My first novel is titled King Today Pawn Tomorrow. I want to share the trials and tribulations of writing my first work of fiction in hopes it might inspire one teenager, mom or senior to get at it. From where I sit, a good writer likes to write but a great writer just has to write. In the end, our readers—not our ego—will tell us how good we really are.
Your first work of fiction might not be your best work but it’s critical to start it, finish it and then let it go. Then write another, then another and another. Greatness comes incrementally, one effervescent word at a time and one asymmetrical novel at a time. Over time, many calories burned, self-pity and sleepless nights, you might stumble into a great work of fiction.
Find your Hamlet (Shakespearian story structure) and find your authors (style, rhythm, voice)—the ones that inspire you, the ones that wink at you in the middle of page 37. Discover their codex: How do they decode human emotions? Dig deep. I keep Tolstoy, Faulkner, Nabokov, David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk close at hand. I found my gurus and follow them with a cultlike passion.
Don’t worry about how much you write; it’s not about the volume of words but about the weight of the words. It is important to get “it” on the page in its rawest form—don’t rush to connect the dots. Crafting a novel is more about sitting and thinking than writing. It’s about carrying the narrative and the characters of your story with you 24-7. I carry a notebook and iPhone to capture spontaneous thoughts, images, daily observations of human behavior and unusual patterns of conversation. You have to develop an ear for authentic dialog. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts comes to mind. You can only do that by eavesdropping on the world around you.
Letting a scene percolate in your imagination is work, it’s meditative. Placing your characters in your everyday life is critical—how do they walk, what do they wear how do they swear. Remember everyone you meet. Even someone in line at the supermarket can add a flicker of insight to a character, so tune in to the humanity around you.
Writing what you know doesn’t always produce great literature. Writing about what makes you curious does. Get as close to the story as possible—get immersed. My next novel is centered on dementia patients so I spent weeks at my local senior center to absorb the atmosphere, the humanity, the smell, the food, even the subtleties of the carpet. Capture a sense of place because the location is a character.
Most great works of fiction revolve around human emotions—finding love, losing love and getting love back. As humans we feel all those emotions, but tapping into them is the hard part.
I believe we all have a great story to share that is hidden in the dark, dusty, cobwebby attic of our minds. So grab a flashlight, some courage and get up there and find it.
Note: The following is Chapter One of Michael Petan's first novel. Chapter Two will be featured in the May-June issue of ZEST, along with the ability to download the entire book. Enjoy!
“The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves and go merrily to London, it would be argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever.”
The Coffin Factory
Welcome to Fair Play, Maine, current population 4,071 but who’s really counting? Fair Play is sixty-seven miles due west of the spectacularly ragged, romantic and surf-encrusted Maine seacoast. Winslow Homer in 1875 came to Maine to try to capture that spectacular light, the turbulence of the tides and raw drama of the sea onto a glaringly white rectangular canvas. The rebellious seacoast remains elusive, aloof and turns its back to those who attempt such a temerarious feat.
You won’t find Fair Play on the Conde Nast Top Ten list of most spectacular vacation destinations in America, but it’s a notable place with a naturally seductive nature. Back in its heyday around 1860, Fair Play had sixteen sawmills, three gristmills, two lumber mills, a tannery, a carriage factory and a coffin factory. Honest Abe was the newly elected president, breaking news arrived by Pony Express, and the bloody Indian Wars were in full swing but all that’s ancient history.
Fast forward to today. Fair Play is still a modest little town off the beaten path. Hustle left town many years ago with bustle close behind. Al Gore’s internet-super-highway promised in 1993 took an unexpected detour and didn’t arrive in Fair Play until around 2003. Better late than never they say. Even in a small town like Fair Play most people are hunched over a smartphone staring into the face of a digital future that resembles the past, but this virtual future is more animated, socialized and digitized for delivery. Just what America needs–another addiction. The local library and schools, and even some local businesses, are now hot-wired for the future. Fair Play is outside looking in or inside looking out depending on what you imagine an appropriate future might look like.
