Thursday, November 28, 2013

Nick Kristof Nails It...

Today is Thanksgiving.

I'm warm. Dry. Well-fed. So are my husband, children, and those closest to me. Even the family pets have enough to eat and somewhere warm to sleep.

It's tempting to think, 'Good for me. I've worked hard, and I deserve to harvest the fruits of that labor.'


But what about the mother in Houston, or Oakland--or even Damascus--who works equally hard to provide a good home for her children? She risks so much more than me, dodging bullets to go to work at her second job, walking home though violent streets late at night. Doesn't she deserve to know her kids are safe when she tucks them in this Thanksgiving Night?

Can I really say my efforts are the reason we're enjoying a peaceful holiday when I've done nothing more dangerous than write a check to Safeway?

Truth is, I'm lucky. I was born to two stable, loving parents in a country with good infrastructure and decent public schools. I wasn't abused as a child. Or neglected. Or starved. My folks insisted I could do anything I put my mind to. They encouraged me, guided me. And when it came time to attend college and start my own business, total strangers were willing to lend me money.

Yeah, I've been successful.

But I didn't hit a triple; I was born on third base.

Nick Kristof's piece today in the New York Times says it masterfully:

"As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics."

Today, as I spread whipped cream on the second pie I'm bringing to the family celebration, I want to rededicate myself to making sure everyone who inhabits this tiny blue planet has the same opportunities I do; that every mother, father, and child of humanity gets to experience the comfort and warmth of Thanksgiving...

...every day.

Cheers...and Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Devaluation of Work (and the people who do it.)

A few years ago I attended an out-of-state conference with two colleagues. The plane ride was a hoot. These guys were funny and irreverent and I was looking forward to a great weekend. After we picked up our bags the three of us shared a cab from the airport to our waterfront hotel. A ten-minute ride, tops.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, I wanted to murder my companions.

Far from being funny, they'd used their wit to excoriate the driver, making fun of everything from his looks to his manner of speaking to his taste in music. What struck hardest was their undisguised distain for this man performing such a menial task. The word 'lowlife' came up more than once.

You see, our cab driver wasn't from here. He was a brown-skinned guy with an unpronounceable name and a serious accent, and the music blasting from the speakers danged sure wasn't Sinatra.

So, even though the driver had jumped out of his yellow taxi with a smile and lifted our heavy suitcases into the trunk before opening our doors, my friends felt justified calling him a 'sand nigger.' Even though the cab was clean, the ride comfortable, and the route direct, the human being who performed this valuable service didn't merit the dignity of a polite 'thank you.'

Never mind that he was Ethiopian (a majority Christian nation), well-educated (try taking a driving test in a foreign language sometime), and a hard-working small business owner, my companions were fixated on the social services this man was sucking up. My colleagues complained (loud enough for the driver to hear) that 'they' only come here for free schools and free food vouchers and free healthcare.

Red-faced, I had leaned between the seats to ask questions during the ride, hoping to drown out the idiots beside me. The driver told me where he was from, that he was an independent contractor with the cab company. When we got to the hotel and my friends had taken their bags, I lingered at the trunk. "Do you have family here?"

The man nodded. "A wife and two children." The enthusiasm in his eyes had been replaced by something bleaker. "My wife works in a kitchen. I am a chemist, but in my country..."

I wanted to say so much that day: That what he'd done for himself and his family represents what Americans say we value. Hard work, bravery, sacrifice for the greater good. That anyone who works deserves respect, regardless of the nature of that toil. That the four miles from the airport to the hotel would've been a damned difficult slog with my shoe-laden suitcase, and I was grateful for his service.

Instead, I gave him a twenty-buck tip on a ten-dollar fare and wished him a good afternoon.

But the experience sharpened a thought that had been coalescing for a while. My friends might be jerks, but their views weren't unique. After listening to them the rest of the weekend, I realized they genuinely believe they're paying for a huge population of poor people who rely on public support to survive.

In a sense, they're correct.

The problem is, those same people are working forty or fifty hours a week. They literally have no more hours of their lives to trade for dollars, yet need public assistance to survive.

