Ambiguous Endings

I recently read a comment from an editor that said there is a definite art to wrapping up a story. This same editor cited shabby third acts as one of the most common rejectionable offenses. I think there is a lot of truth to that maxim (more as a reader/viewer than as a writer), but I see the other side of the coin also.

A few years ago Stephen King took a lot of heat from his fans for The Colorado Kid. Readers were up in arms that King left the conclusion up to them. The same author was criticized a bit for his wrap-up to The Dark Tower, an ending whose infinite nature I thought was perfectly appropriate, given the complexion of the story arc and our hero, Roland Deschain.

Movies like A Civil Action, whose ambiguous anti-climax (Travolta shrugging, speechless, in a tight close-up) effectively captured the hopelessness of our civil justice system, and No Country for Old Men (an excellent film, across almost every critical criterion) have been taken to task for their open-ended conclusions.

In some cases (and I think this is the case for each of the four works I cited above) I think less is more. It's laudable for an artist to have confidence enough in his or her audience to glean "meaning" from the text without the benefit of overt explanation.

I had an editor request a rewrite on a story that called for a huge chunk of excised "showing" in the third act. His argument was, let's just let them see what they want for themselves. The audience can determine the horror more effectively than we can dictate it to them.

I'm in a similar place with a story I'm revising right now. I wrote a scene that included a blow-by-blow account of the vision in question, then I chopped it. I'm trying to leave the ending far more ambiguous, which allows for a little spectatorial creativity. One of the great strengths of writing horror, I think, is the subjective nature of the subjects that make our skin crawl.

Why not put that individuality to good use?

On another note, I received a personalized rejection on a story I sent to one of the "Big Three" fiction magazines yesterday. I've tried these folks a number of times, and it was gratifying to get a note of encouragement on my progress as a scribbler...


Carolina Gold Mustard Sauce

I had a couple of requests for a good barbecue sauce recipe to accompany the pulled pork below. I never ventured out into the yellow sauces until we moved to Florida, but I think now that they are probably the best of the bunch when it comes to shredded pork sandwiches. Tangy and tart, a good Carolina Gold really adds to the flavor of the pork.

3/4 cup prepared yellow mustard (the old faithful neon yellow stuff is fine--or you can go with a Dijon/yellow blend)
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons catsup
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 dashes Worcestershire
1 dash hot sauce (I like a nice cayenne pepper sauce--Texas Pete's is good)

Mix it all up and you're good to go. I like to simmer enough pulled pork for that day's meal in a little sauce to infuse the pork with the flavors. This sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

If you have a recipe you're willing to share, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!


Pulled Pork for Posterity

I must have one of those faces. I get hit up for money almost everywhere I go. Sure, I get hit up in all the usual ways. We get telemarketing calls from various Florida police and firefighter associations. We get folks going door to door--sometimes religious, twice selling steaks out of the back of an old Datsun (those were negatives both times). Folks sometimes ask outside of Winn Dixie; they ask when I'm walking between buildings when I'm at our downtown campus, and sometimes in stopped traffic (often heading north on Southside, near Old Baymeadows).

If I have money, I'll often share it. It all depends. I almost always give a buck or two to the organizations outside of the grocery store--usually youth athletics.

Today, I was picking up my wife's dry cleaning. When I was done, I pulled out and was ready to leave. Another car, getting ready to head into traffic, suddenly veered forward and blocked my way. The lady had her window down and was smoking one of those extra-long cigarettes. She wanted two dollars for gas and when I told her I didn't have it, she swore and gunned the Taurus forward.

What in the..?

Two dollars for gas will get you .6 of a gallon right now. In that car, enough for ten miles. But she was in a car, and it was moving forward! I've thrown in some money for gas when the folks are obviously stranded, but it struck me as bizarre that she had the dough for those smokes and she was...in a moving, operating car. If she needed to go ten miles, I imagine she could have gotten pretty close and then could have hoofed it the rest of the way.

I don't know why, but folks always ask me for money. I drive an aging truck and, during my off time, I spend most days in running shorts, sneakers and old Oregon Ducks t-shirts. Nothing about my appearance, I wouldn't think, would cause anyone to think, Yes! Ask him! He'll share some cash!

Sorry. Tangent...

At any rate, I wanted to record this pulled pork recipe so I can return to it when needed. Many barbecue purists will say that, outside of an occasional mop, no pork worth its salt should be cooked in liquid. To them I say, try this:

1/4 cup soy sauce
3 shakes worcestershire
2 cups catsup
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
a pinch of crushed red pepper
2 shakes garlic salt
1 coarsely chopped red onion
1 five-pound pork shoulder

This is a slow cooker recipe. The night before, you want to whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl and then put the mixture in a large ziploc bag. Trim most of the small veins of fat (makes it easier to shred at the end) on the roast, but leave the big ol' fat-cap. Put the roast in the bag, turn to cover a few times and then refrigerate over night.

