Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bad a Good Sense

The first bad news of the day is the first paragraph of George Pelecanos new novel, The Turnaround, which is an attitudinal map of a middle-aged man named John Pappas whom, we are shown, opened a coffee shop in 1964, when his two sons were only eight and six, respectively. It is by no means a long paragraph, but by the time we are finished with it, we are to a significant degree screwed because it not only gets us on board with John Pappas, it serves notice on us that our presence is required immediately for the purpose of reading the next two hundred ninety-four pages. Excuses not tolerated.

Round two of bad news for the day is the fact that the book review for this week is a Golden Oldie, something that has already been published and that has either slipped through the cracks or been toppled from the iconography by the appearance of a newer icon. Thus is is not easy to settle in with The Turnaround under the sophistry that it will become this week's book to be reviewed.

Oh, the bad news continues: Round three is that the book selected for review for this cycle of the Golden Oldies, is Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, which of itself is more of a problem because it is so arguably funny, a send-up of the part of Twentieth Century literature commonly thought to be the most inventive and rich.

Add to that the arrival from various Amazon dot com sources of the three-volume Philip Pullman series, His Dark Materials, beginning with The Golden Compass. This trilogy was foisted off on you, thanks to the enthusiastic genius of Michael Chabon, writing in his latest book, Maps and Legends, and served forth with such eclat that you were driven posthaste to Amazon dot com to place your order. 

 You no sooner peel away the wrappings, spilling the plastic peanuts all over the floor of your car, then begin to read when you are hit with a literal and figurative thwack of jealousy because Pullman's device for getting his fantasy trilogy underway is something that grew under your own nose, something you thought an incipient mustache, maybe, and promptly shaved away. The protagonist is a young girl set loose on the grounds of a major university wherein her father professes literature. She quickly discovers as all protagonists discover a portal which is an entry to another world, a parallel universe or an alternate universe. One of the reasons you hit upon such logistics speed bumps in your own fiction is because so much of your background was in writing, then writing and television, then writing and television and publishing, which did not give you the edge you sought. 

 Once you set foot on the campus of the University of Southern California, things became clear to you; they became clear in a Marxist, feminist, historical, post-modernist, deconstructionist sort of way, a fact you more or less nailed down to your satisfaction in a story you called The Ability, wherein you conflated the university setting with the central metaphor of Heart of Darkness. This thwack of jealousy was a one-two punch, kishkes to forehead. 

 Why hadn't you thought of that--a young girl on campus enters a netherworld, perhaps through a portal in the basement of a sorority house, but somewhere in which the fantasy/parallel universe elements lead us through the turmoil of undergraduate rituals followed by graduate initiation rites, offices with windows, tenure track, and the incessant wave of deans as they pass through the landscape, recalling that even now, in real life, one such dean wrote a series of books about you in which he transported you to the unearthly world of The Bronx before allowing you to come back where you belonged, to California, from whence trans-fats have been banished.

This may seem to have wandered off its intended course, which was linked to the concept of Bad News which was really Good News. But it has not. The linking factor is causality, the thing that causes a person to do what he or she does next, the underlying DNA of character and story, the carefully selected events used in dramatic narrative to suggest an event from which dramatic consequences spring.

Often causal events are random, or at least working somewhere above or below human emotional radar. Things happen, as the saying goes. No story there. But consider, things happen and as a consequence characters respond by doing or feeling X. Hi, I'm Shelly and I'll be your tour guide to this version of story. Things happen. Someone is affected and effected by them, which produces the chain reaction of causality.

Some many years ago, when I was recruited by the then department chair, Irwin Blacker, to teach courses about publishing and fiction, he casually asked if he could order a few dozen copies of Aspects of the Novel by E.M Forester, to use as my text. One of the things I've learned in my years at the university is that the answer to all rhetorical questions from administrators and department heads is, "Of course." 

 Present dean does not fit in this calculus; she is a pure delight, who in the first place doesn't ask rhetorical questions and who steadfastly offers encouragement in the second place. Present department chair, while too close to starting her job, appears to be of the same encouraging force. Okay, so I rushed forth to read Aspects of the Novel, whereupon I got the vital function of causality. The force that causes people in stories to do what they do, to not do what they would not do. Over the years, particularly in context with working with Digby Wolfe, I added the notion of my own that causality causes people to draw the line at what they would not do, then somehow get nudged or yanked or otherwise lured over that line.

In a rather splendid blog essay yesterday from
I found among other goodies, the phrase, "from the photograph massacre of 1983," which is as effective an example as I could want to articulate the concept of causality. She, the writer, had no need or desire to say more of the event, perhaps sufficiently aware of the emotional consequences of that "massacre" on her and others involved. Or perhaps she's saving the meme for use in a story or chapter of her own. 

 It is the perhaps-laden quality of those words, "the photograph massacre of 1983," that makes it so ideal a causal event. It is every bit as good as, say, Romeo, writing a post-modernist account of Romeo and Juliet, in which they both got away, were married, nearly broke up when the kids went off to school, and now, on the advise of his therapist--undoubtedly a Jungian--he is writing a memoir. "If I had not gone to the party that night, I might never have met Juliet. Then I'd not have been able to use the best pick-up line I'd ever come up with. I'd, like, take her hand and go

"' If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.'

"But she was all:
'Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.'

"So now, here we are, and now we have to decide Christmas with her family and Thanksgiving with mine or Christmas with mine and Christmas with hers, and let me tell you, it doesn't get better with time."

Okay, so I've gone from sublime to whimsy but the point that shines through all of this is the sharp edge of causality, the event that looms so speculatively within the reader's consciousness, like, say, the first paragraph of the new Pelecanos.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dues, Paid and Unpaid

You have, as the saying goes, paid your dues, put in your time, done the unglamorous things associated with being an editor, tings such as the long, comprehensive reader reports you needed to write covering all submissions, even from well-established authors, things such as projecting break-even costs and sales projections and of growing importance, potentials for subsidiary rights. Within a short period of time, you experienced your first tidal shift in which a highly paid executive ran off for parts unknown, stiffing a number of antique furniture shops on Robertson Boulevard, a paranoid managing editor had a nervous breakdown, and the ownership of the company changed hands.

In a matter of a week, you were informed that you had not only survived all this sturm und drang, you had achieved for the first time a status you were fated to achieve four more times, each time to progressive horror. You were now listed on company stationery as editor in chief, a promotion that was the equivalent of swallowing a bipolar disorder pill. On the one hand you had the power and support to define the mission of the publishing company. On the other side of the equation, you were frequently required to delegate to others the chores you most enjoyed and considered yourself the best at.

One of the things you did to help establish the clout and reliability of the company was to set to work building lists in the field of science fiction and in mystery/suspense, in some part because you were conversant with these categories (we did not deign to call the genera), but also because, as another saying goes, some of your best friends were mystery and science fiction writers. Not to forget that at the time of which I speak, well received hardcover mysteries and science fiction titles could be counted upon to fetch offers for massmarket reprint here in the U.S. and as well in the UK, Europe, and into India. One of the first projects I signed was a collection of science fiction short stories about robots and androids, called The Pseudo People. Okay, so the editor, compiler, was a friend, who happened to know that I'd written a short story about an android who had a little problem--it liked to eat books. Not just any books, mind you, but rather juicy first editions. The Pseudo-People did indeed achieve a paperback reprint here in the U.S. as well as hardcover and paper editions in the UK, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Germany, and Hungary.

