Sparked by Words

Archive for February, 2016

The View from the Shower Caps

The view from the shower caps gave me another point of view about my story. First you have to understand what I mean about the shower caps.

I drive an old car. It’s heading toward its seventeenth birthday, still serviceable, but showing its age. What once was shiny black is now weathered charcoal, what had been well stitched is frayed, and the leather head rests on the back seats are crackled like antique china from roasting in the relentless sun all day. So I came up with a brilliant idea because when you can’t come up with a great paying job in order to purchase a new car, you manufacture great ideas instead.

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To protect the head rests, I covered them with white plastic shower caps. They stretched to cover, they tucked quickly, and they resembled white pleather. They protected the rests from further sun damage. How silly, you say, and you would be right, because several months later the shower caps flaked, chipped, and fell off the rests in chunks, landing on the car seats to decorate the jeans of travelers riding in the back. A short respite from the sun but proof of how relentlessly destructive it is.

Next I covered the rests with pink flowered terry wash cloths, and so far they’ve done a good job without casting loose strands on the back seat. (Ask me in a year if I’ve had to come up with another brilliant idea or if the wash cloths are still doing the job. Yeah, I’m still gonna have this old car in another year.) I stood on the sidewalk and stared through the back window at my newest idea and thought, yeah, gimme a problem, I’ll make a fixit.

I try to find and apply life skills from every opportunity, however bizarre or obscure, so it was natural that I learned something important from my car. Cars can u-turn and so can I. I’d been working on one of my books for a long while when I started trying to save the head rests. Like the old rests, some things about the book were not working. One reviewer stated that the story lacked insight. That hurt. It implied that I lacked insight. It implied that as a person I had no depth, couldn’t make meaningful connections, or impose important value in my character’s actions. As a writer, I recognized that was accurate. I had little substance, or if I did, it wasn’t showing up in my book.

Imagine my conundrum with my book, Lolli and the New Car. It’s a story about middle-aged Lolli who needs a new car, and all her adventures in choosing it. OK, it’s a fake story, but it will work for purposes of demonstration. Lolli looks at all the dealers in the area, is tempted by the terrific financing at one, the fabulous options at the next, and the low prices of the third. Wandering around the lot of her choice, she wonders if she should have invited her hubby to join her in car scouting or if she should just go pick out the red one – or the blue one – or the black one – and surprise him. Lolli chooses white, because it’s just so shiny, from the dealer offering the best options, trades in her old car, and drives the new one home. Cowboy, that’s her hubby, meets her on the driveway, aghast at her impulsive behavior, announces he’s headed to the divorce lawyer in order to find himself in unattached solitude, and leaves Lolli in tears as he peels away – in the new car. The rest of the book chronicles Lolli’s efforts to salvage the marriage with her rodeo king on the white horse (OK, in her new white car) – she gives him his own key to the ignition – and ends happily ever after with the renewal of their vows in the back seat of Whitey.

Not a bad story. (OK, it’s a terrible story, but how much do you me want to invest in a fake story?) See, as I considered it from the perspective of the shower caps, I realized what my story was missing. Depth, consequences, relationship history, insight, lifelong values lessons. In the re-write, I contrived a back story about Cowboy’s complaint that Lolli was painfully dependent upon him to make all decisions and a pain in the butt with her impulse shopping. I added internal dialogue from Lolli’s POV, showing how she wanted to show Cowboy that he didn’t have to hold her hand at every crosswalk, she was a big girl now, and she’d done a ton of research about cars before making her choice.

Lolli finally realizes that it’s Cowboy who’s truly the impulsive half of the marriage, as evidenced by him pilfering her new car for his independence break and peeling out on the marriage at the drop of a new tire. He’s projected all his own doubts and bad habits onto Lolli in order to blame her for the failure of their vows. She remembers all of Cowboy’s whispers late at night, though not to her, the emails he erased as soon as she walked into the room, a few whiffs of a perfume she doesn’t wear. She knows the marriage will never live to see old age and hires her own lawyer. Lolli also realizes she is a truly independent woman who doesn’t need to be attached by a lasso to a cowboy, and will do just fine in her own rodeo. The end of the newer version shows the couple signing divorce papers while leaning on Whitey’s hood. Grittier, more realistic if a little darker, and engaging. (Pretend, readers, pretend. It’s an example.)

