Writing Practice – 7/17/2018

From Telling Stories, page 225

“It is a northern country. They have cold weather, they have cold hearts.”

But their words are warm. They speak of love, they speak of tenderness. So to outsiders, they sound welcoming. They sound safe.

It is a lie.

They have learned how to deceive. That is the way of the north. It is not a community endeavor. It is survival of one, and one only, in any way possible, and so the tendencies to restrict vulnerability with truthfulness, no, not truthfulness, the tendencies to restrict vulnerability with falsehood has become ingrained into the psyche.

Do not let another know what you truly feel. For it is not necessary, really, for you to tell, for if you are a resident, it is known by all the others that your heart is as cold, as callous, as heartless as all the others in this place. How could it be otherwise?

The outsiders, they do not understand this phenomenon. They come to view, to observe this community where everyone smiles, always, billed in the over-there advertisements as “the Land of Perpetual Happiness”, but the reality is far less joyous. They come, they believe, they depart, and the attractions, the people in the zoos of their storefronts and town plazas and sidewalks and in their homes, the people are on display, they are objects of manipulation, they are exploited, and this, too, drives the true warmth out of their hearts.

They cannot understand the southerners either. To know is to understand, and since they refuse to know they have not the opportunity for understanding. Were they to somehow find a portion of their stone-cold pits transfigured, they may have the first step toward that place fo common knowledge. But, since that would take a miracle, it shall be a long time coming, and for now, these two groups will maintain their separate and unequal status, neither satisfied with the condition, neither truly comprehending their level of dissatisfaction and, consequently, the limitations which such an arrangement places on them.

It is easy, casual even, for an outside observer such as ourselves to make such judgments. We can see objectively into the situation, weigh pros and cons without malice, and pass the verdict on without emotion and conflict.

But for them? For them it is impossible. They are in it. They are buried neck-deep in the situation, and for that they will ultimately suffer. The only redeeming quality in this suffering is that, because it is constant, they know not what it truly is. In this their ignorance is bliss. A terrible bliss, but, nonetheless…

Extremely Bad Advice – Unluckily In Love

Dear SJ, I think I’ve fallen in love with my counselor. I’ve been seeing her for nearly a decade, every week, almost without fail. At first it was just because I was having so much anxiety over the economy (2008 and all), and then it was my kids’ birth, and then it was my dad’s death, and then it was losing my job, and then it was my wife having an affair. It seems like these things just keep coming at me, and throughout it all she’s been there, a comfort, a safe place, someone I can confide in and she’ll never judge me for how I’m thinking.

I want to tell her how much I love her. In fact, I think she loves me, too. She’s always smiling when I come to the door, and she never says I’m doing anything wrong, even when I was out of work and didn’t bother looking for a job for six months. She texts me every week a couple of happy quotes, on top of the messages to remind me of the session time, which has been set in stone for years, so I know she’s thinking about me too. I don’t want to miss out on a good thing, and if she’s for real, I’d would consider leaving my wife. If she’s not, I don’t know how I can face finding a new counselor for all the terrible crap I know is coming my way in the future. What should I do? LOVESICK IN LUBBOCK

Dear LOVESICK,

Well, it’s pretty clear that you’re in what you think is a tough situation. I don’t think so, because I’d never let myself get so far down in that pigsty that I felt I needed a counselor, anyway, but since you’re here, let’s get to it.

First, forget about your wife. It’s obvious that she’s not the one for you. She may have pooped out a couple of meatbags for half your DNA, but since she was willing to have an affair, that means she’s not as invested in the relationship as you need her to be. Regrets, shmegrets. If she really cared about you two things would never have happened.

One, you would never have felt the need to confide in a counselor in the first place. Well-adjusted adults do just fine baring their souls to their life-partners and listening sympathetically (or is it just pathetically?) in reciprocation. The fact that you did not get this from her and, consequently, needed to seek validation from a counselor indicates she is has not been, and will not be in the future, a good fit for you.

It’s clear she realized this long before you did. Thus the affair, which is #2 that wouldn’t have happened if she really cared about you. You couldn’t meet her needs, she probably tried to “open a dialogue” and you shot her down, so she went elsewhere. Surprised it took you this long to figure that out.

