Monday, January 28, 2013

Inside a Wingman's Brain

When it comes to writing, I am a wingman. My completed novels were started on the basis of simple ideas and written without the benefit of any outlines. I started one with a character in mind, and the other based on a situation. While I thought about both stories in advance, when I sat down to write I had no real clue as to what would happen, how either would end, or even who was in it. There's just some opening image (which doesn't necessarily turn out to be page 1 in the completed work), and the story is revealed as I go.

Once a week I get together with a group of folks for a writer's group. We use a prompt and do about forty-five minutes of freewriting, which we share at the end. Commentary is pretty light, we aim for encouragement, and I'm fine with that. It's fun, it's good practice, and I've come up with some usable material for short stories. Parts of both novels were written there (Barton's Women, in fact was actually started there).

Two weeks ago we read "La Recoleta," a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, as our prompt. It was a funny day; I was 'in charge' that day and was distracted by the unexpected arrival of three teens and a young adult from a different writing group who showed up wanting to 'sit in' (though the leader said, "We'll just watch." Huh? Why would you go to a writer's group and just watch? But I digress.). I also had the pressure of trying to end on time (for once), so I had to watch the clock. The prompt didn't quite grab me, and I stared out the window, trying to find something to write. A curtain of icicles hung outside the window, and as I watched the drip drip drip of droplets off the end of one of the icicles, and it started. What I'm going to do is mix what I wrote that day with commentary on what I was thinking (when I was thinking at all, that is). This piece is not edited beyond what I did at the time. Maybe because I was so distracted, I was able to remember the shifts and turns in my thinking. Anyway, here it is.

'Water drops bulged at the end of the icicle, fell with the same steady rhythm of the a saline drip pumped into Frank's arm. He watched it—the ice, not the saline drip, he got faint light-headed every time he thought about stuff getting pumped into his arm—and decided he'd officially bottomed out.'

Three things. First, I noticed how steady the drip off the end of an icicle is, and that put me in mind of IVs, so I worked that in. Also, less conscious, those were pretty damn sharp icicles hanging off the roof, which perhaps put me in mind of needles in veins. Frank is a definite reference to a a character in a lengthy piece one of my writer's group colleagues has been working on. And, in hindsight, I'd say that 'bottomed out' may be a reference to how I was feeling at the moment. When I resort to writing about things I see and hear at the writer's group, it's a sure sign things aren't working too well that day. Though writing about icicles isn't as bad as writing about pens, though. When I write about pens, that's bottoming out.

I still had no idea where this was going, by the way, but I kept up with the idea of bottoming out in the next paragraph.

'This is what my life has come to, he thought, as a drop grew fat at the end of the razor needle*-sharp ice. I'm watching water fall off an icicle and it's the most interesting thing that's happened all day.'

*I initially used razor, but razor is the wrong word for icicles, isn't it? Icicles are needles, not razors, and the hospital setting and the IV meant 'needle' was the right word. This was a conscious cross-out made before I went any further.

Now, at this point, questions came up. Who is Frank? What's he doing in the hospital? I didn't know. What's more, Frank didn't know. I suddenly had an idea that Frank in this place with no idea why, and no memory of anything, really. I was writing myself into something. It's great fun when it happens. On I went.

'And it was, too, that was the sad thing. He couldn't remember how long he'd been here. He couldn't remember why he was here. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a familiar face, besides the dark-eyed nurse stern-faced nurses and orderlies who took his pulse, checked his temperature, and asked him how he was feeling, that is. Once today the they switched the bag of saline had hung from its hook like a deflated balloon. Frank had seen caught sight of it and nearlythe room had gone gotten grey and spinny. Later, the curly-haired nurse in the Snoopy smock had entered with a full bag. Frank looked away and discovered the icicles out the window, and that had occupied his mind for some time.'

So, at this point I tried to tap into the hospital experience a bit. I've never been a long-term patient myself, but have seen enough of hospitals in the last ten years for a lifetime. In this and the next paragraph, indeed, in all of Frank's interactions with the nurse, I tried to bring in the feeling of being in a hospital, so any potential reader might nod their heads and think, "yeah, that's it."

I'm not 100% sure why I opted out of 'dark-eyed nurse' in favor of a more generic person. In hindsight, it works better. The bag of saline was something where I started to write a simple "they switched it" but thought I could use more description, so I went for the deflated balloon thing. I was going to write 'had nearly passed out' but went for the slightly more showy 'grey and spinny.' That whole section needs more cleanup, but I was on a roll. No time for revising!

