NVDT #47 – Excuse Me Your Rules Are Showing

The Prompt – What generic ‘rules’ did you abide by when you started writing that have gone out the window?

“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”Claude Debussy

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

Adverbs are the devil, said is it, blah blah blah. My favorite is Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing. Of which he said there was an 11th he cut for space, and it is “Throw out all 10 rules if it makes the story better.”

I do not pretend to be a great artist, but I understand the rules. Understood the rules. I got into electronic music, by that I mean as a user not an appreciator, and the “regular” rules went out the window. I know what Picasso was saying. Okay, here’s a canvas and some paint. Here’s a keyboard with black and white keys, knobs and wires. What happens next is not how you trained, but where you use that training to find your voice. And that is the entire discussion of rules. Except for this one.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

Back to the prompt – I signed up for an online writing class at Stanford. The course was titled “Setting the scene. The building blocks of story.” I assumed, foolishly, that we were to be instructed in the finer mechanics of setting a scene, “rules” for good ones. I have dissected literature since I was 12, I was ready. Let’s get it on. Wrong. It was the elements of fiction for idiots broken out over 12 or 16 weeks. I want that I have my wife’s PowerPoint. I also discovered that student scenes were to be no longer than 750 words. They could be garbage and “everyone’s a winner” rule applied. I raised hell and applied for my $ back. I got it. My final upload to that class, exactly 750 words, is below. It also exists on my site, but here you go. I broke every rule I could think of, the wrong way. Humorously, of course. No offense to anyone writing their memoirs or cookbook mysteries this way.

The Magic Typewriter, by P. Huston

Looking out his window of the house he’d lived in for 54 years, Bob seen a pickup truck. Parked in front of his house. It was his neighbor Darnell again. By golly, Bob thought angrily, today was the day it stopped. Knowing in his mind Darnell, attempting to avoid the heatwave later, would be sitting on his pickup drinking beer.

***

About one o’clock in the afternoon Bob, walking purposefully across his lawn, was confronting Darnell.

“Darnell, you have to stop parking in front of my house,” Bob said, testily.

“Why?”

“It’s very unattractive and I do not like looking at it,” Bob replied.

“Think of it as sculpture. Modern art.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a long time. I’m not the only one, you know. The Mexican woman across the street is tired of it, too!!!!” Bob proclaimed noisily.

“The one with the little dog that looks like a woman who has sex for money’s bedroom slipper and poops on the sidewalk? I’m awfully tired of seeing that.”

“You wouldn’t see it if you parked in front of your own house,” Bob said, firmly.

“I’ll think on that for a while, Bob. Later. Too gosh darn hot right now.”

Bob, walking away stridently thought Darnell the most boorish person ever to live in the house next door. Slamming his door Bob was walking into the dining room where his mother, dead these 20 years, had kept 183 penguin mementos, acquiring them in her travels as a military nurse. One with sunglasses leaning on a palm tree, one as the handle of a coffee mug. One with a clock in its belly, one…Wait a minute, does anyone really care? No? Sorry. Bob had the cleaning lady dust them once a month never having the heart to box them up.

Well, enough of Darnell. Bob, lifting the lid on mother’s old Remington Travel Riter and sitting and inserting paper and typing he began…

***

“Darnell, is that beer cold?” his sister Monik hinted, tentatively.

“Yes.”

“Could I have a sip?” she asked, hopefully.

“No. It’s my last one.”

“Didn’t Momma teach you any manners?” she demanded, haughtily.

“They wore off.”

Monik walked away huffily in disgust. Well, she thought, Darnell was the worst brother ever but she decided cleverly to walk around the side of the house and hide behind an overgrown boxwood and wait patiently for Darnell to set the beer down and go inside to answer the call of nature knowing he did that regularly.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, Darnell set the Colt 45 Tallboy in the ice chest sitting in the bed of his truck and went inside.

Monik, running to the truck, drank hastily all the remaining beer.

Darnell, returning, tipped the can to his lips expecting beer, then pulling it away, looking down inside it.

“Monik, did you drink my beer?”

“No,” she said, averting her eyes and looking away.

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“Okay, maybe I did. So what?” she retorted hotly, wondering what sort of stupid big brother thing Darnell would do now.

“Girl, I told you it was my last one. It’s 112 degrees and the air conditioner is broke.”

“Get over it,” she said, dismissively. Turning, she was watching Darnell walking to the front, reaching inside, walking back with something in his hand.

“What do you think you’re doing, Darnell?” Monik asked, apprehensively.

“I told you.”

“Darnell –” And she was looking at her brother. Shooting her in the head.

***

The policeman leading Darnell to the squad car with another policeman, asking him curiously, “Why did you do it? What were you thinking?”

“Ask the idiot who wrote this.”

“Him?” The policemen guffawed immodestly. “We did. He said this was Limited Omniscient. Didn’t you see it? You got no tags, no interiority. Besides, what’s in a man’s head who shoots his sister over a beer?”

“That’s not fair,” Darnell said, blubbering sadly.   (ooops)

“Coulda been worse. Coulda been Objective. Or Journalistic. Woulda been over a long time ago.”

