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.

Confessions of a Naked, Shoplifting Hitchhiker and Other Posts

'hitchhiker' photo © 2009, Bradley Gordon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Since I was raised a good Catholic boy, I exercised all the tenets of the faith, including regular confession. Since I’ve skipped a distance from my altar-boy days, I’ve not experienced the pleasures (?) of the confessional in many years. Fear not! These are times of public exposure of the most sordid sorts—entire television networks are built on shows displaying the curdlings of our bestial natures.

In that vein, I’ve put a few posts on the wonderful medium of Medium, one of the more intriguing of the long-form essay sites that have gained solid web readership, even in our time of the sound-bite post. And lucky for you, each one is about salacious events in my past, so that you can use them as a moral lesson for your children or your cats.

First up, though, a different confession: my account of my extended, laborious attempt to promote my collection of short stories using every book-promotion tool at my disposal, until I felt like disposing of them all.

The Book-Promotion Balloon, Where’s the Helium?

Promoting your book without appearing to be a self-obsessed asshat sleazeball, housed at the wonderfully writerly home of WriterUnboxed.

Five-Finger Discounter, Emeritus

I might need two priests to confess this one: my glory-days as a high-school shoplifter, where my first taste of entrepreneurship came to the fore (handcuffs optional).

The Witching Hour

More just-post-high school fun: the imperative lesson here is not to approach your landlords after you’ve been drinking (and happen to be naked).

Playing with Matches

A tale from my hitchhiking days, detailing when your ride goes south—and you’re not even moving. Oh, and the highway was set on fire too.

Anyone interested in a much longer version of hitchhiking madness can read my coming-of-age novel, All Roads Are Circles, where I make the characters undergo even more terrible things than I underwent in these escapades above. Authors, cruel lot all.

PS I have calmed down a bit since high school, and I’m my own landlord, so I can confront myself naked when I please.

Caution: This Fiction Contains Pulp

'Gun Smoke Red' photo © 2010, Charles Knowles - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

My last post was about how writing prompts can spread some salsa on your keyboard to get your writing moving. In checking out some of the writing prompt sites, I found this prompt contest, which supplies 10 pages of writing prompts on varying subjects.

I chose one in the Action category, because the prompts made me think about writing a story beginning in a pulp-fiction like style. First prize wins $500, but hurry—contest ends at 11:59 CST Dec. 22. (You only need to write the beginning of a story, at least 500 words.) Below is my effort, which leans heavily on alliterative wordplay. It begins in media res.

Love at First Shot

I’d coated my fright about being caught for the crime—one I didn’t commit—with four bourbons, neat, but the pleasant hum in my head wouldn’t last: there was a knock at the door, and a knock in my knees.

It was Lucy Ligature. Former vamp turned viper—editorially speaking, that is. My colleague, my critic, my counterpart chaser of riveted readers. The editor of the Hearsay Herald, a rival rag run by Lucy, the delicious dish with the tire-squealing curves. Though now she only revved her engines for on-paper scandal scooping. This rendezvous called for the saucy sangfroid only a true cad could corral.

“Uh, well, Ms. Ligature, Lucy my dear. An unexpected pleasure. And I thought our boy Cal only spilled his soul for the pages of Hush-Hush. And now he’s spilled so much more. Shot in the tabloids—or by them, you might say. And now the cops are sure to think the shooter is me. But what’s this I hear about me being next in line for some lead?”

She slowly shaped her ripe-cherry lips into a smile that played leapfrog with a sneer. “Danny boy. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Since she was punctuating these pleasantries by waving a stainless-steel Smith and Wesson, my idea fountain at the time was distinctly dry.

“I’m afraid that any article about this incident is going to have to center on the sealed secret of the smoking gun, trite as that might be,” she said, with a smirk that crossed a gargoyle with a goddess. “I do fear you’ll accuse me of lacking imagination, but, silly as it may sound, it was an accident. An accident that’s never going to have my name attached to it.”

She slid her limber legginess onto what was left of a leather loveseat and let out a sibilant sigh. It was then that I notice the weathered wisp of paper in her other hand’s gunless grasp. She glanced at the lifeless lug, whose innards were swiftly becoming outtards on his reddened rug. “Cool Cat seems to have misplaced his meow,” she said. She settled a steely stare on me and said, “The ninth life is always the nastiest one, I’ve heard.”

“Look Lucy,” I said, “Cal’s never been a choirboy, and there’s many a man who’d like nothing better than to see him skewered. But what’s he ever done to you, besides only offering the Herald his leftovers, rather than any major meat?” I was trying to play it cool, but I was shiftily sliding back, hoping to get my hind to the hinterlands in a doorward dash.

