Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Add lawyers to the conversation about dumb movies and TV personalities...

Hi folks,
My friend Kenn Ashcraft just sent me the following, proving that attorneys qualify to be added to the conversation about dumb movies and TV personalities. Thanks, Kenn!

 These are from a book called Disorder in the American Courts, and are things people actually said in court, word for word, taken down and now published by court reporters that had the torment of staying calm while these exchanges were actually taking place.

 ATTORNEY: What was the first thing your husband said to you that morning?
 WITNESS:     He said , 'Where am I, Cathy?'
 ATTORNEY:  And why did that upset you?
 WITNESS:     My name is Susan!
 ATTORNEY:  What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
 WITNESS:     Gucci sweats and Reeboks.
 ATTORNEY:  Are you sexually active?
 WITNESS:     No , I just lie there.
 ATTORNEY:  Now doctor , isn't it true that when a person dies in his sleep , he doesn't know about it until the next morning?
 WITNESS:  Did you actually pass the bar exam?

 ATTORNEY:  The youngest son , the 20-year-old , how old is he?
 WITNESS:      He's 20 , much like your IQ.
 ATTORNEY:  Were you present when your picture was taken?
 WITNESS:     Are you shitting me?
  (My Favorite)
 ATTORNEY:  So the date of conception (of the baby) was August 8th?
 WITNESS:     Yes.
 ATTORNEY:  And what were you doing at that time?
 WITNESS:     Getting laid
  (Another favorite)
 ATTORNEY:  She had three children , right?
 WITNESS:     Yes.
 ATTORNEY:  How many were boys?
 ATTORNEY:   Were there any girls?
 WITNESS:      Your Honor, I think I need a different attorney. Can I get a new attorney?

 ATTORNEY:  How was your first marriage terminated?
 WITNESS:     By death..
 ATTORNEY:  And by whose death was it terminated?
 WITNESS:     Take a guess.

 ATTORNEY:  Can you describe the individual?
 WITNESS:     He was about medium height and had a beard
 ATTORNEY:  Was this a male or a female?
 WITNESS:     Unless the Circus was in town I'm going with male.

 ATTORNEY:  Is your appearance here this morning pursuant to a deposition notice which I sent to your attorney?
 WITNESS:  No, this is how I dress when I go to work.

 ATTORNEY:  Doctor , how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?
 WITNESS:     All of them.. The live ones put up too much of a fight.

 ATTORNEY:  ALL your responses MUST be oral , OK? What school did you go to?
 WITNESS:     Oral..

 ATTORNEY:  Do you recall the time that you examined the body?
 WITNESS:     The autopsy started around 8:30 PM
 ATTORNEY:  And Mr. Denton was dead at the time?
 WITNESS:     If not , he was by the time I finished.

 ATTORNEY:  Are you qualified to give a urine sample?
 WITNESS:     Are you qualified to ask that question?

 And last:

 ATTORNEY:  Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
 WITNESS:     No.
 ATTORNEY:  Did you check for blood pressure?
 WITNESS:     No.
 ATTORNEY:  Did you check for breathing?
 WITNESS:     No..
 ATTORNEY:  So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
 WITNESS:     No.
 ATTORNEY:  How can you be so sure, Doctor?
 WITNESS:     Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.
 ATTORNEY:  I see, but could the patient have still been alive, nevertheless?
 WITNESS:     Yes, it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law.

Kenn, this is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long, long time!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Hi folks,

Thought I’d post a bit of potpourri today and perhaps get some reactions. First, going along with the recent post on how Hollywood kind of “gets it wrong” many times, here’s a recent email a former student of mine from when I taught at the University of Toledo and good friend, Kat Hacker sent me, about Hollywood and their products:

Kat writes: This list is kind of clever (I did not write it.)
Unexpected knowledge gained from the movies:

1) During all police investigations, it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once.

2) All grocery shopping bags contain at least one stick of French bread.

3) The Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window in Paris.

4) Even when driving down a perfectly straight road, it is necessary to turn the steering wheel vigorously from left to right every few moments.

5) When you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your bedroom should still be clearly visible, just slightly bluish. All beds have special L-shaped cover sheets that reach up to the armpit level on a woman but only to waist level on the man lying beside her.

6) Should you decide to defuse a bomb, don't worry which wire to cut. You will always choose the right one.

7) It does not matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts--your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one by dancing around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors.

8) A man will show no pain while taking the most ferocious beating but will wince when a woman tries to clean his wounds.

I have a few of my own:

1) Every time a car is shot at, it will blow up when a bullet hits the gas tank. And, a bullet will always hit the gas tank. This is a remarkable event, especially considering that bullets don’t have nearly enough heat to ignite gasoline and this has never happened in real life.

2) Every time a car goes over a cliff, it will blow up.

3) Every time a car blows up, the explosion will be of a magnitude that it would require at least 100 gallons of gas to get a fireball that big. A stick of dynamite blowing up is a puny explosion compared to a car blowing up. Cars in movies that blow up have obviously just been filled up. They are still filled up even though the explosion occurs after a high-speed car chase of many miles. One wishes they offered cars with this kind of gas mileage to the general public.

