Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some More Sleight of Doing Stuff by Tom Allston (Guest Blogger)

Got an anecdote concerning a long-ago best friend. This was in San Angelo. Marshall was Godzilla's nephew: six-five, two-fifty, mostly muscle. Lifetime arm-wrestling champ of Tom Green County. People used to wonder why "the brawn" and "the brain" ran together. I still do. Maybe it was a kind of gestalt. Who knows?
I'll admit, the guy could be amusing. He had a histrionic, over-the-top way of telling a tale. Highly entertaining.
He was also canny, and really quick on the uptake. The latter talent served his coffee-shop performances well, and more than once made for a jaw-dropping display. Those came in handy in a milieu of rough types of humans.
Gotta back up just a little. Wife #1 had trained in ballet. This provided me with a couple of techniques: how to give a damned effective rubdown (which dancers need after a performance or practice) and the secret of aiding a lift or toss. Without that, male dancers, although deceptively strong, couldn't do the stuff they typically do. In case you didn't know, professional wrestlers use this lift technique.
It works like this: When someone lifts you high in the air--or tosses you across a ring--you assist the movement by springing off the balls of your feet. This overcomes the inertia of rest, and helps start the lift or throw. It's seldom noticed.
My femme and I found it handy for getting her onto a car of high brick wall to warch parades or riots, etc. Years later, Marshall immediately saw the value of the maneuver.
Now, when you run with roustabouts and bull-haulers, you occasionally face a testosterone-goaded threat situation. This usually involved several toughs who were well into their cups. They's start by picking on the smaller guy--me.
"You got a problem with my little buddy?" Mashall would ask calmly, grabbing the back of my belt. I'd bounce upward, he'd heft, and I'd wind up on his shoulder.
"You gotta go through me," he'd conclude. At that point, the threat usually evaporated.
Once, we even got to perform the bit in reverse. I'd been roughnecking for most of a year, and could lift a V-8 short block. But I have an odd musculature: It doesn't gain bulk, it just gets harder and harder. My 180 pounds still looked like 150 or so.
We were on our way into the coffee shop when somebody in a gang of six or seven mouthed a generalized challenge. The opportunity flashed like a stroke of light.
"Hey, don't pick on my big buddy," I said. A glance upward showed that Doc Savage glint in Marshall's eye. I grabbed his belt, he sprang and I heaved with all my might.
With 250 pounds of him suddenly balanced on my right shoulder, I added, "You'll have to deal with both of us."
The attack squad disappeared so fast, I wondered if they'd been real. Marshall's guffaws threw us badly off kilter, and I almost collapsed before he could dismount.
Why bring this up, other than an ego-eruption? Okay, guilty as charged, there. Sue me. More to the point, I see it as a real-life example of the fact that things aren't always as they seem. And that's a reality that makes mystery stories and literary twists believable.
But writers, especially during the painful birthing phase, often misuse or abuse the twist and diversion process. A common beginner's error is to use the technique clumsily. I've damn sure done that: I once got a rejection letter that gently pointed out the editor could see the twist coming a mile away. This often happens because the writer hasn't read broadly enough in the genre being attempted. He just doesn't know how much ground has already been covered.
Bear in mind that the essentials of mystery writing and "twist" tales are almost diametrically opposite. Mystery readers want to match wits with the writer (and by extension the protagonist), while the reader of a twist-ending story wants to be caught, figuratively speaking, with his drawers around his ankles. So a mystery needs clues planted along the way to hint at the solution, whereas a twist should be a complete surprise.
But both must logically follow. They can, even should, be sprinkled with McGuffins ("red herrings") to mislead the unwary, but the ending has to make sense, and must not result from some agency the reader has no way of knowing.
That, in my observation, is a common fatal error of beginners. It's akin to deus ex machina--"machinery of the gods"--in which a higher power finally steps in to set things right. Accepted, even expected, in the drama and comedy of Classic Greece, it just doesn't cut it now.
For reference, some erstwhile masters of the twist were H.H. Munro (Saki), O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. No doubt there are contemporary writers skilled in the genre, too, but my own reading isn't broad enough to name them.
