Sure Happy It's Thursday
S.H.I.T. I Say
Wanna Know a Secret?
I’ve Got a Secret was a television show that was on from sometime in the 1950’s until the mid 60’s. It was on mostly in the black and white era of television. A guest came on, whispered his or her “secret” into the ear of the host and a panel of celebrities no one had ever heard of tried to guess the secret one question at a time. Get a “yes” to your question and you got to ask another one. Get a “no” and the guest received a whopping $10.00. The most they could win was $80.00. I give you this as a frame of reference only because I’m certainly not old enough to remember this series. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, but as usual, I digress.
What has an old television series got to do with writing? Glad you asked. In my creative writing class or my screenwriting class we discussed how to create a believable character. All writers have their own system and if they are successful, it would appear that it works. The major thing I like to do is to determine what my character have as a secret and what they fear.
Secrets and fears fuel much of our lives. The two could very well be the same or related. My youngest daughter was bitten by a black widow spider when she was five years old and we almost lost her. It’s not a secret to the people who know her, but she doesn’t talk about it in normal conversation. Is she afraid of spiders? You figure it out. That’s a real fear/secret. As a writer of fiction, I have to determine what I want my characters to have.
If you have read either of my two series, you may know what they are already, but if not, I’m about to let the Genie out of the bottle because I think I know what they are. You “THINK” you know, you say? Hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but characters tend to take over and let you, the writer, know what they want you to know. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead,” and he was right.
In my Max Maxwell series, the protagonist is playing with fire and he knows it. He is having an affair with a married woman. There are a lot of extenuating circumstances, but the bottom line is she is married and he is not. Therein lies a problem. It’s not a secret to either of them, so what is there to fear? Her husband with a gun? Good answer. You get $10.00. Does he care? Next question.
Johnny Morocco served in Italy during WWII. He’s now heavily involved with a woman who came to the US with her family from Italy just prior to the war. Did he meet any of her family when he was in Italy? If he did, it probably was not good for them.
Is any of this spelled out on the pages of my novel? Not really, but the information is there for the reader to determine the secrets and fears of the characters.
Some secrets are easily shared, just ask little Johnny who came home one day and told his mother he knew that his friend Billy could keep a secret. “How do you know she asked.” His reply, “Because I pissed in his ear before I told it to him.” Horrified, she asked him to explain. “I leaned down and went ‘pssssttt’ and then I told him.”
Here...Hold My Chicken!
I lost two friends I went to high school with this week. One died as a result of a tragic accident, the other from an illness. Both were classmates and the same age as I am which got me to thinking. I’ll not be able to attend either funeral, but I wonder what family and friends will say as a eulogy? That led me to start thinking about what people will say about me at mine. I know what some of them would like to say, but I would hope that they will keep quiet. I may actually have some family and friends in attendance who don’t know about some of the things I’ve been involved in.
My youngest daughter once brought up the subject and asked what I though should be said. I mentioned what a great father and husband I had been, how I was always nice to small children, liked puppies, cooked a mean pancake and could flip it in the air and catch it in the frying pan as it came down.
She laughed and said, “Not on your life.” Which I thought rather inappropriate under the circumstances, but I digress. She said, “I’m going to talk about the 4thof July picnic!”
I knew exactly what she meant. Several years ago, I was the Liaison between the White House and the Dept of Veteran’s Affairs to put on the National Veteran’s Day Ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. As such, I became friends with the Director of the Cemetery and he invited me to his 4thof July picnic. At Arlington. At Robert E. Lee’s homeplace. To watch the fireworks over Washington. THE prime location to see them. Sit on the grass. On a hill. You get the picture.
My wife could not join me in DC, so I had a small apartment not far from the entrance to the cemetery. My daughter was spending the summer with me, so she and I planned to go. The morning of the 4throlled around. It was a hot, muggy day so I decided to wear shorts. And a tee shirt. With a penguin on the front. It was a picnic. Be comfortable. And tennis shoes.
Since it was a picnic and I’m from the South I thought I needed to bring something. What better than a bucket of Popeyes? Bucket in hand, we walked to the entrance where I told the guard where we were going and showed him our ENGRAVED invitation. Was that a smirk on his face as he waved us in?
We got to General Lee’s house and saw a bunch of men in black pants, white shirts and cut-away jackets moving through the crowd with silver trays. I was asked for my invitation by a man in a tuxedo. I asked him to hold my bucket of Popeye’s while I dug it out of my pocket. By that time, my daughter was ready to defect to the Russians. We were in the midst of a very formal, like with waiters, a wine bar, those little sandwiches on the silver trays and a very large pig roasting over an open pit 4thof July picnic.
I found a place beneath one of the catering trucks to stash my bucket. We got in line, penguin shirt and all and had massive amounts of food. We watched the fireworks and when it was sufficiently dark, I retrieved my bucket of chicken and we walked home.
It took her almost a year to speak to me again, but we had chicken for a week.
It seems to me the prefix “re” means to do something over again. You can repeat a statement. Return something to Costco that you stood in the express lane…”700 items or less” for an hour to purchase, or in the case of the military who absolutely never use the phrase retreat, it just advancing in the other direction.
I recently found another “re” word that had an impact on me. I went to a high school reunion. In this case the “re” meant that we got to see people whom we had not seen in years. We got to see who was still around and talk about those who were not. We whispered about those who had gone off the deep end in some way since we terrorized the city as teenagers. Some had passed away at, for us at least, a much too early age. Some had been married to “that person…you remember what they said about him/her when we were in school.” Nobody thought it would work and they have been married fifty years.
This reunion was a lot of fun for me…not like that one several years ago when “the incident” happened. I can’t mention any names here but there was a girl in high school that I had a case of the screaming scorchies for. She never knew it. We never dated and hardly even spoke, but it didn’t matter. In my fantasies, she was the One.
At a reunion several, well…many years ago I was sitting at a table with an old friend and my wife when he said, “There she is.” I didn’t have to ask. I knew who “she” was. “She’s over by the bar. Let’s go see her.” He knew of my case of the hots for her in high school. When I looked at the bar, my first thought was “Please dear God. Don’t let that be her.” There was only one woman at the bar. My friend grabbed my arm and led me to the bar where I found out that God, does in fact, have a sense of humor. My friend called her name and she answered. Not only that, he invited her to come sit at our table. I couldn’t speak so he did all the talking.
She took her drink (more about that later) and followed us to our table. Once we got there, he asked my wife to dance. “I’ll let you two catch up,” he said as he left me alone with my former dreamboat. We sat in silence for a few minutes while she drank and I looked at her. She had gained a LOT of weight, but most of it was muscle. She looked like a lineman/linewoman for the Green Bay Packers. She had a fresh buzz-cut and it looked like she had bleached her mustache so it hardly showed. I knew this would probably be my only chance to speak to her so I took the plunge.
I poured my heart out to her. I told her of my passion for her in high school. She listened patiently as she drank from her long-neck bottle of Budweiser, occasionally flexing her arm as she did so. Was that a tattoo on her bicep that said “Death before Dishonor?” I couldn’t read it to be sure. After reliving those high school days and my broken heart, she took another drink, looked me dead in the eye and made her comment on by broken heart. Her comment to my confession of my undying teenage love for her? Two words I’ll never forget. “No shit!”
Two words and she went back to the bar and out of my life forever. No REpeat here. I’ll never do that again. And I refuse to drink Budweiser .
If I Ever Grow UP!
I began a new semester of teaching at a local state college this week. It’s the first time I have been associated with this college so I didn’t know what to expect when my first class filtered into the room. I was at a distinct disadvantage because I never went to college after high school but did it in the Army so my classmates were usually much older. These were children!
Before moving back to Georgia, I taught at the University of West Florida, but my students were usually juniors and seniors and some adults, so they were older and had some idea of where they were or where they were going in life. On the first day of class I always tell them what is expected of them, and ask a little about them. This time I was not prepared.
“Let’s go around the room and tell me your name and what your major is or what you want to get out of college.” I thought it was a good idea. “I’m Barney Bazotz and I’m going to be an engineer.” Time for some humor, right? “Like on a train?” Met with complete and sincere stare. “Huh?” “You know. The engineer…guy that drives a train?” Blank look. Let’s move on.
“Hi, I’m Suzy Cutesy and I’m a fashion design major.” The fashion design major was wearing a pair of blue jeans that looked like they had been run through a hay bailer. Several times. I have more fabric on a handkerchief than she had on her body. “Uh, I didn’t know they have that as a major here.” A squeal of valley girl laughter. “They don’t. I’ll do that someplace else. I just want to get all of the bad stuff out of the way first.” Bad Stuff? My class? Stand by for a ram!
I finished going around the class and found out I have future advertising executives, nurses, biologist, captains of industry, a couple of undecideds and a weatherman. The undecided’s I can relate to. I think I have gone through life making a list of things I don’t want to be when I grow up.
I have no problem with my students having a goal in life, as a matter of fact, I admire and envy them for doing so especially at that age. For those of you who happen to read this and knew me at the time, know the only thing I wanted out of high school was ME. I planned to go to work and await the letter that most men of my age got saying our services were needed by Uncle Sam. With a draft hanging over our heads, unless we went to college, maintained a good average or got married and had children, long range plans were not something we made.
I hope everyone in my class is able to fulfill their life goal at some point. I don’t think they will keep the plans they made to me this week. Life has a way of getting in the way of the plans we make, especially if those plans are to take place in the future.
Someone left a brochure for a job fair in the classroom so I’m going to check it out and see if there are any openings for rodeo clowns. That’s something I always wanted to be when I grow up.
The Good ‘ol Days?
No matter when you were born, it seems what you had or what you missed those times or things are now considered the Good ‘ol Days? Occasionally I see something that one of my friends on Facebook send me that tell me I grew up in a time when we had it made. We rode bicycles and didn’t wear helmets, played outside without the benefit of electronic devices, watched black and white television if our family was able to afford one, went to double feature movies on Saturdays for a quarter and drank, usually hot water, in the summertime from a water hose laying in the yard when we got thirsty.
Our parents told us of their Good ‘ol Days. For mine, it was when they weathered the Great Depression and World War Two. I never saw anything particularily good about the country going down the tube financially or going to war, but different strokes for different folks, I guess. Their point was they were forced by circumstances to make do with what they had and everybody pitched in to keep everyone else afloat.
Now that I look back on it, maybe they had something after all. As I write this, there are several police cars, a fire truck, an aide vehicle and three power company trucks in front of my house. Earlier this morning I was watching a television news program when I head a very loud BANG and my television went black and all my lights went out. I immediately thought the end of the world had come. No television! No lights! What am I going to do? My first thought was “duck and cover.” If you have to ask, it will make no sense, but then I checked my service panel and all my breakers were still in the right place, so it had to be an outside source.
By this time I realized my electric tea kittle where I was heating water for tea for my wife was not working and that was definitely not a good sign. She is from England and if she doesn’t get her morning tea, she wants to call the Queen and have her send the Redcoats to put the Colonist’s in their place. Stroke of genius. I’ll heat water on my gas stove, right? Wrong. It has an electric spark igniter for the pilot light. I’ll just get on the city’s website and see if they have posted anything about a power outage. Wrong again. No Internet. Not even on my laptop which, by the way is what I’m using now at the kitchen table with only the light from an open window to see with. I did look down the street and saw someone ran into a light pole and it was down in the middle of the road. Fortunately no one was hurt.
My grandmother always told us about how tough it was for her growing up. Her family did not have electricity. They used oil or kerosene lanterns for light. They had to cook on a wood stove or in the open hearth of their fireplace. They kept milk and other things cold or at least cool by putting them in the spring that flowed on their land. If they wanted a fresh tomato or other vegetable they just went out to the garden and picked it. I doubt she ever heard the word computer or Internet or Facebook or microwave and she lived to be almost ninety.
Still waiting for my modern life support systems to come back and save me from myself. As that great philosopher Yogi Berra said, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”
Liar or Creative Writer? Another Definition of Fiction.
I belong to Rotary and if you’re not familiar with them, you should look into it, but that’s not the point of this blog. But it sorta is. In Rotary we have what is known as the Four Way Test of the things we think, say and do. The first of which asks the question: Is it the Truth? Therein lies the dilemma for me.
