Saturday, September 17, 2016

Beat the Clock

In your career as instructor in graduate-level writing programs, you've had a number of faculty mates whose work and/or personality you admired to the degree that your take on the words "collegial," and "collegiality" took on a broader, more enthusiastic, and certainly less acerbic dimension.

This sometime association was one of the many profitable outcomes you recognized from teaching, which was a good thing because you felt no such kinship and respect for a number of other faculty members. This lack of respect often came directly from your opinion of an individual's published work, although you were willing to give the work a pass if you admired their teaching techniques.

The dynamic was different when you were the regional leader of The Mystery Writers of America, in large part because you did not have in any way to accommodate with the politics and teaching philosophies of that group. As a dear friend and a writer you much admired put it, "All you have to do with this group is get drunk with them.

One particular faculty member at USC was enormously successful in his writing and his off-campus instruction methods. Your animosity toward this individual could be ascribed to his popularity out in the world, his attitudes toward his popularity, and the number of students who'd come your way either after studying with him or taking classes simultaneously with yours.

In addition to his attitude, which struck you as a degree beyond false humility, edging into having accepted himself in toto as a fait accompli. One of his primary tools for those who wish to compose drama is the stopwatch, this based on his operating theory that various aspects of story are in orbit and must pass before the reader/viewer in predictable intervals. 

You can yet hear him, telling his students, "You must believe me; the audience wants this event to take place now and will applaud you when it does."

You may want things to happen in a story, but you do not want them to happen as though they were some libidinous teenagers, struggling against the uproarious suggestions of their individual states of puberty, right up to the moment of a curfew. You want surprise, which means one or more conspiracies against convention and expectation, as expressed by your characters.

The last thing you want is a killer confessing because we are at the place in the manuscript where the detective lays out the case against him or her, or because we have come to a scene wherein someone has confessed to THE murder, and we poor readers, fingering a sheaf of additional pages yet to come, know something else--a twist, a turn, an accident, a revelation--is to come, otherwise why not end the story here?

You want to be told to wait here, then discover you have been left in some sort of a maze from which there is no apparent exit. We want to be told, as a memorable Elmore Leonard character was told, to have a seat, only to learn that the act of sitting has triggered an ignition system on a bomb that will detonate the moment the person offered the seat thinks to rise. We want an ingenious, irresistible turn of event to remind us of all the many moments when we were held in thrall or captivity by an improvised device.

Although you favor things ending when their time to end has come, you also want the tingle of curiosity in which you wonder if that truly is the end in sight or merely another illusion. You accept those who are predestined to live happily eve rafter, but you happen to be one of those who are examining the smallest, seemingly most insignificant things, alert for the cosmic mischief of the cream pie in the face.

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