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…

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.

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.

Stuff I Just Want To Write Down – 6/4/2018 version

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a trend. I seem to be getting a lot of hits on my review of Mocelli watches. This is pretty cool! When I look at the stats I see that starting about April there was a big jump in the # of daily views. Many of them that watch review, but many others as well. Come for the scam, stay for the story! my grandmother used to say.

No, she didn’t. I made that up.

She did say, though, “If someone says a bad word, just don’t hear it.”

And she said, when she was talking about how to make bread, that you grab the flour can under one arm, and sugar can under the other, and when you’re measuring, you “take one hump of this, and two humps of that,” and she would kind of shrug her shoulder and pretend to be shaking the flour or sugar into the bowl. I never understood whether it was two parts sugar to one part flour, or the other way around.

I was going to tell the story of how I saw my grandmother’s breasts once, but I decided I don’t really remember what happened. It could have been just in her bra. Not sure. So I don’t want to go back to those repressed memories.

Not sure where this is going. I started out on watches, and now I’m onto incest. Ew, gross.

In more interesting news, my 15-year-old daughter told me tonight she isn’t entirely convinced that Earth is a sphere. She thinks there’s a non-zero chance that the flat-Earthers are right. I smacked her upside the head and said, “Don’t believe stupid stuff.” She tried to defend against the smacks by holding up her cat. So I flicked her on the forehead instead.

This whole post has been uncurated. I’ve just sort of let myself write things down and see what comes out. This is not Writing Practice (I already did that) and it’s not a pointed Personal Expression, where I have something important to say. It’s just my thoughts on today.

I know, pretty low-quality stuff right here.

THE END

P.S. I started reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s pretty powerful stuff. I’m rethinking my “angry white boy doesn’t give two shits about the world around him” stance.

P.P.S. I checked the stats. Turns out my Mocelli watches review has 109 views so far in June. The Home Page / Archives has just 9. Apparently I’ve done something right to get that page into some kind of preference for Google searches. May was just as lopsided – something like 230 views for Mocelli, and like 45 for the next most popular page. So I got that going for me.

Non-review of books

Here’s a few books I’ve read recently that I’m not going to review.

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway, by Ben Mezrich. Interesting, but in order to make a point it has to ignore a lot that doesn’t fit with the theme of the book.

Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. Read this one so I could participate in a book discussion group. I liked it, but apparently I missed one of the major points in the narrative when it was either implied or directly stated that what was coming next was flashback.

Aesop’s Illustrated Fables, Barnes & Noble edition. I liked it. I could see a lot of parallels to other morality tales. Just flipping through right now, I find “The Farmer and His Sons”, which is almost perfectly preserved in Jesus’s teaching (700 years later) of the gardener who had a dream that there was treasure buried beneath a tree. I liked reading the whole tale from which we often just distill the lesson. Plus I was intrigued to see Aesop break the 4th wall when he told stories about the slave Aesop.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. This won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the National Book Award when it was published in 1974. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the passage of time and seeing a fair amount of sci-fi since this was published, but I don’t really get why this would have been so spectacularly received.

Writers of the Future, Volume 34, edited by David Farland. I read this and WotF Vol 33 this spring, to get a better feel for the stories that win the contest, as this is a writing contest I try to enter every quarter. I’ve had Honorable Mentions and one Semi-Finalist. I’d still like to win, as long as I’m eligible. I’ll take being not eligible, because I’ve been published, too.

I think there’s more, but I don’t remember. I used to keep a list of books I’ve read. I haven’t maintained that this year. Unfortunately.

 

P.S. Edited to add – I remembered one!

Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, by Laura Moss. Gave me things to think about as I try to train my cat to come with me camping, hiking, and bicycling.

This Is Terrible Writing. Not This Post Itself, But This Article I’m Writing About … You Know What I Mean

Yesterday I was browsing around the web and clicked on one of my bookmarks. It’s an article from Metro, titled “The 11 Essential Documentaries of 2017.” Now, I haven’t seen any of these. I haven’t even read the article fully. But at some point, earlier this year, I saw that headline and probably thought, You know what? I should watch more documentaries, rather than Hollywood big-budget experiences leaving me empty inside afterwards. Maybe I’ll come back to this someday. [Click] – bookmarked.

So, here it is, the end of May, and I clicked back on that to see what I was supposed to remind myself of. Scanned it. Eh, probably some stuff I’ll eventually watch. Then I scrolled down a bit, to see what other things Metro has to offer. Fluff articles like “The Best NBA Basketball Players of All Time” and “If You Pay For Amazon Prime – Here’s How To Make It Even Better”. Not my thing, but not doing any harm either.

Then I saw one that might actually be something of interest.

Who is Dimitrious Pagourtzis, the Santa Fe Texas school shooter?

Now, being a father of a high school student, and three more to come in future years, this is an area of interest to me. What do we know about this kid? It’s been a couple of days. In the same amount of time after Parkland in February we were embroiled in a nationwide argument that, somehow, has been rather absent in this case. So, I wanted to know a little more about the young man. Might there be insights I could take away to use in discussions with my daughter? Might there be suggestions for how to watch for tendencies in my own kids (or their friends) that would indicate we need to intervene before they do something stupid?

Here’s a link if you wish to read the article for yourself. It won’t take long, it’s only 24 sentences, 418 words. Metro: Who is Demetrious Pagourtzis?

I won’t repeat it here. I will just make my commentary that this is in the top 3 worst pieces of writing I’ve ever seen.

Now, there are no typos here. No grammatical errors. No factual fallacies. No unjustified speculation. Taken all together, that might seem a fairly weak case for “top 3 worst pieces of writing I’ve ever seen”.

