Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On the Street Where You Live

The rear door to your studio opens on a narrow alleyway defined by a tall row of Eugenia hedges and the building, itself. To your left is a small platform where you often sit to finish a cooling cup of coffee, reflect on the neighboring garden and, perhaps, the scenery within your own imagination. To the right, after thirty or forty steps, the door to the laundry room gapes an invitation for your soiled linens and clothing. 

Alongside the building, your esteemed cleaning lady, Lupe, has coopted a shelf on which she keeps in neat order such implements and products necessary to keep your studio in a cleanliness only she can concoct. On the top shelf, a black, rip-stop nylon container, readily understandable as a cat carrier, in fact the very one from which you brought a previous cat home. This cat container has not been used since; your then cat, Goldfarb, resisted every attempt to put him in it for visits to the vet.

Whether you are indeed drinking coffee and thinking things over or taking a load of laundry to be washed and dried, there is every likelihood you will see the cat container, recall its intended use and its ultimate destiny, then conclude it to be some great monument to futility.

The front door of your studio opens on a generous sweep of brick-lined patio, commodious enough for a glass-topped lawn table and folding chairs, should you chose to dine al fresco or entertain at some fete champetre. Along the far wall bounding the patio are a few scattered boxes, atop which rests yet another cat carrier, this one used by you only the one time to bring your present cat, Bill, home from the Santa Barbara Cat Rescue whence you acquired him.

The foregoing is set up for the thematic log line: Your sources of entry and exit from your studio are sooner or later bound to make you aware of cat carriers. Such awareness often provokes a sense of anomaly. You have never attempted to put Bill, your new cat, into the cat carrier whence he came to 409 E. Sola Street. 

But you did, on two occasions, out of some morbid sense of curiosity, set the latest addition to your cat carrier collection close to your front door, leave the carrier door open, then place treats known to appeal to Bill far enough inside the carrier to induce him to enter.

With that device in motion, you sat in the patio rather than the back alleyway, coffee in hand, waiting to observe the results. In both cases, Bill was quickly aware of the treats, which he genuinely likes under most circumstances. But in each of these cases, Bill was not motivated to enter the cat carrier. Your first reaction to this observation was to wonder why the fuck you bother to keep not one but two cat carriers adjacent a living area where storage space is premium. Your second reaction was to put in motion the sort of concept you've been dealing with in one way or another for over fifty years.

You recognized the concept for what it was, the beginning of a story, which you would then have to draft out, line by line, dramatic beat by dramatic beat. You laughed aloud at the resulting metaphor. You would have to make a story out of the concept. You would have to put the metaphorical cat into the metaphorical cat carrier.

You began with a cup of coffee which, while it was working its way from the bottom to the top of your Bialetti stove-top espresso maker, caused you to begin with three individuals and a cat. There was no mischief yet in this equation until you recalled the near impossibility--for you--of getting either of two cats into cat carriers. 

You even recalled seeing a YouTube demonstration of a no nonsense man, putting a cat into a cat carrier. This triggered the memory of your longtime friend, Brian Fagan, a dedicated cat owner, telling you it was simply a matter of timing and you, expressing your need to have the cat in the carrier as superior to the cat's need for independence.

Coffee now in hand, you made to your dining table, where notebook and pen awaited. The cat made its presence known. She was a striped marmalade named Phyllis. She belonged to a man named Mitch, about whom you knew (and still know)relatively little, except for two matters: things seem to come Mitch's way with little or no apparent effort, and with greater specificity, the very night the narrative begins, Mitch was having a book signing at Chaucer's Books (which means the story is set in Santa Barbara, and why not?).

The narrator/principal of the story made herself known to you; she is Margo, who works as a career coach. This awareness pleased you because of its offered subtext that she helps others focus on personal and career-based goals, with the implication that she may well be remiss in marshalling her own. This awareness led you directly to her reason for being in the narrative that wishes to become a story; Margo's intent is to steal Phyllis, thus, when we first see her, she is carrying the clone of the black cat carrier in your alleyway.

And of course when we first see Margo, she is in the immediate vicinity of Mitch's home, fully aware Mitch will be some distance away, at Chaucer's, signing copies of his book, at a signing for which Margo has an invitation, folded into her jacket pocket.

All you need now is the third person. After several sips of coffee and a bit of pacing in the kitchen--yes, to peer out the door and regard the black cat carrier--you settle on a character named Matthew Bender, an actor. Bender has appeared as lead in a number of your short stories. The moment you cast him as the third person, you realize he was at one point in his life given a cat as a love token by a former lover. At this moment, Matt Bender has a tenuous reason for appearing in Mitch's neighborhood.

This is by no means a story yet, but nevertheless, you even have in mind a candidate for the closing line, the equivalent to Nora Helmer's slam of the door in Ibsen's A Doll House, or Blanche Dubois' plangent last line in A Streetcar Named Desire.

You begin to write. Details and motives are no longer linear. With a surge of pleasure, you understand you must not for the slightest moment allow this narrative to slip back into the linear; it must be rounded and fluffed with the forces of inner and outer conflicts and frustrations. At the very least, someone will have difficulty with the matter of placing Phyllis, the cat, into that black nylon cat carrier.

This is real and alive now, dramatic forces colliding within your imagination, supercharged by that necessary quality of your enthusiasm.

Margo chose parking above the elbow bend where Milpas Street becomes Anapamu Street to give the appearance she might be attending the concert at Santa Barbara Bowl, you write. The dark nylon cat carrier could easily be mistaken for a picnic container.

She even had a plan in case she was recognized by some neighbor after she turned onto Mitch's Street. Phyllis had gone missing and she was helping to comb the neighborhood.

Who else but Mitch would name a cat Phyllis?

Time now to encounter Matt Bender, right? And what's that Bender's carrying?

"You mean this?" Bender said.

"Looks like a cat carrier to me."

"I-unh-hear Phyllis has gone missing."

"Phyllis never goes missing," Margo said. "Her routines are as regular as Mitch's. And I never once saw her run from you."

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Writer as Dr. Frankenstein

The better the actor, the more vested she or he is in the dimensions and quirks of the character to be portrayed. This is a vital mechanism for the writer of narrative fiction to consider. A character, having been created, is always on.

You pause to let that information sink in. You recall with some discomfort the many times when you, in the process of composition, paused to wonder what a particular character of your own creation would do next in this particular situation.

At such moments, more often than not, you are probing your own lode of resources for a clue. Should the character advance--or retreat? Should the character lie, cheat, steal--or merely refract Reality in order to project a desired image?  If so, what would that image be?  Perhaps sang froid. Maybe a sense of amused aloofness? Aha, yes; that's it. And so you set it down, thinking you've solved another significant instance where the momentum of the story had begun to stall.

You've read of, actually seen, and heard enough stories from actors to appreciate what comes next, which happens to be the character breaking character during the midst of a dress rehearsal to confront you as though you were the director. "This isn't me," the character protests to you. "I can't [read this line] [do this action] [both, in combination]."

Now, you hear yourself telling this protesting character, "Of course not. Let's see how we can offer you a clue." You well realize this is all sophistry, even though it is accurate at the emotional and creative level. 

Your creation, the character, is telling you she or he can't do what you've indicated because--Even though the character is unreal, a figment of your imagination, to the extent you are in touch with the process, that character is telling you that the speech and/or action you've created for her or him has come from your lode of experiential ore rather than from hers or, as the case may be, his.

In real time, you, as composer, would block out the offending material, pounce on the delete key, then regard the deleted place in the text from the character's point of reference rather than your own. Because you're of an age where your earlier composition was done on one of several manual and, later, electric typewriters, you have sensory memory of the sounds and feel of a sheet of manuscript paper being yanked from the platen, and the sensory equivalent of a dash of sriracha or mustard as you ball the offending sheet before tossing it at the waste basket.

