RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #31

Get Out of the Way

In my unchosen role as tantologist against excess BS, the phrase “The story is already there. It will tell itself if you’ll sacrifice the urge to be writerly and get out of its way” is on an infinite loop.

This is masterful storytelling. Beautifully dynamic, outside and close to the ground. No pianistic insertions for the sake of them being there. Play the song, tell the story that is in your fingertips waiting to be free.

Both are always there if we’ll just listen for them. Have a wonderful weekend.

Special Thanks to Thom at The Immortal Jukebox for reminding me.

 

“Bozo”

Rip shook me awake, waved coffee under my nose. I sat up in the wicker patio love seat, rubbed my eyes, heard the question I’d been asked a number of times bang around in my head.

“She took off, Paro. Back up to Shamrock and those convicts.” Rip pushed the coffee within an inch of my nose. “You sure have trouble hangin’ on to women.”

“I thought you took…Drove…” I had to take the scalding coffee from him or risk burning my nose.

“I took the old truck with the steel bed liner and cam locks. She’s got the new one.”

“You’re fucking…” Shit, the cup was hot. “You know how many…”

“Fuckin’ crazy? I been told. An it seems you’re to blame for the girl’s run a stolen vehicles. Christ, Paro, you’re a mess. Shake it off, go clean up. Margarita’s volunteered to give up house cleanin’ this mornin’ to run us off a coupla batches of steak n eggs.”

“Margarita? Who…The money! Did it survive the –”

“Would I be here if it hadn’t?” He smacked my shoulder, hot coffee sloshed in my lap and got me off the patio pulling the cargos away from my privates with both hands.

***

“Margarita drives down from Lelia Lake every coupla weeks,” Rip rotated his fork around like a radar dish. “Helps clean up. Dusts, organizes the office, helps me swap out sheets an the like. First time she was here it took me a week to find the damn TV remote. Since then we come to an agreement on that one.” Rip pointed at my empty save for the gnawed t-bone plate. “When was the last time you ate?”

“Last evening. Your hot wings.” I poured myself another half cup of coffee that could pave a driveway or seal a roof.  “Feels like a week.”

“Busy night, watchin’ those two fellas shoot one ‘nother. A story –” He waited for Margarita, a pleasant, bony, hair in a bun woman wearing 80s glasses as big around as saucers to clear the table, set the plates in the sink. She left the kitchen, a vacuum cleaner started up down the hall.

“As I was sayin’, a story I ain’t buyin’ that they took your favorite piece and shot each other. There’s nothin’ about that gun comes back to you, or me. We clean and load with cotton gloves, the gun itself came from a dyin’ Englishman halfway around the world. Why the tap dance?”

“They start pulling your fingernails out you don’t know anything?”

“Bullshit.”

“Talking myself into believing it so I can lie telling it that way and not blink?”

“Sold. The two renta-a-soldiers, you figure them to be the end of that?”

“Best guess. Probably an eight-man rifle squad, didn’t domesticate, went freelance. Lost six in Shamrock, squad boss had to be on that first casualty list.”

“The two strays not the sharpest knives in the drawer?”

“Armed, primed for confrontation. Jumpy. Like a pair of crackheads poppin’ a 7-11. Squad leader would’ve called a play, even for me.”

“Sure they’re ex-employees of Uncle Sam, not current?”

“I saw the payroll kids last night, too, remember? Big difference.”

“Mmm. Need to see the money?”

“No.”

“Good. ‘Cause it’s buried.”

“I like the sound of buried treasure. Makes me feel like a pirate.”

“Not shovel buried, son. ‘Dozer buried. The girl had me pull three million, said you’d know why. I buried thirteen-three, kept out twenty-seven thou. It’s in the safe.”

In my head I did all the math I could stand for year. “That works out to an oddball start number.”

“People skimmin’ along the way. The chiropractor had to have pulled a stash, plus you toppin’ him off. Drivers, security, entourage, all hooker an dope partyin’ in the vans. Envelopes home. That’d work out to an even start around eighteen-five unless somebody got greedy.”

It was my turn to say “Mmm…”

I knew Moreno wanted the three million on hand to keep the convicts happy. With her and me since there was no longer anything on the way to Kerrigan for them to help rob. I hoped she hadn’t called off tomorrow’s roadblock or said something stupid about where the money was. Didn’t seem like her to do that, but “like her” was still a fuzzy picture. The “Love” girl who could play a lot of parts, too convincingly.

“In that movie a yours,” Rip said, like he’d been reading my mind, “noticed Cary Grant’s suit coat didn’t have a vent.”

“What?”

“No vent. Like a Zoot suit. Eye-talian, they call it.”

“Not a Zoot, or ‘Eye-talian.’ It was a ventless three roll two. He also wore same-as-suit ties and brown or oxblood shoes with gray. The man was a real Sartorialist, ahead of his time.”

“Meanin’?”

“Fashionista. Metrosexual. Sharp dressed man.”

“You ever got a decent haircut I’d say you’d been readin’ GQ at the barbershop.”

“Back in the run-up to not marrying Christine, I learned more about men’s clothes than I ever wanted to know.”

“That why these days you look like a sack fulla doorknobs most times?”

“Among other reasons. Like five grand for a pre-motheaten sweater.”

“You don’t have to do vagabond. Recall the few times you ever wore a suit you looked good in it. And a uniform.”

The vacuum stopped. I pushed my chair away from the table.

“Like the times you got married and that duster from Nebraska’s funeral? Thanks, Mom. Been there, done that.”

“An you ain’t changed t-shirts since.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You know your problem, Paro? You’re tryin’ to sort the good guys from the bad guys into two neat piles.”

“Do I smell an inbound sermon?”

“Nope. Never hurts to give both sides some leeway is all.” He arched his hand over his coffee cup, twisted it with his fingertips in a slow circle. “It’s not Cary Grant or the Lawn Jockey. Or the high dollar Scotch man or even the convicts. It’s the girl still has you bothered. You think she’s bidin’ her time, waitin’ to see who’s left standin’?”

“Could be.”

“You think she’s dangerous?”

“No more than the other vipers in the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery pit.”

“An it could be you just want her to be wrong.” Rip sat in a very still, noncommital quiet for a few before he pushed his chair back. “Well, your problem, not mine.” He stood, hitched his belt up. “The girl’s money’s locked in the bed a the Ram, vehicle hangar. You know where the weapons are.”

***

Moreno had called, for some reason I didn’t hear it and it went to voice mail. The message was crap connection scratchy and I’d had to rewind it three times to nail down the address on Route 66/12th Street in Shamrock’s dead “Old 66” business strip. I knew the meeting place had to be the convicts’ idea, not hers.

I got to Shamrock early, parked two blocks away down the side of a freshly painted, locked-up NAPA auto parts store with waist-high weeds under the sign. I stayed off the road, used overgrown back lots behind empty buildings for cover. I was leading with the stainless-steel Walther I’d picked out of Rip’s gun safe, racked and chambered, safety off when I walked the cracked concrete studded with grimy weeds drive and around to the front of the free-standing once upon a flea market, record store, vegetable stand, and mechanic’s garage. I stopped at the edge of a large window where nearly invisible weather faded, childishly executed paintings of appliances – washing machines, sewing machines, and typewriters – now lived against a closed, dust-caked Venetian blind backdrop. On the door, sun-faded posters for concerts in Amarillo, Oklahoma, Colorado. A festival out by Canadian where a long list of old-time honky-tonkers offered to make a weekend of it four years ago. The inside of the door covered in yellowed newspaper pages held in place by equally yellowed masking tape.

I tried the door, easy. Locked. I didn’t like anything about this whole setup, kept walking, turned down the east side of the store and froze. A bulky guy in the weeds about halfway down the side, his back and long gray ponytail to me, was working a crowbar on the side door. I backtracked, flattened myself against the front wall between the windows and old garage door. Less than a minute later I heard the front door unlock from the inside.

Shit. My hands started to sweat.

The door opened, followed immediately by a giant white ball of WHOOMPH that blew Bulky Man out the door and into the street. Glass and Venetian blinds flew by me, a second or two passed before bricks pushed on my back, shoved me off the sidewalk and out into the street with him. I laid that way until I got my breath back, shrugged off some bricks and rolled onto my left shoulder. I brought the gun up, checked Ponytail Man and dropped my arm back down. I’d seen my share of blast casualties, and they all had the same look. Something once human reduced to a bloody, impossibly positioned rag doll. A splintered chunk of two-by-four had impaled Bulky Man between his shoulder blades and now held his upper body a foot off the ground. It gave him the look of demonstrating effortless yoga. I hadn’t noticed Rip’s truck roll up, or Tavius get out.

“Damn, Paro.” He squatted down in front of me. “You aren’t bleeding much. You whole?”

I moved up to hands and knees, careful to avoid the glass shards, shook my legs out one at a time.

“I’ll live.”

“Good.” He stood, caught the back of my upper arm with a steel fingered grip, lifted me out of the bricks. “One of these days tryin’ to kill you is gonna take.”

***

The nicks and scrapes burned when I washed the sandy blast and street debris off my face in the McDonald’s restroom across the street from Moreno’s Holiday Inn. Tavius watched, his booted foot against the door while he told me for the tenth time what a lucky fuck I was, how it was a hell of a little wall that saved me.

