15 July 2024

Amadeus


Some of the best writers I know have never published a word, nor have they tried. They don’t think of themselves as writers, and I only know of their brilliance because they write me letters (these days emails).

family

Concordantly, there are many professed and professional writers I’m aware of who are, to put it charitably, not very good.

I think this random sorting of talent is true with any of the arts. I like to refer to the guy who’s never joined a band sitting on his bed ripping off guitar solos like Eddie Van Halen. And clunky wanna-bees who keep starting bands and disappointing people like me when they attempt a lead. We all know both these types.

One theory for why my talented correspondents are so good is they feel no pressure. They’re just writing to a friend, and having fun with it.

They’re under no deadline (journalist, novelist, copywriter, attorney, academic) so the stakes are zero. They also have an audience of one, or just a few, and aside from the pleasure of entertaining each other, no other purpose.

I worked with a guy, a Brit, whose charm was apparent and irresistible. Occasionally dazzling. But put a camera in front of him, and he’d suddenly turn to stone.

The words wouldn’t come, and the lively grace demonstrated in casual conversation would dissolve away. I guess this is called performance anxiety. The same malady often affects talented musicians, actors, circus acts, and writers.

I can understand this when the artistic expression needs to happen in front of a live audience. If your show goes off the rails, you know it immediately, even if the people out there don’t start throwing tomatoes, storm out, or just sit in stony silence with confused looks on their faces.

With writing, chances are good the critical reader is in another room, long after you’ve written the piece, and far, far away.

There’s another more important distinction. While no one is expected to sing on key, everyone is presumed able to write at least a little, and virtually everyone does so at one time or another, even if it’s a note to the postman to stop sticking your neighbor’s catalogs in your mailbox.

So we all get a lot of latitude. The difficulty comes when you decide that you want to write well, and tell people of that intent.

Then the fear of rejection begins to creep into your heart. And by extension, once you’ve declared yourself, you assume tolerance for your failings will turn into ruthless judgment. So now you feel compelled to demonstrate your facility at every opportunity, or that’ll be the end of such foolish ambitions.

For most writers, this feeling never goes away. I remember how long it took to get the boss’s birthday card out of the copy department.

You can imagine the paranoia, the competitiveness, the relentless revisions, the magic marker-sized well wishes, the collapse of self-esteem when one of us would really hit one over the fence.

Back to my clever, officially non-writer correspondents, they are very, very good. And it is such a delight to read their work. Aside from their misspent school years (one never made it to college, though his father was a certified genius, which counts for something), no one told them how to do this.

It just happened through some natural bent toward eloquence and wit. I know these people about as well as you can know anyone, and none of them ever aspired to write professionally, because they simply didn’t want to. They had other fish to fry. I’m sure they’d sell their God-given talent to the highest bidder if such a market was available.

father

I once chatted with one of my father's close colleagues. They were executives in a huge, international corporation involved in engineering and technology. I knew my father was a consummate gearhead, but this guy told me, with a hint of reverence, something no one ever said to me, before or since.

“Your dad was the the best writer in the company.

His memos were legendary. They would piss off a lot of people, but only because there was no getting around how well he made the case.”

I never knew. He was long gone by then.



14 July 2024

The Anatomy of Childhood Sexual Abuse:
A tragic lesson from Alice Munro's daughter


On May 14th, 2024, the Canadian Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, died at her home in Port Hope, Ontario and her publisher said at the time,"Alice Munro is a national treasure — a writer of enormous depth, empathy, and humanity whose work is read, admired, and cherished by readers throughout Canada and around the world… Alice’s writing inspired countless writers too, and her work leaves an indelible mark on our literary landscape.”

Regarded by many as one of the greatest short story authors, Munro’s legacy was changed completely last week by her daughter, Andrea, who revealed that her stepfather sexually abused her at the of age nine and that Munro knew this and stayed with him.

This is the first layer of the abuse of Andrea. Unfortunately, this is common in childhood abuse where the initial sexual abuse is compounded by the abusive actions of the family. The victim is often blamed, ignored and the abuse is hidden from the outside world – all of this takes a crime and makes it a prolonged tragedy of abuse.

The study of anatomy teaches us that each structure, each layer, has a purpose – skin, muscle, nerves, blood vessels and bones - all work together, allowing the body to function. The anatomy of abuse is the same, where layers of abuse support each other, each with their own function.

When Andrea told her father, Alice Munro's ex-husband, Jim Munro, that her stepfather was abusing her soon after it began, her father didn’t tell his ex-wife.

