Thursday, August 26, 2010


  Hi folks,

Kari Wolfe interviewed me back in April for her blog and has reposted it today. I thought I'd posted it here as well, but in searching don't think that I did. So... thought you might be interested in it.

Interview with LES EDGERTON of “Hooked” and “Finding Your Voice”

Les Edgerton
Today’s interview is with Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go and Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing as well as several other nonfiction and fiction titles.
Les’s background is a colorful one–the Navy, a stint in prison for burglary, past Writer-in-Residence at two universities, and presently he teaches writers’ workshops for Writer’s Digest.  I still stop at the “stint in prison” bit for a moment.  Not because I think badly of him–far from it!–but because he learned from his mistakes and moved on.  It’s that “moving on” part that I think is highly admirable.
He is working on his memoir, tentatively titled “Adrenaline Junkie.”
Both of Les’s writing books are on my writing desk for future reference.
From rock-bottom in prison to published writer and college instructor… that’s quite an amazing work.  Can you give me (and my readers) an idea of how bad it got and then how you picked yourself up and decided to change your life? :)
Well, prison’s pretty bad, all right! Nothing fun about it that I can remember. I came from a dysfunctional childhood (who hasn’t, right?), and went into the Navy for four years. When I was discharged, I came back to Indiana (from Bermuda and San Salvador in the Bahamas) and was bored out of my skull. I got into crime for one reason—it was exciting. Didn’t need the money or anything like that. It just fed my adrenaline jones. Prison woke me up. It wasn’t a place I ever wanted to go back to. Fortunately, I met a woman who helped change my life, my third wife Sheila. With her encouragement, I began college. It was a bit tough. Shortly after I began, she became pregnant with our first daughter, Britney, and I was the sole breadwinner. I went to college full-time, worked full-time (cut hair—I’d gone to barber school in the joint), and also held down a part-time job as a sports reporter (weekends) for The South Bend Tribune. I was also involved in campus activities, being elected, in successive years as student body senator, vice-president, and in my senior year, student body president. I was also the sports editor of the campus newspaper. Was involved in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and College Republicans. That ‘s a bit incongruous, but I didn’t join either of them for political reasons, but mostly for the girls. (I hadn’t quit being a bad boy entirely—was doing a ton of womanizing. Also, gambling.) Got about four hours sleep a night. I hear this lame ad on the radio about this girl going on about her “heavy” school schedule where she names her classes and how she has go trek across campus to each one and at the end, thanks the people who paid her way. Must be nice! I had to pay my own way, plus work full time, plus support a family, and do those other things. Her deal sounds kind of cushy, to be honest. She doesn’t even have to work a part-time job! And, I ended up with a 3.64 GPA and graduated with Honors of Distinction. I’m kind of proud of doing that after being in prison just months before I began. I still had my adrenaline jones, but was doing things society approved of instead.
I’ve always been a writer and always saw that as my life’s work, from the age of five, so I was writing also. While in school, I finished my first novel and eventually had it published (The Death of Tarpons, University of North Texas Press). I just wrote in my “spare” time. The fact that I got published made me feel validated as a writer, so I applied to and got accepted into the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College.
Your book, “Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go,” is a great source for writers who aren’t sure where to start their story or who have had feedback from either editors or other readers that their story is hard to “get involved in.”  What is your favorite beginning line from any book and how important is that first line to the reader, really?
Extremely important. As is the second line. And the third. And so on. But, it’s the first line that the agent and editor and eventually, the reader read. It better be good enough that they’ll want to read the next line. Here’s what people sometimes don’t understand. When you’re beginning and aren’t yet published, you’re really writing for one person only. An agent. Not even an editor at this point. If you’re sending to editors who accept unagented submissions, they’re most likely not at the kind of publishing house that’s going to give you much of a career if they take your stuff. You really need an agent. And, if you understand how agents work, you’ll see how important that first line is. Agents get queries and manuscripts sent to them by the ton. They know that the vast majority of what is sent to them isn’t publishable. They also know that somewhere in that vast pile on their desk (and on the floor, and in the room down the hall, and coming at them daily in the mail and over the internet) might be a book they can actually get published and make some money from. If they actually read every manuscript that came their way (or even the first 5-10 pages), they’d never get anything done. In self-defense, they read about the first few paragraphs. There might be a brilliant book that starts on page ten or page two, but they’ll usually never get that far if the first line—the first paragraph or two at most—doesn’t grab them. So, yes, it’s very important. Writers may not like this, and think it’s unfair, but fair or not, it’s the way it is.

