Summer Night

It was a soft night. A light breeze rubbed velvet air on his skin. The night called for swimming naked in the pond, under a full moon. But there was no pond. Only surf pounding against rocks, the crash of waves jarring the balminess of the night.

He stood at the edge of foamy water that lapped at his feet then pulled away, dragging sand along. He curled his toes, but could not hold the sand.

Out of reach of the waves, she waited, sky-clad under the half moon. Yet he stood without thinking, only feeling the softness of the night and the hardness of waves crashing in their ageless rhythm.

Finally, he joined her. Soft and hard, making a steamy, sultry summer night.

Surgeon

The surgeon looked at the nurse and said, “I am not the idiot she says I am.”

This time she didn’t try to soothe his ego. She just looked away and sighed, while he went off to his private lair, whistling.

That night at home, she typed the day’s adventure into her computer.

“Today he was confronted with his stupidity, by one of his victims, no less.

“She’d hired him to take a suspicious-looking and probably dangerous large spot off her left leg. Only he cut a smaller, not dangerous spot off her right leg. When confronted with his error, he offered no apology. Rather, he demanded to know, if she knew it was the wrong leg, why she hadn’t stopped him?

“She screamed something about being unconscious at the time and stomped out. Then she yelled at the bookkeeper that the doctor better not send her a bill.”

When the nurse finished typing and printing the tale, she felt much calmer. And added the page to a great, fat 3-ring binder on her shelf.

Horse Laugh

True love, we are told, can withstand anything, barring necrophilia, disappearance and serial infidelity. My first venture into the slippery arena of amor, however, ended in a puddle of aromatic foam.

Cloudcroft, NM, is a mountain community whose revenue source at the time of this story, was largely from skiing and winter games. My family, dad Ken, mom Muriel, sister Shirley and I, were on our way to Hobbs, also in NM, to begin a new life. Mom suffered from respiratory problems and her doctor recommended she move to a dry desert locale and away from Iowa’s winters.

We arrived in Cloudcroft after supper one evening in early mid-September and took a room in a cheap motel. Two rooms down another family was carrying their suitcases into their room. I was outside staying out of the way while my parents set up a sleeping arrangement on the floor for my sister and me, when a girl about my age emerged from her room two down. From inside her mother’s voice counseled, “Don’t go too far, Millie.”

“Okay, mom,” the girl answered.

Millie had reddish-blond hair whose attractive tint captured my attention, and like me seemed at loose ends. Her gaze turned ninety degrees and spotted me. She walked toward me with a kind of natural boldness, then stopped by a 4×4 post supporting the overhang. “Hi,” she said leaning against the post

“Hi,” I answered. She was close enough for me to see that she had light blue eyes and a pale skin dotted with apricot freckles.

She regarded me, then said, “I’m Millie. What’s your name?”

After I answered, she regarded me some more, gnawing on her lower lip. Then she cast a glance back at the door to her room and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

She had already left the post and started away from the row of connected rooms, so I gigged myself into action. As I caught up with her she stuck out her hand. It felt strange to take hold of her hand and walk along as if we were old friends. I began to feel some odd stirrings inside. It occurred to me that maybe we were going somewhere where we couldn’t be seen, and that maybe Milly had something in mind, like maybe messing around.

We were heading toward a large fenced-in pasture in which three horses were foraging. Now about forty yards from the motel, she stopped next to a mare that was cropping at grass clumps about ten feet inside the fence.

“I just love horses,” said Millie dreamily. “Don’t you?

“Yeah, I like horses. I like to draw ‘em.”

She apparently wasn’t impressed by this. “Did you ever ride on one?”

“No, I never did. Did you?”

She shook her head. “I hope to soon. When we visit my uncle’s ranch in California.

She reached towards the mare, who stopped cropping grass and raised her head. A big black stallion that had been nosing for grass some fifty feet away in the center of the pasture saw this and must have concluded that treats were being handed out because he came on a trot directly toward us. He stopped in front of us about five feet from the fence and studied Millie’s hands. Seeing that the mare hadn’t taken anything, he gave a snort and shook his massive head. My head barely came to the lower part of his mane. I was impressed by his size and the suggestion of powerful grace as he stood looking at the ground some feet away as if musing.

“Oh,” Millie said rapturously. “Isn’t he beautiful? Oh, he’s so gorgeous, so noble looking. I wish I had a camera.”

