Tag Archives: Writing

What is the “point” of blogging?

Fangs

Why did you start a blog? Are you getting what you wanted from it, or has your experience gone in an unexpected direction?

Here are the reasons I can think of for blogging, starting with the most basic:

  1. You like to keep an online diary, which, as we know, was the original purpose of a blog. A web log.
  2. You have opinions and you want to share them.
  3. You want to socialize but are shy or busy, and blogging allows you more control over how and when you socialize.
  4. You want to interact with like-minded people.
  5. Writing practice, argument practice, formatting practice, etc.
  6. You are building a social media presence.
  7. You are promoting your writing, art, photography, business, etc.
  8. You are trying to acquire customers for your freelance editing, graphic design, writing, or other skill-based service.
  9. You intend to create a blog that gets so much traffic you can sell ad space and make money.
  10. You are hoping to leverage your blogging popularity into a full-time career.

I am a writer and began blogging a few years ago to “get my name out there” and to generate interest in my writing. So you can say I got into it for reasons 6 and 7. I have accomplished neither.

The lack of achievement on latter objective–promoting my writing–has to do with the fact that I have little to promote. My stubborn resistance to self-publishing practically renders my blog useless, since writing novels is my game and I haven’t sold one to a publisher yet. Also, let’s face facts. The only people we are blogging to are other writers. Potential readers don’t troll WordPress looking for new novelists. This is an echo chamber.

As far as a social media presence goes… I have done zero research and am speaking anecdotally, but I don’t see much overlap between blogging and other forms of social media. This blog has almost 3000 followers. I’ve been on Twitter for a two years and have 160 followers.

Do you want to hear about a social media experiment I’m conducting? Four days ago, I created a second Twitter account with a different name and much more Twitter-friendly identity and have collected close to 200 followers already. I also started a WordPress blog associated with that account and have made two posts. Not test posts, either. True content-heavy, image-saturated, well-researched posts that should appeal greatly to my new followers. I have gotten all of 7 hits.

fangs2My preliminary hypothesis (and common-sense observation) is that blogging does not draw the same audience as do Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like. Ergo, blogging does little to build your social media presence, and your social media presence does little to promote your blog content.

I’ve left out one major social medium that is unlike all the others, and it seems to be the only one that offers a path to the top of whatever mountain you are climbing: YouTube. More than a couple of YouTubers I’ve followed when they had fewer than 100 subscribers are now regularly appearing on MTV and other youth-oriented television channels and making a living at it. I’ve even made a few dumb little videos of old Motown songs–built from scrolling B&W photographs and nothing more–that sans any promotion have collected 10,000-20,000 views and counting, which is more than I can say for any WordPress post I’ve written. Maybe I should invest in video equipment.

How about you? Have you ever thought of packing it in as a blogger or does blogging offer its own intrinsic value? All opinions and perspectives welcome!

 

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Is Your Story Self-Propelled?

Flintstones car

Every novel and short story needs a hook if its writer expects attention from publishers and agents. The better it sounds in a logline, the more likely it is to get noticed.

For example, Alice Sebold’s The Lovey Bones offers this intriguing concept: “After a young girl is brutally murdered, she tries to intercede from beyond the grave as her father searches desperately for the killer.”

Not that he needed a logline at that point in his career, but Stephen King could have described Pet Sematary with this one: “After a young doctor discovers that the pet graveyard behind his new house can bring dead animals back to life, a heartbreaking family tragedy tempts him down a grim path from which he can never return.”

Those are pretty great hooks. The problem with a lot of books, though, is that the hook is not supported by an actual story. In recent months, I’ve quit a number of books with good hooks because they lacked something ultimately more important, which is internal momentum.

That is, a good story must not be able to end before it ends. I’m going to be vague in this example because I think it’s bad form for a writer to publicly trash another active writer, but I will explain why I just stopped reading yet another novel with a good hook but zero momentum.

It’s about a guy who is saved from a terrorist attack mere moments before it takes place when a strange woman hands him a note from his dead girlfriend urging him to flee.

Given the way modern stories are sold to publishers, that’s not a bad hook. The problem is that the hero survives the terrorist attack unscathed and then spends the next who-knows-how-many pages asking around and asking around and hitting dead ends, at least when he is not reminiscing about all the fun things he and his girlfriend used to do. Perhaps a threat and a villain emerge later in the novel, past the point at which I quite reading, but for quite a long time, the story has zero conflict. The hero could easily have said, “You know what? I have no idea what happened, but I’m fine, so I’m just going back to Wisconsin to finish radiology school.” The end.

Meow?

Meow?

One way around plot inertia is inevitability. Pet Sematary is a shining (pun intended) example of inevitability. The doctor doesn’t have to return to the cemetery that revives corpses, but you know he will. King masterfully sets up the tension by showing us how deeply the doctor loves and cares for his family—that he will do anything for them—and then showing us the dark magic of the graveyard when the doc buries his daughter’s dead cat there, hoping to protect her from discovering the critter had become roadkill.

The dark magic works and the cat returns alive… but it is decidedly off.

Then, when the person he loves most is killed in an abrupt and gruesome manner, the doctor misplaces his perspective on right and wrong and… well, if you haven’t read it, you can probably guess where the story goes. If you have read it, you know it goes there and then ten times farther still.

A writer can also inject story momentum by giving the hero a stark choice: a Seemingly Impossible Challenge vs. an Inevitable Dreadful Outcome.

