Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why Story Should Never Be Rational

  The Publisher of a company for which you rose through ranks to become editor in chief struck you from your first meeting as an individual who would appear under various guises in many of your fictions.  

Although well over twenty-five years have elapsed since you were in his employ, his outspoken literalness and fervent quests for direct, cause-and-effect answers to his questions and solutions to his problems made him the memorable force in your memory he became and yet remains.

An additional layer of chemistry you were reminded of in his presence was the similarities between him and a number of academics with whom you had associations over the years and continue to have to this day.

You had not long been in the employ of this individual when you were instrumental in the assignment of subsidiary rights for a book his company had published prior to your employ.  The work in question, a useful dictionary of terms, was published by your employer in hardcover.  A quick phone call to a friend at a massmarket publisher in New York resulted in a one-time, yes-or-no offer of $35,000 for rights to publish a trade paper edition for distribution throughout the world.  

At the time, $35,000 was mid range for such transactions, but to your new company, which had never considered subsidiary rights, the sum, which by contractual obligation they were to share on a fifty-fifty basis with the author, was an unheard of boon.

In your first actual conversation with the Publisher, he wished to know your rationale for arriving at the figure of $35,000 when it would have been as low as, say $20,000 or $25,000 or as high as, say, $50,000.  Your reply linked the tone of the New York editor's voice to the amount you suggested.  Your publisher wanted to know how you rationalized that figure.  When you told him you did not rationalize it, rather that you'd mentioned the first figure that came to your mind, your publisher reminded you that your process had not been rational, to which you replied that in your experience, which up to that time had been somewhere between good and extensive, there was very little of the rational in publishing.  But from his response, which was a series of facial gymnastics, you knew some sort of fuse had been lit.

About five years later, after your job description and pay rate had described what you'd come to consider the apogee of their potentials, you arrived at work one day wearing what was far and away your most favored sports jacket, selected from a trove of bolts of cloth, then tailored to your measurements, hanging from your shoulders as a bespoke jacket, in all its houndstooth glory, should hang.  Because of the intensity of the houndstooth pattern, you wore a solid color blue shirt, one of your few solid color shirts.  To complete the presentation, you wore a tie with a pattern often described as regimental stripe.

"How," the Publisher asked, "can you rationalize a striped tie with such an aggressive houndstooth pattern?"

By this time, you'd had over five years of being requested to rationalize such variables as your choice in clothing, your reasons for editorial decisions, and your insistence on at least a quarterly list of suggested book titles or subject areas from the Sales Department.  Your reply, if it may be seen as such, was that you didn't rationalize, rather you took all the colors and shapes into consideration, seemed pleased with the aggregate results, then set forth to enjoy your day.

Not long thereafter, you heard the sizzle of another fuse, being brought to life, along with the acrid persistence of something burning.  Some fuses are shorter than others; this fuse was lit the first time you were asked about your rational processes.  It is not so much that you have none, rather it is how you use the ones you employ and trust.

You do not care for rational characters.  As a result, you have created few of them, and when you did, more often than not, their armature was your then Publisher, about which you wrapped other layers of behavioral quirks.

The subject of rational process and thought came up at considerable length in today's fiction workshop.  One of your very best students observed in no uncertain--and certainly not rational--terms how mistaken the writer is who bases characters and behavior on logic.

You not only agree with that, you cheer the vision.  In the manner of the musician practicing the playing of his instrument, you take delight in creating characters for whom having rational process (singular or plural) is not an option.  Characters such as Ishmael and Huck Finn may begin on a rational plateau, but they have no sooner gained a foothold therein when they are dispatched, sprawling into a free fall that cannot be halted by anything rational, lest it seem like that splendid editorial mark,DXM, you scrawl when necessary on manuscripts whether they are students, clients or yours.  

DXM, short for deus ex machina, the lowering of gods onto the stage in a basket to their deliberate and mechanical deeds from which the reader is to assume the fate of the story was, all this time, in their hands, not the characters' hands. This designation is an urgent note to the author:  Take the reins off, let the characters do as they will, even though you might assume it wrong.  

If a character has to be made to seem rational, that character does not seem to come to life until he or she is placed alongside an irrational foil, who will make the rational behavior stand out, in ironic register, as negative in his or her difference.

When you've played this game well and in truth, the characters will take the opportunity to leave their ankle CPS behind, and, like Huck, take off for the territory ahead.  Huck was talking about civilized, but he may just as well have been talking about rational, and he's been there before. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Poker as a Metaphor for Story: "In? Or out?"

For reasons not clear to you, the dead bolt on your kitchen door does not engage with any great consistency. You've tried the usual cure-all for such things, the lubricant WD-40, to no effect.  Weather-related warping, expansion, or contraction are possible culprits.  In this, the fifth year of your residency, the variables are at play.  The dead bolt, these days, does not engage.  "Opinionated," your maid, Lupe, says of it.  "Tonto,"  you reply.  "Crazy."

Thus a backdoor deadbolt becomes a suitable metaphor to describe the circumstances attending your sense of being engaged, in the dramatic sense, with a story you are reading, watching, or composing.  There are times when you resort to coffee, standing to stretch, making yourself a snack, consulting your cat, Goldfarb, if he is about, or acting on another metaphor, taking whatever trash you've collected to the medley of waste bins at the outer edge of the garden.  These are all your equivalent of WD-40, the lubricant you hope will ease your way "in," toward the  state of engagement you have, on splendid occasions, come to know.

Being at the state of "in" a story, whether you are creating or observing, is no guarantee of a front-row seat, rather it is recognition you are beyond the front door.  Nor does being "in" guarantee,if you are the composer, the discovery of the essential nature of the story at hand.  This is at once the joy and agony of reading, observing, and creating.

You have no clear memory of your history in gaining admission.  In all probability, the process grew from your early years of reading, where you read for adventure, transportation, information, surprise, and the least tangible destination of all, the sense of being co-conspirators with the characters.  

You cannot say too much about this last destination without the realistic fear you will be distracted, presented with other internal paths to follow through the breaks in the dark forests of your imagination.  But you will say this:  Whether you are reading,watching, or composing, there are times,special times, when your sense is of the story having been created just for you.

Even then, when you are at this state, the potential for surprise is exquisite; there is no telling when some brick wall will loom to stop your progress, some loud noise to raise your suspicions, some burst of whimsical revelation, like candies tumbling from a broken piñata.

Most times, your goal is arriving "in."  The place to be is "in." you've strived for access to "in" even before you were aware of doing so, well before you could articulate to yourself what "in" meant, much less how one might try to get there.

You were discussing such things at coffee this morning with a chum who is currently in rehearsal for a play in which he has a major role, the portrayal of an actual historical personality, still alive, a complex enigma of a person.  

Your chum spoke of the effects on him of trying to triangulate on this character, define his presence and the form he is taken, in order to track it down, then take possession of it.  He does not speak in specifics just yet, confident they will, as rehearsal continues, present themselves, whereupon he may pounce on it, try to assimilate it.  When he is successful, he will, indeed, be "in" character; he will have left much of himself in such dressing room as made available to him at the theater.

Actors, depending on their skills, are able to find their way "in," and remain there long enough to present the dilemmas, choices, surprises, and understandings the writer has left as a road map for the actor.  Writers, depending on their skills, have to become not just one character, but all.  This explains the complexity of friendships between actor and writer, where, at any given moment, neither is whom he or she appears on the surface to be.

"I am told,"  your actor friend said, "that I am not the best person to be around at home."

"Because,"  you say, "you are not spending as much time with the you that is you, when you are home."

