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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, a flash course in character from a master –

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

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

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Writerly Concerns – That Show/Tell Thing Again

It was asked here by Anonymole (and all over everywhere) when to show and when to tell. I can’t answer that, directly, but I have a few ideas. First, and this is critical to making the show/tell judgment call, here is an excerpt from Charles Ardai’s Afterword for James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. (The book discovered, edited and published by Ardai.) This is lifted out of context but hits the nail on the head.

“It’s the inherent contradiction in any work of fiction, the one we all conveniently ignore each time we sit down to enjoy a novel: Can we believe what this narrator is telling us? Well, no, of course not – it’s all lies, it’s all made up, that’s what fiction is. But within the fiction, you say, if we imagine ourselves inhabitants of the characters’ world instead of our own, can we believe what we’re being told then…?”

Credibility. With any audience, we need to judge when they will keep their suspension of disbelief going and hang with us, and when they will pull up and say, “Whoa, now. Really?” Here are a few thoughts about show vs. tell.

Ease up on the Minutia – An editor once told me that we don’t need to take every step of every day with the characters. We need to see them in their environment and show them in conversation and interaction with other characters when it matters. Telling is often scene setting, or setting up an important conversation or event. Janie brushed her teeth, threw on her clothes, picked up a drive-through coffee and made it to X in twenty minutes. We don’t need to stand there with her while the toothbrush timer runs down, button her blouse or select shoes (unless we’re showing some character) we need to get her and her hurried state of mind to the next show by getting the basics told.

Ass-U-Me – We might understand something physical or conceptual and ass-u-me the readers do as well. If a doohickey has a name, and only the fifteen people you work with know what it is, either tell what it is (if it’s mandatory to the story), show the doohickey by character interaction, (M in Bond) or drop it. The way Hans Solo used sci-fi slang to sell the speed of his ship in the original Star Wars always drove me nuts. But he glossed over it, the people at the table bought it, so we let it go and ass-u-me whatever the hell he said, it meant fast and he was some kind of hot dog space jockey to pull it off. Great generic transplantable bar scene, though, in spite of the gratuitous techno-babble.

Weather, battles, travel and digressions – If the weather matters, or turns into an antagonist/protagonist, get into it if you must. Otherwise, conditions if they matter told. Think of the intros to Dragnet. Do we really need to know it was a hot and muggy/wet and cold day in Los Angeles when it never really mattered to the ensuing story?
Battles and fight scenes are an either/or. Jim kicked Bob’s ass. Told. Extended blow by blow of Jim kicking Bob’s ass. Shown. Make the call. Do we need to see it, or is it enough to know it happened?
If a journey matters, show it. If not, tell it. Think Huck Finn on the River. “Me and this black dude named Jim, we got up to all sorts of stuff. The End.” No way. How about the Bible? Woops, Jesus is 12. Man, that went by fast. And now he’s 30 something! But those are the story markers. Why waste time on The Messiah helping Joe build furniture and go to Messiah school? TV and all genres of fiction (okay, leave Eco out) do this all the time. Example – “Springtime was cold and muddy in Colorado, which made Texas look pretty good. By early summer a gambler in Galveston had taken his horse and saddle, newspapering didn’t appeal to him, so he thought he’d try doctoring for a spell.” Now we could watch “him” lose the horse and saddle in the poker game, that would be fun, or it needs to come out in a backstory/catch up convo with a bartender or a “saloon girl nurse” so we get the character’s side of it, not ours, but we don’t need to ride across Texas with him if it’s just a ride and campfire trip. And the audience has been primed to accept those things. Ever see or read about a cowboy getting off his horse for a potty break?
Digressions, into characters’ minds or daydreams or god forbid lengthy postmodernism authors and their mindset and philosophy and opinions and preaching ad nauseum. Or endless architecture, seasonal weather, travelogue and set decorating ramblings. Moby Dick and whaling how-to. That is all us  telling and we often need an outside opinion to point it out and defend it or let it go. In Cain’s book mentioned above his digressions into weather and architecture got cut as they did nothing for the story and weren’t in sync with his style. But – in another genre, another style? Judgment call.

Bottom line for show/tell is what happens to characters that we can dispense with and what do we need to show. Test – can you sell it without selling the story short.

Some authors can’t. Every gadget, every garden, the smell of leather and horse and…I prefer people to things, and if properly done we don’t need owners’ manuals for things in stories. Look how easily we accepted Warp Speed or salt shakers as stun guns or scanning wands in Star Trek. There are those who would invent a language for aliens. Roddenberry did not. Nor did he explain his dystopia. It was Bonanza in space. Dress the set, get to the people. Tell, show. This a classic chapter/scene set up since forever. Where are we, and…Action.

