Thursday, January 28, 2016

Story Writing Demo I

Zestful Blog Post #143

Aspiring fiction writers often are told by literary gurus to ‘make use of’ fables, myths, and folklore. Why? Because, of course, the power of those stories has stood the test of time. But as with so many other admonitions in writing instruction books, we’re left to our own devices as to how, exactly, the hell to do it.

In this case, I think a couple of examples—demonstrations, really—will be more helpful than some kind of theory with multiple steps and check marks. In You’ve Got a Book in You, I demo the ‘hero’s adventure’ plot template, but there are many other useful myths and fables out there. Just for the heck of it, here are some ways to harness their dynamism.

...speaking of power...

Do you remember the Dog in the Manger? Aesop told of the dog who lay in the manger filled with hay he couldn’t eat, and snapped at the cattle who tried to eat it, keeping them from their food. The moral is pretty simple: Some folks are spiteful and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This one gets acted out in real life all the time. A modern-day vandal, filled with envy at, say, someone else’s beautiful sports car, takes a crowbar to it for the same sick satisfaction. I can’t have this, so to make myself feel better, I’ll ruin it for you. There’s a short-story beginning right there, or a subplot in a longer work.

In a more serious version, some guy, spurned by a woman, murders her so no one else can have her. Elvis and John Lennon sang hits based on it: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” (From the song “Baby, Let’s Play House” by Arthur Gunter, 1954. Elvis covered it, and Lennon used the line in “Run For Your Life.”) Think it through. This is supposed to be love? It’s not love for another, it’s narcissism. The myth of Narcissus can take over at this point. That myth, however, is pretty short. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, and couldn’t tear himself away from it even to eat or sleep. There he died, watching himself grow, one presumes, increasingly gaunt. But back to the Dog in the Manger. The key motivating force for an author here is: What kind of person does these things? Is change possible? Revenge certainly is. But then things can escalate. You can see where this can go, all the way up to world war.

Here’s a romance: Beauty and the Beast. How to transfer this one? A cocktail waitress falls for some shallow rich guy, while all along the busboy quietly loves her and stands up for her against jackass customers and the lecherous boss, etc. She takes him for granted, because he’s clumsy and unpolished. The turning point comes when the chips are down—she and the shallow rich guy (who’s cheating on his wife, naturally) get in a car wreck. He walks away from it, while she’s in surgery for 15 hours and barely survives. He tells the police and his wife she was a hitchhiker, he’d never seen her before, that’s it. And the waitress never sees him again.

It’s the humble busboy who visits her as she’s getting well, and tries to look after her. Her eyes pop open at some point, she perceives his true worth and potential, and she falls in love with him. They get married, happy ending. For an extra-happy ending, it turns out they’re both secret inventors with little projects they’ve been working on. They put their two ideas together and voila, they have an important new thing, and overnight they become billionaires. Yay. Satisfaction.

You could do this one with children on a playground. With amoebae in a dish. With prisoners in a camp. With Winston Churchill and Marlene Dietrich. Look at a myth. Look at real life. Then look at your characters, or make up some new ones. Write it. Off the top of your head. This stuff seems simple, but it’s powerful.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Poor Fred

Zestful Blog Post #142

This post is about choices and their ramifications.

Yesterday Marcia read to me a snippet from last Sunday’s New York Times (which sits around the house in increasing stages of decomposition through the week) about the editing process. Basically, the photo editors were talking about how hard it is to select images to publish, from the thousands they have access to via their own photographers and the wire services. (I cling to the cool term ‘wire services,’ even though we all know the truth.) I was like, yeah, tell me about it. I’d been there, even as a lowly reporter and photographer for a local weekly paper. Which image tells the story best? What really is the story in the first place? Moreover, which image tells the story from the angle we want to tell it? Because there’s an angle to most every story.

Then there’s the public and its appetites. Sensational always sells better. But when the public itself is being represented, their standards are quite different. Inclusion is what matters. I learned this quickly, just out of college, at the paper.

One day the community theater troupe sent me tickets to its upcoming production, some closed-room mystery play. I went to the dress rehearsal, took some pictures and interviewed the director, then attended opening night. I wrote an enthusiastic article about the play and the players, and made it into a big feature spread with two or three pictures.

I heard nothing from the troupe after that, though. I wondered if something was wrong; usually you get a note or a phone call of thanks for such nice publicity. By happenstance, I bumped into one of the actresses at the drugstore and asked her what the troupe thought of the article.

“Oh, yes,” she said sadly. “Poor Fred.”

Turns out I had mentioned every single cast member in the article except the guy who played the cop who comes in and arrests everybody at the end. He was in none of the pictures I ran. I think he had one or two lines. Fred was crushed that he’d been excluded from my coverage, AND THAT WAS ALL THAT MATTERED.

Then there was the children’s ice show. Having, believe it or not, taken a term of figure skating in college for physical education, I laced up my skates and got out on the ice with the kids during a practice. I took some closeups and zooming action shots. A cluster of parents were watching, however, with increasing displeasure.

