Mescaline Blue – 2 -Baby, You are Mine

What the hell, it’s Friday. I went to the museum with small grandkids, stared at Monets and a late Van Gogh (Paris) and noticed even in their minor work that at least they were brave. So here’s some run-on two people standing around talking ’bout nothin’ ‘cept insecurity, replete with era-accurate cultural sexism backstory and background noise. 

Jade saw the flashing light that these guys used for a studio doorbell, sighed, clipped the tape measure to her tool belt. She’d let herself in at six-fifteen with the key and alarm code Jackson had given her, walked and measured the space a dozen times, made and thrown away as many sketches, and had a lock on what needed to happen. And here was that fricking man shit she always had to get past just to get her job done. Why did they all need to talk about how they knew everything when most of the time they didn’t know shit? She turned the deadbolt and let him in.

Jackson was holding two coffees from the Exxon station and looked reasonably relaxed for a guy who had driven through L.A. at seven-thirty in the morning.

She mumbled “Thank you,” couldn’t look at him, felt her ears start to burn. Dammit. She squatted, set the coffee on the floor and measured a point on the floor from the far wall she’d measured a dozen times, stayed there staring at the tape measure and stood up. She repeated the process several times around the room.

Jackson noted the precise marks where the dust had been cleared, the half wall he’d built had a big X on it, made with the masking tape that was gone from where he’d laid out the small kitchen. All the response he could get from his questions were mono syllables and “Mmm.” He put the tip of his Converse on her tape measure.

“I didn’t hire you to agree with me, or ignore me pretending to measure what’s already measured. I’m just some guy. You have opinions, let it go.”

She stood up, made a note in the small steno pad with “AIR BISCUIT STUDIO” written on it in marker, flipped back to the first few pages.

“There’s no flooring, sir. How do I address that? Guess? A furniture grade ‘removable’ table top for a pool table that will weigh a frickin’ ton? That maybe you can play ping pong on because I have Jade’s secret miracle coating to finish it with? A kitchen laid out in the middle of the room where there’s no plumbing? I’m not selling Feng Shui, but common sense is a good idea.” She squinted, pointed her pencil at the top of the far wall. “You have those nice, high transom windows that could use a cleaning, and nothing. No trim, not even mentioned. The only thing you’ve written down are pipe dreams, and almost everything you’ve done so far that I don’t need to do again is the big bathroom that’s probably been here since Eisenhower drove a Jeep. You actually ate in here?” She pushed the rickety card table with a boot. “This is all men, right?”

“No, but females stayed on the other side of that insulated door unless they needed the genderless powder room that had walls until I took them out. If they wanted to eat we moved the card table into the control room. There was a long, hollow wall right here, all the way to the front door. Before I took it out —”

“It hid all of this dusty air and those beautiful east windows. You also spec’ed ‘A chill and reception guest seating kind of area’ isolated from the rest of the place by a forty-eight-inch-high half-wall. ‘With maybe plants or a planter.’ Why not a fricking aquarium like my dentist’s office or every Chinese place in town that gurgles and makes everyone need to go pee? All you’re missing is giant Legos or Lincoln logs and Tigger on the wall and it’s every pediatrician’s waiting room in California. Is that what you’re after? Little boys waiting for their turn at whatever the real toys are back there?” Uh-oh.

“No…No. Open. I wanted it to all feel open, and multi-use. I read that somewhere, about open, multi-use rooms and —”

“Stop reading or read something besides suburban housewife throw-pillow decorating magazines. For a client with a nice space who says ‘open’ a lot you have sectioned off all your ‘open’ into several smaller one-shot rooms. No walls and chaos isn’t ‘open.’” She made finger quotes every time she said “open.”

“What you’re trying to tell me is whatever I built already is bunk and that you have a better idea for the kitchen and the pool table and all the rest of it?”

“Yes sir. We can re-use most of your’bunk’. At least you kept it to standard lengths and didn’t anchor them or hang sheetrock.”

“I built them like gobos, or room dividers. I was waiting on an electrician to tell me what —”

“Wait a little longer and let me talk to someone who knows the codes. Where are we, Silverlake? East Hollywood? Do you even know?” She bit her lip after that one. Her mouth had gotten her fired before, particularly when she had the plan in her head already, got wound up and in some man’s shit when she’d rather be working than talking.

He snorted, shook his head. “Silverlake, commercial. We’re code correct, except the Fire Marshall inspections bust us for the tape boxes on top of the control room if they get too close to the ceiling. And call me Jackson. Or something besides Client or Sir or Mister anything. You’ll meet a girl on the phone this week who says ‘Yo, boss’ when she talks to me, but she might as well say ‘Hey, fuckhead’ because I’m nobody’s boss.” He waited two beats, went right to it. “I know you’re uncomfortable. About this gig or last Wednesday or something. We have to work together, so tell me what will make that go away.”

