TE Kidwell - The Online home of writer Tim Kidwell

Words - Archive 2013

The cost of doing business

December 28, 2013

Like so many writers, I have a primary job to pay my bills and write as a second job. And, as all writers in my situation know, this second job comes with a lot of opportunity costs.

What are those?

Oh no! Kidwell is going after his dictionary again! RUN!

Yessir, one of many trusty tomes I own big enough to brain a zombie and stop a bullet, The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines opportunity cost as “the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen; an alternative lost in this way.”

Every decision you make during the day causes the loss of an opportunity. If you get up at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., you’ve lost an hour of continuous sleep. Romantic dinner with the wife or game seven? Just three more tequilas tonight or avoid the hangover tomorrow?

For a primary job, wages (and, unless you’re Ralph Waldo Emerson, a need for said wages) make the opportunity costs more acceptable. So, you don’t get to sit at home all day in your briefs playing Xbox and smoking weed, but you do get coin to buy more games and Cheerios.

With a second job, the opportunity costs become more … well … costly. What premium do you put on your social life, time with your significant other or children? Is it worth having a messy house or laundry that doesn’t get done? TV is out. Movies are done except on the rare occasion. You OK with getting home at 5 p.m. and heading back out at 6 for an eight-hour shift? Do you need eight hours of sleep, or can you manage on five? How about four? Do the wages from the second job outweigh the opportunity costs?

What if your second job paid only intermittently or nothing but the joy of the work and the whispered promise of monetary reward at some future date? Would you spend the same amount of time on it? Would you pay the same opportunity costs?

Writers, especially those who don’t write as their primary occupation, constantly grapple with the opportunity costs of working. We pay with sleep, missed time with our children and spouses, an ever mounting pile of books we mean to read, dirty toilets and piled dishes, long grass and pissed-off neighbors, and possession of vacant stares whenever someone mentions anything regarding current popular entertainment. We pay all this and more, and we’re not the only ones. Our families and friends pay too. In fact, we exact the toll from them, and they don’t get to say no. We expect them to understand — and often they don’t.

However, we can’t stop. We’re compelled to write. We have stories that must be told, and we have to get them out. How regularly they come depends on how much we’re willing to pay in alternative opportunities.  

While waiting for tea

November 21, 2013

As I write this, I’m waiting for a kettle of water to boil so I can make some tea. Yes, tea. Not coffee. Not whiskey. Just crushed leaves in gossamer bags steeped in water.

No word yet from the prospective agent. I expect something by the first week of December.

A couple of things: First, it seems I’ve coined the saying, “stand while peeing up.” This not-quite-spoonerism issued from my mouth while trying to carry on separate conversations—one with my wife, the other with my son—at the same time, concerning the same thing: him draining his snake while showering. Yes, yes, we all know the drains all lead to the same place, but when I step into the shower after Kid Kidwell, I’d like the absence of Stank de Latrine.

Anyway, at some point in the conversation, as I endeavored to make plain my distaste for the kid turning our shower into a urinal, “stand while peeing up” spilled out. At which both Goodwife Kidwell and Kid Kidwell fell into rib-breaking laughter. I have now been plagued by persistent queries of whether or not I’ve figured out how to stand while peeing up, or if I made a habit to stand while peeing up, cuz wouldn’t it be easier to lie down, or whether I knew that standing while peeing up was funny (I fear that Kid Kidwell now has practical knowledge of such amusement).

Second … well it seems the water has begun to boil. Time to make the tea. (I’ve forgotten what my second point was going to be anyway.)

The work continues

October 9, 2013

Earlier this month, I sent out a query for Little Wolf to an agent on the recommendation of a friend. It’ll probably be some weeks before I hear back. In the meantime, I’ve got to move on. I’ve begun sketching out a new novel—the idea for it came to me nearly a year ago, but I to backburner it then. Over the months, when another idea would come, I’d jot it down, and now, all of those ideas are coming together pretty nicely.

I’m not a fast writer. I’m not a fast editor either. In fact, about the only thing I do quickly is eat pizza. That disappears before the slice hits the plate. I talk fast, which used to get me in trouble with teachers. Now, it just makes me seem like I’m fighting a stutter as I choke on the logjam of words stuck on my teeth and caught in my throat.

For example, I wrote the preceding paragraph, reread it, and considered my editing options. While it says what I originally intended to say, it doesn’t convey the information quite the way I wanted it to. So, I began to reflect, and, in reflection, began to pull apart the paragraph and imagine what else might be said. How I might say things differently. Better.

