NVDT #67 – Oh God, It’s the End of the World!

PART OF OPEN BOOK BLOG HOP

The Prompt – Has the pandemic affected your writing? If so, how? Have your writing habits changed in reaction to the ‘different’ world we are faced with?

Particularly in the beginning. The overall sense of panic. Not enough PPE, not enough hospital beds, not enough toilet paper. No one knew what to expect, bodies were stacking up like firewood. Like everything for the last four years, the problem wasn’t the problem. Finding fault and OMG hyperbole was the order of the day. A true stupid human tricks moment.

Beyond that there were the adjustments to Zoom ballet classes and online office hours and 24/7 tripping over the rest of the household trying to get something done. After the ups and downs and the nonsense a newish normal set in, here we are.

Here’s a real long-term epi-pan-demic.

US retail giant Guitar Center reportedly preparing to file for bankruptcy this weekend

Am I heartbroken or surprised about GC’s demise? No. The surprise is that it took so long. I am disheartened by what it represents.

Over twenty years ago market research showed that most kids didn’t want to play guitar, or drums or keyboards because it required work to get a result. The consensus was that the musical instrument business wasn’t competing with itself any longer, but with video games and DJs. Motley Fool and others predicted GC to tank since the public offering in 1997. Just over a year ago, I read that GC wouldn’t make it past 2020. A prediction made before Covid. Sorry, can’t blame the pandemic. But we can blame the “not willing to put in the work” epidemic.

I worked for the company that built Van Halen’s guitars and amps. I was a product manager in another division but one day Ed walked in on me playing “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on a Clavinet through a 5150 half stack. After that being “somehow insanely wrong” we’d talk car jokes, screaming tone, and a lot about learning to do what we did, becoming who we grew up to be. How we’d sit in front of the stereo for hours and emulate our heroes and wrench on our gear to get “that” sound. It was all effort, trial, and error because there was no internet, no videos of how to wire a guitar pickup or mod the output of a synth. Cut a wire on the inside of your instrument, smoke a joint, forget where it went, solder it somewhere that looked reasonable and you were 1- dead in the water 2- got something new and marvelous or 3- got fire and smoke.

To up those odds of success, and to be even a passable musician takes practice. And more practice and study and more practice and sweat. Now, with attention spans at 12 seconds and a zillion distractions who is going to practice until their fingers bleed when they can stay up jacked on Red Bull for three days, get to level 87 in a video game and be just as heroic with their peers as the garage/party band of yesteryear?

This epidemic of not wanting to put in the work spills over into every aspect of our lives from creativity to obtaining an education. But let’s leave everyone else out of this for now except “writers.”

I traded in an ancient barely used Kindle first gen for a new Paperwhite the other day. I was anxious to load the new, lightweight, way more memory, easy to read Paperwhite with books from my epub folder. References I could keep at my fingertips, books to read on demand. As I was going through cleaning up the book files I tripped over quite a few absolute pieces of shit that have been lurking eating up space for several years. Pieces of shit with nice covers. Covers like real, readable books. Some by Indies, some by publishing house authors. I recalled a few years ago going on a rant about fucking cover reveals for shit content. Even people I went off on back then are still more concerned with illustrations than writing a good book.

But writing a good book doesn’t seem to be the point. Being an “author” with “books” that have “covers” is the point, screw putting in the work. Yeah, yeah, my mother my neighbor a good friend a teacher read it down for me, fixed my commas and added a few semi-colons to prove they went to college. Well how nice for you. Bless your heart.

I have an old joke about saying “That’s nice.” There’s another version with “Bless your heart.”

Rather than drag this out here’s Tolstoy –

If you asked someone, “Can you play the violin?” and he says “I don’t know, I have not tried, perhaps I can,’ you laugh at him. Whereas about writing, people always say: “I don’t know, I have not tried,” as though one had only to try and one would become a writer.

And if that one wasn’t enough, here’s Dr. Seuss on self editing –

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

I love that quote. It’s as succint and dead on as Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

We need to put in the work. I don’t know if hardly anyone these days lays their work down or over or next to someone who can write. It doesn’t look like they do. Or if no one has taken advantage of the handful of professional editors out there who will red ink our first twenty pages and page 200 and bitch slap the writer in us into some semblance of reality check.

I’m gonna say this one last time on the internet. Some people will get their feelings hurt. If not by me today then by someone we pay or don’t know and who doesn’t participate in the ‘everybody’s a winner for trying’ bullshit or give a shit if we think our work is our children and NYT list material. Ready?

Marginally edited books with nice covers are a fucking plague.

It stops with each of us doing our best. Not printing posters and covers for a concert of the first night we pick up the violin, but putting in the work.

I’m afraid Vonnegut’s quote “If you can do a half-assed job of anything you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind” has come true. OMG. It’s the end of the world!

PART OF OPEN BOOK BLOG HOP

NVDT #66 – Hallmark Moment or Smart Ass?

PART OF OPEN BOOK BLOG HOP

The Prompt – What would be the hardest thing for you to give up?

Oh dear… My loving family, of course. My dear, dear friends. My loyal dog. My dead parents. Oh God, all the arts. Puppies and butterflies and the smell of fresh-baked cookies. Walks on the beach and sunsets. Grandchildren and kittens an – SKKKKKRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAK

Breathing. Without that, not much else will happen. So I’d hate to give that up right now. A good poop comes in a close second. Remember that old joke about all the body parts arguing about which was the most important?

