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Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays with Story
July 23, 2019

The first word . . .

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits (of a writer) is persistence.”

― Octavia Butler (1947-2006), sci-fi author

At B&N Westside . . .

Cody Benjamin, our writer friend from New Mexico, stopped in to show off his first thriller, Shaitan. It came out in May. He’s now writing his second.

Summer travels knocked our attendance down to six who critiqued the works of five of their colleagues. Here is some of what was said:

Jack Freiburger (chapters 51-52, A Walk upon the Water) . . . not many comments Tuesday night.  Seems the anchor adventure was fine, some concern about the footballs game details, but few comments in general at the meeting.  Have not had time to check postings yet.

Jessica Smith (chapters 1-2, rewrite, Holding the Balance) . . . Overall, there was improvement in the two rewritten chapters. The story is good, but I need to show the reader the action, rather than tell the reader. I need to have the characters think in the first person more and do less explaining of their backgrounds. Other suggestions include: (more…)

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Writer’s Mail
Tuesdays with Story
June 19, 2019

The first word . . .

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
– Stephen King (1947- ), novelist/short story writer

Tuesday eve at the B&N . . .

“They’ve been dropping like flies,” Jack said as we looked over the slim number of writers gathered around one table on the bargain books floor. A single table. Larry was on the road to Cleveland for a meeting. Chris had fallen ill. Paul was helping a friend. Mike was turning in early after a hard day of house painting.

Still there were six of us to examine the works of four of our colleagues. Here are some of the thoughts that were shared:

Cindi Dyke (chapter 1 rewrite, The Mansion Secrets) . . . Great suggestions came from the group on placing the story in 1980’s. Jessica suggested a classroom photo of President Reagan and Vice President Bush or something about Michael Jackson. Later in the book there are movie/TV references and wall phones to place the time period, but these are great ideas to establish the 1980’s at the beginning of the book. Jerry pointed out opportunities to have information coming from Michael’s POV. Tracey suggested there are many opportunities to remove filters.

Jack Freiburger (chapters 47-48, A Walk upon the Water) . . . The inside Sean’s head stuff seemed to go over well. As expected, the bio of the brothers was too long-winded and the photo collage Sean’s dad is building gets a bit lost from its symbolic primacy. A page of rewrite required.

Jessica Smith (chapters 1-2, Holding the Balance) . . . People liked the premise of the story. It was suggested to:

  • Get rid of the first page completely, seems like too much information and it’s unnecessary.
  • There is confusion about what “wards” are. Writing a prologue or clarifying the meaning would be helpful to those who don’t often read fantasy.
  • Add some more specific information, names and such of officers.
  • Make stronger the magical guidance that Laurel is getting, i.e. why would she remember her credentials and case file but not an umbrella?
  • Add Laurel putting on booties and such to walk into the crime scene.
  • Make Dylan more personable, give him a character and describe how he looks.
  • Have there be a reason for Laurel always looking at Dylan. (They know each other from the past.)
  • During Laurel’s drive to the police station have her go through her memories to explain the magic and her abilities to the reader.

John Schneller (chapter 8, Broken rewrite) . . . An overwhelming plethora of wisdom stated that the rescue of Broken was unreasonable for oh so many reasons. The reader (not the author) needs to believe the action/motivations.  Thanks for the urging. A solution rose out of the ashes on the way home. The mountain boys will reveal a tattoo common to the Protectors in the city, thus making the giving of help true to their nature, and giving Broken a reason to believe them. Hope that works for all.

Who’s up next . . .

July 2: Lisa McDougal (chapter, The Tebow Family Secret); Kashmira Sheth and Amit Trivedi (chapters, untitled novel); Amber Boudreau (chapter, Mavis); Jack Freiburger (chapters, A Walk upon the Water); Bob Kralapp (chapter, Capacity); Larry Sommers (chapter, Freedom’s Purchase); and  Jerry Peterson (???).

Fifth Tuesday . . .

It’s coming. July 30. Put it on your calendar. Larry Sommers and his wife will host us at their home on the westside of Madison.

We do have a writing challenge and here it is: Write a story with a deus ex machina ending.

What? you ask.

Let’s start with a definition. From Wikipedia: A deus ex machina ending is… a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.

Think of the movie Jurassic Park. Several of the characters are running from a dinosaur intent on eating them. They are doomed. Nothing they do can save themselves from becoming dino snacks. And then another dinosaur shows up. It kills and eats the first dinosaur, permitting the humans to escape. An unexpected intervention.

Dramatic? Yes, but not fully believable.

So that’s your assignment for Fifth Tuesday. Write a story with this kind of over-the-top, unbelievable ending. Go for the laughs. Make it funny. And do it in no more than 500 words.

Now should you be tempted to write this kind of ending for real in the novel you’re writing, here’s some guidance from Novel Writing Help dot Com:

How to avoid a deus ex machina ending

The literal translation deus ex machina is “god from the machinery,” and it derives from Ancient Greek theater. The characters in the play would get themselves into a terrible mess, and the only way to sort it out was for the gods, or the actors playing the gods, to emerge from the “machinery” of the stage and put the world to right again with their divine powers.

For our own plotting purposes, a deus ex machina ending means a contrived, awkward or unbelievable ending. It’s one which fails to flow naturally and logically from the events that came before it.

An example

Imagine a detective in a good old-fashioned Whodunnit. We’ll call him Smith.