Have we become so resentful of the social safety net we can't see how our reliance on cheap labor makes it necessary? Want to get rid of food stamps? Great! Raise wages so anyone who works can survive without them.

Did you hear me? Anyone who WORKS.

Fast food, janitorial, retail clerk. No matter how menial, boring, or unchallenging the job, work is good, right? Something we should laud as righteous and worthwhile and as deserving our respect.

But is that really what I believe, or do I secretly look down on folks who do the crappy jobs I can't imagine doing?

If I'm honest, I'm as bad as my colleagues. At least they don't hide their disdain for 'lowlifes' in minimum-wage jobs. Sure, I talk about dignity and hard work, but where do I spend my dollars?

Because when I order a cheap burger knowing the woman who cooked the meal can't feed her own family on what she earns, I'm saying I don't value work. Maybe I cringe at the words 'sand nigger,' but when I shop at a certain Arkansas-based chain whose full-time employees drown beneath the poverty line, I'm saying I don't believe folks who work there should earn a living wage.

                              (Probably wouldn't hurt to skip the burger altogether.)

Legislation would be nice (ain't gonna happen), and I'd love to see minimum-wage workers rise up and prove how much they contribute to the economy. But maybe the rest of us simply need to focus--again--on valuing work over wealth.

Here's a list of fast-food chains that pay a living wage. Next time I eat out, I'll check the interwebs for companies who pay their employees well and declare my support with my own hard-earned dollars. If you love shopping at big-box stores, here's proof that paying employees more yields bigger profits (and better service!) At Christmas, why don't I take ten minutes to find out whether the store believes as I do--that people who work shouldn't need food stamps to survive.

My colleagues are free to believe as they choose. Instead of focusing on their horrific manners, I'd have been better off investigating my own beliefs--and holding them up against my actions.

Starting today, I'll do just that.

Cheers...and Happy Shopping!


Monday, October 7, 2013

Small Things That Matter...

Today a friend of mine linked to an article by a local sports writer about a boy who played a single, magical season of T-Ball.

The writer's name is Jenni Carlson. I'll let her writing speak for itself:

Hugh, who was buried in his No. 10 Blake Bell jersey, made lots of people smile, but never did he smile bigger than when he was on the field with his T-ball team. As much as he loved watching his Sooners and his Thunder and his sister, he loved playing even more.
That's why Rick sat down amid the worst grief that a parent can feel and wrote that email to the parents of the kids on Hugh's T-ball team.
He wanted to thank them for the gift that they'd given their family.
Read the article here
(Yeah, it's sad. But I didn't start crying until Carlson told about the stranger showing up at the funeral and explained why.)
Whatever piddly problem I think I'm dealing with today, my kids are healthy and happy and fed, and I need to be damned grateful for that small gift. When I forget, life hands me an uncomfortable reminder that we're here for a wink of a celestial eyelash; a tenth-of-a-millisecond in a history too large to measure.
Am I doing everything I can to make my millisecond count?
Cheers...and nice job, Jenni Carlson.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ready for Creepy Flash Fiction?

A couple of months ago an agent posted the following writing prompt: Construct a hundred-word story featuring the words hammer, full, claw, coop, back, and ratchet.

I considered passing. But I was at an impasse on my current story, dribbling words on the page at a frighteningly slow pace. The problem was I dreaded putting my hero through the hell I'd set up for him. He's a really good guy. In real life I'd hope he'd find peace and serenity and fulfillment and live happily ever after.

But in the story I've torn away everything he loves and forced him to confront his deepest fears. And that's tough to do to a person you genuinely like.

So I decided to jump in on the writing prompt. As an exercise, I challenged myself to spare my character no pain. Here's the result:

“Close your eyes, Evie,” the angel says. “I’m here.”

I turn my head. Blink away dripping blood. He’s dazzling, familiar. Blond hair. Dimples. Green eyes shining with love and untold jokes.

The haze clears and I’m on my back, alone. Moths dash against the fly-spotted bulb in our chicken coop.


My mouth is full of cloth. I gag. Ratchet a breath.

