clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sheep, Why Must It Always Be Sheep

My friend at left (Goerge Gastin's picture again) is channeling Indy Jones in the first adventure. Snakes for Indy, sheep for me.

I've been away on business (just like someone else we all know). I have been acquiring character after character. I couldn't concentrate on the stories I wanted to tell while away this time. My customers are ... challenging. I could record characters.

If my customers were not broken, they would not require my services.

Nonetheless, it is about time to put rubber to road and see what our creativity is worth right now.

I go to Bear River tomorrow. Should be a wonderful workshop. (here ).

I feel like a sheep when someone explains what it is to be guest of honor at a Seder dinner. Oh.

I'm ready with a pile of characters, some dodgy set-ups, and an open mind. I won't go blank on the assignments this way. I promised a friend to avoid any body count. Killing in this drill is cheating. I should make my characters transgressors without the loss of life.

I missed a writing group last night. It's a pretty social group but I could have used the association for a little bit. I said I'd attend but was in the middle of a car deal and completely forgot the writing meet until it had started. I feel bad about that. I go where I say I'll go.

I'm going to Bear River. I'll listen. I'll think. I'm going there to write and think. The guidance will be nice.

I'll tell you all how wonderful it was when I'm back next week. I'll tell you of the books which the workshop brought back into my mind.

I'm talking Martin Amis with me: House of Meetings. Wish me luck. For now, Baaaaaaa.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Maggie, ah Maggie

Tonight, a love story of sorts for me. Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac.

The story has a very simple narrative tale covering the progression from a young super-speedster with the potential of the world to the deplorable work-a-day disappointment of adulthood.

I enjoyed the immersion of Kerouac. I enjoyed the narrator as someone I never meet but who shapes my view.

I also enjoyed because I knew after reading it that Kerouac had also read An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I had labored through the volume myself and thought : really? All of that for this?

Now, I was young when I read Tragedy. Too young, perhaps. A pregnant girlfriend haunted my dreams for weeks.

Maggie - ah Maggie. You feel for Maggie. You feel she's worth your future. When you throw it all away you still feel that she might be worth it if you could get our head on straight.

It's a great book of what it is to want love more than life. Its a great version of Tragedy without the Gatsby-esque morality play of class evils front and center. Oh - the morality play and class structure is a point of the book to be sure. It is however billed beneath the pain you only feel when young.

Somehow this compounded effect of love-first-social-commentary-second does the job.

If you've never read Kerouac (I'm looking at you), this is the one to try. You understand after reading it the effect Kerouac was seeking with his prose. I think it is a clearer message of his intent than displayed in On The Road. That is probably a singular point of view.

It's a quick read. It's a good read. You'll never forget the feel of Chuck Taylor All-Stars on varnished maple gym floors after reading this volume. You'll never forget having too-thin a coat as a kid - even if you always had down jackets.

If you've ever wanted to be loved just to have the security of love and family and you wanted that feeling of contentment more than you wanted the person you were with, read Maggie. Don't tell anyone you felt that way. Just read Maggie. You can fall for Maggie yourself after that. 

You'll understand what she is. You'll understand what you are.

I'm off for a good week. Duty calls. I'll write when I am back.

Read while I'm away. Write something new. Start something you never intend to finish for me.

See how it makes you feel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

AAA: Some S'plainin' To Do

Welcome to Aspiring Authors Anonymous (AAA): the Friday Night Sessions.

I'm Jack (Hi, Jack) and I suck as a writer.

I want to stop sucking as a writer. Standing in the back of the room drinking coffee during the meeting isn't going to help me with that, either.  

Right. So like all too many of you, I am amassing a fair amount of texts on writing that - for better or worse - really muddy the waters.

How do you tell a good story? Tell a good story.

How do you write clean succinct prose that moves the story without intruding? Write clear succinct prose...

How do .... You know where I am going. You've also read some of the same material and were largely unchanged.

Q: I'd like to write well. I mean, I'd like to write thrilling fiction that is filled with compelling views into the emotional state of my characters. How do I do it? 

A: I'd start by writing well. After that, I'd move on to telling a story by writing well. I'd then turn to mastering characterization and the art of emotional portrayal in acts and words by writing well. That ought to do it.