Now, we know that Smith will unmask the murderer by the end of the novel (because that’s what happens in crime fiction). But for this unmasking to satisfy to the reader, the name of the guilty party must come to Smith as a result of his own skills and efforts.

Smith spends the bulk of the novel searching for clues, interviewing suspects, piecing together the evidence. In short, he does all the things a detective usually does in a crime novel.

Sure, he makes mistakes as he goes. And his initial thoughts and theories are proved wrong. But the reader has faith that his skills will eventually lead him to the truth.

And eventually Smith would have discovered the identity of the murderer, if his creator had been any good at plotting novels. Unfortunately, though, the writer calls in the “gods” and settles on a contrived ending instead.

Smith, you see, has reached a seemingly hopeless situation…

All of his leads have come to nothing. To solve the crime, he needs a mental breakthrough, one of those moments in old-fashioned crime novels when the detective suddenly exclaims…

Of course, they did it with mirrors!

But instead of Smith experiencing an epiphany of this sort, which is what the reader hopes for and expects, we get a deus ex machina ending…

Smith just happens to walk in on the murderer in the process of strangling his latest victim. The killer is arrested, Smith gets a pat on the back, and everyone is happy. Everyone except for the novel’s unsatisfied readers, of course.

Why are they left unsatisfied?

Because the crime was solved through Smith just happening to be in the right place at the right time, totally by chance.

The resolution came about because of forces outside the detective’s control, by the Ancient Greek god of “luck”, if you like. It didn’t happen as a result of his own skills and efforts. That difference is critical.

So how do you avoid a deus ex machina ending?

Keep the “gods” out of it. Leave it to the mortals in the novel to sort out their own problems. In practical terms, that means two things…

First, make sure that the eventual solution to the novel’s problem comes about because of the character’s own efforts. Whatever “breakthrough” happens in the third act of the novel, it needs to be an effect of something the character did or thought earlier in the story.

Second, plant “clues” to the resolution along the way, so it seems believable and logical to readers when it happens. If the resolution happens out of the blue, you’ll have a deus ex machina ending. And that’s not good!

From the ending, we go the beginning, to great first lines . . . and the last word for this edition of Writer’s Mail . . .

Joe Fassler, a top horror fiction writer, interviewed Stephen King in 2013. He asked King to talk about the importance, the magnitude of a novel’s first sentence.

Said King, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

The first sentence sets the stage—however long or short the text—and hints at the narrative vehicle by which the writer will propel the book forward.

Said King, “Context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about ‘voice’ a lot, when I think they really just mean ‘style.’ Voice is more than that.

“People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice… An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection—a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.”

Wrote Gawker columnist Jason Parham in a follow-up to that interview, “There are thousands of classic opening lines in fiction—A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison come to mind—but often the most well-known are not always the best. First sentences, of course, have different functions—to amuse, to frighten, to mystify—and the mechanics a writer uses to achieve this connection vary from genre to genre. In looking for the best opening lines, I took all of this into consideration. What follows are the 21 best. These are the sentences that say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

“The time has come.” – Dr. Seuss, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise

“Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.” – Lynda Barry, Cruddy

“An abandoned auto out in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.” – James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” – Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem

“The man who had had the room before, after having slept the sleep of the just for hours on end, oblivious to the worries and unrest of the recent early morning, awoke when the day was well advanced and the sounds of the city completely invaded the air of the half-opened room.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dialogue with the Mirror

“Pale freckled eggs.” – Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar was the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.” – Toni Cade Bambara, The Lesson

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” – Victor LaValle, Big Machine

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.” – William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”  – Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”  – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.”  – Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives

“Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker and Sylvère Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick _____, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvère’s, at a sushi bar in Pasadena.” – Chris Kraus, I Love Dick

“See the child.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

“I’m pretty much fucked.” – Andy Weir, The Martian

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Fifth Tuesday stories
April 30, 2019

Writing challenge: My worst critique ever. It can be fiction. Maximum length for your story, poem, or essay is 500 words.

 

My Worst Critique Ever

Chris Zoern

“And you do understand that this is a very selective program, correct?” the Sergeant asked.

His words were muffled, and I had trouble processing them.  Rejected? How? I had the best time on the course, and I was certain I had done well on the written exam. I slowly nodded.

“I’m sorry, I really am. You’ll have to collect your things from your barrack by the end of the day,” he continued.

“Do I at least get to know why I’m not allowed in?” (more…)

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Tuesdays With Story
Fifth Tuesday stories
July 31, 2018

 

Writing challenge: Write a fake book blurb, a nice way to roast a fellow writer. Example: blurb Larry Sommers’ latest book, The Sommers’ System for Writing a Bestselling Novel in 30 Days.

200 words max.

Children’s Author Strikes Again

Lisa McDougal

Monsters in my Soup

By Millie Mader

Monkey-Man Publishing, 2013

220 pages

Retail: $8.49

Smell the soup and it’ll make you hungry. Eat the soup and it’ll make you a monster. Monsters in my Soup is a terrifying children tale about the perils of eating soup. This isn’t your grandma’s special chicken noodle soup. Also, this isn’t your grandma. When monsters invade the little town of Safe Haven, Connecticut, posing as grandmothers aiming to enslave children by feeding them their special soup. Can our heroes, Blake, Jake, and Cake, stop them in time before they get so hungry that they eat the soup?

Millie Mader is the author of the children’s books, Creatures in my Teachers and No Razzle in my Dazzle.

—Lisa McDougal, author, It’s a Crime not to Give a Child a Horse (more…)

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