“Nothin’ to do with the bricks, Tave. Dynamite.”

“For a fact?”

“White, and I could smell it.”

“In your current condition,” Tavius cocked an eyebrow, “my well-dressed Lawn Jockey self could run with a line like that.”

“What I mean, it was an uncontrolled blast. Dynamite out-pressure is like fire. It hauls ass to the easiest exit.”

“You learn that watching the science channel?”

“Jesus, fuckhead. Listen. The wall came off as one piece, in slo-mo, behind the blast. From residual pressure and structural failure. It was a Jim Bob bomb, not a focused C4 job.”

“So?”

“So? Who set it? Not the Roosky convict, he thinks he’s a fucking artist. Who was the big ponytail guy? Who had Moreno send me there?”

“Too many questions, grasshopper. The last one I have half an answer for. I didn’t like what I heard on the intercept of that message. The rhythm felt wrong. I had it run and it was a splice job, like I thought. Someone must have hours of that woman talking.”

“It was from her number.”

“You telling me you never get robocalls, look like they’re from a real number?” He scowled at the loud, insistent knock on the door.

“What the hell are you sayin’?”

“Saying third graders know ways to send a call looks and sounds legitimate. Saying she didn’t call you, so don’t go off on her when you get over there. Saying further don’t say shit to her about it.”

“The phone call or the bomb?”

“Brother, you a tore up, dusty, dirty Goodwill refugee walking.” He moved his foot and let in a round, pink-faced man wearing a loud yellow golf shirt. “No way you avoid the bomb.”

Pink Face man eyed us, laughed. “Hey, y’know that’s what I just told my wife,”

“Yeah? Then she told you how it really was,” Tavius showed a lot of teeth. “How you’d best take your act on over to McDonald’s, leave her and the motel room shitter out of it?”

“Exactly what she did. Been married awhile yourself, huh?”

***

Again?” Moreno would make some kid a good Mother. She had the fists on hips thing down. “He has my truck?”

Rip’s truck, Cav. Consensus from the convicts to the CIA is that given a vehicle, you get flighty and unpredictable.”

ME? You’re no one to talk! You take off in the middle of the night in your…your fucked-up baby airplane with your fucked-up Mars lander box inside to re-rob our bank. Ni una palabra! Not one single word to me, your partner.”

“You still on about that?”

Yes!”

“Your English takes over when you’re mad.”

“Okay. Si! Si, si, si! You like better the Spanish me? Maybe I make some little sexy sing-song in it? Oh Paro, quiero amarte demasiado buena…” She leaned into me, and I swear she purred. I backed up a step.

You.” I put my hands on her shoulders. “I’d like you to ‘love me too good.’ If I knew who the hell you were.”

She pumped her shoulders, left, right, left, right, almost a dance move to dump my hands, backed up as well. She folded her arms and fumed, her eyes like shiny, hot obsidian.

“I brought your convict money,” I thought I was being slick, changing the subject.

“You are so hopelessly transparent.” She whipped her phone up off the table from in front of the Holiday Inn’s TV, stuck it in my face. I took it, held it back out so I could see. It was a text from “unknown” with a picture of an older custom Ford van too similar to the one I set on fire in Kansas to be a coincidence. How many of those damn things were out there? I made Woody as the guy in aviator shades behind the wheel, four exact copies of the dead Bulky Man on big motorcycles, two on each side.

I want my money. BITCH. Tell the pilot we’re coming. BITCH. For both of you. BITCH

“So much for you winnin’ the Kerrigan Bank Robbery Miss Popularity Contest.” I handed her the phone. “Guess we still need the convicts and their grenade launcher.”

“I guess,” she reached up, brushed sandy mortar dust out of my hair while she built a thoughtful, wicked smile, finger-thumped the top of my head, hard. “Bozo.

“Ow.” I squinted through watery eyes, rubbed the thump. “What happened to pendejo?”

“I’m still mad.”

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #30

Ethics in Publishing

Oxymoron?

Unfortunately for all concerned from both the talent and admin sides of the publishing business, the wheels are off their paradigm with no fix in sight. The days of Clive Davis types are gone from all aspects of the corporate entertainment content complex. In their old role publishing houses, like record companies and movie production companies actively searched for new talent. If they found some but had no immediate use for them they’d put them on retainers, give them make-work assignments, rent them out to other content creation facilities. Creative sweatshops, Tin Pan alley, pulp magazines are where we got Gershwin and Carole King, Vonnegut, Hillerman,  Elmore Leonard. The list goes on. Hey, who knows how many “famous” authors cranked out work as Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene?

Sadly, even the P.D. James and J.K. Rowling burn the midnight oil success fairy tales are a thing of the past. Publishing houses are now, like their other content creation counterparts, no more than banks and are equally as conservative. They don’t gamble. The demand for their physical product has diminished, been fragmented, globalized, niched, target marketed and pirated almost to death. Their brick and mortar outlets are vanishing. What sells, or has sold, or might sell based on the name recognition of known marketability or topical niche pandering is what’s going out the door and on the shelves.

Example  1 – I know a few writers who knock out good, short stories on widely diverse subjects. Who’s gonna get their stuff published, regardless of content quality – Jim Bob, Susie Q or Tom Hanks?

Example 2 – I have books on my shelf I picked up for a buck at the library. Would anyone read, much less buy a spy/suspense/thriller novel by some woman they never heard of with a same-as-everybody glossy cover? They might if it’s presented as “JAMES PATTERSON with mary jane nobody.” Seen a lot of that lately. Along with the posthumous continuation of successful authors by iffy style clones. ROBERT B. PARKER’S SPENSER by ace atkins. Or worse, by his literary agent!

The banking mentality coupled with the arrogant, “artsy-fartsy literati” facade, blatant proven brand pandering and transparent scrambling to find a clue are the industry’s problems. Round them off and I say we end up at wholly disingenuous. I’m not sure that’s even fodder for an ethics discussion. Press releases and spokespersons at every level of government and the private sector have beaten “transparency, accountability, inclusion, diversity” into meaningless babble. Why should the publishing business be any different?

Disingenuous.

You can stop here. Or,

***

Since this is part of an op-ed blog hop, my real ethical dilemma with the current publishing industry has nothing to do with the ultimate publishers of a work. And everything to do with the creatures of the moats that surround the ivory towers. The cesspool of editors and marketers and cover designers and formula pushers and every other kind of snake oil selling hack with an opinion and/or a gimmick and/or a “certifiable track record of success” with their hands out. Telling us how they’re the golden boy/girl with just the ticket for our success. Tell me, author/expert, if you’re banking book sale money why should I pay you to enlighten me in half a banquet room at the La Quinta? Why you should get two grand plus to read stylized fiction because you have an English degree or a dozen bad books that just went Tupperware on the sales charts?* Real writers with real advice on the Elmore Leonard and Stephen King level are on YouTube for free.

Onward in the same vein – I just got an email from someone at Reedsy. A big shot marketer. Expounding on how I need to know what I don’t know and how he can help with that and how bad I’ll suck without him. All outlined in a cutesy email full of more throwaway adverbs than a C market newscast or a Nancy Drew novel. Like I totally already have a Valley Girl character who is basically, well, like actually majorly enough to make me call technicolor yawn time…For God’s sake if you can’t use the right these/those is/are possessives why are you trying to sell me your ‘professionalism?” Because you can hook me up with your stable of pay to get referrals experts? Look, I get rhetorical stance, audience, and all that. And maybe Social Media speak is cute. But so are my grandkids. Neither will help me market a book.

BUT – Some publishers want you to have 60,000 followers to even began a conversation. They don’t care about content, they care about friend farming ability. How many of us have likes and follows from people who will never or have never read our work and are only hoping we will respond in kind to their perky lifestyle coaching, living with depression or bad dental work or It’s a God Thing sites? No thank you, I need to write.

By now it’s pretty obvious I’m a tiresome tantologist raging against BS from the support cesspools surrounding modern publishing. And the sad but true banking aspect of the old line publishing houses, their egos for publishing more of the same old “NY Times bestsellers” soon to be stacked to the ceiling on the closeout tables and not giving a damn about putting boots on the ground to seek out creators of content instead of competent friend farmers. A new paradigm is required, and like outdated laws, education and other content industries, publishing is waaaaaaay behind.

Bottom line – Disingenuous. But it’s a disease shared by millions, not just the publishing houses.

* That’s an old joke from the music biz, where big sales are recognized with gold and platinum records. Tupperware was the award for tepid to abysmal sales. Hey, my family, friends and the people who attend my seminars buy my books! And I’m fifty miles from home. I must be an expert!

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RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #29

The Emotion Issue – Fight for Your Characters Rights Not To Fight (All the Time)

Several years ago emotion was a topic on Beth Hill’s excellent self-editing (and then pay her for professional polish) site. I just did a search and these articles are ones I found useful. Particularly the one on buffer phrases we might use subconsciously or to sound writerly that put distance between us/readers and characters. Here’s The Editors Blog Link.