Somehow, the conversation drifts to the unanticipated destinations of the whaler Pequod, sailing out of Nantucket, in search of one particular whale.  The focus is on polar extremes, Ahab, the narcissist/monomaniac, and Pip, the innocent and now daft young cabin boy, whom Ahab readily recognizes as his absolute opposite.  

Then the conversation moves to the degrees of "in-ness" necessary to portray either or both, the joys of ensemble theater where, in theory, the same actor might portray both Ahab and Pip.  Considering the use of young boys in the early English theater to portray girls and women, it is no stretch for one boy to have been both Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia.

Now, you are ready to address the word the actor and writer have in common, the major implement each carries about in his tool kit--concentration.  The actor must be so "in" that you believe who, what, and where he is, whether he is any of the aforementioned characters or yet others.  The writer must find ways of gaining entry to the story, even though the story may not yet be completely articulated.

Thus another metaphor to demonstrate the sense of "in."  This is the game of poker.  The player--read actor/writer--is asked to ante, to put something in the pot, to demonstrate some yearning to be "in."  "Are you in?"  A few beats of indecision.  The dealer asks once again, "In?  Or out?"

Without hesitation, the actor and writer toss chips into the pot.  These are not the ordinary chips of poker.  These are the chips of self.  You might even go so far as to say selves.

"In,"  they both say.

The dealer nods, then deals.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Random Universe Does Not a Story Make

 You spend a good deal of time composing story, assembling thoughts about story, editing the stories of other writers, teaching students how to read story the way writers read them, and teaching students how to write stories of their own.

In addition, you spend a good deal of time thinking about ways elements in those worlds connect, play off one another, or paint impressionist landscapes in which the universe seems quite familiar with itself and the things taking place in it.

Small wonder, then, that you are frequently in the midst of some skein of causality, even though you do not believe in such notions as fate or destiny.  Smaller wonder still that when you read in mystery and suspense fiction about a character who holds strong beliefs in interrelatedness of things or, with greater specificity, "There are no coincidences, " you feel a tingle of comfort.

At the back of your mind, there is a lingering suspicion that randomness characterizes the universe, making persons such as yourself the equivalent of dumpster divers, sorting through rubbish, events, and the lingering effects of each of these in , driven, compulsive searches for connection.

A day such as today becomes a sobering-but-necessary to reassure you of your observation that the Universe is more random than not.  Among other things, you received a notice from the company that provided your cat's collar and identification tags, informing you that a cat named Roscoe, a black-and-white SHD (which you understand to mean short-haired domestic) has gone missing, and his owners will appreciate any news leading to his return.

You try to rid yourself of causal thoughts related to Roscoe because these thoughts often lead you to the sad outcome of Roscoe becoming breakfast for a coyote.  You think of your own cat, in particular his nocturnal habits, which keeps him out and about long after midnight.  He, Goldfarb, is well-motivated to return every day, thus habit and a pattern of expectation, which did not node well for the previous cat in your life, Scamper, a more-or-less feral cat, (also SHD) who reappeared with casual regularity over the years, then, with not so much as a farewell, no longer appeared.  At the time of Scamper's residence, you lived in an area with frequent coyote sightings as well as the anecdotal possibility of a bob cat. 

You were informed today that pertinent contact information about you would appear in the print edition of the faculty guide to the University, a notice you'd never got before, and you were reminded that your parking permit would expire in April, also a notice you'd never got before.

An email also became the vehicle for a notice from Salon Du Mont, where such hair as you have is done to, informing you that the corduroy jacket in the courtesy closet, thought to have been yours because you do on occasion wear a corduroy jacket, is in fact not yours.  Salon Dumont nevertheless regrets any inconvenience this may have caused you.

More of a heart tug, however, also came today, when your hair cutter for the past twenty-five years handed you an envelope.  You already knew what was in it, a farewell after the better part of twenty-five years of being trimmed, styled, and even shampooed with a blue shampoo so that your gray hair would appear gray rather than taking on the yellow of some gray hair.

There was the offer in the mail of a free cremation from the Nautilus Society, although you can  find ways to see this offer as not so much random as based on you being in the demographic of individuals who would wish to give some thought to his remains, after, of course, he has finished using them.

An individual you'd never heard of commended your editorial skills on Linked-In today, and a graduate of an acupuncture and Oriental medicine college in Cincinnati wondered if it would be appropriate for her to send you a picture of herself as a way of initiating a conversation.

Some five or six years ago, another cat, possibly feral, took to stopping by your back door at dinner time.  You were quick to describe him as a hobo, a wandering sort whose modus operandi was to offer to do odd jobs for a meal.  You described the cat as willing to tend to the mouse population in return for a decent meal, some fresh water, and a place to sleep.  Liking the cat, you even began a blog under his name.

This cat, Epstein, appeared long enough for you to have written some amusing blog posts as his amanuensis, in which he was in effect rewriting the opening pages of various works of fiction, such as Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Today, you received a comment on one of his essays, alerting you to a service that would be happy to take on your--in this case Epstein's--essay-writing needs.  

And perhaps to show how the Universe is not so random as you are wont to suspect, you have moments ago received a note thanking you for any efforts you may have made to searching from Roscoe, wanting as well to report he had been reunited with his family.

There is no story in all of this, although there was a time in your full-bore attack on your craft, where you would have taken up the challenge, by trying to suggest a unifying theme for these random events.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Willa and Dutch

 Among your favorite types of characters, those who have enough stature and experience to be consulted for advice or relevant conversation rank high.  Yet even higher are those characters to whom others come for advice on a regular basis.  The advice is given, often proves to be spot on.  The story-related trouble begins when such characters cannot or will not follow their own advice.

This type of anomaly defines a large swath of individuals you've known in Reality or read about in story.  You cannot say the anomaly defines the human condition because you have no basis in fact for making the statement.  You understand that your vision may well be a bias or speculation, both of which are craps shoots of logic. You may well be dead wrong in your bias or speculation.  

You may also be saying more about yourself and your own inner mechanisms than about the human condition.  Once again, you are caught out in terms of logic, believing as you do that the individual's vision of a general behavior is more likely an unguarded window into the interior workings of the individual.

And once again, you have neither fact nor argument to support your take on the species of which you comprise one tiny atom.  Such is the nature of story, as illuminated by your bright spots, adumbrated by the shadowy areas of your self-awareness.

You envy those writers who seem to you to have been able to get a more comprehensive vision of humanity, seeing well beyond the shoreline of his or her field of vision.  They seem to you to have been able to take in quirks of gender, social class, and culture of origin, in effect striking you as anomalous to the gender, caste, and culture into which they were born.

The ease with which, say, Willa Cather is able to toss around well-connected. upper-tier New Yorkers with emigre farming sorts from the Midwest is daunting in its apparent ease.  However anomalous it may be to compare Cather with Elmore Leonard, you see in him a similar ability to portray individuals from various tiers of working and professional classes, without in any way betraying his own personal or political leanings.

You were sixteen the year Cather died, had read at least one of her short stories and one of her novels with enough focus to know you wished to be as accomplished as her in the ability to cause characters to stand out in their authenticity to species, gender, class, and philosophy.

Through fortunate coincidences, you were able to meet and hang out with Leonard.  When you were employed by his massmarket paperback publisher, you met him at the time the paperback edition of his break-out thriller, Fifty-two Pick-up, was waiting in the wings for publication.  

You'd read a number of his Westerns and were able to talk genre with him, listening to him expand on what makes a particular incident suspenseful.  "You have to believe the event has a chance of working, but could be spoiled by some force that is unforeseen but oh, so plausible."

