Content Writer? Goodness No—I’m a Storyteller

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and ...

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and …

Grasshopper, it’s an interesting time to be a writer. Journalists have fled (or been dismissed from) newsrooms in droves, and many of them have morphed into “content writers,” a phrase that doesn’t have the panache of “investigative reporter,” or “columnist” or even “scribe.”

Fifteen years ago, or maybe even ten, if you told most people you were a content writer, they’d have probably given you the same squinch-eyed expression supplied if you’d told them you were a tangerine. But now in many quarters the term gets a sage nod. Content writer, yes. Enterprising fellow.

When I was an undergrad (some time before the spoon was invented), I was on the staff of the college newspaper, for all four years. I envisioned the reporter’s life to be one of glitz and grit, and I wanted to be a glitzy-gritty one. Then, lacking today’s “choose yourself” perspective, two successive years of rejected applications at Berkeley’s journalism grad school managed to chasten my quest. But I did end up becoming a corporate editor, then a copywriter, then an editor, then a copywriter and then some conglomerations of the two. But I always kept a hand in journalism, writing freelance pieces (profiles, features, reviews) for newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Call Me No Damn Marketer
Circles, being the roundish things they are, curve things back yet again: now it’s hip for marketers to dub themselves “storytellers.” Telling stories, once the province of liars and impoverished fiction writers (bet you can’t cleave those two without a claw hammer) now has business-writing currency. Use your journalism skills to tell good stories with your content marketing, and you’ll get engaged. Whoops, I meant, get engagement. From your customers—who are now your peeps. Or something like that.

Now that I’ve trod back and forth over these words without a discernible direction, I’ll circle back: it’s an interesting time to be a writer, because sometimes you can get hired by companies to write materials whose content seems quite a stretch from their direct business interests. Companies want copy (that stuff, “content”) on their sites that pulls in readers, who after the reading might just check out the company’s goods. Take this example: I recently wrote a piece for an IT integration company on how bitters can complement the booze in a good cocktail.

Here’s another one of mine, again planted in the tech domain, written for a Forbes partner. The piece profiles a photographer who’s been doing good work for 40 years. The company wanted articles that demonstrated deep expertise in a subject, complementing—perhaps—the deep expertise they have in IT issues.

What, You Didn’t Know About Blue’s Secret Power?
Right now I’m doing a series of articles for a global company that supplies eyeglass lenses. Here, the articles are all slanted to the vision field, but still, the subjects—like “The Secret Power of the Color Blue” and “Children Should Play Outside for Eye Health”—can seem tangential. But behold the power of content writing—the wizard of Oz, known as G. Oogle, might just direct 30,000 drooling aficionados of the color blue to the site, and maybe some need glasses, to more clearly ogle their blue walls.

It isn’t journalism, and to this fiction writer it doesn’t quite seem storytelling. Also, the words “content marketing” have as much charm as a two-thirds full spittoon. But it’s still working with words, trying to weave them into something that beckons the imagination. Being a hired gun firing commercial bullets seems a fair hike from my gossamer proto-reporter’s dreams of decades ago, but still, it ain’t bad.

The Hero’s Journey (for the One True Salad)

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad

Yeah, I added the fig leaf to the salad
[image courtesy of drowninsanity on morgue file.com]

Story-structure geeks (and I’m a mere dabbler) are well aware of Joseph Campbell’s work with the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, where a story’s protagonist protagonizes in a most protagonistic way. To boldly summarize (where a zillion summaries have gone before), it’s the process of challenge and life change—and in the myths, these challenges are epic—where a vision, however cloudy, is followed to its consequence.

