Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

World's Best Job

A Facebook friend of mine, author Jami Gold, recently blogged about "Writers: One Big Happy Family" at http://jamigold.com/blog/

No, she wasn't being sarcastic. Jami echoed a sentiment I've felt for a long time. Although there are fruitcakes and wingnuts in every occupation or hobby, I've found the writing profession to be remarkably supportive of struggling beginners. It's not cutthroat competitive. There's not the feeling that "if I help you get in print, that might mean I won't get published."

Former UCLA writing instructor Dennis Foley currently lives in Whitefish, Montana. He has been a successful writer and producer on motion pictures and TV shows such as CHINA BEACH, CAGNEY & LACEY, and MacGUYVER, as well as having several Vietnam novels published. When he was a lowly staff writer in Hollywood (the equivalent of a cub reporter on a major newspaper), an experienced screenwriter took Dennis under his wing and helped him avoid lots of rookie mistakes. Dennis asked how he could repay the veteran and was told, "Help other writers." And he has, many times over.

The only exception I've seen to this attitude has been in critique groups, mainly online. For some reason, normally sweet, kindly people who would never kick a puppy - folks who would give their last quarter to a hungry stranger - can be vicious in pointing out examples of poor writing. I have a friend who's in some of these groups, and she keeps explaining to me how busy these people are, and how it's sort of "tough love."

I don't think it takes much more time to point out strengths at the same time we correct errors. I believe a measure of tact is always appropriate when dealing with folks who are obviously rank beginners. I feel some of us have forgotten about the first word in "constructive criticism."

So I agree, writing is the world's best profession, but there's still room for improvement.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Showing "A Typical Day"

At the first writers conference I ever attended, I had the opportunity to have a literary agent critique the first 50 pages of my premier novel. It started with action, just as a hundred other writers had suggested, but the agent didn't like that. I needed to show what a typical day was for the protagonist, she said, and do a better job establishing the setting. So I went back to the computer and did exactly that.

Ever since, everybody who's looked at my story says the same thing: start with action and knock off all the description.

Okay, okay, back to the opening scene where the flawed detective is sitting in the bank lobby when a meth-fueled robber walks in. But when you buy Montana is Burning, this is the descriptive, textured opening you will miss:

An Indian kid was dead, and nobody seemed to care except a lawyer barely old enough to shave.

Detective Paul Longo looked across the street at a storefront law office. Main Street in Kintla stretched all of ten blocks, and nothing much moved in either direction this autumn afternoon. Just dust and a dry wind. Paint blisters pockmarked the brooding gray edifice opposite Paul, revealing previous incarnations of chocolate brown and light blue.

The town straddled both banks of a river on the floor of a narrow valley, so the cigar box building stood stark against lodge pole pine and western larch that swept up the foothills from a mere three blocks away. Years ago, somebody had removed the large letters that ran across the second story of the stucco facade but hadn’t bothered to repaint, so the outline was still clear: Woolworth’s. On the right side of the building, a sign said Kowboy Kafe, but that door had been boarded up for years. On the left, amateurish gold lettering on the plate-glass frontage proclaimed the law office of Kevin Waagel, Esquire, the attorney retained by the tribe to look into violent or suspicious deaths, on or off the nearby reservation.

Paul pushed back the new Stetson and wiped his forehead dry. He liked the hat, a present his first day on the job from Sheriff Clyde Frye. The only nice thing anyone in Mullen County had done for him so far.

He sighed, wondering again at the wisdom of his move to Montana. A glance at his watch -- twenty minutes early for his deposition. He decided to take care of some business he’d been putting off for a month. The office of Kevin Waagel, Esquire, would still be there when he finished.

A Mullen County patrol car pulled up to the curb across the street. A deputy sheriff climbed out and nailed a sign to a telephone pole reading Re-elect Sheriff Frye. One block north, another deputy rounded the corner and stopped to pound a Holland for Sheriff sign into the library’s front lawn.

Paul shook his head and started toward Kintla State Bank.

Five minutes later, he eased into a chair at the New Accounts desk and waited for the statuesque blonde to notice him. It took awhile, what with her chatting on the phone while she rasped an emery board across a fingernail. Her shimmering emerald dress clung to all the right places. Paul didn’t mind the wait.

The tempo in these small towns, he mused, took some getting used to. Back in Phoenix, a bank would pink-slip any employee that didn’t handle the required number of transactions in the requisite time with fewer than the allowable amount of errors. This quiet valley in northwest Montana ran at a different pace than Paul had grown up with. The important things got done but with fewer ulcers in the process.

The blonde ended her conversation. Blue eyes sparkled as she pasted on her best customer service smile, but it seemed a shade brittle. I save my warmth for people who don’t sit down uninvited, the smile said.

“Elizabeth, I’d like to open a checking account.”

“Do I know you?” She wrinkled her nose. “I think I’d remember someone as tall as you and--”

“And with a nose like a hatchet, I’m not so easy to forget.” He pointed at the nameplate on her desk.


“Anyway, I’m getting paid next week and figured I should put my check someplace safe. A bank came to mind.” He reached past the shoulder holster into his blazer’s inside breast pocket and pulled out a fifty. “This can start things off, until I get my first paycheck.”

Elizabeth tried her smile again. “New to the valley?”

“Been here long enough to get all my clothes out of cardboard boxes. About four weeks.”

“Goodness, how ever did you last that long without a checking account?”

Paul shrugged. “Mostly use cash.”

Her brows bunched together.

"I work for the Sheriff, Elizabeth. Believe me, cash is perfectly legal.”

“You’re that new detective, aren’t you?” The pleasure of discovery lit her face yet a shadow lurked in her eyes. Paul wondered what she’d heard. The new detective with all the big-city ideas? The one who acted too good for the local cops? The square peg?

She tapped a couple times on her computer keyboard and began taking Paul’s vital statistics, seemingly glad to be in safe territory. He answered automatically as he glanced around the historic building. With a pressed-tin ceiling, the bank must have been at least seventy-five years old, maybe a hundred. Some of the windows had the bluish, dimpled look of antique glass. The main doors were sheathed in copper both inside and out, maybe from the mines in Butte, and Paul guessed the appearance of Old-World craftsmanship was authentic.

Then a man walked through those same doors. He didn’t look one bit authentic.