Thrilled with the success, the next venture was a collection called A Wilderness of Stars, which had an all-star cast of contributors, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, and Walter Miller, Jr., who at the time was hot for having done one of the major post-apocalypse novels, set in the American Southwest, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Call it what you will, politics, friendship? Guess who wrote the introduction to A Wilderness of Stars. By no means block busters in the financial sense, both titles brought in good reviews, helped establish the company name with book stores, and brought forth some subsidiary right sales to keep the momentum going. What was needed now was a venture into the field of mystery, suspense.

At the same time I was editor of the undergraduate humor magazine at UCLA, the UC Berkeley magazine was edited by a known writer and fan of pulp science fiction and mystery. Ron Goulart had gone on to the penny-a-word pulps, and by the time I got around to him, he was ready for a venture into the world of books. When I saw his idea, I knew I had to have it.

This collection had some of the defining traits of the early pulp fiction longer story, including my strong favorite from a writer with a tragically short career, Norbert Davis.
The Hardboiled Dicks and the two titles from Frank Gruber I referenced yesterday provided a serious momentum. Time to reach for some stars, starting with Steve Fisher, a close friend of Frank Gruber, and also a veteran from the pulp fiction days, and a major force in the film noir screenplay. From Steve, I got what I consider his finest work, a blend of noir and magical realism, Saxon's Ghost.

From this position of serious intent, I was ready to go after another author recently moved to L.A. for the film and TV industries, having just enough of a taste of both to feel nostalgic about books. As a younger reader, I'd discovered Bill S. Ballinger through a condensation of his fine, A Portrait in Smoke, back in the days when Cosmopolitan was a force in fiction. Over a few drinks at a dinner meeting of The Mystery Writers of America, I had a sense Bill and I could get along, so I swung for the fence. "Bill, how about a suspense novel that breaks all the conventions?" He thought for a few long minutes, drained his bourbon, wrinkled his classic brow, and asked, "What do you know about the Bardo plane?" For a moment, I was stunned, fearful we'd both had more to drink than we needed. Then a sideways thought came to me. "Tibetan Buddhism, right? Isn't that something about the time it takes for a soul to migrate from a body?" Ballinger nodded. "Monday at your office."
And thus the stage was set for one of his finest novels, The Forty-nine Days of Death.

The stage was also set for another noirish detective, Bart Challis, a sort of Frankenstein's monster with distinct origins in the old mystery pulps, with parts from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a bit of the brooding of Ross Macdonald thrown in. Bart Challis was the invention of the journeyman writer, William F. Nolan, best known for Logan's Run.

Those were epic, stepping-stone days across the borders separating generations, technologies, attitudes, and styles.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Genre Fiction

Most days I'm not aware of the war being waged in front of my eyes. There are direct traces, to be sure, but such is the nature of my focus on smaller details that the war goes on of its own volition, unnoticed. In some symbolic or metaphoric way, I remind myself of Arjuna, the primary performer or, if you will, non=performer in The Bhagvad-Gita, in the sense of having relatives in both sides of the struggle.

Indeed, the war began in my bookshelves and is largely waged there, although there are spillovers when I visit used book stores and libraries or scan the search engines of Amazon, Alibris, and Abe books.

The battlefield is a temporal one, the players or sides being the modern design for hardcover and paperback book covers and the cover art dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, extending more or less up to the 1950s. Such distinctions are the literary equivalents of the tree-ring dating process for the archaeologist; they define eras by the things they illustrate, they way they exploit design concepts, and the manner in which they use illustrative technology.

One of my early treasures--no pun intended--in this ongoing warfare was a copy of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Treasure Island, its cover illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. Much as I enjoyed the story, much as I latched on to other works of the author, much as I returned to it and him at later stages of my life, that first experience was like first love and first sexual encounter, tree-ring dating equivalent of my own emotional sort, making the illustration stand on one side of the equal sign, the text at the other. Often my acquisition daydreams involve securing a copy of Treasure Island, featuring that iconic and quite splendid illustration. This is where it--the battlefield between the romantic, iconic, dare I say magical illustration format grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around, and said the equivalent of This is is, kid.

Next plateau is a toss-up. Probably what came first was the dramatic, mythic weekly installments of Harold R. Foster's remarkable strip, Prince Valiant. which brought to comic art a quality of drawing I had not seen before, so rich in detail that it removed all doubt for me that the Prince had lived and as well so had his friends, family, enemies all lived. And, I reasoned, if they had not actually lived, they nevertheless seemed so authentic that they lived in my mind, bearing flags of plausibility and authenticity.

No question about where the next plateau or chapter fell. This episode is the episode of the Big Little Book, a combination of text and illustration (more often than not black-and-white line drawing, sometimes enhanced with a ben-day screen. I am happy to say that a number of Big Little Books, not all in the best of condition because of their pulpy, yellowed paper, hold a space on the lower shelf of the bookshelf closest to my desk.

The top tier of the same shelf contains many of the massmarket paperbacks of what I will call the first generation. Some of these came from used book stores, one Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key, has known no other owner than me. I first became aware of these massmarket paperbacks in one of the now-defunct Thrifty Drug Store chain, located at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Street, a corner at which I incidentally sold Liberty Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Inside the Thrifty Drug was a coin-operated vending machine which accepted quarters, all that was necessary in those splendid adventurous days of yore to buy a paperback Pocket Book, Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kriuf. There seemed at the time something explosively rebellious about books that size. In addition to the standard hardcovers which were either 6 inches by 9 inches or 5 1/2 x 8 1/4, it was possiblele to essay secreting the smaller books in desks or within other books, text books, and thus read what you chose as opposed to assigned reading. Some years later--not too many, really, I was to meet Ian Ballentine, the man who had evolved the format and merchandising plan for Pocket Books while a student at the London School of Economics, a man who returned to his native America, where he promptly started a publishing company with his own name as its logo. Ballentine Books.

Soon enough, I found my own way into publishing, not through the door I'd set out to enter but nevertheless in a position where I could and did contract books such as the one I mentioned yesterday, The Pulp Jungle, by Frank Gruber, which came about after I'd got Gruber to agree to batching what we both considered the best of his most famous pulp stories featuring Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia. Wanting a title that in itself spoke of the romance of the old pulps, I suggested Brass Knuckles, and then the subtitle, The Oliver Quade Human Encyclopedia Stories. Kid, Gruber said, I think you're on to something.

That venture got me rolling big time. Frank had included a short introductory essay to the collection. Fascinated, I bade him expand.

Just this brief note about another aspect of the war going on in my bookshelves. Although I had nothing to do with it except read it and write a longish, admiring review of it for The Montecito Journal, Michael Chabon's provocative and worthy venture into nonfiction after eight straight remarkable works of fiction, Maps and Legends, now resides in the same book case. In addition to its chapters, each of which is an essay in the best sense of that word, the book has the kind of stunning artwork that so captures the intent and reach of Chabon's text.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Why should we (as readers/audience) care (about what we read/see)?

