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The Metaworker Podcast | 007 Minotaurs by Lane Talbot

Episode Description:

Matthew, Marina, and Melissa gush about Lane Talbot’s Minotaurs before asking him about how he approaches his craft, the art of writing the thriller, and how his personal experiences have informed his storytelling. We manage to throw out nods to writers who take a long time on their work, and the hidden advantages of doing so.

Referenced in this Episode:

Minotaurs by Lane Talbot on The Metaworker website

House in the Cerulean Sea by Tj Klune, book mentioned in episode

Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Mythbusters polishing a turd

David Mamet, memo to writers of The Unit (distinguishing drama from information)

Why you might want to rethink using the word ‘tribe’

Lane’s blog

Author Bio:

Lane Talbot’s work has been listed as notable fiction in Best American Mystery Stories and published in Berkeley Fiction Review, ThugLit, Able Muse and elsewhere. His MFA is from Southern Illinois University.

Episode Transcript:

Matthew Maichen (00:00:00):
Hello. My name is Matthew Maichen. I am the editor-in-chief.

Marina Shugrue (00:00:05):
Hi, I’m Marina Shugrue, communications coordinator.

Melissa Reynolds (00:00:08):
And I’m Melissa Reynolds, an editor here with Metaworker.

Matthew Maichen (00:00:12):
We are here with Lane Talbot and he is going to share some of his story with us, “Minotaurs”. You cannot read the whole thing because it’s quite long, but it is worth every word. If you have not read it, I really recommend that you go check it out. So, Lane, whenever you are ready, take it away.

Lane Talbot (00:00:36):
Thank you so much. So, this is about the first page of “Minotaurs”. Red police lights revolved beneath a spread of morning lightning. Two Kahota squad cars sat parked askew atop the rise in the middle of the road. Chickie’s motorcycle was the only other vehicle in sight. He braked to a full stop at the two officers—one man, one woman, both natives; they wore reservation patches on their shoulders. The woman’s hair was tied back in a thick black plait shot through with bright white lines like stripes. The nametag above her badge read Drinkwater. Chickie tipped back his helmet, lifted his goggles to meet their eyes. They looked at his battle vest, his helmet, his face. The woman did not speak. The man said, “Sobriety check point.” Chickie said, “It’s ten in the morning.” “Doesn’t matter.” The cop examined the surfaces of Chickie’s eyes, smelled the air before his face. Satisfied, he stepped back and said, “They run three shifts at field. It’s always somebody’s happy hour.” “You here for work?” Drinkwater asked. “Just passing through,” he said. The male officer read the patches on his vest and said, “Minotaurs. What you got planned for us?” “Huh?” he said. “Heard what the bikers did to the boomtowns in North Dakota. That what you here for? We got enough of that, fuck you very much.” Chickie shook his head. “Not at all. It’s just me. I have no plans.” The cop narrowed his eyes at him. “Like I said,” Chickie said, “just passing through.” The cop looked to Drinkwater, then sighed in a way that said Carry on. Chickie revved the engine and drove on. The air was heavy with water and the pinoaks were exploding green. He passed yellow road signs that read “Tsunami Evacuation Route” and rows of empty vacation houses built on the gray and misting beach. The air fanning off the ocean was gray, chilled and packed with mist. He gunned through town once and spotted the shuttered K-Mart. He checked the time on his phone and circled behind to the disused loading docks. He stood the bike and removed his helmet. He should have taken his vest off earlier. It was a mistake to show it to the police, even if one of them already knew he was on his way. He drew it off his shoulders and rolled it into a saddlebag beside disassembled pistol components hidden in a travel toolkit. The cop car wheeled around the back and the woman officer from earlier was the only occupant. Drinkwater neither cut the engine nor left the vehicle. She manually rolled down the window—her shoulder jerking with the effort—and looked up at Chickie. “I want you,” she said, “out of town in twenty four hours.” And I’ll stop there.

Matthew Maichen (00:03:00):
That was great. So, that really set the stage. I want to talk about this, because of the way, just in that section, that words were used. This is the second phase, by the way, where we kind of just talk without Lane’s input. The one thing that I want to bring up that you might have noticed from that opening, if you’re big on writing, is that this story, the way that it uses words to move the plot forward and to describe the exact necessary details to tell us what we need to know about the characters and the situation and the setting is almost perfected, if not outright perfected. So, I want to just…am I the only one saying that or is that generally the vibe that the rest of us have here?

Marina Shugrue (00:04:04):
No. Yeah, it’s totally great. What I really love about this intro—I quickly re-read this this morning—is that it also immediately starts with this conflict. You get this idea of uneasiness with this interaction with the cops and stuff like that. You kind of also get the sense of, ‘oh, like, what’s this guy here for?’ It intrigues you, gives you all these very interesting details, like you said, and really leaves you wanting to keep reading.

Matthew Maichen (00:04:38):
Yeah. And we know—obviously as readers, we’ve all read enough stories that we know he’s not just passing through. That’s not how it works.

Marina Shugrue (00:04:49):
Yeah, that’s never how it works. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:04:49):
[laughs] What you [inaudible] do is actually quite interesting. Yeah, Mel.

Melissa Reynolds (00:04:58):
On a lower level, just the sentence structure. I thought the usage of verbs was excellent because, for me, that’s what I notice. When a story uses strong verbs, I feel like it adds that little extra layer of, I don’t know, flavor, that just sets it apart.

