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Archive for the ‘The Lit Life Buffet’ Category


Anyone who’s ever been in a fiction critique group will probably run into questions. Some are just garden variety questions, but others poke and prod at the very center of your story—questions that make you want to scream at the idiots asking them because isn’t the answer, you know, obvious? Well no it’s not, and usually for good reasons.

No matter how irritating these questions may be, they usually will reveal themselves to be valuable to the writer. Garden variety types can often be resolved by a few tweaks here and there in the plot, or a bit of dialogue to reveal something the reader can use to realize some aspect of a character’s motives, for example. The other kind, the kind that gnaw at you, are more problematic. It could mean rewriting an entire chapter or more, throwing out thousands of words, some well-crafted and stylish. It could mean that you really don’t understand your main character, after all, so you spend hours contemplating motives and backstories that you thought were set in stone. Or it could mean that your story is actually working rather well.

How’s that?

I’ve noticed that one can divide readers into two basic camps. One camp likes everything tidy, plots to follow definable arcs, characters with relatable motives, an ending that lets the reader let out a sigh because everything has been satisfactorily completed with nothing left unresolved. For these readers plot twists are fine, but only if they make sense; quirky moods are fine, but only if they are integrated into plot and character. The idea of reading a murder mystery that goes unsolved at the end is abhorrent to them.

The other camp—and I’m guessing fewer readers are in this one—aren’t so picky. They don’t mind if a character goes missing with no explanation, or that the main character’s motives aren’t fully revealed. Sometimes a particularly poetic passage triggers something in their emotions that overrides the rest of the story’s flaws. Sometimes an unanswered question is what they find most interesting about the story in the first place.

Consider The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s famously creepy horror movie about birds that attack people for no apparent reason. What starts as a few isolated attacks escalates into larger, more furious ones, not just scaring people but threatening their lives. No explanation is ever given for this behavior, and the key question—Why are the birds doing this?—hangs over the story like a storm cloud.

For some moviegoers, the fact that the question never gets answered is a major disappointment. They might enjoy the buildup, the ratcheting up of suspense, but when the end doesn’t give them that definable “Aha!” moment, they grumble “I don’t get it,” and dismiss the story as incomplete. For other moviegoers, however, the unanswered question is the central element around which everything in the story revolves. They love the fact that it’s up to the viewers to supply their own ideas as to why the birds attack, and it’s fine if one admits that not even having an answer of one’s own makes the story more appealing.

So if the people reading your novel draft act puzzled and don’t understand why or how certain things occur in your story, take heart. It could be that you need to make your characters more believable and your plot better paced. Or it could be that you’ve stumbled onto something that will make your readers eager to read on and try to figure out what it all means.

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The urge to create: we all feel it, but how many of us push past failure to realize our creative dreams? All children act on this urge, but many shut it down as they grow older and deal with the demands of the Quoditian World. Some of us return to the urge and express creativity in many ways as an outlet from those demands. Some not only return to the urge, they defy the world to prevent them from returning to it. The price they pay may be high, and failure when it inevitably comes more painful. But the rewards can be great.

These thoughts came to me after watching PBS’s recent two-part series on the life of Walt Disney. For those growing up before the Sixties, Disney was the Oz to our young Dorothys, the man most responsible for the amazing evolution of stories presented to children—and adult—in animated film. Snow White, his first feature-length film, took the country by storm. His movies became must-see events, his Disneyland a mecha for kids. He was also perfect for the new medium of television during the 50s, so he had great timing…for a while.

The culture of the Sixties brought about a change in attitude about Disney and his empire. The term “Mickey Mouse” became a pejorative term, used to describe something seen as unimaginative, cheap, or status quo. Disney, once the daring rebel who took on the Hollywood Establishment, was now himself that Establishment. Nevertheless, the entertainment empire he built survived and flourished. People nowadays may have differing opinions about the quality of Disney’s work, but no one can deny that the man followed his urge to create in a massive way, beat the odds, and profoundly influenced not just American culture but World culture.