The names Doyle and Poe loom large in the history of mystery, although both, in my opinion, at times used the device of withheld information. Poe was known to effectively apply a twist to his story endings, too. Again, I'm not that familiar with current mystery writing--but that's why God made best-seller lists.
Another point is that combination writing can be doubly effective. In science fiction and fantasy (I am kinda familiar with these), a novel often is also a mystery. Not uncommonly, comedy is incorporated into both genres, and currently, there are some fantasy-humor-detective series. Threefers: The reader's cup runneth amok.
I can't stress too strongly that breadth of reading is invaluable as a preparation for and strengthening of writing. I know that when I shit and fall back in it, literarily (?) speaking, it's because I've missed some background that I should have been familiar with.
A penultimate note: I see stuff from beginning writers who obviously have as their main influence the output of Hollywood and its ceteras. I think that's a bad idea.
For starters, movies are usually derivative, and a writer should be able to come up with something that's fresh. And too often, film and reality can't be crowbarred into the same thought. If you need proof, just ask a cop, musician or teacher what they think of movies depicting their profession. Any professional. Any movie. Exceptions are scarce as condoms in a nunnery.
Another putrid influence is computer games. That "move along, kill something, move along, kill something," form is already showing up in beginners' writing.
Too bad, so sad.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guest Bloggers

From time to time I will be inviting guest bloggers to post to my sight. They will discuss aspects of writing from their own viewpoints.
The upcoming blog post is one of those guests.
Tom Allston is a member of my critique group and a multi-published writer. In his career, he has been published in short stories and is a retired journalist. His other professional credits include, musician, teacher of music and English, oil-field roughneck, advertising writer, and photographer. I'm sure there are other professional credits I am missing. In his lifetime he has gained knowledge and experience in the martial arts, motorcycles, religion and many other areas of interest. He is currently writing a post-apocalyptic novel and has also written numerous sword and sorcery novels and short stories and the list goes on.
In our group, we consider him to be our expert in grammar and style. He is the most efficient and effective among us as an editor. (Although there are several other group members who can at least equal his talent.)
He will probably be the most frequent contributor to my blogs simply because he happens to be the most prolific writer in the group. He often brings two or more pieces at a time for us to critique.
I hope you enjoy his contributions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Daily Challenge

Yesterday and today, I've spent hours in front of the computer trying to figure out what happens next. The whole time I was working on it and coming up dry, one of my characters was screaming at me about some comuppance she needed to get out of the way. Even though I knew it didn't come until later on in the story.
I finally gave in and let it happen. It took me less than an hour to work out the whole scene. It flowed from my fingers like water, while the rest of the story was flowing more like molasses on a cold winter day. When I was finished, I was able to go back and start filling in the blanks of what should come before that scene. After about seven pages, I ran dry again. So I went and took a look at the later scene I had finished. Low and behold, what happened after that started spilling out.
I've always struggled to write a book in the order it would happen in. But this is the second time that this sort of thing has happened to me. The last time, it took me two months of work and countless pages to catch up to where my character had led me. And the story flowed seamlessly between the two section.
I guess the moral is: Write what your characters are insisting you get down now. They may not feel like talking about it later. Never lose track of the storyline, but let them out to play at whatever point they want to. You can always fill in later.
The whole thing made me feel a little psycho at first, but I sure felt better when it was over!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heroes and Villains

I was thinking about story and characters today, as I sat on my front porch feeding the neighborhood squirrels. There’s the fat one. My husband calls him “Buddy” because he’s so friendly. Buddy has no fear of humans. He’ll come to the edge of the porch, stand up and wait for us to throw him a peanut, then either eat it right there or run off under the shade of a tree to enjoy his treat, before coming straight back for the next one. He will also come onto the porch when the front door is open and look in, waiting for us to feed him.
There’s the greedy one. When I’ve fed Buddy, ‘Greedy’ will come out and watch. I can throw a peanut straight out to him, and he’ll ignore it to chase Buddy for his.