Something began to work into my head about this story, and I started to see both a possibly sinister reason for Frank's hospitalization and a way to end the story. I saw a man who knows something, or almost remembers something (I still didn't know what), but can't quite get to it, and I wanted the IV to be why he couldn't remember, and tie it all to the imagery of the dripping icicles. There was a little more interaction between Frank and the nurse that I'll skip.

'Cold fingers pressed against the inside of his wrist. His pulse beat hard against them. There was something he was supposed to ask. It dangled there in his mind, not quite seen.The idea of it grew bigger and bigger, but he didn't know.

The thermometer beeped. The nurse pulled it out of his mouth and ejected the plastic sheath. Another note on his chart.

"I'll be back in a little while," she said. "If you need anything, just hit that button."

She was halfway out the door when Frank called her. "Nurse." His voice was rusty in his ears.

She stopped and regarded watched him, her eyebrows up.

The idea, the question, grew in his mind, bigger and bigger, but he couldn't form the right words. Then it fell away. He looked out the window as if the words would be there, floating in the air, but there was nothing but a curtain of icicles and blue sky beyond. As he watched, a drop of water glistened and fell.

Frank looked back at the nurse.

"Nothing," he said, and went back to watch the icicle.'

In the end, it didn't quite work the way I wanted. Like Frank, I couldn't quite grab the right words, the right ideas, to wrap it up quite right, and I didn't have time to go back and craft it. Still, I wasn't unhappy with it then, and I'm not unhappy with it now. This is one of those pieces I can see myself polishing. So that's a glimpse into the brain of a wingman. Writing on the fly like I do for my writer's group is different than what I do with novels, and I'll probably do another post somewhere along the line talking about that (no promises on when, though; I know better than to do that). How does this compare to your process?

Friday, January 25, 2013


You ever have one of those weeks, where your sense of timing is just kind Where you're constantly either a day ahead or a day behind? Sure you have. Maybe it's because the Catbird had no school on Monday, and we took the Magpie back to school. Maybe it's because the Catbird told us she had a school function Wednesday night to attend, but it turned out it was actually Thursday (she told us this on Tuesday, not Wednesday, so no plans were broken, no one drove to school Wednesday night, only to learn we were there on the wrong day). Maybe it's because it's because yesterday's temperature bottomed out around -15 F, and barely cracked the positive single digit and we were just sluggish and slow.

Whatever the cause, I was just about to leave the house for work. I thought about coming home and whipping up tomorrow's post (which was actually mostly planned, shock and awe), when I realized: Today is Friday. Which means I goofed, and the purpose of this post is to tell you that there is no post today. Have a great weekend!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Musical Monday: Somebody That I Used to Know

Funny how things can be. Some  time ago, I kept seeing references to 'Gotye' around the web, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about. The name--or whatever it was--would get tossed around. It would catch my eye and fade away, and I'd vaguely wonder what it was or who it was, but never enough to find out.

Flash forward a few months. I've been doing a lot of driving in the last month, and as we have all of three radio stations that come in consistently, and one of them is 'Today's Best Hits,' I've been hearing this song quite a bit. It's catchy to the point where I had to look it up and find out who did it. Gotye? Who? What? Ah, now I get it. Anyway, the song has a great vibe to it, very moody, with what I think of as a Late Night Sound. And I like having Kimbra singing the third verse. She's got a great voice, and it gives the song an interesting slant. It would have worked fine having it just sung from one point of view; instead, we get two parties, both of whom feel wronged. And it's another video that just looks so cool.

On another note, thank you all for your comments on Friday's post. A lot of you went somewhere I almost went: sexism. I hesitate to play any -ism cards, but, like a number of you, I can't help but see sexism in it as well. Would there be the same brouhaha in Oxnard had Ms. Halas been a Mister Halas? Not, perhaps, had it been 'straight' porn (however, had it been a Mister Halas doing gay porn, I'm sure the result would have been the same).

That's about all I've got for today. I doubt that I'm done with Friday's subject, but I'm not prepared to do more with it today. Have a great week, all, see you on the other end of it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Doper, the Dope, and the Disgraced

Three interesting stories in the news this week, all involving fiction of one kind or another.