I’m not a fast writer when I’m on my own schedule. I’ve cranked out 10,000 words in two days for a short-turnaround project. Was it the best thing I’ve ever written? Nope. But I got paid and my client was happy, which, on those sorts of things, is really what matters. So, I’m not a daily-paper-journalist sort who can just puke up text to fill column inches. And while I am certainly no D.H. Lawrence or Faulkner, I still care about word choice, and tone, syntax, associations, shape, and the sundry other ingredients that make up my stories. So, I nitpick and self-edit and criticize (rather than critique; yes, it’s a bad habit and one I am trying to break) right from the beginning. I’m sure it has something to do with my oversized fear of failure.

Well, that revision came out a lot better than the initial paragraph, don’t you think?

Anyhow, the work continues as I await a response to my query. The new book seems to be coming easier than Little Wolf (as I curse myself for an imprudent fool and rap my knuckle on my desk to ward off bad luck) so I’ll keep you apprised of my progress. And I’ll let you know what happens with the query.

The last time I argue about mermaids

August 31, 2013

Fiction writers, especially fantasy and science-fiction writers, exist in that gray world between plausible and unbelievable. We trust our audience’s suspension of disbelief, and our readers trust us to take them to a place less mundane, but maybe not so different from our own world.

I also think that fantasy and sci-fi writers have to believe, at least a little, in the things they write about. It may sound childish to believe in mysterious, awful things that go crikety-crack in the night, but how many times have you heard something in the dark and talked yourself into believing it was something mundane when you were pretty sure it wasn’t?

Knowing this, it may surprise you that I think TV shows that use faked found footage and supposed scientific evidence that don’t declare in BIG BOLD LETTERS up front that they are FICTITIOUS are about as amoral as it gets. Not because I don’t think they’re entertaining, but that I know people are gullible and believe these things.

Yeah, it’s not the TV show’s fault that lots and lots of people have about as much common sense at the curdled half-and-half in the back of my garage fridge, but, c’mon. If the show is produced by a so-called “science” channel, or “history” channel, don’t you think the show should be, oh, I don’t know, based on science, not pseudo-science? Or how about shows about history rather than douche-bags trying to out douche-bag each other with treacherous douche baggery.

Here’s the thing: If you’re going to set yourself up as an authority on little dirt-dwelling rodents in the African savannah or ursine deathmongers, then don’t discredit yourself and do a huge disservice to your viewers by showing fantasy wrapped up in science-y trappings that spreads misinformation faster than syphilis in 17th century whorehouse. Think of the impressionable kids who are going to believe what they see because the equally impressionable parents raising them believe what they’re watching.

I mean, if TV executives aren’t going to look out for our future scientists and leaders, who will?

The mournhowler

July 28, 2013

While gearing up for writing Little Wolf, I wanted a formidable creature for the hero, Faolin, to go up against in the opening pages of the book. It would be a way to introduce everyone to the sorts of things she's fighting and her abilities.

One day, I was explaining the book to Jay Smith, an illustrator and graphic designer I know. I asked if he would be interested in doing up a quick sketch of the mournhowler. He thought it would be a cool exercise to draw the creature sort of like what you'd see in a 19th-century naturalist's notebook.

I forwarded Jay this excerpt from the book:

The mournhowler hung beneath the bridge: long arms with graceless hands that ended in cracked claws, black and moldered; short legs, crooked and bent like a dog's, but terminating in wide, splayed feet; and an enormous torso, narrow at the waist and two men wide at the shoulders. Worst of all were the wriggling lips stretched into a depraved smile surrounding two rows of short, murderously sharp teeth, beneath the yellow eyes that shown like lamp glass. It leered at her from its roost, something not human, but not an animal either, despite the coat of thick, bristly gray hair covering its shoulders, arms, and back.

The mournhowler hung beneath the bridge: long arms with graceless hands that ended in cracked claws, black and moldered; short legs, crooked and bent like a dog's, but terminating in wide, splayed feet; and an enormous torso, narrow at the waist and two men wide at the shoulders. Worst of all were the wriggling lips stretched into a depraved smile surrounding two rows of short, murderously sharp teeth, beneath the yellow eyes that shown like lamp glass. It leered at her from its roost, something not human, but not an animal either, despite the coat of thick, bristly gray hair covering its shoulders, arms, and back.

And this is what Jay came up with. A suitably ugly beastie I think. Thanks, Jay!