I am not in favor of dialogue tags unless it is impossible (or being too lazy) to avoid them. Dialogue tone should set the stage, and action tags (often reading like a director’s instructions) are somewhat better until they become, as in parentheses, directorial. Or use none at all, but that’s a personal opinion.

However, and here’s my big but, characters are actors. Without a snuffle or a sneeze where did the Kleenex come from? How did the picture of the scene develop? How was the purse/door closed? How are they sitting? All clues to the emotional state of characters and the visual imprint of the scene.

What do we do if ‘said’ doesn’t cut it and enough adverbs to fill a Nancy Drew mystery are, by personal mandate, prohibited? First, DO NOT ASK AN EDITOR. Why? because as much as they preach emotion the first thing they want to do is remove it unless it is blatant “show.” Emotions are also in a touch, a simple gesture just as much as a fist or a shout. I know this because of two pretty obvious internet editors.

Here is a line from Dan Alatorre – They sure touch a lot for strangers. About one woman pulling a strand of hair from another’s face, fixing a fallen dress strap through the process of discovering that they are both married to the same man. Two subtle references in 2200 words, about a budding relationship, is too much? In Dan’s defense, my take is that he likes his female characters flirty and depth free with long hair they can toss. A lot.

Next is Beth Hill, who offers great advice on her blog. But I sent her a manuscript, too. Usually, she wants twenty pages and page 200 or so. All I had was a doc file, sent the whole thing. Weeks go by. I ask did she get the manuscript? Oh yeah. Read the whole thing. Sends me suggested edits and one of the first things she says is – Rather than filter actions through Deanna and her senses, consider going straight for what (the supporting character) is doing. How Deanna feels is the heart and soul of the document and why Beth hooked into reading all of it to see where it went. Edit it out? No thanks.

I agree that felt, saw, heard, noticed are filters in some instances, but not all. Without sensory input, our characters run the risk of becoming robots. Try this –

She felt/touched/held her hand over/checked/ the stove for heat. We get into detected and some other synonyms and we begin to distance our character from the event with vocabulary. How did she touch it? It depends on the scene, but touch, felt etc. bring you into it. Hardcore no filter would have “she determined the stove was cold.” How do we know? “She reached out, the stove was cold to her touch.” Emotions, senses, large and small show us character and tell a story.

It all depends on what we’re writing.

Here’s a good one – based on one work of mine someone asked me about a character. “Don’t you ever get pissed off? Doesn’t he ever get pissed off?” “Sure,” I said, “but he’s a space case piano player and slugging people is not his style, nor is it good for his vocational health. If you want violence here’s a gothic spy caper with lots of gratuitous violence.”

Now, for the tip. The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi. Some of it is redundant but it’s an easier read than the body language texts and it’s searchable. And it’s a lifesaver when “Punched” and “Screamed” are too much.

Fists and shouts, violence and emotional extremes and graphic erotica are not all there is. The devil is in the details. We should give our characters lives, and tone, not just temperaments.

Deanna – With Two Ns

Roosevelt Junior High, February 11th, 1972

Everyone at Roosevelt Jr. High had been “encouraged” to bring their Valentine’s cards to exchange in homeroom on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club dance was set for Friday evening. Jackson wanted to jump in the air, kick his heels up like a cheerleader and shout something stupid because his Friday laundry bag duty for coach Stephens would get him out of homeroom and all the card swapping. He wouldn’t have to watch guys with their “special for you” Valentine’s cards stand in line and wait to clear on the Hot Girl. Who, unlike him, was a for real cheerleader that wasn’t known for shouting, or even saying anything stupid. Word was she’d already dropped on Matt for the dance so she was, as his mom said, “just being polite.” Yeah, Mom. Politely letting those guys wait in line to hand off their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s for a “Thank you so-o much!” and a chance to dream for a split second about being the lip gloss that rubbed off on her teeth.

Jackson’s “date” to the dance was already set with Mary, his across the street neighbor. The “date” pre-arranged by both their mothers, even though he’d had to ask and she’d had to say “yes.” Sitting next to her in the backseat of his Mom’s Oldsmobile was like sitting next to a cement garden statue. And once at the dance, like every girl he’d gone to a party with since sixth grade, she dumped him immediately on arrival to go make out with somebody else. He climbed high enough up in the gym bleachers to be out of the band’s strobe light, but not far enough into the darkened upper tier to bother the making-out instead of dancing couples, and sat by himself.

A blonde girl with a figure like a tongue depressor stepped down onto his row, sat far enough away to look disinterested for ninety seconds before she scooted over.

“Hey, Jax.”

“Hey, Ellen.” He couldn’t miss the snuffle in her voice. “Where’s, uh…Whatsis —”

“Jim. Cooke.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder toward the slurp and slobber zone. “Jim. Horndog. Cooke.”

“Sorry.” He checked her puffy eyes, red nose.

“What is it, Jax?” She blew her nose on a Kleenex she stuffed into a small silver patent purse she snapped shut with a flourish and some force. “What do you guys want?”

“A lot of guys just want to make out.”

“Why aren’t you?”

“Making out is cool, I guess.” He wished he was, or even had the option. “But sitting by a girl, just talking to her, that’s okay too. You can’t make out forever.” He hoped she didn’t call bullshit on home for being a guy who hardly made out at all and didn’t know what to say to a girl, ever. He did love to look at girls, though. How they wore their hair, how their dresses fit, girls with freckles and suntans, girls without either one. Girls with sideburns kind of creeped him out, but mostly all girls were fine with him. Sometimes he’d follow a girl with the right perfume down the hall past where he was supposed to go.

A tall girl wearing coke bottle glasses, white gloves and a new, “you’ll grow into it” blue shift with pleats materialized on his left side. “Have you two seen Deanna anywhere?”

“I’d kinda have to be looking for her, huh Alice?” Jesus. Yeah, he’d seen the Hot Girl, earlier. Hard to miss the pink sweater, but —

“Don’t be a snot, Jax. Matt was asking ’cause he, uh, lost her.” Alice pointed discretely at the makeout section. “He’s up there, but she’s not. I know ‘cause I just…uh…Had to leave.” She sat, knees wide and unladylike, dropped her gloved hands into the fold of her skirt and sighed. “I swear to God, Jim Cooke is the horniest guy in this school. I mean the tongue is one thing, but…”

Ellen honked a big snuffle, Jackson thought he’d be better off out the middle of whatever was coming. He rattled down out of the bleachers past a few more kindred lost and lonely, thought how only a supreme loser could misplace the Hot Girl. He hit the gym floor, scanned the room and couldn’t spot a chaperon anywhere on the dance floor or posted at the doors. He knew it was now or never bail time, seized the moment, slipped behind the band and through the un-monitored cafeteria kitchen doors. He crossed through the cafeteria and eased out, his heels echoing against the metal lockers and marble floors that lined the dark and empty hallways of Roosevelt. He let go of the breath he’d been holding when he’d stepped down the half flight of stairs and grabbed the south exit door’s cold brass arm.

He leaned the door open slow, almost kicked her in the back. Jesus! It was The Hot Girl! Deanna Collings, sitting all alone, on the old, cold concrete steps of Roosevelt Junior High. He had the urge to pee, but found his nerve and sat down next to her.

“Hey, um…Collings. What’re you doing out here?”

“Waiting for my brother to come get me.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“A little, I guess.”

“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They never mentioned that in the movies.

“Thank you.” She snuggled into his jacket and stopped shivering. After he’d seen her rescued by his jacket, it could have been thirty below and he wouldn’t have cared.

“You got it nice and warm, too.” She looked over her shoulder in his direction, had the telltale puffy eyes like the other dumped girls. Only an idiot would dump the Hot Girl.

“I heard Matt was looking for you. I thought you guys were —”

“Were what? Were what, Jackson? Huh? What were we?”

“I, uh…dunno…” Wow. She was pissed at Matt and she remembered his name. “Having a good time? Maybe?”

“No! Not a good time. At all. At first, I guess, but then he got, well, he got…” She stopped looking at him, glared straight ahead. “Never mind. I should have stayed home, that’s all. I just need to go home.”

He knew he wasn’t supposed to say “that sucks” to the Hot Girl, or insult her by saying he thought Matt was a serious wuss poser with his Summer Blonde hair and surfer’s cross he had to keep tucked away or a teacher would yank it, so they sat in silence for a while. She was drawing invisible somethings with her fingers on the concrete by her feet when she snuffled pretty big. He knew it was a leftover from how crying sometimes got your nose all into it. He tried to find something sympathetic to say, thought about telling her how his dad had called his little brother a “screaming snot machine” when he cried, pulled it at the last second and went to the bank of manners his mother had hammered into him.

“There’s one of the Pep Club napkins, you know, from the snacks and stuff table, in my jacket pocket. Half a cookie, too. If you want. Can I tell you something funny? About Matt?”

“No.” She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, balled up the napkin and put it back in his jacket pocket. “Well, okay.” She pulled out the half a dry chocolate chip cookie and took a bite.

“When his sister dyed his hair with the blonde streaks she messed it all up, you know, some of his hair and lift up sideburns are like invisible. He draws them back on, and up the side. With some kind of makeup pencil.”

Eyebrow pencil. I know. Some came off on my hand when I slapped him.” She laughed a little through the cookie. “You don’t like him, do you?”