4) Every time a car hits a guard rail on a cliff, it will go right through it. You’d think that state highway departments would watch movies, learn this is what happens, and perhaps use a higher grade of steel in guard rails…

5) Criminals obviously never watch movies as they don’t seem to realize that bullet-proof vests only cover the chest. The chest is the only area they are allowed to aim at, it appears. The head is off-limits, as is the groin area or legs or arms. Personally, I’d rather have a steel “cup” than a chest vest… If my goodies are hit, I imagine I’d rather be dead…

6) While even a .45 has enough power to kill a person if the person is hit in the hand (the shock can kill and does), .357 magnum rounds can hit a person in the shoulder and only have about a half-inch wound in circumference, and after the person is hit, he conveniently lives long enough to be able to deliver his lines. In theater parlance, this is known as "being a trooper."

7) If a gas tanker is seen in a movie, you can count on it that it will get blown up. You’d think that tanker drivers would have seen movies and if they ever saw anyone filming them, they’d abandon the truck and go get pie and coffee in a truck stop until the cameraman left.

8) Many times, when a car blows up, it blows up at least a couple more times after the initial explosion. It would seem to indicate the car had at least one auxiliary tank or perhaps the driver had gone for lawn mower gas just before his car was shot and it’s the gas can that blew up in the secondary explosion. And,  judging from the size of the secondary explosion, that must have been a 75-gallon gas can...

9) When a car or building blow up, and the hero and his love interest are within a few yards of it, they are blown backwards and then get up slowly and brush themselves off. Their eyebrows are never burned off or even slightly singed. In our own experience, when the backyard barbecue flares up briefly, we lose our eyebrows. How is it possible a mega-explosion never affects actor’s eyebrows? Rhetorical question. The answer is, in a standard actor's contract, it states that while the role may call for bodily damage in every part of the body unit, the eyebrows are sacred territory and can never be damaged. As famous movie star Bette Davis stated: "My eyebrows are my livelihood."

10) Where did the canted pistol aim originate from with gangs doing drive-bys? Was the guy who started all that maybe cock-eyed? Perhaps this is where the famous movie phrase, “Are you talking to me?” originated from…

It would be fun to hear your own personal favorites.

 My son Mike and me on MSNBC-NEWS doing our part to keep cliches alive...

For the second part of this post, I’d like to ask folks to send in their own examples of:

Phrases that drive me nuts that we hear over and over from TV news anchors, sports reporters, and politico commentators that suggest they might want to enlarge their vocabularies… or maybe even get one…

At the end of the day… (Guess it doesn’t matter what happens at noon…)

(This happens)… and we’re having a different conversation now… (Master of the obvious…)

(Somebody) needs to step up to the plate. (And do what?)

The 800-pound gorilla in the room… (That has to be Sasquatch. “Regular” gorillas only weigh 300-400 pounds…)

The dead cat bounce… (PETA, where are you when we really need you?)

Drink the Kool-Aid. (I bet the Kool-Aid folks wish this one would disappear…)

(He) knocked it out of the park. (And the announcer said, “Foul ball…”)

Think outside of the box. (I’d like to see what’s in the box, first…)

The ball is in his court. (And?)

At the eleventh hour. (This must be just before “the end of the day.”)

Illegal immigrant. (Whatever happened to illegal alien? That’s what they are.)

To be perfectly candid. (As opposed to what? Imperfectly obtuse?)

It’s a win-win situation. (Or a lose-win? Or a lose-lose? Or a win-lose?)

Going forward… (Sideways isn’t an option?)

Push the envelope… (Okay. Then what? It’s pushed. Does it need a stamp?)

Let’s take this off-line… (Can’t. My ‘puter crashed…)

The bottom line. (I’m dying to see the next-to-the-bottom line…)

Has legs and can really go far. (Better than visualizing someone pulling themselves along with their arms on the ground, I suppose…)

Transparency. (Oh, like the government, right?)

Game changer. (I know we agreed to play tag, but now we’re going to play hide ‘n seek…)

When the rubber meets the road. (All I can say about this one is… never trust rubber…)

Yes AND No. (Make a decision.)

Multitasking. (Like walking and chewing gum at the same time?)

Reinvented. (Can’t something only be invented once?)

To tell the honest truth. (As opposed to what? The dishonest truth?)

Thanks for the heads-up. (I was wearing it between my knees and never noticed…)

If we took all of these and the other clichés out of the mouths of TV folks, we might as well hit the “Mute” button…

Let’s see your own favorites. Or… unfavorites…

To be perfectly candid, I guess that at the end of the day, near the eleventh hour, and to tell the honest truth, if someone doesn’t see the 800-pound gorilla in the room multitasking and reinventing the dead cat bounce, we’re having a different conversation, and obviously thinking outside of the box, which, at least theoretically, could result in a win-win situation—a real game-changer, where the rubber meets the road. Bottom line? Going forward, let’s take this offline, so I can drink the Kool-Aid and become truly transparent, i.e., room temperature… The ball’s in your court.


Monday, September 20, 2010


Hi folks,
An edited version of this came out today at (Little, Brown's website for their new imprint, headed up by John Schoenfelder), and I thought you might be interested in the unexpurgated version.

I count it as an honor that they asked me to submit an essay to them--the leading thriller and noir writers in the country are who usually grace this site, and this was heady company for me.

