Dog Ear
Dipsticks (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 24 January 2013 00:00

This came from the Writers Group as discussed last week. It was one of the best short stories I’d ever heard. And the crushing critique was one of the most spot-on, thermal-exhaust-port bullseyes I’d ever witnessed.

The story in an abbreviated nutshell:

A man has a living fantasy of the climactic moment of grace in his life, that of driving to the perfect fishing spot in a vintage 1957 Chevy. So he puts a couple of years into the project. He buys an old beater and rebuilds it tires up, turning it into a shining vehicular fantasy. Oilstained and weary in the evenings, he pours over maps and determines the perfect sceniced route to his pristine fishing hole – no freeways for him, just rolling green hills and weathered barns, a perfect backdrop. He even picks the mid-fueling stop, an old gas station run by a rustic.

So finally the day draws near. The weather is perfect. His health is perfect. His car is tuned. He begins his drive and it’s perfect. Pulls into the gas station spot on the dot, and exchanges idle chitchat with the rustic refueler – it’s like a perfect fantasy for him, like he’s living someone else’s life in a perfect world. Finally he arrives at the spot, parks his car photogenicly on a ridge overlooking the cool pond, assembles his tent, lays everything out, assembles his pole, baits his hook. And before he starts down to the pond for his moment-of-moment, he checks under the hood.

The dipstick is missing.

Frantically, he looks around the engine – no, not there. He thinks, thinks, thinks. Yes, the gas attendant at midpoint, hundreds of miles away! The old guy checked his oil while he was there and must have forgotten to replace the stick. So the man leaves everything and drives to the nearest convenience story, a real world place with fluorescents and cinderblocks, reeking of piss and beer (or both). From its payphone, he dumps dime after dime, eventually locating the gas station. But the old man is likely napping on his front stoop, unaware of the desperate ringing. Finally, after hours of effort, he gets through. After lengthy pleas, codling and even threats, the old man finally locates the dipstick. Yes, it was left out. Yes, he has it. Yes, he will send it.

Of course, this ruins the trip. The deliveryman has problems locating an unaddressed location. It gets routed to the hub, and by the time the guy gets there, it’s closed. Then a day is spent trying to locate the missing package in the hub. And finally, finally, finally the guy has his box. He returns to the pond in the twilight of his vacation, ripping open the box to recover his precious dipstick and nearly dropping it into the pond (we’ll spare him that). But his fantasy is ruined, his effort was ruined. It all came to nothing.

Brilliant story. The moral running through it is how we set up expectations, expectations that have to be perfect. And when they are not, when we notice a lover’s blemish, when Paris is a touch chilly, when the waiter forgets to bring us our drink, it’s all ruined. I remember sitting on a worn sofa with a cup of cooling coffee, having just heard this story read and inwardly groaning at the magnificence of the tale and its subtle lesson.

Philip, the mentor, set down the papers and looked at us.

“Good story. Well written. Only problem – you don’t set down a dipstick.” The woman who’d written it started to complain but he rolled right over her. “You don’t put down a dipstick. Never. When you pull it out of the engine, you look at it, decide what needs to be done, and you put it back. After all, its drippy with oil – you’d never set it down. The best place for it is back in its hole.”

The writer tried to protest but our resolve was hardening. Our instructor was right – while it was a perfect story, this completely implausible thing killed it, just ripped the guts out. No substitutions were possible – nothing was as subtly innocuous as a dipstick. The best replacement would be a gas cap, and that really isn’t the same. A dipstick has that “for want of a nail” aura the story demanded.

I’ve always carried that lesson with me – yes, a story idea might be perfect but the smallest detail can kill it. And, boy, do I miss having an actual writer’s group in this burb.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 January 2013 19:16
Then and Now (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 17 January 2013 00:00

There is a writer’s group that meets here in Orlando – I’d probably go except I’m committed to something else those nights and can’t make it. But it hits me, reading their exchanges following their meetings, that the focus of the meetings is marketing their self-published books.

And that’s fine, I suppose – God knows I could have used it, given the haphazard failure-daze of a marketing effort Early ReTyrement went through. I am the world’s worse salesman, a fact I do not hesitate to admit.

But I’m left thinking of the group that got me into writing, The Writer’s Room, back in the late nineties. A guy named Phillip ran it, a philosophical fellow who understood writing and passed on his knowledge (much as I’m doing here, but deeper and truer). Originally it was held in a lakeside room at Rollins College (I rode my bike over every Tuesday night – a total hipster!). But we gave him our latest efforts and he took them apart, showing what worked and what didn’t.

He’s the one that really inspired me to keep at it. My first real novel, Oath to Carthage, he offered a painfully brilliant idea that cut 80 beloved pages off the story and made it a much better read. Once you’ve done that, once you’ve learned to snip at a story with shears (or dive in with a weedwacker), you’ll be better able to deal with that pain in the future. For Indigo, a friend pointed out I’d gone too long on one topic – bye, bye 30 pages. And a better book it was for their absence.

But that was the thing – our weekly writer’s group discussed writing. Not marketing. Not running up your Amazon numbers. Not Facebook tricks. Writing. How to tighten dialog. How to pace a sentence. How to misdirect, to trick and tease and toggle. All these things I learned, often from having my latest submission used as the “bad example” of their non-use. And every time I went home, clatter-clatter went the keyboard as I worked on improvements.

