clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Monday, December 31, 2012

Pretty Good Year

I'm stealing the title here from the lovely Tori Amos.

The last glass of eggnog with nutmeg is down the gullet. It's been a pretty good year.

I'm thinking back on all I've read this year. I re-read Hemingway's "The End of Something" which was quite moving when I first found it thirty-one years ago. I saw something in it that I'm not sure is quite right. Nevertheless, it made me think.

I read "Six Pound Test" by Ron Carlson in the December Gray's Sporting Journal. It was a wonderful story. I re-read Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. I read The Assistant Murderer by Dashiell Hammett for the first time. I don't know how I missed it.

I re-read a couple of Scalzi's Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. His prose is good but he doesn't do shit for combat writing. That's hardly a fault. If he did combat well you'd puke beside the bed after you read it and no one needs that late at night.

I learned a great deal this year. I hope you did as well. I stood in cold water and caught fish. I stood in the Baltic Sea and did not. I saw Matisse's The Dance and Music.

It was a good year. I two concerns in the coming year : one, that I can find a tin or two of Squadron Leader. My supply is in danger. Also, that I finish a small collection of short stories. I want to get them out before starting on a long-form work again.

That's enough of me for a bit. We've been on self-indulgent month this December. I'll talk more about writing in general and good sources of material in the coming month.

I had an incredible encounter of a mother teaching a small child to lie today as I drank a pot of tea at a local coffee house. It's hard to to believe I heard what I did.  It's the sort of thing we hear all the time. However, this one struck me. I'll say something in detail about it tomorrow. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I have a cherry tree in the west meadow that is quite old and neglected. I suspect it is a native (they are native in my part of the world) and has been allowed to progress on its own for the twenty-two years the house has been perched on top of the hill. The stone foundation of a small barn lies between you and the tree in this photo. The barn is so long gone that I have blackberries and blueberries growing within what were its walls.

The tree is badly in need of pruning which I have delayed because its fruits are small and somewhat rare. I had no real expectation that pruning will rejuvenate its bearing of fruit. In the spring bloom so many of the branches are dead and dormant that when it does bloom they are unnoticed in the otherwise bright greening of the meadow beyond.

I will prune it in the bloom this spring. It is close to the berry patch and I want to convey a degree of gentrified sophistication in our little patch and not the happenstance of fruit amid decay and neglect.

I say these things because I must prune my own writing this winter. I have said repeatedly in the past two months that managing the internals of the characters against the externals of the plot is something I have not done well. I could ignore this shortcoming and write on merrily with plot-driven stories. However, these are not the stories I want to write.

I have dribbled out bits and pieces for  twenty years with some regular commitment. It was clearly in the vein of hobby. I did not take the time and effort to craft. I merely wrote (as someone will say at a party - "Oh, I write, too." Yes, long ago I learned the decorum of  keep your mouth shut and say you work as an actuary or a epidemiologist or in demographic analysis or just - gasp - "in insurance." It keeps you from interacting with people who might otherwise watch reality TV - or any TV for that matter.).

I want to tell my stories and they demand an understanding by the reader of the turmoil of my characters. I cannot have that turmoil without portraying the inner conflict that tortures them and the external conflict which denies them the blissful safety of banal existence we each enjoy quite comfortably every day. Most of us do not have lives that make good stories with dead bodies and rose gardens.

I have to prune. I have to do the new. I hate compulsion. I hate the drive to do something difficult and frightening and just full of the possibility of failure. I hate it. I have it and I don't for the life of me know why. I'm fundamentally contemplative (my uncle would say "lazy") and am content to observe and learn more than do and experience.

I get in a little float plane most years and fly for hours to catch fish because of the plane ride (which can be more than a little of an adventure). It is a destination. It is a mark of departure from the ordinary.

I can't go fishing at the pond on Saturday afternoon. I have to have adventure for recreation. It is a character flaw of the worst type.

I feel that same compulsion to get better in my writing - my storytelling.

It means learning anew. It means admitting that what I have done for twenty years is crap. [ Not hard that , as writers. We can always call something of ours crap. This time - it is with due consideration.]

I have the reference materials. I have authors who have shared their insights into characterization, storytelling, the physical craft of writing, the effort of effective self-editing. I have the "make a mess and clean-it-up" process and the newly acquired knowledge of what MUST be in the first draft before clean-up can be worthwhile.

I have the tool kit. I don't know how to use all the tools yet but I have the kit. I am working again from day zero. I am writing slowly and deliberately following a series of rough outlines that tell me things I must do and show along the little scenes even in the first draft.

I am tightening. I am trimming. I am pruning my old tree. I am hoping for a decent crop. I've lost fruit trees before so nothing is guaranteed. I don't think this one is too far gone to bear a little fruit old as it may be.

I let my writing go too early for the desire of career and family. Those efforts I  chose allow me to sit now and look at snow from my library. I'm drinking my tea in a quiet house ( well, there is a resident foxhound who isn't quiet at all) as my frau is in Hawaii. I enjoy the trappings of success and don't find nobility in the poverty and struggle that would have followed me as a young playwright.

I do find a degree in disappointment that I didn't approach my writing in a more serious manner years ago.

I'd feel less the fool now if I had been more serious a couple decades ago after the drafts of Rateater. Maybe I would have seen why my execution was lacking. I would have seen why my efforts were so pale and transparent. My ego would have been moderated by the understanding of the real mechanism of crafting a vibrant character portrait. Maybe I would have wanted to fix my efforts. Maybe.

Friday, December 28, 2012


You' seen them : the grinding stones used to make flour for the last three or four thousand years. They're all over the place. Little towns take them from the riverbank put them in parks as history illustrated.

The mill is an unusual place in that it usually had two foundations. It was a building around a building  to keep the vibrations of the grindstones from shaking the larger mill apart. Turns out, making flour is a rough business.

I mention all of this because I am struggling with the two foundations of a story - the inner conflict which has to be managed and shown to the reader in a way they can piece together, and the outer conflict which prevents our character from ignoring his inner demons.

