by Eric Sentell
As I watched Eminem joylessly make love to Brittany Murphy in the back corner of an automotive factory, may she rest in peace, I realized that 8 Mile was not the best movie choice for date night. Alisha confirmed my suspicion when she pulled her hand from under mine and folded her arms across her chest. I stared at her out of the corner of my eye, looking for signs of anger, and found myself unexpectedly enchanted yet again. Her face was terrible, tragic, and beautiful all at the same time. Terrible because her disgust, her annoyance, her anger were plainly written across her hardened jaw and narrowed eyes. Beautiful because the movie’s light sparkled in her honey-colored eyes, because her full pink lips were slightly parted, because of the unruly curl draped over her soft, fair cheek. And tragic because this was supposed to be her night, though she didn’t even know it.
After the movie, as we shuffled toward the aisle, I reached out and took her hand. It remained limp in mine, and I released it a moment later. She didn’t seem to notice. People filed up the aisle slowly, seemingly everyone taking the time to carefully deposit their trash at the exit. The lobby was packed with teenagers and tweens, most of them talking loudly, the rest texting furiously. Alisha scanned them indifferently.
I tried to make conversation. “What’s with texting? Why not call and have a conversation? Or lift your head up and talk to the friend you went to the movies with?”
Alisha shrugged slowly, as though lifting her shoulders against some weight.
“I mean, if I call, I can say twice as much in half the time. I just don’t get it.”
“Hmph,” she said. I barely heard her.
The air outside was chilly, even for November. I put my arm around her shoulders, sidling up close, rubbing her arm hard and fast. Lines of cars were already forming at the theater’s one exit. People were streaming around them on their way to the next showings. The headlights blinded and dazzled me. Our steps, not quite in sync to begin with, became awkward, then difficult, and finally utterly impeding. She broke away, saying “It’s hard to walk like that.”
Once in the car, I rubbed my face and sighed. “You know, if you tell me what’s wrong, I might be able to make it better. I could at least apologize for whatever it is, but if you don’t tell me, I can’t do anything about it.”
The corners of her mouth twitched, almost imperceptibly. She shook her head ever so slightly.
“Alisha, honey,” I said softly, “Tell me what I did. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Jason.” My name came out like an accusation. “Tell me you know what you did tonight. How can you not know?”
“You didn’t like the movie?”
“Did you expect me to like that kind of movie? Or did you even check it out to see if I might like it? You didn’t even ask me what movie I wanted to see or whether I wanted to go to Joe and Tammy’s for a party. You never care about what I want. Or you don’t even think to see what I want. I can’t decide if you’re a jerk or just inconsiderate.”
I had a very good reason for choosing 8 Mile, actually, but I couldn’t tell her what it was. All I could do was apologize lamely and then bite my tongue for the entire twenty minute drive to Joe and Tammy’s house. Cars filled the driveway and lined the street in both directions, so we had to park four houses down. The night was calm, clear, and full of stars. Alisha’s high heels echoed off the sidewalk. Their music soothed me.
“Once again, baby, I’m sorry.”
She sighed, “It’s okay. I just wish you’d try to be more thoughtful and plan things out better.”
We turned up Joe and Tammy’s red-brick walk. I jumped ahead and pushed open their door, head down and already swiveling to see Alisha’s face as she entered. I had given detailed instructions to our friends, so I already knew what was waiting.
“Surprise!” followed by a chorus of kazoos.
Alisha’s eyes widened, her mouth formed an oval. She took a step forward, coming level with me in the entryway. I turned to follow her incredulous gaze. Thirty of our best friends were packed into the grand foyer, onto the staircase, and on the landing to which it led. Everyone had a plastic kazoo in one hand and a drink in the other. Among them stood a three-tiered cake with ivory icing, intricate black piping, and a fresh rose bouquet on top. White, black, and red balloons covered the ceiling. And they’d draped a huge home-made banner between the roses and balloons that referenced Eminem’s hit song, the one based on 8 Mile, in large bubble letters: “‘Lose Yourself in the Moment, the Music,’ and the Happiest Night of your Life—So Far!”
She turned to me, incredulous, and said slowly, as though seeing me for the very first time, “Oh. My. God. You are such an idiot.”
I had no idea what to make of it, given the fact that she’d called me an idiot many times before, but I was truly at a loss when a smile spread across her face and she added, “A sweet, caring, thoughtful idiot. Who apparently loves me.”
“I do love you.” I dug into my pocket for the ring, fighting to calm the pounding of my heart and the shaking of my fingers.
Then she got down on one knee and asked me to make her the happiest woman alive. Talk about stealing a guy’s thunder.
I currently live with my wonderful wife in Springfield, VA, just outside the D.C. Beltway. I direct the Writing Center at the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, the second largest community college in the country. I graduated from Missouri State University in 2009 with an M.A. in Composition and Rhetoric, after earning a B.A. in Creative Writing from MSU in 2007.
