Octopus!

Madam K’s ballet studio, West Hollywood, California / November, 1981

Jackson’s legs hurt. No, screamed. Not even a week in and ballet class made his old high school football practices look like two-a-days for pussies Today would be a good day to —

“It’s like totally not right, Kenny! It’s so-o totally, completely, mega fucking wrong!

A pink ripstop Capezio ballet bag zipped in front of him, exploded against the old oak sign-in table to his right, knocked over the fan that sat on top. Several rolls of sport tape, a flimsy black ballet skirt, toe shoes and pink floor shoes, a couple of tampons, Capezio logo t-shirts, an illegal in Madam K’s class leopard print leotard, hair brush and maybe a thousand bobby pins scattered out, one of the rolls of tape wobbling away like an old tire.

He looked to his left and a dancer who’d introduced herself as Logan somebody in the round robin of intros his first night side-armed another roll of tape that he fielded left handed. The other pre-class usually warming up dancers were against the far wall, a huddle of pink tights, black leotards and hair buns. A couple of the older ones, the mom age never-give-up-ballet-class types formed an outer circle, an attempt to protect the younger ones from Logan who was screaming, flouncing herself around, crying and babbling about never dancing again and fuck this and fuck you and fuck doctors and fuck everybody. Especially fuck Kennedy Costigan the reincarnationist space case hired gun ballerina who was right in front of Logan and taking the brunt of the abuse. Jackson figured this was down to Kennedy and Logan being the only pros in the room, both of them on rehab hiatus from some big deal dance company in New York.

“Ten years, and like adios, Logan, you’re done, motor. Godammit it’s so-like totally unfair to the max!”

“Logan, you’re letting your positive energy get way from you and wasting it on –”

“Shut up, Kenny. Bag it, ’kay? Just shut up! You, you get to dance now and it’s so not, not,”  she spun around as if no one could see her full-blown end-of-the-world-and-my-life-as-I-know-it-face in the mirrored wall. Saw it herself and turned back.

“Logan, I had surgery. I’m telling you that you need to use this emotion, this energy, to get past whatever is holding you back.” Kenny put her hands in front of her chest, swept them slowly out and down then up in a wide arc. “Breathe, Logan. This is how we grow.”

“Get real, Kenny. I am like full grown and like breathing or I’d be dead, duh, a’right? What’s holding me back is like this mega stupid tape. Look at it!” She held her left leg straight out, flat footed and perfectly balanced on the right. “And like the gag me with a chainsaw totally dweeb hosers ‘it takes time’ doctors, and, and like you and your ‘listen to your bod, Logan.’ As if! What’s it going to say, Kenny? Huh? Gee whiz, Logan, you’re like a so totally lame poser dancer person now and you can’t dance anymore and you like barf me out when you even like try?” She looked past Kenny at the dancer huddle. “And like for real I’m so sure you’re all psyched. ‘Logan can’t dance, did you see her spazz her jeté? Now she’s a totally wiggin’ loser’…” She made a defiant face, brought her leg down after what seemed like an eternity to Jackson, dropped in the wooden chair nehind her and folded over, shoulders to knees like a dying ballet rag doll.

Madam Konstanova breezed through the door, ever present clipboard and cassette in hand, immediately registered the entire room, devil eyed the debris field. “Miss Bevan-Burns, are you quite through? This is a dance class, not personal anger therapy. You will pick up your things…Mr. Jackson, that is Miss –”

“Her mess, I know.” He stuffed the wad of clothes and tape in the pink bag. “Give me a minute?”

“Mr. Jackson, I do not think you –” Kenny put a hand on her arm.

“Jackson is an old soul.”

“Of course he is, Miss Costigan.” Madam K rolled her eyes, set her clipboard down. “Aren’t we all?” She righted the fan and stood with folded arms.

Jackson knelt, thighs screaming, in front of the dead ballerina doll’s color of a perfectly baked biscuit ballet bun.

“Hey.”

“Hey what?” The bun didn’t move. Knees slightly apart, feet together, one flexible ankle folded over on the floor, the other flat footed, a cast of athletic tape around the back half of her foot. He reached for bulk of taped ankle, she pulled it away under the chair.

