Showing posts with label narrative. Show all posts
Showing posts with label narrative. Show all posts

12 September 2018

In The Corner

David Edgerley Gates


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.

Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.



07 June 2018

The Horse-Off

by Eve Fisher

"Baseball is something like a war."  - Ty Cobb (1886-1961)
And so is politics.  That or the most dysfunctional family reunion ever.  Certainly that's the way the Republican Primary has been here in South Dakota.  In case you didn't know, South Dakota is red, red, red, red, and more red.  We have Democratic candidates, but there are never any Democratic primaries, because rounding up just one per position is pretty much all we can do.  Anyway, the primary had two huge sections:

FOR GOVERNOR:

Attorney General Marty Jackley v. US House Representative Kristi Noem

US District Attorney Marty Jackley.pngImage result for kristi noem on horseback
(Notice the horse.  This is going to be
important.)


FOR UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:

Dusty Johnson v.              Shantel Krebs v.                          Neil Tapio

Johnson and Krebs     Neal Tapio in Watertown, South Dakota.jpg 

a/k/a the nerdy Chief of Staff to the governor, the beauty queen SD Secretary of State, and the State Senator/South Dakota Trump Presidential Campaign Director.
(Others, not so kind, have referred to them as Howdy Doody, Clarabelle, and Phineas T. Bluster.)

Now before I get started, you need to remember that all of these people know each other, have worked together, have gone to the Governor's Annual Pheasant Hunt ("if you're not there, you're nowhere", and it's invitation only, my dears, invitation only) together, attended Republican conventions and fundraisers, annual ALEC meetings, etc., etc., etc.  South Dakota is one big small town, and there aren't six degrees of separation between anyone - more like two.  Three at the most.

So the campaign started off slow and respectful.  Dignified, even.  The first political ads were exclusively for Jackley, Noem, and Krebs, and I swear each and every single one of them all showed the same words: "Experienced.  Conservative.  Tested."   And then someone would ride a horse.  And load / carry a gun.  Also lot of shots of cattle, hay, farms, and rolling hills.

Now Kristi Noem has always made her horse riding central to her campaigns and she does look damn good on one.  Marty Jackley stuck with just having almost every sheriff in the state sing his praises, after which he'd go pheasant hunting, and then lead his daughter around on a horse.

And then, the local newspaper came out with a poll that said Jackley and Noem were neck and neck, and things got nasty.

Kristi Noem launched ads about the EB-5 scandal (which yours truly has spoken of at length in these blogs).  No mention of my favorite question, "Who killed Richard Benda?" but she did raise the missing $5 million.  (The reason why the United States Customs and Immigration Service letter of September 28, 2015, found South Dakota too unreliable and incompetent, if not downright corrupt, to handle EB-5 visa investments any more. Thanks Dakota Free Press!)

Marty Jackley, who talks about EB-5, the missing millions, Richard Benda, or the missing Gear Up! millions about as often as I request a colonoscopy for fun, ignored all questions of corruption and fired back with ads about how Ms. Noem hadn't kept any of the promises she made on going to Washington.  Even more shocking he appeared in the ad below, talking about balancing the budget.  Locked and loaded indeed!


(My first reaction was, "First they had to drug the horse, right?")

And then Kristi hammered away with ads about Jackley holding up a $1.5 million settlement payment for a DCI employee (sexual harassment; and I can assure you that it was serious, and seriously well-documented, for her to actually win in this state) after Jackley saw said ex-employee sitting with Noem at a Republican fundraiser.  (Argus Leader)
So Jackley retaliated with photos of Noem shaking hands with (gasp!) then-President Obama back in 2015...

Back to our candidates running for our sole House seat.  Dusty Johnson was the odd one out, with quiet ads illustrating fiscal responsibility at dinner out with the kids.  Shantel Krebs ran pheasant hunting ads (it's a theme up here) and urged South Dakota to send her to Washington to help Donald Trump make America great again.  Neal Tapio's ads were a combination of lies about his opponents (Shantel Krebs, for all her faults, certainly did not make South Dakota the 3rd most Obamacare-compliant state in the nation - for one thing, our Governor never expanded Medicaid) and his passionate loyalty to Donald Trump.

Then the aforementioned poll also said that Dusty Johnson was leading (which surprised almost everyone, including, perhaps, Dusty), and things got nasty:  Shantel approved ads that claimed Dusty flew on private planes on government expense to the tune of almost $10,000.  A private Ohio group accused Shantel of raising taxes - and her salary - whenever possible.  Johnson swore he wasn't behind the ads, and I believed him.