The movie Alien pulls this trick off more than once, which is why it’s one of the most suspenseful films of all time. When the “facehugger” attaches itself to Kane’s face, the heroes have to choose between letting it potentially kill their friend or cutting it off and hoping the creature’s acidic blood doesn’t eat through the hull of their spaceship.

Later, after the Alien has killed two of the crew and is hiding somewhere in the ship’s air ducts, Dallas has to choose between going into the air duct with a flamethrower to hunt the monster, or letting it hunt them. I’ve seen well over two thousand films, and I’d rank this air-duct sequence alongside the restaurant scene in the Godfather as the among the most nerve-racking moments in cinema history.

Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through his spaceship's air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through the spaceship Nostromo’s air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Still later in the film, after the monster proves virtually unkillable, last survivor Ripley turns off the ship’s engine-cooling system to destroy the whole craft and the alien with it, only to discover the thing has blocked her only path to the escape pod.

There are many other ways to imbue a short story or novel with internal momentum that keeps the reader turning the pages. What are your favorite methods?

********************


When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

Rodney Dangerfield

For novelists seeking traditional publication through agency representation, the most spirit-crushing moment in the whole sordid affair may occur somewhere around rejection number 8. That’s when reality hits, shortly before the numbness kicks in. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us go back to the beginning of the querying process for a moment…

Though you have written a literary masterpiece, you know on a rational level that rejections are coming for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one wanted the last thing you wrote, proving rejections do exist.
  2. The book people warned you about rejections.
  3. The book people are idiots who don’t recognize a brilliant, innovative, blockbuster work of art and/or a merchandising goldmine when they see it.

There’s no concrete evidence yet, but scientists who can’t get their books published believe C is the correct answer. Still, you’re different from the other writers. You are meant to be.

You start querying.

The first two rejections hit. No problem. Those were only part of the pre-game warm up anyway. The next two submissions bounce back. Who cares? You didn’t want to work with those agencies anyway. Then another drops, and you adjust your tie, Rodney Dangerfield style. Did you overestimate yourself a bit maybe? Then another. You start to sweat. A seventh! What? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Surely somebody should have recognized—

Your smartphone chimes to indicate a new email. You look. It’s her! The agent at the very top of your wish list, the one who needs exactly what you wrote, is about to tell you she is simply dying to read your manuscript. You tap the icon and the email opens.

Dear Author. Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that…

You delete the message in an instant and jam your smartphone into the front pocket of the handbag you got for 75% off at TJ Maxx so you don’t have to look at the stupid ugly ungrateful little bastard anymore. But it’s not your phone’s fault you keep getting rejected, is it?

No. It’s because you suck. You are the worst writer who ever lived. Ms. Agent probably forwarded your query letter to all the other agencies, where it was laughed at hard for good 30 seconds and then forgotten forever.

That’s not remotely true either. You are as talented as anyone. Writing futility is just another reminder of the meaninglessness of life (that’s the numbness kicking in, by the way. Congrats. You are now dead inside).

Though we all know the chance of landing an agent for our novel is slim, it still stings when you are not picked, because statistics aren’t especially effective at buffering disappointment or boosting self-esteem. Most of us who manage to actually finish a novel, revise it, polish it, and dream about publishing it are also the kind of people who work incredibly hard at honing our craft. After all, the agent said she was looking for New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thrillers in Esperanto, and you wrote a New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thriller in Esperanto, putting two years of your life into making it as awesome as you possibly could.

Ready for a non-sequitur?

I have two superpowers. One is the ability to compose funny limericks on any subject. The other, unfortunately, is not the ability to solve unsolvable problems, like why a good writer can’t find an agent. My second power is to come up with analogies (that may or may not stand up to logical scrutiny but at least sound good on a folk-wisdom level).

So here’s my analogy for when literary agents turn you down. If you are a frustrated, unpublished novelist, it won’t get you any closer, but it might help the sting feel less personal:

But does he speak Esperanto?

But does he speak Esperanto?

Pretend you are looking for love and sign up at Match.com. In this scenario, you are interested in men who are over 6 feet tall and have dark brown hair and eyes, and you let your potential suitors know this via your online profile.

The caveat: If you make it to a third date, you have to stay with him for at least a year, and you have to give him a lot of attention despite your insane schedule. Not only that, you have to find him a job with a company that has only a few openings but thousands of applicants. All this time, he doesn’t have to spend a penny on you.

Are you gonna take the first 6-foot-tall brunette that asks for a date? The second? The third? You might meet 50 guys fitting your dating preferences and not click with a single one of them. Not to mention all the short redhead and blonde dudes who didn’t bother to read your dating preferences and cluster-bombed you with requests.

In this analogy, you are the literary agent.


Dating Advice vs. Writing Advice: Which is worse for your self-esteem?

Those tall dudes get all the chicks!

Those tall dudes get all the chicks!

Hey. This new thing came out the other day ago and it’s called The Internet. You should get one!

The Internet offers four things: The chance to insult people anonymously, porn, photo-shopped celebrities, and relationship talk. All of which, when swirled in that crazy blender known as your brain, conspires to foster body-image anxiety and ruin your self-esteem.

In real life, you prioritize. Your house is burning down = important. The creepy guy across the street who lives in his mom’s basement and never talks to anyone = not important.

On The Internet, however, everything is your house burning down. If some anonymous creepy guy who lives in his mom’s basement says, via an online comment, that you look like a squid, then OMG, people think you look like a squid. If a Love & Relationships columnist makes a generalized statement about attractiveness (you expect her to come up with actual content? She’s on a deadline!), then that statement applies to everyone all the time.