Some years back, never mind how many, as Ishmael of call me fame was heard to say, you became the editor of a writer who'd written his way up the ladder from the early half-a-cent-a-word pulp magazines to the point where he was turning out two hardcover mysteries a year in addition to being story editor an chief writer for a then major TV series, a man who still had time to write books for you, memoirs largely, such as The Pulp Jungle, reflections about the storytelling trade as well as collections of his earlier work. Around this time, and because you'd had a visible relationship with this writer, you were assigned the task of luring another writing machine away from his publisher, shifting his enormous productivity to the company that paid your weekly salary and expense account.

The first writer was Frank Gruber, the second Louis L'Amour. Neither was what you would call a prose stylist, which says it all for the placement of prose style in the hierarchy of writing DNA. Although largely unknown today, Gruber's work then found a target audience, attracted readers.

At the time of his death just a tad over twenty years ago, all hundred one of his books were in print. His works have literally sold hundreds of millions of copies, are still popular and finding new readers today.

They both substituted story for style; their work had so many other qualities that it did not require style on that level of aesthetic nicety. From each man I learned a way of looking at the central figure in a story as a platform for qualities and goals that caused readers to stop what they were doing in order to sign on to the text. Each writer spoke of traits and quirks that caused characters to get up a bit earlier to get a jump on the day or to relish an extra guilty hour of sleep when they should be up. Each had an instinctive appreciation for a person who needed to feel right about "things," which is to say the details, rules, and morality of life.

Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh was such a man, a cowboy who wanted the life of the trail more than anything else, a man whose very epitaph spoke his life's story: A Good Man with a Horse.

The men and women we care about are men and women who care about others, who care about things, who have some built-in hard drive for what is right and what isn't. Stories are subversive by nature; they work away at the things these men and women know to be wrong, pushing them up against the odds of being forced to break from their code one or twice then pay the price of rue or guilt or some need to atone, some way to get back on track with The System, whatever The System may be.

We readers should care because the authors of works, even inelegant works, evoke care and concern within us. We writers should care enough about something to write about it with the passionate force of abandon. If storytelling is an exercise, it is an exercise of the muscles of passions and caring about things and loathing other things and empathizing with the conflicting forces within humans that drive them over boundaries.

A story does not have to be gift wrapped in style to leave a lasting effect on our reading self; it is gift enough that we have been made to care.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Storyteller as Stage Manager

A tale is a narrative of events, often fictional, that works its way to closure in the form of a goal or reward or truth being achieved. Beyond its intent to entertain the reader/hearer, the tale means to inform or, as in a cautionary tale, to warn the hearer/listener of consequences. Consequences can relate to everything from waking up tomorrow with a hangover (if you drink much more of that) to suffering the consequences of a sore back (if you persist in lifting heavy things in that manner); consequences can also project useful information on the collective screen (if you stand behind those bushes when the ninth moon of the year rises over there, you are likely to see a herd of bison over there) as well as additional useful information (which you should be able to pick off with a spear or a well-placed arrow to the neck).

Some of the more enduring tales in the history of our species are cautionary in nature, alerting us to possible scenarios to emerge from circumstances that are as yet unfamiliar to us. One of the joys of the generic concept of the cautionary tale is the potential such a narrative has for warning us against being too careful, of reminding us about the possibilities of taking the right chances or even the wrong chances at the right moment.

History, which is said with some cynicism to be an account of events written by the winners of battles and arguments, is in its way a cautionary tale demonstrating what went wrong, what went right, and how things might have been better or worse if the other side had prevailed. History cautions us to be judicious, to be always alert for new traces of consequences because events, however random, have so many differing after effects.

A folk tale is history without footnotes or attributions, a history of a particular group or generation, constructed to enfold traits, myths, and legends of a particular culture. The unspoken-but-understood prologue of a folk tale is "This is our version of how the world began, and who our spirit guides were, and who the men and women who were our great leaders and creators were."

A fairy tale is a history with supernatural beings, enchantments, cures, symbols, and powers, possibly even talking animals, individuals who can shift their corporeal shapes from one species to another. Magic often plays a role in the fairy tale. When the magic becomes accessible to large numbers of practitioners, it begins to acquire a similarity to science, which is to say it begins to question the mysterious in ways calculated to make the mysterious become clear.

A fantastic tale is one involving an invented terrain, domain, landscape, and ensemble of characters, which means we have come full circle to a history created by one of us, more than likely by all of us. Even if you and I relate the history of the same events, the point of view opens the door for what we call the alternate universe tale, which could very well be called the quantum physics tale in recognition of the nature of the composition of energy, which may be simultaneously wave or particle, possibly intermediate, possibly uncertain.

Not all tales are cautionary or warning tales, but it is arguable that all tales are alternating universe tales such as, say, The Ring. Even such intricately quotidian tales as the novels of Henry James are alternate universe because they are the universe he has created, certainly with an eye to inviting you to travel in it, certainly with a similarity to the landscapes of recognizable location and society, but nevertheless, they are worlds in which he is the stage manager.

The alternate universe story seems to have been shelved with science fiction, fantasy, folk tale, and the like, as though the shelving had been outsourced to India or some country with a sightly different take on the universe than our own. Although it is true that one of the most famous portals in our own culture was through a rabbit hole, and has become one we as adults tend to ignore, the fact is there before us: He or she who sits to construct drama, tales, shortform, or novels also sits to construct a universe in which time, custom, speech, desires, goals, and cultural knowledge are redefined, perhaps for the better (see for instance the Utopia),or worse (see for instance 1984). Each of us who writes ,whether by intention or not, creates a universe that parallels the one we use as a reference point whenever we begin to address the history of our fantasy. He or, more likely, them who created The Iliad, and as well our friend Virgil who created the Aeneid give us alternating universe accounts of the one event some of their characters have in common the Trojan War.

It may be a truth universally recognized in Jane Austen's parallel universe, that a young man in possession of a fortune must be in search of a wife, but it may just as well be a truth that her vision is satiric from the get go, which is another story altogether.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Goal Tending

Antigone's goal is to bury her brother.

Her uncle (King Creon) has as his goal the very opposite; the body of Antigone's brother shall remain unburied as a payment for the young lad's disloyalty, a crude but effective reminder that nobody messes with Creon.

But as you have every reason to suspect because the story is named after her, the eponymous heroine's goal is the key to the story and its outcome.

Even though it may seem patently apparent to you from the outset, do not hesitate to ask yourself what is the goal, the prize, the payoff that awaits the person whose story it is. Even so extreme an ending as Jack London's short story, A Loss of Face, pays off with the events the protagonist set in motion, events that begin with the protagonist's death, then increase in intensity to the full, uproarious hoot of triumphant laughter.

All right then; it goes without saying that the first thing you have to know is Whose story is being told? Everyone is running about in the early drafts, wanting the rights to the story, and yes, you might have actually begun thinking it belonged to one or more of the combatants. But you you know better. You know who is the driving force, the one whose behavior (or conspicuous lack thereof) drives the payoff. You know what that person had to do to set the ending in motion. (Hint: Antigone tried to bury her brother again.)

You may be helped enormously in your deliberations, machinations, and dramatic deviousness by knowing what that individual wants, why that individual caused the events of the story in the first place. Dorothy Gale wanted to get home. That was her prize. Paris wanted the most beautiful woman in the world. Forget the fact that she was already married. Paris wanted his prize. the rest was, as they say, The Iliad. What does your character want that he or she should go through the intricacies and potential risks set in the way?


