What If ? 69 Writing Badly on Purpose

Hah! The exercise – write badly on purpose then fix it, and the objective – to get rid of the Editor. Well, this is how I ended up writing Harold, the story that, inexplicably, good people love. To be fair, it’s also how I came up with Cataplexy which good people didn’t love,  justly. 

I remember the Miracle Monacle contest, the guy who had Richard Tauber on his website (by accident, he just picked the photo because he had a monacle, didn’t know who Tauber was) which assumed that if you knew how to write a bad story, you knew what you were doing wrong so could presumably fix the errors given the correct skill set. Alas, I would’ve won except I was the only entry so he cancelled the contest – but he was impressed with how bad a story I wrote (the transcript of one of my rare Kane dreams).

And then there’s the Steve Almond thing about learning how to make good decisions in writing by reading bad decisions, and the only way to do that is to read bad writing (or good writing before it’s fixed). I’m not sure I believe this. I think my fiction palate has been forever warped by reading too much bad fiction. But I like the idea.

To write badly – go back and forth a lot, choppy sentences all the same structure, no perceivable plot (easy for me, hah), cardboard characters.

John wanted to go home. He was tired. Mary was not tired. She wanted to go out. The movie was over. They saw the movie. The movie was “Raging Bull”. John did not like it. Mary did not like it either. They went to a club. Mary had a beer and John had whiskey. The club was noisy. John and Mary danced. They went home.

Is that bad enough?

What If? 67 – The Journey of the Long Sentence

Richard Jackson’s exercise: write a poem one sentence long. The sentence has to keep pushing and gain momentum – even in the midst of qualification and suspension it must move forward adding new information and achieving new emotional levels to end on a different emotional note than it started. Assumed is that the sentence will radiate out from the individual to the world at largem and the details become part of an intricate set of relationships – see “The Other Day”.

Objective: see how syntax can qualify, develop, and an expansive context for our observations much as our brains do, finding a linear order for the often simultaneous aspects of an observation.

Wow, now this is the sort of thing I’d do an MFA for. I think this is incredibly cool – an outward spiral that keeps picking up more of various aspects. I want to play with this! It’s like an extreme close-up of a rat and the camera pulls back and we see the rat is being held in a human hand, and pulls back more and we see it’s a kid so we assume the rat is a pet and pulls back more and he’s sitting on a tenement stoop so we think oh, he’s playing with what he sees because he’s so poor he thinks rats are playmates and it pulls back and the tenement is undergoing renovation and we think gentrification and what’s going to happen to this poor kid except it pulls back and there’s an incredibly expensive bike at his feet and back more and the building is in Harlem and is surrounded by other renovated houses and happy people who aren’t living in a slum any more… and on and on until we get to the planet where poor people are being sent into space to work on some space station or whatever. Except not that corny. Maybe a couple at a wedding but it isn’t their wedding, they’re crashers. Or a woman with a book reading about freedom while she takes her 10- minute break at Wal-Mart in a middle class suburb so moms can buy cheaper toys while she can’t have kids yet because she’s still trying to get her degree and become a “real person” and in all these, they loop through threads of who’s rich and who’s poor and who’s happy and who’s struggling and who’s dying and who’s going to win. I gotta think about this. I’m not sure my brain can handle it, it’s a lot to keep going at the same time. And it’s kind of useless in actual practice. But it’s a fun exercise.

What If 66 – Transitions: or, White Space does not a Transition Make

A flashback, a movement in time or space, change from narrative summary to scene. Use motifs to connect, time words to direct.

Exercise: Examine transitions in a story that is heading towards final draft. Do they use language or just white space?

Drowning: the first transition is to explain why Russ went with Kiley instead of going home or going to another friend’s house, and I think it’s fine. It probably doesn’t need white space but I put it in anyway because I liked the drama of having him drag his coat up the stairs, wanted that to sit in the reader’s mind since he goes down stairs at the end of the story.

When the narrative returns, I go into the bus, which is where they were heading when he went up the stairs. I think this is ok. It carries a motif forward, continues the action after the intervening summary.

After the wharf scene, I have a transition to “At dinner, my Mom asked me…” which I think is ok. Then it uses “On Sunday”.  And “I was leaving school on Monday”. Simple transitions, very direct, but the narrator is a young teen.

I use Miranda without white space to transition to and from the police station scene.

Glasses doesn’t use white space at all, just time cues to move it forward.

I did some transitions in Green and got props for them, so I think I’m ok. At least for now, I could probably do some fine tuning later on. I think I use simple time and place cues, but that’s what works right now, I can get more sophisticated in time. This is something I should think about when working on Mourning Mom and Cook. Well, Cook will be pretty simple, I don’t think there’s going to be any white space at all, maybe not with MM either.

What If? 61 – Show and Tell: There’s a reason it’s called Storytelling

I’m skipping a bit – I have to take the book back to the library tomorrow, I have one on order so I have some sections I’ll go to in the first edition in the interim:

Chapters I’ll pick up from the book I have after I take this one back to the library:

60 – Handling the Problems of Time and Space
61 – the Power of “seemed” and “probably”
62 – Bringing Abstract Ideas to life
69 – Transportation – getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s boring.
72 – Naming the Diner, Naming the Diet, Naming the Dog
45 – Titles and keys
IX – Invention and Transformation –
54 – The Enemy’s Life
55 – Taking Risks
49 – Sex is not all it’s cracked up to be – it’s more.
50 – It’s all in your head

But for now, let’s do Storytelling, because every writer has been told “show, don’t tell” and I’m glad to hear the other side of that for a change.