To date, little attention has focused on Andrea’s father, a prominent member of the literary community and the co-founder of Munro's Books in Victoria. Andrea’s father’s actions were a layer of abuse. He knew of a crime committed against his nine-year-old daughter but he didn’t report it to the police and he failed to get Andrea counselling and help to deal with what she had gone through. For a young child looking for solace and justice from her father, Andrea’s father failed miserably and pushed her abuse into a vat of silence.*

In 1992, when Andrea was in her twenties, she wrote a letter to her mother and stepfather outlining the sexual assault. In response, her step father “wrote letters to the family... in which he admitted to the abuse but blamed it on her. “He described my 9-year-old self as a ‘homewrecker,’” … and accused her of invading his bedroom “for sexual adventure" in one of the letters he wrote to the family.”

These letters are another layer of the abuse of Andrea: a perpetrator blames a child for their illegal actions, treating a nine-year-old like an adult having an affair rather than being a victim.

Then Alice Munro heaped on more abuse, saying that “she loved him too much, and that our misogynistic culture was to blame if I expected her to deny her own needs, sacrifice for her children and make up for the failings of men. She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather. It had nothing to do with her.”

Reinforcing her husband’s abuse, Alice Munro again treats her daughter as if she were an adult involved in an affair with her husband rather than a child who was sexually abused by an adult. Munro also clearly puts her love of her husband above her love of Andrea and her responsibility as a mother to protect her own child.

Andrea’s family also heaped on the abuse of silence to protect Alice Munro, while failing to protect Andrea. “Munro’s children have been clear that their silence, their father’s silence and that of people who knew the family, was maintained to protect Munro’s reputation.”

When Andrea broke this silence and used her stepfather’s own letters to charge him with sexual abuse of a minor, Detective Sam Lazarevich’s reaction provided the first glimmer of decency in the abuse of Andrea:

“Retired Ontario Provincial Police Detective Sam Lazarevich remembers a very angry Munro accusing her daughter of lying when he visited Munro’s home in 2004 to inform the husband that he was going to be charged. In an interview with The Associated Press, Lazarevich said Munro was furious, defended her second husband and the detective recalls being “quite surprised” by her reaction. “‘That’s your daughter. Aren’t you going to defend your daughter?’” he recalls.”

This moment of decency did not last and silence reigned again. From 2004 till the death of Alice Munro on May 13th, 2024 there was no news of Andrea’s abuse. In fact, the story only broke last week and we are finally seeing how breaking through the silence is the only road to justice.

Readers are weighing in with essays on how they cannot look at Alice Munro’s work as they once did and her legacy – as a genius whose short stories provided insight into women and girls – is now damaged. Academia is reeling as well, pondering how to continue to teach Munro’s writing in light of this abuse and Western University announced it paused a chair created in her honour.

The abuse of children is rarely limited to the initial sexual abuse: family often adds layers of abuse of their own. Andrea’s story, dissected, teaches us a great deal about the anatomy of childhood sexual abuse, the power of silence and how blame and denial compound the abuse of the initial crime. If Andrea's father had reported the crime of her abuse and he and the family spoke about it publicly, then Andrea's stepfather would not have written the abusive letters blaming Andrea for the abuse. Alice Munro would have had to publicly deal with this and it is unlikely she would have had the abusive conversation with her daughter, treating Andrea as an adult involved in an affair with her husband. And the world would have had a reckoning with Alice Munro – who knows how that story would have gone?

*Addendum: After reading comments to my article on  this site and various social media sites, I would like to stress this fact: sexually abusing a child is a crime and cannot be treated as a 'family matter' anymore than learning of any other crime, such as murder, can remain a 'family matter'.

I say this because the patients I treated who have been sexually abused all were subjected to the initial sexual abuse and then the abuse of silence and shouldering the blame of the abuser and their family. None  of my patients had their initial sexual abuse reported to the police, therapy immediately and their family encircle them to protect them from further abuse. Why? Because those who had those things probably didn't need prolonged therapy as adults. Some might, but far fewer than those subjected to the prolonged abuse of silence. This is not just a physician's anecdote: the research bears this out. 

We need to charge people who fail to report the crime of childhood sexual abuse. 

13 July 2024

How to Nashville


Nashville. I can't blame you if you just pictured somebody toting a guitar under some spotlight. The travel guides, the airport swag, the TV coverage and dramas, you would think what goes on here is a-pickin', a-boozin', and a-Goo Goo Clusterin'. And in fairness, that does go on. But, having lived decades here, I can offer a perspective for writing like a local--or, if you're coming to the Nashville Bouchercon next month, to glimpse past the hoo-hah.

MUSIC CITY

Nashville gets called a holy city for music, and it is. But to tackle the obvious, there are not jeaned-up folks ambling around with guitars slung over their backs. Paying dues involves driving for Lyft or waiting tables or having an office job. It's darn impractical to be spreadsheeting with your Gibson slung over your shoulder. Getting it scratched up, too.

