Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 2 & 3

Handling Time – I read another book. Very noir-ish. Well mannered hardboiled. The author used a device for handling time that I got chastised severely for early on by several editorial types. I asked if there was a literary device like the old film trick of calendar pages flying off at high speed. Nobody knew of one. My solution, like this award winning Harper Collins author’s, was to put dates and location in the chapter header. Examples –


Burger King on Sunset Blvd, Tuesday February 14, 2005


Gus’s Grimy Gulf Station, Needles California, June 2000

 What? Those are out of sync! In the book I caught myself reading right past those tags as I wasn’t used to looking there. Because there were no chapter titles. I’d turn a page out of a Hollywood cocktail party and I’d suddenly be seven years in the past with people I’d never met. A third of the way into the book.

Say you open a story in 2005 and you meet the players wherever. Party, little league game, barbeque. And you develop a story line. Then you want some big motivational or deep backstory for a character, bigger than a couple of lines, so you do the example above, say five years earlier. Character x working in a gas station, 2000. Then you go right back into the “current” time frame of the story with Character x interacting in some event. This all sounds like I’m dogging flashbacks, but those are often internalized and much shorter. This was blatant, here’s a get to know X chapter, out of sync. X’s story is a subtext and crucial, but rather than weave everyone in from the beginning, we are abruptly shuttled back and forth through time. I found it to be an attack on my (elderly) readerly equilibrium. As I’ve been told and told by editors it would be, and DON’T do that. But Harper Collins signed off on it.

Dropping in backstory and flashbacks are an art in themselves. Enough to inflate a character and put heat on them in a moment, not enough to take you out of the story (techniques this author also used very well). Those things are melded into a scene, we watch the character sweat or understand the how/why of their behavior(s). But surprise, Time Machine! Full blown didn’t see it coming silent evil Jack in the Box reads like riding with someone learning to drive a standard trans. I could see the effect the author was going for, like a film effect. We see what’s now, we back up and see what was heading for now. It could have been done with that chapter that was about a third of the way through the book instead tacked on the front end and we follow these people. All in all it read like watching Double Indemnity or Please Murder Me time shift noirs. First person right now action that keeps backing up to tell another story leading up to first person narrating from now story. It sounds clumsy and it is because visuals can clue you any number of ways. Books don’t fade to black and pop up a happy Norman Rockwell moment obviously in the past because of visual cues like the age of cars or fashions or architecture or horse drawn buggies. I’m so gun shy of the time shift technique, after having tried and my hand slapped, I won’t do it again.

But here are those nasty rules that drive us all crazy. Don’t write preludes, drop in backstory when you need it. Okay, but what if there’s an important bit of backstory that is bigger than “Burger King always made Dan sick”? Tell it early, skip a couple of years to now? Don’t start a story with characters in a situation that finishes what you develop before you get there. Okay. In now time we’re talking to Albert, that we don’t know is really Dan with a name change, out for revenge on Burger King. We drop a chapter on why Albert/Dan is pissed a hundred pages into NOW if we can’t write preludes? Well, I’ll write a prelude if I have to. It was good enough for Faulkner and Steinbeck. So there’s my writerly concern number one. How to handle time. Any ideas without breaking a rule, sing out.

Writerly concern two –  LinkedIn is another SM joke like WP and FB and all the rest, but I saw an article fly by the other day. “Don’t make people feel stupid. Drop the Jargon.” Talk about selling me out of reading your story with the title, hell yeah, thanks for the free time. Seriously, there’s only a certain amount of slang and/or vocational or subcultural vernacular people are willing to handle unless you want to narrow your audience to people who work the graveyard shift in dog food plant 17 in Farmersville. Even editors. “Did they really say ‘suck’ in 1979.” I don’t know, and you’re the only one who has asked, so…

I get the need for academic or cop or conspiracy or forensic or history procedural buffs who require their minutia fix. But by and large is it necessary? Like me and Moby Dick as a whaling how-to. I don’t care. Get to the whale. I ran into this issue writing about musicians. No way did I get off into a band futzing with the minutia of setting up, or brand names of things. Why? A very long time ago I learned, as a synthesizer clinician, all most people wanted to do was have fun. “Is that not the wettest, fattest most badass bass sound you ever heard?” “Check it out. We just wrote a song using nothing more complicated than an eighth note!” “Dig this!” I did a clinic tour of Mexico (more than one) and before I went the first time they asked, explicitly, that I NOT be another one of the legion of El Lay shit-jazzers and make jokes about how some sound was used in a US car commercial. So I wasn’t that guy. I played a couple of top Spanish language radio tunes and had them find me a chick singer in every town we hit who wanted to be Gloria Estefan and we tore it up.

Yeah, there will always the pocket protector guys in the back who want to discuss quantize resolution on the knobs or the sequencer, or what sort of quark drive did the Foonblat’s use to get to Boredom Outpost 417-a, but most people just want to make noise or read and have fun. Which is why, even in dystopian made up worlds, ease off the jargon. “Set your phasers to stun” is plenty. The fact that it fits in a holster and stops naughty aliens (most of the time) is enough. Have the creepy mechanic look under the hood, fan the steam, lick his lips and say “May take a day or two to get the parts. Ma’am.” Instead of going off into alternators and muffler bearings. My .02.