Sometimes at such moments, you envy the actor, who has only one individual to absorb. You have any number, men, women, sometimes youngsters, and the occasional cat or dog to impersonate. Quite often the ramifications of the story churn in the rear of your imagination, a mischievous sea on the point of waxing or ebbing. Directly below its surface, competing agendas of current wait to work their own destiny, surely catching one or more of your invented characters unaware.

While you are feeling a bit sorry for yourself or, better still, envious of the actor who has only one being to impersonate, you take that extra step toward humiliation by thinking they--the actors--can always refer to the script for guidance. This leaves a place in your self-awareness to reward yourself. See, the actor always defers to the writer.

So long as you are dreaming, Dream on!  Actors often portray characters who have been portrayed by hundreds, if not thousands, of previous actors, each searching for ways to bring some previously unseen authenticity to the character. The longer you needed to recognize this aspect of the equation, the greater the blow to the solar plexus of your ego.

Although the answer is reductionist, perhaps it was meant to be: When the going gets tough, go to the interior of the character. Too easy to sidestep and go, instead, to your own deft, clever, never-fail imagination, the one that got you out of so many scrapes. Dream on!  But do be sure to go back to the character for a consultation.

If there's nothing there, don't blame the character. Blame the writer. But the tide is coming in fast and look what happened to the hubristic king just before the Magna Carta came into being. Stop grousing and blaming. If there's nothing useful in the character, put in something useful. Then go to it and ask it what it wants.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Unholy Trinity: Mystery, Sci-Fi, and Courtroom Drama

In the manner of the cliched iron filing as it is drawn to the nearby magnet, you were attracted to the mystery novel, for its own sake of mysterious possibilities and for the more general sense of it being a puzzle to be solved.

You despaired of ever being able to write your own, much less solving those such as Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Josephine Tey produced with such seeming ease and mischief. Thus you took refuge in science fiction and those stark, funny, evocative narrative explosions produced with great regularity by John O'Hara.

Before long, you blundered into two remarkable events that led you to believe you understood enough to write your own mystery stories. The first of these was discovering your mystery mentor, Dorothy B. (for Belle) Hughes; the second was her luring you into the southern California branch of The Mystery Writers of America, which led you directly into becoming the acquisitions editor for writers such as Bill S. Ballinger, Steve Fisher, and Frank Gruber, each of whom you'd read earlier with that combined alloy of awe, envy, and prodded imagination.

Your subsequent time spent as editor and teacher led you to consider The Mystery as the quintessential form for fictional narrative. But your association with science fiction caused you to add the Alternate Universe novel to the platform, thanks to the awareness that not only each writer but each reader as well sees the same event through a different set of prescriptive lenses.

And now, or perhaps it was yesterday, surely not later than that, you arrive at the third awareness of your archetypal trinity, the courtroom drama. One of the many bonds of identity that tie you to sister and brother homo sapiens is the sense of engagement in some ongoing conflict between you and a system that is either man made or of a persistent natural origin.

The courtroom drama defines the combatants and the issues over which they disagree. Hovering over the courtroom, its rules and procedures, is an atmosphere of gravitas and solemnity. But as individuals enter the scene as representatives of the Rule of Law, compounded by the litigants, be the issue at hand one of civil or criminal nature, so enters the mischief of absurdity and threats of chaos and anarchy.

In each of these three archetypes, the reader as participant enters, eavesdropping on the escalations of puzzle, alternate visions of reality, and arguments favoring individual rights and broader concepts of human responsibility. The reader is drawn through this archetypal filter into an identity with a character who faces a need for a decision or a way through a problem such as those the reader experiences or has burned into memory.

When you read, whatever the medium, you still bring to the page the six- or seven-year-old boy who felt the boredom of a perfectly normal constraint and who escaped those constraints through reading. Everything was an adventure, whether it was the stories of collies invented by Albert Payson Terhune, underwater menaces exploited by Jules Verne, or historical archetypes set in motion by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Early in your teaching career, you announced to your classes (with some satisfaction) how every novel was a mystery and thus each student, regardless of her or his immediate literary goals, needed to read at least one mystery novel and attempt to write one short story with a shot at acceptance from the two leading mystery magazines of the day, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

You soon arrived at the notion that every novel was indeed an alternate universe story because, taking Heraclitus at his word about not being able to bathe twice in the same river, the New York and Chicago and Los Angeles of different writers were, in their ways, as different as the writers who presented them.

Now, the courtrooms of John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Jodi Picault, along with Michael Connelly's character of Mickey Haller send you into classrooms, fired up with the passion of an attorney in closing argument for the inclusion of the jury-based drama into the panoply of archetype.  As reader, you're caught upon the details of a case. Now, you await the jury's verdict and the effect on the parties involved.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


When you stop to give the matter serious thought--as opposed to listening to some interior voice you presume to have some literary connection--your preference for your own fiction narrative is multiple point of view. Successive chapters appear through the filter of one character who has some bearing on the entire story. Most likely, you were nudged into this preference thanks to a reading in your late teens of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.

Short stories are often another matter. The point of view filter you seem to gravitate toward is the third person, the he or she. Although you're not aware of any personal distaste for the first person I filter, you either avoid it or, having begun with it as a result of some inner prompting, switch to the he or she, mindful that you've enjoyed many a first person narrative written by the him or her author you so admire.

One distinct advantage to the multiple point of view is the opportunity to infuse differing attitudes and vocabulary into the narrative without having them appear to have come from you. Another advantage is the unquestioned addition of ambiguity to an event or behavior. 

Each of us mortals sees through our own filter, even while reporting the same event or experience. Your taste of chocolate is not the same as one or more of your characters. Your politics are not theirs. You voted for Hilary Clinton for the same reason you voted for a number of politicians you did not in fact admire; she was clearly the best qualified candidate. The last candidate you recall voting for with unalloyed regard was George McGovern. Before that, your memory takes you back to Adlai Stevenson. And so, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said, it goes.

Given your recent focus on action versus description, your third person filter for the beginning of a novel or short story could in consequence be: "She saw--" or "He ducked to avoid--" both of these bringing a character onto the page as close to free of any authorial telling as possible. 

At the moment, you have both formats under way, short and longform. In early draft stage each presents its third person protagonist in action. Ben stood. Lew faced. But as the narratives and drafts progressed, you found yourself (and one or more of those interior voices with presumed literary connections) uneasy with the results.


Until you were able to put the critical unease into words. You were starting with your characters in action, but since this was their first appearance out of your imagination and onto the page, mere action was not enough. You wanted a greater hint of interior motive as well as relevant activity. You wanted to start with the characters already in action, in response to a plan or agenda that began before the narrative does.


The best place for the photos would be in a file folder, tucked under his arm, where she’d be sure to see it the moment he arrived. Then she’d say, “What’s that you’ve got there, Little Brother?” 

This takes us directly into the mind and intent of the Ben, cited a few paragraphs earlier, experienced while he stood in line. Now, you have in effect the set-up of a story. A man has some photos with which he plans to confront an older sister. What better response can you give to the question Ben supposes his sister will ask than "Evidence."?

But of course the sister has an agenda of her own, which means a rug, yanked from under Ben within the first few paragraphs.

In the longer work, a private investigator named Lew Lessing enters being irritated by an individual he wishes to become his employer, thus:

GORDON SLOPE HAD a way of irritating Lew Lessing. Air poked for emphasis. And who’d wear a signet ring on his index finger? Gordon Slope is who.

But with a little shifting of the furniture, you've in literal and figurative ways turned the dramatic tables.  Watch:

WHAT GOOD WOULD come from being irritated now? Lew Lessing nodded instead at Gordon Slope's air pokes, meant to emphasize the need for discretion.

Since you were so focused on actions to move the previous story forward, how about in this case:

"A simple yes or no," Gordon Slope said, "as opposed to your noncommittal nod. Are we clear on the need for discretion?"

Son of a bitch wore a signet ring on his index finger. That's a definite no. "Understood," Lessing said.

On this point, you appear to be two for two.

