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  1. OPENING SCENE: Introduces Ezra Porter (the protagonist) just after his senator father (the antagonist) made his first move against his son. A disturbance comes in the form of discovering his father’s motives from a reporter who wants Ezra’s help in taking down the senator. When Ezra realizes he can secure the proof for the accusations against his father himself, he decides to beat the New Yorker to print and use this story to cut the strings of his father’s control. Setting, tone, obstacles, and stakes for all parties involved are revealed in this scene taken from the first chapter. I’m distracted again. Not by thoughts of my father, but the movement of some guy down the block. This city always smells of sour milk and decomposing flesh, but suddenly I’m hyper aware of it. The fight or flight instinct has turned on like a light switch. And my senses are firing at peak levels when I realize this creep down the street sneaking glances at me isn’t a crackhead seeing things, it’s that leach of a reporter, Trey Edwards. “Fucking hell, not today,” I say under my breath as I shove my hands in my pockets and try to make fleeing the scene look casual. I round the corner and look to see if he’s following. He is. Ten years ago, this walking byline was entering his early thirties, desperate to break a story. And boy did he fucking do it. An exposé crediting my high school girlfriend and me getting caught fucking outside her mom’s megachurch as the event that ultimately caused the small town of Oak Haven, Texas to lose 500 jobs. I’ve been trying to distance myself from that story—and this fuckhead—ever since. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him step on and off the curb. Trey is someone with all the ingredients of a great person—investigative journalist, rural small-town family, charitable—but trust me, he’s a certified scumbag. Out for number one. He needs something, and he’ll use me to get it. This isn’t the first time he’s conveniently run into me, usually banking on small talk to somehow confirm his suspicion that my father and I work together. We don’t. But following me like a rat toward the scent of New York sidewalk trash feels downright invasive. I decide to get this over with and say as little as possible. “Why are you here, Trey?” I ask, not bothering to turn to face him. The scumbag answers, talking to my back and matching each of my foot falls along the pavement. “Because I know daddy needs you home. Maybe now you’ll be willing to talk.” Confirmed. He knows I’m a fucking puppet, and Jack Porter is pulling the strings. We’re both aware my father didn’t build his wealth on intellect or ingenuity. No, he’s climbed to the top by being a ruthlessly selfish master of manipulation. I’m not even the slightest bit surprised I’m his latest victim. I find it hard to believe that would surprise Trey either. But the intrigue as to how he already knows is too much to fight off. I stop, whirling around to see him. “How do you know?” Trey’s standing near the curb with an old school briefcase in one hand, a shit eating grin on his face, and taking in the scowl marking my features like the cat that got the fucking milk. He’s noted there will be no pleasantries. He’s right. There won’t be. “Because the only logical choice he has left is to fall back on nepotism,” he says. Not an answer dumb fuck. We’ve debated this already. It seems to be the topic du jour every time we run into each other like this. We both agree nepotism is problematic in the best of situations. It’s terrible for company morale and a breeding ground for corruption. Sure, I’d claim the act of hiring or transitioning power to kin is in and of itself corrupt, but he’d argue I’m too focused on the act and not the motives. It’s almost always an indication that there’s a need to maintain secrecy. But unfortunately for Trey, I know nothing. I haven’t gotten my hands dirty, and I plan on keeping it that way. I wait Trey out, wondering if he knows how fucked I am too. Does he know about the debt? “Why now?” he asks. Come on, man. I’m not that easy. “You’re the reporter. Tell me.” He squints and peers into me like he thinks I’ll cave. Or more likely, calculating whether whatever he’s about to say is worth conceding. If my father taught me anything it’s that everyone is negotiating. Always. And now, I’m interested in what he knows. “It’s an election year,” he spits out. And sure enough, the first bargaining chip hits the table. “Ever stop to wonder why his opponent pushed so hard for that new prop that just passed? Up until this point holding office in Jersey while running the business in Texas was no problem. But now, it will be all but illegal for him to do both. I find it ironic that your father didn’t see that coming.” Anger trips the live wire within my chest