Thursday, June 30, 2011

TFS: Tell the Freaking Story

For some time, your approach to a novel, whether reading one, talking about it in a class room or a review, or indeed writing one of your own, has been:  Something happens and someone changes.  Simplicity encapsulated, it is true, but given the explosive variety in genre and mainstream fiction, you'd do well to quit while ahead.

In similar fashion, there is short story (as opposed to the more generic concept of drama as story), where the operant meme is:  Someone assumes a task, writer speak for a character wants something to happen or not to happen, then undertakes to bring it into play or pull the rug from under it.

For an even longer time than you have been setting forth on the precarious sea of describing in construction terms what a novel entails, you have been pushing students to quickly list the elements they believe inhere in a novel, then assign a hierarchical listing of those elements, the sight of which, you argue, will present the student with a genome of her novel (as distinguished from the novel as visualized by other writers).  There is good sense in this exercise.  For one thing, it helps extend the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to the novel.  For yet another thing, the exercise helps the writer see her personal approach to the novel.

For someone who has put in some years asking students in the class room, clients in the coffee shop, readers in reviews, and himself in his own stories and novels to please indicate where the story is because you for you part can't seem to locate it, you nevertheless rank many of the dramatic building blocks above story.

In the recent past, you'd argue character as the most vital of the tools needed to construct a story, shifting over to voice with the argument that the voice of the story had a direct effect on the choice of characters.

The time may have arrived for a change, with voice moving down the ladder to the second quality on your list, supplanted by story.  This is the result of you having spent some time working out the difference between story and plot, a definition that seems to have more or less spilled into your lap.

Story is the presence of every instance of activity portrayed in a narrative, whether the instance is taking place before our eyes right now or has happened in the remote or recent past.  The future is covered in the present time activity of one or more of the characters asking, as Bertha Young asks the Cosmos in Katherine Mansfield's short story "Bliss," the existential question of all time, "What will we do now?"

You've been uneasy about your relationship with story in your own work, in large measure because you had not come to terms with plot, which you now see as the arrangement of the instants in a story.  This points the finger in your own work at getting in with some housecleaning to determine which elements belong and which can go.  You are comfortable in your relationship with details and, although once hubristic about your approach to dialogue to the point of being hubristic about it, you now feel comfortable there, as well.

Could you have taught yourself something with all the years you have put in as editor of the work of other writers?  Beginning to appear that you have.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


When you first grew serious about reading beyond your ability to realize how serious you were or what it meant, the mountain man and cowboy were there for you as icons, ideals you had to force-fit yourself into accepting as persons with whom you could identify.  For one thing, you were somewhat shorter than your current six three; you wore thick glasses, and the closest you'd come to a horse was a visit initiated by your material grandfather to a small oval on La Cienega near Beverly in west-central Los Angeles, where two moody Shetland ponies lumbered about, more as though they were doing you a favor than bridging any sort of gap between man and animal.

In time you came into possession of a matched set of faux-pearl handled Gene Autry cap guns, but still the notion persisted that the Shetland pony had it in for you, that your own squinty-eyed visage and lack of height made thoughts of identification with the West a quixotic dream.  Frequent visits to the Hitching Post Theaters, one on Hollywood Boulevard, near the famed Pantages Theater, the other in Santa Monica, intrigued you with the issues portrayed, but left you struggling to see where you fit in.

Your early attempts at writing Western fiction revealed this sense you had of being an outsider in a place you longed to find some wriggle room.  The results were odd bits of whim and history in collision.  It was not until your late twenties and thirties that you arrived at any sense of Western identity, but by then you were immersed in Western stories intended for television, and some producers warned you off your more or less constant portrayal of class consciousness and the inherent bigotry and racism in such plentiful supply.

You abandoned the West with mixed emotions, simultaneous in your love of it as a place and a concept, not yet able to decode it to the degree necessary to write about it as the men and women you admired were able to do.  Even so, you came away aware of the figure of the cowboy as an American myth, even as you turned to another myth created with studious deliberation, the Indian.

Which leaves you, as though kicking and screaming, into the one you are even more able to identify with,the loner,investigating injustices because it feels right, because he or she is driven to do so, having already been hurt by discoveries of what people can do to one another. This individual may at one time have been military or sworn peace officer but is now right out there on the margin, wanting some sort of romantic justice in the land of the noir.  He or she may well be of a less-than-glamorous size or shape, perhaps as afflicted as Jonathan Lethem's Lionel Estorg, perhaps needing thick-lensed glasses, perhaps as Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee, wanting to become as well as an investigator a shaman.

Perhaps is the watchword for such individuals.  Perhaps they will achieve a moment or measure of a result.  But there is no doubt they will try.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where now?

You did not think Viktor Shklovsky mattered to you all that much before you wandered into Chaucer's Books, but when you saw a still unshelved book, Bowstring:  On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, you knew he did matter and that you had to have the book.

It has been that way with books of late, a sort of hunger that in reality cannot be sated.  When the circumstances arose to launch your move from Hot Springs Road to here, you gulped a few times, then set a limit of one hundred books you would bring with you.  At just about six months residency here on East Sola Street, you have at least a hundred books in the kitchen, not to mention those in the large studio room nor indeed the art books stacked atop the cabinet that houses the heating unit.

From the get-go, you are not a fan of literary theory; it is far from your favorite course to teach even though you do enjoy the effect on students when you move from Marxist theory over to feminism.  To that effect, one of the more recent of books to have appeared at Sola Street is the new Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, which you plan on converting into an essay for a booklength project about the nature of character in American fiction.

It is probably not as accidental as you'd like to believe that you are drawn to to noted Russian literary critics, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Viktor Shkolovsky being uppermost because of the way they view text, the intent of text, and their visions of theme and hidden agenda within text.  Had you become an academic, you would have spent considerable time digesting their work and the intent of their work.  As it is, you are, mercifully, not an academic and you have spent considerable time with the American critic, Leslie A. Fiedler.

The Shkolovsky work you brought home deals with the contrarist, the person who is out of place, does not belong where he is (almost reminds you of some Hawthorne, right?) and now he must search for meaning.

In books, there are arguments, occasional conversations, and conundrums that lead you by the nose of curiosity.  You read to embark on conversations with authors and their creations, ideas and characters (who are after all nothing more than ideas in costumes, eager to cover up a tragic flaw).

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Joys of Not Being Well Read

Shortly after you'd left high school to move into the upper echelons of education, it was your aim and goal to be well read.  Not that you had so much as a clue what being well read meant or, indeed, that you could give a plausible difference between close reading and spending several hours with a book or poem or story; not at all.  Nor could you have ventured only the most slipshod definition of what the Western Canon included--and did not include.

Truth to tell, being well read at that time was a mark of extreme snobbery and potential hubris on your part if an eighteen-year-old is capable of hubristic behavior at all.  You had a rival for the affections of a girl.  He was a sort of male cheerleader type, ukulele-strumming, hail fellow sort,  You were nothing if not a brooding,Byronic sort, vacuuming in the angst and anomie of the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, and all those who found it more appropriate and less costly to live abroad.

He--the rival--became, you believe, a high school gym teacher.  You became the writer of these vagrant paragraphs.  She became the wife of a dentist.  All of it for the good.  You sought ways to impress her beyond your recognition that nothing would.  Nothing.  The benefit of your then attitude was the enormous amount of residue from your reading.

Revisiting some of that material, you recognize that large portions of it--even though it stuck to your memory--did not deliver as much of its inherent nuance and layering as you'd thought, in many cases delivering to you impressions and information in direct contrast to the impressions and information you've gleaned in more recent years.

By now, "well read" has come to mean knowing a few books with a certain degree of intimacy, let's say to the point where you now reread them for their inner beauty, which is to say their language and their construction and their characters, but also for their flaws.  And so you do--you reread them and once again, they pull the rug out from under you by surprising you, which is often something a new book cannot do at all.

The summer stretches before you.  Already on the table in your small, shaded patio is that book given you when you were a boy; the big, thick volume containing the two long works about a river you had barely crossed in your young life, set down by a man whose background and culture bore no resemblance to your own and yet you have followed him as he followed that river.  The thing that makes the connection between you and in the bargain leaves you feeling well read is that he was happiest when--one way or another--he was on that river and you at your reading happiest when you are along with him.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Check your censors at the door

 In former times, running on empty was a potential trauma waiting to turn into a full disaster, complete with self doubt and a lecture from the censor.  You have been weighed in the balance, the censor tells you, and have been found wanting.  You have been caught out with neither story nor opinion.  Added implication: how can you consider yourself what you'd like to consider yourself?

Some time ago, perhaps two or three years back, you began to realize that of the many writers you admired who were able to turn their running on empty into a piece of some sort, perhaps even a short story, was William Saroyan, a man you met in person only once, with disastrous results.  You were second banana to him at a writers' conference, a fact that seemed safe enough for you to provide a home for several glasses of wine more than prudent.  You did not have any way of knowing Saroyan was an aggressive drinker, growing more truculent with each infusion.