Matthew Maichen (00:05:20):
Yeah. That was one thing I wanted to talk about. When I really think about what it is that sets this story apart, the first thing I think of is the writing. I’ve run into people who I showed this to who actually…some people…it varies based on the person. I think it’s because we’re editors of a literary magazine. We see a lot of stories. Some people understand immediately what it is about the writing that just works for what it’s trying to do. There have been people who I’ve shown it to who don’t 100% get it right away and I have to explain it to them. So, what are other things that we can say as far as why this writing just works for getting us and keeping us engaged as editors?

Melissa Reynolds (00:06:18):
Well, for me, I think that all of the details that are given are significant. There’s not a bunch of extra description that doesn’t really play some type of role in the story. So, that feeling of conciseness, that’s what I really like. The strong verbs add to that, but this feeling that every word counts is what really does it for me.

Marina Shugrue (00:06:50):
Yeah. And I think worth mentioning, too, is that I believe this was also one of the few stories we’ve ever accepted, maybe one of two, that is actually over 3000 words, which is very rare for us to publish. That’s usually our limit. But, like Mel said, no word feels wasted in it, at all. That’s why I think it really worked for us. Nothing felt extraneous, every detail felt like it was building to something, whether it’s to the final event of the story, or if it’s just to the setting, to the vibe, the tone of everything, it all comes together and it’s working together, too. Nothing is extraneous.

Matthew Maichen (00:07:48):
There is such a thing, to be fair, as writing that is good for editors, for literary magazine editors, is what I’ve had to come to terms with doing this for a while. Because, you know, even in our submissions, we go through roughly ten submissions a week written by people. We just plow through them. If a story loses us, if we see extraneous details, extraneous sentences, things that don’t need to be there… Hypothetically, if there’s a paragraph that we read and you could cut that paragraph out, you know, it loses us so fast because we have so much more to read. So, I think there is an aspect of this, to be fair, that works really well for editors. That being said, if you’re listening to this and you’re a person who wants to be published, well, you know, maybe take a look. Now that we’ve talked about that, what I kind of want to talk about is the plot a little bit, ’cause we have a really interesting plot here in that it harkens back to some interesting things. It is indisputably a thriller. It falls very much within the thriller criteria, but what we’re seeing here is largely kind of…either a deconstruction or a reconstruction, or maybe both at the same time, of this lone action hero trope. There is this guy who knows that there is this horrible injustice going on and he takes it upon himself to try to settle the problem. And, you know, we see in the story what happens when one dude—just one guy—tries to go and take care of something like that. It’s very realistic as to the actual difficulty of doing that and he’s weirdly…despite everything, he’s not, I wouldn’t say, tragically unsuccessful, you know? There is a level of success that comes with it and that’s why I say maybe it’s a reconstruction of that trope. I was wondering if there were other thoughts on that because I find it really interesting the way that it deals with that idea.

Melissa Reynolds (00:10:34):
The thing that struck me with my second read-through is that the other element that’s different about this hero is that he’s your not typical macho man going in guns blazing. He’s dealing with his father, who’s been a real jerk throughout his life and absent, [too]. So, we get a peek into how he’s actually feeling rather than just, ‘oh, I’m going to go kick his butt’ kind of thing. I felt that depth of character made a world of difference. I don’t know about your typical hero story as much, but it seems more focused on the physical fighting rather than the emotional journey of the main character.

Marina Shugrue (00:11:20):
Yeah, I think that’s a great point, ’cause in those machismo, lone action figure, you know, ‘I got to go it alone’ type of guy stories, you really don’t always get that emotional connection. But you absolutely do here. It’s really a huge plot driver in a way, or at least it gives us a lot of insight into this guy’s motivations and things like that. To what Matthew was saying, too, about how there’s kind of a win at the end, but kind of not. Technically he doesn’t accomplish what he sets out to do in that he doesn’t get his father in the end, but he does have this win of getting the kid out of a very dicey situation. I’ll put it that way.

Matthew Maichen (00:12:15):
Putting it very lightly. By the way, just interjecting briefly, this story is not for the faint-hearted. It is quite brutal and there is a lot of discussion of very, very, very dark themes. So, I know I said I wholeheartedly recommended it, but if you’re a squeamish person who gets turned off by the darker side of life, maybe not. But it might be worth it regardless because it is quite good.

Marina Shugrue (00:12:45):
Yeah. Maybe read the first half and once they start going up the mountain, just…look out. [laughs] I guess in that way it does feel like a deconstruction of the lone action hero, because I think in most of those stories, the hero does succeed in what they initially set out to do, even if there are little curve balls thrown in here and there. Obviously, in this story, the kid’s the curve ball, and we see our main character make a choice of, ‘well, I can do one thing or I can help this kid’. And he makes the choice to help the kid instead of go after his father. In that way, I feel like it’s more of a deconstruction. I don’t know what you think, Matthew.

