Not Growing Up…Just Getting Older

The Mick

When I was 10, the New York Yankees were the “best-est” thing ever in the whole world. The world at that time was the entire Bronx. Yogi Berra (8), Joe Pepitone (25), Roger Maris (9) and Mickey Mantle (7) were the bubble gum cards that got you respect and honor in any schoolyard. The Yankees were so cool, that the candy at Ida’s Sweet Shop on Burke Avenue was named after them. Baby Ruth bars and the M&M boys. And Yogi sold Yoo-hoo Chocolate drink on TV. To be fair, Gil Hodges from the Brooklyn Dodgers, also sold Maypo on TV. But Maypo was a hot, maple flavored oatmeal cereal, not peanuts and nougat wrapped in chocolate. The Yankees were, as was candy, the biggest thing to that point in my decade long life.

I remember that on long hot summer days, you licked the salty sweat that dribbled down your face from your lips as the sun bounced off the concrete of the schoolyard’s ball field and blasted you from below and above. Squinting, you watched Joey Mangione wind up to pitch a black electrical tape wrapped, “clincher” softball at you. At that second you fantasized that you would step into the bucket, explode your rear hip and extend perfectly through the swing, connecting on the fat part of the bat and send that ball right over the 12-foot chain link fence into the traffic on Bronxwood Avenue – just like Mantle or Maris! Extra points if you hit Mr. Deputo’s old salmon and dingy white, colored Studebaker that never moved from the spot outside his house.

In all that time, the thought of actually meeting Roger Maris or Mickey Mantle was the same fat chance as going to the moon. We’d hang out on River Avenue at 161st street outside the Stadium after the game. And sure, maybe we’d catch a glimpse of Tresh, Richardson, Boyer, Whitey Ford even Mantle, but they were out of there like a shot. Piling onto the team bus or beyond reach on the other side of a blue, police stanchion line. A couple of dorky lawyer’s kid’s from the suburbs usually got up front to get an autograph or shake a hand. But not us, we was nobody’s kids. We was just Bronx guys.

Now I am considerably older than I was back in the 60’s and hero worship has gone the way of the Studebaker – free agented and drug tested out of existence. But we did eventually go to the moon. And so did I, last week, in fact.

Now that I am an author, my heroes have changed. The new “Yankees” in my life are the literary team that plays at the top of the New York Times standings. Guys and gals who can hit the long ball out 20 to 30 million books. Men and women who keep their percentages up by coming to bat and connecting… connecting with their fans. At Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writer’s convention that I attended last week, I met the Mickey Mantles and Roger Maris’ of the game I play in now.

My hero worship, adjusted for age and decorum, returned. The same awe and esteem by which I held The Mick and the rest of the pinstripe company was back and at full gush. So that’s how me, a kid from the Bronx, wound up just shooting the breeze for twenty minutes with Nelson DeMille, a kid from Queens. We didn’t talk baseball much, but I did get his autograph… on his latest book, Radiant Angel.

Here’s the thing. In my life, as a Director – Writer – Producer – Author, I have met and worked with some of the biggest stars, names, celebrities and musicians ever and never asked for a picture… but here’s me and Nelson from Jamaica.

Tom and Nelson Cropped

Author-ly Advice

Last month, Tori Eldridge rounded up ten Thrillfest 2014 authors in a powerful hour on Empowered Living Radio. I was fortunate to be asked to take part in the discussion with a group of strong authors. Listen to the whole show or skip ahead (time stamp 1:00:16) to hear me offer concise and effective strategies on staying positive.

Don’t cry for me, Puerto Rico

Tom Avitabile | Don't Cry For Me, Puerto RicoI know that what I’m about to say is going to draw no sympathy, no empathy, no amount of concern from anybody, and that’s the way it should be. I’m at a wonderful, magical moment in the process of The Devil’s Quota, my fourth book. If you’ve been following the blog, you know that from time to time I’ve been trying to bring you, the reader of the blog (if I’m the blogger, are you the blogee?), into my wacky, arcane, never-been-done-before process of writing.