“When the writer depends solely on showing and neglects the narrative that artfully shapes, characterizes, qualifies, or in some way informs the character’s actions, the reader is abandoned to extrapolate meaning basedon what is observed – a nervous twitch, sweaty palms – and the reader, rather than the writer, creates the story.”  (Personally, I like the idea of the reader creating the story, or at least participating in it, and sometimes I make my stories ambiguous to require the reader to do that – the Avocado story in particular. )

Thoughts and feelings require telling when they make the actions more meaningful.

Exercise: Choose a story where the transforming moment is effectively rendered. Underline the telling portions and read without those sections. Do this for several stories. Then turn to a story draft of your own in which you feel the transformative moment is not yet effectively rendered. Underline the telling portions, or add telling portions, to balance showing and telling.

ok, this goes along with the whole “transformative moment must be made manifest in an action” thing. The action is showing, and then there’s telling to articulate the exact significance? I’m not sure I quite get it, shouldn’t the action speak for itself? I want to look at this much more closely later on. For now I can accept that both an action and a telling work together, which is fine with me.

In the story Into Silence which I read a couple of weeks ago, the transformative moment is when the girl finds her mom is dead, the mom she’s spent her life waiting on while her mom has created this atmosphere that the girl is the one with the problem – and the telling part is wonderful, that she thinks about how it was the now-gone photographer who killed her mom, though maybe not. It’s wonderfully ambiguous and powerful.

In the burned child story, the transformative moment for me was the moment they realized where the steam was coming from, that horrible realization that the kid was screaming for help and they weren’t helping him where he needed to be helped, and then it’s all about the aftereffects of that for all of them.

In my story, well, I think both Drowning and glasses are pretty set – drowning the kid realizes  he has to take some responsibility and then in typical kid fashion takes way too much and goes completely the other way, and in glasses, the woman gets the satisfaction of playing the glasses and swipes the spoons as a souvenir, declaring them equivalent to other significant talismans (the pen used to sign the civil rights bill, hah!).  so I think those are ok if I’m understanding this correctly.

In the Mourning Mom story which I haven’t really started yet, the moment of transformation would occur when Mom goes back after being kicked out of the service and plants a tree for her son anyway. I need to think more about what this means to her – she feels like part of something, her son is mourned with the other victims (which is pretty controversial actually), she feels like she’s claimed the right to mourn. That’s probably the closest I can come, claiming the right to mourn when the rest of the world is glad her son is dead, and maybe she secretly is too at least in some small part, just a few brain cells. She didn’t get to be the bereaved at a funeral – the one who just sits on the couch during the service while others fix meals and bring casseroles anddrive her around. Mhh, maybe the gas station kid will drive her back to the gas station where she’ll take over. Maybe he’ll drive her to the park, in fact, from some place.

Balance, I think they’re saying – embody the moment in an action, but also use telling to sculpt the meaning.

What If? Section VII, The Elements of Style 50 to 59

Since I’m trying to get through this before Saturday, I’m rushing through this section which is the “fun” part rather than the stuff I’m clueless about.

50 – Style: The right Word

Exercise: passages by toni Morrison, Kurt V, John Updike, etc, are presented, then lesser-known passages to match. Interesting, if I had more time

I’d play with this.

What concerns me is that my style seems to vary depending on what I’m writing. Sometimes it’s very luxurious and eloquent, and then I write a kid story and it turns into snippets. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

What If? 51 – A Styl of your Own

For a completed story of yours, check the following, then compare with a passage of a story you love:
Sentence Length.
Modifier Density
sentence Structure
Diction (syllables)
Verbs – how many “to be” forms or passive verbs?

What If? 52 – Taboos: Weak Adverbs and Adjectives

Adverbs are not meant to augmet a verb (as in walked slowly) but to create friction with the verb or alter its meaning. such as, visited acquisitively, curdled scorn, the jeep leapt stupidly.

I think I get the difference. I’ve always tried to avoid them because others ding them, but there is a place for them and I can defend them this way. I want to look at this more.

What if? 53 – Word Packages are not gifts

A word package is a group of neutral words strung together into a hackneyed phrase. Word packages are used by lazy writers searchng for an easy way out of a diffcult or slippery thought. Frequently found at the beginnings of sentences.
Better than ever
For some curious reason
A number of…
As everybody knows
She didn’t know where she was
Things were getting out of hand
It came as no surprise
It was beyond him
Needless to say
Without thinking
He lived in the moment
Well in advance
An emotional roller coaster
Little did I know
To no avail.

Hmmm, there are probably hundreds of these and everyone probably considers something I write to be on the list. But it’s a good start.

What If? 54 – Boxcars and Mechanical Stylistics

Mechanical and clumsy use of conjunctions and connectives – but, and, as if, which, when, or, so, nor, yet, for, after, before, because, if, since, where, while, as, although, unless, until, also, finally, however, therefore, moreover. They drug the reader’s responses and phrases pass like boxcars instead of flowing like a stream.

I’m not sure I get this. I wish they’d included an example of how it’s done badly, because all these words (except for therefore  and moreover which seem a little stilted) are in my stories.