That consequence is usually the conquering of fear, the gaining of courage, insight, resourcefulness, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self. And because that’s pretty heavy, you might also get a nice new pair of shoes out of the deal. Lots of heavyweights (even Homeric ones) have employed the monomyth gambit: witness Odysseus (or Ulysses), in Homer’s The Odyssey, Huck Finn in his eponymous tale, ring-bearer Frodo, Luke Skywalker’s skywalking, and in contemporary times, Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

The Narrative Wings in the Monomyth House
There are a whole lotta narrative wings in the monomyth’s house; there’s the Calling, Answering the Calling, Finding Guardians, The Challenge, Answering the Challenge, Returning Home and the presence of many archetypes, like Shadows, Shapeshifters and Tricksters. Obviously, it’s a lot like growing up with siblings.

No story has to venture into all of the wings, and no story has to stuff itself to bursting with every archetype, but the structure itself, the journey, is a critical storytelling component, in all its chills and captivations.

“Road” stories are a variant of this, like Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant (and scary and sad), The Road. I borrowed the frame itself for my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, where the protagonist is a callow just-out-of-high-school lad hitchhiking across Canada, caught in a series of picaresque escapades. His quest: to lose his virginity.

I know, I know, cheap monomyth, but it is a quest, after all.

Serving the Salad
And why is there salad at the head of this blogging meal? Because we traditionally serve salads first here. But really, because yesterday, part of our Big Island Hawaiian house-sit, we drove to Hilo across the Saddle Road from Hawi. What that means is that you drive in the saddle between the substantial humps of two volcanos: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Because Mauna Kea is a seamount, it’s actually the tallest mountain on earth, bigger than Everest. (Though it’s a mere 13,796 feet above the ground.) Its cousin across the meadow, Mauna Loa, is considered to be the largest volcano on Earth by volume. So, they ain’t punks.

And, your hands around my dithering throat, what’s the quest, you ask? Well, the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s Gourmet Garden Café in beautiful bayside Hilo. How on God’s heavenly body can that be an example of the hero’s journey? Easy: One of these volcanos, though snoring, is still active—we could have been engulfed in fiery lava! We also got lost on a road exchange—we became slightly tense! We were vaguely running out of gas on the way home—we became vaguely anxious! All surely monomythical in their challenge.

As for the salad, we’d had it recommended to us by a friend back home: “You have to try the Green Papaya Salad at Tina’s.” So, we had the Vision, we had the Challenge, we had the Return. And we had the Salad. It was worth the quest.

All salad silliness aside, the Hero’s Journey remains a solid structure for building—and building in some variants—around, if your story is seeking such. Try it! (Oh, lots of good stuff on story structure over at Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid site.)

Bottom o’ the Page Plea
Oh, and if any of you have read my Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, I’d love an Amazon review, no matter if you thought reading it was like changing diapers. The more reviews (and diaper changes) the better.

Contort Your Characters: Trip Their Expectations

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 Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked

When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.

This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.

We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.

Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.

Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.

Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.

I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.

However, my yard is very nicely raked.

Emerging from the Storyless Swamp

Swamp

 No matter how soggy, you can emerge from the storyless swamp

Story ideas often seem to fall from the sky. Or in the case of my latest story, to come up from the basement. I’ve been in a fetid fictionless swamp for the past couple of months, incapable of putting anything to the page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling pointless resentment over not being able to get agents interested in what is now becoming an old novel, or editors interested in what are now becoming some old (but newer) stories.

The sing-song hearing of “not for us, thanks” can be a blow to writing confidence, but at some point you’ve got to come out of the swamp, at least to get some fresh socks. What made me change out of my swampy sad sack’s clothes was a helpful spur for any writer: a deadline.

I saw a link for an “Unearth Your Underworld” short story contest in one of the writing newsletters I get. I’ve won (or gotten seconds or thirds) in a number of writing contests, and in reading that the theme for this one was, “Anything Underworld—dig in to the sewers, bomb shelters, basements and your deepest hells!” I had an instant idea for a creepy story. In a blink, I saw my peculiar landlords and the strange business they had in their basement from so many years ago. A story, with visuals and plot line, in a second.

Stories Lie Waiting
When I say “instant idea,” I mean that the story idea jumped up from that basement of my imagination, where it’s sat in cold storage for all these years. I’ve written before how writing ideas are everywhere, and indeed they are. The theme of the book I’m writing right now is how to see through a writer’s eyes—how to see and record the stories that surround us.