I write fiction and by its very definition it is not true, so I violate that rule every time I sit down at my computer to work on a book or a screenplay. I was written up on critiques at a writer’s conference, actually I’ve been written up several times, but I want to talk about one in specific. The person said I called her a liar and she was highly offended. She wanted her money back, wanted me fired, never invited back, wanted them to take away my birthday and erase me from the face of the earth or words to that effect.
What I said that got her all fired up was that if you looked in the dictionary (and I never have…I just assume and we all know what that is) under the word “Fiction” one of the definitions would be “untrue.” I went on to explain that as children we had all probably experienced that time when our mother or father sat us down and asked if what we told them about that broken whatever was true. They knew it wasn’t and so did we, but we insisted that it was. Mom or Dad then went on to explain that we had told something that was not true and that means we told a lie, which in our understanding made us Liars!
That was my point. We write fiction. We create things that are not true. We have characters tell things that are not true. We are liars. I think the lady failed to see the connection or the humor in what I was trying, unsuccessfully in her case, to explain.
I have a screenplay about German POW’s who were kept in the United States during WWII. In my story they escape during a hurricane, wreak havoc on an oil refinery, mostly get killed or re-captured by the FBI and there is a double agent in the group. A producer was interested in the script and asked me, “Is the story true?” Going back to my Rotary meetings I had to say:
“Well, World War Two is true and there were German Prisoners of War here in the United States. Some did escape and were recaptured by the military and the FBI. Hurricanes are real. Just ask the people in Florida and Louisiana. The FBI uses double agents. There are oil refineries in the United States. And uh…uh…well, uh…you see..I…I confess. I’m a liar. I made the rest of it up. It’s not true. I won’t do it any more…and…” That’s when he stopped me and said, “I like it. Let’s talk.”
We talked and we’re still talking about the project but that’s the way it goes in this business. Did I lie to him? Sorta. Did he like it? Sorta. Are all fiction writers liars? You figure that one out. In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Rotary to change the test to: Is it the Truth? If it’s not it should be.
I’m Here to Help You.
You answer the phone and a person with an accent you know is not from Texas or Alabama or even Boston, tells you his name is Fred and he is ready to assist you with a major problem you are having with your computer. If you’re like me, you didn’t know your computer had a problem. You can live with the fact that it sometimes doesn’t know how to spell, or can’t figure out what you are trying to say and there was that time it sent a message about you know what to you know who by mistake. Oh, well if they let a little thing like that upset them to the point they never speak to you again and un-friend you from all their sites, it’s their loss. But I digress.
Fred says it’s come to their attention that the framistat in your computer is not running to full speed. You have no idea what a framistat is, so you listen. Mistake number one. He says if you will just give him the password to your computer he can re-thrum the framistat and make it work with the throckinwhistle. Huh? It’s computer language and the best you can do is “alt, control, delete,” so you take a chance and give him the password. Mistake number two.
By the time you get to mistake number five, he’s got your SSN, the password and account number for your checking account, the birthday of your grandmother and the name of the person you had the hots for in junior high. The next morning when you go to The Royal Tea Pot to get your daily fix, all four of your credit and debit cards have a message on the screen to confiscate the card, place you under citizen’s arrest and only sell you bread and water so you can get used to it.
Now for a true story. I know you were waiting for this. I kept getting a call from a gentleman from the Indian sub-continent named Richard several months ago. His story was he worked for Microsoft and they had detected a virus in my computer. I immediately hung up. Two weeks later, he graced me with yet another call. This time I listened a little longer. All I had to do was allow his to remotely access my computer and he could cure it from the virus, constipation, ingrown toenails, acne, several STD’s and baldness. I asked for his number so I could call him back, because I was in the middle of painting my toenails and this time he hung up on me.
And then….one dark and stormy night he called again. This time I told him how happy I was to get is call. I told him I realized he did not know who or where he was calling, but this was his lucky night. “Why is that?” he asked in his delightful accent. Because you have reached the county sheriff’s office and we have been having terrible problems with our computers. Before he could stammer an excuse, I told him to hang on because I was going to connect him with the Sheriff and he could tell him how to fix all of our computers.
Richard is no longer my phone buddy and my computer still doesn’t know how to spell without help.
Willie has a bus, I have a Toyota
I’m sure it’s the same with young girls as it is with boys. We dreamed about being baseball or other sports stars or rock and roll singers, both with thousands of adoring fans clamoring for autographs. We even practiced signing our names or we made up names we wanted to use. It’s no different if we are writers.
I am fortunate in that I occasionally get invited to do a book signing at a book store, library or some other venue. I don’t take it lightly and I prepare for it the best way I know how. It’s an appearance and I have to treat it like I would if I was Willie Nelson.
Willie is one of my hero’s, not only because he’s eighty-five years old, drinks like a fish, smokes an occasional doobie, plays golf, been married several times and hangs out with Woody Harrelson in Hawaii, but because he still does all of those things and he’s still alive. That’s a goal we could all shoot for. Except the part about being married several times. Once is enough.
When Willie hits the road, he has people who load his bus with all of his life support systems. His tequila, his smokes, his pills, lotions, braces and supports, hair products, hats, head bands and another case of tequila…just in case. Oh, and he has his band or his family load on board as well. If you’ve ever been to a Willie Nelson concert, you know what I mean by all this. I’ve been to several and I remember one in particular in Maryland. It was outdoors and I thought the fog had rolled in. You could say you were just like Bill Clinton. I didn’t inhale, I just breathed as I floated to the stage.
Now that we’ve got Willie on the road, what about me? Glad you asked. I don’t have a bus, I’m not yet eighty-five, I can’t afford a case of tequila, stopped smoking years ago, don’t need hair products or head bands. What I do have is a Toyota. Actually, I have three of them. A Tacoma pick-up, a Solara convertible and a . What was that? You didn’t hear me. I said….a…..Prius. I know. But I get fifty miles to the gallon.
Okay, I head for the book signing. I take books unless the book store orders them ahead of time. I have a large banner I put behind the table where they put me. I have business cards, some handouts on all my books and a nice pen to sign with. I also carry some index cards so people who want it signed can write the name or what they want it to say. I’ve made mistakes in the past and if you want it signed to Betty and I hear Eddie, I just lost a sale and a book.
One of the best things about book signings is that there are usually several of us at the venue at the same time and most writers have a little dish or box on their table with candy in it. The last time my table mate had some Belgium chocolates and I made a fool of myself sneaking them out of the bowl.
So…bottom line. Willie prepares for his appearances and so do I, albeit on a much smaller scale. Next time you see that I’m doing a book signing, stop by and we can see what kind of candy the others are giving away.
Hey Baby! Let's Do Lunch!
If you have been paying attention for the last few months when I write this blog, you know I also write screenplays. I have been fortunate enough to say that I have had eight of my scripts made into feature films. Along the way, I have learned a lot. Some of it good, some bad and some you would not believe unless you experienced it yourself.
Occasionally, someone will ask me what it’s like to sit in a dark theater and see your name come up on the screen. It depends. Since the writer’s name usually comes up with the first few credits or cards, that you see, it depends on what happens after you see your name and the story actually begins to unfold. It’s a long and nerve wracking, nail-biting, sleepless night and gin and tonic fueled journey to get to that point. Example? you say. Let me tell you a story.
I won’t go into a lot of details about the agony of trying to sell a screenplay, so let’s start when I had someone say, “Hey, that script ain’t so bad, I’ve seen worse. I think I like it and I want to make it.” At that point in time, you are the most important person in the entire process. Enjoy it while you can. I was invited to Los Angeles to sign contracts etc. and met some studio executives at a very nice restaurant in Beverly Hills. We were waiting to be seated when one of them got a phone call. Two minutes later he joined us at the table where we were talking about my movie and an idea I had for another script. “Sorry, but the studio has decided to kill the project.” My movie was not going to get made, but he assured me he would still pay for lunch. The others talked about projects they were working on and all I could do was eat.
Lunch was finished after about an hour, and true to his word, the studio executive paid for lunch. As we were about to leave, he got another phone call. He held up his hand for us to wait. “The movie’s back on.” In the course of an hour, it was a go, then a no-go, then a go again. And you wonder why we drink.
Finally, after almost a year of on/off/on/off I was called and invited to the premier in Los Angeles. “A real premier like I see in the movies? Will there be limos, search lights, beautiful women in furs and men in tuxedos and people asking for my autograph?” “No, but there will be an open bar and munchie crunchies in the lobby after it’s over.” Close enough. I’ll be there.
The night arrived and so did I. I parked my rental Geo a block away and walked to the theater with my daughter. We took our reserved seats, listened so some people talk about how important everyone from the craft services person to the lead actor was in the making of this film. The only person they didn’t mention was the person who sat in front of a stack of blank paper and created as script.
The lights were dimmed and the movie began. For the first five minutes I sat in my seat, squirming, jumping and swearing. “Holy (%&*), I didn’t write that. What the ^$*&(*P) is that? Are the #$&*)(ing crazy? That’s not the story I wrote.” I thought we were in the wrong movie. My daughter finally calmed me down by reminding me that I got a nice check before they screwed up my story and that the check didn’t bounce. Excellent point
Moral of this story. Do not, under any conditions have any pride of authorship if you want to write movies. And if you ever meet a studio executive who shakes your hand or especially one who “air-kisses” on both cheeks and says something like…Kiss Kiss, let’s do lunch or KKLDL, stand by for a ram.
I recently read an article that really disturbed me. No, it wasn’t the fact that at least four men have played Superman in the past or that the Great Pumpkin is not coming to see Charlie Brown again this year. It’s far more important to me and to anyone who reads this who is a writer.
The article said that as a white person I should not, under any conditions write a character who was not as white as I was. Read that again. I had to read it twice myself. It went on to say that if we had a character who was non-white we were not qualified to write anything about that person since we did not understand who they were or anything about them. Let that sink in for a minute.
That means, if you ascribe to that philosophy, that you can never have a character from the country of…fill in the blank, or a person who speaks…. another blank unless they are from the English-speaking world for the most part.
Think of all the great literary works we would have lost if that idea had been floated a century ago. Mark Twain would still be Sam Clemmons working on a riverboat. We would never had met Atticus Finch. Gone With the Wind would still be blowing in the breeze and we would never have heard the Tarzan yell.
I resent and reject that idea on a personal and a professional basis. I have two mystery series in print. I have an African American character in both who shows up in every book and will continue to do so. One of the series is set in Atlanta, GA in the early 1950’s. It features a Private Investigator who works out of a pool room. The character is the combination janitor and rack boy. He is patterned after a real person who held those two jobs in a real pool room. I write him the way I remember his and the way he spoke. He had a slight lisp and everyone knew it. It was a part of who he was and, for me and my novels, he is a very important character. I write him like I remember him and I don’t feel that I should make apologies for doing so.
If we are true to our characters without intentionally demeaning them do we do them a disservice by not making them a mirror image of us? If you have a recent immigrant from a non-English speaking country how much credibility will you lose if that person speaks perfect English the day they arrive? We, as writers have an obligation to our readers and to our characters. Our readers expect us to take them to places they may have never been or have them see or do things they would never experience outside the covers of our books. By the same token, we owe our characters a chance to be themselves, warts and all.
We have to listen to them speak. Have dinner with them and see what they eat. Spend an evening with them and see what they talk about and how they interact with others.
It’s not being PC, its being a responsible writer.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Who’s on First…or Third?
The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello did what has been recognized as the best comedy routing during a radio broadcast in 1946. It was called Who’s on First and it holds up today as being just as funny as when it was first broadcast. Costello wanted to know the name of the ballplayer on first base and Abbott said “Who” and it went downhill from there.
As a writer you, at some point unless you’re writing magazine articles, will have to decide if your character is on first or third. Not base, but will the story unfold from the first or third person. It’s a monumental decision for a writer and it has a ripple effect throughout the entire project.
If you choose the first person then everything is revealed through one person’s eyes. The reader sees only what the protagonist sees. When your protagonist is inside the house, he/she cannot see what is happening in the back yard, the garage, the hardware store down the street or in the Kremlin although some action in all of those places may have an impact on your character and the story. That’s the rule. However, rules are made to be broken.