There. That’s taken care of. I’m reading several things, editorial hat on, and all that. Some of it’s mine. I came across the only time I’ve used a deep cliché backstory device. That’s right, the dreaded picture frame. I’ll fix it, turn into a conversation backstory drop, but for now, it ties last week’s theme to this one. Humor. In a potty vein. Here’s Deanna’s first morning in Cambridge. Or – skip to the top or bottom, click the Open Book link to see what others can’t do without!

Deanna’s flat, Cambridge U.K. / Saturday morning January 13, 1979

Deanna’s first morning in Cambridge so far had consisted of Merriam’s nasty black tea and a warm toilet seat over water cold enough to put off ripe refrigerated air, no air freshener in sight. Now she eyed her shoulder high dresser with marked contempt. Like the flat, it had to be over a hundred years old. It smelled like disinfectant, dirty underwear and mold, and was bolted to the floor just enough off level so that anything round rolled off the top.

Her bed frame was bolted to the floor as well, not close enough to the wall to keep her from getting wedged between it and the wall, and not far enough to walk behind. The mattress, on slats with no box spring, was slightly smaller than a twin. In width, not length. Cat said it had been new when she’d brought it down with her and it “hadn’t seen even the shadow of a shag,” so Deanna was free to break it in as soon, and often, as she pleased. So long as she kept her volume down and told her roomies all about it, in great detail. The bed came with two sets of cream-colored sheets, a tiny lumpy pillow, a maroon, satin-look nylon comforter. Her own pillows, too-big sheets and the double comforter Jackson had given her as a gift her freshman year were in one of the boxes already in her room. She knew half of her clothes would never get worn, her sheets would never fit, or fit in the dresser or the wardrobe. At least the comforter could be folded for double warmth. She repacked a ship-home box from her excess. A process that would eventually result in a joyous conversation with mom about head-in-the-clouds lack of preparation ending in another expense.

She unpacked her few kitchen items from box number 2, found where things like them were stored, and emptied most of her cosmetic case on the dresser and the attached-to-the-floor nightstand. As a final decorating touch she placed a three-year-old picture of Jackson on top of her dresser with what was left of the perfume he’d bought her back when he surprised her with girly gifts. Back before she started building her wall. She picked up the picture, taken on a road trip to the Texas State Fair their freshman year, ran her thumbs down the side of the frame. A trip they’d taken just to prove they could disappear for a weekend. “Let’s go somewhere,” he’d said. “Spend the night in a LaQuinta, bone like bunny rabbits and give our parents the finger.”

Their romantic teenage getaway careened downhill after they’d both barfed out their respective windows of his car. Payback for eating greasy fair food all day and chasing it with trunk-of-the-car temperature liquor store beer they’d bought on the way in. By the time they’d gotten to their motel room, they both had the trots. By midnight he’d had to make a toilet paper run because they were too embarrassed to call the front desk again. In the bag with the ten pack of toilet paper was a can of Lysol air freshener. Jax didn’t say anything but used half the can. The next morning they were over it, took a long, soapy shower together, and made love until checkout time.

Pulling out of the motel parking lot he’d said, “You know, before last night, I backed off laying cable until you were out of my apartment. Like you weren’t supposed to know I took a dump or something. Well, that’s over and now we know more than we ever wanted to about each other’s plumbing. We catch the flu together and we can tell everybody we’ve been to for real live-together boot camp, huh?”

This morning there was no air freshener, no Jackson, no hot soapy shower. Definitely not sex. But she’d made it to Cambridge. Maybe she could relax, be herself again, knew that wasn’t happening. She set the picture back, wanted to cry, and scream, and kick the dresser. Goddammit, he should be here.

“Shit.” She looked around the gloomy room. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Merriam popped her head in the door. “All’s right, love?”

“Yeah, I… No.” She held her hands out, fingers spread, interlocked them. “Is there ever a time,” she moved her locked hands in and away, slowly, “when it all just fucking works and makes sense?”

“I’m chemistry. That sounds like physics. Or Theology. Eggs’re up.”

“In a minute.” Deanna touched the glass that separated her from what she’d been. “Just wait,” she whispered. “I’ll be back.”

She had no idea that by the time she’d boarded her plane yesterday “wait” was the last thing on Jackson’s mind. He was wandering the northern New Mexico desert outside of Taos, his brain somewhere out on the rings of Saturn, the rest of him on the way to dying of exposure. Jackson, along with the promise, the future, the hope of her and everything she’d been since she was seventeen was canceled, boxed, sealed, and archived before she’d even left the country.

PART OF OPEN BOOK BLOG HOP

NVDT #65 – To See How It Ends

The Prompt – Albert Camus once said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Flannery O’Conner said, “I write to discover what I know.” Authors across time and distance have had many reasons to write. Why do you write what you write?

I think I’ve answered this before in a post now forgotten, but here it is again. If not fresh, at least consistent.

“One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter – who was a child at the time – asked me, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?” And I replied, “Because I want to see how the story turns out!” 
― Louis L’Amour

I write to see what’s going to happen. What the characters will get into and out of, their wins and losses, pains, gains, screwings and triumphs. Simply put, I write people.

I don’t build elaborate sets in the future or too far past, in alternate universes full of sorcerers or winged/scaled/horned characters, wise wizards or sword wielding princess and invincible princes. I write fairy tales in now with people, not too many props and no needs-too-much-‘splainin’ junk.

There are horned dragons and evil witches and angry princess and wise wizards in the next building over, or a hangar in the high plains desert or a land development company, a premier university, a cover band… Places where a car thief, a good girl and a sex retreat hooker find common ground. Where punk rockers and grad school feminists, a classically trained female cellist turned shred rocker, newscasters, a lounge piano player, a valley girl prima ballerina, lesbian fairy godmothers, naked girls who roll in paint to express themselves, a black dreadlocked Smithsonian photographer and a potty mouth soap actress can all coexist. Not too wild. Pretty normal stuff.

