Oversimplifying

On FaceBook the other day, there appeared an ad which a younger, less-mature me would’ve gotten really pissed-off about. It was for a weekend writing retreat (hundreds of starry-eyed writers crammed into a conference room) where someone could ostensibly learn to write a novel in 40 hours. Four-zero hours.

When I thought about it (and this feels like a gimmick sale) this would only make sense if someone gets the bones and structure and a few character details in place. Then, their story is done. (Well, not really.)

To get the bones and structure worked out is to simplify the overall narrative and arc into elemental terms. “Man falls in love with woman” becomes “boy meets girl” and so on. Naturally, life is that simple, isn’t it?

For fun, I decided I’d try it with “Endgame,” a war/sci-fi novel told from the perspective of my heroine, sniper Captain June Vereeth. (Probably 2,000 hours of work, all told.)

(The story starts in the middle of a battle, when Vereeth and company are defending a fuel dump on a Hoth-like world.)

snowy mountain peak with treetops in foreground

Girl (Captain June Vereeth, in the midst of battle) shoots bag-guy enemy commander.

Girl meet boy (Dhani, equipment tech) in cave during battle.

Girl re-joins best friend (Prubius) and boss (Joffe) in battle.

Girl is nearly killed by falling, exploding enemy craft.

Girl and best friend are nearly killed by cave-in. Boss dies (crushed).

Girl, best friend, boy and two others are trapped, cut off from battle. Boy’s arm is pinned.

Girl, as ranking officer, orders removal of boy’s trapped arm (lest boy dies).

Girl tries not to panic, orders party to find a different route back to Base (main route is compromised).

Girl and party are saved from cataclysmic blast (fuel cache detonation) when bad guys penetrate the Base.

Girl wonders what to do (party is without maps or radio and is stranded 70 million miles from friendly territory).

Girl orders party to push on, mulling options and the war itself and the opposing side.

Girl and party emerge from cave tunnels, look back to see volcanic-blast aftermath of Base explosion behind them.

Girl and party are surprised to see planetary defense rockets (which were delayed by cyber attack) suddenly launch skyward, aimed at bad-guy cruisers in orbit.

Girl and party are nearly crushed by many tons of falling debris (those bad-guy cruisers).

Girl and party move on, knowing bad guys will be back (and will be as surly as ever)…

 

Okay, so this story doesn’t break down into really simple statements, after all. But it sure was fun to write!

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

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Mishap

It’s going to happen–that catastrophic rip or crunch. I’m not a graceful person to begin with (ordera drunken moosae) and the statistics don’t work in my favor.

The other day, minutes into my pickup soccer game, I collided with another, more experienced player named Paul. It was nobody’s fault, as we were going for a loose ball. He held up a little bit (it is a pickup game where we don’t even keep score) and I’m grateful that he did. His knee went into my upper shin. That he was a step farther into his run made his body the hitter and mine the “hittee,” I guess. If it had been knee to knee, it could’ve been catastrophic for me. If he’d been going a little faster, as in full sprint, his patella could’ve snapped my tibia in two. It hurts. It happens.

(Ironically, contact took place above where the shin-guard I wasn’t wearing would’ve ended, so there’s no if-onlys regarding a few ounces of molded plastic.)

Justin Edison's legs showing a lovely soccer-related bruise

Ouch

Keith Jackson was fond of saying football (American) is a game of inches. In truth, all of sports (and much of life) has outcomes depending on tiny distances covered–or not–at a high velocity. Lionel Messi, the absolute wonder, has made a career of juking defenders and squeaking the 22-centimeter ball through with the slightest half-centimeter margins. For someone like him, that’s the difference between an attack interrupted and a keeper thinking obscenities (as he tries to stop what is largely unstoppable).

A teammate named Alex once took a rocket-ball to the face–hard enough to bloody his nose. As a slow-motion camera would’ve shown, if the opponent hadn’t struck it cleanly, or at just that moment, the ball would’ve scraped Alex’s cheek or ear, instead. He was fine, after the leaving the field, but I’m sure all he remembers is the blur coming faster than human perception allows.

For myself, this time, I got lucky. Though I’m not a high-traffic player (people with better skills are suited to that) some unfortunate collision or foot-twist is going to happen. Pain and injury are part of the risks.

The best advice I ever got from someone outside the family was, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” For sports, as I tell my soccer-playing kids, the risk of injury qualifies as small stuff.

When I take the field tonight, like always, I’m going to focus on the fun of the Beautiful Game. It’s a healthy addiction, as guys put it. Amazingly, the second I step onto the field, I won’t be limping or considering the what-could-happens. Sports are sports, and I’m happy there.