A tangible prize?





All these have the potential for being effective prizes the protagonist seeks.

Of course there is no guarantee that having completed The Trials of Hercules or the trials of Perry Mason or any other trials, that the protagonist will continue to feel like a prize winner.

But that is another story, perhaps even the very next one.

Hint: Once you have a clear picture of the prize the protagonist seeks, you have the equivalent of a ten megapixel photo of that character, worth more to you than, say, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing

We have taken into committee the various ways ideas may present themselves, then allow themselves to be invited in out of the rain of indecision for some shelter while the ideas begin to feel at home.

By the "committee," I refer to that riotous and unruly group of personae, the individual aspects of the self wanting some voice in the matter. As is the case with any faculty whether it is the faculty of a department wherein one teaches, or perhaps faculty in the sense of a once-a-year construct such as a writers' conference, politics enter the landscape, manifesting political responses in proportion to the degree to which other members of the faculty are regarded by the you, the pilot, the guiding light. Wired into the constituents of most faculties, whether they are actual faculty members in a school, institution, or committee, or aspects of a single self, expressed through the synecdoche of the various parts making up a whole, there are frequent cases of interior discord.

Truth to tell, there are parts of the committee you may not be in sync with much less agreement or accord. You in fact greet traces of their presence with a kind of austere fatalism. After all, you've known of oe another for soe while.

All of this prologue to the ecosystem in which ideas, which is to say challenges, what-ifs, calls from one of the muses, are set forth. You have not yet dealt with the contingencies of a) having written a thing with a very clear agenda in mind, only to be persuaded by the burden or logic or indeed by the awareness of the lack of compelling logic that the idea at hand needs to be reversed, changed, shifted; or b) you have stumbled upon a surprise of such a dynamic nature that it causes a change of chemistry in the neural pathways or in some other manner causes you to change course.

a) and b) supra are consequential, little doubt about that. They become more of consequence in direct proportion to the degree by which you can be rendered idle by an argument or conflict between the two poles.

All the more reason for having in command one of the more committed, vocal members of the conflation of selves. The most efficient way of causing this cohesion of selves is with a shrewd chemistry of determination and blackmail I'm eager to get this material worked over to my satisfaction, eager to get at the intangible pleasures of working out the task. Democracy works well much of the time; it may evn work well much of the time within ourself, but it takes a radiant pole star--enthusiasm, anger, desire for revenge, desire for change, desire to define with some emphasis--to serve as guide. Curiosity works, too. What would it be like if..? This last aspect seems to me the basis of speculative fiction and the engine of the investigative essay, the one where you set forth with an hypothesis, establish that it is indeed an hypothesis rather than a straw man to be merely knocked down, then look for an answer you either did not know you had or an answer that satisfies you.

Emotions are the ballast to hold the hot air balloon on course without them the story or the essay is what it is, a big bag of hot air.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ways of Looking at an Idea

1. It comes swooping down on you like a marauding seagull, after your last chunk of bagel and cream cheese, fully formed, backed by agenda, waiting to be taken up and dealt with. You know where this baby is going; you cannot wait to get at it; the opening sentence is already forming in your head,

2. It presents itself to you as though it were a piece of a jigsaw puzzle you found in what you thought to be an aimless walk. Now the walk has taken on the backdrop of a quest as you consider what larger picture this jigsaw piece might be, what and where the other parts are that will help you get a quick look at the goal.

3. You are in the middle of a conversation with someone when a word or phrase or clause or sentence emerges. Was it from your mouth or someone else's? Did it perhaps come from the ambient conversation around you? Time and senses have stopped now as the excitement of that word or phrase or clause or sentence is steam-driven through your channels.

4. You experience a frisson, a slip in the meshing cogs of confidence because you do not immediately see what to do with it, what format to fit it in, what closet to stash it because company is coming and you would not like to be caught with something so ungainly being out in public. As soon as you have the freedom to do so--and you force that issue quickly enough--you consult book stores, Google, blog sites, places where there are stories in seemingly impossible formats, cheering sections that energize you beyond a simple fix. If I can bring this off, you think. What a coup it will be to have brought this off.

5. I have finally cut free, arrived at a series of connected dots that is the acme of my inventive life to date. I am all alone with this. It is in many ways like the transition idea that forms just as the brain waves are switching from sleep to a waking state. Now comes the desperate lunge to grab it before it slips away.

6. You are listening to someone's idea, being given in a personable, articulate, enthusiastic way, a bright, cheery package that leaves you polar because you are pleased for the person whose idea it is and then somewhat deflated because you'd been thinking along the same directions not too long ago. If you pursue your idea at this point, you will worry about the reaction of the individual you were listening to, at which point a tinge of resentment creeps in. Now I can't pursue this idea at all because the individual who confided in me will have probable cause to suspect me of eminent domain or worse, plagiarism. Then you ask yourself the key question How can I render this as it has never been rendered? What point of view or voice or key signature or format? What theme shall I place this in counterpoint with? What new dimension shall I exploit? Then it comes, at which point you sit somewhere, laughing your thanks up at the cosmos for the challenge that has come home to roost.

7. At first you don't see it, don't even know it's there. Then, as if in confirmation, you continue not to see it. And then you are in the midst of something entirely else, or nothing, nothing at all. It finally gets through to you. At risk of slapping the butt of your palm to your forehead, you look for something to throw. Finding nothing, you settle in with a deep breath, then recognize it. What kept you so long, it asks you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Having A Say in the Matter

You've gone through the literary equivalent of a line-up, identifying from a supply of potentials the ensemble who will populate your story. There were some moments of indecision as you looked at the possibilities, scanning the menu of suspects to see which were real characters and which were only real persons you know in real life. You've made your choice and now you have a sense of their alibis, their connective links, their background, their strengths, their weaknesses. You may even have a line into their secrets, those juicy tidbits they withhold from all, possibly even from themselves.

Knowing them as well as you now do, you also know how they sound, how they talk, how even though they may have grown up in the same neighborhood, they sound enough unlike their 'hoodies that they stand out, as identifiable to your readers as they were to you way back there when you were cruising the line-ups, scoping them out.

What they say has nothing to do with conversation because they don't make conversation, they either put up a foreboding wall or a protective wall; they do not engage in small talk but instead are working out some problem or screwing up enough courage to do something, or are trying to convey the sense of being at ease and conversational.

They don't always talk directly to issues, either, fearful of revealing an unpopular or unpolitical attitude.

There is always something else going on when these characters are speaking, some fear that they will betray a guarded emotion, or perhaps give over someone ,a suspicion or wariness hanging over their head. Even among friends, there is a fear that these individuals, these dramatic, involved individuals, will say something that will give them away. You know how it is because of the times your IM comments or a congratulatory sentence left on a friend's blog has been taken completely out of context you know why some individuals are always limiting their comments to LOL or using emoticons to prove they were only kidding or that they meant something as a joke and please, don't take it seriously.

In other words, dialog is in fact in other words, a reflection of some kind of tension within a character and simultaneously between characters. If you stop to deconstruct, people in stories don't talk the way people in real situations talk, one reason being because drama is heightened awareness, another reason being because there is no time for such leisure. Dialog is the petri dish of story; tension, suspense, and subtext thrive in it, breed excruciating surprises and heartbreaking revelation. If it is anything less, it is an albatross.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Who are they?