Next point?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Action vs Description: No Contest

You nourish the hope of bringing rounded, dimensional characters to your pages, men, women, and youngsters whose personality radiates from their actions, having the effect of plausible individuals. 

Throughout these long years of your learning process, you've grown into a deeper awareness: Your goals for your characters are best expressed by their actions--their inner and outer behavior--rather then your descriptions.

For the longest time, you noted the way writers you admired brought their people on stage, sometimes with a brief description of them, other times with a quite long description, sometimes taking the better part of a page. How could you fail to recognize these characters, once they were set in place with such vivid, often judgmental apercu? Yet, fail you did. By degree, you realized you were becoming aware of the author, stepping in to stop the story in order to make sure you knew.

Right around the time you were growing tired of shoving Mr. Jones onto your pages as "a skinny, rooster-like man with uncontrollable tufts of cowlick gray hair," and Mrs. Goldfarb, "whose wraith-like presence seemed to enter the room a moment or two before she did," you began to notice how some of your favored writers managed to convey a vivid sense of characters through their dialogue.

This awareness may have been enough to move your up a plateau or two, to the point where you then understood a dramatic essential: Action defines character better than writers describe them.

Then you began to notice how actors you admired were able to bring exquisite nuances of relevant behavior to their portrayal of well-known characters such as Lady Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth I, Bill Sykes, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Livingston. You were particularly interested to see one actor, Dustin Hoffman, take on the part of Willy Loman in a role virtually trademarked by another actor, Lee J. Cobb. 

Hoffman also aroused your interest with his portrayal of the character of Raymond in The Rainman, a true challenge because Raymond is a  front-rank character but, unlike most front-rank characters, Raymond remains the same throughout the drama,is behavior is always the same, will probably always be the same. Most other front-rank characters grow in some way or another. Blanche Dubois, when we first see her in Streetcar, is fragile and vulnerable. When we last see her, she has almost completely retreated into her vulnerability.

At this stage, you've come to understand how superior the interpretive action taken by an actor compares to the description written by even such stylistic giants as Philip Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, indeed, Saul Bellow.  Description is set in stone. Actions and responses cause interpretation and--dare you bring forth the forgotten element?--ambiguity.

Two individuals watching--or reading--the same action will bring their own responses into the dramatic equation. The dramatic moment is no longer passive, with the reader being told John was hungry, Mary recoiled in terror. The moment at hand is physical and articulated. John, the actor and the character, must demonstrate his hunger to the reader/audience; in so doing, he may reveal yet other details even the most impressive descriptive stylist overlooks.

Mark Twain warns us of the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Relevant action underscores and dramatizes the combination of dialogue and action; description can only approximate it.

Many will agree about the intensity and perhaps even the poignant nature of the action, but few will bring the same interpretation or motivation to the intensity and poignance. Ambiguity has its advantages, not the least of which is forcing us to make decisions which, when you come to think of it, characters are being forced to do throughout the story.

"I'll think about it," John said, drumming his fingertips on the table top.  John paused, reflectively, considering his options. 

No contest.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Evolved Are Your Characters

When news of your forthcoming marriage was made public, you made two discoveries, each of which influenced your subsequent evolution as a person and served to ratify your own views about the forces influencing your sense of humor.

Through the inertia of what you've come to regard as the social Darwinism of the eponymous Darwin, you gained entry onto this planet in Santa Monica, California, the sociological equivalent of a second generation American, thanks to your mother's birth in a small town in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and your father's place of birth not all that far away, in the same county in New Jersey.

Culturally, you were born into an uninterrupted line on both sides of individuals raised in and following the Jewish faith. You were accordingly given--without consultation--the rite of circumcision. From time to time, you were given Sunday schooling in the same spirit in which puppies and kittens are given treats. You in fact never had  to go to Sunday school as, indeed, twenty some odd years later, your nieces had  to attend.  No one in your immediate side of the family held anything close to orthodox views of the Jewish faith.

You in fact stopped going to Sunday school for a reason you regard in retrospect as whimsical and yet a simultaneous indicator of the sense of ironic humor you were evolving toward. Your reason for not being interested in Sunday school was because the stories you got in the Sunday comics sections of the Los Angeles Examiner and the Times were more meaningful to you. Your elder sister also stopped attending at about the same time. 

There were no recriminations or indications of parental concern. But you do recall at this remove a long, pleasing period of Sunday morning breakfasts, with lavish meals, interesting conversations, and your own personal sense of the week being off to a grand start. Your mother was won't to say, asking if you'd like another waffle or batch of made-from-scratch pancakes, not to expect such largess on Monday. Of course, come Monday, you'd have a choice of Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, of Wheateena, and there was always more than one fruit, which, of course, was fresh because your mother held no brief for canned fruit.

Farther along in your story arc, you knew Jewish men and boys who had not been circumcised and or allowed to participate in the Jewish equivalent of first communion, the bar or bat mitzvah. You and your sister were willing participants in those rituals, even though you understood, at the very conclusion of those rituals, when the rabbi expressed the hope that you'd "stay active in the community," by which he mean participate in regular attendance and observation of seasonal rituals, you both knew you wouldn't. 

This knowledge did not represent even a slight notion of apostasy or rejection of heritage. You and your sister each went on to evolve and articulate a stance of being a cultural Jew. You identified with the culture, made no attempt to hide it or your sentiments about any form of organized religion and the need for those involved within such faiths to be mindful of retaining an individual code of responsibility to the concept your sister put into words for you, The rule of ethical human law.

This insured you would both follow along in the Socialist-oriented politics of your forebears, favoring workers rights, workers organizations, Rosa Parks being allowed to sit wherever she wished on the bus, and, so far as your own religious preferences were concerned, congregations where, at the least, women and men sat on the same floor (as opposed to women in the balcony) and you were the first to ask with all seriousness, Hey, how come no women rabbis?

These previous revelations are intended to show your arrival without rancor at positions you felt equitable to all concerned, in the face of unanticipated oppositions from within and subsequent outcomes. Your sister married into a family where an approach closer to orthodoxy was the default condition, resulting in your nieces being made to feel they had to comply.  Immediate effects: on reaching dating age, both widely dated black and Asian boys to the point where you can't remember either of them having dated a white boy, much less a white Jewish boy. Not until she was living away from home, on her own did the eldest date white men, but again, not white Jewish. And the youngest was steadfast to the point of marrying a young Japanese, born and raised, as they say, in beautiful downtown Tokyo.

Your dating profile was more or less of a piece; at one point, a member of a Jewish sorority was wearing your fraternity pin, which translates to our having been engaged to become engaged, and so on. But you did not become engaged to her nor marry her. When the time came for you to consider marriage, your candidate was a person who had spent some time living in a convent as a novice nun attached to a widespread Hindu organization with home base in India, with independent centers operating throughout the world.

Because of your overall self-identification as a Jew, and because of a sense of sentimentality, you sought to discover if the rabbi who'd in a sense formally welcomed your sister and you into the Jewish community were still alive.  What better person, you thought, to preside over this lovely ritual.

Rabbi S. was still alive at the time, and yes, he'd be delighted to preform the ceremony, but as, he said, anyone could see your intended was not Jewish, she'd need to convert first. And so, for the interim, you could have a civil ceremony, which would "make do" until such time as.

The first thing your then fiancé said as you left Rabbi S.' home was, "Did you have to ask if we'd get steak knives if I converted?" To which you replied, "Yes. You have to understand. It's a Jewish thing."

The second discovery and in its way your entire reason for the shaggy-dog-story nature of these sentiments, came when your mother showed you a letter she'd received from a cousin of the brother-in-law of her older sister. This puts the writer's relationship to you at the literary equivalent of way out in the boondocks. You'd never even heard of this person who wrote to your mother about you, who where thirty-two at the time, although you were hazily aware that your mother's sister's husband, Uncle George, a dentist who had more than once cleaned your teeth, had a cousin who was an orthodox rabbi.