I’m glad the internet did not yet exist when I was a wee, insecure lad. Instead of blundering through my adolescence oblivious to all my shortcomings, I would have discovered just how unappealing I really am.

pierceFor example, it has come to my attention, thanks to The Internet, that body hair below the neck is disgusting. Thank you Pierce Brosnan for wallowing in repulsiveness with me all these years. You’ve been like a brother.

I’ve also learned that my speaking voice is a whole note too high. That’s only about 1/6 of an octave, but the ladies want what they want. It turns out they want blue eyes as well, not the brown ones currently soiling my skull holes like sad circles of fetid mud. And, of course, at 5’9”, I am two inches too short to ever get a ride on the love train. I actually read this matter-of-fact statement online last year: Men under 5’11”, who are not considered attractive…

What’s cool about the internet… the vast amount of information available at a single click… is also one of its problems. Your mind can’t process it all and it blurs together. If 51 percent of people think something, that “majority” turns to 100 percent in our heads. Yeah, probably more than half of the women out there would rule me out because of my height, but there are over 3 billion women in the world. I applied the Barry Manilow approach to dating my whole life without even realizing it. Barry Manilow didn’t care that 95% of the western hemisphere mocked him in the 1970s. He focused on the 5% that loved him and ended up selling 80 million albums.

Writing advice works the same way. We are bombarded with it daily (admittedly a self-induced affliction for most of us bloggers) and read way more of it than we can possibly soak up. The sum of all this advice, once it forms an opaque gelatinous substance in our minds, is that we need to be The Perfect Writer. The one who hits every possible style and substance point with each sentence. Nothing less than total awesomeness will do.

Rather discouraging, isn’t it, to try and please everyone?

If someone hopes to fit a (fictional) beauty standard that is attractive to 100% of the population, he is going to end up a hopeless wreck with shattered self-confidence. One doesn’t need to attract everybody, just somebody who appreciates the combination of quirks and qualities that make him unique. Fair warning: you may have to meet 50 people before you find that one. Now consider that your reach as a writer is rather broader than your reach as a potential romantic partner. If 1 out of 50 potential readers appreciates your quirks and qualities that make your writing unique, you’ll end up with a successful story.

♥♥♥

This post partly inspired by a comment thread on Timi’s blog, which included contributions from Timi, Uju, and Nancy.


What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦


The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.


Complete story: On the Way to My Grave

For those who don’t like to read serialized fiction but were curious about the story I posted recently in installments, here’s the whole deal.

Premise: Washed-up rock musician Tony Bright, stuck in a dead-end job and hooked on alcohol and painkillers, receives a letter linking a fan’s suicide to one of his songs. Seeking to reclaim past glory by exploiting the tragedy, Tony lurches headlong down a dark path from which there can be no return.

Word count: 6000.

I wrote this tale about 5 years ago and could never figure out what to do with it. So I shall post it here for, I hope, your enjoyment.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the Way to My Grave

By Eric John Baker © 2009

 

The following transcript is a verbatim reproduction of Anthony Bright’s handwritten confession, which investigators found on his kitchen table shortly after the shooting. Passages Mr. Bright underlined are represented with italics.

 

The letter came five days ago. It said (as I recall):

“Dear Mr. Bright.

By the time you read this, I’ll be dead. Before that happens, I want to tell you how much I love your song, “Done to Me.” It’s my favorite song of all time. It’s also the last song I will ever hear, because I am going to put a bullet in my head tonight when the CD ends.

Please know I’m not doing this because of you. In fact, your voice is going to comfort me in my final seconds.

I wish you peace and continued success in a world to which I do not belong.

Brett Denson”

 

It had been forwarded to me, still sealed, by someone at my old record label. I read it over a bowl of Cheerios, reread it, and then dumped the cereal in the sink.

I’m used to the quiet of living alone, but right then the ubiquitous silence threatened to suffocate. Was this letter a joke? I would have googled the guy, but I haven’t paid my cable bill in six months and they cut off my internet.

The microwave clock said you’re late for work anyway, so I shoved the letter into the envelope and took it with me.

 ~ ~ ~

You probably don’t know who I am, so here’s my two-line bio: I used to be a budding rock star. Now I’m the motor vehicle clerk at a car dealership.

Though I work in a back office and no one sees me but the office manager and the lady at the motor vehicle agency, I have to wear a tie and a white shirt. Cheap white dress shirts from a discount store look even chintzier than other colors. It’s the official uniform of lost souls.

When I got to work that morning, I checked “Brett Denson” against the online obituaries.

Sure enough. Brett Denson. Age 26. Beloved son, brother. Survived by mother, Sharon, brother, Paul. No cause of death given. He was born, raised, and died in some town I never heard of called Collingwood, 200 miles away in the next state.

The office manager, Nadine, walked in and I closed the browser. She stared at me for a long second like she caught me skimming from the cash register.  Give a guy a break, Nadine. I hadn’t gotten a fan letter in years, and it was my first that doubled as a suicide note.

At 4:30, I left by the service entrance. I avoid the showroom because I don’t like being seen in my $12 dress shirt and $5 tie. Customers give me a look that says, oh, you’re just trash who doesn’t know the difference between Bloomingdales and Walmart. Whatever.

The service door hadn’t shut behind me when I heard the voice.