Leave yourself 8.5 to 9 hours to cook this thing. Just put the whole mixture in a 5-7 quart slow cooker, cover and let it sit all day. I started this one today at 7:30 and it was done at 3:00. When it's cooked through (it'll slide off the small bones in the roast no problem), pull it and put it on a cutting board. Put a tin-foil tent over it and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Shred with a couple of forks.

Throw that bad pork down on a big toasted roll and cover with sauce (e-mail me if you want the recipe) and a spoonful of cole slaw. Serve with greens, cornbread, baked beans, slaw and banana pudding.



The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli doesn't break new ground in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, but it's a good movie all the same. Denzel Washington delivers a strong performance as Eli, a road-weary traveller with a very special book in his possession. Set thirty years after nuclear annihilation (what they refer to as "the flash"), this film trots out some well-worn plot points, but still satisfies on the strength of the acting and the Hughes Brothers' ability to deliver a consistent "feel" to the film.

Shot in muted grays and light browns, the barren and scarred landscape plays an effective role in advancing story here. A pair of images still resonate with me a week later--one of a San Francisco skyline as broken as the teeth of the road hijackers, the other of an enormous crater in the California countryside. Highly stylized action sequences, shot in silhouette while Eli and his monster knife aerate the baddies, are well done, if not a little ridiculous. I'm reminded in one scene of the great artwork in Wizard and Glass (I think it's Michael Whelan, but I don't have my copy here with me), when Roland Deschain leaves a trail of the dead in his wake after a fierce gun battle. Absurd, but not unsatisfying after you see the way the hijackers kill innocents on the road.

Like the LOTR films and The Road before it, this is a familiar story. Exchange a ring for a King James Bible and Mordor for Frisco and you have it. Why are the heroes always walking in these films of the end times? Transience is the order of the day I guess, when almost everywhere you look is the process of returning to the dust.

There are some nice diversions along the way. There is a heart-warming scene of Eli listening to Al Green on an old i-pod, a great touch that really drives home what a world would be like without those small things we take for granted. There's a fantastic encounter with George and Martha, a couple of gun-hording cannibals that like to get down to ol' school disco.

And there's Mina Kunis, who is really turning in some fine performances. I thought she was disarming in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I thought she was excellent here--suitably wide-eyed and courageous to help bring the film to its inevitable conclusion. She was so annoying as Jackie on That Seventies Show, which I guess just goes to show you how talented she is. I'm thankful that she has effectively destroyed that limiting impression I had of her...

I'd rate this one a solid 'B'. If you aren't a fan of post-apocalyptic dramas, then you'll probably want to wait for it on DVD. That said, if you like the way Denzel can carry a film on his shoulders and you're interested in seeing some fancy film making, this one is well worth a trip to the theater.

Oh, and Gary Oldman is in this too. Good--not great, and a little underdeveloped as someone we're supposed to loathe...



As the scope of the dire situation in Haiti becomes more clear, I would urge any of you that are capable of sending a donation to help our neighbors attempt to cope with this crisis.

We sent funds to the Haitian Health Foundation, but a full list of charitable organizations can be found here.

You're in our thoughts and prayers tonight...

No Doors, No Windows

Joe Schreiber's novel No Doors, No Windows (Del Rey) is a horror writer's horror novel. An unsettling portrait of small-town New England, this American Gothic will get under your skin and keep you turning the pages well past bedtime.

A third-person narrative that bounces around, this book belongs predominantly to the character Scott Mast, a greeting-card writer who fled tiny Millburn for the refuge of Seattle. After his father's death, Mast is reluctantly tossed into a mystery that involves a very unique (and haunted) house, a family curse and some seriously wicked ghosts.

Mast is well drawn as the reluctant hero, but I think Schreiber's characterization is best illustrated in his melancholy portrayal of Owen Mast, Scott's younger brother who can't seem to get out of his own way. A single alcoholic father, Owen is always broke. He's got a chip on his shoulder the size of New Hampshire, and he doesn't want much to do with his own family. Thankfully, we get to see the full range of Owen's character, and his part in all of this can't be understated. A very fine job with the writing by Mr. Schreiber here...

And family is a large part of this. Schreiber effectively delves into the myriad complexities of personal identity and familial responsibility. Many of the memories here are sad, and they beg personal reflection from the reader on what it truly means to be tied to others by blood.

