This last weekend was interesting, which to one part is the best I can write. On Friday, my son celebrated his eighth birthday, and we had this nice little party lined up. Invitations were sent, food was prepared, party favors purchased. Then, about an hour before the party, my son tossed his cookies. After receiving a call from my wife, I left work and ventured home to see what I could do to help out. Upon arriving, my daughter then spewed her lunch all over the kitchen floor. To cap it off, after bleaching the floor and then scrambling to make phone calls to cancel the party, my wife turned sick. Suffice it to say, Friday’s party went down in flames like a crazed kamikaze. At least my son's spirit perked up when his mother and I gave him the telescope he wanted.
By Saturday, everyone was on the mend and wondering what to do with all hot dogs and cake. I guess I'll get creative. Let's see... there's hot dogs with macaroni and cheese. There are hot dog omelets. There's pizza with sliced hot dogs instead of pepperoni. Feel free to give me some great recipes, assuming you have any.
Things turned real interesting yesterday, though, as my dad and I drove to Wal-Mart (yes, I’m a cheapskate at heart) to have some photos developed for my mom. While we were waiting, my dad and I had one of those great discussions where he became almost god-like in my eyes. Even now, I feel like erecting a memorial in his honor. There was a certain level of transparency to the discussion that I have only seen a few times. It was a moment where I captured a glimpse of the real man inside, not just this hard-shell that I call my father. In fact, the conversation was so real and deep that I asked myself why my father and I didn’t have these moments back when I was a kid. Surely, I would have been better prepared for the real world had he been able to sit me down like that before I left home. But he was a busy man, working a ton of hours, and that was just the way it was. At least now, I have these moments to cherish.
Transparency. Thinking about it, I believe there is a certain level of transparency we all need from our parents; and I’m not talking about the birds and bees discussion, though by today’s standards, with the current level of teenage pregnancy our world sees, it would seem like a nice place to start. Nor am I talking about a dad showing his son how to catch a fly ball or swing a bat. While entertaining, baseball doesn’t pay the bills or teach a person what it takes to operate in the real world. What I’m talking about are those conversations where mom and dad let you peek behind the curtain, see who they are and what they’re dealing with. How did they go about making that hard decision? What did they fear? What brought them joy? What are the things that make them so mad they just wanted to beat a person’s brains out and then piss on his grave? I’m talking about the business of L-I-F-E, and how to live it.
And now I’m sitting here, typing out this post, and thinking about how transparency is one of the greatest elements to a story. What makes a reader connect to the story? Isn’t it transparency? I believe so. It’s that intimacy of life that lays everything bare for the world to see and, hopefully, to learn from.
I lost sight of that transparency with a recent story I dusted off. Last week, I received a nice rejection letter from Every Day Fiction, which asked if I had anything else to submit. I quickly thought of an old piece and set about to revise it. My revised product, however, was no better than the original. My problem? The character wasn’t transparent enough. Thankfully, my good friend, Greta, pointed out the error: she didn’t get a sense of who the lead character was. As readers, we want to see the characters, to understand them, to love them (or hate them), and to learn from their conflict. If I had sent the story to EDF, it would have found its way to File 13, and this time with no more of a request than to find some other home for my stories.
Okay… Now I can go back to the computer. It’s time to re-write that story into something better.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
“… Messrs. Blathers and Duff came back again, as wise as they went.” From Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
It has been almost a month since I added something fresh to my blog. For me, the long pause has been justified. I don't want to post unless I've got something good enough to write about. Why waste your time and mine?
During this hiatus, I finally finished a novel by Charles Dickens. True, A Tale of Two Cities was required reading in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t read the whole thing, so it doesn’t really count. (As a footnote, my senior class celebrated their twenty-year reunion last summer, which I didn’t attend. I have never been emotionally attached to my alma mater) Since then, I have felt a pull to read Charles Dickens; however, I always went to some other writer as the size of a Dickens novel scared the … well, scared the Dickens out of me.
When I read, it is my goal to take away something of value. The thing I noticed early on about Charles Dickens was his clever use of sarcasm. The quote above comes from a chapter about halfway through the novel, where two bungling detectives investigate the attempted robery of a house. At first, Mr. Dickens played around with the dialogue between the detectives and the people in the house, a scene which reminded me of Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. After that dialogue, then, Dickens followed the two detectives around before he closed off the scene with the indictment above. I only hope I can achieve his dry sense of sarcasm in my own writing.
Other gems I learned from Dickens came toward the end of the novel. As a story teller, he gripped me with violence that I had never expected from a literary classic. With his strong use of language, Dickens ripped my heart out as the evil Sikes slipped from a rooftop. The image of Sikes, the rope and the chimney have been burned in my imagination. Then, he took my breath away as Mr. Brownlow coldly dealt with Mr. Monks. While reading, I thought about my own stories, trying to capture such a hardness in my own characters. Finally, as I watched Fagin (what a name, by the way) writhe in his cell, going crazy, I was amazed by the effect that Dickens’s writing had on me. It reminded me of some advice I found in one of the Write Great Fiction series: if you want to milk the tension, slow the scene down. That chapter in Oliver Twist felt like it went on forever, and it made me squirm, agonizing just as much as the wretched old Fagin.
Yes, I know I’ve made an assumption that you have read Oliver Twist. If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend you add this book to your reading pile. As a writer, pay attention to how Dickens handled his scenes, how he used images--natural and otherwise--to set the tone, and how he worked his magic to have a lasting impact on his readers. There is certainly a lot to learn from someone as masterful as Dickens.
Posted by Stephen at 9:48 AM