I recently met a young man at Bouchercon who had his first book taken by an uber-agent a few hours before we met (he was on Cloud Nine), and he told me how he’d snagged this agent. He wrote his book for her. He read every single book she’d represented and figured out what she liked. He didn’t think for a second about other readers—only her. And she jumped on it. It began exactly the way she liked and it was a novel written with everything he’d figured out she liked, from reading the books she repped, paying attention to her blog and website, etc. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but it worked for this guy. The thing is—and what he realized—is that you don’t have to get yeses from dozens of people. You only need one yes. And, if that person is well-respected in the literary community, they’ll buy the book on her recommendation. This isn’t information you’ll probably get from the average workshop, believe me.
People often wonder how a book they think is bad gets published. Many times, it’s published because it got a yes from the right person—a gatekeeper such as a top agent. It may have been rejected by 100 others. Doesn’t matter. All it takes is one yes. Hopefully, by the right person.
There’s a myth going around that began with screenplays. That if the work is good enough, eventually someone will buy it. The same myth goes around nowadays with novel manuscripts. The truth is, there are literally thousands of good, solid, even brilliant books… that will never get published. The “good stuff” didn’t begin until page seven. It’s too late for that book. It better be good on page one. It better be good with paragraph one. It better be good with sentence one.
To all this, I know someone is going to say, “But, wait. What about (name a book on the shelves).?” Well, first ask yourself if the book you’re thinking of isn’t by a brand name? If so, then  all the “rules” are off. A person who already has books in print and an audience in place doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates can send in their grocery lists and probably get them published. I don’t think the rest of us can…
My own favorite beginning line is from one of my own short stories. “The Bad Part of Town” included in my short story collection, Monday’s Meal. It begins: He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town. A person reviewing this book on Amazon, hated it, but I could care less. He wasn’t a real reviewer to begin with—just some guy with a computer, which is mostly what Amazon reviewers are. Another favorite is: Tucker Case awoke to find himself hanging from a breadfruit tree by a coconut fiber rope. That’s from one of my favorite writers, Christopher Moore in his hysterically funny black comedy novel, Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Another is from suspense master Linwood Barclay in his can’t-put-it-down novel, Fear the Worst, which begins: The morning of the day I lost her, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs.
In “Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your WritingFinding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing,” you talk about how the rules of grammar and the styles of your favorite authors may be stifling the author’s own unique voice.  Isn’t it good sometimes to imitate your favorite author or to take bits and pieces of his/her style and incorporate them in to your own?
I would without qualification say a very loud, NO! I wouldn’t copy anyone’s style. We already have a Hemingway. Nobody needs or wants a second-rate or derived Hemingway. Now, I do advise stealing techniques. If someone writes something that affects you emotionally, study how he or she did it and employ the same technique. When I’m writing a novel, I usually have open about thirty other novels and go to them often to see how they did something I’m trying to do in my own. I look at Elmore Leonard, for instance, to see how he writes dialog. He’s one of the best. I don’t copy his dialog—I see how he achieves the effect he does and I use the same technique myself. Like someone said a long time ago, “Bad writers borrow; good writers steal.”
Writing is kind of like music. Who do you think is going to make it big? The garage band that plays all the Rolling Stones songs to perfection? Or the garage band that writes their own, original music and plays like no other band? The Rolling Stone cover band is only ever going to play at Holiday Inns. The original music band may not make it, but they have a much better chance than the one who imitates another.
Agent Stephen Barbara, Gail Provost, Les Edgerton and Roman White. Taken at last summer's Writer's Retreat Workshop in Erlanger, KY.
In great novels, the author’s voice blends into the story and, well, kinda disappears because you have the action going on in your head. Ultimately, how do you separate point of view and voice?  If I have an “over-the-shoulder” 3rd person narrator, should that be written in the character’s voice or the author’s?
Good question, Kari. The answer is, the character should be written in the character’s voice. As a college teacher, at the beginning of each semester, I always get a young man or woman who wants me to read their opus. So many times, I get a mss that’s 400 pages of mostly the character’s thoughts. Joe Blow wrote it via a character he’s named Blow Joe, who is really the author, regurgitating his thoughts via this character, almost always some kind of polemic about some political system he’s just discovered and is nuts about. The reason they coined the term “sophomoric.” No market for that kind of drivel.
But… that character’s voice is also the writer’s. As Walt Whitman said, “We contain multitudes.” And we do. The example I use in Finding Your Voice is that of a person who feels comfortable both in a biker bar and at the governor’s ball. If he’s sitting with a rappy at the biker bar and someone comes in and his rappy introduces him, he might reply, “Whas’ up, bro?” The same guy, at the receiving line at the governor’s mansion, meeting the governor and his wife, would probably say, “How do you do, Governor and Mrs. Brown. I’m very pleased to meet you.” Same guy, different voice for the occasion. We do the same thing with our characters.
Also, you said “the author’s voice blends into the story” and that’s as it should be. We shouldn’t be aware someone is writing the story. When we do, that’s not the writer’s natural voice. It’s an affected voice, a “writerly” voice. The voice should be invisible and not get in the way of the story. This, I think, is why we get so many writers who probably shouldn’t be writing. They read a story, written in clear English, and think, “This is easy! I could write a story.” What they don’t realize is that to achieve that kind of voice takes many, many rewrites. They think: I can read, therefore I can write. It’s like if I saw a brain operation on TV, it looks easy, and I think: I can do that. I just hope that person performs his first operation on someone else…
As far as third, first, or second person, there’s no difference. Each should sound like the character.
Do you have a particular place and time (of day as well as length) where you write in your house?   Do you warm-up by journaling, using writing exercises, reading email/news?
These days I have my own room. It’s a mess! Books and papers everywhere. As far as a particular time of day, yes. I write all day long. I get up at five, do my bathroom thing (while reading), and go to my desk at 5:45. I sit there all day, writing. I don’t eat breakfast or lunch (wastes time), and I only stop to go to the bathroom. My wife gets off work about 7 or 8, and she passes by and says hi. Half an hour later, we eat, and I read while I’m eating. Then, I go back to my room and write until about 10 and then go to bed, and read for half an hour, turn on the TV, and fall asleep half an hour later. I do this seven days a week. Occasionally, we’ll have to go to a wedding or funeral or something, and I really resent the time away from my work. If my mother died—and I love my mother—as soon as the funeral was over, I’d be back at my desk, writing. I haven’t taken a vacation in 25 years and don’t want one. I’m obsessed. I don’t recommend my writing style to others, but it’s what I do. One of the reasons I don’t recommend it to others is that I don’t want the competition. Please—write an hour a day! That will make it much easier for me to get my stuff published…
Actually, I didn’t always write this way. Years ago, I wrote when “the muse descended” whatever that means. When I was in “the mood.” But… I wasn’t getting much published. I was just about ready to quit and do something truly mind-numbing like sell insurance, when a good friend gave me the same advice everyone else had which I’d ignored. However, she said it at the right time. She knew I was ready to quit and she knew I didn’t really want to. What she said was the same as everyone always ways, “Write every day.” Only she said it a bit differently. She said, “Do yourself a favor. Write every day for a week. That’s all. Just one week. But, write every single day, no matter what.” She told me it was like jogging. She said if a person jogged every day for a week and then missed a day, it was like they’d missed a meal. They couldn’t go a day without jogging if they only did it for a week. I was desperate, so I did it. That was twenty some years ago and she was right. I can’t not write every day. I’m not a jogger, but she was right. If you write every day for a week, you can’t not write on the eighth day. At least I couldn’t.
I really am the queen of procrastination.  I’m trying my damnedest to overcome it, but it just happens sometimes.  Do you ever procrastinate?  If you do, how do you overcome it?
I guess I could, but I don’t. It’s like that so-called “writer’s block.” I don’t believe in such a thing at all. Writing’s a job, just like any other job. You never hear of “plumber’s block” do you? Well, there are days when the plumber doesn’t want to run that snake down Mrs. Jones’ drainpipe, but he does it anyway. And, the results are the same as those days when he can’t wait to get to work.
Some college did a study years ago where they took of a group of professional writers—they defined “professional writers” by those who made their entire living from writing—and asked them to keep a journal for a year. In the journal, they asked the writer to mark each day’s work with whether he felt “the muse” or had to force himself to write. They also had him or her mark which they thought was the better work—the stuff they wrote when they couldn’t get it down fast enough or the stuff they sat there all day struggling to turn out half a page. To a person, the writers all felt strongly that the stuff they wrote when they were writing as fast as they could was far better than the stuff they struggled with. The college then asked an independent panel of readers to read the writer’s output and judge its quality. (They didn’t know what the writer himself had said about it.) The result? The panel could find no difference whatsoever in the quality of the work. The work the writer struggled with was exactly the same quality as the work he couldn’t get down fast enough.
As far as writer’s block, one of the reasons I don’t experience any at all, is that I work on about 30 things at a time. That includes novels, nonfiction books, articles, essays, nonfiction book proposals, outlines for books, queries, and all kinds of stuff. If I happen to get bored or stuck on anything, I just shut that file, open another one and I’ve wasted no time at all. I’m always interested in what I’m working on. To me, a person who claims “writer’s block” has fallen victim to an excuse not to write. My wife coined the phrase I think is apt here. Speaking of a friend of ours, she said, “Jim creates ceilings to bump his head into.” That’s what I suspect writers who think they have writer’s block are doing. Creating ceilings to bump their heads into.
Last, but never least, what 5 items would you want to have with you in the upcoming zombie apocalypse?
My I.Q. for one. That means I wouldn’t need anything else, because who can believe in zombies to begin with? (This sounds like one of Barbara Wa-Wa’s questions…) If I were on a desert island, however, I’d want paper and something to write with, a never-ending supply of Jack Daniels, a copy of the most perfect book ever written, The Stranger by Camus—that’s three things, right?—my wife and a never-ending supply of crawfish etoufee. Mostly, though, I’d need the paper and writing instrument. I’d never be bored. I’d just do what I do now—write the book I always wanted to read but no one had written, so I have to write it myself.
Thanks, Kari, for this opportunity. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can and that may rub some folks the wrong way. If so, that’s a good thing. It’s like writing—if it pleases everybody it isn’t much good.
Blue skies,
Thank you, Les, for answering my questions!  And may you have ‘blue skies’ as well! :)