“Not really.”

“Tell me why?”

“Well, you know, I hate to talk sh –”

“Please?” Girls could load words with so much stuff.

“Okay. He’s a fake. I mean, I know girls think he’s cute and everything but you’re a beach boy surfer or you’re not. And he’s not. Not in Oklahoma in winter, anyway. It’s just kinda stupid, I think. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. My mom told me not to go. With him, I mean.” She looked at the remaining cookie, put it in the pocket with the used napkin. “Anyway, some guys in my homeroom didn’t ask me or even give me a Valentine. I thought you had to in homeroom.”

“I didn’t know that, about homeroom Valentine’s cards. Is that still true?”

“Yes, always. Didn’t Mr. Stephens tell you?”

“Maybe, but I might have been across the street. I’m not there all the time on Wednesday and Friday. I take his laundry to the cleaners.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s dirty?”

“No, I mean, out of all the guys over there, how come you get to leave?”

“He told me he knew I was smart enough to handle it and I wasn’t so stupid I’d forget to come back.” Why did looking at her in his jacket and telling her a story make him feel so strange? “Anyway, ‘cause of that he kept me in gym homeroom for both years. Sort of like I flunked homeroom.”

“That’s silly, Jackson. You can’t flunk homeroom.”

“I could be in a regular homeroom, one with girls if I hadn’t flunked.”

“You didn’t flunk and there are girls in your homeroom. But you have to walk across the gym to talk to them and you’re supposed to give them a Valentine.”

“I didn’t know. So I owe you one, I guess. A Valentine, I mean.”

“I guess, huh?” She gave him a smile that seemed to confuse her face for a second. “Deanna, with two Ns. Here’s my brother.” She stood, retrieved the last of the cookie, shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to him. “Thank you for the cookie, and sitting with me, Jax. Really. I…Didn’t like it out here, by myself.”

“Thanks for, um, letting me. You know, sit. Sorry. ‘Bout Matt. And everything.” He was so glad she hadn’t stayed home and Matt was a loser he wanted to scream. A car rumbled up directly in front of them, blinding him with the headlights. Her brother unwound from the car like a bear from a cave.

“Is this him, little sister?”

“No, Jax just waited with me. So I wasn’t outside alone.”

“Yeah?” Jackson’s hand disappeared when her brother shook it. “You know the guy that did whatever, pissed her off?”

“Uh…Matt?”

“Think you could kick his ass for me?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Give it some thought, man. You did the right thing, hangin’ with DeeDee.”

Stop it, Doug! DeeDee? Really? Goddaa —” Her door closed with a BAM.

Her brother laughed. “Awww sorry DeeDee, I forgot –” His door slammed, the car backed away with a roar, the tires screeched, threw up burnt rubber smoke.

She’d slapped Matt, huh? Wow. Wonder what he did? Jackson knew he’d never get close enough to get in that kind of trouble with the Hot Girl, but his jacket sure smelled good. Wait till he told his parents what a gentleman he’d…Shit! Valentine’s was Monday! And he had to find Deanna with the double ‘n’ a card. Where was he supposed to get a Hot Girl Valentine card that didn’t come in a package with thirty other ones?

***

Saturday morning Jackson upended the paper delivery bag on his bike, brushed out all the funk inside, and pedaled off with enough lead time to make the twenty-four block ride to the mall when the stores opened. He guessed nobody knew about the bookstore because they had tons of righteous Valentine’s cards.

Some were what his mom would call sexist smut, so he stayed away from them. Well, he looked, because boobs were boobs, even cartoon boobs, but he didn’t buy one. He did find a funny one he was sure nobody had gotten double N Deanna. On the front was a black and white picture of a Gerber-ish baby, its face all screwed up with a finger way up in its nose. It was two bucks. He figured because of the book store and the mall and everything, but he bought it.

***

Valentine’s Monday morning Jackson stood up as tall as he could with the extra boost afforded by his cowboy boots and waded through the before school huddle around Deanna Collings. He handed her his card, along with an apology for forgetting in the first place, and instead of a canned smile and “Thank you so-o much!” he got a flustered “For me? Really?” and another one of those smiles that seemed to confuse her face. He also got glared out by her entourage.

He banged his locker door closed back in the hall on his side of the gym, turned, ran into his friend Kirk and three other guys who surrounded him.

“What’s with the big red envelope, man? Crushing out on Collings?”

“C’mon, I had to. I missed Stephens’ ‘Valentine’s for everyone’ announcement. She told me —”

“That never happened. Stephens giving a crap about Valentine’s cards or Collings telling you anything. You’re hopeless, man.” They shoulder punched him, shoved him toward the gym door. “Lying so you can be another Collings Fan Club dork? You’re pathetic.”

Jackson cast a furtive glance across the gym where Deanna with two N’s was surrounded by girls. They were all laughing, a few looked over, checked him out. Dork? Maybe so. But unlike every other guy at Roosevelt, he’d talked to her, alone. No crowd, all by herself. She’d snotted up his napkin, eaten his cookie, even told him how to spell her name like he was the one person at Roosevelt who didn’t know. And his jacket still smelled like her. He shoulder punched back. They could all fuck off. He’d earned his Valentine card moment with the Hot Girl.

***

Jean Collings the Biologist was the guest of honor somewhere she hadn’t been since her son had gone on to high school. In the Roosevelt Junior High Principal’s office where she was presented with her usually compliant, rule-abiding honor student, cheerleader and class president turned angry and defiant daughter who refused to give up a “note” she was accused of passing in homeroom. Along with a Girls’ Gym teacher who should wear looser sweats that weren’t almost high-water capris, and fat old Mr. Greer who remembered her well from Doug Collings’ glory days at Roosevelt.

Mom Collings held out her hand.

“The card, sweetheart? May I see it?”

“NO. It’s mine, and, and, nobody else’s.” Deanna clutched the card to her chest with both hands.

“You showed it to the girls in homeroom and started a ‘disruption’ with it. That’s why I’m —”

“It’s funny. That’s why we were laughing.” She tightened her grip on the card. “And nobody else got one like it. At all.”

“Deanna? The card. Now.”

Mom Collings opened the envelope, made a small face about the baby with the finger buried in its nose.

I Sure Had to Work
She flipped it open
To Pick a Winner Like You!
Be My Valentine?
Happy V Day, Two N’s DeaNNa – J

Jean Collings laughed out loud, looked at the gym teacher and the principal with some serious adult stink eye. “This is why I’m here?” She held the card up, wedged between her fingers. “This? No M-80s in the trash cans or toilets? No math teacher’s upside-down Volkswagen? Just this?”

“The issue I believe, Mrs. Collings, is insubordination. Your daughter refused to show the, um, ‘note,’ to Miss Riordan.”

“This is not a note, Walter. This is a Valentine’s card. In a large, red envelope, addressed to my daughter on what I believe is Valentine’s Day. Where is the problem? Miss Riordan?”

“They were all almost out of control giggling and laughing and I am charged with their physical and moral safety, Mrs. Collings. Deanna is a class officer and a role model. I felt I should intervene.”

“That’s nothing but a large bucket of double talk that allowed you to use the ‘passing a note’ rule as an excuse to get my daughter in here. So you could read her dangerous and immoral Valentine’s card? A card that did nothing but make a group of young girls laugh?” Her glare bounced between the other two adults. “I am less than pleased with both of you. This card is my daughter’s business. I have read it, approve of it and, as she has said and I agree, it is none of your business. The young man on the bench outside, who is sitting there I assume because he is the one who gave this card to my daughter? He should go back to class as well. Don’t you agree?” She waited a few seconds short of getting an answer. “Good. We’re done here.” She banged the door of Walter Greer’s office closed hard enough to rattle the mottled green glass with his name stenciled on it.

“Sorry, mom. Really.”

Mom Collings laughed, pulled her daughter close in a one-armed hug. “Don’t be ridiculous, Deanna. They should be sorry. I’d like to know where he got the card, though. I haven’t bought your father one yet.”

I Worry as I Please

I turned due south fifteen miles east of Liberal, Kansas, cleared the Oklahoma panhandle and picked up lights at 3 o’clock, two miles out, 150 feet low. They weren’t closing, they didn’t go away. I flipped the radio to shortwave, phoned home.

“PD 1 to PD 3”

“Copy PD 1. What’s your location?”

“Southeast of Perryton.”

“PD 1, the coordinates are in front of you.”

“Good for them. I have a shadow, 3 o’clock, two miles.”

“Chopper?”

“Probably. You copy that, PD 3?”

“Roger that. PD 3. Out.”

I clicked off the radio. Rip was sharp enough to skip the sermons about Palo Duro at night. Hopefully sharp enough to drive most of the way without lights to avoid picking up his own shadow.

PD 3 was the second most dangerous of the four routes we’d plotted through the Palo Duro Canyon to a drop point. In daylight. It wasn’t daylight and this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I glanced out the window at my shadow. Whoever you are. I hope you can fly that thing or know when an order starts to look like suicide…

 I backed off airspeed to give Rip the hour drive time he needed. The shadow closed to within a mile and we flew formation that way for an hour. A third of the way from the southern end of Palo Duro Canyon I ran the Cessna up to 120, dropped to 50 feet off the ground, killed the lights. That got the shadow’s attention and they pulled up on my tail.