But back to your problem with the counselor. It’s also no surprise that this person who listened to your “issues” (frankly, I’ve never seen one a good weekend out at the lake can’t clear up) is now the one you think you should be with. See above, point one, and try to make sense of it all. I’ll give you a minute. I know it’s difficult to do logic problems of the “Since B then A” type with your Neander-skull, so here’s a hint: It’s because people who bare their souls to one another consider each other life-partners, and vice versa. You think she’s the one for you because she listened. It ain’t true, but it’s what you think.

So, we’ve taken care of the guilt you have about leaving your own wife, and identified that you believe you’ll be happier with your counselor. Why not go for it, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you that the era of simply declaring your love is long gone. These days, you need an obscenely extravagant gesture to get anything out of a woman. State’s Exhibit #1, the rise of the “Prom-Posal”, complete with self-indulgent live streams and blast replays to prove they have three more pubic hairs than their best friend or something. Ugh. Have I mentioned I hate society? But it’s what the world has degenerated into, so in order to win the game you must play by the rules.

Thus to get your counselor to agree to be with you, an obscenely extravagant gesture on your part is order. Forget spelling things out in food, or hiding in a cake, or hiring a band or something. Those have all been done before. And no, I’m not going to suggest you kidnap her or murder-suicide or anything illegal. (Long-time readers are spurting coffee onto their keyboards and shouting “WHAT?!?!?!” right now.) Those are too cliché. You need something unique.

So here’s what I suggest. First, buy the building where she rents office space. Over the next year, as other tenants’ leases renew, raise their rent to 10x the current amount. If they’re smart they’ll stop renting from you and move out. If they aren’t, hey, extra bank for you. Eventually all the rooms but hers will be empty. Offer to let her have the largest office for just the same rent as she was paying before. You can frame this as “A token of my appreciation for your loyalty.” She, having heard of the ridiculous increases in everyone else’s rent, will be so moved by your gratitude that she will accept immediately.

Then, when moving day comes, all you have to do is wait in the big empty office with a bottle of champagne and a dozen roses, and wearing nothing but a big shiny bow around your waist. She’ll get the hint and soon you two will be living happily ever after. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.

Composing a Story – Part 3 of ?

Part 1

Part 2

After my own first and second drafts, I sent my story to my writing peers for commentary. I also sent it to a loyal reader (Thanks, E!) who volunteered to comment. I received valuable feedback from them and incorporated it.

Sometimes commentary can be good. Sometimes not. I once submitted a story to an online critique group and got about 500 words of “you need a comma here, you need a comma there, you need a comma over in that other place”. Dude, that was a style. It was intended to be run-on, because my character didn’t really think in logical structure that we’re all used to. So that critique didn’t do me any good. Had he said, once, “I don’t understand it without commas,” and then also gone on to give me 200 words explaining that he didn’t get why the character chose to eat his own shoe, I would have gotten at least something out of it. As it was, repeating over and over his insistence on proper grammar achieved nothing.

For this story, though, I was fortunate that my reviewers provided valuable feedback. Such as, “I can’t tell if this story is intended to be omniscient or close third-person.” This kind of thing I appreciate and can use when revising. And “as a reader, I would have liked a little more connection between Marcus’s decision at the end and the two major problems:”. These comments allow me, as an author, to understand where my readers are confused, or bored, or annoyed, or simply tired of reading about something. These are the places where I need to decide, as an author, if I want to make a change or leave it as it is.

Because I, as the author, may want you to be bored in a scene. I may need you to feel the impatience my characters feel, as they wait for the coming storm. I may be leading you towards greater tension later, and a more emotionally satisfying resolution of that tension, because you’re feeling uninspired now and I’m going to use that to escalate the experience for the reader as the story progresses.

One of my more successful story edits based on feedback was to add a whole scene at the start, and when I did it clearly became a better experience. But sometimes, I’m just going to read all those comments and say, “Hell, I like it as it is!” and move on. I’ve done it both ways.

Back to the point at hand. This story had a style that, I thought, kept the reader distant from the main character Marcus. And while that worked to make him somewhat unlikable, it also slowed the pace of the story. Here’s the opening paragraph. I’ve highlighted where words will change:

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

And here it is, re-written.

Had he been paying attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky might be transforming into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and could have aided his resistance.

These may be small changes. But they make the scene more active: “been able to pay attention” is simply “been paying attention”, and actually gives Marcus more authority in the moment. We know a sky is “overhead”, this word is redundant. The sky wasn’t “attempting” anything, it actually was transforming, and so making it more active brings more immediacy to the scene. The final phrase is clunky, too. Why use 5 words, “attempt to fight back”, when one, “resistance”, does the same thing?

