RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #19 – Say What?

“Hey!” The middle of the pack, size and age wise, from the table full of after work happy hour females grabbed his arm, turned him slightly. “Yeah, you. Austin.” She flipped his name tag with her left index finger, out and ready to stab the shaggy college boy waiter in the chest. “What was that about, giving us the finger, calling us ‘the mean girls’, huh?”

“Whoa…I didn’t give anybody the finger. You wanted more chips, I pointed with the finger I could use, called Dominguez to set you up.”

“Right.” She twisted his wrist enough to see the pen clasped against his ticket book with his index finger. A small, brown, springy, mustachioed man carrying a tray of full chip baskets, stopped, blocked by the scene. Engraved on his name tag, DOMINGUEZ.

“Señor? Señorita? Con permiso?”

Austin backed out of the woman’s grip, bowed slightly. Dominguez passed sideways between them, dropped the first basket of chips at the women’s table.

Her face took on the look of a squeezed beer can before she brushed off his arm in a feeble attempt to erase some leave behind of embarrassment. “Sorry…”

“No problem.”

She dropped her eyes and hurried back to the table. The woman who had been seated next to her waited for her to drop, furrowed her eyebrows, leaned forward so she could see her friend’s face. “Jeannie? What the hell?”

“Nothing. I…Shit. I thought he gave us the finger, said something, you know…Never mind. We need to tip him like we’re half drunk and think he’s cute.”

You need to tip him like you are drunk and think he’s Brad freakin’ Pitt. Jesus, girl, you coulda gotten us all thrown out.”

Dominguez rounded the corner into the waiter staging area, empty chip basket tray tucked under his arm, paused by Austin.

“’Ey, amigo, the mean girls. They are happy now?”

***

Does everyone see what’s happening here? Noisy probably franchise Mexican restaurant, cocky long haired college boy waiter, table full of after work women in as many sizes as ages? Do you need the decor? Blow by blow, sitting down, history, drink order? I could have had him explain the Doh-meeng- gez/ The Mean Girls, explained the noisy restaurant. Why? A good scene, to me, isn’t about the ambience. People will tell the story. Dump the exposition, get right in the middle of it.

When I first started writing again, call it 2015, I dropped straight into it, whatever the scene was. Right off the bat I got beat up. Where are we? How did we get here? What’s it look like, how does it smell. I went on the scene building quest. I learned that you can dial it up or down, depending on if you think the scene needs it. And if you’re good you can condense a few big sensory things and get on with the story. And if it’s a re-visit, something happening where we’ve been before, (or is generically ubiquitous) just go on in and make yourself at home.  The Hundred Acre Wood is not about the Hundred Acre Wood, you know? We go there and magic happens, we don’t get a thesis on deciduous tree bark.

I noticed in my last story upload that the location and characters were condensed, but it seemed like everyone knew where we were. Saw the people, got the story. I mention that because after several books lately I’m off that big scene building thing. I studied and even the best dystopias, like Vonnegut, are sketched. In a good author’s work people emerge quickly. MacDonald is the master of condensed appearance and behavior if one wants to give out a character’s polaroid. A page and a half of the English countryside, or Los Angeles or New Mexico or the Rocky Mountains or Egypt. Why? “Some people like that.” Good for them. Some people like adverbs and dialog tags and I’m not much for those, either. The point is, write for yourself or you’ll derail yourself. Next time, a funny story about Egypt and the little magic trick of a few foreign language words.

***

In 1970 Elmore Leonard’s agent called him. The conversation went something like this –

“You read The Friends of Eddie Coyle yet?”

“No.”

“You need to.”

That goes for all of us who would write in the less flowery American Noir style. A style which I feel needn’t be limited to crime novels.

Back to the drawing board.

 

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Rather See Than Be One

“Hold up.” Crocker handed me the Prince Albert tobacco tin, reached over to cut up his daughter’s slab of flank steak. “Just got her dinner on the table.”

“You need to eat?”

“I can wait,” Crocker said. The unasked question was did I bring beer. I set the paper bag on the table.

“Miller. Quarts.”