Matthew Maichen (00:13:38):
I think so too. I think that…I guess the reason I say not full deconstruction is because I do see, a lot of the time, deconstructions of the action hero trope, and most of the time, those deconstructions tend to make the supposed action hero a terrible person. Just extremely violent and, you know, macho in a really bad way. I think that Chickie, actually, is really trying to do something genuinely… Okay, it might be just revenge, but I do think, for the most part, it is something genuinely good and well-meaning all the way through. And yet, at the same time, it’s a deconstruction in the sense that he has no Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know, James Bond superhero traits. These guys…theoretically, they don’t have superpowers, but if you watch the movie and you see what they do, yes, they have super powers. He doesn’t have that. So, we see that almost played out realistically and that, I think, is where the suspense comes in. That is where I wanted to segue into the next thing I want to talk about, which is, again, we get two individual submissions from the ten we read. I’m reading twenty stories and poems a week. I get jaded fast. I was reading near the end of this story and I was actually squirming because of how it was affecting me and how I felt the stakes and how I felt the danger and the threat of what was happening. What do we think about that? Was that just me or were other people feeling that as well? And if you were, what made that work so well?

Melissa Reynolds (00:16:01):
I definitely had that sense of shock. I wasn’t certain what to expect beyond a confrontation with his father. So, when the boy suddenly appeared and it took that darker turn, I just kind of leaned forward, like, ‘oh my gosh, what’s he going to do, what’s going to happen?’. There’s definitely this unexpectedness to it that lent to that feeling of realistic-ness, because, I mean, that’s real life. Things happen that you don’t plan for and don’t expect, and you have to adjust on the fly. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so effective. Because [of] that unexpected part.

Marina Shugrue (00:16:46):
I think, too, there’s such a perfectly paced escalation in this story. Where we kind of start…what information we’re given when is timed really, really well. So, we kind of start out with this guy who is just passing through this town and we’re like, ‘okay, obviously you’re not just passing through’. As readers we know that. Then there’s a little more information of, ‘oh, he’s in with this cop for something’. And then it’s a little more information—always looking for his father, specifically. A little more information—he’s able to find his father. And then it just escalates to—he confronts his father at this mountainside cabin/hut thing.

Matthew Maichen (00:17:34):
A very bad place where very bad things happen.

Marina Shugrue (00:17:34):
Yeah. We learn that last little detail with the kid. And then, I think, that all escalates and is so heightened, but like we were saying earlier, there’s this emotional thread, too. So, when all of that’s done and the worst of it’s kind of over in the story, we see Chickie [and] he’s extremely ill after. He’s vomiting, he can’t sleep, all this stuff. We kind of see how this has affected him physically and that tells us how it’s affecting him emotionally. I think that kind of experience that he has after makes it more gut-wrenching for the reader, too. Obviously we’re seeing everything happen through Chickie’s eyes. He’s the one who we’re relating to the most. He’s the one who’s made decisions that ultimately we agree with in the story. Doing the right thing and stuff like that. So, I think it’s that slow roller-coaster ride up and then the big drop and then you’re just kind of skating through the end until you get back to the loading dock. That’s how I felt reading it.

Matthew Maichen (00:18:52):
Yeah. I just want to say, that scene afterward, the aftermath of him…what is it, he showers, like…

Marina Shugrue (00:19:03):
Three times, I think. Yeah.

Matthew Maichen (00:19:06):
And, oh my God, it felt so human. The fact that the reaction was delayed until that point. So, these absolutely traumatic things happen and we don’t hear his reaction right away because he’s just trying to get through it and survive. Then he does, and he’s in the hotel room afterwards and he showers three times and it’s, like, ‘oh my God, that is so human. That is so justified’. I am definitely reading about a human being who tried to do this and went through these circumstances and this is a genuine reaction that he’s having. It just felt so real, the way it was done.

Marina Shugrue (00:19:54):

Matthew Maichen (00:19:56):
All right. We have actually spent a lot of time gushing about this. I’m going to move on to the interview portion, unless…is there anything else we want to say before we move on to that?

Marina Shugrue (00:20:14):
No, I think we’re at a good point. Let’s do this.

Matthew Maichen (00:20:14):
All right. So, Lane, the first thing I always really like to ask is, how does it feel to hear us discuss your story as if, hypothetically, you’re a fly on the wall, you aren’t there? Is there anything…ways that we interpreted [the story] that’s, like, ‘oh, that’s so interesting or different from what I thought’? What do you get from that?

Lane Talbot (00:20:41):
Well, my first reaction is just gratitude. It’s so awesome to hear such thought applied to this. I think that you guys, you all have put more thought into the story than I probably did while writing it. I’m very grateful to hear your reactions and your insight. It’s very illuminating for me. I was taking notes during this and there were so many things that jumped out. A lot of things that I don’t think I was even conscious of. We can go in any direction, but I’ll just start with the action hero trope. You mentioned James Bond specifically, and this is not a James Bond story, but I read all of Ian Fleming’s novels 10 years ago. One of my favorite, most satisfying moments in my career as a reader of fiction happened while reading “Dr. No” on an airplane. I have a feeling that impacted and influenced all of my writing from that point on. I think, Marina, you mentioned escalation. There are things that Ian Fleming does in the original Bond novels—and I mean, they were written in the fifties. You can say what you want about the novels, they’re very easy to criticize, and I think a lot of that criticism is justified, but what he does from a craft perspective, particularly in terms of escalation, is stunning. I’ll get to my point here. When people think about James Bond, particularly James Bond of the sixties—Sean Connery’s Bond—I think people tend to think about these really convoluted, very cheesy, villainous plots, right? The villain does the soliloquy where they explain, ‘and this was my grand master plan’, right? When you read the novels, it’s not that at all. When you read the novels, what Fleming does is he very intentionally, carefully, and subtly guides you through this escalating thriller. So, you’ll start with Bond on a beach or Bond in a bar or whatever and then you get to that denouement, but by the time you’re there, you’ve already been guided into the deeper water of the thriller. It doesn’t come off as cheesy in the novels. It doesn’t come off as very clunky or artificial. That escalation of plot that Fleming accomplishes has always been very impressive to me. I’m certain, and hearing this parotted back to me, I’m certain that imprint made its way into the DNA of this story.

