Opa

When I was first writing my story “The Dangers of Black Cats” back in 2010, I went over to Celeste’s house and took some pictures of her black cats for use as reference. Trouble did not want to pose for pictures, but Opa was a good sport. I used this picture as a profile pic on some of my social media accounts, and so, Opa became my mascot.
 
Opa lived for sixteen years, a long run for a cat. On Thursday, July 18, he purred his last purr. He was a grumpy old man in his final years, especially when his house was overflowing with other cats. He was never mean-spirited, though, and no matter how far he wandered, he always came around at dinner time.
 
That’s the true danger of black cats, that you’ll fall in love with them. Good night, old boy. We miss you already. DSCN0390
Here’s the link to the story, “The Dangers of Black Cats,” if you haven’t read it already. It’s a featured story this month on HPFT. “The Dangers of Black Cats”
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Ten Years with Zack and Cammy, part 3

In high school, I had been a member of the marching band. (My writer friend Pix was also in her high school band.) I played trombone, rather than trumpet, and I never had a solo. I grew up in an affluent suburb with a well-funded music program. My band performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. We competed in reviews and festivals in Hawaii and in Florida. Mostly, we performed closer to home, in band reviews held up and down the State of California.

 

I didn’t want Zack to have the exact same experiences that I had. Mostly, I didn’t want my friends asking me, “Which character is me?” Still, band reviews had been a big part of my life, and I wanted this story to reflect those experiences.

 

I wrote a chapter that detailed Zack and his friends competing in a real band review, the Del Oro Band Spectacular, held every year in the small town of Loomis, California. I added as many details as I could, adding internet research to my own memories of competing at this event.

 

A few weeks after I suspended work on ETYS, I published the “Loomis” chapter online at Tablo.io, as part of my short fiction collection, Every Stone a Story. (The collection also contains an excerpt from Revelation.)

 

Though sentimentally attached to the “Loomis” story, I quickly grew critical of it. When I would read through the manuscript, as I did every so often during this period, I found my attention waning at this section. It repeated too many ideas from earlier chapters, especially my descriptions of the band playing at the Homecoming football game. Deep down, I knew I would have to cut this chapter.

 

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Just as I had sensed, instinctively, that it was time to finally write this project, I knew when it was time to return. I cleared away or finished the other projects I had been working on. Knowing deep down that cuts were coming, I created a new file for my manuscript. This way, I could excise chapters and move sections around, while preserving my original draft. Also, by doing this, I cut out Pix and my other readers. For the time being, I wanted to proceed without their input.

 

On November 11th, 2018, I resumed work on ETYS. At my side I had my printed manuscript, covered in scribbled notations. My handwriting was so bad in some sections that it took me several minutes to decode what I had written.

 

One of the first things I did was to eliminate the “Loomis” chapter. I pulled a few sentences that I was particularly proud of, and set them in the Homecoming section. I cut other sections as well, using that same instinct as my guide: wherever my attention waned as I read, that was a section I cut or removed. In total, I eliminated over 4000 words.

I left it as part of Every Stone a Story, however. It serves as a good introduction to the characters. Your welcome to check it out: https://tablo.io/kj-cartmell/every-stone-a-story

 

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It took me a week or so of editing, every night in the evenings after work, to come to the abrupt end of my draft. Before me was the brief arc of Zack and Layla’s relationship. I had to show what attracted Zack to Layla while making a case that this was not the right girl for him. I wanted to be brief, as this is just a learning experience for Zack and not a novel unto itself. It was an uncomfortable few chapters to write, but this time, I was prepared to muscle through it.

 

Suddenly, I was at the very end, the last scene. Zack and Camille meet after work in the drug store parking lot.  I had imagined this scene many times over these last ten years. I had rehearsed what Zack said and imagined Camille’s responses. I came to this moment late one evening, and, instead of pushing through to the end, I paused. My wife was watching TV in the next room. I was weary from a day at work. I closed the file and took the rest of the night off.

 

On the morning of Sunday, December 28th, I took a walk by myself through my neighborhood. I rehearsed the scene one more time, much like a musical director rehearsing a band: “Let’s take it from the line where Zack says . . . . Okay, good. Now, from the top . . . .” I returned home to a quiet house and quickly wrote the last page and a half.

 

Ten years after I first imagined this pair of young lovers, I had reached the end. But, as any writer will tell you, the work is never done. As soon as I had finished, I reached out to my original set of readers, including Pix, plus some new ones, like Julia Maiola, author of the historical drama The Red Flag, who I had met through the Writers Community on Twitter.  Like nearly everything else I’ve written, I printed out a full manuscript copy for my mother.

