clues at the scene

clues at the scene

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 ...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Potential - and promise

I've had to shelve a story I wanted to write because I don't feel I can write it yet. Sad, but true. I've moved on to other bits.

The plots are not too difficult for me to craft. I like plots. However, it is the characters that must drive it for me. Without being able to place the characters in precise starting positions I am unable to proceed. I can bend from plan once I am going but I have to know "first positions" and be comfortable with them.

I'm doing a little fun work now. I am killing four characters slowly of cold and hunger. They're in good spirits about it. That helps.

So, a plot illustrated to the right as a seed: a pine cone in this picture. In the snow, it doesn't look like it has hope. It does.

That's today's snow, too. Glorious snow.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving - Early Christmas Present

Thanks for all the help this year.

There are so many out there who have contributed to getting me on the straight and narrow. I owe you.

So, in reward - here is the clue for the rest of you.

Here is the key to writing  :=> sit in the chair.

Write the sentence. Admire it. Don't get up. Don't get the coffee. Don't Google yourself to see if you are famous yet. Sit your ass in the chair and write the next sentence.

Repeat this act until you are almost empty. Almost. You're not exhausted but it is taking two or three minutes to think of the next stuff to put down. You fumble once or twice towards dead-ends and actively re-write that section.

Stop. You're done for now. Walk around - get the coffee. Re-read what you wrote and let it sink in. Yep - some of it is horrendous. You'll fix it in a clean-up session (not actual writing session) later. Smile. It isn't anywhere nearly as bad as you thought.

You need the steady stream of creation without interruption or distraction to make all those unmapped and unknown turns, twists and interconnects work.

You gave her red hair. That supplied the ready anger later you didn't know she had when he showed up six minutes late oozing from a nick and a sloppy shave. You didn't plan it but it happened. If you stopped the session and found a cookie or turned on that beast in the living room to check the score, you would have lost the focus you didn't know you had. You'd loose the current memory you've loaded with all the spur of the moment details that allows that most elusive of agencies - creativity - to flourish.

This isn't a research paper. You're finding out as you go along what you might actually say. Stop, and you'll never know.

Sit in the chair and write when you are going to write. We know all about the "activities other than writing" that we do. Print, edit, organize, pet the dog, think about that conversation we had last week, wonder if you should add sex to the story now, wonder if you should have sex now, wonder if the dog wonders about sex since he's fixed ...

The navy has the saying : When in command, command. I say when writing, write. It is disconcerting to not know "what to do next." Don't get up and have a cookie to find out because the only one who can tell us what happens next is

Sit. Write. or don't.

Don't confuse not writing with writing.

Don't think uncertainty is uncomfortable. It is what you decided to endue when you said "I am a writer." It is the crisis you now live. Life is pain. Death is comfort. Get on with it.

I have been a hobby writer for years now. When I was younger and unhappy, I pounded out text with some regularity. My life was sufficiently unhappy that only writing and the focus on the page - my page - gave me pleasure.

As I got fat and happy this sort of obsessive creation passed to the state of annoying itch. I would write partial stories, scenes, outline large works, and mess about. I felt like a writer but I didn't produce. What I did produce, I would only partly revise. I had a bulk of "mostly" finished stories.

In reality, I had a pile of hairballs on the floor of no more value or use than those the cat contributed.

Luckily, I can't stand when things go well and smoothly. Gives me a horrible rash. I'm the crisis guy you call when the shit hits the fan. It's a good living and it is what suits my life.

However, the last year was just good. Even. Calm. I was going crazy. I started writing more and more. Then the epiphany : writing is horrible. It is the edge of total failure every time we take up the pen. A wrong decision and we have garbage we may never resolve in re-write. Perfect. Perfect for me. Writing is a crisis every single second. It's what I need.

I'll steal from Steve Almond : the only part I enjoy about writing is having written.

