Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Blog?

My friend Dawn recently suggested that I start a new blog in addition to what you see before you. One with a once-a-month entry focusing on creative writings, rather than this forum, which functions as a journal of sorts. I’ve thought about it and like the idea. Some entries would draw from my childhood and young adulthood up until about 1994 or so. At that point, one can definitely argue that I was NOT a young adult. Not at the age of 37. Damn that’s funny, now that I look at it. Because from this vantage point in my life, 37 is quite young.

But we’ll take it up to about 37 or so. Through my acting days.

I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I eased into the house of middle age and took up residence with a vengence. From this past Thursday, I am 53 you see. Well past youth, but not, I hope, forgetful of what it is to be young. In fact, I’m confident that I can look back at my youth with clarity, respect, and a little bit of tenderness. The fact is, I have looked back on it, particularly in the quick writes Ariel assigns us every week of a session. I’d never really examined my youth before, but in doing so this last year have found much to laugh about, to shed a tear or two over, and to learn from, because I don’t think acquiring worldly wisdom is a good thing if it means sacrificing those magnificent child-like qualities.

But we all do it.

As we up, the simple quality of having faith in other people evolves from wonderful and childlike, to sweet and naive, to inexcusable and insane. Insanity being defined as “doing the same thing time after time expecting a different result.” So. Look at the lessons we learn and how they’re phrased. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” “Once burned, twice as cautious.” “There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.” I could go on. You could provide some I’ve never heard of.

The fact is, I hung onto that faith far longer than many. Some friends would argue that I haven’t totally given it up, and that I’m the worse off for it.

One thing I have become aware of is that much of my childhood fell outside the norm for a boy. Boy, remember, is 37 and younger. :-) People in my online writing class have shown an interest. So has my friend Dawn. Few others, because I haven’t allowed many to read that material yet. The class was easy. I’ve never met any of them. Chances are that I might one of these days, as Ariel teaches out of Santa Fe, New Mexico now. A 650 mile drive for me. I’d like to study with her in person one day. But I probably won’t meet many from the class. That’s just the way it goes.

I trust them, though. All of them. Because they have been as revealing in their writing. And most of them write memoir. Period. Remember my blog two weeks ago? They really do bleed on the page. You have to respect the blood and treat those kinds of wounds kindly.

I can hide a whole lot in the guise of fiction. Would any of my friends believe that there’s a part of me in my villain Goodtime Charlie? A character one of my classmates has termed “my favorite despicable character?” Who knows? He’s fictional, but I assure you that a part of me understands Charlie, despicable as he is. I might have wound up just like him had I become a bestselling novelist in my twenties. Check that. I might have been worse.

So, I think this new blog idea might fly ... at least for me. Obviously, I hope people will follow it, but it’ll be a way to get my creative writing into the public eye. Slowly, I know, but surely. When I go to the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, and a prospective agent or editor asks about a blog (and I’ve been assured they will at some point), then I will have a body of work to point them too.

I’m thinking of posting memoir work at first, then maybe I’ll add in some short fiction, then some experimental fiction. Since it’s a once a month endeavor, I don’t think a maximum word count will be necessary (I set 1,000 words as the max here, and occasionally abide by it), but I doubt that anything will exceed 5,000. I will post the word length at the beginning to give the reader enough information to decide whether to read it now, or later, or not at all.

I don’t know. Maybe I won’t post the word length. For me, I’ve read 5,000 word stories that seem like 500. And 1,000 word stories that seem like 10,000. Einstein’s theory of relativity at work. Einstein also said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

I like that.

So, what are some of the things I can write about/have written about? How about one of my tours through the sewer system of Dallas, alone? How about visiting my father with my girlfriend the night before he died? How about the LA earthquake of 1994? That one takes us right up to my limit and was, as Bette Davis once observed, “a bumpy ride.” Like all stories, though, it not just the story, but how its told. I’ve always had a knack for skewing a story for a particular audience. My ex-wife would say that I reinvent the story each time I tell it, and to a certain extent that’s true. Heaven knows I got just as tired of her saying in mixed company, “That’s not the way you told it last time,” as she did with me not telling it the same way as last time.