In the doorway, a human monster. Blond hair trails from the claw of his hammer like blood-soaked algae.

“I’m here, babe.” The angel’s breath is like cool water on my cheek.

The hammer lifts, and I close my eyes.

The exercise was fun (and damned hard, let me tell you. A hundred words...sheesh) and the piece received an honorable mention out of about sixty entries. But I'm not sure I met my challenge; even though I killed my character I still couldn't leave her without comfort.

Maybe I should write about people I don't like.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why I Love Great Writing

Recently, I've read two stories that stuck with me.

The hitch: They were both about dead people.

The first was a long, thoughtful piece by Jeremy Markovich about race car driver Dick Trickle.

                                                                 Photo: SB Nation

The second was a brilliant obituary about a retired nurse named Mary "Pink" Mullaney.

It would be hard to argue either story had a happy ending. Trickle committed suicide after a long bout with untreatable pain, and Ms. Mullaney--who left behind an amazing 'To Do' list for the rest of us-- no longer graces this Earth.

But what both pieces did, brilliantly, is make me wish I'd known the person who inspired the story.

To me, that's what great writing does. It puts us in another world--whether that of a hard-partying short track driver or a Catholic grandmother who carries chicken sandwiches in her purse in case she encounters a hungry person.

Both writers sought to reveal truth. Both wrote with obvious love for their subjects. But what made these pieces special were the anecdotes, the little details that showed the character of the deceased.

Rather than say he was a 'hard-partying, hard-working' driver, Markovich told about the night Trickle became the oldest Rookie of the Year in NASCAR history.

Instead of describing Ms. Mullaney as 'generous,' her biographer made up a hilarious list of how she'd treated hitchhikers, homeless people, and invading possums.

If you have time, check out both stories. My guess is you'll wish you'd met these folks--or, like me--that you'd written these wonderful pieces.

Cheers...and Happy Reading!


Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Letter to Oklahoma State Football Players (From a Fan)

Dear Oklahoma State Player,

I've often wondered how you feel as you walk down Hester Street on Saturdays. How it feels to have hundreds of people wave and cheer, offer high fives, and hold up signs with your name on them. I've wondered what you think when complete strangers ask for your autograph or hand you their orange-clad babies for a picture.

As a fan and alumnus, I've even wondered sometimes whether you feel used. If, perhaps, you're walking along thinking, "These people don't know me. They can't possibly care about me as a person...or know what I've gone through to get here. They're only cheering because I give them wins."

The truth is I'll never know how you feel when you make that walk on game days.

But I can tell you what it's like to watch and cheer and offer high-fives to the young men who've chosen to play football at Oklahoma State.

I'm delighted when one of our Cowboys makes good--whether that's getting signed to a pro squad or being hired to coach high school ball. Come to my house on Sundays and you'll see me cheer like crazy when Kendall hits the gap in San Franciso, when Dan drills it through the uprights in JerryWorld, or when Dez drags defenders ten yards after making the catch. Like the rest of the Cowboy Nation, my husband and I shed bitter tears when Darrent Williams was killed--then wiped our eyes for a different reason when Donovan Woods earned his Super Bowl ring. (I still have your jersey, Number Eight.)

I don't know how you feel about us--the fans and Alumni. But here's how we feel about you:
Good looking kids, huh?
The day you chose Oklahoma State, you became family.

You're family because we realize you had other options. Some of you committed to Oklahoma State when our stadium was a joke (Rust-Oleum, anyone?) and our record was worse. And even after we started winning, we understand that a kid growing up in Houston or Dallas could opt for the 'bright lights, big city' experience at a larger school.

Yet you chose Oklahoma State.

And that makes us family.

Are families perfect? Heck, no. We mess up sometimes. We struggle and make mistakes, especially when we're young. (I've always claimed partial credit for Eskimo Joe's phenomenal success. Thankfully, I've matured since.) We're not perfect. We don't expect you to be perfect, either.

And we don't stop loving you when you're not.

