Friday, July 31, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Till Death Do Us Part"

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Amy thought about her honeymoon, the dreams spoke of quiet evenings by a fire, a bottle of wine, maybe a little Celine on the stereo. A bowl filled with grapes and strawberries and kiwi slices sat on the coffee table. Flames danced on candle tips. Curtains swelled with the salty sea air as an evening breeze rolled off the ocean. Never did she envision sitting on the couch with her new husband, the two of them staring at the black, menacing eye of a gun.

Across the room, sitting on the edge of a chaise longue, the gunman tilted his head to the side. His eyes were slits, his mouth a hard line. Through the open window, Amy heard the gentle hush of waves breaking across the beach.

“Imagine my surprise,” the man finally said, “when I heard that Stuart McClain went off the wire. No warning, no explanation, and certainly no authorization. And now the company he once swore allegiance to wants the situation resolved. Or neutralized.”

Amy looked at her husband. “Stu?”

Stuart said nothing. Instead, he raised a finger, a sign that she needed to be quiet. His brown eyes stared ahead, his brow pinched.

The hard lines across Stuart’s forehead surprised Amy. Until now, she’d never seen him so… angry. When they first met, his eyes had swept her away—so gentle, so full of compassion. They spent the evening talking, and in the morning he gazed at her with amazement. She asked why he was looking at her that way, and he smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve met anyone that I could honestly trust.”

Four months after that night, he proposed.

The gunman looked toward Amy and then back to Stuart. His lips curled into a half-smile. “She doesn’t know.” After a moment, he added, “Man, when you decide to check out, you really check out. Leave it all behind, act as if none of it ever happened, was that the plan? If so, I have to say how disappointed I am. Nobody leaves the reservation on their own free will. You know that.”

Stuart said, “How’d you find me?”

The man scoffed. “You’re joking, right?”

Stuart grabbed Amy’s hand. She felt a light squeeze.

“She doesn’t have to see this,” Stuart said. “We can leave her out it.”

The man shook his head. “You should have thought about that.” His eyebrows lifted. “Before.”

Stuart took a long breath, and Amy stared at him, confused. Her heart raced, her mind grasping at what she was hearing. Who was this man? Even more, why was Stuart now talking to this man like they knew each other from some other life? In the almost nine months that they’d been together, Stuart never mentioned nor met with anyone like this. Definitely no one carrying a gun with a fat cylinder attached its barrel. And what of the other things, the stuff about the company and how nobody leaves the reservation? Those words hung in the air like some Germanic language, hard and incomprehensible.

Stuart leaned back against the sofa. His arm reached behind Amy. “I don’t see why we can’t strike some—”

The stranger’s gun coughed. Stuart’s body jumped. He leaned into Amy. Those brown eyes now registered pain. And fear. He pulled away, his arm coming up. The man’s gun coughed again and Stuart’s body jerked a second time. Warm blood splattered Amy’s arm. Behind her, something scraped the wall. It thunked against the floor. Stuart’s mouth opened to say something. Nothing came out.

Amy reached for his face. The words choked out of her. “Stu? Stu, baby, stay with me. Stu?” His eyes fluttered and then closed. His body collapsed against hers. “Oh God, no…”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she turned to face the gunman.

“He must have loved you.” The man shook his head, eyes cast down. “What a shame.”

After a moment, he glanced up and shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I do feel for you.” He turned the gun toward her. “Some marriages just aren’t meant to last.”

Today's story was the result of a prompt in The Writer's Book of Matches: "A woman on her honeymoon is shocked to hear a secret from her husband's past."

Friday, July 24, 2009

It Can Feel Lonely At Times

I watched an episode of the Glenn Beck show this last week. On this particular day, Beck interviewed author Daniel Silva. Professionally dressed, with well-groomed hair and a clean face, Silva looked like a one of those quiet neighbors from next door. And yet, he writes suspense stories that involve violence. “Where does this come from?” Beck asked him. Silva’s response: Writers have vivid imaginations (paraphrase).