My writing has matured considerably over the years. Starting out, I piled flourish after flourish onto my reader, resulting in annoyingly wordy descriptions, vacuous characters, and aimless plots. I thought the first draft was excellent, and the second draft was flawless. I've learned better. The processes of reading like a writer, practicing as much as I can, studying the theories of fiction writing, researching markets, and coping with rejection have slowly but surely refined my prose into what you read today. I hope the writer's life continues to develop my skill.
Like most writers, my dream is to make a living by publishing novels, stories, essays, and anything else that someone will pay for. If that never happens, however, I will still write and publish for myself until the rejection-publication ratio reaches a million to one.
CONGRATULATIONS, ERIC! NOW TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF!
Q. Please tell us a little about yourself?
I have been writing seriously since 2003, when I began working on a fantasy novel. To date, I've published fiction in The Rivendell Gazette, Red Ink Journal, The Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, and Blink Ink Online. I previously published "Songs of Alana" in Long Story Short in 2004. "Stolen Thunder" is genuinely some of my best work.
I have finished my fantasy novel and a sequel, not to mention a novel for my senior project in the creative writing program at Missouri State University. Currently, I'm trying to master my craft and build my publishing credentials in preparation for finding an agent for my novels.
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
I work very hard to give my reader an enjoyable, unique experience. I want to tell a compelling, interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining story. While I try to tell the story in a unique way, I'm not interested in amazing readers with my incredible prose, my bizarre "voice," or my convoluted word-play. I hope my concern for the reader shows in the quality of my stories.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
I usually write general literary fiction, but I have written stories and novels (unpublished) that could be classified as magical realism, fantasy, and action-adventure. I have also written some unpublishable poetry.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Good writing is detailed but not too detailed, has "voice" but not too much of it, and leaves the reader awe-struck and changed. A certain level of detail is necessary to put the reader in the state that John Gardner calls a "vivid and continuous dream." But too much detail can cause the story to drag. A strong voice connects with the reader, but if "pumped up voice" is all a story has going for it, then most readers will quickly tire of it. The most important thing is to drive toward an ending with a powerful, interesting, or surprising pay-off. In this sense, good writing makes readers change emotionally and/or intellectually.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
For me, a plot has three parts. The introduction must present a compelling, intriguing tension and one or more vivid, believable characters. The middle should develop and maintain the tension or conflict. When the conflict goes away, the story will begin to drag on no matter how vivid the characters or the "voice" may be. The ending has to deliver some kind of pay-off. Perhaps the tension is resolved. Maybe the character changes or realizes something. Whatever happens, the reader should receive some satisfaction and joy from the story.
When it comes to characters, I tend to over-write their thoughts and feelings on the first couple drafts. Then I cut back on the explicit psychological complexity and let their actions, words, and body language speak for them. This makes them seem more realistic, and it also lets the reader interpret their motivations and emotions.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Spending time with my wife, family, and friends is always a joy. Like most writers, I love to read good fiction, and I also enjoy well-written television and movies. And I recently took up running, which is beginning to grow on me after my initial hatred for it!
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
A handful of books have inspired me both as a writer and a human being: Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. No matter how good I become, I will always dream of writing books as good as these. And of course, personal experiences and interesting news stories or current events are always rich sources of inspiration for story ideas.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I'm always trying to think of and execute good short story ideas. After building my publishing credits, I intend to revise the novel I wrote for my senior project. It's about a human who is turned into an angel and given the task of making Earth a better place through rather unusual means.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
What isn't frustrating about writing? If I had to pick something, I would say, "Pouring hours and hours of intense mental energy into something that may or may not be read -- and may be completely misunderstood or derided when it is read." But when an editor or reader offers even one sentence of praise, especially if the praise is attached to an acceptance, then it's all worth it.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Develop an intriguing, interesting tension in the opening. Maintain it throughout the story. Resolve (or don't resolve) it in an unexpected, surprising way. Try to discover or learn something along the way. Don't be afraid to cut things, rewrite, or add details. Remember to tell the story and cast away anything that isn't the story.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Writers always hear the advice, "research your markets before sending your work to them." And if they're like me, they think, "Sure, I've got nothing but time to research the thousands of markets out there!" But when I finally devoted myself to research, I found that it transformed my perspective on writing. I found that there are a lot of commonalities in what markets want. My writing has been more focused and purposeful since I began researching thoroughly.
Research seemed daunting at first, but I quickly discovered a manageable and effective research process. First, find all the magazines, journals, and e-zines you can, and read their self-descriptions and submission guidelines. Create a spreadsheet in which you summarize each market's aesthetic and specific requirements, such as word count. Then pick several that describe themselves and their preferences in ways you identify with, that publish the kind of literature you like to read and write, and begin regularly reading those markets. From then on, your writing should cater to those markets in terms of style, content, word count, etc. It may sound strange to "cater" to a magazine's guidelines, but I have found that this gives my writing greater purpose and increases my chances of publishing success. Contact Eric.