What do they want?

What are they willing to do to get what they want?

How will they behave if they get what they want?

How will they behave if they don't get what they want?

Depending on the venue, whether an up-scale restaurant in mid-town Manhattan, a raucous rock club on Sunset Strip, there are gate keepers everywhere, head waiters as it were who keep the list; they determine who gets it. These questions are also gate keepers. They determine who gets into your story. You might think good looks or having been around the block a few times will get you past them, beyond the thick red rope that symbolically cuts those from the outside off from those who are already in, being served.

I speak of your characters, those individuals who are agenda-driven even though you and your story may well not be plot driven. Thing is, some of them will lie, even to you, wanting to get in. They'll lie about such things as age, employment, experience, marital status--they'll even lie about having criminal records or mercilessly pad their resume or curriculum vitae.

Further thing is, they can't always tell when they are being, shall we say ,inventive? They so desperately want something that they are willing to invent something in their background to make them seem more, shall we say, deserving?

Oh, the perfidious nature of some individuals. She told me she was over the age of consent. He told me he knew exactly what he was doing. She said she was using birth control. He said he'd never been indicted for anything. They seemed such a lovely couple. He said--

No, it isnt a lecture about the cynical nature of human affairs it is an acceptance of the forces and pressures brought to bear on even individuals you make up from whole cloth, although even that can be brought into question: Do we ever invent someone from the literary equivalent of the primordial ooze? Don't we instead riffle through the pages until we arrive at an individual who fits perfectly the whole created by the story, those free radicals floating about, waiting for a landing site in our narrative.
What does that kid delivering the pizza want? He wants a tip, he wants not to be scammed, he wants to get back to the shop for another delivery and another tip, he is thinking two maybe three more deliveries and he can get back to some time with the girl friend for perhaps another kind of delivery. Or he is running his lines for a rehearsal or a cattle call tomorrow because pizza delivery persons notoriously do not find this labor a lifetime occupation.

Ah, but I saw this guy, this really interesting guy who had such a cool way about him and I thought I'd write him in this story, see maybe if he didn't add a little spice to it. Good enough, provided we see him being accused of trying to add some spice into a situation that does not require any more spice, thank you, because it is already spicy enough, thank you, what with the IRS breathing down my neck, threatening audit. Or maybe his girlfriend is saying Okay, that tears it; you're too bland for my tastes, and maybe he says Okay, you're so crazy about spice, try this! and he starts tossing the furniture around and she says, Well, yeah, that gives me some wonderful ideas to try out on those overturned La-z-boys.

So they have to earn their keep, every one of them, and in some cases only in a word or two because you don't want to be seen as trying to turn everything into a War and Peace or a From Here to Eternity, you simply want to be seen as a compassionate conservative so far as they, your characters, are concerned, which is to say you don't give any of them welfare checks, they've got to, you know, work.

Don't get me wrong; story is a necessity, at least, some semblance of story needs to be there, but the real doing, the Al Gore call to get a handle on the ecology, it comes forth when the characters start doing things that give readers a sense that although they know what kind of person this character is, nevertheless this character can concoct some surprise, whip up some energy.

So for starters, you have to start with these individuals wanting something, wanting it the way you want something enough to render it onto the page or the computer screen. If what they want is too easy, you have to cope with that somewhere along the way, beyond Horatio Alger and rolling up the sleeves and going to damned work and making a big mess of a success to clean up, and you stay away from the more obvious cliches.

It is not comfortable in there with a room full of them, wanting things, maybe even things from each other, maybe trying to offer you a bribe, maybe wanting to see what it would be like to have sex with one of the other characters, which to your complete discomfort gets you feeling like an overly protective mother or father, lecturing your characters instead of your kids about how at its best sex is an exploration conducted by two individuals who want to know one another better and demonstrate the affection they feel, causing you to realize your own relationship to these characters and how they do after all embody aspects of your attitude.

And you, did you think it was easy, having to be all of them, all at once? No wonder you're so gloriously tired at the end of a good day, a day of a few thousand words of people wanting things, being willing to go to great lengths for them. It's all you can do to wait for the next day, to see what they want now.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Muscle Memory

As the unamed narrator of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca did, I last night dreamed of a return. It was not a return to Manderly or anywhere else on the Cornish coast rather it was a return to a practice pretty much no longer practical for me, not since December of 1996, and more emphatically not a good idea after August of 2003.

In the dream, I was running. Judging from the terrain, I was well into what I liked to think of as the final kick in either a 20k or a marathon, up that last groaner of a hill along Shoreline Drive before it slopes down toward the beginning of the Marina across the road from the City College athletic field. I was wet from the more cosmetic than soothing effects of water dumped over my head, my breath steady, my quads knowing they'd been up against a long routine of struggle. In real life as well as in the dream, the outcome of the race was not an issue, starting it, enjoying every step of it, and being hopeful of doing better than the last time out in a race were the primary goals.

Since first my left hip and then my right have been replaced by wonders of modern design, running carries with it the possibility of some mischief. Even though I can log the equivalent of miles on the sophisticated treadmills at the Y, they are nevertheless treadmills, and even though I never approached what could be thought of as quality of performance, I did approach enough miles on the streets and back roads of California, the Central Park Circuit in New York, and such places as Rock Creek Park in Washington and the Mount Tabor section of Portland to leave me, all this time later, with that precious awareness called muscle memory, where closed eyes, not thinking, and a precious sense of movement merge to produce a sensation of effortless floating. "You ran," some running buddies told me, "as though you believed you were getting somewhere special--but not the finish line." My then dog companion, Molly, and I were well known about town in the context of our running.

Now it is swimming, which has its own rewards, its own sense of knowing when the crawl glide works and you are as one with the water as you were with the air when running.

If you do anything long enough to be able to do it without thinking, you are likely to find as often as two or three times a week the sense of unparalleled happiness. It is important at first to think about the steps or strokes or swing or stride. I can still recall hours spent in recreation parks where machines fired an assortment of baseballs at you, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes as a curve or slider, on one or two of the machines, even as screw balls, which break down and away as opposed to the curve breaking or dropping in. Swinging a 32-ounce Louisville slugger Johnny Pesky model at such pitches began with time to result in a constant and satisfying thwack sound as bat met ball, then sent it seeking its projectile destiny some three hundred feet away. The minute you began to think, you were screwed, often missing the next pitch or hearing the thwack change to a thunk.

If you write long enough, often enough, listening rather than thinking, it is possible to hear the literary equivalent of a thwack, an idea sent out on its orbit of dramatic destiny. Or perhaps the sound of a truth being met or an insight coming into contact with the narrative you swing.

Not to belabor the baseball metaphor because anything belabored in your swing or your prose style can cause mischief, fouled off pitches in one case, missed opportunities in another. There are opportunities to be missed, now that you think of it, the opportunity of the finishing kick at the end of a race, where placement in terms of finish is not the issue for you but the feel of a few moments of perfect harmony and coordination within your body is. The professional athlete has a different agenda; you are doing this thing, be it running or swimming or hotting balls in a baseball field or indeed, turning the tables and catching fly balls hit by others in a baseball field. These ancillary muscle memories are some of the preparations you make to be a professional at the writing, to get your ideas and visions and polemics and satires looping out there on trajectories you hope will break windows or dent the roofs of cars in the parking lot.

