Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Wolf

I fell in love with this small section, but finally came to realize it simply didn't fit in my "Montana is Burning" novel. So enjoy:

As shadows lengthened in the forest, a wolf waited.

He awoke at daybreak far to the north with an empty belly. The last surviving member of his pack, he’d eaten nothing but a few rodents the last few days. Alone, he had little hope of killing larger prey.

The wolf turned south and loped toward memories of slow-moving cattle that grazed away from human scents. He stopped to rest when the sun shone directly overhead. A swath of land denuded of trees stretched into the distance to both left and right. He could smell and hear much further than he could see, and sensed no men nearby. He sprinted across. He rested again and then urinated to mark his mission and direction of travel before continuing his journey. The wolf trotted over the Whitefish and Salish Mountains before a familiar scent stopped him on the edge of a grassy meadow.

The cattle still lay in his path but only after many hours’ journey through rolling sand hills. His stomach ached. The wolf ignored his hunger and waited.

Shadows stretched into the clearing below him, masking a swift stream in smears of gray and black. The wolf breathed deep of the warm air and smelled deer once more.

A female. Closer this time. Down-slope and upwind.

The wolf tensed his haunches in readiness.

The whitetail deer edged closer through the shadows, yet not close enough.

The wolf felt the weather change. A storm front was passing by. The humidity rose as clouds rolled overhead, smothering the landscape in featureless murk. Lightning crackled in the distance.

The lone male might as well have been blind. Yet he smelled the sweet fragrance of tamarack, pine and aspen, the loamy earth, the rich droppings left by beast and bird, and the salty blood coursing through the doe. Even through the noisy turbulence of wind and nearby stream, he clearly heard the prey set one hoof on a leaf.

The wind began to swirl. A fat plop of rain struck the cracked earth between his paws. Water sprinkled across the parched clearing. He sensed dusty treetops shuddering at scattered drops. A blanket of heavy, moist air settled around the hunter and now he sensed only water.

He stretched out on his belly and waited.

There you are - the rest of it at the next posting.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't Know Much...

...about History - got a snappy beat, doesn't it?

Like the old saw, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like," we often have a hard time defining the difference between great writing and so-so prose, but we sure as heck know what we like to read: action and dialogue.

If you catch yourself nodding off in the middle of a chapter, what do you do? Usually, your eyes start scrolling down through those dense paragraphs until you come upon (1) Somebody saying something exciting, (2) Somebody punching somebody, or (3) Somebody ripping someone's clothes off.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But not much. Few of us pick up a volume of Socrates or Aristotle when we desire a couple hours of diversion, because one Deep Thought after another starts to make our hair hurt. It's different, though, when the Deep Thoughts arise as a result of choices the protagonist is forced to make, demonstrated by his actions instead of lectures from on high. For example, what if the grandson of long-dead Socrates were to challenge Aristotle to a duel because of an insult by Aristotle's mentor, Plato? (Of course, the grandson would be secretly involved in an affair with the daughter of Aristotle.) To show Artistotle choosing pacifism when a hot-blooded, testosterone-driven teenager is holding a dagger to his neck, might be a bit more compelling than page after page of philosophical whertofores.

Especially if you're writing commercial fiction. But even in the rarified regions of literary fiction, there is a resurgence of "story" if we can believe the latest issue of New Yorker - you know, plot, things happening to interesting people, and the consequences thereof.

Anyway, this writer sometimes yearns to critique stories that are acted out by quirky characters with opposing goals in exotic locales, instead of being trapped inside the protagonist's skull for thousands upon thousands of words.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dialogue - Not Just People Talking

A recent post on the QueryTracker.net blog got me thinking about dialogue's many roles. It develops character, imparts information, enlivens the prose, changes the pace after a stretch of narrative, heightens tension, and helps set the story in a certain era, region, socioeconomic group and culture. You can even set up the book's theme with some well-crafted dialogue. In Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, all we know after five pages of listening to protagonist Inman is that he's recovering from combat wounds in an Army hospital. The he meets a blind man selling boiled peanuts on the hospital grounds and asks him who put out his eyes. The blind man says he was born that way.