A story you want to read has two foundations in a sense. There is the protagonist's inner conflict and the larger plot-driven conflict. I've done well at the latter and poorly at the former. I've always done poorly at the former. Until I decided to become more serious about the little stories I write, I ignored much of the inner conflict completely. Now it feels almost like learning to write from scratch to provide any insight at all into the internal motivations and desires without being heavy handed.

I've never thought about the "why." I have always allowed plot to drive the story and lived in literature little removed from the action-suspense novels of the 70's which dominated the best seller lists. The writers of these got better with time and their characters did develop rich motivations. Mine have not.

When I would read Hemingway, the stories in my eyes had more to do with the "what" than the "why." I never cared about the "why." I never really developed any sensitivity for it. I moved on from literature to other professional pursuits and left this particular revelation undiscovered and - in the years which have passed - somewhat atrophied.

I wrote an essay years ago about Beowulf as a character which examined the seeming illogical bent of his actions. It was more cute than clever but was done in a lively tone. I enjoyed writing the piece. It was the last time I can say that I seriously examined the conflict and motivations of a character rather than the larger plot conflict. I argued how we could assign by inference any number of motivations and conflicts to the inner working of Beowulf but they had such poor supporting evidence in the text that all of them were allowable. We readers impressed our own motivations on the hero as none was provided to us beyond the description of the "what." The "why" was in our own minds.

Now, I see this glimmer suggested my own construction dilemma which has followed me even to this day : I have been inattentive to a rich internal conflict in my characters and thus they are wooden pieces moving about as set-pieces on wheels through the plot of my play, my stories.

I must end this practice and it is proving difficult for me. The story and the character: I need to be attentive to both.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Frosty Night

My lights are casting halos in the freeze-out frost as I walk to the door tonight. I cannot capture it with a simple camera, though the effect is of walking into Van Gogh's painting. The snow has a tinge of the night upon it and the branches move subtly in the breeze as if standing at the edge of the room waiting to be asked to dance.

I think it amazingly beautiful.

Then my thoughts turn to those works I haven't finished that had promise this year.

I knocked a guy off his feet with a dead wet black bear. It was throw at him from the dark by someone unseen.

I killed a man with a .520 NE loaded with the medallions bearing the likenesses of saints.

I held a man under water in an ornamental pond with a garden rake. His teenage son did the work.

I drove a man mad and allowed him the illusion of being sane.

I placed a man and his nephew in a shack on the edge of an airfield and then ripped the shack apart with a chain gun allowing the nephew to live. He was glad the uncle died.

I had a fellow out trout fishing step into a deep hole and had his buddy resist the urge to extend him any aid. He sputtered and went under pulled along by a spring current. The buddy was after his friend's job and in an instant saw his chance. You might say "only a job" but what job would be good enough for murder ? We can all think of one or two. It's the crossroads at midnight but the devil inside us is all our own.

I had a man badly framed for murder in a hasty scene and his problem is that the cops buy the set-up. The suspect is uniquely positioned to be the subject of the lie.

Plots are not enough and the fact that I describe these unfinished bits by plot shows their weakness : the characters take real work for me. I think I might go to to a conference this year. I might need the guidance.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Five inches this afternoon on top of the frozen icy stuff from Christmas Eve. It made driving a bit more adventurous than the normal five inches of snow. Normally, I just go about my business. Today, I had to play with the transfer case quite a bit. I'm parked in 4-HI right now though we do live on top of a hill.

Nothing too literary tonight. I wondered if Hemingway would be blowing snow and decided halfway through that he would be. It's fun.

The rest of the evening will be spent scouting trout streams and then, The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Wart is a fish right now.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Roast Beast

 Nothing to add today but a lovely roast beast my buddy served.

Yes, it was as delicious as it looked.

I don't have pictures of the chocolate bourbon butter butter cake another buddy made. It too was good.

All my friends are great cooks. They don't overcook the green beans.

Hope your feasts went well.

I didn't write yesterday. I found a bottle of grappa on the counter at a fishing buddy's house and went "full Hemingway" as it were. Everyone knows you can't go "full" Hemingway.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Roll the Dice

I'm struggling through a story just like a lot of you out there do during the holiday. There is nothing like having ample time for writing to doom the pen to garbage.

I'm starting one over. How ?

I listed the facts of the story I intend to keep from the original three passes.

I've saved a handful of exchanges I liked. I'l probably not use them again; but, I liked them.

I took a deep breath and decided to start the story at a different place: one deeper in the action.

I also am including enough exposition at the beginning to ground the reader in the setting. The environmental details of setting in this tale provide key aspects of emotional connection to the reader. What would The Road be without the omnipresent sense of decay ?

So, I roll the dice. I have some handholds left from the previous passes. I will use them as I claw my way in rising action.

I hope you are finding plentiful handholds this holiday weekend, too.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Writing, It's a Bear

One of my little eccentricities in language is an odd association with bears. I like to stand in cold water and catch fish. I'm prone to hibernation. I will eat the best parts of anything if it is left unattended. My moods include "grizzly." I've been observed foraging in the berry patch. Sometimes my own, sometimes not.

SO, here we have the black bear (brown coloration) covered with snow much as I am when I come in from some of my favorite things : snowblowing and foxhound walking.

Also, writing is a bear. You can know how you want to say it but the structure and the language get all tangled in the plot and characterization and it ... can just be a bear.

My first love has always been poetry and we all know how rewarding that endeavor can be. If you think a novel is tough, try getting a folio of poetry in print. Poor bastards, the poets.

My contribution from twenty years ago. I jotted this in a notebook about my (now) wife who has given me this wonderful sculpture.

What ?
Am I to see you by my moon
     my dreams
     before the dance
     every night ?
Am I but to have
       only that
         and so lose the desire to wake ?

 am I to do
   about you ?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Frost on the Pumpkin

I will allow that it is an especially heavy frost.