Smart-ass answer but one which we've all heard or read. I've been lead to believe that writing well comes from reaching the effective emotional portrayal of characters in your own head as you write. Then, writing well evolves from editing.

Make a mess. Clean it up. If you start with 80,000 words and edit to the 35,000 or so that have meaning, you're on the right track. That's a bit steep, but illustrative.

Updike said he'd write the first 100 or so pages of a novel until he hit a point where he knew himself that "this" was the start of his tale. He'd begin again from that point. I believe I read that in a Paris Review interview. I'm working without a net here so I could be confused. Vertigo. Sobriety. Whatever.

I'm not as drastic; but, I have editing problems. 

This is an Aspiring Authors Anonymous meeting, right?

I write a bunch, throw it out, and start from there. I have a small set of stories I've written by just sitting down and telling the tale. I like these but I've never shown them to anyone. I think I'd be crushed if someone found them crude and unpolished. It is the raw nature of the tales I like best and so, they remain hidden. Are they good? We'll not know for years. I'd have to feel I had the chops at writing successfully to pull them out. That's not just around the corner, yet.

So, tonight's book: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Renni Browne and Dave King are the authors. They're editors and write the book a bit like editors write a book. Well - they write a little like editors with a God complex but we all are a bit pretentious about what we know better than others.

I've got this pile of books on writing. Great quotes. Marginal help.

However, this Self-Editing text I have consumed in three days. It helps. Each chapter is filled with twelve to fifteen vignettes of experience from past editorial issues they've encountered with stories.

I read it and thought "yes...I have one like that. Oh, that is a good idea...that would solve the repetitive baseball game scene dilemma for my adulterous catcher."

Every chapter has working solutions for stories I've written, iced, and have not been able to salvage in edits.

This book is a delightful tour. It isn't the most scholarly text on prose and writing that I have. It is however a powerful checklist for those of us who haven't yet had the principles of editing to publication burned into our little brains.

Once upon a time I had an editor. She was an honest-to-Dog editor. She told me the truth, my errors, and suggested fixes. I should have listened. I should have had her words bronzed and hung on the wall.

Instead, I doubted myself.  I was in the ocean swimming and thought "I had arrived" rather than "I was still swimming - but this time in the right direction."

Help yourself out. Grab a life ring. Find out which way it is to shore.

Read widely. Have some coffee in the back of the room. Think about buying this book. It helped me.

I'm off to edit something horrible into passable fiction.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Great Lines : Trouble is my Business

At left from Amazon, Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler.

I've heard some great lines lately. I've spent a bit of time on airplanes lately and so headphones and eclectic music. Some follow - unattributed.

Thirteen men going down to the graveyard, only twelve good men comin' back.

So we meet again, my heartache.

Help get me out of this little black mess.

Some of these days, you're gonna wake up smilin'.

Fat men play with their garden hoses.

Shot down on the sidewalk or waiting on death row.

Thank you Jack Daniels Old No. 7.

In my garage with my bullshit detector; Carbon Monoxide making sure it's effective.

I wish I had a pencil thin mustache.

There you go. You'll probably recognize all of these. These are great lines when I hear them. They make me want to hear more because of where I was when I first heard the song, or who I was with when I heard it the last time. I should qualify my taste in music: I listen to Jimmy Buffet when I get on a float plane to leave civilization. Yes, I do so often.

Chandler hit it square for me here with Trouble. You should read a little Chandler to feel what it is like to literally be in another man's shoes. He puts me there better than anyone - even E.H.  Let's look at the opening paragraph: (over at Type M for Murder they were discussing openings. This is my contribution).

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons., her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: "I need a man."

That pretty much puts us right there in the room with Marlowe. I'v been pulling back some on my descriptions because I haven't mastered Chandler's swagger and to imitate it would mark me as someone imitating Chandler. I need my own swagger.

Right now, I'm writing with a kind of broken-legged drag-step that your mother pinched your arm about on the street and said not to stare at.

I'm off to do some damage. I've got a body to put under the water. I hope you do too.

I hope you're writing. I know you are reading widely. Give Chandler a try. You'll love the lines.

Whatever is chained inside that roll of carpet is still moving on the back of my boat. I better put it in the water for safe keeping.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Postcards from Success

At left, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft.