Then time and volition seemed suspended. Before our softened gazes a purplish-black organ the diameter of a baseball bat began to slide from the stallion’s penile sheath, growing close to two feet in length. A tiny squawk issued from Millie’s lips. She edged away from the fence. From the nodding tip of the stallion’s penis shot a garden hose stream of urine that spattered against the churned up soil of the corral behind his front hooves and quickly formed a puddle the color of , well, urine.

Between the spatter noisily lashing the widening pool into crenellated spires of foam rising from its perimeter, much like egg whites beaten until the frothy stuff stood, romance was sending out tendrils of hopeful longing, and then blunt reality grinned in the form of the stallion’s preposterously enormous dick sticking out so far as to sweep our wispy sentiments into oblivion.

The forceful hiss of urine plunging into the foaming pool, now glinting an unwholesome off-greenish tinge, must have gone on for twenty seconds or more, its rank, hot steamy aroma enveloping us in an invisible cloud. Several feet away from me, Millie made an “Ulkk-k,” sound.

I had been so distracted by this engrossing event that I had forgotten about Millie. Glancing over, I saw that she stood back  from the fence at a lean. I watched as she panted a few times and seemed to be struggling to swallow. My attention drawn back to the stallion, I was wondering where that lengthy organ reposed between waterings when Millie said, “I think my mama’s calling me. I better go.”

I watched her  jog and walk by turns toward the motel. I shrugged, somewhat disappointed by her faintheartedness, then turned my attention to the horse reeling his member splotched with pink back inside his abdomen. He had bitched up what was to have been my first taste of a girl’s lips. I studied him wondering if his timing at uncoiling his colossal penis had been deliberate. Maybe he was getting even with us for teasing him with nonexistent treats. His upper lips folded back revealing his big uneven teeth. Then he whinnied, clearly laughing at me.

Actually that didn’t happen. What did happen was that Millie and I almost met the next morning, but when she saw us leaving our room she kept to the far side of  their car so she wouldn’t have to exchange glances with one who had seen her at a moment of great personal embarrassment.

Offended that I no longer met her criteria for notice, I whinnied.

Well, actually that didn’t happen either.

Announcement – Correction – Again!

The Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration is sponsoring two open-mic readings in conjunction with the Celebration:

  • Saturday, January 14, 2-4 PM, at the Oliver House, 24 Sowles Avenue, Old Bisbee
  • Saturday, January 28, 2-4 PM, at the Sierra Vista Public Library, Mona Bishop Room, 2600 East Tacoma.
Everyone is welcome.  Admission is free, and refreshments will be served.  Bring poetry and prose to read!

The Creative Writing Celebration will be held on Friday, March 30, at the Ethel Berger Center, and Saturday, March 31, 2012, at Sierra Vista Campus of Cochise College.

Deadline for the writing competitions associated with the Celebration is February 24.

For more information about the Celebration, check out the Cochise College website.

Consistency

Nice to be back for my regular Wednesday blog post after a vacation to another realm of social media. I dove head first into Facebook. Learned so much, connected with so many old friends, and had such a good time that my husband prevailed on me to set up a Facebook account for him, too. When his super-tech son, Denny Jr., found out, he posted, “OMG, my pop has made hell freeze over!”

The downside is that it’s taken me a week to re-orient my synapses. If you’re writing a regular blog–or doing any other kind of writing–consistency is essential. If you don’t believe me, read Robert Olin Butler’s account in From Where You Dream of his move from New York to Louisiana. He was away from his writing for eight weeks, and it took him that long again to get back in the fiction groove.

Butler’s agony is an object lesson for us in two ways. The obvious one is that we need to write regularly to keep our minds in gear. The less visible aspect is that some people are so discouraged by the process of getting their creative machinery up and running again that they give up. If that were all there was to it, it would be painful enough, but of course giving up on a dream chews at the back of a person’s psyche and makes it harder to start again.

I’m not suggesting that we should never take a break from our writing. A hiatus here and there can bring us back to our work refreshed. Rest and new input are useful. Sometimes, our brains form new patterns, and our writing may be better than ever.

Putting a piece away for a while can bring us back to it with new insight. But then it’s beneficial to be working on something else in the interim. It keeps your creative gears meshing.

Consistency–that’s our creative lubricant.

Critique Technique, part 9: Characters and Conflict

There are two things a story can’t live without: characters and conflict. A “story”—fiction or non-fiction—without characters is a technical report. A story without conflict isn’t a story at all. Without conflict, characters have nothing at stake, there’s nothing that forces them to do anything at all, much less change or grow.