Monday, August 23, 2010


I want to depart for a bit here to talk about a recent story on the national news about the outbreak of salmonella where millions of eggs were recalled. A portion of a recent article on Web MD stated:

Aug. 19, 2010 -- Eggs are behind a nationwide salmonella outbreak that caused hundreds of illnesses each week in June and July.

The nationwide egg recall has expanded to include eggs made from five plants owned by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa. It now involves more than a dozen major brands that got eggs from this company. The New York Times reports that the recall now includes 380 million eggs.

Eggs were traced to the company after the CDC noticed a four-fold increase in Salmonella Enteritidis isolates from people suffering food poisoning. State investigators in California, Colorado, and Minnesota found clusters of illness from this salmonella strain among people who ate eggs at the same restaurants. Those restaurants got eggs that came from Wright County Egg.

Investigations continue in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. According to a CDC spokeswoman, the outbreak is "pretty much nationwide."

Various other news reports in the media say much the same thing. This particular outbreak is just one of several reported by Web MD in the month of August alone (which isn’t over). Here’s their list:
• August 20, 2010 - Milton's Baking Voluntarily Recalls 24 oz. Multi-Grain Bread in Three States For Undeclared Milk in Some Loaves12
• August 20, 2010 - Lubersk i Inc., Initiates Voluntary Recall of Large Fresh Shell Eggs Because of Possible Health Risk13
• August 20, 2010 - Hillandale Farms of Iowa Conducts Nationwide Voluntary Recall of Shell Eggs Because of Possible Health Risk14
• August 20, 2010 - GloryBee Foods Recalls Whole Raw Pistachio and Whole Raw Pistachio Kernels Because of Possible Health Risk15
• August 19, 2010 - COUNTRY Eggs, Inc. Initiates Voluntary Recall of Large AA Loose 15 dozen Fresh Shell Eggs Because of Possible Health Risk16
• August 19, 2010 - Austinuts Wholesale, Inc. Announces Voluntary Recall of Pistachio Kernel Products17
• August 19, 2010 - Salmonella in Alfalfa Sprouts18
• August 18, 2010 - Wright County Egg Expands Nationwide Voluntary Recall of Shell Eggs Because of Possible Health Risk19
• August 18, 2010 - Moonstruck Chocolate Co. Issues Nationwide Allergy Alert on Undeclared Peanut-Butter Filling in Their 4 Piece Cream Cone Chocolate Truffle Collection and 12 Piece Chocolate Malted (or Malt) Cream Cone Chocolate Truffles20
• August 18, 2010 - Glow Industries, Inc. Issues Nationwide Recall of Mr. Magic Male Enhancer from Don Wands Amended21
• August 18, 2010 - J & H Besta Expands Nationwide Recall of Slim- 30 Herb Supplement to Include Lot 6032101 Found to Contain an Undeclared Drug Ingredient22
• August 18, 2010 - Montalvan’s Sales, Inc. Recalls “La Nuestra” Brand Frozen Mamey Because of Potential Health Risk23
• August 17, 2010 - NBTY Acquisition LLC Dba Leiner Health Products Issues Allergy Alert on Undeclared Soy in Air Shield Effervescent Tablets, Air Protector Effervescent Tablets, Immune System Support Effervescent, and Airhealth Effervescent Tablets And Stick Packs24
• August 17, 2010 - Undeclared Sulfites in "Golden Bridge" Dried Dates25
• August 17, 2010 - NuCal Foods Conducts Recall of Shell Eggs Supplied from Wright County Egg Because of Possible Health Risk26
• August 16, 2010 - Elie Baking Corp issues Allergy Alert on Undeclared Soy in Food City brand Low-Carb Tortilla White and Whole Wheat 10 count27
• August 14, 2010 - Nationwide Milk Allergen Recall of Kroger "Meals Made Simple Shrimp Linguini"28
• August 13, 2010 - Goya Foods, Inc. Announces Voluntary Recall of Frozen Mamey Pulp, Produced By Coco, S.A. of Guatemala Because of Potential Health Risk29
• August 13, 2010 - Wright County Egg Conducts Nationwide Voluntary Recalls of Shell Eggs Because of Possible Health Risk30
• August 13, 2010 - Merrick Pet Care Recalls Filet Squares & Texas Hold’ems 10oz Bag (Item # 60016 All Lots) Because of Possible Salmonella Health Risk31

What I failed to see reported in any of the articles is a major contributing cause of all of these outbreaks. I suspect that chiefly because of the age of the reporters. Perhaps they don’t know that national outbreaks of this nature are relatively recent in our history—at least as far as the quantity and frequency of them.

Sometimes, there’s an advantage to being older. Along the way to waking up more mornings than many others, is that one gets to accumulate real-life knowledge along the way. Us older fogies have the advantage of learning history from living through it, rather than gaining it from books created by historians or writers who choose what to put in or to leave out. Many of us even used to read two newspapers to get a somewhat balanced view of what was really going on. Not very possible these days unless people get papers from two-newspaper towns, which today are rare, at least for medium-sized cities and smaller.

What I’m referring to is that these kinds of national outbreaks aren’t new. They’re just relatively new to our country—mostly during the past two or three decades. Another nation used to have these kinds of universal outbreaks virtually every year.