Cold Coffee - A 10-minute play

June 27, 2013

I thought I'd share a play I wrote with a friend of mine back in 2006. Called Cold Coffee, it's about the dissolution of a relationship. The things that we'll say when we're angry has always fascinated me. If I remember correctly, the kernel for this short came to me after an argument my wife and I had; not the contents so much as the emotions that Bill and I tried to convey. I've tried to preserve how it looks on the printed page, though I've eliminated some of the larger spots where there would be nothing but space and changed the addresses and emails. Here it is in its entirety:


William Maynard &

Timothy Kidwell

555 Country Club Dr.

Lake Geneva, WI 53147

555-555-5555 or












Cast of Characters


JENNA........................22, a jilted lover

CHRISTINE....................22, Jenna's ex-girlfriend

WAITRESS.....................50s, just works there

OWNER........................50s, likes things quiet

PATRONS......................they like things quiet too




TIME: Today at about 12:45 PM.


SETTING: A small diner, ANYWHERE, U.S.A. A table sandwiched between two high-backed benches sits beneath a window. Nearby is a glass door. A sign in the door reads "WE'RE OPEN" in big red letters. Another table with four wirework chairs sits nearby with patrons pulled up, sipping their coffee and reading papers. While it has an aged, unkempt feel, it is clean enough and possesses a certain comforting quality that the regulars cherish.




(THE LIGHTS COME UP, CHRISTINE is seated at the table under the window. There are two cups of coffee on the table. A small pile of wadded sugar packets sits in the ash tray. She distractedly sips at one of the cups of coffee. JENNA enters and dumps herself into the bench across from CHRISTINE.)



(Throws a pack of cigarettes and lighter on the table.)




(Looks at her watch.)

Hey. What took you so long?




I'm late. I had some things to take care of.



It’s no big deal. I ordered you some coffee. It's cold now. I'll have the waitress get you another.





(JENNA motions to the WAITRESS before CHRISTINE can.   The WAITRESS enters with pen and order pad in hand, and walks over to them.)



What can I get you, hun?



I’ll have an iced tea.



Lemon with that?


Yeah, thanks.

(She pushes the cup of cold coffee aside. Exit WAITRESS.)

So, what's up?


(JENNA shakes a cigarette from its pack, places it in her mouth and lights it.)



I thought we should talk about last night.



What about it?



I can’t believe that you made me drive home. What's the matter with you?



(Dumps the balled sugar packets out of the ashtray and taps a cigarette ash into it.)

What would you rather me do? You're a big girl.



You could have let me stay at your place. I thought that we were going to be friends. 



Try. We were going to try to be friends.



I know we've only been broken up for six weeks, but I really thought that we would be able to be friends after everything that we've been through.



(Puffs uncaringly on her cigarette.)

Me too.



That's what you said you wanted. And friends don't let friends drive drunk.



(A sour look on her face.)

You weren’t drunk.



Yes I was.



(Leans forward, emphasizing her words by tapping her finger on the table.)

You were drunk at your grandmother’s birthday party. Last night you were just acting like a fucking schoolgirl.



What are you talking about?



And your performance was less than Oscar worthy.



What "performance?"



(A little louder, but not yelling.)

Come off it Christine! You knew exactly what last night was supposed to be.



Yeah, I wanted us to get together, as friends.



We were just supposed to hang out. Test the waters.



What's wrong with that?



I was fine with that.



Well that's what I wanted to do.



Well that's not what happened.


(JENNA and CHRISTINE visibly relax as the WAITRESS enters with an iced tea. They both sit back in their seats as she puts it on the table.)



Anything else?



No thanks. That should do it.



Okay sweetie.


(The WAITRESS makes a move to warm up CHRISTINE's coffee. CHRISTINE puts her hand up and shakes her head. The WAITRESS puts the bill on the table and moves off to wait on other customers. CHRISTINE leans toward JENNA, restraining herself from raising her voice, casting a wary glance at the other patrons.)



What the hell would you call it then? And do you want to lower your voice?


(JENNA speaks freely, to CHRISTINE'S visible discomfort.)



Hmmm, NO! And let's see . . . What would I call you getting all tarted up and putting on a hustle?



Hustle? What's that supposed to mean?

(Disgusted, JENNA shakes her head and glances out the window.)

I wasn't tarted up. Just because I want to look good, you get to act like a bitch?



You did everything but lift your skirt for me at the bar.



I did not.



