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This Is Personal

I’m sitting in a coffee bar on G street. I’m not a coffee bar writer, or at least not especially a coffee bar writer. Truth is, I could always write any old place, and I often did: a doctor’s waiting room, a park bench, the front seat of a my (parked) car. Even at home. It didn’t matter. I always carried a crummy spiral bound notebook and a couple of ballpoints with me. I wrote six novels and a memoir using that method.

Things have changed. In truth, I’ve had to seriously consider whether I’m even a writer anymore, whether that’s really an accurate way of identifying myself. Not to others — I’ve rarely ever called myself a writer — but to myself. Is that still a defining part of my identity?

I’m not normally one for a lot of existential soul searching, and certainly not one for doing this kind of thing in public. It doesn’t interest me very much, and I’m damned sure it wouldn’t interest anyone else. But I’ve been pretty scarce around these boards lately. I’ve been a poor member of this community for the last year or so, and I think it’s time I explained what’s been going on, about what led me to this grim precipice.

And no, I’m not going to jump. The time for desperate measures has passed.

About a year and a half ago, my son was arrested. He had just turned 18. It was a violent crime. Mercifully, no one was hurt, but they could have been. People could have died, and he would’ve been at least partly to blame.

He sat in the local jail for almost a year waiting for trial. I visited him twice a week (which was about all that he was allowed). He called several more times a week. We didn’t talk about his crime very much. Everything you say on a jail phone is recorded; everything you write is copied and kept: it can all be used against you. He didn’t see his lawyers (he had three at various times, all public defenders) often, but the one thing they were adamant about was that he shouldn’t be talking about his crime. So we didn’t. It was okay. At first, of course, my curiosity was eating me up, but I understood the need NOT to talk about it, and after a while, I almost stopped caring, hard as that may be to believe. I’m still curious about what happened that night, but I don’t need to know anymore. I have assumed the worst. I’ve stared into that particular horror, and the truth is, I still love my son. I still hope and believe that when he finally gets out, he can still have a decent life ahead of him. I don’t think he is evil. I think he made a lot of stupid decisions, at an age when most people make stupid decisions. His were worse than most…

But I’m getting off the topic. About six months ago, he took a plea deal. His lawyer, incidentally, believed his story, but his partner-in-crime, his co-perpetrator, put all the blame on my son, and the lawyer said going to trial was risky. If the jury found against him, he could’ve gotten a life sentence. So he took a deal. It was a lousy deal. In truth, I think he got rooked by the DA’s office (who seemed to be highly motivated to show how tough she was on middle class criminals in our crime ridden city) but that’s off topic as well. He’s still responsible for his actions, and he’s the first to admit it. To his credit, he’s never tried to shuffle off blame or complained about the apparent unfairness. He wants to pay for his crime. And pay he will. There are still factors that could change his eventual sentence, but the most likely scenario is that he will spend about ten years in a state penitentiary.

That’s where he is now. We haven’t been able to visit him yet (there is a whole process of getting permission which is time consuming and bureaucratically convoluted). He has called once, but apparently gets few opportunities to use the phone. Even letters are infrequent and unpredictable, for various reasons. But he says he is okay for now.

Ten years to go.

I’ve never been a conscientious writer. There have been times when I have dutifully managed to produce a daily word count, but that hasn’t been the norm. I’ve had fallow periods before, but nothing quite like what I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. It’s hard not to blame it on my kid the criminal, my son the jail bird, my child the prison inmate. We’ve found out things about his life before the crime that we certainly never wanted to know, and that no parent should ever have to know, but all too many of us must. It has made me question almost everything. It certainly shifted the stupid novel I was working on to the back burner. Hell! Back burner? The whole stove was off. I wasn’t even going into that mental kitchen anymore.

Really, I blame him for a lot of things, but I can’t blame him for my writerly crisis of faith. Writing is a choice and a discipline. You can’t blame anybody but yourself, and really, you shouldn’t blame anyone. Not writing is also a valid choice, just a sad one — for the writer anyway. As far as readers go, well, there are plenty of other books to read. The world will get along just fine if I never write another word.

So this is really about me. And — spoiler alert — no, I haven’t given up. I haven’t jumped into that particular abyss of self. For the last couple of months, I’ve been making this daily pilgrimage to this charming, noisy, college town coffee shop. I have my laptop. I have my notebooks, in which are scrawled the words I wrote — some almost two years ago — the very rough draft of a novel that, it turns out, is probably nearly 500 pages long. I sit, drink a dark roast, and spend an hour, maybe two, unearthing this erstwhile corpse. It isn’t bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when I finish it. I suppose I’ll self-publish it (I am so past the whole find-a-publisher part of the process, though I imagine I probably could. I’ve done it before.)

But that’s another topic, and for right now, it isn’t the important part. I need to finish this book. I need to do this every day. After all, I have other books to write.

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About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Be Ready When She Comes

The other day, this article, a speech on racism and science fiction (dating back to 1998, no less), surfaced in my Facebook feed. I’d never seen it before but, being a Samuel Delany fan from way back, I dug right in.