Then, there’s the timid one. It took him a while to get used to taking peanuts from us. We’d throw one down to him in the yard, he’d take it, then run and hide while he ate it. We’d throw next peanut a little closer to the porch. “Timid” would stand there wringing his tiny paws and staring at the peanut for several moments before he would venture the few inches closer to get it.
Now, Timid comes into the garden near the porch to get his treats, but he never approaches as close as Buddy does. The biggest motivation for him probably was the blue jay that often stole peanuts while Timid stood contemplating the risk of getting closer.
Things have changed over time. Now, Greedy comes, almost as close as Buddy does and no longer chases him. We have three squirrels hooked on peanuts and a following of blue jays that await their own treats. It’s costing us a bag or two of raw, in-the-shell peanuts a week, but we have fun. And it makes me think about writing.
Okay, everything makes me think about writing. The squirrels prompted me to think of how important character is to a story
No matter what kind of story you write, it’s usually driven by character. From Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to Stephen King’s The Stand, the character, his choices and the changes that take place in his basic personality are what drives the story to a satisfying conclusion—or doesn’t
Of course, a story must have other elements. A good character without a good story to tell adds up to very little. Story without conflict usually equals zero. However you begin a piece of writing, whether you start with a good story idea or a good character, other elements have to be there to drive the story along.
What makes a good character? The answer is implicit in one succinct phrase: Heroes have flaws, and villains have reasons.
It took me a long time to realize what that means. Heroes are normal human beings thrust into a situation in which they must act. Villains are not necessarily all bad. They might be basically good people, even heroes in any other set of circumstances. But whatever the case, they have a reason to do what they do. A story’s villain can be driven by greed, revenge, lost love, . . . the list goes on and on.
A really good villain must have qualities the reader can identify with, just as the hero must have flaws the reader can identify with. The villain’s reasons lead to his downfall. Overcoming at least one of his flaws makes the hero a hero and a sympathetic character.
I don’t necessarily sympathize with the squirrels and blue jays I feed in the front yard, but they do set me to wondering about what motivates them to choose bravery over fear to gain the treasure of the peanut they seek.
There are many other aspects of character, but the subject is too big to tackle in one blog and there is only so much inspiration hungry squirrels can evoke, even in me. The rest of the subject will have to wait for another blog on another day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Critique Group

My blog is dedicated to writers and encouragement and a place for me to write about things that I might not normally write about. It is a celebration of friendship and dedication to the art of writing.
I have been in the same critique group for about fifteen years. Another member has been in the group for almost as long as I have.
Across that decade-and-a-half, we’ve seen a lot of people come and go. At times we had so many members we couldn’t get through all our work in one night. Then there have been times we have had so few that we turned to our friends who taught writing classes for aspiring writers to “audition” as new members.
Currently we number eight--all dedicated to their art and all very good at what they do. Only two of us have ever been published in more than really small-time forms. One is a retired journalist and the other is a multi-talented writer who has published three Western Historical books since he has been in our group. All of us have the potential for publication, and I think all will eventually be published. It comes to all of us if we work hard enough and stick with it long enough.
Were it not for this group, I would have given up long ago. We are really tough on each other. One of our mentors calls us (to my chagrin) hard core, ruthless, no-holds-barred. That has scared off a lot of people, but I don’t mind. Writing for publication is hard. Persistence is the key. I don’t want to be working around people who are not interested in getting published and willing to hang in there, sometimes by the tips of their ragged, bitten fingernails, to succeed.
I believe that it is never too late to get published. Agatha Christie was nearly forty when she was published for the first time. Grandma Moses was in her eighties when she started painting. Painting and writing may sound like apples and oranges, but they are both creative forms of expression and their creators are at the whim of not only public opinion but also of critics and publishers. And both fields are very difficult to break into.
I once heard it said that you could not be a good writer until you reached at least forty. Several of the best-selling writers of today were in their mid-thirties when they first got published. Perhaps they had already lived a lot of life before that. And I’ve known many people much younger than that who are marvelous writers. But I do think that there is a lot to be said for having lived a certain amount of life all the same before you can write from a base of knowledge and from a larger wealth of emotion.