That’s one of the sad elements I see in this self-publishing craze that is sweeping away the old publishing houses – the quality that an agent, an editor and publisher force on the writer. A true writer can’t just type in the story “he believes in” or “his wife loved” without knowledge of structure, grammar, pacing, mood and meaning. With a publishing industry, there is an attempt at a higher quality.

And, yes, there are advantages its decline, but 50 shades of Gray is not one of them.

It’s just that in this suburban-sprawl city of millions, I really miss having a group that discusses the art of literature, not the techniques of publishing.

My two cents.

(As a treat, next week I’ll post a favorite lesson I got from The Writer’s Room, the story of a missing dipstick)


Last Updated on Thursday, 17 January 2013 01:30
Showdown (Dog Ear) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 10 January 2013 00:00

Originally I was going to write about the silly thing that occurs in climactic showdowns, when the hero and villain square off. The villain for some reason is out of ammo or has thrown his sword in desperation. And the hero, smiling toothily, drops his weapon to go hand to hand, mano-a-mano.

Then I noticed that I don’t see this in novels. See it all the time in movies. In Scaramouch, the hero taps the vibrating sword just thrown at him by the swinish Marquis de Maynes and bids him to retrieve it. In The Great Race, Tony Curtis permits Baron Rolfe von Stuppe to draw a sabre so the two can have their expected duel. But for novels, the only thing that comes to mind is the old yarn by Morgan Robertson, The Pirates, where navy brig rats steal a destroyer from the US navy and plan to go modern-day pirating, Yo Ho!  And of course, Lieutenant Denman is a sporting chap with a childhood playground score to settle…

"Now, Forsythe," he said, as he covered the chagrined marksman, "you should have aimed lower and to the right—but that's all past now. This boat is practically captured, and I'm not going to kill you; for, even though it would not be murder, there is no excuse in my conscience for it. Whether the boat sinks or not, we will be taken off in time, for that fellow over yonder is coming, and has ceased firing. But before you are out of my hands I want to settle an old score with you—one dating from our boyhood, which you'll perhaps remember. Toss that gun forward and step aft a bit."

This might also be true of The most dangerous game, when the hero (Rainsford) who was presumably dead at the bottom of a sea cliff appears in General Zaroff’s own bedroom and gives him a chance to see him, to recognize the danger of this “beast at bay”, to square-off. A challenge is issued: the winner gets to sleep in the bed, the loser will be flung into the yard with the hunting dogs below.

Me, if I’d had time in the General’s bedroom, I’d be getting the biggest candlestick holder I could find and easing into the drapes next to the bed, looking for that clean head-shot. A fair fight? Why do you think man is really ”the most dangerous game”?

But that’s the deal. Back in earlier literary eras, we could assume (even expect) our heroes to fight fair and not take the advantage. One reason was that anti-heroes were largely unknown back then. But I think this even has more to do with the idea that heroes were third-person for the most part. We’d see them externally but be spared their thoughts. They were as believable as modern movie action heroes. But heroes in our modern books (well, the books to be taken seriously) are first-person fellows. We know what they think. We know that they can feel pain and fear. It is unbelievable to us, riding around in the good guy’s skull, that any villain worth three hundred pages of pursuit is worth giving a fighting chance too. They are dangerous and unloved for a reason, and leveling the field is as laughable as Queensbury Rules. Further, what sort of hero would risk what he stands for in a selfish (if you think about it) pugilistic contest? If his own cause (loved ones, nation, honor, whatever) is so important, why is he willing to risk it all in a knuckle-duster?

This means, of course, if you want to extend the action, the hero and the villain are both going to have to be disarmed in some way. Guns are slippery things. They can jam or run out of bullets. Swords break, and missed lunges bring the fighters in close. If you want your hero and villain to pummel each other, to go personal on each other, fine. But bring them together realistically. Don’t have your hero drop his pistol and give some Dick Champion speech about fair-play and such.

It might have worked in 1920. A century later, I don’t think so.


Last Updated on Thursday, 10 January 2013 08:35
Resolutions (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 03 January 2013 00:00

We're looking at yet another new year (seeing how the Mayan's prophecies were typically misconstrued by a population eager for a taste of apocalypse). Nope, just another year of same-ol-same-ol.

I'm not going to make resolutions, not solid ones anyway. The doc told me to lose 10 lbs so I'm working on that. As for everything else, I pretty much hold to my life as I should - it feels right and works for me.

But then there is the writing angle. I suppose it's time to post out some more cover letters.

I've got a system with those big books of writing (including the section on agents). Since I won't be using them again (and most of them have a shelf life of about a year or two), what I do is leaf through the available (and likely unreceptive) agents and pick the ones I'll post. Then I'll review what they want, and get those packets set up. When I'm ready for cover letters and mailers, I'll do several things...

1) I'll place a circle (yeah, written right in the book) next to their name.

2) I'll jot down the date I posted them on.

3) I'll mark the page with a paper clip (small side on the page to remember) so I can find then again (and see, at a glance, how many submissions I'm running).

As my SASEs come home to roost, I'll mark an X in the box to show it's come back and remove the clip. It's a system I've used for years.

Usually I run three clips. Because I was in a Dale Carnegie course and need to accomplish something, I sent out another five. Looks like I'm down to five clips. A look at the date shows some from July and some from September.

Time to post three more out.

A perfect resolution.

And Happy New Year to you all!


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 December 2012 19:17

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