Why? Because the witches and warlocks, space rangers and shapeshifters got nothing on everyday people. I know, right? Boring? Ha! I posted this not long ago, and have a few new headlines to add to it. You can’t make this shit up, dress it in technology and space suits or give it wings and scales and capes and feathers. It’s happening right now. Tough to put this stuff to use? Why not? Elmore Leonard made a career of it. Hiaasen did it with Razor Girl. Maybe I can find a place for Jag Booty and Wee Wee. If not, there’s some character fodder for you in that post!

NVDT #64 – Banana Peels and Semicolons

Various Aspects of Humor in Writing

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

The Prompt – Is humor an important element is your stories? Do you ever laugh at something you’ve written?

Are you kidding? I continually laugh at what I’ve written. Not that the content is so amusing. But the construction and execution? That shit’s hilarious.

Yes, humor is important. Mine is more along the lines of sardonic or ironic. I have a few bits where characters riff on the potential dangers of “squat” (hole in the floor) toilets, satirical bits where cultures collide and/or judging a book (person) by the cover moments, commentary from someone about an institution or a holy cow, one-liners. Otherwise, my best humor is relegated to potty mouth stand up. Take a trip to the urologist or proctologist, a comparison of vomit to certain foods as yet uneaten, the candy wrappers in dog poop from the candy you don’t remember buying (how to tell if your spouse has visitors). But rarely would I work any of that into a novel. Maybe there’s a short story series about a wannabe stand-up comedian’s fails. Been done? Of course…

Back to institutions and one liners, “I like my mice in underpants,” “Princess wrangler,” “Handsy little shits” (from Snow White) to character descriptions. What one group might find acceptable or usual, encountered by someone less worldly or from another social class. Poking holes in the Town & Country on the coffee table crowd from a backstage POV. I don’t write Syfy, but of all the Star Trek movies my favorite lines were “too much LDS in the Sixties,” Scotty talking to a mouse, then being redirected to a keyboard and saying “how quaint” to Bones “Surgery? How barbaric!”

I don’t do slapstick well. Or at all. There’s a skill to writing it that requires both economy and pure visuals. Laura Levine usually has one or two per book. The one about getting stuck trying to remove a Spanx type undergarment in a small bathroom at a party and getting both arms stuck inside the elastic tube is hilarious. In fact the entire discussion of the tiny spandex body tube is great in many ways.

But from me? There’s always (pick one)

Don’t care? Skip to the bottom – See what others are doing!

Painted Ladies ridiculousness, caste and the vagaries of “art”

Locked Out Clothing as morality enforcement

Cat Show Beautiful people and embarrassing one-offs

Since everyone seems to have a sex or innuendo quote, here’s a First time for everything – Elephant

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

NVDT #63 – Let’s Eat Children

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

The Prompt – Halloween/Fall is coming, do you celebrate? What does that look like? Is it different this year?

Mondays. Ordinarily, I’d post something related to the writer’s blog hop. This week it’s more Social Media than anything to do with improving craft. A good thing, probably. As me being me, I’ve already pissed off everybody in there twice. Once for “Let’s stop marketing to each other and discuss/show and tell something we might use for craft development” and last week for the whole dialogue issue that involved some “If you’re really paying an editor for semi-colons to string this much superfluous and roundabout content you need to ask for a refund”. Because I want to get better, not sign off on bunk with my name on it, and want everyone else to come along. 

That activity also brought out a week’s worth of sweeping generalizations based on opinion. From dialogue wasn’t a best form of communication to no one remembers characters or dialog, they remember the action. When presented with sweeping generalizations like that my first response is “WTF?” I thought style and usage choices were personal preferences, dictated by the material and the target, not right or wrong. Nowhere did I posit that “dialogue rules!” except for me, and I can, in most instances, use it to convey almost anything that needs conveyance. When I run a scene through the characters, it cuts way down on the set decoration and head time clutter temptations. I don’t have time for that because people are talking.

Dialogue has advantages in certain storytelling styles. End of sentence. I would never use it in How I Spent 47 Days Alone in a Life Raft (other than to show the person going mad). Or business communication. Or owner’s/operation manuals, how to columns, certain advertising copy. Every story has a voice, no one way is “best” except what works for the story. I even posted several examples of talky chit chat to pared down to the bone dialogue for technique exercise, tone adjustments. No one bothers to read that shit, nobody wants to discuss, or ask, or offer, so why bother? The good news is we can learn from anyone. Even those who believe their cheese is the whole enchilada and ours is but a poor stepchild.

Enough on that. I am extricating myself from the opinion game as regards any specific target and will continue to post generic (personal) Writerly Concerns only. Which no one will read. (Insert applause here). So far as trying any longer to make the world a safe place for logical, well-constructed, well edited lit on a budget? Fuck. That.

Here’s the Social Media bit–But first, a writerly concern. This is truly a “punctuation matters” holiday.

Let’s eat children!

Let’s eat, children!

And, God knows I tried but I can’t help myself,

Lets eat; Children!

Halloween is around the corner. Not this year. I don’t want them at my door, even with two masks on, and I doubt I’ll put a bucket of candy on the porch for the first two kids to snag it all. If there’s even two kids. Back before razor blades and poison and LSD, back in the Norman Rockwell Halloween days, it was fun and innocent, and certainly sparked a surge in visits to the dentist. Halloween also turned normal, reasonably well-adjusted kids into borderline juvenile delinquents for an evening.  Yes, I know that as fact. But Halloween has devolved into safe harbor handout locations (not a bad idea), slumber parties with scary movies, bags of candy we shouldn’t eat but do. The last time we had trick or treaters has been several years. I have several unprintable reasons on hand for that. However, the year we lived in McAllen, down on the border? None of that lights out by nine stuff. Fireworks and trick or treaters until midnight. At least that’s when we shut it down, climbed out on the roof for more fireworks than the Fourth of July.