-Why did you never have any? Inman said.
-Just happened that way.
-Well, Inman said. You're mighty calm. Especially for a man that most would say has taken the little end of the horn all his life.
The blind man said, It might have been worse had I ever been given a glimpse of the world and then lost it.
-Maybe, Inman said. Though what would you pay right now to have your eyeballs back for ten minutes? Plenty, I bet.
The man studied on the question. He worked his tongue around the corner of his mouth. He said, I'd not give an Indian-head cent. I fear it might turn me hateful.
-It's done it to me, Inman said. There's plenty I wish I'd never seen.
-That's not the way I meant it. You said ten minutes. It's having a thing and the loss I'm talking about.

Many readers complained bitterly about Inman being killed off at the end of the book, just as he'd realized the love of his life. But here on pages 5-6, Frazier showed us what was coming.

More than the roles listed above, dialogue embues the story with a certain flavor and authenticity. Elmore Leonard is a master at using a few lines of dialogue to convey the essence of a penitentiary, of military life, of wise guys, of Hollywood, of the ranch, or of a retirement community. In A Painted House, John Grisham shows us a rough-and-tumble family of hill people working on a Depression-era farm, when Deputy Stick investigates the death of a local ruffian.

"Three?" Stick repeated in disbelief. The entire gathering seemed to freeze.

Pappy seized the moment. "Three against one, and there's no way you can take him in for murder. No jury in this county'll ever convict if it's three against one."

For a moment Stick seemed to agree, but he wasn't about to concede. "That's if he's telling the truth. He'll need witnesses, and right now they're few and far between." Stick turned to face Hank again and said, "Who were the three?"

"I didn't ask their names, sir," Hank said with perfect sarcasm. "We didn't have a chance to say howdy. Three against one takes up a lotta time, especially if you're the one."

Everyday conversation, though, is nothing like dialogue in fiction. Listen to people talking on the street, and you'll notice how much is aimless, uninteresting and lacking tension. Conversation is littered with ahs and ums, stutters, false starts, cliches, pointless anecdontes, in-jokes indecipherable to outsiders, and stories that start nowhere and trail off into nothing. Good fictional dialogue might include any of the above in order to establish character, but is generally tightly written, with each participant guided by her goals in that particular scene - preferably conflicting goals, unknown to the other characters. Better yet if each character's goals are mutually exclusive, so one person achieving his goal means another's is denied.

Good dialogue in fiction is tight and lively - reality with all the boring stuff cut out. In this example from Robert B. Parker's Perish Twice, private detective Sunny Randall is trying to get some help from a married detective who has cheating in mind. Sunny speaks first.

Anybody issue him a permit?
We haven't.
But somebody might have.
It's something that could be ascertained.
"Ascertained"? Wow, Sunny. You're some talker.
But it could be, I said.
Sure, eventually.
Could you look into that?
Larkin grinned at me.
You ever think how blond our kids would be if we mated? he said.
All the time, I said. See what you can find out for me about the gun.
Will it improve our chances of mating?
Won't hurt them, I said. I nodded at the picture on his desk. They might.
Larkin looked at the picture and smiled.
Yeah, he said. They always do.

Dialogue in fiction mimics reality. It has a conversational tone, and often aspires to the breathless give-and-take of a tennis match. It's often full of slang, profanity, sentence fragments and poor grammar. And good dialogue has a music of its own, plus a succer punch waiting around the corner. Take these co-workers feeling each other out in T.L. Hines' The Unseen:

She put one of her sneakered feet up against the wall behind her, picked a fleck of tobacco off her tongue. "So where do you live, at least?"

"Staying in a place over by Howard University."

Another laugh.

"What?" he asked.

"Howard U-ni-ver-si-ty. How's a white boy like you end up in the District, working for cash under the counter at the Blue Bell, and staying at a place filled with black folks?"