 Here’s another one: The good news about finally getting the first pass of The Devil’s Quota back from my editor is that it coincides with a holiday, and holidays usually coincide with me taking a trip which ultimately winds up with me under an umbrella on a Caribbean beach with a thick, four-inch spiral bound notebook of three-hole punched, 385 page manuscript. Oh, and a red pen.

 In the prima facie case of the ultimate beach read, while bikini clad Bunnies and really buffed Brads wave at some Steves and Bobs who are bobbing in the water, I sit in the shade under an umbrella, looseleaf across my lap, red pen at the ready, attempting to be an unbiased, unemotional, disconnected reader/arbitrator of that which I wrote.

 It’s an interesting process: That progress from the writing phase to the editorial stage acts as a kind of mental sorbet, cleansing the mental palate. This allows attacking the book fresh, and energizes me with very insightful and illuminating powers. The biggest advantage is the modality switch from the extreme high-definition quality of a retina display laptop to reading toner on paper. That, in and of itself, it is a transformational step.

 For someone born before the computer, who learned how to read on paper, there is actually a discernible difference. The skill, the comprehension and the “Oh geez, I didn’t notice that on the screen!” moments overtake you when you are actually holding the book. Somewhere in between, my “workday” on Isla Verde also has a Piña Colada (virgin of course, I’m working) and various friends and curiosity seekers stopping by, wondering why I’m sitting under an umbrella doing my homework when everybody else is playing.

Tom Avitabile | Don't Cry For Me, Puerto RicoI will come home from the Caribbean with not only sand in my bathing suit, but hopefully sand-sprinkled pages of a manuscript. I’ll shake it out—the sand, all those crazy knotted sentences, all those overused pronouns, all those not-defined-well set up scenarios and characters, all shaking loose with them—leaving only a pristine, perfect first draft which will then go back to my editor. As the shampoo bottle taught us: repeat, rinse, repeat.

 *Editor’s note: To that end, there will an Ethan Cross guest blog filling this space- enjoy.

Avitabile
Tom Avitabile
http://tomavitabile.com/
tom@spadvertising.com

Dude, Where’s my car?

imageBy now, I thought I’d be on my fifth Aston-Martin with the other four, starting with the DB-5, in my temperature controlled garage. I fell in love with that car when I sat in the Allerton Avenue movie theater in the Bronx and watched James Bond being cool above cool, ejecting bad guys out of the passenger seat.

Bond: “Ejector seat? You’re Joking!”

Q: “I never joke about my work, double oh seven.”

Well, apparently it was I who was joking. No Aston-Martins, yet. However, I did get to write books about other cool guys. Heroes, who are guided by an internal navigation, to do the right thing. Unlike Ian Fleming’s masterwork, Commander James Bond, my protagonists tend to be unwilling do-gooders. Usually thinking about something else when circumstances create the need for heroics or for good men and women to do something extraordinary.

It was a relatively short walk for Fleming to capture the essence of the confident hero, having gone through World War II as a British Naval Intelligence officer. If you know the Bond series, then you can see how much of it was based on his experiences, observations, and folklore of the very spy game of which he was a part.*

This weekend we honor other reluctant heroes. Those who gave their lives in service to America. Sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, fathers and moms, who answered the call to defend America. They did so with courage, bravery, and unselfishness. We should all take a moment this Memorial Day weekend and say thank you to those who gave up the balance of their lives so that ours may continue in peace, freedom, and prosperity. Even if it’s only a little gesture, like before you take a sip of beer or coke or a soy latte, just give a little toast, even silently, to those who gave all, for all of us; from Lexington and Concord, to The Trenches, to Iwo Jima, to The Arden Forrest, to DaNang, to Fallujah and right up to yesterday.

Here’s mine: To all of America’s brave war dead, thank you for giving up what I couldn’t ever imagine, willingly risking; every tomorrow, every human experience yet to be had and every love, relationship and offspring you never got to experience. All the good times you missed and the laughs, satisfactions and good cries that could have been. We owe you a debt that can never be repaid but also never forgotten. Here’s to you and God Bless America.

