Moose Mystery Explained

Last Saturday, I was driving down Davis Road from our isolated home in the hinterlands of Cochise County, Arizona. I was counting the turns–how many left and how many right–so that during the week, I could stop at the County Recorder’s office, look through one of those big books of maps, and find out who owned that property on the outside of the curve around the thirty-one-mile marker.

Why? Because back in September–as I mentioned in a post on this blog–I spotted a moose-crossing sign at that spot. Burned up a week’s worth of rubber, skidding to a stop and backing up to see if I’d really seen what I thought I’d seen. This was in the Sulphur Springs Valley, about a dozen miles from the Mexican border and hundreds of miles from moose habitat.

In that September blog post, I said that mysteries were good for writers because they can kick start the imagination. But then solving mysteries is good, too; it’s satisfying. Which was why I pulled over next to the white pickup parked just off the road, introduced myself, and asked the man behind the wheel if he could tell me about the moose sign.

First, he told me that the story was on the back of the sign. I gave myself the flat-forehead salute because it hadn’t occurred to me to walk behind it. Then, in tears, he told me that on January 6, 2011, his friend, Marvin S. “Moose” Barker III, had rolled his pickup truck at that spot and had died.

We sat quietly for a moment. Then I told him I was a writer and had posted a picture of the sign on our group’s blog, along with a piece about my surprise at seeing it. In response, he handed over a small notebook where he’d written a few thoughts about Moose. By the time I read his last line–“those who didn’t know him missed out”–I wished I’d known the man whose death had inspired such grief in his friend.

I told him how sorry I was for his loss and pulled back onto Davis Road, determined to stop next time I came this way and read the back of the sign.

Until then, thanks, Mike from Mud Springs, for sharing your loss with a stranger and for satisfying my writer’s curiosity.

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Critique Technique, part 7: scene and chapter endings

I’ve written about beginnings in the last couple of posts. For the next couple, I’ll discuss the endings of sections, chapters, and the entire piece. This article will look at the first two.

Articles and short stories are often divided into sections, sometimes even into chapters. Books of all kinds are almost always divided into chapters, and those chapters often have sections within them.

Why would a chapter, article, or short story be divided into sections? In fiction, sections contain the action in a specific time and place, from a particular point of view, or focused on a certain character. In non-fiction, a section may focus on these or on a specific topic that could be one of several within the piece. When the scene, time, point of view, key character, or topic changes, the author can use a transition—usually a word, phrase, or sentence that carries the reader across the change (something I’ll cover in a later article)—or she can start a new section.

The end of a section has two purposes. First, like its beginning, it needs to create curiosity in the reader, to make him wonder what’s next and so propel him into the next section. The second purpose is to make things worse for the central character, or maybe all of the characters, of that section. (Then, if the piece switches to another character or set of characters, that creates even more tension in the reader because his curiosity isn’t satisfied immediately—he has to wait to find out what’s going to happen. Oh, how sneaky, evil, and devious we writers are!)

So, how can a section’s ending create that curiosity and tension, and how can you, the reviewer, tell when it hasn’t? Two words: “obstacles,” and “frustration.” Obstacles keep the section’s protagonist from reaching her immediate and long-term (story) objectives. (I’ll write more about objectives later, too.) At the end of every section, she should have more of them in her way than she had when the section started. That should increase her frustration, leaving her wondering, “Now how am I going to overcome this, along with everything else?” The reader should be asking that, too, whether she’s sympathetic to the protagonist’s cause or not.

In fiction, the writer’s job is to keep making things worse for the story’s major characters (protagonist(s) and antagonist(s))—to raise the stakes for them—right up to the climax. In non-fiction, especially creative non-fiction, the author’s job is similar—to relate how things kept getting worse. Even in something as direct as a how-to article, for example, at the end of each section the author can present an obstacle the do-it-yourselfer could face.

Now, that new obstacle doesn’t have to be super-dramatic, the famous “cliffhanger.” In fact, in a chapter or short work, cliffhangers at the end of each section are probably impossible or will make the reader stop believing the story. The new obstacle can be something simple, but it still has to be an obstacle.