And because he was a friend of your pal, Barnaby Conrad, you got frequent chances to listen to him when he came to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.  "You get your people right,"  he told this eager-to-learn writer, who'd confessed total ineptitude with plotting, "and your plot takes care of itself.  You want to watch all of them with great care because you can never tell which one will turn out to be the one who carries the water of story into the scene."

If you had to describe Leonard in one word, and had to assign one word for Cather, you'd use the same word, which takes you right back to anomalous comparison.  The word would be "observant."  Each was observant of surrounding, inhabitant, and dramatic forces.  Neither patronized nor glorified characters of lesser sophistication or aspiration, neither appeared to you to have based behavioral traits of their characters on their own cultural or political views, rather on a strict sense of individual inner integrity.

Thinking about these two whom you consider worthies, you pause to hope your envy of these abilities has in some way leaked into the voices of characters you hear, rather than the nagging voice of the cynical editor within when you sit to compose.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Your Satisfaction Guaranteed

If ever there were an emblematic taunt, suitable for framing by the story writer, "I hope you're satisfied," or one of its relative variants, such as "Satisfied?" argues for acknowledgment.

Satisfaction dances forth as a condition, a goal, and an integral factor in the final phases of story related to closure.  When you think about it, satisfaction equates to closure, is, in fact closure.  A significant aspect of closure is how much satisfaction the main character has achieved, and/or the degree of satisfaction other characters in the story may have achieved in comparison to the satisfaction or its lack realized by the protagonist.

In this instance, four of Shakespeare's plays draw your focus.  Romeo and Juliet,King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth.  Where is the satisfaction?  How could a writer of his magnitude missed leaving us with a sense of which character or social force or even which human trait was on the receiving end of satisfaction.  

Only Fortinbras and Horatio left in Hamlet.  Although Fortinbras gets the satisfaction of ascending to the top of the leadership pyramid, what are we to think?  Who is left in Macbeth and Lear?  The two we rooted for in Romeo and Juliet are gone, their fates seemingly doomed from the start.

There are, of course, answers within the plays themselves; Shakespeare was telling us, by withholding the satisfactions sought by the characters, of a kind of closure with the equivalent of a Chinese fortune cookie tucked inside, reminding us about the precious and multifarious natures of satisfaction, and how important it is for us to keep our end games well in mind as we pursue our approaches to secure it.

At quite a difference in time, place, and format, another work, Dashiell Hammett's novel of suspense, murder, and intrigue,The Maltese Falcon, also leaves the matter of satisfaction for our consideration.  Given all the intrigues, plots, counter-plots, betrayal, and at least one murder (remember Spade's partner, Miles Archer) to consider, it becomes possible for us to read the jewel-encrusted bird as a Macguffin, a distraction that has begun to lose, then does lose its relevance until time arrives for closure.  

A that point, the bird is given the narrative and thematic valedictory of "The stuff dreams are made of," which in its neat way takes us back to Shakespeare, who first brought that trope to our attention, along with the reminder that he was not the sort to let the concept of satisfaction elude him.

Closure, denouement, and end game are not the only places where satisfaction defines character and, indeed, influences how we feel about a particular individual.  Much of the foregoing came to you as a result of your recent revisit with Beth Harmon, the protagonist of Walter Tevis' riveting Queen's Gambit.  

You first see Beth when she is eight years old, a single child, presented to us first scant moments after she has become an orphan, is remanded to an orphanage, where she is promptly given tranquilizers to numb the feelings of aloneness and vulnerability.  

How could you not care about her when, before you, in terse paragraphs, you are presented with this achingly profound change in what might have been the normal happy life that precludes fictional inventions?  Within these beautifully wrought opening paragraphs, we are made to see the purpose of story.  Part of that purpose is the withholding of what appears to be normal satisfaction.

In Queen's Gambit, and another of Walter Tevis' novels, The Hustler, satisfaction is offered as the manner in which the protagonist seeks to effect the kind of balance most of us can relate to, the satisfaction of being good, truly good, at something. Doesn't much matter what the thing is.

Not until you were well along in your reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's memorable The Remains of the Day, did you realize a) you were rooting for a man who wished to be the best butler in the world, this goal of satisfaction in spite of you having the equivalent of no functional experience with butlers or persons who employ them, b) you realized that while chess is not by any means your game, it is Beth Harmon's game, and because it matters so much to her, it begins to matter to you, c) both Walter Tevis and Kazuo Ishiguro remind you, through their characters and their awareness of their goals, that you have been made aware of your own goals and, thus, have transferred some of your internal quests to those of characters.

 As well, Mr. Stevens, Ishiguro's protagonist, is not only a naive narrator, his naivete is severe.  You see him on a sort of quest, pursuing a visit with Miss Kenton, with whom he might have caused some form of satisfaction to emerge, but his very refusal to see and act increases his vulnerability, which you not only endure, you assume.

What may you take from this?

For starters, you take the awareness of how important the pursuit of satisfaction is within the landscape of story.  Satisfaction is an abstraction until you can see it being tied to a specific.  At that point, the specificity resonates for you, causes you to review your own quests) for the thing/things that will bring you to satisfaction and satisfaction to you.

The opening quotes, "I hope you're satisfied," or "Satisfied?" open the door for an inspection of another importance in story, that Germanic word, schadenfreude, sounding like a dish served up in a Viennese restaurant along with the schnitzel.  Taking satisfaction at the discomfort, comeuppance, or frustration of others.  There can well be closure in this schadenfreude version of satisfaction.  That has a dramatic effect and purpose as well--to make us do the thing we must do if we are to experience true satisfaction--self-examination.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Editor Who Came to Dinner

Among your favorite stage plays, one in particular surprises you with its direct relevance today.  You first saw this stage play in its motion picture form, when your age had barely reached double digits.

You were amused enough then to be satisfied, where, alas to say, you let the matter rest.  There was no way you could have, at the time, made use of the how and why of your amusement.  Such things need to be filtered through years of experience, where setbacks, reversals, and highways with pot holes proliferate.

The stage play of your enthusiasm was a collaboration between George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, The Man Who Came to Dinner, which has not only remained fresh over the years since its birth, it has fulfilled an unanticipated destiny of its title becoming a metaphor to rank alongside The Trojan Horse as a meme for an unwanted guest.

Sheridan Whiteside, the eponymous man, who indeed comes to dinner, is a cantankerous and acerbic critic, often thought to have been drawn from the real life person of Alexander Woolcott (1887--1943), himself a critic, writer, and general wasp, known for his rapier wit and tongue.  

Within the acts of the play where he appears, Whiteside, on a lecture tour, accepts an invitation for dinner at the home of an Ohio couple.  He subsequently slips on the ice, breaks a leg, and is forced to stay with his hosts until he can become more mobile.

An emphatic, some may say vindictive, control freak, Whiteside proceeds to wreak merry hell among the lives of those about him.  This is a basic dramatic situation, as you came, through the years, to recognize.  Because of the extreme forces radiating from Whiteside, the Kaufman-Hart play, the character of Whiteside, and all attendant implications attached to these elements, you are often reminded of your own visitor, whom you have taken to thinking of as The Editor Who Came to Dinner.

Although you should give your character a name, you have yet to do so, thinking him variously as Him, The Man, The Editor, and Your Inner Editor.  Over the years of your association, you've come to attach each of the qualities you've assigned to Whiteside and Woolcott.  Acerbic?  Yes.  Cantankerous?  For a certainty. Control freak?  By all means.  And so the attributions go.