What If? 55 – Cutting to the Bone


What If? 56 – Suit your sentence to its meaning

short subject-verb-object sentences can sound infantile or excited. Stream-of-consciousness can list scattered ddetails instead of using them to create scene and mood.  A Sentence from The Sun Also Rises – trains – short even prepositional phrases sound like a train.

What If? 57 – Parody as teacher

Write a parody of Hemingway, Woolf, Faulkner.

What If? 58 – Practice Writing Good, Clean prose

Too often new writers think in terms of story rather than in terms of words (hah, not me, my words are terrific, it’s my stories that suck). Overwritten and flowery. Try writing a short story in words of one syllable. This is kind of a half-assed exercise for something that’s important – it’s the “there” type words that’ll get you.

What If? 59 – Reading your work Aloud.

Exercise: Write a description in which the sentences are variously built. The stubiect should not always be the first work; some sentences should be longer than others. Read aloud the work of an author you admire and se how he or she accomplishes this.
Objective: prose is both utilitarian and decorative. Unless you’re deliberately reaching for a flat, monotonous tone, you should try for variation in the sound of your prose.

What If? 49 – Plot Potential

Write five mini-stories (200 words max) to account for a similar set of circumstances – a man and woman hailing a cab, for example. Each story should be different, in plot, character, theme.
Objective: to loosen the bonds that shackle you to a single immutable version, to underscore the fact that plot is not preordained but something youcan control and manipuale, and to demonstrate there are many ways to skin a cat.

This sounds like a great idea but I have to return this book to the library on Saturday so I’m rushing through and not doing essentials.

I was just looking at this as I change tags to categories (there must be an easier way, but it’s probably quicker to do it this way than figure out what it is) I’m thinking, the story about the people in the hotel lobby, the two couples unknowingly swapping – there are maybe 5 different versions of that story alone, man hails cab while woman watches:

1 – The men stomp off, incensed that their wives are cheating on them;

2 – The women throw the men out, incensed their husbands are cheating on them;

3 – They all thought it was cool and had a foursome and are leaving afterwards;

4 – The facade isn’t broken, one wife and one husband finagle a way to smooth over the coincidental meeting and they leave for their respective lives while the other couple goes up to the hotel room to get it on, neither having a clue what the other is doing.

5 – They all realize what’s going on but they wisely keep quiet and pretend it’s all a coincidence because neither couple really wants the other as a partner, in fact it’s pretty horrifying and one wife gets really upset when she imagines life with her illicit lover, so they all cheerfully say goodbye and go on about their day, either home or upstairs, but they know now that the spouse is cheating and plan to use it to their advantage.

What If? 48 – The Story Machine

Create a set of cards with occupations – a dentist, a truck driver, etc. Create another set with odd but not extreme actions – set the parakeet free, loosened the strings of the tennis racket. Pick one each and try to figure out, why did the dentist loosen the tennis strings? Retrograde plotting. The action will be the last action of the story – what does it symbolize? How does the character get to the point where this action was warranted?

Yeah, I like this, except I’d add another pile, the situation pile. In debt, taking art classes, estranged from son, etc. I thought of this in a prior chapter about creating characters. this might work.

What If? 47 – So, what happened?

Aha! yes, this is the chapter for me. Something has to happen in a story. I’m famous for writing stories in which nothing happens.

Something has to happen in a story – something in terms of consequence of situation and action.
The story begins by presenting a situation. By the end, the situation is changed – better, worse, opposite.
The narrator might now understand her situation, or something about another person, through the transforming moment, the epiphany – the moment of recognition must be externalized in action in the concreete world of the story – the Prince recongizes Cinderalla, the shoe fits.
There are stories in which the change is that the character’s capacity for change evaporates, leaving him hopeless – such as a war that will never end because the two soldiers do not drop their weapons but keep fighting. “what happens, happens for the reader who has witnessed this failuer”

Go through your stories and look for the action that manifests the “something happened”, the transormation, the epiphany.
Ok, let’s start with my favorites:
Respite: the girl who has been running away from Mom to get respite stops fighting the mother’s dementia and joins her in her demented world by “becoming” a child, letting herself be seen as a child, letting her mother treat her as a child, and thus finds peace, respite.

Green: Michael realizes he was a hero to Jamie – Jamie tells him, gets all embarrassed, lets his guard down, and Michael sees the colors. Hmmm, maybe not. Could be better.

Oldies but goodies:
THHAMOIO: Woman accepts, mind lays down the law, comforts heart and body.
8:27 – woman loses hope, was grateful now realizes she is dirt and sees herself, and her geode, for what it is.
Soup: woman finds a way to get the soup she needs. Ends with her drinking soup.

Stories I have out:
Drowning: Russ accepts his responsibility and (foolishly) decides to make sure Kiley won’t hurt his parents. Russ jumps and leads Kiley to jump
Glasses: Marian goes from loving to dominating and finds joy in being able to play the glasses even though she had to be pretty sneaky to get there, and this cures her obsession. Playing the glasses equals making love.
Avocado: The narrator embodies the urge to change Leah into Michael, and/or destroy her for her devotion in spite of the narrator’s inactivity by mashing the avocado to guacamole.

STories I’m getting read to write:
Mourning Mom – she gets to mourn after all and plants the tree.
Cook – Li-Su bitters the pans and leaves with the new apprentice in tow to teach him to cook in the rival town. The kingdom is left with bitter pans and no cook, the opposite of when the story started.