Here’s an example. In my own novel-in-progress, one chapter has over 30 scenes as the focus jumps between five different characters. In one scene, my reporter, Lisa, needs to find the leader of a rally, Sarah, after the rally has turned into a riot, something Sarah didn’t plan. Unfortunately for Lisa, she’s on a balcony on the old North Carolina State Capitol building, while Sarah was on a stage fifty yards distant, but has now been hustled away. Lisa doesn’t know where Sarah’s gone and has to get through the chaos of the riot to try to find her. Sarah’s disappearance isn’t a huge obstacle for Lisa in the larger scheme of the story, but it does frustrate her immediate desire to get Sarah’s reaction to the violent collapse of her rally. This leaves the reader wondering, “What will Lisa do? Will she find Sarah? What will she do if she does? What will she do if she doesn’t?” (The next section, of course, shifts to another character entirely, building my reader’s tension as she waits to find out what happens with Lisa and Sarah.)

Those are the requirements for the end of a section. They’re the same for the end of a chapter, only more so. Cliffhangers are appropriate here, but probably not at the end of every chapter. Still, the author wants the reader biting his fingernails, wondering what’s going to happen next, and having—just having—to turn the page.

All right. Now you’re the reviewer and your job is to decide whether the end of a section or chapter has done its job. Here are questions for you to ask:

  • Did the ending of this section or chapter make things worse for the character(s)?
    • Did it put new obstacles in their way, or make existing ones worse?
    • Did it add frustrations, or make existing ones worse, as the character(s) try to reach their goals?
  • Did the ending increase my tension? Did it make me have to know what happens next?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” figure out how the author failed to raise the stakes for her characters and/or how she failed to increase your need to know more. Then offer suggestions on how to make the piece better.

What else do you look for in the end of a section or chapter to decide whether it’s been a success or not?

 

Dumb Things

Spike wore a T-shirt that said, “Warning: I Do Dumb Things.”

“Is that true?” I asked him on a November day as he politely opened the bar’s door for me.

“Yep. That’s me.” He laughed, his round belly jiggling. “I don’t even have to drink any beer first.”

“I’m gonna buy you one anyway,” I said. “I really do appreciate you delivering my pumpkins. Why didn’t your crew come along for a beer?”

“They’ve got Thanksgiving stuff to do. And they don’t want to mess with what we might have going.” He helped me onto a tall stool by the long, wooden bar.

“We don’t have anything going on.”

“I know that, babe, but they don’t.” He ordered mugs of beer for the both of us.

I looked at him sideways. “You been talkin’ about me to your buddies?”

“No. They read my tee-shirts.”

“Am I a dumb thing for you to do?”

He grinned. “Never.”

The beers arrived. He drank most of his mug fast, leaving foam on his mustache. I wanted to lick it off.

But instead, I sipped at my mug, then said, “You’re going to play Santa again this year?”

“Yep. Got three gigs already lined up. And the appointment to have my beard and hair dyed white.”

“Your friends think that’s a dumb thing to do?”

“Some of ‘em.” He waved at the bartender for another beer.

“Some of them think I’m a dumb thing?”

“They think you’re too smart for me. But I like you anyway.” His warm eyes went up and down me, making me warm, too.

“Well,” I said, “I think playing Santa is a very smart thing for you to do.”

“And why is that?”

I sipped more beer. “Because Santa knows where all the bad girls live.”

He snorted a quick laugh. Downed the last of his beer. Slid his hand across my butt. Then said, “Did I ever show you what I can do with pumpkins?”

First Time at Carboholics Anonymous

Moderator:  “Good evening and welcome to all of you. Tonight’s program is a talk on addictive personality and before we get into our program, I’d like to welcome a new member into our support group. This is Trev. Trev, would you please stand up and introduce yourself.”

Trev:  “Hello. Ahh, my name is Trev . . . and I’m a . . . ahh . . . I’m  a carboholic.”

Chorus of voices:  “We hear you, Trev. We know your suffering and support you.”

Trev: “Well, ah, thank you. Umhum. (Shakes head.) I can’t believe I’m doing this. If my wife hadn’t got your number from your TV ads . . . And then she placed an emergency call with your flying  Carbo–what you call it?–Intervention Squad; She was taking a chance, but I know she only wants to save our marriage, so I promised I’d give it a shot . . .  Anyway, I stand before you reduced to this by . . .  by . . . a goddamn creampuff.”

Moderator, when the chorus of commiseration has abated:  “Now, Trev, you mustn’t be hard on yourself. We all know what it is to suffer an addiction for sweets. Even Friederich Nietzche, whose manly philosophy of courageous sacrifice and self-denial set forth in Man and Superman found it impossible to pass a bakery without dashing inside.  Why don’t you go on, share some more with us so we can get to know you a little better.”

