I have spent a lot of time reading and reviewing other people’s books. And at the same time I have invested some of my free-reading time in re-reading my own novel, The Baby Werewolf. The thing about all of it together is that it represents the actual life-force of the author. We all do it. Authors put their own experience, their own heart, and their own precious world into their work. We do it at different levels of confidence, competence, and creativity. But we all do it. And because we do it, someone needs to read it.
contains the characters that the author has known, the author has loved, and especially the people the author has lost over the course of his or her life.
At least, the competent authors do that. They put real people into their work. You can tell, even in really awful, poorly written novels, that flashes of what the authors really observed, really hated, or really fell in love with about the people in their lives are there to be read and absorbed.
are also crucial to the story. Fiction or nonfiction, you will be taken to other homes, other cities, other worlds than the one you yourself inhabit.
What more can you truly say about your life than where you lived it, where you are from, and what background defines you as an author?
that which happens in a story, is probably the most important thing of all. Because reading gives you a share in someone else’s life, in someone else’s experience. A chance to walk about in someone else’s shoes.
You can comfortably learn what others have learned before you. You can share in their ups and downs and all-arounds to experience the same chills and thrills and sadness as they have lived, and loved, and laughed about.
So, in this essay, I contend that human life on the planet Earth is a very good thing. And you multiply its goodness a thousand-fold if only you will only pick up and read someone else’s book.
Yes, I have reached a snag in the novel-writing process. I am definitely at the end of the story. The crisis point is past. The characters who have to die to resolve the central conflict are dead. The characters who needed to be rescued are already rescued. I have probably less than a thousand words left to write. But I still have to tie the knot in the end of the plot to keep all the main ideas and themes from pouring out and floating away with the wind. I need the final scene and a memorable end line.
And, I am ill. My chest hurts. My head hurts. And I have needed to sleep every time I have settled down to write it. What happens if the old Grim Reaper shows up again with a sharper scythe than he had on his last visit?
I don’t know
what comes after the last chapter. I don’t know it for the book I am writing, nor for the life I am living.
I freely admit that I have no confidence whatsoever that after I die I will wake up in Heaven. Baptists have told me I will go to Hell for not believing what they believe. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have assured me that there is no Hell for me to wake up in and be eternally tortured in. But they also tell me I get no Paradise forever because I stopped believing what they believe. I have repeatedly said in writing and conversations that I am a Christian Existentialist. And I have explained that I think that makes me an atheist who believes in God. That leaves me, more or less, as an agnostic, not knowing anything until it’s proven to me, and realizing that nobody can prove it besides the God that I believe in but who doesn’t exist.
Our lives are like a book.
Things happen before the book is opened and you begin to read, but they are not technically something that the book contains within it. And when the book is finished and you close it, the story is complete. But the book still exists even when it’s closed.
I am not concerned about the fact that my story will end. But with both the book I am working on and the life I am living still unfinished… well, I hope both stories will be finished.
The story is coming to an end. I am halfway through the last chapter. The climax of the plot is now finished and the final resolutions of the plot are being concluded. And so, soon you will be able to find this book on Amazon and see for yourself if the amazing levels of nonsense and fantastical lunacy were worth the wait.
A fatal car accident seriously alters the lives of the three Brown children, Daisy, Johnny, and Mortie. But they are rescued by their mysterious “Uncle Miltie”, a video-game designer who is somehow involved with the military, the CIA, and other strange things that may have caused their parents’ deaths. And Uncle Miltie takes them to live, not in his house, but inside the weird virtual reality game he has had a hand in creating. And something there is going terribly wrong.
The video game they now live in is called The Legend of Hoodwink. And it is entirely possible that they will become trapped there forever. At least the main characters of the game are nice. Hoodwink is the boy hero who looks pretty good to Daisy, and his sidekick is Babbles, the Kelpie who can’t help but talk so fast you can’t really understand him.
I am ill as I write this, but lately that has been the story of my life too. A life or death game with rules you have to learn as you go, and a bizarre place where what is real and what is an illusion may prove to be exactly the same thing.