Mulholland Books is also one of the places considering my latest novel, THE BITCH, and it would be really cool to be published by them.

Anyway... hope you enjoy this.

            As writers, each of us comes to our choice of this craft from different avenues and all of us have different motivations and agendas, based on any number of factors. Our life experience is perhaps the largest factor and that involves not only our childhood experiences and relationships, but that English teacher in the fourth grade who encouraged us (or discouraged us—as psychology students learn, there are two possible ways to get the rat to run the maze—punishment or reward). Writing, to my mind, is one endeavor that doesn’t fall under the genetics/environment argument. I don’t believe in something called “the born writer.” If there were such a thing, why didn’t Native Americans and other similar cultures ever produce a single writer before the white man took over the real estate? Story-tellers, yes, absolutely. But, no writers.
            In fact, as a writer, accuracy is important to me, and it’s why I walked out of the movie Dances With Wolves. A third of the way through, a group of Indian boys have stolen Kevin Costner’s horse (obviously not aware of his iconic Hollywood status) and are riding back to their camp. Subtitles inform us of what they’re shouting. One boy yelled, “They’ll write songs about us!” (Italics mine.) Well, not one single North American Indian tribe had the word “write” in their vocabulary; indeed, the concept of writing didn’t exist prior to the white man becoming the landlord. From that moment forward, my disbelief became unsuspended, and I couldn’t buy any of the rest of the movie.
            I looked up the original screenplay and the writer had it right. He’d written: “They’ll sing songs about us.” The writer got it right and the director or editor or whoever changed it. Happens to us writer-types all the time.
            The point I’m trying to make is that writing isn’t a result of genetics. It’s something created by environment. The additional point is that a writer should watch editors very carefully…
            In my case, I’m just following the dictum, “Write what you know.”
            Well… Les knows crime. I spent a considerable portion of my life doing crime stuff. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then-two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2-5 for second-degree burglary. Did other things afterward, including dealing drugs, using drugs, working as an escort for wealthy women, was shot at and shot back, was involved in high-speed chases with the cops, lived with a call girl whose clientele involved people you’d recognize from People Magazine, was homeless, was involved in stabbings, check-kiting, strong-armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade.
            I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. In fact, the only accurate depiction of the criminal mind I’ve ever seen in a movie was the Woody Harrelson character in Natural Born Killers. Although, it seems that movie turned off a lot of folks, who prefer their criminals depicted in a more romantic and Hollywoodish fashion. In Glitter Town, most filmmakers would have Harrelson love cats or something equally insipid. And, yes, I know—it was a Hollywood movie, but an aberration. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close. One of the best novels that gave us a true account of how people become criminals was Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan.
            To be honest, most novels and films don’t seem to come even remotely close to a realistic interpretation of the criminal mind. That’s changing these days as noir makes a comeback.
            What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals. And, there’s no one to call them out on the inaccuracies as very few criminals read all that much for several reasons. One, limited access to books. When I was in Pendleton, our “library” consisted mostly of Zane Grey paperbacks and was housed in an oversized closet. Two, most inmates are poorly-educated. Again, when I was in Pendleton, the average educational level was third-grade. Therefore, the only people with critical acumen in the subject, don’t have much of a voice or easy entre to the NY Times Book Review.
            The same situation exists in the Mafia. Anyone who has known many Costa Nostra types personally knows that most of these guys aren’t going to cure cancer, split the atom, or invent gravity. The greater numbers are mouth-breathing mesomophs, with the I.Q. power of candles and the achieved educational level of gnats.
            When Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he admitted he’d never met a mafiosa. He confessed he’d made just about all the stuff in the book up. He had to. He was living in Connecticut, surrounded by life insurance executives and stock brokers and typing on a door suspended on two sawhorses in his spacious, well-appointed garage. (He said in an interview that if he’d known it was going to be a big hit, he’d have “written it better,”) The “sleeping with the fishes,” the “horsehead” stuff, the “hitting the mattresses” stuff, all came out of his imagination. What happened was the guys in the Mob liked his depiction of them—even though it was all b.s.—as it greatly romanticized them and made them look… human?—even as cool humans?—that they adopted the persona. They adopted the language in the novel (well, most didn’t read well enough to read the novel—most just saw the movie) and life imitated art. Now, until another movie comes out, most mafia guys are going to be cracking wise until they day they “sleep with the fishes” with the bon mots they observed Al Pacino uttering. It’ll have to be a different movie, though, as everything that followed The Godfather seems to have used the same casting director.
            Same thing happens with most criminals when they read a thriller. They adopt the role they see on the page or up on the screen. Most criminals look like your neighbor the accountant in the split-level down the block, but thanks to movies and thrillers, the average citizen is certain that they look either like Steve Buscemi or Samuel Jackson, and that the average warden looks like Robert Redford. Not my experience…
            Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:
1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
            Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (”straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree… to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different than a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then-child molestations, while they’ve always been around are infinitely more common these days than back then--but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for. To be honest, a large number of people incarcerated have drinking or drug problems and when they’re on the sauce or high, pretty routinely abuse their own kids.
2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
            Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks--at least the professional criminals do--and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend, before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.
3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
            This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint--even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope--they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table--probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is--a story)--will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide. In fact, when those who appear in documentaries and TV shows claim their innocence, the instant they’re back in the cellhouse they make sure to let everyone know they were just pulling a shuck.
            Another thing they don’t publicize as it would destroy the common misconception. Of all those people who get freed from prison after an investigation or new trial, probably 90-some percent aren’t freed because they were found innocent. They’re freed because of a legal technicality. You can look that up.
            For points #1 and #2, what I suspect has happened to lead to the hatred for child molesters and cops inside the walls is what has happened in just about all the instances of misconceptions about convicts. I think what’s happened is that movies and the media romanticized this (inmates hating and killing child molesters) and inmates bought into this image of themselves for a variety of reasons–-a typical reason being that people in prison are just plain looking for any kind of excuse to shank someone and this is as good a reason as any and even kind of makes the guy shanking a child molester look like a good or moral guy.
            The same thing happened with the cops being in danger in the joint myth. Some individual somewhere told a reporter that and the naive reporter (there’s a lot of those folks!) reported it as gospel and just like the child molester myth, that just gave cons an excuse to shank someone and feel “moral.” Now, of course, thanks to television and the movies, convicted cops are in danger.
            Even worse is the image MSNBC-NEWS is portraying in their prison series of criminals. If a person was to believe what they see on those shows, they’d assume the average inmate is an obsessed weight-lifter or a raging psycho who spends his day fingerpainting with feces between meetings with the Aryan Nation or Black Panthers or Mexican Mafia and learning the secret handshake. And, they’re all doing life… This series is helping create the biggest misconception of criminals in the history of media--the mindset that doesn’t understand the difference between drama and melodrama, except to know that melodrama boosts ratings.
            The truth is, if you put the average cellblock population in a mall food court, nobody would look twice. You’d just see folks mostly like your neighbors. Actually, most of those in jail were your neighbors at one time.
            This is why noir rocks. We see a far greater number of realistic characters in their pages. This is also why it has suffered as a genre for so long. It’s too truthful for some. My experience is that the average person is fascinated by criminals… so long as they can appear to get close but get none of that criminality nastiness on themselves. When the criminal mind is accurately depicted, they begin to sense that these guys aren’t as different as they thought.
            That’s scary.
            And makes for great literature.
*                                                          *                                                          *
            There’s one other thing that noir has going for itself. It isn’t all that concerned with that abomination called being “politically correct.” That, in itself, is a compelling reason to read and write it.

