Dog Ear
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
Creativity (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 07 June 2012 07:23

Creativity. Those who don’t have it (who talk on cellphones or watch TV in the evenings) don’t get it. But we, the people who walk silently with eyes on the invisible or who do more than doodle during tedious office meetings, we have it. Creativity.

An example was yesterday – slow day at work with an unexpected extension we didn’t need. Not much to do. Fine. But for fun, I’ve been working on a computer game at home, an excel takeoff of “Time Tripper”, a time-travel/combat game from 1980 that I loved to play. The game itself was clever (I’m creative enough to recognize creativity outside my own skull) and there were two areas, the past and the future. The past was loaded with all sorts of interesting battles to intercede in – Zama, Troy, Shiloh, a cave-man buffalo hunt. Really fun. And the future? It was like suddenly they ran out of ideas and had to just get it done before COB. Vampires. Space troopers. Nothing special – no concept that history continued in a unified path. My version, I decided on the bike ride in, would have this. I would write my own future.

Think of the fun of it - outlining the way the world will continue.

In the office shower, my creativity churned out some ground rules…

1)      The future had to be limited – I only had 36 scenarios. So I decided global warming was going to happen and be the death of us.

2)      The future had to be low tech – I figure that the real future will be computer controlled weapons, self-guided gyrojet rounds and such, that will make combat pretty deadly. “A Motie fired, a Motie died” sort of thing. So for game-purposes, in fifty years, things will start falling apart. Simpler technologies. Back to bows. Back to swords.

With this, images came to my head. While toweling off, I considered the “Second American Civil War” – no, strike that, the “Uncivil War”, where all our political/religious outlooks finally result in a tearing apart of this nation, and a replacement with something very bad. As I locked my locker, I visualized a cocaine-using American Pope ground-detonating our entire nuclear stocks to bring about the Armageddon fundamentalists dream of. Riding to my floor on the elevator, I saw the other end of time, with greenhousing making the equators uninhabitable, the blossoming of Siberia and the final Kingdom of Man, a Neo-Mongol city on a flat plain and sluggish river. Of sword-thrust towers and limp pendants. Of bold horsemen, once dashing and barbaric themselves, now decadent and flabby. Come the final wave of outriding hordes. Come the final fall…

I opened up a spreadsheet and started filling out these ideas, thirty-six rows for the thirty-six mini-games. As I did, more and more ideas came, interesting ways to combine my existing rules with additions that would make each game a little different and unique. At lunch, I transferred the entire thing to my netbook and sat outside, banging out the ideas that seemed to burst from my head. A nanotech disaster. The fall of Africa. Llama-riders. Wow.

That’s creativity. Embrace it. Capture it.

When it comes to writing, we need to recognize that these moments don’t come often and we must be prepared for it. Keep a notebook handy – one never knows when an idea, a phrase, a concept will pop into one’s head. Once, a single word – DOWNSHAFTING – opened up the image of a frightening future corporate world. Suddenly it was just there. I jotted it down. That night I started to write Oath to Carthage.

Recognize the moments when they come. Often our subconscious works while we are asleep. I’ve woken to find a beautiful word, a plot twist, a character (once, a delightful murder) hanging in my thoughts like smoke. If you wait to take your shower, to have breakfast, to get your clothing, to deal with the day’s minutia, you’ll lose it. Write it down, then and there.

Archimedes knew the moment when he stepped into his bath and realized he’d solved an incalculable method of determining volume. So excited was he that he ran naked down the streets of Syracuse, screaming “Eureka!” I’m not saying you should do that. But when creativity strikes, recognize it, note it, capture it.

Savor the blessing.


Last Updated on Monday, 11 June 2012 18:40
Gotcha! (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 31 May 2012 17:10

You know the movie - the cute babysitter hears a noise. She investigates. Opeeeeennnsss the dooooooor.... MEOW! Out runs... the cat. She and the audience breath a sigh or relief and then the killer rams an ice pick into her.

Surprises, shock, and startlement go with the media of movies - very easy to do. But it's possible to pull this off in writing - if one really crafts it well. My favorite shock comes from the book Mr American by George MacDonald Fraser, where the title character (once a desperado, now a English squire) has just been threatened by Kid Curry (for blackmail). Fraser explains that Curry was last seen boarding a London-bound train, threatening to return. At best, that means two days there and back. But that night, Franklin awakens and studies a white shape in a distant hedge from his bedroom window...