Ask anyone from the O-State family about Prentiss Elliot (former player who got into legal trouble) and you'll get: "I heard he's doing better now, and I'm glad." Even after the furor this week over the Sports Illustrated article, an alum tweeted about Artrell Woods (a major source): "Makes me sad. I cried when he caught that catch (after coming back from a terrible back injury)."

We want you to succeed. We're sad (for you) if you don't.

Because you're family.

So when you see me cheering for you on Saturday, know this: I'm cheering because you decided to work, sweat, and study at the university where I met my husband, earned my veterinary degree, and where I want my children to attend.

Because you chose Stillwater, we've heard the same chimes ringing from Edmon Low, walked on the same sidewalks (with their goofy chalk reminders), and sat in the same freezing classrooms. You know better than to swim in Theta Pond (and to visit Voodoo Village if you got suckered into it), and you've felt Gallagher-Iba rumble when the Sooners came to town. Like me, you've waited in line at Whitehurst, cussed the walk from Morrill to Ag Hall, and wondered what genius came up the name Classroom Building.

That makes us family.

After college, whether you wind up in Houston or Chicago or Los Angeles, try this experiment:

Put on your OSU gear and walk around. See how long it takes until someone flashes you the 'Pistols Firing' sign or says "Go Pokes." It's happened to me in places like New Orleans and San Diego and Seaside, Oregon. I guarantee it'll happen to you.
If you're the gregarious type, stop and tell the person you played football--then get ready to be peppered with questions about your life and career and whether you have kids and how often you get 'home' to Stillwater.

Because that's what family does.

How does it feel to be a Cowboy football player? I'll never know. But I can tell you how it feels to be an OSU alum... feels like coming home.

Cheers...and Go Pokes!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Abyss

Our tiny rural school lost one of its own last weekend.

His name was Austin. A good kid. Well-liked and from a nice family, he'd seemed as healthy as any seventh grader on the playground. Third-hand accounts are always suspect, but apparently he'd been running, went for a drink of water, and collapsed.

His older brother was with him the whole time.

So this morning I looked at our little family, at our three-plus-one* children, and thought about all the precautions we take to keep them safe. The healthy food, early bedtimes and limited electronics, the visits to the doctor and dentist. I thought about teacher conferences and late-night parent strategy sessions and how we've chosen where we live based on the quality of schools. How every life choice starts with them.

And then I thought about the tears, the joys, and the tiny insistent worry that never goes away--that your kid will be the one struck by lightning. That you'll be the parent forced to grieve.

To say it's a nightmare is a poor cliché.

To say you'd never truly be happy again probably gets close.

We've known other families who lost children. At the funeral of their four-year-old daughter, my college friends talked about their precious girl, trying to describe her quirks and endearing qualities for those who'd never met her.

Our daughter was the same age. I remember listening to them, sobbing, wondering how anyone could really know our sweet child without having been there the Christmas she stepped into three-inch Barbie heels and chased her brothers around the living room. Without knowing she always puts on her best velvet dress to play in the sand pile, and that she likes to snuggle after her bath.

Who could truly appreciate our beautiful daughter when her daddy's the only one who saw the camel she drew last week during church...and the only one who heard her giggle through the service because she'd drawn a pile of manure behind it?

No-one loves our children like we do because no-one knows them like we do.

And no photos, no stories can truly describe them.

Maybe that's the real tragedy of a lost child. That the treasure we've held and cherished and looked forward to presenting to the world will forever be known only to us.

My friends buried their daughter six years ago. And they do have good times. They celebrate and laugh and enjoy their growing family. But when anniversaries roll around--their daughter's birthday, the day she passed--you sense the deep, painful abyss in their lives.

And so, like this weekend, when other parents lose a beloved child the rest of us can only swallow the lumps in our throats and try to listen to the stories they tell about their sons and daughters...

...and then go home and hug our own.


*We're blessed to have a friend staying with us. She won't understand how much joy she adds until she has children of her own.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Surf Goddess...or Bionic Woman?

"I'm going to learn to surf," I told my husband. "All the cool people surf. Cameron Diaz and Eddie Vedder and that other guy..."
"Laird Hamilton?"
"Yeah, him. And Eddie Vedder."
My husband rolled his eyes and went back to working on his thesis. "Sounds like fun," he said.