Which brings me to: why don’t a lot of (burgeoning) writers like dialog? Ask yourself that. Don’t like people? Aren’t comfortable talking? Can’t hear them in your head? Don’t know how the conversation should go? While you’re at it, ask yourself this: do you buy the leap you’re asking your readers to take by being so uninvolved with your characters? (telling). I faced this in Affable. I wanted Jackson out of the dump he’d landed in for several reasons. How? One line, two? Whatever, is it believable? “Oh my, Jackson is suddenly wearing a tux vest and ponytail playing in a piano bar off the strip and is also the houseboy for the I Felta Thi sorority of upscale hookers. Because they liked him.”

What? Why? How? In a movie it could have been some quick cut soft focus double exposure layers, girls at the dive, Jackson playing, laughing, girls hustling the talent guy, girls at the gas station, BAM. I didn’t have that luxury, nor did I buy it at two or four lines. A chance to reinforce Vegas without a travelogue, put up some strong, independent female characters (important for tone), lots of visual language, some foreshadowing. I could have gone over the top with damp carpet smells, told more scene setting, more sideline character development, bumped my word count, but why? Or simply told the whole thing. Divergence should have a purpose. Credibility and putting Jackson in a position for what’s next. For what’s next to be credible we needed to see it. I needed to see it. I couldn’t have told Savannah as vehicle and persona or Jackson’s improved caste half as well as showing it.

In the next chapter of THG3 I gloss over something that an erotic writer would have been all over for a couple of pages. So what’s important varies by genre. Regardless, credibility and stylistic consistency are the show vs. tell litmus tests. I got that straight from the editor’s mouth.

Random and Rambling NVDT – King Arthur Syndrome, Vitriol, Hate and Factionalization

I think a healthy difference of opinion is a good thing. However, in the last week I have become personally aware of the internet phenomenon that has sparked the culture of factionalization. A real-world version of the nightly news and the speculating talking heads on CNN. Disagree, call someone out for their position and you don’t get reason, you get hate. Personalized, vitriolic, stereotype equivalent of bigotry hate. I don’t disagree with what you say or insinuate or believe, I hate you hate. How you look, what you do, what you wear, what color or age or demographic you are, everything about you. Everything that is you down to your nasty DNA. I fucking hate all of everything that is you. And by the way, everything you are or have ever done or will ever do is shit, your momma’s ugly and so are you, you have to roll in steak sauce to get a kiss from the fucking dog you pathetic miserable excuse for a human being. Asshole. “Fuckwit.”

Wow. Thanks!

No reasoned response. The same old laundry list of how wrong the original premise was, spiced up with some maybe I should find a way to drive over and beat your ass you sorry excuse for a human being who questions me.

All for asking a direct or rhetorical question?

In another post I mentioned a set-to with an internet “editor”. I read his commentary throughout a short story I submitted to a “contest” ($20 entrance fee and editing advice). Some of the advice was sound. My response to a lot of it was “Are you even reading this?” Something I mentioned in an email. Nothing profane. No name calling. I asked if he’d bothered to read the story before he dusted off his editor hat and started commenting. You know, so for the $20 I got an idea of how it read. He blew up, told me I was denigrating the entire process, insulting his integrity and furthermore I was an asshole. I mentioned that one only needed to read his outline of commentary to see that he didn’t get it from word one. He might have been able to offer constructive criticism if he’d read through it and then gotten after it. By God, I was an even bigger asshole then, and jacked out of the contest I would have been a runner up in. Here’s a screen shot of what I sent him along with my questioning of his methodology. Hello? If you’re gonna bluff and bluster for money at least be good enough at it not to blatantly tip your hand. Plus, he missed the hints at intimacy all along the way by writing clever observations like “they sure touch a lot” completely clueless as to where it was heading.

Why didn’t you read the story, earn your $20 and comment on what it was, not what your editor hat waded through? Oops, sorry, I’m a asshole for asking. Or even expecting you do to do what you offered to do for the money. I’m glad this reactionary business hasn’t gotten to plumbers or the pizza place. Yet. The “expert” geezers at the hardware and DIY box store places are getting there.

I can hear Chicago’s updated for the 2k-teens.

“Does anybody know what time it is?”