“Yeah, and we wouldn’t have gotten any lines!” The two policemen shoving Darnell in the car laughing and laughing, thinking they were the two funniest policemen on Earth.

***

Bob watching gleefully the tow truck pulling Darnell’s pickup away. Rubbing his hands together briskly, stepping lightly to the table he was snapping the latches on mother’s typewriter, closing the lid gently. Darnell was handled. The Mexican woman’s bedroom slipper pooper would have to wait for another day.

 

Fact -In the midst of the 1980 heatwave a Houston, Texas man shot and killed his sister for drinking his last cold Colt 45.

 

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NVDT #46 What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy? Can You Write Like Me?

The Prompt – The Publishing Industry – There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

I struggled with this prompt because it’s loaded. Let’s back up an additional 10 years  (2k/2010) to a time when several hundred years of content delivery paradigm disappeared. *Poof* In the last 10 years (2010/2020) publishers of anything creative have been trying to find solid footing in vapor and are currently grasping at all the old school stayin’ alive methodologies to maintain a dwindling income stream. I decided to break it down into a few obvious and digestible chunks and leave out the peripheral observations. Like good barbecue or the Blues. Bear down on the meat. Ease up on the potato salad.

The two most disturbing things to me in the last five to ten years are franchising and blatant nepotism (which includes Brand Crossovers).

Franchising: Take a look at the NY Times Bestseller List. Aside from the usual box office guarantees (possibly) written by the author listed on the cover, there are at least two box office names in bold print. Across the bottom in a lesser font “with Author You Never Heard Of.” I see this quite often of late. I have one on my bookshelf now I bought for $1 at the library. Another James Patterson with another AYNHO. Is this the ultimate fan fiction payoff? Write a story using famous author X’s character’s, not even bother to redecorate the set? Is this the new wave of Nancy Drew*/Hardy Boys/Mack Bolan? Crank out 70 to 115k that fits the costumes for Patterson, Clancy, and others? Parker’s Jesse Stone and Spenser cheesy re-ups? We don’t care if you can write or not, have an original idea or not, we have a name that sells books, send us your fan fic.

Also, of particular note on the NYT list is the Grisham novel. The plot teaser is an author of murder mysteries gets murdered on a resort island during a hurricane. OMG! How original! Didn’t I see that on Death in Paradise a couple of seasons ago? Grisham (maybe) is now stuffing Christie formula for mailbox money? What next? Every murder procedural on television having a parachute failure episode in the same season? Oh really? That’s been done? Ooops.

Nepotism: Anne Hillerman, Alafair Burke, the Leonard boys. Joe Hill and Owen King (Stephen King), Emma Straub, Nick Harkaway (John LeCarre). Martin Amis, Mark Vonnegut, Christopher Milne, Page Stegner, Carol Higgins Clark. The list goes on and on. This is not sour grapes or to say that none of those people are talented and creative in their own “write,” but I am also reminded of two stories from the music business, where I spent my professional life.

One – Imagine trying to break into the music business in the Mid-Sixties. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Sam & Dave, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Yardbirds, Stevie Wonder, the songwriting and studio machines. That list goes on forever, too. Average Jim Bob with an acoustic guitar is looking for some elbow room in all that? Not gonna happen. Unless Paul McCartney’s girlfriend is your sister, he tosses you a few songs he doesn’t need, maybe produces the session and lo, you’re out of the coffee-houses, have four hit records, and become a music industry millionaire lifer named Peter Asher. I wonder did he ever send his sister flowers?

Two – I recall, in my early impressionable youth, hearing a song on the radio by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. When it was over the DJ said, “And that just goes to show that you can get a record deal no matter who your father is…”

So tell me, you’re an Indie author with a bag of short stories. Good short stories. Tom Hanks has a collection, too. How “good” they are is anyone’s guess. I’m betting they’re not bad, but not the new Hemingway. Whose will be on the shelf with fewer than five other choices in Walmart? Because they’re an essential business and bookstores are not? Yours? Mine? Or Tom Hanks. God knows I respect padding your resume with cross-curriculum activities, and Tom is a very talented guy in many respects. But so are myriad others, who will never even get a read or a marketing dollar because The Brand sells the product for the publishers. Free money. Why look for talent or art when here’s some free money? This is the same reasoning behind bands with tie-dyed oxygen tanks selling tickets at Casinos.

Add franchising and nepotism together, along with a dwindling income stream even from the sure-fire box office draws, vanishing brick and mortar bookstores selling stacks of $28 “NY Times Best Sellers” off the $2 and $5 table, and no real plan for going forward, the collapse of the publishing industry (as we’ve known it) is imminent. Anyone who hopes to catch a ride before the ship sinks needs to think long and hard about what to offer them other than your best shot. Because that doesn’t seem to be what they want.

As Faulkner wrote in Mosquitos, 1927 –

“I like the book myself,” Mark Frost said. “My only criticism is that it got published.”

“It’s inevitable; it happens to everyone who will take the risk of writing down a thousand coherent consecutive words.”

