Another Classy Morning

Just spent another invigorating morning with Tori’s sixth-grade ELA students. I honestly think I get more out of it than they do.

I started by telling them what author James Scott Bell had to say about story. Sometimes writers fall in love with their characters. They don’t want them to have any dark spots, any flaws. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that’s boring. As somebody or other said, “No one is going to go to a movie about ‘Another perfect day in the village of happy people.'” Story, Bell tells us, is taking some characters and getting them stuck in a tree with hungry wolves circling below them Then you throw rocks at the characters. Then you set the tree on fire. Then you let them figure out how to get out of the tree.

In our story, the one I am reading to them a couple of chapters at a time, we just got the characters up the tree, I told the kids. Now we’re starting to throw rocks at them, and pretty soon the tree will be on fire.

As I read the next two chapters, I could see them react when something I’d set up earlier suddenly “paid off,” To me that meant they were getting it, not just the narrative of the story, but the technique.

But the real fun part came after I was done reading the two chapters. Tori had them get out paper and write for 10 minutes. They were supposed to write dialogue with the characters from the story. What might happen next? What are they going to do?

It wasn’t about them guessing what I have in mind, wasn’t about them “getingt it right.” I kept telling them, “This isn’t a test. It’s the first draft, it doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done.” It was just about them writing for 10 minutes and exploring what THEY would do, and usinng the conventions. They struggled a bit at first, but suddenly you could almost read by the light of all the bulbs going off over their heads. At the 10-minute mark, many of them were eager to read what they’d done, and others we coaxed. It wasn’t bad at all. And I played on my bad hearing. Made them read out, they got stronger as they went along.

And a couple of them DID get what I plan to happen next. Not the way it’s going to happen, of course, but the general idea.

Towards the end one girl asked me the classic – “Where do you get ideas and how do you put them together for a story?” (Apprently she’s hooked on the writing thing!) I went to the back shelf and pulled a couple of books from the class library.

“Where did Judy Blume get the idea for this one? Where did Dav Pilkey get the idea for “Captain Underpants?” Just an idea, a thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if … ? That’s really all it takes to start. J.K. Rowling wondered, ‘What if a boy who thought he was normal went to wizard school?’ Just ideas. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ‘You know what really scares me?’ ‘What if a middle school student ran for president?’ What interests you? Your ideas are just as good as theirs. Even as good as J.K. Rowling’s. That’s where ideas come from. You just have to learn how to take that ‘what if,’ and then the next one and the next one until you have a story.”

I guess this is all good for them, good for them to see the process, to get excited and to practice writing and to learn the conventions of how to write dialogue. But in all honesty, I think I get much more out of it than they do. Their excitement is contagious and I’ll be coasting on it for another week. And there were one or two little things they wrote that I very well might steal. (I mean, be “inspired” by, of course.)

So back to work, got two chapters to write before next Thursday.

Why I Threw the Book

Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.

It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.

But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.

Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.

Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.

There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.

The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.

Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.

For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.

One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.

Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)

But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.

“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.

There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.

I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.

So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.

Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.

One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.

Back to Class

Great day Thursday. Tori asked me to come in and talk to her her sixth grade English classes about writing, which she wants them to concentrate on this semester. She wants me to come in each Thursday and talk about how I write and read them my latest chapters. Thursday was the first time.

I’d done this before, back on St. Croix. I’d come in every Thursday afternoon with the new chapters and read to them. It let them follow the process of writing a novel and let me gauge their reactions to what eventually would become “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” It was invaluable. I don’t know how anyone can write a story for middle schoolers without having real kids to bounce it off. I assume they got something from it as well.

So I was looking forward to to it, although not without trepidation. The kids on St. Croix were fifth graders, these were sixth graders, and there’s a world of difference between the two. And unlike on St. Croix, where Tori taught one class of 13 motivated kids, she has two classes of about 30 kids each, ranging from bright, polite kids to kids who are, shall we say, less motivated and more difficult. And she doesn’t have the luxury of deciding the day’s schedule, when she’ll teach a subject and for how long, she’s got a firm schedule ruled by bells. I couldn’t just show up in the afternoon. I have to be there to get the last half hour of her second period class, then stay for the first half hour of her third period group.

But it went great. The kids were more curious than anything, but they listened and for the most part they stayed focused. I talked about writing, and the fact that I had been earning a living at it for more than 40 years. I tried to tie my own experience and ideas about writing into things that I knew they’d talked about on other subjects, why writing is important, how shared stories tell us who we are as a society, what we think is important.