with electricity flowing through my extremities, seeking the nearest exit point. My heart is pounding, but I’m playing along. Feigning apathy to keep him talking. “Or he did and just happens to be ready to hand over the company.” “A man like your father doesn’t hand over things that belong to him. I’m starting to wonder if you even know the truth, Ezra?” I can’t stand the fact that I’m dumb enough to be hearing my father’s motives from Trey fucking Edwards. And the worst part is, I need it. But there will likely be blood when I release the tight grip of my nails into my palm because there’s no way I’ll let Trey see a hint of surprise on my face. It’s not a bargaining chip if he thinks I know what he knows. “What do you want?” I say, calm indifference scraping my vocal cords. “We can help each other, Ezra.” I smile. “What, you want to run the Porter House blog?” “No,” he says, matching my cocky attitude. “That would imply that I actually think you’ll accept your father’s offer.” Well, unless Trey’s offering me eight hundred thousand dollars to pay off my newfound debt, there’s no use in continuing this conversation. “We’ll see,” I say, then turn to keep walking. But it’s only a few steps before he doubles down on this negotiation. Hurls a verbal dagger that strikes a nerve I didn’t think existed anymore. “I spoke to Henley the other day.” Below the belt and he knows it. I should fucking leave, but that girl I’d deported from my mind for the last ten years has apparently never left home soil. Just hearing her name, a flicker of a thought snakes its way through me. I’m still in love with her. I’ve done blow and prescription shit I shouldn’t have. But I have self control—not an addictive personality. Yet somehow, that name makes me feel like a junkie waiting the twenty seconds it takes their meth to cook on a spoon over the flame. The air rushes from my lungs in some big release. In perfect detail. In 4 fucking K. I can see her under the bleachers outside her mother’s megachurch. My dick is eighteen all over again. My mouth salivates recalling the way the mixture of foil and latex tasted as it lingered the last time I saw her. I’d brought the square packet to my lips, ripped the condom free with my teeth. Her panties dangled from her left ankle, hips circling against me as I crept her Sunday’s best up to her waist. In my head, I’m already hiding the tip. I want more of her. But I shut that shit down. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Long story short, I’ll also never forget the light that hit her bottom lip. Not because it illuminated the way she was literally chomping at the bit for me to slide myself inside, but because of the source. A perfect angle from the Texas sun off the silver badge proudly strapped to the Oak Haven police chief’s utility belt. And because she wore her preacher’s kid persona like a second skin, the first question asked was “Is this young man forcing himself on you?” And fuck that, like I said, I was in love with her. I didn’t force myself on her. I’m not that guy. But her route to damage control was to fall fucking silent in the face of a national scandal—yes national. The mega in megachurch can mean many things, in this case we’re talking live-national-broadcast mega. But I guess Henley chalked one up for the side of the superficial bullshit personas. Because like my father, it was all about reputation for her, and she used hers as the get out of jail free card. It worked perfectly. I’m past the lustful memories and now fully engulfed in the betrayal. The anger pulls me back to the present. I’m not sure if I’m hardened or dead but whatever it is, I’m nothing but cold now. Trey’s loving whatever he sees on my face. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe Jack didn’t want you close to the Jones family?” He’s rattling me, and now my words come out with a sharpened edge. “Yeah. Because they claimed I forced myself on her. And no contact meant no police report.” I’m reminded of his article. His questions of what constitutes a conflict of interest when church and state mix, but he used our scandal to prove how the lines can become blurred. Never once mentioning the police report. I looked like the guy that used the girl and moved on. “Your lazy reporting failed to mention that part.” “Or that part wasn’t true,” he says. “Believe what you want, Trey.” “Oh no, it’s believable. And Henley seemed believable as well when I saw her last week. And she claimed to have not a clue as to what I was talking about when I asked about the threat of a police report.” “She’s lying to you.” “Oh, someone’s lying but it’s not her. I don’t think you’re lying either. I might look a little closer to home.” Neither of us speak. We’re staring at each other like this can only be settled with fists. But I’m reminded of what this asshole and I have in common. I