In my view, its a story, not a speech. In my ex-wife’s view it’s a “whopper.”

It is true that I have been accused of coming from the John Steinbeck (pictured) school of story telling. The writer of such greats as “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “Of Mice and Men,” told a man a story at a party that, Steinbeck had forgotten, the man had told him the previous week. When called on it, Steinbeck smiled and said, “Well, good storytellers never pay attention to the facts.”

I’m not quite that bad (or that good a writer), but I will twist the facts depending on my audience. Twist isn’t such a good word, now that I look at it. Let’s just say that I emphasize some facts over others depending on the situation. There we go.

So, let me think a little more about this new blog thing. I’ll let you know. AND, I’m past 1,000 words. Oops.

I weighed in at 272 last week, up a pound. This last week has also featured my birthday and my 35-year high school reunion. More on that next week, and probably a little more weight. No time to get it into this one. But it is a pleasure to have my friends Brent and Michelle visit.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Sword of Damocles

A young woman of my acquaintance has been calling my name these last few months. She started with gentle whispers. “Rocky. I’m here. Look at me.” Progressed to the shoulder-grabbing, head-tilting, “Dammit, I’m right here, dude. Pay attention.” Then migrated to the cheek-smacking, eye-poking, “You’re going to forget all about me if you don’t open your eyes, you ...!”

Yesterday, she screamed.

I’ve thought a lot about her. Spent blocks of times with her dreaming about all the possibilities. But as she pointed out to me yesterday morning ...

“You’re not bringing me to life. You can’t just dream me into existence.” Or, more like “YOU DAMN WELL BETTER GET ME ON THE PAGE.”

Her name is Miranda. She’s one of the main characters of my next novel. My heroine, one might say. And I’m falling for her. She wants it to happen, and so do I. Now, we have to make it so.

So what’s prevented it so far?

I’ve been taking my own sweet time on Catch a Falling Star. A page here. Three pages there. I have a couple of friend’s manuscripts that I’m reading and commenting on. After all, why does mine have to be finished this very minute? I don’t have an agent or editor with a deadline dangling over me like the Sword of Damocles.

Yeah, right.

That must change, because Miranda is waiting not-so-patiently. She wants to live, is fighting for existence, and I’m the only one who can make that happen.

Am I crazy for assigning living status to fictional characters? Maybe, but so what? I’ve always read that way and always will. I try my very best to live in their world while reading. I celebrate their triumphs, cry at their tragedies, laugh at their follies. I well up even now just thinking of the line, “I’ve loved you all my life.” (see David Copperfield, the chapter entitles “A Light Shines on My Way.”) Some part of me does manage to keep the two worlds separate, sometimes with a dividing line no thicker than a theatre scrim, but it’s there and in no danger of dissolving.

Not yet, anyway.

It’s difficult to start reading a new book because of that intensity. When I crack open one I haven’t yet read, I’m looking to form a connection. A new one and a strong one. How could it possibly compare to the many times I’ve lived in the world of David Copperfield? Obviously, it can’t. But I’m always looking. Occasionally, I form an immediate bond like I did with Harry Potter. He yelled and screamed at me, and along with Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore and McGonagall pulled me into Hogwarts. Before I knew it, I learned to live there and loved it.

To that extent Catch a Falling Star has become like that for me. And I’ve just entered another growth phase with it. I’m finding new things about Gina and Christine, and they affect Jerry and Shirley. I can feel them growing, changing, becoming far more complex than I envisioned when I created them eleven years ago.

Eleven years with these characters. Wow! A long time. The last four have been pretty intense.

I’ve grown to love them. They’re part of my family, though I can never see them in a corporeal way. But with that love comes an abiding hatred. Love and hate are closely related, you see. Not opposites at all. And I’m vacillating back and forth.

The damn book itself has become like the Sword of Damocles in my life. I’ve tried to reach the heights of the great storytellers and have been granted permission to sit in the thrown with no real power, just this sword handing over my head dangling by a single horse hair ready to fall and slice me to ribbons.

