Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
It being the holiday season, I wanted to write a piece that captured the joyous spirit of giving that awakens in everyone this time of year. And I figured what better way to do that than to talk about my favorite serial killer.
Gage Adder – the terminally ill main character in my novel Sick to Death – is likely to be remembered for all the people he assaults and poisons in the book. And that’s a shame because when he’s not busy maiming or killing, he’s somewhat of a saint, carrying out the types of random acts of kindness and generosity this world could use much more of. Take away the vengeful cane beatings and the cyanide, and Gage is pretty much Santa Claus.
The point is, you can learn a lot about kindness from a murderer. Following are a few excerpts from Sick to Death that scream “Christmas Spirit!”
Then it dawned on him. There were ways to be thoughtful and giving without actually having to interact with others. Gage was fully prepared to give niceness a shot, but he wasn’t yet ready to let go of Sartre’s infamous notion that hell is other people. Thus, he spent the remainder of the day being anonymously altruistic.
He used his debit card to add time to six expired parking meters.
He sent an arrangement of roses, hyacinth and ranunculus to Charlene – the receptionist at his office whose husband had recently left her.
He sent two dozen donuts to the staff at FutureBright – a local charity dedicated to empowering at-risk youth – and he donated three hundred dollars to the organization via their website.
He picked up the tab for not one but two tables at the diner where he had lunch, asking the waitress to be discreet about his actions and leaving the establishment before the patrons – five in all – were informed their meals had been paid for. He left the waitress a fifty-percent tip on the total of his and the other two bills.
And for his closing act, he called the pediatric cancer unit at Carrington Medical Center, asked a nurse how many children were currently inpatients, and then ordered forty-three stuffed animals to be delivered to the unit the following day.
Two broken ribs for the guy kicking the homeless man in a back alley and bombarding him with racial epithets.
A thousand dollars in a blank envelope for the neighbors whose five-year old daughter’s body was found in a river two states over.
A cracked cranium for the coke-addled brat who plowed his Beemer into six people on a sidewalk but walked due to daddy’s legendary lawyer.
A boatload of books, games and DVDs for everyone in the Pediatric Burn Unit at Pearson Medical Center.
Brutes and creeps kept showing up bleeding and battered at hospitals and urgent care clinics. Needy individuals, families and organizations continued getting pleasant surprises from an anonymous stranger.
When Gage wasn’t knocking a white supremacist’s nose to the side of his face with a cane, he was handing azaleas to an elderly woman in the park. It was as if he had some strange new kind of bipolar disorder, one that caused him to rapid-cycle between breaking bones and bestowing gifts.
His most notable act occurred the morning of the tenth day, when he saw a woman sobbing as she walked out of a veterinary clinic holding a dog leash. The look on her face – like her entire family had just been sent to a gas chamber.
Holding the door open for the woman as she exited was an employee of the clinic, a teenage girl who looked almost as despondent as the woman herself.
“Don’t worry about the bill right now, Miss Morris,” said the girl. “Take all the time you need.”
Gage and the girl watched as the woman staggered down the sidewalk, clutching the leash. After the girl closed the door and returned to work, Gage approached the woman. He gently rested his hand on her shoulder.
“Please,” he said, “allow me to get you a taxi, Miss.”
She gave Gage a confused look. “I drove here,” she said, continuing to cry.
“It’s okay. You’re in no condition to drive. I’d like to pay for your taxi home, and I’ll also give you money to get a taxi back to your car later.”
“Who are you?” asked the woman.
“Nobody you know, just somebody who’d like to help,” said Gage. “Is it okay if I hail you a cab now?”
“I live a good fifteen minutes away,” said the woman. “A taxi will cost about twenty-five or thirty dollars. I can’t let you pay all that.”
“Please, it’s no problem,” said Gage, who fished his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans and took out three tens and two twenties. “This should cover your ride home and back,” he said as he presented the cash to her.
“You’re very kind, but I couldn’t possibly—”
“Yes, you could. You can.”
The woman smiled through the sobbing and gave Gage a hug.
“Now let’s get you a taxi,” said Gage. He guided the woman toward the curb by her elbow and raised his free hand high. When a taxi pulled up and stopped in front of them about ten seconds later, Gage opened the rear passenger side door for the woman and helped her into the yellow sedan.