I've had aspiring artists as co-workers and once a caterer. A retired top 40 artist has lived next door. Some guy in my current neighborhood has a gold record conspicuously placed where no passerby will miss it. It just happens here. Sometimes.

And there isn't one music scene but several. Blame the Nashville Sound– or lack thereof. Since Music City's very beginning, label executives have watered down talent for country radio. If it'll play, it plays– no nuance, no vision, no women artists twice in a row.

The music sub-scenes are thriving. Americana, alternative, second-act rockers, the works. A wonderful part of living here is experiencing the musicianship. Live acts in restaurants aren't as common as they used to be, but when you stumble on one, it's gonna be good, even when the style might not be your cuppa. The few of those artists who break out are 100% committed to their craft– or 100% lucky.

Or you can write the Nashville with no music angle at all. The music industry contributes about $10 billion to Nashville's GDP. The tourism industry adds another $10 billion. Nashville's total GDP is $200 billion. Healthcare, manufacturing, and increasingly high-tech contribute far more to the economic high times. No local over thirty goes to Lower Broadway anymore. Preds games and concerts, sure. But Lower Broadway? That's for tourists.

FRONT OF HOUSE

Rockers come here to record when they're hot, and they come here to live when, well, they're not (I blogged about this back in March). A big reason for that is Nashville's quieter life. It's an unwritten but firm Nashville rule: It doesn't matter who is ahead in line at Kroger. Do not approach. Don't. They're just there for Hot Pockets, same as you.

The exception: You own the business or work front of house. Around many local dives or dry cleaners or even the HillVill Post Office is that obligatory wall of autographed headshots, everyone from country gold names to wannabes who probably tacked it there themselves. An interesting Nashville character is someone rubbing those transactional elbows.

Letting people do their thing is the phenomenon known as…

NASHVILLE NICE

Nashville folks are super friendly. We dole out praise and thank yous for the slightest things. We will hold doors, tongues, and spots in line. We refrain from horn honking, even when the light has been green. Nashville Nice is the slang term.

The nice is real. But, like most Southern hospitality, it can be lipstick on a pig. This is, after all, a city with a problematic history on civil rights. Courtesy can mean avoiding such uncomfortable subjects. Kindness means having to fix them.

Nashville Nice is complicated in practice. This being the Buckle of the Bible Belt, take for example the Christian set's "have a blessed day." It works a little like "bless your heart" except (1) it's a goodbye and (2) it can actually be sincere. The person may wish you only the best, or they may have attempted a singsong-y parting burn. You know, like Jesus would've done.

OH, THERE WILL BE BACHELORETTES.

Break out the White Claws, y'all. Downtown Nashville is the U.S. capital of bachelorette parties. 30,000 parties a year, my friends, or more than 500 downtown on any given Saturday. They flock from all over, these young white ladies and their boundless desire to celebrate treasured bonds ahead of a friend's sacred event get very, very drunk. Sloppy drunk, the stupid drunk laced with questionable decisions no one dares risk where everyone knows your name.

They're called the Woo Girls, for the species' distinctive hollers above the Nashvegas honkytonk sound assault. And while drinking, they ride any tavern that can be pedaled, driven, or tractor-pulled. Some of the contraptions even have licenses. To be a local, you've come to grudging terms with transportainment spectacles– and traffic jams.

Downtown is slap-happy to rake in the Woo bucks. It's just Broadway's latest wave in sin and itinerants since Fort Nashborough put up the first shacks. Writing a local who'd seen wild times? Happens seven nights a week and afternoons, too, at the neon spectacle of Lost Edge Hat Act's four-story, booze and boot-scoot emporium.

THANKS A LOT, CALIFORNIA

Housing costs have been a growing issue already, with more demand than supply. What's happened lately is a second-wave influx, tens of thousands of West Coast and Florida buyers resetting the market. The expats get a larger house for less money. The sellers get a short-term windfall, if they can afford a replacement. Younger people looking for a first home get left behind. A realistic Nashville character these days wouldn't live near central Nashville unless they had a significant source of income or a crash pad of multiple roommates.