As for fall, this is Texas. We have four seasons. Late Spring, Summer, Summer, Christmas, and back to late spring. So right about now I can ease up on mowing the yard every week. When my leaves get too deep I’ll blow them into the neighbor’s yard. No harm done, they’ll just blow back again. I really miss my pin oaks from Austin, but not the leaves… This part of the world just gets brown in the fall/winter. A rare snowstorm might turn everything into a postcard for 24 hours, tops. Pumpkin pie, Trader Joe’s spice cake and peppermint coffee. That’s how I know the season changed. 

Stay safe, UV radiate your store bought bag of Reese’s, don’t accept candy from strangers. There’s a real Duh moment. We teach children not to accept candy or gifts from strangers. From the cradle onward. Yet what did we used to do on Halloween but give that advice the night off? Maybe little Johnny didn’t have ADD. Maybe his Pixie Stix from the weirdo on the corner were liberally treated with LSD. That would explain a lot… 

 

NVDT #62 – To Speak, or Not to Speak

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

The Prompt – Do you embrace dialog or narrate your way around it? Why?

Dialogue. Every time. I write dialog first and fill in around it, because it’s better from the characters than us. You can do so much with a little dialog. Dialog is our tone palette. Major, minor, happy, sad. Where rhythm and word choice from characters exposes them in ways narration never could.* Where they are allowed to breathe without tags and adverbs. I would open a forum for nothing but the discussion of dialogue if I could get participation. I dropped my example because of AW’s post, wherein I disagree that narration can fill in where dialog can’t. Even for time collapse, backstory, forward motion. Which was the example. I’d rather read 1,200 words of mostly dialog than “and then he did this, and she did that” and particularly any “thought this or that.” The only place dialog can’t supplant narration is the solo man/animal/creature against whatever, the endless postcard set design, and there are places in First Person where you have to weave in head time or the work would all be “And then I…” And for some people I know like Anonymole who openly admits he doesn’t like people, much less a buncha chicks sittin’ around shootin’ the shit. But for most other people? Dialog wins.

*Caveat – Good dialogue, not that crap where everyone speaks the same stilted cardboard supported by adverb tags or directorial action tags. He said, being a dialogue asshole. By ‘that crap’ I can go all the way to billion sellers the likes of Baldacci, James and the spy agency alphabet soup people. Come on, that adverb tag junk is Nancy Drew business. Authors as disparate as Elmore Leonard and Maya Angelou agree that the dialog should tell us how a character feels and if we as authors feel the need to tag it, we should rewrite it.

Dialogue is music. It has rhythm, dynamics, grace notes… I have often wished that writing had the same notation as music. Fermatas, crescendo, decrescendo, piano, forte, triple forte. All running over or under the dialogue like a sheet music melody line. Oh well. As students of dialogue we need to figure that out.

My characters run the gamut from gangsters to a Valley Girl Prima Ballerina, musicians, jocks, hookers, a French lawyer, motel clerks, construction workers, kids… Here’s some examples you are free to read or ignore.

Two Stevie Winners – La Soirée Dansante, plus a solid mix of narration and dialogue, built after the dialog, Gator Bait

My favorite Valley Girl – Octopus, The Recruiter, You Kiss Like You Dance

Short and Random – Redneck Hemingway, Nice to Meet You, Oh, What the Hell, Toothbrush, Dusk in Douala

 Several of those will give you character insight, tell a story in a story, open up backstory or kill time with a lot more finesse than telling you “She’s a Valley Girl Ballerina” or “Him and CL been friends since they was twelve”  carrying on like they’re all fifth-grade school teachers with adverb tags. You can learn all you need to know about who a character is by listening to them tell you who they are. And that’s pretty much my site. Oh hell, here’s a quickie for you if you don’t read Redneck Hemingway. You know who they are, something’s up and I never say a word.

Thursday, noonish, May 14th, 1981, Los Angeles International Airport

“That’s it?” Trace darted the Volvo wagon between a limo and a cab, slid up to the curb at LAX. “Gone ‘till Tuesday? No Coach Cowboy ‘You have a better chance of hitting it with your eyes open’ wisdom for them? Dude… It’s not gonna fly. I’m tellin’ you–”

“Don’t you start that Coach Cowboy shit. And they’ll get over it, trust me.”

“Yeah right… They’re gonna ask me, man, get all up in my ass. What’s my chop for that?”

“What I just said. Gone ‘till Tuesday.”

“You don’t know those women like I do. They’ll–”

“I know more than enough. They all have trust issues. All of them. Men talkin’ shit, men full of shit, patronizing flower-buying smoke blowers… Even if I laid out my plan, which I can’t because I don’t have one, they’d still call bullshit because they want something they can hold in their hands, not more talk. So leave it. Next Hollywood burger run is on me ‘cause I’m not gonna hear all the crap they come up with about me this weekend, you are.”  Jackson popped his door open. “If I’m lucky, I’ll never hear it.”

“If you say so. But I don’t like it, bro. Not even… Hey… What about your fuckin’ dog, man? That’s too much dog to just –”

“Taisia’s got Ella. Eeze skates, Ella runs. They’ll wear each other out.”

“Goddam, man… How tall is she?”

“The Russian or the Wolfhound?” Jackson climbed out, tossed his garment bag over his shoulder, looked back in at his driver, winked. “Six-two. Take your pick.”