She fumbled for a second. He was supposed to be a dick and start all that ‘so what smart ideas do you have, shorty’ crapola, but…

“Sir, I served six years as a lead field mechanic in the Army, and I got attitude. Too much of it. The men wouldn’t do what I needed them to do and I was a bitch because I wouldn’t fuck them. I knew in the field that, they, we…we just couldn’t do sex and do our jobs. Some of them got it, but…Just because you drink a beer with someone doesn’t mean you’re in love or heat, or it’s an invitation to visit the vacation they thought they were going to find between my legs. It’s taken me a long time to get past that and an asshole ex and single momming an eight year old. And when I finally wanted to, with you, I drank too much and…”

She reeled out a couple of feet from the tape measure. “Hold this. Down there, in the middle of the X.” She walked off across two thirds of the empty the space, nodded her head as if agreeing with herself, tugged the tape out of his fingers and took a deep breath while she waited for the clatter to stop.

“I haven’t…Sex…In four years. I wanted to, I told you that, sir, and that was embarrassing enough. And then I woke up in your apartment after we didn’t. Embarrassment number two. I don’t go out to intentionally pick up piano players who listen to me and are a lot younger in the daylight, sir. Honest, I don’t. So embarassment number three. And here we are. You spent time on me and we didn’t do anything and just like the Army that’ll somehow be all my fault and you’re going to question everything I do. And I can’t handle all that attitude now that I’m out from under it, okay? I’m damn good at what I do, but when that shit starts up I want to say ‘fuck you all,’ sir, and stick my middle finger in everyone of your noses like you did to that actress, and I really have to watch it or I’ll starve. Eventually some people listen to me but most people run on about shit that doesn’t matter or won’t work and I say fuck it and do what they want because it’s work and I need the money.” She took another deep, needed breath, let it go but kept her tension.

“That’s all good to know, I think, but you haven’t told me how I can help.”

“Sir, what I’m trying to say is you can’t make me do lame work on the cheap or argue with me about everything because we didn’t have sex. Please. This job, I can see it. I have a chance to do it right in here, on budget, and I have to. Or I can’t stick.”

“I can work with that.” He dumped his cold coffee down the rusty sink, tossed the cup in the galvanized can. “About that non-sex thing? We both made it home, I got my car. I was a dick for working a piano bar like I was sixteen. Every now and then I get tired of my skin and do something stupid, so I’m right there in the middle of that embarrassed business with you. You and I are okay. ” He watched her work her face and take that on.

“As far as this room is concerned, Jade? It’s yours. I threw out some ideas, you threw them back. You know a lot more about this than I do. Air and function is what I, what we all need out of this space. No, now….look at me.” He caught both of her nervous hands on the way to her cutoff’s pockets. They seemed tiny, but still hard as granite. “You’ll meet a French woman this week who says ‘The story completed, my love?’ So finish it.”

“My face is burning, sir, I know it is. The last thing is I didn’t bring your coffee cup back. On purpose. That blue is, I don’t know. Strange and beautiful. Like you said, a blue only mescaline knows. I drink my coffee, set it down and stare at it. I started to lie and say I broke it, that’s how much I like it. That’s what needs to go away, being embarrassed about everything with you. Because I have been so wrong since climbing all over you in Bellacardi’s to ditching you without a car, to thinking of ways to steal your coffee cup. And…”

“And?”

“I need you to mean that, sir, about this room being mine and us being okay. Let me do a good job we can both be proud of and I can take pictures and use you and this project for a reference. I’ll be okay with us and the sex we didn’t have and the embarrassments if we can work that way. Maybe I could buy the coffee cup from you, sir, or you could tell me where to get one.”

“First, and get a hold on this, I’m not a sir. I can get you a whole damn box of those mescaline blue cups and the girl who designed them will be gassed that you like them. Straight up, Jade, last verse. Between you and me? You’re really cute almost naked for a little bitty girl with a killer, squirrelly tan. The white hands and feet? My mom would have named you Socks or Boots if you were a stray that turned up. That’s all there is of our short, sorta funny, didn’t make it to sex story. You and I are cool. And hopefully friends.”

“And as long as I’m in budget, this is my project?”

“Yes ma’am, all yours. C’mon, Boots, stop worrying. Do I need to sign something, get you a check?”

“Both would be good. Neither are required on consultation day. Boots? Oh, don’t. That’s not funny…You mean it, ‘straight up’? We didn’t, I’m weird and kept your Mescaline blue coffee cup, and that’s all okay and there’s no ‘who’s the boss’ weirdness?”

“There it is.”

“Contract and a check and I’m okay? My mouth sometimes…I brought a contract in.” She fished a folded sheet out of her tool belt, handed it to him. “And the check would be good, if it’s alright. Not that I don’t trust you yet, but I could really use it. And as a safety, in case you’re jacking me around because of my tan lines and I’m being happy-carpenter-girl-with-a-job blind and don’t want to see it.” She took a couple of deep breaths. “Shooo-eee.” She dropped her shoulders, shook out both of her hands and finally smiled.

He reached into the fridge in the old bathroom, pulled out the last two cold Cokes, handed her one. “Coffee kind of died on us. Caffeine is caffeine. So we have a deal, Boots?”