This was the touristy part of the canyon. Great views, steep cliffs, wide canyon floor. I took it low and fast across the top of Castle Mesa, cleared the edge, pushed the nose down and dropped like a rock, pulled the nose up 30 feet off the canyon floor and ramped back up to 120, skirting the canyon floor and walls, scrub brush so close I could almost feel it grab at the landing gear.

My shadow had stopped at the edge of Castle Mesa, like a horse afraid of a jump. The pilot must have lost an argument and was behind me again, trying to stay centered in the canyon and higher, but not high enough. Smart money would have put them way up and over in a wait and see, let their electronics track me but they were as close to on my ass as fear would let them, catching up in spurts only to lose me again. That told me they weren’t outfitted for air to air or air to ground weapons or any radar other than weather and nav. That was the best news I’d had all night.

The canyon was a straight northwest shot if you knew where the walls, interior mesas and outcroppings were, except for a quick left-right dogleg by Brushy Draw. I twisted sideways and over, took the bend in a roll. The helicopter saw the dogleg coming, gained altitude at the expense of speed or face into the cliff. They were back a few miles later when the canyon valley made sense again. I banked hard left into a wide gulch, followed its rise, nosed up and out of the canyon. My electronics told me that my shadow had flown past and reversed back to the gulch. If they went in, they weren’t coming out. It appeared they were debating, again, and remained stationary.

I took advantage of being out of their line of sight and flew north at 140, slowed, dropped down into another, wider gulch and shot out into Flat Canyon, banked hard left. My shadow had stayed in the canyon drifting north, assuming my business waited somewhere on the canyon floor. They caught up and stuck to me until the easy part went away at Nameless Draw and the old canyon riverbed turned into a narrow snake run of hard banks left, right, left, then right again. I lost them at that point, which was the only part of this evening that had worked according to plan. Without a rehearsal, no one was following that run at speed. After the last hard right, I pulled the Cessna into as steep a climb as it could handle, cleared the mesa, nosedived back over, located the large, brackish pond covered in green slime off Thomas Draw, dropped power to near stall, reached up, put my hand on the cargo release and held my breath.

Too many things could go wrong in the next five seconds. The cargo container would drop, the static line would pop the gas canisters, they’d inflate the life rafts. The static line wouldn’t break free, the plane would drop like I’d tossed out an anchor. Rip’s custom cargo doors on the floor of the fuselage wouldn’t fall shut and I’d be flying a big wind scoop too slow to pull out and keep flying and too low to use the Cessna’s safety parachute. The rafts wouldn’t inflate, the cargo container would explode on impact littering the area with hundred-dollar bills…

Madre de Dios…

I pulled the handle.

The Cessna jumped, bucked, the nose went up. The cargo doors dropped and held. I didn’t have time for the rest of it, that was Rip’s job. I was up past the mesa and climbing in a slow, easterly bank and wiping the sweat out of my eyes when my shadow, who’d never made it past the second bend, bubbled up out of the canyon to follow me to Rip’s.

***

The Lakota pilot waited for me to turn on the big outdoor lights after I’d landed, and set down almost exactly where they’d landed before. This time Flyer the CIA man wasn’t with them. Three armed to the teeth rifle squad troops trotted from the back. The first one offered his field pack ID, held up in a gloved hand for me to read. Damn he was young. And smelled cleaner than any foot soldier I’d served around.

“Run short on Sergeants tonight, Corporal…?” His name had more consonants than a Russian phone book. “Don’t make me say that without help, soldier.”

“No, sir. Prizz-bull, sir. Our orders are to search your aircraft and surrounding premises.”

I turned sideways, swept my hand in the direction of the Cessna and hangers. “Corporal Pryzbyl, make yourself at home.”

“Thank you, sir,” came awkward and slow. The corporal must have expected resistance. He signaled his two compatriots, sent them off to either side.

I went to the kitchen, switched on the lights, calmed the dogs. I should’ve let them out to put some combat duty shit in the recruits’ drawers, but they might have freaked and shot the dogs. I knew Rip had at least one sermon waiting for me when he arrived, I didn’t need another.

The kitchen door slammed open. Moreno’s hair was the mess of sleep, her clothes were what she had on when I’d dropped her on the bed. She shoved the soldier behind her in the chest with both hands.

“Déjame ir, sucio cabrón!”

The soldier looked at me, hope and fear in his eyes. “Sir? We found her in –”

She shoved again, and for all his combat gear I knew Moreno scared him more than any enemy he’d been shown movies of.

“Thank you soldier. She’s unexpected, but not unwelcome.”

“Not unwelcomeYOU!” She reached in the dish drainer, grabbed a cactus tumbler and threw it at me. Good aim, but I caught it. Through the screen door I saw the soldier hauling ass back to his search duty, most likely praying there were no more Cavanaugh Morenos lurking anywhere.

“Calling a soldier in full combat costume a filthy asshole is a risky proposition, even for you.”

“You! You wish to talk assholes? With me? You think you are so clever. Your sneaky lemonades. So you might have your way with me?” She spit in the sink.

“I didn’t –”

“You did! Your way to get rid of me while you go off, off to…Rip said you went to rob the bank! Two and a half days early! He told me you say the bank has already been robbed! How? The money, it’s not even here.”

“It wasn’t ever going to get here.”

“So you said, but in two days’ time more! You, Comparo. And Senor Rip. And me,” she poked herself in the chest, “Cavanaugh Moreno. We would rob the van. Together. As a team!”

“You through?”

“No.” She dropped in a chair at the kitchen table. I opened the fridge.

“Anything?”

“Filtered water. The tap is disgusting.”

I tossed her an Ozarka bottle. “Fort Worth tap water.” She made a ‘that’s disgusting’ face. “Reverse osmosis filtered.”

She eyed the bottle, turned it in her hand.

“That makes it Spring Water?”

“You pissed off at everybody, Cav?”

She chugged most of the bottle, set it on the table.. “You. Only.” She leaned back in the chair, both fists propped on the table, stared at me through the slits her eyes became when she was angry. “Did you do it? Re-rob our bank?” She smacked her forehead with the heel of her palm, “Re-rob! Dios que suena estupido.”

“I know it sounds stupid, but –”

“Sir?” The leader of the partial rifle squad stood outside the door. “Sir, we need to search this building.”

I made another welcoming gesture. “Don’t break anything, the old guy who owns this place has lots of friends. Give him an excuse to get a hard-on and you soldiers will be doing combat duty someplace way nastier than Texas.”

“Yes, sir. Sir?” He hadn’t moved. “The dogs, sir?”

I’d tuned out the rumbled growls of the dogs, but I read the corporal’s mind and led them off the to a bedroom, closed the door. The proper command and it would splinter. “They’re in the back bedroom. Let me know when you need in there.”

The corporal turned and with a jerk of his thumb sent one of his underlings to search the house. I heard drawers and closets open and close as he worked his way through. He stopped at the dog room.

“Sir?”

I went back, sent him to the kitchen, herded the dogs into a bathroom, returned to the kitchen, gave an “all clear.” He was back in three minutes. He talked in low tones with the other two for maybe thirty seconds. They broke their three-man huddle, the young leader stepped up to the door again.

“Sir, thank you for your cooperation.” He touched his helmet in a one finger salute. “Ma’am, sorry to wake you.”

We waited for the helicopter to do a brief preflight, wind up, lift off and fly east until it was no more than a rowdy locust in the distance.

“The bank. Paro? The bank, which was not yet a bank, but a van. A van in Kansas?”

“Why aren’t you with Tavius?”

“I refuse, that’s why.” She shook her head for effect, as if to clear it. “The bank? The van I mean.”

“Yes, I re-robbed the bank. Van.” I had to laugh. Tension release, the stupid way it sounded. She laughed with me. We collected, sat for a moment in silence.

Cuéntamelo. Todo!”

All of it?”

ALL of it.”

By the time I’d finished the Mullinville Cenex truck stop saga she was sitting on my lap in the patio loveseat, a plastic wicker number with thick, dusty cushions.

Madre de Dios…” she said, her head resting on my left shoulder.

“That’s what I said. In fact, I think you’ve infected me with it. It’s become my go-to for ‘holy shit’ and ‘muhhh-ther fuhhh –’”

“Good. It is a nicer way I think, to say the same.”

“Unless you know it’s a replacement.”

“Then it becomes an inside joke. Like re-robbing a bank. That’s not even a bank.”

“Think of it like refried beans. Miss it the first time –”

She swatted my ribs. “I missed nothing. I didn’t know.” She rubbed where she’d swatted me. “Why, en el nombre de Dios, did you give Woody money and let him go?”

“Pity. And maybe a shot of stupid.”

“A double shot, if not a triple.”

We sat in silence again. I thought she’d fallen asleep when she whispered, “Why the old movie?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I worry as I please. Senor Rip discovered the film, but had not started to watch when I, when they woke me up. I told them I was going nowhere and that you were cutting us all out of…of…” She let that trail off. “But you came back.” She squeezed me, yawned, arched her back like cat, made fists at the end of her outstretched arms, let them go. “The three of us came in here to watch together. We made popcorn. And I melted butter in the microwave.”