You were a bit surprised when your Inner Editor arrived today; you'd not been expecting him, hadn't heard a peep out of him for some time, producing work you were neither ecstatic about nor in despair of its coherence.  True enough, you've been a bit scattered, working on a variety of things, moving at seeming whim from one to the next, but in mitigation feeling comfortable about all of them.

The Inner Editor arrived, made quick work of all the recent projects, dismissive of each.  You heard the term "mid-list" tossed about, were aware of such grumblings as, "Name me a publisher today who'd want a mid-list project," and, not to be outdone by his own cantankerousness, the more standard, "How do you see yourself providing publishable work?"

Over the years, he has had quite an effect on you, driving you to extremes of alternating great profit, such as close reading and analysis on one hand and significant loss, such as periods of not writing fiction and, even worse, periods of not writing anything at all.

Times have changed to the point where you no longer dread his appearance or his commentary.  There is one simple reason for this.  He is no longer able to keep you from composing, writing, making notes, puttering, or any of the other things you enjoy, repeat, enjoy doing.  True enough, he calls such things procrastination.  "You really don't need all those notebooks?"  Or, "Oh, I see you've bought some more notebooks.  Isn't that of a piece with purchasing distractions to keep you from working?"

You tell him the equivalent of piss off.  You really do need all those notebooks, and although you may not be the fast writer you once were, you seem to have worked your way into discovering how you work.  The secret is this:  No mastter what he thinks, you get something down.  You write in spite of him, over him, under him, around him.  No matter what he says, you put something down, with no thought to whether it will fly or sink or anything in between.  The more days you write, whether he likes it or not, the more you will be able to write in the face of his direct advice that what you are composing is of no value whatsoever.  Agree with him, then get to writing.

You really get his goat by asking him if he has any constructive suggestions, which often sends him into high dudgeon.  "Well, I can see you don't need me hanging about, distracting and getting in the way."

To which you reply, "Wrong again.  You're needed.  Without your presence, there is nothing to write against or around, there is only the effects of muscle memory. Without you here, there is no background, no sense of you having a voice that wishes to raise its pitch so that you can hear it over the din and static."

His presence reminds you of surface intangibles which have stronger roots and connections than you realize.  In addition to connections with the works of writers who lived before you and the company of writers with whom you have friendship, there are also friendships with musicians along the way.

Only this morning, when The Editor Who Came to Dinner appeared, you were reminded of one musician who shared one of his methods with you.  When his inner critic appeared, he, an accomplished jazz reed player, would turn to the music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934).  He was so insistent that you try Delius for yourself that you gave in, listened, long and hard, stunned by the effects this composer's music had on you.

You have several others who can get you to that needed level of alertness and enjoyment, ranging from the Beethoven and Mozart string quartets to such more recent composers as Poulenc, Satie, Dvorak, and your two absolute favorites, Ravel and Gershwin.

Yet another musician "gave" you Isaac Albeniez, and still another had you listening to the compositions of Dame Hildegard of Bingen.

On your own, you have found jazz virtuosi to get you up for the day's work.  William "Red" Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, and Wes Montgomery come to mind.  What chance does your Inner Editor have against that remarkable CD with Montgomery and Kelly, Smokin' at the Half Note?  If things get too dodgy, you can always try Red Garland's "See See Rider" or "Please Send Me Someone to Love."

"I don't understand you,"  your Inner Editor is wont to say.  He even said it this morning.  "You used to take your work so seriously."

That, you remind him, was the problem.  Now, the issue is fun.  The work has to be of enough fun to chase any fear of failure away.  Of course failure is as tangible a potential as The Inner Editor is, but with fun in the picture, you don't have time to think about it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bookstores, Libraries, and the Skies of Dark, Unclouded Nights

On a clear, starry night not long ago, you were in one of your favorite places, a darkened swath of land just southeast of Summerland, a census-designated place below Santa Barbara.  The darkness and lack of marine layer from the ocean made it possible for you to see a spill of lights from the multitude of stars spread across the night sky.

Such opportunities invariably arrest you, causing you, if you are in company, to be drawn away from your attention to people, sometimes with a one- or two-word exclamation of wonderment and childlike pleasure.  

With this ongoing attitude to starry skies, you'd think to have any number of points of reference beyond the more common ones of The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Polaris, and Venus.  You'd also think to have a greater familiarity with the Star Atlas ap on your iPhone.  

Instead, you're content to stand among these pinpoints of light, racing toward your vision of them and the gifts they bring you from across the vast distances.  Without fail, you recall the impressive fact that some of the light you see may have had its point of origin at a celestial body no longer among the living.  Even traveling at the enormous speed it does, the light may well have started its journey years, decades before you were born. 

These are often the moments when you begin to equate the entire nightscape with story, in particular because there are so many separate bodies out there.  They remind you of the incredible number of vibrant presences in story, each with a purpose and personality.

You may not know all the celestial names, although you do know enough to start out your starry-night ventures on a friendly basis as opposed to someone coming to a party and not knowing any of the guests except the hosts.  You may in fact not even know the names of all the elements in story, even having written a book where you spent considerable time listing, describing, and in some cases relating well over three hundred of them.

The way such things work, you already have a file box with a set of index dividers, beginning to fill up with words, terms, and concepts not in your book; so yes, you could be taking steps toward a volume two of The Fiction Writer's Handbook.   You could also be indulging your collecting trait, assembling these things to play with as toys in moments of boredom or when on the verge of sleep of awakening.  

You encountered such a word not long ago, finding it by accident, a relic from days when you took a course called electric shop.  Armature. A coil or framework, something about which things are wrapped.  If that isn't the beginning of the description of a character, you don't know what is.  The thought excites you to the point of inventing characters, men and women about whom you wrap traits, tendencies, desires, and quirks.

Why didn't that go into volume one?  That is the point of looking at the night sky for inspiration; it reminds you of the constelations and orbits of words, concepts, and phrases.  So let's say you come up with another two or three hundred words and concepts not in volume one.  Now, we're talking six, seven hundred words or phrases, all things that are part of story.

Does a story have to have all these?  Do more of these elements make for a better story?  Answers:  no and no.  But also no and yes, yes and no.  Some stars, planets, asteroids, and comets are essential for a map of the skies, but the skilled artist can invent new ones, intensify or diminish their intensity, play with their orbits.  

You can know even more things about story and yet write remote, flat, unconvincing narratives that are what they are in name only.  But if you feel the elements and see their relationships, you don't need to know their names nor the periodicity of their orbits nor indeed the intensity of the light they radiate.

About those stars who sent out their dying light years ago and which you are only just seeing, they remind you of the men and women who wrote and wrestled with their work ages before your time.  You get the same sorts of feelings in libraries and bookstores as those you experience in special, dark places where you can see the stars.

You live in worlds of sensation, thoughts, relationships, and constellations, all in sensuous and sensual orbit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rough Draft

You are not surprised when a student or client prefaces reading or sending their material to you with the warning, "This is a rough draft."  Perhaps this is some form of cosmic coming of age for those early years when you sent so much of your longer work out with only the slightest hint of revision, thinking to yourself as you did so, "What the hell, this is on-the-job training."

There are many positive things to be said for on-the-job training, not the least of them the steady production of work, held forth for peer examination.  Better still than on-the-job training, however, these strands of awareness writers must face if they hope to continue the pursuit of their craft.  (1) The stories of other writers that led them to wishing to become writers were far cries from rough draft, (2) There is nothing so daunting as trying to capture the early, hummingbird aspects of story in some coherent form, (3) Even when you think you've nailed it, an outside person will catch one or more glitches you hadn't even realized were there, (4) The outside person may not have the skills or experience of an editor, and (5) At best, if you work hard enough at the telling of your story, you stand a chance of avoiding humiliation.

