Certificate of Authenticity

When she saw the Welcome to Umbridge Enterprises sign, painted in a trendy whitewashed font on a plank sign on the side of the two lane, Annabelle whipped the rented Grand Cherokee across a small sea shell parking area in danger of being overgrown by saw grass, parked between a faded used-to-be-red Ram pickup and a new, black Mercedes SUV. She put her right hand in the square red leather shoulder bag, took the safety off her Glock, stepped out into the bright Florida sunshine.

She started across the fifty-foot arched wooden bridge paved with asphalt shingles that led to an unpainted, faded cedar shake façade manufactured home surrounded by a covered veranda that sported a random collection of patio and beach furniture and a pair of rusty propane grills. The waist high ballustrade was draped with fake fish nets, adorned with faded plastic starfish and seahorses. The whole mess sat on pilings over the St. Johns River narrows and tied to a floating dock behind it was her missing white Swamp Vue Cabrio.

***

Preston Umbridge clicked the remote, brought up the four-panel screen of security cameras on the wall mounted TV. “Either of you two pig fuckers order up a jigaboo hooker?”

“What the fuck, Boss? Fella was about to nail him a big ass gator an – whoa shit,” the dirty wife beater and camo cargos clad Pillsbury dough boy on the couch sat up. “Who the hell is that?”

“No shit ‘whoa shit’ Wally. Fuckin’ dumb ass.” The tall bony guy pulled on his waders, pointed at the screen. “That’s the nigger woman we done stole the boat from, that’s who.”

Umbridge dropped the remote on his desk. “You’re telling me you two idiots was so obvious stealin’ that boat a woman could find it? Shit.” He ran his hands over his hair and beard, wiped his lips with his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t just stand there, Steep, let her in ‘fore she breaks the goddam door down.”

Annabelle, black leggings and long tailed black silk blouse, matching red heels, earrings and purse stepped into the man cave of Umbridge Enterprises. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Annabelle Monette. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

Umbridge stood behind his desk, undisguised snicker in his voice. “Preston Umbridge, may-am.” He bowed. “To my right is Mr. Walrus. My associate Mr. Steeple let you in. Without an appointment.”

“I make my own appointments. Walrus I understand. Too much mustache, belly and ugly. Steeple makes no sense to me.” She studied the man walking back toward his boss. “Beanpole, maybe.”

“Now, now. Legend says Steep’s sainted Momma christened him with it just before she died, lookin’ out the hospital window at the First United Methodist Church of Mun-row bell tower.”

“I had an Ontie named Iris and she told the same story about flowers in her momma’s garden. We could go on about the Indian named Two Dogs Fucking in the Mud but let’s not waste each other’s time, gentlemen. I have come for my boat.”

“I’m sure we don’t have ‘your’ boat.” Umbridge tugged his longish manicured beard, puffed up. “And if we did, I doubt we’d return it. Things that end up here are like gifts. Or tithe offerings. Ain’t that right boys?”

“It’s the white Swamp Vue Cabrio tied off next to two patent and intellectual property theft counterfeits. Both to be confiscated and destroyed as contraband. The Swamp Vue is not now, nor was it ever, a gift.”

“The white one?” Umbridge put a point on ‘white.’ “That’s different. Lessee, Cabrio, Cabrio…I recall having a Bill of Sale for that somewhere.” He made a show of opening and closing drawers.

“Never you mind looking for it. I have an equally legitimate certificate of authenticity for the lock of our Lord and Saviour’s hair my Ontie Delores keeps in a Café Du Monde coffee tin and prays to five times a day.”

“Ain’t nothin’ any of us can do about our families, is there?” He slammed  the drawer he had open. “I also seem to recall Larson makes theirselves a Cabrio. Whattaya think it’s worth to them to find out about yours?”

“I’ve spoken to them and all the lawyers are satisfied that as I do not manufacture mid-cabin drug-running speed boats there is no conflict. That’s how it is when people cooperate. Had you come to me with a franchise manufacturing offer we might have bypassed all this unpleasantness. I am not a fool, Mr. Umbridge. After I talked to your local people, showed them the manufacturing paperwork, patent applications, all more than most around here could read in a lifetime I concluded that I needed to look elsewhere for assistance in recovering my property. And to come see for myself what a genuine corrupt, low life thief and liar Floor-ida bad man looked like.”

Walrus flicked open a three-inch lock back pocket knife, cleaned his index fingernail with it. “We don’t cotton to name callin’, now. Smokes and O-yays particular doin’ that shit ain’t seen much of after.”

“Where I came up in Detroit my momma’s paperboy was more dangerous, and considerably smarter than all three of you put together. I’m not here to get in a pissing contest with some Little Dick-ey Mafia fiefdom, I’m here for my boat and to bring you the gospel according to Annabelle Monette.”

Umbridge held out an arm to stop Walrus. “Which would be?”

“Not everyone is scared of you Mr. Umbridge. Least of all me. Come hell or high water, with or without your blessing, I will sell boats in central Florida.”

Walrus took a step. Without looking Annabelle pointed her non-purse hand at the television. “While we’ve been having our little chat, those gentlemen arrived to pick up my boat and destroy your copies.”

“What the hell?” Umbridge pulled a revolver from his desk drawer. “You two, what the fuck do I pay you for? Go stop those mother –”

“I wouldn’t. Those are Federal Marshalls. From Miami. Looking for you to give them a reason to level this place once I am safely out the door.”

“She’s fuckin’ lyin’.” Walrus took another step Anabelle’s way and one of the counterfeit Swamp Vues below went ka-whoooom. The explosion sent a geyser of water and debris up past the sliding patio doors at the back of the office, rained down on the roof.

Steeple slid the patio door open, leaned out over the veranda rail far enough to see the brown-water gun boat, look down the barrels of its 50-caliber machine guns. “She ain’t lyin’, Wally.” He glanced down further, counted at least eight red laser-sight dots on his chest, and froze. “No fuckin’ shit she ain’t lyin’.”