Unlike Damocles, though, I refuse to relinquish my uncomfortable occupancy of the throne. I’ve kept trying to earn my place with the great storytellers, period. I’m one of those who had much rather be a small fish in a big pond.

To that end, I’ve put away Miranda and Laura and several others to hang with the Falling Star family a little longer. I feel that I’m close to setting Falling Star in stone. That the growth will end. The new discoveries and twists will go away and the final representation of that world will be on a shelf. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. But it has to happen and Miranda is reminding me of that.

She’s becoming insistent. Persistent. And I’m becoming less resistant to her considerable charms.

So, I need to finish Catch a Falling Star, that is true. I can’t leave it unfinished or the horse hair will break and the sword will impale me. I also have to finish reading and commenting on my friend’s manuscripts. But I also need to take some time each day, even if it’s no more than thirty minutes, to spend with the lovely, tough, vulnerable, frightened, brilliant Miranda.

When she finally secured my attention yesterday, I nodded noticing just how lovely she’ll be.

“Bring me into the world, Rock,” she said, smiling.

“I promise.”

She took my cheeks in her warm hands. “I’ll be good to you.”

She will. And I will keep my promise to her.

But there’s that dreaded sword ...

No weight change last week. I came in at 271 for the second week in a row. Something will have to give, I know as my 35-year reunion is coming up next week and I have friends coming in from Cleveland.

I’ll continue on with Catch a Falling Star, and begin an outline of Miranda’s story.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.

BTW. This came in at under a thousand words. Yay! That was my self-imposed word limit. :-) But this is the first in awhile under.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let the Blood Flow, But Clean It Up

I quoted Rod Serling (pictured), creator of the great television show of the early 1960’s The Twilight Zone, on my Facebook status update the other day. “Writing is the easiest thing in the world. I go into my study, put paper into the typewriter, and bleed.” That was wrong. Serling himself was quoting that grand ol’ source Anonymous when he said it.

I believe it, though.

Anyone who has isolated himself or herself in a study alone trying to achieve that psychic connection with a reader by means of words on paper can understand the sentiment. We do bleed because part of ourselves winds up on the page if we’ve done it right. And that applies to all writers, not just fiction.

The power of the writer comes from the spilt blood.

Up to a point.

The problem with some, myself included, is that we bleed onto the page, but don’t see fit to clean it up. And this has been a HUGE lesson for me to learn. We want the reader to see the blood we’ve spilt. To cry the same tears. To laugh at the same situations. To think those great truths we espouse. But readers, myself included, want what’s underneath. The blood hides that from view.

What I’ve learned from watching Rod Serling and others is that, while it is important that I, as a writer, find my stories compelling enough to make me laugh and cry and think, that’s not enough. My job is to create stories that make the reader laugh, cry and think regardless of how I feel about it. And while the former is a great starting place, the latter can only be achieved when I emotionally divorce myself from the story and give it lovingly to the reader.

I clean off the blood I spilt.

An example is a particular airport scene from my novel Catch a Falling Star that breaks my heart every time I read it. I had trouble getting through reading it out loud with my compadres in The Writerie. My voice hitched and squeaked and hesitated and oh were those tears so close. I choked them back gallantly. That had to be brilliant work. Had to be. I sat in that chair melting and kinda liked it, to tell the truth. Both Kathy and Glenna said, essentially, “cut the scene. It doesn’t work.” They didn’t actually say that. They said they needed more of a reason for the scene to exist. I hemmed and hawed about writing scenes from England that will justify it, blah, blah, blah. Ariel Gore and a couple of the Wayward Writers said the same thing asking, “Why is this scene even here?”

My answer was simple and, I thought, compelling. That brilliant scene of mine (‘cause it had to be brilliant) showed the changing nature of the relationship between father and daughter.

Okay. Fair enough, but ultimately it was ...

Hogwash. Bovine excrement! I’m trying not to write the word bullshit. Can you tell? But it was bull with a capital SHIT.