First up is disgraced cycling hero and cancer surivor, Lance Armstrong. For years, Armstrong crafted the story of a tough-minded, dedicated man who beat cancer and went on to reach the pinnacle of his sport, and achieved something that seemed impossible: seven straight wins in cycling's biggest race, the Tour de France. He created a foundation that helped cancer patients, and inspired millions the world over. And when rumors surfaced that Lance cheated, he defended himself aggressively, and with such vehemence, that the story he told us had to be true. Who would have the nerve to sue someone for telling the truth?

Turns out the answer is: Lance Armstrong. Though no smoking gun (or bloody syringe) was ever found, enough evidence piled up and Armstrong was stripped of his titles, his Olympic bronze medal, and was banned from competition. He's lost millions in endorsements, faces lawsuits, potential prison time, stepped down as head of his foundation, and disappointed millions.

Next up is the story of Heisman Trophy candidate, Manti Te'o, a linebacker from Notre Dame University. Early this season, Te'o was hit by a double whammy when he learned his grandmother, then his girlfriend, died six hours apart. Girlfriend Lennay Kekua's last message to him was to play football. On the day of her funeral, Te'o had a monster game, recording 12 tackles and leading the Irish to victory. Shortly thereafter he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the story of his tragic loss was repeated all over sports media. Throughout the season, Te'o talked of Kekua and how she inspired him, how much she meant to him, and the legend grew. Te'o led the Irish to the national title game, finished second in the Heisman race, and is a likely first-round pick in the NFL draft.

This week, Notre Dame officials announced Lennay Kekua never died. She never died because she never existed. Te'o, they said, was the victim of a cruel hoax, one that had him falling in love via the internet with a girl that never existed. But new reports are suggesting that Te'o may well have beenin on the hoax. Now, Te'o is facing public ridicule, and that may cause him to fall lower than expected in the upcoming NFL draft.

Finally, there's Stacie Halas. Her fiction involved lying to officials in Oxnard, California, about her past. She made the mistake of not telling them during her job interview that she 'acted' in a number of porn films. Given that she was fired when they found out, it seems like a good decision. Students found film clips of her apparently hardcore adventures; school officials studied the evidence for several weeks before firing her. Partly for the films, partly for lying about her past. Halas fought to keep her job, but lost the appeal this week. A three judge panel ruled, "Although her pornography career has concluded, the ongoing availability of her pornographic materials on the Internet will continue to impede her from being an effective teacher and respected colleague."

Of the three people who's fiction crashed and burned around them, Stacie Halas has the hardest road ahead. Armstrong has been vilified publicly for years, and it's not going to stop. Even now, his admission of guilt is being debated and parsed, his motives dissected, and his sincerity debated. Te'o will be seen as either the world's stupidest football player, or as a lying scum. He'll be either a joke or a jerk, depending on whether he not he was a perp or a patsy in the Captain Tuttle Lennay Kekua hoax.

But Armstrong and Te'o have something that Halas doesn't: opportunity. Armstrong is a fallen hero; America loves fallen heroes. At some point, someone will give Armstrong another chance. Even in disgrace, he's got start power. He may not get reinstated to cycling, but he'll be seen as sufficiently rehabilitated and will end up as a well-paid spokesman, a public figure. He may never be adored the world over as he once was, but he'll find a way to earn respect. Nike CEO Phil Knight already said, "Never say never" when asked if he could see Armstrong back in the Nike fold.

Te'o, meanwhile, hasn't broken any laws. This time next year he'll be finished with his rookie season in the NFL, where he'll receive a minimum salary of $405,000. Currently, he's projected as a mid-first round draft pick, which means he'll land with a mediocre team. Slipping down further in the draft may cost him money up front, but it could actually land him on a better team. Regardless, with signing and performance bonuses, the guy is looking easily at a million dollar contract. He'll have the opportunity to prove to NFL coaches that he can do his job and do it well, regardless of whether or not he was in on the scam or not.

And what can Stacie Halas look forward to? You can bet it won't involve teaching children, that's for sure. I'm guessing Ms. Halas's most lucrative job opportunity in the near future is going to involve nudity, real sex, and simulated acting. Maybe the folks at her school district are right. Maybe Halas can't command a classroom, not when her students can whip up a clip of her doing it doggie-style, or call her by her film name. But unlike Armstrong and Te'o, I doubt she'll ever get the chance to prove she can do it again. And that, I have to say, bothers me. Seems we like redemption stories better when the people are already famous when they fall.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday Musing: The Lockout is Over

And so it's officially over.