“And wired, too. Goddammit.” Umbridge grabbed Steep by the back of his fishing vest. “Git back in here ‘fore you piss yoursef.” He turned a red raged face at Annabelle. “We’ll continue this discussion, Annabelle Mo-nay. Soon.”

“My door is always open, gentlemen. If you come, wear shirts with sleeves. I only need to see three cheap, dirty white men in cheap, dirty wife beaters one time to know it’s not an experience I choose to repeat.”

Writerly Concerns #11

Your (used literally) Reality is Showing

Ruminations of Truth and Fiction

There are thousands of quotes about fiction. Here’s a few. Not in depth, just for the sake of this rumination.

From E.M. Forster’s Howards End – Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere.  Taken out of context it still works. The point in the discussion this comes from is that life is unmanageable. That morality and preparedness are useless. A point that makes fiction, as explained to me by an editor one time as “the place where we can cut the shaggy dog elliptical dialogue and other messes of reality.” Where we can introduce enough humanity and emotion to make a direct point, have direct impact, take direct action. Unlike the standing in a canoe feeling real life often offers.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction – I will send you here for the story on that quote. Again, the consensus is that Fiction is bound by rules and imagination and is thereby constrained. Truth is not bound by anything.

David Foster Wallace’s take, that I will have to paraphrase because I can’t find it right now, is Fiction and Truth are not so dissimilar. I’m not sure if that was was a reference to the “realism” school of fiction writing, or the fact that if you look around the world is full of stream of consciousness weirdness. And if you look at it that way, Truth and Fiction are the same thing. One person’s unthinkable Truths are someone else’s Fictions. Further on that –

Consider Thoreau’s Walden – The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. A friend said to me recently, “We all live the same lives in different houses.” The Grand Illusion. Maybe the details change. But to me, like Fiction, Truth is limited by perception. We cannot conceive of an unknown Truth, therefore acknowledge it, if it is beyond our comprehension. Something so bizarre could happen, something we never saw coming, to make Truth all the more strange. But until it happens we are back to square one. Morality and all the other tactile preparedness routines, all the ways we can arm ourselves against unmanageable Truth are futile because all we understand of Truth is what we know. And it’s the unknown that blindsides us. And in Truth? We are never bitten on the ass by anything unheard of, merely mosquitos (metaphorically) that slipped in the back door when we let the dog out to pee.

Why all of this? Truth or Fiction, the Lie that Tells a Truth, the Truth that Tells a Lie? Lying in the face of truth? There’s a big one. It could be a live talking heads news show or a Fifties J.D. MacDonald novel or staggeringly deep Noir-ish psychodrama about losers and lives of lies and deceit or it could be in the kitchen. Well, the why of all of this is that I agree with Wallace. Because I have seen enough and heard enough and lived enough “Fiction” venues playing out as someone’s Truth in the last couple of years to last me the rest of my lifetime.

On top of that the question has been asked “What happened to Happy Endings?” (No, not a Travolta massage). I don’t know.

Even worse, as a proponent of bringing back the Happy Ending I discover they are, indeed, fantasy beyond my grasp to compose. I can’t get there from here. Once I got the characters dirty I didn’t/don’t have an answer for them. Forgiveness? Understanding? Even ignorance. Once the sheen is gone, it’s gone, and I haven’t found the magic bottle of As Seen on TV Happy Ending renewal, complete with microfiber polish cloth, that will help.

The answer, for the record, and this might sound facetious to what happened to the Happy Ending is that a lot of people literate enough to write, even awkwardly, are too old or smarter than I am and have known better all along.

Baggage is baggage. Truth, once it invades Fiction, becomes the incomprehensible, the hurdle no one can jump, the leap of faith no one can take, the suspension of belief or disbelief no one can quite buy into. Because Truth sucks. Escaping it is impossible. That’s what it has over Fiction. If you let your Fiction get away from you with dirty Truths, or your truths with dirty Fiction that MacDonald can’t set straight with at least one or maybe two well placed problem-solving murders, then we’re back to the Seventies where the bad guys win every once in a while. Or more often than not.

Truth, or Fiction? Keep them separate. Once cross contaminated a lot of work gets sent rolling down the drain. Along with a lot of belief systems we are unarmed against and ill prepared to manage. Don’t let dirty Truth ruin your Fiction.

Writerly Concerns #10 – Content Forward

Style, Substance, and The Wisdom of Nacogdoches

I returned from a week off to discover discussions of style. On the heels of several discussions about marketing and design and what amounts to curb appeal. As well as a debate with myself about the futility of why bother furthering this adventure because of my opinions (and choices) in regard to those subjects are often unpopular. But writing, or any creative adventure, (I’m a synthesist for God’s sake) is not about being popular, or conventional, it’s about discovery. You wouldn’t know that by all the discussions of mechanics.

I also discovered the internet is not the medium for writing anything of significance, either to an audience or ones self. He said, petulantly. Or, He said, nose thrust up theatrically in the universal pose of snobbery. Or the style choice of “point made, no attribution.” Or delete past “thrust up.” Choices. Everywhere. How we say what we say and what we don’t.

I read a lot of authors. Rarely entire books. Like listening to a song for the production values, not the song. I read some earlier P.D. James, before she became a franchise. Only two chapters for “style”. I learned two things. I had to read several pages of dialogue before I found any tags. Yay! I learned how to (my opinion) overwrite staging a scene. Something she was famous for, creating atmosphere. Down to how many dirty Kleenex were on the overly described flaws in the kitchen table. She would fail miserably doing that on a short attention span blog post.