Your mother handed you the letter written about your forthcoming marriage. "I have a mind,"she said, "to go to Minneapolis and tell her face-to-face it's none her business whom my son marries, and if he wishes to marry someone who is not Jewish, he has every right to do so." But that wasn't the best part. "I wonder," your mother said.

"You wonder--"

"Maybe this is her way of--you know--not sending a wedding gift."

Yet another relative you did not realize you had was Damian Williams Lowenkopf, a major contractor to Shell Petroleum Development Company. Damian lived and worked in Togo, a thin sliver of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin, off the Gulf of Guinea. You are informed by Gabriel One Okworo, his attorney, who is also licensed to practice law in Nigeria, that Damian left an estate of some seventeen-and-a-half million dollars, and how his last words and thoughts were for me and all the things we might have done together, had he not become so obsessed with making a fortune.

But now, Barrister Okworo informs you, he has instructions to transfer a significant sum to your account so that you may enjoy your life thinking kindly of Damian. If you will kindly send Barrister the routing and account numbers relative to your banking institution and perhaps, as verification, your SSN, he will expedite this significant sum.

Dear Barrister Okworo, you are tempted to respond, Does this largess from dear old Cousin Damian Williams Lowenkopf come with steak knives?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

In a Manner of Speaking

A number of contemporary writers have  produced memorable novels about wars in which they participated as service men. Norman Mailer, who would go on to stab his wife, comes to mind with The Naked and the Dead. James Jones  plucked the background and story arc for From Here to Eternity off his own Army experiences. 

So, too, did Tim O'Brien find focus for The Things They Carried in his time as an enlisted man. Denis Johnson, the superb minimalist writer whose Viet Nam war novel, The Tree of Smoke, won The National Book Award, had ready access to available information. All three writers were alive at the time of the wars they used as background for their fiction.

Stephen Crane was born six years after the military aspects of what has variously been called The Civil War, The War between the States, and, in two of the schools you attended in Florida, The War of Northern Aggression. Nevertheless, Crane's novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is often spoken of with the same critical esteem used for the works of Mailer, Jones, and O'Brien. 

Of all these writers named, O'Brien is probably the one to have lived a life closer to contemporary concepts of conventional, but this is in no way speaking toward the ordinary or even usual. Rather, let us say O'Brien, through his own efforts and agendas, has taken a closer step toward the accommodation of such forces that drove writers such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the three men named earlier--Mailer, Jones, and Johnson, each in an idiosyncratic way, farther away from conventional responses.

Johnson, for instance, had a combative relationship with alcohol and drugs; Mailer seemed to have a combative relationship with everything, and Crane, dead before he'd reached age thirty, spent much of his life in combat with tuberculosis. Had he managed to stay on as long as, say, Tim O'Brien, who, at this writing is seventy-one, your have some basis for arguing he might have approximated the literary breadth and complexity of D.H. Lawrence (dead himself at age forty-five years: 1885-1930).

At any rate, and aside from your speculative admiration, Crane accomplished an excellent short novel, every bit as much a product of the war that preceded him as the twenty-thousand leagues under the sea so artfully evoked in Jules Verne's eponymous novel.

You admire all the writers you've mentioned in these paragraphs, certain of their works plangent with association in that part of your imagination where envy, creative explosions, and affirmative visions reside. When you think of any of them, you begin to appreciate why envy and awe emerge as ruling responses. When you think of Crane, you're especially directed back by your own respect to your narrative abilities and visions when you were his age when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage.

"Write naked," Denis Johnson said. "Write what you would never say." He also said, "You get in your teacup and take your oar and set off for Australia, and if you wind up in Japan, you're ecstatic."

Stephen Crane, it seems to you, also wrote naked; doing so, he created at once a war and its resident ironies, wherein a man, fearful of his ability to confront battle and not run from it, does in fact run. In the process, he's shot in the rump and awarded the hero's medal, the Purple Heart."

Reading that novel, teaching it to others, you're reminded of your greater goal, which is being able to evoke through your writing rather than report or describe; create a place where readers are able to eavesdrop on fictional entities who seem real with the pulsing humanity of individuals afflicted with the choices, boundaries, and challenges of being.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sentimental Journey

Your last visit to the UCLA campus became a sentimental return to a place where you'd flourished in so many ways and under so many circumstances. While you were there, you paid off on a sentimental debt to your sister by scattering her ashes in the various locales you knew to be of matter to her.

Ashes scattered, a few in fact still clinging to one of your shoes, you sought out the student union building, climbed the familiar stairway to the fourth floor, then paused before a brass plate on a door, KH 401, an office that used to be yours.

A woman of middle enough age not to be considered a student emerged from the door, saw you, then asked if she could help you. How quickly things return to you; you smiled, then told her you were beyond help. You could tell from her facial response that she saw you as advanced enough in physical age not to be considered a student. You told her this had at one time been your office. Her expression told you she thought that was a long time ago.

You descended the stairway and, following signs, threaded your way to additions and constructions from after your time, found the commodious and quite professional appearing entry way to the student daily newspaper, and paused for deep draughts of return and nostalgia. Two earnest looking young men, whose earnestness you recognized from your own times within this part of the student union, saw you, nodded, asked if they could help you with anything.

This time, you weren't so glib as you'd been moments earlier, when you stood before the office of the campus humor magazine, where, in your day and under your direction, humor meant irony and its first cousin, sarcasm. You told the two earnest looking young men you'd used to work here. They offered you coffee, a tour of the premises, and the leisure, if you wished, to wander by yourself. From this, you understood that you'd mistaken their qualities of empathy and emerging professionalism for earnestness. Welcome home, you told yourself.

When your afternoon classes were over, more often than not, here you were, a cup of coffee and books in hand, ready to attend any of a number of chores that paid you relatively well for those times. Many of the individuals who spent time here were more than casual friends.

One afternoon, when you came to this place, you saw a sign tacked to the wall. Work for the AP, it said, using at least two exclamation points. At this time in your life, you believed work for some newspaper or other was a part of your destiny, your imagination brimming with tales of men and women who'd moved "over" from journalism to the world of books where you sought entry.

You took the sign down, phoned the number at its bottom. A week later, at 3:15 one Monday afternoon, you were in the offices of the Los Angeles Times, being ushered to the night office of The Associated Press, where your tenure as an employee began.

At the time, you had enough unit credits to qualify for the status of Senior, with a major in English Literature, a minor in political science, and the selective, not-giving-a-rat's-ass care about things related to formality, certainty, and convention. Your grades reflected your passions. At one, earlier point, the combination of your selectivity and your indifference to required courses landed you on probation.

By your estimate, you had at least another year to go as an undergraduate, simply because of your reckoning of the courses you wished to take that you knew to be available. By the time of your first round of examinations while working from 3:30 p.m. until 12:10 in the a.m., you'd absorbed some of the surface-but-important philosophy of the Associated Press.

By the time you'd finished your first round of mid terms while an employee at AP, your exam blue books began to bear notes from the instructor.  But this time, their "see me" reflected admiration and encouragement.

Simply put, you began attributing opinions to sources to distinguish those from yours, and you began writing your essays in AP style so that even if, as in one case, you only had time for a paragraph, it was the RIGHT paragraph.

No, you did not work your way onto the Dean's List; the only Dean's List you ever made had to do with your politics. Nevertheless. You were on your way to a discovery about written material, about how it was possible to be concise and effective as opposed to long and bullshit laden.

Two years later, you'd taken the courses you wished, could find no sufficient reason for hanging around, and in a real sense thought it time to move on, beyond UCLA and the Associated Press, but not your friends.

When you left both organizations, you also left behind, and with respect, the wish to move beyond reporting into the worlds of invention, hypothesis, even hyperbole. Indeed, some time later you were fired for having turned in a report of a speech that was supposed to have been given but wasn't.

Your explanation to the editor that your report was what the speech maker would have said, had he in fact given the speech, cut no ice. "You're not a reporter," the editor told you. "You're a fiction writer."