hate my father as much as he does. But where Trey and I differ? Well, he wants to know what the good senator and Porter House Whiskey are hiding. He wants to reveal it. I’m well aware that the mask my father wears to the public is anything but the shadows that lurk beneath. But I want nothing to do with it. I want out. Which gets me thinking. What’s he onto? How much does Trey Edwards know about the man controlling the line I’m dangling on? Is it sharp enough to cut the strings? This is the pitfall of investigative journalism. You poke your head in too many doors and someone might get smart. I just got smart. Fine, Trey. I’ll play along until I get what I need. I slide my entitled, elitist, rich kid, son of a senator cosplay mask on without a hitch. I’m ready to participate in Trey’s game hoping his excited desperation is enough to let the act slip past him. It works like a charm. “Ezra,” he says, then lowers his voice. “Massive, unaccounted campaign funds have been rolling in from Houston, Texas.” I have no idea how to process the bomb Trey just set in front of me. I’m staring at the red numbers counting down, and wondering which wire do I cut to save myself? Red? Blue? Black? “I’m publishing an exposé. Work with me. What do you know about your father’s ties to the Calvary Megachurch, beyond your little, insignificant scandal?” And with that one question, I pick a wire and cut. The bomb dismantles and clarity floods in to replace the panic. This isn’t about my father. Or Trey’s tireless smears of my dad’s campaigns. It’s not even about the lack of the senator’s ethics. Trey’s trying to connect Calvary Megachurch—Henley’s mother’s church—to my father’s bank accounts. And that’s why he spoke with Henley, too. Everything stops. I dig deeper because memories are just electrical and chemical signals in the brain that connect together in certain patterns called synapses. Simply triggering these synapses should bring about the act of remembering and they do. She knows more.
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  3. The Art of Fiction 1. How did it help me as a writer? Throw away details that are not necessary. Even as a writer who dislikes excessively long books, it's easy at times when writing our own stuff to have fun "playing" with details in the story that might bore others. 2. Two or three major lessons I learned from it? Writing is like any other art form, break the old, traditional rules if you can do it in a way that makes the art more beautiful. And the idea of not overexplaining what a character is thinking. THAT is something that's very easy to do when writing in the third person, and it's a good reminder to show, not tell, even in third person POV. 3. Anything not aligned with this program? Maybe the aforementioned breaking the rules idea - because I really feel breaking the rule in this program of "third person being best" is not 100 percent true in my opinion. Not only because I feel like my own writing comes to life more in the first person, but I also enjoy READING first person more most of the time. But I digress - I'd add that with the plethora of books out there now on writing, a more contemporary one would probably be more useful to the modern writer. I disliked some of the snobby attitude in parts of it. Writing the Breakout Novel 1. How did it help me as a writer? (I love this book!) It helped as an overall reminder of things I read in various versions throughout the first couple years I was writing but expanded on it in many ways, and was nice to read an agent's perspective. This was a more comprehensive and easier to approach book on the basics, too. 2. Lessons I learned? Keep going one more level. If you think you have an okay concept, how can you make it better? And after that? How can you raise the stakes further? And make it more original? Basically, taking ANYTHING in a novel (a character, the conflict, the setting) all of it, and pushing one step further. And then even further, to make it better. I love this idea. And also, "if you must go out on a moral limb, anchor your readers in a sympathetic character." This is not something I cannot remember reading in any other book on writing, and yet it's SO helpful for someone who writes fiction on the slightly darker side. Not just with the novel I used in this program, but in other novels, I've dabbled in topics some readers might consider touchy moral ground. I learned a lot from this one. Too many ideas to list. 3. It seemed very aligned with this program. Probably the most of the four books. Write Away 1. How did it help me as a writer? Discussing what keeps a writer in their seat, and not feeling guilty about something taking a long time (as a writer coming off a sort of hiatus for the past year). I need both of those concepts right now. To not feel alone in the idea that I can take time away, and also a reminder of what will keep me seated and writing, now that I'm back at it. 2. Lessons learned? That I really do prefer breaking literary fiction rules to write grittier fiction with more voice. And that your setting isn't just about it feeling like you're really there, but that it should also cause a mood, an emotional response. 