What If? 46 – What If? How to develop and finish stories

Story block – check for all possibilities – the narrative fork.
Exercise: :Look in your files for a story that seems stuck, is in story block.Write 5 ways of getting to the next scene – anything goes.

I don’t think so. I can usually think of ways to go, it’s just that they don’t work. If I could find GOOD what ifs, that would be fine. Still, it’s a good process – for each character, there are things they can do, go forward, back, be happy, sad, die, attack, etc. and if I go through the possibilities I might find something.

What If? 45 – From Situation to Plot

Start with a character then move to a plot by creating complications – opposing forces, tension, conflict, give characer alternaives within the situation.

What does my character want? What would my character do? How will he act or react? How will those actions propel the story forward? Then experiment with details involving characters or situation.

a young boy whose father is in jail
A waitress who likes her menus to rhyme.
A policeman with ten cats.
A 16 year old in the hospital.
The ridver of a hit-and-run accident.

The most effective plots are those driven by characters. To see how a character within anby given situation creates his or her own destiny. Character is destiny.

So a young boy whose father is in jail might be angry, or frightened, or lonely, or shut down. He might want to be like his father, be anythign but his father, make up for his father’s absence, see his father, outdo his father. He might run into a situation where he could do something illegal and he does because he wants to be a badass like dad, or he turns his friends in because he wants to be anything but Dad and becomes an outcast.

A waitress who likes her menus to rhyme might annoy customers by insisting they get tea because it’s easier to rhyme than coffee, or want a particular item – liver – because it fits with the appetizer they ordered – salad with slivered almonds – but the customers hate liver and they try to get her fired but the boss is in love with her so he loses customers…

Ok, let’s try the money from the sky thing, I just tore off a piece of that to use as note paper today and didn’t recognize it so maybe it’s time to go back to it. Guy is lost since his wife died, he is isolated from neighbors, hasn’t had much to do with them, hates his job teaching lit at a business oriented college, No, this sucks, I’m not ready to do this.

Try the other one. Mother whose son killed a bunch of kids in a school shooting because he was crazy (not mean). In motion because she sees notice for memorial service saying they[‘ll plant 8 trees (or balloons or whatever) and goes. they won’t let her in. She waits and later plants a tree. Kid from gas station helps her. She keeps telling him to pay attention to things, watch out for them, her car makes a little noise and she wants to know why, the tree has a broken branch and she finds it to make sure it isn’t sick. This might work.

Mythical servant wants to learn how to cook, be an artist. He asks cook to teach him. When master cannot tell difference he will be an artist. Master always tells the difference. After 50 years servant finds out the cook added extra salt so master could tell, servant has been an artist all along – and he has abandoned his family, missed funerals, sent away a woman who loved him, not had children, now he is an old man with nothing but a pot and he treasures it. Yeah, this could work.

I think this is important and useful.

What If? 44 – The skeleton

Skeleton story – main character is always on stage and others are there to assist or thwart her. No subtleties, motivation is a given, emotions are unanalyzed, narration is linear.
Exercise: Write a linear story in which the main character is on a quest for something important and specific – shelter for a baby, medicine for mom, key to the food storehouse. The object is a given, don’t explain its importance. The main character starts acting immeidately, she meets an obstacle, she triumphs by  means of a supernatural or magical element that comes from the outside (like the ruby slippers). Minor characters are ok but main character is never abandoned.
Objective: learn to control basic plot. The quest, journey, is classic.

I keep thinking of Little Miss Sunshine, which finally explained to me the whole thing about beginning, middle, and end. The beginning: the home scene where she gets the phone call. The middle: the trip to the pageant complete with all kinds of obstacles. The end: the pageant. And Akeela and the Bee – girl discovers spelling, girl learns to spell, girl wins prize. Ok, shares prize. Both of these were very satisfying movies with very little surprise. I finally got it. Akeelah, I was very surprised it wasn’t “based on a true story”, it had that biopic feel to it. These were really simple stories that had drama grafted onto basic skeletons.

I also think of Harold, where I just walked through a character’s life, she did this then that then the other thing and then the story ended! and everyone loved that story. Which I still don’t get.

Ok, let’s give it a try. A quest or journey – aha, the Eldest Princess, I loved that story. That was another bare-bones story.

Let’s get serious now.

Lucerella woke three days before her marriage to Borozin and remembered she had not yet found the key to the lock on the  chastity belt she’d worn since her eleventh birthday. Tug and tug as she might, she could not open the lock nor slip out of the belt.
“Dormanda, help me!” she cried in despair. Her maid Dormanda came in and fiddled with the lock for a time, but also could not open it.
“You will have to find the key,” she said.
“But I don’t know where it is,” said Lucerella. “Mother was supposed to tell me on the day I was engaged but she choked on that salmon puff when she heard the news and now I have no idea where it is.”
“Someone must know,” said Dormanda. “Perhaps your father?”
“Oh, I can not speak to him of this!” she said. “Would you ask him for me, Dormanda?”
“Oh, I don’t think so, miss, he would be embarrassed to discuss his daughter’s chastity belt with a mere housemaid.”
“Well, then, go ask Pietre, as the Lead Housemaster and a man, he would certainly be able to speak with him.”
A few hours later, Pietre joined Lucerella in her salon as she was completing her lunch. “Miss, Dormanda said you wished to speak with me.”
“I?” said Lucerella. “Not I, certainly not.” She blushed and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “There has been a misunderstanding.”
Pietre bowed and left, and Lucerella rang for Dormanda who entered presently. “Yes miss?”