Thinking about that exchange, and Glenn Beck’s reaction to Silva, I couldn’t help but remember a quote from Ed McBain regarding one of his short stories:

Although [“Chalk”] was finally published in 1953 (under the title “I Killed Jeannie,” can you believe it!), I wrote this story in 1945, aboard a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When it circulated among my shipmates, it caused no small degree of apprehension.

- From the collection of short stories, Learning to Kill (2006)

Reading McBain’s comments, it’s clear (at least to me) that his shipmates wondered about him, if only just a little. It’s also clear that the reaction he received stuck with him for over sixty years.

It’s interesting how writers can impact their readers, isn’t it? I can’t pass by a large gas tank along the freeway without thinking of the Trashcan Man in Stephen King’s The Stand. When I hear the ticking of my dog’s toenails on our kitchen floor, I often remember the evil creature in Dean Koontz’s Watchers. Likewise, in my recent stories I have tried to grab just one image that I hope will stick with my readers forever. When they see a can of paint, or watch a Glidden commercial on TV, I want them to remember what they read about in “Pure White”. When they look at a newspaper and see photos of people randomly captured off the street, I want my readers to remember the psycho they read about in "Picture Perfect". The first of my own examples shouldn’t create any consternation. Grief can be expressed in many ways. The second example, however, might raise more than just an eyebrow.

There are times when a story comes together and a villain so cold and unpredictable pours out of me, like it did in “Picture Perfect,” that it literally scares me. Afterwards—often after it’s been released for everyone to see—I start to wonder: Will people look at me differently because of this? If they see me in public, will they grab their children and pass by on the other side of the street?

Writing is a lonely place at times. Loosing friends because I’ve revealed the darker side of my imaginative mind is something altogether different. Truth be told, there are some stories that I’ve never penned just because of that reason alone. Thankfully, nobody’s closed me off yet.

How about you? Do you worry about stuff like this? Does it matter what your spouse thinks of your writing? Your parents? If you have one, your priest?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It Happens Along The Way...

I'm trying to be respectful. There are times when I read published authors and ask: How did he/she get away with that? Yet, they have published novels, and I do not. So, tread lightly, I say to that hyper-critical reader within me.

Here's a case in point: Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading The Stand by Stephen King. Right from the jump, I noticed something peculiar.

“Why are you shouting?” she asked softly.

“Because you seem determined to aggravate me as much as you can,” Jess said hotly.

“I guess not,” he said gloomily…

“You don’t love me,” he said sulkily

“Accepted,” she said colorlessly.

As I read those lines, I couldn't help but remember King’s fist-pounding statement found in his book On Writing:

I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. – From the “Toolbox” section, Chapter 3

The dialogue attribution examples above all happened within two pages. What is more, they are not isolated events. I am now four hundred pages into this book, and I have discovered that King didn’t wake up that morning with a bad headache or a touch of the flu. (Pun intended) His use of adverbs in dialogue attribution has been a reoccurring issue throughout the book so far. As a writer, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if these two pages were submitted to a writing forum today, and if his name were not Stephen King. My guess is that today’s forumites would crucify it and then build a fire around it, send it up to the writing gods in a swirling cloud of ashes.

To be fair to Stephen King, I will include the following passage from On Writing:

Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense, but I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. (I have never fallen so low as “he grated” or “Bill jerked out,” though.) When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.

At least he was honest about the past. Thinking back to recent readings of Lisey’s Story and The Dark Half (my favorite Stephen King book), I don’t remember him using adverbs in dialogue attribution. If he did, they weren’t to the degree I have seen in The Stand. And as far as not trusting the reader, I personally think the second example above didn't need the adverb when you consider that the two characters were involved in a spat. Furthermore, in the example I gave two postings ago (click here), it was clear that Frannie's words "I'm pregnant" were straightforward. Adding the dialogue attribution of "she said simply" was unnecessary, in my opinion.