Marina Shugrue (00:23:31):
I was going to say it’s funny, what we kind of unconsciously absorb. What we’re taking from our environment. It sounds like reading all those novels, if you just binged on [them] 10 years ago, yeah, of course you’re going to get a sense of pacing in your own writing when you sit down to write a story with semi-similar structures.

Lane Talbot (00:23:51):

Matthew Maichen (00:23:53):
Yeah. That is actually such a good segue into the second question I was going to ask, which is, and I’m going to take it in a different direction. I’m going to ask where did the inspiration for this story come from? Not in a plot trope sense, but in a setting sense. I feel like what we are seeing here is a side of America that not a lot of people see, but is very real or at least feels very real to me, personally. Where did you the idea to write about this side of America?

Lane Talbot (00:24:44):
Yeah. I’d be happy to answer that. You’re spot on. It started with setting. What drove the first draft of this story was not plot. It wasn’t, at least consciously, the action hero trope or the thriller elements. It was a hundred percent set. So, the quick CliffsNotes version of the story is, quite a while ago, I went on a business trip to a place very similar to the setting of this story. It was in Washington state and it was this remote stretch of coastline. It was owned by an Indigenous community and their twelve miles of beach was very, very private. So, I was there on a business trip and I got a little bit of a break, so I got to explore this coastline by myself for a couple hours. There was this moment where I’m kind of standing on this cliff, similar to a moment that Chickie has in the story, and I’m looking out at the extreme edge of a corner of America that not only do not a lot of people see, but you literally can’t see it because it’s private property. It’s not a piece of land that is easily accessible or experienced by many people. So, I’m standing on this cliff’s edge. It’s cold but it’s very bright and the mist is fanning off the ocean and you can’t see the difference between sky and wave. It just looked really vivid and really mystical. It was a really striking image. I left and I had to go back to my business meeting or whatever, so I’m driving out and I see these yellow signs for tsunami evacuation routes and I’m, like, ‘okay, well, that’s pretty striking’. I don’t see tsunami evacuation route signs very frequently. I live in the Midwest. So, I get back to the hotel and I’m discussing this with essentially my host, the guy that I was there to meet with. He was from the area, he was local—he is Indigenous and he grew up in the area—and I was asking him about this. He’s like, ‘oh yeah, we live near what’s called the Cascadia subduction zone’. I’m probably getting that wrong, but it’s something like that. It’s an area that pretty regularly, like clockwork every 500 years, will trigger an earthquake or an earthquake will occur and that will trigger a tsunami that just basically heads straight for their beach. Straight for their coastline. They know it’s coming, hence the tsunami evacuation routes. I think the most recent one was in the year 1700, so probably not going to happen during any of our lifetimes, but still it’s inevitable. So, anyway, it was very clear to me, when I left that trip, I was, like, ‘all right. Well, I don’t know how I’m gonna use that, but I’m going to use that’. That’s going to be encoded in my creative life in some way. That one was intentional and a setting, to me, is probably not enough to trigger a story. A premise is probably not enough to trigger a story. I think a character could be enough, in my case. Anyway, I knew that I was going to use the setting. When I sat down to write, it started there, but what came about in the first draft is that I found myself basically synthesizing a number of other things that I had just accumulated in my, you know, pre-writing life. There are other elements throughout, like the biker gang, the Lost Boys from Utah, the RNR village, the BoomTown, all the elements of the story. I don’t have direct experience with those at all but, you know, I may have read about them or may have heard about them or whatever. They just kind of got vaulted away. In the writing, I think sort of subconsciously…a lot of that stuff got synthesized, but the setting was the trigger. I don’t know, I think probably lots of us have these moments as writers where we might be walking around interacting with the world or doing something that looks very mundane. But, I think a lot of us, we’re always keeping track, right? You never know when you’re going to get something that’s going to be usable. Then when you do, you sock it away and eventually, whatever that agent is that unlocks the rest of it—like a striking setting—that can be the key to get you your first draft.

Marina Shugrue (00:29:00):
Just that little perfect storm.

Matthew Maichen (00:29:04):
What’s so cool about that is that, you know, you admit that there is a limit to how much your personal experience gives you with that. But you were able, despite that, to create this world that, again, feels so innately and intimately like the part of America that a lot of people don’t like looking at. That really suits the story and the darkness of the story. I’m sorry. I know I’m kind of going through the interview…what else do we have to say about that? About what the setting does for the story? I know I have my opinions on it, but like, man, it’s so great. What else do we think about that?

Marina Shugrue (00:30:06):
I think it was really smart to have it be a place that Chickie isn’t familiar with—it’s a place that he’s just passing through—because it kind of opens you up to being able to describe the place better, too. It’s a completely new place. Chickie’s gonna notice stuff and that helps us as readers in the story, too. It’s really remarkable how much the setting weaves with the plot so perfectly. Thinking about it, I don’t know that you could have put this anywhere else. I don’t know if the story works if it’s in a different setting. It’s really just so cohesive.