“Man of his word.” He picked up the bag and put it in his fridge. “I said two was fine.”

“My mother says do more for people than they ask.”

“Your dad still around?”

“Yeah.”

“Shame. I was startin’ to like Mom.”

I took in the upstairs apartment, one of 8 in a two story red brick box, in a block of red brick boxes not far from where we worked. Small. Old. Wood floors. Thirties probably, like where I used to have to collect for the paper from old people. Unlike those, that smelled like ancient carpet, dust, mold and pee these smelled like Pine Sol and incense. I wondered if the teenage version of my dad had delivered the lumber. The chrome and Formica kitchen table was by a window, the curtain plain, off white with a wide band of lace holes across the bottom. It was clean, like the rest of the place. Couldn’t have been called a place with “a woman’s touch” but clean. A naked Barbie and some stuffed animals, coloring books, Golden Books scattered around, and a well-loved green dragon on the kitchen table next to a petite, clean little girl with messy blonde hair.

“Shell, this is Harper. We work together.”

“Hi.” Loaded mostly with disinterest and a touch of mild, corner-of-the-eye curiosity. She might as well have said, “So?”

“Shell’s six. She doesn’t talk to strangers. Idn’t that right, Shell?” He rearranged her food with a steak knife, moved the plate in front of her. “Harper’s not a stranger, okay?”

“‘Kay.” She was infinitely more interested in dinner than in me.

Crocker looked back at me, winked. “She figures that, you’ll be stuck reading books about talking racoons and listening to her go on forever.”

“Nunuh,” she said, around a mouthful of dinner.

“Shit.” Crocker put a tired pair of hands on his thighs, got up to answer the knock on the door.

I was 16. Summer job building BIA houses, pre-fab. Aside from the drunk cowboy who drove the big forklift, the office boss and me the rest of the crew of about a dozen were Native American Nam vets from Anadarko. Living loud and large on working man’s wages and making it out of the jungle alive. They arrived in a caravan of three and four to a muscle car every morning. Even a lime green Daytona Charger with the clothesline spoiler. Crocker was from Anadarko as well, the only white eyes. They’d all served at the same time. Crocker had been a conscientious objector, but he had a wife and a baby and wasn’t interested in Canada or shooting one of his toes off so he went along. They made him a medic. Tail end of the Tet offensive, 1968. He got the call to come home late May 1969, after Hamburger Hill with no field hospital and nothing but a bag full of gauze and morphine to use up on over 400 screaming wounded in ten days.

The story I got about him coming home, all jumbled up, was Crocker’s Dad had a farm outside Anadarko. And a crush on his son’s wife. Crocker went to Viet Nam, Gramps’ itch got the better of him. Gramps made his move out in a field one day and Crocker’s wife said hell no and she was going to tell. A shotgun and a tractor got involved. She died, maybe from the shotgun or run over by the tractor, Gramps killed himself, shotgun or tractor rolling over on him, take your pick. It was a convoluted, disjointed telling after a joint at lunch, then dodging heavy machinery in a prefab wall plant while the story was told and absorbed. At 16, it was all over my head. Like Crocker being twenty something, having a kid and living in an old apartment and being cool and kind of Robert Redfordish in a country way, experienced like Hendrix, wise, with a lost, sad look in his eyes sometimes. He took the apartment not to have to commute to Anadarko every day, or drink everyday with the Kiowas, Shell being his priority.

Crocker opened the door, let his neighbor in. A guy closer to his age than mine, going bald early, horn rimmed glasses, thin. A younger, shabby version of Dennis the Menace’s father. He sits in the window chair next to Crocker, across from Shell.

I should say here that Shell was named after her mother, Michelle. She was a baby when Crocker went off to be subjected to the conscientiously objectionable. He came home to the shotgun and tractor story, his crazy mother blaming him and his dead wife for all of it, after saying she and the baby could live with her and horny Gramps, be around family while he was away. All that just before she finished a bottle of vodka and blew her brains out in her kitchen when he was walking out the door. He’d jumped at the prefab job and the opportunity to get the hell out of Anadarko. He never said, but after the shotgun and tractor and Mom story no way he could have stuck around, lived in that.