Friday, September 10, 2010


What we say ain’t always what we mean…

I read a lot of blogs from other writers, agents, editors and other professionals in the writing game, and I read a lot of letters from writers responding to those posts. Alas, again and again, I see some general misconceptions about writing techniques and story structure that I’d like to address.

I see the same misconceptions from my students in my online classes and from clients I work with.

The misconceptions seem to arrive from misunderstanding the definitions of the terms we employ in describing fiction writing and fiction techniques.

I’ve come to believe that much of the misunderstandings writers have stem from the fact that many of our terms are lay terms, and while the definitions assigned certain terms have their root in “lay” or “dictionary” definitions, there are significant differences when applied to writing, and it is these differences that cause a certain amount of confusion.

That sounds like a lot of goobly-gook, doesn’t it? Sorry! I’ll try to explain better.

A good example of what I’m talking about that I’ve seen a lot written about lately refers to the term “action” in fiction. A non-writer usually thinks of action in reference to drama—books, movies, plays, and television—as some kind of physical activity. Many times, the word evokes images of melodrama—bombings, kidnappings, shootings, stabbings, beatings, rapes… violent physical action, in other words. Lots of noise, screams, smoke, and fury. Writers need to think differently and understand that action in fiction means something much more than in real life.

I just read a letter on another blog from a beginning writer who complained that she began her novel with “action”—in her case, an armed robbery involving her protagonist—and then couldn’t figure out why this didn’t “hook” the reader, i.e., the agent, she’d sent it to. She said he turned her mss down because while the robbery hooked him in the very beginning, it turned out to be mostly unrelated to the story that followed. This poor writer had done what a lot of writers seem to do. She thought that when teachers, agents and editors said they wanted to be “hooked” immediately on the first page, they were looking for something along the lines of that lay definition of action. A gun going off or whatever.


The term “action” when applied to fiction means something vastly broader and more encompassing of other activities than the stuff listed above. While it can include those kinds of activities, literary action also encompasses many other things. Dialog is action, for instance. A character driving down the road and seeing a dead plover is also action. A character reading a newspaper on the subway is action. Anything a character is doing is… action.

This one misunderstood term is to blame for many of the mistakes made in creating a manuscript, especially when trying to follow the advice of the pros.

I regularly get very nice letters from folks who’ve read my book on story beginnings (Hooked) who reveal, by their questions that they’ve fallen prey to that misconception of the word “action.” Statements like this are not atypical: “I know I’m supposed to start with action, but the story I want to write isn’t high-concept and is more of a character study. I can’t have my protagonist, Irma, getting raped. Nothing like that would ever happen to her. I know in your book you say the story has to open with action, but I don’t see how I can do that here. Should I write another story?”