UNIQUELY NASHVILLE, THE LIGHTNING ROUND

  • Jell-O.It's officially a vegetable here, as is macaroni and cheese. It's a meat-and-three culture thing.
  • Pancake Pantry: The breakfast and brunch institution, as televised. Now with other places to dine and be seen, locals don't quibble about the food (legit good) but about whether it's worth the line. It mostly feeds tourists and hangovers.
  • Parthenon: Yes, we have our own Parthenon. A whole World Exposition thing. Most people go to Centennial Park for craft fairs and dog meet-ups. The swans there are vicious and shameless.
  • Smashville: Believe it or not, the Preds hockey team generates legit buzz around town, almost as much as the Titans. Every game night is part of the downtown party.
  • Little Kurdistan: Nashville is home to many, many folks from Latin America, South Asia, and also one of America's largest Kurdish communities. If you get off the beaten path, you'll see an unexpected diversity, and Nashville is better for it.
  • Cityscape: Officially, the most distinctive feature on Nashville's skyline is the AT&T Building. No local calls it that. It's the Batman Building, for its bat-eared radio towers.

THE ULTIMATE TEST: CAN YOU SAY… DEMONBREUN

A certain major street cuts from the Midtown knolls over the Gulch and on downhill for the Cumberland. Demonbreun Avenue is the name, but whether you can pronounce it is the question. Failure brands you a rube. Success keeps you in the game, at least until you question Jell-O as a vegetable.

This didn't used to matter as much. Demonbreun used to be the seedy shortcut downtown, a lesser traveled run past aging motels and strip clubs. These days, Demonbreun is a glossy strip with some of Nashville's top attractions: The Frist Museum, the Bridgestone Arena, the Music City Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center– and all of that built since I moved here. Demonbreun is Nashvegas now, the natural habitat of Woo Girls on wheels.

Ready to practice? Here you go:

dah - MUHN - BREE - uhnn

Work on it. You'll get there. But hey, don't worry too much about mispronunciation. We're still nice to rubes, bless their hearts.

12 July 2024

The Franklin-Edgerton Outlining Method Revealed!


I went to journalism school. It’s one of the tracks high school guidance counselors recommend to kids who want to write. If you’re like me, you get two years into your coursework before it dawns on you that the profession expects to you do things that terrify you. Namely, ask questions of complete strangers and become an absolute noodge in service to The Story.

My college years were solidly in the 1980s, which meant that some of my writing professors were products of the era of New Journalism, which was born in the 1960s and epitomized by the nonfiction work of such writers as Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, and countless others.

The first rule of New Journalism is that great nonfiction can and should borrow its techniques from great works of fiction. Because newspaper and magazine stories are short, the ideal model for a nonfiction article is the fictional short story.

Why? A great short story has a beginning, middle, and an end. A great short story gives us characters that we care about. It’s dramatic, romantic, exciting, suspenseful—depending on dictates of its genre. And regardless of genre, great stories suck you in and keep you reading. If journalists could do all that in the pages of a daily newspaper or a magazine, well, wow, they would really be onto something.

In my day, one of the oft-anthologized stories first-year journalism students encountered in their textbooks was one called “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” by Jon Franklin, a onetime science writer for The Baltimore Sun.

The story was simple. I’ll sketch it out in broad strokes, and beg your forgiveness for the eventual spoilers. A patient named Mrs. Kelly was born with a tangle of malformed blood vessels in her brain. The defect worsened as she got older, generating life-threatening aneurysms and a host of medical issues. Blindness in one eye, hemorrhages, loss of taste and smell, seizures—not fun stuff. When her brain started causing leg paralysis, Mrs. Kelly decided it was time to address the problem once and for all. She was sick of living with the monster—her words—in her brain. The trouble was, for most of her life this Gordian knot was regarded by most doctors as largely inoperable. But medical science and technology were changing. A doctor named Ducker thought it was now possible to repair the tangle. But as he and his team warned Mrs. Kelly numerous times, the surgery might well kill her. The patient agreed to take the chance. She didn’t want to live another minute with this thing in her brain.

Again, remember, this is a true story. If there is tension in this story—and believe me there is—it’s there as the result of good reporting. I can’t tell you how many times as a student I’d read a piece of creative nonfiction, and ask the professor something along the lines of, “But how the hell could Talese have known what that dude was thinking?”

The answer was always the same: “He asked.”

(See earlier reference to being a damned noodge.)

Franklin’s genius was to structure his nonfiction article from the POV of the doctor, not the patient, from the moment the doc started his day at 6:30 AM until the conclusion of the surgery at 1:43 PM. The writing is vivid, tight, and painfully suspenseful.

The article ran for the first time in The Baltimore Evening Sun in December 1978, and has the distinction of being the first newspaper feature story to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Franklin later went on to teach journalism. His book, Writing for Story, became a classic, the book nonfiction writers recommend to anyone who wants to make “real” stories come to life on the page. In the intro, Franklin talks about his struggles as a young newspaperman. He kept bashing his brains against his typewriter, hoping to find the secret to organizing his copious notes into cogent reads. Reporters amass a ton of real-life facts in their notebooks, and they can easily make the assumption that the recitation of those facts will necessarily lead to a decent piece. Wrong, says Franklin, without a plan you will more often descend into “spaghetti-ing”—the endless unfurling of facts that lead nowhere.