 

I have an excerpt from ETYS, a short story called “Practice,” out at a literary journal. I have two more short stories planned for the next few months.  I would like some recent bylines to my credit when I begin shopping ETYS to publishers. My plan is to skip agent queries for now, and focus solely on small presses.

 

When I make a match, I will be sure to let you know.

 

Ten Years of Zack and Cammy, Part 2

etys notesBy April of 2011, I had detailed notes outlining a sad, tender story of two young lovers. But Every Time You Speak You Break My Heart (ETYS for short) was buried on the depth chart. I had just begun writing Liam Wren and the Dragon Wand for HPFF. Waiting in the wings was another compelling teen love story, The Gospel of Thomas. ETYS would have to wait.

 

I started writing Revelation, the first half of The Gospel of Thomas, in December of 2012. Dated that same month and year is another handwritten passage from ETYS, a scene in which Camille coaxes Zack into asking her out on a date.

 

Camille asks, “So, how come you don’t have a girlfriend?” Zack answers, “I can’t talk to girls. I never know what to say.” Camille: “You’re talking to me. I’m a girl. I’m ugly, but I’m a girl.” Zack: “I don’t think you’re ugly.”

 

The draft states: “For a moment, she is unable to speak.” It’s not just one time. Every time he speaks, he breaks her heart.

 

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Though I had worked out much of the novel, a few areas remained completely undeveloped. It was clear that Zack had received some sort of counseling while in college, but I had no idea what that counseling should look like.

 

My older daughter read a book for one of her college classes called A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, et al. I asked to read it when her class was over. I found it fascinating. The book does a deep dive into brain development, but also describes effective methods for healing psychological wounds without the use of medications.

 

Reading this book led directly to the development of a key character for ETYS. In typed notes dated April 14, 2014, I describe Zack, struggling to make friends in college. The Dean of Students recommends he get counseling. On the way to the Psychology Department with his referral slip, he meets Madison, a Psychology Graduate student. She recognizes the referral and asks if she could work with him, as she needs to do case studies for her Master’s degree. Madison becomes a key mentor for Zack, helping him heal and grow emotionally.

 

The notes suggest that snippets from Zack’s conversations from Madison be mixed into the narration. As College Zack reminisces about his time with Camille, he would also be reflecting on his discussions with his mentor.

 

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The Gospel of Thomas has its share of heavy scenes, particularly in Part 2: Rapture. When I finished it in June of 2014, I was in no rush to jump into another heavy book. Instead, I wrote The Witches of Slytherin for HPFF. Then I jumped right into Love and Arithmancy, which I finished in May of 2016, posting the last chapter on HPFF on June 6th. Between April of 2011 and May of 2016, I had written over 1700 manuscript pages, nearly half a million words.

 

There were signs that it was time to write ETYS. One was hearing a teen reading a poem at a high school talent show. Her friend had recently committed suicide. The poem was part of her grieving process, and showed her determination to press onward.

 

It was a reminder that, when writing for young people, you shouldn’t sugar-coat life or pull your punches. Life comes at you whether your ready or not. Saying “you’re not ready for a book like this” is just condescending. It was time to write my big, dark melancholic book about heartache, loss and facing up to one’s mistakes.

 

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I wrote up a new outline, this time using MS-Excel. This was something I started doing while writing Love & Arithmancy. The neat columns and straight lines really help keep me organized, and it’s easy to move items around without the whole thing turning into a mess.

On the afternoon of July 4th, 2016, I started writing. I knew that I had better bring my A game to this story. I wanted ETYS to be beautiful and sad, like a love song. (Risking all of my hard-earned street cred, I will tell you that my model here is Barry Manilow. “Oh, Mandy! . . .”)

 

Here’s a sample of what I mean, a paragraph from Chapter Two that I posted on Facebook and Instagram on July 12, 2016.

 

When he played the cornet, Zack’s shyness fell away, and he was transformed. Confidence and assertiveness, which he possessed at no other time in his life, were suddenly at his command. The cold night air, the buzz of the crowd, the perky chants of the cheerleaders, the grunts and pops from the battle on the football field: all of it vanished from his sight and hearing. The world was the bell of his cornet, the valves under his fingers, the breath in his lungs, the song in his ears, and the silver mouthpiece pressed tight against his lips.

