Keep it Clean.  I.E., Puns Welcome

Vintage Vinyl is on the South Side of the Street. Says Who?

Creative writing workshops have a tendency to get bogged down in discussions of verisimilitude.  Particularly when they’re taught by me–therefore this fall I am making a concerted effort to not obsess over all the little details in my young writers’ stories that are seemingly compelling but often incorrect to the point of being laughable.  Washington Square is a great place to stage a fight, but you can’t make up by walking across the street to the Plaza for drinks.  The only way you can sentence someone to Alcatraz in 2012 in on a tour boat.

This is what comes of being a font of useless information, and that is what comes from a love of reading every little oddity that crosses my path and having a brain where such things stick.  I imagine the inside of my head as being like the world’s junkiest antique mall, with every nook crammed with knickknacks and whatnots that may, each on its own, have a purpose, but gathered all together like this are just so much annoying clutter.

For example, did you know that there is a chain of 24-hour restaurants in Australia that serves nothing but pies?  Pretty random, right, and also a REALLY great idea, and here’s hoping they open a branch here in Dallas, preferable in the Uptown area, walking distance from my home.

This came up in class today, in an actual story by an actual student.  Someone–for the record, not me–questioned the plausibility of the detail.  In the past week there have also been discussions of whether cops would call it rohypnol or flunitrazepam, what wendigos actually look like, and the brands of fashionable footwear more likely to be worn at the high school formal.   All of this is easily answered with a click to Wikipedia or a field trip to the local precinct–which is the main reason to keep these discussion short.  One suppresses his fascination with trivia and reminds the youngsters that incorrect facts have a way of pulling the reader out of the fictional dream.  One then stores this trivia away with the rest of the crap in his head–both the mistakes as well as the corrections–and moves the discussion on to more productive matters.

(Did you know crows have memories for specific faces?  They can also teach their fellow gang members which walkers to dive bomb on the beach.  This is an actual fact.)

Sometimes and most interestingly  the debate bleeds over into the representations of attitude and behavior, and that is when these discussions become the most passionate.  Yes, it’s apples and oranges, I know–but, in fact, the students do not always make that distinction.  That a teenage girl would be rude to an elder is objected to just as strongly as the idea that goldfish might be edible.

It matters, certainly, in the realm of “psychological realism” that human behavior be rendered in ways that strike the reader as somewhat plausible, and we’ve all engaged enough odd ducks in our lives to give credence to even the most extreme characterization in our fiction.  But our animated exchanges are never about the nuances of craft that distinguish Elizabeth Strout’s wonderfully nasty Olive Kitteridge from the broadly drawn Wicked Witch of the West.  Ultimately I find that with my students these become discussion of… propriety.

An old-fashioned word, that–with all its connotations of white gloves and high tea, pinky finger extended, please.  And the most passionate arguments of whether a story feels “real” have occurred when characters behave badly.  Vampires can drain entire villages (particularly if they’re sexy vampires) and serial killers can slice and dice their way across campus, but let one teenager in a story mouth off to a parent and out come the defenders of civilization as we know it.

So we fight it out, often weekly, particularly after a few of the writers accept my invitation to admit a bit of trouble into their character’s lives.  The parents of these mostly well raised mostly southern young ladies and gentleman should be proud.  They’ve done a fine job with this lot.  The problem, such as it is, is their desire to make their characters nice people.  Like they are.

In a roundabout way, this explains their  attraction to speculative writing; in the world of space aliens and dragons, they feel less need to create a world of exemplary youth.   Alas, not even in space does anyone hear these characters scream; I see a lot more Luke Skywalkers than Darth Vaders, I’m afraid.

Can shiny happy people learn to write less shiny and less happy fiction where the rainbows bleed and the unicorns know what to do with the business end of that horn?

Stay tuned.

My Trainer, Derek

One of the reasons that I skipped most of high school was that the physical education department at my alma mater (its name escapes me) received their teacher education at institutions run by the Third Reich, all of them specifically trained in the nuances of verbal abuse, stress position torture and ritual public humiliation. I believe this all to have been fully documented on a series of hour-long investigative reports on 60 Minutes, where I was filmed in shadow, naming names and describing the horror in minute detail, but that part (and that part only) of my memory may be a false one.

130,000 Words

On the professional book-slingers list of most obnoxious questions, this one’s in the top five, just behind “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Who’s your favorite author?”  And the problem with smart-alecky answers (e.g., the title of this post), is that no one likes a smart aleck.  And they don’t do much for books sales–neither the snappy answer nor the lack of an actual perfect and irresistible come on.  When asked to describe what your book is about, it’s almost always a good idea to make the sale.

THE END at the Beginning and a Bit of Circling Back

For three of the last four years I have related to anyone who would listen my elaborated tale of the reasons A STAR IN THE FACE OF THE SKY could not find a home. Then, in late August, just a few days ago, it finally found one. I am grateful to the folks at New Rivers Press/MSUM for welcoming me back into the fold. They published RIGHT BY MY SIDE AND HEATHENS, two of my earlier books—long before their move to Minnesota State University Moorhead, they did that—and I am looking forward to renewing my collaboration with this fine publisher.


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