I write the stories for me. I write the characters for me. I want to read this story and so I write it. I am vain enough to want to leave a little of this self-centered effort behind. I want to be more than a hobby writer for my own sense of accomplishment. Hopefully that fades.

Thanks to so many people this year, I have come to the straight and narrow. I'm an avocational writer. I am striving. I'm not going to become a vocational writer anytime soon but that doesn't mean I cannot improve.

I will also sit in the chair and write thanks to the encouragement of so many friends who have shown me how.

My thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stick Your Neck Out

Giraffe on wheels. Be quick to stick you neck out and you might get one of these too.

It is about risk and reward. If you write only the soft stuff, only the comfortable stuff, if your characters don't stretch and show their desires, if your conflict isn't palpable, if you don't say those things that make you most uncomfortable about yourself, how proud of your work will you be ?

The first reader we write for is ourselves. For some of us, it is the only reader we right for. The rest of you can come along if you want.

Take a chance. Make your characters strive. Make them uncomfortable. Don't just write the plot driven stuff. Story is not enough. You sit in a darkened room and pull this stuff out of your head. At least make it about people.

At least, take a risk. Don't be comfortable. Don't be safe. We have the tale of Peter Rabbit. One is enough.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Openings, openings, and a collaborator

This is my most important collaborator. I thought I should show what it takes to get through the lonely parts of writing.

We're in a sitting area between the entryway and the dining area in the picture. He's laying on me doing the unexpected for a foxhound : being the lapdog.

I'd be lost without him. He sits up at me when I work late in the library. The cat will sometimes come in and sit on a tufte; though, it really is Louis who waits until I'm done to go to bed with me.

Want to write ? Get a dog. The walks are good for both of you and the lonely parts are much more bearable when you hear a thumping tail.

Now that introductions are over - more openings.

  "The Other Place" Mary Gaitskill, _The New Yorker_.

My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns.
In this present society, "toy guns" catches the attention. The sentence otherwise doesn't do much for me but let me know a mother is the narrator and I'll not read the rest. Personal bias.  The fault would be mine. The paragraph continues and grows until I too am pulled into the story. Departing from my rule, I'm going to show how she takes this rather maternally intoned line and turns it into something even a jaded and hard Grizzly can enjoy. More :

He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it is funny. How did this happen ? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.

The pulling phrase here is that ending : "naturally." It seems poetic to me to insert that comma. Read the two lines with and without the comma setting off the restrictive modifier :

One thing follows another naturally.

One thing follows another, naturally.

The word naturally in the second acts as an in-line aside. It is an offhanded commentary by the narrator that has a profoundly humanizing effect on me. The narrator becomes someone I know in that one detail and not merely a toneless voice hoping I follow the narration as a hopeless sheep wandering in the night wondering WTF? I'm still wondering WTF?, but I keep reading because the narrator is a character now.

I also suspect there is real violence in this and I am ready to taste it. I've heard the sizzle.

Am I wrong here ? Tell me.

"North Country" Roxane Gay, _Hobart_

I have moved to the edge of the world for two years.
The "edge of the world" is mildly interesting and "for two years" implies a potential for return. Where is this ? What does the narrator consider "end of the world."  Is this Alistair MacLean and _Ice Station Zebra_ ? I must read on (despite being in _Hobart_ which sometimes has stories I do not understand). Alas, it does not involve submarines. It does involve some submarine races but that doesn't interest me as much. I'm not the target audience. Good story, though.. Great narrative style. Ms. Gay has the ability to hold the reader through a  narrator's even keel voice. I learned from this one.

It is a little sad to read a story I don't particularly like and see the writing is far better executed than what I can do on my best day. You can see I was impressed.

"Paramour" Jennifer Haigh, _Ploughshares_.

The tribute was held downtown, far away from the theater district.