I had a conversation this morning with a friend who commented on yesterday's post about writing, a workshop, and anxiety.

The short version: you rarely get better working alone in the laundry room.

Oh - you develop habits (good and bad) and turn out work (good) - but without feedback, interaction, and some perspective you gain from reading the works of other unbaked writers you remain in the same state as when you crawled into the laundry room.

I loved "unbaked" as if we just need the proper convection device.

You wanted to get better, didn't you? You want to have an auction over your book? You aren't just writing to send random pdf files to acquaintances?

Yes. I admitted that I wanted to get better. I admitted my plots are dull in execution, my characters are uninspiring and the prose is not at all compelling. All I have is a plot buried in there (once a cool idea) and an intrusive narrator who occasionally says something to break the monotony. Sometimes, not.

So - getting better means exchanging work and following the advice of critiques. It means reading and learning. It means going to workshops and classes.

It means working as hard at getting better as getting the material out.

I've started through today's volume sometime in December. I've worked through page ninety-three. There are 300 more to go.  The book is great. It is the prayer book in most MFA programs. It is used because it is a good grounding.

I need to be working through it. You need to be working through something. Wondering where to start? Buy a sixth or seventh edition used for $20 to your door. Start working through it. There is something in ever chapter you know. There's something there you do not know.

We need to be working as hard at getting better as we work at telling our tales. Writing is hard. Getting better is hard. You've picked an avocation which is hard. When I meet you in a bar and you say "I write in the laundry room," I'll buy you a drink. I know what it is like.

We're in the club. They put our picture on the backs of books if we work hard enough at getting better. It's like a milk carton picture of what we want to be: published authors.

Take a walk. Think about getting better. Buy the book. You've worked too hard not to get better. So have I.

Back to it. Read widely. Write. Get better.

Send me a postcard from success when you get there.

Monday, May 13, 2013

High Anxiety

Where is Mel Brooks when I need him ?

Tonight's book? The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The late Douglas Adams had the grace to share this volume (the first of a five-part trilogy ) with us before hitching a ride with the Vogons.

I had read some subversive literature prior to my encounter with Hitchhiker. My cousin had a copy of The Mason Williams Reading Matter in an old bookcase which I found and read on a hot August afternoon. Mason Williams (songwriter: "Classical Gas") was a comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers on their irreverent television show (created the Pat Paulson for President routines) among others.

The Mason Williams book had an impetuousness about authority which I suspect was the result a truculent soul disguising itself with humor.

The biographical bit on the author jacket listed occupation as "righter."

Hitchhiker is equally enigmatic. Reading it was one of the first times I knew I was not alone in the universe. The absurdities I saw were seen by others. I was part of a group. Unfortunately for me, Douglas Adams was the funniest one in the group and the rest of us are merely disgruntled janitors. It could be worse. We could be telephone sanitizers.

I'm to go to a conference the week after Memorial Day. It's a workshop. It's important to me. I'm nervous.

I'm trying to summon my best Arthur Dent and just embrace the fact that guides to the writing world are a bit like Ford Prefect. I should prepare for that for which I cannot adequately anticipate. I don't know these people - though I read their stuff.

What will workshops with them entail? Nothing I cannot handle with a couple of canned ideas in the back pocket to draw upon if stuck for inspiration. Cheating? Of course. I cheat in every story by rolling it around upstairs before it tumbles out. Why would a workshop be different?

I'm packing a towel. You should pack a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Reading it will help your writing. Seriously.

Well - it won't help you write seriously but it will help you decide if you are just boring the reader or if you are hitting them in the brain with a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.  I think that is the effect I desire. Happy happy, normal normal , then BLAM - a lemon slice wrapped around a brick and the whole world changes.

Read widely. Drink widely. Write often.

Anxiety means I'm not dead yet. Does that mean it's coming soon? Off to write.

See you Thursday.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Language of Transgression

At left, a bust of the man you know as Julius Caesar. This is a bust in the Museum at Naples. It's also my favorite of all. In person, you feel it compelling you to act on orders.

I intended to write an entry every night this week. I've had some network trouble. Apologies.

I am writing now of transgression. I write of the act of harming another. I know this topic well as do you, dear readers.

