Monday, May 2, 2016

Never Too Old to Learn

Although I abhor the fact we have lived through real threats to our culture and society, to our lives, to arrive at an age where great universities and even libraries issue “trigger warnings,” I feel the need to issue a trigger warning in preface to this blog.  It may be too personal a subject for enjoyable first Monday of the month blog reading.

A month or so ago, I received a surprising rejection. Rejection should surprise no writer, I admit, but this novel has a strong story line and its writing had not sprung, mirabile dictu, from my forehead.  It had taken two years of hard work and three beta readers. In a fit of assuming I had grown up, matured, and learned something, I neither subjected it to a workshop nor did I hire an editor to review the last draft (something I had done for both my published novels.)

My rejection carried a second surprise. A 486 word evaluation report came back citing four reasons for the rejection.  After reading the four reasons, 1. Head-hopping, 2. Generally, the prose style is weak, 3. Character inconsistencies, and 4. Show, don't tell, I had to take a few moments, well, a few days, to self-connect (breathe, what are you feeling? what do you need?)

What I felt was kicked in the stomach and open to learn from what the evaluation told me, both.  What I needed was to understand how the evaluator saw what she saw because with all but one of her comments, I could not even understand what she was talking about. 

I turned to a friend whom I trust, who has the background and the accomplishment to guarantee that his comments are borne of competence.  I asked him to do this for a professional fee, not because he needed it or wanted it.  The fee serves as the welder’s torch, creating the bond between my seriousness and his work on my behalf.

From the evaluation, it became clear that the evaluator had read the first seven chapters of the novel, about thirty pages and about 8,000 words.  That is what I sent him, along with the evaluator’s comments, and the broad assignment to help me understand what and why she said what she said.  

He did his work and, with time, the thirty pages came back, fully commented upon, with a summary of his observations.

A Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, has a wonderful book/cd named Unconditional Confidence in which she trains her students that unconditional confidence is not the confidence that everything will work out the way you want it to.  That is ego at work.  Unconditional confidence is the confidence that no matter what you are handed, you can deal with it.  That practice was my practice before, during, and after reading what my friend had to say. 

I read what he sent me and on a second reading, started to take notes.  The remainder of this blog is those notes, sometimes with a little addendum about what I did with them.

a. Point of view: my friend chose to use p.o.v., instead of the jargon head-hopping, and he identified every ambiguous, wandering, or switching p.o.v   I have spent a lot of time with my butt in the seat of a classroom, including workshops, physical and online, as well as researched p.o.v. My current point of view on p.o.v., not quite despairing, contains a very large dose of how will I ever master this?

b. The philosophy of writing dialogue: I did not even know there was such a philosophy. My research tells me it was initially articulated by Martin Buber.  About fifty-years ago, I was thrilled to be the only one, among my friends, who had read the entire collected works of Martin Buber.  It did not even count that I was not Jewish.  Now, I am embarrassed to say, I have reveled in the collection of compliments on dialogue in my stories, and I had never heard of the philosophy of writing dialogue. Welcome back to earth!

c. The principle of show don’t tell.

At this point, I also started noting some of his observations, helpful without being part of the list: “It’s as if something has alienated her and you won’t win her back.”  This is a valuable, general observation that fully explains why the first two or three pages are very important.  There’s no good reason to make an enemy before you get started.

d. Parallelism. How does that principle work with “with” and “and”? Back to research.

“Some editors may not care for a story that begins with dialogue.”  I had never heard this before, so I googled it.  I can tell you, he is 552,000 times right.

e. What is telling? e.g in my draft, he pointed out, “The conflict has already been shown.”

f. The rules of the comma.  I am one of the people who has memorized Strunk and White, so this comment came as a great surprise. I went back to my Strunk and White.  There were all the rules I had learned and memorized and not followed.

g. You might want to get rid of the ‘ly’ adverbs.  Everyone knows that.  Still, I was charmed by his gentle way of saying it.  So, I did a find and replace: 79 replacements in 8,000 words.  This alone could be the subject of an essay.  That is 1% and yet it is enough to poison the water for a reader (and when reader = evaluator, it is real trouble.)

h. This sounds like a lecture from an omniscient voice.  A particularly troublesome observation because I doubt any fiction writer wants to be viewed as lecturing.  When you need to get information on the page, how do you do it without lecturing?

i. In the narration, lose the contractions.  Dialogue only.  If you have an opinion on this, go to the internet.  There is a string devoted entirely to debating this point.  I offer no contra-argument.  I am going to follow the suggestion and duck the confrontation.

j. Unclear pronoun antecedent.  Oops

k. Pronoun use.  Pronouns are a bit thick. Oops.

l. Multiple viewpoint characters.  This flaw probably follows or causes the wandering point of view diagnosed above.  Trying to adhere to the principle of telling the story from one point of view (best) or two points of view (next best, etc.) poses a challenge when the story includes multiple character conflicts.