You soon found out when it became clear that he had not only taken more than a pit stop from an arranged dinner at the El Paseo Restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, he had also clambered out the bathroom window, found the Elk's Club bar some blocks away, and was tossing back doubles while wishing any number of individuals he knew would go become fruitful and multiply themselves.

You were neither drunk nor truculent, but you were by no means sober when informed that you had just become the keynote speaker.  After several quick cups of coffee, you were out on the stage,in front of an enormous lectern, possessed of the notion that it would be good to advance to the edge of the stage and sit down, whereupon you might continue with your speech.

Saroyan had always left an impression on you with his work, which seemed so spontaneous.  You never get a chance to ask him, although you on several occasions were able to discuss the matter with his son, Aram.  It was and still is your belief that William Saroyan could actually get a publishable piece out of being on empty, then writing about it.  Given such problems as his lousy ability to be any kind of husband and the matter of his drinking problems and temper problems, running on empty was well down on his priority list.  He might have even preferred it to, say, needing another drink or perhaps needing the money to buy another drink.

No idea?  No problem; just sit down and write about the glorious freedom of having nothing to write about, how it freed up the soul with a sense of grand potential.

You believe you can more or less do the same thing, although you do not think to attempt to publish such material or even think about publishing it; instead you try to file it in some accessible manner for use should you ever be at a similar loss.

There is a kind of tingling presence of adventure after a time, the sense that you might be onto something in the way of insight.  Not every piece of writing produces insight; sometimes pieces produce trouble of the sort associated with expressing what you think, when you have thought something unflattering or critical about someone it would have been healthier to have not expressed your opinions.

But there you are again; an opinion is something, plucked straight from your heart.  An opinion, by its very nature, is running on something, not on empty.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Horse! A Horse!

The time has arrived, is actually here now, weighing upon you, much in the manner of a jockey estimating the responsiveness of his mount.

Wait, how mixed can a metaphor be; how can time be the jockey riding the horse that is you?

Ah, you say.

The time that has arrived is the Summer, more in abstraction than realness of the solstice.  Many of your obligations are on hold until September.  True enough, there is the launching of your book into the world.  There are a few editing jobs awaiting you, but for all practical purposes, the Summer is yours, at least the relative freedom of it is available to you.  In fairness, you have no notion of what if any surprises Reality has in store for you.  The implications and reality are clear enough:  You have time to work.  You also have time to squander, to procrastinate, to indulge.  The former two are less preferable than the latter.

It is your awareness that time can be issued its walking papers, that the new jockey is the work; you are the horse.

1.  The prequel to the novel you were at work on.
2.  The actual novel you were at work on.
3.  One of six projects you offered your publisher as something you could have ready for edits by December of this year.
4.  A short story, "Uncle Charlie," about one half done.

Four jockeys to sit astride you, guiding you into the romp that is a workout, steering and nudging and goading you beyond squander, procrastinate, and indulge.

How ever dumb it is--and you have been presented with some things original in their dumbness this past week at the writers' conference--it is not squander nor procrastinate nor indulge.

Four jockeys, already forming the word giddyup.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Shadow of Your Style

 Not too long ago, one of your students, in a surprise move, asked you to give an example of a dangling modifier.  "Sure,"  you said.  Then you paused, trying to conjure one forth.  "Er," you said.  And then you paused some more.  "Well, let's see," you said, now an official entry into the Big Zone of Uncertainty.  A splendid contrapuntal theme began to play against your desperate search for a dangling modifier; it was the theme of relief that you had so insulated yourself against the use of this solecism that you had to struggle to call it forth in example.  You ultimately found one; it came in a sentence you constructed that began with a gerund, thus separating yourself in your mind from the United States Supreme Court Associate Justice who could not define pornography but knew it nevertheless when he saw it.

This is preamble to your Three-Words Issue. So far as you are able to determine, there are three words you will go out of your way not to use when beginning an essay or, for that matter, a blog post.

1.  Issue word number one:  one, as in "One thing you will never do is begin a lead paragraph with the word 'one.'"

2.  Issue word number two:  it, as in (sorry, Jane) "It is a truth universally acknowledged..."  Beginning an essay, a paragraph, and most sentences with "it" depersonalizes the sentence by moving it off at arm's length from the reader, allowing you to slither into the remote present rather than the immediate moment of a character being on stage.  If it was so late that the character had to look at her watch in order to place the time, then register impatience, that character is placed under a handicap of not being the kind of person you'd want in a story in the first place and, in the second place, is the kind of character you'd expect to be stood up.  Beginning with "it" when you encounter such tropes causes you to reflexively ask "What?"  It was late?  What was late?  Thus you've been pulled out of the story or narrative.

3.  Issue word number three is "that."  You have for some time had a revulsion toward "that."  You find yourself cringing when you say something along the lines of "That's what I mean."  As opposed to "One" or "It," your specificity of why "that" is so grating to you is more rooted in idiosyncrasy.  There is a clunky, extra syllable feel to it.  "That is the book I was telling you about" sounds accusatory rather than attribution.  Even such elegance of finality as "That tears it." or even "That's it." are tropes you go out of your way to avoid to the point where, in revision, you have to bite the bullet, remove the substitution, then put that back where that belongs in that sentence.

There is some grim satisfaction in knowing this about your self and your preferences; these three matters contribute even in their not being used to the quirky literary DNA now resident in your style, and should anyone wish to do so, they could identify you with greater certainty by tracing your style.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Short, Sweet Ride

Every time you set a book in motion you become aware of the number of individuals who gave something of themselves to it.

A book set off into publication reminds you of the photos of baseball games in which a batter lofts a home rum on its ride, a few brief seconds of aching beauty when the apparent arc announces to all who follow it the intent of clearing the fence before landing somewhere outside the part.

You are reminded of your literary agent, who announced during the course of a lecture she gave that she would have it in stores by October of this year.  You think of the Big Six publisher in New York who said okay and you think of the actual publisher to be, who came out of the shadows and pressed for it, showing you in the course of one phone call why you should indeed go with them.

You saw an editor whose vision helped you remove the written equivalent of throat clearing, allowing you to arrive closer yet to your original vision of the work.

Thinking you were pretty competent at copyediting, you were given to recognize the impossibility of the writer being able to catch all the myriad usage matter.

And now that the ARCs are out with requests for blurbs,you see Chris Moore romping through the Introduction and Jerry Freedman up with a fine take, and Catherine Ryan Hyde saying in so many words that you had written the book on fiction.  Last night, just before Tom Boyle's speech at the writers' conference,he winks, says he's heard you have a book on the way; and Digby Wolfe saying sure, I'll be glad to, and Brian Fagan chiming in, and those two stalwarts from Bantam Books, and suddenly you are over the fence and out of the park, launched into the expectations of the public.

It is only a short ride out of the park and into the downward arc but it is a glorious and sweet ride, made sweeter by those you know and care about who checked in to say hey.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

87-key pianos on sale. Almost as good as the 88

In its way, it is a comfort; every time you have occasion to talk about a particular facet of the writing story process, you become convinced of the significant importance of that facet.  It becomes somehow clearer,sharper,more necessary.  

You are even able to recall times where you were remiss, perhaps to the point of forgetting that element altogether, whereupon you felt a twinge of remorse.

Imagine a piano with only eighty-seven keys.  Who would notice?  Does it take the full eighty-eight to express the logic and nuance behind the range of the piano?


Your interest is in the players who say fuck yes, that missing key matters.  You want to hear her music or his music.  Start taking away piano keys, soon you're making do,undercutting the ideal and the best articulation of the instrument.  That missing key might be struck only one or two times during a particular work, but that is enough,

In most cases, serial commas are luxury rather then necessity, but for that one or two times when the lack of serial comma causes a distraction or wrongful interpretation, all the others times you used it are validated.

It is tough enough getting even an approximation of what you want, particularly after all those years of letting first-draft material go into publication as weights on your conscience.

The devil is not only in the details, it is everywhere.

And yes, you have just this moment come to realize detail is the single most important aspect of story telling.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Awash and wear

There is never enough time; there is too much of it, when you are caught up in something you do not wish to do or when there is something you would rather be doing, or there is too little of it, as when you are doing something you have looked forward to doing and something else you do not particularly relish manages to butt in ahead of you in your priority line.

You envy such men and women who are able to live beyond time; there is something in their faces, perhaps a serenity, perhaps an ongoing sense of pleasure resident just below the surface, suggestive of their having stumbled upon some secret.  In fact, they have stumbled upon something, a belief system in a philosophy that, if you were to investigate, you would call a religion or some concept ending in an --ism.

