Dog Ear
The Irony of Irony (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 05 July 2012 17:24

Eric Frank Russell once wrote a wonderful science fiction piece where a scout ship discovers a planet, green with fields and ripe with cities. The crew emerges after their fiery (and highly visible) descent to find… nobody coming to see them. Finally they head towards the nearest town, only to discover the inhabitants “racing” in their vehicles towards the landing site, but because of a difference in time scale, they are barely moving at all. The crew returns to their ship, going about their business and ignoring the forest of “statues” that slowly gather around their landing field. Finally an army arrives and charges, only to be picked up and moved backwards hundreds of yards by the bemused crew.

In the end, the commander is writing up his report and notes that we should take care, for if there are races operating on a much slower time scale than us, perhaps there are those running at far higher ones. Having drafted this, he leaves his desk but turns to consider something, only to see that his report has vanished.

When I speak of irony here, I am referring to the more common usage, that of mockery of an earlier time and playing off of (or using) its imageries. Our culture is rich with “ironic” uses of the fifties: the red-baiting buzz-cut military commander, the desperately unhappy housewife, the hair-oiled, train-chasing company man. Most children’s cartoons set their stories in worlds of 50’s and 60’s suburbia, with parents artificially chipper and ignorant to the exaggerated adventures of their offspring.

And that’s fine – it’s a tool writers can use to convey an image quickly. I remember reading Sabatini’s Scaramouch and discovering that traveling companies of actors would rely on established character types (Scaramouch, Harlequin, Pierrot, and others), typecasting them in roles so that the audience would quickly identify their personalities and traits – no backfill needed. We use such characters and concepts ourselves, populating in our tales with the already-known, and perhaps also gently mocking the world of the past.

I did it myself in Early ReTyrement. To establish his commercial supremacy in the ancient world, Mason uses every marketing trick he can imagine to sell average grain at remarkable markups. Part of this involves him spewing a long litany of ‘50’s advertising slogans, the jingles and advertisments that tickled the wallets of our ancestors. And I focused selectively and precisely on that time, as advertisers operated in a verbal market (such as radio), and had to appeal to the ideal of conformity and slight superiority that their products would supposedly bring. So Mason sells his grain and we all get a double laugh, both at the ‘50s and also at the 330ADs, who are even more “naive”.

The danger in doing this is that, aside from appearing condescending, our typecasting can become obvious, even tired, as time moves on. I’m reading a fantasy book right now that starts with a dwarf with his magical axe (of course) and magical armor (of course) who kills a dragon (of course). Ten pages in and I’m drowning in cultural references. Even everyone’s beloved Harry Potter books, with wands and wizards and broom-riding, really doesn’t add anything new to our story-worlds.

And that’s the danger of relying on cheap imagery and established norms. You are locking yourself into a story-telling reference. Time moves on. Think about my earlier reference to that scifi book I opened with. Sure, from our point of view, we are more imaginative and clever and ironic than those stiff, conformist people of the fifties. But is our writing different enough, unique enough, and true enough to stand on its own when scanned by future eyeballs? Or will they shake their head sadly and laugh in bemusement at those still and lifeless ideas that filled the novels of the early twenty-first century?



Last Updated on Thursday, 05 July 2012 17:30
The Air that I breathe (Dog Ear) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 28 June 2012 18:33

We’d just come out of the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and a scene was stuck in my head, a beautiful image that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’m not going to tell it other than it was magnificently sound-tracked with the Hollies’ The Air That I breathe. In this, the music and imagery really worked to form a perfect meld, the moment where what the director wanted me to get, I got.

Before the music industry became the hip-hop ring-tone thing it is today, individuals could still produce music that touched our souls, not simply vectored for a target audience and Facebook-buzz. And perhaps even though writers face a bleak market in decline, one where unimaginative kid-lit makes big bucks and thoughtful pieces languish in slush heaps, there is still a glimmer of hope. Sure, we’re unrepresented. Sure, we’re unread. But we are in control of our writing (still). It is our art and our thoughts, our blood and our breath. We might not get published but we can still write whatever beauty, terror, wonder or magnificence we can imagine.

You should consider this every time you write, what new things you will create, what insights you will interject, what words you will tickle your readers with. Imagine your story up on that screen, amazingly beautiful. What soundtrack will they play for it? What are you expressing? What is the swaying rhythm that heartbeats through your moment?

For me, in Early ReTyrement, there is the opening scene (HERE) where the slow and steady past gets booted in the bottom by a sudden injection of Dion’s “The Wanderer”. Wouldn’t that make a great image? Can’t you just see the cut-scene, from a regal vista in ancient Tyre to a zoom shot over Daytona Beach with that music banging away? That’s what I envisioned when I wrote it, the musical surprise, the sharp cut-away, the then-now contrast. Hopefully you will see it that way, too.

It’s the air that we breathe.


Last Updated on Thursday, 28 June 2012 18:43
Rejection (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 21 June 2012 16:45

This was how my story started...

The shotgun trembled in Hector’s grip, his crucifix tinkling across its twin barrels.

