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.

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