I read J.D. Macdonald. I noticed he repeated a word, often in the same sentence, often in the same paragraph. Today Grammarly or an editor would say “You used (word X) three lines ago, third time on this page. Don’t you own a Thesaurus?” He evoked the same sense of place as James, in far fewer words. Less detail, no Kleenex, but as a reader you were right there. Do we need descriptions of filth or clutter? I don’t know. Fast food bags and a week’s worth of dishes in the sink does it for me. I do know he nailed Latin dance music of the 50s without a single bit of musical or musician vernacular, as well as the two people dancing to it, the night, the room, all of it in about as many words as I’m using here. BAM. Otherwise, his characters and their perceptions of each other vs who they were to themselves and their relationships was almost overwritten. No points off though, he was using all of them to beat the various forms personal condemnation might take while backstorying a murder. The murder of consequence only as a vehicle for all the character study.

I read David Foster Wallace. Okay, that’s literature. This piece was like Vonnegut,  skating with one foot on either side of the absurd as if it were perfectly real. But that’s life, really. There are times that Wallace is excruciatingly detailed and hilarious at the same time. Like British comedy. Push the timing limit envelope as far as it will go. He is also invisibly poignant to the point of pulling your heart out. He has the angst of MacDonald lost in society, the atmosphere of James, internal and external. As an added benefit, you never see his education except when he flogs the entire academic/pop culture/publishing industries and tells a ridiculous story embedded in black comedy social commentary. If you find the opportunity to read “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, do it. (It is not a discussion of the painting from 1861 by the same name.)

Did I mention I was out of town? Spent a day and a half in Mendocino, California. If you watched tv in the Eighties it was really Cabot Cove, Maine. Hometown to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote. In P.D. James’ Devices and Desires her forward is a location disclaimer. Between two points in the real world she created a false, detailed location for her story. Wallace as well has us in a place so real yet unreal. MacDonald sets a fictitious house on a real lake. His characters occupy pretend places in real places. I think we should all do that, save for historical (yawn) novels. Build a sense of place out of a place. Nobody needs a Hollywood or Bermuda travelogue. As deep as P.D. James, as deceptive as Murder She Wrote, as un-real real as Wallace or MacDonald (or pick a big leaguer).

Got off topic there – What they all have in common (save Wallace) isn’t geographic misdirection, or the depth or lack of “atmosphere,” but the parade through character flaws of possible suspects. I discovered further down the road the following day that Raymond Burr’s winery had been sold. Perry Mason was another one of those parades.

It’s all style. Same formula. Flesh it out or pull it in. Deep content or cardboard.

Wallace alone writes stream of consciousness without “arc” or “formula.” Here they are, three strangers, not very sympathetic going through a hell of a boring day. On the surface. The good guys and the bad guys and the fairy godmothers aren’t wearing black or white hats or long tulle skirts and waving wands. They’re ad executives and rent a car counter agents and wife stealers and all kinds of people who can wreck your mind and your life if you let them, just like all the characters in all the other books. Only without being wrapped around a murder or an event. They just are. Like us. (Absurd) or touching Stories of People. Steinbeck does that on occasion as well.

I have seen Hemingway and Steinbeck and London bandied around as style models. All very different. A good deal of a Hemingway isn’t on the page. Steinbeck once said that Of Mice and Men was a way bigger story than a hack like him could write. (!) Clue – All the authors you remember force you into being with their characters. You go OMG, or WTF. Even if you don’t particularly like them, or they aren’t all that sympathetic, maybe they’re even jerks. But we follow them because –

There are no tricks. Since ancient times the Canons of Rhetoric will give you a work. Add Aristotle’s three major styles to work the scenes and draw your audience in. Work your characters and readers emotions up and down with language appropriate to what you want them to feel. No magic, no equations, no “style” copy. Say what needs to be said to put you and the reader and your characters in your scene, and delete everything else.

I think of style in terms of music. Music happens in the spaces between the notes. The story is told in the rhythm and pacing of those spaces. What’s not there is the reader’s, or listeners. And that’s why they’ve opted in. Not for our wonderous prose or flashy hemi-demi-semi quavers, but what we offer their imaginations with a story or piece of music.

My point – I think maybe we should be more concerned with how we sculpt our content than tricks and equations and curb appeal. There I am with those damn opinions. I will leave you with a true story from the music biz, names and all, as a parable.

Willie Nelson cut an album called Nacogdoches. In, of all places, Nacogdoches. At a studio in that same town owned by a friend and client of mine, Dana Woods. There’s a much longer story about that studio for some other time. Onward. Willie went to East Texas to cut a handful of standards with some old guys he’d known forever. Songs like “Stardust” and “How High the Moon”. Classics. Dana invited me for rough mixes night. The small control room is reasonably crowded, lights flash, the Mac screen scrolls. Willie is off to the side leaning elbows down on a rack cabinet, listening. First tune rolls by. Everyone nods, maybe a low-key muso only insider comment floats by. Dana’s intern ostentatiously effused, “Wow. That was a great cut.” Tunes and scene repeat, as do intern’s enthusiastic variations on “That was a great track.” After about five or six “Man, that was a great track” opines, Willie looks up, still in his rack lean, drawls in that unmistakeable nasally twang –

“Y’know, it’s hard to cut a bad standard.”

Random NVDT – Writer(ly) Concerns #9 – “Pinkly”

“The rain was washing the blood pinkly away.” *

Oh. My. God. Really?

I was going to pop the first THG III chapter. Then I was going to say no, wait up, here’s a backstory chapter so it’s not like instant melodrama. Then I was going to finish the Mescaline Blue short, but it got such resounding reviews I bailed. Besides, the last bit sits at 2.35k and needs to be 1.4k. I can’t seem to cut and paste and shuffle and get the story told so screw it, he said, virtually yet still resolutely  tossing it underhandedly at the Rubbermaid trash bucket that sat dustily and blackly in it’s shadowly corner where it bounced, ricochetly off the swinging top, to roll languidly across the floor disrupting the cat sleepily napping. Napping sleepily Nappily sleeping?