He was frightened – dry-mouthed, ass-puckered frightened – more frightened than when Mr. Sethman had come to their town meeting with his damned proposition. But this current fear wasn’t diluted by misgivings and second-thoughts. This fear was final.

And this was how the rejection started...

Choosing which stories to accept has been a difficult decision, and we regret that we won't be taking it for the collection. It was a very creative semi-western, semi-gothic, all-wonderfully-bonkers-and-evocative piece, and we hope that it finds a home elsewhere.

Ugh. It's enough to grip my crucifix. Or to put my shotgun in my mouth.

I'd been following this collective series for some time (even reviewing them someplace on this site). I'd had this plan, once I got the tempo, pace and length of their stories figured, to submit a nicely wicked piece, something they would be sure to love. Once their new submission notices went up, I plotted my short story (it had to do with trains - I know my trains) and wrote it out. Cleaned it, polished it, groomed it. Got it all ready.

See, it isn't about the money. It's about writing something that people will notice, and in the authors' blurb, they'd mention my books and my site. And that could be a way to get that invaluable writer's cred, the notice that leads to more notice, and soon I'm churning out wretched best sellers, just like those other goons.

But my plans didn't factor in getting rejected.

I'm not really sure why. I might have tried too hard and overwrote. I might have been too technical. I might have caught them on a bad day. Whatever. But now I've got this story that I can't use anywhere else, a very tight tale of a man who doesn't wish to send his daughter on a one way trip to Hell.

But we're writers. We gotta come off that mat, again and again. We gotta keep taking those low punches, even when undeserving twits get the agents, the book deals, and the placement on the NYTBS.  I saw one of these knobs at a show I boothed. He was wearing leather pants, for Christ sakes. And I gotta schlock books around on a cart while he breezes in and sells?

Yes, that wonderful odor of rejection.

If you are reading this column, you are probably a writer. You know the feeling of getting that SASE back, of all the love and effort that goes into your novel, only to have it languish in a lousy word file (and not between covers, as it should). I know about it. And nobody else will tell you because nobody else knows how it feels. But I know. Your book is great. It deserves a place in the library stacks. It does. And you'll get it there.

Now spit that bloody water back into the bucket, climb off your stool, and get back into the ring.


Last Updated on Thursday, 21 June 2012 17:22
The man with the can (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 14 June 2012 19:26


"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

-Anton Chekhov

I don’t know who this old black man is. Usually I see him on days I bike in, over on the other side of Lake Destiny Road, going south to my north.

He’s always riding a ratty little bike, so non-descript I can’t really remember what it is – maybe one of those banana-bikes popular twenty years ago, maybe a heavily-used Walmart coaster.

He’s got that old-man’s face: black, shopworn, seen-it-all. The writer in me would like to think he saw events of the Civil Rights era but he’s not quite that old. Maybe interesting stories all the same, like how the interstate split his black township in two like a concrete battle-axe and didn’t even give it a ramp.

The thing is, he’s always carrying a gas can, one of those plastic red numbers. Presumably he’s topping it off at the nearby 7-11, then riding home.

There are only two houses down the road he rides. Eatonville is the next likely destination but that’s like two miles away, quite a haul on an un-oiled, rusting bike.

Which leads me to ask – why is he getting this gasoline every morning? Why not just drive over? If it’s for a lawnmower, part of a service he works for, wouldn’t it be easier for someone with a car to get it? After all, getting gas in a car involves just pulling in. Getting it on a bike is a muggy long ride with a gallon sloshing around atop your handlebars.

There is a story there.

I saw this guy (again) while riding in the other day, pondering what I’d write about. And here it was – the idea of depth-in-scene, the hidden story. This element, in passing, raises a touch of curiosity in the reader. If my narrative mentions the writer-bicycling yuppie (with his safety gear and anality about the rules of the road) spotting the broken down black man inexplicably riding along in a symbolic opposite direction every morning with a gallon of gas, the reader’s interest will be piqued. Will the yuppie have some sort of contact with this man, and learn the depth of local history, or perhaps the life-lesson of acceptance?

Or maybe it will lead to some web of crime, a clue to the activities of an aging yet bitter militant, too poor to afford a car yet able to construct dreadful gasoline bombs which he will plant about town? A race against time?

Or perhaps this is a foil, to show the yuppie’s own shortcomings. How a casual let-it-be old man magnifies the yuppie’s own fruitless drive, his rules-following and pedal-pedal-pedal haste?

It could be that this is just a way to make a statement about the world, how in the shadow of the humming freeway, a marginalized black man rides past with a single gallon of gasoline.

It could be just a red herring, an odd moment that adds quirkiness to a scene, a playful artist trick.

The writer needs to decide how (and even if) this snapshot fits the story, that it serves a purpose (even if it is ironically a non-purpose). It needs to fit the mood and the story. It needs to tell us something, show us something. “Show, don’t tell” as the rule goes – and the showing doesn’t need to be clear. It just needs to be interesting, observant, relevant and picturesque. It will make a 2-D story 3-D.

As a writer, you need to see these things in your life and use them.

It is Chekhov’s Gun, and it needs to be fired, one way or another.


Last Updated on Thursday, 14 June 2012 19:39

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