“Yes sir. Deal!” She frowned, tapped the old, rusty, spray painted, duct taped fridge. “This has to go, sir. This is a new, unisex restroom with real light and a lady grade vanity setup, not a room where men hang out, eat greasy take out, drink beer and pee.”

“Will there be a room for that?”

“No. I did your kitchen open, half size, with an island. On the other side of the restroom wall that goes where I’m standing.”

“Pool table?”

“Front side of the kitchen, plenty of elbow room. Are you any good, sir? At pool?”

“I can tell by the look in your eye that I need to be careful how I answer that.” He signed the contract, wrote her a check for half the budget, set them both by the rusty, dinged up sink in the old eat and pee and shower room.

“Sir? Where are you going?”

“It’s your room. ‘Ma’am’.” He bowed, deep. “I’m getting the hell out of your way.”

She waited for the door to close, hugged herself and spun all the way around on the ball of her right foot. When her work boot landed she looked up at the high east windows. “Ma’am! Yes Ma’am! Contract. Sold. Check. Boom. Boots? Crap-ola. But…” She turned a slow three-sixty with her arms out. “A ‘kick ass small recording studio front end’? Oh my God, baby. You are mine.”

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Mescaline Blue

In WC#8 I said “just write it.” You see a character, have an encounter, tune in and let it go. In year 3 of THG III the studio Jackson works out of needs a remodel. That’s the short version. It could have been handled with a paragraph or two of narrative, or the story delivered, as it currently stands in the draft, embedded in 400 words of dialogue that contains other elements. But – I needed a character (I thought), let the tape in my head roll and got a 4k full-blown interaction with two characters. Don’t worry, this is the 1.4k part 1. I won’t use it for the book, but what I said about Writer’s Block. It’s a myth. I met this character when she did my car inspection a few years ago, know nothing about her, but I listened and there she was. I think this is how short story collections are born.

Jackson’s Apartment / Long Bach California, July, 1981

Jackson sat on the edge of the bed in his old apartment’s spare bedroom, gave the well rendered lioness’s head an appreciative eye. It lived in a deep Coppertone-colored jungle, surrounded by a ring of flowers he was pretty sure were coloring book versions of petunias or something, not foliage native to sub-Saharan Africa. The tips of the long grass that weaved through it all and poked out around the top half of the picture created a nice, crown-like effect, but they looked out of place as well. Like Palm Sunday palm frond handouts Catholic junior high school girls could fold into religious origami.

A thin, pale line ran straight across the lioness’s nose and the width of the small, tan, muscular back it lived on. It all reminded him of a pastel chalk art project, as if he had run his little finger across her back and smudged the color off down to the paper. Which is how he decided to wake her up. He dragged the tip of his middle finger lightly from the where the pale line and Coppertone met the new bottom sheet on the new bed in Dash’s old bedroom, across her back and the lioness’s nose to the middle of her rib cage on the opposite side.

She pulled the top sheet straight up her back from her waist, bumped his hand out of its Etch-a-Sketch trance. “Unh-uh, Rafe. Fuck off. Show your latest your morning wood ’cause we are so divorced.” She smacked the pillow with a fist, pulled the other one over her head. “Get the kid ready yourself if you’re so frisky.”

“My name’s not Rafe, I don’t think we were ever married and I’m fresh out of kids.” He’d been awake for a while, was already dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. “Coffee?”

He stood, heard the covers being tossed behind him and some low, exclamatory profanity. He turned and glanced. She did have some squirrel-ly tan lines. White feet, white hands, white butt. Not a bikini white butt, but white from waist high to three or four inches past where everything came together. About a minute later, while he was pouring water in the top of the Mr. Coffee, she blew out of the bedroom in her red paisley bikini panties, clothes clutched to her chest.

“Phone?”

“Right in front of you,” he nodded to the small counter that divided his kitchen from living room. “One in both bedrooms if you need some space.”

She disappeared back into Dash’s old bedroom, he heard her bark at someone on the phone, the toilet between the bedrooms flushed, he never heard the door close or open. Jesus. Two minutes later she was standing at the small divider again, dressed in the red and yellow flowered dress that had gotten them into this situation.

“I hate to be a bitch, but I need to go. Now. We can beat the lock on the 405 or run up through…What?”

“You drove, didn’t trust me. We weren’t that far from here when you passed out at the gas station. I didn’t know where else to take you, didn’t want to troll your purse trying to find out.” He waited for her to wake up, but she was absorbing as fast as he laid it out. “Your pickup’s on the street out front. If you have to book we’re cool. I can get to my car.”

“You don’t mind? Crapola, I’m…I have a time window to beat. I bet you think I do this all the time, huh? Not at all…I told you that, didn’t I? That’s why I’m so scattered. I’m…I shouldn’t be here. Did I drink? Did I explain my tan?”

“A couple of drinks too many and a couple of times explaining a lot of things. Just saw the tan a minute ago. Interesting. Are you a trim carpenter for real?”