“Please make sure this woman gets home safely,” Gage said to the driver. “She’ll tell you the address.” Before Gage closed the door, the woman grabbed the sleeve of his jacket.
“Thank you,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “Thank you so much.”
“You take care of yourself, Miss,” said Gage. “I’m sorry about your dog.”
Gage shut the door and waved to the sobbing woman as the taxi drove off. He then turned around and walked into the veterinary clinic.
“Good morning,” said the girl behind the front desk. It was the same girl who’d held the door for the woman earlier. “How can I help you?”
“That woman who left here crying a few minutes ago, I’m assuming her dog didn’t make it?”
“I’m sorry,” said the girl, “but who are you? A relative or friend of hers?”
“No, no,” said Gage. “I just saw how sad she was and would like to help in some way.”
“Well, there’s not much you can do,” the girl replied. “Her Golden Retriever is being euthanized as we speak.”
“That’s what I figured,” said Gage. “I overheard you say something about her bill before. I would like to pay it.”
This holiday season (and beyond), let’s each try to be a little more like Gage – minus all the, you know, homicide and stuff.
When you write a (somewhat) comic novel about suicide, you’re going to ruffle some feathers and catch some flack. Expecting not to is like walking into the Republican National Convention wearing a Bill Maher tee-shirt and expecting not to get shot. And punched. And shot again.
Now before any of you leave this blog post in disgust and decide you want to shoot and punch and shoot me, let me assure you that I understand there’s nothing funny about suicide. My soon-to-be published novel, The Exit Man, does not make light of offing oneself. It tells the tale of a man, Eli, who helps terminally ill individuals end their immense suffering and die with dignity. The humor in the book stems not from death or suffering but rather from the complicated predicaments that Eli continuously finds himself in. And from paradox. You see, Eli’s day job is that of a purveyor of party supplies.
That said, I acknowledge that the original opening (which I share below) to The Exit Man was a bit much. It did little to establish Eli as a compassionate figure. While many early reviewers of the original manuscript loved the aforementioned opening for its darkly comic and sardonic tone, a few others worried that it might make readers see my anti-hero as much more “anti” than “hero.” So, after much deliberation, I decided to scrap it from the book and replace it. (Not that the new intro isn’t dark and sardonic in its own right.)
Now, just because I decided the original intro wasn’t quite book-worthy doesn’t mean it isn’t blog-worthy. So here it is for your enjoyment, or your displeasure. Or both.
Most people can’t execute a successful suicide to save their life. I’m not talking about folks who go at the task half-assed as a cry for help – e.g., slitting their wrists superficially and sideways or chasing a couple extra Oxycontin tablets with a couple extra vodka shots. No, I’m referring to individuals who really want out but who very unintentionally botch the process, leaving themselves technically alive and with a lot of explaining to do.
In their defense, killing yourself can be tricky business. The human body, despite its seemingly brittle nature and uber-sensitive systems, is surprisingly resilient. It wants to stick around even when the brain is ready to call it quits. Mentally and emotionally you may have had enough, but your body is hell-bent on keeping at least a handful of critical organs open for business.
The body’s innate ability to hang on and bounce back isn’t the only issue. We humans also possess a general inability to gracefully operate instruments of self-destruction while under duress.
So the next time you hear about a failed suicide attempt, don’t instantly assume the “victim” in question didn’t try hard enough. It could very well be that they gave it their best shot but bungled it anyway.
I mean, consider the challenges and risks associated with the most common exit methods.
Wrist slitting. Blood let from arteries or veins by a razor blade often coagulates too quickly. Clots occur and keep the pulse pumping, thus ensuring that you’ll reluctantly live a long(er) life in a monitored room.
Self-inflicted gunshot. A rifle or revolver inserted into the mouth and aimed up at the brain pan tends to jerk forward when fired by an amateur, thus leaving the brain in tact but the face flayed – a vivid bisection from upper lip to forehead that makes facial reconstruction and future dating doubtful. It also greatly hinders one’s ability to do long division.
Overdose. Popping even a highly lethal dosage of pills often results in excruciating abdominal pain prior to passing out, after which involuntary regurgitation typically spoils the show. And even if it doesn’t, there’s often someone who discovers your toxic self and quickly calls in the paramedics for a successful stomach pumping.
