clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Public domain image from wikicommons at left. These are Bulgarian sentries in the snow in 1913. They're having a blast.

The military has a phrase for the middle third of our composition process: "Embrace the suck."

Life is unfair and unpleasant and there are times -- especially in the military --when one must just "do" rather than "desire to do." So the story goes, anyway. I only know what I read.

We writers uniformly are excited when we start a long-form project. 

We've plots and twists and plotty-twists and diet Mountain Dew or a recharged Starbucks card. We've often only a germ of an idea that we know will become whole through those tenuous mind-holds we create as our prose crosses the page.

One material element, then another, then another.

In the process, our freshly sharpened pencils dull one by one and we've decided that our opus consists of a loosely formed collection of plot holes more or less occupying a related set of electrons on our computer's hard drive.

We know that first drafts of anything are messy (except those of the authors who lie about their first drafts sucking -- those are flow-of-consciousness "gems" which just come into being in a wonderful songbird accompanied peal of joy).  For we normal writers, our first drafts suck.

Somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the way through, we see more holes and flaws and should-have-been bits than we can stand. It is here that many of the unfinished Great American Novels end.

Embrace the suck.

Anything can be fixed with the exception of the untold tale. Unfinished means nothing. Unfinished does not exist.

You had an idea. It didn't work. Fine. Drive on because the only chance of making it work is to finish the story. 

And then what happens?

Steve Almond says writing is decision making.  

I say the most important decision is the one where we decide to write. Not discuss. Not blog. Not tweet. Write.. 

I'm watching a friend struggle with her prose. She's hiding from her pen. She's complaining about it.  She isn't embracing the suck. She has lots of life suck going on. Surprise. She's not alone.

She doesn't read this blog.

I don't offer unsolicited advice to fellow writers. I watch them thrash in silence as fish on a dock with their life motivation slipping away as they wet the boards with the silhouette of  brief, damp, desperate life.

 I turn back. I embrace the suck. My ink only runs in my own veins.

My ass hurts. My toes are cold. My fingers cramp. My illusion of self-worth crumbles as I think I've no business picking up a pen. 

I think of drinking instead. I think of sitting on the deck, lighting a pipe, and reading from my favorite authors.

I remember they too had to embrace the suck. I sigh. I stretch. I spill some ink upon the page declaring myself talentless and my story trite and unimaginative.

I'll fix it on the next draft just as my heroes have done, after I finish this draft.

Just as you should.

Embrace the suck. Everyone whose fiction you read had to give the suck a big unpleasant hug at some time in the process.   

This time it is our turn. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Moving Friends

At left, public domain image from wikicommons. Early moving truck, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Not the best day to move. Always seems like snow and rain when the deed is required.

I have a friend moving "back" to Seattle after seventeen years of being here in nearby Ann Arbor. It's a work thing and he's being recalled to Seattle to the headquarters of his firm. He's spent his whole career with one company and now is joining the senior executive ranks upon returning home.

I'm going to miss him. It is how life is. Seattle is too far to expect to see him with any frequency and his involvement in the past-times I have excited in him are too tenuous to remain for long without frequent re-enforcement.

We'll see.

I'm thinking tonight of the unexpected loss of an ally and the effect on a protagonist.

In the middle of our story's turmoil when we have the serial encounters with conflict and obstacles, how often do we think of the loss of ally as a driving factor in the transformation of our character?

I know the bit about taking away all of a character's friends then in the next chapter, shooting his dog.

I think back to Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I can remember the first time I read the story thinking that here -- in this part -- Smiley considers everyone he knows as a suspect. I remember the bottom dropping out of my stomach as I recognized here was a protagonist reduced to being alone by the process of his own reasoning.

I'm not able to execute so deft a turn; but, I can have associates arrested, or subject to a inconvenient demise, or just murdered. maybe having them isolated by the turn of their own mind isn't necessary for my purpose.