It’s harder to see them when you are in the dim swamp of your sadness; you’ve got to at least open some curtains. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deadline that pulls in some light. The basement story’s deadline is November 20th, and it’s well on its way. I don’t have to win anything in that contest to know I’ve already won, because I’m writing fiction again.

Sometimes I forget that you can get used to carrying a backpack of sadness around with you, so that it seems almost natural to shoulder that stuff. But it’s good to know that you can leave that backpack on the counter now and then. Everything feels lighter.

So, where do your story ideas come from? Do they stealthily finger up through the grass, crawling up your leg so that it takes some time to feel the itch, or is there a crashing from the sky and a lightning bolt, so that a story is revealed in instant incandescence?

Epitaph: Goodbye to One of the Good Ones
Sometimes our lives are touched by someone we’ve never met, who has a public forum that lets viewers (and listeners) get a sense of that person over time, so that he or she feels like family of sorts. I’ve listened to (and roared at) the madcap philosophizing of Click and Clack, NPR’s Tappet Brothers, for many years, delighting in their boisterous intelligence and warm camaraderie, both between themselves and their guests. Their shtick was never about the cars—it was about life’s tumblings, madnesses and small graces. And laughter. Ringing, infectious laughter.

The oldest brother, Tom Magliozzi, died this past week at 77. His brother Ray is going to continue to let the recorded shows play on NPR in his brother’s honor. Goodbye and good tidings, Tom. Wherever you are, don’t drive like your brother.

How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes: Listen—?

Glasses_on_book_101

I’ve been working on a short book that has the working title “How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes.” Maybe it’s because I wear glasses and only see so far, but I’m going to suggest you get a taste of that book by listening to me read the introduction.

My intent in writing the book is to help people see that the world is built of stories—and that with a little guidance on where to find and use those sentence-building tools, you can be one of the builders. More on the book’s progress later.

[Not sure why, but it seems you have to click on the play button twice. Moses and the rock, I suppose …]

You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

Terrace viewjpg

Evening over San Miguel de Allende, Minutes Before a Storm Busted Loose

Writers are reliant on conflict in their stories; something must be surmounted (or not), questioned, circumvented, abandoned, left to wither. So much of reader engagement is the revealing of the layers of resolve (or not) in a character as they push against existence, whether their challenge or their adversary is some part of themselves, an acknowledged enemy, a societal crack, an unseen force. How the characters engage with their nemeses (or not) and the consequences of that engagement are at the core of most novels, whether literary or commercial.

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine yourself as the character in one of your novels, tilting your lance at battlements, or perhaps at the laundry. Besides the difficult suspension of disbelief there, the problem with accurately envisioning yourself as a novel’s character is that much of your time might be spent with dealing with a balky mouse, wondering if that modest pain you have in a molar is a cavity, and facing that laundry. The challenge of the laundry must be met, but it’s not quite like Huck Finn sailing down the river to flee from those dunderheads trying to sivilize him.

That real-life stuff isn’t all that novelistic. As Elmore Leonard said of his work, “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” We all want to skip the laundry.

But when you travel to a place that you’ve never been before, particularly a place that is vivid, dramatic, and not that of your native land, the setting alone can provide an exotic backdrop or stage for a character’s choices. How do you behave there, where you’ve never been? How do others behave, walk, talk, gesture, argue, kiss? Since I’m house-sitting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an extraordinarily colorful city of deep history and picturesque sights, it’s easier to fantasize that I’m in a novel, perhaps one by Graham Greene, where a shady character’s gesture with a cigarette in a lively café implies there will be a mysterious death tonight. Or at least some exceptional margaritas.