Jumping from a bridge or building. Unless done from an excessive height, such attempts are often unsuccessful. The 50-foot leaps and 6th floor “falls” that we often hear about are really just an invitation for full paralysis and a lifetime of liquid food.
Jumping in front of an oncoming train. While this will do the job nine times out of ten – making it among the most fatal suicide methods – it is easily one of the messiest and most publicly invasive techniques, an ugly inkblot on the art form. Mind you, shattered bone fragments often act as dangerous shrapnel upon train impact, placing bystanders at risk of serious physical harm or, at the very least, post-traumatic stress disorder. And let’s not forget the damage that delayed trains do to the productivity of area businesses when jumpers opt to obliterate themselves during morning rush hour.
Carbon monoxide inhalation. This method is sooo 1975. Since then, nearly all automobiles have come equipped with a modern catalytic converter, which strips about 99% of the carbon monoxide from the vehicle’s exhaust. So unless you have a full day or two to sit around in a small, sealed garage with the motor running or can get your hands on a vintage Chevy or Dodge, forget about exiting John Kennedy Toole style. Keep in mind also that carbon monoxide poisoning is by far the least green method of suicide, so if you fail in your attempt, you not only will likely be institutionalized, you will have to endure the scorn of all your friends who recycle and drive a Prius.
Hanging. What are you, in prison? Living in a pre-industrial society? You can do better than this. I mean, I can see if you desperately need out and all you have at your disposal is some rope or fabric and a chair or tree. Otherwise, seriously rethink this. First of all, proper noose-making is a painstaking process. Secondly, the success rate for hanging isn’t high. Even when it does work, it’s not pretty – death often comes in the form of slow, painful strangulation rather than a quick cut of the cord.
Intentional car crash. Please. Today’s airbags are far too reliable. Besides, this method is really in poor taste. I mean, what did the innocent people in the oncoming car ever do to you? Even if your plan involves no other vehicle, why would you take out your own despondence on a majestic oak tree, or on a tax-payer funded overpass exhibiting artful graffiti that gives your suburb at least some semblance of a soul?
Drowning. You are not a poet and you never will be. So just stop it right now.
I do apologize if my attitude toward self-annihilation seems a tad cavalier. Please do not assume me a heartless bastard for exhibiting such callous levity. Let me assure you, I do not take suicide lightly.
After all, it’s how I make my living.
For the handful of you who made it to the end of this post and don’t need to lie down immediately, you can check out the new opening to THE EXIT MAN by clicking here.
And if you haven’t already joined my mailing list, do so now to receive the entire first chapter of THE EXIT MAN.
There are plenty of feel-good quotes intended to inspire writers to fully embrace the craft and to dream and create and succeed.
I prefer quotes like this one from American science fiction writer John Scalzi:
"Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different."
I have received my fair share of rejection letters from literary agents and publishers in my time as a writer. When I received my first few (back when I was pitching my debut novel, Notes on an Orange Burial) I became very discouraged and dispirited. After a while, however, I grew thicker skin. I also realized it wasn’t the agents’ and publishers’ fault that they were born without the ability to recognize latent literary brilliance. I just chalked it up to bad genetics. (Theirs, not mine.)
I even started to feel sorry for some of the agencies and publishing houses for lacking the wisdom and foresight to sign me. But I knew my pity wasn’t going to help them. So I decided to start rejecting their rejection letters with a rejection letter of my own.
Since I’m not a complete sociopath with a writing-career death wish, I never actually sent my “Rejection Letter for Rejecting a Rejection Letter” to any agents or publishers. However, I think it would be a lot of fun if you did so the next time you receive a rejection letter. (For those of you who aren’t writers, feel free to pass this post on to your friends or family members who are, or who think they are.)
And without further ado, here it is – the Rejection Letter for Rejecting a Rejection Letter:
Dear (name of agent or publisher),
Thank you very much for your recent rejection notification. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept your rejection at this time. Please understand that I receive a high volume of rejection notifications and must be highly selective in choosing those that I am able to handle.
The acceptance of rejection notifications is a highly subjective process. The fact that I have decided to pass on your rejection in no way signifies your rejection is sub-par, and I encourage you to continue rejecting authors’ queries and submissions. Just because I have decided to pass on your rejection doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other authors who’d be happy to be rejected by you.