 

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Since the year 2000, I had been using MS-Word as my word processor. For ETYS, I decided to write using Google Docs. I shared the document with a few of my regular readers, including my friend Pixileanin, who I met on HPFF. (Pix is the author of Rabbit Heart, a popular novel on HPFF/HPFT.)  When she would leave a comment, I would get a notification. I could respond to her comments, and she could respond back in real time, a remarkable experience considering that we live on opposite coasts of the United States.

 

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My outline was detailed, but it had one big hole in it. Towards the end, there was a single line: “Zack joins a jazz ensemble and meets his future lover.” I had no idea who the next girl was, or who any of the other people who were with Zack in this jazz ensemble.

 

On September 15th, 2016, I got my answer. I was far away from this scene in the manuscript, but on this particular day, out of my subconscious came, not one, but four new characters: band leader and tenor sax man Carl Eldon; bass player JP; drummer Angelique; and the keyboardist (and Zack’s future lover), Layla.

 

I had a business meeting in San Francisco that day. To get there and back, I took an hour-long ride on the subway. I took my notebook with me, and on the train, I wrote out by hand three + pages of notes. (This time, I put the date at the top!)

 

Several months later, I would flesh out these notes into several chapters of ETYS. Eldon, Angelique and JP were less distinct at that first moment. Layla, however, was a revelation, one of the most complex characters I have ever attempted to portray. A music composition major, a musical prodigy with antisocial tendencies, she is often deep into her own head, listening to music that doesn’t yet exist. She is a stunning surprise at the end of ETYS, akin to Charlie Sheen’s appearance at the end of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I could hardly wait to work with her.

 

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When I finally did reach Layla, in the summer of 2017, I was in a very different place emotionally. There are three heavy scenes in the first half of ETYS, and they had taken their toll on me. My mood picked up when I got to Madison. I hoped things would accelerate further when Layla made her appearance. Instead, I started slowing down. I was emotionally spent, and I found I could not press ahead and write Zack and Layla’s tumultuous affair.

 

It didn’t help that 2017 had been the busiest year of my life. My younger daughter graduated from high school and went off to college. My elder daughter got married. I chaperoned a band/orchestra trip to Disneyland and later spent ten days in Alaska. And, I organized and hosted my 30 year high school reunion.

 

Reading through the manuscript of ETYS, I saw plenty that I wanted to fix, but the story had worn me out. In August of 2017, I suspended work on the book. Fifteen months would pass before I returned. 

Ten Years with Zack and Cammy, part 1

In the beginning, the story of Zack and Cammy looks like a complete inversion of Romance novel stereotypes. Instead of the most masculine of men, a chiseled Adonis, pursuing a ravishing fiesty beauty, the epitome of femininity, I have a couple of band kids: a quiet, nerdy boy and a girl who is charming and outgoing, but homely.

 

I rarely date my notes. I believe the first set, three pages of binder paper with the words “Zack and Cammy” written on the top, is from some time in 2008. In these notes, Camille was a freshman and Zack a sophomore. They both played the trumpet in their high school marching band. (Like many of my other characters, Zack and Cammy go to Cooper High in my fictional town of Peace Valley, California.)

 

I note that Zack is “anonymous, lost in the crowd.” To heighten Zack’s sense of inadequacy,

Camille’s brother, Bud, is a star football player. Zack’s friends tease him about Camille, because she is not pretty.

 

Despite being younger and homely, Camille takes the lead in the relationship. She is the one that initiates the physical intimacy between them. There in the notes is a scene that carried forward into the final novel. One of Zack’s friends tauntingly asks, “Does she give you head, at least?” Zack reacts angrily, and he is still angry and flustered when he tells Camille about it later. He is shocked when she says that she would, in fact, give him oral sex.

 

Camille speaks in the frank way young people express their truth. I don’t compose dialogue so much as record what my characters say, and what Camille told Zack haunted me. It showed the pressure she felt, and the weight of the insults she had received through the years: “I know the score. Us ugly ducks gotta put out.” She is afraid that, if she isn’t intimate with Zack, he will leave her.

 

On the last page of these notes, the story darkens. I write, “Cammy is forced to have sex with a friend of her brother.”

 

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The next page of notes is dated November 2010. (This date was added later, but let’s assume it’s accurate.)  Possibly two years have passed since I wrote the first set of notes. I have at this point written my first Liam Wren story, “The Dangers of Black Cats,” but I have yet to post it at HPFF.