It’s no accident that his ubiquitous cartoon symbol, Mickey Mouse, was a feisty individual (nowadays certain quarters would label him a “maverick”) who kept his chin up in the face of adversity, never gave up, and triumphed in the end. This is how Disney saw himself. Even after achieving both fame and commercial success, he pushed projects that nearly bankrupted his company and destroyed his career. His urge to create took an ominous turn when he pushed his employees hard as well, and when they went on strike he simply couldn’t understand that now the Mickey Mouses were the inkers and in-betweeners, the production-line workers who were overworked and underpaid.

It’s a story some have compared to that of Steve Jobs, another creative genius who helped spawn a revolution. Both started as rebels, both drove themselves to become the establishment they’d formerly rejected, and both died too young to see the fruition of all their dreams.

But only Disney plied his trade in Story. The company he founded still pumps out Story, though its animated features rely more and more on a girl audience in love with the Princess Meme. Writers of children’s stories today ignore Disney at their peril, even if they dislike the man and what he stood for. What we can all take away from the man’s life is an appreciation for what it takes—hard work, thick skin, and passion—to achieve our creative dreams.

Post Script: A wonderful autobiography by illustrator Bill Peet gives a heartfelt, sometimes whimsical view of Disney. Peet worked for Disney Studios for a while, contributing to such classic animated films as Snow White and Fantasia, before he branched out into writing and illustrating children’s books. Peet also illustrated his autobiography with his distinctive cartoon style that really makes this a fun read.

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Most of you reading this will know who Robin Williams was, how he fought depression that ultimately led to his suicide. Far fewer will know who Walker Judson is, a fictional character in Janice Strubbe Wittenberg’s recently published first novel, The Worship of Walker Judson. Coincidently, I learned of Williams’ death right about the same time I completed reading about the fictional Judson. Both have been on my mind recently, but more than that, both—despite obvious differences—are men who had vast talents (humor, healing arts) who fell prey to their inner demons. So I decided a comparison was in order.

Comedians have long been viewed as having shamanic powers, using humor to expose our hidden fears in an act of audience catharsis. Robin Williams did more than just do this symbolically in the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays the lead role as a doctor who uses humor to treat patients. Fittingly, his character is a maverick who contemplates suicide after his girlfriend is murdered. After he bounces back, he still has to fight the state medical board on charges of practicing without a license. Just as in real life, his character is a misfit who struggles against conformity. In real life, of course, Williams didn’t bounce back, and took his own life—a victim of his own demons.

[spoiler alert!]

In Strubbe Wittenberg’s novel, Walker Judson is a faith healer who is also a nonconformist, though in a completely different way. Though blessed with the power to heal others with his hands, Judson is a passive-aggressive masochist, abused as a child, a chain smoker who also has a peculiar way of attracting females. Judson doesn’t take his own life, but he seriously compromises it, especially when he is convicted of sexual assault. He is in many ways a typical cult leader, and falls prey to the darker aspects of his own powers. And yet, paradoxically, he heals many—often without asking for anything in return—including a young woman who falls in love with him and becomes his acolyte.

Williams and Judson are both complex, charismatic, and in touch with powers that most of us only glimpse fleetingly throughout our lives. It takes a strong person to not let those powers destroy oneself, and in the end both men succumbed to those powers. Being a shaman carries inherent risks, but for those compelled to be one, the risks are worth it. I for one am glad that Robin Williams took that path; and those healed by shamans such as Walker Judson are undoubtedly glad as well. Who am I to judge them, after all?

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firing squad on food truck

Opening Hook

I’m not good at beginnings, but then nobody at Penderstout, Inc. is. “We’re always looking for that opening hook” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times, not only from the mucky-mucks but from the Darlings themselves. Maybe that’s why they keep hiring people here—in the vain hope that, sooner or later, someone will come up with an opening that will knock the reader’s socks off.

So, how are your socks?