“Dickhead. Two Amazons, one on skates. My sons need to see that.”

“Sure ‘they’ do. Take an oxygen tank or an am cap.”

“They’re teenagers.”

“You aren’t.”

“Fuck. You. So…Tuesday. Are you sure that’s all you have to say?”

“Don’t try to sell it, man. Let it ride. Gone. Till. Tuesday. Second verse, same as the first.” He patted the Volvo’s front fender, walked away.

Trace lit a roach from the ashtray, the limo behind him honked, Airport Security appeared by his door.

“Sir, this is pick up only, not drop off. You —”

“It’s raining upstairs.”

“That’s what everybody says. You still need to move your vee… Whoa! Aren’t you the dude from Cleave —”

“Yes.” Trace handed the roach to the security guard. “How’d you like to be me for a weekend?”

“Whoa, dude!” The guard hit the roach, handed it back. “I would, you know, but like that’s impossible. I mean, I can’t play guitar.”

“How are you with angry women and softball?”

What’re others saying about dialog? Check it out.

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

NVDT Random – Oh, What the Hell

Once upon a time, someone suggested that I couldn’t write the gross stuff. So I reworked a ‘Jackson recruiting for the softball team’ bit into Russian Interference and forgot about it. Fast forward. This morning I had a post in the can about why bother writing fiction, but in that post, I read something that triggered something else, and what follows just fell out. Another thousand words to a vehicle on blocks in the weeds. Exercise is exercise, right?

***

Burke nodded at the two uniforms tying off yellow tape, pulled on his gloves. At the front door of the overgrown, desperately-in-need-of-paint 1920s Pasadena craft house a short, squat crime scene suit handed Burke a suit of his own, turned him around, and sent him back down the front steps with “Don’t care who you are, put this on.” He stepped off the cracked walk into dead grass and weeds to avoid the plastic evidence storage bucket brigade and shook out the disposable Tyvek suit with built-in booties. He wrote BURKE – MCD on the front and back of it with a Sharpie, struggled into and zipped it, hit the sidewalk in step with the in-bound parade. Inside, the first person he encountered was his FBI Task Force partner, her arms folded.

“About time, Burke.”

“Miss much, Lachelle?”

“Words will just get in the way.”

“Gloria Estefan. Nineteen-Eighty…?”

“Six. I was thinking Leon Russell.”

“What the hell do you know about Leon Russell?”

“As children, my sisters and I sang oldies for our supper. Everybody knows about the Wrecking Crew. White people, backing black girl groups? All the rage in El Lay back in the day.”

“Is that an issue now?”

“Could be the reason I can’t find a young brother anywhere can keep time without a damn drum machine.”

“So it was all a conspiracy to neuter black people’s natural rhythm?”

“Could be.”

“That’s why you went to college, joined the FBI? To sort that shit out? You do, they’ll put your face on a collectible stamp. Right in there with Thurgood Marshall, Lena Horne, Louis Armstong –”

“That’s enough.”

“If they do, picture me in a tile-lined, state-run eldercare, toothless, in diapers, licking the back of your head to stick your face on my Publisher’s Clearing House entry form.”

“You’re more disgusting than the crime scene, you know that?”

Burke wasn’t sure if it was his pee yellow Major Crimes Division suit or Laschelle’s emblazoned with FBI that parted the crowd of forensics bumping shoulders in the narrow halls while she led him through the restored once upon some time just after World War II house to the kitchen. The door of the fridge stood propped open with a found-on-site broom handle wedged between the door and the frame. Blood dripped from the bottom of the refrigerator into forensic collection Tupperware.

“Fuck. Me.” Burke turned from the gray-haired head thawing in the freezer compartment. Another, younger head with red not-found-in-nature hair sat on a Thanksgiving-themed serving platter over the vegetable bins. An almost full jug of Florida’s Natural Lemonade and a half-eaten Subway sandwich perched on the top shelf. “Can’t we make lemonade in California?”

“We used to be in the orange business.”

“I feel a ‘Disney is the evil empire’ sermon coming.”

“Not from me. I like my mice in underpants. And my orange juice from Florida.”

Burke glanced at the expensive coffee/grinder/espresso machine. “I don’t suppose there’s coffee…”

“There’s a Starbuck’s jug on the doughnut table. Out there,” she thumbed toward the back door. “On the driveway.”

“Espresso would be nice.”

“If you’re telling me you’d put anything made in this house into your mouth …”

“Couple of heads and a leftover meatball sandwich in the fridge, dirty coffee cups in the sink… Tells me it didn’t seem to bother whoever lives here.”

“Sick fuck.” She grabbed his arm, pulled him down a short hall into a taped off but unoccupied by forensics bedroom furnished in a stainless-steel table slightly larger than a twin bed with a commercial-grade meat grinder bolted to one end. Under the grinder, half a dozen empty five-gallon ice cream buckets hosted flies. By the hundreds.

“Now we know why no early morning Pasadena dogwalkers have called in any headless corpses for us. Was that anyone we should know in the freezer?”

“The freezer is her mother. The –”

“‘Her’?”

“The day-to-day things found here say female.”

“I should go take a –”

“Bagged, tagged, gone. You don’t need to be prowling around in feminine hygiene products and thirty tubes of lipstick when there’s real crime scene material here requires your particular brand of investigative ju-ju. Besides, we’ll for damn sure get more CSPs of minutiae out of here than we can look at in a fucking year. And before you get all pissy, I made them hold up on moving the hard stuff until you’d seen it, gotten your ‘vibe’.”