Remember, all these people worked together for years.  I see them cousins at a 4th of July reunion, who smile at each other and then hiss gossip about the others to everyone as they load up on baked beans and potato salad.  And Mr. Tapio, who is the crazy Alex Jones fan at the picnic.  You think I'm kidding?  Back in January Tapio gave a speech and said that "one more terrorist attack between now and then [the election] and I will be the … just by the ‘Trump effect,’ I will be the candidate. That’s the way I look at it.”  (Listen here.)  But then Tapio is an anti-Muslim zealot.  He accused South Dakota Lutheran Bishop Zellmer of aiding and abetting terrorism, and "taking away the Christian fabric of our nation" by holding an Interfaith Day at the Capitol in Pierre (Argus Leader).  Above all, Mr. Tapio ran on Trump.  110% pro-Trump.  Send him to Washington, so he can help Trump.  Period.  And then he decided to up the ante by calling for an end to tribal sovereignty, and to rewrite all the treaties between the United States and Native American populations.  (Argus)
And another SD Representative, Michael Clark, applauded the recent SCOTUS decision about cake-baking by saying that business owners should be able to discriminate based on race.  (Argus)

So it was a Republican Primary, and all the dogs were howling.  Literally.

So what were the results?
Kristi Noem is our new Republican candidate for Governor, 57%-43% over Marty Jackley.  (Proof that negative ads work, especially if they're 100% true.  And the question has already been raised of who's going to run against Jackley for AG in November - the sharks smell blood.)
Dusty Johnson is our new Republican candidate for United States House of Representatives, with 47% of the vote (Krebs got 29%, Tapio 24%).

Who'll win in November?  Danged if I know.  But I can guarantee you we'll see a lot of horses.

Anyway, that's all from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 

PS:  Oh, there was also one non-partisan item on the ballot, an Amendment to modify Marsy's Law.  I went and voted, and even the polling people agreed that this was ridiculous:  any amendment should be on the November ballot, not a Republican-only primary, where as few Democrats and Independents would vote as possible.  As a friend of mine said, "they did it as dirty as they could."  It passed.


05 September 2015

Fresh Starts

by Art Taylor

As many of you know, Art Taylor is a busy and talented guy. He has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three consecutive Derringers, and has twice been a finalist for an Anthony. His work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Washington Post, Mystery Scene, and many other publications, and one of his short stories (along with stories by our own Rob Lopresti and David Edgerley Gates) was named in the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list in the upcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2015. His novel On the Road With Del & Louise will be released in September. This guest post is his first column for SleuthSayers, and he’ll come on board permanently next month. Please join me in welcoming him! —John Floyd
 

First of all, thanks to John for the introduction here and the invitation to join SleuthSayers—and to everyone here for the warm welcome!

The title above—"Fresh Starts"—gives a nod toward this post being a debut and not simply a guest outing, though there's more to it than that, drawing on thoughts sparked both by where I'm at right now (more on that in a minute) and by my forthcoming book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, which was the occasion of being invited for a guest post here in the first place. In the process, maybe there are some useful reflections ahead on the novel in stories as a form or on craft generally.

As I'm drafting this post (always draft, always revise), it's the first week of the semester at George Mason University where I teach—and these first weeks of school have always held a magical sense of new beginnings, not just as a professor now but hearkening back to my own earliest school days, new classes, new teachers, new subjects—usually new clothes too, trading out well-worn shorts for a couple of pairs of stiff Levi's. January 1 may be the time for resolutions, but to me, late August and early September have always felt like the true start of a new year. And though the soon-to-be-falling leaves might suggest for some a turn toward dying and death, autumn itself always fills me with a sense of possibility and of anticipation.

As a writer, I tend to think generally in terms of narrative, I guess—possibilities, plot points, the arc of a storyline—even as I reflect on my own life. So memories for me are grounded not necessarily by calendar year or birthdays ("I was eight when....") but by school year: This happened in kindergarten, this in fifth grade, this my junior year of high school, this my freshman year of college.

Maybe other folks are somehow dominated by seasons too with their stories, whether autumn or others: holiday tales and traditions; sordid spring break or spring fling stories; or those summer romances that generally fade with the return to school. How many freshmen college students have just recently had tough talks with their high school sweethearts? And if they haven't already, many of them surely will soon. More adventures to be had ahead, more thrills, more heartbreak, more everything.

I've been thinking of "fresh starts" too with my book coming out in a little less than two weeks—and not just because it's my debut (of sorts; I've been writing a long, long time, after all) or because the title characters, small time crooks trying to go straight, talk time and again (and again) about the need to make a fresh start themselves. More to the point, it's because the novel is structured as six short stories, each with its own beginning, middle, and end—a concept that's already caused some trouble. Isn't it a collection then? because a novel is....