Feh. I crumple that one up and toss it vaguely in the direction of the company-supplied wastebasket. It falls amongst the countless other crumpled notes, candy wrappers, and assorted flotsam and jetsam that never actually make it inside the gleaming cyclinder. Oh well, at least it gives the custodian something to do.

Maybe I should start by saying I’m an employee at Pendersnout. But maybe that’s not entirely correct. I suspect I’m an employee—that would be more accurate. I say this because others here appear far more “employee-like.” They have actual desks assigned to them on a permanent basis—at least until, you know. Whereas I have…if I’m lucky, part of a desk. Shared by someone else. Sometimes it’s only just a corner of a desk, barely large enough to keep the scraps of paper I’m supposed to be keeping track of.

Paper. Pendersnout, for some reason not fully comprehended by the up-and-coming Millenials, insists on still using it.

But my “desk” isn’t my job, is it? Then what is my job? Is it to hang out and schmooze with the Darlings at lunch break, or is it to spend all day combing through the manuscript, looking for excess buts? Of course I don’t have the actual manuscript—that’s for the mucky-mucks. I’m stuck with pieces of the previous drafts, because as we all know, Pendersnout is one anal retentive CEO.

Schmoozing with Darlings is fun, but risky. Because as everyone knows, Pendersnout eventually kills his Darlings, and associated Schmoozers are at risk, too. He has them marched out at dawn into the courtyard next to the food truck, where they get one final burrito before the firing squad puts them out of their misery.

Inciting Incident

Today I hear that the Inciting Incident is under review. Everyone’s talking about it: “Did you hear about the Inciting Incident?” “Who hasn’t?” “It’s critical to the story, so I’m not surprised.” “Nothing about this place surprises me anymore.”

“I hear Pendersnout’s going all post-modern on us.” It’s the new receptionist, who’s deranged in an adorable way—rumors are she’s on a fast track to make it into a side plot, or at least a back story. She wears flashy hoop earrings and proudly shows off a tattoo of a pert hamster on her thigh. How did she find out Pendersnout has a thing for hamsters? I’ll never know, that’s for sure.

“Post-modern? Not likely.” This from an Ink-stained Wretch. Nobody knows why he’s here, or what he does either. But he has narrative cred, so we all listen. “Pendersnout’s too old school for that.”

“Hah!” says Hamster Thigh with a sneer. “Post-modern is old school. Fiction is totally retro now, or haven’t you heard?”

“Then if post-modern is old school, it’s also retro, which makes it totally now, Hamster Thigh. Or haven’t you heard?”

Ah, an argument—are things heating up? Could this be the Inciting Incident?

“Lunch break.”

Employees and unnamed visitors wander off in search of food. Guess this isn’t the Inciting Incident, after all.

Faux Pas

Oh my God. I’ve been writing Pendersnout instead of Penderstout. If any of the mucky-mucks see this, my hide is history.

Though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I could get taken off copyediting and put into sales, for example.

On second thought, sales? Feh. Better to be shot with the Darlings. Note to reader: please replace Pendersnout with Pendersnout wherever you see it. Thank you for patience.

Story Arc

Just the look on the face of Joan the Serious Editor as she trundles out of the meeting clutching her tablet is enough to send hamsters and other assorted rodents scurrying for cover. I focus on the one remaining square inch of desk that has not been overrun by Ink-stained Wretch’s collection of antique fountain pens and assorted bottles of ink, but it’s no good. Joan the Serious Editor has perfected the art of the Voice of Doom, and we are compelled to listen.

“Why are you here?” she says in a deceptively upbeat warble. “I mean it, people. Can you answer that question?”

Everyone looks at their shoes. Finally, Ink-stained Wretch, while expertly rolling a cigarette, holds forth. Or at least starts to. “Perfectly good question,” he mumbles through his moustache. “I believe Camus had the best answer to that one. Or Artaud, actually, in The Theater and Its Double. He said—”

“Artaud?” Joan the Serious Editor’s voice grinds the Ink-stained Wretch’s vocal meanderings into the rug. Okay, bad metaphor, but you get the drift. “Why do you think anyone here gives a damn about Artaud? I’m asking you a question. And you need to come up with an answer. Jesus.” She shakes her head and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s the Inciting Incident, isn’t it?” interjects Hamster Thigh.