“How thoughtful. The mother. She had on lipstick. Makeup.”

“I think we’ll learn she was dead, probably from natural causes, before being decapitated and frozen for posterity.”

“ID on the other one?”

“This was in the fridge by her head.” Lachelle pulled a small forensic ziplock from the pocket of her hazmat, held it up. The bag contained a lapel pin. Suthapali Grenada, MD. Oncology.

“Rage. This is rage, Shell. It’s been about rage all along. Fuck. How’d we miss it?”

“Overtrained to ignore the obvious, maybe? Her mother tapped out, the girl lost it. After that, anybody having too good a time? AMF.”

“And you already know who ‘the girl’ is?”

“Waitin’ on you to catch up. It’s the Venice ice cream lady.”

“Fuck. Me.”

“You said that already. You can keep at it, but you’re not my type.”

“I don’t know if that was sexist, racist, or age-ist.”

“Get over yourself. Care to know what she did with the bodies?”

“Hamburger patties. Maybe breakfast sausages.”

“Damn. You’re good for an old white man.”

“There you go again. There was a six-pack patty press and a half-empty Costco size Cajun Spice jar on the kitchen counter.”

“I knew that. Making sure your eyes were on this early of a Sunday.”

“Goddammit…” He toed one of the ice cream buckets. “You know this has to be the biggest DNA cluster fuck ever. How many heads now, total? Thirteen, plus the two in there. Fifteen?”

“Sixteen.”

“You’re still wanting the freeway ramp cactus head in this. I say no.”

“I say you want a different obsessed, fucked up whackadoodle for that one, for job security. Sorry, they found cactus head’s charm bracelet in the garage.”

Shit. Now there’s trophies?”

“My Ontie used to say if you’re going to lose it, be textbook about it.”

“I need coffee.”

“I’ll say you do. Wait till you see the garage.”

NVDT Random – Succinct

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”

Michelangelo

This quote came to me via David Limrite’s weekly ‘Go get ’em, tiger’ email for graphic artists. I found it not only timely but very applicable. The post is here if you need some encouragement to shoot high and suck and not feel bad but learn from it. Been there so many times I became my own cheerleading section.

What I really want to know is how did Mike even see that stuff, much less nail it? And Beethoven. Get out. These people should be illegal.


NVDT #61 – Make Sense, Goddammit

 I was going to put this off, but it’s time for another discussion of mechanics. If only for me.

I complain a lot about scene-setting. And paragraph construction. What I’d like to do is what we did back in freaking high school. Dissect a passage of literature to discover its mechanics. Most people I engage with these days have no idea what I’m talking about. “Show Don’t Tell” with stilted, unimaginative call and response dialog is the main topic of discussion. Or compositional cut-and-paste sectionality. That’s a made-up word, sectionality. I figure it’s okay because the other day I watched a video where a hotshot DJ demoed a piece of software. He used a made-up word for a feature that’s been around longer than he’s been alive. If someone more literate, or even one working off phonics, went looking for that feature? They would never find it. Never mind. I have a post coming on that.

Scene setting.

The ever-popular postcard intro. A chunk that is descriptive of place and time, the author telling us where we are, the climate, how it smells, the flora and fauna, blah, blah, blah.

So? Hemingway did it in “Hills Like White Elephants”. It starts out like all postcards. Here’s some terrain for you. But – There’s an artistry in that opening. Like a master cinematographer’s focus puller, the scene starts out wide, pulls down the mountainside to the tracks, the station, the wall, the beads in the door, to the people. Bam. No clumsiness, no lack of transition or obvious transition. No “Here’s your scene. Got it?” No, higgledy-piggledy flitting around, no lack of logic.

Nope. We are funneled right down the mountainside and into the scene.

There are several ways to work the mechanics. Find the landing zone, the thesis of your scene/paragraph, which is often the first line of the following paragraph after the postcard and that is a classic example of sectioning (later). Park that thesis at the end of the postcard, not the beginning. Otherwise it renders the postcard a useless paste-on unless we can be put in it via all that illogic.

With a tarp held over my head, I made my way to the Mushroom Man. Noon and the sun would cook my skin without it. (Without what? A trip to to the mushroom man?) The city’s ruins, baked white, provided pockets of shade. I scrambled from shadow to shadow. (To what end? Oh, that stuff back there a few lines?)

What’s the point of all that? Making the way to the Mushroom Man. However, the pivotal action was made into a secondary clause semi-related to an article of clothing. I wish I was on my Surface and could use the red pen. So, we pull M Man and make everything else support that action, staying with the first person opening idea.

I snapped the reflective tarp over my head to keep me from cooking in the noon sun. The baked, white ruins of the city offered rare pockets of shade and I scrambled from shadow to shadow as I made my way to the Mushroom Man. (making my way, if you must, for you -ing people)

Start someplace. End someplace. Don’t go a couple places out of order in the middle. Lit logic, like math, requires an equation to get to the point. Before you drop a paragraph or scene and leave it, find the point of it. Once there, The Hemingway funnel (the focus pull) is the easiest way to get a fluid result.

While we’re here, let’s try to avoid ( as appears later)

the smell of loam filled my senses. 

Smell is one sense, and makes no sense filling the others without further description. How about giving the smell a modifier instead? Or filled my parched nostrils. Or, The air, thick with loam, assaulted my senses. Or a variation thereof with some sticky words like ‘was’ and ‘it’. Also, ‘filled’ is a big word that means filled. In the case of senses filled it would render one incapable of further action. No more sight, sound, smell… Protagonist overcome, story over. Think about what you’re saying and don’t count on your readers to read through it. Make sense, goddammit

The bumpy road – We all know this one. A great opportunity to set the landscape, the upkeep of the road, the car, the driver, the supplies, until we pull around the last tree/bend in the road and the castle/house/plantation/town pops into view. Videographers work this to death. Remember to log how they do it next time the inspector’s car pulls up in front of the manor house or the taxi makes its way across the rain-slicked bridge into ghetto funk or the dusty wild horse ride up to the ranch house. Those were the demos. If your road is long and winding, fix it.

