Thursday, February 20, 2014

Where'd That Come From?


A writer can not always predict where a story will come from as in this case. Taking a break from writing something or other, I happened to look up at a family portrait taken at the Cartwright (TV's Bonanza) house on the north end of Lake Tahoe. This story exploded full blown as did a dozen others, yet to be published.

 Sean O'Mordha

The McKittricks
 For Honor

The air had that slightly heady odor of fall as a bright sun spread its warmth, finally evicting the night's chill that tenaciously clung to the world nestled in the little valley at the foot of the Sierras. From within the fledgling community of clapboard structures and tents could be heard the shrill laughter of children at play; it was recess time at the school. However idyllic the day may have been, an ominous cloud was slithering in from the north in the form of Rufus Bergoing. There weren’t any posters bearing his likeness, but there should have been, the problem being no one had backbone or stayed around long enough to complain so that his bullying ways went unchecked.

Even Rufus’ horse had a perverted gait as it oozed down the path alongside the school yard fence. Stopping at the gate, Rufus crossed one leg over the saddle horn, rolled a cigarette, and lite up while lecherous eyes perused a rather delectable morsel standing on the school porch. His obscene invitation over the recess noise was roundly rebuked as the girl totally ignored him, shook the bell, wheeled around, and marched back into the white-framed building with head held high. The children glared at the guffawing rapscallion before dutifully moving inside as well. He was about to slide off his corrupted steed when a dry throat started a coughing spell. He needed a drink. The woman could come later. Poking roweled spurs into the animal’s side he felt the creature fold in half.

“Don’t even think of buckin’,” he said, giving the reins a sharp jerk. His voice was deep and raspy with a sinister ring, just as he had practiced the night before while camped.

Had he been in position to see the mount’s eyes, Rufus would have detected a malevolent glimmer as the creature relaxed and discharged a malodorous deposit.

“Geez! Whatya been eatin'? Get outa here.”

That afternoon Dudley stomped into the front room of the log ranch house to unlock the gun case. Removing a Winchester, he began filling the receiver with ammo.

“Wolves again?” Pa McKittrick asked coming in from the kitchen.

“Two legged. Some slime bucket rode into town and cast an obscene invitation at little sister.”

“And does this mannerless individual have a name?”

“Aye. Rufus Bergoing. Leastwise that’s what his marker’ll say.”

“Well, I think I should have a talk with this person first, just to get the spelling correct.”

Dudley wanted to protest, but Pa wasn’t the arguing type, so he dutifully followed alongside as the two cantered into town. It wasn’t hard to verify the impugning remark. The Clancy twins, the community's pain in the butt with their shenanigans, had a real liking for their school marm, Nell McKittrick. She was the only person they’d sit for. They weren’t cognizant of their colorful metaphors as they reported the errant remark verbatim.

Feeling justified in speaking with the individual, Silas continued into town, noting how the people milled about the street, but left a sizable space vacant in the vicinity of Clancy’s Saloon. Tying up their horses across the street, Pa took two steps toward the saloon and stopped.

“Wait here, Dudley. I shall discuss this matter privately.”

“But Pa ...”

“You can shoot him if he draws on me, okay?”

“Aye, pa,” Dudley said, despondent, but hopeful the sleazy critter would make the mistake of drawing down on an unarmed man.

“And use my gun. It won’t put a hole through nine buildings.”

“Aye, pa.”

Silas strolled across the street, kicking up little clouds of dust that looked a lot like smoke. The gathering onlookers figured he was pretty upset, although he rarely showed anger. Stepping onto the boardwalk, the Scot stopped at the double, swinging doors, looked inside a moment, then went through. The townsfolk fidgeted as they waited. When it happened, everyone was taken by surprise.

Clancy had recently put in a nice, big window in the front of his establishment. It was through this a duster-clad figure suddenly emerged in an upright position, took two large steps across the boardwalk, planted a left foot in the horse trough on the third step, and slipped on some mud just beyond with the forth. This caused him to roll onto the ground and through a muddy puddle recently created by his untrustworthy steed.