Although you envy them the look and the serenity, particularly those expressions you see on the faces of Buddhist monks and nuns, you have no wish to joint them in the thing that allows them the serenity on their faces.  You would be willing to wait for a dental appointment or even a bus with such individuals, you would hope to find within yourself the bravery you see within them, you would even hope to stand with them when they stood for basic human rights in the face of intolerable oppression, but you would not care to go home with them.

In its most dramatic sense, you are as entwined by time as you are by the need to work for a living; your activities are in spite of time as opposed to because of time.  You get things done or partially done relative to your ability to negotiate settlements, carve out small spaces of time during which you can work furiously or at least purposefully.  You have made similar negotiations with your lifelong tendencies toward sloth and procrastination.

There was a time during your ongoing negotiations with time when you had a resident bitterness and frustration over the fact that you felt you lacked sufficient time to do what you wished.  Of course that was rationale.  Of course you would not have been satisfied had you found the discipline and energy to do the things you wished.  The sheer impossibility of things is your true friend as opposed to the need to be accepting and realistic.  If you are anything, you are not realistic.  You are in metaphor a stubborn man in a small kayak, afloat on a vast, frothy stream of sheer impossibility, your oars of questionable quality.  In time, you will become awash.

But not yet.

Not just yet.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Didn't you used to be Clive Cussler?

 You are standing in the lobby, magnanimously sharing your lunch with Fred Klein.  It is a turkey and cheese sandwich, a bag of chips, an apple and two chocolate brownies.  It was actually Fred's lunch, his payment for being ombudsman at the writers' conference, but you, thinking all the workshop leaders were to be given such boxes, had got to it first, thus your chutzpah in offering to share your lunch with him. 

You are approached by a man who asks you to please autograph the book he has just purchased.  Fred has already scoped the title of the book, telling the man, "Mr. Cussler does not give autographs while he is eating lunch."

Thus you were mistaken for Clive Cussler.  Moments later, in another part of the lobby, a lady asks you to autograph a book she has just purchased.  This time you are mistaken for your pal,Barnaby Conrad.

While chatting moments later with your friend and fellow workshop leader, Duane Unkefer,another workshop leader approaches you and asks you what the possibilities are that you have her on your radio program. When you explain to her in polite terms that you do not have a radio program and have never had a radio program, she declaims in a loud,shrill voice,"All you had to do was say you were booked.  You do not have to fuck with my head."  Whereupon she storms off.

Your pal, Jim Alexander, working as a volunteer, approaches you with the information that one of the conference attendees is foisting himself off as you.  "That would be Dan, the owner of The Cafe Luna, whom I have given my badge."  "No, no,"  Jim says.  "We know him.  This is someone we do not know."

You are in fact carrying with you the ID badge of your literary agent, which you will give to the publicist of your publisher when she arrives.

A serious looking woman of perhaps fifty has approached you twice, asking you if she should know who you are, and another man you don;t think you have ever seen before has thanked you for doing such a fine job, editing his novel.

This is still early in the conference for such existential high jinks; the pace has not yet accelerated and yet there are these issues and discrepancies with identity.  Where better than at a gathering of individuals who invent identities?

You find yourself chatting with a woman who has asked for advice.  You need a more detailed biography for your lead character, you tell her, aware that you are in a strong sense adding to the disconnect of invention.

Another woman approaches you, motioning a photographer to approach.  She asks if you will be kind enough to allow yourself to be photographed with her so that her friends back home will believe her when she tells them she has seen you in person.  As the photographer motions the two of you to get closer, the woman asks you why you have decided to shave off your goatee.  You do some quick calculations as you assess who it is she has mistaken you for.  Tom Boyle will be amused when he hear the story.  You smile at the lady.  "At about the time I decided to give my red Converse tennies a rest," you tell her, and the photographer flashes away.

It is only afternoon of day three.

What new adventures await?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Conference of Bonobo

Three hundred persons converge on a mid-range hotel in a resort city where a cadre of perhaps fifty other individuals await them.  Within a matter of minutes, the two groups are beginning to exchange alternate visions of reality.

You are a portion of the latter group.  Along with ten or twelve of your peers, with most of whom you have already exchanged ritual, social embrace, you have repaired to the cocktail lounge, placed orders for drinks, and begun a systematic depopulation of several bowls of mixed nuts.  On the far wall, a large television monitor, its sound system at merciful mute, a procession of commentators for Fox TV News appear to demonstrate various stages of behavior consonant with a petite Mal seizure.

You wonder aloud why it is that Fox News broadcasts appear in so many public venues.  One of your number reacts to your musing by sliding off her stool, marching toward the TV set with some vigor, then switching the channel to CNN, which action adds layers of nuance to your immediate perception of reality. Watching the channel switcher's progress to and from the TV set, male that you are, you consider the experience of exchanging more that ritual embraces with her and the consequences, both positive and negative, from your point of view.  She is the first to remark on the smile of amusement on your face and the shaking of your head.  It would be easy for her to conclude, you reckon, that your smile of amusement was a grimace of scorn, particularly in tandem with the shaking of your head, all to the point of signaling your distaste for CNN News and your preference for Fox.

Your particular reality at the moment is the wry amusement over your sexual fantasy with regard to this person, who is, it must be said, attractive and talented, without even having consumed your first of what will eventually be two Campari and soda.  You have, in fact, had similar fantasies about this person while you were at some point along the vector of drinking--either glasses of wine, ale, or aforementioned Campari.  You have conveniently filed such fantasies away in the large, general folder of fantasy, content with your ultimate assessment that were you to in any way act on an attempt to make a reality of it, you would be most unsuccessful, to the point of being laughed off.  Nevertheless.  You are a male.  Even in the act of congratulating yourself for recognizing a trespass fantasy for what it is, then successfully setting it to rest, you remind yourself that you were likely to have seen in this alternate vision of Reality some existential loneliness and need in her.  Down, boy, you tell yourself.  Even at this remove, such rationalizations are enough to pay your dues for another year in the Male Vision of Reality Club.  You do not wish to be in this club. Momentary awarenesses of your own participation in its initiation rites and behavior do not add bonus points to your comfort zone miles.

Being a person is a fraught experience.  Your once- or twice-removed cousins, the Bonobo, seem to have made admirable strides toward adjustment to being alive and in the Reality that is.  Had you been a bonobo in this group seated before the altar, now of CNN, you would likely have acted more directly on your fantasy and experienced some more immediate consequence.  You might even, all possibilities more open to bonobo Reality, gotten yourself laid.  Then again--

Later, more ritual behavior, including embraces with many of the three hundred in the former group, those who came from elsewhere to be here in order to participate in this event.

The event, of course, is a writers' conference, an entire week of lies, refracted Reality, emergence of sudden jealousies, flare-up of animosity, and one of the stronger senses of communal bonding you have ever known.

You are striding purposefully down a long corridor, thinking you have oriented yourself on the map of the hotel, provided by the writers' conference, thinking to check out your workshop venue and its convenience for bringing Sally with you.  You are arrested by a voice, calling your name.  Impressed by the friendliness in its tone, you turn to identify the source.  She is one of those you had thought to avoid at all costs due to past indictments against civility as compiled by you.  If you were to describe her as bright, with edgy humor and pleasing appearance, you'd need to qualify that with the observation that not all women in this landscape by any means fit that description.

"I've been hoping to find you,"  she says, approaching.  "I've been thinking of you."

And what, you ask yourself as she draws into embracing range, were you thinking?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Say, didn't you used to be--

Although it does not happen with frequency, it does happen.  You are on your way somewhere or you are ensconced with some measure of comfort in a coffee shop, when you are approached by an individual who appears to know you to the point of particular references or questions that cause you to scurry through the files and attics of your memory for some greater association than you have.

In time, perhaps embarrassing time, you recall the individual and the extent of your companionship, allowing you to respond in greater context.

The same sense of disconnect appears from time to time when you begin to realize you have earlier read something you are now reading or, in a slight mutation, when you with deliberation return to reread something and there, in the process, see the equivalent of an entire layer you'd missed last time through.

This sort of awareness is lovely in its implications.  Some years back, when you'd first moved here from Los Angeles, you were sitting in an outdoor restaurant, sipping a beer, neither expecting much less knowing the man--early forties, from the look of him, trim, slight tan, equally slight recession of his curly brown hair--who approached you. "At first, I thought of planting one right on your chin,"  he said, "but then I thought better of it.  For her to have liked you that much, there must be some lesson in it for me and I decided to see what it was."  The man insisted on shaking your hand.  "Jerry,"  he said, introducing himself.