I wish you the best of luck in your future rejection endeavors and want to thank you for allowing me to review your work.
(Your name here. Or a made-up name – to ensure that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever having another agent or a publisher even THINK about accepting your manuscript.)
If you liked this post, you can join my mailing list to have all my future “Scrawl Space” blog posts delivered directly to your inbox. (Even if you DIDN’T like this post, I’ll still let you join – I’m open-minded like that.) By joining the list, you’ll also immediately receive a FREE copy of the first chapter of my dark comic thriller, THE EXIT MAN.
Whenever people ask what my upcoming novel – The Exit Man – is about and I tell them, “It’s about a party supply store owner who leads a double life as a euthanasia specialist, the response I often receive is, “You’re not well in the head.” Those who don’t nervously walk away from me then typically ask, “How did he get into that?”
Well, showing is always more interesting than telling. So, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2 of the book to give you an idea of how my protagonist – Eli Edelmann – went from merely selling party supplies to facilitating final exits:
“You asked my father to kill you?” I asked Sgt. Rush, speaking in a hushed voice with my hand partially covering my mouth, even though we were alone in the shop.
“Sorry Eli – I should have handled that last part more subtly,” he said. “‘Kill’ is not the word. ‘Assist’ is much more accurate.”
“Assist? You were going to pay my father twenty grand to ‘assist’ you. With what, exactly?
“Stopping my cough.”
“What the… why?”
“C’mon Eli, look at me,” Sgt. Rush said just before unloading some more dust and dry phlegm into his handkerchief.
“What? You’re still a strong man… barely in your sixties. You used to get shot at by junkies and gang-bangers – surely you can hack a little emphysema?”
I was aware that I was severely understating his health condition, and that I had inadvertently issued a bad pun, but it was a very emotionally charged moment with little room for stronger arguments or better diction.
“Aw, Christ,” said Sgt. Rush, rolling his eyes. “Will you spare me the obligatory ‘You have everything to live for’ bullshit and just hear me out?”
“And why would you want to involve my father in this?”
“I’m getting to that, if you’d just close your mouth and open your ears for a second.”
“Sorry. I’m listening.”
Sgt. Rush cleared what was left of his throat, walked around to my side of the shop counter and sat down in the seat next to mine.
“First off, I’ve heard it all – hell I even used to say it all myself back when I was on the force: ‘Suicide is a cowardly act.’ ‘Suicide is selfish.’ Oh, and my favorite old chestnut, ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ – well, not when you’re chronically ill with two diseases, one of which eats your mind.”
“Wait, what else do you have?”
“Alzheimer’s. Goddamn early-onset ‘SDAT’ – Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer Type, to be more specific.”
“Oh shit. I’m sorry, Sgt. Rush, I had no idea.”
“Yeah, apparently neither will I within the next few months. And as for being ‘cowardly’ and ‘selfish’, that’s just people getting angry and tossing out insults because they’re too afraid to admit that sometimes taking one’s own life makes sense.”
“Okay, but what are we supposed to say when a friend mentions suicide? ‘Hey, good idea, Bill – let me know how I can help.’”
“No, but people do need to try to see things from the perspective of those in anguish. Especially when a degenerative disease – or two – is involved. To NOT do so, that’s selfish.”
“I agree. But it’s one thing to respect one’s decision to die, it’s quite another to help them carry it out. It’s gruesome and, uh, highly illegal. Why wouldn’t you just do it yourself, like normal suicidal people do – not that I’m condoning it.”
“Okay, at least we’re moving past the platitudes now and into the more pressing questions.”
“Yes, pressing indeed. Why did you ask my father to help you kill yourself?”
“I came to your father for three reasons: First, it’s really fucking hard to follow through with the act of suicide if you aren’t insane, no matter how badly you want out. Secondly, I knew your father was the kind of man who would do almost anything for a friend. And finally, he had easy access to the type of equipment needed for the job.”
“Helium? That’s just going to give you a squeaky voice.”
“I’m not talking about inhaling a few small balloons’ worth. I’m talking about inhaling a steady flow of the stuff, which is highly lethal and, when done right, one of the most painless ways to die.”