The members of NHL Players' Association have ratified the new collective bargaining agreement, officially bringing to a close the second lockout in eight years, and the third overall in the tenure of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The deal followed some intense negotiation, which followed weeks of negotiation, non-negotiation, and gamesmanship aimed at painting the other guys as the bad guys in the fight. I'm happy it's over. While hockey never went away, the truth is the alternatives to the NHL--the American Hockey League, college hockey, Russia's KHL--just can't compete. The NHL is indeed where the best players of the world go to play. I'm happy it's over, I'll watch the games, but I honestly haven't missed it quite as much as I thought.

Anyway, it's amazing how so little can get done for so long, and then it all rushes together. With the cancellation of an entire season looming (for the second time), owners and players finally felt the economic pinch. And in the case of the players, I'm sure they were also well-aware of the ticking clock, the one that accompanies professional athletes in any sport. A year lost to a labor dispute is not just a lost year's salary, it's a lost opportunity to play the sport you love, to live out your dream. Unlike those of us who are school teachers, CPAs, or car wash attendants, professional athletes have a small window for achieving fame and fortune. Niclas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Gordie Howe and Johnny Bucyk—players who all played for 20+ years—are rare in the sport. According to, the average NHLcareer lasts 5 seasons, roughly 20% of retired players played in only one season, and for many former players, their first NHL game was also their last. While money was clearly an issue, the fact is, it's not the only issue. 

Think about that for a second. A five-year career. If you knew you only had five years to write a great book, or as many great books as possible, would it change your approach to writing? I bet we'd all spend a lot less time blogging and surfing forums and so on and so forth.

Yikes. Sorry to come off sounding like such a downer. I actually started off feeling pretty good today. So, let's just toss this in there to make me feel better, one of the great ads the NHL did a few years ago (and, oh the irony of having Youtube stick an ad in front of an ad). Have a great week, all.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Making the Case for Flat Villains

I've been thinking all week about Monday's post and your responses to it. Normally, I try to respond to all comments individually; with this one, however, I've decided to just do a follow up post.

After reading so much agreement with what I said (and much love for Les Mis), I started reconsidering. Yes, in general I like well-rounded villains, and remembering that the villain is the hero of his own story is a good place to start. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that literature is full of bad guys who are bad, period, and we don't always get the sense of 'self-heroism' from them. There are times when it's appropriate to give your villain the flat treatment. Making the case: Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings, and James LaValle, from my own Parallel Lives.

Sauron is one of the baddest bad guys ever. His whole purpose is to find his ring so that he can conquer all of Middle Earth and enslave its peoples. What we don't know is Sauron's motivation. Is he trying to live up to the impossibly high standards his parents set? Is he trying to woo Galadriel? Does he just want ocean-front property? We don't know, but we really don't need to know. Sauron is believable. History is littered with men who lived to conquer, and the book was written during the time of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and Stalin, men who tried to impose their will on the world. We've seen this villain in the real world, and we don't understand him any better here than in the pages of a book.

The other thing that makes Sauron work is narrative distance. We're never in his head, we never visit him in his tower in Mordor, we never even see him. That distance allows Tolkien the luxury of not having to give him a personality or fears or dreams beyond what we already know. In other words, he gets to leave out all the stuff we're told to put in if we want to have well-rounded characters. It's not supposed to work, but it does. If you have an overarching bad guy like Sauron, you may not need to give us more than the broadest view of what he wants.

And then there's the point of view of the story. When I sent out Parallel Lives to my first set of readers, I was rather worried that the story's antagonist, James LaValle, was too flat. Was he believable? I wondered. Did I need to give him more dimension, more depth?

The LaValle we see in the story is what we used to call a 'derelict' back in high school. He smokes pot by the bushel. He's disrespectful to teachers and disruptive in class (and not in a good way). He's a bully. And for some reason, he decides he doesn't like my protagonist, Chris Burke, and begins a systematic campaign of harassment that lasts throughout high school.

Now, it was tempting to go and give James some redeeming features, and to wonder why he's like this, but I resisted, based in part on the story's point of view. Parallel Lives is a first person narrative, told exclusively from Chris Burke's perspective. He can only know and react and respond to what he sees, to what James shows him. And James never shows him anything but his bad side. The closest we get to seeing another side of James is in this quote from a friend:

'"He used to be so nice," Madison told me once. James had just knocked the books from a seventh-grader's hands and scattered them halfway up the hall with a kick. "He taught half the kids on our block how to ride bikes."'
 So there's a hint that James wasn't always like this, but that's as far as I took it. In the story's present/past narrative, older, wiser Chris Burke has some theories on why James was such a jerk, and examines his own behavior to see how he may have unwittingly escalated the conflict between them. But he never knows for sure, because he can't truly get into James's head, and James isn't around anymore to give him an answer. His high school self never asked James, "Why do you have a problem with me?" though if he had, he almost certainly would have been told, "I don't like your face." Or maybe, "Because you were born." You know, those classic high school comebacks.