I’m referring to the USSR. When I was a kid, Russia was the biggest wheat-grower in the world with millions of acres in production. Yet, every year, without fail, they would turn to the United States to sell them wheat as they’d routinely lose millions and millions of bushels of their primary food crop to “outbreaks” of wheat diseases, and their citizens would have starved in large numbers had not the U.S. come to their aid.


Simple. Their political system. One of the basic tenets of socialism is the collective. In virtually everything, including agriculture, the individual was sacrificed on the altar of the collective. No small businesses—only one large corporation, called the “government.”

In agriculture, this meant the death of the family farm. The theory was that combining family farms into a single giant farm would lead to more efficiency and therefore, high production.

Unfortunately, like many such “theories” the result was somewhat different. Instead of Russian peasants working their family farms of 20, 30, 80 acres, the fences were torn down and all the acreage came under the control of the collective. Literally, millions of acres.

I’ve never been there, but acquaintances of mine who’ve been to Moscow report that the collective attitude pertains to almost everything they saw. One friend, for instance, says she didn’t see many Motel 6’s or Ramada Inns, at least not the way they appear on our highways and byways. She said they had these huge hotels, with thousands and thousands of rooms. A chicken ranch she visited had more than half a million chickens laying eggs. A pig farm had hundreds of thousands of pigs, and so on. No family farms, no Mom and Pop grocery stories. Humongous supermarkets. (Not much on the shelves, but the shelves were impressive…)

Kind of what’s been happening in the U.S. the past few decades. The death of the family farm.

How does that lead to national outbreaks? Well, one of the results of collectives was that those natural boundaries that the family farm provided, were destroyed. Just as in Communist Russia, national companies took over family farms and combined them into giant combines. Prior to the huge national agricultural companies in the U.S., we had Farmer Jones over here with 180 acres which he sowed in corn and soybeans, and divided into plots of say 20-30 acres, fenced off from other plots. Mr. Jones had a neighbor, Farmer Smith, who decided to grow alfalfa on his 80-acre farm for his Holsteins, and his neighbor, Farmer White, who divided his 280 acres into one 20-acre plot where he grew tomatoes, and larger plots where he grew field corn to feed his 80 pigs and 500 layer chickens for eggs and his 1,000 broiler chickens for meat, and another field of sweet corn for human consumption, next to his neighbor, Farmer Brown, who put most of his acreage into wheat. And so on.

That meant that when a corn plant disease struck, for instance, it only went as far as the fence around that particular field. All around that field were other crops that effectively stopped the spread of the disease. If salmonella struck Farmer White’s layer chickens, it had a natural border where it was stopped and contained. If his pigs got the swine flu or whatever they get, it pretty much was contained to his farm.

Natural borders, which meant diseases were contained to a specific area.

Now, instead of a farmer over here with say 10,000 chickens and the next closest chicken ranch or farm maybe a dozen miles away, you have MegaEggCorp with half a million chickens or even more. A bug hits those and a huge number of birds become infected. No natural boundaries to stop the spread. Instead of a farmer with 60 acres in wheat, now we have huge farms planting thousands and thousands of acres in wheat… surrounded by other mega-farms also planting wheat, so that as far as the eye can see is… wheat. A single plant affected by wheat rot now destroys thousands and thousands of acres.

And that’s what happening in this country now. Accelerated by improved delivery systems that spread an infected product with incredible speed to the entire nation. Today, eggs. Tomorrow, wheat. The day after that…

The more we see the disappearance of the family farm and ranch, the more these outbreaks are bound to occur. Bring back the family farm—get government out of the agriculture business—and they’ll largely disappear. But… that’s too close to common sense to ever happen…

Having lived a life and experienced history up close and personal also leads to different conclusions about life on this planet than say would a 20-year-old dependent mostly on the “media” as it exists these days.

For instance, when I was in college back in the sixties, I had a biology class with a professor who gave his class the following information. He said that the U.S. was nearing the end of a century-long period of extraordinarily good weather. He said the century we were nearing the end of was an anomaly—that such a period of good weather had never occurred historically. He also said, that good weather, along with the improvements in farming and transportation had allowed the U.S. to become the breadbasket of the world. Which, at the time, we were. We were feeding half the world, including Russia with their wheat blight failures each year.

Interesting guy. He told us all this in 1968. (Remember that date.) Further, he said that by most scientists’ estimates, this period of unnaturally good weather would begin to change back to what it had been historically, sometime in the 1990’s. He said at that time, we’d begin to return to more what the weather had been like in this country for centuries before. Weather much like England’s, in which the seasons would begin to lose their distinctness and merge into one another. Winters would be milder and longer and cloudier and we’d lose the extraordinary lengthy growing seasons we had enjoyed for the past seventy years. And, that, he claimed, would lead to world-wide disasters, since the world’s populations had increased significantly during this unprecedented long growing period in the U.S. where we’d been able to feed more people than ever before in history, and when the weather returned to “normal” we were going to be looking at world-wide starvation. The mortality rates which had been drastically decreased due to being able to sustain populations would begin to go back to where they had been before the century of good weather.

He didn’t say a word about “global warming” or any of that. He said we would simply return to “normal” weather—the kind of weather that had been the norm for centuries before the one we were in.

Now, this guy wasn’t any Nobel-prize winning Ivy League professor. He was just an associate professor in a Midwestern state college (Indiana University). The knowledge he passed on to us wasn’t the result of his own original research. It came from common knowledge he’d gleaned from looking at the past weather patterns and being able to read the signs from history and looking at what others in his field had discovered or figured out.

From what I can figure out, what’s happening to our weather is pretty much what this guy pointed out. In 1968. We’re starting to see the kind of weather England has each year. And perhaps beginning to see why England has never been the breadbasket of the world.

When they first started talking about global warming, I thought instantly of this guy from back in the sixties. Most of the things they were predicting were the same things he had… only he didn’t ascribe it to any emissions or pollution or anything like that at all. Just said we were merely going to return to “normal” weather conditions that the earth had been under for centuries.

Now, it seems some scientists and some media have “forgotten” that our weather patterns in the past century were abnormal. Why would they have neglected to mention that? I wonder… Perhaps we should pay attention to the first rule of homicide detectives… i.e., follow the money…

Again, sometimes when one has actually lived through history one may have a different point of view from one who learned their history from a textbook written by folks who just may have an agenda and perhaps don’t want to include all sides of an issue…

Just some food for thought. And, I imagine which will elicit some other opinions. This is just mine. We keep saying, “Whoever ignores history is doomed to repeat it,” but do we really pay attention to that saying or is it just something we say? Maybe another one of those bumper sticker philosophies we like to quote but don’t really pay attention to its meaning?