 I was drawn to the word "tribute" and the pairing of "away from" and "theater district." The spacial relationship and the reference to the theater district (and drama) had me interested. I liked the language of "tribute" rather than "memorial service" or "celebration of life" or anything else. I liked the word choice and will offer it is the perfect choice for this story. I wanted to read through the rest of it immediately after the next line as well.

Christine crossed the street gingerly, on four-inch heels thin as pencils - Ivan had always loved women in high heels - and checked the address against the invitation in her purse.
I was interested in Ivan, the past tense, and the fact Christine would chose an item of clothing because it had been an attraction of Ivan's. Having a woman dress for a man rather than for other women was an immediate  annunciator of some interest. That is not a normal bit of character development to be cast away meaninglessly for style like a "blue hat" on a woman in  a Chandler story.

Finally, a little summary observation.

All of these openings were good. A couple required the context of the next sentence to sharpen their meaning - even the rest of the paragraph in the case of  "The Other Place." However, they're good. The beginning really begins with something of interest even if it isn't an industrial strength hook.

Now, I'm going to attribute this "soft hook" to the selection by Tom Perrotta of stories that spend a little bit setting context for us. We are not plunged into WTF? land of action without some context of what we're doing here or who is speaking. We know something right off the bad. We don't start by seeing a gun flash, hear a scream, and then the roar of an engine only to have the narrator introduce himself with the mutter of a gutter curse.

Oh - you haven't read that one yet ? You must have missed attending a workshop. Someone always has that one (I haven't been to Tin House or Breadloaf. They might not have that there. No - I won't take the bet. Coitus as a starting scene does just about as much and you and I would argue if it counted against the bet).

Just to show Mr. Perrotta has a sense of style even in my referenced staid selection, he departs with "Miracle Polish" by Steven Millhauser from _The New Yorker_. The opening sentence is a rambling 96 words. I'm not going to say it is essential to the story that this rambling be the opening. However, it works. The story too is very good. Reading it was tedious at time because of the narrator but the story is very good and worth the effort.

Lastly, these are my observations. They're not criticisms. I've read the whole assortment and learned from them all. I'm glad I bought the anthology. I'm grateful to all of the authors.

Now, off to walk Louis in the dark before working on the slow demise of some abandoned fishermen. His tail is thumping.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Some Openings

I mentioned yesterday that I was examining some openings from short stories published in _The Best American Short Stories 2012_ edition edited by Tom Perrotta. I've about had enough of the drill and have a few reflections to share.

As telling as the opening are the closing paragraphs. There is a assortment of story-telling styles in the collection and I find the endings important to my enjoyment of the read. I should also say that a few of these are suicide inducing hopeless affairs of depression and end-of-the-worldview. Don't read these with a bottle of scotch and a .45 or the cleaners will curse you for days.

Here are some opening lines from this selection and some observations about things that struck me.

"The Last Speaker of the Language" Carol Anshaw, _New Ohio Review_ 

Darlyn teeters high on a swayback wooden ladder she has dragged in from her mother's garage.
I liked "teeters" and "teeters high" for the language in this line. The "has dragged in" and "from her mother's grage" gave me the image of an older house and that Darlyn is in the kitchen. That turns out to be the case but the language made me think of that before I read farther.  I can see the unsteady ladder and an old-style high ceiling kitchen as was in the "biggest house in town" my Grandfather owned.

"Pilgrim Life" Taylor Antrim, _American Short Fiction_

By Thursday I still hadn't said word one about the accident.
The opening words set up an in-progress story for me right off : "By Thursday." The "word one" gave me an image of the narrator as unpretentious. That wasn't absolutely the interpretation but the general phrasing led me that way. "accident" had my attention. It did so especially in light of the confessional phrase "hadn't said ... accident." I love pregnant confessions.

I'll continue this discussion in the next post. I am concentrating poorly at this moment. Apologies.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I keep my pens in a suffering bastard tiki mug. That's Dostoevesky next to him : _Notes from the Underground_. The association seemed appropriate. Larson's _The Complete Far Side_ vols 1+2 are farther right. That too seems to fit in the neighborhood.