ok, now wait, I’m having a lot of fun with this, but I don’t think this is the kind of quest the exercise calls for. Let’s try again:

Lucerella woke three days before her marriage to Borozin and remembered she had not yet found the key to the lock on the  chastity belt she’d worn since her eleventh birthday. Tug and tug as she might, she could not open the lock nor slip out of the belt.
“Dormanda, help me!” she cried in despair. Her maid Dormanda came in and fiddled with the lock for a time, but also could not open it.
“You will have to find the key,” Dormanda said.
“But I don’t know where it is,” said Lucerella. “Mother was supposed to tell me on the day I was engaged but she choked on that salmon puff when she heard the news and now I have no idea where it is.” She thought for a moment, then said, “I think I’ll look in her jewelry box.” She went into her mother’s room.
She did find a key in the jewelry box, but it did not fit the lock on the chastity belt. she noticed a small chest with a lock on it, and sure enough, the key fit that lock.
Inside the chest was a tiny book full of things her mother had written: words to lullabies she’d sung to Lucerella when she was a child, recipes for holiday treats, a list of qualities she wished to instill in her daughter. Some of these were checked off – obedience, chastity, manners – and some were not – cleverness, patience, kindness. “I suppose she forgot to check these off,” she mused.
On page fifteen, there was a cryptic message: “the fourth tree in the forest”  next to a drawing of a skeleton key.
“What fourth tree?” wondered Lucerella. “The forest has thousands of trees, how can I know which one is fourth?” But she had to start somewhere, so she donned her cape and her hat and set off for the forest, which was down the path behind the castle.
She came presently to the tree line, and tried counting the fourth tree to the left of the path. But there was nothing about that tree that suggested it might have a key hidden in it somehow. She tried the fourth tree to the right, and walked forward to the fourth tree she saw but niether of those looked like anything but trees.
She kept walking on the path to see if any trees looked different – if perhaps one had a sign that said, “Fourth Tree” – but she found nothing, and as darkness began to fall, she decided she had better return to the castle for dinner, with or without the key. After all, she still had two days before the wedding.
On the next day, she spent the entire day in the woods, looking for a tree that might harbor a special key. She found many squirrels and a few birds and more spiders than she wished to ever see again, but no key and no sign saying, “The fourth tree.”

ok, I’m bored. This could be fun, but not right now.

What If? Plot! At last! 43 – Three by Three

Beginning, middle, end. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.
Cindarella can’t go
Goes anyway
Gets Prince.

Exercise: Break your story down into 3 sentences of 3 words each, to get the architecture of beginning, middle end. Three verbs forces three parts of the action.
Objective: to see if the story, like a stool, has three good legs to stand on.

Wow. Now that I’ve finally gotten to the plot part, I’m bamboozled. I can’t even figure out the Cinderella thing. It isn’t the way I’d break it down at all, and this I think is important – I need to think in these terms and I don’t. I remember the beginning-middle-end from the Gotham Writers Workshop book, it made a lot of sense to me. The beginning sets up the Dramatic Question and gives essential exposition; the middle introduces complications and develops character and provides the rest of the exposition necessary; the end is the climax, where the dramatic question gets answered. But three sentences? Whale kills guy, captain chases whale, whale kills captain? It’s kind of funny, really. Man wants girl, man takes girl, girl escapes? Minister impregnates woman, woman keeps secret, minister dies?

I don’t think so. I just can’t do it. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my stories. I’ve been trying to do this for two days with Drowning. Bully ensnares kid, kid gets caught, kid kills bully. It just doesn’t work. And glasses – woman adores guy, guy rejects woman, woman wreaks hell. Yeah, that kinda works, but it loses a lot.

Now for the new story – mother attends funeral, funeral ejects woman, woman mourns anyway. I guess that’s about the closest I’d come. And the humorous one about the neigbors with the thin wall – man hears neighbor, neighbor shares knowledge, man destroys himself. Doesn’t sound very funny.

I don’t know if this is helpful or even essential, or an annoying technique that I should ignore because I already have one that I understand.

What If? 42 – Text and Subtext: Psychic Clothing

Uses the example of Tyler’s Accidental Tourist – the motorcycle, being exposed, their son was killed by being exposed to a gunman. This is something I could use some work on but there isn’t much here. I need to look this up.

Write two very short examples of text in which the true meaning of the action or dialogue is hidden in a subtext. Under each text explicate the subtext.

Aha! MAsh it smash it into guacamole – changing Leah into Michael, and/or punishing her for being so forgiving and understanding. Also the lawn jockey or madonna – she’s either a doormat or a saint.
And the dinner scene where Russ cleans his plate off in the kitchen and Mom says thank you – he’s taking out his own trash, handling his own problems, and she’s grateful because she doesn’t want another discussion of artificial insemination.