Sectionality – Chunk A. Chunk B. No elbow grease on the seams.

Clods of frozen earth littered Vasily’s fields, he expected the weather would break them apart by spring. All the sugar beets had been yanked from the ground and piled into two grey-wood sheds. The Ural winds would continue to dry them, concentrating the sugars.

“Zima won’t marry you without land.” Vasily stood above the mouth of the grinder, 

What the hell? What is the point of the three disparate parts of this opening? What sort of sheds? Lean-to? Open-air? That’s the only way the Big Wind is going to dry them. We are given no reason to care about the fields or even the beets except for their sugar being concentrated. To what end? Here’s your frozen field where beets used to be. ZONK. Oh look, someone’s talking.

The Ural winds whipped (howled, etc) over Vasily’s fields. Fields now a barren landscape of frozen clods, and they’d stay that way until spring. The beets that had been yanked from those fields now piled into grey-wood sheds to dry, concentrating their sugars. Vasily pulled his gaze away from the window, returned to the tasks at hand.

“Zima won’t marry you without land.” Vasily stood above the grinder…

There comes a time where all our Google or National Geographic-isms need to sit down unless we want to get more descriptive about what type of shed will allow for Ural winds to dry beets. Otherwise, it’s a geography lesson, so set the winds free from any specific task.

Again, start somewhere, wide if you want, and flow into the people. Yes, the window was a cliché funnel and there’s plenty of passive voice. Check out the best sellers below, or Hemingway, and get over it. At least it wasn’t ‘how the hell are these things related?’ bullet points, a line break and dialog.

Aside from “Hills Like White Elephants”, which is widely available, the below examples are both quite good and worth a study if only for their mechanics.

Helen Simonson in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand works several mechanical devices to drop readers into a scene. You can read the first page as a look-inside on Amazon. Here’s her trick. She always involves people, usually with an interruption. In other parts of the book the characters find the need to reflect for a page and a half on England’s bucolic Green and Pleasant. But otherwise we get bits and pieces of where, how, time, furniture, personality… Without overkill. We get the set decorations as the characters become involved with them. Not, “Here’s the old settee covered in X etc…” We get the settee as experienced by a character sitting in it as part of the action/interaction. She even weaves backstory (with a cliché mechanism, but it’s thankfully brief) into the scene. The scene works though. Well, the dead wife picture is hokey, but it’s so well-greased I let it slide. And it doesn’t eat up a page and a half.

Jennifer Eagan’s The Keep works along the same lines but with a touch of the bumpy road. We are told of an ancient castle and in the very next line we begin to experience the terrain, the weather, everything through the character. She uses some great word choices along the way. For immediate backstory, we get comparison and contrast between the weather here and back there and a few airport incidents that border on author digs, but throughout the entire book she breaks the 4th wall like a good post-modernist, so she’s entitled. This is also available as a look-inside on Amazon.

The one thing I got from the useless Stanford class were these two books from the reading list. I dove right in, even if no one else wanted to discuss mechanics. I also heard words like “hate” used to describe works of fiction. You didn’t like it. Okay. Maybe it really sucked. Okay. But you can’t really “hate” it. It’s not like a book murdered your grandmother or anything. You didn’t like it or thought it sucked, next. Hating is  waste of energy.

Thesis (funneled way down here) – Find the point of the scene/paragraph. Make it one good sentence and then dress it for your party. But make sure you know WTF you’re trying to say, and say it with a modicum of precision before you give it a pass and move on.

The examples used above were from Anonymole’s September scene writing challenge. This wasn’t a cheap shot, he knew it was coming.

 

NVDT #60 – Fruits, Pumpkins, and Story Food

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

Prompt – What is your favorite fruit dish? Can you share a recipe for it? Do you include food in your stories? While we’re talking about food, pumpkin, yea or nay?

My favorite fruit dish is pictured above. Not just apples, but lots of different fruits. In that format. You see fruits and I are at an impasse. I don’t like to peel and slice and do all that. Like I lived in Hawaii one summer and man, I loved the fruit bowls. That someone else prepped. And the easy ones, like strawberries, I enjoyed those as a kid, but now they gross me out. Same with all the little blue ones. Used to pick those with my grandmother and turn my face purple. No more. Thesis – My idea of good fruit is the juicy, chunky stuff that someone else has to prep.

Pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice cake, whipped cream, and buttercream icing? Hell yeah.

Do I use food in my stories? Yes. Sorta. Only as scene vehicles to get dialog driving. No recipes or shopping trips with the recipe list. Hey, wouldn’t be me without a coupla half chapters!

Two examples –

Bobby B II

The two-story overhead door to the backlot at Monterrey Mick’s Mad Mods was open most of the way. Warm, haze filtered Mid-Afternoon Saturday in L.A. sunshine flooded the area on both sides of the French drain that ran the width of the door. Bobby faced the sun on one side of the drain, Bernie on the other, each perched on one of the red and white Coleman coolers the jumbo shrimp had shipped in. They had a lazy rhythm working as they pulled shrimp out of a pile of ice on an aluminum cart for a slice and devein before they rinsed them under a propped-up garden hose and tossed them into a big pot of ice water. The sixteen-gallon shrimp-boil pot Bobby had rented, full of Bernie’s Trinity and spice, pearl onions, and baby Yukon Gold potatoes simmered on a propane burner in the corner like a giant diffuser full of an aroma called “home.”

