiously about the fate of a lamb intended for dinner that one of the characters rescues and keeps hidden behind the insane asylum.

ME:  Don’t you care about the fate of Iris, the passionate anti-slavery feminist imprisoned unjustly, or gentle, tormented Ambrose, the flashback-ravaged Confederate soldier who can only comfort himself with thoughts of the color blue? Or that sweet lad, idealistic, private-fondling, guilt-ridden Wendell? Or the mysterious baby who inexplicably haunts Iris?

JENNIFER:  I don’t give a rat’s ass about Iris or Ambrose or that horny kid or that stupid baby.  In fact, as an animal lover I would give more of a rat’s ass about a rat’s ass than those people.

ME:  But they are the main characters!

JENNIFER:  I don’t care. I only care about whether the lamb bites it, because lambs are beautiful and innocent and humans are just a writhing mass of despicable replicating ecosystem-hosers like the escaped pythons of Florida.

I guess she has a point. I have never seen a lamb atop a tractor clearing a swath of rain-forest land for McDonald’s.

So does the adorable creature live or die?  I’ll only say this:  I am an animal-loving freak, in life and in literature.

And this:  The first and most shrill and insistent editor of every manuscript I write is squirrel-hating, raccoon-punting, meerkat-throttling, raised-on-a-farm-in-1808-and-totally-unsentimental-about-animals, Polly “First, Kill the Lambs” Hepinstall.

So I will offer you a deal. If you are interested in a signed advance copy of Blue Asylum, just give me your address and I’ll send you one. I know some of you have already read it, and some (ah, hi Bern) were promised one ages ago and I totally dropped the ball.

In return, I ask you to do two things:

  1. Tell two friends about Blue Asylum, especially if you hate it.
  2.  Kiss a lamb. Go kiss a lamb on its furry innocent head, you carbon-footprint-stomping, ozone-humping natural-balance-molester, and pray you come back as something so lovely.

Jesus Would Take The Middle Seat

September 7, 2015 § 44 Comments

I’m on a plane right now

Houston to LA

and I’m thinking

Jesus would take the middle seat.

He’d give me the window so I could see the clouds.

Maybe clouds bore him.

Maybe he sees his own face in a cloud

Or on a wall

Or a muffin

And he thinks it’s a miracle.

Jesus doesn’t put his seat back.

Because there might be a Roman soldier behind him with bad knees

And Jesus forgives everything.

Jesus listens carefully to the flight attendant’s instructions

Jesus asks for water, but when he touches it, it turns to wine.

The stewardess says, that will be five bucks and Jesus pays for it without complaining.

I don’t know what to say to Jesus

But I need to say something because, Jesus.

I say he looks considerably darker

than his likenesses on Etsy watercolors

And he says, there’s been a bit of pigment revisionism going on in recent centuries

Which sounds cool when Jesus says it

And I say, you know they darkened OJ Simpson on the cover of Time Magazine during his trial,

And Jesus nods

Because maybe he’s followed the trial

Or maybe he’s just being polite.

I start rambling on about how impressive it was to me that he forgave douchey mankind

And ask him what happened to the lamb on his lap in the paintings

And if he took that lamb to heaven

Where it is currently still young and still cute.

A bead of sweat rolls down my face because I’m sounding like an idiot.

I almost ask him if Mel Gibson is like the embarrassing friend you have to invite to parties,

But I stop myself and say instead, “Kanye West thinks he’s you.”

Jesus smiles.

He has a nice smile and he smells like a feather would smell

If lambs had feathers

Flying like Jesus is like flying with the biggest celebrity in the universe

like, three Oprahs

I want to ask him if he’s mad that I never could quite commit

and if dogs and fish see him at the end

and if he always flies American.

I always pictured him on Jet Blue.

And I don’t want the plane to land

Because I never quite believed.

And now I do.

I believe I believe I believe.

Glorious Moments of Transcendent Wrongness

January 15, 2012 § 11 Comments

My mother likes to kick things.  Varmints, for one.  Here she is showing her grandson how to dispatch an unsuspecting baby squirrel delicately nibbling at the first pecan of the season it just stole from her tree, its little whiskers lit by early morning light.

She also likes to stomp things. Graves, for example.  My sister, not the Rabbit but the other one, the Stephen Spielberg of the Christian Right, who films everything, was rolling tape as my mother led a delegation of relatives from grave to grave in our old family cemetery in Louisiana, giving the oral history of our forefathers who had –

“He’s in hell!” she announced suddenly at her dear grandfather’s plot and began to stomp away as the family fell into stunned silence. My sister heroically adjusted focus and preserved the moment as the squirrels in the trees around us instructed their young: See that old lady? Don’t piss her off.

It was a Glorious Moment of Transcendent Wrongness, like when my cousin Jack made three blatant grammatical errors in four words: I AIN’T WENT NOWHERE, or when my other cousin, self-styled preacher J. Ernest, tried to raise a man from the dead (had been dead five days, and embalmed. Seriously. No, not kidding).