Before I had even cleared the first third of it, I found myself hurriedly putting it aside to work on the second draft of my own current WIP. The damned thing had been fighting me hard—not because the plot or characters were in any way unclear in my mind, but there was simply no consistent voice yet. WIP’s come in all forms, and they all fight us to some extent, but this one had been particularly tough—petulant, thorny, recalcitrant—it had resisted all my efforts to get a groove going. The novel, typically, didn’t care about what I was trying to do. I hadn’t gotten her attention yet.

Somewhere between George Schuyler’s horrific and ironic description of a lynching and Delany’s own telling of his first pointedly racist rejection letter, I hit pay dirt. All at once, I had a new beginning for the first chapter, and with it, a new sense of where I was going and why I was going there. My bristly companion was suddenly purring and eager, both soothed and enlivened by the fact that I was finally doing something it liked.

What had changed? There is nothing in my book that relates directly to what Delany was talking about. It is not about racism. It certainly isn’t science fiction. It doesn’t take place during the time period he is mostly talking about. (The article, by the way, is well worth the read.) Yet somehow, despite the lack of relevance, something sparked. Some bit of current leaped a nineteen year gap and jumpstarted my always dubious creative process.

That’s an off-the-cuff metaphor, but it’s an apt one.

My admiration for Delany is nearly boundless. Indeed, I think he is one of the finest writers of the second half of the 20th Century. His voice was both clear and curious, earnest and playful. He wrote beautiful sentences. He took science fiction seriously while still regarding all labels warily.

The muse (and I use the term reluctantly) cannot be coaxed or coddled. She appears when she will, without warning or reason, in whatever motley garb the moment might supply—a blaze of light, a scrabbling at the window, the tickle of hairs rising on the back of your neck. Being divine in nature, she rarely speaks anything like sense. In fact, she often says nothing at all. But her mere presence, even fleeting and uncertain, can awaken that starburst of astonishment. You do know what you’re doing. Actually, you’re doing it already.

It has been said that the only way to court the muse is by doing the work at hand. Let her find you writing. I’m not sanguine about that. It seems to me, we often labor along without her help for long dark days or seasons. Writing when you are not inspired is the norm, not the exception, at least for me. But at the very least, if you are writing, then maybe you will be ready when she appears, if she appears. Try being in the right place at the right time. It couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, inspiration goes as abruptly as she comes. So when she shows, burn whatever oil you have to keep the lights on. Give her anything she wants. And write.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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Uncategorized, writing technique

Raise Your Voice… uh, Voices!

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-05-42-41

I am not a sarcastic person. Sarcasm strikes me as mean — snarky condemnations passive-aggressively issued by arrogant people desperate to feel superior to those they ridicule. Those who are not the target may think it’s witty, but maybe they’re just relieved and smugly enjoying the fact it wasn’t aimed at them. After all, does anyone really deserve such ridicule? I’m inclined to give all* people the benefit of the doubt, and accept their occasionally foolish, irritating, mind-raspingly stupid behavior as an entitlement every human may claim. Even I could claim it if I were ever foolish, irritating, or stupid. None of which, of course, I ever am.

That’s the reason Romero Russo was such a revelation. More than two years ago, Romero started writing a book called Sarcasm Font. My first public view of him was on Inkshares during a marketing contest. After completing the first five chapters of his ambiguously fictional story, he started blogging. People found his writing funny and thoughtful:

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Here’s the thing. I am him.

 

That’s right. Following an unexpected series of events leading to my brain slurring two words into a word you won’t find in the OED, a fit of whimsy took over. I began writing Sarcasm Font in a voice so unfamiliar to me that I couldn’t even claim author credit. Romero Russo was born. He had a life of his own. He didn’t speak to me; he spoke through me. No doubt other authors have had the same out-of-voice experience. I suspect they would agree: it’s freeing.

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The elusive Romero Russo (Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht)

 

Like many authors, I’ve written characters who say sarcastic things. Readers have commented that each of my characters has an individual, identifiable voice. But writing and living from inside a character whose voice differs drastically from your own is more like acting. If you allow that person to tell the whole story, the writing experience is more like watching the story than creating it.

When Romero went public on Inkshares, the circle who knew about the two of us was small: two of my sisters and my son. They were kind enough not to share Romero’s secret, but they weren’t shy about letting me know they thought it was kind of creepy that I talked about him as if he were real. He and I shared a Venn diagram overlap of followers, and we followed each other. Why wouldn’t we? We were marketing separate works by separate authors.

But when we started blogging, we were sharing our “selves” with strangers. That’s when it became a hoax. No one questioned it. Why would they? He said things I would never say. It was just so darn much fun to be Romero Russo.

After the 2016 A to Z Blogging Challenge, Romero went silent on WordPress. I was still working on Sarcasm Font, and planned to promote it under his name. I began to question the practicality of that when I wrote the short story behind one of his… um, life events, and entered it in a contest. Entry required a bio and a photo. I had those, no problem. But on the chance — however remote — that it won a cash prize, or was short-listed to be published in the anthology, wouldn’t I want the cash and/or credit to be mine? Yes. Yes I would. I submitted it under my name, and while it didn’t win any cash, it was published in the contest anthology. I got all the credit.