“No, it’s more than that.” Total silence now. “It’s…the Story Arc.”

We all gasp.

“The whole thing?” squeaks Ink-stained Wretch.

“Yup. Everything’s under review now. Nothing is sacred.”

“Good God,” says Hamster Thigh. “Does that mean…”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Joan the Serious Editor says. “But I just want to assure you—all you people—nobody’s going to lose their job.” She clears her throat. “But I want each of you to draft a statement summarizing your job function here at Pendersnout, Inc. Tell me how you can improve our productivity.” With that she spins on her heel and leaves us with her best authoritative stride.

“We’re fucked,” says Ink-stained Wretch. “She said the P word.”

We all know what that means. Anytime management says the P word while claiming you’re not going to lose your job, guess what happens.

Even Hamster Thigh looks downcast. “What are you going to say in your statement?” she says to me.

“Not sure yet,” I reply. “But I can start by deleting a few buts.”

“And saying Penderstout instead of Pendersnout,” adds Ink-stained Wretch.

Whatever.

Voice

A new directive has come down: the voice is no longer first person present, but omniscient third past tense. That’s not surprising, but why did it take so long for the mucky-mucks to figure it out?

Climax

Harry Penderstout looked puzzled at first, but immediately clamped on his winning smile as the visitor strode confidently into the executive suite of Penderstout, Inc.

“My son,” said Harry Penderstout, beaming widely. “Harry Penderstout, Jr., my beloved son. What brings you here?”

Harry Penderstout, Jr. chuckled softly. “Beaming widely, Dad? Really?”

His father’s smile wavered for a split second before catching itself. “My son,” he boomed, “have I ever told you that this”—here he made an expansive hand gesture toward a non-existent window—“will all be yours?”

“Two clichés in a row. Impressive, even if not ironic. Except that I’m not Penderstout now, Dad. Nobody’s named Penderstout. So now I’m Pendergast.”

The old man sighed. “I suppose the mucky-mucks insisted on the change?”

“With help from Joan the Serious Editor.”

“You might have asked me first.”

Harry Pendergast shifted uncomfortably. “That…brings up something else, Dad. I’m not asking you first anymore.”

“You’re not?”

“No, in fact I’m not asking you at all.”

The old man’s brow furrowed. “Like storm clouds?” he pondered.

Pendergast smirked. “That’s your third cliché, Dad. Your entire idiom is tired. You’ve lost your story mojo.”

Penderstout reeled with indignation. “No son of mine is going to treat me like this!” he roared. “Apologize, or I’ll have you taken out and shot with the next round of Darlings!”

His son couldn’t hide the gleam in his eye, even as he spoke softly, with concern. “The Darlings won’t be rounded up and shot anymore, Dad. They’ll be put to rest peacefully, instead.”

“What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is that you are no longer in charge of Pendergast, Inc. I have the Board on my side, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry, Dad. I love you, but you’re expendable.”

“Damn you!” Penderstout picked up his phone. “Security!”

“I agree,” Pendergast said. “Security?”

The door to the Pendersnout suite opened and four men in lab coats entered. They carried tasers and red pencils. “Come with us, Mr. Penderstout,” they said.

“Don’t worry, Dad. You’ll be well cared for in a new facility with all the modern conveniences.”

“My own son. I don’t believe this.”

“Save the histrionics, Dad.” Pendergast nodded to Security. “Take him.”

After Security efficiently hustled out Penderstout, Pendergast gingerly set himself in the old man’s chair, feeling the soft leather, inhaling its intoxicating dead animal scent.

“Finally,” he whispered to himself, “I can put this thing to rest.”

Denouement

Do you suppose Hamster Thigh got it right? Is Pendergast, Inc. now committed to post-modern fiction, or will Pendergast continue to churn out the usual pulp?