*One last note on Fleming, I was lucky that the DB5 was set up as my dream car because Ian also wrote, and I could have locked in on, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

You gotta Have Heart!*

*and soul, tooTom Avitabile | You've got to have heart and soul too

News Flash: When you write you can’t avoid writing about heroes, or heroics. Even when writing antagonists, you may be reflecting a reversed mirror image of the heroic. I mention this as a segue to today’s blog, which was inspired by a dear friend who reminded me of the following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said:

“The mind is the last part of yourself to listen to.
It thinks of everything you can lose.

The heart thinks of everything you can give, and the soul thinks of
everything you are.”

As for the quote, I love it! Today it brought clarity to me. That quote is the prima facie case against “intellectualism.” A mental disease that is infecting our country from our young people on up to our leaders. It metastasizes when only the intellect is stimulated and nurtured vis-à-vis higher education, secular studies and culturally correct programs, to the exclusion of spirituality, connectivity and humanity.

When only the intellect grows, it dominates the person because it goes unchecked by equal growth in the heart and soul. The real damage is done because the ego, which resides solely in the mind, is also expanded as intellect grows. The ego feeds off intellectualism and without being buffered by Spirituality or Humanity, eventually takes over all. Omnipotence and greed become “intellectually” justified. Think of most of the bad guys, madmen, or evildoers in classic literature, even the most heinous ones are convinced that what they are doing is “the only way.” It could be said that their intellect was guided by their ego, which was built by their intellect. For a literary character, and unfortunately those living beings who have succumbed to this mental disorder, the weaker elements of heart and soul become manipulated into being slaves of the ego.

More and more, Harvard, Yale and the like eschewed spirituality, leaving only the development of intellect to rule the roost – and eventually the souls under its influence. Those institutes of ‘higher learning’ need to also be ‘institutes of higher spirituality and higher humanity.’ As I have alluded to in my books, without some kind of moral guidance package, pure intellect is up for grabs to be seduced by the forces of ego and greed. Now don’t mistake Spirituality or Humanity for any one idea, as in God, or Universal intellect or Scientific evolution. Spirituality is nothing more or less than a firewall against, or antidote to, Ego. By guidance package I mean whatever element within a person that guides them on a moral path, or at least a non selfish one, to the exclusion of, or abridging of, others’ rights.

As an author, one good way to define character is through the mix of Heart, Mind and Soul.  What is the percentage of impact that each of these has within the character? I think you can see which of these aspects may motivate a character through their actions.  Since I am quoting, one of my favorite Grooks (don’t ask – but a trade paperback of obvious wisdom in rhyme I was given in the 70’s by Carla Chase) is the following:

To be brave is to behave bravely even though your heart is faint,
So you can only really be brave, only when you really ain’t!

Applying Emerson to the lowly Grook: to be brave is to overcome with your heart, that which your brain is telling you you’ll lose.  Is that not a recipe for heroics? The first responders who run into the burning building while others flee, comes immediately to mind.  This is good meaty ground for planting the seeds of heroism in your characters!

Guest Author James LePore talks: The Myth of Place

The Myth of Place: Why I Chose Southern Mexico as the Venue for a Large Swath of Blood of My Brother

Mexico, at once magical and diabolical.

—Anonymous

    In 1997, I spent four weeks in southern Mexico, in the city of Oaxaca and on the Pacific Coast between Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. I had just read Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, and wanted to see, and photograph, imagesthe country where Lowry (in real life) and the American Consul Firm in (in the novel) had tried so hard, but failed, to commit suicide by mezcal.

    The coast road from Puerto Escondido deteriorated with a jolting suddenness as I approached Zippolite. Earlier, I had picked up a hitchhiker, a middle-aged Brit with bad teeth and a scruffy beard, wearing a bandana like a sixties hippie, who told me, as I was dropping him off at a godforsaken roadside cantina, that he had heard that a busload of American tourists had been hijacked earlier in the day north of Puerto Angel and all were killed. I immediately regretted leaving Puerto Escondido so late—night had fallen as suddenly as the road had turned to rutted hard-pan—but I pushed on. There were two or three large bonfires on Zippolite’s beach, their light reflecting wildly off of the huge waves crashing behind them, the waves that had for years, according to my guide book, attracted the world’s most insane surfers.