“Hey, Bright. Why so glum?”

Christ. Hayden Campbell, the sales manager, the number one person I try to avoid. He had a speech ready.

“Did you see that guy driving away?” he said. “That was Darnell Tubbs. He just took delivery on the fifth car he’s bought from me. That’s loyalty.”

“Yeah, I printed up his temp tag.” I can never think of anything to say to Hayden.

He put his arm across my shoulder, marking territory. Pissing on my leg is against HR policy.

“You can’t live on past glory, my man” he said. “In this world, it’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’ That’s my secret to success.”

“Good advice,” I said. He wasn’t done.

“Do you get what I’m saying to you? When I started here eighteen years ago, we were selling maybe a hundred cars a month. Now we sell a thousand cars a month. Because I instituted a culture of winning.”

“Look, I’d love to stay and chat, but-” He must have sensed he was losing his audience when I put on a show of removing my keys.

“I’m just saying you can’t make your mark working in the back office,” he said. “I know you want to earn more money. So let me know when you’re ready to come work for me, ok?”

“Ok,” I said, faking a smile and shaking his hand. The thought of Hayden Campbell as a boss makes me want to drink chlorine. “I’ll let you know.”

He patted me on the back as if I’d said yes. “This isn’t for charity. I can make a salesman out of anybody, but if you’re going to come up front, don’t make me look bad. I’ll bounce your ass without batting an eyelash. Is that clear? This is your last chance to not be a loser.”

Attacking Hayden Campbell is a bad idea. Besides being able to afford a good lawyer and having lots of cops for customers, he’s taller by a foot and built like a power hitter. He was busy admiring his automobile kingdom instead of noticing my face turning red anyway, so I nodded my appreciation and bolted.

When I got home, I smashed my guitar on the basement floor. Just like rock-and-rollers do, only full of self-pity and with tears and snot everywhere. I imagined the concrete to be Hayden’s head, but the real victim was the guitar. It’s not as monumental as it sounds. I hocked my good guitar, my Les Paul Custom, years ago to buy heroin. The one I destroyed was a 250-dollar Ibanez I hadn’t touched since whenever. I’m not a guitarist anymore.

Done acting like a baby, I called our keyboardist, also named Tony, and told him about the letter from Brett Denson. Tony holds down a pretty good government job and has no use for me. His response was, “Whatever dude. The letter’s probably a fake,” before telling me he had to go.

Our drummer died in a car crash last year, and I don’t know what happened to the bass player. There was no one else to call. Strangle Taffy was just a memory. Like Brett Denson.

I left the wreckage of my Ibanez and went upstairs to get drunk. Sitting at the kitchen table, I poured shots of cheap tequila and fantasized about killing Hayden Campbell and all the other fuckers out there who humiliated me every goddamned day. Nadine. The customers. I dreamt about the looks of shock as they saw a cheap blue Ibanez six-string swinging at their heads.

I took Brett Denson’s letter from my back pocket and threw it on the table, wondering if the guy had been the last person on Earth to give a crap about my music.

The song referenced in the letter, Done to Me, never got radio play. It was the best song I ever wrote, though. A sweet, melancholy melody with bleak, nihilistic lyrics is magic when you pull it off right. Shit. They still play Dust in the Wind all the time.

Strangle Taffy had one buzz track called Pounce, which the record company made me write. One of those chant-along, one-hit-wonder types, only it wasn’t a hit. Our second album was supposed to be our breakout, but we rushed it and it sucked. The label gave us “one last chance” with our third release, which means we had a three-album contract to finish out. They spent about eleven cents promoting it and we were dropped. Fifteen people showed up for our last gig.

Tequila bottle empty, I zigzagged to the bathroom. The light hurt. Squinting, I opened the medicine cabinet and took out my oxycodone. Brett Denson had the right idea, I thought. I pressed down on the lid and tried to twist, but drunkenness robbed me of coordination. Then I put it on the toilet tank and attempted to push and turn with my palm, losing my balance when the bottle shot out from under me. I tumbled head-first into the wall.

On the floor, I remembered how eleven years ago I used to stare at myself in a full-length mirror thinking I was going to be the next Bono. Now I couldn’t open a child-proof cap to overdose on painkillers.

I awoke at four in the morning, still in my stupid white shirt and tie and curled up on the bathroom floor. I staggered to my feet, went back down to the basement, and found a crate full of extension cords.

Still inebriated, it took a while to make the noose. Finally I stood on the overturned crate, looped the wire over two crossbeams and secured it, and slipped the noose over my head.

The debris from my broken guitar lay at the foot of the crate. Even in killing myself, I recognized my knack for metaphors. Ever the songwriter. I thought, I’m about to be famous for one more day. Maybe they’ll play Pounce on the radio again. Maybe they’ll play Done to Me.

Then I thought, maybe they’d play it anyway if people found out about Brett Denson’s suicide. What if I showed up to offer my condolences? It could be great PR. It could lead to interviews. A benefit show for his family. Airplay.

A tribute song. I could write a goddamn tribute song.

With great care, I slipped my head out from the noose and stepped off the crate.

~ ~ ~

Hung over, exhausted, stinking, and miles away in my head, I must have looked like I’d just climbed from the grave. Or got lost on my way to it.

Nadine, who isn’t a bad person, gaped at me a moment before regaining her poise. When I asked for the rest of the week off, she said yes without probing. I worked the remainder of Tuesday in a trance, thinking about how my last fan in the world might have just saved me.

