Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: a short time to be there


The day the desert was destroyed, water
sucked from distant rivers sprayed through the sky,
and cars bore pilgrims, dreamers to Mecca,
sedated by slot-machine lullabies.

The stars all tumbled to earth, outshone by
neon casinos and fountains of light
while roulette chances to change everything
spun against the darkest of desert nights.

Now, unheeded prayers to dollars drift down
from the mouths of those ghostlike survivors,
mumbling dreams into urns full of quarters
as taillights depart in night’s brightest hours.

Boys with flyers for prostitutes jostle
the stars, shouted down from celestial heights.
Barely burning, they stagger slow down the Strip
cursing this blaze, this apocalypse of light.

I tried to come up with something for Read Write Poem’s latest image prompt (#98) which involved writing a poem based on an image of swirling lights at a fair. I fixated on the lights and kept thinking about this poem I wrote back in April (I think). So this one is sort-of off prompt, but I offer it anyway.

I wrote it for a (not-quite-there-yet) chapbook of road poems called Highway Sky. I’m still tinkering with some of the poems, but two have been published at Bolts of Silk and Ouroboros Review #3.

Some of the lines are lifted from the manuscript of my novel A Short Time to Be There. In the novel, the characters are driving into Las Vegas after a week on the road and find themselves alternately overwhelmed, excited and disgusted by the city.

Read what others did with the prompt at this week’s Get Your Poem On at Read Write Poem.

First Paragraphs

Now that I’ve finished (and revised and revised and revised) my novel A Short Time to Be There, I’m starting the process of putting together all the things I’ll need as I begin to query agents and publishers. Things like lists of promising agents and publishers, query letters, pitches, long synopsis, short synopsis, author bio in third person. All the fun stuff.

There’s a wealth of info to be found online including a number of blogging agents who give useful advice about how to do these things. One is Nathan Bransford, who is currently running his 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge. Simply post the first paragraph of any work-in-progress in the comments section of the contest post on his blog. So far, there are 1387 entries.

It’s a good exercise because it’s always good to be reminded of the importance of that first paragraph. I always tell my students not to sweat the first paragraph (on a first draft!) because you can always go back and fine-tune it. Or cut it altogether and have the piece start with the 2nd paragraph, which with student papers often works nicely.

I’ve played with A Short Time to Be There‘s first paragraph quite a bit over the past 3 years and will probably wind up fine-tuning it some more. The original 1st paragraph became the 1st paragraph of the 3rd chapter when I made some dramatic changes to the structure. Then it was cut altogether when I eliminated the 3rd chapter during a later round of revisions.

Here’s the first paragraph as it now stands, which is what I entered in Nathan’s contest. From A Short Time to Be There:

Chip clutched the armrests so hard his fingertips had gone numb twenty minutes earlier. He glanced at his knuckles, white and straining against the worn leather of the chair, and wondered if knuckles could burst. How many other condemned men had sat in this very chair while adrenaline and fear coursed through their veins like electricity? At least they hadn’t strapped him in. Yet. Perhaps they should have. He stared past the doctor and out the window at Houston’s shining towers and glass buildings that glittered bright against the May sky. His teeth ached from clenching them together, and he hoped the doctor wouldn’t notice his tightened jaw and throw a tetanus shot at him for good measure.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?


I’m back in the throws of my novel, A Short Time to Be There after two months off. I’m reading the manuscript. Changing, fixing, deleting, moving, rewriting. Sometimes bits are good enough to make me wonder who wrote it. Lots of it needs lots of work.

I like the characters, but the begining seems a bit off. A bit slow, despite cutting nearly three chapters. Maybe I’m still too close to it. Sometimes I think it might be the screenwriter in me saying that big things have to happen within the first thirty minutes (which is thirty pages of screenplay). I don’t think the big collision has to happen in the first thirty pages of a novel. Page 46 is good too. Maybe I’m obsessing this point.

Either way, blogging takes a back seat for now.

The Accidental Hiatus-ist

We did not wash away in the floods, though I’m still trying to collect two of every greyhound for the ark I’ve been building. Unfortunately, they are each individuals, so I’m only able to find one of each.

Mainly, I hadn’t blogged because I wanted to finish my book. I didn’t want to sit at the computer writing and not be writing that, so blog went by the wayside to meet my self-imposed end of June deadline. I made it with a few days to spare.

The manuscript came in at 249 pages or 66,ooo words. A short novel, called A Short Time to Be There, at least for now. When I went back and looked at the early pages written before I really knew the characters or the pace of the story, I found a few chapters and some scenes that I didn’t really need, so I found myself going with Stephen King’s dictum: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. When that 10% comes from the front end, things start to move better. Redundancies disappear.

I finished the book last week. The next day R’s grandmother died so we had to go to Orange to help with arrangements before the funeral. She died in her sleep at her home without any illness or hospitalization a few weeks shy of her 87th birthday. It was a tough surprise, but then it’s hard to imagine a better way to go.

On the long drive east to Orange, we saw a coyote standing on the side of the road outside Elgin. He ran when he saw us. We spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on a power line near Houston. A bobcat ran across the road in front of us in Orange. I never see that much wildlife from my car. I had never seen a bobcat before. The weather was weird too. Powerful storms kicking up while we were in church, where she was honored, and also right before the funeral.

My mind kept going back to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Of course she wasn’t royalty or even a prince, but she was noble. She would help anyone who needed it. She took in the lost. She never gave up on anybody.

Starting a New Novel

Last week, I started on what will someday be my third novel. The second one, Try Everything in a Cartoon Romance, is pretty much done, but it’s time to begin a third one while I decide what to do with the second.

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a screenplay called Right of Way that I always intended to revisit and rewrite as a novel in order to explore the characters and issues more deeply than a screenplay allows. I’m using the old script as an outline while I get started on the story and reintroduce myself to the characters.

It starts in Austin in 1995. It’s about Larry and his younger brother, Chip, who has battled cancer on and off his whole life. After relapsing at age eighteen, Chip decides he’s not going to go back for treatment.

He runs away from his home in Houston and shows up at Larry’s doorstep in Austin wanting to “just try living for once.” He’s never really lived except in the books he read in the hospital and so with a head full of Kerouac, Thoreau, Hemingway and London, his own private wish-upon-a-star is to get to know his brother (who is ten years older and was all but forgotten by their parents who were perpetually focused on the sick kid) and travel to see the Grateful Dead, living the kind of adventure he’s read about in books.

Needless to say this is all quite a complication for his more strait-laced and settled older brother who wants to help Chip, but doesn’t know if helping him involves taking him on his grand adventure or getting him back to treatment.

That’s the story in broadest strokes. Even though I’ve already made major changes from the script I do have most of the story plotted out. I am, however, permitting myself to make as many changes as I want. Including the title, which for now is Short Time to Be Here, a modification of a line from the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.”

I’m on page 15. It’s not really flowing yet. That comes later, when the characters truly start talking. The beginnings are always the hardest for me, but eventually the whole thing will come alive and then it just flows. I love when that happens.

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