Good. God. I really was going to do all those things until I was thrown mightily to the floor, incapacitated by the headline sentence, to lie numbly, stupidly still.

I have a theory. A lot of authors, particularly the franchise-able ones, have research assistants and staff and as they get on down the road the Franklin W. Dixon / Carolyn Keene effect kicks in. In fact the Spenser series originated by Robert B Parker is in Taco Bell land now with someone I suppose apprenticed/interned/researched with/for Parker when Parker was among the living. I noticed the same thing in the last few Tony Hillerman’s (that sucked, personal opinion) and the last few Elmore Leonard’s that were re-runs. Well, a deep study will show all those formula western/cop/detective things to be recharacterized re-runs, but that’s what we do, invent characters to plug into a stroy.

I think successful authors know how low the candle is getting, and hand off more and more of their duties. Because there is no excuse, outside of medication or getting confused about which series he was writing that Parker, the man who picked up the torch and finished a Raymond Chandler book, to write, on the coldest day in hell, the word “pinkly.” Or “wetly” for that matter. Or for someone who prided himself on his literary background use the word “languid” and the LY variation of it repeatedly. To describe dust motes, dog walkers, lawn sprinklers and the approach of a woman. And that’s the first half.

“Pinkly” is also one of those things wrong with the major publishing houses. Like tires and mac and cheese, it’s branding, not content. First off, no one caught it. No one at a giant publishing house raised an eyebrow at “pinkly.” I promise you if I played “pinkly” in a scrabble game I’d get hammered.

The last several Ace Atkins as Robert Parker outings are laughable for their lack of editing and proof reading. I wouldn’t let some of that junk out as a docx file to anybody. I know they must be selling on the label, based on the reviews of people waiting for the real Spenser to come back. Somebody better summon Edgar Cayce, quick.

Stupid, boring chattery content? I’ll own that, and have a hard drive full of it. Sloppy and lazy execution of same? No way. Even if it’s chit chat pablum, it needs to be well constructed chit chat pablum.

What has any of that got to do with anything? I’m pretty sure, and concerned, that the events and (mis)adventures of Jackson in Hollywood and Deanna in Cambridge in THG III are rough and drafty and will be received as such. And maybe I’m hedging a little about vomiting draft quality work. However, after reading the lazy slop that has been published by award winning authors and their award winning franchisees, after “pinkly”? Get the mop and bucket.

*School Days © 2005 by Robert B Parker

Random NDVT – Writerly Concerns #8

Writer’s Block – The Muse

I got five emails over the weekend about Writer’s Block. Three from “editor and writing coach” blogs (those people are full of shit, generally, and their examples and suggestions pathetic), one from someone ranting on me after 45 years saying I must have writer’s block because I mentioned they wouldn’t talk to me about anything of consequence, and one from a writer friend who should know better. Look here people. I did product specialist Artist Relations in the music business. I have stories. But I ain’t telling anybody’s stories out of school. I don’t care if you’re a priest or a rock star or an ex high school cheerleader. Because?

I don’t have to. Dig this. There is no Writer’s Block. It’s an urban myth. Like finding Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in a pawn shop for $50. Writer’s Block is the direct result of trying to control your output. News Flash. Unless you have a pre-ordained point and a target, you have to actively participate in the creative process, not force it. If you have ever had to create for $, in any medium, you know that you develop your craft to the point that you jam (extemporaneously create) until something gets you on the same wavelength as the art director or the editor, and gels.  Or you sit, adjust the fine tuning on the cosmic radio because the Muse never sleeps, and listen. And you get a gift. Too simple?

No.

I was going to go into inspiration and the Muse ad nauseam with people and examples. Instead I say just write it up. What did you do this morning? Where did you go? Who did you see? I could write three fake trendy WP poetry blogs off the grand dog that got out, the hardware store geezers and pink (!) wood filler putty. Nothing about Van Halen, Rick Wakeman, or anybody I went to high school with. Trust me, there’s some quality material going to waste right there.

However, and I’m not L. Ron Hubbard looking for a religion to start, but next time someone says “Writer’s Block” to you, tell them it’s bullshit and I said so. Why? Go to a hardware store.

Hardware store
Not home center
Hardware store
I go there to feel young
Young-ger
Because of Plumbing Geezer in a
Wheelchair with
Oxygen tank
I see him against a green
screen
Scuba diving in that rig
Remember “Sea Hunt”?
Doubtful –
I say I need some three inch nipples
He snickers
Don’t we all
I chuckle
Out of social polite-ness
Locker rooms and sexism are
Everywhere
He tells me he was a Hippie
Honest to God Haight Ashbury Hippie
I say my recovery nurse after they rebuilt my
Asshole
Said she was there
Maybe I knew her he says
She said all the guys were horny, smelly leather clad
Assholes with corny
Lines trying to get
Laid
Same as always and she said
No
A lot.
You guys would tell her
You have
Hang Ups and she’d say
No
I’m not hung up, I just don’t want to make love with
Your
Stinky ass
Right now
Scuba plumber laughs out loud says
Yep
She knew me, anyway
Hands me a nipple says
These things travel in pairs
Woody Allen I say, hot and cold
Why plumbing parts sound like women parts
Hot
And cold
I fail to acknowledge that
Wisdom –
On the way to the register I
Think
In Oklahoma
We read about Haight Ashbury Hippies and
Pretended
About all that was
Different?
Geography and
Publicity
And
According to the remodeled asshole recovery nurse
Okies
Seriously
Might have bathed
More often

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 4

Pardon me, your writer is showing

Here it Comes – Show Don’t Tell – My Take – For the most part a society that Googles everything from forgotten salad dressing ratios to what does guacamole taste like hasn’t got a clue. I looked it up for us. The takeaway?

“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story.