Trev:  “Okay. (Long pause.) Well, I don’t have a problem with bagels, even with cream cheese on them. And I can skip candy bars. But . . . a cookie, a crisp, crunchy cookie, or anything that oozes vanilla cream robs me of any volition or resistance that I have . . . I’ve got to have that squirmy piece of delectable ooze . . . It’s almost a sexual thing . . . the power a Napoleon has, lying there in puffy, chocolate-covered innocence . . . what it does is tap into your sexual appetites . . . you get a figurative lingual erection for this little cake lying there waiting to be penetrated, its insides all mushy and liquefied and ready for invasion . . . and it’s all you can do to keep from ramming your tongue in that inviting little end whose tiny opening advertises the sweet runny love goo waiting for your assault. You know what I mean?”

A chorus of gasps  and throat-clearings.  

Trev:  “But you manage to contain yourself, and you pay for a half-dozen of these wanton little cakelets and you walk outside looking to passersby for all the world as normal as you please. But halfway down the block you can’t hold back any longer and you duck in an alley and plunge behind a dumpster and there . . . (swallows, pants wearily) . . . you take one from your package and you rip the cellophane covering off and ram your greedy thrusting tongue—”

Moderator: “Okay, Trev, we definitely understand what you’re going through. At this point, however, I think we need to take a short break for saltine crackers and diet colas. Allright, everyone? Okay, meet back here in fifteen.”

Gratitude List

‘Tis the season to be thankful, and I have a lot to put on my gratitude list, in general and in my writing life.

For one thing, I’m blessed with a wonderful bunch of writing partners, the Cochise Writers’ Group that puts out this blog.  For years, I tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps as a writer.  It was only when I found classes and critique groups that I began to grow in my art.  This group is serious about writing and publishing–and we often laugh so hard at our meetings that the librarians come in for a dose of humor.

I grew up in the Age of Manual Typewriters and thought correcting electric typewriters were the ultimate technology.  Now we live in the Age of Computers that make revisions so much easier.  On a computer, my fingers can almost keep up with my thoughts.  Grateful?  Oh, yeah.

I’m also grateful that we can afford to be a two-computer family, partly because Dennis and I shared a computer for a long time and partly because I can use his while mine is recuperating in the computer hospital, also known as Two Flags Computer in Douglas, Arizona.  (Over the phone, Charles said I brought in a computer, and he’s giving me back a rocket ship.  I’m both excited and apprehensive to find out what that means.)

Technologically, I’m grateful for the Internet and its proliferation of information, notwithstanding the frustration of getting 37,000,000 hits for the query “writing rules.”  In the late 1980s, I was dating a techie from Los Alamos National Laboratory who impressed me by dialing the computer he’d brought home from work (even he didn’t have a personal computer) into the Internet’s predecessor, set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  I was awed that he could search for data on a computer in Germany.

I’m grateful to have more ideas written down for poems, short stories, and novels than I would have time to write if I were twenty again and expected to live to be a hundred.  Those ideas are like gold coins in a treasure chest.

Did I mention how grateful I am for my fellow scribblers?  Thanks, Annette, Bob, Debrah, Jeri, JoySue, Pat, Priscilla, Ross, Steve, Terry, and everyone who’s dipped into our meetings and found that life had other plans for them.

I couldn’t do it alone, any more than the Pilgrims could have done it without the Indians.

Critique Technique, part 6: the wrong beginning

Last time I wrote about how the beginning of a piece is supposed to “hook” the reader, to make them have to keep reading past the first line, paragraph, and page. Now we need to zoom out a little and look at the beginning of the piece as a whole. Specifically, we need to ask, “Is this the right place for the piece to begin?”

That may seem like an odd question: doesn’t an article, short story, or novel start at the beginning?

Not necessarily. You’ve probably heard, too, that a story needs to start in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.”

Great. WHAT things?

Things. You know. The action. The events.

But when there are things, action, events all through a story, which ones should the story start in the middle of?

Let’s clarify. What is the “beginning” of a story? Every action, every event that’s part of the story had something happen before it. Lots of somethings, actually. And at least one of those somethings might constitute the beginning. Except that something else happened before it. By this logic, the author would have to go back to the beginning of the universe to find the “real” beginning. That’s not going to work. Well, James Michener can get away with it. Other authors? Not so much.

An article, short story, or novel should start in a place that does more than launch the reader into the story. The beginning includes the hook, but it’s more than the hook. The hook is about writing technique; finding the right beginning is about the craft of storytelling. It’s possible to create a hook for a beginning that isn’t the right one. In this case the hook will launch the reader into the piece, only to have her lose interest as the text wanders off into the proverbial woods and gets itself lost.

Oh, by the way, a beginning has to identify key characters and their problems, too. Readers care about characters, after all, far more than things or actions.