“Know what I heard?” said Hamster Thigh as she munched on her food truck burrito. “I heard this isn’t a novel, after all. It’s a short story. Almost flash, even.”

“I could have told you that all along,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“Then why didn’t you?” I said.

Hamster Thigh cocked her head, as though listening to the wind. “Did you hear something?” she said.

“Nope,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“I thought it was that guy.”

“The all-about-me guy?” Joan the Serious Editor had just joined the conversation. “He’s no longer here.”

Hamster Thigh and Ink-stained Wretch didn’t say another word as they finished off their burritos.

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A few years back I wrote a “realistic” novel, based on my own adolescence. No magic realism, parallel worlds, or plot gimmicks. It had humor and pathos, and captured the zeitgeist of the mid-sixties perfectly, or so I thought. When I showed it to an agent, he said I wrote well, and the voice was authentic.

“But I’ve read too many stories like these.”

Later it occurred to me that the intended audience for the story—middle schoolers—wouldn’t have read many stories like it at all. Because young people haven’t waded through piles of manuscripts and seen the same story lines and characters repeated over and over, ad nauseum, like editors and agents have.

As it turns out my story had other problems as well that made it not quite right for today’s market. But the perception that it was stuck with the Same Old Same Old Albatross gave me pause. Was it just a generational thing? Do Gen-X editors and agents harbor some kind of resistance to the Sixties because they are tired of it? Do Boomers like me rankle them a bit? Or is that just my personal paranoia talking?

Yes, there are universal truths about young people, when social dynamics get confusing and emotional and our inner rebel wants to take over. But creating a contemporary world for dealing with these truths is a real challenge—not simply because I’m older, but also because that world changes so constantly. Slang words in vogue two months ago go passé. Fashions come and go like bats in the night. Some types of stories—vampires, anyone?—inexplicably hang on to the public imagination like magic limpets on sea rocks. Other story types fall into the pounding surf of public opinion.

That’s one reason fantasy is so popular: your story can reference pop culture without conforming to it, as The Hunger Games has so successfully done. Readers can invent their own way of interpreting it. The same applies to historical novels—you don’t have to worry about presenting an authentic contemporary world, although you still have to conform to that historical time and place in a believable manner. And you still have to find a character, plot and theme that resonates with today’s audience.

Find a world—fantasy or from the past—that’s unique enough, and no editor or agent is going to say she’s read too many stories like them. On the other hand, if it’s too different, who’s going to relate?

It’s a balancing act.

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sunsetSome writers pin up pictures of people and places that are connected to whatever world or story they have submerged themselves in. For me, a key component of a creative writing session is music. Since my latest WIP concerns Greek mythology and the Underworld, I’ve been listening to a lot of music that can take me to those psychic places. Here’s a short list of my some of my favorites:

Bel Canto: A Time Without End
Lush and dramatic myth play
Dead Can Dance: In The Wake of Adversity
Brendan Perry’s voice, sophisticated yet compelling, set to a twinkling carny-like keyboard riff like from a child’s dream. There’s simply nothing like this anywhere else.
Enya: Tempus Vernum
Nobody does sweeping, magic-drenched Latin like Enya.
Delerium: Silence
Sarah McLachlan in her soul-searchingest warble, accompanied by Latin chorus
Hungry Lucy: Rainfall
Evokes a ghostlike teenage girl, full of frustrated dreams, who stops to pray for a lost love. Beautiful.
Laika: Breather
Cool ecstatic union with nature, accompanied by hypnotic rhythms and keyboards.
Loreena McKennit: The Mystic’s Dream
The Queen of Celtic Fantasy Folk’s blends Middle Eastern sounds with Gregorian chants to bewitch your ears.
Steve Hackett: Shadow of the Hierophant
An underappreciated progressive rock classic from the album Voyage of the Acolyte. If that doesn’t sound like a chill tale, what does?
Sleepthief: Desire of Ages
Romantic yearning wrapped in a lovely melody
Chandeen: Welcome the Still
Is a theramin making that eerie mystical sound? I love it!

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It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take Words..

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