 

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Gems of Philadelphia

Olde City. Fezziwig’s ice cream. An excellent pub an Race Street. A flawed bell.
I try to enter any travel experience with eyes wide open, so I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to America’s one-time capitol. My thoughts were, to no small degree, tinged by Bruce Springsteen’s sad, iconic “Streets of Philadelphia” which accompanied the 1993 Jonathan Demme film. (I was a relatively-cloistered eighteen-year-old when the movie came out.) Since then, tales of angry sports fans, crime statistics, a mean-streets boxer’s saga, and Mark Bowden’s Finders Keepers were my windows on a city that seemed forgotten. (Maybe it was thought of as New York’s lesser cousin, which is inaccurate.)
Tree with cool roots, foliage and brickwork in Philadelphia park
The Philadelphia I found was a trove of gems. We stayed in the Wyndham Historic District (very nice staff, great rooms, no complaints) which sits among the brick and cobblestone of the original city. The presence of Benjamin Franklin is everywhere, from his oversized bust beside a fire station to his actual grave (steps from the hotel) to his namesake blue bridge across the Delaware River. The guided tour of Independence Hall was short and sweet. I’m no history buff, but it was pretty amazing to be standing in that room looking at that furniture where the magical birth of our country took place (at least, in codified and legal form). Of course, we also took in the Liberty Bell, which is as much about the Abolitionist Movement as anything. Seeing the actual symbol of something so representative and positive was a first for myself and the kids.
A dessert-first sandwich board outside Fezziwegs Ice Cream, Philadelphia
Our discoveries went on. We stumbled upon brand-new Fezziwig’s Sweet Shoppe and quickly decided they offer the best milkshakes in the known world. (Their sandwich board outside compels one to indulge a little.) Olde City Grille offers excellent pizza, Stromboli and Spanakopita. The Race Street Cafe is really a pub worthy of any British city, tasty food modernized to present day. Beyond, the Race Street Pier juts out beneath the behemoth light-blue of the Franklin Bridge. Elfreth’s Alley, a centuries-old residential street, begs to figure prominently in novels. Lunch at Reading Terminal Market is a crowded but worthwhile mess of options. Nearby are numerous parks and green spaces for a few minutes of peace and contemplation (and shade for hot summer days).
Across town, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a gorgeous building flanked by amazing statuary (including the famous Rocky figure, removed to street level).
Side branch of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Yes, there are still problems and more than a few ruined people. The Delaware River is dominated by industry and rusting ships. The city is, naturally, far from perfect.
Many faces I saw, however, were happy and vibrant despite the heat and weight of the past. Philadelphia seems to be rising steadily, her people buoyed and her diverse gifts celebrated.
Sometimes, if we choose to focus on the positive of an experience, that’s what we’ll get in return. And we’ll feel welcome there.
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Fear Not the Dog Bowl

I do not fear dog bowl. Say it again, mantra style. I do not fear dog bowl!

For those of us who have iron-gut, there is an implicit challenge. Enjoy the mixture, revel in the insanity.

Wait, Pal. What’s dog bowl?

Exactly what it implies–a bunch of leftovers and odds-and-ends that don’t really go together, but you know the dog would enjoy. The first dog bowl, at least in modern Edison lore, consisted of Thai food leftovers (2 dishes) mac ‘n cheese, goldfish and half-a-cheeseburger. It was delicious in its own weird way. To me, anyone who can stomach mayonnaise-peanut better sandwiches (yes, they exist) can handle dog bowl.

My friend once consumed cinnamon french toast, a seafood omelet and chocolate milkshake in one breakfast sitting. Go ahead, let that culinary hurricane sink in. The only way to make that one weirder would be to throw in lime Jell-O with some tapenade-asparagus. Did he get sick? No, but his brother was almost nauseous watching him eat.

Dog bowl, which is Edison's Man-Hash, some sausage-bell pepper mix and Cheez-Its on top.

We all get our inspiration (and revulsion) somewhere. Man-hash was just dog bowl with a little forethought and a skillet. Whenever my wife sees me working on dog bowl, she walks the other day. I offer some to the kids, no thanks. But my son’s gaze lingers, his curiosity piqued. He, like me, is of the Iron-gut Clan. And he can handle spicier South Indian food than I can. So there may come a time.

Since I’m a writer who writes about stuff (lotsa stuff) I offer this: Start throwing things together–characters, objects, places. The combination may be unworkable or toxic, or now and then produce something unexpectedly awesome. This weird world calls for a little zany. Taking a stroll through the loud, vibrant circus carries no obligation to move forward with it. Plus, you never know.