What If? 41 – A Verbal Dance – not quite a fight

WRite a scene with 2 people on opposite sides of an issue – personal and immediate.
Wow, this chapter is wack. It starts out repeating the whole “not speech” thing, then goes on to this verbal dance without saying anything about how to accomplish that. Then it reiterates stuff about vocab and speech showing character. But there is somet interesting stuff – subtext, in a conversation about how to spend money, one character may have more power than the other, the last word so to speak, and that would show in the dialogue – one person asking rather than insisting or dictating. It’s also interesting that there’s a list of things you don’t use dialogue for:  lengthy exposition (I think that means, “Remember last summer when you had that operation and you signed over your car to me?”), to furnish the stage (“that green couch sure is ugly”), as a substitute for action (if someone’s mad have them punch a wall? I don’t know, this is something I’ve been told I do, so I guess I don’t recognize it. Don’t say, “I’m feeling nervous,” have him fidget?), or to show off your vocabulary (ok, I’m familiar with this, from like 9th grade, and I don’t see it very often even in really bad drafts). But this chapter has a chopped-up feeling to it, like it was something else and was changed, or was inserted.

I’m going to skip this. It’s a setup for a talking head scene, and that’s the last thing I need to be practicing.

What If? 40 – The Invisible Scene: interspersing dialogue with action.

Write a scene in which the character’s body, as well as his mind, is engaged in doing something – stage business. repairing something, playing a game, exercising. Explore how various activities and settings can change what happens within a scene. For example, what happens if two characters are planning their honeymoon if one is cutting the other’s hair or they are painting a wall. It’s also helpful to see how a writer you admire handles the interweaving of dialogue and body language.
Objective: to give life to scenes. To understand how action and choreography relate to objects in the scene blah blah

Yeah, I get it. I love doing this. I love people turning away, turning towards, reaching towards, reaching up, fiddling, acting bored, or scared, or happy, or forgetting what they’re doing (painting the same spot 30 times while planning a honeymoon and he says he wants to go to someplace she hates; losing half your hair because she wants to go someplace boring. Or somewhere you were with a past love – now that might be an interesting story, why I showed up with a crew cut at my wedding).

But I think I do this pretty well, because it is something I love so I pay attention to it. I have samples in every story – just about every scene, in fact, in Drowning. Green was full of them, too. The Talking Heads scene, I still like that, what’s happening with the coffee cups and posture meant something.so I’ll skip this one.

What If? 39 – Telling Talk: when to use dialogue and when to summarize.

What If? 39 – Telling Talk: when to use dialogue and when to summarize.

Exercise: Highlight the dialgoue in a story by a writer you admire. Then determine how much dialogue is summarized rather than presented in quotation marks. Next, set up a situation in which one character is going on and on about something – complaining about grades, arguing with a spouse,  recounting an incident to a friend. occasionaly interspersing it with comments and stage directions.

Objective: to understand what summarized dialogue accomplishes and how it effects tone, pace, and the shaping of a scene.

Now wait a minute, they never addressed the topic: just when do you use dialogue and when do you summarize? I read somewhere, I thought it was in this book, but it must be in another chapter, that you should only directly quote what is really important, to emphasize it. But why don’t they say that here? And what about when the dialogue is jumbled and confused and ranting and that’s part of the character – I do that a lot with thought, and maybe that’swhy I get dinged on that, because they associate it with rambling conversation, but as internal thought it’s important because it juxtaposes the trivial with the critical and shows the character doesn’t know the difference. But maybe this is a clue, why I’m having trouble, I don’t summarize dialogue that much. I did summarize the dinner table conversations in both Green and Drowning. aha, maybe I should go back and check, the recollection of the discussion about AI, in Drown, I think I used quotes, maybe it should be summarized? But that was one or two sentences. The cops, maybe I need to summarize more of that. I’ll take a look at it. This could be important.

ok, Drowning, the dinner table scene:
The clink of forks on plates bugged me. My little sister Miranda babbled on about her modeling obsession. “Tyra says models have to eat healthy, not starve.” Three-quarters of her sentences began with “Tyra says.” I didn’t know who Tyra was, but I hated her. I picked apart my chicken breast, mixed the green beans into the mashed potatoes.
Dad speared some green beans with his fork and looked at me. “So where’d you go anyway, we were going to clean the garage this afternoon and I went to get you and you were gone.”
“I forgot,” I said, and wrapped some chicken skin around a lump of mashed potato.
“Oh,” said Dad. “Well, we’ll do it tomorrow. No forgetting.” He chased more green beans around his plate, cornered them against little bits of sticky mashed potato.
I took a sip of water. When I put the glass down, I saw greasy fingerprints on the glass. I touched my hand, my sleeve. No fingerprints there.
I took my plate to the kitchen and scraped it in the trash.
“Well, thank you, Russ, that’s nice of you,” said Mom. “There’s chocolate cake for dessert.”
“No, thanks. I’m done, ok?” I started upstairs.
Dad said, “Russ, I mean it – no forgetting. OK? Tomorrow – garage.” I nodded and hid out in my room, played some computer games, tried toremember the Shirt’s face but I couldn’t.
I don’t see how any of this can be summarized. Maybe the Tyra sentence, I can fix that.
The clink of forks on plates bugged me. My little sister Miranda babbled on about her obsession with some model named Tyra. Three-quarters of her sentences began with “Tyra says.” I didn’t know who Tyra was, but I hated her. I picked apart my chicken breast, mixed the green beans into the mashed potatoes.
# Better?
Maybe add some summary of parents talking? No, there really isn’t room anywhere to do it just because some book says it’s a generic rule. in this case I think it works. They don’t talk much. Maybe because there’s tension about Russ not helping with the garage.
The top-of-the-stairs contains some summary.
The garage – it’s important how Dad deals with Russ, so I used dialogue instead of summary.
Kiley’s voice is important, too. His cruelty comes across. I don’t know, maybe I’m full of shit but I like it the way it is.
The cop scene contains some summary.
I don’t know, I think it works as is. I can’t see where I can cut lines and summarize them, and the dialogue functions in the scene.
Oh god somebody help me.

