One of my favorite posts from the past, Why Your Cat Hates You, is visiting the blog of author Larry Merris today. My cat Snowball, who dictated the post, celebrated by wallowing on my lap to have her belly scratched and then biting me on the thumb. So, a banner day all around! Larry said that some of his readers are cat people, so I hope they’ll drop by here each week for our celebrations of the human spirit and character assassinations.

Please go check out the post on Larry’s blog. Spelling errors might have crept in during the move to his blog, or even foreign words. He writes about foreign countries, so it’s not as outlandish as you might think. Keep both of us honest.

Larry is the author of The Red Serpent, a historical thriller that you should look into if you enjoy nail-biting rides through danger and ancient knowledge. That wasn’t the absolute the best description. For the absolute best description you should check out the book on Larry’s website. It contains a cool book trailer, and if nothing else catches your attention, this cover should:

The Red Serpent by Larry Merris
The Red Serpent by Larry Merris

You can expect the sequel, The Parable Effect, later in 2013.

Larry, thank you for allowing me to visit your blog and your readers!

Before a reader can cherish a book with all his heart, the book must get its ass kicked quite a lot. Any decision along the way can crush the book into a gritty paste. The author must decide to write the damn thing, and to not quit before the story’s done. He has to decide to stop compulsively revising the story and show it to other humans, exposing his soul to annihilation should someone say that he chose an adverb poorly.

At some point an author has to decide to toss the story’s fate into the hands of other people. If he doesn’t, it will be appreciated only by his mother, his college roommate, and his basset hound. This is a risky proposition, since those people might be mean, and they might know more about the book business than he does. Agents, editors, publishers, bookstore owners, and people who want to read books will all judge his cherished creation. Sticking the story in a snappy-looking binder and dropping it into a desk drawer for all eternity can seem a lot more desirable.

I’m struggling with that decision today. I intend to expose my manuscript to the uncaring scrutiny and possible condemnation of agents in the next few days. And I’m preparing a proposal that I hope will cause them to decide that my story is just what’s needed to lift the spirit of humanity in desolate times. Or at least that a fair number of people will buy it, read it, and smile.

I will include something called a “pitch” in this proposal. It’s sort of like the description you’d find on the back of a paperback book. It should sell the book. After a person reads the pitch, whenever he thinks about the book he should feel like he’s just shot up heroin. The pitch is really important. The first pitch I wrote for my story was:

When five young mice of Briarcliff Manor venture into the harrowing barnyard, they want only three things: to find enough food to eat, to avoid becoming something else’s food, and to create as many little mice as possible. They don’t want to get involved in the travails of young Cinderella and her cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a carriage from one pointless place to another pointless place. But the world doesn’t seem to care what mice want. The tiniest mouse, Abernathy, along with his siblings and his friends, must employ recklessness, subterfuge and sarcasm in their struggle to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

When I read over the pitch, I realized there was a chance that it might not be perfect. Since I hoped that other people would be mesmerized by its brilliance, I decided to use the brains of other people to help me improve the pitch. I sent it to a passel of my smarter friends and asked for their help. Some of them had even read the manuscript before. My friends delivered all the help I could have desired. In fact, here’s a selection of the guidance they provided to me:


Friend 1 – “I don’t like the sentence in the middle. It doesn’t fit with the rest of it.”
Me – “Wow. That’s my favorite sentence in the whole thing.”
Friend 1 – “Get used to working with editors.”


Friend 2 – “Saying ‘Cinderella’ straight out is giving everything away. And saying ‘tiniest mouse’ makes it sound like a children’s book. And I know it’s not a children’s book. You must have said damn a thousand times in that book, and you mention some really frisky mouse behavior.”
Me – “I wasn’t sure agents would spend more than four seconds looking at this, so I didn’t want to make them try to figure out it’s Cinderella. But I guess I should give them more credit. Good point about the children’s book. Maybe I could say ‘horniest mouse’ or something?”


Friend 3 – “Saying ‘pointless place’ twice is kind of awkward.”
Me – “Yeah. I guess you’re not telling me that saying it three times would be better, are you?”


Friend 4 – “Why should we care about these mice?”
Me – “Great question. I care about them because I’ve lived with them for months. They’re like penniless relatives I can’t get rid of. I don’t know—maybe you’d care about them if you spent eight bucks for the book? Okay, I’ll work on it.”


Friend 5 – “Even though it’s a ‘sales’ paragraph, it sounds too ‘salesy.’”
Me – “Ouch. If it sounds too much like a sales pitch then I’ve screwed up. I need to go more for, ‘Would you care to see my etchings?’ and less for, ‘Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?’”


Friend 6 – “I stumbled over ‘becoming something else’s food.’”
Me – “Yeah, that whole sequence is crap. I need something more like, ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ or, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’”


Friend 7 – “There needs to be something between the part about the world not caring what mice think and the part about the tiniest mouse and his friends. It seems disconnected.”
Me – “But Friend 1 told me to take out that sentence! Crap. It sucks when you write just 125 words, and the first part’s disconnected from the second part.”


Thanks to my smart, generous, and extremely honest friends, I have created a newer, more irresistible pitch:

The mice of Briarcliff Manor want only three things: to find enough to eat, to escape being eaten, and to have as much sex as possible. They don’t want to get involved with some stupid girl and her two cruel sisters, or to dabble in the affairs of fairy godmothers. They certainly don’t plan to become horses and haul a damned carriage from one pointless place to another. Faced with these threats to their dignity and lives, the audacious mouse Abernathy and his friends must employ subterfuge, bold stupidity, and strategic cowering in order to survive. No matter what trouble that wretched cinder girl gets them into.