From there, the surreal grew even more expansive.  When you told him your name--how do you not reply with your name when someone introduces himself?--he seemed puzzled, asked if you'd changed your name.  You had not.  As pieces of what seemed at first a cosmic puzzle fell into place, you found yourself literally and figuratively in the midst of a story.  Seems his wife or girlfriend had pointed you out as "the other man" in a love triangle.  Jerry's wife or girlfriend might have been myopic or clever or both.  You still do not know.  You may have at a distance looked enough like the man with whom she dallied, or she may have chosen you at random.  For a moment, you considered telling Jerry about the mistake in identity, but would he have believed you?  Or his wife/girlfriend?  At the moment, Jerry was looking for closure, possibly even wisdom.  Who were you to douse the fire with lighter fluid?

There have been a number of time when you have been complemented for having written a book you had no knowledge of, and at least three times, possibly because of your eyebrows, you have been mistaken for the actor James Whitmore. The last time was even more surreal because the young woman you were with began laughing uproariously, agreeing with the individual who'd mistakenly identified you.  She happened to be the great actor's former daughter-in-law.

It is no wonder that you are entertained by such mistaken or excruciating identifications and like to use them in your stories.  Nor is there wonder that you now approach the rereading of an old friend, wondering what mishaps and quirky judgments you rendered earlier in the game, when the game was beginning for you and you were amassing so many impressions and being so many personae.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Scrambled Associations

 There are moments when the joy of association comes sneaking up on you with a surprise.  A metaphor or more ordinary comparison appears, a long forgotten memory returns, all of these are as rediscovery of old chums, poems so meaningful to you at some earlier time that you committed them to memory.

This joyful state of connectedness came at you as you rifled through the refrigerator and adjacent shelves, looking for a suitable supper for Sally.  You had your own supper designed, the kind of use-up-the-leftovers combination best eaten and not spoken of at large, certainly not a combination you'd go out of your way to duplicate.  There was a pretty good balance of protein, vegetables, and carbohydrates of relatively low glycemic index.  But all your rooting about produced nothing remotely similar for Sally.  Worst case, she might go for the tin of Vienna cocktail sausages that had arrived in one of those potpourri baskets people give one another at holidays.  But apparently you had already snacked the Vienna cocktail sausages away or in some earlier lapse offered them to Sally.

No way would she consider the olives stuffed with anchovy.  Perhaps a large dollop of the salmon flavored cream cheese used to induce her to take her arthritis medications.  And perhaps she'd be willing to share the small tin of liver pate.  There is in the freezer a one-person quiche Lorraine, at which she'd shown interest on earlier occasions.

Then you remembered.  More often than not, scrambled eggs will do the trick, and yes, there were two lonely eggs, and yes, it worked, and yes, it came by the sort of association you were recalling with such nostalgia.

No fear; tomorrow's horizon is wide.  There is no morning workshop because of the opening ceremonies later in the day for the writers' conference at which you have been a workshop leader lo these many years.

Tomorrow, with clear conscience and refrigerator clear of all but the most outre exotica, you will make your way to Reynaud's Patisserie for coffee, brioche, and fruit, thence to Gelson's Market for a supply of staples for you and staples for Sally.  Perhaps a homemade latte after putting away the swag.  Perhaps a sneak at the novel for a few pages.  Perhaps--and this is the nub of what you are after here--the reading of the new Tin House and New York Review of Books and a reread of one of the Katherine Mansfield short stories you so enjoyed while preparing for your review of her collected stories as your Golden Oldie Review.

The looking in on your novel will be a bittersweet reunion, since you had to set it aside again in order to do some last-minute detail work on the nonfiction project.  It will stir up fiction connections.  The reading will in ways not entirely visible to you,stock up your associations larder so that next time, when you are lost in your work to the point where you believe you have used up all your material, some association such as the memory of Sally having relished scrambled eggs one morning will come bobbing to the surface.

In many ways, writing is all about associations.  When you move into fiction, you are faced with installing an entire set of them for each character.  These are not your associations.  Your sudden realization that Sally will be content with a supper of scrambled eggs is not the appropriate realization for your characters; they have associations of their own.  You are their facilitator.

Scrambled Associations

 There are moments when the joy of association comes sneaking up on you with a surprise.  A metaphor or more ordinary comparison appears, a long forgotten memory returns, all of these are as rediscovery of old chums, poems so meaningful to you at some earlier time that you committed them to memory.

This joyful state of connectedness came at you as you rifled through the refrigerator and adjacent shelves, looking for a suitable supper for Sally.  You had your own supper designed, the kind of use-up-the-leftovers combination best eaten and not spoken of at large, certainly not a combination you'd go out of your way to duplicate.  There was a pretty good balance of protein, vegetables, and carbohydrates of relatively low glycemic index.  But all your rooting about produced nothing remotely similar for Sally.  Worst case, she might go for the tin of Vienna cocktail sausages that had arrived in one of those potpourri baskets people give one another at holidays.  But apparently you had already snacked the Vienna cocktail sausages away or in some earlier lapse offered them to Sally.

No way would she consider the olives stuffed with anchovy.  Perhaps a large dollop of the salmon flavored cream cheese used to induce her to take her arthritis medications.  And perhaps she'd be willing to share the small tin of liver pate.  There is in the freezer a one-person quiche Lorraine, at which she'd shown interest on earlier occasions.

Then you remembered.  More often than not, scrambled eggs will do the trick, and yes, there were two lonely eggs, and yes, it worked, and yes, it came by the sort of association you were recalling with such nostalgia.

No fear; tomorrow's horizon is wide.  There is no morning workshop because of the opening ceremonies later in the day for the writers' conference at which you have been a workshop leader lo these many years.

Tomorrow, with clear conscience and refrigerator clear of all but the most outre exotica, you will make your way to Reynaud's Patisserie for coffee, brioche, and fruit, thence to Gelson's Market for a supply of staples for you and staples for Sally.  Perhaps a homemade latte after putting away the swag.  Perhaps a sneak at the novel for a few pages.  Perhaps--and this is the nub of what you are after here--the reading of the new Tin House and New York Review of Books and a reread of one of the Katherine Mansfield short stories you so enjoyed while preparing for your review of her collected stories as your Golden Oldie Review.

The looking in on your novel will be a bittersweet reunion, since you had to set it aside again in order to do some last-minute detail work on the nonfiction project.  It will stir up fiction connections.  The reading will in ways not entirely visible to you,stock up your associations larder so that next time, when you are lost in your work to the point where you believe you have used up all your material, some association such as the memory of Sally having relished scrambled eggs one morning will come bobbing to the surface.

In many ways, writing is all about associations.  When you move into fiction, you are faced with installing an entire set of them for each character.  These are not your associations.  Your sudden realization that Sally will be content with a supper of scrambled eggs is not the appropriate realization for your characters; they have associations of their own.  You are their facilitator.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Writing Life

There have been times in the past when you have wished for days such as today and when you have had them.  There were times when you feared you might never have them again, needing instead to pry spare moments when you could find them.

You were up early, the coffee made, the toast slathered with peanut butter and some agreeable pomegranate jam, an orange peeled, a large smear of cottage cheese added on for protein.  By seven thirty, you were at your desk.  It is now just short of sixteen hours later.  With short breaks for making more coffee and preparing snacks for Sally, you have been at it continuously.  Finish with the last round of editorial notes and suggestions for your book, which the editor made in response to your revisions on the first editorial pass.  In essence, you've added twelve more pages after cutting a tad under five hundred words.  The completed manuscript that went off to copyedit today is 524 pages, including the bibliography.

Thus today you have set the text off to copyedit, done your review--The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield--and now this, over a tall glass of iced grapefruit juice laced with Campari bitters.

Days such as this were days you longed for when you had to struggle to make time to get in a page or two.  And when, in the past, you had days such as this, with nothing but writing, you did not yearn for the office, for meetings and editorial conferences.

Day after tomorrow, the writers' conference begins.  You host the late night fiction workshop, which could mean the week is going to be largely lost to you, your opportunities to get at your novel not looking healthy, your chances of keeping your string of uninterrupted essays here in jeopardy.

The writing life means writers' conferences, the speaking engagements relative to your book, already being penciled in, as necessary adjuncts, but today meant being here for sixteen hours, with your dog, your thoughts, your ideas, and sentences that go bump in the night.  Such days are the spine of the writing life.

Such days are not days for swimming or long walks or long showers or even shaving, nor are they days for preparing elaborate meals; they are days for the delightful application of words onto electronic pages almost as though they were go-carts in the carnivals you used to work for, bumping against one another in bursts of spirited attempts to get answers for questions you never realized you had.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Story as Scallywag

Story is never a straight line; it is always an evocation of texture.  The commercial story tends to be more an approximation of overwhelming dramatic event as opposed to the more nuanced event of larger readership.


Sometimes stories intended as more complex, encompassing more layers of texture, find their way into plentiful commercial sales, bringing along readers who thought at first to enjoy a more accessible rate of discovery.  This, by the way, is the attraction the mystery holds for you, in metaphor the trail of cookies the witch set out for Hansel and Gretel.  Mystery begins as mere puzzle, but somewhere along the way, you find yourself relating the characters to persons and situations you know of have known in real life.