If he wanted his stories to have an impact, he realized that he could model his pieces on the work of great short story practitioners. The outlining method he preached was innovative at the time. When my wife and I discovered it in the early 2000s, we often started our nonfiction books by crafting out a beat sheet in the Franklin style. Denise used Franklin’s method help her structure not only her first big nonfiction book but each of its chapters. When she saw our Post-It-festooned copy on my desk when I was writing this post, her first response was, “Oh—I should use that for the one I’m writing now!”

Before I get to the method, let me switch genres—and jump back in time. It’s August 2014. The crime writer Les Edgerton describes on his blog an outlining method that he has used forever. He talks about learning how to outline in school as a kid, and how horrible that Roman numeral-A, B, C method was. Most writers are intuitive. They don’t need anything that detailed, confusing, and worthless.

To write his short story “I Should Seen a Credit Arranger,” for example, Edgerton tells us that he hammered out the following outline:

  • Debt endangers Pete
  • Tommy cons Pete into a kidnapping
  • Pete and Tommy botch the kidnapping
  • Pete escapes
  • Pete pays for mistake

That’s it—five bullet points that quickly summarize the flow of the action. No line is longer than six words. With this outline, Edgerton tells us, he was able to write an 18-page short story, and later expand that story into a 92,000-word novel (The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, Down & Out Books, 2014). The same outline worked perfectly for both. His discussion of the method is short and sweet; I urge you to read it at the link above because I am intentionally leaving out the good stuff.

Edgerton cover

Les taught this outlining technique to all his fiction-writing students, and at least 20 of them had gone on to land book deals, so he felt he was onto something. When someone thanked him in the comments of this blog post, he wrote: “I wish I could take credit for it, but I came across it years ago in a craft book and I wish I could remember the author so I could give him credit!”

As soon as I read the post, the cadence of those five punchy beats were immediately familiar to me. I shot him a note, telling him that he was using Franklin’s method. Considering his interest in long-form journalism, Franklin never applied the method to fiction. And that, I told Edgerton, was something I had struggled with ever since. It seemed to me that I ought to be able to apply Franklin’s method to my fiction, but doing so successfully kept eluding me. Prior to this, my story outlines were quick, dirty, and sloppy. (I’ll share some in a future post.) But Edgerton’s post is geared specifically for fiction, and shows us how to use it to craft not only stories but entire novels.

Man, was he pleased when I wrote him. “I hated not being able to give him his proper credit,” Edgerton wrote me back. “I have or had all of Jon’s books at one time but can’t locate it now so may have lost it.”

At first glance, Franklin’s outline method doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to jot down five bullet points on a scrap of paper, and start writing. But the essence of your story boils down to choosing the right verbs in your outline.

Watch how Franklin’s outline evolved before he wrote “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster.” (And here, folks, we get to the spoilers—forgive me.)

His first outline read:

Complication: Woman gambles life
Development:
1. Ducker enters brain
2. Ducker clips aneurysm
3. Monster thwarts Ducker
Resolution: Woman loses gamble

Notice: the 1st and 5th points on the five-point outline are connected to each other. Complication must lead inevitably to Resolution. In the parlance of fiction, we have an inciting incident, following by three action points on the try-fail cycle, and a conclusion.

Franklin was writing a newspaper feature article. And yes, the piece was sad, but he didn’t want to bring down his readers. So he tried another outline, this time from the doctor’s POV:

Complication: Ducker challenges monster
Development:
1. Ducker enters brain
2. Ducker clips aneurysm
3. Monster ambushes Ducker
Resolution: Monster wins

This story was better, but still depressing. Franklin tried one more time, hoping to inject a ray of hope.

Complication: Ducker gambles life
Development:
1. Ducker enters brain
2. Ducker clips aneurysm
3. Monster ambushes Ducker
Resolution: Ducker accepts defeat

At the end of the operation, an exhausted Ducker staggers out of the operating room. He eats his brown-bag lunch in the hospital cafeteria, where he manages to respond to a few of Franklin’s questions. As he bites into his sandwich, you can just tell how crushed he is, but he must go on. There are tons of other patients out there, and he can’t let this outcome bring him down. He is a neurosurgeon, and this is the life. He will live to defeat more monsters, again and again.

Franklin, a reporter writing about real people, understood, captured, and reflected for his readers the greatest truth any story can ever share. Defeating monsters is one of the greatest themes in fiction. Possibly the greatest metaphor of them all.