“And sooner than that,” the Semitic man added, “if you’ve murdered your husband or won a golf championship.”

“Yes,” Fairchild agreed. “Cold print. Your stuff looks so different in cold print. It lends a kind of impersonal authority even to stupidity.”

“That’s backward,” the other said. “Stupidity lends a kind of impersonal authority even to cold print”

***

What I’d like to see in the next 10 years? A workable, equitable, modern delivery paradigm. Something like socialized publishing maybe? No. Or a freaking lottery? Anything beats Amazon et al’s stranglehold on Indies and Big Publishing’s apathy and continued scraping the sides of the already baked cake bowl for $.

Don’t look to the music industry for a solution, even though it went down first. They still haven’t figured out how to pay songwriters in the latest century.

*Not to disparage Nancy Drew, who, like her film counterpart in the 30s, Torchy Blane, were original female cultural icons. Girls who kicked ass and took names and showed men how it was done. It has been written in academia of Nancy Drew’s impact that one would have to go back to ancient goddess mythology to find a more heroic female figure. The analogy being a deity got dropped in the middle of things to right the wrongs against everyday folk. That’s Nancy Drew, role model to generations of Twentieth Century girls. Why aren't one of you President yet?

 

NVDT #45 – Bachman, Box, Westmacott and Broklifarts

The Prompt – Do you write under a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, would you ever consider it?

No. But there are plenty of reasons why “you” (literal usage) would choose to

  • You write crap. But you’re pretty sure that one day you’ll get better and write something significant.
  • You’re on the lam.
  • You don’t want to embarrass or offend your mom.
  • You obtain your material from the lives of people you know.
  • You obtain your material via access to protected information like medical, legal, financial or other “privacy protected” files through work or “friends.”
  • You want to write something out of your usual content type or style.
  • You ghostwrite.
  • You have more books as yourself than the publisher or public wants in a year.
  • You write for publishing house serials or monthly release shelf fillers akin to Romance or Adventure Hero.
  • You have a reputation, good or bad, to uphold.
  • You are beautiful, rich, desirable, normal, ugly as a mud fence, too old, too young, too fat, too thin, bald, hospitalized, toothless, incarcerated or institutionalized, are vulnerable or have vulnerable family and don’t want/need weirdos knocking on your door.
  • You have an unfortunate birth name. Seymour Butts, Ima Broklifart, Colin Ostemi, Hugh Jorgasm (well, that one might work for certain genres). I could boil this down to the old Oklahoma Indian joke, “Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking in the Mud?”

In my part of Texas alone, the original HEB Grocery chain started life as H E Butt Grocers. Urban myth claims his first name was Harry. In truth, Howard. For years, smack in the middle of North Dallas off 635, Dedman Memorial Hospital. Hell yeah, I’m sick. Take me there.

Consider it?

Further to the above, consider the what and why of a few of those who have.

Kilgore Trout haunted Kurt Vonnegut his entire life. Trout was pigeonholed by critics as science fiction and Vonnegut swore that prevented any of them from seeing his work in its true light.

In brighter light, Agatha Christie wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott and got away with it for 20 years.

Richard Bachman got six or seven on the shelves, allowing Stephen King to beat the “one book a year” publishing mafia restriction before he was outed. Side note, what’s with that one a year? McDonald published three a year in the 50s, plus short stories. There was no public or corporate outcry.

Going deep literary, George Eliot covered many tracks, some subsets of the list above and not all circumspect, for Mary Ann(e) Evans. Separating her from sexist pigeonholing and her existing success as a translator, journalist, editor and critic.

Mark Twain had a “ring” to it that Samuel Clemens did not.

Edgar Box wrote several formulaic, clever, highly satirical, funny, early Fifties pulps. They are a revelation in how much social satire you can pack in a first-person whodunnit. Turns out Box was Gore Vidal.

Box is also a lesson in extremes if you pair him with, say, Spillane’s One Lonely Night or McDonald’s All These Condemned. All from the same time period, all completely different takes on society and politics. I digress.

For me – There is no point in being someone else, other than hiring a person 30 years younger with all their hair and 3% max body fat to do my publicity tours once I hit the million mark. I’m not holding my breath or auditions.

Seriously, I don’t see the point. I have written owner’s manuals, how-to manuals, monthly columns on tech for songwriters, even presentations and columns for (this will kill some of you) Maranatha and the top mag for church music ministers, among others. Under my given name. I thought one time that, golly, what if somebody read something I wrote and protested “No way the dumb hippie sonofabitch I knew could’ve written this!” Or refused to read it because my name was on it. In the general scheme of things it is, 1) highly unlikely anybody would read it, and 2) what’s half a dozen lost sales? Besides, there’s plenty of “me” out there, name wise. Let the weirdos show up in their driveways.

A few thoughts –

Evans used Eliot to avoid sexist stereotyping, among other things. Regardless of the name she used, she was successful.

Bachman sold a lot of books, even got a movie deal, before anyone knew he was King.

Westmacott’s romance novels sold, even without Christie’s name on them.