 They cornered me and demanded that I take off my damn skates and climb up to the top of the bleachers while they got ALL the kids onto the ice at one time. They wanted one group shot of all two hundred kids, so that every kid could “have their picture in the paper.”

I obliged, thinking I might just run the good shots anyway. But I didn’t; for some perverse reason I ran the group picture. The photo, reproduced on newsprint at about four by five inches, looked like a bunch of poppy seeds clustered on a white cake. I think I wanted to say to the parents, “There’s your group shot, and none of your kids are recognizable except as poppy seeds.” But I got no complaints. Had I been the New York Times, I would have run one or two of the good shots and to hell with what the parents want.

The moral of the story is that scale matters. When readers outweigh your subjects, you make one choice. When your subjects practically outweigh your readers, you just might want to make a different choice. The public is bloodthirsty when it comes to news about other people, but as sensitive as a bouquet of orchids when it comes to themselves. You don’t have to cater to that, and sometimes you can’t. But it is a choice.

As writers, closeness to our subjects can be a blessing and a curse. One must harden oneself.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Defending Precise Language

Zestful Blog Post #141

When I make a mistake with language, I welcome being corrected. For instance, some time ago a reader of one of my Writer’s Digest articles let me know that I’d misused the word ‘devolve.’ I’d used it as the opposite of ‘evolve,’ as in ‘things deteriorating / falling apart / going to hell,’ basically. It really means the transfer of something to a lower or further level. When the commander got shot, control of the vessel devolved to the lieutenant commander. The house devolved to the widow. I appreciated knowing my mistake, and have not made it since.

But because many people make the same mistake I did, the wrong definition will probably become an accepted definition. Ref. my rant on descriptive-vs.-prescriptive dictionary entries in Zestful Post #103.

Not everyone appreciates being corrected, however, and this has always surprised me. I used to have a boss who asked me to proofread his weekly staff memos. One time I pointed out that he’d misspelled ‘supersede.’ He’d made the common error of spelling it ‘supercede.’ He argued with me, then finally grabbed the dictionary (pre-desktop PCs) to check. He was so angry. I’d been respectful; it isn’t as if I’d called him an idiot. This same boss also used the word prone to mean supine, and employed the phrase ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ when he meant ‘put all your eggs in one basket.’ I stopped correcting him after supersede, though.

Word meanings fade and morph as cultures change, of course. I’ve noticed the phrase ‘marking time’ is increasingly used to mean keeping track of time, as in checking off the days on a calendar. Did you know it’s actually a military term that means to march in place? As such, it’s also correctly used as a metaphor for wasting time or not making progress. I think more Americans knew the meaning during and after WWII, when so many people were more familiar with military culture, either being in the service themselves or being close to a service member.

‘Penultimate’ is another good one. Many folks use it to mean like, man, super-ultimate, the livin’ end, you know? Actually it means second-to-last. Ultimate, of course, means last or final. Ultimately, we decided to go to the movies. The penultimate letter of the alphabet is Y.

Then there’s pronunciation, which is essentially hopeless. I remember pronouncing the word ‘flaccid’ correctly (flak-sid) in conversation with a friend, who began finding ways to use the same word but pronouncing it ‘flassid’ as most people do, thinking she was subtly giving me the hint that I’d been saying it wrong.

Think about it. We don’t say someone had a car assident, or has a French assent, or is essentric because he wears a derby. It’s flak-sid, goddam it.

Defenders of precise language, unite!

And finally, happy birthday to my friend Special K.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Clearing Decks Fast

Zestful Blog Post #140

As many of us do, I find the onset of winter a good time to take stock, clean up stuff I’ve procrastinated on, and clear decks for new work and life. This time I’m trying to be fast and ruthless, because there’s so much on my wanna-do list.

I quit my part-time lifeguard job. I’d wanted to keep it up for a year, but decided six months is good enough. (Gave proper notice, of course.) I figured it thusly: I went through the training as a challenge, then decided I might as well actually use that training and see what it feels like to be in charge of a public pool. So now I know. Didn’t have to jump in and save anyone during that time, thank God, but I gathered new experience, gained skills, and made new friends. The aquatics director would love to have me back. I think I’ll keep up my certifications just in case. The hours I would have spent guarding, I’ll spend writing and perhaps learning new things. This falls under the category of “declare victory and move on.” I’ll definitely keep up my swimming and will see the gang around the Y.

A nice clear deck.

Am following up on obligations and planning, and getting rid of stuff I haven’t used. Sold my beautiful old Deagan marimba. It’s a wonderful instrument, but I hadn’t played it much for years, and it was taking up practically a third of my office space. So now it’s in another musician’s home, and I bet he’s enjoying it. And the clear space in my office feels good.

Moreover, I’m looking forward more than back. That’s the key to speed and peace of mind, I think. And of course, being right here in the present is best for productivity.

Onward. With coffee.

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