After our exchange, I never connected with Edgerton again. In January 2024, when I saw that Franklin had died at the age of 82, I made a note to contact Les Edgerton. I thought he might find the news of interest. But it also occurred to me that Edgerton’s blog posts had for some reason stopped appearing in my RSS feed.

Investigating, I learned that Les himself passed away at age 80 in 2023 of complications from a bout with Covid. His work and his classes shaped many writers in the crime fiction community, and I know he is missed.

Both of these gentlemen—who never met—are forever linked in my mind by this single outlining method. One who unabashedly borrowed it from the world of short fiction, and the other who sensibly returned it.




See you in three weeks!

Joe

josephdagnese.com

11 July 2024

Everybody Knows...


The small town or village has long been a popular site for mystery fiction, especially murder.  And, of late, for supernatural, spooky, sinister things.  Mayberry meets Twin Peaks meets Stranger Things.  That kind of thing. 

But the truth is - sorry fans! - there's not many covens, although there's plenty of huddling over a Ouija Board or a Tarot Deck, just for the frisson of getting a message...  And there's usually one person in that huddle who's secretly manipulating the messaging, because it's easier than you might think, and it's fun.  They're not a witch, just a control freak.  Lots of those in a small town.  

There's also always at least one person who believes that there is a Satanic coven that's manipulating all the kids. ("Why else would they be doing drugs and having sex and leaving graffiti all over the school bathroom?  We never did that!"  No, you got drunk, had sex, and left graffiti on rocks at the local park.)  And everyone seems to have a pet conspiracy theory, from flat-earth to aliens really do greet every President who's elected...  And some are weirder than that. 

But I pity any alien, demon, or hostile alternate dimension who tries to go up against the Boss Bull and/or Boss Cow of any small town:  if you've ever tangled with either, you know that Logan Roy has nothing on them.  They're just far more polite during the fileting.  

BTW, the Boss(es) are rarely the Mayor, sometimes not even Councilmember (city or county), because why should they have to do all that scut work?  Endless meetings and paperwork are not that appealing, when you can sit home with a phone and a drink and tell people what to do from afar.  


As to crime, there's a lot more murder in fiction than in reality.  In reality,  there're lots of drugs, theft, especially embezzlement, vandalism (usually teenagers but not always), drunk & disorderly with or without assault, simple assault, sexual assault, and, finally, murder, which happens just infrequently enough for people to say, "I'm shocked, shocked!  That kind of thing doesn't happen here."  

Note:  Embezzlement is very common because the actual pay in small towns is pathetically low for almost all jobs, with no health insurance, which leads to a lot of medical debt.  And ever since gambling became legal, with slot machines in every bar, there are a lot of gambling addicts.  Hope springs eternal and all that.  Interestingly, most people who embezzle are caught (Though it often takes a while), but very few actually go to prison for it.  It's mostly restitution and fines, maybe a brief jail sentence.  And, as I said in a prior post, they're usually rehired in the same town, because there's not a sizeable job pool to draw on.  

There are also a lot of drugs.  Not just marijuana, but meth, heroin, and fentanyl.  The Boss' (grand)son or (grand)daughter has been known to be the major drug dealer.  Or victim.  Or both.  

BTW: For those who move to a small town and want to get "in", there are a few paths:

  • Born and/or marry into an old family - Antebellum antecedents in the South, pioneers in the Midwest / West.  Money and / or land (in abundance, especially out West) helps considerably.  
  • Wealth - Start a business that brings lots of money to the community, and you will soon have power, clout, and probably a spouse for you and/or your children from one of the "old families".  
  • Freakish charisma and likeability can also work pretty well.  Of course, it can always evaporate, and then you're back on the bottom again, if not run out of town.

BTW, Boss Bull and Boss Cow are sometimes - but not always - married, not always to each other, and often can't stand each other.  But they do know perfectly well how to work with each other to stop anyone else from replacing them and their minions.  For one thing, they often don't take the obvious leadership positions, but pass those on to Useful Idiots.  

Ironically, Useful Idiots almost never realize they're useful idiots.  The Dunning-Kruger effect is a real thing, and applies to more than knowledge.  Generally Useful Idiots are elected to the top positions in town or church or boards because s/he will be easily manipulated, and will take all the blame for when things go wrong.  But s/he actually believes that s/he is the best person for the job, and popular because of her/his wisdom and expertise.  They are almost never undeceived.  I know one small town where the mayor was reelected time and again with no opposition and thought it proved the people loved him, but it was because Boss Bull or Boss Cow had made it clear to everyone that he was the one who'd been chosen.  