I'm working on a story and today in the car explained it to my wife. I don't normally discuss stories. I let someone read them but I don't discuss or speak about them. I try to let the writing speak for me. Meaningless, I suppose. I've always felt like I don't know quite what I'm talking about when on rare occasions I do discuss them.

I don't know way I talked about it to my wife. It seemed to matter at the time. I suppose the protagonist is a bit more like someone we know than I should have let come forward and thus I feel a little self-conscious should she read it unprepared. I'll consider it a prologue - and God how I loathe  prologue. Loathe.

The examination tonight is brought from _The Best American Short Stories_ 2012 edited by Tom Perrotta. I've never read Perrotta's novels.

I was especially interested in the opening paragraphs of this collection of modern stories. There is a good collection and thus I wanted to see how the opening worked for me. I've been copying in the opening paragraphs from these stories believing that it might help me understand the language, rhythms and narrative voice better than just reading them in succession. Hunter Thompson copied some Fitzgerald  once for this very purpose.

What I've learned :

Thompson also took large quantities (heroic quantities ?) of drugs and that doesn't seem like it will work for me any better than copying someone else's words. Copying becomes a trick that you can do with little thought and certainly no internalization. I'm copying "Paramour" from Jennifer Haigh ( _Ploughshares_) and thinking about the end of the Hostess Bakeries, those disgusting sponge cake Twinkies,  and a blog post I read last week about stripping out the scenes of eating in your work.

I like Twinkies just fine but they are horrendously uninspired treats. That sponge cake is just terrible. All that's missing is your nine-year-old sister and an E-Z-Bake oven for the production of the home version of that sticky mold-resistant substance.

I don't have characters eating in stories as a rule. I do have a pair of soldiers sitting beside an airstrip eating tinned peanut butter and crackers from a ration box when a bullet takes the smaller of the two by surprise. It doesn't turn out to be a significant story from there for anyone but me and then only because of the characters I put in it who were once acquaintances. I can't speak to how common the problem of characters eating might be. I outline rigidly before I write. I stray from the outline with ease, but I do know what it is I am trying to construct before I go into the shop and start cutting the dimensional pieces.

Of the writing, I can say the opening lines are surprisingly subtle but effective hooks. Apart from that, I have no observations to report yet.

Tomorrow, perhaps I will share some of the openings and make a few remarks. So far, it hasn't been an especially useful exercise.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Do we all do it ? Do we all give in to the "just this time" habits of breaking the rules until these jailbreaks become the rule itself ?

I think so.

As writers, we have those infrequent (or not) days where we obsess over the construction form more than the content. Today in my little bout of obsession I realize - honestly - that I could use a solid tune-up.

 In a freshman English class, I was once compelled to explain the proper punctuation of the introductory subordinate clause to a grad student instructor clearly in over his head. I remember thinking "dolt" at the time. I now realize that the poor bastard struggling his way through a dissertation on the evolution of the comparative techniques of image and allegory in Roth and Updike had merely had moved beyond the conscious decisions of grammar to his "basic usage" standard and seldom ventured beyond. Being a doctoral candidate in Literature, I'm sure his core usage was perfect but that those elements he rarely encountered in his own work were lost from conscious recall.

I have the "lost from conscious recall" issue at the keyboard (memory of context not being a keyboard for me) coupled with a dreaded inattention to the moment (deficient mindfulness gene) and the typing ability of  a drunken chimp. Excuses are not reasons.