Box got excellent reviews and sold some books for Signet before the global success of Gore Vidal.

Crossing curriculum boundaries, Paul McCartney has produced, written, and sold chart-topping hit records under half a dozen names.

If you can write, you can write. No matter what you call yourself for comfort, privacy, or any of the myriad other reasons. But a free word of advice – if your last name is Broklifarts? Change it.

 

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NVDT #44 – Characters

The Prompt – What are your favorite kind of characters to create? To read?

I don’t create characters. They show up. Unexpectedly, at inopportune moments, always with something to say. Even in this first-person thing I’ve almost completed that started as a clinical exercise. They write me into corners, change course, change their minds. Particularly in this one. Exerting any measure of control is a waste of time. I always say, “Let the story tell itself.” Which means let the characters tell it. And they will, even if they have to bump me from my chair to get on with it. Something that really surprised me with an exercise. I should have known better. I’ve tried exercises before, and they’ve always gotten away from me.

You have to understand. I wanted to write forever. I walked out of college because I refused to regurgitate the opinions of tweedy professors. “Hold on,” I said, “I did this as a freshman in high school. Where’s the good parts? Where’re the prompts? When do we write?” We didn’t. We wrote more book reports. So I walked.

When I first began writing again in 2016 after a long hiatus in the music biz, I sat down, started something, it sucked. After two or three days I sat in my chair, staring at the monitor, bummed. Woe is me. Then, as always happens to me, a doorbell goes off in my head. This time a girl named Deanna Collings appeared on my shoulder. “Yeah it pretty much does really suck,” she said, “and you know better. Writing is just like music. So erase all that junk and listen. I’m the story you want to tell. I’ll tell it, you write it.”

They ALL do that. If I struggle with their names they mope, stay quiet until I hear it. Then, BAM, they have a voice. They have production meetings without me, show up in my head. It’s all I can do to keep up.

What kind of characters do I like? Characters who talk and it’s believable. Who do believable things. Even if they do a few unbelievable things, that’s okay. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or most Hitchock. Average person has to step into the breech.

What I don’t like is cliché characters unless they are well-drawn. Which is why I love Laura Levine’s fluffy Jaine Austen series. Jaine is a cliché of her own. Underemployed, frequently caught with dinner on her blouse, paint in her hair and wishing her pants fit. Yes, Laura’s screenwriter shows, she telegraphs some things. But her books are streamlined, a breeze to read and I never feel slimed or shorted or steamrollered, just out of breath and looking for chocolate with Jaine. Laura’s peripheral characters are better drawn than most stereotypes. Not just that you know a smarmy real estate agent, but you know this one. With no effort. Effortless characters, that’s what I like. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard are rocket scientists that way.

I like to hang out with my characters, no matter what they do. I say never worry about your characters or your story, they’ll sort it for you. I’m curious to see how others work theirs. And because I’m still going to stick writing in here anyway, here’s one where I never saw any of this coming. You can read it if you wish.

From Bobby B.- Monterrey Mick’s Mad Mods

Bernie was laughing when she answered the knock on Bobby’s apartment door. Monterrey Mick pushed her and the door into the wall, lurched into the compact living room.

“Mick? What the — ”

“Shut up.” He reached across himself with his left hand, spun her, shoved her at the round kitchen table littered with wadded up Taco Mejor wrappers, her purse and several open file folders. Bobby and Creighton sat on the far side of the table with three opaque plastic champagne flutes and an open bottle of champagne.

Bernie recovered, shoved Mick’s shoulder. “Look, jerkwad, I get enough of your shit on the clock.” She started to shove him again, and he pushed her back.

“No, you look.” Mick pulled a ridiculously long-barreled, nickel-plated wild west revolver out of his jacket. He wavered for a few seconds, like the weight of the gun had altered his balance. “All of you look.” He leveled the TV gunslinger special on each of his targets, moved it back and forth between them. “Two million. That’s all I want. All I ever wanted. Two mill and I’m out of here, nobody gets hurt.”

“That line is beyond stale, even in Hollywood.” Creighton took a sip from one of the plastic glasses. “Christmas Eve, Mick. Money like that is three days away, best case. Besides, you’ll just blow it on hookers and coke and be done inside a year. If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll be homeless somewhere they have zero pity for broke Americans.”

“Fuck that, and you. I stay here and I’m a restaurant? I’m a fucking artist. I turn rusty iron into dreams and you fuckers want to put empty, painted shells of muscle cars in an over-sized gas station with my name on it? Where mom and dad and their greasy-fingered little screamers can eat designer burgers and cheesy fries while they watch junior college mechanics slap Bondo on some yokel’s Ranchero? That’s somehow better than killing myself with hookers and blow?”

Bernie shoved her hand into her purse, lifted it off the table, pointed it at Mick. “No you don’t, Mick. No, no, no. Not this time, buddy. I’ve waited five years for my chance out of bikinis and cutoffs and off the TNA wagon. No way do you screw this up for me.”

“What the hell, Bern,” Mick laughed. “You got a loaded tampon in there?”

