The Evolution of "Peppermint Breath"

Somewhere between the years 2004 and 2005, I began working on my first novel, which had several working titles, including The Wishing Game, The Relevance of Morality, and The Completely True Story of Reed Jackson.  As it goes with many authors and their debut efforts, this first novel of mine was not very good and, ultimately, went unpublished.

Fans of Inside the Outsidemy official debut novel—might be surprised to know that there is no blood or death or horror of any sort in that unpublished novel. It was an earnest attempt on my part to write something literary, in the vain of The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, only with strippers, prostitutes, and a morally conflicted middle-school teacher named Reed Jackson. The most difficult part about writing that novel was the fact that I had no idea how to write a novel. I'd been writing short stories for years—a couple of which I was even proud of—but, despite having been a reader and lover of novels, I quickly learned that writing one was a wholly different animal.

So, I did my best to learn on the fly and what followed was a mostly mediocre manuscript with flashes of potential. Despite my overall dissatisfaction with the novel, there were a handful of sections that I felt good about. One such section was the opening paragraph, which you can read below:

"I’d been stealing my students’ money for almost six months. Technically, it wasn’t their money and technically I wasn’t stealing it. That’s the truth — just not the honest truth. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, my story that is, trying to figure out where to start and what to tell. There’s just so much and it all seems so random. There’s the brothel in Mexico and the whore who reminded me of my mother, the pornographer named Luscious and the movie he coerced me into performing in, the fight in front of Baby Doll’s and my first introduction to Burgundy, my missing wife and our unborn child, my road trip to Graceland, the three bald cannibals, and the stripper who rescued me from the depths of loneliness before single-handedly ruining my teaching career, which brings me back to my students’ money, which I’d been stealing for almost a six months."

There were two things that came out of my unpublished novel that I was later able to make use of. The first (which fans of Inside the Outside may have noticed from the excerpt) was the character of Billy D. Luscious, who, in that novel played a relatively minor role. I found a new home for Luscious in Inside the Outside where I fleshed him out, making him a very important central character.

The second thing that came out of my unpublished novel was a scene in Reed Jackson's backstory. It involved Reed as a little boy, growing up in a small apartment with his mother who was a prostitute; Reed, of course, didn't know what his mother did for money. In the scene, he wakes up in the middle of the night to the phone ringing. He goes into the kitchen where he finds his mother talking. She later takes Reed with her to a 24-hour diner where she is meeting up with a client.

That was one of the last scenes I wrote for the book and I became quite fond of it, so I was always sort of sad that it would get thrown out with the bathwater as a result of the book not being published. Sometime later, I decided to extract that scene and salvage it into a short story. I didn't spend too much time on it, however, and, as it was with the novel it came from, I eventually scrapped it. I didn't look at it again, until last year when I was approached by Will Entrekin, Creative Director of Exciting Press, who wanted to know if I had any unpublished work sitting around.

One of the stories I decided to show him was that former scene from my unpublished novel, which I hadn't even titled. Right before I sent it to Will, I titled the story "Peppermint Breath." Will said he wanted to publish it, along with a few other stories, so contracts were signed and my once-scrapped-story was about to get a new lease on life.

A few days before Exciting Press was set to publish "Peppermint Breath," I re-read it and decided that it wasn't quite ready for public consumption, so I asked Will if he wouldn't mind letting me toy with it a little bit before he published it. With Will's blessing, I spent a day or two adding about 2,000 words to the story (amongst those 2,000 words, the character of Luscious makes a cameo along with Timber Marlow, the heroine of Inside the Outside).

I sent Will the updated draft and on December 16, 2012, "Peppermint Breath" was officially introduced to the world.

The Plan: A Short Short Story

Way back in 2004, I began working on my first novel.  It was a terrifying prospect, since I'd no idea how to write one. It seemed like the next logical step to take in my writing journey, however, since I'd been studying creative writing as an English major at Cal State San Bernardino, while also writing several short stories. In the summer of that same year, I was invited to attend the Squaw Valley Community of Writers annual fiction workshop.

This was terribly exciting, as two years earlier I'd been placed on the waiting list for an invite, before not getting in.  Squaw Valley has a great tradition of helping along the careers of some terrific writers—among them, Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch, and Amy Tan. So, as you might imagine, I was over the moon. During my week-long stay at Squaw Valley, I met a literary agent who'd founded one of those fancy New York agencies most aspiring writers know about. He took a liking to me and asked if I was working on anything. I told him I was writing my first novel, before proceeding to give, perhaps, the worst book pitch in the history of all humanity.

The agent was kind and patient and, when I mercifully cut myself off, he asked me to send him the book when it was done.  He also told me not to rush. So, of course, as soon as I got home, I started working like mad, rushing my maiden novel into existence. I sat in my room, isolated from the world, and wrote and wrote and wrote for hours at a time. I was making great headway, when I came across a writing contest being hosted by the Inland Empire Branch of the California Writers Club. The contest included a category for short fiction and the prize was $150.

