Writing Poetry isn’t that Different from Bungee Jumping

•March 31, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Writing is all about taking chances.

 Just sitting down to put words on a page is taking a chance. What’s going to come out of you? Will it be any good? Will you be dedicated enough to actually finish what you start?

 When you let someone else read your work, you’re taking a chance. What are they going to say? Will they like it? Hate it? If it’s a friend or family member, will it change the way they think about you?

 For those writers who seek publication, it’s an endless game of taking chances. Is your work good enough? What if the agent/publisher doesn’t like it? What if they DO like it? Will the next rejection be the one that shatters your spine?

 This past weekend, I attended the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Conference in Bethlehem, PA. It’s not that far from where I live so I try to go every year. The conference holds writing contests in three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I try to enter at least one piece each time I go. Even though it’s a local conference, I usually don’t know anyone there so I can’t beg for votes or stuff the ballot box. My work has to be good enough to legitimately win the competitions which are voted on by the conference attendees.

 Writing contests are always a little intimidating because you have to believe your work is good enough that people will read it and think it’s better than a bunch of other people’s work. Sometimes the other people are published authors with actual books and agents and business cards and shit. It’s even more intimidating when you can stand next to readers as they’re reading (and judging) your work.

 Six years ago I won the non-fiction writing contest. That was a risk because I’m not a non-fiction writer. My wife had just suffered a miscarriage and I wrote about it. It was an emotional piece and probably one of the best things I’ve ever written and I won first place and I totally deserved to. I usually enter the fiction contest (which is what I write) and I’ve picked up a few second and third place finishes over the years. I finished third this year with the opening of the new novel I’m working on so I was happy about that.

 But I also wanted to take a risk this year and do something I had never done before. I entered the poetry competition. I’ve scanned through my computer files and discovered that I’ve written six poems in my entire life (not counting poems I wrote for my high school girlfriend when I forgot about Valentine’s Day or her birthday or some other gift-giving holiday). Don’t ask me why I felt like it was necessary to enter. I guess I just wanted to challenge myself by doing something out of my comfort zone. I am not a poet. I have nothing but respect for poets because I respect anyone who can do something that I, myself, cannot do. When I write poems they are absurd and humorous poems meant to be so over-the-top as to disguise the fact that I am not good at writing poetry.

 The best poem I ever wrote was in grad school called “The Hot Girl Who Will Never Have Sex with Me.” I read it at a poetry reading and it was ridiculous and awesome. The population at the conference tends to skew a bit older so I went with something more conservative. It was another grad school poem called “The Express Lane.” It’s a poem about how annoyed I get when someone takes more than 15 items into the express lane at the grocery store.

 And you know what? The risk paid off. FIRST PLACE, BAY BAY! Yup, out of more than 20 poems, my ridiculous poem earned the most votes. It certainly was not the best written poem there, but it WAS the most entertaining and the content spoke to people (which is a lesson in itself). I won a certificate and ten dollars to the conference book sale and a goodie bag containing some pens, a scented candle, and a Kit Kat and Kit Kats are delicious so yay me.

 The lesson I learned (besides that my poetry is the best poetry of ALL poetry) is that sometimes taking risks pays off. So in that respect, writing poetry is really not all that different from bungee jumping (Now the title makes sense, doesn’t it?).

 And now that I wrote this, I realize that the only contest I’ve never won at the conference is the fiction contest…which is what I write. Hmm. Maybe I’m not taking enough risks?

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Snowflakes

•February 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Check out my latest online short story at douglasjamestroxell.com.

This one is called “Snowflakes” and follows a married couple that has fled from a prison camp. The patrols are closing in and the weather has turned nasty. Alex and Shelly have one last chance to make it to safety before all hope is lost. Will they find salvation or will they be left out in the cold?

Check it out!

Writing Lessons I Learned from Watching the Best Worst Movie

•January 15, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Lessons are everywhere if you’re willing to look for them, even in other people’s complete and utter failure.

 I have a special love for terrible movies. It started in college when I was introduced to “Troll 2,” a terrible atrocity of a movie with wooden acting, child-like special effects, and a nonsensical plot about vegetarian goblins that turn people into plants to eat them. There is not a single troll in “Troll 2.” It was just so entertainingly bad I fell in love. Ever since then I’ve been trolling the bottom of IMDB’s rating list.