Some characters need to have their story told for reasons that are buried deep in the author’s personal history and damaged psyche. For me, Torrie Brownfield, the Baby Werewolf, was that kind of character.
The book, The Baby Werewolf, is a different kind of horror story. The central question of the book is this, “Am I a monster? And do I know why or why not?” And Torrie has to answer that question because he was born with a rare genetic disorder called hypertrichosis. It is the “werewolf-hair disease” where hair growth happens in unusual places on the body and in Torrie’s case, everywhere but the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. He is a perfectly normal boy who really only looks like a monster. But how you look can have a profound impact on how people treat you.
And the character of the boy who looks like a werewolf and thinks he is a monster is based entirely on me. Unlike Valerie Clarke whose origins I can pinpoint, I have to honestly admit the way Torrie thinks and feels and acts are all based solely on me and me alone.
You see, when I was a boy of ten I went through a horrible traumatic experience that threw my whole life into darkness. And I kept it secret from everybody. In fact, for a few years, I kept it a secret even from myself.
It is not that I really didn’t remember I had been sexually assaulted by an older boy. The nightmares and remembered pain were a constant even when I couldn’t admit to myself what had happened. I defended myself from it all by burying the knowledge deep, and worrying about things that only sexual-assault victims worried about. I embarrassed myself twice in seventh grade by wetting my pants in class, all because I couldn’t go into the boys’ bathroom at school. Whenever I would have sexual urges of any kind, I would lie down or sit on the heating grate at home, burning scars into my lower back and the back of my lower legs. I fretted about how to fight monsters. And I knew from the movies that if a vampire bit you, you could become a vampire. And if a werewolf bit you, you could become a werewolf. So, if a sexual predator bites you, do you not become a…??
In all honesty I probably became a teacher at least in part to protect other kids from the same kind of thing that happened to me. And I had to write this book to tell the story of how not to be a monster.
The true monster in this monster-movie tale is actually Torrie’s uncle, the person who actually psychologically abuses him. And the villain proves himself to be a sexual deviant, trying to create kiddie porn in his photography studio.
I suppose I just spoiled the whole whodunnit part of the book. But the murder mystery was never the point of the novel. The message of this novel is that no child is ever a monster unless he actually chooses to become one.
And that is the kind of character Torrie Brownfield is. The autobiographical kind. The kind that brings the author’s worst fears about himself to light, and tries to answer the question with… “No, I am not a monster.”
No man is really fit to judge his own character. You can’t see it objectively from the inside. But one of the benefits of being a fiction author is that you don’t have to judge yourself. You can get away with judging everybody else around you. And they don’t even need to realize that that is what you are doing.
I am going to dissect three examples from my own fiction.
The first, as you have probably already guessed, is Valerie Clarke, the heroine of Snow Babies, When the Captain Came Calling, and Sing Sad Songs.
Valerie is named after the prettiest girl I went to school with, the one in my class that was in school with me from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The one who used to politely laugh at my jokes and smile at me a lot when I needed someone to look at me and not scowl. She is a very lovely lady now with grandchildren and a good life in Iowa. And besides the name and the beauty, that’s about as far as the real Valerie goes in the make-up of this crucial main character.
The spirit and the personal history of this character come from a very composed and determined young lady that I taught as both a seventh and an eighth-grader. I have referred to her before in this blog as Sasha. But that’s not her real name. And I am not going to ever give you her real name because she’s entitled to the secrets I may have revealed about her in creating this character, as well as entitled not to be burdened with the things in my stories about her that she never did in real life.
In the course of the novels I write, I dramatized the loss of her father, writing a scene in which she comes home to find him after he has committed suicide over the loss of his part of the family farm that he co-inherited with his older brother. Kyle Clarke’s suicide is the single most devastating scene I have ever written up until now. It stopped the novel in the middle. I had to write two other whole novels before I could pick it up and continue. But Sasha’s missing father in real life did not commit suicide. The love that develops between Valerie and Tommy in Snow Babies and the love she finds with Francois in Sing Sad Songs are also facts that do not belong in real life to Sasha.