“NO!” She raised her head, not her body, tears still smearing her cheeks. “Leave it a-lone! It’s screwed and I’m, I am so-o totally toast and you can’t like fix it, you’re like, like a street guy, not even a dancer. Nobody can fix it.” He pulled her foot back out.

“Tape’s gotta go, Logan.” He looked over his shoulder. “Scissors?”

Madam K opened a drawer in the sign-in desk, brought him a pair of long, thin, knife like barber’s scissors.

“NO! Don’t! I can’t watch. NO-OH!” Logan wailed in full drama queen, twisted her entire upper body a hundred and eighty degrees to her hips.

“What’s your mom call you when she’s mad?”

“Huh? Like seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Oh.” She lost the glum for a second. “Um, Godammit Logan?”

“No,” he slipped the blade of the scissors behind her ankle bone, “your whole pissed off mom name.”

“Godammit Logan Nicole?”

“That’s it?”

“She like always never said all of them, Godammit Logan Nicole Bevan-Burns.” Logan snuffle snort laughed. “She’d like have totally forgotten what she was mad about if she yelled all of them.” She quit fighting his hand on her foot. “I like thought my first name was Godammit, you know, until, well, I went off to mega bitchy skinny old men and witches ballet teacher Nazis school, who like totally forgot all our names and yelled godammit at all of us for-ever.”

“Yeah? What’d they yell about?”

Everything. Eat this, don’t eat that, drink more water, stretch more, get over your hips, where’s your extension and like we neh-ver got to bounce from dance class. Neh-ver. Dance. Get yelled at, dance, dance, dance.”

“Madam K’s not that bad, is she?”

“That was at Sob, not here.”

“Sob?”

“Oh, like duh. School of American Ballet? When I was 12 I like got a scholarship. Named after a car.”

“The Buick fund for future ballerinas?”

“Are you like totally dance blank? Ford.” She paused. “I think.”

He could see her watching the red SUSHIRAMA sign from across the street flash in the mirror, hoped it would hypnotize her while he made small eighth-inch progress snips in the tape.

“Are you like into sushi, Jackson?”

“No. I –”

“It’s like raw fish, right?”

“Yeah. I tried it once, wasn’t sold. Like oysters. Both were lost on me.”

Oy-sters?” She sob laughed again. “Oy, oy! Like why not Oy-oy-sters. Grody?”

“Maximum grode factor. A guy I was in a band with, he took me to a seafood place when I was 16, and everyone was shooting oysters.”

Shooting them? The little rock things in the cold place at the back of Safeway? Like with guns? That’s like, like so wrong.” She saw herself in the mirror. “Like me.”

“Nothing’s wrong with you but some bad advice. And the shooting wasn’t with guns. Where we were the oysters came on a big plate, already open, and the people covered them in hot sauce and slurped them down. They called it shooting.” He felt her leg relax more, kept snipping.

“Like in one bite? Guh-ronk?” She gulped for effect, trying invisible oysters. “How big are they?”

“Well,” he was getting close to having the tape off. “The only way I can describe them is like the way this guy who took me did. I asked him, you know, what were Oy-oy-sters like and he said ‘Jailbait, no way we gonna eat that shit. People can’t put enough hot sauce on them damn things to make ‘em right.”

“No?”

“No. He said only really sick puppies would eat something that looked like it fell out of a cow’s nose.”

She snapped back around, eyes wide. He wished he had it back. Was it the sick puppies she’d go off on or…Her eyes got wider and she grabbed the tops of his shoulders.

“Ohmahgawd. Oy oys. They’re like…hugh-go SNOTS? Like when you’re not totally sick anymore, but kinda, and you cough and like this com-pletely gross mess jumps into your mouth from the back? And it’s like get rid of it now, don’t like swallow it or it’s technicolor yawn time?”

“Yeah.” The tape popped off. “Like exactly, totally like that.”

“Ohmahgawd, Jackson! Octopus!”

“Octopus? Wha –”

“I know. Yuk-oh, right? Betcha can’t eat it.”

“Yeah?”

“For real. Some old tuxedo and flowers man? He like took us all to dinner and told us it was like some delicacy, right, and I like chewed a bite like a biggo gum wad till I thought I was about to turn into a cheerleader or something. And like it was still there. So I, um, well, like kinda coughed it into my hand and dropped it under the table…And Squid! Like how can anyone like eat something called…” Her whole face relaxed, her lips pulled in to a small pucker. She looked down. “My foot. It’s…free. You like…what?”