I looked up Denson’s address on my lunch break and printed directions. Later, at home, I meant to think up a master plan, but I passed out. As I drifted away, I gave imaginary answers to questions from an imaginary TV journalist: Yes, Brett was my biggest fan, which is why I wrote this song about him (I look straight into the camera). It’s called Never Forget. La la la…

(Imaginary spotlights are so bright)

~ ~ ~

Collingwood is a former mining town, but I have no idea what keeps it going now. When I rolled in at noon on Wednesday, I didn’t feel so sure about knocking on Sharon Denson’s door and telling her I killed her son. I drove around town a while then zipped through county roads that spider web outward from the main strip. I saw a old farmhouses, ratty-looking ranchers, and a townhouse development by the highway. And one big, old colonial with oversized columns, perched on a hill overlooking town.

Back in Collingwood proper, I got two cheeseburgers from McDonald’s dollar menu, ate them in the parking lot, and considered hitting the bar across the street for a few shots of something hard and cheap.

Instead I stopped at a drug store and bought a pack of gum. Besides the usual junk, the store sold sweatshirts and tees that said “Saber Cats” and depicted a pissed-off tiger. The clerk said it was the high-school football team. They were the big thing, he said.

Ah, small-town U.S.A. American rock-n-rollers can make a living writing songs about places like this. I thought about the inevitable abandoned coal mines and downtrodden economy and halfway wished I hadn’t wrecked my guitar.

I arrived at Sharon Denson’s house at 5:30, parked at the curb, and watched. After a few minutes I started to feel like a weirdo, so I spit my chewing gum and got out.

The woman who answered the doorbell seemed tired, with lifeless eyes and limp hair pinned back by barrettes. I expected anguish and got drab.

“Can I help you?”

Where to start? “Ma’am, are you Brett Denson’s mother?”

“I am,” she said. I tried to get a feel for her emotions. Would she slam the door, call the cops, threaten to sue, or tell me she doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Brett’s downstairs playing Grand Theft Auto?

“I’m Tony Bright, the singer and guitarist of a band called Strangle Taffy. Your son. Uh, he was a fan of mine and wrote me a letter talking about his… unhappiness. I didn’t get it until Monday. When I heard what happened I came to express my condolences.”

She stared, dumbstruck. Then a grateful, melancholy smile broke through. “Please come in.”

When I stepped into her humble but neat home—which is a lot nicer than my molding row house—she said, “I can’t believe you took the time to come out here. My son was a huge fan of your music. This is such an honor.”

The phrase, “Benefit concert for Brett,” unfurled like a banner across my mind. I could perform it on Saber Cat field, or whatever they call it.

We hugged, like it was natural, and she offered a Diet Coke.

I said no thank you, and, as if we’d discussed it, she led me to the center of the house. “This is Brett’s room,” she said, touching the door. I didn’t ask her why her 26-year-old son had still lived with his mom. Then she pushed, and before I could check my reaction, I braced myself for bloodstains and police tape. She saw me flinch and said, “It happened in the basement.”

Over the bed hung a Strangle Taffy poster. A record label promo. We never got famous enough to sell posters in a store.

Sharon Denson read me. “Coach gave him that for making the game-saving tackle against ‘Ridge the year we won the championship.”

“Your football coach gives posters of my band to his players?”

Sharon took my arm. “Pounce was our theme song that year. The players took the field to it every game.”

“What?”

Pounce, like most rock songs, is a thinly veiled metaphor for getting laid. In case you don’t remember, it went (and I cringe): Pounce! I’m cummin’ round. Pounce! You’re going down. Bang Bang. Hey! Bang Bang. Hey! I suppose, if you have an innocent mind, it could sound like it was about-

“Saber Cats,” she said. “Cats pounce. That’s why Coach used it.” She directed my attention to the opposite wall. A framed team photo hung above the dresser. “That’s Brett,” she said, pointing.

The kids all looked the same. Nothing like the beefy, salt-and-pepper haired man standing to the far left in the picture. Coach. The guy who made me a rock star in Collingwood, Pennsylvania for one high-school football season. I should have collected royalties.

“Oh,” Sharon said, startling me. “This is my younger son, Paul.”

A gangly, narrow kid filled the doorway. I could tell he recognized me because I still remember what that looks like, but he bore too deep a wound to conjure a greeting. I could hardly blame him. His brother had blown his own head off less than a month ago.

Sharon put her hands on my shoulders and announced me. He said, “Hi,” and skulked away. His mother was too wrapped up in Brett to notice his misery.

I started feeling queasy. These were real people.

“He’s on the football team this year,” his mother said. “But, honestly, Coach only put him on the roster because of his brother. Paul doesn’t play in the games.”

Awkward silence followed. I was standing in a house of ghosts unable to leave the Earth.

“What really happened?”

She sighed. “Brett’s dad died in a work accident ten years ago. The football got him through. But he didn’t have the grades for college or talent for a scholarship, and I couldn’t afford it anyway. He couldn’t keep a girlfriend or a job.” She looked at the floor.  “He was an unhappy person.”

I would not be writing this if I had not said what I said next.

“I think Brett was listening to my music when he did it.”

“I know,” she said. “I was home.” With that, the tears came like a cloudburst and her face pulled back as if a blast of fire was searing her flesh. She fell into my arms and wailed, her face pressed against my shoulder. Between heaves, she said, “I heard the shot.”