That’s a made-up statement, but it’s accurate inasfar as the gist of some of the letters I receive. And, it’s reflective of a couple of things. One, a misunderstanding of the term action, and, two; a sure sign of selective reading. That’s fairly common, I’ve found. I’m probably guilty of the same myself.

To address the first, I’ve tried to make it clear in Hooked, the writer’s definition of action. I’ve given a number of examples of openings that illustrated forms of action that didn’t involve any guns, sexual attacks, bombs or any of that. For instance, one of the examples I used was of James Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s Blues, which begins with the “action” of the protagonist sitting on the subway reading a newspaper where he sees an account of his brother’s arrest. That’s “action” according to the literary definition. Another, where I described the opening of Tim Sandlin’s novel, Sorrow Floats, which begins:

            My behavior slipped after Daddy died and went to San Francisco. I danced in bars. I flipped the bird in churches. Early one morning in April I drove Dothan’s new pickup truck off the Snake River dike, and when the tow truck showed up they found me squatting in a snow patch in my nightgown crying over the body of a dead plover.

That’s beginning with action. The action is her crying over the dead bird. It’s not even her driving the truck off the dike. The action is simply her seeing this bird and weeping. (The other part of that is just backstory and setup). Seeing the dead bird is her inciting incident and it satisfies all the requirements of a good inciting incident and begins with action. Seeing a dead bird makes her realize what she’s been running away from and it’s from that point that the story begins.

And… it’s action.

I won’t go through the dozens of openings I used for illustration in Hooked, but nary a one begins with a gun going off or someone being raped or a President poised with finger on the red button. But, without exception, they all began with action. Action, according to the literary usage of the term, not the lay definition.

It is so crucial to understanding how stories are written successfully to fully grasp the definition of the term “action,” yet time after time, it’s obvious by the conversation that the student is thinking of the lay definition in his or her application and thought process.

To address the second point, many readers read selectively; that is, some of what they read becomes invisible to them and they "read" only the parts that appeal to them. I know I've defined action over and over in my books on writing, and still, I communicate with writers who say they've read the books, but still don't remember reading the parts where I showed other kinds of action. At least that's what it appears is happening. I think what happens is that sometimes some folks just don't read carefully. Wish I could say I'm not guilty of doing that, but I surely am and often. If anyone has a cure, please pass it on!

What happens is that the teacher and the writing student are trying to have a dialog that’s doomed to failure simply because they’re not on the same page as far as the definitions of the terms we employ. We’re close… but close doesn’t count in writing. Our chief tools as writers are words and they need to be precise. Clear and understandable. Unfortunately, our craft terms are perhaps the worst of any craft in existence and the opposite should be true. Instead of clearly defined, they are often murky and vague.

For another common example of a misconception in writing terms, let’s look at the term “problem.” A problem in lay terms can mean something like the person is being divorced. Is that a problem in “real life?” Well, usually. But, in terms of describing a protagonist’s problem for story, by itself, it doesn’t rise to the level of a story problem. It’s merely a bad situation. And, bad situations do not literature make. They can—but there has to be more to it than simply a bad situation. Any one of these things for example—a rape, a murder, a kidnapping, a divorce, a partner’s cheating, a person declaring bankruptcy, a bully giving wedgies to a skinny kid—any of those instances are great examples of “problems” in real life, but without more they aren’t in literature. They’re simply… bad situations. Good for anecdotes, but not yet for stories.

For something to be a problem in literary terms it has to represent a profound change in the protagonist’s life—signaling a change in the person’s life before the problem to what it is after the problem makes its appearance. It has to rise to the level that nothing can interfere with his or her struggle to resolve the problem until it’s finally resolved. If, for instance, the character can take time off for other things even briefly—then it hasn’t yet achieved the status of story problem. This is what happens often when writers believe their character’s inciting incident began in childhood (the inciting incident being the event that created and/or revealed the problem) and then they have the kid “take off” the next seven years so they can get old enough to tackle the problem. Might work in real life, but it’s just not a problem yet in story terms. It’s a… bad situation. If anything can get in the way of, distract, or cause it to be put on the shelf for any period of time whatsoever… it’s just not a problem in literary terms.

Also, the story problem has to have two levels. The initial problem is what I’ve created the term “surface problem” for. That’s what seems to be the problem at the onset of the story. Surface problems can be anything. But, they all have to be symptomatic of a deeper, more personal, psychological problem, to which I’ve created the term “story-worthy problem.” The surface problem is simply kind of the “material” manifestation of the story-worthy problem.

For example, in the movie Indiana Jones, Indiana’s surface problem is to win his father’s respect. To do this, he feels he has to find the Holy Grail. His surface goal which he feels will resolve his surface problem. But, his story-worthy problem is his lack of self-respect. In a story, the protagonist has to go through the struggle to resolve the surface problem to finally realize (as a result of the struggle) what his true (story-worthy) problem is.

In the movie, Thelma & Louise, protagonist Thelma’s surface problem is to escape her overbearing husband briefly. Her story-worthy problem—which she can only discover after going through her struggle—is to escape a male-dominated world in which she has little voice.