“Yeah. My hands.” She rubbed her fingers with her thumbs, screwed up her lips. “Rough. Sorry. I’m not the usual Wednesday piano player’s door prize at Bellacardi’s, am I?”

“I doubt it. Leave me a card, or your number?”

“Right. You’re going to call me. After no car, and no sex and…” Damn, he looked like he might be serious. “Okay.” She pulled an overstuffed red patent wallet out of her purse and sifted through a handful of cards, offered him one.
Jaeyden Hammett Carpentry – Serving the Greater Los Angeles Area. Two state license numbers and a phone number.

“You real busy?” He pulled one of his cards out of the second kitchen drawer he opened, set it on the divider. She picked it up, held it with her teeth and talked around it.

“This week, yeah. I have a remodel finishing up in West L.A. They say the bust is coming. Just my luck, right? Nothing next week yet. What am I saying? Nothing anywhere past Friday. I’m state licensed for trim and frame. Oh, and I’m bonded, too. A hundred grand. I think.”

She pulled one of her hands off shoe duty, took the card out of her mouth and dropped it in her purse. She was trying to talk, hang onto the counter with her elbow, stand on one leg and put on some kind of ankle wrap sandals that tied. The sandal wrap was an attempt to hide where her work boots cut off her tan. Women. He reached out, put a hand on the shoe between them.

“Next week’s job just landed, Jade. Solid. I’ll call.” He nodded at the shoe under his hand. “You might want to blow these off and drive barefoot.”

”Right. You need to get rid of me. Heard and understood. Someone is coming and I need to beat it. I feel so stupid…”

She stopped at the door to organize shoes and keys, fumble in her purse. A kicked around some, hard working, deeply tanned, tiny, no make up thirty-ish female carpenter with a mess of sun bleached hair and more of a mess tan lines under a pretty, probably rarely worn dress.

“No reason for stupid, and nobody’s coming. You had to take off the shoes to drive last night, carried them in when I woke you up.”

“I musta forgot that part.” She fidgeted with her dress, small shrugs, twists. “There was some story, right? One name Jackson? If you do call? Never mind, men don’t ever call me that way.” She dropped her shoes, threw her head back, gathered up a fistful of ponytail and popped a band around it. “They find out I was in the Army and I’m divorced with a kid and what I do for a living and think I’m a lez, so if you do call, I’ll know it’s you.” She picked up her nowhere-to-belong shoes, patted her purse. “And I have your card.”

She poked her head back in just before the door closed. “Thanks, you know…For being…And not getting…” She heard the Mr. Coffee gurgle. “Do you have a styrofoam cup, sir? Or a cup I can borrow?”

He reached up into the cabinet and pulled out a tall, translucent blue Morisé coffee cup, loaded it two thirds full for her.

She tied her shoes together and hung them around her neck while he brought the cup, took it with both hands, held it up to the light. “Amazing glaze. What’s the little gold M for?”

“Mescaline. It’s the only place I know where you can find that color of blue.”

“That’s true, you know, about this blue. But I think you’re bullshitting me about the M. Sir. I’ve seen it somewhere.” She gave him a slightly more relaxed look, between gratitude and mild surprise. “Nice cup. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back to you.” She pulled the door as she backed out, stuck her head around again just before it closed. “Because you are going to call me.”

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #7

Personal Accountability and THG III

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Chungwipff makes a good point about using WordPress for personal accountability in the comments of Adieu For Now.  A point I had mislaid somewhere in the Social Media wasteland. Create something. Put it up. Own it. Do it again. Forget what anyone else is doing, or not doing, or how what you do is received. Give it your best shot, be accountable to yourself. Get out of your own way, write your story. Your way. My Mantra had gone walkabout. Thank you, Chungwipff.

I bailed on my personal accountability based on what I perceived as a landscape largely without a threshold knob for the noise floor. No gate/expander, wide open. Foolishness, vagaries, rampant narcissism. Which are none of my damn business. I control the threshold of my personal noise gate. I hereby revoke my tantrum and resultant self-exile. I do not revoke my opinion(s) on the root cause. This started as a methodology for personal creative accountability, and so it continues. Nothing else matters.

I have been guilty of accusing others of things I once tried. Looking for the equation, the silver bullet that would make me a “writer.” I once took a Tony Hillerman novel apart. Because they read like glass and drop you right into the environment without travelogue. How much scene vs. dialogue vs. narration vs. internal dialogue. Seriously. I bark at people now because it was a waste of time. Timing of events for formula writing is important. The rest is all storytelling. I was fortunate enough that my father was friends with Tony’s father. He was older than my dad. My dad, like me, hung around places he wanted to be with his hobby. I turned my hanging into a career. My dad made side money. As a photographer and short story writer. Saturdays we’d go downtown and hang out at Hillerman’s Photography. When he had a large job, like team pictures, my dad would borrow the Hillerman drum dryer for his prints. Tony the author, a man who taught English in missionary schools for Native Americans and in Mexico, said there was no secret. He sat down in a room with his characters and an idea for a story, and off they went. He committed little hash to the page, and then he came back with wax on – wax off. He wrote a story, did the work. No magic. Except, I think, for listening to his own stories.