Melissa Reynolds (00:30:53):
Besides that, it almost feels like a character within the story because he has to deal with mud, he has to deal with all these different…I shouldn’t say all these different…it wasn’t such an active part of the story that it was distracting, but the setting wasn’t ignored. For example, I brought up the mud and how it was difficult for his bike. That is such a nice, subtle way to bring in that he’s not used to the setting. I mean, who drives a bike through the mud if it’s not a dirt bike, you know? I think that’s very clever and very subtle.

Marina Shugrue (00:31:37):
Yeah. Not used to the setting, can’t go up the mountain with his bike, too, which helps with the plot. Literally just putting him in this strange territory that he’s unfamiliar with, that he can’t navigate, and ends up having to kind of put his faith in complete strangers to help him accomplish his task.

Matthew Maichen (00:31:59):
Yeah. The unfamiliarity is so important because I don’t know if other people have done the reading on this stuff, but I’ve been reading a lot, my whole life, about…The reason I keep bringing up America, I think, is about how the continental U.S. is so good at hiding things. We just have such an extreme number of, for example, cults. In this story, biker gangs. All these ghost stories, all these things that are hidden in this massive land mass that, to this day, a lot of it isn’t really tamed. In those pockets of hidden stuff, there are so many bad things that happen. That’s kind of what this deals with. I wanna move on, though, because there was another thing that Lane mentioned that I really want to ask about. You mentioned first draft. First draft, second draft, third draft…I’m curious because the language in this story is so perfected, what is your editing process like?

Lane Talbot (00:33:17):
Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Thanks for asking. Very happy to talk about craft and process. I’ve got deep burning jealousy for writers who can turn out a draft quickly or get to that final draft quickly. For me, the process is just achingly long. It takes years. Literally years. This story, I wrote the first…thank you so much for saying that it’s indisputably a thriller. That’s so on the nose. I was actually at a conference that I go to in New York every year called ThrillerFest. It’s about thriller novels. I got there a day early. This was in 2015, probably, and I remember I started writing the first draft of this in a coffee shop just after getting off the plane. So, 2015.

Matthew Maichen (00:34:14):

Lane Talbot (00:34:14):
Yeah. So, I don’t know when I completed the first draft, but I do know, regardless of how long it takes me to get a first draft done—a first or second or a third—to be able to edit something of my own, to do it well, I absolutely need time. I think the reason that I need time is because I need distance and I need distance because that’s what creates objectivity. Somebody said on Twitter one time, ‘I’m always advising people, you know, to let a story breathe. Don’t send it out when it’s fresh and you’ve got stars in your eyes and you’re wondering if it’s going to go into the New Yorker or Paris Review or whatever’. That really resonated with me because—I think probably a lot of us are guilty of this—but it’s very easy for me to complete a first draft and be like, ‘I did it, I cracked it. It’s all there. The character conflicts, the transformation, all of it’s just good to go’. Then if I put it in a drawer and come back a year later, it’s like, ‘Dude, what were you thinking? No, none of it’s there. It’s not even a percent done’. It’s so heartbreaking, but it’s also so necessary. And it happens every single time. I can get lucky and if I get lucky, I can complete a story within a year. End-to-end within a year. Those tend to be simple stories. This story, when I look at it now, there’s a lot that strikes me about it. I’m not saying for good or for worse. It’s just things that I notice. I noticed that it’s really dark. I didn’t notice that when I was writing it. I was just like, ‘yeah, these are things that happen’. They’re things that I’ve read about and I’m weaving them together, and it didn’t occur to me until looking at it objectively after years where it’s like, ‘holy cow, this is so dark’. And then you can make better decisions, right? Do I need to tone some things down? Is this overpowering the character’s journey? Is this so dark that it’s distracting or is this contributing? Is this kind of alluding to what you were saying earlier? Is this a symptom of the fact that they’re just in a place where there is no law and there’s no way to enforce any law or even any common understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior? So, these are choices that I can’t make when it’s in draft. I’m just not equipped to do it. One of the tools that I need is time. I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish that I could turn these things around more quickly than I can, but I just absolutely can’t. I think the other thing, too, is that once I accepted that my editorial ability is also linked with…I don’t want to say personal growth, but my development as a reader and as a writer, it changed my media diet. I think for me, if I realize that I’m dependent on time, well, what am I filling that time with? I probably should be reading the best stuff I can get my hands on. I should probably be reading stuff that is aligned with what I think my goals are. I should probably always be in student mode.

Matthew Maichen (00:37:22):

Lane Talbot (00:37:23):
I’m not saying that I don’t read fun novels for fun. I do. Or I don’t watch crappy movies for fun. I do. But, I don’t know, you’ve got limited time, right? If you flow out your life, you’re like, ‘all right, well, I’m probably going to live 80 years’. However many days that is. That’s time to watch—what, a thousand movies, read two thousand books or something like that. I should probably just choose the best ones or at least the ones that are best in the genre that I want to work in.

Matthew Maichen (00:37:54):
I have a clarifying question for that. You say a year end-to-end, right? You mean short stories?