I like waiting until my pumpkin looks bad or has snow on it to put it on the compost pile. I know it is a little weird. I like seeing a pumpkin on the porch in fall and tossing the beast after Halloween  removes the best part for me - the run-up until New Year's.

I like coming home in the dark and seeing the beast. I know there is no good explanation for this behavior.

I seldom have guests to our little hill and so no spousal ire is invoked most years. This one just happened to work out quite well. I had this little treat this morning.

The last several days have seen more work on my part about writing than in the actual crafting of text. That changes in the morning. I have a pretty good rough edit of changes to make to a little slice of a story which appeared earlier on these pages. It isn't important enough to backlink so don't think I just missed that inclusion.

I actually think that this little slice might be able to do the job as a stake in the ground for a long-form work when combined with another of my short pieces. I still would need to do some fairly heavy plot outlines to get a novel out of the germ. I suspect I might try.

So, some serious work in the morning still following the premise of simple dialogue attribution, few adjectives, fewer adverbs, and a serious focus on character based tension and conflict. If I can get the internal struggle realized outside the character using little description, I'm on the right track for a first draft.

Holding onto this story has been something like the pumpkin in the picture. It didn't serve much purpose. It still had some appeal to me even though its season was clearly past.  I chewed on the idea for a while and grew to sense a flavor I had overlooked.

Now, back to it and a little work to see what I can find. I had this lovely surprise this morning. Maybe I'll find something else in the frost tomorrow.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


My mind today was focused on the repair of a story.

The conflict and tension were missing and it was populated by only a couple of phrases that held my interest.

I was thinking "What of my personal experience adds an innate sense of tension and conflict?"

Of course, Watergate.

In my earliest days, I would come home to find my living room populated by the hearings conducted into the Watergate break-in, cover-up, and deceit.

The key theme as I recall was conspiracy (my earliest memory of that world): the active intent of liars to lie and to conceal the lie. Ohhh, tension. Conflict. Drama.

Yes, I'm all for conspiracy. I thought "I'm all for it " among those who know how to do it right. How many Americans know how to do it right ? Few. Ah, but the Irish. There is something too I learned. Better to show than tell so I will make the protagonist a seasoned and cautious conspirator. I will make the government in power the opposing force. I will make the chance encounter reveal a casual and unexpected air.

Lastly, I will turn to the Stasi for the concept of corrosion. The source of my protagonist's concern : did the car break down of its own accord or is this a type of corrosion by an arm of the state? Can the casual repairman be trusted or is he too working for the secret police? Will I make my meeting without depending on this stranger? Is it a trap and if so - am I to be caught or delayed?

Ah, now against the idle banter (though witty) of an exchange, we can have tension, conflict, dilemma, and risk. We have discomfort and loneliness and betrayal and yearning.

Hold on, ladies and gentlemen. We may have a story on our hands. Thank you CREEP. Good night Gordon,  wherever you are.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Back from a little seasonal visit to the west coast.

I've been looking at wonderful things, thinking murder, and reflecting on conflict and character development. There's nothing like showing work that is ultimately disappointing to motivate one to address issues much earlier in the process.

It being the holiday season  and with it the sometimes unfortunate culinary selections of Aunt Mildred, I ordered a new book on poisons. I wanted to kill a character by poison because the bullet seemed harsh in this case.

I thought about what I knew of poisons (which I suspect is actually quite a lot more than any normal civilian) and discovered I did not understand the simple and readily at hands means of orchestrating a demise. It is the killing of a single victim that poses the problem. If I need to eliminate an entire city, well then I can wax a length about aerosol agents and their limits of human exposure.

Poisoning Uncle Melvin in the library with an reasonable chance of success was beyond me.

Book of Poisons, A Guide for Writers by Serita Stevens and Anna Bannon to the rescue. (Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH. 2007). It will make great reading this season as I contemplate an unfortunate demise.

What ? A horrendous subject for the holiday season ? You haven't my family then and I'd guess you are not embracing the truth about your own. Just worry that some of them have come around to my way of thinking as you have that extra piece of pie.

I'm harmless now, though. No poisoning once you buy a book on the subject and announce the same to the world. It is a lovely demise. I had no idea that there are so many of the mushroom family that are quite deadly. Omelette, Aunty dear  ?

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Out for a few days on adventure.

Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all time.

If you should feel some discomfort, there's really nothing were gonna do to help.

That is all.


The problem is that we become enamored with a couple of lines. It happened below. << link here >>

This was a short bit that had a couple of lines I liked."Sentient" and "empty."

We sense an emotional conflict in the protagonist though we're not sure which character it might be. [ WTF syndrome]. We know "empty" means something important.

What we don't have is a good grasp of the conflict. We don't have tension. We only have a little cute dialogue.

These are the things that register late on my BS meter.

Change the mechanic to a woman. Get rid of the trite phrase in the opening line ("far reaching") . Let the reader find out WHY the Volvo's breakdown is a critical problem at this very moment. Show us more reticence on the part of the protagonist to accept a ride - don't just hesitate and reach for the door. Since "empty" has Stasi-like implications in the story (not illustrated in current form) , show them. Have the mechanic say something about it. Make her win him over and show that despite his wariness she does so in a disarmingly quick fashion. Open the door so that isolation - his choice existence - need not confine him to loneliness (a key element in his emotional conflict).

If he is afraid of a control apparatus employed by the state, show his fear.

Sounds like a different story now, doesn't it. What I have below is a snippet of something cute. I wrote it briefly in a writing group and liked the sentient Volvo and "empty" (meaning without the constant connection to a social network - also inadequately illustrated). I liked the potential isolation of a character in a connected world. I conceived of "emotica" as a counterpart to internet porn ... where subscribers borrow the emotional/sensory content of someone else's intimate experiences in lieu of their own. I liked a character living for his own experiences in isolation where the interconnected masses fail to experience their own in lieu of this "emotica" experience.

That sounds a little better. I wrote about 5% of that in my little bit below and even in it managed to avoid the presentation of a sense of the conflict, the tension that provides meaning to the character's actions. So the protagonist crawls into a truck with a stranger - a mechanic AAA type service (cute name). So what ?