The writing is strong--descriptive and literary. Schreiber brings the New England setting alive with apt comparisons, and his depiction of Round House is excellent. The ghost story at the center of the novel is really scary, although it loses a little steam in the third act. In that way, this novel reminds me of Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box. Both feature excellent first and second acts, but the climax and resolution in each novel left me wanting a bit more.

Still, this is a very good book. In the acknowledgments section, Schreiber describes the manuscript's long journey to publication. "This book occupied an exceptionally long period of my creative life," he writes, "lingering what felt like indefinitely in that literary neonatal intensive ward call The Rewrite." It changed a number of times in the process, and I got the impression it almost never came into the world at all.

That would have been a terrible shame. Take a look at No Doors, No Windows--highly recommended.


The Oregon Ducks and the NFL Playoffs

One week after our loss to a superior Ohio State team, I can reflect on a great season of Oregon football without feeling too much pain. After the debacle of LaGarrette Blount's punch on national television, this team seemed to improve exponentially week to week. We struggled at home against Purdue but won. We were victorious over a game Utah squad. We hit the PAC-10 schedule with a vengeance, winning decisively over a solid Cal team. We beat USC on the road and hung more points than anyone ever had on USC. We played the best college football game I've ever seen against Arizona down in the desert, and we beat a decent OSU club.
Oh yeah, and we spanked the Huskies for the sixth time in a row on their home turf.
The future is extremely bright for the program. Donor funds are pouring in, and Phil Knight continues his staunch support of Oregon athletics. Chip Kelly is a good man. His leadership, decision making and work ethic excite me about the possibilities of what the future holds for Oregon. Take into account our team's youth (no one on the o-line above sophomore standing; Barner and James are both young; defenders like Lewis and Harris heading into their true sophomore campaigns) and the fact that Masoli will be back at QB and we should be a true national contender in 2010/11.
Thanks so much to the University of Oregon. I'm heading in for my two-hour surgery this afternoon. Surgeons will go into my back panel and flip the toggle switch that reroutes my sports passion from football to hoops, just in time for Oregon to play Oregon State tomorrow in Eugene.
In terms of the NFL, this is a strange weekend. All four games are rematches. I like the Jets to go into Cincy today and take down the Bengals, even with a rookie QB in Mark Sanchez. I like Thomas Jones to control the tempo on the ground, and I think Rex Ryan will have the defense dialled up to stop the Bengals on offense. New York 24, The Nati 10.
I like the Cowboys to finally get over the hump. It's asking a lot for one team to beat another three times in a season, but I think Romo, Witten, Austin, Jones, Barber and the boys get it done tonight at home. I like a shoot-out. This game should be a lot of fun to watch--one of those '90s throwback playoff games. Dallas 38, Philly 34.
I like Tom Brady to do his thing against Baltimore. The Ravens struggle with the pass, and Moss will be locked in and fully engaged. Brady to Moss for 8-157-2. The Patriots can't stop anyone on 'D', but they'll do enough to get out with a win. Pats 34, Ravens 27.
I don't know what to think about the Packers/Cards game. It'll depend on Warner, I think. With Bolding likely out, look for Breaston and Doucette to step their games up. I like the way the Packers are passing the ball, and I think they're swarming on defense. I see another shoot-out, but this one won't be as close. Green Bay 41, Arizona 31.
And finally, don't count on orange juice being affordable this year. It's 30 degrees outside right now and snowing in Orlando. I wanted to play golf this afternoon, but with the windchill the temperature is in the mid-20s. The overnight low for Monday is 16.
Sheesh, that's cold!