 “The Room” is the subject of the Golden Globe-winning film, “The Disaster Artist.” Many consider it to be the worst film ever made. Me? I think it’s a work of genius. The director/producer/writer/star, Tommy Wiseau, has become a myth among bad movie aficionados. The man is a genius.

 Still, as a writer, I try to find lessons where I can find them and “The Room” and “The Disaster Artist” are fertile with nuggets of writerly wisdom. Here’s are a few of the lessons I learned from the general horribleness.

 #1: Avoid Unnecessary Dialogue

 “Oh hi Mark!” Dialogue in fiction should not be a direct reflection of the way people speak in real life. Each line should serve a purpose (characterization, moving the plot forward, producing conflict, etc.). Any superfluous dialogue should be cut in revision. There shouldn’t be repeated greetings or characters repeating the same information over and over again (“I don’t love Johnny anymore” x infinity).

 #2: Continuity is Important

 You can’t introduce a completely new character during the climax of your story. You also can’t introduce a breast cancer story arc that is never resolved. If you introduce a gun in the first act, that gun has to go off by the end of Act III. That’s why I keep a “Bible” for each story to keep all the details straight. This is also a great job for your test readers. By the end, everything should be wrapped up in a nice, neat bow.

 #3: Character Motivations Need to Make Sense

 There’s nothing that shatters the world of a story faster than characters behaving in illogical and unrealistic ways or when characters make decisions that no logical human being would ever make (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead). That’s why you can’t have two characters being cool with some random man-child showing up right before they’re about to have sex or have a character laugh after hearing a story about domestic abuse or have a bunch of characters play football in an alley while wearing tuxes. Whether your characters are human, aliens, minotaurs, or whatever, the things they do need to make sense.

 #4: Never Give Up on Your Dreams

 If “The Disaster Artist” is about anything it’s about two friends following their dreams. Even though Tommy didn’t look like a typical movie star, even though he didn’t speak a language that anyone could understand, even though he didn’t understand basic human emotions, he still followed his dream of starring, directing, writing, and producing his own movie even though he wasn’t qualified to do any of those things. Writing is the same game. You absorb rejection after rejection until you hear that sweet, sweet YES. If Tommy can do it, anyone can do it. All you need is six million dollars to burn.

 Oh, and editing. Editing is important. Seriously, who the hell edited that piece of shit? Oh, it was Tommy? Gotcha. Now it makes sense.

“Keep your stupid comments in your pocket!”

2017 Troxellian Literature Awards (Results)

•December 30, 2017 • 1 Comment

The year 2017 was terrible for pretty much everyone from politicians to celebrities to sports figures. But you know what can help numb the pain? LITERATURE! It’s time to announce the winners of the 2017 Troxellian Literature Awards! (Applause…applause…applause…). The nominees are limited to the books I read in the past 12 months and can be found here. All winners were chosen by me and the results are nothing more than one man’s opinion (mine). Novels, graphic novels, and non-fiction are fair game in all general categories.

So with no further ado (I hate too much ado…), here are the winners:

The “DRINK IT IN, MAN!” Award (Formerly the “Woohoo!” award)

This award goes to the book that I had the most fun reading during the year. Maybe it wasn’t the best written or most literary but it was just a good time! And the Troxell goes to…

The Hike by Drew Magary

Magary breaks the two-year run graphic novels have had in this category. The Hike is a difficult book to describe. It’s magical realism…? It’s about a dude who goes for a hike (duh) and ends up being transported to this twisted fantasy world populated by talking crabs and killers wearing dog faces on their faces and sexy giants. It’s like an adult, acid trip version of Lord of the Rings (and you know I like me some LoR). The ending sucked but I enjoyed every other step of the journey. Each obstacle was innovative and there were plenty of “What would I do in that situation?” scenarios. Good stuff.