The scene featured me bleeding all over the damn page and not cleaning it up for the reader. So, quoting Morales from that wonderful musical A Chorus Line, “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul,” and ... deep breath ... discovered that I really wanted the reader to cry when s/he read it. Not to learn more about the characters, not to find out what’s happening next. I wanted the reader to see the blood that I shed writing it and wallow in it just like I did. THAT’S why it didn’t work.

We may wallow in our own blood, but we really don’t want to wallow in anyone else’s.

So the idea then, is to bleed on the page (fine), then clean it off in the rewrite to allow the story underneath to shine. To expose it to the light of the reader’s mind and imagination. To let it been seen and allow the reader to make what s/he wants. The story has to be for the reader, otherwise it’s nothing more than intellectual or emotion masturbation. I’ve been unforgivably guilty of the latter, probably for a long time.

Those of you who know the theatre will recall a classic warning to actors, “You don’t cry until the audience does.” The same should go for the writer (me) in the rewrites. Anything else is self-indulgence, and I’m so damn tired of it I could ... bleed. It’s taken a few weeks for all of this to sink in, but that scene has to go. Period. Lucky 13 has to be my gift to the reader. Not blood to wade through.

I’ve said it before. I will do whatever it takes to tell the best and cleanest story I can to get published.

I studied with Steve Berry in Fiji. He preached writing tight. I’m interpreting that from now on to mean, don’t let the blood show. Get every spot out of the story so that the reader can see all of it. From start to finish.

I wish Rod Serling had lived to write a blog. I would have followed it religiously. The closest thing we have are interviews and some film where he leads an informal seminar on writing for television. He is eloquent and well-spoken, but maintains a respect for the young people in the seminar. It’s divided into a number of parts on YouTube. Check them out.

I can’t say I know a lot of television writers. I’ve met a few, worked with a couple. But to my mind Rod Serling was the very best of television writers. His early work followed by his episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery took television to places it had never been and rarely has been since. He tackled real issues in entertaining ways, including human equality, governmental abuse, and war. He also had a preoccupation with death as both of his father and grandfather died of heart issues in their early fifties.

In 1975, Serling had two major heart attacks within a couple of weeks. The doctors decided that open heart surgery was in order, risky though it was back then. During the surgery, Serling suffered a third heart attack and died. He was fifty years old.

Looking back at some of those old tales he penned for television like Patterns, Requiem For a Heavyweight, The Comedian, (each won him an Emmy) plus the many episodes from the shows, maybe we did see a little into Serling’s psyche.

But the blood never showed.

Last Sunday, I weighed in at 271, down two pounds from the previous week and fourteen from August 1st. I feel better, more in control. I’m continuing on with Catch a Falling Star these coming days.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bump It With a Trumpet - Cultural References

My novel Catch a Falling Star takes place in 1970, a specific period in time. We know that in that year, Richard Nixon was President of the United States. That “Bridge over Troubled Water,” was the number one song. That Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died.

The Vietnam conflict was still in full force. Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Connelly and my online writing mentor Ariel Gore (see last week) were born. Love Story by Erich Segal was the bestselling novel, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask by David Reuben, M. D. the bestselling non-fiction book, Ball Four by Jim Bouton the bestselling sports book, Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking the bestselling cook book.

Anyone remember that Rod McKuen was Caught in the Quite while basking In Someone’s Shadow?

These thing happened. They were real. Nothing can change, except the interpretation.

I’m bringing this up because one particular person I admire told me to eliminate all cultural references from my story. S/he pointed out that they freeze a book in time and prevent it from continuing generation after generation. I understand his/her point. Clive Cussler is famous, among others, for using the term The President in his thrillers, rather than actually naming someone. If he used President Obama, the book at some point would slide back into the jaws of the past and stay there (here). Understood. Many thriller writers use The President rather than an actual name. But many of these same writers also cast the Soviet Union as villains back in the day. There is no more Soviet Union. So those books slid back, didn’t they?