“That’s a first?”

Si! I was taught low and slow, on the stove, or to use the little plastic cup on top of the popcorn maker.”

“Those cups never worked. Good popcorn?”

Perfecto. Terribly greasy, just like the movies.” She eased her shoulder under my arm. “Rip teases your black friend, but they are two of a kind, I think. Men like you, without regard for El Jefe.”

“Tavius is CIA. Possibly still active Army Intelligence.”

“That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one…”

I considered all the oxymorons in what I’d said. She snuggled back into my shoulder.

“Where is the money now, Paro?”

“Rip has it if it survived our lander.”

“He is trustworthy?”

“I’m not sure anyone is when there’s sixteen million cash involved.”

“You have been…so far…” She yawned again. “In your old movie? Rip thinks it is one of the men you are speaking about. I think it is about the girl.”

I let that go and she was asleep in minutes. I watched the stars, the lights of a lone aircraft with enough altitude to pass soundlessly through the night sky, thought to myself all this crazy shit – the whole bank robbery setup, combat soldiers on domestic CIA duty, long nights, near-death experiences…They’re always about the girl, aren’t they?

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #28

Sentences – Dead. Simple.

A sentence is a collection of words that convey something, an idea, an action, with sense and meaning. They are developed (hopefully) according to the logical progression of idea(s) and/or action(s).The simplest sentence consists only of a noun, a naming word, and a verb, an action word. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked,” Mary is the naming noun and walked is the action verb.

Wow!

How simple is that? Sense and Meaning. Subject and verb. Big stuff, huh? No.

What if we are building a scene? A scene is a small story or the setting for a whole story. Can that all come down to Mary walked? Sure. With Sense and Meaning.

Mary walked. Okay, where did she walk? The store? A window? To town? To the moon?

Mary walked to the window. Whew. Simple. What window?

Mary walked to the kitchen window. Which one? What sort of window is it? Does it have curtains, cracks?

Mary walked to the window, the one over the kitchen sink that’s always clean.

Oops. Almost. What’s always clean, the window, or the sink? Let’s get serious. In cases like this we can leave it the way it sounds best and hope readers brains sort it out, write it so it makes sense or make two sentences out of it. I’m going high road for the sake of it. Now. Did Mary do something?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the curtain.

More?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain.

Yeah? What if we learn something about Mary in this? POV?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain that she and Nana hung when we were kids.

?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain she remembered helping Nana hang while her younger siblings looked on, both covered in chocolate and fascinated by the tools and Nana’s tone of voice when she used them.

What? Well, that smoothed out the sink and window bit. Now we have a real sentence. A sentence that is a mini-story unto itself. Mary walked is good. That whole sentence is tolerable. What if that sentence steps out of the narrative and sets up…

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn, floral curtain.

Janet smiled at her. “I remember we were just little kids when you and Nana hung that curtain.”

“Oh God,” Mary held the curtain open with her index finger, leaned over the sink to peer outside. “You and Jake in nothing but droopy white underpants, y’all’s faces covered in chocolate ice cream, mouths wide open. Your eyes were the size of ping pong balls…”

“We’d never heard Nana cuss before. Or get mad for that matter.”

“Tools,” Mary flashed her sister a return smile. “That’s what she said to me when we took them back out to Papa’s garage. ‘Tools do bring out the devil in a person.’” She leaned further, shifted to the right. “That hedge line she wanted by the road, there where it comes up out the holler? It never did take.”

“She worked it hard, though.”

We worked it hard, Janet. We all had the shovel and hoe slingin’ blisters to show mom and dad for it, too.”

Janet always found it amusing that her big sis stopped being a hotshot Kansas City lawyer immediately after entering their grandparent’s old flagstone cottage in the Missouri hills, turned back into the girl she’d grown up with.

Off we go. Break that last sentence down. Mary’s language wasn’t enough to build character depth? No. But when countered with another character’s perspective? That gives us meaning out of a sentence.

Narrative or dialogue. Every story, every scene is down to every sentence. Write a good sentence with the same questions as a good story. Where is it going? What does it look like, feel like, smell like, what does it do to you, where does it take you?

Dead. Simple. Ask simple questions, get real sentences.

Mary walked. And…there’s a million things to think about. Why was the window always clean? Did Nana watch birds or Papa working or the milk cows, or wonder about the school bus up on blocks that blocked her view or… Write a decent sentence. Follow it with another one. Follow it with dialogue, whatever.

Use your imagination, but control it with sense and meaning. Take a breath, read it out loud. Repair as required. Continue.

Dead. Simple.

Make sense. Have meaning. Try it. The longest journey starts with a step, just like Mary.

Mary walked. The rest of her story awaits.

***

Exercise 2 –

Mary walked. Mary dragged the body to the dumpster. She was tired and sweaty. The body was too heavy to lift by herself. Could she trust her sister? Oops. Too simple and it reads like an outline.

Mary, drenched in sweat despite the sub-freezing temperature, walked back to the van after she’d dragged the body to the dumpster. No way could she lift all of that fat fucker even an inch by herself, much less four feet off the ground. Maybe she could trust her crazy sister Janet, but only if Janet was thoroughly medicated. Janet was the bionic woman, as big as the dead man rolled up against the dumpster, only Janet wasn’t fat. She was just big. NFL linebacker big, freakishly strong, crazy as a snake-handling preacher and totally unreliable. But long on strong. And crazy. Shit, there had to be another… Mary searched her brother Jake’s PianoMan Movers van for something, anything she could use for leverage. The grand board, wedged in under the organ dollys, might work. Sure. Strap that fat fucker down, lift the board, unhook the top strap, fold his dead ass in. Perfect. Unless she couldn’t lift the grand board with the fat fucker strapped to it. Strong was exactly what she needed. Shit. Her finger hovered over Janet’s number, a bee over a dying rose. Fuck it.

“Janet? Mary. No, your Big Sis Mary, not the Sainted Mother. Yeah…No, I didn’t know you were expecting her to call…Hey, look. ‘Member that handsy pervert Nana married after Papa ran off with the turned out not to be a lesbian wrecker driver…”

It doesn’t matter in what genre we write. Long sentences, short sentences, one after the other.

Dead. Simple.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #27

Fluff and Shite Episode 2

January 31st was the feast day of St. John Bosco. A Nineteenth-Century Italian and patron saint of editors. I put a dollar in the slot and lit a candle. I need all the help I can get. First-person has made me downright effusively verbose, style-wise. See there?

I noticed something strange about the book. “The pages don’t have numbers on them, Don.”
“No,” he said. “You just open it and whatever you need most is there.”
“A magic book!”
“No. You can do it with any book. You can do it with an old newspaper, if you read carefully enough. Haven’t you done that, hold some problem in your mind, then open any book handy and see what it tells you?”
“No.”
“Well, try it sometime.”      Richard Bach – Illusions

“There’s a book for that.” One of my favorite lines when I am asked how/where/when about writing, or getting stuck writing, or flat confused. Not that I read them cover to cover or adhere to their rules. But what the Reluctant Messiah suggests is, as one of my favorite characters would say, “A natural fact.”

1553 – Sounds like that dark lager I like from New Belgium. Not near as much as Reasonably Corrupt from Great Raft, a dark that you can forget for twenty minutes and still drink. There I go. What’s on the jukebox in Mullinville?

1553 – (ahem) – Thomas Wilson published The Arte of Rhetorique. Written to help fledgling poets and writers develop their craft. He got on straightaway to thrashing the wordy nonsense that I refer to as “words strung together that sound like writing.” 400 years in front of Lanham. One of Wilson’s examples of what to avoid –

“I cannot but celebrate and extoll your magnifical dexterity above all others. For how could you have adepted such illustrate prerogative and dominical superiority if the fecundity of your ingeny had not been so fertile and wonderful pregnant?”

Huh?

We like to be liked, told how wonderful we are. It’s “a natural fact.” I don’t pick up books or seek out criticism to be coddled. It’s unnatural. Why? I worked “creative for $” since I was 20. I supported myself with it from 25 on. It is not a thin-skinned gig. Artistic directors, producers, the client(s), the company, the focus groups…All have opinions. As the creative, yours doesn’t count. You can sweat blood, follow the directives and hit the deadline and watch everyone in the room sag when it runs. Two choices. Whine and make excuses or listen, retreat and repair. Hey, it’s not my skateboard or gas station or Neiman Marcus. My point is – I put that “kick me, please” attitude on myself. If it makes my skin crawl, even a little, it’s wrong, somewhere.

Take “Crossroads.” It makes my skin crawl a little. I could cut 250 from that, easy. More like 500 in my normal style because I could cover a lot of ground with shifting third person POV, see a more omni view of what’s going on instead of shadowing one character. My dilemma is that I want more than the meeting with whoever will ‘splain the setup, tough talk and gunfire. More than a classic pulp, less than a moralizing Travis McGee. The extra words, head time (for ‘splaining), all that stuff is really troublesome. I run the risk of stringing words together that sound like writing.