Even if you are writing in first person, you don’t have to limit it to only ONE first person’s point of view. If your protagonist is a housewife in Snake Navel, Arkansas and your bad guy is a spy in the Kremlin, tell a part of the story from his POV. Nothing wrong with that. It’s like two trains on parallel tracks both heading in the same direction, just make sure they reach their destination at about the same time. Now it’s not who’s on first but how many on first if you do it right.
Just around the corner from first base is third. Who’s on third? I don’t know was his name in the comedy skit, but you know the name or names of those who are in your third person narrative. With third person narrative you have much more leeway to go places and do things that your housewife from Snake Navel can’t do. Instead of everything beginning with “I did this or that” you can be the person who drifts overhead of the action, looking down describing everything that is going on. You are not limited by time, space or eyes. You are the know all, see all, tell all narrator.
Go to the book shelf and pick up the last book you read. Take a look at it and try to imagine it written in the opposite person. Does it work? Is it better? Worse? Do the same thing with the project you are currently working on. Don’t rewrite it, but spend a few minutes imagining it from another person.
And of course, it had to happen. I saw a photo recently that was taken from the first base dugout during a ball game. There was a runner on first base. The shot was taken from is back. The name on his shirt? Hu. I know the announcer couldn’t wait to say, “Hu’s on first.”
What’s in your DNR?
I hate to admit it, but sometimes I, and probably you, are not as smart as we think we are. We take on a subject in an argument and find out as we are making our point, that we are making the other’s person’s point instead. We use a word in our conversation that either means something we were not aware of, or we use it the wrong way. Need an example? Stand by.
When I retired from the Army I was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. I had a great job, but my family had not moved with me. When my wife got ill, I needed to transfer closer to them, so I was assigned to a VA Hospital as the Administrative Officer for the Department of Nursing. Career Army officer. Twenty-six years in the Infantry. No medical background and I was the senior person in the department without nursing training. This was like Jim Santori reporting a Category 5 Hurricane on the way to the hospital.
One day, the secretary for the Chief Nurse was not available to take notes at a meeting so I was asked to fill in for her. Take note? Piece of cake. How many meetings had I been to in the Army and taken notes? Too many to count. The subject of this meeting was DNR.
I’m taking notes, doing my job when one of the participants said something like, “This month we have only had three deaths due to DNR.” Deaths due to DNR? How can that be? I immediately raised my hand and interrupted the meeting. “How can you die from that stuff they swab your cheek for? They do that so they can identify you if you get killed. Everyone in the military gets a swab and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any of them dying from it.” Silence was on the face of the room, and quiet was all around.
Everyone looked at me. No one spoke. “What?” I asked as I looked back at them. The nurse reached out and took my hand in hers like she would have done to her three-year-old. “That’s okay. You didn’t know. We’re talking about DNR…Do Not Resituate…that means—”
I jerked my hand away. “I got it. I got it. I just thought you were talking about that other stuff.”
The head nurse again. “That other stuff, as you call it, is DNA.”
All my notes had been geared to my understanding of what they were talking about and were completely useless with the exception of the names of the attendees.
Had I made that error in my novel, I would have made a mistake that may have cost me a sale. If I had been using the wrong term throughout my novel, it may have taken much more than a change of initials to correct it.
When we write, technical matters matter. The Army no longer has Jeeps. Law enforcement personnel don’t have the accused do the “perp walk.” Nobody does a chalk outline of a dead body on the sidewalk. Doctors and medics don’t look up and shake their head when someone dies. These things matter unless you’re writing science fiction, then you can make up almost anything that works.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to jump in my Jeep, kill someone with a look from my eyes and teleport to the planet Framistat.
It’s Not Me…Really
When we write it's inevitable that we put some of ourselves in each piece we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, novel or screenplay. We, as writers are going to find ourselves in it. Or more accurately, our readers who know us are going to find us.
Write a most despicable protagonist who kicks small animals, talks bad to his mother, talks with his mouth full, never lets someone else get a word into the conversation, or does that “other thing” that drives you crazy. He is perfect for the piece you are working on. You’re lucky enough to get it published and a friend reads it. What are they going to say? Great story/novel/screenplay? One of your best works? You wish.
No. What they are going to say is, “I totally saw you doing/saying that thing your protagonist did on page 97.” You don’t do all those things I described, do you? Probably not, but what if one time you tripped over your dog and said something like, “you little ()*%**), I wish I had kicked you out the door.” You didn’t mean it (probably) and the person who heard you knew you were joking, but when they read your piece…there it was and it was you.
Writing teachers talk about giving your character “voice.” At first, I thought they were talking about a deep voice, a high-pitched voice or something like that, but noooo, it’s not that easy. Your character has to have a particular voice pattern. Where does it come from? Your friends? Deep inside that cavern of a brain where you hear voices all the time? I’ll bet a lot of it comes from you.
I have two mystery series in print. One takes place in Atlanta, GA in the early 1950’s and the other is contemporary and set is the Seattle, WA area. I have lived in both and know that people talk differently in each place. I also know I picked up some of the voice patters from both and use them in my daily speech and, ….spoiler here….I use it in my writing.
My character in Atlanta uses terminology I have heard most of my life. He drops a lot of “g”s on words. He says, “Mornin’ Darlin’”, would rather eat a bug than call that thing he drinks a “soda.” If it come out of a bottle, it’s a Coke. If he’s formal, it’s a ‘co cola. I have done and said the same thing.
In the other series, the protagonist drinks “soda’s” or a “pop.” He dips his French fries in tartar sauce and knows what the waitress is talking about when she asks if he want “jo-jo’”s’ with his meal. He speaks to enough Canadian’s to know they end a lot of sentences with “ai”.
I have lived in both areas and many others during my years in the Army, so I use a lot of the things I have heard and experienced in my writing. It natural to do it and it’s okay.
The good thing is when your reader recognizes something, you know they read the book and they were listening/watching when you did it.
Just the facts, Ma’am…or not.
I’ve stopped asking people if they’re old enough to remember something that was on television years ago. Ten years ago, if you mentioned Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, The Lone Ranger or something like that, you would have gotten a blank stare. Now, it’s “Oh, yeah. I saw it on YouTube and I really like it. I watched a bunch of episodes.” So…remember Dragnet?
It was the first and probably one of the best police stories ever on television. Jack Webb was Sergeant Joe Friday and “only the names were changed to protect the innocent.” Webb starred in all of the episodes. He also wrote and directed many of them. The dialog sounded like it was fired from his trusty snub-nosed revolver which he was not opposed to drawing. Anytime he interviewed a witness, he had a small notebook and a pencil and all he wanted was the facts. If that was all he got, the show would have lasted about five episodes.
As a writer we use facts, but we have to embellish them to make a good story in many cases. I recently received a call from a producer in Los Angeles who asked if I had a World War Two script. I have several, so I wanted him to narrow it down a little. “It needs to be true or at least based on true incidents.” I won’t go into all the details, but my project deals with German Prisoners of War being held in the United States and some saboteurs landed by submarine. ‘Is it real,” he asked. Uh…sorta. World War Two was real. There were German Prisoners of War in the United States. That part is real. Germany landed at least three groups of saboteurs by submarine on US soil during the war. Also a real fact. I put all the facts together and came up with a story line.
It is a true story? Not completely but a lot of the parts that make it up are right out of the history books. Can I call it a true story? No. Can I say, “based on true facts?” Absolutely. There are enough World War Two veterans still around who will remember the facts and some who may question how I treated them, but they can’t deny the thread that holds it all together.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Braveheart, look up the history of the times and see how it was manipulated to make it a better story. How about “Houston, we have a problem?” Never said in the real situation, but can you imagine the movie without it. Unless the movie was going to get a hard “R” rating, I’m sure the actual conversation between the men and Houston could not be repeated.
Got an idea? If it is entirely original and does not include any true incidents or persons, you can do whatever you like to it. If it has some basis in facts, make them as true to their origin as possible, but unless you’re making a documentary you have a lot of flexibility in how you use the incidents.
Present the truth in the most favorable light.
Three Little Words.
If you’ve read one of my series, and who hasn’t you know that I have a contemporary mystery series set in a little town north of Seattle, Washington. The protagonist is a private detective and he…well…he does private detective things. The point is I have named each book for a song from the big band era of just prior to and just after WWII. I figure if the late Sue Grafton can do it with the alphabet, maybe I can do it with song titles. As I have said in other blogs, I also have been fortunate enough to have several feature films produced from scripts I wrote. Now I have to tie those two tidbits of information together.
Back in the 1930’s, (much before my time) there was a song with the title THREE LITTLE WORDS. It’s been recorded many times by many different singers, but that’s not the point either. The point is, screenplays consist of three distinct parts, i.e., three little words.
Those words are Beginning, Middle and End. Or maybe Act I, Act II and Act III. How about Action, Dialog and Characters? And don’t forget the most famous three of all: Lights! Camera! Acton! Say those last three on a set and you will be escorted off by the largest truck driver in the state. I just threw them in to see if you were paying attention. You only hear them in movies or on television when the person doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.
Take the first three sets of three words. All are relevant to a good screenplay. Any story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, no matter if it’s a novel, short story or a screenplay. The next two sets are particular to screenplays and teleplays. Movies are a visual medium and if you have a forty-foot-tall head on the screen doing nothing but talking, you are going to lose the audience if you were fortunate enough to sell the screenplay in the first place. That head has to say something and when it does, you have a character and some dialog. If you must have that character talk for five minutes, break it up with some kind of action. Have them go to the window and look out or light a cigarette or take a drink or tie their shoe or put on lipstick. Something. A long monolog only works once ever twenty years and the last one that really worked was George C. Scott in PATTON. If you haven’t seen it, watch the first five minutes to see what I’m talking about. By the way, that was the last scene filmed in the movie. It was so intense, that the director wanted to save it for last.
From a formatting point, the script must be in three acts unless it’s a teleplay, then it may be eight or more. Remember, on television you don’t pay and admission, so they have to sell something to get their money back. Writers have to factor in breaks for commercials, but that’s for another time.
Remember, if you’re writing a screenplay, it’s rule of three little words.
And now I have three little words for you.
I gotta go.
Who’d I say I was?
I once worked in an office in DC where one of the people was in a very bad auto accident. When that person came back to work sometimes we would be in the middle of a conversation and they would stop and say, “Who’d I say I was?” At first everyone thought it was a joke, but we soon learned that the person had suffered some brain damage and at times did not know who they were.
I wonder if all writers have the same problem? Not brain damage, although that may be true as well, but do we sometimes not know who we are? Do you become your character? Do you talk for them? Feel what they are feeling on the paper? How deeply do you get into the character’s mind and psyche?
What are you talking about, you ask? I think we all pattern characters after people we know. We may give them different names, sex, locations, occupations, etc. but way down deep there is a part of us that knows exactly who that character is based on. So what you ask? What if the person is someone you would rather forget about? Maybe an ex-spouse or significant other that you are killing in a wonderfully horrible way in your project. No problem. I do things like that all the time. If you’ve ever wronged me or any member of my family I’m going to really make you pay for it in a book or screenplay.
Okay, so what’s your point, you ask? By the way, you’re sure asking a lot of questions this week, but I digress.
The point is, at least for me I have a character in one of my mystery series I patterned after an actress I worked with and have become personal friend with as well. Everyone in my family knows her and most have met her. She’s a lovely lady with grown children.
About a week ago, I was sound asleep and around 3am I stared to talk in my sleep. I’ll stop here to let you get a drink before you read the rest of this because you can probably see what’s coming. I have a rough time sleeping and talking is something I do almost every night. Most of the time its more mumbling than talking, fortunately for me. I even started singing karaoke one night, and believe me, the mumbling would have been better.
Back to the night in question. As I said, about 3am, I started talking in my sleep. Evidently, I was coherent enough for my wife to talk to me as well. Good little wife that she is, she asked me what I was talking about. That’s like asking a man what he is thinking about. The obvious answer as ever man knows, and every woman denies, is sex, food or cars. You know what the answer is, but you want it to be something you like: “I’m thinking about that lovely weekend we spent with your mother when I moved all her furniture from the house to the garage, so she could paint.”