Tonight, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Ick. I hear recoil. I hear retreat.


I've read them. I've translated them. I've studied them. I've even lectured upon them. They are magic.

What you learn from Caesar ( and just about any translation you'll buy is good unless you download something free) is that transgression, betrayal, disappointment, misdirection, and physical harm are all first cousins.

Try this version. It has trouble but then so do they all. caesar.

Telling you I will do something and then doing something to act against you is a betrayal. It leaves a scar of hurt mostly because I didn't estimate your depth of deception. I was at fault. You hurt me because I failed. Every time I hear your name, I'll know this hurt.

Acting against you openly and telling you through my emissaries that I intend to go on acting against you and converting others to my cause is an affront. It is a direct style of transgression aimed at you. I am telling others that you are impotent to stop me and I am convincing them to side with me.  You support erodes. You statue diminishes. You self-esteem must suffer.

Waiting until you are content. Letting you believe it is a quiet time, and then harming your allies. Hurting the people you told you'd protect, people who work with you, people who trust you to keep them safe: this indirect attack is perhaps the must cutting. I hurt them to hurt you. Of course, you cannot be everywhere.

But then, let's look at you. There's a problem there. Oh, you say you're just keeping your guard up. You say you're just being on alert. Your actions exclude others. You respond to my attacks by your own and the causalities from your actions look just as bad on the six o'clock.

You march about doing harm telling everyone it's a "defensive action." You have to do it to protect your interests. Naturally - we all agree until the body count is published.

What is most telling and most cold is however your account of your actions. It is dispassionate. You were wronged and so in proportionate force debated in council you responded. More wrongs, more response. We lose track of harm and response eventually. We know however from your prose you did too. We see that harm - transgression - is just a means to you. It becomes a way to ensure a type of stability you control.

You come to love the fight for the privilege it bestows upon you. The transgressions grow and with them a kind of esteem for you are a war lover. You live for the conflict and use it to shape the other events around yourself ... events which otherwise are outside of your grasp.

Now, read some Caesar and tell me the dispassionate narrative about the transgressions does not create a more interesting character doing the telling than any meaningful joy in the tale.

Read widely. Write often. I hope you are writing.

I'll try and write tomorrow and them an update on Monday.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Shock of the New

Marc Chagall was an early modernist. His images in several medium were among the new guard in the earliest days. I've always felt he did the best for me at illustrating an emotion of a thing. He takes me on an emotional safari to a world I've not seen before.

All of this, and I do not see color.

When I first saw his works, I was paralyzed by the "The Shock of the New" which I steal from a PBS series on art from the very early 1980's. I'm an abstract expressionist by nature. The exaggerated emphasis allows me the ability to portray what I perceive as real to the observer (when I get it right).

Chagall however makes me feel what he feels when I look at his works. He conveys me to a land not of substance and mass but perception and effect.

I wanted to speak a little of this tonight for the book I want to bring to light is John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carre  did the same to me in it as Chagall.

It is at its heart a spy story. It follows a work-a-day spymaster who appears past his prime but whose game is merely reserved for "the majors." Yes, it is a spy novel.

It is not only a spy novel. When I first read it, I was young enough that the impact of the cold war confrontation was such a daily accepted fact as to be unremarkable. The Soviets and the threat to western capitalism, yawn. Yes, I'll shoot them when they come, father.

What struck me was the emotional connotation portrayed in the protagonist's work among the facts. He breaks rules. He breaks very old and important rules. He asks others to betray trusts. He undoes old friends. These acts don't pass with a grimace and a gun. Smiley - the protagonist - betrays his emotional convictions as if he's come to bury an old dog gone rabid and now dead by his own hand.

I was lead not on the journey of a thriller (see The Odessa File of the same era for the state of the art thriller) but on this emotional safari to a distant land I'd not seen before. I was made to feel through the protagonist things I'd not felt before.

My maternal Grandfather retired for good in the 70's and sold off the last of his agricultural equipment. These pieces were antiques when he had the last sale. He was, by then, a shell of his former self. He was broken physically and having been a speculator for much of his life, had little left to focus upon. He was just waiting for the end.

