Friday, March 21, 2014

What I've Learned About Reading My Work Out Loud

I suggest on a regular basis to students that they read their compositions aloud before turning them in for a grade. I say it's the best way to make sure they've said what they meant to say in the way they meant to say it. Reading aloud also helps catch typos. I've taken my own advise less than all the time. I've submitted stories for potential publication without having read them aloud. Last week, my editor at Tiny Hardcore Press returned a story to me with her editorial remarks. She'd had to fix a handful of typos.

I know we can't catch all our typos all the time. Actually, we probably can. I spent time this week reading a couple of my stories out loud, one in particular, and in doing so I was reminded how hearing a story out loud improves clarity and rhythm. Likewise, reading my work out loud helps me fine tune my dialogue.

I also read two of my stories to my son this week. His reactions proved insightful. For instance, he laughed at something I hadn't meant as comical, so I reevaluated the scene. Another time he said, "I know the feeling," which confirmed I'd created a character readers could identify with.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests all writers have an "Ideal Reader," someone we write for and show all our work to. For King, this person is his wife, Tabitha. I don't have a significant other.  Likewise, I find it difficult to impose on busy friends, especially busy friends who are also writers, because I feel like asking them to spend time considering my work is less time they spend considering their own. Time is precious. Now that my son is older, my Ideal Reader may very well be him. He's intuitive and thoughtful and honest and enjoys the role, I've realized, of listening to and responding to my work. Last night, after hearing me present my story, "Reservoir Bitch," to a public audience, he got excited about my story collection and appeared nothing short of impressed. Nothing beats impressing my son. I've sacrificed a lot the last seventeen years to remain an attentive mom while also devoting myself to my craft.

I practiced reading "Reservoir Bitch" several times the past week in preparation for my reading last night. I read the story aloud at my desk, then in my room at my podium, then at my podium in a couple different rooms. I honed my delivery. I became my characters. I added facial expressions and gestures. At the end of one rehearsal, I cried. Another thing that helped was listening to audio books. Hearing others read encouraged me to "sound" like my characters and get into it. 

I've never considered myself talented when it comes to presenting my work aloud to audiences. 

Last night, I gave the best reading of my life (so far.)


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reservoir Bitch

I wrote "Reservoir Bitch" in response to Quentin Tarantino's film, Reservoir Dogs. The original story featured six guys (well, five guys and a girl determined to pass as a guy) who gathered one afternoon to view their favorite film and drink beer and rough house, and when the kids got carried away with their rough housing and one guy ended up with his hand up the girl's shirt, that got carried away, too, and then the girl, feeling violated and angry and exposed, takes revenge with a gun in the house. Hence, reservoir bitch.

At the time, I was interested in the question, "Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?"

I wasn't exactly interested in unleashing a story about kids killing kids though. I also wasn't interested in suggesting a film, or a filmmaker, was responsible. More than that, only two of the six characters interested me. What interested me most was their friendship, so I rewrote the story concentrating mostly on two characters and what transpires between them one afternoon. Tarantino and his film still play an integral role.

I'm reading tonight at Planet Earth and the 4 Directions Gallery. Maybe I'll see you there.


                                                       Reservoir Bitch
                                                                       ©Alana Noël Voth

To xTx

                                                                 “Violence is fun to watch.”
                                                                      Quentin Tarantino