But the part of Valerie Clarke that really is Sasha is her indomitable will, the way she simply cannot be stopped when she makes up her mind to accomplish something. And that smile that melts your defenses and forces you to accept everything she is about change in your life for the better, whether it is painful or not. The bravery that Valerie shows when she loses someone or something that is important to her is also Sasha. Overcoming disappointment and how one manages to do it is a real key to someone’s character. It helps you decide whether that character is right to be the heroine or is a better fit to be the villain of a story. And Sasha could never have been a villain.
And finally, there’s the thing about the character of Valerie Clarke that has attached itself to my own daughter, the Princess, whose real name I also never use in this blog. She was roughly the same age as the character of Valerie as I was actually putting the story of Snow Babies down in sentences, paragraphs, and Cantos. Some of the more private details about Valerie come from her, things I could never have learned about the first Valerie or Sasha because I never lived in the same house with them. And these more private details are probably the reason that my own daughter has not read a story with Valerie Clarke in it.
So, now I have revealed the basic anatomy of the character creation of one of three promised characters that I am proudest to have created in my fiction.
Arkin Cloudstalker had no doubt at all who was going to captain his flagship in his role as Grand Admiral. Black Fly was a beautiful woman, a sensational pilot, and, the longer they spent time together, the more they got to know each other’s beautiful souls. There was definitely some sense of a little naked baby Cupid thing fluttering around somewhere nocking arrows with Arkin’s name on them.
“So, this Apatosaurus-thing is a battleship and it will be the command center of this new dinosaur-shaped star fleet?”
“Yes, it is a high-tech Ancient construction created by the artifact known as the “Hammer of God” in the hands of a telepathic operator who is from Don’t Go Here and knows more about dinosaur shapes than space-fleet starships,” said smug little ADaB the Peri (short for Another Danged Boy #152).
“They should’ve consulted us on the engineering before they built them. We could’ve done a much better job by turning them into gigantic space kittens or something fuzzy like that,” said the female Peri, PiP (short for Pretty in Patches).
“Please don’t start arguing again,” said Arkin, heading off what he knew had to be coming. He picked up the diminutive PiP and swung her around to a position walking between Arkin and Black Fly, away from ADaB.
The crew they were walking through on the way to the bridge all seemed to be from the Bedrock culture of Don’t Go Here where everything was designed based on antique Flintstones cartoons from thousands of years ago. The men were wearing Fredsuits, orange pull-overs decorated with upside-down black triangles. The women all wore blue Bettypelts.
It was ridiculous to say the least, but when spaceships and space troops magically appear from nowhere due to Ancient relics, you couldn’t look gift-dinosaurs in the mouth.
The lift shaft took them up the neck of the Apatosaurus construct to the bridge of the ship.
On the bridge itself, blaring warning horns and intruder-alert flashers were going off, though the crew seemed even calmer than they had on the way to the bridge.
“What’s going on?” shouted Arkin, racing to the viewport.
“We have an intruder closing in on us in a tailed space-suit with a rocket pack on her back,” said a seemingly unconcerned Lieutenant in a Fredsuit.
“What are we doing about it?” demanded ADaB. In a uniform clearly marked as a Commander, the little Peri out-ranked everyone on the bridge but Admiral Cloudstalker and Captain Black Fly.
“Why, nothing, sir. That Galtorrian woman out there is our new leader. That’s the Lizard Lady.”
“But she’s a spy for the Imperium!” said Arkin.
“Not anymore. She’s the newly anointed Archbishop of the White Spider Cult.”
“Oh, crap!” said PiP, “just what we need. A religious zealot.”
“A holy crusader in the name of the White Spider,” said the junior officer, displaying his White Spider amulet.
“I know Ged Aero,” said Arkin. “He wouldn’t want to have anything to do with this kind of religious idiocy.”
“Perhaps not. But the Archbishop comes to us as the mother of the White Spider’s first-hatched son. She is coming to fulfill the prophecy of Zhan!”
“I thought it was the prophecy of Xian,” remarked another trooper.
“No, the prophecy of Shan!” insisted another.