I read a great deal as a boy. Books were my greatest friend. My uncle would caution me about the words : "knowing is not the same as doing."

I'll cut another version. I think my Hemingway-issue Bullshitometer is working. It's just takes a couple hours to warm up. I might have to invest in a solid-state model and let this old vacuum tube issue device retire to the shelf.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Volvo from Mangan2002.

Trophies have far lasting effects on the winners. Eric's Volvo station wagon formerly driven by his adulterous ex-wife sat stalled in the parking lot of a TGI Friday's on Miller avenue. It infuriated him in its ability to malfunction at the precise moment in life when he needed its renown reliability. He hated technology. He hated being dependent on someone. He hated that his marriage failed.

The headlamps of the mechanic's truck shown brightly across the fellow's back and legs as he crawled across across the top of the engine. The shirt said Dan above the left breast pocket. He introduced himself as Tom.

Eric asked, "What do you see?"

The mechanic answered still deep under the hood, "Did it make a noise ?"

"Uh, click whirr whirr click. Then it died completely."

"Have you used a silicone surface sealer recently?" the mechanic asked.

"What? Uh. No. Not on the engine."

Dan's feet returned to the ground and he unfolded. He was tall with red hair and could nearly scratch his knees without bending over.

"Did you use a silicone surface treatment lately?"

"No," Eric said.

"Have you flushed the transmission?"

"You have to do that?" A light drizzle with brown ash started. A muddy drop hit Dan's extensive forehead and stopped at his brow.

"Have you rubbed beeswax on the upholstery?"

"No," Eric said. "No. Why does that matter?"

Dan pulled off a glove and scratched his nose with the back of his hand. He looked up at the lights in the parking lot beyond and then down at Eric.

"It's sullen. It can happen that way sometimes."

Eric squinted. "What does that mean ?"

"Your its human. It looks to you."

"What does that mean? Is it dead ? Can I drive it ? Can you get it started ?"

"Your Volvo's gone sentient on you. Bound to happen sometime. Looks like it's your turn. Old one like this, the subroutines." Dan shrugged.

Eric turned and stared at the mechanic's truck. AAA Holistic Mechanic Service.  He looked back at Dan.

"I'll have it towed tonight. We can see how it is in the morning. You have a ride home ?"

Eric shook his head. Fat dirty drops began to get serious about turning the walk wet.

"Really ? You can't get a ride ?"

Eric turned back to the truck. "I'm not going that far. I can walk."

"You're empty," the mechanic said.

"You don't have the implants, do you ?"

Eric shook his head again. There was no reason to deny it. It was a choice.

"Neither do I," said Dan smiling. "Get in. You can ride with me. This will be fine here. The truck has a console. I'll send the tow from it."

Eric nodded. He walked to the truck. The door didn't open. He looked at Dan who was watching him.

"She's empty, too. Makes it simpler to keep her running."

Eric wasn't sure if the handle was a twist, a pull, or a lift. He nodded and reached out anyway. He remembered his grandfather and smiled a little.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I should have something meaningful to contribute right now. I've had a pretty "literary" day thinking about writing, reading a little about writing, and writing. I can't say that I do.

I have something of which I am proud to share. I'll do the edit and post it tomorrow. It's content and I'm fairly happy about it.

It isn't very "literary." It's speculative fiction in that it offers a small distortion of reality in an otherwise conventional existence. I don't think that "clever" and "funny" are somehow substantial. I'm prejudiced and admit I believe that work of literary merit is serious and somehow opaque in its machinations.

I wish I could get over that opinion.

The three writers in my life who have done as much as anybody to create my voice are the late Mike Royko who I came to read in late high school and in college [ Pulitzer] ; Art Buchwald of whom I read voraciously in my youth [Pulitzer]; and Douglas Adams [ should have won the Nobel - yes, I'll stand by that statement]. None of them wrote three serious words in a line and all of them showed us profound truths.

If you don't call Daley and Nixon profound, well. Then I'll assert you're no student of political power and its abuses. If there is a better lesson to be absorbed from the twentieth century than that we're incompetent at managing our own human affairs, you haven' been paying attention. Douglas Adams said as much without the  examples so I'll place him in the category of theoretical satirist. I like to think Adams a Steven Hawking without the black holes, Phd. or a presence on the state's "enemies list." [ Just checking if you're still with me.]

So, tomorrow - content. Bare the viscerals and all that. It is what we do.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Poe

I am working on a piece inspired by Poe. This is a bit of a stretch for me but it something I want to do right now.  I read all of the classic Poe horror and macabre short stories an age ago for Ms. June Sutley. I also kept my first journal in that class as well. I didn't do well journaling but then I had nothing I wanted to say. There was plenty I should have been saying; but, I wasn't in a situation that would have allowed me to say anything significant.

I am playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Dostoevsky ( a hero) did so and of course Poe famously demonstrated the technique in "The Black Cat." It's my first run and I find it quite fun. I recommend it. Odd that I write about liars, murders and murderers who lie about murder and that I have yet to employ an unreliable narrator. I don't know why it hasn't occurred to me. I love Greek plays and adding a character who is "truth" allows me to conquer the mis-direction inherent in directing a story told by a liar.

My liars are transparent in the most recent stories. I'll have to change that.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catch the Mouse

I don't know what else to call it but the mouse.

I've spent all of my memory reading and a pretty generous chunk of it writing. These things are completely different.

In reading, I am absorbing and twisting what the writer provides me into what I want to it be. If I don't like a theme, I might ignore it. If I don't like a character, I might skip ahead. I use the writer's story as a source for what becomes the story in my own mind. In some I take verbatim what I am given. In others, I take very little and play with the story over and over turning it in my mind into what pleases me.

I'm not sure this is quite the usual perspective of a reader but I have learned to examine things more closely than the next man. I'm a school trained bear and cannot take matters on the surface. Occupational hazard, as it were.