Blue skies,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Hi folks—thought I’d switch it up a bit by talking about the twisted path a book sometimes takes to publication.
Yesterday, in chatting with an acquaintance at a publishing company, I mentioned that my agent Chip MacGregor was about ready to start sending out my memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, and wondered if perhaps her house might want a look-see. She said—absolutely, send it along.
Hopefully, they’ll take it or someone else will. If and when it achieves publication, it will have traveled a long and twisted road to borrow from some pertinent song lyrics.
Ten years ago, I had a publishing contract in my grubby little hands for this same book. It had a different title then. It was titled My Secret Life. The reason it was titled thusly was because at the time, very few of my acquaintances knew of my checkered past the memoir covered—my time as a criminal where I committed over 400 burglaries as well as strong-armed and armed robberies, the years spent in prison, as well as my other “careers” which included working for an escort service serving older wealthy women as their “date,” using and dealing drugs, being involved in high speed car chases with the cops (I outran them, in case you’re interested), shootouts, being married five times, living with one of New Orleans’ top call girls and participating in “gigs” with her involving one of NOLA’s most prominent politicians, having that same call girl girlfriend stabbing and almost killing another girlfriend, as well as shooting at me and trying to run over me with the car I’d bought for her, being a top hairstylist with a show on fashion and hair on Cox Cable in New Orleans, working for some of the top salons in the country, including being the styles director at Snobs in NOLA and working at many other leading salons in New Orleans and California, being homeless… the list goes on. None of my friends at the time knew of any of this. I was teaching creative writing at some pretty good schools, including the UCLA Writer’s Program and being Writer-in-Residence for three years at the University of Toledo. After my release from prison (Pendleton, in Indiana), I’d gone to college and obtained a B.A. from Indiana University and then my MFA in Writing from Vermont College. I had several books published and was considered a “respectable person” by everyone I knew. I figured at the time it was best to keep my past hidden. I didn’t realize that my past was actually an asset and not the negative I assumed it was. I just assumed that if people knew how bad of a citizen I’d been, I’d be unable to get a decent teaching gig or get my books published. I later found out it helped, rather than hurt.
Which is why I’ve changed the title to Adrenaline Junkie because that's really what my life had been all about.
Anyway, at the time, I was on a roll. I’d had three books published on the beauty business (still selling well—every year I still get a royalty check for a couple of thousand bucks for books published in the 80s), as well as my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, which won a Special Citation from the Violet Crown Book Awards and was nominated for a slew of other literary awards, and a collection of my short stories, Monday’s Meal, which was also a finalist for the Violet Crown and which garnered a rave review in The NY Times, comparing me to my hero, Raymond Carver. Both had been published by the University of North Texas Press (UNT). And, I had just sold my third book to them. My memoir. Both UNT’s publisher, Fran Vick, and the Managing Editor, Charlotte Wright, had loved it and had taken it to the Board of Regents and gotten it okayed and a contract sent to me.
This is when things began to get hinky.
A couple of weeks after I signed the contract for My Secret Life, I went out to California for pitch meetings. I was teaching at the time for the UCLA Writer’s Program, and one of my students, Barbara Bennett, was married to a top manager, Paul Bennett, and Paul had agreed to become my manager for the screenplays I was writing. I’d just written one in two days (literally) which had become a semifinalist in the Academy’s Nichol’s Awards, and even though Paul dealt strictly at the time with above-the-line talent, took me on as his first below-the-line client. We had a great meeting and during it, I passed on my good news that my memoir had just sold and I was in the process of working with an editor at UNT on the rewrite.
Paul was a former Vice-President of HBO (Paul was the guy who created the Comedy Relief specials), and had a couple of years before resigned and become a manager. However, he still had many contacts at HBO. That night, he sat down to read a few pages of it, and, as I found out the next day, he’d ended up staying up all night as he said he couldn’t put it down. At our meeting the next day, he told me how much he loved it and he said he thought perhaps HBO might be interested in it and would I mind if he showed it to them.
He gave it to the president of HBO Films, and the next day this guy (sorry, can’t remember his name) called Paul and said he couldn’t put it down either. If anyone knows anything about Hollywood they know these guys never read anything. For him to do so was remarkable in itself. He told Paul that they (HBO) wanted it and to not even show it to anyone else. He compared it to the bestselling book and subsequent movie, Permanent Midnight, and said, it was: Permanent Midnight but with balls.”
Suffice to say, I was in Seventh Heaven!
I went back to Indiana and with renewed energy worked on the rewrite. Then, Fran Vick retired as the publisher of UNT and Charlotte Wright resigned to take the position of Managing Editor of the University of Iowa Press, a position she still holds. I was working with an independent editor UNT had assigned to me for the rewrite and things were going well until about a week after Fran and Charlotte had left the publisher.
And then… weird things began to happen. The first thing was my editor stopped returning my emails and phone calls. Concerned, I began calling the new editor, only to find he was always “out of the office” or would “return my calls as soon as he could.” This went on for a couple of weeks and by now I was in a bit of a panic. Finally, I got through to him and he said he was sorry but he couldn’t find a contract for my book.
What th!?
I had a copy of our contract but my bookkeeping system isn’t the best—actually, it’s a mass of clutter—and I couldn’t find it.
I called Charlotte at the University of Iowa immediately. Told her what had happened and she said she’d been getting other calls from writer’s she’d signed and she said what had happened was the new editor wanted his “own” stable of writers and was doing the same thing to everyone else. She said, yes, I did have a contract—she’d signed it and so had Fran and the Board of Regents, and she could get me a copy… but, did I want a publisher who didn’t want me or my book to publish it? I reluctantly agreed and didn’t pursue it with UNT any longer.
My thought at the time was to hell with them—I’d just find another publisher. But, as so often happens, life and circumstances interfered. I got caught up in other projects and the mss languished in a drawer and eventually I forgot about it. I got a new agent and told him about it and he suggested we sell one of my novels first and then we’d offer it to whoever took the novel. Sounded good, I said, and that’s when the slide into hell really took off.
The novel he was sending out, ended up in an auction, and it got down to between St. Martin’s and Random House. St. Martin’s final offer was $50,000 and Random House’s was for $45,000. My agent said it was up to me which to take and I decided to take the lower offer from Random. Biggest mistake of my life! I won’t go into it here (a later post, perhaps), but I was in Seventh Heaven, especially since they were going to bring it out simultaneously in paper from Ballantine Books and in hardcover from Random House. I was told it would be an instant bestseller because of the number of copies they were publishing.
Then, a week after I signed the contract, Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann and several other things happened, and they dropped the novel. I won’t go into all that in this post, but may in a later one. Briefly, it severely affected my life—financial and otherwise—and I’m still trying to recover from all that transpired from that fiasco.
But, my memoir really got buried then! It languished in a drawer until about a year and a half ago, when I decided to work on it again. I rewrote it extensively and when I was taken on by Chip, we decided it was time to send it out and that just happened yesterday.
Anyway, that’s part of the torturous trail this book has traveled! Keep your fingers crossed for me—I’d really appreciate it!
I just thought this might be instructive to other writers. As they say in Hollywood, don’t celebrate until the check clears!
I’ve had my share of setbacks in my writing career, but I’ll always maintain the same philosophy, through good and bad. Just keep writing. The writing is what it’s all about, anyway. The journey’s where the real fun is and everything else is just what happens in life. There are no guarantees and no one is entitled to an easy life. If we don’t have some rough patches, how can we expect to appreciate the good times? As my Canadian friends say and which I think is great advice for life: Keep your stick on the ice.
Blue skies,
Here's a brief excerpt:
            On my first night in Pendleton, in quarantine, I laid on cold steel slats, no mattress. There had been a riot two days before our bunch got there and the inmates had burned everything combustible, including the mattresses. The pillows, too, were gone. They did give us a thin Army-blanket that you had to lay over you in a diamond shape if you were taller than five-ten. I beat that by two and a half inches.
            When I woke the next morning, there was a dusting of snow on my blanket, down at my feet where the blanket had slipped off. My toes were white. Well, the tops were white. Underneath the snow, they were blue. The rioters had busted out the windows as well. Quarantine was in the only cellhouse that had windows to the outside. This was on the thirteenth of February and it also happened to be my birthday. Didn't look like there was going to be any cake or presents.
            The Superintendent announced to the inmates, “You people busted up everything and now you have to live in it. I’m not giving you anything and I’m not fixing the windows, etc.”
            He didn’t either. It was one cold spring. A shitload of guys came down with pneumonia and worse. I don’t know whether anybody died. There were rumors that some did, but then we didn’t exactly have the N.Y. Times to check to see what was really going on. In movies, somebody farts in prison and in six minutes the entire population has the details. In Pendleton, you could have a guy get exed three cells from you and you might not ever know about it for a month.
            Pendleton, at that time, was one of the baddest joints in the country. During the years I spent there, then-President Johnson had commissioned a study on penal institutions. One day, a bunch of us were sitting around watching the only TV in the cellhouse (black and white) on a rec night when Johnson came on to report their findings. He said the study had shown that Pendleton was "categorically, the single worst prison in the U.S." We all stood up and cheered like he was talking about our football team and we'd just won the Rose Bowl or something.
            It was bad. During my stay, I lived through eight riots, not counting the one that had just ended when I arrived, but for which I paid for with snow on my toes and a few other discomforts.
            I'd seen a lot of things before this, but there are things that happened in Pendleton that I'll never be able to talk about. There were some good things too. I made friendships that were stronger than any I've ever had before or since.
            My first week out of Quarantine was my first taste of what prison was like. The guy in the cell next to me, a black guy, had been slowwalking a debt of a carton of Camels to this guy. That night, the guy who was owed the cigarettes walked by his cell and threw a beaker of acid in the black guy's face. He'd gotten the acid from some inmate who worked in I.D. (Identification Department). That was where they printed and photographed all new inmates. It was some kind of acid they used to develop pictures.
            My next-door neighbor lay in his cell and screamed all night. We were on the second tier and just below us I could see the hack at his desk. He never moved or even looked up all night. Just kept sitting there, reading his comic book or whatever. Toward morning, the only sounds coming from my neighbor's cell was little tiny whimpers. When they let us out for breakfast they must have come and dragged his ass out, because he was gone when we came back to get ready for work.
            A few weeks later, the black guy came back from the hospital. Obviously, he hadn't died. He might have wished he had. Half the skin on his face was turned a permanent blotchy pink, the color of bubblegum. He'd lost one eye completely and most of the sight in the other.
            You could get just about anything in the joint you wanted except a girl. That was at a time when they hadn't yet gone to female hacks, so it may be different these days. Although there were guys in there you'd swear were girls and after you'd been in awhile, that's the way you saw them. They went by women's names and you thought of and referred to them as "her" or "she." Any drug you wanted, long as you had money, you could score. Drugs were everywhere. And we ran (shot up) everything. I even knew guys who'd run aspirin and claimed you actually got a high from it.
            One night, a couple of buddies told me they'd scored some embalming fluid. They swore it was the best high you could get. I figure they got it from some inmate who worked on the burial detail. If you died and nobody claimed your body, they had a little cemetery just outside the walls for your final resting place.
            I was all set to shoot up with them, but we had a shakedown at my cellhouse when we were coming in from work and all of J Block was shut down until morning. These two guys from H got out to the gym, where they ran the shit. Killed both of them. That was one time I was happy to have been in a cellhouse shutdown.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Hi folks,
As some of you know, I recently was invited by Lia Keys to be a guest blogger on her really terrific blog, ScribeChat. Lia  has graciously allowed me to repost the article here and I hope you enjoy it. She also invited me to participate in a webcast on the same topic and you may want to visit her site to see a transcript of that as well as the comments the article generated. To get there, just click on or go to the link on this site to her blog.