    Ten minutes later, I was in Puerto Angel and twenty minutes after that ordering dinner on the veranda of a small but clean and not un-charming inn on a hillside overlooking Puerto Angel Bay, lit to perfection by the moon and stars shining down through a clear night sky. The inn’s owner, a graying ex-hippie herself from San Francisco, had heard nothing of any massacre of Americans. Rumors, she said, it’s what the ex-pats and the paranoid surf bums live on along this coast. The time to worry will be when the rumors stop. She had been running her inn for twenty years, so, relieved, I was happy to take her at her word. So happy that after dinner I had three or four shots of the strong—very strong—and smoky local mezcal.

    There was a couple that I took to be American—in their late twenties, both blond, both good looking—at a table not too far away. The place was otherwise empty. I thought to ask them to join me but there was something about the way they were talking, looking at each other and then not looking at each other, that decided me against it.

    I was asleep within seconds of getting into bed.

    At three AM I was wide awake. My room was among a half dozen or so situated along a wide terrace facing the bay. I took my cigarettes out to this terrace, found a comfortable chair next to a thick potted palm tree of some kind, and sat, to smoke and look down at the bay and the dark Pacific beyond until I felt I could fall back to sleep. Before I could light up, I heard the crash of glass on tile floor quite nearby, followed immediately by the voices, at first constrained and then getting louder, of a man and a woman arguing. A moment later, the young blonde woman from the restaurant came out of the room two doors down, stepped quickly to the terrace’s sturdy wooden railing and began vomiting over it. Her husband, or boyfriend, or whatever he was, came out and put his hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off violently. She was wearing a thin cotton robe or wrap, knee length, which she had been holding closed while she retched. It came loose when she shook off the man’s hand, and I could see a breast exposed, and a portion of soft, beautifully rounded abdomen, before she pulled it tight again.

    Leave me alone, she said. I’m leaving tomorrow.

    What about your share? the man asked. He was wearing jeans and no shirt, his hairless, sculpted arms and chest bathed in moonlight.

    The woman did not answer. She pulled her wrap even closer, then she turned and looked my way. I was in deep shadow and had not lit my cigarette, so I was pretty sure she couldn’t see me. I could see her face full on now. She was very beautiful. I stared at her. Your share of what, I said to myself?

    Fuck you, she said, then turned and stepped past the man and into their room. He followed and pulled the door shut behind him.

    I waited a moment or two, then lit up. And listened. But all was quiet. Like the scene I had just witnessed had never happened.

    Mexico, I thought, Mexico.

Image

James LePore is author of ‘A World I Never Made’, ‘Blood of My Brother,’ ‘Sons and Princes,’ ‘Gods and Fathers,’ and ‘The Fifth Man.  He currently lives in Salem, NY and is collaborating with screenwriter Carlos Davis on  his sixth novel. Click here to visit his website.

Plan B From My Inner Space!

Backstory: In the 60’s, the powerhouse Top 40 music station in New York City, and most of the east coast, was 77 WABC. Although its studios were on 6th avenue in New York City, its transmitter ‘shack’ was knee deep in a swamp in the Jersey Meadowlands. The highest power transmitter allowed by law, 50,000 watts, created an RF electrical field so powerful that “fluorescent lights” in the shack never went off, they were always on, even if unplugged, they just glowed naturally from the intense power in the air. However, the balanced AAA class phone lines that connected the studios to the shack, were the weak link in the chain. So off in the corner, sat a solitary tape machine with two giant 10-inch metal reels loaded and waiting for somebody to push “Play”

On that tape was the incomparable Dan Ingram playing records and talking them up just like always, except from time to time he’d say, “If you are hearing me now it means we were almost off the air.” It was a Standby Tape, ready to fill the airwaves until the problem was fixed.

Here now, for similar reasons, let’s delve into for lack of a better word “authoring.”

vectorstock_267I hate writing. I’ve always hated it. Always tried to avoid it. Looked for ways to escape it. A root canal was always a more appealing option than writing. So naturally I became an author.