All right; you've said it.  A thoughtful writer is at risk of humiliation.  Even writers who are not so thoughtful are at risk of failure.  Not all that long ago, September 5 of last year, to be exact, you had a reading and signing appearance at Skylight Books, in Los Angeles.  You were touched that a former student, Gina Nahai, herself a well-published and thoughtful writer, appeared, a warm body in support.  

During the Q and A following your reading, someone asked a question relative to revision and rewriting.  You said, in so many words, "A writer has to learn how to write all over again with each new project, otherwise she or he runs the risk of copying not only the previous works of other writers but the previous works of her or his self."

You saw Gina nod, ask you to repeat that, then write it down.  A few days later, it appeared in her Internet comments about craft.  She was least of all acknowledging your words, most of all recognizing the weight of their implications.  She is living proof of the way a thoughtful writer grows with each new work, facing risks, abandoning tricks that worked once before, finding hidden meanings under the cushions of old themes.

Rough draft means having spotted that hummingbird mentioned earlier, having achieved the state of watching it flit from shrub to shrub, its wings a furious flutter while it takes in its midday snack.  Then rough draft means a quick sketch in which you attempt to convey the entire Ecosystem, the glorious, iridescent bird, burning calories at a furious rate, seeking sustenance and, in the process of working at its own survival, transporting bits of pollen from shrub to shrub.  Their lifespan is three to four years, one notable example from a banded hummingbird that lasted nearly twelve years.

What you see, do, and understand, at first on levels not of entire clarity to you, work their way into this rough draft, which you bid yourself to pursue with as little thought and as much instinct as you can muster.  In this manner, your rough draft becomes a matrix for thought, for associations, for infusion of such qualities as theme, obstacles, focus.

This has happened to you:  During early moments, you are feeding on endorphins much the same way the hummingbird is feeding on nectar, the occasional bug or nit.  The wings of such craft as you have are aflutter as you dart from impression to impression, trying to hone this rough draft into something tangible, somethings that appears like a recognizable story, but, of course, not too recognizable, otherwise you would be copying, describing instead of composing.

About midway through, you shift metaphor to another of great familiarity to you, one for which, for some years, you ate with great gusto large platesful of pasta with lobster, the pasta, of course, the carbs a distance runner needs, and the lobster, loaded with glycogen, an aspect of glucose, used to store energy enough so that you will not experience the "hitting the wall" experience described by distance runners about those moments when their energy stores are gone and the body now has little recourse except to begin feeding on its own muscles.

Another time for comparisons between hitting the wall when writing and the same experience when running.  Suffice it for now to say there can be that mid-point moment of doubt, when you are devastated by the sense that this particular project has no merit, that you have stirred an unfriendly pot that needs no stirring, that you have embarked on a trip to a destination dumber to your tastes than Bakersfield or Disneyland.

You do not use these examples lightly, although you do use them to make fun of yourself.  You have been in Bakersfield and Disneyland.  You would be content to live out the remaining years of your lifespan with no additional visits to either.  They have become metaphor for failure, misdirection, humiliation.
How could you ever think to write something meaningful about hummingbirds?

Never mind that hummingbirds was an extended metaphor in the first place. Mind instead that you have moved beyond your boundaries and, like the experiences of dogs, when they encounter invisible electronic fences, yelp with the sudden, unexpected shock of the electric current meant to keep you from straying.

Days pass.  In some cases, months or even years, before you can bring yourself to look at the rough draft.  Doing so, you begin to feel the tingle again.  There are some good details here, ideas, themes.  If they were arranged properly, they might be able to carry weight.  In fact, isn't this paragraph right here a splendid example of the in medias res opening?  Couldn't you do something to make this character a bit more of a loner?  Couldn't you...

Rough draft.  Yes.  But.  Some writers you're aware of never stop revising their work.  Not only poets.  Remember the term "variorum" that so intrigued you those years back when you were the student.  All known varieties of a text, right?

True enough, life is also a rough draft.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Notes from the Undercurrent

For as long as you can remember, you have enjoyed collecting things,  Your earliest interests were marbles whose swirls of color and patterns impressed you to the point where you had a separate cigar box for those you would not risk playing, lest you should lose them in the give-and-take of marble-shooting games.  

Another early collection piece were the small pictures of airplanes that came as premiums in Wings, a now-defunct brand of cigarettes. Most of these airplanes were civilian, single-engine, seating two or three persons, evoking for you life styles and adventures you were sure awaited you in your future.

There is scarcely a time in your life when you did not collect something, including an enormous hoard of cereal boxes and an extensive collection of the old so-called pulp magazines popular during the '20s, 30's, and 40s, giving way in the 50's to magazines called "slicks,"with a smoother, coated paper.  

For at least the past thirty years, you've amassed a collection of fountain pens, the older models having an interior rubber sac to hold the ink, the more modern ones having a plastic filling and ink holding device.  No cartridges for you.

Yet another thing you collected brings you back to grammar school, and one of the bright spots of junior high school, which was being sent to the boy's vice principal to cure some deportment issue.  Your target in this context was words.  With not much thought to naming the process, you were starting to build a vocabulary.  As well, you were developing an idiosyncratic like for some words and an out-of-hand dislike for others.  

You can still recall a note from a grammar/composition teacher, "I have asked you not to use this word."  The word in question was not of the sort you learned in locker room or lunch-under-the-bleachers contests.  It was a word you liked the sound of, its meaning relating to a pleasing, perhaps even happy and jaunty attitude.  You argued that the word--tantivy--had for you an onomatopoeia, which is another word you liked.  "Nobody,"  the teacher said, "uses tantivy.  It is archaic (another word you like).  You should try to use words people will know."  Your answer to that, with another word you like, got you sent to Mr. Engberg, the boy's vice principal.  "Why?"

Mr. Engberg wore tweed suits which you admired, assuring yourself you would some day have one or two of your own.  He often set you to work by giving you a letter of the alphabet, then challenging you to recall from memory fifty words beginning with that letter.  You would often drag out the assignment to coincide with the bell, ending the class from which you'd been sent.  Those hours in Mr. Engberg's outer office were among your favorites of those years.

Now, it appears you've begun yet another ad hoc notebook, this one for single words. These are special words, reflective of your interest in story.  Some words arrest your attention now by they way they seem to bursting with the potential of story.  When you see or hear such words, they bring to your mind summer berries, plump with juicy intent.

Incident is such a word; it is already in the notebook, suggesting itself to you as an armature about which such incident synonyms as event, episode, adventure, experience, confrontation, contingency, and that pure, unvarnished story-word, scene.

You don't even have to close your eyes to see two or more characters, perhaps entire families or institutions, meeting in an incident where, because of the mere extent of their numbers, something dramatic, precipitous, and antagonistic is bound to take place.  What is a story, after all, without incident?  And what are incidents without characters.

Of course, if you are going to have a notebook with such provocative words as incident and episode, and confrontation, you should probably have another ad hoc notebook for the characters to embody these attributes and qualities.  You will begin this notebook with a name that has been rumbling about your head for some time now, Gordon Smirke, a name filled with agenda and mischief that may not be intentional.  At the moment, he seems to be an Englishman who is pretending to be an Australian.

Incident.  Gordon Smirke. Hooray.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buzz Words, Code Words, and Flim-Flam

When you walked away from the university, you did so with the belief that it was for good.  Sad farewell, and all, but time to set forth into an unknown that was yours and yours alone.