I was gratified when my readers told me I didn't need to do anything with LaValle. I think if you've attended high school, you've likely encountered someone like him. Beyond that, what we're allowed to see of James is limited by what Chris sees. In this case, James as continual jerkwad works; I can get away with leaving him as 'the sneering, jeering King of the Burnouts.'

So there you go. I think remembering that the villain is the hero of his own story is something to keep in mind, but before you break out the bicycle pumps and try to put more air into your bad guy, ask yourself whether you really need to or not. Consider the page time your villain gets; consider the point of view of the story. Only pump if it makes sense to pump.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Musical Monday: Stars, Inspector Javert

Friday night I became one among millions of Americans who have seen the latest version of Les Miserables (yeah, I know there's supposed to be an accent over the 'e', but I just can't work that hard at this hour).

The movie did not disappoint me. I thought most of the performances were very strong, and even Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is not the best, did a great job as Javert, the policeman obsessed with finding the dastardly parole violator, Jean Valjean. And it's Javert I want to focus on here, because I had one of those 'Ah, hah!' moments while watching the film, the same sort of moment I wrote about while watching Breaking Bad over the summer.

If you're not familiar with the story, the quickest summation I can  give you is this: After spending almost 20 years in prison for stealing and making multiple escape attempts, Jean Valjean is released on parole, which he promptly breaks. He is hounded across the years by Javert, a former prison guard now turned policeman, who doesn't care that Valjean has reinvented himself as a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist: the man is a thief and a parole violator, and must be brought to justice. Of course, the story is much, much more than that, but for the purpose of this post, that's all you need to know.

At any rate, there was a scene in the first third of the movie. Following a close encounter with Valjean, Javert sings the song, Stars (this is from the 10th anniversary concert, not the current theatrical release):

A particular line caught my eye and gave me that "Ah, hah!" moment:

"He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord"

What was it about this line? To me, it was a perfect illustration of that writing aphorism that gets batted about whenever someone asks about villains:

"The antagonist is the hero of his own story."

Here we have two men on opposite sides of the story. Valjean, living under a false identity, trying to be a good man. Javert trying to prove the subterfuge and uphold the law to its letter. We sympathize with Valjean because we've seen how good he is, and we probably feel that his original sentence was not just to begin with. But in this moment we see Javert as a man absolutely convinced that he is not only right in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of the Lord as well. He is the hero of his own story.

Victor Hugo's book covers Javert's backstory in great detail (Oh, does it go into great detail), so we have time to understand who he is and why he behaves the way he does. The musical does not have that luxury of time, and, given the attention span of many modern readers, we probably don't, either. But two lines in one three-and-one-half minute song out of nearly three hours gave us all we needed to know about Javert; it made him understandable, if not exactly sympathetic. We can see him as the hero of his own story, even if he's not the hero of ours.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Little Off and Out of Whack

Heading into Christmas, I thought, "Now's the perfect time to take a week, maybe two, off from the blog. Go ahead, just say it straight out and be done with it." Of course I didn't, and here I am on a Friday morning with three, four, maybe five pieces partly completed, and no sense of how to finish any of them before morning madness takes hold.

The holidays have definitely messed me up a little bit. I'm sorry to say I haven't been writing much of anything over the last few weeks. It's not writer's block or anything like that, it's just been a matter of time. It's funny how this writing thing gets in you, and how out of whack you can feel when you don't have the time to do it as much as you'd like.

So there is no real post today. Instead, you get this video from Of Monsters and Men. It's funny how these things work. One of you posted this on your blog, I want to say in the spring. I remember seeing it, and I loved it. A few weeks ago, something put me in mind of this song, but I had no idea who the band was, the name of the song, or who posted it. I scoured a couple of likely places but could not find it. Then, yesterday, while checking out a non-writing message board I frequent: There it was.

I'm not huge on video music, to be honest. I was around when MTV was born, when people went gaga over crummy music because it had really cool videos. But I love this video, I can't explain why, it's really fun, and I like the song a lot. Enjoy your weekend. I'm putting myself into the shop for a realignment.