“This shrimp’s not too nasty for the Gulf, Boudreaux.” Bernie squinted, held one up and tossed it into the bucket of ice water, reached for another.

“Farm-raised tigers. They shoulda been deveined before they left.”

“Farm-raised explains the short on nasty. Deveined would drive the price way up. Think about paying you and me right now in Hollywood dollars for all the Sunday afternoons we did this for free when we were coming up.” She held up a hand sealed in a stainless-steel mesh glove. “You order the gloves with the shrimp?”

“Asked Senior to pick these up when he bought the knives.” He held up his own gloved hand, wiggled his fingers. “I knew he’d send the sharpest ones he could find. Told him I’d like to keep my thumb.”

She shook her hair out of her face, not looking at him in the midst of a shrimp toss. Whatever was gnawing at her, the smell of home, the Trinity she put together from memory in her sink, the easy talk, the familiarity of place, the laughter over roach coach breakfasts on the set with this kid… She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it forced out “Mick’s looking for a way into your money, Boudreaux.”

“So are you. You workin’ with him, or free lancin’?”

She kept up her end of the one for me, one for you deveining, let three cycles go by. “I’m waiting to see where the eye tracks. How’d you know?”

“I didn’t come out here to learn about cars, I came to learn about people. I figured the place that would take me didn’t see me at all, they saw easy money.” He tossed a shrimp, looked over at her. “I asked a man who does background checks for a boat company I started to run everybody connected to this place. ‘Cause I wanted to see whatever the game was. He said if I saw it once when I could see it coming, I’d understand the scam mechanics and get past feeling like a dumb redneck kid all the time.”

She waited for two more shrimp cycles, built up a little steam. “This man of yours decided, out of all the dime bags of fuck-everybody-and-everything money-grubbing narcissistic Hollywood assholes in this place that I was the one?”

“No.” He wasn’t sure he could tell her yet that she was the only star in the sky at Mick’s Mad Mods. Or that he knew she’d spent every dime she made as a suntan oil and bikini model on UCLA and a diction coach to get her voice out of the bayou. “He said you had a degree in entertainment marketing, had told these people you were ready to rob a liquor store to get some investment money together for anything to get you out of TNA work, and they pulled you in.”

 ***

The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery

“I don’t like helicopters.”

She hooked my arm with hers. Hooked. A perfect word.

“Why?” She would always look better in one of my shirts, crazy morning hair, inquisitive eyes and all than I ever would.

“I was flying before I could drive. I’m probably alive today because of my deep and abiding distrust of helicopters. Besides, in the Cub,” I flipped a custom three pepper omelet the size of the twelve-inch skillet, “with good weather I can be airborne in 75 feet, maybe less, so…”

“Who needs one, right?” She furrowed her eyebrows. “You do know the only reason it flipped with such ease is the pound of butter.”

“It’s a skill.”

“Don’t kid yourself. It’s the butter.” She released my arm, ran a pizza wheel through the omelet, held back half while I tilted the pan, let half slide off onto her plate. I moved the skillet and let the other half drop the same way on mine.

“Butter is something I learned from my mother. I hear olive oil is healthier, but I save that for vegetables.”

Tu Madre, eh? Did she die of a coronary?”

“Not yet.”

“Decent genes and you know about vegetables.” She dropped a sausage link on her plate, licked her fingertips. “And you can almost cook.” The cocked eyebrows and smile were for effect before she stepped outside in the morning shade of hundred-year-old cottonwoods and pecan trees that surrounded my patch of planet Earth. “How can it be that a morning so perfectamente maravillosa prefaces the heat of hell?”

Like most people who comment on predictable weather, Cav didn’t expect an answer. She stood barefoot on the pea gravel, her left hip kicked out slightly to the side, forked a small mouthful of omelet and surveyed my landscaping.

“This,” she rubbed her foot on the smooth pea gravel, delivered “It is native to the area?” with a straight face.

“I liberated it from an unsupervised highway department materials yard.”

“The work was difficult?”

“No ill effects.”

Espléndida.” She pointed her fork at the water. “Your lake is lovely.”

“It’s not much, but it’s mine.” I say mine. It wasn’t very big, but stock ponds are lakes in parts of Texas. And I was the only full-time squatter on this one. My nearest neighbor was an ancient black man who grumbled but never spoke, lived off-site and drove up with his dog in about fifteen minutes when someone called from the phone hanging off the back of the gas pump at the marina. Which had happened three times in seven months. I think having a marina or an improved boat ramp makes it officially a lake, even though the marina was a pier, a shack, and a gas pump, and the back-your-boat-in ramp was a pair of muddy ruts next to the ‘marina.’ I stepped out of the ancient Airstream to join her.

“That’s the one?” She nodded at the Cub Craft sitting half-in and half-out of the water, tied off to an old parking lot concrete bar. “She flies in 75 feet?”

“Good weather, medium load, and the floats off.”

“I want to see.”

“Now?”

Pendejo. I’m eating. Hey. You didn’t tell me you had Tabasco.” She tapped my nose with her fork, waited for me to return with the familiar red bottle. “Do you know of Kerrigan, Paro? It’s a town the size of a fly-speck in this Texas of yours.”

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

Rules:
1. Link your blog to this hop.
2. Notify your following that you are participating in this blog hop.
3. Promise to visit/leave a comment on all participants’ blogs.
4. Tweet/or share each person’s blog post. Use #OpenBook when tweeting.
5. Put a banner on your blog that you are participating.