Back to me. At 3am the question was, “What are you doing?” Ready for this? I said, in words that, according to her, left no room for interpretation or doubt, “I’m on the beach in the Bahama’s with XXXXX.” That being my actress friend’s name.
Be careful getting too deep into your alternate character. It may not be a good thing.
The doctor said I will only have a few scars and the bones should heal if I wear the brace for another six weeks.
Keep those cards and letters coming.
I’ve been writing this blog for several months now and if my math is right, and it usually isn’t, if you divide 25 by 4 which is the number of this blog, divided by the number of weeks in a month except for those that have 5 Thursdays, you get a total of some number. But that’s not the point of this week’s blog. What is it, you ask? It’s time to answer some of the many questions I have received from my faithful, curious and sometimes hostile readers. I may even take a question from the audience if you raise your hand.
The most asked question is: Who do you think you are to be giving advice? Hell of a good question and I have an answer. Like most people who claim to be, are, or want to be writers, I think I have something to say and for that reason you have an obligation to hear it. I realize that I compose on a computer and not on stone with a chisel, so if you like what I have to say and it works for you, great. If not, change channels.
Next question: Did you really work on all those movies you list on your website? I did and everything I said about them is true. Trust me…
Another good one. Do you need anything special to get you in the mood to write? If you only knew…but I digress. I usually write early in the morning dressed in my bathrobe, fuzzy pink slippers, my cat curled up on the keyboard, a cup of herbal tea in hand. If that doesn’t work, lots of Gin and tonic’s do the trick late at night when “those people” come to call and I can’t sleep.
Oh, I see a hand from the audience. “Did you really write a movie for Playboy?” Actually, it was for Mystique Films, another company that Playboy owned, and yes it was one of “those” kinds of movies. It’s been on HBO, Showtime and other premium cable channels so it’s not that bad. And I went to a Playboy party and even took my wife.
Back to the mailbag. You grew up in Georgia. What was your childhood like? I was ten years old before I knew a chicken wasn’t a long animal like a snake. All I ever got was the neck. I was so poor I couldn’t afford to go barefooted…I could go on, but that’s all the Rodney Dangerfield I remember at the moment. I had a great childhood, if I can be serious for a moment. My grandmother and my dad were great story tellers and if I learned anything about the art, it was from them. I’m an only child, but I have some cousins I think of almost as brothers and sisters.
Here’s an interesting one. Why do you use some of the same names in books? I have a hard time coming up with character names for one and second, there are several people I think enough of to name characters for them. Some left us far too young, others are people I served with in the Army…you get the idea.
And last. I have a great idea for a book. Can you write it and share the money with me? )(*^*(%*&^%)^&* and the equine upon which you arrived.
Jump into the Fire? Or a Casual Walk in the Park?
Let’s start at square one. You’re sitting at your desk, kitchen table, park bench, table at Starbucks or some other familiar place and suddenly a light bulb goes off in your head. Maybe you hear a voice that nobody else hears, or you see the equivalent of a burning bush. You have an IDEA.
What do you do next? Do you furiously take notes before the inspiration disappears or goes to another table? Do you just sit and let the idea boil around in your head until you have enough information to actually begin the process?
You’ve now got a good handle on what it is. Do you have a scene or an idea? What? There’s a difference? The voice tell you it’s time to write about that time you…..fill in the blank. Did you fill in the blank with an incident or an idea for an entire book, screenplay or short story? The time you went skiing and fell off the ski lift is a great scene, but unless it caused an avalanche and you survived for a week without food, water, or the Internet it’s probably not a book etc.
Let’s break it down, no pun intended. You’re on the ski lift, it shakes, shimmers and dumps you to the snowpack some thirty feet below. Now what? Do you plan out what you’re going to do next or do you just hit the snow and let the story unfold? Plodding or Plotting.
I know writers who will start their project the day they buy their ski outfit and plan the ski weekend. They know what color the boots are, the size of the chairs on the lift and the name of the operator of the ski lift because he looked like Uncle Charlie. They can tell you what they thought about as they dropped to the snow, how long they were buried and how they dug out using only their hands and a granola bar they brought as a snack. Those are Planners.
Plodders, usually like me, jump on the ski lift, admire the ski bunnies in line, fall head first into the snow and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into and how am I going to get out as I hear the roar of the avalanche rumbling down the mountain in my direction. I’ll sit under the snow and wonder how I’m going to get out and then I’ll start digging. I may dig in the wrong direction and bury myself deeper in the snow for a bit but I usually find the right direction and get out. There are very few holes you dig that you can’t get out of. Sometimes the best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging.
Once I reach the surface, I have to look around and see where I am and what I need to do. Do I have to spend a week walking through the snow? Maybe I find a cabin. Is it abandoned or filled with…fill in the blanks who try to do what with or to me? Do I escape or join them? Sometimes when I sit down to write I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to write about, where I’m going or what I’m going to do when I get there.
Plodding works for me but I can see how it would drive some people crazy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go write….something.
PS. I was just notified that DANCING IN THE DARK is one of 10 finalist for the Georgia Author of the Year Award in the mystery category. The awards will be presented on 16 June. The book is the first in the Max Maxwell series. The second book, SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY was released on 7 April. The awards will be presented on 16 June.
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My ‘ol Daddy back in Georgia had some great old sayings. Most of which I thought made him dumb as a red brick when I was a kid and heard him saying them. As I got older, I began to realize who the red brick was. I will share one of them with you in a minute because it pertains directly to this week’s blog.
The newest book in my Max Maxwell mystery series will be available on 7 April. It’s called SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY and you can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million or your local book store. For those too young or not a fan, it, like the last one is named for one of the big band songs popular during World War Two. I figured if the late Sue Grafton could make a career out of naming her books after the alphabet, (tragically she recently passed away after writing the “Y” book,) I could do the same with song titles. The next one after SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY will be called LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY and it’s already written, so pull out your parent’s old albums and listen to the songs.
Here’s a little teaser for SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. Max Maxwell is working on a stalking case involving the unhappily married lady he has been seeing when he gets a call from an old army buddy, Bill Hart, who is now running an off-the-books intelligence operation in Washington, D.C. Bill asks Max to help out with a situation involving another one of his associates. All Max has to do is pick up a sailboat and get it back across the Puget Sound to Seattle. He wasn’t told that Bill’s associate was working undercover and had been murdered on the boat or that the Canadian Intelligence Service, a Korean smuggling ring with a deadly mission and a double agent might also be involved. This will turn out to be a Sentimental Journey Max will never forget-if he even survives.
I will be sending out notices via my facebook and email and any other means I can come up with to get the word out about the book. I am very fortunate in that I have a publisher and I am not doing this as a self-published book. The publisher has a website and I have already been asked to be interviewed by several magazines devoted to publishing and mystery books, so that will help.
As with any product or service, word of mouth is the best publicity. If you drive a Toyota and a friend is looking to buy a new car and is thinking about a Toyota, they are going to come to you for a recommendation. It’s the same with books. If you have read any of mine and like them, tell someone, better yet, and this seems to be the hardest thing writers have to do, is get people to write a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. “Good book” or “Really liked it,” is sufficient.
What’s all that got to do with my Daddy and his advice? Glad you asked. One of his many sayings was “If you don’t toot your own horn, you may never hear any music.’
A ROSE WOULD STILL SMELL..
In one of his play’s Shakespeare tells us that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. But what if it was originally named a zygkrip? Does that sound like something you’d stick under your nose? Can you imagine calling the florist and telling them to send a dozen long-stemmed zygkrips to your wife for her birthday? Maybe names do matter.
How do you pick names for your characters when you are writing? Do you have a list of unused names by your desk and you just pick one? Do you agonize over getting just the right sound out of a name for the bad guy who does terrible things to the good guy? Where do your names come from?
I’m sure we all have different methods for naming characters. I have one I’ve been using for years and it seems to work very nicely for me. I use the same names to begin with in everything I write. Huh? Say what? I know writers who come up with a character and then spend hours or sometimes days trying to come up with the perfect name. To me, that’s a waste of time that could be used elsewhere. My method eliminates that completely.
My first male character in anything I write is always called “Mike.” My first bad guy is “Harry.” The first woman is “Linda.” These are names of friends and family and I know I’ll change them but I have to get to know the characters better before I re-name them. If I give my killer the name “Charles” when he is first introduced, I may find out that he was called Charlie when he was little and Chuck in the bank where he stole the money and by the time the police catch him, I’ve decided I wanted him to be Lester all along. It’s a name that fits his persona.
For me, characters tend to take on a life of their own and sometimes suggest their names. My Johnny Morocco P.I. series is set in a pool room in Atlanta, GA in the early 1950’s. Everyone in the place has a nickname because most of them are running from something, even if it’s life. Anonymity is important to them, so I have Babe, Slick, Preacher, Crip, Hockey Doc and others as needed. Each nickname fits the character better than calling them George, Harold, Robert or Dwight.
Think about the characters you like from past books and movies. Would you have wanted your mother or father to read you a story about “Fred the Apple Guy,” or “Johnny Appleseed?” Would you rather be defended in court by ‘’Thurman Bingley Seligman III” or “Atticus Finch?”
For the first time, I recently participated in a charity auction at my Rotary Club where I let them auction the naming of two characters in an upcoming release. The book had already been written and was in editing when the auction happened and I had to go back and change the name of two characters. Fortunately, the winners were both women and changing the names was not a problem. And even better, the names fit the characters very nicely.
I plan to offer that again, but next time it will be prior to finishing the book, so I can make certain all the parties involved get their money’s worth. It worked out great this time, but I don’t want a future character to give me a problem when I have to change both his or her name and sex because of a high bidder.
NAILING JELL-O TO A WALL
I consider myself one of the luckiest people on earth for a lot of reasons. I may go into some of them another time, but not now. Suffice to say, one of the things I consider myself lucky about is to be doing what I have always wanted to do and that is to write. I graduated from high school Derma cum Denta. For those of you reading this who don’t speak Latin, that means “by the skin of my teeth.” I never took the SAT’s or talked to a college recruiter. That was not in the picture for me. All I wanted out of school was ME.
A lot happened over the years to include a career of some 26 years in the Army, two combat tours during Viet Nam, a recall to active duty in 2004, my wife receiving a kidney from our youngest daughter and my realizing a life-long dream of writing. First it was short stories and magazine articles and a newspaper column and publication of my first novel while I was on active duty. Shortly after I retired (the first time) I watched my first screenplay produced and made into a feature film. Like an addict with his or her first pipe full of crack, I was hooked.
I wrote a second novel and couldn’t give it away. Nobody wanted it. No publisher. No agent. I don’t think my mother would have liked it if I had shown it to her. But I didn’t let that stop me. I was hooked, remember. I loaded my pipe and fired it up again. Novel number three. No takers. Nada. I set it aside, fired up the pipe again and inhaled. Number four. Success!
I found a publisher who liked the book and wanted to publish it. To make it seem even more like a fairy tale, he called me on my birthday to tell me. He published that one and asked for the second in a SERIES! I was on a roll. I had a series going. I was going to be rich and famous and then the call came. “Sorry to tell you the publisher passed away last night and the company is folding. You can have the rights to your novel back. Good luck selling it someplace else.” Now I really did need a crack pipe.
But wait…. there’s more. I did find another publisher who liked what I wrote and now I have two mystery series in print and they will publish as many more as I can write as long as they sell, after all, it’s a business and they have to make money.
What’s the point of all of this? Don’t give up. Writing is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. At first it looks like it won’t work and for most people it won’t. But you’re a writer. You’re not a “most people.” You’re special. You don’t give up. If you are sitting at a computer, a typewriter or a stack of yellow legal pads wondering if you can ever get published, the answer is probably yes. It’s not definite. Few things are and those are not something we look forward to. But keep at it. There is someone out there who is looking for what you have to say. All you have to do is find them. They’re not going to come knocking on your door.
Fire up the pipe, take a deep breath and go for it.