But I was serious. Land-locked, rural dweller that I am, I aimed to surf in my forty-seventh year.

At heart I'm an ocean girl. Born at the rim of the mighty Pacific, drawn to her shore like a King Salmon finding its way home, I sneak away every year and recharge in the grey mist of the Long Beach Peninsula. Surfing isn't such a stretch, really. No so different from rolling up your pants and wading into the waves.

One thing about the ocean in Washington, though. It's damned cold. And at my age, there's less romance in proving you're tough.

So I decided to learn to surf in Hawaii. I studied up, practiced my yoga, and found a surf school run by women.

And on Fathers' Day, I surfed.

North Shore Oahu. Chun's Reef beach. Perfect sun, rolling breakers, my blue-and-white board under my feet. Here's how I felt:

Luckily, we captured some photos. Here's how I actually looked:

And then things got hairy. A wave or two later, I looked like this:

And wound up slightly worse for wear:

Swear to God, a surfer dude offered me a beer before he took this picture. When I told him I don't drink any more, he said, "Dude, that truly sucks. Also, you're gonna need a stitch or two before you go back out." 

Yep. I was IN. A real freakin' surfer.

Funny thing, thirty seconds before I cratered, we'd been sitting on our boards watching the waves, and I'd thought, 'I'm doing this again. Not just again, but a lot. Enough that when someone asks what I do, I'll say I'm a writer and a surfer and trail runner...'

Because getting up on the board and knowing I could do it again felt like this:

And if that means an occasional visit to the ER/dentist/endodontist/periodontist, what the hell? At least I can muster a decent attitude after I'm all stitched up:

And the word is, nine-months-to-a-year from now, I'll have a bionic front tooth. Hopefully it'll be surf-proof.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


                                   Next day at the Polynesian Cultural Center--all stitched up and ready to Luau!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Last Honey Bee

I've made no secret of my raw admiration for journalists, especially those who risk their lives to write stories that change our world.

Though the news is often horrifying--Auschwitz, Watergate, babies dying from melamine-contaminated formula--our collective response is anything but. When faced with our failures as humans, we form world coalitions to halt genocide, demand transparency from those we've elected, and impose stricter regulations on food suppliers.

It's an age-old cycle: Exposure. Shock. Response.

But there's a less virtuous cycle, too. We humans adore our distractions, and I'm guiltier than most. But amid the manufactured outrage, the tawdry circus of Weiner photos and starlet mug (I said MUG, dammit) shots, a few journalists bravely paw through the muck for stories that truly matter to humanity.

Enter the humble honey bee.

Known as Apis mellifera, the western honey bee has for centuries pollinated our berries, vegetables, nut and fruit trees.

And bees are disappearing.

So quickly, in fact, that whole sections of food production are threatened. Scientists have been screaming and waving their arms for nearly a decade. Now journalists have taken up the call. TIME magazine has even decided the plight of the honey bee is as cover-worthy as a mom breast feeding a six-year-old.

Bees are important, though. And losing them will change our world. Last winter alone, the USDA reports that a third of all colonies collapsed. Add in the loss of other natural pollinators, and humans are facing a genuine crisis.

We love watching celebrities make fools of themselves. But we NEED to eat. And without bees, that'll be darned challenging.

Oh, sure. We'll have wheat and corn and other wind-pollinated crops. But without honey bees, human existence will be poorer. We need to understand what's happening, and why. And we need to take steps to fix the problem. Exposure. Shock (one hopes). Response.

My first job as a member of humanity is to make sure our species thrives. So the next time I reward a pointless, inane article with my valuable 'click,' I should ask myself why I'm not rewarding journalists who've exposed a real problem and demanded a response.

Maybe I should ask when I last saw a honey bee...

And whether I'll ever see another.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Before We Get to the Good Stuff (or: Better Sex, Part 3)

Earlier (okay, much earlier) I talked about writing as a two-stage process--What to Write, and How to Write It--and whined about my personal struggles with story structure. Then I claimed that the second part comes easier for me, which, by extension, implies I think my prose is hot stuff.