Or they remind you of things you have read, things written and published in other centuries, causing you to see those remarkable floaters of parallels and connections.  Thus the writing becomes literature rather than either commercial or literary, literature because it has transcended linear progression.  Now it is a portal to the world of human ability to retain and mould experience to the point where it becomes more than mere warning about consequences and instead metamorphoses into intelligent wisdom.

Rogues, scallywags, and scoundrels who so delighted you in the past become billboards for the charlatans currently in our midst, riding their horses of ambition into our terrain, bent on exploiting our wired-in distrust of institutions and strangers.  Although he was not professed as a politician, Chaucer's Pardoner had the spiel and cynicism of the politician, offering a nostrum or relic to which magical properties have been imputed in fiery rhetoric and lackluster clothing.

Good reading and good writing help you transcend the linear, into the fully staged world of mischief you have come to recognize as story.  When it works for you, it abducts you.  When it does not work for you, it causes your eyes to glaze over and your senses to turn to some target for the mischief arising within.  All the better to help you cope with the mischievous, textured, fraught reality scheming about you.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The Publicist is after you, wanting from you your least favorite activity of response, knowing now what you will talk about some time in the future.  Even when you have a general idea of what you will lecture about, you feel grateful when, during your delivery, you sense that you or someone about you has left the gate open and the animals have sensed it, then taken advantage.

You love the sense of being off and enthused about something that has come to you of the moment; it is the quality you most admire about jazz players, with their ability to improvise.

There must, you reason, be some similar process with speaking and writing, with the verbal use of improvising.  You suppose you have it to a degree but feel uncomfortable at not being able to articulate what the process is, much less can you describe how it works.

Interestingly enough, both the Publicist and your Literary Agent hate the list of topics you provided.  "Those titles sound as though they have colons in them,"  your Agent observed.  "What's wrong with colons?"  you said.  "Ah,"  she said, "they make a thing sound academic.  Like a goddamn paper.  People don't like it when you sound like an academic; they like it when you sound like an anti-academic."

Some of this is a holdover from your late twenties and early thirties, when friends and family were on your case to write something serious, as in, "When are you going to write something serious?"  You were serious then just as you are serious now; you were searching for things to care about to the point where you could learn from them, learn why you cared for them in the first place.

It is delicious irony that you now find yourself occasionally scolded for being too serious, particularly when you think you are being funny.  You are comfortable enough about your craft now to realize that sooner or later during a given day, you will produce something that has a legitimate path leading toward the stage, where all the action is taking place.  The entire day's work may be little more than a few paragraphs of such essay and blog as these vagrant lines and a note or two on a note pad that has such great resonance that you know it will be the beginning of something or the continuation of something already in progress.

So far as speaking and lecturing are concerned, half an hour before class or the scheduled appearance is sufficient time to discover what you will talk about and how your attitude will surface.

Your agent's plan for you is another book on writing, thinking you could have something done by year's end, thus two nonfiction projects will be at work for you, allowing you to continue developing what was intended to be novel #1, but which has become novel # 2 as you delved further into the background of your characters to the point where you see a rubric for a series, a rationale for it, and at least a concept if not a design for # 3 in the series.  With another nonfiction book out and about, you could well cut back on teaching and editing.

Publisher is also interested in discussing what you will do next.  Given their combined reaction to the seriousness and gravity of your suggested title for the book due in July,you offered--only half in jest, How to Get Your Sorry Ass Published:  The Dramatic Way to Story.

At first, there was a long silence, causing you to think you were about to be scolded into getting serious.  Then came the tinkle of laughter that sounds like crystal wine glasses being clinked.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Burn Ratio

Given the frequent propensity of portions of California to erupt in flames from time to time, "burn ratio" would seem to be a term originated by a fire department or insurance carrier.  But it is no such thing.

Although Californian in origin, burn ratio came out of the Hollywood film studios as an index of the number of frames of film exposed by a director in order to produce the final print of a story.  Burn ratio figured in the balance sheet of every film made.  Directors with low burn ratios were thought of more highly, regardless of the quality of their work.

By the merest slip of metaphor, you are able to transmogrify the term from film to manuscript.

Burn ratio is the number of false starts, POV shifts, and other revisions necessary to get a scene, passage or narrative, or tricky exchange of dialogue into its most ideal presentation.

With no damage to the concept, you could push burn ratio to encompass an entire short story, essay, poem, or novel, to say nothing of the memoir or booklength polemic.  You would in effect be turning burn ratio into a metaphor for the process of revision, in the process strengthening the conflation by which the original spark of idea is captured, advanced into a viable idea, teased into first draft, then led through the crucible of discovery to its ultimate form.

More often than not, the final form has assumed a confidence and stature of such ease and fluidity as to make it seem friendly, approachable, humming with the conversation of insight.

With the passage of years, your own burn ratio has progressed, to your great relief, from almost nothing to significant, high numbers.  In days of eld, you were so taken by the energy and enthusiasm that you were willing to believe "this" was how it was done; writers not only wrote from the seat of the pants, they had the idea worked out and were as married to it as a fly to fly paper.  Material no longer flies from your printer as it once did from your typewriter, nor does time appear to pass at its leisurely pace of earlier years; you are now caught in the press of having the illusion of more to say and the greater illusion yet of having less time in which to get it said.  In the Reality That Belongs to the Universe, nothing has changed except those things that are of the Universe's doing.  In the parallel universe you have devised for yourself, assembled from experiences, formal and informal education, culture, reading, and mail order catalogue, there is a sense of urgency emerging, trying to insinuate itself in front of you into the ticket line.

A number of Hindu and Buddhist philosophers have observed how illusory is the Reality many of us inhabit.  Tao philosophers warn us to be alert for the lure of the "ten thousand things," by which they intend as metaphor to suggest illusion.

Your place in line takes into consideration your awareness of the vast numbers of Reality--including your own--that you see about you, all in some relation to the Reality That Is.  Some of those in line with you have a term for the Reality That Is--they call it God.  You have also done so from time to time, but now you are spending some of your burn ratio time revising that vision, not content with atheist nor agnostic nor even sceptic; secular humanist sounds a bit pretentious in your hope for a negotiated settlement.

At one time, you wrote long, rambling narratives that focused on persons waiting in some line or other, subtext for your narrative eavesdropping on their concerns, motives, and secret agendas.  Other such narratives had large groups of individuals out on treasure hunts, connecting with other individuals they did not know.  In one such narrative you recall with vivid fondness, the individuals on the treasure hunt all wore costumes, which were all relative to the party--you think it was Halloween--they were attending.  How much you knew then amazes you because you were working on the theory that you were in your own costume, a bather with one toe in the literary ocean.

It is time to revisit those alternate Realities through which you have passed.  At least sixty percent of a story should be in the present moment, even if that present moment were back in early or late medieval. But all of us carry some sort of fanny pack, some sort of iPad devise on which the past is as clear to us as an electronic, pixilated screen.  The past waits for us with You Tube streams of memory, literally freezing itself in increments for us to see what we have brought with us into the present and how we deploy these things.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thanks for the Entropy

With some growing frequency, you find yourself focusing on a particular generic label emotion or behavior related to an emotion, playing in the juke box of your mind (because you are of the juke box generation as opposed to, say, the MP3 generation) the relationship of that feeling to story.  You have made notes of several, some of which have found their way into The Fiction Lover's Companion,  but more to the point, all these words of emotional cognate deserve placement in your ultimate design for story.

What then is story without some emotional subtext, waiting to erupt in the sense banks of the reader?  One answer is that the result is an argument, another possible answer is a philosophical treatise.  Even such upper-lobe story tellers such as Aldous Huxley leave traces of the irony of missed connections and opportunities.

You favor such irony but you are fonder of greater disconnects between characters, of individuals playing out such relations as romance or friendship, and of individuals and their relationship to organizations, in which there are wide gaps between the understanding each party has of the other.

You have spent much time at an educational institution where you failed to see the enormity of disconnect, much of the astigmatism coming from your own short fuse but also your rebelliousness against structure you consider overdone.  Thus your contributions to what you expected of them as related to theirs of you.  You also supplied a sense of amused amazement at the possibilities for story.  When you feel as though you are camping in a dramatic petrie dish such as the university, you can feel yourself sponging up the attitudes and agendas; they are as real to you as the sight and sounds of a brigade of tourist motorcyclists revving their engines through a small town, then coming to a manicured halt in front of some truck stop restaurant.

Nothing was as funny as your rise to editor in chief of a scholarly publishing company and your ultimate dismissal because of the belief that when you did not actively seek to become the president of the firm, you were considered to be not committed enough to the organization.  It even seemed funny while it was happening.