The entire next year I undertook a total re-evaluation of my real book, reading it front to back, in chunks and chapters, finding the empty spaces my reviewer had spotted. I pulled out thousands of words, not only the empty ones such as like, that, nice, sweet, tiny, very, and a dozen others we all know are cheap but vacuous filler. I also deleted whole chapters, ones I’d scraped off my eyelids, yanked off the souls of my feet, and pulled from my gut. Chapters I’d struggled to write as well as possible but finally decided to dump on the computer’s floor. They weren’t working. They described moments and showed a little action the way toddlers show a little tolerance toward other toddlers. But they weren’t essential and they’d added fluff without content.

I walked around my house and hiked through the nearby woods, thinking relevant details, imagining a universal theme, planning resolution with an impact on the protagonist and the reader, and identifying the loose pieces and a way to pull them tight. Home again, I tackled my story with a new fervor for adding something of value. I tore apart many chapters and refitted them with internal dialogue or action. It meant considering what the main characters really needed and whether they’d achieved their goals, if resolution had occurred, not just if the book arrived at an end point. Then I read my book once more, front to back, out loud, and realized it was much improved. Sounds loosey goosey but in essence I’d added content and context to my story, infusing it with the kind of thoughtful purpose that a story should imply for readers.

Why had the shower caps inspired such wisdom? They looked classy but proved a shallow and flimsy solution. The wash cloths had more substance and endurance. That ultimately is what my story needed.

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P is for Plotting a Story

The Kid in the second row had already proven adept at reading books, especially children’s classics like Heidi and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When her teacher explained that students would be required to read books at home and write book reports, she didn’t worry at all. No groaning, no pouting, no kicking her legs out the bottom of her desk and pooching her lips over her chin like some of the other kids. Reading was her escape, her life on a kinder planet, and writing fell in as a natural side kick. What threw the Kid for a loop was the next requirement: every month, students would select a different category of book, and that first book in September was to be a mystery.

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See, the Kid identified every book as a mystery. She never saw the next pitfall until Heidi or Tom fell into it, she never knew the ending till she got to the last page and read the final words. She was a perfect reader, entranced by each moment and always surprised as if she’d unwrapped an extraordinary gift. Books were a mystery, each and every one of them. So what did Miss O’Rourke mean by the need to choose a mystery book? It would be many years before the Kid understood her teacher had tried to make the first month’s selection an easy one. Every kid in the class liked Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, the classic kids’ mystery books. All twenty-nine of the other kids got it right that first month, having chosen The Secret of the Old Clock or The Tower Treasure. The Kid chose Black Beauty, a touching story about a horse but not a mystery. Several months of the wrong kinds of books chosen for whatever the category, and Miss O’Rourke finally coaxed the Kid by offering a list of appropriate suggestions. Reading had never been the problem – figuring out what comprised a certain kind of book had.

The Kid liked to write stories almost as much as reading them. Her confusion over genre choices took a bite out of her original work in similar fashion. Being told her entire young life not to talk, she’d become phenomenally gifted at silent observation. It translated into mastery at describing people and things. She wrote floridly about New Jersey’s yellow sky, and the prickly blueberry brambles along a lake in the Catskills. She captured the syrupy, exploding bite of a soda pop, and the silky touch of a bunny’s fur. Problem was, her writing resembled the character descriptions in a book report – no action followed. What happened while she sipped her cola and petted the bunny? Well, the Kid didn’t know either. She hadn’t yet figured out a plot for any of her childish stories. Uncertain about genre, unfamiliar with plot construction, her early stories ended before anything happened.

Years of writing and reading and classes, the Kid finally started writing about escapades that happened to the characters into her stories. They caught nasty people who stole what wasn’t theirs, got lost on the way to the beach, participated in canoe races, and struggled to find ways to overcome all obstacles. Nothing exciting, but the loose idea of story arc had taken hold, and the Kid infused her later writing with plots. She wrote her Tammy or Benjamin into a problem situation, usually weak and unimaginative, and then wrote them out of it, usually too conveniently and quickly to be exciting.

