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Joseph E Bird

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miracles

mountain sun

“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”

― William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace


photo-art copyright 2016, gloria m bird

Writing Tip – Coincidence?

Is there such a thing as coincidence?

Of course.  Or not.  It all depends on your philosophical or religious leanings.

The truth is, they happen all the time.  Explain them as you wish.

Example:

Heather is on her way to Houston to see her father.  She happens to stop at Galveston on her way.  She happens to take a walk on a fishing pier.  She happens to meet the very guy who was working at the pier when her mother was killed there ten years earlier.

Wow.  That’s a big coincidence.  Almost unbelievable.

But what if you knew early in the story that Heather knew that her mother was killed on a fishing pier in Galveston.  And that there are only two fishing piers in all of Galveston.  And that she stopped in Galveston for the very purpose of finding that pier. It goes from coincidence to purposeful event.  What about the guy at the pier?  Well, Heather knew his name because he provided eye-witness testimony ten years earlier.  He didn’t just work at the pier, he owned the tackle shop that operated on the pier.  An internet search told her he was still alive living in Galveston.  The odds of him working at the pier on the day she shows up?  Yeah, that takes a little fortuitous timing.  But stranger things happen all the time.

The key is foreshadowing and structuring the story in a way that dumb luck is taken out of the equation.  Be careful with coincidence.  Your credibility is on the line.

 

 

Writing Tip: Talk it Out

writing

I’m fortunate to belong to the Shelton College Review, a small group of writers who gather once a week to offer critique and encouragement – both are enormously important for writers – on our works in progress.

In reviewing one of my recent submittals, Larry was saying that he had been so caught up in the narrative, that he forgot that he was critiquing and was simply enjoying the story.  Until, that is, I threw in heaping helping of backstory.  His engagement came to a screeching halt.

I know better than to do that.  It’s one thing to sprinkle in a paragraph or two of backstory, but I took the reader out of a dramatic moment – in the back of an ambulance! – to tell about Heather’s life in high school.  Duh.

Thanks, Larry, for pointing that out. And as painful as that was to hear (that I could be so dumb), it was even harder to fix.  I’ve spent several hours setting things right, hours that I could have been using to write something new.

How did I fix it?

First, I spread it around a little.  Backstory in small doses (a couple of sentences) is acceptable.

Then I let the dramatic scene in the ambulance play out.  After things had calmed down, I worked some of the backstory into dialogue.  Things are still happening.  There’s still tension. There’s still character development as Heather and Lucas talk.  And the reader learns a little bit more about Heather and why she is the way she is.

And then there’s the little problem about coincidences.  More on that later.

 

Writing Tip – Go Back. Way Back.

Have you ever lost your way?

Lost your vision?

Lost your purpose?

As you know, I’ve been working on Heather Girl for a while now, taking my time, letting the story unfold gently, getting to know the characters.  I’m about two-thirds through.  I’ve passed the dreaded middle section and should be cruising to the finish line.

And yet, as I stare at the computer screen, I wonder if it’s all been a wasted effort. Sure, I’ve written a scene or two that I’m fond of, but I worry that there’s not enough story. Maybe I should just trash it all.

So I went back to the beginning. To that first sentence I wrote. The first paragraph. The first chapter.

I met Heather all over again.

And I remembered.

I remembered why I started this in the first place. Remembered why I like her.   Remembered why I have to tell her story, from beginning to end.

I wonder if this technique might work for other art forms.

I can see an artist, not sure where a painting is going, looking back at the first sketch in the notebook that inspired the painting. Or a musician, caught up in working out the third verse, going back to that first phrase, or that first chord progression that got her started. Even the runner, working through an injury, finding joy in just running a mile again.

It helps to remember why you’re doing something in the first place.

Go back.