Lucy languidly lounged on the loveseat, and gave me a lissome look. “Hey, I’m going to tell it to you straight, Daniel, if you have ears to hear. The main means of getting secrets is being able to keep them, and I’ve kept more than a couple out of your readers’ sour saliva. One is that I’m engaged to be married in two days. The other is that I stand to inherit two million dollars, but only on the condition that I marry before I turn 50.”

She stirred on the loveseat and waggled that winking weapon. “The last secret, and the one that’s going to be covered up as cleanly as Calhoun’s coffin, is that I’ll be 50 the day after my wedding.” She brandished the birth certificate and laughed. “You see, you pathetic peddler of fishrot, my fickle fiancé thinks I’m barely thirty-five! Cal was blackmailing me, being the only one who knew my real age, and with a copy of my birth certificate to prove it!”

She slapped the gun on the loveseat and my heart did a triple-flip. “Cool Kitty had no pity,” she said. “He knew that my fiancé would skip out as fast as those facts got out. So I came here to cop the cop’s certificate, and he showed up while I was rifling through his house. It’s probably the only wrestling match with a woman he’s ever lost. I didn’t mean to shoot him.”

I was flat-out flabbergasted. For a woman of a certain age, she was sensational—she’d always zinged my heartstrings. I’ve never considered quicker or scampered swifter in my love-lacking life. “Lucy, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I said. I called my office on my digital phone, telling them that charming Cal had never opened his door to me. We did a swift scrub of Lucy’s paw prints and mine, and then made a beeline for the beach, where a shiny firearm was flung into the maw of mother ocean.

I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to manage to write a story that plucked me from the heart of the crime without implicating the honey that was making my heart melt (or yours tangentially truly), but hey, I’m good at improvising. And Lucy knew how to tango, so a twosome we shall be. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Action suggestions.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and no dangling participles to all!

Paranoid Bell Peppers and Other Writing Prompts

'July Collage 3' photo © 2010, Julie Jordan Scott - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
 
Writing prompts are small sparklers that can light up corners of your writing mind, corners that might remain dark without the nudge.

Prompts can be so completely off the wall—”Describe how your intestines would try to parallel-park a minivan”—that your conventional approach to storytelling is struck dumb—a new tongue can be induced to speak.

Writing in other voices, other colors and other textures is a way to unleash your imagination’s beast. Roar!

There are a number of sites on the Net that supply good writing prompts. If a character in one of your stories goes mute, or a plot point doesn’t seem to have a point, they can be a good way to get your writing threads unglued. Writing for five minutes on some fizzy subject could loosen whatever is reining you in on your bigger project.

Here are some sites:

StoryWonk
Creative Writing Prompts
Writer’s Digest Prompts
Creative Writing Solutions
One Minute Writer
Sunday Scribblings
On Twitter: @writingprompts

And for fun, here are a couple of my pieces I just zipped off, a few minutes per. One was to put myself in the mind of a vegetable (not too hard in my case) and another in the mind of a metal. Both of them appear to have some self-esteem problems.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

“Uhh, something’s not right,” the bell pepper said aloud. I feel something damp right at my feet, she thought. No, not quite damp, no, more like mossy, yes mossy.

She strained to see her tiny feet, but being a bell pepper, could do nothing more than glimpse a bit of the soft green swell of her belly. It’s itchy too, she thought.

Then with an abrupt tightening of her shoulders (which being a bell pepper, didn’t tighten all that much), she realized it: she was moldy! Moldy, her, and not even two weeks old. She stifled a sob, and then groaned. She sensed the nearby celery shrinking back from her.

Iron’s Bluff Is Called

Nothing’s nobler than Iron, Iron Eddy thought. All those other pretenders, magnesium, sulphur, silicate—hah! Losers, pathetic wannabes. I alone am iron-hearted, iron willed. He looked quickly around and then said under his breath, “But I’ve been hearing some rumors, ugly rumors. It got back to me that my mother wasn’t pure!” He bestirred his tight neck and raised his voice: “Nonsense! Just look at me, red-blooded in every way!” But he cast his eyes down, to the ore of his soul, and murmured, “But what about those striations of blue. Surely no one can see their vile shadows …”

Get Prompted, Get Productive

I know I know, works of genius, aren’t they? But fun! Check out those prompt sites and fling some sentences into the universe. They might orbit around in your head long enough to spur you on write something with more gravity.