Silas casually stepped through the swinging doors, stuck both thumbs in his belt, and watched as the ignoble stranger struggled to regain his feet, something not meant for the moment as he slipped a second time, landing butt first into a pile of odoriferous manure. When he did gain dry ground and stood upright, his hand went for the pistol strapped on his side. With considerable consternation he discovered it wasn’t there.

Casually reaching into his vest pocket Silas withdrew a cigar. At that moment the townsfolk broke into a sudden stampede and disappeared. Rufus Bergoing looked around with wonder and astonishment. Then Silas stepped off the boardwalk into the muddy puddle. Rufus grinned as he expected his assailant to undertake a pratfall, but the ground either refused to cooperated or knew better. It buoyed him firmly as the man tossed his prized pistol, both pieces, into the horse trough, lite the cigar and strode up toe to toe.

"As I said, I don’t take kindly to such remarks directed at my daughter,” Silas said, again reaching into his vest pocket. Withdrawing a stick of dynamite with a ten inch fuse he pulled Bergoing’s belt out and slipped the stick inside his pants, bringing the smoldering cigar dangerously close to the dangling fuse.

“Verbal apologies will be considered made as I see the rear end of your horse with you aboard as it makes dust for the next county.”

Rufus Bergoing was not a man to back down, but considered this a sizable incentive as he kowtowed several times backward before heading for his horse. When several, relatively safe paces from the cigar he reached for the rife strapped to his saddle. He decided against acquiring the instrument when he heard the telltale click of a gun’s hammer. Looking over his shoulder confirmed a double-barreled shotgun pointed inches from his Roman nose.

“I’d hate to hurt such a noble fly-encrusted steed as you have there, but brotherly duty dictates I am bound to uphold my sister’s honor,” Dudley said.

Rufus Bergoing’s noble steed also turned its head upon hearing the click. Apparently having thoughts of self-preservation, it neatly managed a quick two-step to remove it’s backside from the down-range effects of a very large shotgun. Unfortunately, tethered to the hitching post limited the possibility of complete withdrawal. Having no other recourse, it pulled back, breaking the reins. Now free, it made all possible speed out of town, its rider in hot pursuit.

Rufus Bergoing was a man not to be triffled with, and as soon as he was able to safely dislodge Silas’ gift, and catch his less than faithful steed, he vowed to return. As fate would have it, however, returning would have to wait at least until the blisters on his feet allowed him to walk again.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Show Don't Tell, and Other Absurdities


I've been writing in one form or another for fifty-seven years, and still learning the art, but there are some things I've learned that less experienced writers and some agents attempt to promote as gospel law.

Show Don't Tell
Author Lee Child, The Jack Reacher Series, has said, “We’re not story showers, we’re story tellers.”
Where do writers show stories? In a child's picture book, otherwise writers tell stories. What do kids say? Tell me a story. One form is no more or less important than the other. Both forms have their place.
A major fiction writer of our era had the habit of introducing a character in the flow of the story and immediately going into a long paragraph describing their physical attributes. That's like watching a car careen off a cliff and freeze in mid-air so we readers can see the surprised expressions on the occupants' faces. That's annoying as heck because the flow of action is totally shot down.
Instead of a laundry list of description in one (usually) long paragraph, I'll quickly introduce pertinent info, and then sprinkle more as appropriate later. Sometimes I'll throw out a sentence of description. That's not to say the laundry list is no good, just disruptive.

Just use the word “Said.”
During a writers' group evaluation, one member produced a book of some age that went on ad infinitum about using the word "said" after speech and can those descriptive words like growled, laughed, raged. That's all fine and well if the story is a play where actors give expression to the dialogue. Our job as an author is to describe our character’s emotions. There are many ways to do this. ("What are your doing?" John said. “What are you doing?” John screamed. Or ... Face turning purple and eyes bulging, the words shot from his mouth like double-ought buck from a shotgun. ”What are you doing?” Be your creative self.