A Character in a Balmy State of Suspension

Novels often go in pulses of dramatic action and lull, charges and retreats, tension and release. Last night, my character’s place in the exotic city was in the balmy state of suspension. My sweetheart Alice and I walked down the winding cobblestone roads from our place high above the city center to a nice hotel restaurant just off the main plaza. Alfresco dining in a bright courtyard filled with tall, fruited trees, flitting birds and beautiful stone arches supporting the second floor, all painted variants of a washed tangerine.

A great meal, with cognac after, since that’s what characters in novels do (or not). Because the hotel housed a nice tobacconist, and I was in Mexico, where where they don’t fear the corruption of Castro’s commies, I was able to buy a lovely little Habano cigar, a demitasse Montecristo. Up, up the winding cobblestones at dusk, big clouds gathering. Up, up the tight, treacherous third-floor inner staircase to the deck. Down, down on the deck swing. Stogie lit, check. Malbec accompaniment, check. Incredible view of the city below, lights beginning to twinkle, clouds roiling, check. La vida es buena.

And then, the unexpected conflict: winds suddenly whipping, and a blasting downburst of rain, orchestrated by sky-filling, snapping lightning and a cracking series of thunderclaps like a bomb going off. Flee! So, my character, smug in his full-bellied comfort, ended up smoking his coveted cigar in the first-floor courtyard, hunkered under a concrete garage overhang which steadily dripped down on his muttering head. But it was a Cuban—I had to finish it.

Later, back in the steamy house, I did enjoy the thought that my novelist didn’t want my character to get quite so comfortable. Where’s the narrative interest in that?

By the way, today I really did do the laundry. Sometimes the joke is on your character, sometimes it’s on you.

The Hero’s Journey (Is to Find Key Lime Pie)

Last Bite

The final day, the final pie, the final (sob!) bite.
Crusty shot by Jessie Rosen

Many writers have drawn on an ancient structure of storytelling, where a hero is on a quest for something bigger than him or herself, travels to wondrous places, encounters titanic obstacles and challenges, wins a decisive victory and returns to share the bounty. Joseph Campbell explored this narrative pattern, the monomyth, in Hero with a Thousand Faces, upon which the Star Wars movies were based. But neither Campbell nor George Lucas ever told you that the quested object was actually Key Lime pie.

They didn’t tell you, because they wanted it all to themselves.

I know that because I have just returned from the Florida Keys, where for five days I had Key Lime pie with every meal. You might think that would have exhausted any further investigation into Key Lime pie for the rest of my days. Your thought would be wrong.

It took strength, courage and discernment for a group of five writers (and one relentlessly hungry trip leader) to take on the solemn responsibility of approaching each piece of pie on its own merits, and the debates were many and heated. Meringue or whipped cream? Tart or sweet? Graham cracker crust or ginger snaps? And what about the subtleties: high meringue or low? Add a sliver of coconut? A tot of coffee? Swords—or at least forks—are drawn over lesser matters.

The Place of Pie in Personal Evolution

Those “they” that say all the things they say, say travel is broadening. They weren’t talking about spiritual insights and personal evolution; they were talking about belly-patting pleasures. Our group paddled on gleaming waters, gaped at remote national parks, pulled colorful fish from the deep sea and much more, but really, journeys are all about the food. The Keys will ply you with the freshest of fish, the richest of sauces, the most fritterish of conchs. But the key that both closes the door on the meal and opens the palate all over again is the Key Lime pie.

One of the writerly stalwarts on this hero’s journey was photojournalist Seattle Dredge (and could there ever be a better novelist’s character name for an intrepid female detective?). At first I found it curious that she took photographs of every dish at every meal. Sure, food porn shots have been a popular pursuit for photographers for a while, but every dish? But then I started to get into it, and was actually worried once or twice that she might overlook one of the meals (and more worried yet that a slice of pie might escape the lens). But no, every piece of pie was locked into digital history.

I hope that some grinning mountaineer has put a piece of Key Lime pie on top of Everest, where it will wait for yet one more hero to surmount the great mount, taste its icy tartness, and bring the rest back to those waiting below, handing monomyth and meringue forward into the future.