In David Madden’s novel, The Suicide’s Wife, the protagonist’s problem is that her husband has (supposedly) committed suicide and left her unprepared to face life’s everyday demands. Her surface goal to resolve this is to obtain her driver’s license. Her real story-worthy problem is to find out if she has the internal wherewithal to exist independently. The struggle she undergoes to resolve her story problem leads her to understand what that problem is symptomatic of and therefore gives her the capability to resolve the deeper problem.

In almost all instances, both the surface problem and the story-worthy problem are resolved in the last and final scene. When s(he) resolves the other one, at that point s(he) understands the underlying problem at the same time and by his or her choice in that final scene also resolves that problem as well.

The point I’m trying to make here is that when we use the term “problem” in writing and story terms, we’re not talking about real-life problems. There has to be more involved to make it rise to the level of a good story problem than just a bad situation. Problem as applied to story is something far more than a problem in real life.

There are many such terms we use as writing teachers that we’ve borrowed from the lay language, and because students and beginning writers very often ascribe those lay definitions to the terms, we have a problem communicating with each other and fully understanding and grasping the advice given We’re close… but close just ain’t good enough.

I’ve often thought that there is a great need for a text on this. It’s presumptuous, I suppose, for one person to think he or she can create a lexicon that all writers should follow, but somebody needs to do this. Right? Okay. I’m on it…

Anyway, I hope this helps a bit to “unmuddy” the waters…

Blue skies,

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Hi folks,
With the generous and gracious permission of my student (who shall remain unnamed), I want to show a recent submission she made on the novel she’s writing and my comments/suggestions on a flashback scene she’d written. This is a Christian novel, but the same basics are important as in any other genre. At her request, I’ve also changed the names of the four characters in the Japanese concentration camp, as this novel is based on a real-life story and she needs to get permissions to use their names before the novel is published.
If those of you who know me wonder how in the heck a reprobate like me can work with a Christian writer, all I can say is that the word on the street is: God works in mysterious ways…
Boy, does He ever!
Also—I feel confident that when she’s finished, this is going to be a publishable novel. She’s a terrific writer and has a compelling story.
I ask all of my students to provide a 15-20 word outline for their novel, which will be the first item. This outline isn’t like Comp I outlines, which list topic sentences. Instead, the statements indicate the results of actions taken to resolve the story problem. How they get to those results is up to them. It’s not intended to necessarily be clear to an uninformed reader, but simply shows the main plot points and how they ended up and is intended solely to keep the writer on track and focused. She’s the only one (well, besides me) who has to understand what the statements represent.
As with my other client that I recently used in a posting, I’m going to give this author the same pseudonym of “Susan.” Once she sells her book and it comes out, I’ll reveal who she is. Count on it!
With the editing as indicated, this is what she sent in this week and my comments:

Miyako learns brother’s killer will be in Osaka
Miyako plots to assassinate killer
Miyako fails
Miyako joins Christian seekers group
Miyako attempts to assassinate killer, stabs brother instead
Miyako receives brother’s forgiveness, converts to Christianity, is arrested (I always ask my clients and students to have an ending that reflects both a win and a loss.)
(What follows is from later on in the novel. We’ve been introduced to Miyako and her story problem is clearly on the page. This is perhaps twenty pages or so into the novel and is in her target’s pov. She’s employing multiple povs. This is also a bit later on in his chapter and we’ve already been introduced to his character. He’s on the bridge of a ship, on his way to Japan to begin a speaking tour.

A dash of cold spray across his sleeve brought him back to the present. He blotted it on his jacket, then turned and paced along the railing.
How ironic. Forty months in prison, and he spent every moment desperate for a way to escape the Japanese. Now that he had his freedom, he was heading back by choice. And he couldn’t wait to reach Japan.
He tried again to pray, but encountered opposition. A thought echoed from a darker corner of his mind. It was almost like a voice, challenging him.
Why are you so eager to come back here? Don’t you remember what they did to you last time? Don’t you remember how they treated you and your fellow POWs? How they executed Smith and Quince and Nance? How they starved Nix to death?
Remember how it felt to waste away from malnutrition? How it felt to watch your buddies starve? How it felt to have nothing to look forward to but hunger, beatings, and an early grave?
Why are you coming back to the people who did that to you?
Bill stopped pacing. He stared straight forward, his hands balled into fists in his pockets.
The Japanese are not open to you. They’re not open to your God. They’re not interested in His message of love and forgiveness. You’re wasting your time.
So why put yourself at risk again? Especially now that you have a wife and son. Don’t you owe them something?
Just leave the Japanese alone. Let them sit on their little islands and pay for what they’ve done.
But the last bit was a mistake. One goal had kept him sane during those last months of imprisonment. Had kept him grounded through his sudden release and heady first weeks of freedom. Had driven him to finish Bible college in record time.
Unlikely as it seemed, he was sure Jesus had appointed him to take His vital message of forgiveness to the Japanese. If millions of Japanese people were going to die in their sins, it would not be because Bill had failed to bring them the message.
“Get thee behind me, Satan!” he shouted into the wind.
This won him a brief respite. But the inner voice tried a new tack. How do you know Jesus has called you back to Japan? What if He didn’t? What if it’s just your own idea? Your ego talking?
He mentally retraced the steps that had brought him here.
Susan, you might want to reconsider casting the above in a scene rather than in Bill’s mind. Perhaps an exchange between him and his wife for at least part of it. Characters ruminating over past events (backstory) often are deadly dull for the reader. We really want to see people interacting. An interior monologue is mostly passive. Conversation can be as well, but it’s at least a small cut above a character’s thoughts, especially extended thoughts such as these. Also, such a conversation shouldn’t be just an info dump, but the two characters should be somewhat at odds and whenever possible, have their dialog written as off-the-nose more than a Q&A type of exchange.