Lane Talbot (00:38:05):
Yeah. Yeah, but I’m also writing multiple projects simultaneously. I’m not saying that, like, ‘oh, like I do so much’. No, a novel draft could take…probably the shortest time it took me to draft a novel, like the first draft, was twenty-four months. And that was recently. So, that to me indicates I’m probably collapsing it. I’m probably getting a little bit…it’s probably moving in the right direction. I got an MFA—we talked about this before the recording—that was a three-year studio degree. And I remember…so my thesis director was this guy named Pinckney Benedict and he’s an amazing writer. His tastes align with mine quite a bit, so I selected him early on as my thesis director and I remember sitting in his office early on in my program and I was discussing, like, ‘all right, this is what I think my thesis is going to be’. I explained it and I was like, ‘so I think what I can do’—I remember this so well—’I think what I can do is, if I write two hours a day for the next two weeks, I can probably get 60,000 words done by the end of the month or something like that. Then that would be my first draft’. And he was like, ‘okay, good, go for it’. He probably knew that, you know, it’s never going to happen. And it didn’t. I thought it was going to take me two weeks. It literally took me three years. And it wasn’t good, right? Now I look back on it and I’m like, ‘nope, it wasn’t ready’. If I tried to write it again, I don’t know if I could crack it, but it would probably be better than it was when I wrote it the first time. So, time is just a critical tool for me as a writer. I know it’s not that way for others, but for me, for better or worse, time is absolutely one of the arrows in my quiver.

Matthew Maichen (00:39:53):
Oh man. I just want to say that hearing that is probably comforting to so many writers and the reason I was saying ‘wow’, is because, in career writing these days, if you’re following that, I guess with the amount of information that’s being put out at once, one of the things that is kind of secretly prized by publishers—it isn’t talked about that much—is the ability to churn out lots of words really fast. In our last episode, “The House of the Cerulean Sea” came up. That was a book that was really popular, a kind of magical book that came out. That author [TJ Klune], I actually looked up an interview with him, and he said that he used to consider it a failure when he didn’t write 5,000 words a day. There is this way of thinking in career writing right now where it’s just like, ‘speed, speed, speed, speed, speed’ and there are so many people, I think, who could benefit from slowing down to get things right.

Lane Talbot (00:41:02):
Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the other thing, too, is that understanding that it might be the case for you as a writer—and I use the broad you—that no work is wasted. So, if it takes you three years to write a novel draft and you go away for ten years and you come back with three novel drafts and you’re like, ‘all right, well, they suck as novels, but at least I learned craft’. Right? Good experience. That’s fantastic. But just because they’re bad drafts now doesn’t mean that they will always be bad drafts. That’s one of the things that I always remind myself [of] when I’m looking at a bad first draft, it’s like, ‘okay, well, it’s never going to be worse than this’. I think building a runway that moves with you…you’re carrying your work. It’s not going anywhere. These are things that I try to wrap my head around to try and sustain myself and to try and encourage myself and say, like, ‘okay, that thesis that I wrote ten years ago, it failed at the time. But now, after having read what I’ve read and tried what I’ve tried, I feel like if I chose to go back and re-attack it, I could do so’. Maybe it wouldn’t take three years on the next pass. Maybe it would take half that time or a quarter of that time. The reason for that is the investment in craft and the investment in reading and the investment in studying. That, I believe, ultimately, is going to continue to tighten the cycle. I don’t know that that’s true for everybody. I don’t even know that it’s true for myself. I kind of hope it is. But, yeah, churning out a perfect draft once a year of an 80,000 word novel. I dunno. I could only do that if I had a pretty healthy runway. Those ten years of developing that runway, maybe that’s what it will [inaudible] to. I’m not sure.

Matthew Maichen (00:43:00):
Thank you.

Melissa Reynolds (00:43:02):
That ties into something I was going to ask about. What if you have a project and you spend so much time on it and then you learn and grow, develop your voice. Does there ever come a point for you where you just decide, ‘this is too much work, I’m just going to throw it out and do something else’? Because I’m kind of running into that, too. Some of my old writing, I look back at it, I’m like, ‘this isn’t even worth fixing’. So, I was kind of curious what your thoughts were.

Lane Talbot (00:43:34):
Yeah I’ll go back to my guy Pinckney Benedict. He described that as sunk cost, which is a business term, right? If you invest that time, that is gone. There are going to be times when things are not worth pursuing for whatever reason. I think having that mindset—again, speaking only for myself—that mindset of, ‘okay, let’s be transactional with this’. If I didn’t get a complete novel out of it, what did I get? I probably got the experience. I got the physical practice of teaching myself, like, ‘okay, this is what the process is’. Then maybe that can be applied towards the next thing. Somebody said that they know that a novel draft is done when it stops bothering them and I related to that pretty strongly because I’ve got things that have never stopped bothering me. The first time I tried to write a novel, I was sixteen. And that’s the worst time to try to write a novel, but it’s also the best time ’cause you think you can do it. And you think that you’ve got these big emotions and everything and that’s great. I’m not denigrating that because that’s a critical experience for so many of us. However, you’re probably not gonna get your best work. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. And that still bugs me. I still think about that. It feels like unfinished work. Somewhere in my hard drive, I’ve got 60,000 words of, you know, sixteen-year-old Lane and it’s like, ‘oh my gosh’. I can’t imagine going back to that well and working on it, but it comes up. I think about it. It feels like unfinished work. So, I don’t know, if it stops bothering you and you can think about it like, ‘all right, well, I didn’t get a product, but I did get the process. I got the experience of writing it’. Maybe that was the gift. If it still bothers you, then maybe there’s unfinished work. Maybe that’s on the horizon. This is how I think about these things for myself. I know it’s different for everybody.