They returned from the reservoir and followed a canal to the trailer park. 
“I hate that old son of a bitch,” Spike said when a green trailer came into view.
“Why you hate him?” Rand didn’t think the old fart could even stand up anymore.
Spike held out his hand. “Give me the Skittles.”
Rand pulled a bag from his pocket. Some of the candy had melted.
“Will you help me?” Spike asked.
“Why you want to mess with a sickly old fart? I mean, didn’t he have a—”
Spike grabbed the candy before his friend finished then dashed across the road. Forget Rand. Ole Spike could do it himself. The green trailer was at the bottom of a row of trailers, most of them occupied by old farts and invalids. Spike liked to think the old man was rotting in Hell.  Not such a stud anymore, are you, fucker? Smiling, Spike crouched beneath a window then listened. Inside, a TV blared. The old son of a bitch had his swamp cooler going too, which meant he couldn’t hear anything outside, not that Spike would make any noise. He was sly as the old pervert had been. Time was right: go. Spike crept alongside a car parked beside the trailer, screwed off the gas cap, then emptied the bag. There you go. As Spike dashed back to meet Rand, he felt redeemed. Sure he did. He crushed the candy wrapper inside his hand. 
“I need a goddamn soda.” 
“Mom ain’t home. How about a goddamn beer?” Rand glanced over his shoulder at the trailer. “Can the old guy even drive that car anymore? I thought I saw some woman coming and going bringing his groceries and stuff.” 
“I don’t know.” Spike shrugged, disliking the idea anyone would help the old son of a bitch, especially a woman. He felt thwarted again.
“At least it’ll cause trouble when he tries to sell it,” Rand said, detecting his buddy’s frustration.
Spike wiped his nose with an arm. “Hope the beer is cold.” He felt sweat building between his ass cheeks.
The neighboring subdivision was in as bad of shape as the trailer park. The houses didn’t remind Spike of bread boxes, and they were worth a little more, but the yards looked the same: dirt and weeds, except the Harris house. Talk about pristine. The yard was lush and green. Flowers grew in pots arranged alongside the house. A tall oak provided shade. A girl lived there. As they passed, Rand might have used his peripheral vision trying to catch a glimpse, and Spike may have used his to see if Rand was looking, but neither of them said anything. Next house over, The Turner’s dog was chained to a stake. The dog raced in circles, out of its mind from boredom and thirst.
“What happens to jerks who neglect animals?” Spike asked.
Rand shrugged. “Probably just a fine or something.”
“That’s not enough.” Spike turned the wrapper over in his hand. “Somebody should let that dog go so it can have its revenge.”
Rand gave his friend a sidelong look. “Gonna tell me what the old fart did?”
“He deserves worse than Skittles in his gas tank,” was the answer.  
For a second, Rand would have sworn his best buddy was about to cry and just about panicked. Or maybe it was what he wanted to see. Spike never cried. In fact, Spike was tougher than most guys Rand knew. Still . . . she wasn’t really a guy even if she dressed like a guy and went by a guy’s name and acted like a guy all the time. Although most everyone thought Spike was weird or confused because she took the tomboy thing to extreme, Rand had never known Spike as anyone but Spike, his best buddy since fourth grade. Stuff had changed though. Like, despite the short hair and oversized T-shirts, Spike didn’t look so much like a guy lately. If Rand was honest, Spike was pretty. And that worried Rand. A lot. For starters, he had an urge to look out for her; like, he wanted to pretend she was more fragile than she was. When they were kids, Spike had beat him at an arm wrestling contest then bragged about it, which hadn’t bothered Rand, not much, although he doubted she could beat him now. He checked out her suntanned arms visible beneath the short sleeves of her T-shirt, which became checking out something else.
“What?” Spike asked, catching his look.  
“Huh? Nothing,” Rand said with a gulp. “Just hotter than a horse’s ass out here.” He wiped his forehead then fixed his eyes on the road.  
Spike laughed. “Now that’s an analogy.”
“A what?”
“A comparison between two things.”  Spike wouldn’t admit it, but he paid attention in English class and was into things like poetry.
“Right,” Rand said. “Can’t wait for that beer.”
“Speaking of, where’s your mom?” Spike asked.
“Working swing shift again. She won’t be home until morning.”