There is no Silver Bullet. There are formulas. For arcs, for story driving events. But there is no substitute for a well drawn yarn. What sets the really good like Hillerman and Vonnegut and Steinbeck and Hiassen and King, David Foster Wallace, and true genius like Virginia Wolff apart is their stories. And their style. Perhaps there are only X number of conflicts and plots. But stories? Stories are everything, and they deserve our best shot. Stories and their telling deserve our respect because they are a gift. Not everyone has the mindset to escape, to dream, to see the mirage that is an untold story. Respect your stories. Your loss if you don’t. All I’m sayin’.

THG III

Starting in a day or two, I will begin publishing The Hot Girl III – Cambridge. It is draft mode. I cranked it out and it has languished on my hard drive for three years. Once upon a time there was an editor who knew an editor who thought it was a good idea. Both of them are dead. Must have been a killer idea.

Unless you beta read The Hot Girl, you don’t know these people, and this is the only synopsis/player scorecard you’ll see –

The Hot Girl is a social commentary fairy tale. Feminism, gender role confusion and rock n roll from the late Seventies through the mid-Eigthies. A bit like the taming of the shrew, who doesn’t need taming along with self-discovery, the perception of abuse, coming of age, true love and destiny all wrapped in fairy tale.

For starters, two star crossed kids, like any good fairy tale. Angry ex cheerleader (Deanna) looking for a cause and Rock n Roll Prince Charming (Jackson), looking for a Princess. Deanna hears someone describe Jackson’s mother, before she knows the woman is his mother, as “An elegant hell in high heels.” And sets out to discover feminism, because elegant hell in high heels sounds like the best gig since head cheerleader turned out to be a bust. But she’s at a superficial level. Until Jackson introduces her to a pair of rich, over educated lesbian feminist fairy godmothers, Amanda and Alix Morisé, who can be found here. The Morisé’s own a huge real estate development company inherited from Amanda’s father. They run their empire from the 17th floor of an office building in middle America. 1700 Oilman’s Bank Tower. And more than anything, they want women’s issues front and center, and they need a cheerleader. No one better qualified than an a very attractive, angry high school ex-cheerleader and overachiever with man issues, a sterling academic record and a temper. How Amanda meets Jackson in The Hot Girl I is an exercise in feminism kicking sexism’s ass, and listening to a woman. Deanna wants to know a real feminist, and Jackson, reluctantly, introduces them.

Think of a classic like Captain Blood. I wanted to write that, in different context, only I always wanted to know what the girl was up to while Errol Flynn was off pirating. I asked some women and they told me they didn’t know, but they’d be damned if she sat in her room reading poetry, sniffing roses and pining away while the non Pirate Prince Charmings of the world plied her with party invitations and gifts and scams and offers of wedding rings.

Some of THG is already up here, as short story. Here they will be presented in context. If you meet someone you don’t know, don’t worry, they won’t bite. Just climb in and take the ride.

THG III begins several years into Jackson and Deanna’s relationship and who she has become with his help. She is tired, again, of being told what to do. Tired of her mistakes in personal judgement dulling the sheen of her brilliant performances on the academic debate circuit where she takes feminism and throws it straight into the face of patriarchal strongholds and comes out with medals for both skill and humanitarianism. I will drop us all into what I call the “between narrative.” Between the bliss of young love and the glow of success, her mentor’s frustrations, and her need to run. Stay tuned.

Personal Accountability – Defined

I read an interview with Jeff Beck. He was asked why it takes a while between records.

“I’m the sort of bloke that’s like a ton of bricks, you know? I won’t be moved until I hear something that really sends me up in the air, then I’ll be around pestering everybody, playing for them. I can’t see the point in putting out an album, kidding yourself that it’s great, if you don’t believe it. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing—and then you can take all the crummy reports that are going to come, and you can say, ‘Well, sod you, I like it.’ And that’s the main thing.”

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #6

“-LY” Words and Arn

“-ly” words. Adverbs. Descriptive tags. I avoid them like the plague. I stress over not using them. Yet, as the re-blog from the other day shows (blatantly), I am a sucker for them when they paint the proper picture.

I have been editing. For me that involves checking context, this follows that, clear dialogue attributions. And whacking things I wrote two (or three) times (often back to back in different ways) getting to what comes next. (Are you listening, George F?) But – most of my editing involves adding more than subtracting. To me? People tell stories, so I have dialogue. And I set the scene (admittedly on a word budget). “What else?” is a pervasive question when I’m doing that sort of editing. Because I’m unsure. Too little is too much for me most of the time.