No, you stupid fuckwad, nobody has time for your pathetic bullshit questions and if they did they’d tell you nobody cares. About time or your ugly ass or the horse you rode in on or your momma or your ugly baby or your ugly dog – Wait, that started to drift off into country. Add a line about your beat to shit truck you sorry drunk unemployed loser with a bad hat and broken razor and it’s a crossover smash.

Jesus. A friend of mine who uses Facebook to do no more than advertise his blues band, led by a fantastic guitarist and long-time band member of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, told me “Don’t have an opinion on the internet, about anything, unless you want more vitriol spewed in your direction than you can imagine.”

Well, yeah, I can imagine. Now.

Being me, I look for commonality in behavior patterns. What both of these “authors” have in common, reading a couple of free pages of their work, is a workmanlike craftsmanship of patently unoriginal sameness. Adverbs and useless dialog tags and throwaway action tags that define nothing about a character but take up writerly residence indside a formula. They could swap names on the covers and no one would know. Same behaviors, obviously editors from the school of bland, the same “stuff” on the pages. And hair trigger anger fed vitriolic personal abuse if anyone happens to notice.

When, exactly, did it become illegal to have an opinion and be answered with hate? When did reasoned response turn into front and center insult driven hate? When did riots become an answer? When did “asshole” become an answer?

Forget it, I didn’t ask. But I do understand the psychology of factionalization. It’s all about anger and hate as first responders to a question someone might not want to answer. A response modeled by the leaders of the world. King of the Rhetorical Hill via the language of hate and obfuscation. All coming to an inbox or on a blog comment near you.

These episodes should teach me NOT to ask someone if the ongoing almost two-year infatuation with their personal heartbreak saga is real depression, or are they simply milking the crybaby routine in hopes of attracting a wider audience to promote book of similar content. Or are they half-assed con artists or the real deal because the evidence points to…Phil, you asshole! Okay. Maybe I’ll learn better. Not.

I do not ask these things lightly or facetiously. Preying on the susceptible is an unfortunate truth. Like continuing to beat an emotional horse that has long since left the barn for attention or performing at a minimal level for someone’s real money thrown at their dreams raises questions. At least in my mind. What if I was thin skinned and dreamy eyed and spent my baby’s formula money on the entry fee? Sadly, that’s the people they’re looking for. There’s one born every minute, right? The machinations of the capitalistic dream.

I was in the music biz for years. On the product end someone wise once held up a guitar and asked a room full of salesmen, “What are we selling?”

“Guitars!”

“No. We’re selling dreams. And that, my friends, comes with the caveat of responsibility.” He also said, possibly the most succinct thing I ever heard in a business meeting, applicable to everything –

“Don’t confuse the pieces with the game.”

Victims of abuse, rape, any sort of criminal violence, chemical imbalances, I get those as being hard to get around and depression triggers. Not everyone gets raped, beaten into a coma, their vagina filled with lighter fluid and set on fire. That is depressing on any number of levels. So to all the internet I’m so depressed marketers, gauge your level of “should give thanks” over “depression” against something truly sinister. It’s like lactose intolerance, all this marketed personal “depression.” There are places in the world where a thimble full of milk would be a godsend, not a “no thanks, intolerance” wave off.

Down to it, I think if they talk hate loud enough non-stop over you as their only weapon, words become meaningless. We have come to a gazillion meaningless new books on Amazon a day and a gazillion meaningless videos on YouTube a day and a gazillion meaningless hate filled discussions a day all stored on servers with mammoth environmental footprints. Toxicity finds a home creating a toxic wasteland. The meaningless archive. I am reminded of the Krell.

There’s a book in that somewhere. 1984 plus meaningless hate. Forbidden Planet of Cheesy Insults? Any volunteers?

Oh yeah, the King Arthur Syndrome. Ask a question, get an insult. I think these guys were prophetic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSo0duY7-9s

 

 

 

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #12

Precision

I like the sound of that word. What it represents. Not all words are like that. How does precision, a very direct and precise word apply to something like writing that can appear from the outside to be playing Legos with words? Choices. We have thousands of word choices. Every character, every scene, every dialogue. Nuance words. BAM words. Words that economize, words that billow out and take up space. Words that define, words that obfuscate, words that lead. Making the choices, that’s the hardest part. Because I can throw down draft as it runs through my head and get close. But then? The work starts.

First, I’ll abuse myself. In THG 3.7 a good deal of word time was spent on describing the flat. I had a reason, a couple of choices, made one that will still work once pared down. The reasoning was “see it through the character.” She lives there, not me. I got busted for that by an editor once. Here it is –

Deanna issued a sleepy snuffle sob, rolled out of a fetal position on her bed, hit the floor on all fours. She dropped her forehead into the shades-of-pink shag carpet in her bedroom, felt a small, cool, bony hand between her shoulder blades.