He puffed on his own cigarette, looking down at the ground. "You mean I'm not black?" he asked.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You're Fired - From Critique Group

Sorry, Stuart*, you're not welcome back. Sure, we've struggled at times with finding enough warm bodies to fill the chairs but the simmering tensions were driving everybody crazy, to the point that when you finally erupted in a vomit of rage at our ignorance, bad taste and cruelty - well, it was a relief.

Not that an explanation is needed, but here are some thoughts in case you decide to seek feedback from other writers some day in the distant future.

1. We are only human. Don't let it make you crazy when a member makes a suggestion, and then completely contradicts that advice a few months later. Maybe she changed her mind, or was having a bad hair day, or was flailing around because she couldn't get a grip on your style. Take criticism and suggestions with a grain of salt. Most of us follow this dictum: if one person makes a certain comment, maybe it's because his shorts are bunched too tight, but if two or more echo the same idea, then I probably have a problem I need to deal with.

2. Every comment shouldn't lead to an argument. Aren't you in a group in order to get feedback on your masterpiece? Then disengage your mouth and open your ears. The surest way to cut off constructive criticism is to be defensive, argumentative and emotional when somebody tries to give helpful advice.

3. It's not personal. When a literary agent declines to represent you, it's not because she thinks you're an awful person. When an editor rejects your submission with a form letter, his intention is not to deliberately insult you. When a critiquer isn't engaged by your prose, it's not a personal attack. Not all ideas are great and not all techniques are effective, but the fact that everybody doesn't gush over the brilliance of your work doesn't detract from your worth as a human being. Hell, maybe we're wrong, and you're going to be Hemingway 2.0 (see #1 above). Again, the rest of us are in a group to elevate our craft so we WANT critical comments and specific suggestions (see #2 above).

4. Develop selective amnesia. I admit being an imperfect creature who gets frustrated when I give the same advice for months on end, and fail to see improvement, and sometimes I hurl an ill-considered, Simonesque remark. Sometimes a critiquer is having a bad day and lets slip a snarky comment. Sometimes another writer just doesn't get the message you're trying to convey. When you keep track of critical comments made months, even years earlier, that's not healthy behavior. Bear in mind that when you hold a grudge, the other person is blissfully unaware nearly all the time. Until the eruption, vomit of rage, etc.

Good luck in your literary career. Now go bother somebody else.

(* Name changed to protect a flaming jerk)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Good Critique Group

To me, my novel critique group has been a wonderful laboratory for experimenting with the craft of writing. Some of what I've learned has been from others pointing out strengths and weaknesses in my own prose. I've also learned a lot from the successes and failures of my fellow critiquers.

From Jake, I learned not to be a snob about grammar. A sentence fragment in exactly the right place can have tremendous impact. But the shorter the better. By the time I get to the end of reading a thirty or forty word sentence, I'm desperately searching for a verb. Not finding one, I retrace my steps to see what I missed. So keep fragments short.

Speaking of short, Jake's one-sentence paragraphs (even one word!) can become habit-forming.


He also introduced me to the works of Robert B. Parker, a great example when I've been struggling with dialog.

On the flip side, Jake reminds me not to fall in love with my novel to the point that, once it's written, I neglect all the other wild ideas flitting around in my head. Write the next novel, Jake!

Angie inspires me. She can literally draft a novel in a weekend orgy of typing. It may be rough as hell but there's that pile of pages full of ink, begging to be edited and polished into something great. Like former members Bob and Marie, she's written 2-3 books while I've been worrying over every comma and adverb in my own masterpiece.

She's also great at keeping the focus on a sympathetic protagonist instead of my jumping from POV to POV of all the wackos roaming my mind. She visualizes a character, pushes him into a pit of quicksand, and keeps jabbing his with a stick until he figures out how to save himself.

Angie also reminds me of the need to keep improving my craft. I can't depend on others to fix my spelling an grammar since I don't always have the luxury of waiting 2-4 weeks while a chapter, query letter or synopsis passes through the critique gauntlet.

Wes reminds me of King or Koontz, deftly slipping in a word or phrase that takes your breath away. There is so much power in the exact word picture at just the right moment. But it's hard for the solitary writer to know the difference between the sentence that enlivens an entire page, and one that jolts the reader out of the story. That's why we drive through blizzards in the winter and past beckoning golf courses in the summer, in search of constructive criticism.