I stood there like an idiot, patting her back. “I’m so sorry,” I said at last, clutching her to me because I couldn’t look at her. “I hope you don’t think-”

“No, I don’t blame you,” she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. She squeezed my arms and gently pushed me away. “But the others might.”

“Others?”

She stared, surprised. “The parents. Of those two boys who killed themselves last week. They were playing your song too.”

~ ~ ~

The forty dollars in my wallet represented the entirety of my assets. My bank account was overdrawn and my credit cards long ago maxed out and cancelled. Did I really plan to mount a career comeback with that?

I’ll just buy a couple drinks, I said. But sitting at the nicked-up table in that gloomy pub, I kept ordering one more.

Staring into my Jack and Coke, I shook the glass and watched the liquid whirl.See that guy, people used to say. He was in a band that had three albums. A real band!

How’s this for real: Three men dead, three families ruined, and a town full of parents terrified their child is next. I wrote the theme song!

With eight bucks left, I finished my drink and teetered to the men’s room. So much for alcohol poisoning. Two more wouldn’t get it done.

When I returned to my table, I noticed a brawny fellow with white hair and bushy eyebrows staring me down from the bar. He marched over and took the opposite chair. “You have a lot of balls showing your face in my town.”

“Who the fuck are you?” I said, the booze choosing my words.

“I’m the one who introduced that stupid song.”

Done to Me? How the hell did this old bastard know that song? He didn’t look much like a college radio DJ.

“Pounce,” he said. “It was our team song.”

It hit me. “Coach?”

“Coach Van Der Bruggen,” he said. “You don’t get to call me Coach.”

I twirled my finger, trying to bait him into throwing me through a window and finishing me off. But he sat there, stone faced.

“You think you’re some hot shot?” he said.

I laughed. If only he knew.

“Nobody gives a crap about you,” he said. “I may be some small-town hick in your eyes, but around here I’m a winner. I’ve coached this high school to three state championships. I coach winners.”

I discovered my mouth hanging open when a dollop of drool hit the table. Coach kept talking, oblivious: “My only regret in life is playing that stupid song. I let a cancer into my locker room—you—and look what happened. Three players from that team are dead. Congratulations.”

If he planned to kick my ass, I wanted him to get on with it. “I don’t think anybody ever killed themselves because of a dumb-ass song like Pounce.”

Unmoving, fists clenched, he said, “I’m talking about Done to Me. That song.”

I waved at him, accidentally knocking over the acrylic stand-up for the drink menu. “You never heard it until this week.”

Then, there at the table, he recited the chorus word-for-word, as if it were a poem.

I twisted around, hailing the server for another drink.

“Brett took the CD home from practice one day and fell for that depressing crap,” he said. “You should have known.”

“Who are you, the town conscious?” I couldn’t fit the ‘n’ sound in there drunk.

“Son, I am this town,” he said, clearly not for the first time. “Now, you best get out of here this minute if you want to see tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I said. “That big house on the hill with the columns… that’s your place. Wow, you really are king of this little shit town.”

He reached across the table and grabbed my shirt, pulling me forward like I was filled with straw. “Don’t make me say it again.”

~ ~ ~

I sat in my car for a half hour, clearing my head and slowly acknowledging the truth in Coach’s words. When Strangle Taffy did its only national tour, we used to hang out backstage and make fun of the dinky hamlets we played at the same moment we were pawing the local groupies like horny teens and counting our ticket receipts. Maybe a high-school football championship isn’t a multi-platinum album, but it means something to people and makes heroes of guys like Coach Van Der Bruggen. People need heroes, not indulgent, mediocre rock musicians.

Imagine that, though, I thought, my face resting on the steering wheel. All three suicides were players from the same championship football team.

All three from the same team. Odd.

I sat up.

How did Coach know to find me in the pub? Maybe Brett Denson’s little brother wasn’t so disinterested in me after all. Maybe he followed me and then told Coach where I went. But why would a bench warmer be so tight with Coach?

Suspicion aroused, I turned the key in the ignition, popped the transmission onto gear, and lurched out of my spot, almost wiping out a passing car.

~ ~ ~

As Sharon Denson opened the door for me the second time that night, I hoped the chewing gum hid the scent of booze. I guess I cared what she thought of me.

“Is Paul home?”

She sighed. “I suppose I shouldn’t let him out on a school night.”

She wanted me, of all people, to think of her as responsible, which is funny but not. “It’s ok. I’ve done a lot worse than stay out late on a Wednesday night.”

She led me to the bedroom beyond Brett’s and flipped the light switch. The space housed a twin bed, a dresser, an iPod on the night stand. A couple lamps. Nothing that indicated a teenage boy with a personality lived there. “You gave him that?” I said, pointing to a laptop.

“Christmas gift. Money’s tight since my husband passed away, but I have to do something. Kids are so status-conscious these days. When we were young—”

“And the iPod?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Coach gave it to him. He won it in a raffle and didn’t need it. He’s been awfully good to my boys.”

Coach gave it to him. “Do you know where I might find Paul?”

She pondered a moment. “Try downtown. The kids hang out on the strip in front of the doughnut shop.”

~ ~ ~

Sobered—not legally, I suppose—I cruised Main Street, passing the pub then a convenience store and a block or two of shops closed for the evening.

My gas gauge read a quarter of a tank, and I had three bucks in my wallet. If I survived the night, I might never get to leave.