You believe she was right.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Learner's Permit

Among the rites and rituals you encountered on your arrival at the present moment was the assumption made by your parents that you had the judgments and motor skills necessary to cross streets. This was a major step on your way to being able, on your fourteenth birthday, to secure a document known as Learner's Permit, possession of which allowed you to drive a motor vehicle.

There were restrictions related to the Learner's Permit and with the parental permission to take that huge step toward adulthood, crossing streets. Streets were there to be crossed, at corners and midway. Your father, who knew a thing about you, surmised that crossing midway held forth the most adventure, thus his advice, "Always do your best to look both ways before you begin. Look left, then right. Then repeat the process. But if for some reason you can't, make sure you move damned fast."

License to cross streets set you apart from a number of your peers, who saw your new status as something they aspired to and, at the same time, spoke to a difference between you and them. You saw the privilege as a path away from the boredom of restriction and into the worlds of potential and actual adventure. At the time, you made few distinctions between potential and actual; your range was limited to events formulated in your imagination.

In time, you were to cross another street, more a result of volition than permission or encouragement. You crossed the street from civilian to writer, not looking first left, then right, then left again. You moved damned fast, unaware of the oncoming traffic that was human and metaphorical.

Two major aspects of the human sort were literary agents and mentors. You had an enormous number of the former, perhaps to the point of promiscuity, possibly to the point of irony. You've had the right amount of the latter, to your immense satisfaction and, if such things are possible, to their satisfaction. 

The way things stand now, you'll probably transition to the Great Remainder Bin in the Sky as a client of your present literary agent, and so far as mentors are concerned, you sense one major move coming. If you're correct about the evolution, you anticipate the kind of unfettered satisfaction you experienced--but could not articulate at the time--when you were given leave to cross streets--any streets.

Your first literary agent was already on his way toward legendary status when you joined forces. It was clear to both of us that Forrest J. Ackerman took you on because you were one of the few who could keep up with him when matters  involved puns, those groan-producing revelations and comparisons that tie language and meaning into lovers' knots. In your recollection, the deal makers were your Little Hearse on the Prairie, A Hearse of Another Killer, and The gripes of Roth.

At the time of your meeting, FJA, Forryac, or Fojac represented a burbling cadre of men and women who wrote science fiction, fantasy, and alternate universe. FJA did in fact place some of your attempts at sci-fi and fantasy, but in a real sense, the puns were your undoing. He secured a number of assignments for you based on titles, alone. The deal breaker for you came one evening when he asked you in all FJA seriousness, "Do you think you could write a story around the meme 'I Was a Teenaged Werewolf'?"

Someone else did and at least for a time, their career as a writer was launched into an orbit. You moved on to an unrepresented, freelance state, attempting to distance yourself from puns and move closer to the seriousness in a number of your peers and advisers questioned your intentions. This bewildered you beyond your ability to describe, because you thought you were serious enough already.

Soon, you were ready for that beacon-like experience so vital to the writer. You were ready for a mentor. You were ready for Rachel Maddux, who wondered, "Do you have anything of yours I might read?" By this time, seeing your name in print over something you'd written was no longer an equivalent of crossing the street. You'd crossed that street in fact and fiction, already to the point where you had scrapbooks filled with your clips. And in proportionate measure, in yet another scrap book, your meetings with one of the metaphoric presences in the life of the writer, the rejection slip or letter.

With the help of a forged ID, you'd found your way into the cocktail lounge of The Garden of Allah, where known screenwriters, short story writers, and novelists actually offered you bits of technical advice and recommended writers who'd influenced them. One such person, who'd worked as a sand hog on The Holland Tunnel in New York, before "hitting it" as a writer, then earning his way "out West," laid it all out. He explained to you how he'd taken Mutiny on the Bounty as his frame for a film in which John Wayne was the old West equivalent of Captain Bligh and Montgomery Clift the analog of Fletcher Christian.  

Overhearing this tendered advice, yet another chimed in with the observation that there weren't all that many different stories in the first place. And both men agreed that the more you read, the more you'd be able to see your own narrative, presented in its classic form.

You had enough money for one more Manhattan, which you nursed with slow deliberation while a third writer said he didn't want to demean anything the previous writers told you, but there were two things you had to take home with you. There were, he said, two kinds of writing, descriptive and interior. If you expected to get anywhere, you needed to go beyond describing things and write as though you were trapped inside them, trying to get out.

And, you asked, the second thing?

Oh, yeah, the writer said, looking now at your Manhattan. Mixed drinks will be the death of you. You want to drink sipping whiskey or, as they say in Scotland, whisky. Bourbon and water. Two ice cubes.

And now, an adult, published writer, whose work you'd already read in books, was asking you if you had anything she might read. 

In those days, there were no computers. Only upright manuals and a few portable that seemed even heavier than the uprights. You write ten, twelve pages on one of those and you knew you were a writer.

Do you have anything of yours I might read?

You went home, put a sheet of Eaton's Corrasible bond into your Remington, then dashed across the street without looking.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Good Persons, Bad Persons, but not Indifferent Persons

You've spent a few engaging pages watching a character encounter a problem of sufficient emotional and tactical severity to require a novel to bring to some plausible resolution. Perhaps this character was Antoinette Conway in Tana French's engaging novel of suspense and detection, The Secret Place.

Over the years, you've been a fan of the mystery, following the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolf, and Ellery Queen as they morphed into your hardboiled favorites from Hammett and Chandler. As such things went, many of your friends were the men and women who wrote such stories. Along the way, your mentor in the mystery fiction field, Dorothy B. Hughes, wrote about men and women in tense situations, underscored by social issues and their consequences.

So no wonder you like Antoinette Conway, whom Tana French has given a tough-but-plausible road to follow, well beyond the one-size-fits-all of the whodunnit. Within these opening pages, you expect Antoinette to encounter an opposite number, one or more persons representing her polar opposite, the South to her North.

Because you've admired the author, Tana French, you understand that Conway, although an intelligent, dedicated, and morally upright individual, has other--necessary--traits to help her project the portrait of the plausible. 

She has some defects to offset her positive resume. She has pride. She has an ego. She's had negative past experiences and the maraschino cherry atop the sundae of her presence is the attitude of self-preservation some of these past experiences have called into play. She's the one female cop on the Dublin homicide team, a group not noted for their views on equal pay and other forms of parity for women.

She's realized with the precise amount of edginess to win your admiration. You're rooting for her to be successful at the chores Tana French as set out for her within the story arc and pages of The Secret Place.

You've already read, reread, and admired the novel to the point where it and others like it lead you into your own worlds of supposition, investigation, and curiosity. How far, you wonder, could Tana French pushed Conway over mere edginess and into meanness of spirit and downright disagreeable? You've read novels where you were asked to root for persons you didn't like. 

At the same time, you read novels in which persons you didn't like because they were the opposition began to exhibit traits you admire. One of the early of the plot-driven stories, Frederick Schiller Faust,a man who was so prolific that he needed several pseudonyms to carry his output, had the formula that resonated dramatic solvency for you. "The good become bad," Faust wrote, and, indeed, his daughter, Jane, confirmed to you, "and all the while, the bad become good."

Front rank characters, even in short stories, are required by the forces of dramatic common sense to change. What's the point of a character who doesn't change over time? Even Sherlock Holmes underwent change.

How far into the negative must a lead character descend for you to say in the effect of setting the book down, unfinished? So far, the most recent character is Harry Hole, the immensely popular protagonist of a series by the Norwegian mystery writer, Jo Nesbo. For your tastes, Hole is too passive, two absorbed in his own alcoholism, too exaggerated in his apparently overwhelming need to be caught up in the solution of a complex and violent crime.

In recognition of the need for a story to have polar agendas at issue and risk, you're not looking for role models when you read. Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard seem to create such individuals, none of whom you'd want even as casual acquaintances. Nevertheless, there must be some point where they are at a kind of risk you seek in real life, in your reading, and in your own attempts at story.