Life has given me many ups and downs since I started with this group. My children have grown up and either gotten married, had children or joined the Navy and left the nest. Many of the other writers in my group have been through similar experiences in that time.
I’d have to say that we are close in a way that I can’t be close to other people in my life. We share something that cannot be explained outside the realm of the creative world. But we have been able to maintain our objectivity when it comes to our individual work. It is separate from the friendships that I share with these people. We don’t write with the thought of how will so-and-so like this bit or will I be rejected by what’s-her-lips for this. We write what we feel, what we have to write. We write what’s in our hearts and our souls and we take the knocks that the others in the group dish out to us. We know that while they may not love every word that we write or even understand why we feel we have to write what we do, when they take it apart and put it back together, their goal is to make a stronger piece of work.
Sometimes we go away upset that they didn’t understand what we did with a piece. Later, when we’ve had a chance to look at it through more objective eyes, sometimes we decide they were right. Sometimes it still seems they just didn’t get it. But the diversity of our styles of writing, our personal experiences and knowledge can come together with the perfect formula. We have to remain objective, we have to keep each other honest about our work, and we can force each other to produce something better and better all the time.
I could go on for ages about my critique group and the friendships that have been forged there. But it wouldn’t mean much to anyone but us.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sheila and Me

I decided that I needed to start writing a blog because everyone said it is the right thing for a writer to do. I could see the point. I’ve been told for years that journaling helps a writer come up with ideas for stories, and it’s a way to practice my craft on a daily basis, even when the ideas aren’t flowing.
But I had a few stumbling blocks. First, I was never one to keep a diary. I was always afraid that my mother or sister would read what I had written, and it didn’t matter which one of those two it was, I would be in deep doodoo when it got out. What was written in the diary could be true or false; either way, those two had a habit of ganging up on me and getting me into big trouble with Daddy.
Second, I had no idea what I would blog about. There are just some things that you don’t want people to read, no matter how therapeutic, mind-bending, idea-producing or revolutionary the words might be. So I went ahead and created the blog, thinking, “Now I have to write something.”
The blog page was still blank for two months until I first posted the piece about my critique group.
Not long after I designed the page, a high school friend passed away. It made me very sad. It also made me think about my own mortality in a way I never had before. We are still relatively young, my high school classmates and I. I thought that maybe I would write about that. But I really didn’t know if I wanted to start off my page on such a sad note.
I read a lot. I mean I really read a lot! I almost always have a book going in the bedroom, one in the living room for when the others in the house are watching something on TV that doesn’t interest me. And I listen to a book on CD or MP3 when I’m doing the household chores or the gardening. And when I’m not doing that, I’m either writing on a book or short story or reading pages for my critique group. So, like I said, I read a lot.
But I never got around to reading Marley and Me. So, I rented the movie the other night and watched it all alone. My husband was out of town and all the kids are out of the house now. It was sweet and funny and frankly, if that dog had been mine, he would have been given away to someone with a big ranch before he turned a year old.
By the time the movie was over, I was thinking of another dog. One who had become as much a member of the family as any child.
She was a found dog. As I grew up, my dad and sister and I were always dragging home strays and finding new homes for them—much to my mother’s constant annoyance.
My sister found this one in front of the grocery store in Canyon. She was a pup, three or four months old, with a rope around her neck that was about to choke her. She had chewed through it and was dragging it along behind her. She was covered in fleas and ticks and looked like she was starving. My sister took the dog home, cleaned her up, fed her and showed her to my kids.
That’s all it took. She was ours from that day forward--a grateful, happy found puppy.
According to our veterinarian, she was part red heeler and part dingo. You could tell that when she howled at the moon. It didn’t sound like a coyote but neither did it sound like any other dog I’d ever heard. She was obviously what is known as a cow dog, as in “Hank the.” Since she had dingo in her, we named her Sheila, the Aussie slang for female.