The only way I can personally reconcile King’s two positions, then, is this: evolution. Good writers are constantly adapting. Early on, they moved about in their single-celled existence, penning such earth-shattering prose like: “I lov Moma.” And while that was an instant classic with at least one member of the family, the young writer was not satisfied with success. In truth, he never is. He moves on. He grows up. Each day, the world takes on new meaning, and slowly this child—now a man—builds his writing career brick-by-painstaking-brick like it were a house for the world to gaze upon with wonder. Only this is a house that will never be finished. The old door, once contemplated with a sense of warmth and admiration, now shows cracks. The paint is chipped. And where the sparkling brass knocker once hung, a dark shadow stains the wood like liver spots on an old man’s skin. The writer frowns. What did he ever see in that withered slab anyway? The moment passes, and then a new door swings on the hinges.

The Stand was published back in 1978, On Writing in 2000—a difference of twenty-two years. In that time, I believe King looked at the old door, grimaced, and then replaced it with something better.

So, what can we learn? The first is that we should avoid adverbs.

But it’s not enough to simply say don’t, is it? If I tell my son not to stick his hand in a bucket of fluid, he’s apt to do it—just because. However, if I tell my son that he'll be plunging his hand into a bucket of acid, which will burn his fingers off, he’ll look down, wiggle his fingers, and then quickly hide both hands behind her back.

So, why shouldn’t we use adverbs? Here is what two writers have to say:

Adverbs tempt the reader to think more about the way something is said than about what is actually said. – Tom Chiarella, Writing Dialogue

If you have to tell us how the words were spoken, then you haven’t done your job with the words. – John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells A Truth

The moment I read Dufresne’s words, they stuck. Even today, when I am writing dialogue, I ask the same questions: Can the reader see how the words are spoken by the words I have selected? Have I done my job as a writer? They are questions that plague me… in a good way.

The second thing we can learn is to review our work, even published work, with a critical eye. I recently went back to the published version of "The Hit." Now that a few months have passed, I can look at it and say: How did I ever get away with that? As writers, we need to constantly grow. Look at the old door, see if it needs to be replaced. Maybe it's time to repaint the soffits. Whatever the case may be, we should never be satisfied with success.

Finally, in response to King’s last sentence above, my advice is to stare fear in the face. And then kick it in the groin. If we’re afraid the readers won’t understand, then we should find other ways to write what we mean. And once we’ve found that better door, it’s time to pull the hands away and let it stand on its own. The world will only look upon our constructed house with awe and wonder when we, as writers, have done our jobs.

Friday, July 17, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Picture Perfect"

Trevor jacked the camera’s USB cable into his office computer. Two fingers did a light tap dance on the mouse while he waited. Man, he loved this new job. It was better than pizza deliveries, far better than door-to-door sales, trying to convince every Dick and Jane about the benefits of water purification. And, thank God, the new job wasn’t anything close to herding cattle for his father. Thinking about the farm, how the old man used to whip him like a beaten down mule, a burning wave of resentment flowed through Trevor’s face, his neck.

A window popped up on the monitor. Trevor clicked to view all the files.

To be honest, though, working on the farm had its moments. Like the time he got Cindy Louder to take a walk with him out to the barn. Let’s take a ride on the tractor, he said. Cindy gave him a dubious look, told him to jerk off. Other girls might fall for that one. She wouldn’t. He smiled, put on his best aw-shucks tone, and said that wasn’t his intent. His father had purchased a brand new combine, equipped with satellite navigation and a ton of other cool things. He thought she might like to see it. She looked at her watch and said fine, but only for a few minutes. They were in the barn a little longer than that.

Trevor frowned as the first image popped up on the monitor. A middle-aged woman, wearing a peach halter top with a spaghetti strap around her neck—a perfect little get-up to show off her tanning salon skin. Streaks of blond ran through darker brown hair, all of it pulled back and pinned up with a butterfly clip. He had liked how she looked in the camera’s viewfinder, eyes dark and defiant looking off somewhere, a smile like he’d never seen before. He took the shot.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She realized he was talking to her, and the perfect smile disappeared. “Piss off, okay? I’m with someone else.”