Fair Play is surrounded by an America where factories now crank out more microchips than potato chips. An America where cars drive themselves; sex drives are dwindling; and you can change your gender if you want to experience sex from a brand new perspective. Phones got smart, intelligence became artificial and every appliance in the home began to talk back. A woman named Alexa seduced American households with her subservient voice, cold charm and her algorithmic wit. Bob, we’re out of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, I’ll add it to our grocery list for Tuesday; don't forget to call your mother today, it's her birthday. “Alexa, do I look like I’m losing weight?” Yes, you are losing weight, Bob; you lost seventeen pounds in the last three and a half weeks according to my weight database. Might I suggest you get that mole shaped like West Virginia on your back looked at. “Alexa, what’s the cure de jure for cancer?” Over one hundred billion dollars are spent every year on research and treatment, and we have no cure for cancer. Many say the cure will never be found, many more say a cure would put too many people out of business, most say cancer is a profit center. “Damn that’s depressing. Alexa, is there life after death?” Since the dawn of man more than one hundred billion humans have died, but there have been no confirmed reports or evidence of any life after death, no bright lights, no high fives with Jesus, no heaven, no hell, no limbo and no dramatic reincarnation into a humpback whale. They say dead men tell no tales. There’s no hotline to hell. Death is nothingness wrapped in complete blackness. “Alexa, can you order me a mahogany coffin with a French Blue velvet interior and let’s go with brass hardware.” Okay Bob, Coffin World has the Chancellor XL3000 in stock, fifteen percent off, solid mahogany, satin finish, fail-safe liner to keep your dead bones dry, brass handles, and it will be here Thursday at noon. “Alexa, you’re a lifesaver, what would I ever do without you? Alexa, play me “Sympathy for the Devil” from Get Yer Ya-Yas Out. Alexa, one last question, who killed
Many Americans were feeling more like educated monkeys. Americans didn’t notice an extraordinary devolution had commenced. Man was taking one giant step backwards for mankind. Seemed the incredible amount of data paralyzed the imagination, made one dull, prone to knee-jerk reactions and very self-conscious. Curiosity had finally killed the cat. The saying “dumb down” was referred to often. Technology spewed data full of loopholes, hopes, hunches, hypotheses, pie charts, white papers, opinion and guestimates, but a single-minded truth was in short supply. Truth was still in the hands of professional thinkers like Plato, Aquinas, Nietzsche, Rousseau and Chomsky.
The devolution became evident to those who were paying attention when, back in 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated the chess world champion Garry Kasparov in game one of a six-game chess match. It both shocked and awed humans. After an upgrade in 1997, Deep Blue came back for a rematch and defeated Kasparov with ease. A disheveled Kasparov demanded a rematch but IBM declined and then IBM dismantled Deep Blue. The devolution made headlines once more in 2001 when Watson, the evil twin of Deep Blue, defeated Jeopardy champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Watson won seventy-seven thousand dollars. Over thirty-four million humans watched Watson defeat his human contestants. Watson put our collective future in jeopardy.
No one can pinpoint the moment of the devolution outbreak commenced; it was viral and looked nothing like the D-Day landing. Some say it happened over time, like that bullfrog that gets slowly boiled alive one degree at a time and doesn’t notice until it's too late. Some say it started with automated vending machines handing out candy bars, cigarettes, condoms, bitter coffee and sugary sodas. Some blame automated vending machines for an obsessive America, lung cancer, hypertension and the diabetes epidemic. Some say it all started with the electronic entertainment industry. Devolution experts point to the JVC and VCR virus as the tipping point. The VCR brought the deadly entertainment virus right into the living rooms and bedrooms of America. America became dependent on endless entertainment. A tandem virus called Pong brought to you by Atari ignited an unquenchable thirst for in-home computer games, humans in constant pursuit of the unobtainable high score. Computer games tapped into the American competitive spirit and the desire to compete in the comfort of one’s home, in fuzzy slippers, sweat pants and never having to break a real sweat. The virus continued to advance with little to no resistance.
