Tuesday, February 26, 2008


In a narrative about the title story in the collection of short stories, Everything's Eventual, 14 Dark Tales, Stephen King states his belief that stories are artifacts. They aren't made up things which writers create; rather, they are like relics in the dirt that writers dig up.

Like a studious little pupil, I used to spout off the same stuff. After all, it came from the Master Storyteller himself. It has to be true, right? Upon reflection, I wonder whether or not Mr. King literally believes the idea he espoused in his book. I no longer do. Stories are not artifacts we carefully exhume from the ground like bones from a grave. They are creations—events that start out as single-cell organisms and, over time, evolve into living, breathing, walking, talking and rationalizing beings. And I, for one, take full credit for everything I spawn into existence. Just like Dr. Frankenstein, though, I also acknowledge my responsibility for everything I create.

When it comes to writing stories, I am a creator (with a little “c”) who holds the lives of characters in the balance I choose. As I continue to shape and mold a story, the final product I eventually write may not be the exact story I started out with, but it is still my story.

Wait a minue, some may say. Isn't it the character's story? Aren't we just recording what happens to them? Only to a point. Fiction is not reality, and I am not a reporter. The characters started with me. The circumstances started with me. Ultimately, anything I write is a part of my imagination, and by extension part of me.

Here’s an example. Working on my novel (somewhere in the middle of Chapter 4 as I submit this posting), I came to a point where I decided to fill in some background. After launching into the chapter, my mind came up with more about my protagonist as I continued to poke and prod the storyline along. As a consequence, I found myself continually jumping back into previous chapters to plant the necessary seeds to produce fruit for my readers down the road.

There are plenty of tools available to convey a character’s background, I suppose: dialogue, narrative, maybe the discovery of someone’s entry in a diary. I chose in this case to use a flashback. Working with a flashback brings its own set of quirks. Since it’s written in the past tense, only the first sentence should invoke the past-perfect tense (i.e., “The day had begun as usual”); the rest should use the past tense. Also, the transitions into and out of the flashback must be smooth. A writer doesn’t want to jerk his reader around, confusing them about what is going on and when. But I digress. Working on Flashbacks might be the topic for another posting, but for now the issue is a writer developing more of the story as he works with it.

As I transitioned out of another flashback, I placed my character at the edge of a river. I thought I was going to move on; however, my mind, always leaping two and three steps ahead of me, screamed at me to stop. Take a breather and look around! The new scene generated ideas too good to casually brush aside like bread crumbs from the counter. As a result, I turned back to an earlier section of the story to set up some of the necessary details before I moved on with the plot.

And that, my friends, is the art of creating a story—shaping and molding it, evolving it into something more as each word, comma, and period is placed. The scene wasn’t there previously, waiting patiently to be discovered and carved out of the ground. I created it only because my mind wanted to pull back and churn out a little something else.

I am not an archeologist.

I am a writer (of fiction).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


“So every day that I work, I begin with probably an hour of going over the material from the day before or maybe even going back two or three days.” (Ann Packer, in an interview with The Writer magazine, February 2008 issue)

At the risk of being presumptuous, I will guess that every writer has their own version of the electric starter—that certain something they use to get the creative juices flowing before they sit down and write.

I’ve read where some go for a morning jog. It helps them to think, they say. There’s no blank page staring them in the face, no blinking cursor impatiently tapping the monitor. It is just them, the fresh air, the sound of birds waking up, and anything else God’s creation has to offer. If I was stupid enough to try this, however, I know there would be a long pause after the first hundred yards, assuming I can make it that far. Both hands will lock onto my knees. I will find myself bent over, gasping and wheezing, certain that harp music (hopefully) should hit my ears in the next moment. You see, I’m more of a put-the-key-in-the-ignition type of guy, and my physique is the visible representation of my faith and allegiance to gas-guzzling automobiles.

Other authors have reported how they read lines of verse every morning. It is in the way that poets see the world around them—the fresh ways they can explain their human condition. Writers look to poetry to unlock their muse and free up their own expressions. They use verse as a springboard to launch some of their own original ideas. While I don’t do this often enough, I can honestly say that I like some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Admittedly, though, I struggle at times with understanding what he wrote. And reading some of his plays? My experience is that a Shakespearean play is like reading a four-hundred-page novel. With all the time spent looking at the footnotes, and pulling out dictionaries to discover the definitions behind all the uncommon words, it takes just about as long.

And then there is music. I’ve delayed this posting because I know somewhere—either in an interview or in his book, On Writing—Stephen King has said that he likes to listen to music. And though I spent a week trying to remember where I read it, I couldn’t find it. This week, then, has been like looking for that all-obscure passage in the Bible. You know it is there; you just can’t remember where. So, dear reader, you’ll have to take this at face value for what it is: my memory, as solid as melted butter at times. What is Mr. King’s taste? Heavy Metal. Somewhere, I recall him saying that he likes to listen to AC/DC, which isn’t a bad choice for someone who writes the kind of graphic fiction that he has penned.

And now we get to the whole inspiration for this posting. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Christopher Moore was asked whether his novel, Demonkeeping, was the first book he wrote, or just the first he sold (June 2007 issue). “The first I finished,” he responded.

As I look forward into 2008, this is the year that I want to write my novel. I have started at least a half-dozen works; and, like the Christopher Moore’s experience, all have petered-out within the first few chapters. My problem? That nasty, but extremely long, middle. I know where my characters start. I know where I think they will finish. It is connecting the beginning and the end that always trips me up.