How did she figure it out? She continued to read, but finally with a critical eye toward what went on in published stories. The orphan Heidi, kidnapped from her beloved grandfather’s home in the mountains and sent to the city where she serves as a companion to a girl in a wheelchair, longs to return to the Alps until she’s ill with yearning, and eventually goes home. Tom, also an orphan, raised by his aunt, and mischievous as an untrained puppy, tries to live as independently as possible and gets himself into a variety of scrapes and scares before recommending that his good friend Huckleberry Finn, about as independent as a kid can be, allow himself to be adopted. There are lessons here about family and community, fairness and justice, and the Kid decided that a moral lesson wasn’t a bad interjection to a good story. Stories had beginnings, endings, problems in between, a sense of right and wrong, and the logic to connect everything before The End planted its finality on the last page.

The Kid became an adult and wrote three novels, (not yet published) struggled with character development, story arc, moral conundrums, and tantalizing conclusions. She continues to read, now with attention to how professional writers master the individual parts of story. If you would like a few of her adult recommendations, try these, all of which exhibit enticing and complex plots with surprise endings: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins; Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield; and her all time favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee. She’s loved these so much that she’s read each at least twice.

Miss O’Rourke wanted to nurture avid readers out of her class of thirty young students. For one student at least, she also helped birth a writer. So the Kid grew up and she still thinks every book is a mystery, just maybe not the traditional there’s-a-dead-body-in-the-hallway-and-I-have-no-idea-who-killed-him variety. She has absolutely no idea how to write that kind of story. But she loves to write tales in other genres, with clever plots.

 

Someplace in the World

Stories happen someplace in the world, but not just anyplace. Someplace special where I will take you. That’s the purpose of writing about specific locations and historical periods, and incorporating them into our stories. We writers take our readers to places they may never have been at times they couldn’t have traveled. Try to imagine Khaled Hosseini’s young runner, Hassan, chasing a blue kite down the sidewalks of Parkway Avenue in Trenton, NJ rather than across the snaggletoothed alleys of Kabul, Afghanistan before the revolution. Doesn’t have the same panache. Or consider Charles Dickens’ famished Oliver Twist begging for soup from the cafeteria lady at the school lunchroom instead of the miserly master of a workhouse in 1800’s London. Not nearly as desperate. Floating in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque is daily business compared to the heart stopping thrill of balloon racing around the world for 80 days at the imagination of Jules Verne. You can’t gallop the Pony Express in Manhattan or mush the Iditarod in the Everglades.

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The places where our stories happen are as important as the characters peopling them and the events energizing them. When well realized, each complements the others and creates memorable images that propel the plot. More, the plot is possible because of specific locations. Even if you have never visited Kabul, Trenton, the Great Plains, Nome, or hitched a ride in a balloon gondola, you have a sense of the roiling sky above, the smell on the street, the sounds pummeling your ears, the motion that nearly makes you sick. Ignore location in your books and run the risk of readers dismissing your work. “Where in the world does this take place?” you can hear them ask, and if they do, you have failed.

How then, to include a genuine scene of the exotic or extinct in your story, to be in that place at that moment when you’re potatoing at your computer? My own stories have begun as much in a place as with a hero and a quest. They are lock stepped into a setting as distinctive and essential as The Great Wall is to China, into a period as horrific as the Inquisition is to fifteenth century Spain. The Inlaid Table was born in a shtetl in Poland between the two world wars and otherwise would have been a laminated TV tray. Where Did Mama Go? is as fastened to the current zeitgeist of Alzheimer’s discourse as cell phones are glued to teenagers. The Tree House Mother would only have been a description of a backyard fort were it not for the twisting narrow roads that confounded fire departments when Lemon Heights (Orange County, California) burned in the 1960’s.