WORKING WITHOUT A NET
When I was a young boy my family lived in West Palm Beach, Florida. We lived close to what is now the Palm Beach International Airport and was then a small airport on a left-over Air Force Base from WWII. There was a very large area surrounding the airport and one day my dad took me over to watch a circus being set up. It was the Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus and to a little boy, it was the Greatest Show on Earth.
A day or two later he took me to see the show. I’m sure I was completely in awe over everything there, but I have always remembered two things. One was a seal who came out and his trainer set him or her down in front of a set of horns like you would find on a bicycle. The seal pushed each rubber bulb with his/her nose and played a little tune. I have no idea what it was now but I still remember that part of the show. The other part I remember was the tightrope act. Not because of the walk but where they did it.
In the center ring was a large metal cage with all sorts of ferocious beasts that need to be tames with whips and chairs, and the occasional blank fired from a pistol. They were put through their act and then the lion tamer, or whatever the now PC name for that person is, left and all the animals were still there. Sitting or walking around in the cage. With a door. With bars. But without a top. It was open.
Then the Ringmaster announced that the next act would be a tightrope walker. He began to walk out over the wire and got to the edge of the animal cage. It was then I realized he would walk over them and if he fell, he’d be in deep kimchi. I asked my dad why he did that and he explained it was called “working without a net.”
How many of us are working without a net waiting to fall into a den full of ferocious beasts? Do you have an agent? Is that agent a safety net that protects you from all the things that can be lurking below? Do you need a net, or are you confident enough to walk the wire without it?
I have had that safety net of an agent in the past and I am talking to another one at this time, but I have done okay in the past without that safety net. I sold my first screenplay without and agent. Smart idea? Not at all. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten a better deal if I had someone who knew more about the art of the deal than I did at the time. The point here is, the script sold and was made into a movie. That sale created more and ultimately got me a safety net for my screenwriting.
You will know when it’s time to get the safety net. You don’t need one if you are just standing on the platform and about to step on the wire. You need it when you are out there walking and looking down into the mouth of the beast wondering “what the hell have I gotten myself into?”
And if writing doesn’t work, you can always run away, join the circus and learn to play a tune with your nose.
THE “F” WORD AND OTHERS…
In the last few years it seems we have been getting bombarded with words that, for any number of reasons we are not supposed to say. They may fall under the category of profanity or offensive or politically incorrect. As a general rule, most people are sensitive to these words and try to avoid them in their daily language for fear of offending someone or being seen as insensitive.
Notice I said, “most people.” That does not include entertainers and writers. Do we not fall into the category of “most people” as well? Glad you asked. How many times have you seen a blurb on the morning news about some Hollywood star, athlete or other notable who, during a monologue or awards ceremony or interview “dropped the ‘f’ bomb?” It’s getting to be about as newsworthy as Congress voting along party lines. We just expect it to happen.
But that’s them and we are us. As writers what is our obligation to the reader to protect them from words they may not like? In my humble opinion…. none whatsoever. The first day of my screenwriting class I tell my students that during the course of the class I will probably insult, embarrass or offend them and I usually do. But I also say that in most cases, it’s a character in something we’re working on that says or does those things.
The two classic non-verbalized words today are the “F” word and the “N” word. If you have a character who hits his thumb with a hammer, you will lose your reader if he looks at his bleeding thumb and says, “Oh F word, I hit my thumb.” Imagine a scene where a bunch of men are dresses in sheets. One of them shouts, “Who do we not like?” The rest, after asking someone to hold their beer, join in with, “We don’t like the “N” words. Or the “J” words.” I could go on but you get the point.
If your character needs to say something, let him or her say it. If it’s not strictly for shock value your reader will understand. I was trying to make this point in a class one day when a lady asked me not to keep using the “N” word. I assured her I was not and did not use it but it was my character who was saying it. She got up to walk out and several of her classmates came to my defense and she stayed.
Offensive words have been around since the beginning of time in one way or another. What may be offensive to one person is just normal speech to another. There are cultural, religious and now even sexual connotations of words that we may not realize. I have a program on my computer that I use when I finish a novel to check for all sorts of things. One is for profanity.
I recently completed a novel where part of it takes place in Viet Nam. Against my better judgement, I referred to Saigon as Ho Chi Min City. My program came back and told me I should change it to Prostitute Chi Min City.
I told my system to get “F” worded.
THE WRITE OR WRONG CONFERENCE?
If you read any of the magazines that are geared toward the writing community you know that this is the time of the year when they announce the upcoming writer’s conferences. These conferences are held in most large cities and many of them specialize in a certain type of writing. You can find them for fiction writers, poets, non-fiction or magazine writers to name just a few. Most have workshops and a guest speaker or two whom you may or may not have heard of depending on the size of the conference.
Your particular writing specialty is…FITB (fill in the blank). You see a conference not far from you that has a workshop that interests you. It’s a weekend, so you don’t have to take time off from your day job, it’s within your budget and you’re ready to sign up to go. Before you do, ask yourself one question. Is it the right conference for me?
Break the question down further. What do I plan to get out of it? What are the qualifications of the workshop leaders? Does the brochure say, “Herbert T. Provanowitz has written seven novels” or does it say he has actually sold and had published seven novels? If it’s door number one, he may not have any more qualifications than you, so what can you learn in that workshop? If it’s an agent or editor you want to meet and pitch to, find out if they are actually looking for new talent. Send them an email and ask how many clients or manuscripts they have acquired at conferences in the past? I think you’ll be surprised at the answer.
I have had the pleasure of attending many writer’s conferences as both a participant and a speaker. Several of the conferences have invited me back again after a few years. In almost every case I have had people come up to me and tell me they saw me two, three or four years earlier and really liked my presentation. I’m always flattered when that happens but I began to wonder. Why are they coming back year after year? What new information are they getting or what do they expect to get? I had to know, so I asked that question of several of them. Be careful what you ask, you may not like the answer.
Many said they left the conference fired up and ready to hit the keyboard or yellow legal pad bright and early Monday to really get serious about writing…this time. But…Monday rolled around and work/school/chores/whatever had to be accomplished first. By the time they finished them, it was late and Jeopardy was just coming on and…and…you see the pattern. Or maybe they spent time with the editor or agent and actually followed up and sent them something. One month. Two, then three and four passed with no response. A polite email inquiry got them nothing either.
Bleak picture? Unfortunately, it is, but some of it is a self-inflicted wound that can be avoided. Do your research on the conference and the presenters. Make sure they are selling something that you want to buy and can actually use. And then USE IT.
I think it was Mark Twain or somebody else who said, “Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Use some of that 90% for preparation as well.
WHEN IS IT OVER?
That famous philosopher, Jogi Berra said “It ain’t over till it’s over” among other things he said that will go down in history. Which brings up a point for us as writers. When is it over? When have you written enough? When have you edited enough? When have you had friends, family and the random person from your writing group give it enough reads? Is it ready to be sent out with your name on it? Is it as good as you can make it?
First things first. It’ll never be right. You can do all the things mentioned above till the cows come home and chances are you can still find ways to improve it. The problem is you probably can’t find those ways yourself. I’ve talked about editing in the past which included paying for an editor or trying to do it yourself.
I recently had a novel published and so far, I have had two people contact me and tell me of mistakes that are still in it. How do I feel about that? Embarrassed of course but I don’t know what I could have done to prevent it. I went through the manuscript several times myself. I have a program I use that points out redundancy in words, profanity, the wrong tense etc. and I always use it prior to sending a manuscript to my editor. I think she does a great job of finding things I overlook but evidently this time we both failed.
I keep a novel by one of my favorite authors who now writes four books a year. He is one of the most prolific writers out there today. In one of the books he has a character who said he was a Soldier in the Army. A few pages later he tells someone he went to “boot camp” and in the next chapter he talks about being in the Marines. There are several disconnects there. Soldiers are in the Army but they go to Basic Training. Marines and Navy recruits go to Boot Camp. Unless you are familiar with the military service it probably would not register as a series of mistakes but to an Army retiree like me, it was a red flag. Will I stop reading his novels because of this? No way. He’s still a very good story teller. Will I look for mistakes in the future a little harder than I have in the past? Probably.
Who didn’t catch the mistakes before the book was finished? Him, his editor, his friend? Who knows. Point is we all make mistakes and nothing, or almost nothing in life is perfect and that goes for your writing and mine. We can only do the best we can and let it go. The consolation for us is that in most cases the person reading and finding the mistakes bought the book or magazine and we either have been or will get paid for the writing.
We can only do the very best we can, have somebody we trust take a look at the work and like a mama bird with a newly hatched birdie, kick it out of the nest and see if it can fly.
Yogi also said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Gotta love ol’ Yogi.
THE DRAMA OF TRAUMA
Can you write about the trauma in your life? Are you too close to it to be able to step back and see it for what it really is? Most of us are to a certain extent, but we tend to use some of it in our writing whether we realize it or not.
Think about a tragedy that you experienced. It could be the death of a family member or close friend, even a beloved pet. What about that auto accident you had or almost had that you still think about when you get in a similar situation? If your character needs to be in an auto accident, you recall what you felt and give it to the character. That’s using the drama of the trauma.
Look at it from the other side. How do you treat the trauma you caused for someone else? What? Of course, we’ve all cause some trauma in other people’s lives whether we know it or accept it or not. Remember those classic lines your mother or father said? “This is going to hurt me more than it is you.” In reality it probably did, but not at the time. Have you repeated them to someone else, probably your children?’
How many writers are now, or were police officers, fire fighters, first responders or military? For many of them, and I include myself in that group, writing about the trauma we’ve seen is something that we can’t avoid. How can a police officer who has seen many fatal auto accidents, domestic violence situations or other horrible things that people do to each other just push those memories aside and not write about them?
I know a former helicopter pilot who flew in Viet Nam who upon retiring from the Army had a second career as a writer. He wrote romance novels under an assumed name, of course. I read a couple of them and in each one I could tell when he was reaching back and bringing up something that had happened when he was on active duty. It was not blood and guts, but it was reality and it fit the scenario of his romance novels.
In reality, trauma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. How many times has someone sent you a link to a five-minute compilation of people doing really stupid things and paying the price for it? Admit it, you laughed at their situation. It was funny to you and to me, because it was not us who fell off the roof, or slid down the river bank when the rope broke or did a double back flip when the bicycle trip went south on us. It’s much easier to write about their trauma than ours.
I did a workshop at a writer’s conference once on this subject and I asked the participants if someone would like to tell of a particular tragedy that they experienced. I was completely unprepared for two of the response I got. One lady said her husband’s picture was featured one night on America’s Most Wanted. They had been married for several years and lived a normal life. He left the next day and has never been seen since. Another person informed the assembled group that his grandfather had killed his grandmother as an act of love. Both were in their 80’s and she was in very bad health and he did not want to see her suffer any longer.
Both these people said they planned to use the situations in their writing.
Got Something to Say? Speak Up!
Do your characters speak or actually say something? Think about it. There’s a great difference between taking and saying something. When Abe Lincoln was moving through the crowd at Gettysburg, he probably talked to the men and women there. “Excuse me.” “Thank you for moving aside.” “Sorry, I didn’t mean to step on your foot.” That was him talking. A few minutes later, he SAID something. We know it as the Gettysburg Address.
When it’s time for your characters to open their mouths, put words in them that say something. In my screenwriting class on dialog, I ask what the participants think is the worst thing one person can say to another. It’s a loaded question since I’m the instructor because I’ve already decided what it is. A friend of mine and I were enjoying some adult beverages one night and I asked him that question. We came up with two finalists. You’re on the operating table, tubes, lines, bottles etc. hooked up to you. Just as the Anesthesiologist puts the mask on your face and you take that last deep breath, you hear your surgeon say, “Oh,)$&, I hate it when I do that.” Or…the winner. You walk into your house and your significant other is sitting waiting for you. From the look on his/her face you know you’re in deep kimchi. He/she looks at you and with a look that would melt cold steel, says, “I know what you’ve been doing and I know who you’ve been doing it with.”
I ask for a volunteer and set up the scene. I wait for her to get ready and then I say, “Hi, honey. I’m home.” I’m met with “I know what you’ve…etc.” and off we go. It’s all spontaneous since I have no idea how she will play it or what she will say, but believe me, I’m never disappointed with what comes out of her mouth. And neither is the class.