Arkin said nothing, hoping these idiots would start a fight.
“Don’t you fools read your own prophecy? Those three are all exactly the same!” ADaB probably realized at about that very moment that he should never have said that out loud.
“Somebody who’s loyal to the New Star League needs to shoot that spy down!” ordered Admiral Cloudstalker.
The whole bridge crew turned and looked at him.
“We are all loyal to both,” said the Lieutenant angrily.
“What will we do with the Admiral?” someone asked.
“Put him in the airlock?” asked somebody else.
“Don’t you dare even think about that!” said the Lizard Lady, entering through the airlock corridor. She had her helmet off. She had the largest, shiniest White Spider amulet around her neck that Arkin had ever seen.
“Wherever you’re going with this ship, you cannot take us with you!” shouted Captain Black Fly.
“That is certainly true,” said the Lizard Lady. “These four prisoners are all mentioned in the prophecy. They must all be in the Battle of Outpost. Put two of them in each of two escape pods and shoot them slowly towards Aerobase Frieda.”
“You will not get away with this,” said Arkin.
ADaB pulled at his elbow. “Actually, Admiral, I have read all five versions of the prophecy. I think it says she does.”
Cartoon villains take note; Super-Mickey’s secret identity is Filbert Hazelnut. I make that revelation without worry. After all, Mickey is not really me. So, if the Messmaster, Badnose the Clown, or Daniel Quilp are going to try to apply the Mickian version of Kryptonite, not laughing at the jokes, in order to slay Super-Mickey, Filbert is immune to that. I am too for that matter. If you are a school teacher who uses humor in the classroom, you soon learn that only the smartest kids actually understand the jokes, and half of them are just too cool to laugh when the teacher wants them to. (Although they will tell you years later that they still use concrete details in their writing because you said that if you routinely whack the reader in the head with verifiable concrete examples, they will be totally stunned enough to believe you know what you are writing about. That was, you must understand, a concrete detail I just whacked you with to help you remember what it is, not to make you laugh… even though it was a joke… but you are permitted to laugh if you want to.)
The basic point of this essay is Mickey is not really me. I never went by that name as a kid.
I was always called Michael, sometimes Mike (though they were usually talking about the Other Mike when anybody said Mike in school back then… circa 1963 to 1969). In high school I was given the nickname Superchicken after the Saturday Morning cartoon on the George of the Jungle Show. In college I was given the rhyming nickname Spike by my college freshman roommate because he ludicrously thought I was the opposite of a Spike, like calling a huge football player Tiny Tim, or a midget Big Bad John.
When I started teaching school, they called me Gilligan because I was thin and they wanted to pretend I was a hopeless stumbling fool (Which I was at times my first two years, just as all beginner teachers are.) My classroom became known as Gilligan’s Island on the day in third period when I made the comment, “Gilligan is lucky enough to be the only really eligible bachelor on the same island with Ginger the movie star and cute little Mary Ann. I would find out later that same day that three eighth grade girls in that very class had huge crushes on me and were fighting over which one was Mary Ann and which one was Ginger and, unsurprisingly, which one was the other girl.
And, of course, Rudolfo Hernandez tried to get everybody to call me Batman because I bought a used Ford Torino with fins on the back. But to promote the nickname, Rudy came to class wearing a Halloween Batman mask and afterwords had to learn to live with being called Battyman himself. (I wish i could take credit for calling him that first, but I am sure I did not. I distinctly remember it coming from a girl in his class that made fun of him for every stupid thing he did because she apparently adored him. I just reinforced it about a thousand times.)
Mickey is a name that I have only ever been called by me myself. It was a name I signed some of my cartoons with (using The Little Fool, Le Petit Fou, Leah Cim Reyeb, and Dr. Seebreez on the rest.) It also became the name I use to refer to myself on this blog when I talk about myself in the third person like a crazy person.
I have given myself other pseudo-pen-names in my writing. Googol Marou, as the only first-person narrator of the AeroQuest series, speaks with my voice as the primary storyteller in the tale. In Norwall, the fictionalized version of Rowan, Iowa in most of my other books, Branch McMillan, the writer-character, is actually me. (Like Charles Dickens switched his initials to write the semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, I created that one by switching the M and the B.