Honorable mention: Armada by Ernest Cline

The “HULK OUT!!!” Award

This award goes to the book that pissed me off the most for one reason or another. And the Troxell goes to…

It by Stephen King

Every year I try to read at least one King novel. In September, my wife’s friend backed out on going to see the movie version of It so I agreed to go with her. I had no interest in seeing the movie because I despise horror movies, mainly because they’re never scary and usually they’re stupid. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. Basically it was Stranger Things with a clown. Great combination. So I decided to read the book. BIG MISTAKE! It was everything I hate about King. Ridiculously and unnecessarily long, poorly edited, and aliens jammed into the narrative because, hey, why the fuck not? Oh, and the 11-year-old gang bang in the sewers? Not cool, Stephen, NOT cool…

Dishonorable mention: Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk

The “Fine Wine” Award

This award goes to a classic work of literature that totally lived up to the hype. And the Troxell goes to…

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

No, I’ve never read Sherlock Holmes before this year. I’ve never enjoyed mysteries. Never. They bore me but not because I always figure out the mystery; it’s usually because my solution to the mystery is always so much BETTER! A few years back, a student of mine was appalled that I had never read Sherlock Holmes so she gave me a collection of the complete works. Then I didn’t read it for a couple years just to spite her. Finally I broke down and read the damn thing. You know what? It was pretty damn good! All the classic Holmes traits were there from the very beginning. It’s amazing how well Sherlock Holmes has aged through the decades. It’s a classic for a reason.

Honorable Mention: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig

The “‘Didn’t See That Comin’” Award

This award goes to a book I enjoyed way more than I expected to. And the Troxell goes to…

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John Anderson

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day had all the makings of a book I despise. It’s a YA novel about three boys who are trying to create the perfect day for their beloved teacher who has just been diagnosed with cancer. My principal got the book at a conference and dumped it off on me since I was the first person he saw after attending. I read it because I never turn down a book that has found its way to me. I usually despise the way teachers are portrayed in literature and I try to steer clear of books built on a foundation of sentimentality. So I was surprised when I actually enjoyed the book. The characters were likable and their friendship was genuine without being sappy. It was an excellent “boy book” with real heart behind it. I always enjoy being surprised by a good book.

Honorable Mention: Harold and Maude by Collin Higgins

 

The “It’s Funny Because It’s TRUE” Award

This award goes to the best non-fiction book I read this year. I’ve never given this award before because I rarely read or enjoy non-fiction. And the Troxell goes to…

Where’s the Next Shelter? by Gary Sizer

I read some really great non-fiction this year. I read a book written by a guy who was a WWE ring announcer for years (Best Seat in the House) that was excellent and another about a guy who lived in the woods by himself Thoreau-style for 27 years (Stranger in the Woods) that definitely would have won this award if the writer hadn’t become so intrusive towards the end of the book and harassed the hermit he was writing about, but the award goes to Where’s the Next Shelter? The book is the chronicle of Gary Sizer’s journey through-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine (over 2000 miles). Really fascinating stuff. Sizer puts you right there on the trail and does an excellent job of explaining the unique culture of through-hiking. Definitely got me more interested in hitting the trails.

Honorable Mention: Best Seat in the House by Justin Roberts

The “BEST IN THE WORLD” Award

This award goes to the best book I read during the year. The best book…IN THE WORLD! And the Troxell goes to…

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

I’ve always been a big fan of literary science-fiction (a few novels in that category have won the top award in the past). On the cover of my copy of Stranger in a Strange Land it says “The Most Famous Science Fiction” Novel Ever Written.” That’s a pretty hard sell. I went in skeptical and you know what? It was pretty great. Some of the ideas and concepts are dated and probably came off as more revolutionary in the early 60’s but much of its commentary on politics and religion still ring true. How would the world treat the first man from Mars? Would his arrival be politicized? Would he come with his own ideas about culture, religion, and love? And what would happen if we didn’t like what he said? All I can say is: “Thou art God.”

 

So there you have it! Another year in literature. I can’t wait to read the books that find their way to me in 2018.

2017 Troxellian Literature Awards (Nominees)

•December 28, 2017 • 1 Comment

Welcome to the fifth annual TROXELLIAN LITERATURE AWARDS! (Insert dramatic drum roll here). These are the mandatory end-of-year awards where I rate all the books I read over the past year and give them fake awards based on the whims of a madman (That’s me).

My reading list is usually limited to books I’m reading to assist with whatever novel I’m currently working on, classics that I’m rereading or that I’ve never gotten around to reading, books that others recommend to me, or books that by one means or another serendipitously find their way into my life (this is my favorite means of acquiring reading material).