You didn't? Ha! And when that didn't work, you tried to sell yourself to that weasel bastard next to you in some feeble attempt to make me jealous.



Jesus Christ, Jen! I was just trying to have fun. What? Can't I do that?






It was just really shitty of you to do that to me. You knew that I was fucked up last night and needed a place to sleep it off.



It looked like you had one.



Go to hell!


(The PATRONS take quick glances at JENNA and CHRISTINE. JENNA snuffs out the butt of her cigarette and takes a long pull from her iced tea, disregardful of the stares. CHRISTINE sees them and tries to keep her voice down.)



What the fuck is wrong with you? When did you become such an asshole?



I didn't become anything. You made me this way.


(JENNA retrieves another cigarette without loosing eye contact.)



Made you? So all of this is my fault? I’m just a giant bitch.



(Lights her cigarette and takes a drag.)

No, the problem is that I’m your bitch! I have been for the past three years, and I'm done!



What are you talking about?



I’ve followed you around like some goddamn lovesick dog starved for your attention. You’ve shit on me for the last fucking time!





(CHRISTINE leans back in her seat and sips her coffee. She glances out the diner's window.)



(Her blood rising.)

No, not whatever! We were together for three years and no one knows it except for the two of us and my closest friends--only my friends! Doesn't that strike you as odd?



No. Who else do you want to know? Who else matters?



Well, I'm going to need to make new friends since you've chased away most of the ones I had. They treat me like I've got the plague because of you.



Did it ever occur to you that they aren't such great friends then?



How about the moratorium on public shows of affection?



We work in the same office! They couldn’t know that we were dating or we’d be fired, you idiot!


(The two PATRONS get up from their table and leave the diner. CHRISTINE gives them apologetic looks. JENNA is completely focused on the argument.)



Cut the shit, Christine! Everyone there knows that something was going on. They aren’t blind.



Jenna, I didn’t spend four years in college to lose my job over some workplace sex scandal.



Sex scandal? Is that all this was? Some fling?



No, of course not . . .




And that reminds me. You have lorded your education over me the entire time we've known each other. You spent all that money and time and you work at the same place as me for the same wage as me. So before you call me an idiot again you should really do the math sweetheart!



I don't know where this anger is coming from.



What? Do you need a list?



Well, if you have one.



Okay. I've never met one of your friends. Are you that embarrassed of me? Can't you even introduce me to one of the people you hang out with?



No, I . . . I . . .



(Over CHRISTINE's stuttering.)

How about your family?



I never . . .



It's not all it's cracked up to be, getting used like some fuck toy that you keep hidden away in the back of your nightstand, only to be brought out when no one’s looking. I'm good enough to get you off, but not good enough to be your equal.



(Verging on tears.)

That's ridiculous. You want to keep your voice down? You're making a scene.



You wanted a list. How about cheating on me three times—once for each year that I was your lapdog?



That's not true!


(JENNA grabs the cup of cold coffee and smashes it on the diner floor.)




Goddamn it! I was talking! Is it possible for you to shut the fuck up for thirty seconds? You haven’t listened to me for the past three years, but you will listen today! I loved you! Do you know how that works at all? I was faithful to you.

(CHRISTINE pushes back in her seat, as if she's trying to put as much distance between her and JENNA as possible. Tears streak down her face.)



Why . . . ?



Why? I don't know. I was a fucking good person before I met you. You taught me what it is to despise and distrust. So you can take your fucking "friends don’t let friends" guilt trip somewhere else. It looks like you made it home just fine.

(The diner's MANAGER enters, walking up to the girls' table. Before he gets there, JENNA says to CHRISTINE,)

I think I'll be going now.


(JENNA slides out of her seat and reaches into her pants pocket at the same time.)



Do we have a problem here?


(The MANAGER from one to the other.)



The coffee was cold. Sorry about the cup. This should cover it.


(JENNA pulls some cash out of her pocket and drops it on the table. She steps toward the door,  stops and turns back toward CHRISTINE.)



I'm going to have to ask you ladies to take your discussion elsewhere.



We paid for our drinks. We'll talk about whatever we want.



What else is there to say?


(With that, JENNA turns and saunters out the door, leaving CHRISTINE alone in the booth to look after her with a look of "whatever" etched on her face, and the Curtain Falls.)



There it is, Cold Coffee. We submitted it to a contest called Ten Tens at Ten back in 2006. I didn't expect much to come of it, but we received the judging slip with the votes and a critique. We were encouraged that the play actually ranked fairly well. However, the big negative was that it was "too real." No one wants to see a relationship crash and burn without a little humor or something else thrown in, the judges reasoned. I suppose that's true enough, but that realism is what Bill and I were shooting for, so we chalked this one into the win column.