In writing, there is the thing I want to accomplish. There is the bit I want to convey. It's different than plot and different than just characterization. I suspect it is an event chain that leads to an emotional state I want to impose on my reader. Those are poor words to describe the desire for the writer's communication but they are as close as I can come.

I want to catch the mouse of the story and allow the reader to see it caught without having to crawl around or wonder WTF? I want to convey something other than the story. I don't know what to call it so I'll call it the mouse of effect.

I'm working on the interlocking chain of conflict-derived obstacles. I'm working on the transformation of the protagonist throughout the story.

This week, I bought Ben Bova's book : The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells in hope of finding a little bit better approach to what I'm doing now. He describes William Foster-Harris' technique of visualizing a character's problem in the form of emotion v. emotion. The conflicting emotion theme drives their perspective as they encounter the plot obstacles you throw at them.

I liked this. For someone who has a plot-centric approach to storytelling that has to be tamed, the lens of internal emotional conflict will help a great deal with my writer's perspective.

 I also want to recommend Ben Bova's text.  He's an accomplished editor and knows writing not just from the SF field. [ Remember Omni ? That was Bova's and it set a pretty different direction for mainstream publishing during the late seventies.]  Nothing I've read in the first half of the book is SF specific except for his caution that SF writers must be consistent in their use of rules for world construction.

His advice might be simple but I think the construction points he covers are solid foundations that we all use but might not recognize consciously. I need to see a little more of the core points of story right now to feel the confidence a writer needs to project in his prose. It's a self-diagnosis that isn't far enough off truth to hurt.

There's a mouse out there. I'm going build the trap to show it to you. Yes, you might squeal like little girls when you see it. Emotions can be that way.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wolves' Clothing

I bought the book at left for my grand daughter. I liked the illustrations and found the story just right for someone of four.

I also like wolves' clothing.

I enjoy the wolf among the sheep illusion. I live it frequently. I used to live it more frequently when I was with larger firms.

Now, sheep in wolves' clothing makes me smile. It isn't the expected take on affairs. In this particular story, the sheep turn out to be inventive and clever. They are far from the mindless herd animals we'd expect. I like that.

I enjoy clever twists of characters. I was thinking of character possibilities. I see a hardboiled detective that is a social beast known to everyone in the diner - not just Patricia the waitress.

I was thinking of Rosie Grier who is a giant of a man (ex-football player of my youth) who took up needlepoint. [ Grier is also a hero. He apprehended and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan with George Plimpton - editor of the Paris Review.].

Shaun Tan has a story about a friendly water buffalo [ cape buffalo]  living in a vacant lot who would help children find their way. Now, a cape buffalo for non-big game fans is just about the most dangerous thing on land. The cape buffalo gets up in a foul mood and goes steadily downhill all day. Should he actually have cause to get pissed, he becomes a real demon. The idea of having a friendly cape buffalo help children is quite a twist.

By comparison on the foul mood effect, a wolverine is a 5. A cape buffalo is a good 7. He becomes and 11 if provoked. He makes the white rhino look positively cuddly. The black rhino is still a pisser.

Gruff but friendly. Intimidating, but engaging. Hardboiled but overtly social. These are character combinations I will have to work to develop.

I'm not sure I can write sheep. Luckily, I don't have to.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


My Christmas tree has a continuity problem this year. The lights are out.

I have a pair of stories with the same problem.

I re-read a couple of rough drafts today that are candidates for re-writing as first drafts here during the holidays. The premise is interesting in both. The settings are cool. The characters and their actions seem believable.

However, the action chains in both stories are ungainly. They're awkward. The action doesn't flow smoothly. Now, I hate to say that we always have to have rising or falling action. In a novel that is generally poor construction. In a short story, sometimes we don't have time to provide the square-dance of doom. We have time for a quick polka and that's it.

In short story, the action and the pace of the action contribute heavily to reader impression. If a chain of events occur driving the character forward, then it reads better for those events to go from smallest to largest.

You can't  burn down the house in the opening scene, spill coffee in the next, back over a neighbor kid's bicycle in the third and find out your spouse is pregnant in the fourth. Is that the order of the true life events which inspired the tale ? Sure.  However, in short fiction though we need to enforce plausibility and use our structure to help direct the reader.

What are we trying to set-up by including these events ? Are we under the "worst day ever" design before the cops find a body in the basement ?  If so, we need to adjust things so the story starts small and winds to the punch : "there's a body down here, bub. Know anything about that ?"

Now we have a guy who is a four-time loser today whose worst problem is the last one : the cops. [ Yes, I'll call an unexpected pregnancy a problem. YMMV.]

I have a couple drafts that did not help drive the reader towards the emotional pitch I want. The event chain will have to be altered. It's the sort of continuity decision that the bullshit meter should detect. Writing is about making decisions and sometimes that reflects on making the right decisions in the right order.

There are stories that are so rich with characters and emotional interaction that physical action can be ignored. It doesn't contribute. However, the emotional  payoff had better do the job of pulling the reader onward. How ?  Crescendo is always a steady technique.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Images, Stories, Inspiration, Write

It is similar to "Lights, Camera, Action." It is what we need as writers. Maybe we should have someone with a clapboard in the library every time we sit to write.

"Images, Stories, Inspiration, Write !"

To craft the story, we need to see some part of it in our mind's eye. I need to see the story in its first sentence. You might need to see some other part.

Today I am inspired because I have a new book. On the recommendation of the _NYT_, I purchased Tim Walker's ( with Robin Muir -ed.) new tome : Tim Walker Story Teller.

Mr. Walker is a fashion photographer among other things. His images will be known to you right off when you look through the book. The image at the upper left is but one of hundreds of fascinating images in the book. It is a "must buy" item either as a gift or as a volume to keep in your personal library for inspiration.