Lately, Rand had discovered an extra bonus in his mom’s work schedule: he could have girls over, as in real girls who acted and dressed like girls. Last week, he’d had one over and hadn’t told Spike yet. Rand wasn’t sure why he hadn’t told Spike since he told Spike everything. Shoot. He wished he could say something right now, relieve the pressure. I kissed this girl then touched her tits. Rand suspected touching tits was the worst thing he could admit to his friend. He snuck another look at Spike. Again, he was busted.
“What?” Spike asked.
“Hell if I know. My eyeballs just move in my head sometimes.”
Spike cracked a half-smile. Rand’s house was two bedrooms and one bath. Okay when it was just Rand and his mom, Debbie, but cramped when she had a boyfriend. Spike didn’t think it was right Debbie let strange men move into their house. Of course, it wasn’t always strangers you had to look out for. Spike gave a cluster of dandelions a kick with his shoe as they approached the front door. “What’s the new guy’s name?”
“I don’t know. Trevor or Travis something.” Inside, Rand pulled two beers from a refrigerator that had started to rattle. “Mom’s gonna have to replace this piece of crap.”
“What about Travis or Trevor something? Can’t he fix it?”
Rand shrugged.
“I’ll fix it,” Spike said then folded his hands into fists and started taking imaginary jabs. When he got more enthusiastic and made contact with the refrigerator door, he felt his knuckles crack and didn’t even have to blink back tears. He was fine, not even close to hurt.   
“You okay?” Rand asked.
“Of course,” Spike retorted then led the way to the living room, careful not to rub his fist.
Above the couch, Rand had hung a poster of the infamous movie director Quentin Tarantino. In the photo, Tarantino held a gun to his head. Rand took his place below Tarantino. Spike dropped like a bag of bullets into an armchair. He still felt sweat in his ass crack.
“Why the hell would he point a gun at his own head?” Spike asked his friend.
“I don’t know. You ask that every time we’re in here.”
“Well, is he being ironic or what?” 
“I don’t know. What’s ironic?” Rand slurped his beer then wondered why his mom always bought the cheap stuff. Surely, expensive beer tasted nothing like skunk jizz. Ha! Skunk jizz! He was funny, right? Heck, he wasn’t sure anymore. Rand felt scatter-brained lately.
Spike didn’t seem scatter-brained at all. “The exact opposite of what you’d expect,” he explained with the cool pride of someone who paid attention in English class.
“Oh, right,” Rand said. “So you wouldn’t expect Tarantino to blow his own head off?”
“Why would he?” Spike asked. “He’s rich and famous and gets plenty of pussy.”
Rand smiled. “You’re funny when you talk like that.”
“Why?” Spike fidgeted. Sweat was filling his boxer briefs. 
“Cause you sound, you know, like a guy.”
Spike glared at him. “I am a guy, remember?” 
“Yeah, right. Don’t get pissed or anything.” Rand started to panic. Honestly, his friend’s moods were as up and down as his mom’s. Goddamn girls. Guy . . . girl . . .  Whatever.
Spike stood from the armchair then went to the stereo. He loaded a Beastie Boys cassette then pressed play. The music combined with the rapping compounded his restlessness. Spike made a gun out of his hand then blew away the stereo. He took out a lamp, a stack of magazines, then took aim at Tarantino. Rand sat below the poster and lifted an eyebrow. Spike spun around doing jerky dance movements like most goofy white dudes Rand knew except his best friend was jiggling. Goddamn. Rand threw back his beer. Spike whirled around taking aim again. He wanted to kill Tarantino. Just . . . bam! For a moment, Spike imagined brains all over the place like in Pulp Fiction. Now Rand aimed back. The teenagers stared down the barrels of their fingers at each other. Spike smiled. Rand smiled back. Spike went “bam” first then took off. Rand was behind him, catching up. Spike whirled around, fists poised.
“Don’t touch me.”
Rand breathed hard. “Shit, I wasn’t going to. When have I?”
Spike lowered his fists. They stared in each other’s eyes. Right in front of them was Debbie’s gun cabinet. Rand’s mom claimed to keep the guns for protection, but Spike figured Debbie kept them because men peed themselves over guns. Guns were phallic. First time Spike saw them, he felt like he was gazing at God. All that power. The teenagers stared through the glass doors each wondering what would happen if they knew where the key was. Rand pressed his finger to the glass, mouth open.  
“Could you shoot someone?” he asked. 
“Yeah,” Spike said.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Come Hear Me & My Dog Men Howl!