Consider “Crossroads” again. The denouement, flying away? It was three times as long before I whacked it, and could go altogether. In fact, it could all go as far as I’m concerned after “greasy spot in the dirt.” But it would require some (a lot of) excess suspension of disbelief. And it serves three purposes. It clears most of the question marks in the air about the vehicles and the bodies, gets him in the air and we get some character glimpse humor.

Granted, I could have walked him to the café and back, ruminating or moralizing or both. climbed into the plane and taxied with him. I could have dropped everything after the gunplay and caught it up in conversation with Rip or Moreno. Earlier I could have gone off on enlightened racists and deeper ‘all the casualties of war.’ Or fields of wheat and farmers and drought and…Jeez, 3k, 3.5k by then? I’m not that fluffy. If I want a sermon I’ll go to church, a history or sociology or botany lesson I’ll go to school. I figure most of you feel the same way.

I wouldn’t have this problem if it was as simple as “I stopped at the store with Nana’s shopping list. Three apples, brown sugar…” Stop after shopping list. Screw the recipe. “Nana and I spent the next hour putting the nutmeg in the cinnamon before we…” Stop. “Nana and I spent the next hour getting covered in flour and assorted ‘makins’ while we assembled her from-scratch blue ribbon apple pie.” Rule one. If it’s not a cook-book, dump the recipe.

But – This is not so simple, at least for me. Not a story told in my usual style. Not a story I want to thin out when it is about more than a superficial greed and money caper. Seriously, in a straight caper with a twist, what the hell am I doing with Rip riffing his allegories, Moreno playing the love card, Paro shifting from just a dude with a plane to pulling combat and in charge dude from his front pocket now and then?

Truth? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but it’s about to go sky-high. I can see the bloat, but until Paro tells me the next chapter and it’s in the can I won’t know exactly where. I’ll find a place in draft 2 to whack and catch up. Maybe. Maybe I’ll exceed my self-imposed word limit and run this linear until it blows up.

“There’s a book for that…” Yes, I just haven’t picked it up yet. For now, I’ll do the best I can with the fluff and shite I have and consider it a learning experience. At least, as I discovered opening The Arte of Rhetorique, I haven’t quite hit the pompous inkhornism bar Wilson admonished against. But it made me more aware of my failings than it bolstered my ego.

Feel free to like this post and say something supportive. Or tell me a harsh truth!

 

 

 

 

Crossroads

It took less than ten minutes to hustle through the van-to-plane cash transfer. When we’d finished Woody sat on the floor in the open side door of the van, leaned forward elbows to knees in despair pose, wiped his face with his hands up inside the expensive pantyhose golf shirt.

“We got the bitch’s money loaded for her. What am I supposed to do now?”

“You and I’ll take the van about a mile down the road and torch it so it doesn’t become your tomb. My guess is more than one faction of this farce is tracking it wondering ‘what the fuck?’ since the money GPS and the escorts are off course by now.”

“But the GPS was just on the money –”

“Yeah, and every vehicle that played any role in its shipment. You told Moreno to wake up, pull her head out. It’s time you realized you’re in way over the head stuffed up your ass and you don’t get it, Woody. Nobody, particularly an organization that deals in big money, will ship that big money without a dozen ways to track it. Trust me. You keep driving this van, somebody will find you and you’re dead by day after tomorrow at the latest.”

I counted out ten ten-thousand wrapper-bound stacks of hundreds from one of the bags in the Cessna, dropped them in a fresh trash bag, and set it on the van’s engine cowl.

“The van goes up, you take a walk with that. Find a bus station, travel light and far. Florida would be a good place to find the new you.”

“Shit…Rednecks and Alligators and more spics.”

Cubanos, amigo. Need to watch your mouth. Never know who’s listening.”

“I forgot. You’re another Oreo light.” He stood, shook it off with a whole-body twitch, crawled through the van into the driver’s seat. I closed the door, took up residence behind him. We turned south onto CR12, and after about a mile when we were surrounded by darkness and empty fields I tapped him behind the ear with the Browning.

“This’ll do.”

He slammed on the brakes so hard I thought both of us would go through the windshield. I spun out from behind the driver’s seat, caught my balance on the engine cowl, slammed the shift lever into park to stop the van from rolling. Woody had grabbed his trash bag of cash, thrown his door open and scrambled out. He fell in the middle of the road, rolled twice, came up running. For a split second I considered shooting him. But I saw a rabbit in my sights, lifted the Browning and let him run off into the Kansas night. He wasn’t dangerous without help. His phone was on the floor next to the emergency brake and without it, he couldn’t fuck me up in the Kerrigan mess until he found one, and I doubted he would, even then. For a guy like Woody, this was a Tarantino nightmare. All he wanted was for it to stop. Until his feet started to hurt and he realized his luck had held one more time, and there was still a flash drive worth sixty-four million dollars in the Postal Service ether headed for the Kerrigan State Bank. Dammit. I should’ve shot him.

I pulled the van over into a shallow culvert, melted a couple of leftover trash bags onto the nylon fabric weave seats, let it drip onto the carpet and spread before I started the hike back to the Cenex station and Rip’s sixteen-million-dollar Cessna.

***

With all the money vans out of the picture I needed to find a van and a driver, in less than forty-eight hours, to drive to the Kerrigan State Bank like it was loaded with cash. Or I’d have to rewrite the day of the robbery in Kerrigan script. I worked on that while I walked up the very slight incline toward the gas station. From well outside the station’s light halo I spotted a Honda Goldwing sitting at a gas pump in front of a Ford van. The van remarkably similar to the one I’d set on fire a few minutes earlier. My guess about Woody’s life span, had he stayed in the van, had been overly optimistic.

I opted for discretion until I knew what was up, backtracked further from the light, circled east through the field and approached the line of sleeping, idling trucks at an angle from the rear. I squatted down under the first trailer and took a few minutes to identify objects and their shadows. About the time I’d decided I was happy with the backlot of Cenex presentation I saw the bottom halves of two men walk past the far end of the truck line, seven trucks away. One of them flicked a lit butt under the last trailer, the sparks flying, bouncing, dying. The legs kept going, past the trucks and the shrub line to where the Cessna was parked. I duck walked to the end of the trailer to get a better look.

Even from a distance, I could tell what they were. Bulked up men in black t-shirts, black cargos, black boots. Ex ‘combat engineers’ too battle and steroid fried to pass a cop or Jim Bob’s Security Company psych exam. Killing machines designed and built by the government. A government that, having removed their purpose for one expediency or another, no longer had use for them. They’d become Private Sector Security, a catch-all euphemism for Mercenaries. Rent-a-Soldiers. Poor Woody. He’d probably found them in the back of a random gun porn mag, figured them for altruistic champions of avaricious weasels. The A-Team maybe, or if he was lucky, Charlie’s Angels.

The ‘Honorable’ PSS at hand no doubt put their own tracking device on Woody’s van and were taking their time to let him get comfortable before they isolated him, whacked him and made off with a sixteen-million-dollar profit. Their tracking device had stalled and gone off-line nearby, no Woody to be found. The glowing, otherwise ignored ball of orange in the distance plus the presence of an airplane piqued their curiosity.

I thought about waiting the mercenaries out, but I had things to do and no idea of their agenda and didn’t want to meet whoever might be following them. I scooted out from under the first truck, walked the front of the truck line until I could duck down between the last two trucks and do more squat recon under the last trailer. The ‘security guard’s’ backs were to me, the bigger one on my right lit a fresh cigarette. I studied them for a minute, measured them against my experience before I stepped out as soundlessly as possible, Browning leveled between them. The big one reached for the door handle of the Cessna —

“Evenin’ soldiers.” They didn’t startle, the big one froze, the smaller one started to turn “Nuh-uh, soldier. Maintain for’ard face. That’s good. My sidearm is six inches from the base of your necks.” I knew the fidgety non-smoker on the left would bite. He spun with a short, wide, wrist sheath combat knife in his right hand. He would have cut my head off had I been where I was supposed to be. He twisted past the center of missing contact with me, planted his foot in perfect right face profile. I squeezed off a round and his nose disappeared in a dark mist. The shot a little pop sound in the dark emptiness of the field. The other one lifted a SIG combat handgun from a left thigh holster, kept his position, gun arm down at his side. His partner was making Gak, Gaa-aak and coughing blood while he stared at his bloody palms.

From the big one came “You call it that way?” When I didn’t answer he said, “I’d say you wanted it in his ear and the balance move fucked you up.”

“You’d be right.”

“Where’d you soldier, airman?”

“Around.”

“You gonna finish it?”

“Seen a lot worse salvaged.”

He shook his head very slightly, flashed his SIG up and put a round in his partner’s forehead. Another little pop in the field. He did it so quickly that if he’d wanted me, I might not have gotten off a shot. The dead man standing stumbled to his left and fell, face first, ankle over ankle, rolled onto his side. The SIG went back in its holster. Its owner pointed at the orange glow to the south. “Chiropractor?”

“His van.”

“Waste him?”

“The money’s earmarked. Like you, he got greedy. Unlike you he’s not dangerous. I gave him a hundred grand, told him to take a walk.”

“The world is going soft on me. Permission to about-face?”

“Granted as slow.”