Star Trek: Falling into Darkness

May 21, 2013

When is it okay to kill sacred cows? I think, in this case, when a better one comes along. Until Into Darkness, I couldn’t remember the last time I left a movie theater and couldn’t stop smiling. But coming out of J.J. Abram’s latest offering, I was smiling ear to ear. I got in the car, turned to my wife and a friend of ours who had gone with us, and revealed that it had replaced The Wrath of Khan as my all-time favorite Star Trek movie.

That’s right! The 30-year champ had been knocked off its throne.

“Holy fuck, Kidwell,” you say. “You’re out of your goddamn mind. How? HOW? Kirk! Kahn! Genesis! Spock dying! THE BATTLE IN THE GAS NEBULA!”

Yep. That’s right. All of that, and Into Darkness was still a better film. (Do we still say film?) Better acting, a more well-rounded story, and a Capt. Kirk who learns humility not by letting his best friend sacrifice himself for Enterprise and her crew, but does it himself.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore Wrath. I mean, I full-on man-cry every time I watch Spock’s death scene to my wife’s shame. It’s powerful stuff. But Kirk’s death is no less powerful. Instead of witnessing the end of a friendship and a lamentation of its passing, we see the cementing of one in a way we aren’t able to see in real life. It took what normally happens over the course of years and condensed and intensified it, made it tangible without becoming sentimental.

And, what’s more, no confusion of how many planets there are in a solar system and which one’s which; no introduction of an illegitimate kid who had never been hinted at before; no Scotty, so grief-stricken that he feels the need to haul his nephew’s half-dead carcass all the way from engineering to the bridge instead of heading off to sickbay where that valuable time may have been used to save him … No really annoying blood stain that looks cool on Kirk’s uniform in one scene, and then like a ketchup stain for the rest of the movie.

I really do love Wrath, but I think we can let go of the past, at least a little, don’t you?

Speaking of the past, I watched the original series’ “Space Seed” episode for the first time since I was a kid. I was impressed with how much I remembered of the story, but horrified by how much bad I didn’t realize was there.

The terrible yoga-fu aside, Khan Noonien Singh is as easy to understand as a bag of wood screws and fruit snacks. In one inexhaustibly maddening scene, McGivers, the Star Fleet officer who falls in love with Khan the moment she sees him (oh yeah, creative and accurate, right?), visits Khan and he wants her there, and then he doesn’t. When she refuses to leave, she has to ask permission to stay. When she asks permission, Khan crushes her hand while demanding “open your heart.”

Never has the courtship of my wife been so accurately portrayed.

In fact, other than overpowering the guard outside his door and the final encounter with Kirk, Khan spends the much of the episode menacing women, and the women are powerless to stop him from doing so. I mean, how bleak was the 1968 vision of the not-too-distant 1990s that the supposed supermen were also super-assholes? And, in the far-flung future, the women are weak-willed and just take whatever crap a man dishes out. I mean, there’s this chauvinism among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that McGivers is just a silly woman who has lost her head for a charming warrior out of the history books and we’ll use her to our advantage.

What’s worse, how much was this a reflection of what the writers thought of the state of male/female relations of their own time? Or was it what was expected by the viewers? Yeesh.

Recently, Felicia Day blogged she wished there were more women in roles of power in Into Darkness; I agree with her. But it’s always good for perspective to go back and see how far we’ve come, even if it’s just to gauge how much farther we have yet to go.

I wonder: When Uhura, Kirk, and Spock are on Kronos, how would audiences have felt if Uhura was throwing punches and then brutalized by a Klingon in the same way Kirk was? How would we have felt if Spock had choked the hell out of Uhura like he did Kirk in Abrams’ Star Trek? Yes, leading roles don’t necessarily mean physical confrontations, but they often do in sci-fi.

When Khan mowed down the old white fogeys who are the Star Fleet brass, would we have felt differently about it if there had been women in the mix? Would it have been a good or bad difference? Are we at a point that we’re willing to write more stories or make more movies where we do to women what we typically do to men (like in Haywire), and vice versa? I don’t know.

What I do know is that if we want to see strong female leads in our sci-fi and fantasy movies, we need to put more women on the writing teams and more women in the director’s chairs. And the sacred cow of the male-dominated genre film could be killed, too.