Bernie shifted the purse a few degrees to her right, and it barked like a Chihuahua muffled in a fat lady’s arms. Just behind Mick and a little to his left, a framed starving artist print of rain-slicked streets in Paris dropped to the floor and shattered. Mick jumped and the cowboy gun boomed a shot into the floor. When Mick looked up Bernie’s purse had disappeared and she had a two-handed grip on a pink Ruger 380 pointed straight at his chest.

Mick checked Bobby and Creighton, couldn’t decide where to point the king-size cowboy pistol.

Creighton held up his hands. “We’re unarmed, there’s no money, so you two shoot each other or work it out before Santa and the pizza get here.”

“You don’t get it. None of you.” Mick looked like he was about to cry. “I just want the money. No restaurant, no more custom cars, no more TV show. No fucking grief. I want out the pile of shit my life’s turned into, and two mill isn’t too much to ask. I made people happy. I deserve it. If it’s a year-long funeral procession, I don’t care. Hear that? I. Don’t. Care. Two million doll—”

BAM, BAM, BAM, loud and sharp rattled Bobby’s front door.

“BOBBY B? FBI. WE NEED YOU TO OPEN THE DOOR.”

“Way too much fun now.” Bobby shook his head once, raised his voice. “It’s open.”

The door banged into the wall again. Two men stepped inside, one black, one white, both in jeans, t-shirts and blue windbreakers, their badges on lanyards around their necks. They spotted the pink Ruger and Mick’s long, shiny cowboy special, pulled their handguns and modern danced a slow, bowlegged cross step around the room. A tall man in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt with the cuffs rolled up walked through the middle of all the guns like they weren’t there, set a briefcase on the table in front of Bobby, and offered him a small, relaxed smile.

“Agent Hyland, Bobby.” He scooted the taco wrappers out of the way with the briefcase, dropped it to flat. “You have pizza on the way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perfect. I’m originally from outside Omaha. Bum Fuck USA. Out where they say boredom breeds excess? I thought we knew how to cut loose come Christmas time.” Briefcase man hooked his sunglasses on the lanyard that held his badge, looked around the room at all the players, the guns, the purse with a hole in it, the taco wrappers, the champagne bottle, the shattered bad art. “But I gotta hand it to you, Bobby,” Hyland nodded his approval. “You throw one helluva Christmas party.”

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NVDT #43 – Don’t Trip

The Prompt – What’s the most unusual experience you’ve ever had? Have you included it in one of your books?

HA!

The young woman who smelled like a sex and alcohol all-nighter walked away down the terminal corridor, her unkempt ponytail a bouncing pendulum against a black, sprayed-on record company t-shirt.

“God she drives me nuts,” the guy on my right said. “Did you hear all that shit? What is she, twelve?”

“Marketing is full of star fuckers and picture leaners. She’ll wake up one day and hear the ‘hose bag with an Amex’ noises behind her and decide to turn pro.”

“Maybe. Or she’ll keep at it until she’s too old or fat to be cute and fuckable for AR and end up in inside sales. I need a beer.” He pushed himself out of the plastic airport bucket chair. “You?”

“No. But watch your step. The floor’s littered with all the names she dropped.”

“I just stole that one,” he said, kicking away imaginary obstacles. He turned, his foot sideways in a soccer pose. “Think I can hit the Burger King from here with Van Halen?”

***

The direct answer is yes and no. Not about Van Halen, but the prompt. I’ve mentioned before that I was in the music industry for 40 years. And everything that entailed. Everything. That’s a rich experiential tapestry, a deep well, a gold mine of… You get it. To explicitly recount the most unusual experiences would amount to telling tales out of school. By logical extension to use any of that material mandates the veil of fiction. However, my characters arrive with their own tales and I know better than to attempt control of the cosmic radio and do my best to stay out of their way with my nonsense.

In truth, we are the byproducts of our existence, and we occasionally, possibly subconsciously, populate our stories in familiar territory or with a peripheral character we might have known and forgotten.

But when I write? I keep at it like a reader to see how it ends because I don’t know, and I enjoy the ride.

For the sake of the prompt, I offer this from The Hot Girl III.

Since the ‘let’s share’ idea went over like a lead balloon, that’s all I’ve got this week.

 

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NVDT #42 – Pilgrimages and Pugnuckling – Two-fer

The Prompt – Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where and why?

Yes.

Physical: My daughter and I were guests when Dr. Wife received an invitation to stay at Exeter College, Oxford, all expenses paid, to present part of her dissertation Rhetorical Stance in William Morris (aka William Morris – Reluctant Rhetorician) at the William Morris Centennial. Inundated with Pre-Raphaelites for a week. Went to Kelmscott House or Manor, visited the graves. In London we went to the Tate. While the academics pontificated my daughter and I ran rooms of several other museums (I have an addiction to late Taylor) the rooms and gardens and the alleys of Oxford, walked in the footsteps of Dexter’s Inspector Morse, ate tiny, expensive deli sandwiches and ice cream on the High Street, got off the main drag and collected a pile of local punk band handbills and EP promo from a sympathetic CD/record shop owner. (Who took one look at obliging shaggy Dad and knee-high Doc Martens teenage daughter and saved himself a trip to the dumpster). Rode in a bus the width of the road (with a few academics of questionable hygiene) throughout Oxfordshire and the villages where Marple and Midsomer and Morse turn up all those bodies. I stood in front of a 900-year-old ivy-covered cornerstone where education was taking place while, where I live today, indigenous people were living a prehistoric lifestyle. Just like the rest of us are now.