As if on cue, a man carrying two beers walked over and sat down.

Trevor pasted on a smile, pointed at the camera. “I just wanted it for the paper.”

She shook her head. “No name and no photo.”

He nodded, said that’s cool, and moved on.

The job was simple: drive to a social event like a concert in the park, snap off fifty or sixty shots, and then on to another gig. Clicking for the next file, Trevor remembered his job interview. The Human Resources Director, a heavy woman in her early forties with a glaze of perspiration around her neck, glanced at his application and then looked across the desk. Could he handle a camera? He smiled, told he had worked as part of the yearbook committee back in his high school days. He even produced a yearbook. “You see this one? Well, I took that shot while standing up on a ladder. Trying to get the bird’s eye on the players huddled up with the coach, you know? I almost fell off the ladder. Man, wouldn’t that have been embarrassing? Oh, and look at this one. Prom night. I caught this girl exiting the men’s locker room. You see, nobody was supposed to be back there, but then here came Charlie Guy and… Well, that’s another story for another time maybe.”

None of it was true, but that didn’t matter. Right from the jump, he could tell the Director was an idiot. Dumber than a box of rocks trying to float across the pond, his daddy would have said; but then, the old man didn’t burn the brightest flame either. He only knew how to cuss you out when he got mad. And to hit.

The next picture appeared on the monitor. Another cute girl, this one in a yellow and orange summer dress.

“You mind if I take your photo?” He held up his journalism card. “It’s for the paper. The You’ve Been Spotted section.”

She smiled. “You bet.”

He clicked off the shot.

“Thanks.” He jerked a thumb toward little Miss Piss-Off. “The last one wasn’t as nice about it.”

She looked over his shoulder. “You mean Beth?”

That got his attention. “You know her?”

“Sure. Beth Pritchard. Don’t let it get to you. She treats everyone that way.”

Trevor minimized the window and clicked on his internet browser. She may treat everyone that way, he thought, but it doesn’t mean she gets by with it. He had already taken too much from the old man. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance he would take it off some broad with a fake tan and made-up hair. After a quick search, he had the woman’s address and phone number; he even found her MySpace page. He grabbed a small notebook from his pocket and wrote down the information. It wouldn’t be tonight, probably not even in the next month, but soon enough he’d get back to her.

A warm smile spread through his lips as Trevor thought about what he would do to Beth Pritchard. The possibilities rolled around in his mind and turned him on. After a while, the feeling grew so strong that it would not go unsatisfied—not tonight anyway. He flipped back through the notebook and found the name of Shyree Johnson, a pretty little thing who gave him a big attitude one day while trying to sell her a water filter. Like Cindy Louder, whom the world never saw again after that night in the barn, he’d give Miss Cop-A-Tude the ride of her life.

Trevor wondered briefly what he would do once the camera job ran its course. And it would. They always did. He put the notebook away. Maybe he’d take up a job at the library.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Say What?

This last week, I submitted a piece of flash fiction to the Reading Writers' Dynamic Dialogue Contest. The challenge was to write a complete story, using only dialogue. Taglines were not allowed. Since I’m the type of writer who uses a ton of back story in order to provide the reader with subtext, whether through flashbacks or simple narrative, the contest posed an interesting question: How do you accomplish giving the back story without it sounding like a dialogue information dump. And then there was the issue of writing action without using narrative or action tags? Suffice it to say, trying to accomplish the same tasks while using only dialogue presented a unique challenge.

One of the reasons why I like to read Stephen King while crafting a story is because I find in his writing the inspiration to stretch my own. Reading The Stand has been no exception. Let me give you a small excerpt. Here’s the set-up. Frannie Goldsmith finds out she’s “preggers” and makes the decision to have the baby and dump the boyfriend. Later, she’s standing before her father, choosing to tell him first.