“Who taped this?”

“Uh…A doctor? Or a guy like a doctor, only isn’t but works there? And like wears doctor clothes and waaaaaay too much cologne and like con-stantly smiles like a Halloween pumpkin thing? I go every other day or, well, it like gets totally sweated out and,” She wrinkled her face again. “But they say I can’t like dance without it, so…” The tears started to come back.

“Can’t like dance with it, either. Lighten up Ms. Godammit Logan Nicole Bevan-Burns. You’re close to right as we speak.” He picked up the roll of tape he’d caught, tore a strip. “Tie your shoe.”

She wrapped the pointe shoe ribbon around her ankle, tied it off. Wiggled her foot, winced.

“Ohmahgawd. Over my pointe shoe?”

“Yeah. Watch this, you’ll need it.” Jackson had no idea how anyone could bend that far over from seated but she did, and watched, engrossed, while he wrapped the piece of tape under her heel, around her Achilles, across her ankle, pulled it tight before he smacked it open handed to set it.

“Ow!” Her eyes came up from his hands, found his. “Is that like, re-quired?”

“Yeah. Sets the tape.”

“‘Kay.” She dropped her head, watched as he tore another strip and came at her heel, Achilles and ankle from the other side, smacked it. He stood, took her hand, pulled her out of the chair. She hit pointe, wobbled a little, found it.

“Oh…mah…GAWD. What? How? That is so…” she pirouetted, stopped dead still, raised her right leg, dropped it on his shoulder, her arms wide, added a hand flourish that sent her fingertips skyward. She bent forward, all huge eyes in his face. “How?”

“I knew, lived with a girl who was an exercise junkie. She went on vacation with her parents, got her stupid on and crashed a parasail into the Atlantic Ocean, feet first. She was taped up like you, only both feet. She did the Frankenstein walk for about a week until her brother the All American sent her to the sports doc where we were in school. The doc hooked her up the way you are now. He said some Japanese guy had figured out flexibility with support for athletes who needed to move and that she’d never get any strength back with her feet locked up in tape. I got her tape duty until she stopped needing it. You good?”

“Bonus! Yeah!” She spun away, three, four, five tight turns, caught her usual place on the the first barre and curtsied, her face as red as a cherry. “Sorrr-eee, everybody.”

Madam K clapped twice, icicles hung from “Ladies…and Mr. Jackson.” The huddle against the wall broke, classical piano music seeped out of the battered jam box, the volume undulating in a slow tremolo with the movement of the oscillating fan. Jackson found his place at the far end of the third barre and thought about Logan and snot and octopus chewing cheerleaders. It helped him make it through another class. For the first time without any involuntary groans accompanied by fuck me.

***

Madam K, clipboard clutched in one arm, stopped him by blocking the door after his post class duties as the male balancing stump for dancers needing to work with a prop.

“Mr. Jackson I do not believe Miss Burns will be able to tape herself.”

“You watch.” He worked himself into his sweatshirt. “As bad as she wants to dance? She’ll tape.”

“You have a great deal of confidence in someone, who, were she unable to dance as she does, would surely have been killed by now.”

“What I’m sayin’. Nobody who dances like Logan could be as big a bimbo as she puts up. She just needs to talk to somebody besides dancers once in a while.”

“Perhaps.” Madam K tapped her lips with the eraser end of a pencil. “In the event she has difficulty?”

“Send her to USC sports med and they’ll make her better than she was. Sending her’s not a bad idea whether she can tape herself or not.”

“I didn’t want to like you, Mr. Jackson. My usual attitude toward musicians, particularly the young, modern set, is one of tolerant contempt. With you I may have to adjust my position. You do realize that you will never be a dancer?”

“You’re the second person to tell me that since Monday. And you know what?”

“Yes, I do. But please, don’t say it.” She stood aside to let him out. “Miss Burns’ episode was quite enough profanity for one evening.”

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Gambits #5

Poison is So-ooo Passe

Naegleria fowleri is found in 70% of US lakes. Nicknamed “The Brain-eating Amoeba,” it hijacks the victim’s brain causing confusion, hallucinations and loss of motor function. Death can occur in as few as seven days.

