Dog Ear
Are writers better drivers (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 04 October 2012 00:00

I was driving home after dropping Ark off at the library. Two lane road, and over on the opposite side, riding against the flow, a cyclist on a yellow bike.

No gearing, upright stance, big retro fenders. No real branding or effort to conform to "road" or "mountain". A K-mart bike.

And the rider, a guy with flip flops, a ball cap, no gloves, in street shorts and a shirt.

And, as mentioned, he's on the wrong side of the road. A casual cyclist.

To the right side, the Hideaway bar. I'm looking at him, placing him as just the sort of character who lives in a small hipster pad downtown, who works some strange little job (like a frame shop or deli waiter) and who likes the image of peddling over to the Hideaway (where all the downtown bohemians go). Covered my brake and sure enough, he came right across my lane and almost my hood, showing as much control as a seagull.

And into the bar parking lot he goes.

I'm left wondering if writers make better drivers. By writers, I'm talking about honest writers, the one's who take apart other stories to see how they work, who shake their heads at clever devices others have used, and who know how to string a plot with just enough twists to make it interesting. No, not the Harry Potter wannabe billionaires, the ones who are working on their Great American Novel yet never read anything (except, of course, Harry Potter). No, real writers. Artists.

So, do they drive better?

I'm not sure. I think I do. Actually, I know I do. I've had one moving accident (a three mph tap thirty years ago). In the same time, I've been rear-ended four times, twice hard enough to replace a bumper. I've also been side-impacted by a motorcyclist who had all the cool gear and none of the methodical skill (I saved his life, too, but that's another story).

So I'm left to wonder if writers (if they still exist by my definition) are better drivers. Do writers see the story behind the story (remember The Man With The Can?). Do we see the ebb and flow of people, their virtues and faults. Do we notice the AnnRomMom in her Escalade and give her wide berth, to the angry guy in the beat up car who looks like a poster boy for repression? Do we look at these people in the cars next to us and see their stories, their hopes and faults and foibles?

Or are we just as distracted with our plot-musings, our self-deadlines, our own little worlds?

Then again, maybe this is because I'm a bike-commuter, and I'm used to spotting dangers before they become spinning wreaths of cartoon pain-stars.

If you don't notice the drivers around you (or you've given more accidents than you've received), maybe its time to start looking harder at them. It's a good exercise - it will let you practice creating characters and perhaps lead to that Great American Novel you've been dreaming about. And at the very least, it might spare you hundreds of dollars of repair bills...


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 September 2012 12:32
It don’t come easy (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 27 September 2012 00:00

(This was orignally supposed to run on Sept 20th but I wanted to touch on the movie The Words. Wonder if my life is better in the future...)

There is the common thought that a writer is only a writer if he is a suffering writer. If you have a big house and kids and everything paid for, you aren’t wired to angst and can’t capture human existence.

And that might be true – certainly people who know the crush of personal loss or the humiliations of modern society can ‘write what they know’. But sometimes it comes in so fast and hard, you can’t keep up. Sometimes the grinding of life’s millstone can kill off the writer’s enthusiasm.

I haven’t lost a child or been diagnosed with cancer but lately things have been pretty lousy. I’m trying to keep a train club together and our post-recession finances are shaky. So Sunday, I go in to mow the lawn and find out the Bithlo hicks have boosted our $1700 lawn mower (as recounted HERE). And nobody else seemed to have time to make a pass through the various pawn shops, looking for it (my job again). At home, my computer seems to be having MSE boot problems. My Dale Carnegie course ended and my recognition for feeding 25 people was nil. Another rejection notice. A slow driver clips a light and leaves me behind. On and on.

It’s very easy when this sort of Jobish-overloading happens to really want to chuck writing. I actually was thinking of just skipping this week’s Dog Ear, just because I’m not really in the mood.

So last night I just went to bed early and read further through Ark, by Stephen Baxter. It’s good. Not Pendido Street Station good, Snow Crash good, or War of the Worlds good (the latter is like comfort food for me). But it’s interesting. But the thing is, it reminded me of how much I like reading. Even “meh” books are still books, with the potential to surprise you with a twist or charm you with a phrase. To me, writing is like going to a museum, one where every paragraph is a portrait with its own artful presentation. Yeah, I like reading, and doing things we like sooths the nasty, brutish things we must endure in this world. And with reading comes writing. Art follows appreciation.

So here is your Dog Ear. Enjoy!


Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 21:02
The Words (Dog Ear) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 20 September 2012 00:00

I haven't done a movie review for nearly a year (when I revamped the site, I dropped the movie section). But when I saw the movie The Words, I knew I had to touch on it.