Crocker pulled a pack of ZigZag whites out of the Prince Albert can. “You bouncin’ on her belly yet?” I knew he was asking about an overbuilt blonde girl who’d picked me up from work a couple of times.

“No. Not her. Not yet.”

“Slow starter?”

“Her brother knocked up a Federal Judge’s daughter. She said it wasn’t much of a party, but the girl told her his dick felt like a telephone pole. First time they did it they got pregnant. So she’s cautious. But a little curious about the telephone pole.”

He stuck the joint he’d rolled one-handed in his mouth, pulled it through his lips. “Not too bright.”

“Her or her brother or the Judge’s daughter?”

“At least the brother. Girls get heated up they aren’t thinking. Bagging the swimmers is our job.” He smiled, small, soft, almost chuckled, tapped my leg. “Rubbers are always a good idea, believe me.” He nodded toward his daughter, “Right, Shell.”

“Nnhhh.” I was starting to worry the kid was nonverbal, but she was doing some damage to her dinner, a heaping plate of mashed potatoes, green beans, beets and the kid-sized flank steak.

“You got a somebody else or three, to relieve the pressure?”

“Yeah.”

“Figured you to be that way. Best to let a first timer pick her moment. She gets it when she really wants it she’ll die with your name on her lips.”

I’m not sure I believed that, but Crocker lit the joint, proceeded to tell me the story of how his ’68 Camaro came to be purple sparkle with the wide racing stripes in silver sparkle. He and some guys were drinking, he was fresh back from the war, being wild.

“Don’t you ever swap out with your copilot?” I must have looked lost. “We were cresting this hill, about 70, gave the wheel to my man, I laid the seat back, threw my legs up, plan is my buddy slides over. We swap out. I’m in the back seat, he’s driving. You never done that?”

“No…I uh…”

“Don’t. It’s fuckin’ stupid.” He let a contained laugh out through a smoky exhale. “We’re halfway through the swap, come flyin’ up over the top like fuckin’ Steve McQueen, and there’s a goddam Fritos truck pokin’ along about halfway down the hill. Flat spotted the tires, my buddy an me both standin’ on the brakes. Didn’t help much. Still don’t know if it was him or the wreck broke my foot.” He took the joint back from his bogarting neighbor, handed it to me. “When they’re done puttin’ my car back together they say it can be whatever color I want. Shell and I were into singin’ that nursery rhyme, about the purple cow? Rather see than be –”

FUCK!” Neighbor screamed, one hand clasped inside the other. Across from him Shell had a severely pissed-off Shirley Temple face, fork in her fist. Crocker turned to check them out.

“Goddamit! She stabbed me! With her fuckin’ fork!”

Crocker gives Shell a dad question mark look. Shell keeps her glare, doesn’t back down.

“Motherfucker was stealing my steak.”

Crocker, back to neighbor. “That right?”

“Well, yeah. A piece. I started for another, and…” Neighbor opens his hand. The one inside is a little swollen and bleeding from what looks like a four toothed snake bite. “You got any bandaids?”

Something happened in Crocker. The Hamburger Hill medic, the blood, the shotgun and the tractor, I didn’t know, but he went cold as ice and thousand-yard stare. He took the neighbor’s hand, twisted it to look. “You’re ain’t hurt for shit, and I’m not dealin’ with it. Need to go on to the house, fix yourself up.” He dropped neighbor’s hand. “Fix yourself some dinner while you’re at it.”

Neighbor looked longingly at Shell’s steak and the dead joint between my thumb and finger, but he didn’t say anything. Shamed by Shell’s unrelenting glare and the icicles he got up, made his exit.

Crocker came back from the stare, checked me to see if I had made any judgements. I hadn’t. I was a little shocked, but the whole scene, like I said, was beyond anything I could understand at the time. I said nothing, offered him the joint. He took it, relaxed back into the chrome and red vinyl kitchen chair, looked at his daughter. He took the fork she’d stabbed the neighbor with, tossed it in the sink behind him, got a fresh one from a drawer. He leaned in toward his daughter, eye to eye, handed her the fresh fork.