Writers talk about the “inciting incident,” the event that starts a story’s characters on their journey. Is that the right place to start? Not necessarily. Let me give you an example: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Ethan and Zeena Frome, desperately poor New England farmers agree, despite their poverty, to take in Zeena’s young cousin Mattie Silver to care for the “sickly” Zeena. This agreement is the inciting incident. Mattie is young, beautiful, and vibrant, everything Zeena is not, and Ethan falls in love with her. Zeena notices and sends her away. [Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the story.] In a last desperate moment together, Ethan and Mattie go sledding and crash into a tree, forcing Zeena to rise from her sickbed to care for the badly hurt Mattie.

So, does the novel begin with Ethan and Zeena deciding to take Mattie in? No, it starts with a “frame” in which an unnamed narrator sees the badly crippled, post-accident Ethan, “a ruin of a man,” stagger into the town post office to get his mail. In this extreme case, the NOVEL starts after the STORY has ended! Why? What was Wharton doing?

Creating curiosity. Creating the need to know more, to read further, to learn the story of Ethan Frome, even though the long preface makes it clear it’s going to be terrible.

Fine. So now you’re the reviewer of someone’s work. How can you tell if they’ve chosen the right—or at least a successful—beginning? It’s easier with an article or short story because you’re likely to have the entire piece in front of you. With a novel, it can be harder, especially if you don’t have the whole manuscript.

Here are some questions that should help you decide.

  • Does this beginning take me beyond the hook? Does it amplify and deepen my curiosity about the story that follows?
  • Does this beginning identify the story’s key characters, their problems, and how significant those problems are? Does it give me a reason to care?
  • Does this beginning consist of action or activities that pull me along? Note that, as I wrote about the hook, action doesn’t have to be slam-bang shoot-‘em-up stuff. It can be, like Wharton’s, quiet dialog in which the action is psychological, not physical.
  • Does this beginning focus on the core story, or does it consist of, or wander off into, backstory (background information or events that happened earlier) or tangential material that could or should come later? These are common mistakes.
  • Are there other places in the story that would meet these criteria better? If so, what makes them better choices?
  • If nothing in the piece seems right for a beginning, what’s missing? What do you want or need to know to get interested in the characters and their story?

The beginning is a crucial moment in the relationship between the reader and the story. The wrong beginning, on an ineffective one, will let the reader off the hook (pun fully intended), let her put the book down or flip to the next article or story. Selecting the right place to start isn’t easy—I’ve tried over half a dozen different ones my own novel-in-progress!—but it’s vital and that makes your job as a reviewer that much more important.

What do you look for when determining whether an article, short story, or novel is starting in the right place?

Zoo

The tigers are sleepin’. Like pillows they jist lie there, lookin’ soft. I wanna sleep, too. I like the zoo, but we’ve been here for hours, walkin’ and walkin’. It’s hot and my legs are bored. I bet Mom and Dad won’t let me sleep with the tigers.

Uh, oh. I don’t see Mom and Dad. Don’t see Karen neither, but who wants to see a mean ole sister anyway. She thinks she’s so smart ‘cause she’s in the first grade and I’m jist in kinnergarden.

Oh. There’s Mom. I can see her skirt and legs. I catch up and tug her skirt. A strange lady jerks around and yanks her skirt outta my hand. I don’t know what to say. She doesn’t look mean, but she’s not Mom.

I think I’m lost. I see the goat place but I don’t have any more food to give the baby ones. They slobbered all over my hands anyway. I think I saw Dad go this way. He likes the monkeys and here’s some more. Big ones. Big as me. Lots a people are watchin’ ‘em. That biggest one hangs upside down looking at us like he’s Timmy our neighbor boy makin’ up somethin’ bad to do to us. Then the monkey pees in his mouth and people scream or laugh, and move away. I go with ‘em.

We all go to the snake house. Some are pretty, but I can’t play with ‘em. I like the bears better. ‘Specially the big white ones. They’re sleepin’, too, ‘cept for the one swimming in the little pond. I want to go swimming with the bears, but I don’t see how to get to the water.

I think I hear my name real loud from a box in the trees, but I don’t know what to do about it so I keep movin’.

Now my legs are really bored. I see the big monkeys again, so I go to the back of their pen and climb inside. I take off my clothes and swim in the monkeys’ little pond. Then Mom and Dad find me, climbin’ the trees, hangin’ upside down. People are screamin’ and pointin’ at me. Don’t know why. I haven’t even learned how to pee in my mouth yet.