This morning I read the first chapter of an older Robert Parker’s Spencer. From his office window Spencer watched a client get in her chauffeur driven Bentley through a gray, misty day. It “gleamed wetly” as it pulled away. There has to be a better way to describe that than turning wet into an ly word. Gleamed wetly. Really? That, and “said” forty times on a page where attribution was clear. And I idolized this guy. I have also noticed that there are a lot of expression tags. She said, disconsolately. She said, spritely. Once it starts up that stuff is like a rash you can’t rid of. But it is like sheetrock mud. It fills in the cracks. And nobody has to work for your story as it stops requiring any imaginative support on the reader’s part. To me it also puts you slightly out of the scene because instead of being in the middle of it, you are being directed. Subliminal, but still…

I caught myself writing  – “he found a strange comfort in the discordant sounds of a Long Beach Friday night as they mingled in distant, mellow cacophony before they found his open window.” That is some flowery shit for me. Do I have to write it? I don’t know. But it needed something besides “he fell in the bed with his window open.” And if you’d read up to that point you’d know that he has an infamous dive bar in the parking lot twenty feet behind and fifteen feet below his second-floor window, just off Ocean Blvd in Long Beach. I could fluff it up with drunks and dealers and low-riders with glasspacks and the ocean, but there has to be a cut-off point for the travelogue writing. And the easiest way is to avoid it altogether. You tell me.

I ass-u-me in dialogue that a lot of emotion is clear in the exchanges if the attribution is clear. I would write this –

Amanda Morisé’s office, Wednesday afternoon, November 1st, 1978

Amanda was standing, stretched across her big, clear desk doing something with a marker to an unrolled blue print, didn’t bother to look up.

“Jailbait, there is some viable reason for you to be in my office during business hours without Deanna?”

“Yeah. She’s done, Amanda. It’s over. All of this is over, I can feel it. The last one was the last one, if you’re picking that up.”

“You are speaking in riddles and I’m busy. Be clear, dear. Or be gone.”

Nowhere in there do I see the need for “she said, slightly annoyed.” Because she isn’t slightly annoyed, she’s curious. “She said, curiously.” Isn’t that redundant? Said, a ? and curiously? Which is one of my pet peeves in the “said” culture. It was a f*cking question, not a statement. I see it all the time “Are you okay?” she said. She asked, dammit. Okay?

Nor do I see the need for “jailbait” to clap his thighs in frustration or opt in on his demeanor. He will probably drop into her guest chair in a moment and we’ll get there. Nowhere do I see the need for tags.  Isn’t the resignation in his word choices and the disruptive but not entirely unwelcome appearance of this person obvious? Even if you didn’t have two books worth of backstory on their relationship? I can see some stilted dialogue from someone requiring the appearance of an “ly” if it was needed to set the tone. But you tell me. Is it? If it is, I can do that. But…

Yes, there are times and scenes and moods that you want to set with words, that we need to set with words. The thing about editing is that it makes me wonder if there aren’t hundreds of thousands of my words that are total rubbish because I’m allergic to tags. But not altogether if they help –

It was rainy and cold the first Friday of December. The drive had been dry in his car, but the non-working heater had left it cold. Jackson stood under the heater by the hostess stand for a minute, his jacket dripping.

“May I help you, sir? Are you expecting someone?” The hostess was a girl about his age wearing real lipstick, not lip gloss, and had her snotty on.

“She’s here someplace. So tall,” he held out his hand at about five-four. “Long, blondish brown hair?” He wanted to describe her figure, just to piss snotty off, checked it. “Can I go look?” He didn’t wait for an answer. After a summer of snotty lipstick girls he’d figured out that they all thought they ran the place when they were really no more than attractive speed bumps between the door and a table.

There. Attitude for everyone involved, no work for anyone.

Out of that quagmire of self-pity and curiosity into  – Dialect

Rule of thumb is “don’t.” I say as needed. I am the world’s worst for gonna and wanna and contractions. I am from the south. I’ve read a lot of stilted Indie (and mainstream) dialogue that would have benefitted from a little casualizing. People’s voices change, their delivery and inflection changes, with emotion. Aw, man. I don’t wanna go to the…Or. Look. I am not going to the…Either one of those, finished could have found their own LY tag. But contextually I don’t think they need me to direct you to how they’re feeling. That wasn’t this discussion. Apologies.

JD MacDonald slipped into some vernacular in a book and it was drawn his way and I had to go back and read it three times to get it. He didn’t go full on phonetics, he wrote new words wrapped in backwards apostrophes. Jeez. Elmore Leonard says not to load up your pages with apostrophes. I disagree with both of them. Write it so whoever is reading it gets the gist without struggling for it. I have a character from coastal Louisiana headed for New Or- lee-uns, as people from elsewhere might say. In narrative I would say he’s headed for New Orleans. If in dialogue, I’d have him say – “Headed for Nawlins, Junior. You comin’?” Because no redneck gets in his truck and says – “I am going to New Orleans, Junior. Would you like to come along with me?” No more than an ex-cop and an ex-boxer would say, under heavy gunfire ripping through their cabin, “Well, what shall we do?” I read that one. Honest to God. Here’s a funny story about dialect and I’ll get off my soapbox.