With the exception of the first two, there are very few complete sentences. We cut each other off. We step on the other person’s words. We raise our voices. We swear. We stutter and stammer and take long pauses between words. We gather thoughts. We talk like real people talk and not like they write.
Make your character’s dialog fit the scenario. Imagine being in the boat that George Washington used to cross the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. You’ve seen the picture, I’m sure. Put your character in the boat. What did the man behind George say other than, “Damn, it’s cold.” Did he say something about this being their last real chance to win the war? Did he ask the man behind him to tell his wife and children he loved them if he did not make it home?
Think about the situation you’ve put your character in and let them run with it. How long did it take Neil Armstrong to come up with “A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind” when he stepped on the moon? That was not spontaneous. He thought about it and fit the words to the situation. He wasn’t a writer. He was an astronaut, but he said something.
And third place was….” Here, hold my beer and watch this.”
Research…Or See How Smart I Am.
I love the Internet. I hate the Internet. Sound confusing, but think about it. As writer’s we probably spend a fair bit of time on the Internet. We want to know something, we don’t have to go to the library like we did, or in my case, said we did, years ago. Hit the keyboard, do a few keystrokes, make a couple of false starts and we find what we are looking for. That’s the part of the Internet that I love. It’s the false starts that I hate.
Need some information on how many acres were in the original Disneyland? Look it up and choose from probably a million places that offer everything you ever wanted to know about Disneyland, Disney World, Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Steamboat Willy…or is it Willie? I now know what kind of car Donald Duck drives and his tag number. Does that make me a good researcher, smarter, a person who wastes time when he should be writing or a compendium of worthless information?
Want to know the city in the United States that sees the sunrise first every morning? Just ask me. I found it when I was looking for something entirely different. I write mysteries and If the FBI ever, for any reason comes to my house and asks to see my computer, I will never get out of jail. I have searches buried someplace in the memory bank of my desk top that will lead them to directions for making an atomic bomb, the kind of poison that is not found in a routine autopsy and the penalty for all sorts of horrible crimes.
It’s useful information and I make no excuses for having it on my computer but it’s the other stuff that pops up that I worry about. I did a search for a comedian who was popular in the early 1950’s. That led me to a site for some clips from the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I remember watching the show with my parents, I checked out a couple. The last one created a link that (I’m holding my hand in the air) I honestly did not realize led to a hard-core porn site. It took a call to tech support to get rid of it.
But let’s talk about legitimate research. In my latest mystery, I needed to know how to kill a person in a specific manner. I had the way, I did not know how or if it would be detected by a medical examiner. I looked on the Internet to no avail, so I called the medical examiner in the county where I had the murder take place. I asked some general questions and was told to contact a professor at a major university who specialized in poison research. We had a great conversation and I was led to a website that I would have never found otherwise. I did not go into great detail on how the poison was detected, but I could have. I needed to know but I didn’t think my readers did.
Give your readers enough to let them know you know what you’re talking about. Don’t get them bogged down in details unless you write techno-thrillers. If you do then you can go into great details. That’s what they expect.
Remember, they can’t put it on the Internet unless it’s true. BTW...Donald drives a 1934 Belch Fire Runabout and his tag number is 313.
New Year’s Revolutions….
Revolutions? No, that’s not a typo. I didn’t mean to type resolutions, although this is what today’s topic is. Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? Have you ever made any? I’m going to go out on a limb here, as they say. (Did you ever wonder who “they” are and why we care what they say, but I digress.) I’ll bet at some point in your life you made a few.
Therein lies the problem. It’s much easier to make them than it is to keep them. Right? They seem to take on a self-defeating life of their own once we make them and they come around to haunt us till we resolve to never do it again, or start making up new ones for the upcoming year.
Sometime around the first of November we start thinking about the holiday season. Dinners with family and friends are planned. Cards are bought, put in a drawer to be either mailed too late or saved for next year, and we consider what we want to change in the upcoming new year. Some of the most obvious and widely made are: lose weight, quit smoking, get in shape, be nicer to… (fill in the blank) and learn a foreign language. (A suggestion on the last one: Call your local bank and “press two.”)
And now it’s Thanksgiving Day. The family is gathered around. The kitchen looks like the mess hall for the Third Army with enough food for the entire assembled Soldiers and you have some of all of it. Next comes football or a nap. You are so full you think you’ll never need food again and you can hibernate till spring. After everyone is gone, you have another piece of pie, maybe a left-over turkey leg, some of that sweet potato thingy that Aunt Betty brought and by midnight when you can’t sleep, your first New Year’s Revolution is made. Lose weight. Beginning after Christmas dinner and the New Year’s Eve party, of course. The next morning when you reluctantly step on the scales, reaffirm what you already knew and take a good look at yourself in the mirror, the second one is made. Get in shape. Soon. After Christmas etc., etc.
Six weeks later, it’s New Year’s Eve, drink in hand you toast the beginning of the first day of the new year and the NEW YOU! Of course, the other hand is filled with a plate of small munchie-crunchies stacked as tall as the Eifel Tower and there is a cigarette clutched in your drink hand.
Twelve hours later you wake up and wonder if you are dead and if you’re alive you wonder why.
Every rule has its exception and New Year’s Resolutions are self-made rules so… Now for a word of explanation. You joined the gym and went for almost two weeks. Eating better or less or healthy takes an effort and you have to work and sometimes go to lunch with Fred and Mary and they’re not on a diet, and you only smoke now when you have a drink…after work with Fred and Mary or at the game with the guys or gals. You get the picture. You’ve come full circle. A Revolution.
Don’t feel bad you’re in good company. We all do it. So…if you’ll excuse me, I have to go join a gym, quit smoking, lose some weight, be nice to people who like…. (fill in the blank) and write more every day.
By the Way…did I mention that the latest novel in my Johnny Morocco series came out on December 23rd? It’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million etc. I was going to mention it in Dec as a New Year’s Resolution, but you know what they say.
YOU’RE NOT THE LONE RANGER
If you’re not old enough, this will make no sense to you at all. I was told once the true mark of one’s culture is if you can listen to The William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Now, some of you youngsters will maybe ask, “Who is that masked man?” Oh, wait, that’s what they said at the end of the show, but I digress. The point is when he and Tonto rode out of town, The Lone Ranger always fixed the wrong, punished the bad guys, made everyone see life in a more pleasant manner and left a Silver Bullet behind. It seemed to me when I watched the weekly episodes that everyone was waiting for him and Tonto to ride into town, fix everything and leave them a silver bullet. That silver bullet has taken on a life of its own in our modern world. It’s the fix-all, do-all, kiss it and make it better thing that we are constantly searching for.
Which brings me to the point of this week’s blog. You knew I’d ultimately get there, didn’t you?
For us, as writer’s there is no silver bullet. If there is, I and most of the writer’s I know, haven’t found it. There are many varieties of what we think are silver bullets. “If I can only finish this book/shorts story/poem/article I know it will open all the doors I need to write full time.” “If I can get an agent, I know I will be on the NYT Best Seller’s list.” “If my publisher would believe in me enough to invest in a publicity tour, I know I’d sell a million books.” If you’ve ever been to a writer’s conference you have probably heard these and more as writer’s search for their personal silver bullet.
If I remember correctly, (I looked it up so I know I’m right) the Lone Ranger found a silver mine someplace out west where he and Tonto mined silver so they could buy food, feed their horses, buy the make-up the Lone Ranger occasionally needed to fool the bad guys and have a little pocket change for an occasional night on the town. And……Get ready…here it comes…the point of this blog…. HE MADE HIS OWN SILVER BULLETS.
None of us probably has a silver mine in the back yard or on some property we own in Mule Toot, Arizona but we have our very own silver mine nonetheless. We do the digging every day when we sit down to type/write/compose/whatever we call it. Finish the book, short story or whatever project you are working on. Make it so good that someone else finds it interesting enough to buy/publish/or represent you. Even if you get that one silver bullet, you can’t relax. Many well-known writers have had series dropped by publishers and had to start again. We get letters from agents who are leaving the business, paring down their client list or think what we write is not popular anymore and we are suddenly working without a net. It happens. To us all. It will happen to you if you write long enough.
The solution? Go back to your own Mule Toot, dig around in the mine and find some more silver to make another bullet. Make several. Remember, the Lone Ranger gave out bullets all over the old west.
Write what you know…. wrong
From the time we first were given the assignment to write a story, the teacher told us to “write what you know about.” At the time that was pretty good advice since it was probably given in the third or fourth grade. As youngsters, we had a limited view of the world and didn’t know much about things outside our family or neighborhood. That’s not the case now, so forget that sage advice and listen up.
In my humble opinion, if there is such a thing, I say as writers it’s much more important to know about what you’re writing that to write about what you know about. Confusing? Not really when you think about it. How many science fiction writers have actually been in space? Seen Mars? Stepped foot on Venus or rode in an alien space ship? Not many, I’ll bet but they write about it in a convincing manner and make the reader believe what they are reading.
I’m not going to ask how many mystery writers have killed someone or robbed a bank or set up a long con, but you get the idea. This is where research comes in. Talk to people how have done the things you want to write about or read other books and publications on the subject. If the other person got it right or at least believable, so can you.
I completed a BA in Criminology when I was on active duty in the Army. I missed a class on Juvenile Justice and the instructor told me to find a facility and go interview a kid who was incarcerated. I contacted the local sheriff and asked if he would set it up. I went to the facility on the way home from work one day and I happened to be in uniform. I met a young boy about twelve. He was quiet, somewhat shy and seemed out of place there. We talked for a while, never discussing why he was in there and towards the end of the conversation, he asked if I was in the Army. I told him I was and he said he’d like to join one day. I, being a former recruiter, told him he had his life ahead of him, to stay on the straight and narrow and he might still be able to join. He then asked if the Army taught me how to shoot a gun and asked if I had one. I answered him and his next comment is one I will never forget. “I wish I knew how to shoot a gun. I’d kill my father.” I can only imagine what was done to that child for him to have that much hate in his heart. What’s that got to do with “write about what you know about?” Until that day, I could not imagine that a child could possibly do the things I saw at that facility.
After that, I have given myself permission to have my characters do the most heinous and vicious things to each other in my books and scripts. I console myself with the fact that it’s my characters and not me doing those things but I usually find someone who has already done them and pattern my actions after them.
Writing about your puppy or grandma’s cookies is okay if you’re under the age of ten, but if you want readers to respond by spending money, do some research. Stretch out. Find out how to rob a bank or fly the space shuttle.
Self-Editing and Other Misteaks
You’ve finished writing the great American novel, or at least a pretty decent short story, magazine article or poem. Spell check found several errors and in the second read you even found where you put a semi-colon where you should have used a colon or something like that.
You print a copy or do a cover letter and use the piece as an attachment and send it on its way. All you have to do now is to wait for the check and the accolades to flood in. Right? Maybe. But then again…
What about where you meant to say “think” and instead you wrote “thing.” Spell check didn’t catch it because “thing” is a real word. Your brain didn’t catch it because you knew what you meant to write and your brain gave you a pass on the word.
Even worse, you use the piece in your next writing workshop and hand out copies for the group to read. A hand goes in the air and asks if you really sent this off with this many mistakes in it. You stammer and stutter…but…but…I read it twice…no three times and…
The problem is that YOU read it. You can’t find your own mistakes. I write both novels and screenplays. When I have a script ready, in my opinion, to hit the market, I send it to my manager in Los Angeles. I’ve come to realize that no matter how good I think it is, he will find mistakes in spelling, punctuation or something. The story is sound, but the mechanics are the little things that keep us from being published or produced.
In my screenwriting class on the first day, when the students arrive, on the board is the following sentence: There going over their to pick up they’re stuff. Although it’s not a first year English class, I know some of the students see no problem with the sentence. They read it and it sounds okay. I also know that during the semester I will see the same thing in some of their writing.
So…what do you do to combat such mistakes? There are several programs for writers that will help you find mistakes. I use one that tells me if I use the same word too many times. It has sixteen things it looks for to include foreign word, profanity, adjectives and other things I’m not even aware I do. If you find a program that you like and works for you, it will show you just how many times you use the word “just” or “simply” or some other word that you feel you just simply can’t live without. You can just simply trust me on this.