There were  few or any limitations to your unknown, other than a a plan to pursue the writing career you'd set your heart upon.  You hoped this plan would lead you to a life in which for the most part you wrote things, took time to read and engage other things, then set forth to write other things, most of them exploratory and/or contentious.

Least of all did you expect to return to the university, either the specific one you worked your way through, or any other. Nor did you, nearly twenty years later, assume any of the things you'd done in the interim--the kinds of no upward mobility, high risk jobs many writers take--would lead you in that direction.  

One of your favorite writers, for instance, worked as a hot tar roofer, while another spent time as a gandy dancer. This is not to digress into accidental vectors, which you have spoken of before, nor of Fate, nor even of some unconscious desire to return.  You were as surprised to be back as anyone in your immediate circles of friends and family.  You even surprised some of those who were to become your faculty mates. 

A man who was to become your first department chair, said at one point in your hire, "Of course you'll be using E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel as your text, so I'd better inform the bookstore."  To which you replied, "Of course."  You knew who Forster was, but you had no idea he'd written anything beyond A Passage to India.

All too soon, you learned that Aspects of the Novel was in fact a series of lectures given at a university, which made you suspicious--until you read the work, then read it again.  Since those early days, Aspect has been on the recommended list in any number of sylabi for any number of coursers given at any number of colleges, a fact that is oblique in addressing your subject here, which came to you earlier in the day while reading a review of a new book by a literary critic.

The triggering event was your encounter with the term "free indirect style," which is often intended as a synonym for "free indirect discourse/"  You consider both designations academic or literary theory terms for "interior monologue," which you've heard and yourself used in university classrooms.  Interior monologue does not set your own sensibility sirens to jangle; it is a direct, useful term for an important narrative tool.

When a character uses interior monologue, he or she is performing the simultaneous tight-rope-walking act of filtering the narrative of the story, while making it seem as though these observations are an integral dramatic path into the story, led by the character, with no noticeable help from the author.  In proper context, "This would be a good place to start" can be seen as interior monologue.  

The line is rendered as though a character, one filtering the story to us, is thinking it.  You could see yourself using the sentence in this manner.  "How, she wondered, to begin such a daunting task?  She picked up one of the file folders. This would be a good place to start,"

These paragraphs are intended as a growing rumble about academic and literary concoctions of terms, which you view as attempts to create a language similar to street languages devised by children, which allow them to communicate information they do not wish to share with parents or other authority figures. 

In its way, academic and literary terms remind you of the famed British rhyming slang your great pal, Digby Wolfe, tried to teach you, and the language used by carnival workers, allowing them to do the same thing in front of "marks," those who were "not with it," or of the family of "carneys," those enterprising men and women who sell adventure for twenty-five cents at the time of your presence.

There are, you argue, enough straightforward terms in the world of story, without adding conceptual filters.  In addition, there are enough differing voices and approaches to storytelling to keep the medium at full flourish for hundreds of years. Deconstruct- ion.  Post-colonialism.  Gender theory.  Marxist theory.  Feminist theory.  Modernist.  Expressionist.  May you all flourish, but let's not forget the basics, beginning with characters who itch and writhe with the pent-up desires to go somewhere they've not been, or who discover a treasure or secret, or who have a sense of some restriction not being fair.  Then they set off to do something about it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wanted: Entertaining Writer. Must Have Experience with Failure

Out in the real world, where thousands of adults pay extraordinary sums of money to watch millionaires play  hockey, football, and baseball, while yet other millionaires wearing short pants attempt to make a contact sport of basketball, such forces as friction and inertia qualify with ease as opposing forces.

These forces--friction and inertia-- slow down or stop other bodies from such possibilities as entering orbit, striking a target, or the more generalized conclusion of making a meaningful contact.

Deep within the alternate worlds of story and drama, opposing forces are often represented by characters who, according to their individual identity take on the metaphoric mantle of such cultural and moral identities as convention, tradition, wisdom, and as a useful standby, common sense.

The outer world can and often does run on specious logic as well as tradition, both of which are given wide broadcast as common sense.  Often, there is no need for opposing forces in the warp and weft of the outer world; laziness, stupidity, and stubbornness will suffice.

Story and drama are other matters; both require the tangible presence of one or more opposing forces.  Both give the protagonist(s) targets to aim at, competitors against whom some show of contention must be made before the reader can accept anything resembling positive results.

If you prefer, you could say opposing forces join hands with failure as a part of the risk any protagonist character must face, if only to insure the presence of story.  Another way of looking at this calculus is to expand the relationship between goal of choice and the inability to achieve that goal. This is, of course, failure.

The best failures are systemic rather than individual.  You believe antagonists tend to put more faith than they ought into systems, not enough in individuals.  Tragic as a failed system may be, you see a greater disappointment and bankruptcy in the individual who feels betrayed by the system.  Unless that individual has another significant system in which to seek refuge and/or solace, he or she is truly alone, and must begin a new search to find landscape if not comfort in that new, unexplored terrain.

When a character wonders if she's good enough, the approaching footsteps of failure may be heard, echoing through the halls, which, to extend the metaphor, come closer, perhaps even to the point of whistling a familiar refrain.  Only when failure becomes as plausible an outcome as success does the story have a chance for working its way past the border guards of believability, at which point the reader once again abandons skepticism.

Sad, but true, a lifetime of reading produces what you call here a reverse cynicism.  When you read or watch a story in which the protagonist is risking something to attain a goal, you pretty well know the protagonist is going to be successful.  

This means your expectations for this being a successful story depend on the ultimate prize the protagonist realizes.  If there is not some surprise connected with the outcome, then So what?  Who cares?  If there is a significant enough surprise, the characters, readers, and writer will accept with good cheer and enthusiasm the fact that this is, indeed, story rather than parable or propaganda tract.

Most of the contest stories we've read provide a satisfying payoff beyond the fact of the protagonist winning some contest.  The payoff is effective because of the strategy the protagonist used to win, or because the protagonist does something remarkable in the face of failure that overshadows and undercuts the failure, making it second banana to some implicit or explicit understanding.

There is no disputing or disagreeing with the notion of story as entertainment.  Nor, however, is there dispute or disagreement with the goal you set for story, which is to take us all--characters, readers, and writer--somewhere we have not been before, whence we make some discovery, then attempt to transport it back in time to the moments of first reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why? Because? Because Why? Because I Say So.

Sir Isaac Newton was a physicist rather than a dramatist, but his observations about forces in motion stand up as well in the art of drama as they do in the science of the behavior of matter.  Consider:  For every action, there is a reaction that is equal in force and opposite in direction.

Writers have been taking the tangible results of that observation to the bank or the grocery store or the corner pub since before written language, before movable type, before the days when writers and actors had any thought about payment for their efforts.

Activity causes a tangible response.  You spend long enough digging a hole or working on a story, you're on target for a backache.  You dig the hole in the wrong place or make the story reflect some aspect of the human condition too painful for most in the audience to process and the likelihood increases for you to come away with a headache.  

One example is sufficient to illustrate the point:  In 1899, a writer of stunning insights and narrative technique produced a novella called The Awakening, published to uniformly negative reviews.

Not only was this a demonstration of action producing a reaction in physical terms, as well, The Awakening triggered a set of responses among some women readers that transferred itself across the generations, influencing stories to come and personal behavior.

In E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel,  one of the early--and best--books about the physics and mechanics of the novel, Forester had insightful things to say about the dramatic force he referred to as causality.  Things do not happen in haphazard randomness; they happen because of earlier actions taken--or rejected--by a character.  One forceful writer managed to demonstrate both the action taken and the action declined in two works that have long outlived him and will no doubt continue to do so.  