Would my protagonist continue without his trusted friend? Would he solider on filling the void from elsewhere in the cast? Would a former antagonist now become a friend?

I am not like my friend. He is placid and lacks a competitive nature. It makes him good for roles where the gentle hand of compromise is required through rapport and pacification.

I like to win.

At the moment, I am losing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Harvey, Harvey, Harvey

At left, the mess that is my desktop.

I have a bill from the state for car tags because my state does it on one's birthday.

I've a trade magazine from the fly fishing industry to get through (No, I'm not "really" in the industry. My dollars are.) I've flies to tie - design in the background of the transcription palette. 

Also, I have to pass basic seamanship again. Yea. Again. Like, thirty-odd years on. I don't have the certification I need for the boat I want to lease and so insurance demands documentation.. That's the flag for India which means I am turning to port absent any other signal.

This has been an ugly week in the entertainment industry. I'm going to let the events lie where they may and take a literary approach: the fallen hero.

Studio mogul. Bum. It took what, forty-eight hours? Maybe seventy-two.

I've got some things I need to happen in the current work in progress. It occurred to me a fallen hero, a mogul, a fellow of influence, wealth, and accomplishment might be the exact sort of supplemental character I need to make some improbable events transpire.

I have a copy of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces stuck on the arm of my reading chair right now.

The fall. The fall.

The devil is a most attractive character. Nobody gives a shit about the saints.

Off to the ink.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Writer as Islander

At left, Bogoslof Island in the Aleutians.  Image hosted on wikicommons as taken by U.S. Geologic Survey: T.Keith.

Pretty nice day.

I'd ask about deserted island book lists and deserted island foods and ...

Writers are themselves on a deserted island.

With the ink, there is no counsel beyond our own. We tell ourselves the story and then -- with luck -- receive notes on the polish and clarification necessary from our chosen advance readers.

We are not adrift; but, we are alone.

I rather like that aspect.

My composition style sees the story unfold as cinematic scenes before me.

Today, I have a fellow who is responsible for solving a murder but who is not a detective by trade standing in running shorts and a T-shirt near a corpse. I know her wears a Cubs T-shirt. That isn't germane to the tale but I see it. I also see the mimosa in his hand. Hey, have your on-scene fellow drink cold coffee if you want. My guy drinks a mimosa from fresh squeezed.

I occasionally remember the Meeting of Minds television series from the late 70's (in my case) hosted by Steve Allen on PBS. They'd run it during pledge time which oddly found me alone eating frozen pizza on more than one occasion. I'm not at all sure why that happened.

Anyway, there would be a cast of historical figures -- say Abe Lincoln and Kublai Khan -- around a table with the host discussing some issue or another. Hard to remember what they discussed but it was very much a talking-heads sort of affair.

I sometimes think of writers placed on a deserted island and the game they play to pass the nights is "storytime." They each tell stories a bit like Homer might have while sitting around the fire and eating the last of the day's catch of lobster or crab or -- ick -- seal.

I'd want to see Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Stanislaw Lem, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Maybe Jim Harrison. Certainly Jim if we could fish.

I'd like Hemingway there too; but, we'd fight.

No man is an island?

No for all time, no.

With pen in hand? Then, I must decline to concur.

I'll probably be exiled for that statement. Who would know?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Uncomfortable Concordance

At left, image of the Unisphere from the 1964 World's Fair as captured by Doug Coldwell and allowed for fair use here for just the attribution. Image hosted on wikicommons.

As writers of crime, mayhem, murder, and worse we face some scrutiny by friends and family when bad things happen in real life.

The world intrudes.

How do we handle this?

Senseless killing. What do we say?

For my part, I answer that all killing is senseless but that it is a core component of the human condition and has been throughout my life. Thus, I include this aspect -- unfair it may be -- in my writing.

No, I don't believe that my words propagate more violence. The propagation of violence was doing quite well before I picked up a pen. Cambodia, for example. Khmer Rouge?  Brutal, cruel, and had nothing to do with my writing.