3. Nothing I can think of seemed drastically out of line with the program. The Writing Life 1. How did it help me as a writer? This may sound off, but honestly, it helped me see how melodramatic we can sometimes be as writers. Everything must be a struggle! The drama! (Yes, I'm being a bit sarcastic about writers, myself FULLY included in that.) When I read this book and thought of how difficult some people have it in the world (and to be honest how crappy some of the stuff I deal with in my day job is) it made the "writer" side of me feel a bit humbled about the moments when I do this "oh the struggle is so hard" kind of stuff. It helped me realize that it's pretty silly to have such a beautiful hobby that, sure, I'd LOVE to turn into a full-time career, but even if I don't, how many people in the world create full books? The author's attitude made me realize that I don't want to have that long-suffering artist perspective so much. 2. Lessons it taught me? Many of the same basic ideas as in the other books, such as sympathetic characters being important. In addition, that there are, in fact, people who actually are writers who make a living as authors in the world - those elusive, mythical creatures. And that I'm correct to hate the idea of small airplanes (nothing to do with writing, but I felt further justified in my fear of them after reading this). 3. It seems a bit in conflict with this program in the snobbish taste in literature. We are trying to "write to market" here, correct? Otherwise, nothing major.
  4. Robert Pfaff, Shrunken Heads, Book Reports Book Reports: The Art of Fiction (Gardener) 1. I have loved John Gardener since I read Grendel in high school. He validated my instincts. For example, I like to break the rules but have always believed that you have to master the rules before you can break them well. Learning a musical instrument or a foreign language teaches you the same idea. You must understand and appreciate structure before you can manipulate it. 11. 1) He debunks certain myths like “Write what you know.” It’s a good departure point for a first book, and my first book is a memoir. But I prefer to write about topics that inspire me to learn new topics, even when it requires years of research to acquire a credible grasp of the subject matter. 2) He embraced the idea of crossing genres, and blending thematic element, which has been on my mind a lot (and often the subject of online debate). I struggle with the concept of genre. My marketing research tells me that genre exists from the summit, as boxes. There are clearly westerns, romance, murder mysteries, etc.…. From a lower altitude, the idea of genre starts to blur. For example, one of my comparables was Karen Robard’s “The Last Victim,” pitched as a ‘romance supernatural suspense thriller.” At the granular lever – the decision-maker’s level, the idea of genre appears to depend on buzz words that appeal to an individual agent or editor. To use one example, I discovered that an Author’s Salon representative with a major publishing house who asked for my manuscript at the conference also purchased the rights to a “supernatural suspense” novel in 2013. I would not have unearthed that information by searching under the genre “horror” on Publisher’s Marketplace. I had to experiment and analyze multiple, related keywords. 3) The concept of the novel as the fictional dream became important to me: shorter, action-based scenes that use vivid imagery and senses to tell the story and induce empathy in the reader, without tripping over false allegory. I make use of one brief allegory in the novel, because psychoanalysts are prone to “deconstruct” simple nursery rhymes or myths to an erotic extreme. This hyperbole fits squarely within the character’s mentality. III. I read the book when I first started this program more than six months ago, and reviewed my notes before I answered these questions. I do not recall anything that directly contradicts what is taught in this course. His approach is less prescriptive – he does not adhere to a particular kind of plot structure, but the “nuts and bolts” six-act, two-goal plot structure taught in the Authors Salon is what I needed to learn at this time. Writing the Breakout Novel (Maas) I. Overall, his insights into how the publishing industry works and what agents and editors are looking for is the overall best lesson gleaned from this book. II. 1) He validated both how I defined the protagonist and the antagonists. The protagonist is the person who has the most to learn from the events that transpire. The primary antagonist is not a one-dimensional serial killer, but a complex, oddly sympathetic monster who believes “it” liberates souls from bad brains. The “red herring” antagonist is a complex, sympathetic young woman at first, troubled by delusions about replicas and robots. 