The fork in his road came during his third winter in prison. He was in solitary somewhere near Nanking. By then the five surviving airmen looked more like skeletons than men, but Larry Nix was in the worst shape. For weeks he had been growing weaker, to the point where he could no longer exercise at all during their fifteen minutes outside each day. He would just sit on a bench and watch the rest of them.
They were all concerned about Larry, but none of them were prepared for what happened.
Bill was in his cell on a winter morning when an unusual racket started in the yard. The single, small window at the top of the wall was designed to let a beam of light in, not to permit prisoners to see out. But he had learned that if he braced his feet on the side walls of the narrow cell, he could scale up them until he could just manage to look out. It took some effort, and he had to be careful that the guards did not catch him at this trick or there would be a beating. But curiosity overcame caution this morning, and he made his way up the walls.
He discovered that the source of the noise was a project the guards were busy with. They were hammering away at a large box. This was something new. His imagination ran everywhere as he tried to work out what it could be.
The next morning, he found out. A guard opened his cell door and brought him outside. In the middle of the yard, resting on bare earth, he saw the box—with Larry’s emaciated frame arranged in it. He stared down at what was left of the young officer.
He had admired him. Larry was a prince of a fellow—perhaps the best of them all. A hero who nearly drowned trying to save a fellow crew member after his plane went down off the coast of China. A man of faith who continued to believe they would all pull through somehow, even after the rest of them had lost hope. A thinker who was first to see the signs they were losing mental acuity in solitary. Larry had challenged each of them to come up with intellectual exercises to keep their minds fresh. He had passed his own time composing philosophical essays.
This last paragraph is mostly telling. I’d consider a brief scene here dramatizing this, showing Larry and the others talking and Larry doing what you summarized—urging them to come up with the exercises. Even a paragraph or two delivering this bit with a scene raises the interest level and dramatic level. One of the guys groaning and refusing to do so—the others seeing his wisdom, etc. That kind of thing.

And here he was, cold and still, laid out in a makeshift coffin. All his philosophies dead with him.
I could be next, Bill thought. Any one of us could be next. They could kill us all off here, one by one, and no one back home would even know.
He felt exhausted. Numb.

You might want to break this up with Miyako in a scene. You’re following a passive block with Bill’s thoughts with another passive block when he’s basically summarizing his experience in the prison camp. It’s primarily backstory and told via exposition, rather than dramatized. It might be too much if both of these sections are together, back-to-back. Make sense?


It was well after closing. The restaurant was deserted. Miyako sat across from an old family friend, Mr. Mitsumi, at one of the tables.
See how—automatically—the reader’s ears perk up? We’re in a scene now and the interest level automatically raises with scenes. Scenes deliver emotion while exposition/summary doesn’t.

He sucked his breath in sharply, surprised. After a moment, he let it out and looked her in the eyes.
“So, Miyako-chan. You want to poison someone.” He chuckled. “Well, I’ve known you since you were very small, and I didn’t think you’d come looking for me at this time of night to trade small talk.”
She hadn’t decided how much to tell him. She took a drag on her cigarette and studied the ash tray as she snuffed it out.
“Can I assume it’s a matter of kao?” he said.
When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they burned with intensity.If you’re referring to Miyako’s eyes here, you’ve just left her pov. She can’t see herself to know her eyes are “burning with intensity.”Hai, Mitsumi-san.”
“Then, since I have such a long association with your family, I must give you what little help I can. But I am afraid it will not be as much as you hope for.”

Susan, as always, this works very well. The main thing I’d caution you is to try to avoid too much of a character’s wandering about and ruminating in his head. A bit is fine, but try to find ways to dramatize these kinds of things. Same thing with flashbacks. Create scenes for those rather than “I remember when…” kinds of things, where it’s delivered totally via summary/exposition. As a small example, when he’s remembering Larry, which works better—what you have in summary--or perhaps something like this:

He had admired him. Larry was a prince of a fellow—perhaps the best of them all. A hero who nearly drowned trying to save a fellow crew member after his plane went down off the coast of China. A man of faith who continued to believe they would all pull through somehow, even after the rest of them had lost hope. A thinker who was first to see the signs they were losing mental acuity in solitary.
            “Men,” Bill remembered Larry saying one day during the exercise period. “We’re vegetating. The Japanese are winning our minds and we’re not doing anything to fight them.”
            They were walking clockwise around the compound in a loose group. Their usual exercise regimen. Walking was about all they were capable at this point and it was almost more than at least a couple of them could manage. Bill could see the Japanese guards sitting on the porch watching them. One—a kid who didn’t look any more than fifteen—turned to the older guard beside him and said something and the older man laughed.
            “It’s kind of hard to fight anything when you can barely walk,” Quince said. “Christ, Lieutenant, get real.” As if to punctuate his argument, Quince halted and lapsed into a fit of intense coughing. Bill limped up to him and tried patting him on the back. It seemed to help. He straightened up, eyes rheumy, and nodded his thanks. They began walking again.
            “I know what you’re saying,” Larry said, “but we can do things. Like…” he paused, his brow knit in thought, “…we can do mental exercises. Keep our minds sharp.”
            “Like what?” Nance said. He was the camp wiseacre. “Tell each other riddles? Here’s one. What’s black and white and read all over?” He began to cackle.
            “I know, I know,” Larry said. “It sounds foolish, but I think we need to try it.” His voice raised in excitement. “I know! There are things we all know that others don’t. For instance, I’ve always wondered what Occam’s Razor was all about. I’ve heard it all my life, but don’t have a clue what it is. I bet somebody here does. That’s the kind of thing we can do. Bring up stuff like this, figure it out. It’ll keep our minds sharp.” At the end of his speech, he seemed to be almost begging for the others to consider his proposal.
            “Well…” Joe Smith said. “I had a semester in college. Took a class in philosophy. Occam’s Razor means…”
            Thus it happened that Larry had challenged each of them to come up with intellectual exercises to keep their minds fresh. He had passed his own time composing philosophical essays. His first one, Bill remembered, was on Occam’s Razor.
And yet, there he was, cold and still, laid out in a makeshift coffin. All his philosophies dead with him.
I could be next, Bill thought. Any one of us could be next. They could kill us all off here, one by one, and no one back home would even know.

This is just a quick example, Susan, but do you see how dramatizing things like this instead of summarizing them can ratchet up the scene? It’s just good strategy to look for ways to get the material across dramatically (which means via scenes) rather than with exposition/summary.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,

And here’s how “Susan” ended up creating the flashback with her own originality:
He had admired him. Larry was a prince of a fellow—perhaps the best of them all. A hero who nearly drowned trying to save a fellow crew member after his plane went down off the coast of China. A man of faith who continued to believe they would all pull through somehow, even after the rest of them had lost hope. A thinker who was first to see the signs they were losing mental capacity in solitary.
He remembered how he caught up with Larry during their exercise period one afternoon. “Damn it, Smith’s at it again,” he whispered.
 “Oh, Lord, sure enough,” Larry said. Smith was standing in a corner of the yard—by himself—yelling incoherently.
Poor fellow. I guess he’s had all he can take.”
“Yeah. And that’s where we’re all headed.” Larry looked around to see whether their conversation was drawing attention. He kept his voice to a whisper. “You know, I’ve been thinking about this. We’re all getting a little crazy, and I don’t think it’s just the vitamin deficiency. I think the strain of all the time spent alone is getting to us. You know what worries me most?”
“What if, when we finally get out of here, they have to put us all in the psych ward because we’re mentally gone?” He glanced over at Smith. He had lapsed into silence now and was fingering the bricks in the wall.
“Yeah, that would be God-awful.”
“We’ve got to come up with ways to keep our minds sharp.” Larry thought a minute. “Look, how many Presidents’ names did you learn in school?”
More slowly. “How many Presidents’ names did you learn in school?”
“Well.... 32, of course.”
“How many can you remember now?”
“Roosevelt, Hoover, Coolidge… Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson… Adams… hmm… Grant… umm…”
“See what I mean?”
“Geez, yeah.”
Larry put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, when you’re back in your cell, remember as many as you can, and tell me tomorrow how many you get. Also, you need to come up with some other pursuit to engage your mind. Something you care about.”
“Like what?”
“Well…. I’ve started an essay on philosophy. I’m committing it to memory.”
“Oh, I see.… Maybe I’ll try a poem.”
Larry clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the ticket. You can recite it to me tomorrow.”
Larry had challenged each of them to find ways to keep their minds fresh. He had gone on to compose several essays on philosophical problems himself, entirely in his head.
But here he was, cold and still, laid out in a makeshift coffin. All his philosophies dead with him.
I could be next, Bill thought. Any one of us could be next. They could kill us all off here, one by one, and no one back home would even know.
He felt exhausted. Numb.

See how Susan appropriated this and made it hers? This is why she’s progressing leaps and bounds as a writer and why she’s creating a novel folks are going to want to read.

Hope this gives the writers out there a little useful info. Avoid that deadly-dull exposition/summary in flashbacks as much as possible! Your story will gain untold energy by doing so. One of the keys in creating good fiction is to avoid stalls where the reader’s interest flags and give him or her an excuse to put down the story. Sometimes… never to return. Sometimes those parts are inevitable, but the writer should do his or her very best to avoid them. Backstory and flashbacks are particularly deadly and the best way to avoid slowing down or dulling the read is to capture the flashback/backstory portion in scenes rather than exposition/summary. To write like Harry Crews, who says he “tries to leave out the parts readers skip.” It’s easy to skip summary for the reader. It’s much more difficult to skip a scene! We’re all voyeurs at heart. We love to eavesdrop on people interacting. Most of us aren’t interested in someone’s relatively boring ruminations…

Blue skies,

P.S. I'm in heaven. It's football season and (right now, anyway) my Irish are beating Purdue! Next week my Colts start their trek toward the Super Bowl. And yes, they're "my" teams!