No, I think I’m at the point – this went through my mind before – where I have to say, “I like my stories” and stop trying to “fix” them to make them acceptable to editors. Ok, they’re crappy stories, but I like them and they’re mine and the hell with all those places that don’t like them.

What If? 38 – Who Said That? Attributions.

Use “said”, occasionally use “asked” or “answered/replied” but don’t use overblown attributions. For other ways of indicating who is the speaker, have the speaker use the other’s name (in a 2-person scene this indicates who must be speaking), emotional/contextual clues (one person is angry and the other isn’t, indicate anger for a speaker), use action (“she opened the door. “Well, hello.”). Use physical description (“Tilruy wore a red muscle shirt. “It’s cold in here.”) Use thought turning into dialogue (He thought about the right way to put it. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”).
Attribution paces, and allows for those thoughts, actions, emotions, to come through, as well as creating rhythm.
Dialogue important to the drama and forward movement of a story is set off by itself, and a new paragraph starts with a new speaker. But you can have a paragraph with more than one speaker when it’s more part of a scene and the mood and setting is the important part, not the action.
Hmm, I need to think about that, sometimes the back-and-forth IS the drama and it works better, to me, in one paragraph. I have to figure out if that’s ok or if that’s one of my mistakes.

Exercise: Highlight all the dialogue in one of your own stories. Next, find out how many methods of attribution you have used. Rememeber that attribution contributes more to a scene than telling who said what. Then consider how you have presented your dialogue. Would some lines of dialogue serve your story better inside a paragraph? Are the important lines presented in a dramatic way? Now rewrite the scene using the tools you have acquired in this exercise.

To learn to shap e a scene with the tools of dialogue palcement and attribution.

ok, let’s go back to Drowning.
“I’m bored,” said Kiley. “Let’s take the bus down to the wharf and throw cats in the harbor.”
“Why?” The wall had a gray scar where the remote hit.
I think this works. The dialogue is after the remote explodes (because Kiley threw it) and I think the statement is dramatic enough in itself. The attribution of Russ’s line is assumed and includes scene setting and presumably some of his shock at what just happened.

“They [cats] let you pick ’em up?” I was a little afraid of cats. My Aunt Ella had a cat and he hissed at me, sometimes scratched me, and wouldn’t let me pick him up for nothing.
“No, you don’t pick ’em up, stupid, you put food on the edge of the dock and then kick them in. Or push ’em with a stick if you can find one.” He danced over behind the couch gave me a little shove.
I like this too. It uses emotional cues and character setting for attribution on Russ’ line, and gives flavor to Kiley. And gives him some action, more violence, pushing Russ around.

“Hey, look,” said Kiley.
I like this, too, it’s almost a cue to the reader, look what’s going on here, it’s been kind of descriptive about two kids out goofing around doing nothing really, nothing bad certainly, and now it’s going to get dicey.

“They’re better than cats,” Kiley said.
“What is?”
“The bums. For throwing in the harbor. Cats, they claw at you, these guys don’t have claws. And they scream just as nice when you throw ’em in.” He headed for the guys.
“Kiley, what are you gonna do?”
I like this, too. Kiley is the only attribution in the first one because you know who else is speaking, I like that “they’re better” “what is” doesn’t really work grammatically, because Russ doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I like the action in the third line and the unatribbuted final line. There’s more to the scene but this will do.

The Shirt saw me standing right there and stuck his hand out and said, “Help.” He didn’t even yell, he just said it like he could’ve said, “Hi, kid, nice day, isn’t it” and he looked right at me like we were waiting for the bus together and making small talk.
I really worked on this, thought about it, I wanted The Shirt to be calm and Russ to be freaked, and the only way I could be sure was to have Russ think it. I’m ambivalent about it but as far as attribution goes it works.

“Dad,” I said.
Dad swept and mumbled, “Hmmmm?”
He stopped sweeping. “Too heavy?” He nodded at the box.
The box weighed about two pounds, max.
“No,” I said.
“Ok, good, take it out then,” Dad said, and went back to sweeping.
You know, I could probably put this all in one para, but I liked the idea of them being separate because Russ’ isolation is crucial here. First line uses a tag, second uses action, third uses assumption, fourth uses action, sixth uses tag – I think the tag is important there but I’m not sure why, it just felt right.Last line uses tag and action.

I think I’m too invested in Drowning to see flaws right now. I’m going back to Green.

Early in the story:
I met him a few days later while I was struggling with my discombobulated bicycle chain in my driveway.  “Looks like you need more arm power than you’ve got, laddie.”  I looked up.  Jamie towered over me – not that he was really tall, he just seemed tall, though most people seemed tall to me – with hair that curled any way it pleased, and a smile that looked like a laugh holding its breath.

He held out his hand.  “Jamie Ferro at your service.”  I mumbled “Michael Porter” as I shook his hand.   It was the first handshake of my life, if you don’t count relatives who thought it was cute to shake a kid’s hand.