 

This is a one-page handwritten draft of the story’s opening. In the novel, this scene is seven pages long, but it’s essentially the same. Zack comes home for Christmas after an undetermined number of years. He admires his mother’s Christmas tree. The notes state the tree bears “mementos of a happy childhood. Comfortable lies instead of hard truths. Growing up here was miserable.” Zack’s mother mentions  that she saw his old girlfriend recently. She is working as a clerk at a drugstore downtown. (The draft explicitly says “Walgreens.”) In the passage, Mom says, “You probably haven’t thought of her in years, have you?” Zack answers, “No, I haven’t.” At the bottom of the page, I write, “But this is another lie.”

 

Two other pages follow, briefly summarizing the course of the novel, the course I would eventually follow. Zack and Camille break up, and there is a period of time when they are out of contact. Zack has a relationship with another girl. “Though prettier than Cammy, [she] lacks her charm and skill at lovemaking. He appreciates her [Camille] in retrospect.” Zack and Camille meet again at the end of the novel. The last words of this section of notes: “[The] novel should end ambiguously. Will they get back together or go on their way? If they do reunite, will it last or lead to another breakup?”

 

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Another piece of paper, torn from a different notebook than the above draft, contains a single paragraph. It’s as if the novel is already written in my head, and I was just giving myself a little teaser. There is no context, only the header, “excerpt from Zack and Cammy”, but I know that Zack is reflecting on the experience of Camille giving him oral sex.

 

I write: “All Zack could recall from that first experience was the blinding pleasure. It was only much later, at the hands of a less accomplished lover, did he fully appreciate Camille’s grace and skill, and comprehend her experience. There had been other boys [before him]. There must have been. But, who they were he never learned. They vanished from her past like dry leaves into earth.”

 

Six, maybe seven years later, I wrote that paragraph almost verbatim into the novel.

 

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Finally, we have three pages of typed notes. The benefit here is that I have the MS-Word metadata, which states this file was created on April 19th, 2011. I started writing Liam Wren and the Dragon Wand around the same time. This is a typical experience of writers. You start on one project and suddenly your brain starts telling you about something completely different.

 

The notes are detailed and interspersed with dialogue. The story begins with Zack returning home at Christmastime. After his mother mentions meeting Camille at the drugstore, Zack begins to reminisce about her. The plot moves back and forth from the present to the past, from College Zack to High School Zack.

 

I’ve made some changes from the initial concepts. For one, Camille is older. I have moved her to the saxophone. In the typed notes, she is a junior and Zack a senior. Zack is now a virtuoso trumpet player, a soloist hoping to get a music scholarship to college. He is not just shy, but painfully so. Zack will not speak in crowded spaces or on the phone. He only opens up to Camille when the two of them are alone. He now has an older sister, Saffron, who encourages Zack to pursue Camille.

 

The plot has darkened considerably. Zack and Saffron are coping with verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Christmas is particularly painful for Zack. He is burdened with painful December memories, and the false cheeriness of “the happiest time of the year” makes him depressed. Camille coaxes the whole tragic story out of Zack. The tale leaves her in tears. She says, “Oh Zack! You are so shy. It is so hard to get you to say anything at all. And then, every time you speak you break my heart!”

 

I remember hearing those words in my head for days before I wrote them down. In the notes, they are in bold: every time you speak, you break my heart. I knew right then, that was the title of my novel.

 

To be continued . . .dry leaves note

Foster An Author 2018: Presents Revelations by KJ Cartmell

Foster An Author 2018: Presents Revelations by KJ Cartmell

Foster An Author 2018: Presents Revelations by KJ Cartmell

I’m working with Tracie’s World of Books to promote Revelation. Part of Foster an Author 2018!

Tracie's World Of Books

revelation_frontcoverSynopsis: Two teens meet by chance in an airport lobby. They are from the same town, but they didn’t know one another because they go to different schools. Thomas is a shy photographer from the local public school. Adeline attends a private Christian high school and is the daughter of a church pastor. They fall in love, and Adeline’s carefully scripted life quickly unravels.

While Thomas is courting Adeline, he is coached by his friend Holly. There is some shared history between the two girls that neither wants to talk about. Holly warns Thomas repeatedly that Adeline is keeping secrets from him. As their relationship progresses, Thomas begins to uncover those secrets one by one. At the core is a dark secret that, if exposed, could rip apart this ‘perfect’ family.

Amazon link:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N5Y7P7T/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0

Good Reads links:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34687932-the-gospel-of-thomas

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3197485.K_J_Cartmell

#FAA2018 #FosterAnAuthor2018 #FosterAnAuthorBlogger44040611_1858598154258606_1806359448222957568_n

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