Sgt. Rush was grinning – actually grinning – as he delivered his macabre chemistry lesson.
“And best of all,” he continuted, “helium is nearly undetectable in toxicology reports.”
“Who cares? What, do they take away your pension for inert gas infractions? You’ll be dead.”
“You’re missing the point. If nobody finds any evidence of the helium – or anything else – in my system, it won’t be ruled a suicide. Remember, I’m a sick man – they’ll assume I died of ‘natural’ causes… with pride intact, and no life insurance coverage issues for my daughter to deal with.”
“What about the helium tank and whatever you plan on using to breathe the gas into your body? Won’t they find those items when...”
Cue the clicking sound in my head. It was at this moment that I came to fully understand what my father’s role was to be in the aforementioned arrangement.
“Ohhhh,” I said, nodding my head slowly and, for whatever reason, smiling.
“You’re a smart guy, Eli. I knew you’d catch on.”
(end of excerpt)
Would you read on? (If not, I’m in trouble – the book is done and will be out in just a few weeks!)
You can read a couple more excerpts from The Exit Man here, including the beginning of the opening chapter. And you can get the entire first chapter of the book (for free) simply by joining my mailing list. Enjoy!
My fans often ask what I'm working on, what I plan to write next, to which I typically respond, "Mom, Dad, stop bugging me and pass the potatoes." Today, however, I’ve decided to share what's in my novel hopper. And while I'm aware that publicly sharing my ideas for future fiction projects brings with it the risk of another writer stealing one and running with it, I'm putting my faith in the artistic authenticity and common decency of authors. Plus I know a kick-ass intellectual property lawyer.
Following are several ideas I have for novels – some of which I've already started, some of which are merely visions I had after ingesting the wrong (read: right) type of mushroom.
Novel idea #1 Jake Killian must travel to Bali to find and rescue his drug-addled brother, an ex-patriot artist who has fallen for a dangerous woman and crossed the wrong locals. Jake’s “to do” list once he arrives: Exchange money; buy sunscreen; find brother and, if he’s alive, bring him home. Tentative titles: The Seminyak Express; Down and Out in Nusa Dua
Novel idea #2 Charlie Braun has had enough. Exasperated and overwhelmed by the speed of modern living and society’s overreliance on technology, he decides he needs to get away. A remote cabin in the woods, a small bungalow on a secluded beach – these aren’t really options for Charlie, as he’s an incurable agoraphobic. He comes up with a possible solution: Voluntary imprisonment. All he needs to do now is decide what crime to commit so that he can “escape”. Tentative titles:Sabbatical on Cell Block Nine; Freedom in a Cage
Novel idea #3 Three gritty friends – all in their late 70s/early 80s – are fed up over the rapid decline of their community. Nearing the end of their lives and feeling they have little to lose, the trio decides to team up and take on the city’s most violent and unjust inhabitants. They use their elderly image and assumed feebleness to deceive criminals, gangbangers and bullies and lure them into their vigilante lair, all the while driven by the team’s mantra: “Getting even is more rewarding than getting old.” Tentative titles:Fire in Autumn; The Gray Goons
Novel idea #4 A group of three 40-something friends each receives the same bizarre email from a fourth friend – a man who none of them have been in touch with for years and who, based on his email message, is losing his mind. Now all the friends need to do is find out where in the world their troubled friend is and come to his aid before it’s too late. Armed with only a few cryptic clues, a common bond and a quest for adventure, the friends set out on a road (and air and rail) trip of a lifetime. Tentative titles:Searching for Sanderson; The Four
Novel idea #5 William, a once great but now struggling novelist, is visited and tormented by several of his incomplete characters – all of whom are furious over the fact that he has left them stranded in abandoned manuscripts. Each character demands that William complete the book in which he or she is currently “stuck”. Several threaten him with grave physical harm if he even thinks about killing them off before fully developing them and giving their stories a proper conclusion. Is this the end for William, or the best thing that could ever happen for his writing career? (I’ll ping Woody Allen to see if he's interested in the film rights.) Tentative titles: Character Flaws; Writing Wrongs
Which of the above books would you be most interested in reading? Which one(s) would you pay me NOT to write? Share your answers in the ‘Comments’ area below – unless you intend on being critical, in which case just send me a telegram.