I'm sure all of you who have children are well aware of Mr. Chris Van Allsburg and his volumes Jumanji and The Polar Express.  He also authored what I consider the world's best all-time bedtime book : The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The Mysteries are a series of black and white line drawings in Mr. Van Allsburg exquisite detail (not a cliche in this case) which serve as prompts for the telling of a wild story. A single line of text is provided with a paired illustration and away you go. My very good friend Taehun wrote a lovely story from one of the visual prompts which features a mole with an odd collecting habit : toupees. Everyone needs a hobby.

So, I'm a fan of Mr. Van Allsburg's work. Tim Walker's pictures work in nearly the same fashion for me.

Girl, bed, crocodile ? Awesome. It might not make it to The New Yorker but it looks damn fun to write. The wallpaper alone takes me to a story. Make the girl a corpse and put the room in Sarasota next to Longboat Key. Leave a pack of matches from a bar in the nightstand drawer as if it had been carelessly swept in there last week in expeditious cleaning.  Label one side of the match book in English, the other in Cyrillic. Now, dead girl with crocodile and Russian matchbook looks just about all you need to get the post-Cold War juices going. Longboat is old spook country and there we have it. Need more than that ? Take up tennis. Put down the pen.

Walker's photographs are great inspiration for the sort of prose we all want to write. Well, that I want to write. I'm a Spitfire flying through the living room type of guy.

Buy a copy. It's pure story.

A couple links here.

Harris Burdick by Van Allsburg

Tim Walker

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


There's hardly anything better than sitting down with a hot cup of coffee, opening a story, and writing.

You know you are doing well when you grab the still full mug and it is cold.

I've tried the evening writer/ morning edit routine for a week now. It used to work best for me.

I'm going to try the morning write and evening edit routine for this next week. I feel I have brighter ideas in the morning though my manual dexterity in getting them into print is slower.

I was at a writing group tonight and realize that my speed of converting ideas into text is slowing down. I am considering each line I write more and more as I compose the draft. I think this is a bad trend for me. I'm not going to worry about it . I am going to caution myself from time to time that too much introspection and examination is another type of self-defeating paralysis.

I suspect it is just a seasonal bit at the moment as I switch gears among stories with very different tones. Flexibility - stretching - can have the effect of slowing one down. That seems to be my immediate case.

This weekend, I will write a story draft in its entirety in longhand. We'll see how it goes for speed of transcribing idea to text.

Monday, December 3, 2012


At left is the second of Australian Shaun Tan's work I've purchased in the past year.

We talk a lot in writing groups of characters and plot development and publishing and obstacles. We talk little about story. We just assume that as writers we all have good stories.

I wish that were true.

The first thing we are as writers is a story teller. ( yes, I broke the compound intentionally). There are times we could use a little reflection on that duty. They story has to interest the reader. The plot, the language, the characters all come into play but the core - the story - needs to be of interest.

Getting a jar of mustard from the store can be a good story if you are a good storyteller.

Shaun Tan is a good storyteller. He uses words and pictures. They go together for him had-in-glove. The volume pictured here has a delightful piece entitled "The Lost Thing."  I also have purchased this year Tales from Outer Suburbia. "The Arrival" is a especially interesting tale in that volume.

The hook builds gradually. The twists are exquisite. The resolutions are hopeful.

I suggest you find one of these and look at his integrated storytelling as an example of the fundamentals we too want to capture clearly in our work. 100,000 pages is no excuse of obtuse text, muddled narrative or shoddy character desire. Good writing comes in many places.

I especially like asking questions of a water buffalo who lives in the overgrown lot at the end of the block. He indicates the way to the resolution of our needs by raising one hoof and pointing. We all can use a water buffalo down the block to help us in our text.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pooh Poohing it.

A sample from one page of dialogue.

 ...said Pooh in distress.
 ...said Roo, much impressed.

...said Eeyore coldly.

...said Roo proudly.

...said Piglet anxiously.

...said Eeyore in surprise.

...said Pooh anxiously.

Now, I'm not intending to critique the success of A. A. Milne and the adoration of millions of children from many successive generations. We should all be so lucky to have a character endure as long as Pooh. ( Loren Estleman might have a chance with Amos Walker. I've bought the complete series on Barnes and Noble downloaded to my nook application I am reading at night on my iPad. Bloody marvelous ). I love Pooh. I think he is a great character.

What I illustrate here is the formulaic conveyance of character perspective in the scene from this nasty adverb attached to  nearly every character's speech attribution.

Are you doing it ? Are you telling the reader through this adverb rather than showing the character's emotion through the actual dialogue or action ? Easy to say, isn't it. Show don't tell. So bloody easy to say and so hard to find precisely the device that accomplishes the mission in the same way as the jarring "surprisingly" tacked on to a speech response.

"I'm preggers," she said. 

"Really," Bob answered in surprise. 


"I bought a couple tests this morning," she said. 

I flipped our grilled cheese on the cast iron. "Yea ? What sort of tests ?" I asked.

Suzie shifted her weight to her left hip and pouted a little. I found it adorable every time. I met her eyes. She stood completely still.

"Pregnant ?" I asked. She didn't move. The cabinet opposite the stove stopped me. The griddle was a mile away. I grabbed the edge of the sink. It was cool and clammy. We matched.

Both scenes convey the same thing. I took a little more care in the second case because you were going to read it and I don't want to be the fool. The object lesson here is one shows the mental state of the character Bob far better than the other. Bob wasn't just surprised. He was afraid, in awe, in shock, possibly alarmed, and quite possibly overjoyed all at the same time. Those of you who have had this conversation with a significant other (planned or unplanned) know that this little bit deserves far better treatment than "surprised."

I picked an easy example. Sue me.

The point ? Adverbs attached to dialogue attributions are a poor substitute for crafting a meaning from character action and interaction. Is it expedient ? Yes. Does it suffice sometimes ? Sure.

If you're pulling it out as the default, you are Poohing up your work. Your characters haven't the success of millions of adoring fans to let you get away with an expedient approach. You don't have Harry Potter in your pocket, yet.