The following is an excerpt from the title story of my forthcoming collection, Dog Men, brought to you by the amazing fucking people at Tiny Hardcore Press, fall 2014.

Come hear me read as much of this story as I can get through in fifteen minutes this coming Thursday, March 20, at Planet Earth and the 4 Directions Gallery, seven p.m. sharp.



From "Dog Men," ©Alana Noël Voth 
To Gia Carangi 

A shit hole town, 1993

One night, “Divine Thing” by the Soup Dragons played on the jukebox at Chuck’s Pizzeria same time Justin and Cannon Ellis walked in the door. Tally Perkins almost dropped a pizza. Justin and his brother Cannon were handsome as movie stars, tall, tan, and broad shouldered—exactly what every girl in the world was supposed to want. Of course, no one knew anything about the Ellis brothers. The mystery surrounding them was part of their appeal. Cannon had dark hair and light eyes. Justin’s hair was lighter and his eyes were amber.  While “Divine Thing” played on the jukebox, Justin and his brother sat at the end of the bar and ordered beer. Cannon fished a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He wore a big, silver ring on one finger. Justin stared out the pizzeria’s main window at the moon, cupping a beer mug in his hands. He wore a big, silver ring too. Another waitress came up behind Tally and surprised her.
“What’cha looking at Tally?”
Tally jumped. “Nothing.”  
Janie Jones showed her a glossy smile. “Well, I’m off to get cozy with nothing,” she said then headed for the Ellis brothers. Cannon poured Janie a beer while Justin stared out the window. When Janie nudged him, Justin reached into his pocket then held a lighter to Janie’s cigarette. When Janie met Tally’s eyes over the flame, Tally realized they were locked in a fierce battle, and Tally was losing. When she finished her shift past midnight, Tally sulked to the parking lot then spotted her mother’s used Cadillac idling in wait like a coach that was really a pumpkin. “I hate Janie Jones,” Tally said as she got in beside her mother.   
“What she do this time?” Lacy Perkins checked her hair in the rear view mirror.     
“She left Chuck’s with the Ellis brothers tonight.”
Lacy Perkins frowned. “I told you her mother had an affair with your father, right?”
“Yeah. And now Janie is gonna steal Justin Ellis.”
Lacy Perkins shifted the car into drive. “Don’t let her.”
“What do I do, mom?” Tally’s voice was tinged with desperation.
Lacy Perkins met her daughter’s eyes across the front seat. “Let your hair down, darling. A little lip gloss wouldn’t hurt either.” Lacy Perkins steered the Cadillac onto a partially dark road then continued. “All is fair in love and war, Tals. Get in there and fight for your man.” 
Tally stared out the passenger-side window and figured her mother knew what she was talking about. After all, Lacy Perkins, aged forty-two, had fought for more than one man, including Tally’s father, who’d left them anyway. Obviously, Tally would have to fight a lot harder for Justin Ellis except she didn’t know the first thing about fighting, not the way her mother meant, which was obviously seduction. Tally was no good with sexy; she’d remained innately awkward around guys since birth and was in a panic twenty-four seven. Does he like me? Am I good enough? I’m not good enough, am I? Tally’s best friend, Amber Trammell, never worried what guys thought.