The other pilgrimage: Occurs every time I drive down to Half Price Books World Headquarters on NW Highway east of Central Expressway. Mask and sanitizer at the ready I visited as long ago as yesterday. More books and music, holy moly. First editions, hardback classics, old original pulps, coffee table books out the wazoo. Self-help, textbooks, sheet music, religion, philosophy mystery, classic fiction… to quote James Brown, “Good Gawd j’awl!”

The real pilgrimage: Every time I open a book it’s a pilgrimage. Of style, substance, structure. I’m a content person. Which brings me to the real meat here. What do we learn from pilgrimages? I won’t dwell on the awful stuff. Here’s the other part of the two-fer I mentioned, garnered from opening a book.

Two-fer

Pugnuckling: When the right word is the wrong word. What do you do? Well, pugnucklers, you make one up.

I busted on Faulkner’s earliest works, drenched in adverbs and repetitive descriptions. But by The Reivers he’d hit his stride and turned the voices of the South into a raucous, racy, whimsical, colorful, sweet as a Magnolia blossom cacophony.

From William Faulkner’s The Reivers.

“It ain’t fair that it’s just women can make money pugnuckling while all a man can do is just try to snatch onto a little of it while it’s passing by.”

How smooth was that? I drop F-bombs like Tarantino or Chili Palmer. However, in my latest excursion, I have characters who have agreed to substitute Madre de Dios for motherfucker when used as a ‘shakin’ my head’ or ‘what else can go wrong’ sentiment.

Bonus. I say we kick the responses to these prompts up a notch. Not that I object to all the subsequent to response marketing hype because I skip the boring parts. I say we respond and offer a chapter, a scene, of something of ours that represents the prompt. Like this week. Who has a pilgrimage out there? Every book has somebody, going someplace, to learn something. Even if it’s a junkyard or a hotel or a library or a graveyard or a dive bar full of aliens and informants. This blog hop is a perfect venue and what a great way to learn something specific from each other. Did you have trouble? Why did character X go there? Did it work? No shit really, I’d gladly read chunks of WIPs or books instead of skipping the “And then I wrote the book/series that made the whole world sing” stuff. Save that for the market. What’s the ever-popular catchphrase, show, don’t tell?

So, I’ll drop one, fear of exposing mediocrity in check. Here’s a link to a pilgrimage bit.

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NVDT #41 – Move On or Serialize?

The Prompt – Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

I haven’t considered this. I write what I write.

But- I have a tome sitting on my hard drive that is five seasons of Netflix costume drama. It started life as a coming of age story about a head cheerleader who quits and wants to be a feminist, longs to meet one guy who’s not all hands and bullshit. And a wannabe musician who wants a girlfriend that’s “different.” Throw in a couple of lesbian fairy godmothers, a wise black saxophonist, a no-nonsense guitarist, a superjock big brother and a couple of 70s gender role confused get outta my way (in their own ways) mothers and…Well, it went on forever. Two were plenty. But I got a lot of mileage out of the last three.

Intentional Repeaters – I have several short story characters that repeat. Lamar is looking for the meaning of life in a lighthearted way. Jackson and Deanna, I rip one of their endless chapters of exploits (from those last three books) and turn them into shorts. Can’t just leave fun sidebar character interactions hanging out there.

Bobby B. Bobby allows me to assail all the stereotypes of a series character without becoming one himself. I consider Bobby’s stuff to be my paean to Elmore Leonard/Hitchock/Twain and all other caper storytellers. In a post-Katrina junkyard Bobby sees a top for a tractor, without the tractor, puts it on a swamp boat, meets a boat salesman, and a black lady manufacturing expert who understands automatic weapons and Swamp Vue is born. Bobby wants to learn the custom car business, goes to Hollywood, winds up running across the country with a college-educated bikini model, getting shot at by a phony handicapped pimp and a crazy topless dancer, the FBI in hot pursuit…Bobby sees a big box van with an air conditioner on top and before long, half the politicians, reporters and bad guys in Louisiana are after him and a third-generation Mississippi Madam for her client book. Plus it has parallel storylines and all the stuff a series needs. Bobby would be my series.

Loners – The first-person thing I’m in the middle of as an experiment will be my last. I like the characters, but it’s a one-shot. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s a writing exercise. To see if I could write something I liked, formatted loosely on something I read that was too full of research and filler but otherwise likable.

Here’s my real issue – I don’t need the hero’s epic journey or classic motivation that gets lost in facts and figures or even the old pulp trouble, more trouble, skin of the teeth escape within given parameters. Like me, a lot of my characters have no idea what’s going to happen next. They show up, something happens, next thing you know they’re on the river with Huck and Jim and dressin’ up in women’s clothes.