A second example, from later in the story

He looked up to see her standing tall above him. She held her scythe in one hand, and an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said.

She thrust the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor. Like rotten fruit and rotten milk, it made him want to gag.

Re-written:

She stood tall above him. Scythe in one hand, an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said, thrusting the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor of rotting fruit and milk. He gagged.

And that’s how a lot of this editing went this round. Making action stronger. Making dialogue more tightly bound to the action it complements. Ensuring Marcus has action, like gagging, rather than a lot of desires, like wanting to gag.

Version 2 was 10,200 words. I liked the plot and the characters. The action was not active enough, though, and overall it was bloated and wordy. Critiques helped that.

Version 3, as a result, was 9,700 words. Kept all the same plot points and characters and backstory and eliminated a lot of the fluff. The good thing about that is, too, it’s now under a 10,000 word limit that some markets have. So there may be more opportunities to publish this than before.

I finished all the re-writes and edits about 8:30 pm on a Saturday night and formatted it according to the Writers of the Future guidelines. Submitted before the midnight deadline, and now I wait.

But not passively. While waiting for the result (expectation: no award), I’ll also build a list of next markets for submission. I hope to get at least 15, so that when a rejection comes in I can turn it around quickly and have it back out. And if I get all 15 of those rejections, it’s probably time to re-consider the story.

Writing Practice 7/8/2018 – Epigenetics

Write about epigenetics…

You and I and everyone else in this world, well every thing else in this world, with DNA at least, have genes. Genetics is the science of understanding which genes we have. Epigenetics, then, must be something different. My vague recollection includes a brief entry for this topic, so I’ll try to make an educated guess, or at least bullshit you into believing I know what I’m writing about.

The introductory “epi-” must mean we’re talking about more than the physical structure of the genes themselves. That’s the way specific combinations of the molecules A (adenosine), G (guanine), T (toramine), and C (cytosine) are arranged in sequence. Epi- means not just what genes do you have, but what genes do you use. It’s sort of like metaphysics for the physical (ironically metaphysics is not about the physical at all!) world. Meta physics is the “meta-“, the “more than” physical. The “beyond” physical. The intellectual, the emotional, the psychological – structural elements of every thing beyond the stuff of matter and quarks and electrons and Newton’s Laws and thermodynamics. Could have named it “meta-genetics”, but I think that the audience would get confused. They would have thought it was covering population-level ideas. Because we use “meta-” often to talk about umbrella policies, things that cover a whole swath of one area of study. Meta-studies are studies of other studies, like you examine all of the arguments and research conclusions in individual published papers, and draw a conclusion about conclusions. So a “meta-genetics” would possibly be interpreted as studying conclusions about population-level genetic trends and expressions over and above what shows up in individuals.

So our topic, “epi-” genetics, to be “beyond” what you have to what you use, is a slightly different topic. As I see it (and, of course, I see it clearly, duh, why else would I be writing so without authority on the subject?), epigenetics is the science of not only what genes we have, but how they express themselves in the life of the individual animal, or plant, or bacterium, in which they reside. [Aside – do bacteria have similar structures like vestigial organs, that humans do? What the hell even is a bacteria in any way? Why are we so afraid of them?] So that there may be genes for, say, ability to digest a certain enzyme. Let’s call it examplase (for example). So humans, at one time, needed to digest examplase because it was found in high concentrations among certain bushes & berries in, I dunno, the Sumerian Crescent. So, the one who digested examplase better, over time, were more survivor-like, and therefore more likely to pass on genes for digesting examplase to their offspring.

Now, fast-forward ten thousand years. There may be a gene for examplase in every single human around. But, it isn’t doing anything any longer, because not because there isn’t any examplase (there is, in the Sumerian Crescent), but because we have largely eliminated it from our diets. So even though we could use the energy processing systems of our digestive system in order to break down examplase, we don’t need to. So our bodies have recognized this and we have “turned off” the access to the examplase digestive instructions within the genetic code.

Maybe think of it as a library. All the sections have instructions as to what to do. If we want to do more, we add another section of instructions (genetic code), like adding more shelves of books. The’ll always be there. But, when we don’t need them immediately, we can turn out the lights and lock the door to that room for a while, safe in the evolutionary knowledge that if we ever need to go ack there, we could, and what we need will be waiting, patiently, to come to our rescue in our trials.

