Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 2 & 3

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

11

Burger King on Sunset Blvd, Tuesday February 14, 2005

12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Random NVDT- Writerly Concerns

“Switching off the lights, I trudged downstairs and walked to the door. (Character’s) (car) was gone.”

A few weeks ago, I injected something totally random on this site. Not a WP follower harvesting “stick with a plan” thing. Nope. I wrote about a phone app of the musical instrument that changed my life. Back pedal – I changed my life, the synthesizer was the way forward. Writing is the same. I dropped out of college as part of that change. I didn’t believe they could teach me how to write by regurgitating some tweedy old fart’s thoughts on Henry James and Melville. Frankly, thoughts on Melville, to me, would be time better spent thinking about the variances in cottage cheese curds. Personal opinion only.

Today marks another Friday of randomness, which will become a regular thing. I suppose that punts the randomness, save for content. Writing, electronic music, whatever drops. Today? Writerly things. I read a book. Yeah, yeah., seriously. Check this out. Again

“Switching off the lights, I trudged downstairs and walked to the door. (Character’s) (car) was gone.”

Why do I bring this up? As written it is completely devoid of linear logic. Funny how your brain will drag you right through that literary quagmire like it wasn’t awful. Published awful. The author bagged that verb ing followed by action thing throughout the book. Nobody at (publisher) caught it. The critics who raved about the next big thing in formulaic detective fiction missed it. Fair enough – It was written in the Eighties by a successful gentleman who has written many follow ups. The book I read came from the Plano Public Library very cheap book sale. I probably paid a quarter for it. Maybe a dime. Regardless, I buy old and new detective pulp to learn things. How to, how not to. How things have changed.

Like – The author drags out fight scenes like bad TV. You know, till you want to put it down and go feed the dogs and hope it’s done when you get back. The Detective and the bad guy, both well drawn clichés by the way, dance and swing and kick and poke and jab while the Detective does one of those every detective and Perry Mason/Jessica Fletcher/Miss Marple et al bits laying out the case against the bad guy. For like four pages. While they spar. The speculation gets reworded three or four different ways. Okay, we get it already. You say it, he denies it. Rinse and repeat. Fight and talk and fight and talk and fight some more. Whew. After the good guy passes out almost dead and wakes up the nasty end of the bad guy gets narrated, sans anything but a “Well, you know. Gross.” Yeah. Four pages of fight and talk. Yep, he’s gone, call your girlfriend.

Certain old Western pulp writers would do that. Good guy rides into town, gets his ass almost beat to death whipping the town bully. But the whole spaghetti western thing, the quick cuts between the players in a Mexican standoff? Doesn’t drop on the page very well. Even with a lot of call and response dialog.

The point there was violence is boring. Repetitive dialog to wind up a nutcase is boring. Wind it up, blow it up, hit it and keep moving.

Back to that gross end. I mentioned to George F that I have never been able to smack a woman around in fiction or anywhere else. I can narrate it like news. She got beat up. I can describe how beat up. I can’t go beat her up. I had one of those “show don’t tell” a-hole dipstick “editors” push for that in a scene where I had a beat up woman on the floor of a bathroom. What sort of sick f*ck wants to read a blow by blow of how she got there? All that brings me back to the bad logic in –

“Switching off the lights, I trudged downstairs and walked to the door. (Character’s) (car) was gone.” Written after the first person private dick took a shot to the head. Maybe it got to the writer. That was facetious and unkind, and as I mentioned, that crap was all through the book. Why am I harping on this? It looks okay to you? Really? Read it. As written the light switches were along the staircase. Our brains took us to the parking lot, not the writing. Yes, readers are allowed to make logical leaps, but lines like that make your head spin for a fraction of second putting them together. Like Phonics, or horrible spelling. Okay, the verb ing and the comma, we can still derive the intent, but we have to slalom along in the author’s brain to get there.

“I switched off the lights, trudged down the atrium stairs, staggered my good shoulder into the door and pushed. It took most of the energy I had left to focus and scan the parking lot. (Character’s) (car) was gone.”

Logical. Continues the descriptive. I would have put more in, but I’d hate to get busted re-writing two pages of a guy’s book in four lines. As re-written, they are the separate acts, each following in order. Not, as written, a simultaneous Timothy Leary moment to be sorted. These are how I see action co-mingling verb ing modifiers –

“Laughing, Bob tied his shoes.” “Crying, she shoved the runny pecan pie down the disposal.” “Shaking with fear he grabbed the ripcord and prayed.” Hey, that was three-fer! Any points for that?

The ing descriptive is generally used to convey an act that is part of, or to modify, another act. Not for a logical progression of activity, or activities unless what is modified by ing follows or precedes LOGICAL intent. Now this ing –

“Trudging down the stairs, switching off the lights under the starving artist prints that lined the wall as I went, I still managed to find the lobby floor in the darkened atrium. The hard way.” Okay. Trudging and switching. But “Switching off the lights, I trudged down the stairs.” No. It makes my head hurt. It, and its many kin populated a published (many times) author’s work. Come on. If I were to run that past The Editor’s Blog or any number of other legitimate editing resources I’d get basted.