Of course, the many me-characters in my fiction books are also basically me. Superchicken is me. Milt Morgan is a combination of me and the Other Mike. Brent Clarke is the football-player me combined with two other football teammates. Certain parts of Todd Niland’s story are really about things that happened to me, and things I was afraid of at his age.
In some ways Tim Kellogg and Dorin Dobbs are me too, though both of those characters are actually based on my eldest son. It is possible, I suppose, that you could consider my actual son to be a me-character too, as people do live on through their own children.
But, while Mickey might be me more than I care to admit, Super-Mickey’s secret identity is definitely Filbert Hazelnut.
If you are as goofy and cartoon-obsessed as me, you may remember that Popeye the sailor was known for the catchphrase, “I yam what I yam”. And if you do remember that, it will not surprise you that, when told a yam is another name for sweet potato, Popeye was furious. “It cannot be!” he argued. “I would not say I sweet potato what I sweet potato! That’s ridicumess!”
Well he has a point.
But I would like to talk today about the things that I sweet potato, and why I sweet potato those things.
First of all, I yam a humorist.
I yam this thing not because I am funny. You may think I yam funny because I say really goofy things for no apparent reason, and then keep on talking long enough to convince you that I did have a point to make, but my brain leans so far to the left that I am hardly right about anything.
And I make bad puns a lot.
You see, I have to use humor constantly to deal with all the hard things in life, because being too serious in the face of the world’s basic uncaring cruelty only leads to depression and taking a beating from life. In fact, I can think of any number of situations in my past where I avoided a beating only because I made a joke that made the bully laugh.
So, being a humorist is a survival tactic. Humor keeps you alive.
You see someone like me has to face all the pain and heartache and cruelty the world has to offer by using humor. The real reason is that, when faced with a bad situation, if the humor gland can’t empty itself of all the jokes it produces, it will begin to swell. The humor gland is located either in the brain or maybe in the behind (I am not medically qualified to tell you which it really is), and it can only swell to a certain point, and then it will explode. This is very bad thing for you, if you survive it, and certainly unpleasant for anybody nearby.
But the joke, properly launched at the target, will make somebody laugh, even if it is only the humorist himself. And laughter is the best medicine. Unless it kills you. You have to be careful not to die laughing. The angels will be offended, and the demons will all laugh too.
But I yam not only a humorist. I yam also a teacher.
I began to realize that I might be a teacher when, in graduate school to get a remedial master’s degree to help with the fact that plain English majors all starve to death, I discovered I had a talent for explaining things in simple terms. And then, immediately afterwards, I discovered I had an even greater talent for being ignored while the people I was explaining to made the mistakes they wouldn’t have made if only they had listened to me, before they failed spectacularly, and then realized how the solution I had explained would’ve made them succeed instead. There is apparently no better way to learn an important lesson.
Teaching is, of course, a pretty cool job. You tend to have the summers off. And you get paid for summer because they split the amount of money you earn for the year (which considering what a babysitter makes on average per child and per hour is far too little for the hours you put in) into twelve monthly pittances.
Of course you are expected to have a university degree (although no teacher college in the world can teach you what you really need to know in order to face that many little monsters… err, darlings… every day) and preferably some grad school, and a certification to teach in your chosen subject, and an additional certification if you are going to teach more than one subject (and ESL and Speech and Journalism, all of which I was expected to teach, are separate certifications) and you have to take hours of additional training every single year, and you have to get re-certified every five years, and… Well, you have to be basically smarter and much better-educated than Bill Gates… But the school janitor will probably be making more money per month than you do.
Anyway, it’s a job you just gotta love. I yam a teacher.
And really, there are a whole lotta yams in my basket yet that I could tell you about. I yam a Red Skelton fan. I yam sometimes a nudist (when I don’t have to put on clothes to keep myself from scratching all my psoriasis-plagued skin off). I yam also an artist (of the type known as a cartoonist). I yam pig-headed sometimes, and I yam Grumpy sometimes (so I go from being Porky to one of the Seven Dwarfs.) I yam a lotta things. And my sweet-potato basket is large.