Impressions of the St. Louis Pen Show

Note – This is not a review. I have no qualifications to “review” something like a pen show, as this was my very first one ever. A review implies a value judgment; a “goodness” or “badness” to the experience. As I am in no way qualified to judge this, I’ll simply offer my impressions, rather than evaluation.

I don’t recall how I heard about the St. Louis Pen Show. Probably the radio. But the opportunity to see a unique slice of humanity intrigued me, so I went. Plus, I remembered a story from years back when the radio journalist had visited a high-end pen store, interacted with a “pen presenter”, and got to hold a $38,000 writing instrument. So in the hopes of uncovering some rare jewel of experience, I went to the St. Louis Pen Show on Saturday afternoon.

This is a 4 day event. Thursday through Sunday. There are exhibitors of vintage and current-production pens. There are fountain pens, ball-point pens, and probably other styles I can’t describe. The vast majority of visitors are older, white, and really, really know their stuff. The exhibitors are probably equally split between professionals (new sales of pens, paper, and accessories; restoration services; ancillary products) and hobbyists (those who collect and travel to shows just for the fun of it).

Pen_show_1
Ballroom 1 of 2

There are demonstrations and awards presentations. There are bargains to be had, and unique finds to be uncovered. I don’t know whether I would have adequately identified either.

I asked questions. I asked what makes the difference between a $200 pen and a $500 pen. Some answers are that the smaller quantity of original production, the more rare it will be now and therefore more valuable. Excellent versus marginal condition makes a difference. Original materials make a difference. One pen I was shown came from the 1930s, and the collector said it was obvious that it had never been used. Such pristine condition makes it much more valuable.

The highest-priced pen I actually held was for $1,400. It was over a hundred years old. It had an octagonal barrel made of pearl. Quite unique amongst the many options of materials, and the fact that it had held up so long also increased its value. There were cheap ones, too, fountain pens and ballpoints from $10 or $15 new, and some vintage ones from $15 to $30.

I learned that there are many different widths of nib for fountain pens. These can run from EF (extra fine) through to BBB (triple-broad). And that these sizes are not standard, so a “fine” from one maker might be in between the “extra fine” and “fine” of another.

Pen_show_2
Ballroom 2 of 2

I asked, “What’s the great advantage of a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen?” The answer was, “Well, with a ball-point pen you get at the store, you can have any color you want! As long as it’s black or blue. Maybe red.” Point being, with a fountain pen, you are not limited to just the few standard colors that fill the aisles at Staples. One vendor said he had 27 versions of black. And over 1,400 different colors available!

I learned that there are dozens of mechanisms for filling the inkwell. Classic designs included things like eye dropper fill, creating vacuum with a thumb, a “pressed-coin” bladder, and others. Modern include replaceable cartridges and some kind of screw-thingy that meant you could fill quickly and without mess.

I saw a lot of very fancy pens that looked more like jewelry or works of art than writing instruments. I learned that pens have often been one of the few male jewelry pieces, similar to a watch. While women may be able to wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, men have been limited. Watches are one way they can express themselves or set themselves apart from others.

AP_Limited_Editions_1
AP Limited Editons (photo from aplimitededitions.com)

There’s an industry magazine, full color glossy paper, with news of the goings on within the high-end pen world and advertisements for the new fall line. Designers are crafting limited-edition runs of these pieces (maybe as few as 30 or so) in order to create a scarcity that elevates the price. These pens become a status symbol, not a tool. You do not give one of these to your neighbor for him to sign the pizza delivery receipt.

After about an hour, I got overwhelmed. I did not go in knowing what I was looking for, so I was flooded with too much information. If I’d been searching for a specific kind of pen, or a specific kind of ink, or an appraisal of a pen from my collection, I think I would have been able to handle a longer time there. Because I would have been focused, and not distracted by so much of the bright and shiny around. Maybe if I’d had time to step out of the exhibit hall for an hour and take a class, I would have had a break and been able to go for another round. Or, maybe, if I just knew little about what I was doing, I’d have appreciated it more.

I think I’ll go back next year. It was certainly unique. And at only $5 for admission, I can’t say I wasted my afternoon. On the contrary, it was money well spent.

In which I must now apologize to Chick Fil-A

I ate lunch at Chick Fil-A recently. I had a Cool Wrap. I was left unsatisfied. I called them out on it by apologizing to my stomach for having left it unsatisfied. I blamed it on the size of the wrap, as if Chick Fil-A must have done something wrong. And now I must apologize to them.