PS

While I was in the Keys, I was given The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook. The book suggests there are 150,000 pie combinations. Now that is a hero’s journey.

Breathing New Life Into Your Writing

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Sunrise, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia

A while back, I lived on a tiny Micronesian island for a year. I taught various English department classes to students at the junior college, and for several reasons, my stay there was flavored with some sour stints of depression and anxiety. But I like to think about the things there that soothed me: the extraordinary beauty of the waters, the dazzling, resplendent corals and marine life under that water, the tropical breezes that lightened the blazing hammer of the days.

But one of the things I remember so clearly is a sound (maybe because they didn’t have any of Proust’s madeleines there with which to tag my aroma memory). That sound was the bright, high, rattling tinkle of waves breaking and receding over the bits and chunks of coral at the water’s edge. There was a broad coral reef surrounding the island, and there was coral rubble of all shapes and sizes at the shoreline. When the waves brushed over that coral, it was as though a master—and eccentric, maybe like Thelonious Monk—pianist or perhaps a vibrant vibes player finger-danced over coral keys.

It’s challenging to describe a sound, particularly one that because of the variable tempo of the waves and the configuration of the coral was forever changing, but there was something so pleasingly calming about it; the repetitive sweep of the waves and its tinkling chime was an aural massage. After some particularly crappy days at the school, just coming back to our house and sitting by the ocean listening to the jangling chime of the coral was enough to bathe my bile in a sonic balm.

No Coral Concert? Just Breathe Instead

I bring up those island days because I’ve lately had some biting bouts with anxiety and depression again. Just the usual mishmash of feeling unaccomplished, that my writing work—both business and personal—was going poorly, that though it was sunny spring, there was a chill inside. And there aren’t any coral-chipped beaches for a few thousand miles from my Central California home.

I can conjure many reasons not to write: worrying that a button was missing off my shirt, wondering if that girl from high school really didn’t like me or just slashed my tires to get my attention, thinking I would work on my novel if there weren’t a section of the tax code online I should study for an hour or two—the list knows no end. No writers need to add “I feel like a deflated tire” to the long list of inanities that prevent them from applying the magic formula: put the time in, and the words will come.

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve started the morning with a simple meditation. I’m not going to get militantly woo-woo on you and tell you you have to do 1,000 Sun Salutes, an hour of chanting and then stare at the sun until God speaks, and that then your writing will flow like the mighty river. What I’m doing is simple: a 15-minute meditation that has been working for me like the sweet sound of waves on coral: a lightly stirred serving of now, and now again. This particular meditation is a guided one, though you certainly don’t need an iPad to sit and breathe. This guidance is served up by a modulated woman’s voice offering some thoughts on focusing on the present moment, then offering silence, then focusing on the ebb and flow of the breath, then silence, and on.

And it’s helping.

Breathing Through the Ping-Pongings of Your Infernal Mind

The meditation suggests that you look with kindness on the ping-pongings of your infernal mind, that mad monkey that goes from, “Are we low on milk” to “if the asteroid hits and destroys the earth in a week, I won’t have to make the payment on the flat screen tv.” Beginning my morning with a simple meditation, and reminding myself that any time throughout the day, I can return to a minute or two of acknowledging the rolling ride of my breath (rather than watch another YouTube video) has been liberating in some ways.

I bookend the meditation with some quick thoughts on things I’m grateful for. And these don’t have to be any complex or grandiose or self-aggrandizing things, like being grateful for the Apple stock split. No, it’s more like the “I’m grateful for the sound of waves on coral.” Ahhhhh …

My feeling about my writing has been better—it’s breathing some new life. And I’m doing a little more of it. I wish I’d found out earlier that writing is actually a breathing exercise.

A Little Bit Extra

I wrote a piece on getting a gun at a young age, and how that troubling time has stayed with me all my days: Taking Flight from the Trigger, published on Medium. Recommend it with that bottom button if you’re of a mind to.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!

Writer Collaborations: Death Match or Delight?