Standards update – These two things communicate the same information. The USB obviously communicates all sorts of information.

For size and the cost of a plug a majority of new tactile music controllers/input devices only come with USB. Because of course you’re going to use a computer, numb nuts. Everyone does. Let your computing device sort it out for you. What? You just want to plug this USB only controller into a MIDI device and play. No computer/phone/tablet? Even if the MIDI device is a computer masquerading as a musical instrument? Sorry. You need a host to MIDI box. Sixty to a hundred bucks. One unit at a time, no hub. Why? Computers sort out hubs, fool. Until – Thank God for someone paying attention to the market – This bad boy.

Not only does it host USB to MIDI, no computer (up to 8 devices) it plugs into a PC, a MAC and an iOS device and tells them all about it. All three at the same time! Or three of the same thing! Incredible! I watched a video of someone I trust using it, and I looked at the busier than hell breakout graphic above and BAM. It’s not free, but at least instead of shoving us into a box, it rips the flaps back and says “Outta the box, make noise any way you want.” Way cool. Too bad we can’t write like that and get away with it. Or can we?



Published by

Phil Huston


15 thoughts on “Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 2 & 3”

      1. That definitely tracks…speaking of which, there’s a big art fair in front of my house coming up soon. I’ll see if I can engage some of them about rules that they break. 😂


  1. ..all most people wanted to do was have fun… the most important take-away, IMO. No need to get all heavy intellectual unless you’re writing a technical manual.


  2. > Talk about selling me out of reading your story with the title, hell yeah, thanks for the free time.
    How true! How much time have I saved by NOT reading shit-for-titled nonsense. (But of course, the inverse is true too — lured in by a great lead I blunder along hoping for steak and get only broccoli.)

    Phil, here’s a question for ya. How can we create writer heuristics from all your great writerly advice? Embracing and ingesting and subsuming all these nuggets, well, it’s HARD. How to make it easier?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our friend George F is notorious for telling us, by way of title, not to bother. I have mentioned it, but – there again is one of those rules. Use numbers only. And if you must, name sections, but not chapters. I suppose to avoid sending readers on down the road by telling them what’s about to happen, skip this bit.

      On the other part, all I do is try to make sense of all the rules. “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?” Because, again Leonard’s simple rules say a grammar rule shouldn’t get in the way of a story. I got hammered for an out of sequence time chapter slotted in. And in the book I talked about the author does it repeatedly, and about halfway through he exposes himself and his method by having a character in a JB Priestly play where time shifts all over the place, the story told in a now and back then and now and back then style. Again, like watching noir. But in an age where readers think bullshit sentences hacked up and stacked are poetry and mediocrity is not only published but lauded it’s a lot to ask of them to ride a time machine that doesn’t have the requisite devices like secret doors and horny vampires, sexist Mad Max clones, wizards who talk like Yoda and fair damsels in need of alpha male rescue in abundance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. >in an age where readers think bullshit sentences hacked up and stacked are poetry.
        (Had to smile at this. I think that’s why I don’t much enjoy poetry.)
        I’ve adopted only numbers in my recent stories. My first though, I named the chapters, but, only after I’d already introduced the concept in the previous chapter. (Although I’m sure I broke this model once or twice.)
        I do get the gist. I think with GeorgeF, he titles his segments as, being individual posts, they need a title. Once he gets the damn thing done and built as a book, we’ll see.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. IF. There is a touch of the artist at play in naming chapters or short stories. Bob Kicks Tom’s Ass says, well now, why bother, we get it. Old Gum and Beer Bottle Caps for the same chapter. Huh? Hell yeah.

        Tom always wondered what was behind the bar. Not the floor so much, but that was the view he had. Old, pinkish gum stuck in the damp, fuzzy mat. And beer bottle caps. Hundreds of them. And the bartender’s black Converses. The tuxedo t shirt for feet. Shit. Should he get up? Nah. He’d end up right back where he was, and doubted the view was going to change all that much between up and BAM again. Bob could have this one. Besides, how much fun could he have doing Bob’s wife if the crazy asshole broke something next time? He snuggled his cheek into the beery mat and ignored the jeers. Somebody would call an ambulance, he’d play along until he got to the hospital where he’d have a miraculous recovery and be back in the pulpit by tomorrow morning.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. On free style poetry: nobody talks this way. And if they did, they’d be deemed insane. Much of Shakespeare is like this: WTF? “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.”
        Sure, you can slowly tease Shakespeare apart, but, it takes WAY too many brain cells to do so.
        Flowing narrative prose is made to stream into our minds like speech. A well written sentence is a dream to read. A well written bit of free style poetry is mental torture with all of it’s innuendo and linguistic gymnastics.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Amen. For me, though, only to the point that the narrative prose doesn’t turn into poetic reminiscences that go on for two pages between lines of dialogue.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I know i’ve broken these rules at one time or another, (or more often.) Thanks for posting. I’m learning stuff, though i’ll still likely break the rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The only reason I post these “rules” is because I break then all the time and they are so contradictory! I mean, turn left enough times and you’re back where you started!


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