“Good girl, Shell. I don’t give a fuck who he is, don’t ever give any man a chance to start any kinda shit with you. Always stand up, defend yourself.” There was a telepathic aspect to their communication. She knew exactly what he was saying, knew exactly what had happened to her mom. Six years old.

“Okay.”  She stabbed a small square of steak. “He’s an asshole.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Will he come back?”

“No. Harper probably will, if that’s okay.”

“He don’t talk much. But I guess it’s okay.”

Crocker let a flash of amusement cross his face. “I didn’t roll this to smoke it by myself.” He re-lit the joint, handed it to me. “Was that beer cold when you bought it?”

 

It would be nice to live in a Norman Rockwell sit com/rom com world where the problems are small and stupid, and the solutions come in under half an hour. Where nine-year-olds don’t shoot each other over dope turf, twelve-year-old prostitutes are an urban legend and pregnant eleven-year-olds are the figment of some pervert’s imagination. Where thirteen-year-old girls don’t get killed in a weed stash-house rip-off. Where middle school girls don’t shout “Bitch! Seriously?” and throw a hospitalization required beat down on their vice principal. Where small town high school football players don’t take steroids and acid and rape and kill a couple of cheerleaders, cut up and burn their bodies. Where the chasm between street people and the yard of the week people wasn’t wide and unfathomable.

But we don’t. So I populate my fiction with those from the perimeter that I have known, broken bread with, overheard, observed. I find them far more interesting to listen to as they develop than finding dialog for stereotypes. To me a black dude who is street wise and on a photography scholarship/intern program from the Smithsonian and his neighbor, the potty mouth “Fuck that” daughter of a hard working single mom, a daughter who gives the dopers in the parking lot behind her apartment crazy nicknames, are all as real as the crabgrass in not the yard of the week. 

Gambits #8

Death By Hygiene and What’s Good For You

The case for roll ons- In 1998 Jonathan Capewell, 16, died from a heart attack brought on by the buildup of butane and propane in the blood after excessive use of deodorant sprays. He was known for an obsession with personal hygiene. His blood level of butane was. 37 per litre, the same for propane. .1 per litre is fatal.

Ladies, if you want to off him for overuse of mismatched man whore products simply over pressurize his Right Guard.

There will be no commentary on how many in WalMart are highly unlikely to die this way.

Eat the Liver. It’s good for you.

Consuming even small amounts of Polar Bear liver can be fatal for humans. Polar Bears, like many arctic mammals livers, contain excessive amounts of vitamin A and can lead to acute hypervitaminosis A.

You know the person. The one your age who has 2% body fat, a weave, and brags about playing soccer with 20-somethings and offers to set you up on a regimen of his bucket a day of vitamins for slightly more per month than the lease on a Maserati?

Liver was a staple in school lunch cafeterias when I was young. I never participated. Keep your eyes peeled for that crazy cafeteria lady signing for a cooler packed in dry ice…If it’s not shrimp or crawfish stick with the green Jell-O full of banana slices.

 

 

 

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #18 – Rules

The only rules to remember are the ones that will get you or someone else killed or maimed if you ignore them.

The rest?

I am one of the worst when it comes to “use trumps rules” if it passes the no death or destruction test. Example 1 –

What is wrong with the old Roland Groovebox to the left? I got it stupid cheap a few years ago simply to see if I could resurrect it. I did. I fixed the display, gave it a bath and set it in the closet. Enter curious four-year-old grandson who knocks it over on its face. After that the volume knob no longer worked.  The short version is that I hardwired the output. Wide open. As if the knob were never there. This box will do what it does without constraint. Who needs a volume knob? The knob is only there to keep the user under control. Like computers on supercars. Not there for the car, but the driver.

Example 2 –

Y-Cables. The input of this reverb device is listening to the FX send from 2 mixers, one of them a sub for a stand full of analog gear. I can hear the hue and cry among audio purists. Resistance! Capacitance! Noise! Bullshit. That reverb doesn’t care, the voltage isn’t going to back up from one cable to the other and cause a blackout over half of Dallas. I wouldn’t do that with real current, but for line level audio? Please. Does it work? Yes. Will it blow up? No. Does it sound good? Some things are difficult to quantify. Like diapers for grown ups – Depends.