Matthew Maichen (00:45:34):
What I’ve heard is the old ‘turd polishing’ mantra of, you know, if you come up with something at fifteen, sixteen— ’cause this is what happened to me, too. I came up with a story idea when I was fifteen. For some reason, I didn’t let go of it for ten years, even though, fundamentally, looking back on it now, it was a childish idea. It was a very childish idea for a novel. It was the idea that a fifteen-year-old would think up. It’s the ‘polish a turd’ mantra. You can polish a turd as much as you want, but if fifteen-year-old you thought it up…you know. Then there’s also…to be clear, when Lane mentioned sunk cost here, he’s referring to the sunk cost fallacy. Because a lot of writers are listening to this, what it means is the feeling that if you have put a lot of time and or money and/or energy into something, it absolutely must have a result. Otherwise you have wasted that time, energy, and/or money. It becomes a fallacy when you put more and more and more and more effort into it thinking that it must yield results. I think that that is a very common thing for writers to fall into based on what happened to me, what has happened to other people that I’ve spoken to. So, you really hit the nail on the head with that.

Melissa Reynolds (00:47:03):
Slightly joking, I want to point out that MythBusters actually did polish a turd once and it actually kind of turned out pretty. So, it’s not always the end of the world.

All (00:47:10):

Lane Talbot (00:47:16):
I’m so going to look that up right after this.

Marina Shugrue (00:47:20):
That’s going in our episode notes, for sure.

Matthew Maichen (00:47:22):
Definitely. This episode is at risk of running long, but there is one question that I absolutely wanted to ask before we end. And that is, before we did this interview, you actually wanted to make some changes to “Minotaurs”. It was originally called “Tribes”. It had a different title and there were a few…I don’t want to say there were major changes made, for those of you who haven’t seen the original version. The changes are all very minor. It’s a few sentences and then the title, which in the end is not that big of a change, really. But you did specifically request those changes to be made. If we were a print publication, it would have been difficult, but since we’re online, you know, it was just like, ‘whatever’. We did it. I’m curious what prompted you to request us to make those changes?

Lane Talbot (00:48:22):
Thank you for making them, by the way. I definitely appreciated that. I know that’s probably a really fun email to get. Saying like, ‘Hey, thanks for publishing this. Can you make changes five months after the fact?’ So, [I] really appreciate the effort that you put into that. With regards to the title, the original title was “Tribes” and the thinking there was that it’s about these various groups. It’s about Chickie and his biker gang tribe, but also his family. It’s also about these Lost Boys. It’s also about the oil workers in the town. It’s also about the cop, Drinkwater. She’s local. Her people live there and, watching all of these foreign influences distort her home, that impact is something that I wanted to close with in the story. Anyway. It’s about tribes, right? And tribes…we were speaking about this earlier. I live in the Midwest, I went to a pretty good corporate high school. I’ve had an extremely typical American experience. To me, that was a word where I was, like, ‘oh, I’ve got a license to use that word’. I didn’t think about it at all. Like a lot of people, I’ve been learning over the last couple of years how to treat and be respectful of experiences that are not your own is worth pursuit. I think when I thought about the use of that word and then I learned that it’s a highly sensitive word in a way that I was not familiar with, my immediate reaction was ‘that’s got to change’. If even a small group of people live in the places that I’m writing about in this story, you know, would take issue with a white guy in the suburbs of Chicago using that word, then it’s got to change. It’s not my word. The last thing I want to do is write disrespectfully about somebody else’s place or their experience. Anyway, that was what drove that and I really appreciate you guys making the change

Matthew Maichen (00:50:36):
Yeah. It was interesting because on my end, when I saw that, my reaction honestly was, ‘well, it’s your story’. I didn’t realize, even as we were publishing that, but, you know, you’re right. Even us, as editors, none of us are directly from those communities. So, I guess it is a good point to make.

Lane Talbot (00:51:04):
Yeah, I think…I’m not a sports guy or anything like that. I don’t have strong sports opinions or anything like that, but I saw some clip the other day that was just so infuriating because they were talking about the team name changes. That’s obviously a part of our national conversation, has been for the last couple of years. I just remember seeing a clip of somebody who looks like me—I don’t even remember what the team was, but let’s just say, it was like, I dunno, name a team.

Marina Shugrue (00:51:44):
Was it the Braves?

Lane Talbot (00:51:44):
Sure. I’m not a sports guy. But that’ll…

Marina Shugrue (00:51:47):
Baseball’s in season. i think that might be it.

Lane Talbot (00:51:50):
Yeah. But they’re talking to these, you know, various ‘man on the street’. They’re conducting those interviews. And somebody who looks just like me, average white guy, twenty-five to thirty-five, probably stumbling out of a bar in the middle of a Saturday afternoon or something like that. They ask him his opinion because he’s wearing the shirt. He’s like, ‘oh no, no, no, they can’t change it. This is our history’. I just remember thinking that is the last guy that should have anything to say about this topic. The ratio of impact that it has to you versus the ratio of impact that it might have to the guy that I mentioned earlier, the guy who lives in the place that I write about, who has been there, who knows the story, who has many generations of family that are from there. They think about that land quite differently. They think about their character and their culture quite differently. They’re the people that should be making those decisions. Me and the guys like me should shut the fuck up and exit the conversation as quickly as possible. So, again, I didn’t know that the word was sensitive. As soon as I learned that it was, I knew exactly where I fell on the spectrum of that conversation.