If Woody Allen Was a Marketing Copywriter

Woody Allen writing
I’m a guy who likes a well-turned aside, the parenthetical phrase. (Admit it—you find the curves on a pair of parentheses sexy too.) One fun example is the elocution that made Jimmy Stewart famous. Many of his movies display his signature mannerism, where another character has declared something outrageous or unanticipated, and Jimmy will be in a kind of reverie where he’ll say something like, “Oh, well, uh, yeess, I suppose that’s so …” then a “What! What did you say?” And the reversal from his mumbles to his mania is priceless.

There’s something so charming about the head-scratching Stewart mumbling and stuttering his asides to the central conversation. But the best kind of sidelong declarations are the kind found in any of Woody Allen’s movies where he is a character. He’ll be in a big-picture situation that is neutral or slightly loaded, but Woody interprets it with an end-of-the-world punchline, often a lesson in comedic writing (and thinking).

Woody, the Reluctant Pitch Artist

Woody’s the antithesis of the marketing copywriter, but it’s fun to look at some of his stuff in a copywriting light:

• Timing the customer funnel. (Know when your buyer is ready. Or nudge them along.)

Allen: “What are you doing Saturday night?” Davila: “Committing suicide.” Allen: “What about Friday night?”

• If you can’t get a customer testimonial, the next best thing is to write one yourself.

“You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”

• Direct, plain-spoken words on personal challenges draw customer empathy. And who doesn’t like to complain about being ripped off?

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In which case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

• Features and benefits and imparting a sense of urgency

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

• Know your audience demographics (and don’t be afraid to drop names)

“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

• Statistics can sell the story:

“There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”

• Communicating the “What’s In It For Me” angle:

“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go it’s pretty damn good.”

OK, admittedly Woody is weak on calls to action, fuzzy on the features/benefits dance, and rather than solving a problem, he often introduces one. And a little bit of self-loathing can go a long way, but a lot, hmmm. But I do wish he’d take a shot at it—today’s beer commercials are sorely lacking in that winning parenthetical (and existential) touch.

Feeling a Word’s Curves—Oh, the Ecstasy!

Dictionary page
Writers can have a volatile relationship with words, often loving the little darlings when they line up in convivial cooperation. Sometimes words supply delight even when sentence forms are abused to torque a subject or vandalize a verb. “Words, yes, friends all!” the hoodwinked writer declares. Until the words land on the page with an audible clunk, or when an apt phrase or exact expression can’t be found no matter how deep the writer shovels into her soul. “Words, damn them, unreliable curs!”

I feel my own little death when I can’t summon the rhythmic bits of language that brick out a character or spin a scene, no matter fiction or fact. But here, I want to talk about appreciating a certain sense of words as objects, a savoring of the spice from a word stew.

In this case, I’m not talking about meanings; I’m referring to loving the feel of a word, its texture, whether it’s silky or scratchy, the odd combo of visual/visceral sensation you might get in your head from processing the very spelling of a word. You know, when looking a words gives you this kind of sensation. That kind of word sensitivity started young in me too—maybe it was all those ice-cream brain freezes that cooled my cranium.

The Weight of Words

Anyway, I had an early awareness of the weight of words, and some I gravitated to some more so than others. For instance, words with “x” in them, like bollix or flummoxed. Do those give you the little frisson I’m alluding to? And how certain words feel just right in their denotation: queasy has that little lurch or drop in its letter construction—in its stomach—that is carried through in its definition. Or a word like morbid: it has a deliciously dark feel.

I’ve heard it said by some comedians that some words, by their letters alone, are funny. Words that start with “k” or the k sound, for instance. Probably why I like the sound of the word crapulous—or maybe it just harkens to my Coca Cola-crapulous days behind the gargantuan brandy snifter in which I housed and hogged down all that carbonated sugar water as a child.

Digging Through Your Dictionaries

I wrote an essay a long while back for a magazine called Verbatim, about the crazy collection of dictionaries I had, and how fun it is to just flip through them and look for words that have a furry feeling, or a sinister sparkle, or a wry rictus. It’s a challenge to look through any dictionary page and not see some words that make you squint or grimace or grin.

Like your words ‘lectronic? There are bunches of word sites, but here are a couple of fun ones: Wordnik and Wordoid. Wordnik has a nice interactive aspect where you can upload your own usage notes, comments and citations to their word examples. Wordoid lets you play with made-up words. But don’t let your mother catch you.