Hope you enjoy this and find it helpful!

Getting wired before my presentation on the movie THELMA & LOUISE at this year's Microburst at Phoenix College.



Les Edgerton

First, I want to thank Lia for having me on as a guest blogger. Thanks a bunch, Lia! This looks like a great crowd you’ve gathered here.

I’d like to talk about novel endings and what makes a compelling finale to your novel. There’s no way I can cover everything that goes into a great ending, but I’ll try to cover some of the more important elements.

Before we get to the ending, we need to discuss what leads up to that point. Let’s look at basic story structure. Simplified, a novel structurally consists of a protagonist and an antagonist as the two most important characters. The protagonist has something happen to him or her (inciting incident) that creates a surface problem (that’s actually symptomatic of a story-worthy problem) which will occupy him or her for the rest of the novel, trying to resolve it. The antagonist also has a goal and it’s his or her goal that provides the opposition for the protagonist in resolving his or her goal. The struggle to resolve the problem(s) against increasing opposition occupies the majority of the novel.

It might be helpful to define our terms before we begin.

Protagonist: Simply the individual through whose persona we (readers) experience the story.

I urge writers to never think of the protagonist as the “hero” or even “main character.” To see this character as a hero reduces the character to a one-dimensional, cardboard character, ala “Dudley Doright.” Moral qualities, such as good and bad, shouldn’t apply to the protagonist or the antagonist. Can they be good or bad? Sure, but to define them in that way as their chief characteristic makes it likely you’ll create cartoonish characters rather than fully-developed literary characters. To see this character as your “main character” reduces the value of characterization to the novel and overemphasizes plot. And, there is one protagonist per novel, not several. Not “co-protagonists” or multiple protagonists. That person can have multiple “helpers” or aides or helpers, but it needs to be one person we see.