This risk is the tug of persons caught up in the binary pull of what they want from their individual life style and what they've managed to provide for themselves. You want to be where they work, what they work at, what kinds of pictures or art they have hung on their walls. And you want to be in their room before they've had a chance to adjust any pictures that may be at tilt, any bed that may still be unmade. You want to see the inside of their refrigerator.

You'll be disappointed to see a half-eaten bucket of KFC chicken, thinking how much better for them it would be if the point of origin for the chicken were Popeyes. You don't want antagonists who drown kittens or kick dogs nor do you want ideologues who are inflated with political fervor to the degree where their thought process is switched off.

You want bad guys (and ladies) who run the risk of turning good. You want good persons who are right out on the cusp of turning bad and who, in the long run, avoid doing so not out of strong moral compulsion but rather from the hard won awareness that being good, painful as it may be on balance, still is the easier path. In as many words then, you want individuals with some measure of conscience, individuals who find it more convenient to help little old ladies across the street because it is more internally painful to them not to do so. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Good Luck on the Job

For much of your life, you've put forth a concentrated effort into learning how to do one thing well. You continue to do so with the belief that doing one thing well can lead you in the direction of doing one or two other things within the framework of wellness. And part of your own interior monologue plays with the notion that being able to do one thing beyond ordinary may lead you toward being good at living.

You've had friends, classmates, colleagues who themselves appear able to do more than one thing well, even to the point at embodying those qualities associated with being a good person. 

Even as you write, your thoughts go to a friend now living in Utah who does well at the one thing you're looking to succeed in, at the same time being a gifted parent and step parent, a gifted teacher, and a person with admirable abilities in gardening and landscape projects.

You've had two similar individuals as close friends. These persons seemed to succeed without trying. Worse yet, they also appeared to be casting about for yet other things in which they could excel.

Because you've seen this type of individual at various age platforms, extending from late teens well on into the eighth decade, you've learned from experience that such individuals have little in common except one significant trait: each is marked by laser intensity focus kindness and empathy. You've known only one individual of staggering, multi-talented ability who was what most persons would write off a a hopeless asshole.

Because being accomplished at the one thing you wish to be focused on requires so much energy and concentration as well as a surrender to the multifarious whims of Reality, you can see where your attempts could have distracted you variously from being a responsive son, a supportive mate, a loyal friend. You may on reflection have reason to consider yourself more of an asshole than you in fact are. 

This algorithm applies to your overall self as a person; it has more than once occurred to you while considering how far you need to go to become accomplished at the one thing you wish to be accomplished at, that you are perhaps not so far behind the learning tide as you think.

At such times, you not only appreciate the diverse range of individuals you know to be accomplished at one thing, you recognize from the variety of your experiences how rare it is to meet a person who is good--with or without effort--at one thing. You sometimes wonder if meanness of spirit has caused you to believe there are multitudes of individuals who are not good at even one thing.

Your take away from all this is the awareness that in order to be as skilled and insightful a storyteller as you wish to be, you need to spend some time working at such traits as empathy, consideration, and a willingness to deliver your judgments more through your own actions than your own words.

Friday, February 17, 2017

If Fred has 16 Donuts, and Maria Needs to Make Christmas Tamales for 42

A man enters a small neighborhood pub in a remote part of town.

Most of us have enough things to do, problems waiting to be solved, inventions waiting to be invented for us to be intrigued enough by this set-up of a story. The very lack of detail and specificity make it possible for us to tell our self So What? Everywhere we go, it seems, generalities and vagueness confront us. Who cares about this nameless, faceless man?

Those of us of a certain age, seeing such an introduction to a narrative, may be reminded of fables, adages, parables that were fed to us in our youth. Even at first encounter, we knew such introductions were meant to pass along some equivalent of fortune cookie wisdom. 

Our cynicism shined through even then. There was no such person, no man entering a small neighborhood pub. For one thing, pubs were most likely in England. Another clue: "a remote part of town" by its lack of definition, was proof the story was invented for the purpose of convincing us the story we were about to hear actually took place.

In later years, more recent years, when print and on line publications use such equivalency as"Senior government officials," or "sources close to the individuals involved have speculated," or even "Informed sources report," we question the entire motive of the material.

Those of us who write fiction, and many of us who also attempt to teach others how to write fiction, have learned the simple technique of giving our important characters a name as a first step to conveying the possibility that a reader will begin to set aside the notion that the narrative is little more than an exercise in parable or fable.

Even though the narrative to come is in many ways still a parable or fable or other form of cultural information, the reader is more likely to care if the character has a name. For instance, were a narrative to begin, "Max Steiner twisted in discomfort on his death bed."

Ah, poor Max, you find yourself thinking, reminding yourself of nights in your own bed when sleep did not come with the ease you'd hoped. Some  muscle twitch or memory of a condition you'd brought home from work roiled within you. And to be in such discomfort on one's death bed! Yes, poor Max.

Because you recognize the contrarian sharing not only your bed but your body and consciousness, you are also reminded of simple arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and calculus problems presented to you in various stages during your middle and high school years. The questions were always in narrative form of some sort. Fred had sixteen donuts he needed to share with five coworkers. Maria was helping her grandmother make Christmas tamales for forty-two recipients. Dave wanted to find out how fast he'd have to drive in order to meet Pete, who was driving from another city, without making Pete wait more than fifteen minutes.

These individuals invariably seemed cartoonish or worse, and you were pretty sure what you'd have done with those sixteen donuts of Fred's.

Each of the two individuals you started with, the man entering the pub, and Max Steiner, are important, you might even say point-of-view characters, presences in jokes, which are the forerunners of flash fiction.

When you first heard both jokes, they began the same way. A man enters a cocktail lounge, and a man lay on his death bed. You opened up each one with some relevant detail, and in your retelling, added even more to make each narrative more of a textured story rather than the bare bones aspects of flash fiction.

In the former, the man is hugging a small box close to his chest, stopping from time to time to ask toward the box, "Are you okay in there? Got enough air? Need anything?"  In the latter, you even have Max Steiner sit up in bed, sniff, then beckon the hospice nurse closer. "Maybe it's sensory hallucination," Max tells the hospice nurse, "but I can swear I smell my favorite lemon poppy seed cake. Would you please ask my wife if she's baking? One piece of that and I could die a happy man?"

Both narratives now have the necessary set-up in place to produce an equivalent of an ending for dramatic effect, a joke with a punch line and a bit more, based on the personal agenda of the unnamed man and of Max Steiner. To this point, you've given the equivalent of act two in a three-act play.

The story concerning the man in the pub involves him sitting down at a deserted end of the bar, ordering a tap beer with a straw, then opening  the box.

In Max Steiner's case, Max's wife appears at the doorway of the bedroom to confirm that she is, indeed, baking not one but several lemon poppy seed cakes.

With the box opened, we can see its contents, a diminutive human figure, less than a foot high, and a small scale model of a concert grand piano, which the diminutive figure, after a sip of the beer, begins to play.

Max Steiner smiles at his wife, repeats what he told the hospice nurse. "One slice of that lemon poppy seed cake and I can die a happy man."

Hearing the energetic, Bach Goldberg Variations coming from the piano, the bartender exclaims in wonder, asks how our nameless man came in possession of the tiny piano player.  Here comes the punchline.  The narrator tells the bartender, "I did a great favor for a hard-of-hearing genie, who granted me one wish. I asked for a nine-inch penis."

"One slice," Max says. "One slice and--" But the wife begins to shake her head. "The lemon poppy seed cake is for after--"

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Equal Opportunity Antagonists

How much should you like your lead character?

For as long as you can recall, your earliest awareness of a story presents itself to you as an oversimplification or abstraction. A young man agonizes over his choice for a profession. A youngish woman wishes to try her hand at something she's been advised against. Family members of a family business are successful in spite of themselves. 