If you don’t want to add another program to your computer, here are a few suggestions that I have heard other writers do. Cover the text on the page and read it one line at a time. Read each sentence backwards. Read it aloud to someone who knows nothing about the story, or have them read it to you.
If you want someone to send you a check, you’ve got to stand out in the crowd. Do the best job you can and don’t steak minakes.
You’re not crazy. You’re a writer.
Picture this. You’re in a doctor’s office. Let’s make it a Psychiatrist, just for fun. The doctor gives you a bunch of tests and you are pretty sure you pass all of them. Now it comes time for the interview.
“Come in and have a seat. Are you comfortable?” The voice is nice and soothing so you take a seat and get comfortable. “Let’s get started. I just want to find out a little more about you.”
He or she asks questions like where did you grow up. Where did you go to school? Parents good to you? Buy you that pony for Christmas? That sort of things to get you relaxed before you get the hard questions.
Just when you think you are safe the first bomb drops. “Do you ever hear voices?” What are you supposed to say? Before you can answer, you’re hit with another one. “Do you respond to those voices? Do they often tell you what to do and do you do it?” Now you’re stating to sweat. “When you hear those voices do they make sense and do you talk back to them? Do you ever imagine you’re someone else…you know…and really get into their head?”
You want to jump up and run as far away as you can, but you don’t because you know what’s coming. His diagnosis is that you’re crazy as a bedbug. Let’s pause here for a word of explanation. I have no idea how crazy a bed bug is and I doubt anyone else does, but it’s an expression I’ve heard all my life and the only other analogy I could think of was “crazy as a shithouse rat” and I didn’t want to say that in case I offended someone. Okay, back to the couch.
You’re not crazy. You’re a WRITER! If you don’t hear voices how are you going to know what your characters want to say. If you can’t become your character how will you know how he or she acts in the situations you have planned for them? Do you talk to your characters? Come on. You can admit it. No one is listening. I do and it’s some of the most interesting conversations I have. Where else can you talk to a space monster, a bank robber, a serial killer, a gardener or any number of other people you may never meet?
Never mind what the doctor says, let the characters talk to you and it’s okay to talk to them in response. You may never get the chance to do some of the things your characters do in your real life. When you are sitting at the computer or yellow legal pad composing your story and breathing life and words into your characters, if you’re not true to them your readers will know in a heartbeat. You owe it to both your characters and you readers to listen and respond to your characters. Do what they tell you and don’t worry about the doctor. There are enough legitimately slightly off-bubble people out there to keep him busy for a while.
And now if you’ll excuse me. I hear someone calling me.
I’m not talking about pets like dogs, cats, monkeys or rocks. I’m talking about the things that some people call idiosyncrasies. I call them my crazies. I’ll bet you have some too and I’ll go even further and say we share some of the same one. I’m just more vocal about them than most sane people.
One of my biggest and the one that happens almost every day is to get behind the person I call “he keeper of the speed limit.” You know what I mean. He or she drives in the far left lane and actually drives the speed limit. You can’t get around them so you can speed, get caught and buy some stock in the city or county, but that’s not the point. It’s not up to them to keep me from going over the speed limit especially when everyone in the right lane is passing both of us.
How about when you’re walking down the sidewalk and there are three people in front of you walking three abreast. When did they inherit the entire sidewalk? I need to get around them. I have things to do. They are impeding my progress. The only thing worse is when the same three people are walking towards me and expect me to step off the sidewalk so they can keep their line straight. And did I mention the person who walks in front of you who keeps moving from left to right keeping you behind them no matter which way you try to pass them?
Do I sound like a cranky old fart who should stay in the home and never be let out again? Stand by. I ain’t through yet.
I also think every city police department should have at least on person on patrol who is designated the “Crazy cop.” He’s the one who looks for people who are driving with a small dog in their lap. The dog is named “Snookums” and little Snookums has his head out the window blocking the driver’s view of the mirror. The same police officer will also be on the lookout for drivers in early morning traffic who shave, eat a bowl of cereal, catch up on the crossword puzzle or read a book while driving ever-so-slowly on the way to work. Notice I did not say anything about women putting on make-up or fixing their hair. I’m married. I know my limits.
If you’ve been reading this or my books you know I’m from the South. As a product of that region of the United States, I have certain things that come with the turf. I open doors for ladies, pull out chairs, say “yes ma’am” and give my seat on the Greyhound to old ladies I also have a Southern accent. Therein lies the rub. Seems every idiot on TV or in the movies who has an IQ that matches his shoe size has a Southern accent. And why can’t I complement a lady on her perfume or hair style or whatever without it coming back to wreck my political career forty years from now. Don’t get me wrong, most of the thing we hear in the news now is not okay, but I’m afraid to pay what I consider a complement to a female unless she is a blood relative.
Okay, that’s enough for today. I’ll get off my soapbox this week and let you get back to whatever it is you do while waiting for my next blog.
Remember, don’t sweat the petty stuff and don’t pet the sweaty stuff.
THE MOST FRIGHTENING TWO WORDS.
What are the most frightening two words one person can say to another? You’re fired? Hands Up! You’re what? In-laws coming? Those pale in comparison to the words every screen writer fears. Director’s vision.
What does that mean? It means everything you’ve worked on for weeks, months or even years is now laying on Doctor Frankenstein’s table about to be arranged to suit the mad scientist.
Let’s take your passion project for an example. Every writer has one, I know I do. It’s the one where you say, “I don’t want a word changed. Or a scene. Or a character or location or hair color or age or…or…or” You get the idea. It’s your baby and you wanted it treated as such. Look at it, coo over it, smile and tell me how much it looks like me, but DON’T TOUCH IT!
You’ve written a screenplay about a little girl and her kitten. It’s based on your life in part because…well, you’re a girl and you once had a kitten, so its grounded on things you know. You work on the project off and on for two years while reading books on formatting, scene structure, dialog etc until you are absolutely certain you have it right. Almost a hundred very nice rejection letters….just not right for us, but good luck….we don’t accept unsolicited.. if you will have your agent submit it…returned unopened and a few that questioned your sanity, you finally find someone who is a fan of stories about little girls and kittens.
They contact you and the negotiations begin. “We’re a small company and don’t have a lot of development money, so we’ll give you one dollar as an option and….” ONE DOLLAR! Are they crazy? No, so get used to it. We’ll talk about options sometime, but not now. You accept and have a party because now you can tell everyone you have a screenplay under option. They get serious and actually have a director who wants to be a part of your story. You have another party to celebrate.
You take a meeting, probably by phone with the director. He gushes about your script and how it’s amazing that a first-time screenwriter got it right. Then he says, “I really love it and I think I can make it better.” That’s Director’s Vision.
“I know you want this to take place in a little town in GA, but I’m thinking of moving it to India. And I think the little girl should be a boy who has never spoken and becomes friends not with a kitten but a lion.” You look around to see if you’re still on Planet Earth before you laugh and ask if he’s kidding. And besides, you say, “There are no lions in India. They have tigers. Lions are only in Africa.”
“Oh, right. I forgot. I really like lions. Good visuals, you know. How about if we have one escape from a traveling circus? What do you think of that?”
What do you think? You think he’s certifiably nuts but you’re wrong. He’s exercising Director’s Vision. If you are a screenwriter and plan to play in the television and film arena, get used to it. Unless you are the writer and director or at least a producer, once your name is on the contract they can change your passion project to something you refuse to watch.
And NEVER celebrate till the check clears.
TWO THANKSGIVINGS TO REMEMBER
From the very meaning of the word, Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on what we have to be thankful for and to look around and see if you’re surrounded by family and friends. If so, you need look no further. I have two Thanksgivings that are indelibly printed in my memory bank.
I was about thirteen and times were hard for my family just as they were for most of our friend and other family members. My mother was a cashier in a grocery store and my dad had a small produce stand at the state farmer’s market. I had a paper route and it took all the money the three of us made to keep afloat. I also came down with a case of the mumps.
I couldn’t deliver my papers which meant I did not make the few dollars a week that came in from it. My mother’s sister was home with three small children and her husband was not making that much money at his job, but they volunteered to deliver my papers until I was well. The little money I got was given to them for gas for the car. Thanksgiving was on the horizon.
My mother and her sister always planned a big dinner that day with turkey and all the other things that go with a Southern family dinner. The only problem was no one could afford to buy a turkey. A decision was made to buy a chicken and roast it. I know they were disappointed but that was the best they could do.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I was home from school and there was a knock at the door. I eased to it and opened it to find my boss from my paper route standing there. He first asked how I was feeling and we made small talk for a few minutes. Then he said, “I have something for you,” and went to his car. He came back holding a very large bag with a frozen turkey in it. “We had a drawing for all the paper boys and you won. Here’s your prize.” It was the biggest turkey I had ever seen.
Did I actually win? Was it a gift from him? Divine intervention? I never found out, but we had one of the best Thanksgiving dinners any of us had ever enjoyed.
The second one was in 1968 at the height of the Viet Nam war. As side note here. It was, and is still accepted in some circles to call it the Viet Nam conflict. Anytime a stranger is shooting at you and you are shooting back, it’s a war.
I was a Lieutenant and leading a patrol of about fifteen men. We had been out for about three days when someone mentioned it was Thanksgiving Day. We usually stopped around mid-day to take a break, check equipment, make radio contact with our base and other necessary things as we ate a meal of C Rations. Another side note for those of you who have never had C’s. You get a box of some of the most God-awful things that can be put in a can along with a variety of cookies, candy, powdered drinks, condiments etc. I won’t go into the names given to some of the entrées by Soldiers, but one of the meals contained a small can of turkey mixed with something that none of us could ever identify. Since we selected the boxes by random with the contents listed face down, we never knew until they were issued what we got. I don’t remember what I was prepared to eat that day, but three of my men came up and said they had a special gift for me. Knowing the men like I did, it could have been anything from a case of leprosy to my orders sending me home. Instead they handed me the can of turkey from one of their meals. “Happy Thanksgiving,” was all they said. One of them took a photo of me eating out of the can and gave it to me. It’s one of my prized possessions, but it pales with the memories of those two very special days.
I hope you have similar memories and if you don’t…make some. It’s not too late.
SAY THANKS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
I started this blog because I like to write and sometimes I actually have something to say. I’ve read other writer’s blogs and they talk a lot about writing but they also put in recipes, stories about their kids, their dogs and what they had for lunch and with whom. I didn’t know you could do all that. I thought a writing blog was supposed to be about writing and to get people to buy your books. Maybe I had the wrong idea to begin with, so today I want to say a very belated THANK YOU” to the person who started all of this. Not my mother but my English Teacher, Miss Boone.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but unless you’re family or have attended a book signing where I told the story, you can keep reading.
I was not a good student in high school. My report cards which I did not realize my mother saved and showed to my two daughters proved it. When she passed away, I found them in her effects and now my grandchildren have seen them. As a friend of mine says, no one is ever a failure. At your lowest point you can always serve as a good bad example.
When I was in the 10th grade my option was not renewed at my high school and I was “advised” to find another place to go the following year. That’s how I wound up in Miss Boone’s English class. On the first day, she said we had studied enough nouns and pronouns and verbs and other things that we probably would never use again, so we were going to put them to use and WRITE.
A little background is needed here. I was fortunate enough to get a job one summer with a traveling carnival of sorts. It was billed as the Jack Joyce Jungle Caravan and it went from shopping center parking lot to another with animal rides, a snake show and a little petting zoo. I traveled with the show for two summers when they were in the state of GA. Back to English class….
Our first assignment was to write a short story. It could be made up, based on facts or any combination thereof. I wrote about my time with the carnival the previous summer. Stories were turned in, graded and one day she pulled out a couple and explained she was going to read the best and worst of the group. As I recall the worst one was really bad. Then she said she wanted to read the best one. She read a few lines and stopped and asked the class who they thought wrote it. Guesses were Johnny Football, Suzi Cheerleader, Norman Nerd etc. I knew who it was because she was reading my story.
My first thought was that she was going to have to walk home that day because my plan was to slice her tires on the way out of school. Instead as I slid lower and lower into my seat she gushed over how good it was and when she handed it back to me it had a very large A+ on it. The first one I had ever gotten. (I also found it with my report cards as my mother had saved it as well.)