Don’t be too wordy.
Telling a writer that he or she is using too many words is like accusing Picasso of using too much paint. A typical 90-minute movie is 108 pages long. The typical novel? Well, there's plenty of room to play with, so, relax, take your time, don’t rush things for someone else’s arbitrary notion of pacing.

Don’t use words people don’t use in real life.
When I began a journalism career in 1962, we geared our stories to the 5th grade level. It's gone down hill since then, but for an author to cheapen his or her work is like asking Picasso to use less paint. (I am picking on Picasso because he's dead and what artists and writers do is create pictures, one with paint, one with words.)
Now, don't pull out a thesaurus and become ostentatious just to plug in multisyllabic words for the heck of it, but don't shy away from a word that more correctly describes what you want to convey.
Finally, we come to:
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice.
MS Word-10 and I lock horns on this from time to time in the first edit because I just wanted to get the scene from the head into the visible world. On second edit I do try to remove passive phrases and make the sentence stronger and more descriptive. However, there are times when passive is the best choice. In dialogue, passive voice is the norm in many cultures and shouldn't be toyed with or the character is going to come off sounding like a stuffed olive in champaign. 

Every author worth his or her salt didn't get where they did without using their creative genius. From chaos to order was the first day. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Live With It and Move On.

There will be deluge of pro and con comments regarding an upcoming story in the entertainment magazine, Wonderland. J.K. Rowling is having second thoughts about how she constructed the Harry Potter series. Primarily, she is "sorry" for hooking up Ron with Hermione. Harry should have ended up with her instead.

This is a failing that can haunt writers with too much time on their hands. Once a story is published, that's it. Everything is set in stone. Live with it and move on.

As I read and watched the Potter stories unfold, at first I imagined Harry and Hermione would become a couple, but that's not reality, is it? Ron's red-haired sister comes on the scene and something inside each signals a relationship made in Heaven. If you want to write characters who live in Never, Neverland, write it that way. If you want your story and characters to sound, feel, and act in a realistic way in which readers can relate, then do it, but in the end, have no regrets. Once in print, you can't re-write it. Just write differently the next time.

A lot of time has been spent in previous eFiles discussing players, and loading them up with character and quirks, essentially making them sound, feel, and act real. Love is one of those elements that introduces the unexpected.

To become a bit personal, I dated several girls over the course of my younger years, but there was never any special feeling or attraction. We were just friends. And then, I was dating a young woman and actually entertaining the idea of moving toward a proposal of marriage when this other young woman came into the picture. Bong! A year later we were married and have been happily married for thirty-four years. That's the way it happens sometimes and that's what I saw happen in Harry Potter. We invariably write about things we know and relationships that did and did not work. So, my theory is -- go with the flow and stop trying to twist it into shapes that break instead of bend, and once done realize it is done.

Back onto the main track, in the scope of things, we have addressed the issue of "minor" players in our writing in earlier eFiles, folks other than the protagonist and antagonist--specifically six other players. Their primary purpose is to show the hero and/or villain from different points of view. Using the Phillips/Huntley and Schechter models as pertains to the hero and villain, these would be:

1.  Protector, keeper of the moral compass;
2.  Deflector, who tries to pull them from their moral compass;

3.  Believer, who believes, trusts, and follows them without question;
4.  Doubter, who challengers their methods;

5.  Thinker, who reflects on the course of action before taking action on their own;
6.  Feeler, who acts intuitively and questions later.

You notice, they have been grouped into pairs because they can play off one another as well as interact with the hero/villain, and in the end illuminate how the hero/villain respond.

As an experiment, use any one of the Harry Potter novels and plug into these roles the characters that full-fill the task. Harry has his troupe, and Voldemort has his.

Mrs. Rowling had no notion of this make-up, no formal instruction as to how to construct a successful story, but these players appeared nevertheless because that's just the way it's done. And then there is Ron's sister who Harry fell in love with? Like love, someone who came out of left field and surprises everyone.

Jeffrey Schechter, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch (Kindle Edition).
Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley, Dramatica, A New Theory of Story found at