Bad things happen. Sometimes those bad things are murders. I'm interested in the human response to the inhuman. I could write about aliens, or I can write about the intolerable cruelty humans inflict on humans.

Cruelty and sudden loss while regrettable are regular facts of our existence. In other parts of the world. they're even more common. Here, they're sensational as a result of the uncommon.

I've no respect for amateurs in the business of mass murder. That's perhaps a singular perspective.

Best we just don't tell friends and family our topics of choice.

Works better in the long run.

After all, a lie of omission is just child's play to a fiction writer.

We should always omit our topics unless they're fluffy bunnies. Happy, fluffy bunnies.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

I Know Them for Their Dogs

Peepe allows us to use the image of a Foxhound in the woods as hosted on wikicommons. Thanks, Peepe. Nice gesture to make this public domain.

I don't know my neighbors' names. I wave. Sometimes I smile (I forget this gesture frequently).  I say "hi" if they are in earshot.

I've met several multiple times but I don't know their names. I know their dogs.

This house is home to Ruger the Labrador. Jesse (Spaniel) and Roxy (portly lab)  live at the house that needs a large dumpster in the driveway for a week.

The French Bulldog (Babs) doesn't like anyone and so we don't stop to sniff if she is out.

Heisman is the shepherd that lives next door. I don't know his owners' name either.

I bring this up because I read a piece by an especially gregarious and extroverted writer this week. "Meet lots of people" and "avoid stereotypes" were tropes of the article.

I'd say: write.

Stereotypes are valid first-order approximations that are easy for a reader to grab until your more subtle details of construction are revealed. Southerners -- many -- do speak slowly. It frustrates some of us. Nothing wrong with using that fact in the introduction of detective Roy Summers from Waycross, GA. [ Waycross sits near the Okefenokee swamp: a great place to get rid of bodies in case you're hunting such a site.]

Dogs that growl sometimes bite. I'm not surprised if they do. If it enhances the story to have the dog not bite but have a chronic case of  crossed-signals, then use that fact. Else, have the animal bite someone. Your choice.

I've met lots of people. Enough people, I think. I can make my own and they won't resemble in detail anyone you've met because that's how I want my characters: uncommon.

I don't want the lady in line at the grocery store in my book because people still writing checks -- and still waiting until they get to the check-out to begin doing so -- are not especially interesting to me. Unless I have a stray bullet in a story.  I might have her be a victim then. Maybe.

For some, writing is a task of introspective world creation complete with action, reaction, sophist logic or even illogical reasoning on the part of characters.

In first grade, we'd already learned to lie. By high school, we did it well. So?  You don't need more models for your string of human templates. Cut them up and put them back together. You'll do fine.

Fiction is a lie.

Shhh. I won't tell if you don't.

The dogs know all and I know their names.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Winter is Coming

I've been hiding from my pen. Oh, I've written notes, snippets,little vignettes, and observations.

I haven't been finishing this year.

Not finishing has become almost a motto. I'm "the incomplete writer." Seems that writer is an oxymoron there.

This "desk clearing cycle" has me looking over drafts and re-writes that stand the test of time away. I'm pretty happy on the whole.

I need a reader I can trust -- and I have one. He isn't put off by my unfortunate sensibilities which are too like those of Raymond Carver, without the talent or the booze. I need to do my job and get material to him.

The picture above is from a wood delivery a couple years ago. That's Lou the foxhound giving the pile the once-over. He does about the same to my efforts though he urinates on my writing less than he does the woodpile.

I'm ashamed of "not finishing."  There. I said it. I'm ashamed.

Not finishing allows me to go along with my illusions unchallenged. I get to believe in a past which is without substance beyond "shows much promise." I can continue to be unjudged.

Which is a lie, of course.

Unfinished brings its own judgement and for whatever reason, unfinished is meaningless.

I will pick a project. I will work it to completion. I will send it off. I have no idea why I wait thinking something better will strike my imagination when in fact it is the act of writing that produces its own unsourced inspiration.