Our house was only a few miles from the center of that inferno. I remember the billowing black smoke that rained ashes on the flatlands where we lived. If there is an authentic voice to the fire in my story, it’s because of a bit of luck forged years before. My parents were longtime friends with a married couple who lived in the hills. When the fire ignited, our family worried for everyone, but we knew who we worried for the most. Their friends were safe and their house remained intact, but many years later the woman proved an amazing source of first hand information. I recalled a lot about that week but I hadn’t been in the hills, only a hilltop from the flames. She had.

I phone interviewed Anita many hours over several days, then met with her in a restaurant where I sensed the anxiety she’d felt all those decades past. She told me things no one had reported, details that give flesh to a skeleton of an event. About the lost fire trucks, the panicked horses, the police coming around twice to warn people to evacuate, the manager who stood on the roof of the water department building and watched the fire leap ridge lines.

Then she brought out a packet of saved newspapers in a plastic sleeve, an entire journalistic rehash for two weeks of detailed reporting, and allowed me to take them home. Studying those papers was a boon I couldn’t have planned. Small town reporters know that a once in a lifetime opportunity to write up something other than high school football scores and lost dogs is to be mined for every ounce of fool’s gold and diamond dust, because it might be the only chance to move out of the minor leagues up to the real deal. The local newshounds honed their skills with attention to detail, fact collecting worthy of the FBI, and local color so neon that everyone knew exactly who’d been interviewed and which houses had burned. Thank you one and all, you young cubs, and I hope you went on to bylines and columns of your own.

I studied the papers, I re-wrote my notes, I pondered, and had plenty of true life detail to write into my otherwise fabricated story. My hero, a figment of my imagination, got sidelined by horses fleeing down the road. She gave directions to lost firemen. I know from personal experience the acrid scent of smoke, how hot are raging flames, but the frightened horses and lost firemen – that was the contribution of my friend, Anita. She doesn’t write stories but she remembered.

Do whatever you need to gather first person evidence. If you can’t interview Columbus or visit Timbuktu in order to write your story, scour diaries, census records, personal letters, almanacs, ship registers, train schedules, old maps, and warehouse supply lists. Snoop where snooping will unearth something useful, even though you won’t know how useful till you’re writing. Get those facts and thread them into your story so your reader will smack his hand against his head and declare, “Feels like I’m right in the middle of this.”

O is for Outside the Box is a Story

 

 

cardboard-box-1413073The instructions were simple and perhaps that’s why they confounded so many of my high school art students. Draw a square. Write the word “peace.”

Kids want instructions, lots of them, to be certain they’re doing it right, whatever “it” is, whatever “right” is. Each approached the assignment like baby birds on the edge of the nest. Some watched out of the corners of their eyes to see what other students were doing. Some plunged right in and drew what they thought I wanted. Some frowned and made a sloppy interpretation of the assignment, while others asked for a ruler. A few asked for more directions and flipped their pencils when I refused. During each class, one or two or lots of the kids made a box that broke the rules, writing a word that wasn’t “peace,” drawing a square that was a circle, a squiggly line, or a rectangle. Every once in while, a kid sat and refused to do anything.

As we talked about what each student had drawn (or hadn’t), they realized I wasn’t looking for conformity or for a correct answer, but for them to find a way to begin their own creative process. Someone always got the visual pun – drawing outside the box. Today’s kids aren’t brighter than their grandparents, but they’ve more savvy, exposed to world issues via computer and endless feeds on their devices. They’re experienced at accessing instant information. Still, they want the sure thing.

When I started writing, I wanted a sure thing as well, a well marked path to publication and books on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. Nowadays the path to publication is a circuitous route to a multitude of publishing options. Authors choose one way or another and still must promote their books as if flagging down trains to take them to the closest constellation.

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Rounding the Bend, Hitting the Wall, Writing All the Way

More than ten years ago I began writing a book I’d intended to pen for decades. The premise of the book changed significantly so the one I finally wrote is less stodgy, more imaginative, and better researched. I finished it after four years, sent notices to friends and family, and kvelled at the sweet comments returned to me. Then I revised it again and again, trying to get closer to the heartbeat of my idea, making improvements at each iteration.

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Reviewers noted that the beginning was weak, slow and meandering. Over and over, I rewrote the beginning – first line, first paragraph, first chapter. I swapped a chapter for another, improved an earlier version, eliminated one “first chapter” attempt, and finally settled on what seemed to be perfect.