***

My point? Summed up by Elmore Leonard in his Ten Rules for Writing

“I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” By golly, we can learn to finesse without the false sense of ceiling rules and volume knobs imply.

“It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” By golly again. If a Y cable puts the cast in the same universe, use it. No matter what anybody says.

“(Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.) If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character, the one whose view best brings the scene to life, I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.”

That right there is a “rule” I can live with. And why I try to stay out of character’s heads and let them walk and talk. Because in truth all we will ever know of anyone is what they show and tell us. All that psychobabble digging around in characters heads is simply writers playing God. Writers who can’t, or won’t, relinquish control and let their characters speak and do for themselves.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #17 – What’s My Line?

Which one is better?

From Octopus!

1- She made a defiant face, brought her leg down after what seemed like an eternity to Jackson, dropped in the wooden chair behind her and folded over, shoulders to knees like a dying ballet rag doll.

2 – She made a defiant face, brought her leg down after what felt like an eternity to Jackson, dropped in the wooden chair behind her and folded over, shoulders to knees. A ballet rag doll in the throes of death.

I don’t know. I do know “seemed” is not a fave, except used by a character in dialogue because things are or they aren’t. Or the passive -ing, but there are situations when it’s unavoidable. Nor do I care a great deal for simile/metaphor (“like something”). I know for a fact which one hits harder, and which one is typical middle-of-the-road writing. Is there a time when the characters and the scene require softer language than the fist-in-the-face? Does every line have to hit, or merely make its point and keep going?

There is a fluidity of motion in the first that I like, and a bigger picture of emotional distress in the second. The conflict is that we have, in this character’s mind at least, the possible death of her dream. Here’s a person who has been molded, created, trained to professional perfectionism that has run into a wall. Like all athletes, a possible career ending injury isn’t something to be taken lightly.

Further Consideration – All characters are gifts, even Valley Girl ballerinas, and she deserves the best I can give her as a writer, down to the smallest detail to make her shine. Or is that ridiculous?

Next time won’t be about me, promise. But we all face these things, don’t we?

 

 

Gambits #7

Hey, Let’s Go To The Museum!

Body disposal 101 – The Smithsonian keeps an army of flesh eating beetles on staff. Their purpose? To strip any flesh remaining on skeletons before they go on display. Or anywhere else.

“Mummy!”

“Yes, I know, Norm. It’s a Mummy.”

“NO! IT’S MY MUMMY!”

“Mr. Bates, is there a problem?”

“No, little Norman here thinks every skeleton he sees is his Mummy. A Mummy, I mean. A Mummy.”

“Of course. After all it couldn’t be his Mummy, could it?”

No, no. She’s at home in her rocking chair, rotting, er, uh knitting away. Knitting. Away. Come along, Norm, let’s go look at the airplanes…”

 

 

 

 

Gambits #6

Read the Emergency Room Reports + Imagination =

There are an estimated 11,250 sex-related deaths each year in the U.S. Feel free to take your flights of fantasy global. No kidding, back when there were newspapers the San Francisco Chronicle ran the weekend emergency calls. All you need is time, perhaps an intoxicant, stupidity and a light bulb…air compressor optional.

“Time” to Revamp the Setting of Your Latest Dystopia or Historical Treatise

The Phantom Time Hypothesis suggests that every calendar on Earth is off by 297 years. Google it. Talk about your effed up time machine. Set the controls for May 22, 2316 and BLAM, in the blink of an eye it’s today. Again. When was the potato famine? How old is Christianity? How long have women been second class citizens? (Forever). Jeez, work this and you can figure out how the guy who played Harry Potter got to be a teenager for like 15 years. And how celebrity birthdays drop numbers.

Or how your heroine walked through a castle door in 1981 as a tourist and ended up in the dungeon of the same for helping Mather protest King Charles II planned revocation of the Massachusetts Charter. 1684 was a leap year in both the Julian and Gregorian calendars. One could have all sorts of fun with this.