Short response to question/confusion: Each short story does offers its own fresh start, sometimes timed with the fresh starts that the characters are trying to make, and its own independent resolution, but together the six stories tell an overarching, evolving story of this couple's search for stability and for each other and for a sense of family and a place to call home—longer, stretchier narrative threads.

But even with that short response, I recognize that there are more possibilities for readers to stumble (one early Goodreads review complained about my "chapters" being so long) and there are aspects of such a structure that all us writers should consider as well with such a project: pacing, of course; the overlap between an individual story's narrative arc and the large story's broader arc; and—to keep circling back—the trouble of the "fresh start" for each component story.

Years ago, a friend of mine sent a manuscript for me to review—a terrific story overall, characters in crises both internal and externals, plenty of conflict, no lack of drama, but I was concerned about how the chapters always ended on a note of resolution, relief, calm. Some writers try too hard to close each chapter on a cliffhanger (need to get the readers to turn the page!), but this was the extreme opposite, and I suggested very simply that she just break up the chapters differently, slide those chapter breaks back a little on the interweaving narrative arcs of plots and subplots—makes those breaks somewhere in the rising action rather than always after the falling action.

Stole this from the internet; my own arcs would be more like a mountain range.


Del and Louise get in plenty of trouble—both with one another and with others: a series of house break-ins against a recession-addled real-estate market; plans for a wine heist; a hold-up in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, etc., along with their continuing struggles to connect, stay connected. But with each story, I was trying to draw some resolution to the tale at hand (real estate robberies, wine heist, etc.) before making those fresh starts in new directions, even as longer, larger conflicts persist.

I hope that I paced it out OK. I can't help but wonder about the potential side effects of the breaks that result by these being stories. They could look like chapters, couldn't they? And how would that work?

I can't help but think of real life, of course, as I'm maneuvering through the fictional troubles of my characters. A friend of mine told me not long ago that he needed a break from everything: job troubles, relationship troubles, other troubles—and that was the word he kept coming back to: "break." So I asked him whether he meant "break" in terms of a "taking a break" (a vacation, for example) or in terms of "making a break"? ...meaning making a break with some bad choices, bad plans, bad circumstances. There was, I pointed out, a difference.

A renewed you and a new you are two different things as well. As Louise in my book says about another character, "He couldn’t get away from who he was, I thought—then realized maybe none of us could."

New Year's resolutions, the optimism and anticipation of a fall semester's first week, the opening paragraphs of the next in a set of linked stories—even that friend's sense that catching his breath might help recharge him to deal with lingering troubles.... I keep wondering if "fresh starts" are generally illusory, arbitrary—just a matter of shifting that "section break" to a different place in the ongoing narrative.

In real life, we hope not, of course! Unlike Louise's doubts, I remain optimistic about the possibilities for change: those resolutions, that renewal...even redemption. And I hope all that for my friend, always.

But in fiction, of course, it's the conflicts we crave—continual almost, a heap of grief. For Del and Louise, each new opening fortunately leads to the next round of conflicts—life as an escalating set of troubles.

Circling back, circling back again...and having said all that, I've got high hopes for my own new beginnings here at SleuthSayers, of course! May all my essays and reflections here go smoothly—saving any challenges and conflicts for my fictional creations, out there on other pages.

Looking forward to chatting and interacting with my fellow blog mates and our readers on future posts!



08 July 2014

Friends & Influences

by Stephen Ross

In the late summer of 1988, I spent a week living inside a novel. I was staying with a friend (Albert), who himself was staying with a friend (Victoria), at a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a town that didn't seem to have anyone in it or even a name. There was a school house, closed for the summer (or maybe forever), and a general store that had a CLOSED sign in its door (also probably forever). The town was about forty minutes out of Hamilton, in a direction I couldn't tell you.

A long dirt track led up to the farmhouse through fields of corn, and Victoria's landlord, the farmer of said corn, who I never saw, apparently had a limp and only ever came to collect the rent after dark. Apparently, he'd turn up, like a character out of Dickens, clutching a lantern, his raincoat damp with the rain, even if it hadn't rained all week.

I was starting a screenplay (at that time of my life, I had wanted to be a screenwriter). Albert was writing a new play (he was a reasonably successful playwright), and Victoria was learning lines for two different upcoming productions (she was an actress). Victoria and Albert are not their real names. There was also a cat at the farmhouse, whose name I don't remember at all, and for the purposes of this telling, I'll call William Makepeace Thackeray.