Fifty, sixty miles or running a week, a mile a day swimming, only a means to get your real set of muscles into shape to do the thing you do to feel that spurt of finishing or the falling-in-love-like swoop of the heart when you get a handle on a new piece and begin it and the sense of elegant despair midway through when you realize you are in one of Dr Kubler-Ross's stages and you know you can never get it down as gracefully and elegantly and effectively and humorously if you are funny as when you first had the vision of it.

Muscle memory is a good thing to experience because once you have it, you cannot let much time elapse before you take it out and use it again, on something, Even a note or a list of things to pick up at the grocery. The muscle memory won't accept that the muscle memory wants you to invent things you'd pick up at a stationery store or a hardware store or anyplace you dare not go for fear you will buy things you have no earthly use for.

You get muscle memory then just to have it, for the knowledge that once you do have it, you will be cranky, pissed, intolerant, impatient if you do not get to use it. Muscle memory has had you out in driving rain storms, your Etonics squishing complaint with every step; it has had your laps at the Y pool interrupted by life guards telling you it's time to clear the lanes for the kiddies lessons; it is discovering you have overdone your day's ration of writing time and you are cranky, pissed, intolerant, impatient to get back to it again the next time because for a few moments there, it was perfect coordination, the sound of it in your ears, the cadence, the movement of those strange persons you'd created, coming to life before you like Amtrack looming down at you, horn blaring.

Muscle memory.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


defensiveness--a state of being or quality of personality often found in fiction writers who read their work aloud at workshops, writers conferences, and public readings emblematic of an author's need to explain or justify, particularly in the face of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or the inability of the reader/hearer to accept material as plausible or, indeed, to understand the material at all. An often unnecessary footnote-as-text or explanation used to justify a behavioral or moral position of the author and/or one or more of the characters.

Defensiveness has its etiology with the author's response to criticism, is often introduced with the assurance that "It really happened that way," which becomes a preface to a longer explanation. Defensiveness may be seen as the literary equivalent of a youngster, caught in a fib or lie, extending the trope with even more extensive and impassioned justification; it is The dog ate my homework, writ large to the point where the dog morphs from a Chihuahua to a St. Bernard and the homework was the first draft of a novel.

The presence of defensiveness in an author or in text is of itself a good argument for the position that less is more. The best approach for explaining or inserting behavior attributions: Let the characters do it. Let Bill tell us that Fred is unreliable. Doing so is a twofer in that the reader learns Bill's opinion instead of the author's opinion, and in the bargain, the reader learns that Bill is judgmental (and to what degree he is so).

Being assured by an author that an implausible trait or event happened in real life and the author was there to witness/overhear it carries about as much weight as a politician's campaign promise. The author's defensiveness on this point opens the door for the mischievous reader to ask the author, "Are you willing to put that in writing?" Fictional events are accepted by readers in direct proportion to the author's ability to write about them with conviction as opposed to with descriptive panache. In his remarkable novel, Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon asks the reader to believe among other things a protagonist driving about with the dead dog of is employer in the trunk of his car, of the protagonist being the only Caucasian present at a Passover Seder, rendered in flawless Hebrew by a group of Koreans.

Beginning writers and sometimes intermediate-level writers are so defensive about having included all the elements they believe to be necessary to float an effective story that they resort to enumerating all the things they did well, as though that behavior did not go without saying.

An effective approach to removing defensiveness from one's posture is to believe at all times what the characters are saying and doing, even if the characters are not at the moment telling the truth. Keep in mind the image of Falstaff being teased by Prince Hal, of young boys being challenged by their parents or supervisors. A story is not a court of law or a debate; you cannot argue your way to a favorable reception, but you can evoke your way. And the beginning of the path to evocation is through the strategic use of details--the very ones that impress you.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

TheOld College Try

Ten College Novels

College novels and stories set at universities are like class reunions; we are curious to revisit them but nervous about encountering old friends and our old self. Here are ten novels that reunite us with the specter of what we might have been and what we are now.

1. Philosophy 4 by Owen Wister (1901). Set in the Harvard of the late 1880s, this tale of young undergraduates trying to cram for a final exam in philosophy is simultaneously a snapshot of a time where the concept of higher education was locked in battle with career opportunism, and a satire on the last fling before settling down to work in the family business. This is an early work by the man who was later to write The Virginian, the iconic novel of the American West, itself a simultaneous snapshot of a time of romanticism and opportunism.

2. Stover at Yale by Owen Johnson (1911). Not to be outdone by a Harvard novel, Johnson, a Yalie, produced a plot-driven tale of Dink Stover, an athlete/scholar who rises through the rigid ranks of early twentieth century Ivy League social layering, torn between his attractions for the secret society and club life and his genuine desire for a first-class education and service to his alma mater. Stover at Yale ran serially in McClure’s magazine, where an eager public of Yalies and civilians awaited each installment; to this day it is on the shelves at the Yale bookstore.

3. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920). A gifted combination of autobiography, wish fulfillment, and sociology, the narrative tracks Fitzgerald’s alter ego, Amory Blaine, through his career at Princeton, then to the Army during World War I, followed by dismal attempts at securing the success he sought as a writer during the years after the war. Nor was Amory successful in his pursuit of two young women he considered to be the loves of his life, his adventures ending somewhat as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ended, with the protagonist heading into the future, his only companion the confidence in his talent.

4. Stoner by John Williams (1965). A splendid example of a coming-of-age story, the narrative tracks the seeming destiny of William Stoner, a young man from a poor farming family, sent to an agricultural college only to fall so desperately in love with the world of literature that he switches to the state university, where he pursues a doctorate in medieval studies. Virtually ignored when it was published, Stoner has continually attracted the admiration of critics and novelists on both sides of the Atlantic.

5. The War between the Tates by Allison Lurie (1974). Against the subtext background of the Vietnam War, Brian Tate, an academic at a thinly veiled Cornell, married and father of two dreary teen-agers, has begun an affair with a ditsy young graduate student. Tate’s wife, more often than not the protagonist, rebels at the affair, then goes on to become even more rebellious when the graduate student discovers she is pregnant and refuses to consider an abortion.

6. Foolscap, or The Stages of Love by Michael Malone (1991). A bickering university faculty, rivalry for chairmanship of departments, and genius scholars, all menu items for the college novel, strut and fret their quirky moments on the stage of this drama-oriented romp. Drama prof Theo Ryan doesn’t see the implications of his newly written play, but Josh Rexford, America’s most acclaimed playwright does, and in the process turns young Ryan’s life upside down to get a revision done.

7. Moo by Jane Smiley (1995). College-based novels are often the place for satire, given the nature of faculty, students, and administration, all rancorously at one another’s throat, all deliciously tracking on separate agendas. Set in a Midwestern university devoted to the art and science of agriculture, featuring a hog named Earl Butz, we find amid the cow plop and satire an orgy of agricultural and academic chaos, paced as humor must be paced, but not too fast to override well-crafted portraits of the university species.

8. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995). Reaching into his own experiences with a novel that seemed easier to keep adding material to rather than finish it, Chabon has taken Professor Grady Tripp, currently in at over 2600 pages with his second novel, given him as a lover the wife of the college chancellor, added the complication of her being made pregnant by Tripp. Always able to make the implausible leap off the page as perfectly normal, Chabon further adds to Tripp’s woes a cantankerous student who has shot the University Chancellor’s dog and stolen the Chancellor’s prized possession, the jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe on her wedding day to Joe Di Maggio.

9. Straight Man by Richard Russo (1997). A significant Russo theme is family conflict, often demonstrated by a clash of agendas between father and son, a theme brought to the campus of an undistinguished college in Pennsylvania, where Hank Devereaux, nearing fifty, has a job as an English professor he hates, has not been effective as a novelist for a long while, suspects his wife may be having an affair, and is looking at the possibility that he has prostate cancer. Russo, who knows his way around farce, college campuses, and the fuzzy borders between humor and pathos, has engineered a confrontation between Devereaux and his father, the dean of literary critics as well, Devereaux is suspected of having used a golf club to kill a much beloved swan.

10. July, July by Tim O’Brien (2002). Using an ensemble cast for his major characters, O’Brien, famous at this point in his career for his war-based novels, orchestrated a head-on confrontation between the college reunion and middle age. There are few plot twists or surprises, but as the reunion begins and the alums arrive, then interact, there are considerable emotional wrenches along with their consequences.

There are significant others, such as Randall Jarrell’s biting satire Pictures from an Institution, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and John Hassler’s The Dean’s List, each in its way reminding us that the university is an institution of higher yearning. ##

Friday, July 18, 2008

Let's Hear It for the Old Couple

Thinking about Chaucer in the twenty-first century is for me more than an act of keeping alive within me a respect for a man and his works long, long dead but as well of an awareness that the reading of him revealed itself to me. I speak of the relationship between the teller and the tale, a relationship that can influence the manner in which both teller and tale are recalled long after the reading is done.

I speak admiringly of The Pardoner's Tale, which in its dark, Chaucerian way, snaps me six hundred years away, into episodes of The Wire. The Pardoner's Tale is not for everyone, indeed not for the pilgrims for whom it is intended. When the eponymous narrator begins his prologue at the urging of the host, Harry Bayley, his fellow pilgrims don't want to hear it, because of the ambiguous nature of the man:
A voice he had as small as hath a goat.
No beard had he, nor ever one should have.
As smooth it was as it were new y-shave;
I trow he were a gelding or a mare...

which is to say, his sexuality is certainly called into account and in addition because of his profession of selling religious relics of doubtful provenance and effect. The Pardoner is a fraud in many ways although to his credit, he is forthcoming to a high degree, undercutting our own tendency to regard him with the same disdain shown by his fellow travelers. At first he demonstrates for them the sales pitch he uses on prospective customers, but then, after a moment of reflection, he acknowledges that he has just given forth nothing but cynical insincerity his , further confessing "myn entente is nat but for to wynne,/ And nothynge for correccioun of synne" (My intent is merely to win [make money], and not at all for the correction of sin). Hearing his confession, offered without apology and under no duress, aren't our feelings for him more complex and positive?

Now on to that splendid Wife of Bath. Her prologue, like The Pardoner's, is a partial confession/revelation, partly a defense. Her curriculum vitae includes having had five husbands, which gives her leave to speak of the "wo that is marriage."

A good WIF was ther OF biside BATHE,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
Of clooth makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she
That she was out of alle charitee.
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground.
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve.
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe--
But therof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe.

Ah, look at the game old gal, in charge and bigger than life from the very get-go. My personal preference is for the Prologue to her tale, rather than the tale she tells of the court of King Arthur which, although revelatory of a side of her character, seems less exuberant and dimensional than the Prologue. I love it when she rips the equivalent of a girlie magazine from the hands of her present husband and instructs him to admire her--and he does. Or so she says. With all that dynamism and self-assurance she displays, there is just the right touch of ambiguity about her to make us wonder and remember.

These two characters, holding fast to our imaginations over the years represent ways to build characters we can regard as timeless and timelessly human, filled with foible, self-interest, and yet guided by a moral compass where the needle rests not on magnetic north but on the place in the psyche where the truth of self-knowledge dwells.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Year or Two at the Early Morning Casino Buffets

As with Energy, Story is not continuous; each proceeds in small, discrete particles.

The elementary particles of Energy may travel as waves or particles; in Story, the discrete elementary bits travel as narrative or dialog.

Whether in Energy or Story, the movement of these particles is inherently random. Some writers, critics, literary agents, and publishers may speak of templates, which is to say outlines or formulae, and which opens the door for a full-on discussion about predictability. Okay: in quantum physics, it is pretty nearly impossible to predict the movement of the particles associated with energy. In some types of stories, it is possible to predict when and where a particular event will exhibit an anticipated behavior. Nevertheless, even in such stories, surprise is an important part of particular behavior.

It is physically impossible in quantum mechanics to know the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time, to the point where the more one such element is known the less likely the possibility of obtaining the measurement of the other. In a more idiosyncratic way in story, the more one knows about the position of a character, the less likely the possibility of that character doing something of a surprising nature. And yet.

Characters do change their state and so it becomes a kind of quantum behavior to keep them in action, while observing them, applying among other things Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to them or, if you prefer to use your own name for the concept, applying to your changing characters your own name principle. The characters should change, undergo some kind of transmogrification.

What hubris to limit the appearance of absentmindedness merely to generic professors or to scientists. Writers may be properly distressed after having spent some time trying to chart the direction, the velocity, and the position of a character within the framework of some puzzling equation, only to find that the character already had a mind of its own, wanted no part of its creator.

As some quantum physicists seek for a Unified Theory which, they hope will explain Everything, some writers wish a theory that will minimize the randomness of life and the ongoing attempts of writers and poets to formulate a description that gets us all. It has in fact been apparent for any number of years. Someone wants something or someone. Put that in your cyclotron and turn on the motor. Then add who that person is so that a reader can decide what accommodations ar necessary before it is possible to root for that individual. Now add a certain knowledge of what that character will do to accomplish the previously depicted details.

Watch for surprises.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Plan B

A contingency is an event or behavior that has potential to take place but whose outcome is not certain. Contingency is our pole star. We use the sextants of our hopes and desires to plot our courses among the bright stars of the night, but their light has left its source and has been traveling toward us since before many of us were born. Contingency is what we will do if we get what we want, if we do not get what we want, if we trip over something following an otherwise clear path toward what we want.

Contingency is Plan B, and maybe the thought of it is so abhorrent that we shift gears into denial or worse, acting-out lunacy, just one of the consequences of having achieved everything we've wanted until now, when the fear of not achieving THAT THING becomes so enormous and fearful that we come forth with Plan B, Well if that doesn't work, I can always...

It is usually after a novel or story or poem is completed when the fear emerges that a Plan B might be necessary, but in fact the completion of a novel or poem or short story or even a book review or personal essay or a blog posing represents two bodies moving away from one another at the speed of--well, of light from a distant star. There is the individual who created the work, who has learned something from having done the work. There is the work, with a life of its own. The creator looks at it in the way a parent looks after a child. The work wants to show off. The parent is embarrassed by the inherent vigor and audacity of the work.

Things do not work out the way we intend. From the moment of the idea or what if or inspiration through the execution to that triumphant there!, the work slithers and slides away from us and there is a moment of wanting to get the toothpaste back into the tube, get it out properly this time, then a moment of, ah, what the hell.