Antagonist: The individual whose goal conflicts with that of the protagonist’s surface problem goal always and sometimes the story-worthy goal as well.

It’s even more important not to think of the antagonist as a villain. Even more so than the protagonist, that can really lead to a Snidely Whiplash type of character. Can he or she be a bad or evil person? Certainly, but you’ll create a much more believable and interesting character if you simply view that person as an individual whose goal conflicts with that of the protagonist. The villain can also have as many lieutenants or allies as you wish.

Inciting incident: Something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface story problem to the protagonist. The inciting incident is what needs to begin the contemporary novel. Anything before that event is backstory or setup and shouldn’t precede the inciting incident beginning. If the backstory is important, it can come later, once the reader is invested in the protagonist’s problem. Novels are about one thing only and always—trouble. Today’s novels need to begin when the trouble begins, not before. And, the trouble has to begin with the inciting incident as before that happens there is no trouble, at least not in story terms.

Surface story problem: A bona fide problem that is revealed to the protagonist as a result of the inciting incident. While it is a serious problem, it’s not as serious as the story-worthy problem it’s symptomatic of. Usually, it’s posed as a somewhat superficial goal—love, money, solving a crime, achieving success of some kind, etc.

Story-worthy problem: The “real” problem of the protagonist and which the surface problem is symptomatic of. It’s usually a deep-seated psychological problem. The story-worthy problem isn’t known to the protagonist at the beginning of the story. It is only through the struggle to resolve the surface problem that the more important problem begins to be revealed, and the full realization is usually achieved in the final scene when both the surface problem and story-worthy problem are resolved. Although the story-worthy problem isn’t revealed to the protagonist until they’ve gone through the struggle to resolve the surface problem, the author should be aware of it so that he or she can create an effective plot to get to that point.

Plot: A plot is simply a point-by-point list of all the causal actions that the protagonist takes to resolve the problem. A plot will show such things as: inciting incident, which leads to awareness of problem, first step to resolve the problem, which leads to disaster (failure to achieve the main goal), which leads to step two and so on, against increasing opposition, until the last scene in which the problem is resolved. The “spine” of the book and the plot is the protagonist’s problem and that problem should color every single page in the novel and be behind every action he or she takes. If coincidence occurs, it must always have a negative effect on the protagonist and should never be the source of help or in resolving the problem. If coincidence helps the protagonist, then what you have is what is called a… idiot plot. Don’t go there!

Goals: Both the protagonist and the antagonist have goals. Each of their goals is to resolve their individual surface problems. While the protagonist will also end up having a story-worthy problem goal, the antagonist doesn’t. His or hers is only a surface problem that just happens to be in conflict with the protagonist’s problem.

These definitions may or may not be instantly clear to you at this point, but after our time here together should be. I’d just like you to be aware of them so that this makes sense as you read on.

So, okay, where’s the stuff about novel endings? Relax! It’s coming, I promise.

To illustrate all of this, I’d like to use a teaching model I use quite often. The film, Thelma & Louise, written by Callie Khouri. It’s a film most people have seen so it should be a familiar model. You might want to rent it again to refresh your memory.

Let’s go through the story.

First, the inciting incident. Remember, this is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface story problem.

The inciting incident in T&L is in the beginning, where the protagonist, Thelma (no co-protagonists here, although sometimes people mistakenly think Louise is a co-protagonist.) She’s not. She’s the Older Mentor character, if you want to ascribe a label to her. The incident occurs when Thelma’s talking to her husband Darryl as he prepares to leave for work. It’s been established that she is required to ask his permission before embarking on her weekend trip with Louise. She starts to ask him twice for that permission. There’s important backstory here, but it’s not revealed until much later in the story when the two women pick up J.T. and talk and Thelma reveals she’s been married to him for four years and dated him through all four years of high school. The backstory is that she’s been with Darryl for eight years and probably in an abusive relationship. That’s shown by the way they talk to each other. All that’s needed. The intelligent reader/viewer “gets” that instantly.

Thelma is fully aware she’s in a bad situation, and, from time-to-time has performed actions to deal with it. She’s probably spit in Darryl’s food, gossiped and complained about him to Louise, not given her all in bed, whatever. Other times, she ignores her problem. But, it’s not yet to the point where it becomes the biggest single problem in her life and at a stage where nothing can get in the way of her resolving it. That’s what’s required to raise what’s only a “bad situation” to the level of becoming a story. If she can still ignore it for a time, can alibi what her true state is for a time to herself, can even forget her problem for a time… then it’s not yet a story. It’s only when she reaches her tipping point, when that “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment occurs and reveals to her that it’s the single biggest problem in her life and that she can no longer ignore it, even briefly, that it becomes a story. In T&L, Thelma’s inciting incident is a small, dramatic moment. We’ve seen clearly via the phone conversations with Louise that it’s imperative Thelma ask Darryl for permission to go on the trip with her. She even begins to… twice. It’s the second time she starts to ask his permission that constitutes her inciting incident. It’s what Darryl does to her—remember?—the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist? What Darryl does, is something he’s no doubt done before, But—this time it’s different. This time it’s the one time too many that he’s done this. And what does he do? Simple. She attempts to ask him the second time for permission and he crudely and rudely dismisses her, treating her as an annoyance rather than as his wife and a person. It’s the tipping point for her, the inciting incident, the thing that finally reveals her problem clearly to her. (Keep in mind that the word “problem” in story terms doesn’t have the same definition as the lay term. In story terms, it’s more than a bad situation—it’s a problem that the protagonist won’t let go away until it’s resolved.)

Here’s the actual scene:

THELMA goes through the living room to the bottom of the stairs and leans on the banister.

(hollering again)

Darryl! Honey, you’d better hurry up.

DARRYL comes trotting down the stairs. Polyester was made for this man and he’s dripping in “men’s” jewelry. He manages a Carpeteria.


Dammit, Thelma, don’t holler like that! Haven’t I told
you I can’t stand it when you holler in the morning?

(sweetly and coyly)

I’m sorry, Doll, I just didn’t want you to be late.

DARRYL is checking himself out in the hall mirror and it’s obvious he likes what he sees. He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer. He is making imperceptible adjustments to his overmoused hair. THELMA watches approvingly.

(My note. This was the setup. Now comes the inciting incident.)

(still annoyed)


(she decides not to tell him.)

Have a good day at work today.





(as if he’s trying to concentrate.)



          You want anything special for dinner?