Slogging through the traditional agent querying process, getting no-thank-you’s or no response at all tainted my belief in my book. Everything I read, even unpublished, amateur work, seemed better than mine. Doubts about my ability kept me awake with worry about the path I’d chosen. Maybe I couldn’t write after all. I stopped talking about it with every stranger stuck in lines behind me at the bank and grocery store, and began work on my second book. Less flag waving for book two. I’d learned that telling the world I was writing a book elicited questions about what section they could find it at the bookstore. But I also kept at the first book, rewriting, evaluating, deleting, working through early morning hours to make it better.

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N is for Nix the Blahs

Pachie was our dog when I was a teenager. He was a spaniel-sized mutt with silky red fur, a plump puppy face even when an adult, and long singular strands of black feathers that draped over his ears. Pachie was my respite from teenage loneliness, always eager for a long walk, ready to plop on a bed at home. His best trick was to jump on me when I told him, “I’ve got the blahs.” Melancholy in his human litter mate would be wiped out by launching himself at me and covering my face with exuberant smooches. Seeing genuine sadness in me, which happened a lot, he’d respond the same way. The most loyal and loving dog, he read every family member’s emotional state and reacted with boundless affection.

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When we brought home our first born son, I bent to show Pachie, now old and arthritic, the baby. He sniffed at his newest brother, then turned and walked right by my side to the living room. After that, he assigned himself as Noah’s guardian, and if you wanted to see the new baby, you had to get Pachie’s approval. He died of old age at eighteen on the Fourth of July, when our younger son, Ethan, was nearly one year old. No one was ever lonely for long with Pachie around and when he was gone, I grieved him for many years.

A fellow blogger and good friend told me her writing space is a dark corner in her basement. I burst out laughing. Writing is a lonely endeavor. Here we sit with our laptops in our corners and we talk to ourselves for hours and hours and hours. I work on my big desk top computer because it has an ergonomically correct keyboard that makes it easier on my carpal tunnel injured hands . The computer is in the middle of the living room. Awkward and ugly, but my plans to move it to a secondary bedroom are rough sketches and not action yet. Still, I talk to myself, literally out loud, talk talk talk, embarrassed when my husband walks in on me even though he’s used to catching me in writing mode. I’m not that interesting to talk to under the most social of circumstances, but when I write, it’s my modus operandi. Even when I talk-write, I’m a bit lonely. Wish Pachie was still by my side. (Hubby always leaves.)

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The Inevitable Triumvirate

Death, taxes, change, the inevitable triumvirate. They make us shudder but we cannot escape them, nor the adages about them. They are linked uncomfortably, wedging between the people we love, the things we’re trying to do, the places we want to go. The stories I write now are different from what I wrote half a lifetime ago, but my sense of what’s worthy was impressed on me before I finished high school and have changed little the decades since.

Words and stories engaged me from a very young age. I wasn’t one of those precocious scholars who learned to read at two or three but certainly by the time I was six, stories had become my other, better world. I read them, I wrote them, they enriched me, they saved me. I could recite several from memory and make up others on the spot. None were complete without a crayon sketch. There I was, seven, nine, twelve-years-old, writer, illustrator, and occasional prize winner. My parents paid the taxes to keep a middle class home, a middle class life. As a child, I could ignore discussions of taxes and pursue my childish dreams.

Change ricocheted through my life. Born in Philly, I’ve lived in New Jersey, Hawaii (twice,) Alabama, Michigan, Colorado, and California. The prejudice I witnessed in New Jersey against Blacks was different from that which snared me in Hawaii against Haoles, in Alabama against Jews, in Michigan against the poor, in California against Mexicans. It shaped my perspective about social justice. Hatred, blame, and name calling were lobbed with Eastern accents, Pidgin English, a Southern drawl. Landscapes changed from mountainous splendor to tropical beauty but prejudice was ugly everywhere. It taught me that people should be fair and kind, learn to speak another language, be sympathetic to those who are other. My ideas about justice showed up in my earliest stories, infusing my voice even if they weren’t part of the plot.

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