I was feeling awfully good after my week at Squaw Valley and, as a poor college student, that $150 prize sounded nice, so I decided to take a break from my novel to write a story for the contest. The theme of the contest was "Secrets," so I came up with a simple story about a boy and a girl, teenagers each of them. They were making plans for their future, only one of them was keeping their plans a secret.

The story was semi-inspired by Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," which was about a man and a woman having an ambiguous conversation outside of a train station; the conversation itself, it's been argued, involves the man trying to convince the woman to have an abortion. The conversation in "Hills Like White Elephants" is cryptic and nowhere in the story is it ever explicitly stated that the woman is pregnant. I liked that idea, so I wanted to write a story where a guy and girl were having an important conversation, without ever explicitly stating what they were talking about.

I was also inspired by Kate Chopin's short story "The Story of an Hour," which is about a woman who is thrilled to learn of her husbands death in a train accident, as it means she will be liberated from him; when he returns home that same day, revealing the news of his death to be a mistake, the wife suddenly dies.

"The Story of an Hour" is very short, but packs a huge emotional punch. I'd always been taken with Chopin's ability to pack such a huge emotional impact into such a short, short story, so this also became one of my goals. After three days of writing, I finished a 900 word short story called "The Plan."

I sent if off to the IECWC and got back to work on my novel.  A few months later, I heard back from them and found out that "The Plan" had won first place.

In the weeks before I won the IECWC's contest, I'd finished that first novel I was working on. After rushing it off to the agent whom I'd met at Squaw Valley, I waited for two months, before hearing back. The agent responded with a letter—which I received on my birthday—rejecting my novel.

So, "The Plan," which was only ever meant to be a brief interlude in the completion of my first novel, became the only writing of consequence I did that summer. The novel in question, to this day, has yet to see the light of day. "The Plan," however, not only became the first piece of writing I'd ever earned money for, but now, thanks to Exciting Press, is getting a second shot at life.

In November of 2012, Exciting Press published "The Plan: A Short Short Story" and I couldn't be happier about it.

Exciting Press Signs Author Martin Lastrapes

I've signed a deal with Exciting Press and, if you'll pardon the pun, I'm terribly excited about it. A press release was sent out this morning with some of the more interesting details.

"Novelist Martin Lastrapes, whose independent novel Inside the Outside climbed the Amazon horror bestseller lists with its tale of religious sects, cannibalism, and literary terror, has signed a deal with Exciting Press to bring six new stories spanning multiple topics and genres to the digital market. Lastrapes’ short stories and flash fiction will join titles by international bestseller Nick Earls, fantasy novelist Miya Kressin, and Press director Will Entrekin to broaden Exciting Press’ already diverse catalog."

The agreement I've made with Exciting Press is both thrilling and gratifying for reasons that you probably aren't aware of.  You see, I fancy myself a novelist (which, considering I've only written one novel, may sound a bit presumptuous) and, for the foreseeable future, my primary goal is to write and publish novels. But, before I was a novelist, I was just an aspiring writer trying very hard to learn my craft.

As it is with most developing writers, I cut my teeth by writing short fiction. Suffice it to say, most of my early efforts would fit comfortably on a scale of terrible-try-again to take-this-shit-to-your-grave.

Things began to change for me in 2002, when I was studying English at Cal State San Bernardino. James Brown, the critically acclaimed novelist and memoirist, was one of my creative writing professors and, under his watch, I eventually had what I think of as my Neo-at-the-end-of-The-Matrix-moment. From pacing and character to metaphor and symbolism, it all just started to make sense.

I plied this newfound knowledge by writing more short stories, only these new stories were actually pretty good. While some of them were published and others won awards, their primary purpose, so far as I was concerned, was to prepare me for my eventual leap into novel writing.  And, at the end of the day, they served their purpose, when I managed to complete my debut novel Inside the Outside.

While Inside the Outside marked the beginning of my career as a novelist, there was a part of me that felt a bit sad to be moving away from short fiction and those stories I was most proud of. I'd come to accept them as fond memories, like the pretty girl I once met at Bullwinkle's who taught me how to kiss.

But now, thanks to Exciting Press, many of those short stories will be getting their time in the sun. And, while I've tried to articulate it for the last 400 words or so, the truth is I don't think I can properly express how thrilled I am to have made this deal.

I almost wish I could go back in time to talk to that younger version of myself, the aspiring writer with the shaky confidence and constant fear that nobody would ever care about the stories he wanted to tell. I almost wish I could tell him that the short stories he was writing—stories which he thought would never progress anywhere beyond his computer screen—would one day become the centerpiece for a publishing deal that would put him on the same team as critically acclaimed and bestselling authors.

But, if I did that, it would ruin the surprise for this present version of myself and I wouldn't be sitting here with a smile on my face, marveling at all the wonderful experiences this writing journey of mine has afforded me.