He performed the most perfect toe-to-heel ball of foot dead slow about-face…It should’ve been in a training video.

“Balletic.”

His lips formed a very small, very tight, very brief smile. “Smoke?” He slowly reached for his t-shirt pocket with two fingers of his gun hand. I gave him that. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels, disposable lighter stuck in the cellophane.

“Could have been a detonator, airman. Another softie.”

“Not a hot zone, you haven’t had time to set a device. If you’d pulled the handle on that plane without the fob in my pocket it would’ve cooked your heart. Consider us even in the tip department.”

He took time to think that one over. “Airmen are lifers. What happened?”

“I lost a beauty contest.”

“Sorry to hear that. Your battle plan to offer me a hundred k? I won’t take it.”

“I wouldn’t insult you.” I waited, let the air get thick. “You’re one man against the bikers who’ll come looking, time for you to hit the road.”

“We’re not civilians, airman, we stripped their machines. They’ll end up scratching their nuts at a dumpster out behind that shithole barbeque pit where we left them three bodies and their civvy spy shit.”

“Good news for everyone, then. We’re done when you load your partner in the van, drive away with two million you don’t have to split with anybody.”

He shifted his weight around, set his feet.

“What if this goes wild west, airman? You win, what happens?”

“I put you and your partner in the van, park you back out front, turn the pumps into roman candles.”

“I win?”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

His snort morphed into a derisive smile. “You’d do that? Scorch this little patch of Americana crossroads for no money and a lost cause?”

“Try me.”

He thought it over for what felt like a thirty-second hour.

“Not tonight.” He lit a cigarette, bent down, grabbed his partner with both hands, threw him over his right shoulder like a sack of fertilizer, and walked past me. I turned, waited for what I knew was coming when he felt he was beyond my ‘airman gone soft’ accuracy range. I kept him sighted, dead center. Up, down, either side. I couldn’t lose him.

He was about forty feet away when a firetruck screamed past on CR12 headed for Woody’s van. The soldier pulled his SIG and twisted, dropping his right shoulder to dump his partner. He should have tried it wild west style when he had the opportunity, facing me and unencumbered. He might have beat me, even with my weapon out and on him. Or we might both be dead. The way he’d called it my first shot broke his left shoulder sending his shot wild, my second one went in the center of his chest when he tried to straighten. I waited while he collapsed on his back, knees bent to the side. He made a feeble attempt to reach the SIG with his good arm, heaved twice, coughed a blood geyser, and settled into a greasy spot in the dirt behind the sleeping trucks.

I walked around the bodies, slow and cautious, considered my next move. When I was combat green working ‘short some personnel’ volunteer evac duty scooping bodies from both sides off the sand, looking for a way to rationalize what I was doing, where I was, how I felt when there was nothing left to vomit a multi-theater combat commander pulled me aside. He said, in a gravelly, war-weary voice, “There are no poetic ways or places to die, Lieutenant. Dead is dead. The dead don’t give a damn and neither should you. Get over it. Load ‘em up. Move on.”

I stopped the walk around. With a touch of staging the way it laid told a tidy story. I wiped my Browning, put it in the first one I’d shot’s hand, squeezed off a dead-hand shot muffled by a dead leg into the chain-smoking quick draw wannabe. Two dead mercenaries who would test positive for gunshot residue, in a field behind a rural truck stop. A van out front where the cops would find two million in cash, the mercenaries prints everywhere. They’d argued, gotten wound up. Pow. Kiowa County gets a cash windfall, a new van with a bonus motorcycle and something to talk about besides Liggett’s sculptures.

Flying back around headed west southwest I wondered if ‘that Murphy character’s’ version would make the rotation when the County Mounties and meat wagoneers arrived to clean up their latest “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

 

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #26

Gimme a Dollar’s Worth – The Fluff and Shite Episode

“I’d rather get on with the plot than fluff out half a book with shite just to make the 90,000 words that agents are looking for.” – Stevie Turner

Amen. I mentioned in my last Writerly Concerns about generic advice, real skillsets and understanding how to apply them and telling our stories our way as best as we can. How to identify what makes the story flow, haul ass or slow down and fit into itself not some bullshit factology numbers and hack formulas.

Check this out. Someone once asked Eddie Van Halen how he tuned his guitars. Ed said, “I tune them to themselves.”

Give that a minute to gain the weight it deserves.

The second bit of Stevie’s quote is very telling of the bullshit factology we’re presented with every day. “90,000 words that agents are looking for.” I can’t find an explanation. But I do have some data. Data is boring, but this is simple, average word count comparisons from authors who sold/sell a lot of books. Do not use this data as bullshit factology, but reference. Remember what EVH said? We should tune our books the same way.

First, and this one is blatant. John D. MacDonald’s “A Deadly Shade of Gold.” I say that because emblazoned on the cover is “A double-length adventure in the brilliant new series…” It clocks in with a 110k word count from an author/series that averages 59k. How did he do it? Is there more brilliant adventure? No, instead of a typical ‘I stopped and ate lunch in the hotel lobby before going up to the room’ as we’d find in something like “The Quick Red Fox” we get lunch with Travis McGee. For a page and a half. Complete with phonetic dialect from the waiter. Trav tells us about the quality of his sleep. He describes not a ‘rag tag assemblage’ of fishing boats, but every one of them. Not ‘California beach bunnies’ but down to their sprayed on wet suits and ‘unblemished by character’ complexions. How many books are on a shelf, what they are. The ‘double-length adventure’ is the same Travis McGee adventure with descriptions of the wallpaper and extended moralizing.

Modern authors, I’ll pick on Balducci and Burke, who average in the 127 to 135k range. I would like to read Burke but I don’t want to keep a botany text handy for his descriptions of Louisiana. Somehow, even with too much “silvery moonlight” and Nancy Drew adverbs Faulkner’s “Mosquitos” makes you sweat and feel and be New Orleans and the swamp without the proper names for all the subtropical greenery. I almost bought a recent Baldacci hardback off the Twofer $10 table at Barnes and Noble. The raw materials are worth more than $5. Number One New York Times Bestseller. $5. I popped it open and the dialog was so stilted it would have embarrassed a Hallmark Channel scriptwriter. I put it back. 127k of call and response dialog and fashion/objects description fattening up what one reviewer called “familiar ground.” 127k that, like Burke, felt slow and obese.

I almost picked up his “How to” on writing mystery and suspense, but his latest sitting like a beautiful red turd in the punchbowl at $5? No thanks. We have the internet and the plethora of Dan Alatorre’s and his clones to charge money to teach us hack formula. (personal opinion only)

Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” was a best seller at 130k and save for the extra pages, often inserted in moments of character rumination, devoted to descriptions of England’s Pastoral Green and Pleasant Land it never felt “thick.” She painted the story and its myriad cultural clashes with thoughtful care and very little preaching or flagrant agenda.

Jennifer Egan. The female David Foster Wallace. Love or hate her work, “The Keep” hits 76k. We get the castle experienced, not narrated. The entire book is full of experience through the characters, how things feel. Never does she say “the castle, imposing and mysterious” to get it out of the way and tell us where we are. An amazing book, even if you don’t like it or the characters. Liking it’s not the point, it’s an exercise in literary immersion that most of the franchise 130k crowd couldn’t hit in a million of their words describing the interior of a BMW where a boring conversation takes place.

Lets get to some people who sold books, movie rights, tv-series and won awards from their peers. Even some of the old-timers big shot authors point to.

Dashiell Hammett. “The Thin Man” 59k. Most of his average right in there. The same with Chandler. Sounds like MacDonald.

Elmore Leonard. “The Switch,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “Maximum Bob,” “Get Shorty.” 75k to 78k. “T Blues” felt a little heavy at 78k down to the Civil War reenactment and history lessons. But still, EL was a mid 70k author.

Robert B Parker. Like Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, “Painted Ladies” hits 59k. Right in the pocket with the rest of his hard-boiled detective novels. He stretches it by 7 to 10k in some of the non-Spenser works.

Tony Hillerman. I have no bias because as a kid I went with my father on Saturdays to Tony’s father’s photo studio in Oklahoma City. Tony wrote like watercolor on glass and will put you in New Mexico talking to Navajos like you’re there with zero effort. “Coyote Waits” is representative of his award-winning work at 73k.

Let’s not forget the serial ladies.

Patricia Cornwell. Mid Scarpetta series hits that 130k mark. Franchise author land.

Mary Higgins Clark, like PD James. Runs from 83 to 135k, depending.

I won’t go into King, because it took me a year one week to read “The Stand.” He can write what he wants. And the Brits in the Colin Dexter line? Sheesh.

My point? Where the hell is that 90k number coming from? 

Narfling another Garthok – I had one, first of a series I’d thought about. The series could have run a million words. The first one, the edited (and I thought whacked down) draft went out to beta readers and editors. It weighed in at 110k. Everyone and I mean everyone, quit about 75k and said “that’s enough of that. Wrap it up. We get it.”

Which is exactly how I feel. Mid-seventies is perfect. Plenty to get it told, to get ahold of, but not too much time on the wallpaper or beating the characters to death. To me, 130k is like all you can eat for two dollars. And a dollar’s worth is all you need. Or, in some cases, can stand.