Lacy Perkins pulled the Cadillac into a gravel driveway in front of a green, single-wide trailer then said, “I’m headed to Daryl’s house. See you in the morning.”
“Who’s . . ?” Tally didn’t finish. She couldn’t keep track of her mother’s boyfriends anymore. Lacy Perkins had to practically beat the men off with a stick. “Bye, mom.” Tally got out of the car then headed inside the trailer. In her room, she picked up a phone to call Amber who at that moment worked in New York as a model and had so far appeared on the covers of Cosmopolitan and Vogue.    
“Tally Bean,” Amber said when she answered. “What’s up? I miss you.”  
Tally got right into it. “Janie Jones left Chuck’s tonight with the Ellis brothers.” Her voice caught in her throat, and she felt like crying.
“Hold on,” Amber said. Seconds later, Tally heard Amber exhale smoke at the telephone receiver. “Okay. Back up. Who are the Ellis brothers?”
“Amber, I know you’re living it up in New York, but don’t you listen to me at all? I told you. The Ellis brothers are new in town. They’re beautiful. I’m in love with Justin Ellis.”
“Wait. You are?”
“Since when?”
“I don’t know. Since last week, I guess, or last month. I love him, Amber.”
“Shit,” Amber said. “This is serious.”
Tally wiped a tear from her eye. “I told you.”
“Okay, okay, you told me. What do you know about this guy, Tals?” 
“What’s to know? He walked out of a romance novel and looks like a movie star.”
“Don’t tell me you still read all those romance novels your mother keeps around, Tals.”
“What else is there to do?” Tally plopped onto her bed then picked up a romance novel near her pillow. A man on the cover pinned a woman to his chest while the woman threw her head back and opened her mouth as if to say, ravage me. Tally smiled through her tears. “Justin Ellis can ravage me all he wants.”  
“Earth to Tally, you there?” Amber blew more smoke at the phone. “Romance novels are crap, Tally Bean, I swear. Come to New York, and I’ll show what else it out there.”
“I can’t,” Tally said, sounding frantic. “I’m not gorgeous enough to model like you.”
“Who said anything about modeling? There’s more to New York than that.”
“I wouldn’t fit in,” Tally said with a gulp. “All those glamorous people.”
“I’ll take you over these fake motherfuckers any day, Tals.”
Amber’s declaration sounded dramatic and flattering, but Tally hardly believed her best friend would rather hang around a pizzeria waitress in a shit hole town than live it up with a bunch of beautiful models in the Big Apple. Tally would die for the sort of attention Amber got as a model, especially from all those guys. Tally felt tears in her eyes again and sniffled.
 “Hey. Did I mention I’m coming home?” Amber asked.
“When?” Tally stopped sniffling. “Will you help me with Justin Ellis?”
“What do you mean help?”
“You know, talk to him, introduce us.”
“Shit, Tally Bean, do you want to see me or just use me to get some guy?”
Tally felt guilty but desperate, too. “Of course I want to see you, Amber. It’s just . . . you never worry what guys think and talk to them so easy, and I just . . .”
Amber cut her off. “Did I tell you I fixed up a car, a 1979 Fiat? It’s a classic, Tally Bean. Soon as I get home, I’m taking you for a ride, maybe straight out of that shit hole town.”
Tally didn’t mention her friend would have to drive her, kicking and screaming, away from Justin Ellis. 


