What We Notice

A sort of cautionary tale, if you will:

The other day, after collecting my daughter from school, I ran across an archetype: A young, well-dressed and bespectacled man crossing the neighborhood street. One so plugged into his phone he wouldn’t have noticed a 747 touching down on the road. (Twenty bucks says he can’t remember seeing my red minivan at all.) He carried on his way, blissfully ignorant of everything.

No Distractions For Old Men

This was not always the case. In what you might call a moment of art imitating life, there’s an unforgettable scene at the end of the Coen brothers’ 2007 award-winner No Country For Old Men. Hit-man Anton Chigurh (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem) is making his casual getaway (after tying up loose ends) when he’s involved in a car accident. Alas, author Cormac McCarthy denies the audience a cathartic comeuppance for the most famous villain since Darth Vader. The wounded Chigurh bribes two witnesses into silence (and for a shirt for his mangled arm) and limps off into West Texas anonymity.

Set in 1980, of course, there was no cell phone or Clash of Clans to distract Chigurh. He simply didn’t see the other car barreling through the red light.

(I haven’t yet read the book, as it’s on my list, and may have missed a passage of deep thought on his part.) Still, this moment seems a little tough to sell.

The Sell

Hollywood, being Hollywood, loves to play small tricks on audience members. (Most of the time, the subtle details are so subtle that we fail to notice their absence.) How many times has the camera been focused tight on the hero’s eyes, deep in thought, only to cut to a wider shot to show that something–often in broad daylight–appears and takes both hero and audience by utter surprise? The quick look up, the musical jolt and heart-rate spike, meant to set people on edge with tension. Even when the surprising thing/beast/enemy has come into view at molasses speed. How often is this, well, unrealistic?

Does life imitate art? The young cell-phone man I saw the other day had one foot (and both brain hemispheres) in the digital ether. A ubiquitous sight, to be sure. Call it his excuse. For the rest of us, when our eyes aren’t on a small pixellated screen, how much would you fail to notice?


As a decent driver (around kids all the time) my eyes have become attuned to any quick movement. Rather than some super-human ability, it’s more the knowledge of what does happen when a car meets a living thing. The idea that some 4-year-old is certainly running down the sidewalk with his face in Mom’s iPhone raises this fear to the next integer. I move with modern caution, nothing more.

In my first book, Watching the World Fall, kidnapping victim MacReynolds Galtier is 7’1″ tall. People can’t help but notice when he walks into a room. It’s a primal draw of the eyes–our lizard brain reacting (and assessing) any presence which occupies that much volume.

Years ago, my wife and I were hiking in snowy mountains when a jumbo jet passed by, low enough and close enough to read the registration numbers. Seconds later, the loud whoosh of an avalanche we couldn’t see made us look wildly about (to make sure we were on safe ground). In a previous blog, I noted how Steven Spielberg apparently got lazy with some of his film-making. Who wouldn’t notice 20 tons of T-Rex stomping through a neighborhood? With an animal that size, you’d probably feel a change in air pressure.

Javier Bardem plays hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men

So, back to Old Country: On a tree-lined street in mid-day, a professional killer (senses obviously attuned to subtle changes in shadow and smell) doesn’t notice a car approaching at 30 m.p.h. from his left? Not futzing with the radio. Not playing with his cell phone (a quarter-century too early for that). He just doesn’t notice?

I’ve had a few soccer balls cross my vision at a blur. (Yup, they would’ve hurt.) While pencils may roll off desks inexplicably (or, from the wind) huge starships don’t ‘suddenly appear’ in the sky, unless your narrator is woozy from been whacked over the head. Us humans are aware of much more than many-a-cliche-peddler needs a reader to believe.

I, for one, would notice if some huge beast lurked beneath the dark surface of that lake. A lizard certainly would.

Endgame Agent Chat

“Endgame” is now available. The snipers, the quest to be human, the fun animals, the stuff exploding–all of it.

My guesstimate is that the book has taken 1,500 hours so far (including the note-taking and writing fits over the first two years). Because this wannabe bestseller is entirely a product of my imagination, my imagination has often wandered off to the willow trees and thrown some colorful stuff over his shoulder. The following chunk is how I imagine my 15-minute sit-down in a literary agent’s office would go (provided they actually read the whole novel).


Agent: “You fool, you can’t write a story with a cataclysmic battle at the beginning. It has to build to the big battle. Hollywood won’t like it. And if Hollywood doesn’t like it, people won’t buy it. You’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, you can’t write as an intelligent, level-headed woman. You’re not one! That’s a stupid idea. You’re wasting your time.”

(Creative license?)

Agent: “You fool, you can’t craft a story where the heroine’s mentor dies in the beginning. It has to be schmaltzy, and he has to say something really sage before he’s cut down by a blade in self-sacrifice (he can’t be crushed by falling rock, for God’s sake). Who taught you? You’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, nobody wants any more of this world-building stuff. We’ve got all the planets and parallel universes and fantasy realms we can handle. This one doesn’t even involve earth people. You’re an idiot. You’re wasting your time.”

(We can’t be everywhere.)

Agent: “You fool, you put the story on an ice planet where humans–and all these other colorful folk–can’t really live. Who wants to read about that? We’ve already had our fill of Shackleton. Next. And you’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “You fool, whales that walk on land? Are you kidding me?”

Me: Well, I didn’t say they’re reffing soccer games or playing the church organ. Whales on earth used to walk on land–scientists have proven it.”

Agent: “Yeah, imagine trying to make them the star of the picture. Now these, uh, ghost bird thingies. That might be something. Re-write it to make them important. Until then, you’re wasting your time.”

Agent: “What’s with all the damned stories? The heroes find a cave, spend the night, and move on. Bam. No need to talk about war or how bad the Mitochon…Master…Micronesians are.”

Me: “Mitasterites.”

Agent: “Whatever. Bad gray guys. Although now I rather like that name. Like cancer, Mitasti…mitast…ah, however the hell you say it. I bet you didn’t know that.”

(Nope. No idea.)

Agent: “You were foolish to write it in first-person, you know. Then you can’t see it when the big gas station blows up. And then those big cruisers in orbit–now that would be something! Instead you’ve got Jennifer imagining it, and then the crap comes down from orbit. Cha-ching.”

(Her name’s June. She’s my hero.)

Agent: “The shark dream, that’s interesting. Re-write it so she, your hero, get’s swallowed and then has to blast her way out. Costner did it in that flick.”

(Oh God, now you’re bringing up “Waterworld.” Sound of toilet flushing.)

Agent: “Now all this other junk–the guy losing his arm, the hermit, the dumb stories about Jennifer’s past, jury-rigging a ship to fly, the flaming debris–”

Me: “You liked the debris a minute ago.”

Agent: “I did? Whatever. Just get rid of it. Good guys, bad guys. Lots of lasers and crap blowing up. Bad guys come to club the baby seals for fur, Jennifer screams ‘No’, big firefight, take off in the bad guy ship. That’s how you write a story, Jason. Bam. The end.”

Me: “Thank you for taking time out of your schedule, sir.” (Sarcasm–a universal language, for some.)


Endgame novel cover mock-up