Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dewey Decimate System

Mr. Crutcher, you have one obedient computer. You send yours to the library, I can’t even make mine go downstairs for a donut. And I’m sorry, but this Dewey Decimal has to go. When I was a boy in rural Colorado (at a one room school where my mom taught first through fifth grades – and hit me with a ruler when I was unruly – where at the end of every day we stood beside our desks and sang Onward Christian Soldiers like the angels we were) the bookmobile came once a week! It was like Santa Claus! -- except for this twirp Dewey Decimal that they were always trumpeting about. I already knew the real Dewey. Dewey Duck, with his brothers Huey and Louie. It was years before I discovered the truth about Mr. Decimal and his arcane “system.” As if three numbers weren’t enough, he added that point at the end and then added more letters and numbers after ... really? A whole 3x5 card just for the book’s number? Got so’s I would read the number and skip the book. That accounts for the richness of my literary understanding. Remember 142.780973 C826e? What a number! What a concept!
            Researching, I use several search engines for articles and images and I love the online thesaurus when I’m considering non-repetitive word choices. I made a deal with myself to stop and think --- THINK --- before I access these tools in the hopes that my brian doesn’t atropine completly . . . hmmm. 
            This week I’m caught up with my researching but I’m in the process of rearranging a new book’s fifteen beginning chapters to establish the character-building and the plot momentum that I believe will be most effective. I’m aware how difficult it is for me to hold entire chapters in my head and move them around like building blocks. I see now why some authors use storyboards to give themselves a visual anchor. Or maybe I should use scissors and scotch tape . . . but wouldn’t the pages tear after the eleventh reconstruction? Surely you have suffered the pain of beginningitis . . . or wait, maybe you’re one of those scalawags who write the first draft through to the end before you monkey with it. Well, fie on thee, penman, may your ship scrawl to the doldrums - - an old curse I learned from 216.818974 K353r.

Monday, April 8, 2013


To me "research" is just an eight letter word.  Where I come from that's twice as ugly as a four letter word.  Our different perspectives on it may explain why you went to Stanford University and I went to Ed's Junior College and Latte Stand.  I have library cards for libraries in some of the most obscure cities and towns in the United States of America.  The reason is that, until I discovered I was offending librarians all over this great land by telling them the last library card I had was for the Cascade, Idaho Public Library in 1955 (to which I could go any and all Saturday mornings to check out donated books nobody else wanted) it was a part of my standard presentation.  Those offended librarians started sending me cards.  The Cascade library was housed in the back of the fire station where Dewey Decimal had never set foot.  My mother, a champion of community betterment coerced - or should I say forced - her children to check out at least one book a week.  Because of this, I discovered that the Edgar Rice Borroughs' Tarzan smoked cigarettes and spoke like the English Lord he was.  I preferred the movie Tarzan, whose vocabulary consisted of "Me Tarzan, you Jane.  Then he took off with Cheetah.  Forever traumatized, I swore off libraries and research and literacy.  Later I discovered another way to research is to "live it" and began digging up many of my facts from my own experience and, more importantly, the experiences of others.  As I've grown older, and I have grown older, I've discovered I need to write about things I haven't experienced and therefore must change my ways.  How fortunate I discovered this need at a time when I can send my computer to the library and don't have to get my skinny butt out of my chair.  But your point, Mr. Price, is well taken.  If you don't get the details right, the readers will catch you and they will slay you. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Maud Butler Falkner’s Ghost

I know what you mean about the editing necessary when walking the precipice of reality. Can't afford to be glib or cheap or easy with our language ,,, the story would enter the realm where anything seems possible and the tension would evaporate. As to creating much chaos in your cranium, how could you possibly tell? What degree of bedlam did you use as a benchmark?

When my teachers said to embrace my mistakes, they were suggesting I take the hundreds of sheets of incorrect math equations and carry them to the dumpster. Under all that snow, Billings Montana was green. As was William Faulkner's mother, Maud, at our seance yesterday. The agitated woman kept pounding on the table and moaning, not unlike my math teachers. 
My character who talks to the dead went to the library in Chapter 12. He found out parapsychology is considered by many to be a psuedo-science. Go figure. I have a nice psuedo jacket but I have to dry clean it after I eat. Anyway, my character and I were both surprised. Libraries have a lot of damn nerve with their research books and big dictionaries. I had a big dictionary the size of a recliner but someone borrowed it for an unabridged piling. 

Research -- that's an unseen pleasure of fiction writing. You expect research in non-fiction. It's often behind the scenes in fiction. We have to know the landmarks of our settings --- sometimes to the extent of checking whether our memory is accurate. I've been absolutely positive ... and wrong. I've wanted to know more about a piece of music, or the history of the Anza-Borrego Desert, or the different departments in county social services, or what did Houndsditch Street look like in 1888 London? I get curious, immersed in my research education, and forget I'm writing. So, like we were talking about earlier, we write what we know about  but it doesn't always have to be from our own experience. Is that so obvious?

My protagonist decided to go to the library. I hadn't thought of it myself. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

William Faulkner's mother

Hey man, go light on William Faulkner's mother.  She's getting old.  If you had teachers who told you to embrace mistakes, you must have grown up in a different United States of America educational system than I did.  AND if you had teachers who told you to embrace your mistakes you must have felt like you'd won a free trip to Disneyland!  (I, Charles, am that good good friend who will turn on you in a minute.)