See, it's a writer's movie (don't think that Finding Forrester was - that was a piece of shit). The Words is about a young writer (don't we all know him) who is accepting an award for his critical success, living the life we all dream (don't we look so clever? Isn't our limo sooooo long?). As he and his gorgeous wife come out of the reception reinforcing his greatness, an old man watches him. Later, our literary wet-dream trots out to Central Park - seemingly engaged in his idyllic pursuit to read in the park (while the rest of us are working). The old man sits next to him, feeds the pigeons, starts to chat. He tells the young guy he recognizes him, he liked the book, that if felt like he was living every moment (spider senses tingling yet?) The he asks if maybe the young guy would like to write a story he'd thought of. The author, finding his companion a burden, excuses himself and walks off.

"It's about an old man who wrote a story, and the pissant who stole it."

That stops the guy.

See, after rejection and rejection, the young author doubted he would ever make it, that he could ever shine the way we all dream to. Then, in an old valise in a Paris second hand store, he finds a manuscript, yellow with age. He reads it. It's brilliant. Then he types it up just so he can feel what it likes to write something that perfect. But then his wife reads his work and tells him how beautiful his work his, how he must show it to the publisher where he works as a clerk, all that. So he does. And it goes how we could only dream.

Except, of course, for that old man.

I won't go into further spoilers. No, the reason I'm mentioning this is that here is a character all writers can identify with. If you are a true writer (amazing how many writers there are out there who never really swim in the sea of classics) and moan at the talent of others, then you will understand. You know what it would be like to find a work so magnificent, just sitting there yellowed and lost, and how easy it would be to make it yours. And that's something to think about. Sure, maybe you would never steal an entire book. But a phrase? An idea? A passage? Tempting.

In fact, I'm sure just about every writer has borrowed concept or phrase from some other writer.

But be warned. I've noted before about the horror of finding myself trespassing in copyright (for song lyrics). The sleepless nights. The worried thoughts. The fear of the phone call from the moguls.

I guess what I'm saying is that you should always safeguard against copying. And you should always try for your true voice. And you should beware of the Sirens of fame.

But go and see The Words. Its a fine story-within-story-within-story. Or a horror-flick for writers. Something like that.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 21:27
Don't use contractions (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 13 September 2012 00:00

I was downtown with the Missus watching the play Billy Bishop goes to War. It’s a fun performance, a one-man show which follows the exploits of Billy Bishop, a top-ranked fighter ace from World War One. Oddly, I’d seen it thirty years ago and suddenly it had popped up again at the local playhouse.

After the show, the performers (all two of them (okay, a one-man show, with a second guy on the piano)) sat down and fielded questions from the audience, a nice intimate Q&A. Someone in the audience asked Timothy Williams how he did all the characters (different COs, mechanics, and even high-brow dames) that played roles in Bishop’s life.

Williams' answer was interesting. He explained that in a one-man show, an actor has to conserve energy and vocal effort. The character’s costume might be no more than a pair of glasses or a coat turned out. It comes down, really, to the voice. And mostly to inflections. One has to convey bombastic natures, disdain, or earthiness without needless shouting or effort. And in that, it’s just a matter of the character’s speech patterns.

I found that very interesting. As a writer, I’m fully aware of this. When making a character, you can spend paragraphs explaining the cut of their clothing, their hairstyle, their mannerisms. You can even give them a spell-checker-befuddling Scottish brogue. But the character won’t stick. Readers won’t remember it.

It comes down to the patterns of the character’s speech. A glowering dockhand should talk in short sentences, even fragments. A deceptive salesman or oily lawyer should have sentences that double back on themselves. A hen-pecking wife should literally repeat herself. And a drunk shouldn't’t slur, he should ramble.

This might seem obvious but it’s not quite so when one is in the writer’s chair. When one is threading a story together, it’s too easy to lose the characters in the plot, to make everyone sound alike but wear different hats. If you find yourself throwing a lot of “the astronaut said” or “the governor answered” in your story, you’ve probably lost your speaking style. The dialog cadence alone should identify who is speaking.

In Fire And Bronze, my novel surrounding the Carthaginian Foundation Myth, I leaned this trick first-hand. The story is driven in places by class warfare. There are characters low-born and high. And in one of my pre-publication passes, I focused on just this. Just with the simple trick of pointedly allowing the commoners use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t) and the nobles not (do not, will not, cannot) added a level of identification to their speech. We have no evidence that Canaanites used contractions – I’ve read the Aramaic grammar rules and there is no official recognition of such devices (though they left their vowels off their words, so their language had other unwritten shortcuts). But I think it’s safe to bet that Phoenician merchant-princes appealing to kings for a trade concession spoke differently from the deckhands of their ships. And if one assumes a difference in cadence, one should write it.

Don’t use contractions unless you’re common. Literally!





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