So, time for the grammar review this week. I'll have to shoulder the cross sometime before I have pre-submission works edited professionally only to come back scarred and bloody. [ Yes - I am going to have my submission works edited professionally. I do not trust my own self-edit after forty years of pen work. I've learned my errors are nearly invisible to me and I'm fortunate the career has allowed me ample means to support a horrendously unprofitable avocation. Those of you who are sole professionals - meaning your primary income is from writing - I take my hat off to you. ]

My confessed faults :

Excessive hyphenation;
Overuse of the present participle;
Passive tense (I back into thoughts too much);
Dangling modifiers;
Over use of the compound-complex sentence structure when a sting of simple sentences are more appropriate;
Sloppy punctuation surrounding the distinction of dependent and independent clauses;
Appositives [ outlaw them for my sake, please ];
Asides [ used in my writing as editor's notes to remind me later WTF I was thinking here];
Punctuation in asides.

Also in this class of evils, punctuation and spacing style on the typewritten page. (Falling back to two spaces after periods. Setting apart punctuation with a proceeding space. Occasionally editing for layout on the page instead of content. It isn't a bloody poem ! It's prose, you idiot.)

There. A confessional of some items to correct with the active mind.

Sources : An ancient copy of _The Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers, 4th ed._ and the standard _The Little, Brown Handbook_. Neither are my favorite which years ago got away from me. Luckily, these work.

How often have you tuned your grammar ?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Bones of It

Time for the bones review. Yes - that's a check in the photo. "Services" and not a publisher's check.

What am I working on and why is it important ?

Chicken Boom Boom - the story of a murder performed by an exploding chicken coop. How ? The chickens inside turned to steam. Rather a lot of energy in flash boiling a chicken. Put for or five in a coop and it's quite a blast. It produced an unfortunate demise due to blunt force trauma. The story on the surface is a procedural performed by an oddbits castoff from agency-without-a-name working on behalf of the F.B.I. The heart of the story has more to do with being an outsider and getting on with locals.

Nothing special - just a fun story.

Despot Island - making the world a better place by providing an easy out for those who otherwise "have a job for life." It's my answer to a comment on the Falklands Islands and the Palestinians I once heard made by the late George Carlin. There's a little bit of _Glenngary Glen Ross_ thrown in as well. Hard to resist.

I heard a man say "What else am I to do" once and it stuck. There we have it.

Kate - the story of a high school sophomore with the maturity of a forty-year old man (enough of that !) whose concerns revolve around "being normal" in a family that is anything but normal. She lives thirty-four stories below the Empire State Building with her mad scientist father, eleven year old genius brother (goes to Columbia), super-spy mother, and cyborg beagle Atlas. Alas, Kate does go to St. George's Prep (not to be confused with St. George's Academy) with a number of other special students in an atmosphere that tries to keep things under wraps. She has some trouble with that premise but tries to get on well enough. The main theme is however that Kate is the person most prepared with reason and understanding to confront these most unusual circumstances partly because of her exposure to the unusual and partly just because of her personality. She's aces in crisis but has yet to understand her place is providing order in what can become pretty scary chaos.

Kate is the alter ego of an associate of mine from school years. He was the sort of fellow who just reached over calmly and turned the Bunsen burner off when things went badly and everyone else is wondering what to do  [ It's gonna blow ! ]. I'm excited to get back to Kate.

Outside Paradise - the story of a fellow who may or may not be Christ in Western Kansas. Even he isn't sure. He's withdrawn and has to learn to embrace humanity. Events force his hand. [ Hemingway - make them desire something. Place them outside their comfort zone. Have them struggle for resolution even if the outcome isn't perfect. Show the struggle.]

This one is important because it has so much of what Andy taught me in it.

Denis Ivanovich - Denis sees the truth. Unfortunately, the police do not. Denis is suspected in his wife's unfortunate demise set-up to appear as a suicide but that has unsettling aspects of a murder crudely concealed.

This one is important because I started it as a novel after _Rateater_ was on ice. I never could find its legs as a novel without being bitter and shallow. As a short story - it works.

I'm happy about all of these short stories - some of which have a draft on ice and a pair which have drafts in progress.