Using the paranormal in any way is an interesting and slightly dangerous path to walk.  It's easy to fall into cliches or go to a place that's unbelievable.  It has to be exactly consistent to be good, and some great "twist" about how it works is always good.  I tried it to a small degree in The Sledding Hill.  I had to do an amazing amount of editing on that very short book because I couldn't get it in my head what the dead narrator would know and not know and how he would articulate it.  He was still fourteen and I needed his teenage voice, but he had also escaped out into the universe where, I assume (and therefore incorporate) that he would know more.  When you're writing such a book you're appreciative of good editing.  I'm doing it again in a different way with this new novel and like you, am having fun, yet creating much chaos in my cranium.  

Again, go light on Mrs. Faulkner.  She carries the burdon of birthing an author who is at the same time very famous and unreadable. 

Monday, February 25, 2013


I can give feedbark at the drop of a tonsil, Mr. Crutcher. As you know, opinion is my middle name. And I will be sending you some of my flotsam for comment forthwith. I now have thirty pages of beginnings and I’m shuffling them. I can see I still don’t have the start I want but sooner or later it will sneak in like aliens in the dark of night. I love the process of starting a new book or a new story. So many possibilities, so many words, and every so often an agate in the gravel.

When I start a book I imagine the “world” of the story. Are these characters equal to the task that interests me? Is this setting effective for telling this particular tale. But I can’t live on thought experiment alone.  I have to get the feel of a situation, the feel of a setting, by writing about it. Can I find the voice we need to tell the story? Does one voice work better than another? Will this setting provide not only the backdrop but the tone I need. How else to explore that terrain than to start typing, write about it and learn what I like?

Fearing mistakes? That’s like memorizing the book How To Cultivate Writer’s Block. Teachers urged me to embrace “mistakes” and more than embrace them, cultivate the attitude that they are indispensable tools. As you say, the staple of learning. An airplane autopilot make thousands of mistakes flying between San Francisco and L.A. --- and it gets new information and makes adjustments as it goes.  Mistakes, fiddledydash! We wouldn’t have learned to walk without them. And besides, who are any of us? William Faulkner’s mother? No. We’re just women and men learning to write as well as we can.

And by the way, I, too, am working on a new novel where somewhat extra-normal or at least unusual rules apply. Years ago I worked with a parapsychologist in NYC who was fascinated how and under what circumstances different mediums (people with clairvoyant talent) got their information. -- Some claimed a spirit guide, --Some were embarrassed by their inability to understand how they knew what they knew, --Some needed to touch a personal object (comb or ball point or ring) in order to establish supra-normal contact. This parapsychologist believed that no one understood how this phenomenon actually operated, not the person with the ability or the researchers studying it. Now I get to play with that idea!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nobody but Nobody

Nobody, but nobody casts an imaginary Humpy through anything.  And the operative word with your nothing-but-net jumper is imaginary.  But man I do get it about beginnings.  There are so many ways to start any given story and at some point we have to just go ahead and do it.  The beginning we start with may end up in Chapter 3, but we have to get going.  One thing I always try to get across to new writers is the value of so-called errors.  Humans are a trial-and-error species that refuses to celebrate errors.  We call them mistakes.  We call them sins.  We beat ourselves up for making them.  How crazy is that?  The staple for learning is vilified.  Those mistaken beginnings (as well as the mistaken transitions and the characters and plot lines that don't work) are what tell us the way to go.  Half of knowing what is, is knowing what isn't.  We have to try things to see if they'll really work.  That's also a reason to let a trusted reader, or listener, see or hear our works in progress.  We often need someone else to tell us the error of our ways.  I'm playing with a character for my next novel who simply appears on the scene in the first chapter.  Even he isn't sure where he came from or why he's in this place.  I love the character but I need rules for him and those rules will make themselves clear as I put him in situations.  You, Mr. Chuck, will have the honor, such as it is, to give me feedbag.  I mean feedback.  Feedbag is easy for you; feedback maybe takes a little more focus.

So drop everything you're doing and watch your email. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


A dictionary won’t help since I make up any word longer than seven letters. Take fulminate for example. It’s the opposite of emptiminate. Now really, is that useful?

Lately I have been starting a new book and my computer is filling with beginnings. Tens of them. None the right one, but all valuable. Some beginnings will become earlier or later chapters. Some won’t get used at all but will help me choose characters I want to keep for the long run. Some will let me play with a scene I know I’ll want to include at some point.

This works great -- the writing itself -- as long as I’m enjoying the process. As soon as my left brainish “shoulds” wedge their way into my thinking, I’m cooked. Then the “this-isn’t-rights” and “you’re-wasting-times” stomp on my pleasure and grind my writing to bits of broken taillight. “PRIORITIZE!” My long-dead asholic uncle slaps his riding crop against his thigh and my writing pleasure dissolves in a pool of criticism.
            I sit back. I know better than this. I know that in creative writing this demand for order and logic and planning is no friend. Not of mine, anyway. No friend of inspiration. I breathe. I scour the house for a wheel of cheddar. I walk outside and feel the difference on my skin. I cast an imaginary yellow-belly Humpy through an imaginary riffle. I bounce a hard dribble and loft a twenty-foot jumpshot through an imaginary nothing-but-net. I guitarpick a tricky riff that my brain plays better than my hand. And zip zop . . .  ready again . . .  I imagine.
            Ready to look through my screen and type what I see. Ready to enjoy writing. Ready to trust the process. Hoo boy, I can almost feel it. Here comes another word!