Now I shall finish up the proposal and deliver it into the hands of as many harsh, bitterly practical agents as possible. Let the annihilation of my soul begin.

I spent a good part of last night wondering why mice can’t use bazookas. Well, I say that I was wondering about this, but that may be a little misleading. My wife would probably say that was whining rather than wondering. Mouse-bazooka capability doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. If not bazookas, then something else that’s destructive on a similar scale. Napalm would be nice, or maybe they could topple a big church over onto something they don’t like.

For 20 chapters of the story I’m writing, my mice have lived in obliterating terror of their antagonist, and now it’s time to kill the bastard. Sixteen chapters ago I set up the ideal plot device to perform the coup de grâce. My problem is that when the coup comes, my readers will have seen it coming from 16 chapters away. That’s a lousy way to reward them for sticking with the story for 20 chapters. I need a Left Turn.

My understanding of the Left Turn springs from improvisational acting. In improv, when your partner says or does something, then you should say or do something in response. Hopefully you say something that makes sense. If you say something entertaining, that’s a bonus. Sometimes it’s neat to respond with something called a Left Turn, which is a response that no one expected, but that makes sense to everyone the moment you say it. It can’t just be some wild, random, turnips-doing-algebra-and-barking-like-dogs thing. That just confuses everyone and makes the audience hate you and all your seed unto the last generation. It has to make sense—unlike mice firing bazookas.

I’ve found that you can’t force a Left Turn to appear. That’s like forcing an ice cream truck to come down your block. But you can do things to encourage a Left Turn, just like you can hire pretty girls to stand at the curb waving dollars and crying out for Eskimo Pies. To cultivate a Left Turn in improv, when it’s your turn you can follow a chain of ideas until you get to an interesting response. Each idea builds on the one before it, so it gets further from the obvious response but still has a logical connection back to the beginning.

Here’s an improvised Left Turn in a scene:

Me: “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! You killed 20 communist infiltrators all by yourself.”

My Partner: “Yes, but I’m terribly wounded.”

Me: “True, you’re about to die, but before you go I have one thing to say to you.”

My Partner: “What?”

[I start with the idea that this dude is about to die, and then I follow the chain of ideas.]

First idea in my head: “What do you want carved on your head stone?”
Second idea in my head: “Who should take care of your wife and children?”
Third idea in my head: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

Me: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

A Left Turn is born—logical, but not obvious.

So how the heck do my mice Left Turn their enemy into oblivion, alongside Carthage and The Captain and Tennille? I’ll start off with the basic assumption, which is something the mice might say. How about:

“This appalling creature is impaling and disemboweling us all over the place. We should do something.”

And here’s a chain of ideas about what they could do:

—Fall down and play dead.

—Run away to a safer town and forget this blemish of a place.

—Convince the creature it would be more fun to go impale and disembowel someone else, preferably someone far away who was once mean to us.

—Find someone who hates this creature worse than butt fungus and let him eradicate the creature.

—Find someone the creature loves and hold him/her/it hostage until the creature goes away.

—Eat poison and then let the creature eat us. Noble but stupid.

—Lead the creature to the town’s best hunter and taxidermist who conveniently happened to be passing by.

—Lure a giant predator bird down to kill the creature.

—Wait for a god to be lowered on wires and smite the creature with a thunderbolt.

I realize that my chain is pretty long now and that none of these ideas quite sparkle. Maybe I need to work a bit more on how the Left Turn can transition from improvisation to writing. Or maybe I started from the wrong basic assumption. I could instead begin with:

—Kill the creature with a bazooka.

—Kill the creature with a hyper-velocity acorn.

—Tie acorns to our foreheads so the creature chokes to death when it tries to eat a mouse.

I’ll keep working on it.

"A cat in an armored car? Good thing I brought my bazooka."

Photo by Noah7104 at (

When I decided to become a writer, I received a license to whine. More correctly, I gave myself a license to aggravate everyone I know with my whining. They can’t shut me up, unless they want to beat me to death with my laptop and toss my body in a ditch. I think they don’t do that because I threw a great New Year’s party one time, and they’re hoping I’ll throw another one.

I whine about having no ideas, having bad ideas, not enough time to write, how much time writing takes, writing myself into a corner, hating the characters I created, having to kill characters I love, not knowing how to end a story, finishing a story and being depressed about leaving it, and reading books that make me realize everything I’ve ever written sucked. But my most profound whining comes when friends and family fail to show a slavering interest in my work and my writing process.

Perhaps a friend never gives me feedback on the 200,000 word monster I forced on her. Maybe a friend took three months to review my story, when I know that during that time he read someone else’s novel in two days. I may know that a friend read my book until four pages from the end and then let it sit on the desk for a week. Some friend may finish and point out a dozen typos, and when I press for details all she says is, “I really liked it.”

At these times I become dejected, and I whine. The fact that other friends provide me fantastic help doesn’t seem to lift my gloom.

But today I realized something. Writing isn’t an ego-boosting activity. Writing isn’t a holy calling worthy of everyone’s attention. Writing is a job. How many people have jobs about which they expect their friends to get all enthused? Sure, all of my friends read, so I expect them to be interested in my writing. But say I was a plumber. All of my friends use the toilet, but I wouldn’t expect them to get excited about how I replaced a P-trap at work today.

So I’m resolving to whine less and work more. Perhaps my friends will stop pretending they’ve snorted salsa up their nose when I approach them at parties. That would be nice. I just have to keep in mind that when I’m writing, it’s no more than the social equivalent of fixing a toilet.