Except, not so much.

In fact, I've spent the last several months (beginning, I'm pretty sure, the day after I said I think I'm an okay writer) wondering how my craft will ever rise to the level of my literary heroes. I'm currently drafting my next thriller, and while I adore the characters and story, some days the words splattered onto the page are mule excrement.

Moments of doubt? Yep. And the Grand Canyon is a nice little ditch.

The result: My usually measured-but-steady pace has slowed to what could be generously termed 'glacial'. I start a scene bursting with action, conflict, and--wonder of wonders--critical plot points. But then, like sand in the gears, doubts sift into my writing. My fingers slow. My mind drifts. My eye catches a clunky phrase and won't let go. It's not so much writer's block as writer's ooze.

So I devour articles that promise to unleash my creativity. Join groups that track my daily word count. And if (when) my internal editor whispers that my prose sucks, I bash her over the head with a coffee cup and keep writing, writing, writing.

But when I'm not writing, I think.

I think about the story, sure. About how my characters will react when I heave them off the next cliff. About clarifying murky plot points. About boiling down the story to essentials, then seasoning the soup with rich detail.

Mostly I've spent the last few months thinking about what kind of writer I want to be. Should I try to crank out 'online content' every two months, or toil away on a deep-bellied tome that takes a lifetime to perfect? Maybe there's a place I should aim for, somewhere in the infinite, always-shifting middle.

That's right. I'm trying to decide whether I want to be McDonald's, Mahogany Steakhouse, or heaven help me, The Olive Garden.

I mean, there are ten thousand writers out there, and probably many hundreds of types of writers. And while I can learn something from--and I mean this sincerely--every single author on the planet, there are a scant few who exemplify the artist/technician/professional I want to be someday.

But there are a few. Robert Crais, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard (the grand master), and a brilliant new author named Steve Ulfelder. Then there's Dennis Lehane who, in my opinion, is the best noir writer of my generation.

And here's what Dennis Lehane says about self-doubt: 

"Catch me on a good day, I think half of my books aren’t too bad. Catch me on a bad day, I think I’ve never written a good line."


After subjecting himself to the unsparing critique of fellow writers in college, Dennis Lehane began his career cranking out a book a year writing traditional--if deeper than average--crime novels. After achieving some success, he took five years to write The Given Day, a seven-hundred-page literary treatise on civil unrest and the dawn of the American Labor movement that confused his fans and confounded his critics.

The Edgar-winning sequel, Live By Night, took him four months to write.

Lehane has taught creative writing, composed episodes for a couple of television series, and written short stories. I think there's a stage production in there, too. And a movie or four. Meanwhile, he's an active participant in the writing community, a trustee of his local library, and a fierce advocate for literacy.

This isn't a guy who serves up McNuggets, cashes the check, and retreats to his private island.

Maybe Live By Night came easy, but it also came eighteen years into his career. And in those eighteen years, I doubt there was a single moment he sat at the keyboard and tried to generate 'content'. Though I haven't met Dennis Lehane (yet), based on interviews--and the breathtaking precision of his prose--I'd wager he's sweated over every word. That he's paused. Cursed. Backspaced. Typed-and-retyped a sentence forty different ways until it felt right.

I'd guess he sees himself as inhabiting the trenches, fighting to make every word his best and pushing other writers to produce their best. In this interview, he said:

"It's good not only to realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time, but that you don't want to. There's a certain type of reader that you don't ever want to write for. And that really helps."

I'm a long way from being the writer I want to become. But in the last few weeks, I've settled into a quiet acceptance that the way I want to tell stories requires a deep commitment to word choice, to precision and cadence. I've accepted that my chosen course means any success will be at once ephemeral, singular, and hard-fought.

Click on the reviews for Lehane's best book, and you'll find one-star reviews. Check the sales for McNuggets, and you'll see they're selling like...well, McNuggets.

What kind of writer do I want to be? The kind who tells deep, thrilling stories with fine prose. With my best prose. And that takes more than word counts. That kind of work takes effort and thought and perseverance. It means honing my ear, reading other authors. It means writing and re-writing my sentences until they sound exactly, precisely right.