She looked at him dumbly for a moment, not sure how she should proceed. She had come out here to tell him, and now she wasn’t sure if she could. The silence hung between them, growing larger, and at last it was a gulf she couldn’t stand. She jumped.

“I’m pregnant,” she said simply.

He stopped filling his pipe and just looked at her. “Pregnant,” he said, as if he had never heard the word before. Then he said: “Oh, Frannie… is it a joke? Or a game?”

Putting the glaring adverb aside for the moment (until my next posting), I want to focus on King’s use of the ellipsis. So, how do you create action without using narrative or action tags? Throw in a pause and let the readers piece it together. Maybe it’s just me, but with that simple use of punctuation, I can see Frannie’s father looking at her, his eyes trying to read the lines on her face. With that pause, and the two questions that follow, I can also see Peter Goldsmith looking at his daughter with just a hint of a smile. Was it all a joke?

While overusing an ellipsis can draw too much attention away from the story, I believe that the right placement can offer the reader volumes of information.

Regarding subtext, allow me to provide an authoritative voice. This comes from The Lie That Tells A Truth, a wonderful book on writing by John Dufresne.

…we might add that dialogue is useful for getting across what is not said as well as what is said. (Like a plot, what is on the surface of dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Seven-eighths of dialogue, to continue the iceberg analogy, is subtext, is below the surface.) Fictional conversation is not about information. It is often an attempt at deliberate evasion, at confusion, rather than communication. Often the purpose of an exchange is to conceal as well as reveal, to impress, to seduce, to harm, to protect or to reject. Every person in a conversation has an agenda, and you need to know what each agenda is.

As an example, let me use an excerpt from the story I presented to the competition. I would like you to imagine a conversation between two women. One is beating around the bush, while the other is more direct and extremely sarcastic with her comments. Then, the first one says something like this:

“But that’s why I called. I wanted to say… I want to say how sorry I am. About me and Tom.”

That one line (I hope) provides the reader with some interesting insight. Again we find the ellipsis, only in the context of what is said the readers see an angst-riddled face instead of Peter Goldsmith’s quizzical one. Furthermore, the last part of that line provides subtext for the current situation. There was an affair. The first woman is trying to make restitution. And now the reader understands why the second woman has been so snarky. She’s still hurting. And as Dufresne pointed out, she has her own agenda: to hurt back.

For me, trying to figure out each character’s agenda, is one of the more enjoyable aspect of reading. That’s why I like reading fiction where the author doesn’t spell everything out; instead, he leaves it up to the reader to calculate the sum. Dialogue is just one way where the author lets the reader do just that.

As an exercise, if you haven’t already done so for the Dynamic Dialogue Contest, try writing a piece of flash fiction using only dialogue. John Dufresne admits that he often starts out with only dialogue, after which he goes back and fills in the other details. See if you can use techniques like ellipses, dashes and language to project more information than what is spoken in the written words. In the process, I trust that you’ll find, just like I have, that dialogue can open up more in a story than you ever dreamed possible.

For good reading, you might also pick up your own copy of The Lie That Tells A Truth. It is a worthy addition to your library.

Friday, July 3, 2009

#FridayFlash - "Life Happens"

This is my first attempt at Friday Flash. I hope you enjoy it.

Jonas sat down at the office desk and hovered his fingers over the keyboard. His gut clenched. His chest tightened. On the screen, the cursor blinked in anticipation, eagerly waiting for the first line. He glanced at the syringe and gun on his desk. Could he actually go through with it? He had purchased the drug through a chat room on the internet. Demerol. The dosage wasn’t enough to kill, but it would certainly make things easier.

Finally, deciding he could go through with it, Jonas forced a breath and let his fingers race across the keys.

I, Jonas Billings, leave this as my final message. I want people to know why I took my life...