Ahead glowed the yellow arches of McDonald’s across from Dunkin Donuts. A bunch of kids sat on benches outside. Two other boys laughed and shoved each other while their girlfriends looked on. I made a right by the donut shop and spotted a lone kid was attempting half-hearted skateboard tricks. Paul Denson.

He picked up his board and began to strut away as I stepped out of my car. I called his name and he stopped. I must have still showed a faint aura of celebrity.

“Hey man,” I said. “I been looking for you.” The temperature had dropped in the past hour, so I put my hands in my pockets and hurried to where he stood. He bore that same haunted look, rendered more ghostly by the streetlights, like a harbinger of something sinister and deadly. And close.

He continued to stare with eyes resting on darkened half-circles. I said, “I’m surprised to see the star of the football team hanging out by himself. Where’s all the girls?”

“My brother loved you guys.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m really sorry about what happened.”

“He wanted to be a writer. He used to write essays and short stories and stuff. Poems and lyrics, too. They were real good.”

His suicide letter did show a dramatic flair. I told Paul I’d like to see Brett’s work someday.

“Are you guys gonna put out another album? Maybe you can use some of his words.”

After we were dropped by the label, people would ask when the next album was coming out, and I’d lie and say we were shopping for the right deal. But no one had asked for such a long time, I felt all right telling the truth.

“Unfortunately, our time has passed. I’m pretty sure Brett was the last person who cared about us.”

He gazed at a crumpled Dunkin Donuts cup lying on the sidewalk. “Your song was the only thing that made him feel ok. He fell asleep to it every night.” With forced cheer he said he liked some of our songs, but he didn’t mean it.

“Do you know why he did it, your brother? I guess it’s selfish of me, but I kind of feel responsible, you know?” I stood silent, waiting, and his answer came laced with venom.

“I don’t know why he did it, but it wasn’t you, ok? You can go back to your party life and forget all about my brother. He’s just a stat. You’re all good, man. Life is good. So go fuck yourself, all right?”

As the words spilled out, his rage made me feel ashamed and selfish and at once so aware of my stupid, pointless arrogance.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yeah, you told me.” He fought back the tears desperate to get out.

I’d already pissed him off, so I figured I might as well confront him. “Paul, why are you on the football team if you aren’t good enough to get into the games?”

His voice went limp. “I don’t know.”

“Did you call Coach and tell him I was here? Did you follow me to the pub on your skateboard? You know, sometimes people in a position of power can make kids do things they don’t want to do. Does Coach ever make you do things you don’t want to do?”

I cool breeze tore down Main Street, much colder than the air it displaced, kicking up dust and leaves and forcing my hands back into my pockets.

Paul Denson dropped his board on the sidewalk and, as he turned away, said, “Leave me alone.”

“Why did he give you an iPod?” I asked, but he was already rolling off in the opposite direction. If Paul chose to remain as silent as the three dead kids, I had one option left.

~ ~ ~

The big colonial on the hill stands out in Collingwood. Across the street and down a block, I parked in the night shade of a low-hanging tree.

I waited until 11 o’clock to ring the doorbell. Coach Van Der Bruggen didn’t strike me as a guy to hide behind a peephole and ask who’s there, and I was right. Heavy footfalls approached from the beyond the door, with not a moment’s pause before it swung inward.

“Who the hell-” I didn’t think his scowl could get meaner, but it did when he saw my face. “You! I thought I told you to get lost.”

Now what? “I need to talk to you about Paul.”

“What about him?”

To write songs that connect with listeners, you have to know something about human nature. Knowing about human nature helps you manipulate people. Coach needed to be important. “I’m worried he might try to hurt himself,” I said. “I tried to talk to him, but I think he needs to hear it from someone he respects. You, I mean.”

Coach’s scowl softened. Sort of. “All right. Follow me.”

He led me through the foyer and into a well-appointed home office. Lots of real wood and not a hint of particle board. A row of football trophies filled an inset shelf. One statuette, too tall and bulky for the allotted space along the wall, stayed on his desk.

He said, “This one isn’t a trophy. It’s a bronze statue. The mayor had it made a couple of years ago. Town pride.”

He adjusted its angle. “Frankly, if I didn’t win anything to get it, I don’t want it. And the damn thing doesn’t fit on my shelf. But the son-of-a-bitch mayor insists on visiting me all the time, so I leave it out.”

I tilted the statue back, pretending to admire it. It was heavy. “So, is Mrs. Van Der Bruggen home?”

The scowl returned. “What the hell is wrong with you, son? We’re not friends. Tell me about Paul and get out.”

I waited a moment. “People don’t kill themselves because of a song, Coach. It takes a lot more than that. Something traumatic. Shameful, maybe.”

He moved behind his desk. Did he keep photos in there? A flash drive full of secrets? I noticed a safe set into the wall.

“Look,” he said, “I know that. But when a kid is troubled, that song isn’t what he needs to hear. Understand? This town has had enough grief, and you being here doesn’t help. It makes it worse.”

I saw through his stern father-figure routine. “Why is Paul on your team? He’s not an athlete. Why did you give him an iPod?”

His fingers fidgeted. “For heaven’s sake, the kid lost his father. His dead brother was a football hero. Someone has to look out for him.”

Eying his defensive posture, it all become so obvious. I leaned forward, literally with nothing to lose. “You sexually abused Brett Denson and those two other guys on your team, didn’t you? And now you’re doing the same thing to Paul.”