Do yourself a favor the next time you doubt your writing. Pick up a published book while you wait in line somewhere. If you think it sucks, as a writer good for you. When it’s time to move, remember to pick your jaw up before you switch off your brain and trudge on it. (See? Poorly written. What is being trudged upon, the jaw or the brain? It’s a never ending process.)

That was random. And now it’s over. Next week – why “standards” are not. Maybe.

A good resource for formulaic fiction is here

A good resource for well explained grammar rules is here –

My grammar rule follows Elmore Leonard’s advice. Grammar rules shouldn’t get in the way of a story. (Bad grammar, as we’ve seen, often does). And – If it reads like writing, re-write it.

White Lies and Dirty Laundry

Another cutting room floor editing casualty from The Hot Girl that I liked enough to rescue from the trash.

Roosevelt Junior High, October 20th, 1971

Deanna clung to her open locker door with her right hand, leaned her head on the shelf inside. She couldn’t go to home room. She didn’t want to talk, or smile or lead cheerleading practice or read the afternoon announcements or do anything at all. Just for a day she didn’t want to be who she was. All she wanted was to be alone, and maybe have just one real friend she could tell about Gramma Cora. Goddammit. Was that too much to ask, really?

“Morning, Jackson.” Coach Stephens raised his chin at the growth-spurt skinny eighth grade boy in his doorway. “Some geniuses clogged the shitter next door in the band room.” He tossed the blue nylon bag full of his laundry at the kid like it was a medicine ball. “I’ll get you out through the girl’s side. Grab a hall pass in case you meet a stranger on that side of the building.”

Jackson tore off several pre-signed hall passes from the pad, even though anyone that would stop him on blue bag days knew better. He hefted the laundry bag on his shoulder and followed Stephens to the center of the basketball court, the invisible wall between the only non-coed homerooms at Roosevelt Junior High.

Stephens chirped his whistle. “Heads up, skirts down, legs crossed, ladies. Man on business, comin’ through.”

Jackson knew he’d turned red, shielded his head with the bag and sent his eyes to the floor for his trek through the minefield of girl’s gym homeroom. Damn. They sat on the floor cross legged, or laid on their backs with an ankle on their knee, skirts dropped to almost there. He heard them all shuffling positions, heard the giggles, the “is that Santa Claus” and “what’s with the bag” and “uh-oh, panty check” comments that followed him across the basketball court until he was out the double doors, up five steps and in the hall headed toward daylight.

He raised his eyes, and opposite where the janitor had half the hall blocked there was a locker open, but all he could see were sweat socks and girl’s saddle oxfords. Cheerleader gear. And Mr. Han, the asshole French teacher and hall pass Nazi, was coming down the hall from the other direction, on a collision course with him and the cheerleader at her open locker. Shit.

Bonjour, Mr. Han.”

“Always halfway clever, Monsieur Jackson. You and the bag say it’s Wednesday. Who do we have at their locker who should be in home room?”

Jackson stepped sideways into the narrow space between the cheerleader’s open locker door and Mr. Han, swung his laundry bag around and knocked the unseen girl back inside her open locker. He was chest to chest and almost eye to eye with Han in zero personal space for all three of them. He lifted a hall pass out of his back pocket with his thumb and finger, held it under the bag and waited until he felt her grab it.

“She was with me, Mr. Han. There’s shit, uh, sewage all on the floor by the band room on our side and Coach sent her to escort me out the girl’s side. So I wouldn’t do anything stupid or talk to anybody. And, um, anyway, she needed a book, that’s why he sent her with me. And she ran ahead of me. To get her book.”

Han reached around Jackson, checked the crumpled pink paper the girl pushed past the blue bag.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be, Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes sir.” Jackson stepped off in a hurry, just under the ‘don’t run in the hall’ rule, didn’t look back. Han followed him with his eyes until Jackson and the blue bag were around the corner.

“Miss Collings, are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. My grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. I just didn’t want to talk to everyone…anyone. That’s why I, um, ran to my locker. I’ll be okay. Really.”

“I understand. There’s never a good time for a funeral. Or Jackson.” He flicked the pink pass in his hand with his middle finger, handed it back. “Tell Stephens even he needs to put names on his hall passes. Why he’d send you out with that kid and the bag is beyond me.”

“Well, there is some really gross stinky poop and stuff on the floor on their side and Jackson can get in trouble. I mean pretty easy, and kind of a lot. And I did need my book.”

“As usual, Miss Collings, everything you have said is true.” He pushed her locker door closed. “Home room young lady. Now.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced at the hall pass on her way, smoothed it out and put it in the history book she wouldn’t need for four hours. Jackson, the guy with the big blue bag, had spare hall passes? And covered her? Cool.