Wes also shows me how important it is to anchor a story with sensory details. I understand his genre is not like a whodunit, western or romantic comedy, but some sort of New Age space-travel-but-not-really-sci-fi allegory. But sights and sounds, farts and freckles, idiosyncrasies and memories of your maiden aunt with garlic breath - these are things people can identify with, building rapport between readers and both the story and the hidden author. In my humble opinion, until we breathe life into some sensory images, we're merely throwing adjectives against a wall, hoping something will stick.

Nick, a landscape artist new to writing, is full of energy and enthusiasm about this new creative outlet. He reminds me how vital it is to nurture the wide-eyed child within each of us, keeping him at arm's length from that crabby old editor. We've got to give ourselves freedom to write crap, to follow our pens where they lead us, and to take risks. Some of that crap turns into pretty good, uh, lit once it's been worked on a bit, whereas there's not much you can do with a blank sheet of paper.

Ina continually reminds me of the awesome power of storytelling. You can talk all day about the importance of love, honor and respect for the traditions of your significant other, but Ina nails those concepts in her 200-word tale of a Jewish-Christian wedding at a hog farm.

At the same time, she demonstrates how vital interesting characters are to a story. In early drafts, the players are cardboard cut-outs, and it's fascinating to see how just a few words can add quirks, foibles and physical traits to a minor walk-on, making him a fleshed-out person about whom you could actually say, "I know that guy."

I've learned things from some of our drive-by critiquers as well. From the fellow who came once and vanished off the face of the earth, I learned the importance of finding the time to write, the time to edit, and the time to seek feedback.

A gal came once and ran screaming for the door, terrified by all those marks in the margins of her beloved creation. She reminded me of the reason I keep coming back - to get criticism. If I could achieve emotional distance and be able to recognize my mistakes and weaknesses, I wouldn't need the critique group.

But it's still a wonderful group, and I feel like there's a hole in my life when I'm forced to miss a session.

Next time: why Stuart isn't welcome back.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year, A New Start

Amazing how the New Year starts in the middle of winter, not a time we are easily motivated. Here in Montana, it's snowed every day for the past three weeks or so, and everybody's sick and tired of shoveling, slipping and sliding. Even when I lived in North Carolina, everything except the evergreens turned brown and drab. Why not start the New Year in the spring, when the signs of nature's rebirth are all around us?

Maybe renewal isn't supposed to be easy. It certainly seems harder gluing my rear end in a chair to write this time of year. Maybe maybe maybe...

Maybe it takes someone smarter than me to make sense of this. After all, instead of having brunch with Trump, Grisham and Obama today, I was out buying off-season clothing at yellow-tag, seventy-percent-off sales. So take my advice with a healthy dose of salt - the words of another struggling writer who sees the flaws of others a lot clearer than my own.

So, so New Years Resolutions for authors, poets and illustrators:

1. Keep a couple projects going. It's natural to hit a wall now and then so instead of beating it with your head, turn to researching a future story, or editing that junk you wrote a couple years ago, or working on family history. You'd be surprised how life delivers answers when you're looking in another direction.

2. Hang out with other writers. Join a local author's group, attend workshops, sign up for courses to improve your craft, attend readings by local writers and poets, go to book store signings, and watch newspapers for other events.

3. Join a critique group. This is the single best thing I ever did to improve my writing. We have members working on YA, a western, a memoir, a thriller, a humorous crime tale, and New Age sci-fi. But good writing is good writing, and recognizing it in others is the first step in incorporating it in mine. Also, I often don't see faults in my own prose until they're pointed out by others.

4. Find a time that works for you, and write every day at that time, even if only for 15-20 minutes. Putting new words on blank paper is priority one. Editing, researching and designing the dust cover can wait.

5. Read. A lot. For enjoyment and for insight into improving your craft. If you are struggling with dialog, read some Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard or Dixon Rice. Seriously.

Have a happy New Year and keep on writing.