I'm working on eliminating all Pooh Poohing from even my rough drafts. It is about like quitting drinking. Doesn't mean it isn't worth it. The writing will live longer - on a publisher's desk - without it.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Blitz

Today was a good day in the book world for me. I went and saw my old college buddy Gene and his lovely wife Jaci [ children's lit professor ]  at Motte and Bailey Bookshop.

I'm lucky that after nearly thirty years, I ended up in a town where my bookcrazy friend has a bookstore. I have library card #009 from his college lending library he set up with another book fan Mr. Dibble in 1986.

I love buying books. Gene always has some real charmers. The process is made more enjoyable now because I get to buy books for grandchildren.

The picture is a selection of some of this year's works. Cheeto is inspecting the glue back binding of a volume of research papers regarding Roman military settlements. Not everything I buy is for the grand kids.

I also bought this :
I have been looking for a copy now for three or four years and asked Gene to find me one. He luckily had one from just this week on his new arrivals shelf in pristine condition. All of his books are nice but this year I found several I don't think have even been opened. This _Once and Future King_  ( T.H White) may have been opened but has never been read. Great find.

Laying these out for the picture reminds me that I had a conversation briefly (online) last week with a couple of authors I respect. They were lamenting the shilling necessary by mid-listers to get their books in front of readers. This is an evil I do not yet know but will perhaps endure should I be fortunate enough to publish a novel or two. It occurred to me how much we readers depend on other "lead readers" whose opinions we trust. It also made me realize that I've become one of those lead readers as my friends ask for book recommendations quite frequently.

So, I should set aside a bit over at the side of this blog for books of note I have read recently, books a writer should re-read, and books in queue. I think once a week I'll talk a little about the books outlined and mention their appeal. I read widely - too widely for my own good - and have always been blessed with being a fast reader. I took two literature classes in high school for three or four consecutive semesters and took one or two local college literature courses simultaneously. I would read before school, at lunch, and late into the evening. With exercise, the young get by with very little sleep. I lived on four or five hours for years. Now I need to dream more than I used to. It helps organize things. 

Anyway - I think a little book discussion of the reading and a chance for others to suggest their current projects is an excellent idea. We'll do that this week.

Now - off to sausages and writing. Nothing like a big plate of sausages before grinding some fiction text into shape. The process of constructing both is much the same. Keep your fingers and toes away from the grinder, ladies and gentlemen. This isn't a drill for amateurs.

Friday, November 30, 2012

In the Knitting

Cheeto - the one on the right - has been in the knitting - the one on the left. He's not to do that so you can see his "guilty face" when confronted. [ Yes, I am resorting to cat pictures. I admit it.]

It reminded me a bit of something I almost did yesterday: premature editing. I don't think editing an in-progress work for any but the most basic of items is a good idea. I think it breaks the story and makes any eventual rewrite that much harder to accomplish. Maybe that's just me.

Don't get in the knitting. Don't unravel anything. Finish the sweater. It might look better than you think.

The new _Tin House_ came yesterday. Lest we feel too good about our latest work know this edition's fiction has to its authors' credit : 19 novels, a Pushcart, a MacArthur fellowship, only one Pulitzer,  a Rea, and others I am sure to have missed. That's pretty rarefied air.

I wanted to address characters of note tonight but I am not prepared. 

I did learn of a new clearinghouse app for literary journals today and then, in researching it I discover there appear to be many. I'll have to look and see how they work. I like reading from the iPad in bed better than the nook (I have an older nook and the clip light isn't optimal) but as an open-source guy I have little to do with the Apple world.  I'll have to look.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


At right is the view from my window last week. I occasionally get to watch the turkey walk across the enclosed little garden. I'm on the crest of a hill and the trees are on the ridge as it begins to slope downward.

Yesterday, I had a dinner out with a writer friend. It was great to talk about our various projects. Energizing. We went by a cafe where some new novelists were to be churning out their nearly-instant-prose but alas, they had broken up for the evening.

I'm not knocking the Nano folks. Getting a first draft out is a pain and anyone willing to do it in a month has my applause.

The point here is that most of our collective creating comes with a view like I show here. Oh - it might be of a brick wall or a neighbor's tree or even an interior wall of our own house. The writing comes in a solitary fashion with a view usually devoid of humans.

Do you recall _The Days of the Condor_ ? [ Book _Six Days of the Condor_ by James Grady, Movie _Three Days of the Condor_ directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway ].

In it,  Redford abducts Dunaway as an expeditious means of escaping some prying eyes with guns. They're in Dunaway's character's condo and Redford notices how all of Dunaway's photographs are of places without people. I remember that clearly as Redford's character was a "reader" and here he was commenting on photographs without characters.

I'm thinking of characters I have enjoyed and the very small and sparse details that made them special. They were sketchy little figures for the most part. I like Marlow and we have little enough of his distinctiveness but the narration and smart-ass attitude. He's perhaps the best described of the lot.

I am going to think about characters and try to remember those who have most appealed to me. Oh - here's an odd one : the character Flint from the book of the same name by Louis L'Amour. he's stuck in my memory for nearly forty years. We should all be so lucky.

We might need a list.

With that, I have a fire and some clam chowder. The pets are asleep and I've nothing to do but write. Tonight I'll not squander that chance. There is a new _Tin House_ within arm's reach. I might look at that as I eat.

You should subscribe to it, also. Tin House.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

clean, crisp and even ?

Snow came for the first time this season last Saturday. It looks pretty harmless here but it was driven by a good twenty mph wind. I was working under the Norway Spruce grove and it drove me out by blowing directly through the arbor opening.

Nevertheless, it was snow and for that I am most thankful. There's something very wrong with me. I love the stuff.

I'm working on a rough draft with solid dedication to the points outlined yesterday. Drop the adjectives. Simple conversational attribution for dialogue. Enough details in the scene to anchor the action and avoid "white room" but no elaborate descriptions or expository passages.

I'm pretty happy with the results.