Unlike some writer friends, who seem to have stories delivered to them as though they were first seen on Amazon, then rushed over, you have to build, character by character, wrapping qualities of each about an armature, piling on competing or inimical qualities that will make the story seem more taut and surprising.

A major obstacle comes when, after you've chosen (or been chosen by) your main character. Now you need one or more opponents. You've played with the notion of working to make your opponents in some way more agreeable, more reasonable, even more intelligent or talented than your main character. After all, your good guys or gals need to win over a significant opponent, or it's no real contest, right?

But the kind of neutrality you're talking about--authorial neutrality--is hard come by, because you've already built up a sympathy for the individual who wants to get the thing done or find the answer or solve the problem or decode the secret message or all the other things you've in effect objectified for your waking hours.

At the moment, you're working on a complex issue of a mystery and its implications, involving a lead character your agent thinks can carry a series and indeed for whom you have two other situations, or shall we call them enigmas? There is maybe one other character in your dramatis personae you like. This has caused you to go back and take a second look at a number of what you think of as "the suspect class," men and women, boys and girls, LGBT's and such who need to appear dodgy enough for the reader to suspect of being in on it, which is to say The Big Score.

This raises political and moral questions (in cynical awareness that politics and morality have individual centers of gravity). Are you concerned with parity between your characters to the point of writing personal conflict out of the narrative. This slippery road has not been called Overthinking for frivolous reasons.

The immediate goal is to present a narrative presence known as a simulacrum. which in your mind takes you steps beyond the mere linearity of oppositions that pop up before the protagonist. The simulacrum is the overall appearance of reality you find in all your favorite stories and novels, which other readers find in theirs, and differing simulacra don't signify narrative crash and burn. Rather, the goal is to let the reader in, participate with judgments and misapprehensions, which is, in final analysis, a pretty good depiction of Reality.

Unlike some individuals romping through the contemporary political scene, and beyond such basic political divisions as the ultras--liberal and conservative--literary villains and antagonists are equal opportunity characters. They have as much right and reason, to their agendas as the protagonists have to theirs.

We don't require our protagonists and antagonists (let's say Othello and Iago, for instance) to present complete psychological dossiers. Better yet, we need to be allowed to see them in action, then have the opportunity to judge them in those terms rather than the dreary details of logical explanation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Descriptive Pause, A Narrative Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

If, as you believe, story can be described as an unrelenting series of actions and reactions until the last significant action, then, as you also believe, unnecessary details and heavy bouts of description may be described as inhibitors, if not outright obstacles.

You often consider that observation, which is truly an equation as well. The reader does indeed wish to know where the action is located, who appears to have the power in the action, and how the interaction plays out. But some of the most intense opposition you hear to those observations come from entry-level and intermediate students in the classroom, and from first-time authors in the editorial equivalent of the interview rooms from police TV shows. 

Details are an urgent necessity in most action-based story. Aren't they clues and hints? How would we know where we are, who is acting, who is being acted upon, and what things mean?

One possible answer, simple to you through its implications, emerges: Action relays the goals, intents, and outcomes. But this response becomes fuel squirted on smoldering coals. And what of those of us who love language? the students respond. Shouldn't style and pacing and, yes, even cadence, have some allowable places--note plural--in story? (When examined closely, this means language will be brought in more than once, made up and costumed as a critical trope known as The descriptive pause.

And yes, a number of highly successful authors, past and present, have produced longform works that are redolent of stylistic energy and imaginative cadence, at the same time advancing what many critics and academics call mimesis of a convincing sense of reality, and tempos that suggest human speech and thought patterns.

The received stylistic presence of any text, fact or the invention of fiction, plays an important role in the overall effect of the text. Two projects on which you had high degrees of control will illustrate the point. Although both are nonfiction, the examples hold because each represents a retelling from the specialized narrative language of professional information into language better suited for the lay reader.

In the first example, a noted civil procedures and torts attorney wrote a two-volume interpretation of new tort laws, their effects on attorneys, their clients, and related outcomes. You were in charge of finding a writer able to translate the text so that a lay audience would read it as a series of courtroom exchanges, confrontations, and outcomes. As well, the lay reader should be better able to see how the laws and strategies under discussion worked in general application. 

This effort, when published, was well received by reviewers in major metropolitan centers, by numerous public libraries, and by individual buyers in bookstores. Using another trade publishing standard for evaluation, this title "earned out;" there were sufficient sales to cover the advance in royalties given the author, to pay for the "ghost" writer, to cover the overhead and manufacturing costs associated with the publication, and a reasonable, if not grand profit for the publisher, a solid ROI (return on investment).

The second work was also a recasting of a work originally published for a segment of the medical profession known as cosmetic and reconstructive surgeons. This work appeared in print from a well-known publisher of scientific text and monographs; it was in this form essentially a text book. The title, suggested by the surgeon-author was The Cinderella Scalpel, its primary editorial focus meant to assure those in need of reconstructive surgery that competent, long-lasting results were possible. After your early consultations with the surgeon-author, you sought and received his approval for the added focus of a cautious approach to mere cosmetic goals, plus recommended standards for choosing a reconstructive or cosmetic surgeon.

Unfortunately, the surgeon author felt obligated to retain the writer of the scientific version, who resisted suggested changes in the use of language, so much so that he in no way captured the conversational quality of the surgeon. Your own mistake in the process was allowing the work to go to press using most of the ghost writer's text, a mistake that came back to haunt you when the early sales reports came in, augmented by the number of copies returned unsold by bookstores, and a dismal public library sale. 

The literal and figurative handwriting--"You have been held in the balance and found wanting"--came when the surgeon, while being interviewed on a Los Angeles TV station, was asked by the interviewer, "Will you please explain why you didn't write this book using the way you've been talking here?" The trade edition was allowed to go OP, out of print, not long after its publication, the title is not listed in any of the remainder services readily available, and at the next editorial meeting, the publisher admonished you, "Please, no more doctors with formal bedside manners."

Perhaps these examples demonstrate extreme takes on the matter. But the lesson remains, whether in fact, or the invented fact of fiction. Descriptions and explanations must be a significant part of the action. If they are not, story stops. When story stops, reader puts book down, perhaps never to return. Under less drastic circumstances, reader begins to skip and skim through the text.

Two immediate quick fixes for the descriptive pause:

1) Dialogue, either more contentious than usual or leading the reader to assume that two or more parties are agreeing to something each sees differently.

2) A quick return to sentences and paragraphs with action verbs.

The aspect you most enjoy when a student brings you some passage from a printed work as an indication of cadence, meter, even poetry in descriptive language, and you are immediately able to relate to consequences roiling within the story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Table Hopping--Yes; Head-Hopping--No!

Much of your waking day is spent preparing lecture notes or commenting on student papers, editing manuscripts for clients, reading such contemporary publications as The London Review of Books, The Times (of London) Literary  Section, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and The Paris Review. Your class-related reading takes you often as far back as the nineteenth century, and well into the present era, say Viet Nguyen's recent novel, The Sympathizer.

Your personal reading is every bit as eclectic as you are, ranging from the tightly plotted mysteries of Tana French and Robert Crais to the less structured and yet more idiosyncratic works of such writers as Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith, and J.M. Coetzee.

Your personal writing projects reflect your inner chaos: a contemporary mystery novel, an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, and a revision of a work on writing fiction. To a significant degree, this is the life you saw for yourself when, as a college fresh person, you invited the notion of life's work as a writer to come to dinner, then move in permanently.

The world about you, as you've come to know it, waxes and wanes tidal between the two extremes of purpose and chaos. You frequently find yourself somewhere in the middle, experiencing a tug in either direction, depending on immediate needs and circumstances. You aspire toward orderly progression, yet as you approach that state, the incoming tide of chaos deposits some significant surprise at your feet. Or in your mind.