There is another floating around that I'm not so happy about. I don't think it will stand. Instead, I suspect I'll write a story about some friends who go on a fly-in fishing trip late season September. The plane doesn't come to pick them up. They had supplies for a week. They can make most of the next week on what they have remaining and fish. However, they're ill prepared to try and make it 125 miles out of rough country nor are they at all prepared for the weather they know is coming. It's the lifeboat story on dry land where salvation looks like a boat (instead of land). Of course, it only looks like salvation.

I'd love to hear about other WIP. It helps.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Set 'Em Up, Knock 'Em Back

Not quite but close.

I worked like a dog on an outline for a new story yesterday and damned if I didn't do nearly as much on another today.

I have another I've carried around as a follow-up to my first (third pile of text) novel. It never had quite the legs I wanted it too and over the years I let it drop. Today I picked it up in earnest as it represents a story and a style of writing I very much want published. I do not have the full outline in hand; but, I have a great deal roughed out. I've tightened the story (this week's specialty,  it seems)  over its older rambling self.

So, my story from today is the interrogation of a fellow who is believed to have staged the murder of his wife as a suicide. He's a very special sort of fellow and in that comes the story. Unlike many of my characters, he doesn't lie nor is he deceived by anything. The poor bastard sees the truth in advertising, casual conversation, relationships, love, life, the works. It's a bit of a curse but there it is. Sort of amusing that he is framed in a falsehood.

So, I've enough work to finish for the year now.

I am excited to have something genuine in the mystery/suspense vein that I can work-up and submit around town. So many of the folks I've met so far that have been very kind to me are mystery writers of one sort or another. As Chandler is one of the best American writers in my opinion, I have a great deal of respect for these folks working in mystery. I'd love to have a reason to go to Bouchercon even though I doubt I have the stuff to become a full-time mystery writer. I have a few in me, though.

I come from a neighborhood where someone who is working on his asshole merit badge might find a very angry rattlesnake in his mailbox. It happens. That sort of experience makes you understand how bodies begin to pile up. The Nemechek murders also occurred in my part of the world when I was young. This unpleasant bastard was a glimpse into what a sick SOB you can have in your part of the world.

Anyway, good day today and good set-up for some solid work I'll want very much to point at and say "mine !"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deep Breath

I just finished a session working out the structure of a new story. I've carried this one around a very long time and finally - finally - have the courage to make the sort of structural changes to the beast that it needs.

 I started this one a decade ago on a long drive and have pulled it out in my mind probably a hundred times. Each time I pulled it out I would stick to basically the same pattern of events and the same core encounters until they set like headstones row on row.

I needed a new design, some new character interaction, and a chainsaw to bunch of what I wanted to say but that the story didn't need.

Three hours later - and some courage stuck to the sticking place - and I am ready with the new outline and new approach to move from scenes and text fragments to a draft.

I'm excited now to give this one a good run. I'm happy some of those rows have been rearranged.

I need a deep breath and maybe just a little more courage to push through this draft. It has more of me in it than I'd like. If only they were not those embarrassing parts we all carry around.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hasty Kill

Professional hunters call it the "hasty kill." It's the excitement of taking a near-trophy when the record-holder will be along directly.

I mapped out the current work-in-progress and realize it is tipping towards my most consistent fault : the single-passenger story.

Character-driven story telling needs a handy hook, a plausible plot, and a wealth of character interaction to illustrate the various emotional states and perspectives of our protagonist. We might love a character but to make the reader love them they must appear as actual people. The single-passenger story of brooding sort going here, doing that, and returning to somewhere else in near isolation really does not illustrate the depth necessary to make a reader "give a shit."

Steve Almond talks about the "WTF" syndrome of convoluted story telling that implies the reader will continue just to answer "WTF ?"  My pet is the "give a shit" which occurs when we follow a lone character wandering a world of brief interaction who does not convey enough emotional substance to have a chance in Hell of inducing empathy from the reader. No empathy, no chance of love and certainly the character missed the "give a shit" train by hours.