2) He inspired me to move the backstory into the novel as a murder mystery subplot. In the first two drafts, five of Leonard’s former patients and lovers were “missing,” but never participated in the plot. Now they have left the wings and play important roles in driving a subplot that I believe makes for a tightly coiled plot. To save his daughter’s soul from the vengeful spirits, he must risk everything tracking down a serial killer that both 1) has wielded the vengeful spirits embodied in Marta determined to possess his daughter but also 2) holds the mystical secret to her salvation. 3)) His emphasis on bringing the reader deeply as possible into the character’s experience, whatever the point of view, and his emphasis on credible setting within a given historical and cultural setting. In this respect, I have studied down to the historical weather reports – and through subscriptions to The Boston Globe archives – to provide a surreal narrative and its supernatural elements with historically accurate underpinnings. III) Again, I read this book six months ago when I first started this course, and I do not recall direct contradictions. Perhaps the only exception that qualifies is that he validated my initial, first-person “flash-back” approach to writing this novel from a point in the future, as a series of first-person letters from father to daughter. I see where that is discouraged as less marketable in the Author’s Salon modules, but not prohibited. Write Away (George) I. The best image that comes to mind is how the best novelist allow the story to blossom like a flower bud throughout the narrative, planting clues without tipping your hand. II. 1) She embraces the “issue-based” approach to novel writing – suggesting that you write about your passions, both political and philosophical. She does discourage storylines that have a thematic agenda. What asks you to write about what “riles you up?” 2) The chapter (11) on “Tricks of the Dialogue Trade” was exactly what I needed to help distinguish one character’s voice from another, with examples provided above. 3) The emphasis on Unity in all aspects of the novel beyond theme stood out to me. As a result, I have striven to ensure that all scenes in the first 100 pages adhere to a unified cause-and-effect, and conversations between characters echo the unity as well. 4) I will also add the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s archetype. The ordinary and often flaw protagonist steps over a threshold that takes him on a journey to his inner depths (the approach to the inmost cave) facing many “ordeals,” with “enemies and allies,” until he reaches an epiphany, which leads to his “resurrection,” and then returns with a “reward.” III. It seems that the reading assignments complement the course modules, so I do not see major contradictions. She does promote a standard “three-act” structure, but acknowledges variations exist and that there are no “hard and fast rules.” The Writing Life (Dillard) I. The ultimate trade off that a committed writer must make between creative autonomy and that likelihood that no will care and your sacrifices will not matter struck me hard at this crossroads in my life. II 1) The questions that every write must ask: Can it be done? And can I do it? Resonate with the hurdles I faced when I first waded into this book three years ago. 2) She places an emphasis ion trusting your instincts, suggesting that if your gut signals you to keep something in the book rather than hold back gave me the confidence to trust y instincts when my inner critic told me, do you really need to that paragraph. I allowed me to say I may not need it, but I like it, and I think it will appeal to the reader. 3) The trade-off between a propensity for the metaphysical and the “commercial claptrap” to borrow her phrase, represents an endless challenge for me. She suggests that when drawn to the metaphysical, its best to provide the plot with the most realistic underpinnings possible. This led me to explore topics that not only gave me the realistic underpinnings I needed, but taught me that the horrors of the real world are far more perverse and sinister that I summoned from the musty basement of my imagination in the first two drafts. III. Yes, her approach is less structured and systematic that what is taught in the modules. However, she is describing the challenges that writer’s face, and not writing much of a how-to manual.
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