Victoria and Albert were both ten years older than me; and Victoria probably a further ten on top of that. If a movie could have been made of that week, I would have cast George Sanders as Albert, Ida Lupino as Victoria, and in the part of "me" that confused-looking bystander who is always the last one to get the point and run when the foot of Godzilla slams down.


A condition of my staying over, as a guest of a guest, was to paint the living room -- in any color I liked. The farmer had left behind some leftover buckets of paint: beige and yellow. I painted the living room in a curious shade of sunshine. The front hallway, by contrast, had been painted (by Albert, a month earlier) entirely in black (walls, ceiling, and floor) and he'd trimmed it with a band of silver foil. It looked like the inside of a packet of cigarettes.

The days of that week were largely made up of writing; rehearsing, in the case of Victoria; and additionally in my case, an hour or two of painting. The evenings were given over to discussion and alcohol. Albert and Victoria were professional drinkers. I was (and still am) a mere amateur at that game. The paint fumes kept us out of the living room, and our nights were confined to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heart of the house: a bare wood floor, off-white paint peeling off the ceiling, and a blue brick fireplace, which had been bricked up a decade earlier on account of the aged chimney being a fire risk. Irony in blue. Commanding the center of the room stood the kitchen table: a wide, worn, bare wooden artifact that had probably been in the farmhouse since it had been built (circa. 1920). It was the type of table on which you just knew a dead body had been laid out, many farmers' stubby fists had been slammed in anger, and more than one couple had made love. The kitchen was also William Makepeace Thackeray's bedroom.

Dinners were conducted like Pinter plays: non sequitur remarks and sullen pauses. Lots. Of. Pauses. With only the sound in-between of crickets in the twilight through the open window.

By the end of the first bottle, the three of us had largely returned to humanity and the conversation unfailingly moved onto the theatre. Ponderables, such as: What if Hamlet had been a decisive alpha-male? What if Martha and George had actually been happily married and really did have a son? What if Godot had turned up? And of course, memories of productions past (such as the murder mystery where the door jammed at the beginning of act two and the cast had to enter the cozy drawing room in London by coming out of the fireplace). I had my own share of those stories, having worked on and off in amateur and semi-professional theatre since I had been a kid (it was how I had come to know V and A).

On the third drunken night at the kitchen table, we got into a long discussion on narrative, and by about 3 a.m., we had drained six bottles of red and had distilled the discussion down to this: What is the most important thing in a story? Any story -- be it a play, a book, or a movie?

Moments of poetry was Victoria's response (an actor's perspective). And she backed up her claim with empirical evidence. An hour's worth of it.  

Structure was my answer. A couple of years earlier, I had embarked on a very long learning curve of story structure (I'm probably still on it) and structure at that time was foremost in my mind.

Get the hell out of my room was William Makepeace Thackeray's answer.

At around 4 a.m., Albert, who had been hitherto staring drunkenly at the bricks of the fireplace, slammed his fist down on the table. Having gotten our attention, he lit a cigarette (he already had one smoldering in the ashtray). In addition to playwright, Albert was a theatre director and, drunk or not, he knew exactly how to direct his audience.

"Characters," he said. "That's what's it all about. The characters are the only thing the audience or the reader cares about. It's the only thing they're interested in or that matters to them. They might recognize the odd passing moment of poetry, they might be peripherally aware if a plot has a solid structure, but what will stay in their minds long after the curtain closes, the end credits roll, or the book is closed, are the characters."

William Makepeace Thackeray mounted the table, strolled its length with bored indifference, examined a leftover slice of bread, and then dismounted.

Albert continued: "A story is viewed through the filter of its characters; it is only through them an audience experiences that story. It is a vicarious interaction."

I'm paraphrasing him from memory, of course, but the sentiments have long remained in my memory, to be revisited and re-examined at odd intervals. And honestly, it took me 20 years to fully appreciate what he meant. Movie director Fran├žois Truffaut once said (again a paraphrase, because I don't remember exactly where I read it): What is behind the camera is not important; it's what is in front that is.

I lost contact with Albert and Victoria over the years. Albert was probably the closest I ever got to having a mentor. His knowledge slid off in chunks, and I followed him around for a while picking it up. Friends are curious things. Some stick around, some vanish. You can never tell. A great friend this year a year from now could be a distant memory. It's the friends that leave their mark, that induce changes to your sails and alter the course of your life that you never forget. Sadly, sometimes, they're not even aware they've done it.

Somebody asked Jean-Luc Godard why a character in one of his movies suddenly walks off and never makes a return appearance. He answered: Because life is like that.

Be seeing you!