Last year I was heavy into graphic novels for some reason, but 2017 was a down year for graphic novels and a surprisingly up year for non-fiction so for the first time in the history of the awards there will be a non-fiction award. Fiction over the last 12 months has been a nice mix of the good, bad, and ugly.

Here are the nominees in the order that I read them. I’ll post the winners some time before the end of the year:

1. An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges (F)

2. Harold and Maude by Collin Higgins (F)

3. The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder (GN)

4. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (F)

5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (Play)

6. Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (NF)

7. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (F)

8. Avengers vs. X-men by Brian Michael Bendis (GN)

9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig (NF)

10. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John Anderson (F)

11. Best Seat in the House by Justin Roberts (NF)

12. The Hike by Drew Magary (F)

13. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume (F)

14. The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe (F)

15. Where’s the Next Shelter? by Gary Sizer (NF)

16. It by Stephen King (F)

17. Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk (GN)

18. Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson (F)

19. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (F)

20. Armada by Ernest Cline (F)

 

Feeling Lousy on a Beautiful November Night

•November 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A new short story is posted on my website. This one’s called “Feeling Lousy on a Beautiful November Night.” It’s about an aimless young man whose girlfriend breaks up with him right before a costume party, forcing him to ponder his past life choices while being dressed as Han Solo.

Here’s a taste:

 The night my girlfriend of six years left me I was dressed as Han Solo—boots, blaster, vest, the whole shabang. She sashayed into the living room of our lousy one-bedroom apartment and told me we were kaput.

            “Zander, you’re like a broken compass,” she told me. “You got no direction. You’re going nowhere in life and you’re takin’ me with you.”

            I asked her how long it took her to come up with that whole “broken compass” line, but she wouldn’t answer. Unfortunately, everything she accused me of was true so the argument was kind of one-sided. I was going nowhere in life, but I hadn’t thought she had figured that out yet.

            I didn’t really blame her for leaving; I just thought the timing of it all was real lousy. We were supposed to be going to a Halloween costume party dressed as Han Solo and Princess Leia. I knew something was up when she walked out of the bedroom dressed as Raggedy Ann. Do you know what it feels like to have a giant doll break up with you—to have to stare at those rosy cheeks and painted-on smile as someone tells you they want nothing to do with you?

            It felt lousy—real lousy.

 

Read the story on my website: douglasjamestroxell.com

The Illusion of Free Speech

•September 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

If you told me five years ago that millionaire athletes kneeling during a song would become a symbol of First Amendment rights in America, I would have been like, “Uhhh…what?”

 And yet here we are.

 What started with a second-string quarterback kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police violence against POC has blossomed into a national conversation on first amendment rights. It doesn’t help that the President of the United States is calling people who protest “sons of bitches.” Typically people don’t like that and will then do the opposite of what you want them to do.

 This is nothing new. The question of free speech was buried in the foundation of our nation. Hell, it’s the FIRST amendment. It was so important it got top billing over all the other amendments. Even guns had to take a backseat to free speech! The problem with free speech is the same today as it was at the beginning. It’s an illusion. A fallacy. A mirage.

 No one understood this more than my personal hero, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau popularized non-violent protests in America in his famous work, Civil Disobedience. He inspired non-violent protesters throughout history including Martin Luther King Jr. and even Gandhi. He refused to pay his taxes in protest of the Spanish-American War and ended up in jail because of it. What Thoreau understood was that actions have consequences. Freedom of speech gives one the right to say anything one wants, but that freedom doesn’t come consequence-free.

 Colin Kaepernick, the original kneeler, is no longer employed by the NFL. Why? Because he’s a sub-par quarterback? No. It’s because of his protest. 100%. No doubt. And that’s the Catch-22 of freedom of speech. NOTHING is free. He’s paying the price for his actions. Just as Trump paid for his “sons of bitches” comment. He was free to say it and the NFL owners and players certainly reacted. Trump ended up expanding the protest far beyond anything it would have reached on its own (even if its meaning is convoluted and unclear now). Every action comes with an equal or greater re-action. Words have consequences. Actions, too. That is a truth we can never escape.

 Writers have always known this. They are the keepers of words, the keepers of Truth. That’s why today, more than ever, the written word must remain sacred. In the era of “alternative facts,” the Truth needs a sanctuary but only the words can reside there, not the writer. The writer will always be subject to the slings and arrows of the mob.

 Now excuse me while I take a knee…