So, in my WIP I cannot kill off the principal emotional foil without introducing another. I have done so.  I have accelerated the transition from isolated and withdrawn character disbelieving his own worth due to shock (death of sole friend) and confrontation  with a normal - though giving - human being who is not willing to take withdrawn and silent for a response. I hate conversation by interrogation; but, interrogation is what the protagonist encounters and it is a small trigger to his realization that he has to be a human being.

In the case of this story, the protagonist is a reluctant Christ so the "caring about someone else" and "being a human being" have more than passing meaning. Please forgive the heavy handed approach here in the blog ABOUT a story. I am not so coarse or transparent in action within the story. We read the book ...not just the dust jacket.

So - there we are. [ I had a Bible as a child that had photographs of the holy land within some of the pages in the new Testament. I wondered why such a shitland would be holy. Was God just an idiot ?  West Ireand ? Wales ? No. New England ? No. Shitland South Lebanon. Great pick. It might not be the asshole of the world but I swear you can smell it from there. Then, I went to plains and thought it was remarkably like the holy land ...only better. THAT is a horrid thought.  Osborne county Kansas can be pretty bleak. It's just the sort of place for a second coming of Christ.]

I also have a nice start on the plot for a bit of pulp to share. Some posts ago I talked about posting content. I have a piece or two of pulp I like and will work up for this end. They involve far less of my personal emotional currency than the main WIP. They'll be a good break.

I've also decided to use three pen names. One for the speculative pulp I enjoyed when younger; one for the lies, deceit and murder angle; and one for the more literary work whose center of gravity is more on character and less on action.

It sounds hilarious from this point. However, since I am releasing short stories before longer works, I don't want to cross "Paradise stories" and "exploding chickens" when an agent considers how I have contributed to my own marketing.

Paradise stories are those tales of the emotional horrors in the backwater provinces. Betrayal means more when there are only a dozen people you see.  Trust me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pushing the Character ... off a cliff.

I have a story in process that has a protagonist who is avoiding emotional contact with the world. He has but a single meaningful contact with another person.

I need to push this character to confront his isolation and use his internal turmoil to fuel his empathy for others whose lives are in crisis.

I have to kill off his lifeline to security and isolation.

I didn't want to do it. I wanted to have the story go merrily along with the protagonist slowly absorbing the advice of this other character, slowly changing his point of view and slowly forming a meaningful bond with others who would normally be important. It doesn't work for me.

I have a character who is avoiding conflict by retreating from human contact. He has a shit family which is in pieces and he just drifts away from them rather than do anything meaningful. He has a crap job of no real significance because he just wants subsistence. He lives in an isolated and failing ranching community "outside of the city" because he wants little interaction or reminder of happy social people. He has an old friend who he sees nearly weekly.

I am going to have to lay out the isolation, the avoidance, and the friend's insistence that the character cannot just sit on the sideline of life. Then, I'm going to kill the friend. I'm going to make my character do something. I'm going to make him recognize wants and desires and try to make a difference to someone else.

I normally am fine killing off a character. I've sketched this tale for nearly a decade now. In the several different versions I've never killed off the best friend. I'm doing it now. I'm moving the conflict to the forefront where it should be. I've also introduced the daughter of the friend who comes in for the funeral. It isn't a romantic bit. It is a mirror. The estranged daughter dealing with the remainder of a life that didn't interest her compared to its role as a singular lifeline to the protagonist.

I'm not a heartless murderer. I will however kill a character if it makes the story better.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Something import, something more important

I have been heads down pushing through a work that means a great deal to me. The draft is complete and on ice. It even has some really good points.

Now, onto a piece that is going to be salt in a wound. This one will be hard to write but it is even more important to grind out. The pieces that have the more unpleasant side of our experiences transposed onto our characters are the important ones to write. Why ? They have more than a kernel of truth.

Hemingway, remember ?