The longer of the works presents us with a character who recognizes his fast-approaching state of depression, prompting him to something he;s done before under such circumstances.  He signs aboard a ship as an able bodied seaman.  For his reward, the captain of the ship, The Pequod,  turns out to be a megalomaniac.

Herman Melville's short, pithy account of a character who acts by refusing to act, Bartleby the Scrivener, is in its way as disturbing as Moby-Dick.  Wherever we, or you, turn, literature does not begin with an eruption of spontaneity; it begins with a character who wants something, wants it now.  That desire is enough to provoke the character's quest or someone else's questions and probing to the point where the character under examination responds.

If a work of dramatic narrative lacks the inner quality of causality, it cannot be considered story because of the way story has evolved as an individual on some quest or having made some discovery.  The short, pungent short story by Tobias Wolff, "Bullet in the Brain" provides an excellent example of how the short form has evolved over time.  A book critic enters a bank to make a deposit, a quest not significant for being extraordinary.  Fate and the author have conspired to address that matter.

The protagonist is already growing impatient with the persons in line ahead of him and the time needed to complete their transactions when we learn in no uncertain terms that the bank is being robbed.  One of the bandits is every bit as impatient as the protagonist, who is arrogant enough, foolish enough, and sarcastic enough to begin laughing.

How easy is it to observe how story is strands of relevant detail, wound about the armature of causality?  Quite easy; each wrap of detail begins to push the resulting dramatic payoff toward an acute goal.

A detail within a story needs to have somewhere in its fanny pack a measure of causality, the ability to precipitate, if not directly cause, the next action.

When you think about such things, you can't help wondering what kind of storyteller Sir Isaac would have been, and you take the matter even farther on occasion by keeping his observations in mind as you consider the options before characters of your contrivance.  

Objects in motion, Sir Isaac observed, tend to stay in motion, until they are confronted by a force greater than their velocity.  We know what that force is in physics.  Inertia.  In dramatic writing, we call that opposing force such things as description, explanation, and that most oppressive inertia of all, defensiveness.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wide-Open Spaces, and the Stuff in between

Every time you engage in the composition of a story, something quite serious tries to take advantage of your focus.  The "something" begins as conceptual, but soon--quite soon--emerges with a life all its own. Alas, you well know how things with a life of their own are idiosyncratic in their determination.

The "something" you refer to here is Space, which springs to life as the first tentative paragraphs gain some traction, acting like a cat with cabin fever, looking for a way out.  This may or may not be a prudent move for a cat; it is never prudent for Space.

You've had enough experience with cats in your lifetime to understand the how if not the why of their wanting in, if they are outdoor cats, and out, if they are indoor cats.  Perhaps they want the reverse as well, and have only to gain one to understand how they yearn for the other. Perhaps all but the most mild of cats is hardwired to a contrariness when the matter of in or out becomes an issue.

In its personified form, Space, like the cat, wants to reveal its presence to you, stretch its limbs, make room for details you mistake at first for those welcomed allies,dramatic activity and information.  Still in personified form, Space is in effect arguing on its own behalf, wishing to co-opt the shape and size of the landscape on which your story is best presented, reminding you of a conflation between a real estate salesperson and a purveyor of used cars.

Garrulous and controlling to a fault, Space wishes to turn your sentences of ordinary length into Faulknerian meander and reverie, your short stories into novels, your novels into trilogies, your reviews into discourses, your essays into bodies of law and procedure.  

Space wishes to expand tourist-class airline accommodations into divans, those abbreviate cafe tables into trenchers or the groaning boards associated with family gatherings at times where ritual behavior comes spilling forth.

Your regard for Space is uneasy, seeing it at once a seductress and a potential cohort in some narrative tort that only drastic excision can cure.  In most cases, you've followed your personal system of using detail to pry the stuck and warped doors away from the jambs in which they are wedged.  With doors open, cats and associations can come and go in either direction, leaving you at the mercy of unfiltered association.

Next step, you are wide open to vulnerability, reminders of the unedited confidence you had in the early years before you began seeing the slight flaws in your ability to assess individuals, circumstances, and an array of inanimate items you thought you wanted or knew or both.

You're quite sure you were not the first to have said "Write long, then cut short," although you would like to have been the one.  You do in fact write long early drafts, then go about returning entire paragraphs at a time to the limbo whence they came, with sentences from your favored writers and poets sounding counterpoint to your baroque and orotund output.  

If you look closely, you can find traces of Richardson, DeFoe, and Fielding in your locutions.  Just as you tell yourself this is not so awful a thing, perhaps even a good thing, since you have learned things from each of these worthies, traces from the nineteenth century bubble up, bearing with them a hint of the long forgotten Miss Ravenal's Conversion, and of course the ongoing battles with formality in Fanshawe and The Scarlet Letter, or, indeed, the prose so opened to Space of Hawthorne's younger friend, Herman Melville.

You are happiest of all when you see your Space jammed with the mischief of the nineteenth century writer who was not so much of the nineteenth century as he was a writer of most people, most classes, and the most egregious customs to take on, Mr. Clemens.  To this day, you find discovery, attitude, and concern in his Spaces, along with the willingness to wrestle to the ground anything that got in his way.

You nod in continued amazement that such a man could have written so much engaging material, producing such a relatively low percentage of misdirected work.  But then, as you look at the misdirected work, even there you see the places where at first he had some control over the Spaces, before they got away from him.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wind Me up, Wind Me down

Time plays a lead role in any narrative, does more things in a story than many of the characters can accomplish. This fact alone sets up a competition involving time, the character, and the reader. If the reader does not recognize this contest on some level, time will run out before the story does, leaving the characters to fend for themselves on unread pages.

"It can't be over,"  a character will complain.  From the context, a familiar anguish of something happening all too quickly allows us to impart our own experiences with such events into the story at hand.  Based on context and reader experience, the incident will be haunting in its sadness or hilarious in its humor.

There it is:  Time is the setting against which story is placed, a wind-up toy, if you will, that flaps about in plain view of all until its momentum has run its course.  Without the counterpoint setting against time, story risks the danger of becoming explanation, even though it wishes with some intensity to be action.

From the moment the lead character steps into the narrative--often in the first sentence--the race with time has begun.  The lead character wants something, has perhaps already fired the starting gun.  

Even one of your most favored characters, Sisyphus, doomed as he is to a repetition of the same task for all eternity, wants the rock to come to rest or, wanting a few moments of rest himself, wants the rock to begin rolling down the hill.

Here are some of the many qualities inherent in time:  Time lags, quickens, flies, drags, ticks, lurches.  On the other hand, it is impatient; does not wait, which pretty much says much of what can be said relative to durations.

You, the characters you read, and the characters you create, can and often do cause time to pass unnoticed, because of your steep immersion in some activity.  By growing impatient yourself, you are sending body language to meet time at some halfway point, then tell it to give the appearance of slowing down.

Best get a handle on the historical era in which the time of the story is passing, and the amount of time you've allotted for a particular scene to take place, then make some adjustment by removing or adding space.  Setting is important, if only to avoid historical anomalies, such as Juliet saying, "Yo, Romeo," or, instead of "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,'" you'd use, "Goes the dude Raven, "Later, man."

Best also to think about an effect you're trying to establish, such as panic or emergency, which you'd do by shortening sentence length, perhaps even to the point of having characters speak in incomplete sentences.  Yet another desired prompt, delay the outcome as long as possible.  How many Victorian novelists, whose narratives appeared in monthly installments, learned to build a readership in this fashion.