A Rare and Wonderful Day: 01/07/10

The anatomy of a fantastic day:
  • 7:38 "Dah!" comes the call over the baby monitor. I roll out of bed, head into the nursery and Lyla is sitting up in her crib, smiling. Seriously, this girl smiles all...the...time.
  • 7:42 I read the paper and have coffee. Lyla eats Cheerios and plays while The Today Show runs through a story on why there's a double standard about male body type (hint: men are fat slobs, but nobody cares!). Al gives the weather: it's cold.
  • 8:22 Lyla cashes a stage three oatmeal and bananas and takes down an apple wheel. I have a bagel and we commence the daily cleansing, a little Phil Collins on the box.
  • 9:24 House clean, we head to the YMCA. I get some exercise while Lyla socializes with age-mates. No hitting involved (I mean the kids, of course)!
  • 10:27 We go to the bank. Lyla falls asleep in the truck and it's back to the house. Chili for Dad; Nine ounces of milk for Lyla.
  • 12:34 Lyla checks in at daycare.
  • 12:41 I'm back home and (yes, our daycare is that close) I hit the word processor.
  • 3:26 I type the words "The End" on draft zero of the novel I've been working on since last January. That's what makes this a rare day. 80,754 words and 291 pages (Microsoft Word, TNR). I send it along to my agent and dance around the house for awhile.
  • 3:48 I arrive at the Spanish Pond and run as fast as I can, up and down dunes, until arriving at the birding platform at the Round Marsh. I take a few moments of quiet in Florida's beauty and reflect on all I have to be thankful for.
  • 4:26 I arrive at Ed Austin Park to meet my wife and daughter for a walk and a trip to the playground. They are nowhere to be found and I lost my cell phone, so I drive home.
  • 4: 32 I see Jeanne driving toward the park. The love of my life gives me a wave and a smile and I flip a bitch (that's a "u-turn" folks) at the next intersection.
  • 4:40 We walk the park and take Lyla to the swings, where we witness the full and unbridled glee and love of a ten-month-old human and the beautiful laws of motion. She swings back and forth and cackles like only a person who doesn't know a single Earthly word can. It's lovely.
  • 5:10 Off to Publix to grab some groceries.
  • 6: 15 Lyla eats squash, chicken and veggies. Jeanne and I take down some steak fajitas.
  • 7:50 After bath time and about thirty minutes of independent play, it's time to say goodnight. Lyla waves (a new skill) and goes down without a fight. She's sleeping through the night pretty regularly now.
  • 8:42 I'm enjoying a cold beer and watching the BCS National Championship game, after another fine episode of Community.

I'm thankful. I'm thankful for Jeanne and for Lyla and for all of my family, friends, colleagues and students who inspire and cajole and encourage and help me through everything. Life is filled with tough days, but it's also filled with great ones.

Today was one of those...


John Connolly and Tending the Garden

I suppose that I'm in the minority in that my only exposure to John Connolly's fiction is in the realm of his speculative output. I loved Nocturns, The Book of Lost Things and his latest novel, The Gates.

Mr. Connolly is best known for his crime novels, though he readily admits on his website that he has a special place in his heart for the weird tale. That love comes across in his fiction, which is simultaneously creepy and hilarious. It's a crazy salad, to be sure, but a heck of a fine meal.

In The Gates, we get a physics-sprinkled (it is absolutely fascinating; don't let my simplistic description scare you off!) yarn of the Hadron Particle Collider and ol' Satan himself, the Great Malevolence, threatening to rip a hole in the fabric of our dimension to allow his minions a shot at running roughshod over humanity. The only obstacle? An inquisitive boy named Samuel Johnson and his dachshund Bosworth.

Sam is a great character, and Connolly has a keen eye for the mundane idiocies of adult life. It takes a fertile mind to believe a boy when he absolutely swears that he saw his neighbor open a portal to Hell--let's face it, most adults aren't cut out for it. With so many troublesome issues (adultery, loveless marriages, complete absence of anything resembling faith), it's danged hard to listen to the kid in the Halloween costume going on about the end of the world.

Even if he is correct.

Connolly writes short, fluid chapters. His prose is lean and descriptive, and he's got a keen sense of humor. This one's suitable for perceptive youngsters and young-at-heart adults alike, and he hints at a sequel to come in the third act.

Connolly's admitted before that he enjoys writing his crime thrillers because they, in no small fashion, give him the time and financial resources to work on his speculative projects. He also reviews movies and books and contributes to the Dublin Times, so he's prolific and versatile.

Here's to hoping that he continues to get the time to work on his speculative fiction...

I've been reading and writing a lot of science fiction lately, but I haven't made the time to send any stories out on submission. I have three tales forthcoming in the near future, but I'd hoped to have some additional good news coming out of the holiday break. Alas, two markets that had stories of mine for much of last year sent out kind personal rejections over the break. They did like the stories, though, and I think I'm getting close!

How do you deal with minor rejection?

Put together some more submissions, of course. I hit the post office today, friends. Three hours later and I had eleven more submissions out on review. Fingers crossed and all that...

And finally, I read the saddest science fiction story the other day. John Meaney's "Looking Through Mother's Eyes" was a very affecting read. It's a story about parenthood and sacrifice and self awareness. I'm not spoiling the ending by including this brief snippet:

Mother. I love you.
Surely she knows this, that I love her as she must have loved her own fine mother, but I want to tell it to her, just once while we have the chance, and suddenly I feel cool air in my throat and I yell the words:
"I love you, Mother!"
Just for a moment, her nerves regain control and she gives a miraculous reply: "Love you...Daughter."
It is the most perfect moment.

Wow. This story, let me tell you...

Since we had our little one, stuff like this really hits home. I've been writing a lot about co-dependence and vulnerability since she joined us, but I sense it's time to move to another part of the garden for a little while. Might be best to just let the blossoms mature here for awhile and then circle back down the road.

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...