Word: The Cat’s Meow

Let’s extend the word-delirium extend that a bit: the Shelf Awareness daily compendium of bookish (but never boorish) news revealed this statement from author Rick Riordan a while back about something he learned in his Egypt-themed novel research:

I did quite a bit of research, and had shelves of books on hieroglyphs and how magic pertained. The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word “cat,” they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.

Behold the power of words! (Note: I spent all day writing variants of “Jaguar” yesterday, but no car appeared. I did see an old cat move haltingly through the yard, however…)

So, feel the curve of your words, know which ones excite and enchant, which are sturdy soldiers, and which weak-kneed wastrels. You’ll never be able to truly tame them, but sometimes just getting them to play nice with one another is a mountain topped.

Psychobilly Cadillacs and Sweaty Island Tales

Psychobilly Cadillac

photo by Wikipedia

Hope I don’t seem like a stealthy weasel by luring you to this solemn site for a blog post only to send you away willy-nilly on the wings of links, but I had a couple of fun pieces published on other sites that may tickle whatever you might have that’s worth tickling.

The first, The Johnny Cash Approach to Novel Writing, uses the Man in Black’s crazed “I built a backyard Caddy out of pilfered parts” song as a frame for building the consciousness of your fictional characters (and vivid renderings of places where stories unfold), by gathering both the lunatic and the prosaic blossoms of incident and observation that happen to you over time. Really, the hot bricks of storybuilding are everywhere, so bring your wheelbarrow. This piece just appeared on Writer Unboxed.

The other is a literal stream-of-consciousness piece: streaming because it’s all about the almost hallucinatory effects of living in a tropical climate, endless perspiration prominent among them. You might feel you need to apply deodorant after reading this, but really it’s more amusing than odorous. The article in question, I Sweat, Therefore I Am (Sweaty) can be found on the congenial confines of Dave’s Travel Corner.

 

Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages

Cookies

 Hold on cookie fiend—you have to finish that chapter first!

As I sat hunched in my dank writing grotto, and tried to figure out a way to move my mouse so that the 40-pound chains that kept me at my desk wouldn’t rattle so, I pondered the rewards of writing. No, no, not those tinhorn rewards like a Booker or a Pulitzer or a Nobel, where you are forced to podium-prattle about authorial intention while you die inside over errant exposure of your nose hairs to the functionaries seated below. No, too tedious those rewards—I turned them all down, a polite click on the phone.

The rewards in question are the spurs, the goads, the carrotiest of carrots: the in medias res rewards you give (or deny) yourself while you are writing, or after a writing bridge has been crossed. The system of checks and pizzas, er, balances, by which you induce yourself to squeeze out another chapped chapter or even a single soggy sentence. What are those rewards? Do they work? (And does this punctuation mark make me look fat?)

I know you are champing at the bit to know whether it’s the lady or the tiger (or the tequila or the cookies), and one more click will do the trick: see the rest of my post courtesy of the fine folks at Writer Unboxed.

(Check out the post there for the crazed comments alone. I’d recommend Writer Unboxed for all fiction writers, for issues of craft, agenting, publishing and more. And tequila and cookies.)

Without An Address, You Can’t Go Home

Howdy Pardner Vegas Cowboy

Photo by Kevin Connors

When I lived in Las Vegas, my title at United Parcel Service was “Bad Address Clerk.” Because Vegas is a town of drifters, grifters and shifters of identity, packages would continually go astray, paralleled by the wanderings of their addressees, who in a month’s time in Vegas might have changed their residence—and their jobs, spouses and perhaps even their sex—two or three times. And then disappeared. So my shelves were filled with boxes large and small, for which the drivers could find no recipients.

Thus, if I exhausted every means of trying to locate these souls-on-the-wing (this being the 70s, many phone calls and phone book scratchings later), I would get to OPEN the packages, and, CSI-like, try to ascertain the whereabouts of the recipient by something in their contents. Guess what? People send very interesting things in the mail. Tear gas, for example. Firearms. Naughty things (I kept those). Jewelry. It was a diverting job, for a while; too bad it didn’t keep me out of the casinos.

Vicious tease that I am, I won’t let you see this tale fully unfold here. But know that it culminates in me stealing a car from a stripper, and having a cop remove me from my college classroom.

Well, at least that’s how it went down on paper. Check out the full article at Dave’s Travel Corner.

(What happens in Vegas—stays in your mind for years to come.)

The Viking Origin of Editing

As a historian who relies exclusively on lies, only I can sufficiently explain that Vikings were the original editors. And effective editors they were.

Please view the film below, where I let the world know about the early—and brutal—days of editing, and how that has affected editors today.