I also gave myself up. Someone — I leave the choice to acknowledge this to him — who follows both Romero and me procured a copy of the anthology and read my story, which I, appropriately though perhaps indiscreetly, called “Sarcasm Font”. He allowed that I might merely have appropriated Romero’s premise, but he also suspected that we might be one and the same, despite the difference in voices. When he asked me directly, I couldn’t bring myself to resort to “alternative facts”. I confessed.

My hope is that others may take some inspiration from this tale. If you haven’t yet written an out-of-voice story, I highly recommend it. It will open your mind to discover voices you didn’t know you had. Ideas that have never occurred to you before will flow. You might find your very own Romero Russo.

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*(Except for one person to whom I gave a chance, but whose consistently reprehensible behavior has depleted my ability to tolerate. I might need Romero to speak for me for the next four years.)

fullsizeoutput_174 S.T. Ranscht lives in San Diego, California. She and Robert P. Beus co-authored ENHANCED, the first book in the young adult Second Earth Trilogy. She is currently submitting their baby to literary agents, determined to find the one who is their perfect match. Her short story, “Cat Artist Catharsis”, earned Honorable Mention in Curtis Bausse’s 2016 Book a Break Short Story Contest, and is available in its anthology, Cat Tales. “Sarcasm Font” appears in the 2016 To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology. Find her online: on WordPress at Space, Time, and Raspberries, Facebook, Twitter @STRanscht and Instagram @stranscht. You can follow ENHANCED on Facebook, Twitter @EnhancedYASyFy, and Instagram @secondearthtrilogy.

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About Writers

Why I Write – Carl E. Reed

writer

For those merry fictioneers past 50 years of age (I am now a member of this august, somewhat-worse-for-wear group) who keep putting pen to paper, hammering on keyboard keys and/or barking into tape recorders as twilight approaches, the question might well be asked: Why do you keep doing this? After all, depending on whose statistics you reference, only 2% – 5% of published writers make their living from the writing of fiction. What are the reasons to continue practicing the craft, then? Speaking only for myself (and in no particular order) my top ten reasons are:

1. I am compelled to do it. There is something about the aesthetic frisson and sublime pleasure occasioned by the fashioning of words into cunning order that scratches a deep-rooted psychic itch in me like nothing else can. (“A word after a word after a word is power.” —Margaret Atwood)

2. I write to save my sanity and calm, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, that “dog’s breakfast, 3½ pounds of blood-soaked sponge” ceaselessly monkey-chattering away inside the “bone housing maelstroms” (this latter phrase from a poet whose name I have unfortunately forgotten). Or as Ray Bradbury commands in Zen & the Art of Writing (close paraphrase): If you’re a writer, you must write yourself sane every day. (Direct quote: “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.”) When I don’t write I feel vaguely unsettled and nauseous, nerve-jangled and angry, peevish and resentful, churlish and depressed.

3. I write to discover what I actually think and feel. There is no better way to interrogate yourself than to put characters of divers temperament, backgrounds and agendas on direct collision courses with one another in your plots. All you need do then is stand back and record the resulting fireworks as honestly and directly—as devoid of dogma and cant and easy bullshit conflict-resolution answers—as you can manage. (“A writer should be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of god.” —Hemingway)

4. I am never more myself than when I write, so I write in response to Plato’s dictum: “know thyself”. (Or as no less an authority than Socrates observed: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”)

5. Practice of “the spooky art” (Norman Mailer’s numinous phrase for the craft) allows me to better appreciate the hard work and consummate skills of “The Greats”. After all, who better understands and appreciates music—the musician, or the stereo owner?


6. It is the hardest work I’ll ever do—therefore, the most satisfying. (“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” —James Joyce) It is also, at times—to immediately contradict myself—the easiest, most exhilarating work that I’ll ever do. (“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.” —Truman Capote) This is also most satisfying.

7. I enjoy the tactile feel of fingertips on keyboard and the clack-click clickety-clack sounds my keyboard makes. (“If typewriters hadn’t been invented by the time I began to write, I doubt if the world would have ever heard of Jack London.”) Never underestimate the love an artist has for his instrument, or the concomitant impact such technical idolatry might have on his or her continued enthusiasm for the work. Do you think there are any great guitarists indifferent to guitars; accomplished painters unaware of subtle differences in canvas, brushes and paints?

8. I write for recognition. (In this, I have utterly failed, of course. Heh! So it goes . . .)

9. I write for money. Yes, that is one of the reasons I write, despite the long odds of ever receiving a check large enough to cover a month’s bills. (See rueful comment above.)


10. I write to connect with others, to let them know that they are not alone. (“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” —Albert Schweitzer. “Only connect!” —E. M. Forster, Howards End)

What are your reasons for writing, I wonder?

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