He went to work on the bike, and the chain was in place in a few seconds.  “Now, where might you be travelin’ to on this bright shiny machine?”

“The Museum of Science, their summer Enrichment Program.”  Even as I said it, I realized how nerdy it sounded.

“Well, now that sounds impressive.  Very impressive.  Studious of you to undertake on a beautiful summer afternoon.”  He gave a lazy wave as he walked away.  “See ya, bra.”  Wait, as he calling me a bra?  It didn’t sound mean, though.  With his accent — like Scottie from the old Star Trek reruns — it sounded fun.  Though fun wasn’t something I knew a lot about.
Hm, I kinda like this, too. The first para, it isn’t totally obvious that Jamie is the speaker, I wonder if that should be fixed. It’s pretty obvious – I was struggling, reference to arm power, makes sense to me, no one ever called me on it. I like this intro to Jamie, Michael describes him and his initial reaction to him.
Second para, there’s that two-in-one-para thing because saying his name is mumbled, and it isn’t really speech, it’s more of an indicator.
third, uses action.
Fourth, assumes in 2 person scene.
Fifth, assumes, then action, and setting, and character.
Maybe I’m just too defensive.

That night at dinner I asked my parents if they knew anything about him.  “I think there was some kind of problem with his father, but Lydia and I don’t really talk much,” said my mother.
“Is he foreign?”  I asked.  “He talks with some kind of accent.”
“Accent?  No, he’s not foreign.  His father’s in Colorado, so maybe he picked up some kind of accent out there.”  Maybe, but it didn’t sound like Colorado to me.
First uses indirecte attribution, and a reference to speech instead of dialogue, then Mom speaks. I think this section works.

ok, I’ve gone through a few pages of “Green” and, dammit, I like the dialogue as is. So either I’m defensive or I can do this ok. No one’s ever complained about my dialogue. Or any technical aspect of my writing for that matter, it’s always the story itself that sucks. And I don’t know if this book is going to help that.

What If? 37 – Dialog is all art, not talk

This exercise involves taping a conversation between two people arguing about something and rewriting it, noticing how the written version differs from the actual spoken one, with it’s “ums” and repetitions and miscues and restarts and mumbles and all. Not only do I not have a tape recorder, I don’t have another person to argue with, so I’m skipping this. I will defend this omission by saying that in college as part of a quick temp job with a linguistics prof I did tape conversations and transcribe them phonemically. And in writing, I do include a few “ums” and ellipses and runon sentences to imitate speech but it’s cleaned up. So I’m well aware of the difference between speech and writing.

What If? 36 – Speech Flavor, or sounding real.

Exercise: Observe how the following speech fragments convey a sense of accent or nationa., regional, rce, class, or cultural distinctions mainly through word choice and arrangement. Easily understood foreign words or names can help, too. What do these fragments suggest about the individual speakers by conveying the flavor of their speech?
“My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing.” Alice Walker, The Color Purple. Poor, southern, probably black. Reasonably contemporary.
“Muy Buenos” I daid. “Is there an Englishwoman here? I would like to see this english lady.”
“Muy buenos. Yes, there is a female English.” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. Spanish vs Anglo, European.
“…the working mens one Sunday afternoon taking they only time off. They laying around drinking some moonshiine, smoking the help, having a cock fight.” Peter Leach,  The Convict’s Tale.” Poor, rural, southern, NOLA? Cajun? Appalachian?
Now write five of your own speech fragments.

Objective: to reveal character; to convince your reaer by making dialogue sound credible, and to add variety.

“It was just so, oh my god, like amazing, really awesome, you really shoulda come with us.”
“Please, I get battery for this,” she held up the remote, “it is battery.”
“I was thinking of making a casserole for Thanksgiving, I have this recipe for Syrian lamb and I thought it might be just the thing, warming, a little different. I’m so tired of turkey.”
“Bitch is dead to me now.”
“I wonder if it might be possible for me to get some jam to go with this. It’s lovely in it’s own right, of course, but I do love jam with a, um, scone. It isn’t a scone, I know, tell me, what is it you call this again?” “A muffin.” “Yes, that’s it, a muffin, that’s charming. I would love a spot of jam with my muffin, then, if that’s convenient for you.”

What If? 35 – The unreliable Narrator

Exercise:  Using first-person, write a self-deceiving portrait in which the narrator is not the person she thinks she is – either more or less admirable. You must give your readers clues that your narrator is skewing the truth.

Objective:  To create a narrator who unwiitngly reveals- through subtle signals of language, dtails, contradctions, and biases – that his or her judgment of events and people is too subjective to be trusted. The reader must thus discount the version of the story offered by the narrator and try to recreate a more objective one for himself.

Both “Drowning” and “That Season of Madness” use this, and I’m wondering if maybe I do a shitty job of it and that’s why those stories aren’t working. “Madness” has an unreliable narrator for the first half, when she is in denial about being attracted, and she’s a bit cute about having the glasses in the car, when her actions are premeditated, not really accidental. The kid in Drowning wants to deny all responsibility, and he is very confused about what is true and what isn’t.
I didn’t know the cat was sick. She threw up a lot, but cats do that, you know. So it didn’t really mean she was sick. And as for the weight loss, I only weigh her once a year at the vet, I don’t have any way to weigh her at home. It isn’t like she had bones sticking out. Just her breastbone, and I only saw that when the vet showed me. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t have known.