For years I have threatened to “sell out” in my writing career. Invariably, whenever I utter such threats, I explain that I will mass produce Mickey Spillane-type drivel. My first sentence — the hook — will involve the double entendre written above.
I was talking with a friend a few years ago and he criticized the mystery writer James Patterson. “That guy has sold out,” my friend lamented. “It’s a formula now. I could do what he’s doing.”
“If you could do what he’s doing,” I asked my friend, “why don’t you? The guy earns millions of dollars every year. How much did you pull down last year schlepping plastic products?”
Let me be clear: I love fine writing. I hope to produce fine writing. Almost every time I sit down at my keyboard, I struggle to write stellar, Pulitzer Prize-winning prose. If it never quite works out that way, it doesn’t mean I will quit trying.
At the same time, different genres appeal to different audiences. If I could write James Patterson books, I would.
The old admonition about not selling out is a cliché. It is a lame excuse to explain why the writer did not produce a mega-bestseller.
A writer writes. (There’s another cliché for you.) If I can write like Hemingway or Faulkner and a publisher wants to buy the stuff, great. If I can produce James Patterson and sell it, that’s terrific as well. The victory is in producing a readable work that succeeds on its merits in the genre in which it is written. Everything above that is gravy, to use yet another cliché.
I will remove all the verbs if the publisher wants it that way. I've got no pride. A victory is a victory.
My point, of course, is that writers strive to produce work that someone wants to read. Anything in service of that goal is commendable. It is not selling out.
“Selling out” is in not writing anything.
Back in 2006, I started toying with the idea of "selling out" in the conventional sense of that term. I remember the rock band The Who producing an album of fake commercials and deliberately cheesy songs called The Who Sell Out. I’m no James Patterson or Pete Townshend (for those under 30 or over 70, he's the lead songwriter and guitarist for The Who), but I decided to try my hand at producing a cheesy action novel. My goal was to have fun with it.
Although I decided not to start with the first sentence in my Mickey Spillane spoof, I laid down a few ground rules at the outset:
1. I will not spend time developing an outline or sketches to round out my characters or include fancy classical allusions or themes. I will write as quickly as I can. I will write as the spirit moves me. Let the story meander as it will. What’s the fun in selling out if I have to polish the damn manuscript later?
2. I will not revise the text apart from correcting the spelling, punctuation, and other grammatical errors. I’m no e. e. cummings, so the words have to be more or less correct. In most of my writing, I constantly revise my work to polish the prose. I will not do that here no matter how much I might be tempted. I recall that Truman Capote reputedly dismissed Jack Kerouac’s work by saying, “that’s not writing; that’s typing” because Kerouac was said to write quickly and with minimal revision. I decided to emulate Kerouac’s process with apologies to Capote. I’m typing, according to Capote’s definition. I am fine with that assessment.
3. I will rely on my undergraduate students’ research methods. If it involves more than 10 minutes of research on Google, it is not worth doing. Thus, I can research, say, Kalashnikov rifles on the internet, but I must not gather enough information to be authoritative. I must just get by. Wikipedia must be my Bible. If it works for my students, perhaps it can work for me. A generation of “C” students can’t be wrong — can they? If they are wrong, our nation is in serious trouble (but that's a topic for a separate blog).
4. Action for action’s sake will carry the day. I usually prefer character-driven stories. Such fancy-schmancy erudition has no place here. To the extent that character surfaces, it will be in support of advancing the plot or it will be inadvertent. Any insight into the human condition is purely accidental and regrettable.
5. I will eschew words such as “erudition,” “inadvertent,” and “eschew.”
6. The novel will be cliché-friendly. In fact, the more hackneyed, well-worn, familiar, and formulaic the idea, the more welcome it is in this book. No original ideas will be harmed in the making of this work.
7. I will not worry about internal consistency. The idea is to produce a story as quickly as I can. I am trying to write a book that could be sold at Rite Aid on a shelf next to the enemas and diarrhea medicine. Those images give you an idea of the market I am aiming for with the novel.
8. The novel must have no socially redeeming value whatsoever. It must be silly, fun, and as disposable as the enemas stacked one shelf over in the Rite Aid. It must be an airport read and nothing more.
I call the cheesy novel “The Day of the Gun” (a working title).
Without further adieu, here are the first two chapters:
In the instant before the guns blasted through the walls, knocking grapefruit-sized holes in the Sheetrock and splintering beams in the living room, Kurt Martin knew something was wrong. It was too quiet. His cat, Fat Girl, should have been trundling down the stairs to greet him. The air conditioner should have been humming with life. He usually left the upstairs TV on to keep Fat Girl company, but the tube was curiously silent.