Although it does not have direct emotional contexts, the word entropy suggests a gradual loss of energy and cohesiveness in a thermodynamic sense, but this could also be transferred to relationships in general and voila! an ironic index of the wedge of chaos and destabilization within a system (relationship).  In thermodynamics,there is a tendency within entropy for temperatures to achieve a universal homogeneity, which is given the lovely term "heat death."  Entropy suggests social decline and degeneration, which more than offers you a handhold of interest.  And no, you are not so much a cynic as to believe entropy is inevitable; society makes it a potential result, but it has become clear to you that you need to spend more time working this through to a more articulate vision, one that preserves within it the need for ongoing rebelliousness.

The aging process is somewhat entropic, thus a clue to you that whatever else may be inherent in it, you had better find a way to see the humor in aging before it catches up with you and bullies you out of your lunch money.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rule with an Ironic Hand

 To an even greater degree than we civilians need to govern our responses lest we, in our objective of being truthful, overstep into the territory of being too truthful, our characters are at constant risk of betraying their feelings and their agendas.

Unlike most of us, our characters are supposed to make the occasional slip, let an unintended act and/or response of damaging consequence slip through the cracks.  The better characters, by which you mean those who do allow the genie to escape from the bottle from time to time, are the ones we cherish most because we cannot keep them under control.  The moment they are left unguarded for a moment or two, they do something that seems impulsive to them, surprising to us, and wonderful for the story.

Although we admire such sorts in dramatic situations, it is a risky business to have them as friends in real life, of equal risk to in fact be similar to one of your own characters.  We want some level of reliability in real life and in our dramatic life, valuing the loyalty, support, and consideration of our friends, particularly after spending a day with characters.

Among the things we observe as writers is the way characters often have a wide gap in their understanding of circumstances and the individuals who populate them.  This observation is not meant to imply you think characters are dumb or even slow.  To the contrary, they are often faster than you are or, if you choose, you are slow in comparison to them.

Characters, exchanging information in the belief they are having a conversation, are on their way to provoking the story of an impending misunderstanding.  They are also causing readers to take sides, which the reader is only too willing to do, provided the characters come forth bearing those literary equivalents of frankincense and myrrh, subtext and ambiguity.

This is one reason why Jane Austen has lasted so long across so wide a spectrum of readers.  A favorite circumstance of hers is where a character she has advanced as a potential lead has either from distant past or more immediate past, put herself in the position of wanting something with intensity but not being able to speak up for it or act on its behalf.  There are some truly ditsy women in her pages, such as the young sisters in Persuasion,but they are not lead characters.  Women who lead Austen novels are more self-assured, have quite a nice fix on what they want, but have somehow boxed themselves in.  Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, has broken off an engagement with Frederick Wentworth some years before the novel begins, thinking him not serious enough in his life goals, wanting to be away at sea more than at home.  She has come to see him as a changed man and now wants him, but here he is, showing off before Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, all but flirting with them and they with him.  Anne is present; she is the principle narrator.  She has been put in a delightful Austen squeeze.  How could you not like this circumstance she has set up, using irony and ambiguity with such deftness?

Such stories and circumstances come to those who watch social dynamic with a close eye.  You could profit from revisiting this novel as a review for your next Golden Oldies, two weeks off.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Point of You

Two of your all-time favorite novels are narrated in the first person point of view.  This format means you were completely at the mercy and agendas of one Huckleberry Finn and he who was wont to call himself Pip.  Convention, sense of authenticity, and overall plausibility dictate the subsequent wisdom whereby you, as reader, are reliant on those two characters to get your entire picture of the relevant events and their significance related to the narratives you know as Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations.  As a tangent, you note that each of these novels represent their author at the height of his narrative powers.

Two other of your all-time favorite novels help explode the notion that the reader get dramatic information from the single source implicit in first-person narrative.  Madam Bovary blows point of view to smithereens (whatever the hell a smithereen is); so does Catch-22.  Just as the impressionist artists of late nineteenth and early twentieth century expanded our visual perception, pre- and post-modern writers such as Mrs. Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and John Dos Passos allowed us the opportunity to see Reality in a more evocative, participatory sense than the descriptive techniques of such remarkable-in-their-grandness authors such as Marianne Evans aka George Elliot, Anthony Trollope, and Charlotte Bronte (who is also one of your must reread favorites).

It is not that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors had no truck with irony, they (absenting the splendid Ms. Austen) simply had less reason to bring it forward as a big gun.

Irony and subtext go gamboling down the roadway, hand in hand, much evocative of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies of eld, devoted, chums, more interested in their exuberance than any significant inner flaws.  Multiple point of view, such as Wilkie Collins presented us in The Moonstone, allows us to see an event and its consequences from a number of points of reference, wherein there are obvious variations on the theme of interpretation.

Switching away from a character you like gives you a chance to see that character from the perspective of someone you may not be so invested in, giving you the opportunity to see both individuals beyond their first appearance to you in the audition hall where each appeared, nervous, not sure what you wished of them, looking for a job, hopeful you would take them on.

Multiple point of view is an upper cut to the senses, a vehicle for the thing you enjoy most of all in your reading, which is surprise.  Two of your favored contemporary writers, Deborah Eisenberg and Lorrie Moore, bring surprise to their narratives with such ease and grace as to remind you of your own take on Reality, which is that it is an ongoing series of surprises.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Past History

  As the complexity and nuance of a character increases, so does her relationship with the past. Age brings with it experience and the simultaneous index of reactions to be sorted through whenever a new situation arises. Most stories of younger characters happen now, in the immediate present.  These individuals have some nature of experience tool kit, but not enough to produce long periods of deliberation.

The older the character, the more the likelihood of the story in which she appears having upwards of forty percent of its content tied to and requiring of brief trips to the past, wherein the experience acquired
its subtext, indeed, wherein expectations for present consequences flourish.

Like the prudent driver or cyclist, the character is focused on the landscape before her, which is to say the immediate present.  Action is necessary, particularly at intersections, which translate into story as the arrival of challenges, the needs for informed response to them.  Drivers shoot a glance at the side-view mirrors, then the rear-view mirror, leaving nothing to chance.

Story is not without sympathy to the dramatic equivalent of the prudent driver, but story is not able to begin with prudent characters unless it is to distract them to the point where they are no longer prudent; they are instead besotted, driven, forgetful, somehow self-absorbed.

You could say that many plot-driven stories take place as much as ninety-five percent in the present, the scant time away being that one time when the character suffered some memorable reversal that has rendered her jumpy.  This leads us as readers to anticipate the recreation of that scant five-percent time, which we know will be a roadblock for the character.  Our curiosity is engaged.  We read on to discover how the character will respond when confrontation is forced upon her.

That being the one side of the equation, the other is the heavier presence of past events having influence on the behavior of one or more characters, probably in direct proportion to the length of the narrative.  We are led to conclude that character-driven stories reflect this relationship between past and present, the shifts in chronology appearing at strategic intervals.  Even in this theoretical, generalized sense, you are arguing that the past plays a role; look at the way it comes forth, sometimes when it is not at all anticipated.

The nuance of difference between anticipation and expectation does not appear significant in reality, but in dramatic narrative, it can have tremendous effect.  When we anticipate something and it does not appear or arrive, we experience disappointment but not surprise.  When we expect something and it does not come, we are proper targets for disappointment, anger, denial, surprise.  When something we neither anticipate nor expect appears, we may be surprised, frightened, angry, or in denial.  Wonderful ranges of behavior for a character to experience.

A single character can and should be fraught with one or more emotions relating to past consequences and present anticipations well before she is allowed to step onto the page.  Two such characters, slated to appear in the same scene are flashing signs warning of approaching train wreck in the form of some extreme misinterpretations.  They are also sending us signals assuring us they are indeed in a story.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kill Your Darlings

For the longest time, even though mystery novels and short stories were among your favorite reading, even though you were in fact editing a number of mystery writers, and were well on your way to becoming the regional president of The Mystery Writers of America, you came to the point of giving up writing mysteries because you had trouble killing characters off.  Even though they were not real, they were nevertheless supposed to appear real.  Didn't that count for something?

Of course it did, and it took a temporary run of being broke and an opportunity to get over being broke by writing Nick Carter novels to make it possible for you to kill off people--although it is true, you were given editorial notes suggesting that a few more corpses would be welcomed.  In those days, you frequently named your murderer after the chairman of your department at the University, thinking to yourself that he would not be likely to read such material, and so, emboldened, you had him use poetry readings to transmit information to his operatives.  You also named high schools after your friends and threw in all sorts of personal references.  Mysteries do that for you.