And creating fine prose requires something else--at least in the beginning: Time.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


source for photo:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stop what you're doing and read this.

I haven't posted in over a month, hard at work on next manuscript and unwilling to risk losing the 'thread' of my story. But I've taken a few breaks to read, and today I found this on Janet Reid's blog.

It's not about what you think...

I'll wait here while you finish. Yeah, I brought tissues. *taps foot*

Were you blown away? Talk about stripping away all the bullshit to reveal what's underneath. Writing bone-marrow deep like that takes real courage. Sometimes I get close. I look over the edge, stare truth in the eye. But something--now I know it's fear--makes me blink. Instead of bold and ugly and real, I pull back and write 'safe'.

Someday, I swear--and even if it takes a lifetime--I'm going to write like Sugar.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Professional Writer (Or Better Sex: Part 2)

Last time I wrote about discovering you want to write a story that's actually worth reading. The next obvious question is: "How the hell do I do that?"

That, my friend, is the right question (I, Robot rules.) Finding the answer--according to Malcolm Gladwell--requires ten thousand hours of study and practice. I'm only a third of the way there, but after assaulting every neuron in my stubborn brain with tips, classes, and books on writing fiction, I've come to view it as a two-part process: What to write, and How to write it.

What to Write:
For me, this is the harder of the two areas.

I've known instinctive writers; perennial best-sellers who can sit down with nothing more than a ball-point pen and a rough idea. Two months later, they've magically produced a taut, engaging plot, complete with unexpected twists and spot-on timing. To me, they're like people who naturally look good on the dance floor; folks who close their eyes, feel the music, swing their hips...and the result is sexily (that's a real word, right?) wonderful.

If you'd seen me trying to 'Do The Hustle' in seventh grade, you'd know that isn't me.

Part of growing older is accepting your limitations. I'm blessed in many ways (thank you, Mr. or Ms. Higher Power, whomever You are.) But I submit that when it was time to hand out the genes for freestyle dancing and seat-of-your-pants writing, I got screwed. So, as much as I resisted at first, I've come to adore the three-act structure.

I don't know whether my favorite authors (Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and *Steve Ulfelder *literary crush alert) consciously use a template. But when I read their books, I watch for the 'beats' I know are coming: Setup, Catalyst, B-story, Midpoint (stakes are raised), Bad Guys Close In, Dark Moment, Climax, and Conclusion. (Beats condensed/adapted from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.)

In my genre, Catalyst, Mid-point, and Bad Guys Close In beats generally require dead bodies. Count on someone we care about getting hurt/dying at the Dark Moment, whereas B-story and Climax beats show our protagonist first appearing to win, then actually winning.

The value of a formula for writers like me is this: With (lots of) practice, the moves begin to appear natural. Like dancing in front of a mirror, using the three-act, fifteen-beat structure helps me see where tension dribbles off, where the plot drifts aimlessly from scene to scene with no suspense in sight. There are (strong) suggestions for how long each section should be, and this, too, helps with timing.

Best of all, I don't waste time writing scenes that end up in my computer's recycle bin.

To construct the outline, I write a short synopsis of each chapter (Witness X dies) on an index card and stick it on the cork board on my office wall. Keeping the 'beats' in mind, I shuffle the cards around until I've found where they belong, then note where the story is too short (or long), and whether I need to add to one of the sections. This is usually where I kill someone. (How many jobs allow you to say that and still walk around free?)

Using a template is like checking that funky chicken move in your bathroom mirror before unveiling it on the dance floor at your class reunion. Does it look as good as you think? No? That's how well the flashback-to-childhood scene in the middle of the Climax beat works...which is to say, it doesn't.

But thanks to guys like Blake Snyder (who passed away in 2009) and gals like Alexandra Sokoloff, people like me have the equivalent of plastic footprints stuck to the floor, and even those of us who dance like we're having a grand mal seizure can appear graceful.

Next I'll talk about the part that does come (somewhat) naturally for me: How to Write It.