All you need is a jar of lake water, a hot tub and a little playful “dunk that pesky, fickle bachelor” and he’s history.

Up your game. Poison? Puh-leeeeze…

Gambits #4

Didn’t Your Mom Tell You About Girls “Like That?”

In 2016, a seventeen-year-old Mexico City boy suffered a fatal stroke after receiving a hickey from his girlfriend. A pathologist determined the love bite caused a blood clot that traveled to the young dude’s brain

I can’t believe this hasn’t been riffed by every screenwriter and fluffy mystery novelist out there. This is a teen secret agent or a treehouse detective agency YA waiting to happen.

“What happened to Tommy,” Rodrigo asked. It stayed quiet, the wind and the fall leaves brushing against the garage door the only sounds.

Finally Jimmy volunteered, solemnly, “Dead, man. Tommy’s dead.”

“No way!” Rodrigo protested loudly.

“Way,” Becca said, gloomily. “And it was like totally gross how.”

Rod waited, waited a little longer. “Cough, Bec.”

She looked around the circle of friends, sighed heavily. “He and Cindy, uh, Castaneda…” she blushed, hard.

“Yeah?” Rod queried with some push in his voice.

“Yeah…” Becca looked around again, then at the floor. “He, uh…Well, she…” Becca took a deep breath, raised her head and tried to cop some street before saying  “they were deep skiddilypoo in front of her house and she lip branded him, and, and…”

“He got a blood clot from it and it went to his brain,” Jimmy snapped his fingers.  “D.O.A. The dirt nap is scheduled for Thursday after school.”

“Ridicurageous!” Rodrigo was almost in shock. “I saw him at Franco’s like Friday, he was jackin’ on some date he had. It was Cindy Castaneda, she did a fangless vampirella and he’s dead?”

Jimmy looked up from the floor, fiddled with his USB programmable fake Apple watch that told him the time and when to eat lunch, take his allergy meds. “That’s what the cop doc said.”

“There’s gotta be more to it,” Becca said pensively. Becca was always looking for conspiracies, even where there weren’t any. Her dad sold lingerie to department stores and managed all the outlet mall hose and girdle stores, but they all knew he was a secret agent of some kind, and what went on in the back room of the biggest outlet mall store had nothing to do with bras and panties and six packs of B stock pantyhose. She’d pull a Dad, I wanna come next time he was going to Crockett Falls, get on the computer. Cindy Castaneda had been trouble since she’d shown up last summer. Well, trouble, and kind of a, well slut was a bad word. Maybe a prick tease ’cause everybody talked about how hot she was and how she could kiss the shell off a walnut, but nobody was talking about had they done it with her or anything…

Y’all like me all adverbly and commercial with proper tags? I coulda gone on about how cool the garage was, maybe an old B&O stereo with big wooden speakers and no bluetooth, kids like that. But hell, the watch was a stretch for me.

Looney Lunes # 149

Education TwoFer – You get what you pay for

Free English Lunguage Programs (ESL)
Wednesdays 7:30 PMSign in front of Community Center, Plano, Texas

Your the best teacher ever!Card given to volunteer English Professor of same program

I know it’s Tuesday. I have the flu.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #16 – The Potty Mouth Episode

Here it is. The blankety-blank post on potty mouth. I’ve written several versions of this post, and they all cycled back to dialogue and character credibility.

I get hammered occasionally by beta readers and casual readers alike for having a 13-year-old coming out of anesthesia and asking her gramma if “thah muherfuher” is gone. She is angry at the doctors, for good reason. Her gran was a Rosie the Riveter and her big brother is a super jock. They swear in front of her all the time. Her mother and father try (like mine did) not to swear, at least in front of the kids. When mine stopped trying I was surprised that my mother had a better grasp of profanity without reaching for it than most stevedores or wisecracking pimps or East Coast gangsters. My father could say son of a bitch with a wider variety of inflections than Sherwin Williams has color swatches.

I recently read a 1978 Elmore Leonard. “The Switch”. Wherein a 14-year-old male wannabe tennis star says “bullshit,” among other things, to his confused mother who is trying to stick to the straight and narrow country club life and wants to swear back at him but can’t find it in herself to do it. I love her character, though. Waking up in the Stepford thing and not liking it, not knowing what to do.