The Bosses also generally have at least one Court Jester around at all times.  These are people who will do anything to ingratiate themselves with one or another of the Bosses.  Compliments, fawning attention, praise:  the Boss can hit the worst hook you ever saw, and they'll say, "Great shot! Shame that gust of wind came up" - you know the type.  Constant errand running, "helping out", etc.  And, depending on the age, youth, attractiveness, etc., there might be sex...  Of course, when the fit hits the shan, so to speak, it's never the Boss' problem.

Speaking of Boss Bull and Boss Cow, the one person they never mess with is the Encyclopedia - s/he knows the history of everything, everyone, and where most if not all of the bodies are buried, while being discreet enough to keep from being murdered her/himself.  At least in real life. Fiction kills them off all the time, which is one of the reasons why "Midsomer Murders" is so popular. 

The Bosses also (almost) never mess with are people who can actually do things they want done.  The locksmiths, mechanics, gardeners, carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians, dentists, doctors, nurses, ophthalmologists, etc. ... they are all actually useful, and so are left alone to do their jobs.  

Just don't get too uppity. 

And don't try to take over for the chosen Useful Idiot and run for office.  

And don't be stupid, be polite and helpful and smiling. Always.

And make sure, when moving to a small town, you find out as quickly as possible who the Bosses are.  

*****

BSP!  BSP!  BSP!  

Thanks to Barb Goffman, my story "Sophistication" appears in Black Cat Weekly #149, available at Wildside Press or Amazon.


Hi Mark Thielman!  Good to see we share a cover and a magazine!  And love your story, "Dramatis Personae!"



10 July 2024

Robert Towne


Robert Towne died a week ago, Tuesday.  He was 89, which surprised me, because I’ve always thought of him as being more or less my age.  Probably because he managed to capture so effectively a kind of consciousness that seems particularly ours, this generation, a neo-noir sensibility, the shadow of Viet Nam and the Cold War.

Chinatown is of course his most famous script, and it led the death notices.  Bill Goldman, another celebrated screenwriter we lost not so long ago, remarked that his obituary would lead with Butch Cassidy, although he was credited on two dozen pictures, and acknowledged to have worked on thirty others.  Bob Towne is credited on nineteen features, and uncredited on at least as many, at last count.  He took money under the table as a script doctor on any number of projects.

The best-known movies he worked on, without a formal writing credit, are Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather.  Francis Ford Coppola, accepting his screenplay Oscar for Godfather, went out of his way to share Towne’s contribution.  Towne did unspecified work on The Missouri Breaks, Marathon Man, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and 8 Million Ways to Die.  He wrote Greystoke, wanting to direct it himself, but had to surrender the script because of money problems.  He was grievously unhappy with the finished picture, and took his name off the screenplay.  When it was nominated for the Oscar, he used his dog’s name. 


He directed four of his own scripts.  The first, Personal Best, released in 1982, is a jock picture, about track and field, and I myself have a real soft spot for it.  Siskel and Ebert put it on their Top Ten list, but it tanked at the box office.  Was it the lesbian angle?  Seems hard to credit; it’s all very innocent and sort of summer camp –there’s a fair amount of locker-room nudity, but Porky’s it ain’t.

Towne’s second movie as a writer-director is Tequila Sunrise.  Terrific title, for openers, the Eagles song.  Next, there was star power, Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell.  Third and last, though, it’s easily the most generic of Robert Towne scripts: Cagney and Pat O’Brien as kids together, who grow up on opposite sides of the law.  And the studio imposed a happy ending; as originally written, Mel’s character was a moth to the flame, he didn’t live to see the credits.


It’s hard, with all due respect, to see Without Limits and Ask the Dust, the two later pictures Towne wrote and directed, as other than vanity projects.  Now, these days there’s really no such thing.  You pitch a movie, and convince the suits you can give them a return on their investment.  And apparently a story about the runner Steve Prefontaine was convincing enough (Without Limits).  It’s sort of curious that it bookends Personal Best.  I don’t know that you can say the same of Ask the Dust, an honest effort, but it simply doesn’t take wing.  Salma Hayek glows in the dark; Colin Farrell is in the wrong movie.    

You can only wonder if it’s just the breaks, somehow.  I look at Walter Hill, and John Milius, for example, both a little younger than Towne, but both guys who toiled in the trenches.  (Towne’s first two feature credits are for Roger Corman grindhouse pictures; Milius started out at American International, a longtime poverty row independent.)  Hill got lucky, and was picked up by the majors, his second produced screenplay was The Getaway.  He moved into the director’s chair with his sixth script.  

He’s kept writing and directing and producing.  Milius a slightly different kettle of fish.  A lot of scripts and stories, not anywhere near as many features as a director – seven only, so far.  But like Towne, he’s also worked uncredited.  Get this.  Dirty Harry, Jaws, the second Indiana Jones, Red October, Saving Private Ryan.  I’m thinking they kept pursuing commercially successful stuff, and maybe Bob Towne did too, but somehow less energetically.  That can’t be right.