I did a handful of clinics with Larry Londin. He was the drummer for Motown during the Supremes era. There are other stories of his and Lamont Dozier’s that are priceless, but I’ll put on the limiter. When Larry was done with Motown he moved to Nashville as a session drummer. On his first session he set up, rehearsed some, they ran down the tune. When it was over, through the headphone talkback came “Hey you, new drummer boy. Don’t use no arn.” Larry thought WTF? Arn? He nodded, they ran the tune down again. Halfway through the tape stops. “Don’t use no arn this time,” the engineer said, edgily (!). Larry is still trying to figure out what arn is and they get the count-in. Not even to the first chorus and the tape stops. The engineer slams his chair back, stomps out into the studio. “Godammit, I said don’t use no arn,” and he proceeds to take Larry’s cymbals off their stands.

Iron. (Cymbals are copper based alloys). Euphemistically, and in a very narrow subcultural vernacular, they were a drummer’s “iron.”

When it gets to be a reach I’d have that redneck in a truck say “Gawldarn it, Junior, we got us flat tire.” Because “flat tar” would be a double take a lot of places. Particularly if the damn thing got hot and caught far. I say vernacular and dialect and even subcultural slang, in small doses, and apostrophes wherever you want, are okay. If they are true to your character’s voices. But watch your Arn.

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #5

This isn’t creative, but it’s something to share, which makes it SocialMedia content. If it helps, consider it a roasted pepper salsa recipe or a trip to the zoo with grandchildren.

Attention Economy

Not long ago I made mention of Revising Prose by rhetorician Richard Lanham. That, and another of his books, The Economy of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information should be read by anyone who communicates with the written word. In 1979 he identified the burgeoning modern trend of stringing words and prepositional phrases together ad nauseum to make a point. His example was no one can write “Jim kicks Bill” anymore. I won’t plagiarize his work. I will tell you this – read the first chapter (eight short pages) of Revising Prose and it will make you think better, write better, and not commit wordiness to the page. It will scare indefinite comparisons and “is,” “was,” “will be,” “seems to be” “of” and other “weak” verb glue out of your writing vocabulary for any purpose other than dialogue. If you’re like me, the first eight pages will hook you into going further into what I harp on. Sentence length, rhythm and sound. But if you read no more than those first eight pages, your word count will have dropped 45% before it ever hits the page.

I was made painfully aware of the failure to write “Jim kicks Bill” and what that directly entails in my own work, as well as in published authors’. Example – I read Richard Rayner’s 2005 The Devil’s Wind, his paean to Noir. I referred to it in another post, namelessly, as “soft boiled.” It was wrapped in “language” and “writerliness” and when he occasionally hit a “Jim kicks Bill” line it stuck out like a pew rattling fart. Rayner disregarded economy of attention (Elmore Leonard’s rule “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip”), and I found myself skipping blocks of Rayner’s text that proved he was a writer and had done research but stalled the story. Writerliness that became an overturned eighteen-wheeler on the freeway at rush hour. Had all that excess backstory been committed on the front end and led me into the book on it’s own, defining the character? Fine. War hero changes last name, turns architect. But in the middle of the action here’s an unnecessary two-page flashback?

Virginia Wolff called thoughts “arrows.” Thoughts are often a component of stream of consciousness. Arrows with a point, that hit a target, agreed. Arrows that eat up two pages of word count way past time to be important to our understanding of the character? WTF? Granted, Rayner stylized the novel like a Noir film. I could see Mitchum sweating in black and white, staring into the bathroom mirror reliving his war experience, his white shirt gone limp in the desert heat, tucked roughly into his armpit high pleated slacks belted across his ribs. Close up of his face, maybe he pulls his bottom lids down, cue the WWII bomber footage. But it wasn’t written that way. It was a novel, not a screenplay. Which are Rayner’s claim to fame. Attention economy isn’t on the menu for Hollywood, as witnessed by this season’s incredibly boring three episodes turned into ten of Bosch. The last two aimless seasons of Justified after Leonard died. And furthered into the reading realm by books like The Devil’s Wind(iness).

“Jim kicks Bill”

I stumbled over a 1959 John D MacDonald, The Beach Girls. It has character building with dialogue scenes that should be in a textbook. I had never looked at MacDonald in any light beyond my father’s hand me down pulp with the possibilty of sex scenes. Looking at JDM in the light of verbal economics explains why authors as diverse as Vonnegut, Block, Hiassen, Koontz, Leonard, Parker, King, Philbrick, have all dedicated works to, and sung the praises of, MacDonald. My favorite description of MacDonald is “verbally precise.” Simply because he writes “Jim kicks Bill.”

Following on the heels of war and the first half of the 20th century “attention economists” like Cain, Hammett, Hemingway and Steinbeck, MacDonald leaves no doubt in your mind what is on a waning Southern Belle’s mind about an arrogant asshole. Not, “Sally thought it seemed like she felt angry whenever…” Instead he writes, “When he grins I find myself thinking how fine it would be to kick him square in the face.”* Hot damn. “Jim kicks Bill.” Emotion. No PC. No apology. Real people thoughts. Check this out. It should have its own Flash Pulitzer. “He’s a small souled man, but picturesque.”* BAM. I am amazed at how much story, how many fabulous, precise one liners are in one of those thin JDM books. If reading one does nothing but embarrass you out of trivial minutia in your storytelling and sharpen your “point,” it is worth the read as a textbook exercise.