Why not? Because it would take forever to write. Or read. There are successful writers out there who ignore this and write and write and write. And others attributed to the same style write very little. Here we are again with a RULE that means nothing. Dial it up, dial it down, ignore it altogether. Properly applied I believe, as I do about dialogue, it all has to do with rhythm and pacing. Musicality.

The first of two approaches to “show don’t tell” involve using flowery, evocative language. Exercise: Put the reader in the stinky bathroom of a desert gas station. No, just kidding. To what end? To prove you can write about rust stains and dried turds and warped mirrors and peeling paint on cinder blocks and decades of dried urine in the grout for two and a half pages? Maybe, if it was a guy who got beat up by mobsters and left for dead in the desert and you want to put the reader’s face on that floor with him when he crawls in out of the sand. But to me that’s writing to prove you can.

The other approach is drop a few nuggets, let the reader fill in the blanks. Truth – You know we don’t see in color with our peripheral vision. Our brains fill it in for us based on context. That’s the iceberg concept. Hemingway, etc. So if I say to you “a porch twenty feet from the bayou on a humid summer night,” I might offer “pungent” and a mosquito swat that yielded blood and maybe a sweaty bandanna wipe but the rest of it is on you. Because there’s a story being told on that porch and all that flowery sense of place crap is background and there’s no reason to waste a John Williams theme on crickets and frogs and foley work. Personal opinion only. Unless of course you write like David Foster Wallace and then, by all means, watercolor it all together and knock it out of the park for us.

Narrative – Narrative is great to get from impact scene to impact scene, as above. Personally I shorten narrative to it’s extreme cutoff point. Example: Deanna stepped through the steam and the mist, boarded the train more homesick than she ever imagined possible. Done. She gets off the train and the story continues. Narrative is a great device to get some story told from point A to point B and is necessary to kick the story along without the minutia of Deanna brushing her teeth that morning and giving five pages of flashback about why she’s homesick. A decent author would have put us in her shoes chapters ago. Which brings me to –

Narrative excess – An equally wordy writerly option to show, don’t tell excess and a way to show off your research and waste a LOT of time that isn’t show, don’t tell. Unless you want to write about the texture of deciduous tree bark, like the restroom floor example above. Example: I have been reading this damn book that is both a good story and well written and a humongous PIA. I mean the main character gets up off the bed in a motel room from a conversation with a girl (not a sex scene, just dialogue furthering the story ) to go splash water on his face. We are treated to two and half pages of dense, blocks of text backstory. Which could have been easily condensed to a paragraph, or had it been me, three lines. It would have made a great ‘insert backstory video clip here’ in a movie. Maybe. And the whole damn book would have been at least 30% shorter had it been written in a linear time line. The flashbacks and backstory are worse than any Noir film. Like Timothy Leary moments. Exercise: Person sees reflection in sugar dispenser top. Now, jump out of mid dialogue getting the story told into deep reflective space for 600-800 words and then jump back into the convo with other person saying “Are you OK?” “Yeah, just thinking.” Just thinking my ass. Maybe the thought flew by but just reading it my coffee got cold and I’m still in a red vinyl booth in a diner no further along than I was three pages ago.

I don’t call the rules into question or try to sell them or even justify how to avoid them. All I want is for everyone to see that style is everything, and to write like we mean it. Regardless of what it is or where you find your voice. Tell your story. To the best of your ability. Every time. Turn it up. Or turn it off.  Remember, when your fluffy fill up space writer is showing…

And neither should we. Get to the red ‘Vette of your story. Leave the Volvo in the dust.

 

Random NVDT “Standards” and a Writerly Concerns Update

Standards are supposed to make life easier. Devices from different manufacturers should talk to one another. My favorite was the original “plug and play.” Not. The same may be said of “class compliant” USB, leading us to believe drivers aren’t needed. Display to multiple monitors? Well, there’s 1.1, or 1.3 or 1.4. Which HDMI? If there were standards, blades or other accessories from one blender or mixer or coffee pot would work with others. “Standards” are set in place to make sure things are “standardized.” Like #2 Pencils whose lead varies widely. Number #2 Phillips screwdrivers. Some are deeper and pointier at the tip, some are more robust. Some are magnetized. Forget all that, lets get to something important. Like synthesizers.

The little white MXR box in the photo – I’ve had that since 1975. I still have it because I know standards are baloney. Several years ago, I decided to back out of the computer and get myself some gear with knobs again. There was all this noise about “euro rack standard” for inter-connectivity. More baloney. I bought a Moog Mother 32. I was so proud. I sold some stuff I liked to buy it, and it cost too much for what it was, but I knew Dr. Bob from way back. It sounded like a Moog. Sort of. I won’t go into why I sold it, but I did. For a combination of reasons. Not so “Standard” factored large because it wasn’t. Just like it wasn’t in 1975 when I went on an adventure from couch surfing in OKC all the way to Garland Texas, home of Arnold and Morgan Music. I bought an Oberheim SEM from Charley Lowe. I called first to be sure they had one. They did, off I went. A cold front blew through while I was gone, and back in OKC I walked from downtown, in my hippie moccasins, in the slush, to where my gear was stashed. I didn’t die. It’s all down to youth, not diet or exercise or clean living.

What? I couldn’t trigger the OB with my MiniMoog? Hold on. I saw Jan Hammer do it. That’s why I…A custom cable? Cinch-Jones shorting trigger to 3.5mm mono +5. Huh? I took the schematic for the cable to the tech at the high end stereo store who always brought my Flame Linear power amp back from the dead. He laughed when I said I thought there were standards, because I’d read about them. Nope. Volt per octave pitch tracking, maybe. The rest? Hah! He built the cable for me, and later a tin project box that did it better. Fifteen bucks. And I had to listen to loud Rolling Stones and his screaming baby when I picked it up from his house.

Then came the synth mess in my gravatar. Four Moogs, an Arp, an OB module and an OB sequencer. That was my fake T-Dream video soundtrack and band synth rig. Without the MXR and a snake nest of cables with transistors inserted in them it would have been chaos. Rather, uncontrolled chaos.