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Norman Reedus is One of My College Freshman

Pot habit? So it appears. Twenty-year-old girlfriend? That's what I read. Norman Reedus is one of my college freshman. He'd fit right right in with seventy percent of my male students who like twenty-year old girls and pot, too. Plenty of college freshman, regardless of gender, also like showing up late, talking out of turn, texting in class, and excusing themselves before class is over. They let it in one ear then out the other. They don't take note notes. They refuse to refer to our course syllabus or course schedule and instead believe I should repeat myself over and over and over again. When I refuse, they give me that look.







Yes, it's March, and I'm using all caps. I've grappled with two-hundred freshman in an eight-month period, and Spring Break is next week for everyone but me and other composition instructors like me. I'll spend Spring Break evaluating ninety compare/contrast essays and sixty reading responses rather than sunbathing in Mexico, and while I read and evaluate all these essays and responses, I'll experience marvel and dismay at varying intervals when I realize, once again, forty percent of my freshman didn't follow instructions or pulled answers from thin air rather than the assigned reading. Right now, you're thinking I'm "riding the crimson wave," as Vince Masuko put it so eloquently on an episode of Dexter, or that once again, another teacher is whining about her job.

Just two years ago, I was laid off by an employer and thought my son and I would lose our house. I'm grateful for my current employment, not to mention there's a lot I love about teaching, like the handful of students who keep a hard copy of the course syllabus and course schedule in a folder they carry to every class, who follow instructions, take notes, read the assigned essays, raise their hand, don't text, don't mouth off, compose thoughtful and passionate papers, and thank me for "being tough because now I know what it takes to make it in college."

But, yes. It's March, and I've had to excuse yet another serial texter from class and remind at least ten students this week if they wish to discuss personal business with me, right before class isn't the time; visit with me in my office, please. Oh. You don't know when my office hours are on even where my office is. IT'S ON THE COURSE SYLLABUS. And Norman, I don't care if you were up until two a.m. smoking weed in the photo booth at Late with Seth Meyer and that your girlfriend is hot. Your paper is due like everyone else.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Venus On Irwin Street

Long as I can remember, I've lived with and loved music, and do little without music in my ear. Before I wrote stories, I wrote songs, or poems set to music in my head. Maybe if someone had handed me a guitar and paid for lessons, I would have ended up a Fiona Apple. If someone had bought me a horse and paid for lessons, I might have ended up a horsewoman. Or if someone had paid for those ballet lessons I wanted when I was five years old, I would have ended up a ballerina. Truth is, all I ever put my heart and soul into was writing, and while no one in the family encouraged me, no one got in my way either, not really. Encouragement from family came later. But I had teachers those early years, specifically Mrs. Vallone and Mrs. Wallace, and the support I received from Mrs. Vallone made sense since she was a composition teacher. Still, she didn't have to spend all that time reading my notebooks full of stories then writing me notes of encouragement at the end. Likewise, she never ratted me out even though a few of those stories bled sex and death like a severed femoral artery. Mrs. Wallace taught tenth grade biology. I'm not sure how I began to present her with my notebooks full of stories. I remember the wounded field mouse I discovered walking to school and brought to her. When Mrs. Wallace looked in the bag and said, "Sorry, I think it's dead," I started crying. Maybe that initiated a conversation, and I revealed I was a writer. In middle school, I had a paper route, and every day, including Sunday, I lugged a canvas bag I'd stuffed with rolled newspapers up one street then down another. I saved all my tips to purchase a double-cassette boom box. It was bronze-colored and shiny. It was heavy. But I was in love with the thing and lugged it up one street and down the other. Of course I loved all the contemporary classics: "Centerfold" by The J. Geils Band, "Call Me" by Blondie, "Spirits in the Material World," by The Police, and "Popmuzik" by M. But I was also in love with the old stuff---my father's music. Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Elton John, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, The Moody Blues. I would record songs off a radio station using my bronzed-colored boom box then cruise the neighborhood broadcasting ELO, The Eagles, and Paul McCartney to my friends who scowled at my song choices and refused to hang around. One day, I stood alone in a street gazing across a patch of sunflowers and alfalfa at Irwin's Barn, a place that would become pivotal in my sexual development, and played "Venus" by the Shocking Blue as loud as I could.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Dog Man

This month, I read at a cool art gallery with a couple other excellent writers from CMU.

I'm reading a story from my collection, Dog Men, either the title story or another, "Reservoir Bitch."

The collection has officially entered the "pre-publication stage," according to my editor, who is, at this moment, going through my manuscript with a fine-toothed editorial comb and scissor. I hope to wind up with  the "Rachel" of all story collections. Electronic review copies could be out early as late spring!

I've been thinking about cover art.

Here's what I've imagined.

Black-and-white shot of a hot, shirtless guy crouching in front of a concrete wall, clasping his hands near his face, in a repentant pose, and a single tear rolling from one of his digitally-enhanced amber eyes.

Thematically, it works. Also, hot guy. Also, lets sell copies.

I've not proposed this concept to my publisher yet.