Point – Now, let’s talk about what bucking that story arc, blah-blah-blah set decoration, infamous Dan A and all the what’s his/her motivation show don’t tell except when you’re skipping the plot holes does to editors and scam artists posing as editors and grammar Nazis.

“Well, with things like this, slice of life, where is it going, what does he want? He says, but… ” No, they both get their asses kicked all summer long, did you not see the train wreck coming?

Seriously? I forget how Tom Sawyer and Becky got lost in the cave, but I remember they did and it was a big scene. Did Tom start out the day with “I’m gonna get lost in the cave with Becky today and cause a real commotion”? I doubt it. So when Bobby doesn’t say “Think I’ll take off with two million dollars and raise some hell” it doesn’t change or default his motivation none. He says he wants to get a “people” education. He damn sure does.

I went to college for a while. Did the concept of stream of consciousness and/or modified postmodernism drop off the curriculum in favor of formulaic spreadsheet bullshit? If so, how did Barbara Park sell so hundreds of millions of  Junie B books?

I get the whole conflict/resolution thing but that’s so overdone without something special, some spice, some people in it. Since the 50s life’s messy little problems have been being solved on television, neatly, in 30 minutes to an hour by understanding parents or quickdraw sheriffs or clever detectives. Enough of that procedural stuff, enough predictable formula arc, enough is three too many red herrings. I want to turn the page to see what happens next to the people. What they get into, what they learn, how they feel, what weirdos they’ll run into next.

To whit. We’ve become so formulaic, so programmed… I watched a Hallmark mystery yesterday (post-surgical pain meds make a lot of things tolerable) that paralleled a recent book review of Stevie’s. Overprotective Mom. The son was cardboard, the menacing gold digger wasn’t menacing or a gold digger just happened to be a potential girlfriend… pretty bland stuff. Everybody had million-dollar teeth, though, and it dripped with stereotypes, half of whom couldn’t even act at that level. But it’s on the air. Somebody like Michelle Frances wrote it and it was pitiful. Except for the teeth. Go Hollywood Society of Cosmetic Dentistry!

Question – When do we quit listening to “Well, it’s not the formula…” and just throw it out there, series or one-shots? I don’t feel I write well enough to say, well, here, read this, will ya? It’s not the same kettle of fish, but…

 

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NVDT #40 – Clam Digging

The Prompt – Your top 5 writing mistakes and/or the ones that make you cringe

1 – Loop-de-loop paragraphs. I learned to beat this. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  I call them “pinball paragraphs” where one minute we’re a backstory line, the next we’re a set descriptive, the next we’re in a head, and that goes ’round in a circle. There are examples of opening paragraphs written this way in this very room.

2 – Words and phrases strung together that sound like writing. I encountered this in the music business as well. Rather than play an entire solo or phrase we called the punch-ins when they rolled by. Art in that process is elbow grease on the seams. Unfortunately, in writing there’s no way to fix people writing what they think sounds like what they want to say regardless of how illogical or supercilious it sounds. Similar to this is a paragraph of undeveloped scenes or thesis statements strung together. This and this and this and this. Whoa. Start with the first one, develop it, logically, next.

3 – Obvious backstory triggers. Mirrors, photographs. Please. Backstory dumps are SPEED BUMPS and corrupt story flow. Following on the heels of cliche triggers is cliche backstory. Lunch with the wise old wizard, the ex-boxer turned private detective with retired or active cop friends and the magic fireplace/doorway/portal are stale. Wise old wizards who might be geezer horse farmers, okay. But the long cloaks and Love Potion #9? We can do better. Drop backstory into dialog or in pieces. Or at least dress it up in a clever way like Helen Simonton. Hackneyed photograph or staring at the fields backstory is exposed by an interruption or an intrusion by a third party. A formula that makes the dump situational and part of something. I’m sure she read the formula somewhere but she does it well. Better yet, let the characters tell us who they are by what they say and how they behave.

4 – Inside out sentences. I am guilty of this in draft mode. It can sound erudite, or stupid, or pontificating. None are as effective as straight ahead. An example would be the dreaded -ing simultaneous action. Putting on the goggles he walked out the door. Sounds like amateur writing night. Jackson put on the goggles as he walked out the door.

Inside out Example  – Jackson slammed the door behind him as he put on the goggles and walked out. You know sometimes it takes a dead eye to see that junk because when we read it, from ourselves or others, our brain fixes it. Slammed was the last, not the first thing, but we make sense out of it because it goes together. Sort of. I see this all the time.

5 – Echoes. Not just words but thoughts, behaviors, descriptions. Saying the same thing twice in different ways. Holy crap. My first time out I had an editor draw red lines through paragraphs with the note “you already said this two paragraphs ago. No need to reiterate, we got it.” That’s writerly ‘splaining. We want to be sure the reader got it so we do it again. I see that a lot in head time, not just narrative. An event happens, we see the characters’ reactions in the scene and then somebody has to take a stroll and explain it all over again for us in their head time.