“Some editors flinch at the verb ‘to get’ in its various forms.”

m. Up, down, out, got identified twelve times on one page.

n. Summary narration,  This should be a realized scene or else covered by someone else’s inference.    Perhaps back to the show and tell issue, but what a fascinating insight.  This particular risk arises trying to create a bridge from one scene to the next.
o. Artistic control.  Expediency rather than artistic control. I’ll end on that one.  It is such an elegant thought. It carries me through my continued efforts. 

If something burned into the brain by the branding iron of pain can change the neural pathways, perhaps this experience will help me develop artistic control. 
E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Story Behind the Story: The Oddsmakers

Today, it's my second post focusing on the fictioneers part of Western Fictioneers. Every month I'll put up a free story, guaranteed to be less than a month old, and take a look behind the scenes at where it came from.
This one turned up easier than usual --though I was behind at the first of the month and had no idea what I would do for April's post.  
Here's the straight dope:
I was at my regular table in the local coffee shop typing away at something when this man walked in and picked a fight with the guy behind the roaster.
Now the young people who burn the beans in this place are just that: young. And not to sound like somebody's ageist grandpa, but when you talk to them there's usually some sort of overblown drama going on in their lives. Money, parents, grades, money, love interests, money.  We've all been there or soon will be. Nobody escapes.
So, drama. Slightly raised voices. A few swear words. I didn't worry about it. 
Until the guy turned out to be a nutcase. No kidding.
He stomped outside, was gone a couple minutes, then banged the door back open. His return didn't take him to the roaster. This time, he yelled at us --the customers.
Unlucky us.
I thought of the old horseshoe my grandpa had hanging open side up on his barn door. In my mind, the shoe turned upside down.
There were five of us in a relatively small space. Me at one table, a retired business type at a table in the corner, a Mary Kay lady just in front of him, and two teenage girls in school uniforms doing their homework beside the fireplace.
The crazy man started calling the roaster guy names. Then he chastised us for breathing the same air as such a scumbag. The nice girl behind the counter told him he should leave.
And she called him by name--which meant she knew him, which made it that much worse. If you talk to cops, they'll tell you domestic confrontations, fights between friends and relatives, are just hell on earth. 
She said it again, "I think you should leave."
And what the guy said next sent a jolt through me and forced the five of us customers to lock eyes.
He said, and I quote: "I don't give a ____ about what you think. I don't give a ____ about you. Or any of these people. You're ALL in for some deep ____ now." (Fill in with the expletive of your choice.)
Right there, the girls by the fireplace just about lost it. 
Me, I had my phone out and was thumbing 9-1-1. 
So many stories hit the media about public shootings that this seemed like a replay of the same old script. Obviously the guy went out, got a gun, and came back right?  Now he's pointing his anger at the crowd. We all know what comes next.
But I never actually saw a gun. There was no gun.
And then--just like that--the guy turned and stomped out of the place.
It was over as fast as it had escalated. 
Just as fast as you read it --that's how fast it started and stopped.  This time instead of initiating a grisly news story, the crazy man peeled out of the parking lot in a snit.
Believe me every one of us payed very close attention as he drove off down the street. 
Then we looked at each other again. Lucky survivors.
The horseshoe was again right side up.
Finally, the business guy in the corner broke the tension. He said, "Y'know, for a second there, I sorta thought our number was up."
Everybody nodded and smiled and agreed, chuckling with relief.
Then the Mary Kay lady said. "I thought so too. In fact, I probably would've bet on it."
And there --POW--in my imagination was the entire story: "The Oddsmakers."  What if something like this happened in the old west?  Some kind of confrontation that promised violence? Rather than freeze in terror or call for help, what if somebody decided to bet on it?
I immediately saved what I was working on, opened a new document and started typing.  I got about 400 words into it, then quit for the afternoon.
That night I wrote the rest of the story.  Hope y'all get a kick out of it. 

After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. In 2016, Richard roped the Spur Award for short fiction given by Western Writers of America. Read more at