But I can’t talk about all of my yams today. Too many yams are bad for my diabetes.
But here’s one last yam. I yam a storyteller. And I have a free Kindle e-book promotion this weekend. The book is the first in my series of AeroQuest books. It is a science fiction story with a humorous bent. And I mean, it is seriously bent in some places.
So, click on the link and get yourself a copy. It’s funny. And I will save the other sweet potatoes for another day.
I would like to dwell on yesterday’s topic for a change. Usually when I do a daily blog topic, I use my goldfish-brain swimming ability to totally forget what I wrote about yesterday. Relating one topic to the next is not something I normally do.
To be clear (see that nod to yesterday’s topic?) I had to link lessons and daily topics religiously as a teacher, going through review checklists after warm-ups and discussing prior learning daily before proceeding with new content. So, I’m not UN-intentionally failing to do that here. I am merely trying to recover from a lifetime of ingrained teacher habits.
Yesterday I wrote about not measuring myself by the standards most people use to think about whether or not a writer is successful. I concluded that if you are going to limit that assessment to financial realities or wide readership and critical acclaim, I am a failure. But here are some key points that deserve consideration.
I do have a fan base, even if it is not large. I have been given honorary membership in the group of pro-naturist writers on Twitter even though, as a nudist, I am hardly ever naked myself. I discovered them as I was researching nudism for my book Recipes for Gingerbread Children through the website https://www.clothesfreelife.com/. They discovered my book which only has two naturist characters in it, both of whom try to promote naturism to the other kids in their circle of friends, and liked it enough to review it and include me in their Twitter group. The story is really more about fairy tales and Nazi Germany in World War II than it is about nudists, but they liked it never-the-less.
I have also gathered a Twitter following among other unique groups. The international Twitter fan group that idolizes Tom Hiddleston as Loki regularly fill up my notifications inbox. One Russian member of this group bought and liked Sing Sad Songs, for reasons that were explained, but not in clear enough English for me to understand.
As I spent most of a decade as an ESL Teacher, I probably have been read by more Honduran refugees and Vietnamese immigrants than any of the other writers I know on Twitter and Facebook. And while that is mainly because they were in my High School ESL Class, that does not negate the fact that my writing has a truly international reach.
I am also proud of the fact that I was able to give a copy of the best novel I have written so far, Snow Babies, to the girl I grew up with and named the main character after. She read it, loved it, and recommended it to the school where she works, the school we both graduated from in 1975.
But I don’t want you to take either this post or yesterday’s as some sort of bragging. I humbly submit to you, my accomplishments as a teacher in public schools far outweigh anything I have done as a writer. Still, it is not nothing. And even if I die tomorrow (with my health problems and the current pandemic, a very real possibility) it is enough.
And, hopefully, that covers what I should’ve added yesterday.
I have now seriously started The Wizard in his Keep. It is most likely to be the next novel I publish. Though AeroQuest 4 and Hidden Kingdom are both in the running. But I have already gotten the tingles from this new work in progress. It is beginning to feel like a good story. It is rolling out of the word processor as easy as pouring hot molasses from a glass jar. And it smells just as sweet. (Wait, do novels have smells? I think they must. This one is green apple, caramel, and molasses.)
I already wrote about the three main characters in the above illustration. So, you should probably already know that they are Mortie, Daisy, and Johnny Brown, the orphaned children of the late Stacy and Brom Brown.
The two characters in the new illustration at the start of this post are Hoodwink and Babbles. They are not so much real people as they are non-player characters in a virtual-reality video game. The program behind the game has slightly too much intelligence for a computer thingy. But that’s what makes it ripe for an unexpected intrusion of fairy magic and the wizardry of the game master, Milt Morgan. It results in a boy named Hoodwink and a Kelpie named Babbles that are a little bit more than merely human.
I could tell you more, but I actually need to save it for the rough draft. This story has a tingly feeling about it that it shares with my best work.