And I talked about the magic of writing. It’s not an original ides with me, it may even be a cliche, but books are made of trees that are cut down and pulped then have ink smeared on them and are glued together. And when you look at those ink smears, the voice of the writer is in your head. It could be my voice, if you’re looking at “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Or the voice of someone who has been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years: Shakespeare, Homer. And that’s sort of magic, isn’t it?

Then I read them the first two chapters of my WIP, a sixth grade story about two friends who always get in trouble but are the world’s only hope in the circumstances of the story. The kids laughed when I hoped they would, seemed interested, and got a big laugh where I hadn’t really expected one. I took note and will be revisiting that issue repeatedly.

Afterwards I asked for feedback and ideas, and many of them had thoughts about what should happen next. (They were wrong, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.) I also talked about how you want to start a story as close to the action as possible, but you also have to set things up – the characters, the kind of world they live in, the circumstances of the story. Plus there are things I’m planting in the first three chapters that will pay off at the end, that will enable our heroes to figure out how to save the day. I told them the ancient Greeks (who they’re learning about in social studies) invented drama as we know it, and sometimes in their plays the situation was doomed, only to be saved at the last minute by an intervention from the gods.

“The Greeks called it deus ex machina, the machine of the gods,” I said. “Today we call it cheating. You’ve got to set up the story so that the solution is always there, but the reader doesn’t necessarily see it until you spring the payoff. Then they go, ‘Aahhhh! Of course!'”

In all, I was pleased. And Tori was even more pleased. And I’m looking forward to next Thursday morning. And working hard so that I’ve got fresh chapters for them.

Note: I haven’t written in a while, obviously. No excuses, but I’m back at it. The more I write, the more I write and that’s a good thing.

Dorothy, Heywood, the Babe and My Brain

I recently learned that Dorothy Parker did not say, “This is not a book for lightly tossing aside. It should be thrown with great force.” Turns out it was coined by one-time L.A. Times sports editor Sid Ziff. All this time I was certain it was Parker.

I know, what possible difference does it make? None, really. It’s still a great quote. But now I have to figure out what IS my favorite Dorothy Parker quote. No small task.

And this is how my brain works. I had started because I wanted to confirm the exact wording of the quote. I hate it when someone quotes something and I know they’ve got the words wrong, even if just slightly. It’s jarring, and I didn’t want to do the same thing. So I looked it up in several places and discovered to my chagrin that she didn’t say it, Ziff did. This led me to a precis of Sid Ziff’s life – interesting guy, he became sports editor of the L.A. Express at the age of 19 – then to Dorothy Parker and finally to a website – one of many – dedicated to the celebrated wits of the Algonquin Round Table.

From there I was drawn to a review of a play about Dorothy Parker being staged in Los Angeles (too late, it closed last week) and thence to a collection of some of the less-known members of the Round Table.

That’s where I found this short essay by Heywood Broun. It has several laugh-out-loud moments and it’s amusing all the way through. Reminds me of of the tone of Wolcott Gibbs, James Thurber. E.B. White and others of that era.

Broun is comparing Ruth and Roth – that is, Babe Ruth and Filibert Roth, a professor of forestry at the University of Michigan. Don’t ask, just read the story here. It contains this great line:

“Just what difference does it make if Mr. Roth errs in his timber physics? It merely means that a certain number of students leave Michigan knowing a little less than they should – and nobody expects anything else from students.”

I loved the essay. Also, in my poking around, I was relieved to discover that Dorothy Parker’s most famous line is both genuine and well documented. During a word game, she was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with this: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

A gem.

The Moment I Tossed the Book

I can tell you the exact moment I stopped reading The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader. It was when I read this passage.

“It’s amazing,” Moira said.
Bourne looked up from the file he’d snatched from Veronica Hart. “What’s amazing?”
“You sitting here with me in this opulent corporate jet.” … (description of what she’s wearing … “Weren’t you supposed to be on your way to Moscow tonight?

I closed the book. I checked to make sure the power bill I’d been using as a bookmark was removed. Then I walked the book across the room and put it in the garbage can.

Where it belonged. Because DAMN.

Robert Ludlum’s been dead for 17 and his memory deserves better than this. I’ve read the first two of his Bourne books and enjoyed them. They were pretty good. Having been written in the 1960s, they’re nothing like the movies. Nothing. Really no similarity at all. But they were competently written and pretty good page turners. I enjoyed the movies even more.