Very few rational people would follow a real-life Jack Sparrow. But he sure is fun to listen to.

New Website

I am pleased, and proud, to present my new professional website:

www.justinedisonnovels.com

This replaces my old Emerald Minds site, which was an exercise in both fun and frustration (many, many hours building HTML and tables and monkeying with text-spacing).

I used Wix for this one and am damned pleased with it. Wix has evolved and improved over the past few years. For those of us who’d rather design and work on content, this platform (with hosting and security built in) means you don’t have to spend nearly as much time de-bugging code (a task I am incapable of) or worrying if your images are going to float properly.

(If these last two senses don’t make any sense to you, it’s all website speak.)

Way back when, in my web design coursework, a teacher was fond of saying, “Why re-invent the wheel? Why not be the little person standing on the shoulders of giants?” In other words, when somebody else (a lot of somebodies) have done so much of the web-building work for you, why not take what they’ve done and craft your own site?

Works for me.

If you think my site is nifty (cool!) and are thinking about something for your own books, art, or photography endeavors (very cool!) shoot me an email:

edisonchurning@gmail.com

Ferrari with a "Churning" quote

Leaving it Behind

What have you left behind to become who or what you are, now?

Several years ago, helping my godparents move out of their closed cafe, we encountered one item which wouldn’t budge. The waist-high iron safe was so heavy–or had actually settled into the poured-concrete floor–that we couldn’t move it. It seemed to chant “Back injury” every time I touched it. Ultimately, we left it for the suite’s next occupants to deal with. Ali and Farzaneh had no use for a 500-pound metal box, anyway.

On my first night of MFA courses at Hamline, program chair Mary Rockcastle said she had a first novel (about a young woman’s sexuality, I believe) sitting in a box up on a closet shelf. When asked if she’d ever get it down and publish it, she laughed it off. A soft-spoken fellow student (a Morocco-born physician) asked her about it again in a follow-up class. Nope. It wasn’t going to happen.

How can a writer abandon an entire novel? Even then, I knew it was a monumental work. Now that I’ve been through the process four times, mistakes and all, I’m certain it is. Endgame alone gobbled up 1,700 hours.

Red pen and coffee mug with Edison's draft work.

More than a few times–in fact, it seemed to be an unchallenged mantra at Hamline–people have said your first novel is an exercise in process. You have to write that first one–stumbling miscues, wee-hours epiphanies, atrocious errors–simply to experience all of that. Then you’re ready to write a novel. “To the closet shelf with you, Rookie Effort!”

Seriously?

But it’s true. My first, and MFA thesis, was called “Journeys of the Razed Bridge.” Jack and Jehanne. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl has god-awful secret (and misdeeds), boy…You get the idea. It had everything (I thought) with an appropriately literary title. Bam, I was on my way.

Well, no.

Somewhere, harsh reality set in. A solid year of work now exists as an old Word doc and a paper copy in my basement. My writing went on.

Solidly into my 40s, now, I’m in a stage of life where casting off regrets is entirely healthy. Crucial, even. So there are random moments when I consider dragging out JOTRB for a re-work (a stroll down amnesia lane, if you will). But I’ve learned what I’ve learned. Jack and Jehanne may live again, or may spend eternity riding the baggage carousel. Either way, they did their job. I can be grateful.

 

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Persepolis Review

Marjane Satrapi’s tale of growing up in Iran is presented in a unique and often hilarious comic-book format. She is obviously a talented writer and storyteller and artist (three skills that seldom overlap). While the voice is strictly that of the coming-of-age girl (born in 1970 in Iran) the illustrations and Greek chorus-style renderings of authority figures beautifully convey what many Persians must have been feeling in the years surrounding the 1979 Revolution.

The writing is what’s often referred to as economical. You won’t find paragraphs of lyrical prose or florid descriptions of, well, anything. In that, there’s genius. We’re seeing the world entirely through Satrapi’s often-skewed eyes and dialogue with her family and friends. Because of that, the story is told with such authenticity that I don’t doubt a single word of it. The rumors and rules, protests and chaos, bombings and rampant decline of a once-proud country–this is how it really happened.

(On a personal note, my “godparents” hail from Tehran, and were close enough to hear the riots around the U.S. Embassy during those fateful days.)

Lately, thanks to our political climate in the U.S., the notions of freedom and immigration issues and fairness loom large in the public eye. At the very least, Satrapi’s heartbreaking story should be included in any intelligent discussion–a cautionary tale about what could happen. After all, as she states several times in the book, nobody foretold a theocratic regime taking over Iran. Who would take that idea seriously?

Marjane Satrapi's comic novel "Persepolis" with a Persian-style pillow