The MXR was designed to take a signal and amplify it, sans coloration. The intended job being to sit on the output of a guitar, gain it up and clip the input of a guitar amp without altering (too much) the guitar’s tone. I stuck that bad boy on the output on the trigger signal of whatever was the boss, cranked it and popped the trigger inputs open on whatever needed to listen. Forty-three years ago. And I’m doing it now? How sad is that?

I worked for the guy who pushed for and developed MIDI to stop all that crap (backstory). But – Sequential and Roland, the two companies who adopted MIDI first? Is 1 zero or is zero zero? Program change 1-128 or 0-127?  Standards. MIDI does work, though. Thank God. Even if it doesn’t require a gazillion colorful cables to do the same thing.

My MXR is still there if I need it to wake up a Moog with a Korg because trigger and gate are the same thing, different names. They’re “standard.” Only they’re not. I like my knob stuff. I like patch cables and all sorts of crazy sounds. I also like program memory, and foregoing that, at least pitch range selectors tied to a tuning so I have a short path back to reality. Even if that is a moral dilemma to some modular synth purists. There’s an old joke, when looking at a big modular synth draped in patch cords and some arteest going all artsy and talking poly rhythm modulations (baloney). The joke was was to elbow the person next to you and call out, “Okay, great. Now quick, tape’s rolling, get us a French horn.”

Which is why I sold the Moog. One oscillator, no range select and bunch of 3.5mm patch points that talked to each other and some of them to the outside world. And one very important one, the gate/trig, that required the MXR to function with certain external devices. Michelin money for a trailer tire? Baloney.

I solved a lot of the “standards that aren’t” with the Arturia Beat Step Pro sequencer. It sends out three sequences on three channels, or a butt load of gate/trig with enough voltage to blow open the most stubborn modern and vintage gear. The old “if they don’t understand you, talk louder” routine. But why should I have to buy another piece of gear to make the children behave?

Next up – power supplies. The MXR was built before wall warts were even imagined. There is no jack for one on the unit I own. 9V batteries only. There were days where it was buy batteries and play, or eat. The first time I saw a Radio Shack 9v wall wart with 9v battery terminals on it I freaked. It might have been $19. Ridiculous at the time. But it beat batteries. I borrowed a rat tail file from the guitar tech at Rock World and cut a hole in the MXR for the wire to escape. And even now wall wart jacks are various sizes, various voltages. Different barrel sizes on the supply, center + or -. Jesus. In my garage I have an old, beat up drummer’s trap case on wheels with years worth of power supplies. When I’m about to get rid of them a use pops up. How crazy is that? Gear does not communicate with each other, cables of different types and specs are required, power supplies are specific, active or passive, got a battery? My kingdom for a battery! My old bass player’s last girlfriend bought him a fistful of rechargeable batteries and a charger to keep him out of homeless shelters just keeping the active pickups in his basses functioning. This is about musicians, people. No wonder any player with money has a tech and IT runs any business with more than three people.

***

Retraction. “Switching on the lights, I trudged downstairs etc…” just reads stupid to me. I have been informed that it is a participle phrase that modifies “I”, the noun, not the (in my mind) associative action verb of trudged and is perfectly “legal” based on the position of the comma and “I”. As you wish. For my .02, that sort of thing, like Garlic and Cumin, starts to own whatever it’s in and a little goes a long way. It gets worse when they are used to modify the subject of a weak verb like “is”. Elmore Leonard sits in the back of my mind repeating, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Follow the action, don’t sort it. Like Deepthroat. “Follow the money.” “Following the money, crooks you will find,” or “you will find crooks” sounds like Yoda, doesn’t it? Stilted? Regardless of my opinion, the one big takeaway is – Do not leave your participle hung out to dry or you will be arrested by the grammar Nazis for exposing your dangling modifier!

Here you go, “ing” as a noun modifier and not a weakened verb.

http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/participlephrase.htm

 

God Bless the Child

Harper dropped into a stool at the late-night-empty bar in JG’s Pub. The white shirt with tails out under his unbuttoned vest bartender was lost in space listening to Pandora Jacuzzi jazz while he pretended to clean a spotless back bar. Harper almost hated to bring him back. Almost.

“Hey, man.” He waited for the easy greeting to land. “You still have those badass onion rings?”

“Yeah. Same old black woman comes in early every morning when no one’s here.” He hadn’t turned away from the back bar. “Makes her own batter like it’s some kind of NASA secret. With my beer. Cuts the onions too fat. They’re usually gone after lunch.” He glanced up at the clock and over to Harper. “We still got some time to kill on a dead Wednesday night. I’ll go look for you.” He stopped about two thirds of the way down the bar. “Beer?”

“Negra Modelo. Ice cold, no glass.”

The beer slid down the bar and stopped in front of Harper just before the bartender banged through the flapping, spring loaded kitchen doors. A minute later he banged back, wiped the water and ice bits trail from the Modelo off the bar on his way.

“Found some. Dropped them in the fryer for you. Kinda late in the day for rings, bro.”

“Yeah, well…Women. Never a good time, you know?”

“Hell yeah, I know. Everything with a dick and a heartbeat knows.” Open vest and tails out measured Harper for possible pity-me or breakdown potential conversation, couldn’t find any of either. “Not sure what onion rings have to do with that.”

“She’d eat them. Most of them. Like I wasn’t paying attention. All loaded with peppered up ketchup…”

“I get it. Habits. Things you did together. I can’t do carousels. Same reason, mostly.”

“That might be a good thing. Grown men could get arrested riding too many carousels.”

The bartender snorted. “Man, the carousel thing? Goes back a looooong ways. High school long ways.”