I've used the wide-open "just get it out" mad dash approach for the last fifteen years after having trouble before that with constricting my manner of writing the first cut of a story. I'm finding on this piece and the one before it that I have the ability to use my outline as a series of running guide posts and so can abandon some of the more extensive "garbage" traits that have discolored other first drafts. Make a mess, clean it up works fine. However, I would sometimes get some of that mess as far up the walls as the ceiling and would end up repainting when I wish I could have gotten by with light dusting. Horrendously awful imagery there but the point is good enough. I would grab and create using any and all language just to get the story out and the resulting draft would be almost unusable in revision.

Efficiency in prose is something to master if I am going to create more than occasional content. If I make less mess on the first pass so that I am adding in revision more than subtracting, then my work towards a finished product might be faster.

Thus, clean and crisp. I'm not so big on even but I will allow that it gives me more flexibility in the revision process if the emotion is less splattered around the page, too.

All in, I'd be happy with the rough being clean, crisp and even. It's working well in that vein now.

I'm a little surprised.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fun - oddly enough

It's cold and crisp and we could use a little snow to lay about ... you know the rest.

I use the holiday mug pictured. I've had it  for over 20 years now. It is comfortable.

I've fixed the plot outline of a story that is important to me and tonight I start the detail work of  writing the scenes. I've pieces that may end up included but it is doubtful. I almost never use the scarps of dialogue and narration that I write to get me through the outline. Somehow, the story turns and these are no longer the drivers.

Tonight :

Adjective-free prose. We're covering the action and the barest of descriptions. We'll include physical objects in the scene for anchors and a sense of truth. However, simile and metaphor can take a break in a draft.

Active voice only. Characters do.

Also, character speech attributions will be "said"  perhaps "asked" and possibly "answered" if my vigilance is low. The reader is smart enough to fill the rest in without the hackneyed "groaned," "sighed," "inquired" or any of the other focus-distracting bits.

I've got a good story here. I'm going to tell it square and true. I will include enough detail for the reader to be put in the room with the characters but not enough to showcase a command of language. This is prose.

I have a good outline. That's a good $100 in the bank towards success. I don't have to cast about for gimmicks to get through the story.

I will take time with the dialogue. I will not rush through the bits of conflict.

I will love my characters.

I will have fun. You should do the same.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Yesterday was a hard day where I learned things but wasn't happy with the progress on a story that is beating me up. I say I'm going to leave it and come back but I cannot yet let go.

There is a lot in this business that runs parallel. You have to be vigilant for just the right piece even when every bloody thing you touch smells like sewage.

The difference between a sale and failure is a word choice, a name, an action performed or a narrative delivered. What's the right piece ? I'm not sure I can answer that little magic. I can say that I can look at it and know at least a thousand wrong pieces.

That was the bit yesterday - a day of wrong pieces.

I was reading Ron Carlson's excellent _Ron Carlson Writes a Story_ and re-read a bit where he describes the process of his rough draft as surviving the story. He's telling the story to himself trying to determine what happens by revealing the tale and he has to work to get to the end without a dead-end or wrong turn.

This morning, wrapping up my semi-aborted notes of yesterday and thinking about the end scenes of my story - those where I am having trouble avoiding a cliche - I have an idea. Then another.

I think of victory versus defeat and how as a writer I'd much rather have a tale of set-back and frustration than effortless victory. I'd rather have epic self-struggle and set-back [ failure] than just about anything else as a plot device because the failure is so much more revealing in the character's response during the denouement and falling action.

So I twisted my story of accomplishment to one of failure. Bloody thing works so much the better. Character growth and accomplishment on one level and failure towards a goal on another. This I can write [ YMMV].

Had I not remained vigilant I would have missed the thought. It was such a fleeting reflection I could have lost it in the desire for another cup of coffee.

Luckily, my best friend Louis is here as a reminder. Keep looking. The fox is out there in the meadow, somewhere.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

You are not alone, now write !

Here it is Saturday on the holiday weekend and most of us have escaped family (or chosen family) to write.

We're in the office/library/basement/attic/corner of the laundry room. [ I've been in all of those]. Coffee shop people - yes you. I'm talking to you here. You're not writing. You're looking for characters/dates/pity.  Stop it.

I'm sitting here with everything I want including "plenty of time" and ... struggling. Bloody hell. Doubts, twists, turns, half-thoughts, maybe and the cousin maybe not,  and the bloody daydream of "if I write this one like that ..."

I'm so glad not to have some sort of school project that has to be done over the holiday [ didn't that always suck ?] and at the same time find self-direction horrendously ineffective. These occasional bouts when I need to be whipped to be productive are sickening. There - see ? I just envisioned a writing service with a whip, heels and a... well. That's not really a writing service, is it? Bad image.

So in my wasteful tour of pissing away opportunity when I should be writing, reading, editing, or re-writing, I find _The Oatmeal_. Yea, let's see what looking at _The Oatmeal_ can do for my time-sucking not-writing progression today ?

I find Oatmeal is exactly like the rest of us. The link is here.  To add : be creating now, monkey boy ! Now !

We're all unproductive in our own little ways. [ Sorry Leo T. ]  Though we are all uniformly unproductive given resources and freedom. We squander.

Now, for the object lesson. Posting on HappyFunBall forum of happy happy angst-ridden writers does not help you as a writer. In fact, updating the blog does not help you as a writer. Reading it certainly does not help.

The blog only helps you as a writer if it is a symbolic burning branding iron of pain waiting to be pressed against your hide to create the shame scar of procrastination.

Did you blog about new work accepted for publication ?    No.
            Did your post relate to any of your published work whatsoever ? No.
                    You are going to feel some pressure and then smell your own worthless unproductive flesh being cooked.

Where are all those ideas that were just spilling out you thought "just needed to be polished ?" Bwaaaaaa.

So, open the bloody story. Sigh once, do not get up for more coffee, and write a sentence. Any sentence will do. DO NOT EDIT IT ! Write the sentence and then the next. Keep it up.

Coffee is for writers. You're not a writer if you're not writing today. Write monkey boy write. One sentence. Just try one ...