Some of the finest rewards of all come when, during other, more structured circumstances, I am looking for something, come across a pad of note paper or even the print-out of a manuscript, pick it up to see what it is, then become pulled in, wondering how many times do I have to remind students to put their names on their papers, then realize the only person I know of who does not do so is me. This that I am reading is mine, but it is as though someone had gone to considerable effort to capture the things I'd write about, then slip it in among my papers, a kind of existential joke.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great Expectations

Characters enter a scene with expectations.

Readers pick up a book with expectations.

Writers write with expectations stories that have expectations expressed and implied residing within.

Without expectation, there can be no story.

Peoples once referred to as Hunters and Gatherers, now regarded as Foragers, position themselves in strategic places, anticipating the arrival of a herd of some sort or other, or possibly one huge woolly mammoth.

Humans evolved to have expectations. The sophistication of a particular culture or society may be measured by the complexity (or naivete) of expectations.

Expectation is the dramatic equivalent of tinder, which is useful to light a fire under the crucible of story, piling on more expectation until the crucible boils over.

Another high-burning dramatic tinder is misunderstanding. Throw some misunderstanding on the fire, then step back. Characters do not like to be misunderstood they like to think they are making themselves perfectly clear. When readers begin to discern that characters, wanting to be understood--Am I making myself clear?--are in fact muddying the waters, making in fact cowboy coffee of the waters, they begin to have expectations.

The expectations are that there will be conflict.

All you have to do now is make the conflict interesting.

Readers have expectations that conflict will be interesting.

In real life, conflict, even conflict based on misunderstanding, is often boring. Think of how many persons who disagree with you seem boring.

In real life, when you were an editor on the rise, an author announced himself to the receptionist as having a manuscript you would surely want to publish. When you learned his name, you understood that this was no idle boast here was an author with some name recognition, hoping to get an out-of-print title back into print. He had reasonable expectations that you would want to publish this book, giving it new life and no doubt giving him a few months worth of trouble-free living where rent was concerned. The moment you heard the man's name, you had expectations of what the title would be. You also had every expectation that you would not want to publish this book.

Some remarkable things happened in the lobby of that publishing company, which is no longer a publishing company and may well be seeing better days as a purveyor of automobile parts. Yet another adventure was enacted in that lobby when a psychiatrist questioned your sanity because you did not want to publish a book he assured you--correctly--that his book would sell a million copies in hardcover. Your answer for each author was the same. "It is a question of taste. I don't want to publish that book."

The author of the first book was Lajos Egri; the title of his book was and still is The Art of Dramatic Writing. The author of the second book was Arthur Janov, Ph.D.. His book was and is The Primal Scream.

This leads us to one kind of ending, the kind informed by another important element in human behavior and thus in dramatic behavior. The element is consequences. The consequences of my not contracting either book are multifarious, may lead you to have any of a number of opinions of me, for instance. Henceforth, years after the fact, you may well come to think of me as the man who could have published The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Primal Scream, but didn't. The consequences also involved the direction publishing either book would have on my employer.

Expectation. Misunderstanding. Consequences. What more could a narrative ask?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting the Swing of It

Hypotheses: Nothing is what it seems. Everything is other than it seems. Something is a surprise, waiting to perform chiropractic on a mood or condition. Something is a disaster, waiting to distribute overdrawn notices on one's reality account. Disaster protection is available at 17.5 percent interest. Events are pinatas hanging from convenient trees, daring us to swing at them with ambition or irritation or celebratory enthusiasm. The LAPD has made pinatas of many individuals who were actually celebrating but were seen by the LAPD as activists.

The study of Beckett begins to pay off richly when one entertains the subtext of nothing being what it seems. Failure for Beckett was the opportunity to try again. I don't know that he thought at all about the implications of success and so I can only hypothesize that success fin writing or him wasn't what it seemed, or perhaps worse, success in writing meant he did not have to revisit a particular place again because he couldn't

The danger of nothing being what it seems is the potential for a constant feeling of betrayal. Betrayal means one's trust is undercut (once again) which means one begins to resent being so vulnerable, which means one resolves not to trust anything, which strikes me as an invitation not to trust myself (any of them) which reminds me of earlier times when I claimed to do just that, which is to say I agreed not to trust myself. This meant a time of not knowing if I were hungry or horny or inspired or sleepy or if I understood Chaucer. There are some risks worth taking. One risk not worth taking is the conviction that I do not and cannot understand Chaucer.

That's okay because risk is not what it seems either. Risk seems so fraught with dangerous consequences that it can be interpreted as a reason to do nothing except maybe grouse and take pot shots at persons and institutions, leaving one vulnerable to all the consequences of not doing anything, a course of action that is more dangerous than it seems.

If something is what it seems, there is no surprise, not much chance of other. Does the risk of something being what it seems outweigh the risk of nothing being what it seems?

One of the few constants here is love, which is never what it seems, is filled with risks, surprises, consequences, vulnerability. Love is like Excalibur, the sword thrust deep into the stone, waiting for someone--Arthur--to pull it forth. Grab it by the hilt and yank in a quick, steady movement. That's love, not Excalibur; that was already yanked.

Look for pinatas.


Swing again, only this time, swing better.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Diagramming Sentences

Many of my generation are able to recall with varying degrees of fondness the ordeal of being called upon in class, bidden to confront the blackboard, then diagram sentences that ran from straightforward declarative to the more complex and orotund, enhanced perhaps by dependent and independent clauses.

At the time my only hesitation resided in the knowledge that my handwriting was a mass or competing styles and desires. I actually enjoyed diagramming sentences, approached the task with the same confidence I applied to being a smart ass. I knew such arcana as predicate nominative, condition contrary to fact, adverbial clause. Diagramming sentences was something I was good at; it felt good to be accomplished at something.

I am not a grammarian. I can repeat from memory the definitions of parts of speech, but this does not make me any more a grammarian than repeating a mantra makes a Buddhist or Hindu a Buddhist or Hindu; definitions are merely steps along the way. Even though I catch myself in my sentences sounding formal, I can often find a way in revision to cope with formality. Word choice. Timing. Length of sentence.

Putting sentences together is like setting up a model train, deciding where the layout goes, what degree of risk taking scratches like a cat wanting in or out, what the intent of the sentences is.

Sometimes, as a reviewer/critic, or as a teacher, I try to discover the intent of the writer--and count myself a dismal failure, thinking at times that it's best to slink off somewhere, a park, the beach, a coffee house, and read for the sheer pleasure of it in much the same manner as listening to music. Listening to music, I don't have to spend time discovering how I am led to feel. I already know. Then comes the question, as easily asked when I read through my own work as when I respond in a workshop or take an assignment from a literary agent or publisher: How does this make you feel? As with olives, cashew nuts, and grapes, you can't stop with one; so too with questions. Is what reading this text makes you feel congruent with the author's intent? (In the case of your own work, the question becomes Is this what you meant? )

The purpose of all the reading you need in order to access your own writing and to bring forth useful commentary in the class room or the editorial conference is to hone your senses to the inner music, the layout of the sentences. To return to an earlier metaphor: Is the caboose where it ought to be?

Timing. Design. Intent. Inner music.