When he stepped through the front door, his keys jangling on the ring, mail and magazines in hand, he stopped to look around. It was hard to put his finger on it, but the house looked funny — different somehow. It was the little things that only a compulsive neat freak would observe, but it tipped him off to be on his guard. The newspaper was turned at a slight angle on the foyer table; Kurt liked it squared off so the edge of the front page came to the edge of the stand. The hall light was on — on for no reason at all — and he was irked by the lapse of judgment. He cringed at the costs of electricity during the oppressive summer months; he would not have been so careless with his hard-earned dollars. From the foyer, he could see the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. The seat was up; surely, that was not his doing. Long ago, his mother had impressed upon him the necessity of proper bathroom etiquette. Someone had tracked a leaf onto the carpet, and Kurt knew he wasn’t the culprit; he was fastidious in his hygiene and housekeeping.
Had he not noticed those slight variations in the routine environment — that, and the eerie silence — he might have met his death that afternoon. Despite his relaxed lifestyle of late, he had kept himself in shape and his instincts well honed. He noticed his surroundings, the comings and goings of his neighbors, the make, model, and license plate numbers of strange cars cruising through the subdivision at odd hours. He was a one-man Neighborhood Watch, a spectator of uncommon fortitude even when lurking beneath a thin veneer of suburbia.
In two years of hiding, he had tried to recast his life, to blend in with the scenery. His two-story brick-façade house with the gravel driveway and the basketball hoop on wheels in the side yard were mirror images of many houses in the Pine Lake subdivision. Like the perennials growing in a bed in front of the porch swing, the wheelbarrow and bags of potting soil piled in a corner of the garage broadcast a message of domestic tranquility to the world. During the previous weekend, he had spent hours hunched over his flower garden, trowel in hand, pruning and planting, pulling weeds, spreading Miracle Grow on his azaleas — all the things his neighbors did as a matter of course. He had slipped into the role of suburbanite with amazing dexterity.
If anyone cared to ask why an attractive, seemingly well to do 30-something bachelor remained so strangely unengaged with the people around him, he muttered a few choice words — “messy divorce” — and the inquiries ceased with a nodding head and a wrinkled brow. To his neighbors, he was a man on the mend, trying to rebuild his life following a period of turmoil and confusion.
In a manner of speaking, he was what he seemed to be. He had emerged from a period of turmoil and confusion, and desperately sought solace in this nondescript corner of the country. He had suffered through a messy divorce of sorts, not from a woman, but from a lifestyle. He had moved there deliberately seeking the anonymity that suburban America offers its inhabitants. He would be just another face in just another neighborhood in just another subdivision blossoming up in the Southern landscape.
How they had found him was a mystery.
It was a mystery he would have to solve another time. For now, survival was the focus. Lying on the floor, dazed, he blinked his eyes and shook his head as if trying to convince himself the gunshots were real and this terrible thing was actually happening to him. The previous evening he had watched a Jean Claude van Damme movie on HBO, and the hollow boom of the firearms reminded him of a scene from the film. He wasted precious seconds clearing his head.
“Did we get him — did we get him?” an excited voice asked when the sounds of the machine gun blasts had ceased.
“Shut up,” another man snapped.
So they were amateurs; no professional assassin would speak that way on a job. Hmm. Interesting. That insight would yield fruitful information later — if he lived to mull it over.
He heard the crunch of wood and glass beneath steel-toed boots. They were coming around through the living room to check on their prey. They would be on him in seconds. It wasn’t a big house. A fellow could cross the entire length of the place in well under half a minute. If he were going to escape, he must not hesitate.
Pulling himself up on his elbows, wiping the debris from his back and shoulders, he looked through the hallway toward the bathroom adjacent to the master bedroom. If he could make it past the front bedroom, with its window looking out over the front lawn, he could slam the door and keep them at bay for a few precious minutes. Reaching to his pants, he found his cellphone strapped to the edge of his jeans — thank God — so he could call for help while he awaited their next move. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was something.
They heard him as he struggled to his feet, pieces of Sheetrock, plaster, glass, and wood cascading off his body and onto the floor. With his heart pounding against his ribs like a trapped bird slamming against its cage, he threw himself forward and dashed toward the bathroom.
“Hey,” one man called to him.
Seconds later, gunfire erupted again. In the confines of the little house, it sounded like giant cannons exploding in a Civil War movie. The fusillade followed him down the length of the hall, shattering a mirror, a thermostat control, and his newly purchased joke painting of dogs playing poker. When it looked as though the bullets might reach him, Kurt launched himself airborne like Superman taking flight.
He landed, hard, against the bathroom sink. With an audible thud, he struck his thighs on the porcelain and fell to the ground. Using his foot, he caught the bathroom door and kicked it shut. In one swift motion, he leaned up and twisted the lock.
In the old days, he would have had a pistol tucked away, maybe taped to the back of the toilet. It would not have been unthinkable for him to have a knife or two strapped to his belt or tucked inside his boot. The younger Kurt was nothing if not well prepared.
Those were the old days. These days he wore tennis shoes and no belt. He did not have guns in the house. Other than the gardening tools outside and the knives in the kitchen drawer, he had no weapons of any kind. He had not needed them.
As he fought off panic and considered his predicament, bullets tore into the door, knocking chunks of wood through the room. Ducking, he stepped into the shower and reached for the small window just to his left. Could he pry it open and hoist himself onto the lawn? What if they had a third confederate waiting outside?