'Message for you' photo © 2011, Jacob Haddon - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Writers I’ve known (myself prominently among them) often argue with themselves. Should it be that character whose hand is crushed in the tractor? Would a flashback scene in the second chapter be too clichéd? Is the novel best set in Provence, or perhaps Peoria? These might be dodges to procrastinate from the writing (another habit that writers execute with vigor), but it’s more that there are a host of structural and textual decisions to be made in a story’s unfolding, and competing claims are made in an author’s mind when he or she attempts to commit to the page.

Add another writer into the mix? Clash of the Titans!

Or perhaps more accurately, clash of authorial sensibility, which is a broad cloth of past writing experience, favored author influences, writing intent/motivation—those and more, all the way down to critical compositional inclinations, like whether you are a writer that likes a verb to prance merrily away from its subject wearing flounce skirts of subordinate clause, plus taffeta layers of adverb and adjective.

Or one whose verbs are a clean shot. Bang.

Wedded to Another Writer’s Work

Thus, adding another writer into that existing goulash of conscious/subconscious deliberations, false starts and bloodshot-eyed writing jags (contrasted with two weeks of writing drought) seems an invitation to a wedding that’s failed before the vows are cast. Now, I’d never collaborated, nor really considered collaboration on any fiction projects. But I was aware that Johnny Truant and Sean Platt have been writing multiple fiction-series projects together for a while, and doing quite well, both in the writing and the selling of the writing. So, a model.

A little while back I edited an epic novel for a friend, Rick Wilson, The Storytelling Dentist. (He doesn’t call himself that, and deserves a much more eloquent tag that befits both his medical and writing prowess, but that’s all I came up with for the moment.)

Rick’s novel, which has the equally epic title of The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks, is a sweeping story that begins in WWII England and stretches into the 1960s. It’s soaked in brio, heartfelt humanity, sacrifice, skullduggery, romance, cowardice and glory—and all that’s probably just chapter one. So I’m quite familiar with Rick’s style.

In late January, I got this from him:
Hey Tom:
In other news, an old college friend posted a phrase on Facebook, describing a large icicle, that is quite simply a magnificent book title:

“Swirled all the way to the shrub”

I can’t let it go. Here’s a crazy idea: Wanna write a short story together, with that title as the jumping off point? I don’t have a lot of time these days, so I’m not proposing anything at breakneck speed. Could be a hoot though.

“Swirled All the Way to the Shrub”

Rick

Starting the Story’s Engine

Rick, who also has a talent and penchant for vivid character names, supplied some starters, one of which seemed to scream for the page: Pinky DeVroom. We decided to try alternating chapters. Here’s my opening story paragraph:

Pinky DeVroom, in his cups, stared into his brandy. His lips appeared to be having a complex argument, flexing and jutting without a clear rhythm. The argument’s fulcrum was the removal of the characteristic sneer from those lips, but the pivot was coming to rest: the sneer won.

The Shrub, just to keep you from dying of suspense, became the Prohibition-era speakeasy that Pinky, a Boston society-column newspaper man frequents. The era is essential, because the story starts just short of the Crash of ’29, which torques Pinky’s world, along with most of the rest of the world.

Rick is a history enthusiast, so he peppers some of his choice phrasings with interesting elements of the period, all of which cause me to caution him on making sure they serve the story. I’m also the one to try to constrain all the words in the world from escaping the corral: we’re already at 8,500 big bananas, so that’s already an upsized short story (that comes with fries); I’m trying to avoid adding any fatty dessert.

But I do want to ensure there’s a snifter of metaphoric cognac at the finish.

Bringing It Home, While Still Shaking Hands

We’ve rounded the corner on the thing, though at more of a trot than a gallop. It’s not proceeding briskly, because each of us must mull the other’s additions, considering them in light of story tone, character development and the arc of the tale, and how best to move the narrative so it’s both coherent and compelling. And so it doesn’t seem like it’s being written by committee.