I was with him as a boy when he and I spent a week moving the last of his equipment for sale. I followed him in a pick-up as he drove one of his three ancient tractors to the meadow where the sale would occur. I watched the road from second gear peeking out between dash and steering wheel. I would have been nine or ten. The pick-up was a '52 and more the twenty years old. This tractor was pre-war. I watched the emotion as piece by piece we left his inventory of equipment in a long row for the auctioneer to move down at the sale.

I didn't understand the emotion of resignation - that there was something to do that had to be done and while we didn't enjoy it, we weren't going to resist.

That sale week was my first experience in that world and later  Le Carre would be the quickening of it. The entire book pulled me through the emotional complications of deceit in the business of deception and subterfuge. It did so with the same familiar and practiced glances of resignation I saw in my grandfather.

Now, Tinker Tailor was an emotional safari. I've read much of LeCarre's writing; but, it was this volume which compelled me to think about what it was that was different in this book from the others I had read.

Le Carre has a new book out now and it appears today on the cover of the NYT Book Review. A Delicate Truth is the title and I'd encourage you to give it a read as well. I will be. It may well be his last work and his prose has grown better and better over the years.

Unfortunately, the abject lack of any idealism in my politics has left the background for much of his work somewhat uninteresting to me. I expect politicians and technocrats to fold for rewards with no more resistance than a wartime whore. I'm not interested in their motivations and I assume them to be fodder. I'm more interested in those who would hasten their capitulation.

My point? The emotional journey may not be enough. It might need to be to that land we've not visited. Take me there, bring me back. I'll be changed for it. I'll buy your next book, too.

Read widely - even if the spy novel isn't your genre. You can buy an e-book and no one will know what you read at the airport.

I'll write Monday through Thursday this week. I've got a big project this weekend and will skip the Sunday installment.

Thanks for stopping by ...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ordinary Is Not

Today, the first Wednesday, is Insecure Writer's Day courtesy CAPT Alex and the wild bunch.

You can find the whole group of us here. I encourage you to make the rounds and see the talented group of writers slaving away with a fistful of pens and a steaming mug of insecurity.

 So, the essay today regards we insecure writers who are surrounded with the ordinary. It's a work-a-day life with spouse, kids, job, pets, a mortgage (or not). Tonight I had the first mow of the season. Mundane, right?

Here we have tonight's recommendation: One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Sure, it was early cold war and the gulag was still going strong. You should read it for more than its historical context.

In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel ... in Literature. It wasn't a Peace Prize. They give those things out like candy. This was in lit. He earned it through every syllable, too.

The title is the story. The fellow referenced (The name on the book is the patronymic. This is the "old style" Slavic name) is Shukhov and once you meet him, you'll never forget him. He's not a spy or a freedom fighter or a member of the west-sponsored resistance. He's a Joe, an everyman.

The story is of Shukhov's normal day in an uncomfortable place doing uncomfortable things. He wakes up feeling ill, though he has to go to work. He can't get in to see the doctor because he's a slow starter and so doesn't get a note. He has to show up at a job he doesn't like and work with people he doesn't love.

Why? He needs a paycheck, just like you. His comes as food but you're not eating Lincolns on rye bread, either.

The story seems exceptional because we're immersed in the fellow's day. We feel what he feels. We see what he sees. In the end when he's reflecting on his day, we feel the same way. He had many fortunate breaks that day.

I'm droning on because for Solzhenitsyn, there was a meaningful political context in which to tell the tale of an ordinary Joe. We, in his time, would have a very similar day. The piece that compels us through the story  isn't the Soviet oppressor. The thing that compels us is the human condition, Shukhov's place in it, and his interaction with other people.

Your story of today - just today - would be as compelling if you immerse us in your environment, if you allow us to understand your social and political context, if you allow us to see your emotional interaction with other people many of whom you did not choose to be beside.

The ordinary is not ordinary when you tell the story. A man getting his mail at the end of the day while his neighbor from across the street stands in the front yard and glares at him can be enough. Let me see it through the character's eyes and feel what he feels, know what he knows. If I identify with him, that immersion of pulling the bills from the box and feeling their physical weight in his hand will be enough.

Drag me back to the house. Let me pull his ball and chain. I can take it. I've read Ivan.

You should read Ivan, too. It'll make you a little less insecure. It will make your ordinary seem less so.

I'll write again Sunday.