Catching the wind

April 25, 2013

Wind in a jar Did you know that you can only catch wind in a jar on the night before a full moon? Did you know that you have only the five minutes before midnight to accomplish your task, should you attempt it? Neither did my son until we rousted him out of bed and asked him if he wanted to go outside and catch wind.

A delighted smile replaced the sleepiness on his round face, and he nodded hard enough that I thought his head might pop off. He ran barefoot in his Super Mario pajamas to the front door and twisted the deadbolt latch so that I half expected the door to yell, “Hey! That hurts!”

The two of us stepped shivering out onto our porch into the unseasonable chill, neither wanting to risk going back inside to get a jacket and miss our chance to catch the wind.

We crouched together and looked at the moon, bright in the dark gray sky.

“What do we say to get the wind in the jar?” I asked.

"Moon, please put the wind in the jar," he whispered.

"That's all?" I asked.

He nodded.

I removed the lid and we both chanted: “Moon, please put the wind in the jar. Moon, please put the wind in the jar. Moon, please put the wind in the jar.”

“You have to make a whooshing noise!” he said as I got ready to twist the lid tight. So I whooshed and closed the jar.

“There it is!” I proclaimed. “Show and tell for tomorrow!”

“You have to say thank you,” he said.

“Oh. Okay. Thank you.”

(My lovely wife did the label and smiled all the while at the antics of her two boys.)

A couple of days to think

April 10, 2013

I finished the first draft of the novel. I’d like to say relief and happiness gushed out, but rather than an orgasmic climax, the finish was more like the end of heavy petting, when the other person says, “My dad’ll kill me if I’m late getting home.” You feel good, but you could feel better.

So, the question is do I plunge ahead or take a breather? Sit back, let things build for a bit, or hit it while it’s hot?

What’ll I do if I take a break? Fuck off. Finish reading the book I’ve been nursing since January. Catch up on world events. Try to refill the creativity well whose water has been drawn until creamy — and that ain’t a good thing.

It’s also time I can spend submitting some short stories. Just get a couple out there that have been sleeping on top of the heap here in the office.

Before I go, it seems that speed dating and comic conventions have been combined. And what took so long?

Description of image here Speed dating? When was the last time you heard a quick conversation between geeks? No, if someone got in the middle of this mega-mind-meld, there had better have been plenty of THWACK, KRAAK, and SHPOW doled out. And is that a tattoo on her left arm or did she get his digits? That’s respect for the costume right there.

See what happens when I don’t have a project kicking me in the ass to get something done?

Deus ex machina wrecked The Hunger Games

March 5, 2013

I didn’t read The Hunger Games, and I really had no desire to see the movie. This isn’t a judgment on either; the premise just didn’t interest me all that much. We’ve gone over this particular story before, or, at least, something similar. Anyone remember The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore or Battle Royale with Beat Takeshi?

It happens that my wife wanted to see it and borrowed the movie from her sister. It sat on top of our stereo, beckoning or mocking, I can’t decide which, until, finally, I popped it in and we watched it this past weekend.

And what do you know? I liked it.

Up to a point. Let me explain.

What do we know about the heroine, Katniss Everdeen? She can shoot arrows from a bow and hit squirrels in the eye — on purpose. She holds her family together after her father’s death. She volunteers as a tribute to the Hunger Games (which usually means certain doom for the kids from her district, District 12) to spare her little sister. She learns quickly to navigate a perilous corporate oligarchy to earn favor from sponsors while training and then staying alive in a combat zone where just about everyone else is trying to bludgeon or stab her to death, including the guys running the game. On guts, talent, and smarts, she becomes a force to be feared.

Katniss, whether she wants to be or not, is bad ass.

That’s why my rectum dislodged itself, slithered down my pant leg and flopped onto the carpet when the director and screenwriter (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if it originated there, but if it did, Collins should be included) took all of that Katniss awesome and shot it into the sun. I was so astounded, so utterly distraught that they would do this, I stopped the movie and tossed the remote control across the room in a fit.

“What could have prompted this?” you ask. If you’ve seen the movie, you already know. If you haven’t: Stop now and go watch It — not to enjoy the story, but so you can get caught up and finish reading this.