Winter is coming. There are few enough left. I shall work my next novel as a series of short stories. I know it is how I work best.

Another log in the stove. Another ten pages.

I have to stop hiding from my pen.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Ink Before Sunrise

Inspiration from Paris at left. Image hosted on wikicommons as created by Tristan Nitot. Image of the day for wikicommons back on 11 January, 2005.

Before sunrise the ink does not flow quickly; but, it does flow.

Summer fills every available minute with competing interests.

Trout call to me. Vocational concerns weigh heavily. Recreation and family obligations scream in competing chori.

There are stories that must be told.

The still of early morning is the time when I can tell them as the house is at ease.

The dog grudgingly walks the garden with me then collapses at my feet. A cat comes in, sits on an upholstered tuft, and waits for attention.

I'm at the desk. I'm working on the draft. It is important enough I'll stumble out of bed for the effort.

Best gift for a summer writer? A coffee pot with a timer.

It's easier to write when the coffee is waiting hot.

What are your writing strategies this summer?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Entangled and Ensnared

At left, spiderweb as photographed by Albert Jankowski and made available copyright free as hosted on wikicommons.

The blog has languished. I've a couple non-fiction projects which have absorbed a great deal of time and energy. It seems disingenuous to write of non-fiction on the fiction blog so a quite period of inactivity ensued.

I'm back at the mayhem now. I've some new stories to come out. I've some old stories to recast again with the discipline to shorten, tighten, and present a more immediate flow of danger and deceit.

It is late spring here and summer looms with all the dark deeds that bright sunny days and cool water can host.

There's nothing like a meadow for a body. The juxtaposition is more than we can resist.

I've a confirmation to attend this weekend. I've a failed story of a killing where the bullet consisted of a large caliber slug formed of gold saints' medals pressed into a plug.

Let's put the body in a meadow on an early summer's day and see what flawed soul we can have search for killer, motive, meaning, and measure.

Let's have a murder: a web of mystery. Time to write a scene for the spider.

It's good to be back in fiction.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


At left, page image from Mary Shelly's draft of Frankenstein.

In my hands today, a draft.

Sure, there are enhancements to add, a punchlist of major corrections to detail, and then the inevitable line edits that result from just reading through the thing. But, it is in my hands: a draft.

Composition is complete and the revision and alteration phase begins.

It's non-fiction so the process is a little different from the tonal aspects of corrections in fiction where something "isn't quite right" or there is a tense lapse or dialogue needs condensing or ...

Nevertheless, there is the same thrill of having something that has moved forward after two-and-a-half months in the full composition bin which comes after three distinctive half-starts over the past two years.

Sound familiar?

Same thing with the novel.

Keep running at the wall. You will find a way through. You will find a way to say the things you wanted to say. You too will feel elated on the other side even though the remaining work is nearly as daunting as the piece just completed.

Draft. Say it proud. Say it loud.

Just don't say it to your friends: they only want to know when they can buy it.

You can say it here, however. I'll give you the slow clap of joy any day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In The Secret Lair

At left, British troops dismantling the German nuclear test reactor at war's end. Image hosted on wikicommons. Copyright free.

It's a stretch to call this thing a "reactor" as self sustaining capture and control of delayed neutrons was not yet possible given their design. Prompt neutrons were possible and they had a little trouble with the radiation from this beast's older brother.

I'm working on two non-fiction projects at the moment. One is wrapping up and the other is ready for its annotated outline this weekend transcribed from the volume of hand notes.

I'm writing non-fiction thinking of fiction.

I've figured out a couple problems with plots I've come back to as well as changing a couple of point-of-view characters in some fiction from the past couple of years.

Ever have a story whose character roles changed significantly when you revisited the tale? Happened to me.

I hope you keep your stories straight. Watch where you store the drafts. Those things can approach criticality if you're careless with how you stack them.

Stories blow up. So do reactors.

I've got prose to radiate. So do you.