As he wrote, Jonas thought about his wife Sharon. How was she going to react? Somehow, after everything else that had happened between them, he knew she wouldn’t be surprised. To her, he was nothing but a loser. She’d already said as much, though not in those words. Instead, she’d couched it in questions like “Don’t embarrass me tonight, okay?” or in statements like “Sometimes, I just don’t get you.” No, in the end, Jonas knew she would say something about him being a cheap, dumb bastard and this only proved it.

Outside, a semi ran through its gears, powering up the street.

Over the last year, Sharon and I have struggled with our marriage...

That was putting it lightly. In truth, he could have spelled it out in more concise details—how she constantly belittled him in front of her friends and how they didn’t make love anymore—but really, what was the point? Jonas shook his head as continued typing. The point was there was no point anymore. There no reason to keep going as they had, snapping at each other like a couple of Chihuahuas. No, he had turned that screw too many times, and now its head had finally twisted off, leaving nothing but a shard of metal that cut him every time he touched it.

Jonas let his fingers stop for a moment. He closed his eyes and thought about what John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making plans.” Boy wasn’t that the truth? When he got right down to it, everything in life could have been tossed into a distiller and boiled down, and he still wouldn’t have been able to refine it into such a concise statement about living, breathing and dying. He wanted a nice house out in the Woodlands; however, with several bounced checks and missed payments, thanks to Sharon’s wonderful management skills, they were lucky enough just to get into the rat shack they had. He also wanted a Corvette, even saved for a couple of years just so he could get the financing down to an affordable level; but then Sharon wanted a new bedroom, and new furniture, and the Corvette money vanished faster than a Twinkie in front of Fat Albert’s face. In fact, no matter what he wanted or how he’d planned, it always came down to Lennon’s simple statement. Life happens.

He sighed once and resumed typing.

I also want my parents to know that, no matter what anyone says, even now I love them more than anything...

That might have been stretching it a bit, but there was no point in allowing them to take a dive into despair, constantly asking what they did wrong and what they could have done better. He was a man now and, for better or worse, he made his own decisions.

Jonas finished the letter and printed it out. It wasn’t much of a suicide note. However, he’d never written one before and, quite honestly, didn’t care. He signed it, wondering at first if he should and finally decided it was the right thing to do, and then place it on top of his desk. In the morning, the staff would wander in, see the note, and by noon the whole place would be talking about nothing else. Hey, did you hear about Jonas? Man, I never would have guessed he’d go off like that?

He pocketed the syringe and gun, turned off the lights, and then stepped out into the sweltering night air.

The drive home took him through downtown. At the corner of First and Elm, he stopped, stepped out and walked under the overpass bridge. There in the shadows, Jonas found the man he was looking for, the man all curled up like a hibernating bear, the same man he’d already scoped out for the last two months. Just another example that proved how right Lennon had been.

“Hey, man, how’s it going?”

The homeless man glanced over his shoulder. “Who is that? Toby, is that you?”

Jonas smiled. “Yeah, buddy, it’s me.”

“What you doing down here, man? Don’t you know the V.C. got this whole place—”

And before the man could say anything else, Jonas bent down, stabbed the syringe into his hip, and quickly pressed the plunger.

“Yeeeooow! Hey, man, what’d you poke me with? You want me to call… thaa… caawps… ohhhmaaan…”

Jonas tossed the needle aside. He reached an arm behind the homeless man’s back—the guy reeked of cigarettes, piss and beer—and guided him toward the car. The man wasn’t nearly as tall, but he was close enough. Once home, Jonas would use the gun on Sharon, give her a couple taps to the head, and then give the bum one under the chin. Finally, the whole place would go up in flames.

If it all went as planned, the cops would write it off as another case of domestic violence gone bad, just a freaked-out husband who shot his wife, set the house on fire, and then turned the gun on himself. But what if the cops figured it out? Well, that was the beautiful thing about this old world, wasn’t it? There were plenty of places to get lost.