As an example, I have a now-offended ex-friend who wrote a book. I know the guy can write, so I offered to read it as he beta read for me. It took him and his family 7,000 words to get from the curb to boarding an airplane. Another 6k to get to Paris. He was striving for humor, via overwritten minutia, hyperbole and simile. By the time they were done with the currency change kiosk, before the first security check, I was done and didn’t care what happened after that. Why? Attention Economy. Dave Barry can go to a convention in Hawaii, with his family, take a charter sightseeing boat, eat dinner and have you laughing so hard you might fall off the commode. In 2k. Or go to the proctologist with the same effect in 500. Attention Economy. Think Billy Connolly or Robin Williams on stage. It isn’t a matter of being passively entertained, it’s a matter of keeping up. No special effects. Precision phrasing. “Jim kicks Bill.” I once had a beta reader tell me that with all the dialogue a book I wrote moved almost too fast. I was upset. Now I am proud.

Mind the POV

Every modern editor with a blog has a mantra. “Watch Your POV.” With first person, you really have to watch it, and often need to narrate the adventures of other characters or share scenes with them as they are living through the “I”. Usually. There is a WordPress author, marple25mary, who writes short, delightful flights of fancy vignettes. They involve the same set of rotating characters. I can’t follow them like there’s a story line because my head will explode. They are like cupcakes. I enjoy them for what they are. Down to POV.

For over a year I read her stuff and thought the woman had a monstrous case of AADD. She knows, I mentioned it. I thought she was all over the map. What do Mary’s vignettes, JDM’s The Beach Girls and editorial admonitions have in common? Watch the POV – shift! Each of Mary’s offerings hands the first person POV to whoever is the “star” of the scene. It took me forever to catch that. Every chapter of The Beach Girls tells the story from different members of a boat dock community’s POV. Previously I have only seen drastic POV shift in the epistolary format. Maybe I have led a sheltered literary existence. But it’s a discomfiting mind bender to flip the page and be in someone else’s first person account of an unfolding story. The shifting “I”. Brilliant, if you can pull it off, and in JDM’s case it’s used in a new take on the “stranger comes to town” vehicle. As if everyone in High Plains Drifter is giving their POV of Clint Eastwood. POV shift is easy onscreen. Change camera angles, change the POV. Turn the page, no visuals? Ouch!

To me, “I” is singular. “I” am me. Which is why I usually write third person. “I” am not a gunfighter or skirt hound or detective or leap tall buildings in a single bound. “I” am not important. “I” can see it as a storytelling device. “Let me tell y’all ‘bout the time ‘I’ had a crazy jealous woman in one hand, a scalp hungry Injun in the other, a rattler in my boot and seen the tax man comin’ my way, no horse in sight.” That’s a story, by a single person. But to turn the page and get the woman’s account, and then the Injun’s and then the tax man’s, all in first person?

Gawldamn, I got fences to mend and this damned woman is about a handful of I hate you, good for nothing tomcatting SOB and if you let go of my throat I’ll bite your ear off before I’ll have good hunting with plenty firewood for my winter teepee with this white eyes hair ledgers that tell me I have a decent commission coming on this clown that thinks he can write off sunglasses because he’s outside all the I can’t hold her off much longer. I’ll take my chance with the injun and I’ll kill the SOB’s slutty girlfriend if I don’t strangle first…on and on. I repeat. Ouch.

Watch your POV. Unless you’re Mary or JDM. Mind your attention economy regardless of who you are, or people will skip your writerliness and miss your story. Leave tap dancing to professionals and say exactly what you want the reader to hear. Write your stories with the power of each phrase’s direct effect. If people wrote music like any number of popular authors write books, there would be chaos and people rolling in the streets screaming with their hands over their ears. Much like the first public performance of Bolero.

Takeaway? “Lanham, MacDonald and company kicks Phil’s ass.”

 

Invest in yourself. Lanham is here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpRnAJuy-Ck

*The Beach Girls – © 1959 John D MacDonald

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns 4

Pardon me, your writer is showing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Random NVDT – Vignettes

I’m always harping on do what you do, and do it well. And if there’s something you do well, kick it in the ass. I won’t go in to why we all get sidetracked, but it happens. Whatever it was has hit the road. And now?

I don’t reblog much. But an early days blogging friend has reappeared. And I think everyone should welcome her back. Here’s a classic, damn near perfect, vignette. Sense of place? I can stand on the sidewalk and smell it. We all know it. Few of us would be able to offer it up as magically and effortlessly as this. Watercolor wordsmithing. To me? This is story telling. Cencha, who knows Letti –

 

In the back I could hear the murmuring swell of gossip and repercussions, the rich tide of Spanish swirling like water down a drain.

via Chencha, Who Knows Letti — inksplashstories