You see, it’s not Chick Fil-A. It’s virtually ALL of the wrap-serving establishments in the city (well, the suburbs) that are providing sub-standard product. In the past week I have eaten wraps at 3 different locations, and I can honestly say that I was dissatisfied with the wraps at a majority of them. They just don’t seem to be making them like they used to.

I wonder if it’s the suppliers. Perhaps “Big Flour” has started to constrict the supply of adequately-sized wraps, in order to squeeze higher profit margins out of their downstream customers. Did they intentionally design wraps with a slightly smaller diameter, just to save a few cents in production and shipping costs? Are they bumping up against tough quarterly returns and have to meet shareholder expectations by increasing their EBITDA a couple of points, and so they had to “sharpen their pencils” and find every kind of cost savings possible?

Maybe it’s even bigger than that. Is this perhaps a knock-on effect of the steel tariffs imposed by President Trump? Is there a wheat shortage in central Asia that I don’t know about? Perhaps last year’s futures market got hacked by some rogue trading bots, driving prices up and making them a killing, all the while artificially inflating the cost of raw materials delivered this year. That higher cost of production is now borne by me, the hungry consumer, when, in order to keep end-line prices the same, wrap producers were forced to trim a centimeter from the diameter, a millimeter from the depth.

Though maybe there is a bright side. I might be eating 20 fewer calories each time, which, I guess, could add up. But not if I compensate by buying that “Sharing Size” bag of peanut butter M&Ms (drool) and then hoarding it for myself. Hold on – I just got distracted. Let me correct.

I guess the end result is this: Chick Fil-A, I apologize. I insulted your integrity in assuming you were the ones making the wraps smaller to increase profits. I now understand you were simply a victim of economic forces out of your control. In the future, I will be slower to judge, and quicker to spin convoluted tales of nefarious suppliers and unconscionable profit-seekers, in order to maintain your good image. Best of luck.

I, Too, Must Apologize For Eating at Chick-Fil-A

It was Tuesday, around 1 pm. I had a morning networking meeting and then I worked at the library for a couple of hours. And I had a call scheduled for 2 pm, so I didn’t want to get distracted and miss it. How unprofessional would that be?

So, I walked over to the Chick-Fil-A next to the library. Not a bad walk. Yeah, it was hot, but not unbearable for the 2 minutes I was outside. Actually, I rather liked it. Got me a bit of a sweat which then felt great when I opened the door and re-entered modernity.

I stood at the counter and contemplated my options. Sandwich? Tenders? Nuggets? And then it hit me:

Cool Wrap.

Like, duh, could I have done anything different? The Ranch Cool Wraps are, in my memory, like the second-best thing ever made for fast food. #1 was Wendy’s pitas from the late 90’s, but since those have gone the way of the Dodo, I console myself with the fresh, multi-faceted goodness combination that is a Chick-Fil-A wrap.

“Cool Ranch combo, please”. Aww, yeah, deliciousness hitting my mouth soon.

I grab my drink and by the time I’m ready to sit at a booth, there’s a smiling, “My pleasure”-spouting employee with my tray. Score! I slide in, sip a bit of root beer, sample a few waffle fries, and then dig in, unwrapping one half of the log so I don’t accidentally-on-purpose ingest some wax paper.

I’ve ordered the Avocado Lime dressing. Not a bad choice. It adds some nuanced flavors to the creaminess, and as I dip I get the full effect: wheat wrap, lettuce, carrots, chicken, dressing. Not a bad way to spend a half-hour, if I do say so myself.

All too soon, though, I’m finished with the first half. Huh? That’s it? I wonder if, by some chance, my wrap was mis-cut, leading me to pick up the substantially smaller portion first. But, no, I look at the other and it’s just as paltry.

What the hell happened? It used to be that a Cool Ranch wrap was a full serving. Now it looks like it’s been cut down to 80% of its former size. Like Jim Carrey in Me, Myself, and Irene, you appreciate it for what it used to be, but these days it’s just not delivering like it’s supposed to.

So, I finished my wrap, waffle fries, and drink, gathered my trash, and left, my still-not-full stomach unsatisfied. And for that, I apologize.

I’m sorry, belly. I got your hopes up. I did not realize that the situation around me had changed so dramatically since the last time I partook of what used to be a delicious luncheon session. I won’t make the same mistake again. Next time – Waffle House.