Here’s the secret: I still hate writing. But I love authoring. Authoring is a multifaceted discipline of which the actual act of writing is a vehicle to achieve the end. To me an author is the strategic planner, the visionary, the god of the universe the he invents. Writing on the other hand is tactical, trapped within the lines the author has proscribed. Writing is the last part of my authoring process. In fact, I talk a story to death, long before I write it. I see the situations long before I type Chapter One. I feel the character’s loves, hates, desires and fears long before I commit them to words. In fact, I once went at a story like a buzz saw. Zipping out page after page, fueled by an incipient scene and a few fragments of dialog. I was going to beat the band.

But then the Author had a problem. I went too fast, went tactical too early. I ran out of motivation. My motivation, once I encapsulated the dynamics of the story that had fueled me, was out and now committed to prose, I stopped.

Couldn’t write. Didn’t want to.
Found every excuse not to. Then it hit me. My writer stopped because my author didn’t fully create the story. Without authoring there could be no writing. So there you have it, the dilithium crystal (Star Trek reference) of my impulse-writing engine revealed. Ultimately my books may be good or they may suck, that is in the opinion of the reader and beyond my control, but my process is always hot, energetic, sexy, breathless and satisfying… as long as that f**king author (or I should say king author…me) does his job first!

Writing by the numbers

numbers-721046Okay, I know I should know this, I know I know the answer.  Still, I am just trapped.  I am trapped at 65,000 words –and I have opened up every contraction I can find!  But still, I am well under the commonly accepted, off the cuff answer to how long a novel should be – 80,000 words*

The * means this is the most averaged answer I get.   Enter Voltaire, who famously wrote an apology to some king, sometime long ago, when the cutting edge of writing was the feather quill processor, this preamble to his letter has guided me in writing ever since I heard it.  He said, and I am paraphrasing, “Please excuse the length of this letter, I did not have time to write a shorter one.”

The literary lesson I derived from that is the value of the economy of words is hard won, using less words takes longer to write, especially if you hold the standard of not sacrificing the quality.  Now I know that Creative Writing 101 is not about efficient communication, but art. But what if economy is art of a kind. What if seven pages of didactic description, although certainly one way to write, and if done well, holds the reader at the interest point, isn’t the only way to accomplish the same literary effect, what if it can be done in one page? Or one paragraph?  Does the word/page count diminish its value or story value.

Here the movie Mozart enters the discussion. Specifically the scene where the Emperor, having reviewed Mozart’s score for an opera he was looking for royal approval of, indicates his dislike of the work because, “It has too many notes!”

Mozart says in his defense, there are neither too many or too little notes but just the right amount.”

So even a ‘hack’ like Mozart was held to some kind of word/note count scrutiny.  So maybe I’m in good company.  But then sleep beckons, but is never attained as I toss and turn wrestling with the question, is the story perfect, as it is in 65,000 words, or is it not a big enough story to be a book? Maybe a story that can spew 80 – 100 thousand words without thinking, without spending too much time with Voltaire’s quill, is the desirable “throw weight” for a manuscript. Anything less is seen as just  not having gravitas by the Emperors that be.

Believe me, I know writing is hard, and requires a certain kind of courage, faith and discipline.  I have written books that landed at the right word count, some even needed editing down prior to publishing. It is not the work of expanding or adding scenes, characters, narrative or exposition that is the issue here. I spend just as much time writing a short 65,000 as I would a 90,000 piece. I just don’t know if this current work needs the extra ink.

By the way, typing these lines makes this blog exactly 500 words long.

Surfing the Point of Interest

Avitabile - Surfing the point of interestThe Point of Interest is the ‘edge of a seat’, the energy that starts to ‘turn the page’ before the last sentence of the one being read is complete, it’s the ‘Shhhh’ when an engrossed member of the audience doesn’t want to be distracted by someone talking in a theater. If as the writer you create enough points of interest then together they define a wave. If we are good at what we write then the reader becomes the surfer catching the edge of that wave, constantly being supported and moved along in perfect balance along the leading edge, as the plot roils below them. At that moment the surfer, as well as the reader, is totally involved, totally focused on continuing the ride for as long as they can, totally attuned to the story. One of my observations on art, literature, film and all things theatrical, is that they play out in the extreme reaches of reality and human existence.