Here it is, 2019, I was writing about the 70s. I was there. And people go “Oh my!”  about a purported “good girl” swearing. Huh? I’m sure there are lots of people  who have led sheltered lives or have a dense moral code of some kind or find an air of superiority that allows them to be easily offended by how “the other half” talk, but I have a news flash – No pimp or drug dealer or angry salesman or most any member of any gender in any number of vocations says “Oh, drat. I am certain Jesus will punish you in His own way for (insert dastardly deed here). I only regret I have but one (wallet, bank drawer or other cheek/valuable) to offer you.”

In good conscience I can say there might be characters somewhere who would say that. But having been around for (a very long time) I would say that person is few and far between. I read somewhere that the magic of Elmore Leonard’s realistic dialogue is all in knowing how and when to use “motherfucker”. I have had multi Grammy winning artists (artists, not pop stars) say to me in conversation “…but that motherfucker? That’s the shit.” Would they say that on stage in front of the President, on national television? Probably not. In conversation, shooting hoops with the Prez. More than likely.

Know this – I am not a fan of gratuitous profanity. Even an angry character can get over the top if you write too much “fuck you, you fuckin’ piece of fuckin’ shit motherfucker.” Even for Tony Soprano. Or when it just doesn’t work. I watched Gone Baby Gone a couple of months ago. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan are completely unconvincing when they try to get ghetto with the bad guys or even between themselves. You can tell “motherfucker” and all of its nuances are lost on Affleck when he tries to deliver it. In cases like that, not everybody needs to swear. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it’s too much or out of place/character punt it.

I recently posted something written after a character had been through an angry scene. That attitude spilled over into what I had written that came after the anger episode and I hadn’t shifted gears for the character. I posted it, read it and immediately hit edit. He was mad earlier, okay. He got over it, no need for him to sit on the beach with someone who hadn’t pissed him off going all fuck this and fuck that and here a fuck, there a fuck everywhere a fuck fuck. Right? Scene and characters require tone, and language imparts both character and tone. Stylistically, as a person who attempts to write, I don’t want to tell you who my characters are, I want them to tell you. Sometimes they have to cuss, but not always.

Lets go back to the 13-year-old girl and “muherfuher”. She’s coming out of anesthesia. She’s uninhibited, angry, confused and heartbroken by doctors that she believes have ruined a certain part of her life. She has an ex Rosie the Riveter grandmother she adores and a 6’ 4” super jock older brother. Her ears aren’t virginal and that’s how she feels at the moment. There are other times when in her persona of class role model she starts to use “shit”, catches it on the way out and corrects herself. In one role she is the epitome of good girl. Off the clock as herself she just wants someone she can talk to, be with, be herself around. Show that person with some depth, with her closeted anger, without altering her vocabulary and it becomes my word as a writer against hers as a character. I don’t belong in there and she becomes what I say she is, not who she says she is. I stand by her usage because in that instance “muherfuher” works. She does not sit down to eat take out barbeque with her parents, as delivered by her should-be boyfriend, and say “One’a y’all motherfuckers wanna get yore thumb outta yore ass an pass the fuckin’ Tabasco?” Time and place. Knowing when and how to use motherfucker. Motherfuckers.

One of my top two favorite authors, Barbara Park, received criticism for her 5-year-old character’s grammar. One critical example – “Let your children read these `Junnie (sic) B.’ peices (sic) of work and then spend months unlearning the poor grammar it teaches.” Also – “Words fall short to describe this genre of writing — not only is the language abysmal, but as a parent of young, impressionable children, I find it rather detrimental to their psyche and behaviour (sic). For our children’s sake, do not endorse these books; rather boycott them entirely.”

Wow. Harsh. Junie B. Jones didn’t swear. She yelled sometimes, was impulsive, called things dumb and forgot her manners. And spoke her mind like who she was. Her character talked just like my 4-and-6-year-old grandkids. Park’s (paraphrased) response to her criticism was she wrote kid dialogue for kids, appropriate for the character. She wasn’t trying to teach grammar and the people who missed that argument weren’t worth the time. Mark Twain said the same thing a hundred or so years earlier. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hammett and Leonard all say the same thing. Before she died Park had over 60 million books in print. And her Junie B. books, to me, are a graduate course in flash fiction. How to boil a story down to all it needs, and how a character can tell you who she is. Readers like it, screw the squares.