Much of your life, even in its more disorderly aspects, is focused on the writing, teaching, and reading of drama. Chaos and opposition make appearances in drama, sometimes in the guise of characters, other times as complications caused by opposing sets of characters. Your taste for and appreciation of the works of other writers takes its clues from their ability to depict and deploy chaos and opposition as though they were similar to the chaos and oppositions you sense in everyday life.

These preceding paragraphs become prologue or backstory to your concept of life in the outer world finding its metaphor for you in the large gathering, where a meal is served, one or more speakers present speeches or observations, and the audience--including many individuals you know in varying degrees of intimacy--are seated in tables clustered about the speaker's podium.

Your favorite moments at such gatherings come after the main course has been served, pounced on, investigated for its potential, its disagreeable components shoved aside under some garnish. You've already has the opportunity to chat with those at your table; now you're free to table hop, taking coffee or tea with individuals you've spotted at other tables. More often than not, you enjoy this table-hopping aspect of the gathering more than the gathering itself, and invariably more than you enjoyed the meal. Table-hopping conveys to you the delights of catching up with acquaintances and being caught up on.

Your favored moments in reading come at the moment when the main course equivalent has been served, when Dorothy Gale, for instance, discovers she's been yanked from Kansas, plunked in the middle of Oz, and wishes to return home. Better still for your purpose, Wilkie Collins' novel, The Moonstone, in which the eponymous gem has once again been stolen and you, once again, are allowed to trace its adventurous trajectory.

Your least favorite moments, literary equivalents of the rubber chicken served at so many banquets, are those in which you are given the inside track to the thoughts--often suspicious or guarded--impressions, and feelings of a character you've been given reason to understand is the narrative filter for the entire story, only to have that impression dashed by one or more characters in the same scene sharing their thoughts, feelings, suspicions, and perhaps even grudges. 

This condition earns the name head-hopping; it is most definitely a deal breaker so far as chances for acquiring representation from a literary agent and being taken on by a publisher.
The conventions in serving meals call for serving from the left (of the patron) and clearing from the right. The conventions for presenting narrative call for presenting the inner workings of only one character per scene. You may chose any character you wish, but once you've done so, the only way out is to end the scene, then begin another.

Some emerging writers are this very day being taught a point of view referred to as omniscient, in which the reader has privy to the inner life of any and all characters who appear in the scene and, in some cases, even a few words of description or explanation from the author. We're far enough into the twenty-first century for this approach to be a deal breaker.

The notable exception to being able to head hop and/or use omniscient POV is to have a track record with one or more publishers in which one or more of your published works earned out its production and overhead costs and, in the bargain, brought the publisher a notable profit.

Your reason for the earlier mention of Wilkie Collins' excellent novel, The Moonstone,pivots on its engaging narrative, as filtered through an ensemble cast of characters, made visible to us one point of view per chapter. In more recent times, you've found the use of the multiple point of view as deployed by the suspense writer, Robert Crais, a satisfying diet. Crais not only gives you an intimate peak at the inner life of his good guys and miscreants, he adds to the tang by allowing his principal character, Elvis Cole, to tell his part of the story in the first-person filter.

The recently departed Irish writer, William Trevor, published dozens of novels and short stories using the omniscient, head-hopping approach. You've been a great fan of his work ever since you discovered it. His work continues to remind you how easy he makes head hopping seem and gives you to understand why so many emerging writers think to use it as their main narrative filtration system. But the closer you look, the more you're able to see that it isn't easy at all; Trevor had a grand ability to keep the story moving smoothly along what for most writers is an extremely bumpy road.

One character per scene. You want to know what someone else is thinking, you have your main character ask them. You can't tell us. The character does the work. You get to sit back, manage the traffic, keep your own POV quiet.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reading Glasses and Hearing Aids for All Characters

The average human adult hears sound waves from about eighteen cycles per second to about twenty thousand cycles. This same, statistical individual sees objects, say a row of letters, from a distance of twenty feet that most other individuals of statistical conformity see.

These two senses are often brought in for some kind of comparison when dealing with statistical averages. Other senses, such as taste, sensitivity to heat or cold, have numerical and subjective boundaries as well; they are often used in dramatic situations to add layers of characteristic to invented, you might well say ad hoc examples, designating deviation from the statistical norm.

Writers, whether knowingly or not, frequently use these particular senses when they construct characters whom they subsequently trust to carry forth the actions, thoughts, and spoken word of a narrative. Their first step in creation is to endow the character with some well above average desire for an outcome. Inspector Jaivert in Les Miserable, would have probably remained a prison guard had he been average, but his focus on justice was so intense that those in the surrounding legal system recognized his "talent," just as individuals in the religious life saw such individuals as the peasant girl Bernadette, in Franz Werfel's novel, The Song of Bernadette, or indeed, an earlier peasant girl, Joan, as having a "vocation."

In any case, front rank characters are not in any way average. If there is something average about them, it is brought forth as a defect. When you think, then, of characters, think of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, who is memorable for many things, among them his large nose. Most actors who portray Cyrano on stage or in film make use of putty or wax to exaggerate the size and shape of the nose.

We do not want ordinary characters. Quick, make a list of all the ordinary characters in the novels of Charles Dickens. No, wait; don't. Dickens' characters may lack dimension; they may be sketchy cliche, but they all have one or more qualities that push them over the edge of ordinary. Bill Sykes,  the dodgy malefactor from Oliver Twist, for example, was so awful that even his own dog could no longer tolerate him. When Sykes was on the run, his dog led the police to him, an effective statement if ever there was a betrayal.

Whether you are reading or composing your own fictions, you don't want statistically average characters, dithering about, causing things to seem more normal. You want potentials for misunderstanding, missteps, willful disobedience, and the kinds of mischief caused by teen-aged hormones and the approaching concerns of middle aged life. You want in fact men and women who do not see conventional wisdom through eyeglasses corrected to 20/20. You wan near- and far-sighted characters.

You want men and women who do not hear the wisdom of their tribal elders, unless the wisdom from such elders is the suggestion that youthful folly is a pony to be ridden at full gallop.

Not all that long ago, you began subjecting characters to stress tests to suggest to you how much resilience they had before they could set foot in one of your narratives. As an aside, your narratives have often been described to you as originating in whimsicality. Other writers of your awareness and personal acquaintance see reality as the famed jungle that's to be found "out there," Your reality has its quicksand and pot holes, true enough, but not because you come to it having been reared by the Christian theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who wrote of his characters as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. 

Such as your god is, it is a whimsical god, who has a taste for Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic, sandwiches piled high with brisket, thick, wintery lentil soups, noodle puddings with slightly burned crusts, shaggy dog stories, and a mischievous way of stringing out a story. Your god, with a nod to your own father, prefers matzo balls so dense that, were one to fall from its serving spoon, it would crack the dish upon which it landed.

You were present during your god's watch over such things as the Great Depression, the Anschluss and subsequent formation of the Third Reich, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bloody battle at Tarawa, the internment of Japanese-American citizens in such places as Manzanar, not to mention the Scottsboro Boys, numerous lynchings and Bilie Holliday's memorable song, "Strange Fruit." You knew this god meant business and had some dark moments.

But even god needs glasses and a hearing aid. During his lifetime, an actor named Nathan Birnbaum portrayed god in a film. The actor's stage name, you might call it nom de plume or even nom du guerre, was George Burns. Were such a movie to be made today, you could see a more contemporary favorite, Mary Rylance, taking the role, or perhaps the young, brusque, talented Tom Hardy.

At one point, you were close to being taken on as part of the writing team for a short-lived TV series in which the role of god was played by a Puerto Rican attendant at a Turkish bath. But the producer who was to make this possible, at the last moment, chose someone else. "This has nothing to do with writing skills," the producer told you. "I simply couldn't in good conscience have another Jew writing words for god."

"But--but--" you sputtered. "The writer you chose--"

The producer waved his hands. "Nah, nah," he said. "The other writer is Sephardic. That doesn't count."

So yes, reading glasses. A hearing aid.  All your characters. Even god.