Robert Towne’s last screen credit is Mission: Impossible 2, in 2000.  There are half a dozen projects since, for Mel Gibson, for David Fincher, but they didn’t get off the ground, for whatever reason.  It seems weird to me.  Did people stop knocking, or did he simply decide not to answer the door?  Dunno. 

Guy wrote some God damn good movies, though.  Which isn’t a bad epitaph, at all.

“I want to write a movie for Jack.”
“What kind of movie?”
“A detective movie.”
“What’s it about?”
“Los Angeles. In the ‘30’s. Before the war.”
“What happens?”
“I don’t know.  That’s all I know.”

(Quoted by Ty Burr, The Washington POST, 07-03-2024)



09 July 2024

Giving Voice to Your Characters


Last week a fellow writer early in her career asked me about voice. Could I explain it to her?

I told her that voice is the way you make your characters sound real, how you enable them to come alive instead of lying flat on the page. It is the way you differentiate your characters through what and how they think and talk. Not just their word choices but their cadence, whether they speak in full sentences most of the time, whether they trail off often or interrupt others a lot. Whether they use slang or curse words. Whether they use a lot of long or short sentences or if they have a nice mix. Whether, to boil it down, they have attitude. Whether, to bring us back to the beginning of this paragraph, they feel real.

The author asked if I could offer any examples. She learns better through examples. In case you do too, here are some from three of my recent stories.

From “Beauty and the Beyotch,” published in 2022 in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine

        I smoothed my shirt as I neared the lobby at lunchtime the next day, hoping it hadn't wrinkled. You're overthinking things. Kids don't care about stuff like that. I just wanted them to like me.

Can you tell that character, Joni, is a nervous teenager who often doesn't fit in? She is worrying about wrinkles, for Pete's sake. Her desperation oozes off the page.

Let's turn to the two other main characters in that story. Here's a bit of dialogue between Elaine, the first speaker, and Meryl.

        “A teapot? You expect me to be happy playing a teapot?”

        “Well—”

        “So you think that ho will steal the lead from me.”

Does Elaine come across as a bitch? Her attitude is snarky and entitled. She cuts Meryl off, not letting her answer the very question Elaine asked. She uses mean words about another girl, Joni. She may not be likeable, but Elaine certainly has attitude. She feels real.

From “Real Courage,” published in 2023 in issue 14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine     

        Four years later, on a warm spring Saturday night my sophomore year of high school, I ended up down the block at Dereck’s house. He was throwing another rager. Kids were everywhere, smoking cigarettes and weed and other stuff I didn’t want to know about. Someone had smuggled in a keg, and someone else had made Jell-O shots. Music was pumping, and I was glad to be there. Glad to be out of my tomb of a house, where the lights were always dim and it was always quiet and my dad was always reading in his study. He’d retreated there after my mom died and pretty much hadn’t left. Books were his escape, he once said. I understood. But sometimes I needed to let loose.

That was Connor talking. He's a fifteen-year-old kid who fits in socially, who loves his dad and doesn't rag on him, but who also wants to live differently than his dad does. His dad would describe their house as peaceful. Connor calls it a tomb. He talks about his need to let loose. Imagine if Joni from “Beauty and the Beyotch” were at the this party. Okay, Joni would never go to that party, but imagine if she did. She would never think she needed to let loose. That idea wouldn't would cross her mind. Joni would be focused on what to say and who to talk to so she would fit in, and chances are, her awkwardness in what she said and how she said it would make her stand out as a girl who didn't fit in.

From “A Matter of Trust,” published earlier this year in the anthology Three Strikes--You're Dead!:

        You can do this. It’s not like I was incredibly out of shape. Just sported a little extra padding around the middle. Cycling shouldn’t be any problem.

That's Ethan. He promised his wife he would start riding his bicycle regularly to try to get his blood sugar under control. He's talking to himself, and I hope he comes across as a man who thinks highly of himself, a man in denial. 

So those are some examples of using voice--using attitude--to bring characters to life. You may not like attitude coming from your kids or coworkers or customers, but you want it in the characters in your fiction. That's not to say characters have to be snarky, but from reading what they say or think, the reader should be able to find some adjective to describe the character in question, be it neurotic or mean or narcissistic or chipper or some other descriptive term. Your characters should feel like real three-dimensional human beings, emphasis on the word real.

Before I go, I had a guest cover my column three weeks ago, so this is my first chance to share here that my story “Real Courage” has been named a finalist for the Macavity Award. To those of you who received ballots, I would be honored if you'd give it a read and consider voting for it if you like it. You can find it on my website. Just click here.