A story that does not approach the outer edge of a human situation holds less drama. (because we surf at the edge of the wave) There is no drama in washing socks, but there is drama in washing the socks on Mars in a sonic washing machine that’s powered by a thermonuclear reactor – because we’ve taken a common, everyday chore and we’ve pushed it to an extreme. To hold an audience, reader or listener at the point of Interest we must strive to drive all characters, all plot lines all narrative to approach the extremes of the human condition or extremes in behavioral patterns.

So when you’re looking for that MacGuffin, when you’re looking for that thing that the story seems to be about but isn’t, it’s very tempting to go to an extreme, somewhere outside the norm that lies just beyond what reasonable people would think of, consider or accept. It’s in this area where you get to write the rules, it’s in this area where you get to bring the readers to a place where they haven’t been before. Is that the primary part of any story? Maybe not the whole story, but it’s certainly one of the guardrails of the plot. That unchartered territory can be internal within a character, in their deepest darkest recesses or external to the character, where the world or environment forces dramatic action.

So in my fourth book, I have a plot that deals with an aspect of human trafficking. However, the notion of an entire underground economy, complete with an international infrastructure, designed to force people into indentured servitude, slavery or out and out sexual exploitation is already an extreme place to write about, but a general awareness of this horrible endeavor is out there and somewhat known in our culture. Therefore, going back to my rule, I’ve picked up on a particular part of human trafficking, which is not pretty much on anybody’s radar. It is the extreme of the extreme, an aspect not generally known. The question is: Is it too far? Is it so far out there as to be beyond the willing suspension of belief? Will it cause my reader to wipeout and lose the edge of the wave? 

That’s a big challenge that I’m struggling with right now in book four, The Devil’s Quota

AvitabileTom Avitabile
tom@spadvertising.com
tomavitabile.com

The Precocious Writer

20121130-172613.jpg
I am a big fan of precocious children, you know, that point right before they become judgmental teens. When you can still have a fun, multisyllabic conversation without them interrupting the moment, looking down for a text message.

What happens? How does an engaging, surprisingly aware 7 to 10 year-old, firing off word use and ideas in a seemingly random fashion, with each truly important to them, change with the onset of social puberty? Why do these wonderfully rich observations and conversations children have with inanimate objects or real people, disappear? In a mysterious way that an adult could never understand, these creative impulses are thematically connected to a stream of consciousness that makes total sense to their internal logic.

If you haven’t guessed yet, this blog was written right after Thanksgiving and the temporary immersion into family that comes along with Turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. However, copious amounts and second helpings of Tryptophan cannot diminish the fascination I have with these young minds, situationally aware, yet full of imagination and not inhibited at all. Hence the delightful conversations which if attempted with a texting-teen would take 3 times as long as you pull teeth to get more than one word answers, i.e. “yes, no, what-ever, maybe, I duuno, yeah.”

What do I get out of all this? A method to spark creativity and a model to emulate. The precocious child is the essence of creativity and observation, without filters or the self-consciousness that later in life devolves our ability down to “safe,” tried and true methods of not taking any risks in conversation or our writing.

I was once involved in an effort to foster a better path to creativity and curiosity for young minds. It reversed the normal paradigm of teaching writing (creativity) to elementary school kids. That being; to let their minds go, unfettered by grammar spelling and the traffic cop adherence that stresses form over content. This resulted in more mental exercising, yielding stronger, more elaborate and involved concepts.

This was not just simply a matter of flipping the old way around to see what happened, instead it was based on a study that seemed to indicate that at early ages, mental activity and imagination are forming and active, yet the ability to grasp structure and grammatical laws actually develops later in life. So it is an educational model that better fits the natural expansion of the human brain.

This to me is a great lesson to writers, be as free with your thoughts, observations and conversations as a 7 year old. Resist the grown up internal governors that stop or stem a creative arc before it’s left the barn. Allow imagination to once again rule the roost. Be fearless in the reality that, in the end, they are all imaginary characters anyway, and not bound by physics, logic or flesh and bone. You can always find a “grown up” to clean up the grammar, usage and punctuation later – (and pay them well for it!)