There it was again! something had definitely moved in the distant gap. Mr Franklin felt elation running though him as he slid away from the window, working his numbed right arm, picked up the Remington from the side-table, and slipped it into his waistband. He padded across the room in his stockinged feet, softly opened the door, and stepped on to the landing. The large windows of the upper floor were throwing moonlight across the landing and the empty, silent hall below as he turned towards the stairs and suddenly shrieked aloud for there not fifteen feet off and halfway up the stairs was Curry with his eyes glaring wildly in the moonlight and his teeth bared in a ghastly grin as his hand streaked out from beneath his coat and the Colt was whirling up to cover Mr Franklin while he gaped flat-footed with his yell echoing around him and his numbed right hand twitching feebly at his Remington until instinct sent him diving desperately sideways drawing left-handed and the thunderous boom-boom-boom of revolver-fire reverberated through the house.

Masterful! I remember when I read that, how I dropped the book in shock (for there are several pages of domestic quiet that leads up to the shocking invasion). I've always remembered that as a good lesson in craft.

I've tried it myself, in my coming book Indigo, where a brace of crows are returning home to a coming world-ending crow-on-crow battle after a failed diplomatic mission, passing through broken bands of rain...

            Precipitation began to spackle against their wings, sleeting past to mist across the grid. The earthbones shimmered. In concert, the eyes of the multitudinous shells sparkled into being. As the spray grew to rain, the three crows beat at quicker tempo, throwing water clear with every downthrust. Tuft curled around a cold column of downpour, catching sight of the illuminated towers, correcting true. The sky stood in vertical streaks of gray, its effluence washing the world of its sins a final time, the horizon so close that the foreign crows were suddenly tight around them.

What do you think?


Last Updated on Monday, 11 June 2012 18:40
Literary Setbacks (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 24 May 2012 13:31

I’ll always remember the scene in The Muppet Movie (the first one, kiddies) where producer Orson Wells casts an imperial glare over the bedraggled muppets who have forced their way into his office, then intercoms his receptionist. “Bring me the ‘Rich and Famous’ contract.” Yeah, that’s what we want.

Then there is the movie moment from Sideways where a would-be author stands on the empty loading dock behind a winery and listens as his agent tells him that “Some books can’t find a home”. Yes, after thinking he was going to be published, he’s getting dropped by his agency. And you can see, in the line of his shoulders and the quiver in his voice, what this means to him. And that’s what we usually get.

I will admit I was upset and depressed when I got home Saturday after pulling only ONE person into my unadvertised, unlisted, and unheralded speech in a library room you had to find down in the cellar, with a flashlight, inside a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'." I just got home and thought of all the effort and money and time and pride that’s gone into this effort of writing, and what I’ve gotten back, and I came this close (since this ain’t a podcast, I’m showing the distance between finger and thumb) to chucking it.

No more writing.

Never never never.

And it isn’t just me. Look no further than Herman Melville or John Kennedy Toole, writers who put their heart and soul into their efforts and died without ever knowing the fame that would come after they were long buried. And think of all those writers who never get published. Out in the world are thousands of books that would bring joy and perspective and insight, deflected by agents and publishers. It is likely that in some packet or on some disk lies a book more powerful than the bible, a guide to living one’s life in a just and dignified manner, a world-changer that would alter humankind. But these are rejected for whatever reasons, and thus remain dead to us.

The world of publishing is a hard place, where dreamers labor and accountants select. We write our hearts and souls into our words, only to be rejected by the Potter-head masses. And where we can stand on the stage of our creation and be ready to speak about our imagined wonders, and yet nobody comes.

That’s the world we face, fellow writers.

So I came home and played a computer game. Then my wife and I went out to see a movie where a bitter man shoots assholes who deserve it. Then I came home, read a stupid book and went to bed.

The next morning, I work up and posted three blog entries.

Yeah, I’m still writing.

And that’s the thing. We write because of who we are (not who they are). Writing for the passing titillation of the unwashed is a day-job. I’ve got one of those. But writing about Phoenician queens, of gigantic catapults, of formations of crows tearing into each other in a hurricane’s eye, that’s what I do. And that’s what I’ve got to hold on the tip of my metaphoric quill, to compose and post and remember, that is why I write.


Last Updated on Monday, 11 June 2012 18:40

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