Today technology has advanced to more prosperous adventures. Robots have seized control of the assembly lines in many of our factories. A new War of the Worlds was declared and this one’s no hoax, it’s not fake news, and it’s not science fiction. We can’t blame it on Pong or the cell phone. Robots outwork humans; robots are always on time, work weekends and holidays. Robots don’t need lunch breaks, they don’t come to work hung over, and they don’t take bathroom breaks to urinate or shit or light one up. Robots aren’t into small talk; they don't care who’s playing in the World Series, or who’s playing the role of the President of the United States, or what films have been nominated for an Oscar. Robots never demand raises, they’ll never complain about sexual harassment, glass ceilings or off-color jokes in the lunchroom. All work and no play is their motto. Fair Play could feel that cold, dank metallic breath of the high-tech future breathing down their necks; its breath reeked like a dumpster full of rotting mackerel heads, poop-filled Pampers and pepperoni pizza. Fair Play saw no urgent need to leap frog into an uncertain future; they hoped it would just blow over like an afternoon thunderstorm in July.
Fifty-three miles due north of Fair Play in the town of Twin Falls is home to the Smith & Wesson factory. Like a magnet, the factory draws some of Fair Play’s most ambitious worker bees towards the hope of a more secure future. The factory currently employs about 330 people–twenty-seven of them from Fair Play. The factory has cranked out over ten million nickel-plated handcuffs with no end to the demand in sight. About one hundred of those shiny new handcuffs can be found right up the road at the Two Rivers Correctional Facility. The workers get paid an average of twenty-five dollars an hour; they get time and half for overtime; they get two fifteen-minute breaks and a forty-five minute lunch break. They also get a two-week vacation and health and dental insurance and once in a while a pat on the back. Mostly the Smith & Wesson workers enjoy steady employment and a climate-controlled factory floor 365 days a year. But, every year one more robot dressed as the Grim Reaper is introduced and replaces a handful of worker bees. Now you see them now you don’t. You could hear the murmur of confusion on the shop floor, “Joe, did you see Dwight this morning? Isn’t Carlos due in today? I think Carlos was fired. I still haven’t seen Jack. Jack never calls in sick; this is three days in a row now. Hey look, isn’t that another one of them Nachi Fujikishi RX3000 robots? He wasn’t there yesterday.”
Jimmy Wayne Howell is a well-respected shop technician. Jimmy is also catcher and manager of the Smith & Wesson softball team the Odd Balls. Jimmy Wayne has warned his fellow workers for over a decade about robots and the glum future that lies ahead. On lunch breaks, Jimmy Wayne often shares the harrowing tale of Kenji Urada who worked at a Kawasaki plant in Japan. Jimmy Wayne does his best impersonation of Paul Revere as he shouts out, “The Robots Are Coming; The Robots Are Coming! Gather round boys and listen up.” Gather around and listen up they did, as they pulled boiled ham, bologna, salami, turkey breast and liver sausage sandwiches out of recycled paper lunch bags with names, like Elroy, Junior, Percy and Woody, written on them.
“Boys, they’re among us now, infiltrating our factory, right here in Twin Falls, Maine. It could be too late already. We have to remember Kenji. Kenji was working in Japan at that Kawasaki factory back in 1987. Kenji was only thirty-seven years old, a young man, a father, a son, a husband just like you and me. Kenji on that fateful day was attempting to repair a robot and that robot turned on him, viciously and with deadly force. The robot grabbed Kenji and pushed him into a grinding machine until no more Kenji, just flesh, blood and bone turned to confetti. The robot showed no remorse. Kenji’s fellow shop workers saw it all happen right before their eyes; they heard Kenji’s last scream. They might have been the first to witness a robot commit cold-blooded homicide, but Kawasaki saw it as an innocent mechanical malfunction that could be tweaked with a software update. The robot was escorted off the premises after many days of deliberation. Kenji’s fellow shop factory workers plotted a secret roboticide around the lunch table. They would act in self-defense. A true story, not a fable, I can’t make this shit up, poor fucking Kenji. This shit happens all the time, corporations keep it all hush-hush. Payoffs and insurance claims. I for one don’t trust ’em, I won’t ever turn my back on ’em. The robots are not only coming, the robots are already here. I hope it ain’t too late, we got to fight back; and don't forget Robert Williams who was the very first robot victim in America, over at the Ford Motor Company Flat Rock Casting Plant back in 1979, crushed to death from behind by a robot. From behind, he never saw it coming, sneak attack. It took a half hour to find his body; his fellow workers thought Mr. Williams was on his lunch break. Years later the Williams family finally got a fifteen-million-dollar settlement. I tell you the robots are coming and they’re up to no good, sort of reminded me of Mutiny on the Bounty, and we’re the mutineers.”