Last month, while helping out with some of the household chores, I plugged in my I-Pod earphones and started listening to Pink Floyd’s classic recording (and in my humble opinion their best), Wish You Were Here. It was in the way the first track started—the soft, melodic and yet mysterious tones. Suddenly, one of my short stories came to mind. It was a piece that I had never finished, one that was another potential victim of my inability to get through the middle. But there, in the midst of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part 1),” I found my lead struggling through the desert, his body racked with pain, his mind almost gone, and his passion for revenge, not to mention his quest for redemption, unsatisfied. As I listened, I watched as events quickly played out. I knew what he was after, and I could see how he might go about resolving his issues. I guess you could say I saw the beginning, the middle, and the end. By listening to one album (yes, I am old enough that I still call them albums), my mind shifted its focus. I started out thinking I would write one man’s story, and have come to find another’s story more inspiring.

So now what do I do? Every morning, after I have forced myself out of bed—after I have opened the back door to let the dog out, and then put on a pot of coffee—I sit down, plug the earphones in, and key up Pink Floyd on the menu. I listen to the music once again to remember all the scenes that played out in my mind that first time. Then, I turn to the computer, read over the previous day’s work, and click away at my next scene. As the Doobie Brothers once put it: "Listen To The Music."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Crafting a scene has always challenged me as a writer. Just how much detail is needed to set the scene? How much do you interrupt the flow of dialogue to keep the reader grounded in the story without the whole thing coming off as a talking heads show? On the flip-side, how much is too much before you loose your reader’s attention? Even with the praise I offered regarding Flaubert’s achievement with Madame Bovary, there were times when my eyes glazed over. While I can appreciate all the work that went into setting up a scene, I personally don’t care about all the unnecessary details of who is wearing what and how a cathedral was constructed. If it moves the story forward, I have some grace; if it only draws attention to the writer, though, I can’t stand it. After all, it was Hitchcock who said that drama is “… life with all the boring parts left out.”

Part of what drives the answer for me is whether or not I become bored as a reader while reviewing my own story. Also, if I feel like there’s not enough, that the scene feels empty, then I go back and try asking more questions. What’s the character feeling? What physical reactions flow naturally from that feeling? What ambient sounds would be part of this scene that might distract the character’s focus or cause a memory flash? What about smells? In the occasions, then, when I feel I haven’t done enough, I try to go back and improve the story; however, I admit that writers are not always the best gauges of their own work--they are too close--and sometimes create more problems than they fix through their revisions.

Writing is an intellectually exhausting, and sometimes a painstaking, process that is intentional in its design--from which word is chosen down to even the placement of a punctuation mark. As they craft their stories, writers are constantly asking themselves a myriad of questions, all of which serve the story. What's the tone? Is there enough tension? Does that comma serve the flow of the sentence? In the process, though, like a self-employed salesman the writer can’t ignore the reader. A writer can't write this lofty piece if it comes off like a reading of a House Bill. It is the reader, after all, who has spent money and time, engaged in a mutual contract with the writer, to be entertained, enlightened, shocked or comforted. To lose one reader is to lose several. Readers talk.

So why am I writing today about crafting a scene? Because I’m currently struggling with one I’ve spent the last two days working over, and I am beginning to doubt what I’ve accomplished--if anything at all. So, here is an excerpt of the scene, for whatever it’s worth. To set the stage, though, let me add that this is a Western, and my lead (Arturo) has just returned home to find four horses tied to the hitching post outside. In this scene, Iverson is a man who had approached Arturo at a cantina the previous day, asking questions about another man.

Let me know what you think regarding the issue at hand. Too much? Not enough?


The man in the flat-brimmed hat, the one who called himself Iverson, sat at the kitchen table, his legs crossed and boots propped up on another chair. A bottle of mescal and a glass kept him company.

“Ah, señor, you’re finally home.” A cunning smile with straight white teeth greeted Arturo as he stepped through the door. “We have been waiting a long time for your return.”

Arturo looked around. Another man with a grizzled beard stood by the bedroom doorway, a Henry rifle cradled in the bend of his left arm. Dirt and grime painted the crow’s feet of his bloodshot eyes. A black, dusty hat sat low on his head. A solitary bandolier crossed over his chest, and a belt with two pistols--Colts by the looks of them--hung to one side on his hips.

Arturo looked the second man over and received a cold, hard stare in response. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Iverson.

“Where’s my wife?”

“We have not harmed her,” Iverson said. “Yet.”

“What do you want?”

Iverson poured some mescal into the glass. “It seems that we have had a slight misunderstanding.”

“There was no misunderstanding. You are looking for a man, and I cannot help you.”

Iverson shook his head. “Oh, but you can. You see if there is one thing I have, it is an acute sense of when I’ve been lied to. And you, señor, have not been telling me the whole truth.”

“You asked if I know where to find Ruben Leon. I do not. I haven’t seen him in years.”

“But, you know how to find him.”

Arturo narrowed his eyes. “And what makes you think that I can do that?”

A slow smile. “Because you are the notorious Isacony.” When Arturo didn’t say anything, Iverson added, “I am right about that, am I not?”

A gust of wind blew through the window as Arturo fought to suppress the amazement of a total stranger using a name he’d tried hard to bury under a mountain of time. Finally, thinking of something to say, he offered, “That is a name I do not recognize.”

Another chuckle. Then, talking over his shoulder to the man by the bedroom door, Iverson said, “Jimmy, do you believe this? The man actually stands here and claims he doesn’t know himself.”

“Isacony,” the second man repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s Comanche for Returning Wolf,” Iverson said.

“Comanche, huh?” Jimmy looked Arturo over. “So, you’re a half-breed.”

Arturo felt the burn of bitterness flash across his face, but remained silent.