One of the first times you heard someone, some critic against whom you had a deep personal grudge, utter the phrase, "Kill your darlings," you thought it appropriate such advice would come from such a person, reeking as it did for you of her smug inference that  one should never leave things in one's work that one enjoys with such great gusto.  You later heard other critics for whom you had respect come to the same admonition, causing you to revisit the intent, which you came to see as, Don't be so fucking precious.  You have a great wish to enjoy yourself and in large measure find writing an opportunity to do so without being fucking precious, by which time you were able to move on to the next plateau, easing your way back toward the mystery with the notion that prime targets for characters on their way to becoming corpses were in effect your darlings; kill off your better characters.

This approach had you nervous when you found yourself liking a character too much.  But you believe you've come close to being able to move on to the next plateau.  As mentioned earlier, your being away from your mystery in progress, which is all about privilege and entitlement, caused you to undertake a rigorous biographical study of your main character, his family background, and how he evolved to be the kind of protagonist you need him to be for a mystery.  It did not hurt that your literary agent liked him well enough to see him as a potential for a series.  So there you are, writing a biographical sketch of a fictional character, thinking this would not be so boring if you were to dramatize it, begin seeing it as action rather than description, and thus you find yourself, not only with five chapters of the prequel to your novel but with a corpse on the first page, plausibly discovered by your protagonist.  You are in some ways farther ahead on this one than the one you set aside momentarily to cope with the edits on your about-to-be-published project.

You had a character set up as a likely subject for becoming a corpse, until you did something quite else to him, which appeared to save him from his death rattle; you had him fall helplessly in love with someone to whom his past behavior has been at the least reprehensible.  But in some ways, this has made him your darling.  Thus do you circle about him, tentative in your desire to keep him going a bit longer,hopeful someone else will come along, pointing at himself or herself, saying, "Me. Me."

Your editor in your nonfiction book asked you in the kindest way to remove one of your favorite words, aperçu, from the nonfiction project.  Okay, one darling--dead.  If you could do it there, you should be able to do so in the second mystery.  As of this writing, having a corpse on page one of the prequel has given you an unexpected gift.  You now believe you have the title and the thematic vector for the prequel.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

No Future in the Past

 Anticipation is a nagging twitch of a presence in story, not content to be patient, not for long.  Through use of a number of stratagems, anticipation manages to shift the conversation from its current vector of conviviality into some unavoidable awareness that it is with us in the room.  As though it were an eager student, anticipation wants to be called on for the answer.  The information it brings forth is never diplomatic nor respectful of any one's wish for privacy.

One of the stratagems anticipation uses to call attention to itself is to call attention to the hope of some momentous arrival, some evoked promise of news, waiting to be broken.  Another device is resident in the way it appears to minimize the importance of now, suggesting now is not sufficient; more could be done.  Anticipation is the actor in a stage play, having no lines to deliver at the moment, yet gazing fixedly at some unseen object, calling the attention of the audience away from the main action.  Yes; anticipation is a scene stealer.

In the same way you look forward to a meeting with a special, close friend, or to a meeting in which the only participants are you, a frothy cafe latte, a note pad and a fountain pen, you look forward in a more polar manner to a necessary task that holds no promise except negative outcome, say boredom or the more undifferentiated anticipation of unpleasant news, which equates to dread.

A character anticipates some progress toward an agenda as she awaits her cue to enter the scene, but, duplicitous sort that you are, you do nothing to prepare her for the surprise you have planned for her, telling yourself as though in defense of your perfidy that she needs this experience in order to one way or another prepare her for the future, but also to justify her continued, justifiable appearance in the story.  In fact, you quite like her, wish to keep her as a companion; something about her has reached you to the point where she has begun to represent substantial presence to you.

At such moments, the reality check alerts you, snaps you back from your own fantasy life with this character as it reminds you of the need for things to go awry in story.  When things gone awry have been ironed out, the story is over, which means she will leave you with a broken heart over the awareness that you should have seen it coming, all along, should have known she was there on the contingency basis of settling whatever it was that had gone awry, then, in that brief moment between scenes, effected some close bonding with her.

Students and clients, many of whom have charmed you with themselves and their stories, have left you in this particular way.  Friends and family members move away, die off, lose touch.  Such losses have had impact on you, prepared you for the future, which has, anticipated or not, arrived now.

This could cause you to adopt some cynical vision, some noir outlook in which anticipation can only bring forth loss, disappointment, and change against a backdrop of momentary pleasure.  Such a philosophy would wrench you back into the past, of effectively taking now from you or any sense of adventure of discovery in the present moment.  But you have a card up your sleeve.  You have her.  Remember the character you left in the wings, waiting to go on?  Since she is so interesting and since there is some sort of chemistry between the two of you, there is the potential for a new story; all you need do is construct a plausible way to bring her into it.

In real life, losses, changes, discoveries, and broken chemistry to the contrary notwithstanding, you nevertheless have the viable anticipation of entry into the now and the future.  All you need is a plausible way to keep yourself in it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Out of Style

The particular quality of writing most apt to be confused or conflated with voice is style.  Although voice may suggest story, actually provide an atmosphere where characters want something or indulge a particular emotion to the point where something does trigger story, nevertheless, style alone is not a substitute for story.

It has been your position--as long as you felt a position of your own was appropriate--that voice plays a major role in determining style, a metaphorical literary decision of what to wear for a particular story.  Voice is the emergent tone of a story as it works its way toward closure.

Style is arrived at by default, after all the material has been set on the pages, moved about for the best effect, examined for repetitions, and those most idiosyncratic of all decisions, choice of words and the subsequent order of the words chosen.

Style is nudged along into place by sentence length and the nagging urgency of a writer to reflect the visions and experiences of characters as differentiated from her own visions and experiences.  How, you ask, is this done?  It is begun by knowing the characters, sometimes to the point of knowing them better than you know yourself, such knowledge arrived at by constant prodding of the characters into situations where you are on edge with concern for what they might do to the emotions you have loaned them, just as parents and friends may have been concerned about your trustworthiness as related to the borrowing of their bicycles or autos.

Your approach to word-length of sentences and syntax is not something you can plan out in advance in the same manner you prepare a problem to drop into the laps of your characters.  For one thing, you must provide your characters--here you go with metaphor again--with laps into which to drop problems, which is in this case yet another metaphor, indicating vulnerability as the lap in which to drop the challenge.

At no time does style alone have the capacity to bear the responsibility of a story substitute; style augments story, oils the rails against the inertial resistance to story, which is to say soft spots, boring spots, attempts to sell style as story.

Three of the major writers of the past century, two of them Nobel laureates, were splendid stylists, working toward their conclusions in individualized approaches to language.  If we were to add the third Nobel laureate, Steinbeck, to the dissection table, we'd see yet another use of style, one that had in more recent years, been taken to the mat by a number of critics who found his stylistic approach excessive and sentimental.  It was almost as though Steinbeck had not written Of Mice and Men, or, for that matter, The Red Pony, and Fitzgerald, the one non-Nobel winner, was casually tossed aside because of his drinking problems and his work in Hollywood.  So yes, you are adding directness to implication by saying now that Fitzgerald, in much of his work, brought forth the same intensity as Hemingway and Faulkner.

Emotions scared the hell out of Hemingway, even when he was so artful in evoking them in his short stories.  Fitzgerald turned emotions into poetry.  Faulkner, before our very eyes, fought his battle with the past as consequence, allowing his sinuous sentences and paragraphs to demonstrate through style what it was he wrestled with and how he in large measure at least fought his stylistic battles to glorious unlocking of emotional floodgates.

All of these men, and a special, large contingent of women writers--Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Flannery O'Connor--fought through the mereness of a recognizable style to create the actuality of recognizable feelings.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Descriptions: Writer Keep Out

 The word that seems to have been buzzing about your head like an aggressive fly is description, which, as most tools in the writer's toolkit do, has undergone metamorphosis.  It is with great certainty not what it was back in the nineteenth century, when it was all the rage because stories were coming in from all points of the compass, places readers were curious about, wished to be able to visualize.

Even then, narrative lines were being drawn in the sand by two polar opposites, Sir Walter Scott, who was content to bring a story--any story--to a screeching halt for the opportunity to dash off a page or two of descriptions of trees, roads, castles, and clothing, and would sometimes bring new characters forth if only to describe them; and Jane Austen, who made her descriptions work for their keep as though they were characters.

How pleasing to observe that Austen's approach has prevailed and that description, properly chastened because of its excesses, has been taken up in MFA writing programs, made to wear the dunce's cap, and positioned in the corner.  No, no, no.

But now, as the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference looms, a scant two weeks away, evidences come to you, seemingly from everywhere, suggesting that many writers see description as a chance to prove themselves as writers, describing their way to qualities and conditions you believe can be achieved only by dramatic movement.
"Oh, you mean action," one individual said with no little scorn.  "No," you said, "I mean confrontation by one individual with one or more individuals and with the awareness as well of inner confrontations roiling within."

"I'm using description to get the reader in the mood,"  one individual told you.