Now, conflict doesn’t have to mean a character having a gun to his head. Conflict can be internal, too. In fact, that’s the primary form of conflict in much of “literary” fiction. In a 2011 seminar, playwright and author Jeff Helgeson identified five kinds of conflict:

  • Person against self,
  • Person against person,
  • Person against society,
  • Person against nature, and
  • Person against “fate.”

While four of these are external, each has an internal component as well as the character struggles with how these conflicts are affecting her.

As a reviewer, you may find a piece you’re reading has either too much conflict or too little. The conflict might also be inappropriate or mistimed. Let’s take a look at each.

It may seem odd to suggest that a piece can have too much conflict, but here’s an example of what that might look like. A few years ago, a local writer brought her draft novel to my writers’ group for our review. Right from the first chapter, her protagonist and antagonist were having screaming cat-fights with each other. The author’s explanation in the text for why they were so at each other’s throats was weak—it didn’t justify the intensity of the conflict—and worse, it gave the characters very few ways to escalate their conflict. As we’ve seen, things have to get steadily worse for the characters over the course of the story, but these two were denied that chance.

Another example of too much conflict is the case where there’s nothing but conflict in the story. Constant conflict might be fine for a first-person-shooter video game but in a written story, the reader needs a break from time to time, to have a chance to catch his breath. The characters need to do that, too, and lick their wounds (real or figurative), assess their situation, and make new plans (which will, of course, fail, right up to the very end). Those changes of pace, from conflict to peace to conflict again—or more conflict to less to more—keep the reader engaged, not exhausted.

Too little conflict, on the other hand, will cause the reader to lose interest. Writers, especially new ones, who are nice, gentle, kind people, may shy away from creating conflict between and within their characters because they don’t want them to be hurt or stressed. Tough noogies. The writer who’s too nice to her characters will put her readers to sleep. As a reviewer, your job is to help her get over that internal conflict and create conflict on the page. Gotta do it.

Now’s a good time to go back to Helgeson’s list. Conflict should be constantly on the move, from internal to external, from physical to mental, from personal to impersonal, from one source or cause to another. “Constantly” isn’t necessarily the same as “rapidly,” however. The pace of this movement, like the intensity of the conflict, should be changing over time, too.

That’s a good transition into inappropriate conflict. How can conflict be inappropriate? Let’s take a crazy example. Bob, a mild-mannered private-practice CPA is out on a date at a local Applebee’s with his girlfriend Alice, who’s a sales clerk at a Gap store. The relationship has been fracturing and Bob is struggling to find a way to tell her it’s time for them to go their separate ways. Just as he’s getting ready to say so, a gunfight breaks out among the patrons and Alice whips out a Mac 9 machine pistol from her shoulder bag and joins the fray.

Uhhh, yeah, sure, that makes sense.

Now, with more background information, maybe it would make sense, but with only what I’ve given you here, that conflict is completely inappropriate.

Mistimed conflict is a different issue. Getting timing right is difficult—just ask any stand-up comic. That moment’s hesitation before he delivers the punch line can be the difference between howls of laughter and boos. Here’s an example of mistiming a conflict in fiction. Another member of my writers’ group recently gave us a chapter from the first draft of his novel. The chapter is pretty early in the story (probably less than a quarter of the way through) and yet the protagonist kills his primary antagonist in it.

Uh-oh! Now who’s going to chase the good guy around, making trouble for him, putting him in danger, generating all sorts of conflict, for the next 200 pages? Hmmm, good question. OK, it’s a first draft, where problems like this are bound to come up. But if the antagonist were to stay around for another 150 pages, the protagonist would find himself in more and more trouble that entire time. That’s what we want.

Mistimed conflict can, of course, be conflict that come too late, as well, which may be related to there being too little conflict to start with.

All right, then. Question time.

  • Is there conflict between and within the characters?
  • Is there conflict between the characters and their “environment” (collectively, Helgeson’s society, nature, and “fate”)?
  • Is there too much conflict, or too little?
  • Is the conflict inappropriate to the situation and characters?
  • Is the timing of the conflict off, happening too early or too late?

Conflict is the heart of “story.” It defines and redefines the story’s characters—it changes them. Getting conflict “right” is one of an author’s central tasks. Helping him do so is one of your most important tasks as a reviewer.

What kinds of problems have you seen in how an author presents conflict within and between his characters?