Each week we were required to write a story. I continued to write and get very good graded and soon some of less scrupulous friends noticed and asked me to write one for them. I readily agreed…for a fee of three dollars each. My first paid writing assignment. This lasted several weeks and a handful of short stories until Miss Boone caught on and busted me/us. My afterschool counselling session with her consisted of her telling me I had a gift and not to waste it. Keep writing. I did but it took several years and a stint in an Army hospital in a war zone for me to try it again. When I found out she was right and I had made a few sales I made an effort to find her. Unfortunately, she had passed away by then and I never got to thank her.
Don’t let that happen to you. If you need to thank someone, do it now while both of you are still able to understand the reasons.
Next week I’ll talk about cooking, or gardening, or my dog Teddy or the carnival or taking a box of KFC to a black tie catered lunch at Robert E. Lee’s mansion at Arlington national Cemetery on the 4th of July…or something. Who knows.
HERE’S SOME MONEY…TELL ME WHAT I ALREADY KNOW
How many times have we as writers heard a friend or fellow writer say, “I don’t want to send this to a publisher because I don’t want them to change a single word?” I found out a long time ago that I did not write on stone tablets with a chisel. My words were inspired, but they were not INSPIRED if you know what I mean. I’m open for suggestions, especially if you’re willing to pay me to accept them.
We need someone to read our work and tell us what we are missing or the mistakes we made. I tell my screenwriting students that any scene you have to explain, doesn’t work. It’s the same in a novel or short story. Your reader may say, “On page 23 she was a blonde and on 96 she has raven hair.” Mistake? Not in your mind because, you tell them…”Remember on page 49 she went to the beauty salon and had her hair dyed.” Did you say so? Probably not, but you saw her in the shop getting her hair done. You’re not going to be standing in the editor’s office reading over his or her shoulder when they see the change in hair color so you can explain it.
But here’s where the problem comes in. We finish the book/screenplay and want to sell it but we know it needs work. There are multitudes of ads in all the writer’s (not riders if you were paying attention) magazines for people who will read and critique your work for a fee. Sometimes for a very large fee. Are they worth it? Maybe but only if when you get the critique back its new information for you. Don’t pay to have someone tell you something you already know.
Dear Writer, your protagonist seems a little cardboard, not well thought out. I don’t like him and I certainly don’t hate him enough to want him dead. And I really don’t like the way she killed her husband. I mean who water-boards someone while they are sleeping? Wouldn’t they wake up? Even using warm water like she did.
You read the letter with the accompanying bill that is far more than you will get as an advance and say to yourself…”Yeah, I thought I needed to work on giving him a little more reason for her to kill him. And I thought the water board was a nice idea and a stretch, but I wanted to try it anyways.” You knew it wouldn’t work and if you sent it out it would get rejected, so you just paid someone to tell you something you already knew.
If you are an editor and you read this, don’t get me wrong. I think editors do a great job and I’m fortunate to have a great one at my publisher for my books and my manager can find things in my screenplays that I swear were not there when I sent it to him. If you need an editor, let it be when you have had several reads of your work, not only by friends and family, but by members of your writers group. Don’t let Mama read it because she’ll tell you it’s perfect and you’ll be tempted to tell the publisher she said so when you send it out. Get some serious feedback. Get the piece as perfect as you can and then if you want paid help for formatting and professional details, go for it.
Don’t water board yourself. You’ll have to trust me on this, but it’s not fun.
DON'T LISTEN TO EXPERTS. BE YOURSELF.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know I am retired from the Army. Many years and several “wars’ ago, I was in an Army hospital and got an idea for a short story. I went into an empty doctor’s office one Sunday, found a typewriter…you remember those…big bulky black things with keys and a roller…and some paper and sat down and typed out the story. I had taken typing in high school and like most of the males in the class, barely passed it. I had not used a typewriter in years. But I pecked out the story one letter at a time, made some strikeovers and left a few misspelled words because I could not find a dictionary and the typewriter did not have a spellcheck key.
When I was satisfied that it was a work of literary art, I put a cover letter on it which basically said: “Here’s my story. Send money. Love, Paul” and mailed it off. I had nothing else to say. I had never sold anything because I had never written anything that I thought I could sell before, however there was that incident in high school, but I’ll save that for another time. To make matters worse, I could not find any carbon paper…look it up…so I did not have a copy of the story. Blind faith? Stupid? Naive? All of the above.
But guess what? Several weeks later I got a nice letter from the magazine saying they were going to publish it and in the envelope, was a check for $80.00. I immediately took my wife and daughter out to celebrate and we bought a dog house.
A couple of days later I told a friend about it and he asked if I read and followed any of the writer’s magazines. I misunderstood and thought he said rider’s magazines and he was talking about motorcycles. When we cleared it up and I found out about the magazines dedicated to helping writers I bought them every month, read them cover to cover and found out I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t query editors. I didn’t have a list of previous publications for my cover letter. I could not offer tear sheets. I didn’t count the words. And for eighteen months while I tried to do everything right, I sold absolutely NOTHING. NADA. ZIP. ZINGO.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t follow the rules, but be yourself when you do. Books and magazines exist for one reason and that’s because people buy then. They may buy them for the pictures, for the ads, to read at the beach, on the airplane, or like Playboy for the articles. But you and I supply the words for them. They want admit it, but they actually need us. Don’t get so caught up in reading how-to books and articles that you are more concerned with the how-to than the do. Each one you read will give you a different slant on what works, how to write, reach and obtain an agent or editor or where to send your work, and many contradict the last one you read.
No one knows your short story, magazine article, novel or screenplay better than you and if you don’t put the words on the page you’ll never know what someone else thinks about it. Be yourself and find a place in the yard for that new dog house you’re gonna buy.
ARE YOU A PLOTTER OR A PLODDER?
Are you one of those people who, prior to starting to write anything longer than a postcard, plans everything you’re going to say, when to say it and how it’s supposed to sound when its read? How about the one who has a general idea of what they’re going to write, how it’s supposed to sound and where they plan to end? Behind Door Number are the Plotters. Door Number hides the Plodders.
I’m happy to say, I rest comfortably behind Door Number Two. I get an idea for a new novel or screenplay and I massage it in my head for a while and when I’m ready, I sit down and begin the process. To me, it’s like living in Miami and one day deciding to drive to Seattle. I take a look at the map, maybe even do a Mapquest search and see what they recommend. When I back out of my driveway in Miami, my destination….at that time…is Seattle. How I got there will be determined by looking back over my shoulder when I see the Welcome to Seattle sign. I will no doubt remember that wrong turn I took in Atlanta and how I had to backtrack all the way to Dallas from Oklahoma City. But I’ll also remember the character I met in Richmond when I had a flat tire. If you know anything about the US map, you can see I’m all over the place, but I did finish my journey in Seattle. Unless, of course, I changed my mind and wanted to finish in Anchorage. We Plodders can do that. Plotters…not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with either method. It’s whatever works best for you and helps you get the job done. For me, plotting would take the mystery out of writing. That’s not to say you can’t write a mystery if you plot, but my point is sometimes I sit down and have absolutely NO IDEA what I’m going to write about at the moment. If it’s a novel, I’ll read over what I did the day before to catch up and then…who knows. I find myself in some of the strangest situations that in my wildest imagination I never pre-planned. I’m doing the third book in a mystery series now and today I found myself in a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City talking to a priest. Or at least I think he is a priest. He hasn’t shared his background with me yet. A Plotter would probably never meet him and if they did, they’d know where he went to college why he entered the priesthood and the age of his grandmother when she died. If I need that info, I’m sure he will tell me before I leave and go to wherever it is the next day’s writing takes me.
I take writing very serious. I mean, how presumptions of us to think that someone actually cares about what we have to say and then to top it off, they spend time or money to find out what it is. We owe them their money’s worth. If they come back for seconds, you know that your method works for you and them. If they need a roadmap, give it to them. If they want to ramble along the highways and byways with a Plodder like me, I say, “Welcome aboard.” It’s like the airline pilot who came on the PA system as the plane was crossing the Pacific. “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is our navigation system is out and I have no idea where we are going. The good news is we have a two hundred mile and hour tail wind and which means we’re going to get there in a hell of a hurry.”
Let the wind guide you to the destination, wherever it may be. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a solid gold razor I have to give to the Priest in my book. Really….
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Where are you when the page is blank?
Sure Happy Its Thursday or S.H.I.T by any other name.
When I was in the Army, I had a boss one time who was always asking his staff to come up with ideas. In case you haven’t been in the military, that’s how it’s done. Some senior officer will say, “I need a plan in case we get attacked by giant sea turtles. Or the Emperor of Botsalumba, gets nukes and wants to use one.” The staff comes up with the idea and the general gets the credit. But back to my old boss. If we had an idea later on he’d say, “Where were you when the page was blank?”
So, my question this week is: Where are you when the page is blank? What do you have to do to get words on the page? It doesn’t matter if it in front of a computer, an old typewriter or a stack of yellow legal pads. The pages are blank and you have to come up with the idea. I have a special place where I get mine but I’ll save that as a teaser so you’ll read to the bottom.
If you get your idea from today’s news, you’re at least a year late. There was a tragic shooting in Las Vegas recently. Want to write about a deranged person who shoots up a crowd? Too late. It’s been done. What about a natural disaster that wipes an island almost off the map? Five years too late. That’s not to say you can’t use those as the subject, but you’ve got to change it and to do that you have to do your research. What is your competition? What was the focus of those books or films? How long ago? Sale record?
I’ll be the first to admit if you’re a writer, you (and I) are about a half-bubble off level. We see things differently. We hear voices. We listen to them, hell, we even talk to them some time. When a normal person asks if the glass is half full or half empty, we wonder who stole the water and if they poisoned the part that’s left. That’s the start of an IDEA! Have you ever had a dream that was so realistic that you made notes the next morning and used it in a story? I have. And I sold the story. Where did that idea come from? No idea, but it came and that’s the point. Be open to almost anything. Read everything you can from cereal boxes to headlines in the check-out counter at the grocery store. Ideas are everywhere. You can’t copyright an idea and you can’t sell it. Sit down and write. Remember not too long ago two guys were sitting around and one asked the other, “I wonder what would happen if a tornado picked up a bunch of sharks and dropped them….”
Where do I get my ideas? I belong the Idea of Month Club and once a month I get a box from Snake Navel, Arkansas containing thirty ideas…unless the month has 31 days or it’s February.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
SURE HAPPY IT’S THURSDAY (S.H.I.T.)
If we can have Thank Goodness It’s Friday (T.G.I.F.), why shouldn’t I be able to have Sure Happy It’s Thursday, (S.H.I.T.)? Well, no body says I can’t so this is the first of my weekly blogs which will be known as…well, you get it.
First, let me tell you a little about myself. I’m a retired Army officer and I have a second career as a writer. I have two mystery series in print from Black Opal Books and eight feature films produced from scripts I wrote. For the last ten years I have been teaching Writing for TV, Films and Radio at the University of West Florida. That has come to an end in the last month since I left Florida and it’s hurricanes behind and moved to a small town in Georgia.
Why am I writing a blog and why do I assume anyone other than my family and few other old retired farts I knew in the Army will even read it? Because I have things to say, questions to ask and occasionally some serious advice about writing novels and screenplays that you may find interesting.
Since I have sold both novels and screenplays I actually know what I’m talking about. I’m big on credibility. If you are giving advice, you need to know what you’re talking about. If you’re teaching a class, you need to know at least as much and probably more than the people who are sitting, looking at you and taking notes.
I have never tried a blog before, but I did write a newspaper column once a week for two years one time, so I do know how to face and conquer a deadline.
On this blog I’ll share some pet peeves with you like: why do I always get behind a group of five people on the sidewalk who are walking five abreast? And who keeps coming into my hotel rooms and folding the toilet paper into little points on the roll and why? How about when you attend a writer’s conference and meet an agent or editor, pitch to them and they ask for your project and once you send it you never hear from them again? Can you turn your novel into a script?
I’ve got more questions, but I’ll save them for the next edition of SHIT.
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