Ludlum wrote three Bourne novels and a bunch of others stuff, and died in 2001. His literary estate has hired this guy to write more Bourne novels (Sanction was written in 2008.) He’s written 11 of them, because there’s money to be made and who cares about the reputation of a dead author. The books sell and might get made into movies. More money for everyone.

Eric van Lustbader is a hack. I know he’s written more than 40 books, he’s terribly successful and I’m a schlub with one title to my name and plans for more. But this was crap, and it was crap enough to ensure I won’t bother reading another of his yarns. The story was cliched and the writing is just horrid. Terrible. That quote above is the worst I came across in the first 225 pages, but it’s not atypical. It’s standard low-context dialogue that’s supposed to convey setting or back story without going to the trouble of writing it well. Instead, he has people say things no one would ever say to advance the story. I would be embarrassed to have written the “dialogue” above. If the jet is opulent, SHOW the opulence. Don’t have one of your characters actually call it an “opulent corporate jet.” That’s a sentence no one ever said. Ever.

In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve read the word opulent hundreds of times over my life but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone SAY it. It’s impossible to believe a character who says something like that.

I can’t tell if it’s the author’s laziness, or if he really thinks that’s good writing. But it’s not. Oh, gods, it’s not.

Meanwhile, I’m chugging along finishing my new book which I hope to have done by mid-October. Then we’ll see if I’m any better.

Each Word Must Justify Its Existence

My new novel, “Scurvy Dogs,” will be released in a little less than two months, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I am deep, deep into the final edit.

The first draft – which in this case was completed five years ago – is the creative time. Then there’s the second draft, and the third, the drafts where you figure out what the story is actually about and sharpen it and hone it until everything in the text advances that premise.

Author Anne Lamott calls those the “down draft,” where you write it down, and the “up draft,” where you fix it up.

I finished my down draft and up draft of “Scurvy Dogs” a couple of years ago. Then I put it aside to simmer, while I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.”

Now I’m getting ready to release “Scurvy Dogs,” and I’m on what Lamott calls the “dental draft,” the draft where you go over it “tooth by tooth,” checking to make sure everything in it is working, there’s no rot, no cavities, no gingivitis. Everything works, and there’s nothing in it that gets in the way of the story.

This is all about the nuts and bolts.

More than any other part of the process, it’s the time you absolutely have to have a heart of stone, Every scene, every sentence, every word has to justify its existence. Is it telling the story? Is it telling the right story? If it’s not, out it goes.

Make every word beg for mercy.

One scene I took out recently was at the end, a showdown. It was one of the best – no, not one of – it was THE best combat scene I have ever written, a sword fight between two characters. It’s a terrific scene, if I do say so myself, some really good writing that was both exciting and demonstrated the inner nature of  the two characters.

The problem was, as Tori pointed out when she read the story, the wrong two people were fighting. The bad guy, Sutherland, sure, that was what the whole story has been leading up to, Sutherland getting his. But the other person was all wrong. It was one of the adults, defending his family. But this is the kids’ story, and for the story to work, they have to come up with a way to defeat their nemesis themselves. I couldn’t just switch characters, that wouldn’t have been believable. So whatever I did, I had to scrap the sword fight and find a way for the kids to win, a way that both made sense and would be satisfying, that would make a fitting cap for their story.

I did it. Yeah, it hurts to get rid of a piece of writing I”m proud of. But I’m proud of what I put in in its place. It’s better, and the story is better. Everything has to serve the story. It’s not about me. Not about the writer It’s about the story.

I still have the duel, and it’s good. It’s just not in the story. At some point after “Scurvy Dogs” has been out for a while, maybe a year or so, I’ll post it or make it available somehow, just for fun. But I can’t do it right away, because there’s a pretty big spoiler in there. I’ve skated pretty close to the edge as it is.

Anyway, there’s more work to do. And I’ve gotta get back to it.

What Is Writing?

It’s different for everyone. Here’s a baker’s dozen writers giving their idea of what writing is. But first, a bonus quote – from me. Writing is a persistent itch. Every morning you have to sit down and scratch it.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann

“Let’s face it, writing is hell.” William Styron

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E.L. Doctorow

“In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” Denise Levertov

“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” John Edgar Wideman

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” Stephen Greenblatt

“I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” Anne Tyler

“I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” Michael Cunningham

“Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” Anthony Powell

“Writing is … that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” Pico Iyer

“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.” Iris Murdoch

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” —William Carlos Williams