In my upcoming novel, Blue Asylum, my favorite characters are the ones who are most wrong.  Like Lydia Helms Truman, presumably sent to Sanibel Lunatic Asylum for her political leanings.  In Chapter Five, at the dinner table, Lydia Helms Truman does something so spectacularly unsettling that it made me bestow on her the very highest honor…she could very well be a relative of mine.

I wonder if it’s just me, or is it you, too? Have you ever witnessed someone doing something so very epically, universally historically Big Bang wrong that you said, wow that is really just so not right, but you had the tone of voice of an alpha male with a small penis stroking the hood of a Lamborghini?




Secret Writing Advice

October 1, 2011 § 16 Comments

July 7:  An argument for cutting.

Do you love the reader? Then cut him. Cut him hard. Cut him silently. Cut him when he least expects.

Here’s Toni Morrison giving you a vision of a boy at play, in short pants, then shanking you with the last six words as surely as you were her bitch in prison:

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven’s wings and flew high above their hats in the air. They did not hear all of what he said; they heard the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves. For some it was the term “Sweet Jesus”. And they saw the Lamb’s eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves. They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich. That one. The one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old, young skin, and was the one the world had hurt. Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in.

Here’s David Foster Wallace stopping suddenly in the middle of an essay about Roger Federer to cut the reader’s heart out with a quick back story about the boy who served as coin tosser. Wallace then steps over the reader’s body and continues on about Roger Federer as though nothing ever happened.

This answer is plausible but incomplete. It would probably not have been incomplete in 1980. In 2006, though, it’s fair to ask why this kind of talent still matters so much. Recall what is true about dogma and Wimbledon’s sign. Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.

According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine…a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?

It’s 2-1 Nadal in the final’s second set, and he’s serving. Federer won the first set at love but then flagged a bit, as he sometimes does, and is quickly down a break. Now, on Nadal’s ad, there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one’s down the center. Federer floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve…

Here’s Kurt Cobain doing some cutting of his own:

I like it I’m not gonna crack

I miss you I’m not gonna crack

I love you I’m not gonna crack

I killed you I’m not gonna crack

Later, he would cut in a different and much more final way the person who found him on the floor, shotgun in his hand and driver’s license nearby for easy identification.

In A Day in the Life, John Lennon cut a generation of fans with line 6 of this song, among them, one can presume, Mark David Chapman, who later found him in New York and cut him back:

I read the news today oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw the photograph.

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights have changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

Nobody was really sure

If he was from the House of Lords.

All great writers know how to cut the reader. It happens suddenly and silently. You feel the blade in your heart and beyond that, in your soul.  And while you are kneeling down watching your wound make a red pool on the floor, you realize, ironically, you feel so authentically alive.

December 31:  Cold Bathwater

Words take the roles of either tools or weapons, or live in that variable space in between the two.  But all words written for an audience exist to cause a change in that audience.  The words that are selected, and how they are put together, can evoke wildly different images, feelings, and moods.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to consider your target.  First of all, who?  Who exactly?  I once wrote a whole novel as though it were directed to my friend Ro. The novel was a miserable failure.  Thanks for nothing, Ro.  But if your novel or screenplay or ad has a target audience, what is that person like?

Also, consider the somatic effect all great writing has on people.  If it makes them sad, how specifically does sadness feel, and in what part of the body?  It’s amazing, when you think about it, that a group of words can cause the same consternation or peacefulness or even physical pain that a drug can, or a sunset, or a police siren.

How does laughter feel in the body and when you are laughing, what part of your body is specifically affected?

Imagine your target audience laughing, feeling wistful, or sad, or nostalgic, or riveted.

I once had a friend that told me she was reading my second novel, Absence of Nectar, in the bathtub, and the water turned cold around her.  It was the ultimate complement. Oh, and one said she hid from her child while reading another book.  I liked that one, too.  But I digress.  Or not.  Maybe I’m not.

This is a vast subject area and might be covered in later, sporadic entries that five people read.  But just remember…the sound, arrangement and feeling behind your words, and the characters and situations that spring from them, are real to the human body, and can be as effective at changing it physically as a storm, the sight of a loved one, a shot of tequila, or the taste of a lemon.  (take the word “wry.” Tastes like a lemon, doesn’t it?)

Dec 27 – Coyote meat

My dear cat, Sunny, is a living breathing soul with his own mind and his own personality and even a couple of tricks up his furry sleeve, which he will do if he feels like it.  But I am very cautious about letting Sunny outside, for coyotes rove the area.  And to a coyote, Sunny is one thing – meat.

Your writing has a personality and a vision.  A soul.  But literally, it is type on a page.  If you do not infuse your writing with the proper magic or deny that magic with certain mistakes, your writing turns back to its basic elements – to the equivalent of meat, which is black type on a white page.