My reasons are as follows. First, Metro did absolutely nothing to create this story. They simply regurgitated facts from the Associated Press and a USA Today story. They did no investigation, no interviews, sent no representative to a press conference, or anything similar that should be expected of a journalistic enterprise. This piece was clearly written simply to have something to address the issue of the moment, to keep up with the overwhelming tidal wave of attention-grabbing that apparently passes for “news” these days. Disgusting.

Second, for a story entitled “Who is Demetrious Pagourtzis?”, I would have expected background. I would have expected an interview with his friends or classmates. Perhaps a talk with his parents, if they could be found, or a statement that such parents were not willing to talk with Metro. I’m pretty sure I’m not far off here.

However, of the article’s 24 sentences, only 6 deal with personality, background, interests, potential motive, and the like. They read as follows:

Pagourtzis was a high school football player at Santa Fe High School, USA Today reported. He played defensive tackle on the junior varsity football team. Pagourtzis was also a dancer with a local Greek Orthodox church group, according to the report.

However, Pagourtzis’s online persona wasn’t nearly as wholesome as his extracurricular activities. Social media accounts, which have since been removed, reportedly showed Pagourtzis’ fascination with firearms, a knife and a custom-made T-shirt that had the words “Born to Kill” written on it. One photo allegedly showed a coat that depicted a Nazi insignia, USA Today reported.

Two facts: football player and dancer with the Greek Orthodox church group. The other elements there are speculation, based on “alleged” social media accounts.

Everything else in this article is about the facts of the day: where he was when arrested, the suspicion of an accomplice, Donald Trump’s Twitter response, quotes from other students in the high school. These do nothing to bring to light who Pagourtzis was or why he might have done this. Not a whole lot I, or any other parent or concerned community member, can go on in creating meaningful conversations around the issue. In fact, it is completely useless to me or to anyone else reading it. [Other than as fodder for this rant, obviously.]

Finally, my last problem with this article: At the end it says “Reuters contributed to this report.” I can only imagine that’s pure bullshit. If Reuters, an international news agency with a high-class reputation, knew that their name was on this filth, they’d likely sue for defamation.

It was a waste of Metro‘s time to create this article (they probably paid some content freelancer like $8 to pump out this in under an hour), and a waste of my time to read it. But, apparently there’s some kind of market for such things, for Metro is still going strong, with enough worldwide market share that they keep up appearances. According to them, “Metro is published in more than 100 major cities across Europe, North & South America and Asia . Metro has a unique global reach — attracting a young, active, well-educated Metropolitan audience of more than 18 million daily readers.”

So who’s worse? The audience who pretends to demand such imbecilic pablum in order to soothe their own infantile attention span just one more minute, or the money-grubbing marketers and internet bandwidth prostitutes who profit from their naivete and simplicity every step of the way? I can’t tell.

Writing Practice – 5/11/2018

Telling Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, p 693

Around that time – because of numerous dislocations in the Valley, the abrupt abandoning of homes, for instance – it happened that packs of dogs began to roam around looking for food, particularly by night.

They moved and merged like flocks of sparrows on the wing, turning as if one, ducking down into an alley or crossing a street or huddling under a bridge, in a kind of near-union that the observers, themselves holed up in the remaining places, could never quite fully grasp. Were there ten dogs? Or a hundred? Did they travel mostly at night? Well, some did. Did they hunt or scavenge? Yes, both, and neither. Did they have a leader? A central hub or den? Did they ever pair off and mate, or was this the moment simply for survival, and procreation would be saved for more generous, fatter times?

They watched from their squatting places, huddled upon the third or fifth or eighth floors of the abandoned apartments, doors at the ground level tightly closed and double-locked against the potential for canine invasion.

They waited and watched, and they ate their scavenged foods, and they smoked their improvised cigarettes, and, unlike (or, perhaps, exactly like) the dogs, they fucked, but it was a half-hearted endeavor, one which was more for something to do than to create any new life, for, (and in that way they were exactly like the dogs) they saw in themselves nothing of worth and value to pass onto the next generation, save a fighting, surviving spirit.

Such a spirit would come in useful during lean times. Such a spirit actually was coming in useful during this lean time. And, as nobody really knew much about the outside world anymore, what with radio, television, internet communications cut off and overland travel still too dangerous, nobody bringing news of the lands beyond the city gates had arrived in more than a year. So their isolation grew.

Like a population of animals, separated by a physical boundary, like a river or a mountain, they, too, began to adapt to their unique environment and carve out specializations, niches which gave them slightly better chances of survival.

Nico, he got the cigarettes. Nobody else seemed to be able to find them, but he always had a pack on him. When asked, he would shrug his shoulders, as if they appeared by magic in his pack, but everyone else knew he was just better at that sort of thing.

Kyle excelled at scavenging food. From only partly moldy bread to relatively okay preserved meats and cheeses, they didn’t starve, and time enough had passed that they no longer complained about the steady diet, even if all of them remembered things like chocolate cake, beer, and a napkin.

Tobi and Karen provided the sex. Each one either took or gave as necessary, and it really wasn’t that bad, if your eyes were closed and you pretended it was your girlfriend from before.

And Zenney, she provided the hope. Preached it daily. Stood out on the stoop, eyes wide, arms stretched to the sun, and sang, songs of regeneration, renewal, paradise, whatever she could think to keep the despair at bay for one more sunset.

There were others, too. There were always others. But these were the most special, because they survived the longest, to tell their stories. The rest lived, and died, and were remembered, then forgotten. And that was how it should be.