My critiquer had a point, though. I am a huge Clive Cussler fan, but even I had trouble opening Raise the Titanic again after Robert Ballard found the quintessential monument to human arrogance, and that it had broken into two large pieces while sinking. Cussler, of course, wrote his tale before that, and I read it several times.

I’ll read it again one day. It’s a good tale. But it’s hard to take the raising of the Titanic seriously anymore.

Unless we as novelists create our own Neverland or Wonderland or Hogwarts, then we’re always at risk of books becoming dated. Remember my example of the Soviet Union? How many thrillers did that freeze in time? And who knows. Texas has the legal right to vote itself into as many as five different states. Do we stop using Texas in our novels because a legislative vote might date our novel?

As I mentioned earlier, mine is set in 1970. Deliberately. I have three reasons. First, I like the time period having turned 13 that year. Second, I wanted to set my story in a time before Roe v. Wade. Third, and most important, I needed a period when a movie star could still drop out of site ala Greta Garbo and the press not be able to track her down. That an item might appear in Daily Variety, asking “Where is Regina Wilkes?” It was possible back then. Hell, I remember in 1970 there was serious speculation whether Adoph Hitler might still be alive and in hiding. He would only have been 81.

In 1970, the disappearance works.

Try dropping out of society today during an age when the paparazzi knows every celebrity’s bathroom habits, and by extension so do we.

I decided, contrary to the advice of this admired individual, to not only include cultural references but to augment them, adding some into each chapter to keep the reader grounded in the time. Ariel liked, in particular, that I referred to Joan Baez and patchouli incense saying that it felt like 1970. Hey! Pretty good huh? That was supposed to happen. She’s encouraged me to keep them coming in moderation.

So in a period piece (and at forty years, my novel is leaning toward that category) isn’t it good to have references to ground the time into the mind of the reader?

I certainly think so. To wit, I’m expanding the concept in Lucky 13. I’m adding real life figures to the novel as characters, like Bette Davis, and June Havoc (pictured above). In one of Gina’s nostalgic day dreams, she will sit next to Bette Davis at the Academy Awards ceremony. And will write a letter to June Havoc (in another of these nostalgic day dreams), who will give her solid advice via return mail.

I wrote a letter to June Havoc with the above publicity still.

For those who don’t know, June Havoc was the original Baby June of Vaudeville fame. She ran away from her mother and married at the age of thirteen. Had a successful stage and screen career in the thirties, forties, and fifties. She passed away earlier this year at the age of 97. Her older sister Louise carried on the vaudeville act for awhile then made quite a career in burlesque taking it to new heights, practically inventing the strip tease.

June’s older sister is better known as Gypsy Rose Lee, and, coincidentally, died in 1970. Check out the musical Gypsy (preferably the stage version, but the film is also good) to get a dramatized/musical version of June’s and Gypsy’s early life. It’s quite fascinating, and contains some of the best songs in all of musical theatre. Three include, “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the show-stopping “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.”

I watched it last night.

Bringing the ship into port, I disagree with a bestselling novelist and have solid reasons, other than the defensively egotistical, for doing so. But I do disagree on this issue of cultural references, and am re-dotting my 1970 novel with 1970 cultural references. No person will ever be President of the United States in 1970 other than Richard Nixon. No song will be the top song of 1970 other than “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Neither Janis, Jimi, or Gypsy will die in any year other than 1970.

In fact, no one will ever die again in 1970, or be born for that matter. Nothing else will happen in 1970, except for the story I’m telling or tales other writers tell.

I want those who read my book to feel 1970, or at least touches of it.

I have taken this wonderful person’s excellent advice on everything else s/he said and am proud of her/his notice, but on this one I’m having my own way. And for the best, I think.

No, I won’t mention the bestselling author’s name. Several of you will know who it is anyway. :-)

I weighed in last Sunday at 273. No change. I’m not worried yet, as I know that the first 12 pounds was water and the rest of me needs to catch up. I’m not quite to page 125 on Lucky 13, but I think I made real headway this week. I’m going to work as hard as I can the rest of this Labor Day Weekend ... when I should be on Maui.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.