Now, a flash course in character from a master –

I was at a Santa Barbara writers’ conference a couple of weekends ago, and I listened to the students, reading. And they all use adverbs, ‘She sat up abruptly.’ And I tried to explain that those words belong to the author, the writer, and when you hear that word there’s just that little moment where you’re pulled out of the seat. Especially by that sound, that soft L-Y sound. Lee. So often it doesn’t fit with what’s goin’ on, y’know. I mean, if a person sits up in bed, they sit up in bed. You don’t have to tell how they sit up in bed. Especially with what’s goin’ on. In this instance, she sat up in bed ‘cause she hears a pickup truck rumbling by outside very slowly and she knows who it is. So you know how she sat up in bed. And in her mind she’s saying, ‘It’s that fuckin’ pickup truck’. She knows it is. And then there’s another, say, half a page or so of inside the character’s head and the phone rings. She gets out of bed and feels her way over and almost knocks a lamp down. And she passes this stack of self-help books, on the desk, and picks up the phone. And I suggested to the young woman who wrote this, ‘Save the fuckin’ pickup, drop the fuckin’ adverb, and put it with the self-help books and it’ll say a lot more about your character.’ See, it’s little things like that. The contrast works better. – Excerpt from Anthony May’s 1991 interview with Elmore Leonard. The whole thing is available here

The Graphic is not just sloganeering, it’s a mantra. As such it becomes the mascot graphic for Writerly Concerns. We would all do well in our writing efforts to “Emulate” the Drumulator.

Looney Lunes #147

Ooops! Make That N for “NO” Carolina

In 1961 a US Military plane carrying two nuclear bombs crashed over a farm in Faro, North Carolina. On  the way down one of the bombs completed six of the seven steps needed to detonate. The bomb was 250 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

There’s a joke in there about Andy of Noberry, but we all know California looks just like North Carolina if you shoot below the palm tops. Or Wisconsin or Oklahoma or New Mexico…

The information on the bombs was released by the U.S. government! Imagine what they’re NOT telling us…That volcano? Well, you see, there was this –

Conspiracy journalists say part of the No Carolina bomb is still missing. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #15

Two’s Company, Three’s – Hey Buddy, No, You – A Challenge!

Editors, even good ones, and most of the advice and how-to books and exercises go out of their way to tell us “avoid scenes with multiple people.” Consensus is two is plenty to get the job done, or inside the head (borrrrrring) of one. Decorate the set with non-interactive bodies. Screenplay time!

Pretty good advice, I guess. I’ve taken it a few times. I’ve heard it from editors from my first to such internet faves as Dan Alatorre and Beth at The Editors Blog (who really is good). They also both go out of their way to have us disenfranchise readers from characters (they certainly do touch a lot, why are we seeing this through ‘the character’ and not direct action, but that’s a whole other story).

Why? Because a group scene mishandled is awful. Or amateurish, or silly or just plain bogus. Like the maddening, poorly acted and timed, cued dialog in a Hallmark movie. Where everyone speaks at the polite moment, round robin style. I call that the circle jerk. Alatorre opens “The Navigators” that way. Like walking into a room full of mannequins or those Disney animatronic things, all speaking and walking and moving in turn, on cue with directorial action tags. Like readers are too stupid to follow it. Not unlike the formulaic cozy where Miss Marple assembles the suspects and goes around the room or prods whatever thick policemen is going around the room. Wait your turn. Stand in line, cue aaaaaaaaaaand speak!

Anybody have kids? Coached little league any gender, any sport? Ever read “The Cat with the Pot on Her Head”?

Been in a bar, a restaurant, a network group, a tradeshow booth? Please. No group is as well behaved as Christie (well, maybe the English) or Alatorre or any number of others would have us believe. In Alatorre’s case it takes the first two pages at least to get past convo that doesn’t matter much trying to show camaraderie and latent sexism and get nowhere. Which is why reading group scenes is worse than writing them most of the time, particularly ones that read like screenplays with directorial sidebar notes.