In the same way a cat can be both a friend and coyote food, words can be both a friend and a collection of letters.

How to keep your words from turning to meat:

Beware of sentences that go on and on, are cluttered, or contain too many metaphors.

Metaphors are good things, until they are bad things.  Metaphors that don’t quite work are like skaters that go for the triple axel and then crash.  You don’t remember the effort; you remember that sickening sound of flesh hitting ice.

Also, a piece of writing with too many metaphors becomes work instead of play.  Whenever you have to work at something, you are aware of time.  When you are aware of time, magic fails.  The coyote jumps the fence and slinks toward the cat.

Remember that the reading mind is aware of everything:  sound, rhythm, even the shape of the paragraphs on the page.  Long, dark shapes look like work.  If you insist, at least make the work worth the effort.

Another thing that turns your writing to coyote meat is the running start.  Don’t make the reader watch you warming up.  Hit them right away.  Example:

124 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.

This is how Toni Morrison’s Beloved begins.  She could have begun this novel in many other ways, talking about what the house looked like, could have described the weather, or what it was like to be a slave woman.  But no.  She didn’t warm up in front of you.  Reading minds are annoyed when they watch someone warm up.  It’s like watching a football team warm up for the big game.  It’s boring.

A note about rhythm – 242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.

The word “venom” is an awesome word, especially when you put it next to “baby.” But the rhythm could be better.  Here are some words that are wrong, but the rhythm is better:

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s hate.

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s teeth.

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s breath.

I know, I know, these words aren’t right in meaning.  But they are better in rhythm than “venom.”  Sometimes you have to make the decision.  It’s not like they denied her the Pulitzer Prize.

Dec 12 – Energy and the Reader

Where were we?  Oh yes, writing.  As I heard somewhere, writing is an exchange of energy and you should take that literally.  When you take energy instead of giving it in the first part of a sentence or a paragraph or a novel, you have to work uphill to win the reader back.

Let’s take something that sits in the crosshairs of Advertising and Novelism (not really a word):  The query letter.

An aspiring writer can send multiple query letters at once.  That’s what I did with The House of Gentle Men.  Remember, though, that good agents get hundreds of query letters a week.  You have to earn your place in his attention span. (let’s say his since my agent is male.)

My first query letter started out something like this:

My name is Kathy Hepinstall [1], and I have written a literary novel[2], about 80,000 words[3], that tells the story of a very peculiar bordello…[4]

  1. Who cares?
  2. Who cares?
  3. Who cares?
  4. Slightly more interesting but now this letter is sitting in a trough of neutral energy.

You see, Kathy Hepinstall means nothing to an agent.  If I had said, I am Stephen King, which I should have, the agent’s pulse would quicken and his heart would glow. But no, as an unknown writer I (and you) are neutral energy.  And neutral energy quickly degrades to its half-life state, negative energy. 80,000 words means that it’s an acceptable length. So might be Charlie Sheen’s penis. Does that mean you want it? (Mom if you have found this, I am terribly sorry. I was trying to make a point and it all went so terribly wrong. Please forgive me.) By the time I got around to the bordello, that’s when the interesting part began. That was about twenty words too late (don’t make me count the words).

This query letter got me a response rate of about ten percent. So I rewrote the query letter.  Now it said:

What happens when a woman finds out that her own rapist is responsible for her spiritual awakening?

Now, it’s not perfect.  “What happens when” is a bit hackneyed. But my response rate tripled, and I was able to snare that genius rockstar barricuda that I later fired*, my agent Henry, and he sold House of Gentle Men in three days.

Remember, energy.  That’s what writers must bring to the party or they will be shunned like I was in high school.

*then crawled back ten years later, then fell down his stairs.

Dec 7 – The art of seduction

Type is born into this world with nothing. Music can capture its audience within one note.  It’s incorporated into the body and assimilated into the soul.  Photos, ambience, even the presence of a speaker all help in making the message welcome.  Writers, we are black type on a white page.  We have to earn our welcome and that is an increasingly uphill journey.  Some thoughts on snares and carrots:


Be brief.  For Human Misery can be contained in a single word:  Vegas.


When you say, I saw a horse in a field, you are saying this from your recliner. You are not saying anything the reader can’t say, not seeing anything they can’t see.

You must be willing to take the reader by the hand and guide them to that field.

I saw a roan stallion with a scar in the shape of broken wishbone, its hooves half-sunk in mud.

Now you’ve made the journey.  Your reader takes note of this sweat of your brow and the flecks of mud on your shirt as you slog toward that beast and put your hand on its warm, wet neck.


Although your writing doesn’t have the benefit of actual music, all great writing is musical.  The starts, the stops, the syllables, the pleasant zephyr of the dipthongs, the beagle-nip of a hard vowel, all conspire together to make the song that is your novel or screenplay or headline or email.  And songs make people feel.

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