As the kids grew up, we both kept a watchful eye out for them. She wasn’t in any way like Marley. She was easy to train and tolerant of the children. She was energetic, attentive and loved to run and play. The kids taught her to play soccer. She would “kick” the ball with her nose and head it too. Her worst habit was herding the children. If they were outside playing and one wanted to come in, she wouldn’t let them. I guess that instinct was part of her breeding. They all had to come in together or stay outside together. So, most of the time the kids would holler for Mom to come and rescue them. I never had to worry about someone taking the kids as long as Sheila was on duty.
She walked the fence line every time she was outside and guarded the front door or the doors to the children’s bedrooms when she was inside. When the kids were at school she was by my side the whole day. She would lay under my feet while I was at the computer, or on the kitchen floor while I did dishes and prepared meals and as near to me as I would let her while I sat in my favorite chair and read.
While she was not like Marley, there were still certain “incidents” that were frustrating and funny at the same time. There was the Chicken Breast incident. My son had set a plate on the coffee table that held a single cold, bone-in chicken breast for an after-school snack. The phone rang and he left it there only to return within less than a minute when one of the girls got the phone. The chicken breast was gone and Sheila stood beside the table looking innocent. We knew where the food had gone, but there was no evidence at all. She had inhaled the meat, bones and all and was none the worse for it.
Then there was the “Peanut Butter Sandwich” incident. I had gone back to work. I made myself a sandwich and packed in a fold-over plastic bag and set it down by the door on top of my purse and briefcase. I went down the hall, forgetting that Sheila was in the house, to call the kids to get in the car. When I turned and went back into the living room, Sheila stood by a suspiciously empty plastic bag. She wasn’t even licking peanut butter off the roof of her mouth! And on top of that, when I examined the bag, there were absolutely no signs of tooth marks or dog slobber. If nothing else, she was slick!
We learned never to leave food within her reach.
Sheila and I also had differing opinions on child rearing and punishment techniques. Hers was to growl and sometimes sit on them until they behaved. Mine, on occasions when I felt it was necessary, was to spank. I learned the first time I attempted this method with her watching, wouldn’t work. She grabbed me by the “offending” hand with her teeth and growled. She NEVER ever bit me, but I could see in her eyes, that if I hadn’t stopped, she would have. So when a spanking was called for, Sheila was banished temporarily to the backyard.
She lived to be 17 years old. By that time, she could barely see or hear and had trouble getting to her feet after she lay down. But she hung on until “her” last child, my son, graduated from high school.
Then for weeks she would look at me every morning as if she were saying, “I’m ready, now. Let me go.” I tried to ignore that look even though I was amazed that I hadn’t found her dead yet. I couldn’t imagine the pain she was in. We couldn’t give her medicine for her arthritis because it affected her kidneys, which were beginning to fail. There had already been winter days when my son had to carry her outside to do her business and then carry her back in. But I knew I couldn’t continue to ignore those pleading looks.
When the time came, we bundled her up in the blanket she’d slept on since she couldn’t get up on the bed anymore. My husband took her to the car and drove us to the veterinarian who had cared for her all her life. My son met us there and carried her inside. The doctor had helped us arrange for burial at a local pet cemetery, something I was very surprised that I wanted to do. I had never buried a pet before and I’d had many. Most of them, I had let our vet dispose of.
As our vet administered the injection, my husband and son and I stood by her side, petting her, talking to her and trying to ease her way to whatever is beyond for such loving animals.
Marley and Me made me realize just how precious she had been in our lives. And even though I said at the beginning of the movie that I probably would have gotten rid of Marley, the truth was, I probably would have done the same thing that family did and just loved him and tolerated him.
After the movie was over, I called my married daughter. We talked for a while about Sheila and what she had meant to us and cried a little. It’s good to cry now and then. Sheila will always be the best nanny dog I ever had. I will miss her as much as any friend.
My husband made a marker for her grave. It says simply: Sheila, Loving Companion and Protector 1989-2006.
I don’t really consider this a sad blog, although it makes me long for her companionship again. It is a celebration of a precious pet who brought love, laughter and joy to my family.