Time's close cousin, timing, gives us a closer sense of who the speakers are in an exchange, what, if any, subtexts they are implying, and which dynamics are in play as the characters exchange what could be mere information, insults, double entendre, respect, or outright disdain.  

Timing is more than the way the character speaks the line; timing becomes the voice in which the line is spoken.  In this manner, something as innocent as "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you," or "Good of you to say so," can be devastating in its potential irony.

We don't want the lead character to get caught burglarizing the antagonist's office or apartment.  Unless we dislike the parties involved, we do not want the eloping lovers to be caught by either or both sets of parents, who are all for a big, expensive wedding that will in all probability leave enough scars on the couple to be that they will need hours of therapy or counseling.

Nor do we wish to ignore the importance of time or timing in closure, which is to say those moments where some form or revelation, understanding, or agreement is reached that will let all concerned know the story has come to an ending.

Of course there is this:  Too much time and the characters seem to be reading their lines, but without much conviction.  We become more painfully aware that the point of closure has been reached, then passed over; we are also aware the Titanic has struck icebergs, the ship of story is doomed to sink in the whirlpool of boredom.

Better by far to leave too soon than stay too long.  If you leave too soon, your departure may puzzle some, but you will be missed. Stay too long at the party and you'll get stuck helping with the clean-up.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


You first learned about armatures in an eighth-grade electric shop class, where aspects of the physical world were happening so fast, you could scarcely take them all in, much less begin to draw comparisons.  An armature plays an important part in an electric motor by carrying current at certain times.  

In actual fact, this was the class where you learned the difference between motor and engine, using them interchangeably until Mr. White shook his head, no.  In additional fact, this was the beginning point for you about the use of armature in story.

You next heard the word used in an art appreciation class, where armature became the supportive structure about which a sculpting or construction was wrapped.  Listening to the teacher, Miss Parcels, describing the winding of medium and media about the armature, you still didn't have the ability to see far enough ahead to make the use of it you do now.  But you were impressed with the process, knew it was important to keep in mind.

Something you wrote in an essay test,using the concept of an armature having things wrapped about it, brought you a red circle from the teacher and a good! in the margin.  It was normal then and now for you to be suspicious of such markings, but the memory of that particular good! has remained with you, perhaps because of another metaphor you picked up from that electric shop class.  

This is the concept of iron filings being drawn to a magnet.  If you happened to have a horseshoe-shaped magnet in your possession, you could in fact turn the ends of said magnet upward, place a sheet of writing paper over the protruding ends, dump some iron filings on the paper, then watch the iron filings rearrange themselves in a demonstration of magnetic waves.

The cycles of connection have moved forward, bringing you past eighth-grade electric shop into Mr. Quick's creative writing class, and your exposure to certain responsibilities incumbent on the writer when creating characters.  The eleventh-grade you had finally found a place to bring armature home to stay.  Creating a character is wrapping media about an armature.  

The electric motor and the artistry of sculpting or papier-mache merged.  A well-constructed character hummed with the electric energy of a motor.  A yanked-off-the-street character had no dimension, no energy, nothing but words of description, leaving you as a dog-paddle writer in a pool of Australian crawl and butterfly swimmers, able to keep afloat, but an obvious huffer and puffer.

Character is one of the most important elements in a story, an observation you believed for the longest time was the most important.  Used properly, character gives you actual story.  Proper use becomes this:  Story results when two or more characters appear, each considering himself or herself to be right.

Before you knew this, your narratives were not yet true stories, they were encounters, perhaps even episodes.  Story begins when a character yearns for something to the point of being impatient, even desperate for it--now  The more impatient and desperate the character becomes, the more the character believes the time has come to acquire or achieve the goal, now, by any means, including means that extend beyond fair or legal.  All these traits, qualities, and conditions must be wrapped about the armature of such characters.

Thus the armature for most characters has something to do with desire.  This means you start with an armature of desire or need, electrified to the point of yearning.  The wrappings of yearning call for layers of focus bordering on fixations or compulsions which leak through their wrappings to the point where the leak convinces the character that this yearning can no longer be contained.  If the character does not get the goal or begin an organized attempt to secure the goal, then there will be disaster.

Start with the armature, then begin wrapping.  Some characters are so wound up that they cannot see through the layers in order to recognize the thing yearned for.  Often it is some accident, some inadvertent collision or association that triggers the recognition.  Then the character realizes the hold over him or her the yearned for result holds.

Then the fun, and the story, begins.

Friday, January 16, 2015

An Unlit Fuse Is a Challenge, A Lit Fuse Is a Problem

The unlit fuse and its polar opposite, the burning fuse, have become favored dramatic metaphors for you, thanks to the way they draw your attention to the immediacy they convey.  

In the simplest of calculus, the unlit fuse becomes a reminder of potential combustion.  The lit fuse sizzles and crackles along to take the place of such visual and audible  prompts as pages turning in a calendar, a clock ticking, or the grains of sand falling from the filled sphere of an hour glass into the empty one.

You can scarcely think of the fuse without being aware of its consequence, which is ignition and all that term means--a most probable explosion or, by way of surprise, a dramatic fizzle, coming along as a dramatic trump to the expected explosion.

In this imagery of fuse and ignition, vital elements of story lay before us, reminding us of the urgency of circumstances, of forces set in motion to produce fire, which in its turn produces explosion.  Story requires some form of combustion.  Depending on the type of story. we are enticed by our curiosity of what will happen next.

What will happen next is something you've gone on to describe as The Unthinkable, Come to Pass, which is to say a dramatic combustion, threatening to destroy any plans the protagonist in a story may have made toward achieving the goal or prize of the story.  

The combustion forces our awareness of the protagonist's frustration, another volatile, and thus important, element in drama.  Readers enjoy sharing the protagonist's coming to a dead end; this is a delightful moment between the Scylla of apparent defeat and the Charybdis of curiosity to learn what the protagonist, back against the wall, will pluck out of the cobwebs of imagination.  

For your tastes, this is a supreme time, simultaneous in the gritty taste of apparent failure and humorous with memories of Wile E. Coyote, undaunted by past humiliation, forced to even more desperate extremes.

Because of your ongoing interest in the story of mystery and/or suspense, you're acute to the kinds of frustration that  get in the way of the protagonist's search for still another vital element, a defining vision.  This is the necessary vision by which the protagonist can see the entire pattern of wickedness by which the antagonistic forces have destabilized the status quo, tipping it over from the ordinary and unremarkable into story and an urgent need for some kind of awareness.

You've begun a small notebook in which you list the possible ends of the equivalent of Act II in mystery/suspense stories:

1.  The protagonist as private detective is fired by the employer.
2.  The protagonist as private investigator is warned off the case by some form of intimidation
3.  The protagonist as a private citizen is not believed by law enforcement agencies and is driven to take up the story as a lone individual against some system
4.  The protagonist as sworn law officer is:
          a) given twenty-four hours to close the case
          b) replaced by a hated rival
          c) given some humiliating demotion
          d) put on administrative leave from the law enforcement agency and thus forced to continue in the story as a civilian
5.  The antagonist is released from custody
6.  A confession is made by a character we know can't have been complicit in the true defining vision

You continue in your belief that these aspects apply in large measure to any story, crime related or not, with some of the specifics more than available for a slight transformation. Once the fuse is lit, story is underway.

In your composing mode, you know by now to write until you work yourself into the emotional state of the protagonist, which seems while it is happening to be an act of self-inflicted torture.  But when you've been on the other side, where the pressure and frustration slip the answer to you in unsuspected ways, you know you'll be back again, listening to the sizzling fuse.