Fair Play is currently a robot-free-zone. Townies only exposure to robots was in movies like RoboCop, WALL-E or Transformers. A majority of livelihoods in Fair Play consist of good old carpenters, plumbers, masons and many more tradespeople totally unaffected by anything high-tech or who need the assistance of a so-called robot. Robots prefer the comforts of a controlled environment, repetitive tasks and have not shown any desire to work outside in the harsh elements.
The blue-collar jobs in Fair Play outnumber white-collar jobs. Not a coffin maker in sight. Fair Play does have a few addicts, a few more alcoholics and a few homophobes, technophobes and agoraphobes to round it all out. The police force is outnumbered by those who look like they’re up to no good, but most avoid the temptation to break the law. Every so often a terrified 9-1-1 call comes in for domestic violence–often from the same women with a fistful of new bruises, a fatter lip and bloodshot eyes. Every so often a home is robbed with nothing much to show for it. Every so often a car is stolen and taken for a joyride but usually returned the next morning.
Fair Play is still a town that’s built on trust; and most townies still leave their car keys in the ignition–a temptation that even an honest teen can’t seem to ignore on Saturday night. Every five or six years a real homicide brings the town to a screeching halt. A giant gasp followed by the whisperings of, “That can’t happen here, that’s not supposed to happen in Fair Play. Not in Fair Play they must have meant Detroit.” The townies sincerely believed they were immune to such bloody terrors. Townies believed that over time they had built up some spiritual resistance to eliminate even the thought of manslaughter. They believed that GOD was truly looking out for their best interest, protecting them and keeping real evil at bay, and keeping anyone with murderous intentions at a safe distance from Fair Play’s town line.
Five years ago an unannounced bloody terror did arrive in town; God must have slept in that day. Deep in the woods along the Muddy Knife River, two young men out squirrel hunting armed with BB guns and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches stumbled upon a rusted fifty-five-gallon metal drum. Inside the drum they discovered two thirty-gallon black Hefty bags stuffed with human bones and two human skulls. The assortment of bones belonged to two victims, an adult female and a young girl. Many locals speculated that the young mother and her daughter were whacked by a wacko husband for reasons ranging from a burnt steak or a jealous fit of rage to they must have asked for it. The bodies had been left undiscovered for over twenty years. The bodies were never identified as Fair Play residents. The mother and possible daughter were both lost and found, but no claims check was presented from a grieving family member coming forward to claim them. The suspects were scarce, and the murderer or murderers have never been found.
Fair Play imagined that the murderer was a transient who hid the bodies deep in the woods and had moved on to greener pastures and his next victim. Last year Andrea Canning and her NBC Dateline news crew swarmed all over Fair Play and poked the sleeping bear in the balls with a sharp stick. They wanted to defrost the cold case and solve the mystery for a nationwide television audience of five million Americans. Armed with new DNA tools, hunches and rumors, they wanted to finally identify the killer and put the town’s fears on the back burner once and for all. Unfortunately, Andrea Canning and crew left town at the end of that summer with many more questions than answers. Canning came to an obscure conclusion that it was possible that the murderer was from Fair Play, still alive and could still be living nearby at about the age of forty to fifty-five years old.
The women in town began to scrutinize every man over forty with suspicious eyes. “I think it’s Mr. Foster, he’s fifty-three years old and lives alone in that studio apartment above the grocery store. Odd fellow isn’t he? No wife in sight. Keeps to himself, like he’s hiding something–a deep secret. Mr. Rogers gives me the creeps. I heard him mention that he was married many years ago, but I never heard how it ended. His wife just sort of disappeared with another man or was murdered. He had a daughter, too, who ran away from home at the about the same time. Coincidence? Mr. Grimsrud always looked suspicious to me with that craggy child-molester grin. Creeps me out every time. Looks like he got away with not paying his taxes or he got away with murder. Well, I’m wondering just how Frank Lundergaard lost those three fingers on his left hand and got that awful scar across his right cheek, maybe a struggle in the woods? I bet those girls fought back!” The rumors and speculation continued for months then stopped as quickly as they started, as if that murderous memory had been extracted from the town’s memory like a tick with a pair of tweezers.