And, that’s the inciting incident. For perhaps the hundredth time (or more!) in their relationship, she started to do what she’s always done in the past—ask for her husband’s permission to go on the trip. But… something’s different this time. With his evident attitude—his crude dismissal of her and of anything she’s trying to say—she reaches her limit. Before this point, she’s just put up with him and played the dutiful wife. This time, her problem is clearly revealed to her. The little light in the refrigerator of her mind just clicked on. This is why it’s important to understand the complete definition of the inciting incident. (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her.) If she has what appears to be a problem but it’s not clearly revealed to her that she has, then it’s not yet a problem in story terms. It has to be revealed and clearly to her. That’s the only thing in the definition that has to be there in the inciting incident scene. The problem—at least to others—may have been there for a long time. She may have even been very aware of a bad situation. But, until that moment when it reaches the level of being the most important problem in her life—a problem that she can’t ignore another minute until it’s resolved—it’s only a bad situation and not a story problem.

Also, the inciting incident should be a dramatic scene, not a melodramatic one. And this is.
A small, dramatic opening should then begin to build until the biggest scene of all—the final one. Many writers make the mistake of thinking they have to open with not a dramatic scene, but a melodramatic one. If you open with a murder, kidnapping, bomb explosion and the like—where do you go from there? More murders, more kidnappings, bigger bombs? This is not to say a novel can’t open with that kind of thing, but if your novel’s not a thriller, per se, you might want to reconsider that strategy.

Some believe the inciting incident was when Harlan tried to rape Thelma. Nope. That’s just the “Point of No Return” moment. That event wouldn’t have even been possible if Thelma had asked for Darryl’s permission. That was the real inciting incident—an event from which everything else derived.

And Darryl isn’t the antagonist. Not even close. He’s a one-dimensional, cardboard character. A cartoon. Snidley Whiplash. The antagonist? Hal, the Arkansas cop. Remember, Thelma’s goal, as it evolves, is to escape being caught. Hal’s goal is to catch her. He’s not a bad guy at all (remember, I said to not think of the antagonist as a “villain?”). He’s one of the best and nicest guys in the story. He wants to save the two women, first from going to jail, and in the end, from being killed. His goals are strictly good and honorable. His goal simply opposes Thelma’s goal and that’s the only definition of an antagonist.

Thelma’s surface problem is to escape Darryl’s domination… for a weekend. See who and what kind of  person her husband is, creates instantly reader identification for her as well as sympathy and empathy. Already, we’d like to see her have some fun. It’s obvious she’s had very little with this butthole.

So, her surface problem is Darryl’s domination of her. But, remember I said the surface problem is only symptomatic of the much bigger, much more important, deeper psychological problem the protagonist faces? It’s very true in this story. The story begins with Thelma trying to resolve the surface problem—escaping Darryl’s domination, even if for just a weekend—but, as events progress, little by little, Thelma eventually comes to the realization that she has a much bigger problem. That she’s forced to exist in a male-dominated world. It’s much bigger than just Darryl.

I wanted to go over these things so that the ending—which is what this is all about!—makes complete sense. Now. Here’s the definition of a quality ending:

Ending: A novel ending should contain two elements—a win and a loss. That’s in terms of the protagonist’s goals, both surface and story-worthy. Years ago, we used to teach writers that endings should be either “goal-achieved” or “goal-unachieved.” Like most things, we’ve learned better ways to express story structure. An ending that only achieves the protagonist’s goal as well as an ending in which is the protagonist’s goal is lost are both incomplete and unsatisfactory endings. There must be elements of both to make it a good ending.

Like everything important in a story, the ending should always be presented as a scene. Never by exposition or summary or the character ruminating in his/her head. Through a scene. And, there are particular requirements for this scene. As Janet Burroway, in her classic text, Writing Fiction, says about resolutions: “Here the epiphany, a memory leading to a resolution, has been triggered by an action and sensory details that the reader can share.” (Italics mine.) It’s a scene that can’t depend on conversation to make it work. It can’t, for instance, have the protagonist talking to a priest who then convinces her of a truth, and that gives her her epiphany. The resolution has to be triggered by an action—and an “action” in this case, isn’t dialog. It has to be a physical action.

What’s the physical action in the ending of T&L? That’s easy. They’re just been chased and are now surrounded on all sides by cops who are ordering them to put their hands up or get killed. Surrounded on all sides except in front of them, where the Grand Canyon lies. Sensory details? Plenty! Cops jacking shells into carbines, a helicopter’s rotors swirling dust, an authoritative voice over a bullhorn demanding they surrender. No way out, except… This triggers the epiphany for Thelma. And, what is the memory that leads to a resolution for her? Again, easy. Even though we can’t see it in the film, we understand what’s going through her mind. The memory of Darryl and her abusive relationships, and, even more important, the new knowledge that her entire world is controlled by men as evidenced by what’s happened in their journey. Selfish men, like Darryl, evil men like the tanker truck driver and Harlan, the would-be rapist, manipulative men like J.T., and even good, moral men, like Hal and Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy. But… all men. At the very end, Thelma realizes her surface problem (getting free of Darryl, even if just for a weekend) is only symptomatic of a much bigger and deeper, psychological problem for her—having to exist in a male-dominated world with no voice at all. She didn’t know this at the beginning. In the beginning, she was only aware that Darryl was a shit. In the end, as a result of everything she’d gone through, she finally comes to the realization that Darryl was only a small part of what she faced in society.

And so, she does the only thing left for her to do. She and Louise tacitly agree to commit suicide. They seal their decision with a kiss and then hold hands as they hurtle into infinity. And, that, satisfies the two elements in a quality ending, by providing both a win and a loss. The loss? Easy. She gives up her life. The win? Again, easy. She achieves her independence from men on her own terms. It cost her her life, but the tradeoff was worth it to her.

This is a fairly common ending. It’s seen, for instance, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, where the mother kills her child to keep her from having to live in slavery. It’s seen in any number of war novels where the protagonist gives up his or her life to preserve a way of life for loved ones.

This doesn’t mean protagonist have to commit suicide to achieve a good ending. This is just one of countless possible endings. But, however you end your story, just make sure it contains both a win and a loss for the protagonist. That’s key.

What’s interesting about this movie is that some of the studio execs wanted to change Khouri’s brilliant ending to a typical Hollywood “happy-sappy” ending. One where they surrendered, spent a few years in prison, and were released to live out some kind of Stepford wives’ existence ever after…

Thankfully, she stood her ground and they released the intelligent version!

Hope this helps you in creating your own endings. Hope to see your work on the shelves of Border’s and Barnes & Noble!

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing how actions can inform character arc, you might want to look at a post I have on my blog where I again use this movie to illustrate that technique.

Blue skies,
Les Edgerton