Because you are being paid to read the material, the best you could venture is, "The reader is being put in the mood, all right; the mood to set the book down, then walk away from it."

The look on the writer's face was at first a register of shock, eyes widened, lips parted at gasp level.  But it soon changed to the smile or moral superiority.  "Of course.  You're talking commercial.  Mine is spiritual."

"If you mean readers paying for a work, then yes, I do think the likes of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are commercial, but--"  and you did allow yourself a chortle, "--that definition of commercial is not a good use of description."

What you are getting at, of course, is the shift away from authorial point of view to character-driven point of view, away from the author intruding to instruct the reader how to see a patch of garden to the awareness or lack thereof by a reader in relation to that same patch of garden.  This is where description begins and ends, suffers or flourishes.  Description is What is there, seen through the eyes of one or more characters.  Author keep out.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fancy That

After you have been telling stories over a long arc of time, it is natural for the individuals about you to call you into question when you relate an incident.  These kind folk are, of course, conflating the daily use You and the storyteller You.  They have good cause to question you.  Carrying that burden a step or two farther, you have good cause to question you.

At one point in your young life, a prescient editor suggested your better future lay not in journalism but in fiction, this advice prompted when you turned into this editor the coverage of a speech that, the editor reminded you, had been cancelled.  "My account is what the speaker would have said, had the speech been given,"  you said.  The editor, of course, said "Nevertheless."  As you recall it, he tacked the 'Nevertheless" onto a sentence reminiscent of one of those interminable freight trains that seem to take forever clearing a cross street, the culprit being the number of cars in the train rather than its speed.

Shortly thereafter, another editor sent you a note in which she'd added a check to cover payment for a story she was accepting.  The note was a polite wonderment of why you continued to consider this particular market--the so-called true confession--when a) she only bought perhaps one of every four stories you sent her b) she doubted you could sell the rejected stories anywhere else because they were not a fit for the market c) you were effectively slicing your price per word payment in fourths, and d) you would have more fun writing the kinds of stories she was passing on rather than accepting.  All true.  However the stories you wrote that she was not accepting were of the sort for which there was no commercial market.  The same editor was good enough to tell you later on that you were not a commercial writer, no matter what your then literary agent, Scott Meredith, said. You need, the editor said, to write the kinds of things you like to write, whether they are commercial or not.  If enough people like them, they will sell enough that they will seem commercial.  If not, you will at least have had the satisfaction of writing things you like.

You loved this advice but did not think you could afford to heed it.  Meanwhile, you continued to publish things that were, to say the least, "way out there in the fringes and margins," adding to muscle memory the sense of not knowing in retrospect where what you wrote was based on fact or imagination.  In some cases, such as the things you wrote for Western history magazines, you may well have muddied actual history by writing what you considered interpretive history.  In other cases, you were accountable to the standards of fiction because the persons and events you wrote about were true in your imagination, but had no other reality than your imagination.

You have read accounts of and talked with actual individuals who were on the cusp of trading in their take on reality for the idiosyncratic reality imposed by Alzheimer's Syndrome.  None of their symptoms approached yours; your reality is that some events in your memory hard drive may have been entirely invented, particularly because you on some occasion "get" a character by modeling her on some real person with whom you then commence a fictional dialogue. Thus is is always a joy as well as an embarrassment to have your memory validated by a witness.  "I couldn't believe it when you told Aunt Augusta to go fuck herself."  Such events mean you are acting on your thoughts as well as giving your thoughts a platform in your imagination.

Most of us write our own histories.  You, with great certainty, write yours and are attracted to those who do so in similar manner, perhaps in preparation for the great moments when, as you relate your history to a group of others, or someone relates her history to a group in which you are present, the voice comes booming forth, "I was there at the time and I find your account and interpretations to have no basis in fact.  None."

As a writer, editor, and teacher, you know too well the consequences of saying "But it really happened that way."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Round vs Flat

Opposition has figured to a considerable extent in your vision of story, taking on roles of increasing importance in direct proportion to your awareness that it resides well beyond mere argumentative conversation among characters, moving into divergent personality traits and psychological profiles.  But even this sense of awareness is not enough to earn you permission to borrow the family car,which is to say it is merely a learner's permit.  You need inner conflict as well.  Before you can see far enough of the road ahead, you must also be able to spot the internal opposition that brings the elements around to being story.

Back in the day, when you were first hired on at USC by the then department chair, Irwin Blacker, you were not so much asked by him what text book you would use as told of a book you'd not heard of before, E. M. Forester's lectures on fiction packaged in on slim, remarkable book, Aspects of the Novel.  You assured Blacker you'd give    it serious consideration.  Then you hied yourself to the book store, bought a copy,and hibernated with it, close reading, taking notes, nodding as though E.M. Forester were there in the room with you.  You were thrilled by the completeness of his vision, but your focus was fixed on the distinction he made between flat characters, nice enough sorts who were merely reactive to matters of plot, and round characters, men and women who were torn by an inner conflict that needed resolution.  Often this inner conflict was buried, triggered only by an element in the story that brought the inner conflict to the surface, made its resolution critical.  Now.

It is one thing for you to look for and suggest this matter in your editing or teaching mode, quite another when its presence is lacking or misplaced in your own writing.  More often than not, you become aware of its need well into a story you're composing, feeling an uneasy sense of something missing which you cannot quite identify.  Just as often, in such circumstances, you reach into your toolkit, looking for some wrench or hammer with which to tweak before recognizing the extent of the symptom.

The inner conflict comes to you with your recognition that the character's previous confrontation with the conflict at hand has not gone deep enough.  This assessment comes well into revision.  You have in effect found a narrative soft spot, a place where you, your characters, and certainly your reader, could experience boredom. With some thought, some trial and error, you find the surfacing inner conflict within your character, then begin looking for ways to plant it in his and your sensor.

Not every character can be a round character, although you like to think you can have a shot at it.  The reason?  Round characters can surprise you, flat characters rarely do.  You like to play the risk game of surprise trumping plot because surprise--plausible surprise, of course--is more fun for you than plot because surprise provides better complications than plot.

Your protagonist in Secrets of Casa Jocosa has been hired to find out a relatively simple thing from a rather affluent woman with a strong sense of entitlement.  Your protagonist has seen her in a compromising position, which means he has the power to pressure her into telling him what he wants to know in order to keep her compromising activity from her husband.  But when the time comes, your protagonist cannot bring himself to pursue his advantage.  You did not know this was going to happen. When it did, you were delighted.  But you still do not know where this surprise will take your protagonist, much less yourself.  Your way out is to find something either already at work, gnawing away at your character, or occult, buried in layers of defensive bubble wrap, but now exposed, to mix the metaphor here, the genie in the bottle, impatient to get out.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

You first saw the motion picture Fantasia at the now-vanished Carthay Circle Theater in west central Los Angeles, you were old enough to be impressed for life by the scope and dash of it, but not in any metaphoric sense.  Nor could you imagine your future brother-in-law to be one of its animators.  You were awash with splashes of color, of stark contrasts of dark and light, of what then seemed to you music that had a life well outside the reaches of your imagination.

The most vivid image to go into your memory file was Mickey Mouse, with whom you had yet to acquire issues, stepping out of his normal role to portray the apprentice in the Disneyfication of Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  The concept of metaphor had not occurred to you nor indeed the notion that you would someday wish to throw your hat metaphorically into any ring at all much less the ring of writing; at the time it seemed to you that writing merely appeared, men and women produced it, knew where to send it so that it might appear if it had not already done so.

That was as close as you came to metaphor.  As you became more focused on learning the process, you tried reading the available books on the subject, but it seemed too far beyond grasp and so you formed the notion that you needed to read the sorts of material you wished to write rather than text books, which you never much trusted in the first place.  Text books were instruction of a sort, but it was not instruction you trusted.  Who would want to write that way?

It is true that you have written some nonfiction books, edited numerous others.  It is true that your most recent book is nonfiction, and your most recent editing job was nonfiction, although you did push the author toward extensive use of story techniques to present the material.


Fiction holds forth so many occult mysteries, so many opportunities for you to discover things about your characters and yourself that for you they are as those same Sirens who called to Odysseus' sailors.  They promise their pillow talk to be of the secrets that will make you even better at what you do.

Promises, promises.

Mickey Mouse as Sorcerer's Apprentice now looms large because each new project is in its own way a sorcerer from which you apprentice yourself in order to learn its secrets.  If you finish a few things, you begin to think you have caught on to the larger secrets.  One of your books goes so far as to have the word "secrets" in its title, and the novel you have under way has the word "secret" in its title, suggesting that you think you know enough of the sorcery to proceed without such mischief as Mickey Mouse encountered in Fantasia.  Now you are awash in pages and clutter, the metaphor heavy upon you:  You will never achieve the skills of the sorcerer.  The sorcerer is the craft; you will always be the apprentice.