Katniss has risked life and limb, and, now, Peeta, the other tribute from District 12, is hurt and she needs medicine to save him. She heads back to the Cornucopia in a second daring raid to retrieve some medicine and falls foul of the knife-chucking Clove from District 2. Yeah, they brawl. Katniss dodges a knife to the face, coming away with a nasty gash and her life. And then Clove gets the upper hand. Clove gloats and gloats and is about to kill Katniss when …

Thresh, the male tribute from District 11 comes out of nowhere, offs Clove and tells Katniss that he’s sparing her this once, because she was nice to Rue, the other District 11 tribute. He runs off, and Katniss gets to go play nursemaid to Peeta.

Why not have a chunk of Thunderdome fall out of the sky and stove in Clove’s head? Instead of figuring a way for Katniss to come out on top of her fight through will or resolve or bow breaking kick-assery, she is saved by another tribute. This flagrant use of deus ex machina (a Latin term for “god out of the machine,” now used to indicate whenever an unexpected party intervenes and resolves a tough situation, like a knife-happy murder-wench sitting on your chest and pushing sharpened steel into your jugular) reduced Katniss to so much illusion. She obviously got where she was not by intelligence, or nerve, or skill, but luck. It was all luck and the skill of others. Further, having some random knight in shining armor come out of nowhere to save Katniss so painfully reduces a very strong female character. She deserved better, I think.

My wife took exception to my tantrum. “Stop right there! Kirk, in the new Star Trek,” she intoned, smug with the knowledge of my coming defense, “runs away from a big nasty beast only to have Spock save him. Yet, you still like that movie.”

But no defense do I have. Her assessment is correct, and I fault the movie for that. It rang hollow in the theater, and it rings hollow with me every time I’ve seen it since (which is a lot) — it’s my least favorite part of the film. On top of it, Spock waved a torch at a huge monster and drove it off. That would be like my toddler son coming at me with a match. I’m pretty sure I can take him. There had to be a better way to solve that particular problem.

Just as there had to have been a better way in The Hunger Games. Peeta, with a pain-hampered stumble could have bumbled in and gacked Clove, or, better, just pushed her enough to let Katniss get back on her feet. Better better, Katniss digs deep and does something amazing to get out of her clutch sitch and needs no one else to help.

There’s a rule for creative writing they teach you in college, though I don’t know where it came from. Anyhow, it seems a good one, unless you’re writing ancient Greek dramas and runs something like this: Don’t put a character in a situation they can’t solve via their own devices. If that situation means the character will die, you had better be ready to kill that character. Otherwise, change the scene or the situation.

“This wrecked the whole story for you?” you wonder. “How do you survive?”

A bit of hyperbole, that. Still, I live from one happy, unexpected intercession to the next.

The Sun and the Moon

February 22, 2013

“Dad, why does the sun follow us?”

“It’s not really following us. It just seems that way, because it’s so big and we’re so small.”

That’s not an uncommon exchange between my four-year-old son and me. However, he always follows my answer with, “But why does the sun follow us.”

I’ve stopped telling him the truth about this. I’ve now started to tell him that the sun follows us because I’ve told him, the Sun, to keep an eye on my son, in case anything should go wrong or in case he doesn’t listen or breaks rules.

“So, the Sun watches and calls you if I do anything I’m not supposed to?”

“That’s right.”

He asks questions like this all the time, and while I’ll try the real answer at first, the residue of disappointment, the taint of dissatisfaction permeates the conversation. How terribly ordinary that the moon should still be visible in the sky because it’s so close to Earth and that during the lunar cycle it has a particular circuit. Blah, blah, blah.

Rather, the Moon hasn’t yet gone to bed, and if the Sun catches her up, she may get into all sorts of trouble. What kinds of trouble? Who knows? But, perhaps a young boy will have to fly up into the sky one night because the Sun has locked the Moon away, and she can’t shine her light down on Earth. Or maybe she gets away from the Sun during the day, and she’s up because she really wants to eat a bagel with a particular boy. But how will she get the bagel? I don’t know; how will she get the bagel?

I am all for science and the advancement of learning, but I am also a believer in those things that we can’t see. I believe in a childlike wonder of our world, unfettered by the shackles of “truth” that science often puts on us. And I believe in unscientific, fantastical answers.

No, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t teach our kids how the solar system works, or that arsenic won’t kill you, or that you need a good bleeding to get the bad humors out. But don’t be too hasty to dismiss those things that remain unexplained. Don’t be so quick to deny the experiences of those who may be making something up for attention, might be hallucinating because of all the acid they did back in the day, or, perhaps, may have actually experienced something that defies explanation.