“Gramma Cora? How long have you –”

The editorial comment was “Why do we have to feel this through Deanna? Why not direct action?”

Consider this. A big shot editor bought into my characters early on, not far from here, and instead of reading the first 20 pages and sending me a quote she read it all. This is a touchy-feely scene. I intentionally put the experience through the character. Now, a professional someone, who bought into it for the very reason of investment in the character wants to hit the equation button and suggest destroying intimacy with the character. Huh? Based on what? A Rule? Something more precise? Precision is how we sculpt our characters and our work, not a formula.

The Hard-Boiled school cuts to the chase. That is not an imperative, even inside the genre, because they can hit the detail switch when needed. Even then, the good ones do it so well you are sold on a character, a situation, a scene – with great economy and precision language. In THG 3.10 I tried that, just for grins, by describing a musical instrument without using any musical vernacular. And three characters with indirect descriptions or third-party information/observation.

On occasion a short string of precise language evokes exactly what you need. Watch a master do that very thing –

They came down to the marina dock in John Tuckerman’s big blue Chrysler Imperial. John Tuckerman was a sort of unofficial assistant to Hub Lawless. He didn’t seem to hold any particular office in any of Hub’s many corporations and partnerships. But he always seemed to be around, laughing, making jokes, making sure of air reservations, hotel reservations, dockage space, hanger space, and so on. They brought two young women aboard. Half the ages of Hub and Tuckerman. Tight pants and airline carry-ons. Perfume and giggles. *

We know what’s going on. We know about both men and their guests and a setup for some future action. From some very precise language. Lawless from Tuckerman’s job description (indirect). Not Jill and Jane and who they are. Perfume and giggles (direct). Later you could split them up that way, if you needed to talk to them. ‘Lieutenant Rogers took the tall, walking perfume counter and I sat down with her partner, a short redheaded professional giggler.’ Regardless. All you need is all you need when you need it.

Song lyrics can do that. Everybody’s heard this one – “A singer in a smoky room. The smell of wine and cheap perfume.”** BAM. There. Whether you’ve been there or seen it a thousand times on TV, you’re there. Precise and economical. Dylan got a Nobel Prize. Often picturesque, not always economical or precise, always a storyteller. “Tangled Up in Blue” is as easily a condition as it is a song title.

Precision language makes short work of what might be considered mundane or difficult tasks. Elmore Leonard (and Steinbeck) suggest not spending too much time describing characters. Particularly main characters. They should belong to the reader. But precision language for bit players, the nemesis, the sideshow, makes loading them into the work much easier because you don’t have to spend time getting to know them and making them work. Or even, as I have witnessed in a number of works, not bothering to give them names. Because, in a group scene, names will kill you. And overload your dialogue tags quota. If, in a scene with four or six or more people, you impose on the reader to remember six or seven names you dug up on a random name generator or researched the meaning of, it’s all gone. The reader walks, all your hard work naming someone who will get shot or eaten or carried off by a Phoenix anyway is wasted. If there are characters the reader has spent time with, use those names, and the interlopers get descriptions. Precision. It’s easier to visualize for the author AND the reader without remembering a name. I did that here, just to see. The scene is action that gets a main character off the mud and back in the game without “all hell broke loose and Mick got away.” Because what the hell kind of cop-out is that, and why read something that doesn’t take you for a ride? Boots and Boxers, Plaid Pants and Red Converses don’t need names at the point of BAM. Bottom line – Authors and readers don’t need a meet and greet on everybody involved.

I suggested in a comment elsewhere that a quick introduction scene was the perfect place to drop character nuggets without overkill. Short, tall, hairy, mercenary. Think harder, direct descriptive words as well. Mousey, fraudulent, a new favorite “shit speck,” deliberate, pensive, fawning, a rednosed walking Kleenex ad, a lip balm addict with an effected limp… uh-oh, muse attack – a contrived, prissy, arrogant and morally bankrupt man full of nothing but a theatrical impression of himself and the faintest whisper of soul. BAM. I liked that one.

Homework. Go find a character you spent too much time, or not enough time on, and give them no more than three, short and precise language lines. No adverb-ly fluff. Direct and precise. Nail them down and move on. While I go fix Deanna meets her flat.

 

*  Excerpted from The Empty Copper Sea © 1978 by John D. MacDonald Publishing Inc.

**  “Don’t Stop Believin’” Perry-Cain-Schon © 1981 Weed High Nightmare Music

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