He had no choice. He would die standing in his shower if he didn’t do something. He preferred to perish in the attempt than to meet his fate cowering like a frightened child curled up in a bathtub.
The window popped open and he pushed the screen from his path. Hunkering down until he sensed a lull in the firing, he hoisted himself up and, using the back of the toilet for leverage, propelled himself through the opening.
His descent was anything but elegant. He tumbled into the flowerbed he had been working on the night before, colliding with the bucket and trowel he had left in anticipation of another round of gardening. Change of plans.
“Shit,” a voice called from behind him. “He went through the window!”
Kurt threw himself back against the house and gasped for breath. The assailants probably would not follow him through the small portal if they had other options available, which they did. Still, he knew they would appear through his front door in a matter of seconds.
On the morning that Kurt Martin moved into his new home on Shiloh Trace, Jim and Fran Gilleland from next door stopped in with a bundt cake and a large pot of beef stew. “Hey, neighbor,” the portly accountant said with his arm casually draped over his wife’s shoulder. “Just wanted to welcome you to the most peaceful community this side of the city. Figured you’d be too tired to cook.”
“That’s very kind. Thank you.”
They were kind people, the Gillelands, but what most struck Kurt as useful in his current conundrum was Jim’s comment that he loved a wooden lot, and privacy was essential. He had left the strip of land between the Martin and Gilleland homesteads completely wooded. “Don’t be surprised if you see a few deer looking for food,” he had warned on that long-ago first day. “They’re constantly nipping at my plants.”
Kurt gazed at the canopy less than 20 yards away. If he could make it to Jim’s clump of trees, he might elude his visitors, or at least find a spot to dial 911. It was worth a try. He leaned forward, clutched the trowel in his hand, and sped off toward the woods.
Crouching as low as he could while he ran, he zigged and zagged, figuring that they would see him before he could disappear, but at least he would be a difficult target to hit. Sure enough, the ground at his feet exploded, raining dirt around his shoes.
Somehow, against the odds, he made it into the woods unscathed. The forest wasn’t deep, but he was invisible in the foliage, and that was to his advantage — anything to escape the line of fire. He threw himself into a bramble bush next to a dogwood tree and struggled to slow his breathing.
The silhouette of two men appeared at the edge of the wood just as Kurt slipped into the brush. For the first time since the whole crazy attack had begun, he could see his assailants, albeit they were cloaked in shadow. They were not at all what he expected.
Both fellows were fairly young — barely into their early twenties, he guessed. They wore blue jeans and dark t-shirts. One man seemed to be the leader; he was more composed and authoritative in his speech. He wore a baseball cap turned backward and a full black beard. The other fellow, seemingly younger and nervous, sported a ponytail and five-days' growth of a quasi-beard.
The way they walked and flailed the guns again suggested they were not professionals. Professionals would have handled the operation far more quietly and efficiently, probably under the cover of night. These fellows had taken great risks in perpetrating a daylight raid on a suburban neighborhood. So far, things were not going their way.
Someone nearby must have heard the commotion. Maybe his neighbors — Jim or Fran, perhaps — already were calling the police. Pine Lake was a sleepy little subdivision. Fireworks on the Fourth of July were the only public disturbances of note since he had moved into the area.
“Look,” the leader said, his voice thick with frustration. “You’re only draggin’ this thing out. You know you can’t escape, so why don’t you come out?”
“I think I hit him,” the younger man said.
They stood for a moment, straining to see their quarry in the thicket. When nothing stirred, they opened fire, raking bullets up and down through the underbrush.
Kurt rolled into a ball, protecting his head with his arms. All around him trees, branches, and bushes cracked and popped as they were torn to shreds. It reminded him of the sound of wood popping as it burned in a roaring bonfire.
Then, in an instant, something happened that Kurt would never forget. The side door to Jim Gilleland’s house flew open and his neighbor emerged. Jim wore Khaki pants and a polo shirt that barely covered his expansive belly and flabby man-tits. He clutched a can of Budweiser beer in one hand. His broad, shiny face — normally so open and engaging, so trusting — bore a strange expression. Jim was perplexed at the noise. His brow was wrinkled into a frown of concentration.
“What the hell is going on here?” he asked to no one in particular the moment before his head exploded into a pink, gelatinous mass.
“Oh, my God,” Kurt whispered in horror.
It was unlike anything he had ever witnessed. The only other person ever shot down beside him, Michael Harris, had been struck in the chest. Kurt had been turned away when it happened; thus, he had been spared the grisly sight of a human body torn to shreds by a metal projectile. He was no stranger to violence in his old life, but he had never seen the force and effect of a hollow point cop-killer bullet striking a man in the head. It reminded him of The Late Show with David Letterman when David hurled watermelons from the top of the TV station and watched them splatter in the parking lot.
Jim’s body did not so much fall as collapse into a crumpled heap. He was a puppet whose strings had been released all at once.