In the music biz of the late 70s and early 80s we used to point out when we heard the punch-ins roll by, and how the true artform of the producer was to put enough Vaseline on the seams to render the punches and dubs less obvious. Seriously. Still going on, particularly in clip art electronica. The world of assembled guitar solos is no different than the current world of assembled multi-person scenes. There’s the first four bars, back up, count in, here’s two more…Okay Bob, your turn, then Marjorie…

Why? Are there no mentors? Are there no painters out there beyond the solo man vs nature/self/society Jungian quest for identity, nothing but screen writers for well-mannered hair dyed botoxed 80s child stars being cued to speak in turn?

The answer is yes, there are. But we need to hunt them down.

This topic wasn’t even on my mind, but the last six weeks of 2018 I went to the woodshed. With some classics. Just to see why they’re classics, you know? One of them was Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man”. Most of the novel transpires in groups of people. The magic is that Hammett puts you at a crowded table in a speakeasy or in a posh living room or a tenement apartment with at least four people, often more. All interrupting each other, taking swings, having opinions, crying, freaking out, throwing skillets, pulling guns. And you are there. Because Hammett, unlike almost anyone else save Hemingway, cuts through all the bullshit and puts you in the scene with all you need to be there and no more.

How did he do it? He spends no time in anyone’s head, stays completely out of the way and lets the scene happen. He puts people in a situation and allows them to behave as they would. A screaming, crying, lying drama queen doesn’t go off when everyone has had their say, or when it’s convenient for the writer, they go off, like people do when their buttons get pushed, inconveniently. We need to understand people and their behaviors and let them be who they are or they become weak, well behaved stereotypes. Which is why (Dan and Beth and editors et al) we should experience emotions like a simple touch or a ferocious slap as they are, we don’t wait for a convenient time or a dedicated direct disengaged authorial action tag to relay that info. A while back I wrote about Jim kicks Bill. That’s all you need, particularly in a crowd. Say it, do it, get off it.

Another example. On TV and in movies bad guys talk their way into getting shot with a lot of Clint Eastwood stand-off and word play. Read some Elmore Leonard. Set a scene, “Hey, you!” (if that) Blam blam blam. Next. Stephen King can ramp up the tension early on until when, horrifyingly and in one line, someone inexplicably (sort of) sticks their hand in a garbage disposal and flips the switch. Next.

Less is always more. Less author, more scene. More BAM.

Crowd scenes are the same way. Keep it moving to keep it real.

If you had perfect children and grew up in a perfect home with well-mannered siblings and are having trouble with this interruption thing, spend a couple minutes (that’s all you’ll need) watching the 4 boxed-in talking heads on CNN or a Presidential press conference. Or sit behind a group of six or more at a theater or church of your choice. Hammett didn’t have cell phones for props but I’m sure he could have worked in drunken thumb tapping in a darkened theater from the disheveled gum smacking party girl.

If we think our readers (or us writers) can’t handle a busy scene and we write the busy out of it, (as is the current trend) or bail altogether, it becomes numb. And dumb. Start with two, then three, then up to seven individual personalities and you’ll be with Hammett in the Pigiron speakeasy, 1934. And you will probably never see it done better. Steinbeck and Faulkner rock 4 or more pretty well themselves. Maybe it was that Roaring Twenties thing when people got together instead of tapping glass to communicate.

If you’re having trouble, as I have read recently, getting three people in a car to a motel, study a classic. Then write. All I’m asking is see how it’s done well before joining the circle jerk, stumble about with call and response or bail club.

Thinking about writing I am always reminded of the old adage about good barbeque. Bear down on the meat, ease up on the potato salad. We shouldn’t write to prove that we can by doing that ‘look, here I am, writing meaningless action tags and weak dialogue’ thing, we should keep it real. Real people misbehave. They speak out of turn, and don’t always say the perfect thing to cue who’s next. I’m sure that’s not PC, but it’s true. And it reads better. Better than the perfectly slotted, stiff nonsense of a book looking to be a Hallmark movie. Well, the contents written on the side of a shampoo bottle read better than a lot of that stuff.

Which brings me to – stay tuned – next time we address my favorite topic of (self) defense, potty mouth words.