Marina Shugrue (00:53:05):
Yeah. It was kind of nice to get your email because all of us were also not aware of the sensitivity of it and now we are, so everyone learns.

Lane Talbot (00:53:17):
Yeah. These things change and I think we should…I want to be on the side of the people that are making the effort to change with it. So, again, really appreciate you making the change.

Marina Shugrue (00:53:32):
Yeah. I appreciate you bringing it to our attention.

Matthew Maichen (00:53:34):
I just think it’s so funny philosophically, though. I know it’s for a totally different reason, but after learning about your editing process, it’s so funny now. It’s almost poetically significant that we reach out to you and the first thing that happens is you’re like, ‘Hey, can you make these edits to the story?’ I think that does speak to…hearing your philosophy on writing where it needs to get better. We need to keep editing it. We need to take the time to make it better. If not just quality-wise, if not craft-wise, then I guess morally, you know, by being more conscientious. So interesting.There were a few questions that I was going to ask that you ended up inadvertently touching on. I was going to ask about advice for writing thrillers and you did talk about that and the elements that make it work and you mentioned that escalation that you saw in Ian Fleming’s work. Speaking of Ian Fleming’s work, speaking of the work by other writers, the one question that we really like to ask near the end is, are there any shout-outs that you want to give for certain things in the literary world that you feel don’t have enough attention [and] deserve more of it? What do you think on that score?

Lane Talbot (00:55:17):
Yeah, I can thread that needle and use that to answer the thriller question. There’s an artifact that I strongly benefited from when it comes to thriller writing and it doesn’t just come from a thriller writer. It comes from, I guess, probably our greatest living American screenwriter, David Mamet. I don’t know if people know this or not, but he’s really good at writing action thrillers. That shocked me when I figured that out. He’s got three or four action thrillers that he wrote the screenplays for and they’re amazing. They’re perfect. They’re efficient. They’re so good. Anyway, he wrote a letter to the writing staff on a show that he created in the early 2000s called “The Unit”. It’s a very grumpy letter and he’s basically taking them to task for not doing their job. And what is their job? Their job is to distinguish, in his perspective, the drama from information. If you look up this letter..I just started blogging [and] this on my mind because I wrote about this recently. I copy the memo exactly. It’s very, very instructive and it’s very, very simplistic. What it basically says is, like, ‘Hey, like this is all you gotta do. Just ask three questions of every scene: what does the character want, what happens if they don’t get it, why is this happening? In so doing, if you can answer those questions, you will communicate to yourself that you’re crafting drama, not just issuing out information and exposition’. If you’re a writer, if you’re someone who’s interested in learning craft or wants to know, what are these conversations or what do the experts recommend…obviously, there’s a world of literature that you can read about it, but if you just want one 300 word memo that breaks it down, particularly if you’re interested in writing thrillers, that’s the best, most succinct, piece of instruction that I’ve come across. I would definitely point people to that memo. I have it on my blog, but if you just Google ‘David Mamet memo to writers of “The Unit,’ you’ll find it. And it’s wildly educational.

Matthew Maichen (00:57:40):
I just dropped the link in the discord as you spoke. We always do that. So, we are pushing really hard at the timeline and, Elena is not here, but I don’t want to give her a whopper of an episode to edit. Let’s go toward closing. The last question we normally ask, very last question, I want to leave with this one, is what originally prompted you to submit to The Metaworker?

Lane Talbot (00:58:23):
I found The Metaworker on Duotrope, and I think there were many reasons that…as I became familiar with The Metaworker, there were many reasons why it became clear that this was a place where I wanted to submit work. I think the thing that sticks out was the turnaround time on editorial notes and response in general. As we move further into the digital world, it’s really nice to see some of these walls come down. When I first started submitting work, you’d send a physical letter to a place. You have no idea if it’s received and then, you know, months go by, maybe a year goes by, before you get your rejection and you’re keeping track of it in your notebook. I just really appreciate people who embrace the digital tools that exist right now. It doesn’t mean that the acceptance rate for any writer is going to go up, but it should be writer-friendly. Something that is writer-friendly, we should be aware of it. I think that was probably one of the things that drew me to The Metaworker in the first place. The other thing, too, is that there are benefits in this digital world. Digital ink is never dry. You guys were able to make those edits quickly. That’s fantastic, right? To your earlier point, if this had been at a quarterly journal, okay, well, then that copy just exists. Like, ‘no, we’re not gonna make those edits. You made a mistake, you should have known that beforehand and that’s the world that you live in’. The other thing, too, is that it’s more of a living artifact that you can check in on, you can go to The Metaworker every day. You can go there whenever you want. It’s not a static thing, it’s a dynamic thing. For those reasons and more, I was very, very happy to discover it.

Matthew Maichen (01:00:26):
Thank you so much. That means a lot. We’ve spent years building this up and I think that the number of submissions we get, I think that it’s worked. It’s working for people. I really appreciate you saying that and I’m sure that everyone does.

Marina Shugrue (01:00:49):
Absolutely. Yeah.

Lane Talbot (01:00:51):
Well, thank you all.

Marina Shugrue (01:00:53):
This was a great conversation, Lane. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lane Talbot (01:00:55):
Thank you for the invite. Really appreciate it.

Melissa Reynolds (01:00:58):
Yes, thank you.

Matthew Maichen (01:00:59):
Thank you so much and have a great day. Thank you for being here.

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