“Yeah? Same with the rings. Not that I haven’t eaten my share since then. Ghosts shouldn’t keep you from eating onion rings.” Harper took a long pull on the beer that was so cold it made his teeth scream and scrunched up his face. “I guess we all keep those memory casualties in a jar somewhere, in here.” He tapped the side of his head with his index finger. “Like whatever those things are they bury memories in.”

The bartender knitted his brows, put his hands on the bar.

“Coffins?”

“No, no. Not those. The cans they can dig up with old newspapers and records and –”

“Time capsules?”

“There it is. You dig them up and you think, well, that now maybe you have all the answers about what you’ve kept in that capsule thing. The people. The times. But since you buried it you find out you’ve invented all kinds of shit about everything in there. Built yourself castles out of pieces of dreams.” Harper looked up, found the bartender’s face. “In truth? There they are, real people. With a million stories of their own. But they’re locked up. All that life shit, locked up inside them, just as bad as the time capsule. And here you are, you know, looking for a key to unlock either one and let them out.”

“You talkin’ the pucker-butt people? Because I see enough of that shit every day. Sold off their kid selves and the grownup dreams fucked them?”

“Nope. Talkin’ about the ones who forgot the fairy tale goes on and on, even after the dragons and the pirates and being shipwrecked and heartbroken all left them for dead on a desert island. It’s on and on, man. Till it’s done.”

“They had a choice, bro. Sounds like ‘Little Pink Houses’ advice.” He leaned against the back bar, folded his arms. “You’re on the wrong damn side of the bar for that. Besides, what you’re sayin’? Could be almost everybody.”

“It doesn’t have to be.” A high school kid in a dirty apron set the plate of rings and a ketchup bottle in front of Harper like he was the biggest piece of shit in his universe for getting a dish and the fryer dirty this close to closing, huffed off and banged back through the kitchen doors.

The bartender frowned in the direction of the kitchen, shoved his towel in a glass, set it on the back bar. “So you’re saying ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ has an extra verse nobody’s heard?”

“Like that, yeah. The dragons go on, good and bad. Sometimes you have to put on Sinatra even if you know it’ll make you cry.” Harper deferred on the steaming rings, lazily turned his beer bottle on the bar. “You got Sinatra on Pandora or whatever you’re piping through here?”

“Sinatra’s on the jukebox. That’s my gimmick for this place, jazz standards on the box. If nobody plays it then the overhead shifts back to random shit jazz on Pandora.”

Harper walked over to the fake digital Seeburg, pulled a dollar from the front pocket of his jeans, fed it and punched some buttons.

The bartender waited for him to get comfortable on the stool again. “Choice. Except You’re flyin’ solo, bro. Nobody here for you to dance with.”

“I brought a few ghosts with me.” Harper dunked a fat onion ring in a mound of ketchup, took a bite. “You have any pepper?”

The bartender rolled the lights down to where the table candles that hadn’t died yet, under bar lights and the neon jukebox were all that lit the room. A pepper shaker appeared in his hand from somewhere, landed on the bar with a knowing nod. “God bless the child that’s got his own,” he said.

“Pepper?”

“Ghosts.”

Someone

Someone broke my heart today
Again
Thought I was past all that by now
All at once I was young again
If only for a while
In a song where snowflakes turn to rain
Pictures of my foolish innocence
Scattered all to hell
Bits of a treasured ornament that fell
So very long ago
Somehow pieced together
Hanging where it belongs
Shame and regret and all the things
We never got to say
Back among the lights and tinsel and memories
That never fade away
Thank God someone broke my heart again today

Bobby B – Gator Bait

Carrie Louise screamed a split second before the shotgun blast. Birds exploded from the cypress canopy, the surface of the water boiled with leaping frogs, crickets, surprised fish and a lone gator. The sound and accompanying activity rolled away across the bayou in an expanding halo. Bobby couldn’t look down where he hoped his feet still were, saw the look of sheer panic in Carrie Louise’s eyes, steeled himself and waited for the blast from the second barrel. CL was shaking so hard she couldn’t pull the hammer back. Bobby took a second, glanced down to see the snake that had dropped into the boat from the tree branches overhead slither through the new hole in his dad’s old, flat bottom swamp skiff. CL screamed bloody murder again when she couldn’t make the sawed-off shotgun work, started to launch it into the swamp after the snake when Bobby snatched it away.

The silence in the aftermath bordered on church-like except for the soft gurgle of the swamp slowly filling the boat.

“Dayum, girl.”

“Dayum yourself, Bobby B.” CL, white as a ghost, held her legs out straight in front of her above the encroaching water, narrowed her eyes. “It was a, a…A snake. You saw it. I…And…You know how much I hate fuh, fuh, snakes.”

“Do for a fact.” He wiggled his feet to prove they were still there, whistled softly. “Dayyy-um.”

Bobby had no idea how deep the water was, but he dumped what had drifted into his dad’s waders, pulled them on and tied a knot in the shoulder straps while the boat slowly settled toward the water line. Carrie Louise cussed a blue streak of randomly constructed profanity under her breath, her heels now resting on the rusty oarlocks, the water closing in on her cutoffs.

He stepped out into water waist-deep on his average to a little tall, twelve-year-old frame, let the breath he’d been holding go. His dad’s waders were up to his chin, so unless a snake slopped over the top they were good. He sloshed the few steps to Carrie Louise.

“When I turn around, climb on my shoulders. Baby style, not piggyback.” He handed back the shotgun. “You see a gator, CL? Or another snake? Holler and let me shoot. Got it?”

“Okay. But you can’t drop me in, in there. In this…You can’t.” She looked over her shoulder in the direction the snake had taken off, climbed on his shoulders. She wrapped her arms around his forehead, her legs tucked under his arms, heels almost touching the base of his neck. “How far is it?”

“As far as it is.”

“Big help. Do NOT drop me.” She shivered involuntarily. “Please.”

“No need to get all polite, CL. You have the shotgun.”