So far, so good. It’s a fun story, with playful language but some serious events. And we’ve pushed poor Pinky around so he’s almost at wit’s end—but we can do that: he’s just a character, not a collaborator. With your collaborators, you have to be much more subtle in your manipulations. Right Rick?

Any of you worked with another person in writing a story? Did everybody live?

Bonus: Fiction That Will Make You Quake

I made it to the quarter-finals of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. That doesn’t mean a whole lot, because that means of the 2,000 entrants in my general fiction category, I’m among 100 candidates. But it’s nice to get this far. If you’d like to read the first 13 pages of my new (unpublished) novel, Aftershock, you can download it for Kindle here. It’s set in the San Francisco of the 1989 earthquake. (No, I’m not going to say it’s rockin’ writing.) Reviews welcome!

Stealing Grandma’s Word Machine

Remington

Can a typewriter have a Southern accent?

My grandmother was a bit of a Southern belle, having grown up comfortably in Meridian, Mississippi before taking up with a Yankee from New York, and finally settling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The details of that odyssey aren’t important here; what’s to the point is that I remember the soft roll of her voice, and the smile in that voice as well.

I could hear that voice in person through the years of our family’s many summer visits from Southern California to Colorado, and I could hear it in my imagination when I read the words of her letters, which she wrote to me and my siblings on birthdays, and to my parents, perhaps to impart some neighborhood gossip or suggest a new card game she’d learned in their absence. She did love her cards.

Grandma Bentley is probably dealing a sharp hand in heaven right now, and has been fleecing the angels there for many years, so the letters have long ceased. But the typewriter, the compact, circa 1930 Remington, lives on. And thanks to my oldest sister’s efforts to have it refurbished and shipped to me, it lives in my house. Let me assure you—this isn’t a Macbook Air.

The Underwood as Missile Launcher

Just a couple of years out of college, fancying myself a writer who needed tangible evidence, I bought a massive Underwood typewriter from a Goodwill, or maybe even a pawn shop. It was from the early 1940s, and if dropped from a 10-story building, would have continued through the ground for another story or two. It had a massive frame, with enough steel for a missile launcher. This Remington is much more compact, merely a bazooka.

If you haven’t typed on a manual typewriter for some time (or never), you may have forgotten what a tactile presence the machines have. When depressed, individual keys swing up rapidly and plunge down, a whipping arm with the fisted letter at the end. The Remington’s keys impact the paper with a sharp “thwack!”—if you had to clandestinely write something while someone else is in the house, better head to the basement and work under a mattress. It’s loud, and satisfyingly so.

But my fingers are no longer the Underwood power-plungers they once were. I haven’t been using the Remington enough, so I haven’t developed a good rhythm. I have to compel my digits to drill down, with power, through the full, long carry of the keys. My typing is more, “thwack, thwack, thwww, thwww, thwack!” Mistakes abound. And the Delete key on such a device was known as Wite-Out, a once ubiquitous substance that is probably used now to bleach discolorations in plaster or perhaps to staunch bloody noses. I wouldn’t invest in the company stock if I were you.

Missing the Scream Key

No self-respecting Internet troll would ever use the Remington—it doesn’t have an exclamation point! How could anyone acidly rant on about Gweneth Paltrow or climate change hoaxes or our Muslim Socialist Kenyan (and probably secretly vegan) president without this key key? I tried to cobble together an exclaimer out of lowercase i’s and l’s, with a period below, but to no avail. Surely a machine from a kinder, gentler time. The machine makes music too: there’s a lovely “ding!” when you reach the end of a line, which signals progress. (Though in my case, it mostly signaled that a line full of typing errors was ready to be supplanted by a fresh one.)

I doubt I’ll be using the Remington for much more than writing ransom notes, but I’m very pleased to have it. I’m not nostalgic for many old things, except perhaps for my grandmother. I can’t have her, but I have her word machine. I’m hoping there’s a story submerged in there, perhaps something of a Flannery O’Connor flavor, that I can pull up and out.

Thwack!