Ten long seconds passed, my pulse drumming in my ears. At last he said, “You get out of my house right now or I’ll call the cops. The cops in this town will do anything for me. Get it? Any. Damn. Thing.”

“Go ahead and call ‘em. And when they get here, we’ll see what they do for a rapist.” I had him! I had the bastard and he knew it.

Coach crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. “Prove it.”

I pointed toward the wall behind him. “We can start by seeing what’s in that safe. You keep videos and photos in there? Your real trophies? Or maybe they’re in your desk. On your laptop. If you got nothing to hide…”

A victorious grin appeared. “You want to see what’s in the safe? Fine.”

He turned and began punching the number code. “You think I got all this from coaching high-school football? No sir. I have connections. I’ll take your job. I’ll take your house.” The safe popped open. “I’ll take your life. You were born to lose, Bright.”

This is the absolute truth: I entered Coach Van Der Bruggens’s house to confront him about lavishing gifts on easily manipulated boys. About taking advantage of a kid who’d lost his dad. About Paul. I came to make Coach admit the real reason those three men killed themselves was the shame he’d burdened them with all those years ago.

I did not enter this man’s house to do what I did. It’s just that I got sick of being called a loser. No more crying and smashing guitars on imaginary heads. No more being treated like a misbehaving teenager by haughty co-workers and arrogant judges and condescending assholes who used to be my friends. Or by mindless brutes like Coach. No more.

I’m not a loser.

Gripping the bronze statuette, I circled the desk and brought it down on the back of his head. He fell forward, thundering into the wall, and then whirled, his legs wobbling. I swung again, striking his forehead. He raised his hands, dazed and slow, and I hammered down. He slumped to the floor, and I struck once more. I doubt I looked much like an avenger while shouting gibberish and spitting as I rained blows. I looked like a madman, I’m sure, and I stopped striking only when his flesh became pulp and the bone no longer resisted.

Gasping yet exhilarated, I dropped the bludgeon. I pivoted. No one watching. No blood on my hands. Twisting back, I gandered at the dead man on the floor, unrecognizable with his face crushed in.

The blood streak he left on the wall led to the open safe. I reached in and stole five hundred dollars along with the loaded Smith and Wesson .44 Coach intended to kill me with.

No pictures or videotapes, but they’d turn up. Cops would have to search the place.

I stuffed the trophy in his office garbage can, along with my blood-speckled shirt, tied off the bag, and removed it. With the cash in my pocket and that hand cannon tucked under my belt, I marched outside, pausing to rub my fingerprints off the doorbell.

I tossed the bag into the Nevasha River two hours and a hundred and fifty miles later. It sank like an ugly bronze statuette. I watched it go down while wearing a sweatshirt I’d bought at the rest stop 115 miles back where also I filled my tank. If they had asked why I walked in wearing a t-shirt in forty-five-degree weather, I’d have said it’s rock and roll, man.

~ ~ ~

Yesterday morning, Thursday, I went to work without sleeping. Nadine said, “Tony, why are you here?” I told her I needed to do a couple of things. With everyone outside buying bagels and coffee from the snack truck, I shredded Brett Denson’s letter and left.

When I woke up early this morning, I started writing this. Which seems counterproductive, having shredded the letter. But I’ve been thinking about the police coming after me and how to handle it, and telling this story has helped elucidate things.

I always liked that word. Elucidate. I’m elucidating things for you: I’m not a cold-blooded murderer.

Regarding Coach’s guilt: I did what I had to. He’ll never be able to hurt another kid now. I did ask myself, but what if you’re wrong? Then I imagined Hayden Campbell saying, “Kill that negativity, Bright. You can’t change the past,” and I felt ok.

About five minutes ago, I decided that this feeling–knowing I helped somebody—is what matters, not some dumb rock song I wrote. I finally matter. Not that the authorities will understand, so I’ve also decided what to do when they show up. See, I’ve got Coach’s .44 loaded and lying on the table.

And look here. Two police cruisers just pulled up outside. I’m about to be famous for one more day.

Bang Bang. Hey.

 

Reproduced below: One of the first reports of the incident to appear on the news wire.

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Strangle Taffy Singer, Two Police Officers Killed in Hail of Gunfire

WEST BRANFORD – Tony Bright, former lead singer and guitarist of the now-defunct pop-rock band Strangle Taffy, gunned down two police officers outside his West Branford home just hours ago before being shot to death by an investigating detective, according to police and an eyewitness. The names of the two dead officers have not been made public, pending notification of family.

 

Sources inside the West Branford Police Department say Bright was wanted for questioning in connection with an out-of-state crime, though that information could not be officially confirmed. When reached by phone early this morning about a possible motive for the shooting, Police commissioner Ji Hung Kim would only say, “We are deeply saddened by this tragic event, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the slain officers.”

 

A press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. today, and a department spokesperson promised an official statement at that time.

 

West Branford resident Akmal Ahmadi, who lives across the street from Bright’s rented house, said he witnessed the shooting.

 

“[Bright] just walked out onto his porch like nothing happened, then, bam, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting point blank,” claimed Ahmadi. “I heard cracks and saw bodies dropping and then it was done. The whole thing was over in about five seconds.”

 

Ahmadi said he was unaware of his neighbor’s former celebrity. “I guess maybe he’ll get famous again,” he added.

 

Bright, 31, had had several brushes with the law in recent years, mostly for drug-related offenses. Strangle Taffy disbanded following the release of their third album, 5 Dolls for an August Moon, in 2008.