To me, it is through lenses untainted by the realities of adulthood that we get our stories, whether they are fantasy or futurist, love or adventure. We need to be able to access those parts of our psyches that others find too peculiar, too weird, or too childish in order to create those things that will delight, tantalize, and horrify.

Use a dictionary: You may like it

February 6, 2013

I love dictionaries, especially my Shorter OED. Dictionaries in book form offer adventure, whereas those on the internet or tablets or electronic readers simply puke out an answer. And it's all the less meaningful for the ease of it all.

Think about it. When last you searched for a word in a book dictionary, did you open it directly to the word whose definition without which your life would be rendered incomprehensible? No, you didn’t. And neither did I. No, finding definitions in a printed dictionary becomes a micro-quest, a hunt for a place or an artifact hidden or buried among millions of others. And I love that adventure, that quest that takes you along hidden paths and rushes you down uncharted rivers of wordy knowledge.

On the other hand, if you used a digital dictionary and typed in a word spelled half-ass correctly, you’re going to get the word you’re looking for, it’s definition, maybe an example, and off you go, back to doing whatever.

Here are some words that I recently happened upon while searching for other words:

excide: to cut out

gimcrack: cheap, showy, useless thing

parget: plaster, mortar, etc., used to coat a masonry surface; raised ornamental plaster work used on walls or ceiling

chunter, chunner: mutter, grumble, murmur querulously

trig: true, faithful, trustworthy; active, nimble, brisk, alert; trim, tidy, neat, square, smart, well-dressed

syncategorematic: of a word: having no meaning by itself, but only in conjunction with one or more other words or concepts

Whenever I go to the dictionary to look up a word, I take my notebook, because I know I’ll run across another word that strikes my interest before I get to the word requiring clarification. I write down the cool words I find. Some have a life of their own, almost begging to be used. Others are just intellectual confections.

I entreat you: The next time you find yourself checking the definition of a word, or seeking assurance you should use an “I” in definitely because it definitely doesn’t have an “A," use a printed dictionary. And let it take you on a small adventure with a word or two that you might not otherwise have known or thought to use.


January 16, 2013

Reviewing the year that has gone by, who of us doesn’t recall at least one occasion of an opportunity missed or an experience passed up because of other obligations, real or imagined? For me, I don’t think I’ve completely missed my opportunities, but I’m sure I’ve attenuated the good will under which at least one arose. An acquaintance of mine, who also happens to be a mover at a moderately-sized and successful publishing house, offered me the chance to get in with them, should I put a suitable manuscript in his hands.

Exciting! Of course, I knew just what I’d give him: a novel I had shopped around and had had a couple of nibbles on, but no takers. Here stood an open invitation to get it right through the publisher’s door—no agent necessary! I started going through it once more, and, with the help of a friend and crack editor, came to the unhappy conclusion that the reason why the book hadn’t been picked up was it wasn’t ready.

Ranting. Teeth gnashing. Depression. Acceptance. Two minutes later . . .

OK, I didn’t recover that quickly. It pissed me off that this book that I’d spent so much time and energy writing and trying to get out into the world would never leave.

Perhaps I should burn the manuscript in the fire pit out back. Just the thought makes me feel good. That’s definitely going on the to-do list.

Back to the matter at hand. There comes a time when a story, whether it’s a short or novel, grows into its final form, and you have to accept it. No matter how much you torture the words, it is has become the best work you can fashion. Although I loved the novel when I wrote it, the intervening time had revealed its deficiencies. Although well-written at the sentence level, it lacked sparkle, seemingly existing more as a testament to my ability to organize words into a prose form long enough to fill a book rather than as something engaging and entertaining to be loved or hated by someone other than me. As a novel, it offered nothing outstanding, nothing fresh or unique. Had it been published, it would have drowned in the market’s surf, unable to paddle ashore.

My realization provoked further revelation: In my attempts to get this one out, I’d let languish my ideas for my next novel, and the one after that. I’d gotten out of the habit of writing at home everyday—though, as an editor and writer by trade, I’m punching computer keys all day long. I had nothing sufficient to offer my contact.

Ranting. Teeth gnashing. Alcohol. Depression. Alcohol . . .

And, so, after far too long, I got writing the next novel. It’s fought me, this one. I’m still not finished, though I’m now finally closing in. The offer is still there. It’s still good. My fear of having the opportunity rescinded was groundless. So, now, I just have to get it to that place where it’s as good as I can make it.

That’s happening this year. It may get published, or I may have to shop it to agents. But this time, I already have the next book waiting in the wings after this one is off my desk.