Truth, bravery, desire, betrayal, and sometimes failure: these are elements of character and of a character.

That is what I am up to these days. I've waited too long to get here to stop now.

Also, a desktop picture. I like seeing these when I write.

Those are some Vargas playing cards in the background. Have to have a touch of wrong to appreciate the right. At least, I have a touch of wrong around anyway.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Push Through

On one of the blogs to the right came the advice this week to "push through." It came at just the right time for me.

I have a story that is in danger of becoming a victim of the premature-edit-cycle.

Thanks to a timely piece, I now have the confidence to push through to the end. It's already a mess. I can fix it later. The important thing for the content creation cycle is to write - get the story down.

Andy taught me a lesson he himself had learned : Make a mess, then clean it up.

I needed that to be : Make a completed mess, then clean it up.

I miss Andy J. After thirty years, we're all different people.

Of course, he'll be splitting wood in the back yard at 80. See. I was listening, once.

Now, to go and run this one to the end tonight. I know where I want it to go. I'm going to drive it there.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Cold

I now have a big sloppy traditional cold.

I am going to give to a pathologist doing duty as the county M.E. in the saddest little corner of the civilized world I've seen. This armpit of desolation has a murder problem at the moment and my M.E. is going to get this cold as a plot device.

It isn't the best idea I've ever had but the symptoms might go hand in hand with his current dilemma.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ugly Characters

I've been thinking about the unattractive character after discussing the ugly animal (below).

George Smiley of _The Spy Who Came In from the Cold_ and others (le Carre) was not ugly as plain.

Alec Rush was however quite ugly. Dashiell Hammett introduces him in the novella "The Assistant Murderer." It's a quick read and well worth it.

I'm having a hard time placing characters whose physical appearance is less than Greek. At least, I'm having a hard time placing those for whom their appearance has bearing on the story.

I'm going to have to work on the ugly character to avoid any cliche reference even though I can think of so few. I suppose the "lovable loser" is not my forte and would not survive the cliche test.

I'm going to have to work on this one.

Any ideas of intentionally ugly characters ? [ No witches ].

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ugly Animal

This is a Woodland Caribou  from Northern Ontario. I took the picture.

This noble beast was licking minerals off the fire pit where I burned trash the previous night.

Now, the Hartebeest is pretty homely in person (these are the animals mostly eaten by crocodiles on the Critter Channel). The Tasmainian Devil is no beauty queen. I think the wolverine is an ugly cuss, too (no offense to the State of Michigan or U of M - damn thing is unpleasant looking. Sorry. ).

Hoof for hoof though, these mangy Woodland Caribou are nasty in full fur (mangy) and just unpleasant in summer slicks.

I'm going to write a character who is this ugly.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Meet again

Melody Gardot sings "So We Meet Again My Heartache."

It reminds me of the poem "Neutral Tones" of Thomas Hardy.

It reminds me of that mix of emotions I feel when leaving someplace I've enjoyed. I feel this when leaving fish camp. I've felt it other times, too. It is a special kind of finality.

I should like to get this emotion on a page. I have a mechanism for it and believe it can be done. It's been something I've worked on for thirty years now.

From Hardy :

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have the strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing.

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Large Symbolic Fish

Hemingway wasn't the only one taken with fish. Perhaps next year I will get to the Two Hearted and the Fox in the Michigan UP to fish the backwoods. Papa did and I should too.

For now, it is enough to go north to where the steelhead run in from Lake Michigan. They are a wonderful fish. I go to catch a few.

The effort involves standing up to my chest in cold water, flailing fly line at the water and occasionally catching a fish. I like brook trout but Steelhead are exciting.

I'll be away on adventure. I'll be thinking while I am standing in the water. I'll be thinking of stories where people die of cold.

I'll also be thinking of hot coffee and Bushmills.

Yes, I wear a flotation vest in cold water. I fish alone and there is no sense drowning now. The best parts are yet to come.