6 – C’mon, it’s an even number and it’s perfect for this topic – Not knowing when to stop. Wanting to write that last line or two when it was done two lines ago. That’s another sort of ‘splaining I suppose, but I see it in chapter endings all the time. And it’s one of the things I have to go back and whack. When it’s done, it’s done. Example – “And then they packed up and went home” is nothing but extraneous BS word count. Hell, “then” is extraneous word count.

Expanded list – Selling philosophy/religion/agenda via dystopia or straight-up ‘fiction’ just flat pisses me off. If someone writes to sell me something they should mention it on the flap.

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NVDT #39 – If Not Now, When?

The Prompt – How soon is too soon to include an actual event in a fictional story

The average attention span is around 8 seconds. Down from 12 in 2000.

Which screws up content-based marketing. I have Addy’s for 29.5 (30 second) commercials. One had 36 cues. Bip Bam Boom. One was a gauzy, dreamy Mother’s Day ad for a chain of jewelry stores. I wonder if anyone ever heard the tag? Why bother with 29.5s? Because TV stations can’t stay alive selling 7-second ads.

That’s what, 4 ads in the space of 1 with some extra fade time? “FORDS! WE GOT ‘EM!” “FURNITURE! COME GET IT!” “FAT GUY PLUMBERS, ON TIME!” “HOT WINGS! CARRYOUT OR DELIVERY!”

Extend that content thought out to writing a new novel (which explains the plethora of plot holes and unexplained Red Herrings lately). My new book, please review – “Zombies. Lots of them. Fear. Chase. Blood and guts. More blood and guts. Screaming. Sex. More fear. Everyone dies. The end.

Our attention spans are so short we’ve blown off Covid 19 as a death sentence that hasn’t gone away, in favor of making sure we can get haircuts. And nachos. And exercise together in sweaty groups in closed rooms.

My answer – Whenever it suits you. Now is fine for whenever whatever happened or is happening.

Which begs the question – At what point or measure of time from an event does pop-culture fiction become historical fiction? A generation? Five years? Twenty years? When everyone who experienced it is dead? When kids weren’t born when it happened?

The old saying, roughly, is ‘wisdom is the distance from an experience to its understanding.’ Some events take longer than others to grasp their full magnitude, but is it a prerequisite that we understand a current event to use it for a tortilla to wrap around our story burrito?

The 7-second rule says “Nah.” You couldn’t write a YA about the Twin Towers because most of them wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about. And you might offend some terrorists. Maybe YA’s know about Taylor Swift’s boob job or Demi Lovato’s latest overdose. Maybe. Don’t count on it, because some celebutante just tweeted about how she loves her new custom painted high top Converses. What was I saying?

Quick. What happened 7 seconds ago?

Gotcha.

 

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NVDT – Writerly Concerns #38

Hukt Awn Foniks Werkt Fur Mee

The prompt was – What are your pet peeves as regards grammar and spelling?

Do I have any? Definately. The little red lines under words are their for a reason.

Grammar (as word usage) and spelling should always be correct outside of dialog.

Possessives and plural’s like ladys and ladies except when convention has negated the rules as in mens room since it would be gender inequality for men to get the apostrophe and ladies not to. Or is would that be ladys? Or… Is it correct to say “Excuse me, I’m off to the men ( or women) room? Is that why there are so many nongender synonym workarounds for potty?

All that other punctuation stuff? Is it the week we put punctuation outside of quotes or not? I refuse to believe the first three words of every sentence are an introductory clause. Grammarly disagrees. Imagine that. I use commas for phrasing and timing like rests in music, not “correctly.” It drives English Professor types nuts. Two bad – because —

I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. – Elmore Leonard

I also believe the following true.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Kurt Vonnegut

1) If it doesn’t work, even if it’s correct, rewrite or eliminate it.

2) If it needs a semicolon or some other oddball punctuation, re-write it. Use a period. Two short sentences do not make the author look stupid. Neither does whacking a couple of words here and there from two windy clauses that could be one good one. There is no sin in the simplicity of ‘Jim kicks Bill.’

Dialog is the exception. I said that already. Why? Good God y’all, people can and do talk some stoopid shit. The cops and crooks on true detective shows? The people newscasters interview who lived through a tornado in Oklahoma? Eyed put up an example but we’d be here all day.

You can’t have characters speaking perfectly but you also can’t cop out and have them speaking pidgin English like bad movie pirates. Dialect and patois, okay, to a point. But there is no reason to have characters speak like extras in Captain Blood. 

The point – Proper usage, conjugation, logical continuity, spelling should all be mandatory when committing writerly narrative to the page. Commas and that semicolon, em dashes (and their usage), ellipses (and the spaces before or after)…even quotation marks, are style choices. (As far as I’m concerned)

Why? Punctuation is something even the Grammar Nazis can’t agree on.

Yeah. Spelling, proper usage, and content – Definately.

Joke. What do divorces and tornados have in common in Oklahoma?

It’s for sure somebody’s gonna lose a double-wide.

 

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