Bobby took a minute to get his bearings, knowing how his dad was gonna raise all sorts of hell about the trolling motor. Once dad knew he could find it and the water wasn’t very deep they’d be back to get the motor, take it home, dry it out and rebuild it on the garage floor. He’d rebuild it, dad would drink beer and give bad advice, mom would put some vodka in her iced coffee or tea and read the latest and greatest from the library where she worked. And pretend to watch them like she cared while whatever was in the oven turned black.

***

Carrie Louise climbed off his shoulders on to dry ground and started screaming again when Bobby waded out. Another snake had hitched a ride, its fangs embedded in the thick rubber heel of the waders. Bobby saw CL point the shotgun at his foot and screamed with her. She shoved the shotgun into his chest, took off down the finger of two-lane ruts that cut through the swamp. Bobby picked up the shotgun, put the barrel against the snake’s head and pushed until the snake lost its grip and recoiled away. He had one shell in the sawed-off swamp boat gun, and he might need it for more than a snake dumb enough to hit waders.

***

Sheriff Sheridan Wylie, a little overweight in a uniform and life vest that fit a couple of years ago, swung Terrebonne Parish Swamp Patrol Boat number 2 alongside the finger of dry land and waited for the two stragglers in the shimmering heat haze headed his way, a .40 caliber pistol, safety off, behind his back.

“Well, I do declare. Carrie Louise Roche and Bobby Buisson. You might crack that shotgun open and hand it to me, young Mister Bobby. Go a looooong ways toward keepin’ my blood pressure under control.”

“Yes sir.” Bobby broke the sawed-off open, offered it butt first. “Sorry.”

“Think nothin’ of it.” Wylie took the sawed-off, holstered his pistol. “What’s a coupla lethal weapons between friends? Now, y’know, when I got the call about two kids with a shotgun wandering the Mauvais Bois, I thought maybe I had me some lost poachers or the next Bonnie and Clyde. Hell no, ain’t nothin’ to it but Houma’s own double trouble.”

The Sheriff unloaded both shells from the shotgun, dropped them in his life vest pocket, set the shotgun on top of the instrument and radio cluster. “You can give that sawed off I don’t know is the wrong side of legal back to your daddy after I’ve carried you two home. And you done told me about the spent shell.”

He helped them step off into the boat, handed them both life vests. Bobby told him about CL and snakes and the new hole in his dad’s old skiff while they cinched themselves into the vests. The sheriff and Bobby laughed, Carrie Louise moped. Satisfied with their vests Sheriff Wylie idled the boat around and out into the swamp in no kind of hurry.

“Either a you two been gone long enough anybody’d be worried? No? Best news I’ve had all day.” He squeezed the trigger on the mic. “Wylie. Armed poachers turned into a shallow water equipment failure rescue. No casualties, no prisoners, no medical required. Swamp rats name of Buisson and Roche need deliverin’. May take me a while.”

He hung up the radio mic, turned and leaned against the instrument panel where he could keep one eye on the swamp and one on CL and Bobby, held the boat on course with his forearm on the wheel. “I’m in no big hurry ‘cause I need y’all to spin me one hell of a good stow-ree about that spent shell. Tellin’ you now it better have a 15, maybe 20 foot gator and a witch and a toothless coon-ass pervert or two in it, ‘cause bein’ as we’re out here and it’s hotter’n hell an all? I’m stoppin’ at the marina for a ring-of-fire hot link, some of Louella’s fried shrimp bites and an Abita Amber just this side of ice. On the Parish dime. And I’ll need to write me up a nice report when I get back to justify burning a couple of hours and a bunch of Parish gas rescuing two born on the bayou kids who should know better than to blow a damn hole in the bottom of a boat.” He turned back, idled the boat up a little. “There’s water in the ice chest if you need some. Go easy, Carrie Louise. Ain’t nowhere for a girl to pee for a good forty minutes.”

***

An hour and a half later Sheriff Wylie dropped them at a makeshift dock on Bayou Black across the street from Bobby’s house. Bobby went home carrying the unloaded sawed off and his dad’s waders, Carrie Louise huffed off to her house next door carrying a greasy paper bag of leftover spicy shrimp bites.

Fifteen minutes passed before she banged on the screen door to Bobby’s kitchen. She’d been having an angry cry, most likely from a Momma Roche ass chewing. He toed the door open and she shoved a plate with a huge slice of peach pie and rapidly losing form in the heat whipped cream at him.

“Momma says she guesses thanks for saving me from bein’ gator bait. I told her it was snakes, but she said thanks anyway, even though a Houma girl dumb enough to blow a hole in a boat mighta been justifiably left behind. And to say I’m sorry about your dad’s boat and scaring you shitless with the shotgun and almost blowing your foot off.” She heaved a big sigh. “She’ll see that we make it right, when we can.”

Bobby could feel the sadness coming off her, along with leftover steam from how mad she’d gotten when he and the Sheriff laughed about her blowing a hole in the boat and not killing the snake, then Momma R piling on.

“I’m figurin’ I’ll tell Daddy I did it, CL. You tell Momma R not to worry.” He shrugged one shoulder, took the pie plate. “Dad’ll drop a couple M-80s to run the snakes off so I can fish the motor out pretty easy. And it won’t be near as bad a ‘Bobby you dumb ass’ sermon as telling him I let a girl beat me to the snake-and-gator gun.” He grinned, held the door open for her. “Come on. Pie this size needs two forks.”

“You sure? About the boat and all?”

“Yep.”

Sure sure?”

“Yep.”

“Like certain sure?”

“C’mon CL, do I look like I’m standin’ here air conditionin’ the back yard changin’ my mind?”

“No…” She stepped past him into the kitchen, opened his fridge. “So I guess that means you have a couple of new shots of Cool Whip or maybe some ice cream in here to go with that extra fork and this big ol’ piece of my momma’s blue-ribbon peach pie?”