Heather Girl

When my novel Heather Girl is made into a major motion picture starring Amy Adams, this is the song that will play as the opening credits roll and Heather walks down the street to the coffee shop, the wind whipping through her hair. Credit to my cousin, Joe Clatworthy, who wrote the song and recorded it as a member of the group The Muffetts, though they were also known as The Mojos.

lost in a room

An excerpt from my novel, Heather Girl.  If you’re new, here’s the backstory.  Heather’s elderly father has been paroled from prison in Texas where he’s been serving a sentence for the murder of her mother. He’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and through a series of unexpected events, he’s staying with Heather until she can make other arrangements. Her brother has died and a friend of her father’s from prison, Darnell, aka Booger, has come to visit.  In this scene, about two-thirds through the novel, Heather, who has her own serious health issues, has taken a nasty fall in the garage of her home, where she found one of her mother’s private journals.


She stood, lightheaded at first, but quickly steadied herself. She tried to move her right arm, but again the pain was unbearable. She knew it was broken. She reached behind her head and felt the knot, then traced the trail of blood down her neck and onto her shirt. The bleeding had stopped, but there had been so much. She would likely need stitches.

She picked up the journal, made her way to the garage door and headed back to the house. The kitchen light was still on. Through the window she saw her father and Booger sitting at the kitchen table, Booger talking, always talking, her father listening but not likely hearing a word he was saying, lost in a room of his own imagination, where the past is the present and the present is whatever he wants it to be and the future is not something to be considered. Booger’s cowboy hat sat on the back of his head as he leaned away from the table, lost in a room of his own imagination, where the past is the past and the present is the prelude to a future of grand possibilities. At that moment, with her very real pain of the present and the haunting anguish of the past and a future dark and bleak, she envied the childlike simplicity of their existence and couldn’t quell the contempt that was borne of jealousy and self-pity.

“Idiots.”

She opened the door and went inside.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl.

truth in fiction

“The consolation of imaginary things

is not imaginary consolation.”

— Roger Scruton

Writing Tip: Tinker

I’ve been writing stories and novels for many years and have used various techniques for moving through the process of cranking out 80,000 words. To do something like that, you can’t afford to get stuck very often.  Yet it happens, particularly when you’re in the beginnings of a new scene that hasn’t quite found its rhythm yet.

This morning I sat down to work on my story about Heather and did what I always do. I read a few paragraphs – maybe even a few pages – of what I wrote yesterday, just to get back into the flow of the scene. As I did, I started tinkering with word choices and the phrasing of sentences. Nothing really creative, just basic editing. Then I reached the end of what I had written previously.

I wish I could tell you that new sentences sprang forth and before I knew it, I had knocked out another 1,000 words.

No.

So I went back and tinkered some more.

Here’s the thing. As you tinker, things are happening that you don’t realize. Your writing skills are improving, but more importantly, thoughts are forming in your subconscious. You’re working harder and more effectively than you realize. After two or three sessions of tinkering, the next new sentence will appear. Followed by another. Or a new twist to the story may present itself. And maybe an hour later, you’ve added 500 words.

Tinkering is better than staring at the screen, doing nothing, letting the hopelessness take over. It can be a very produtive exercise.

It works for writing. It works for painting. It works for running. It probably works for whatever you’re dong.

So tinker, my friends. Go forth and tinker.

 

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily in his trousers and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved into a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

Two mutes?  You mean two people who can’t talk? Mute sounds old-fashioned and maybe even offensive. McCullers published her novel in 1940 when there was less awareness of such sensibilities. In modern medicine the inability to speak or use verbal language skills is called aphasia. Nonetheless, the town had two aphasics. In my entire life, I have never met an aphasic. And for a small town to have two aphasics would be very unusual.

McCullers continues in a Joe Friday kind of way. Just the facts, ma’am. No purple prose here. It’s so straightforward it almost seems like the start of a middle-schooler’s short story.

The two friends were very different.

First, we learn about the obese and dreamy Greek.  He’s kind of a pitiful character. A little slovenly. Half-closed eyelids. Lips the curved into a gentle, stupid smile.

Wait a minute. Gentle, I can accept. A gentle giant with a kind smile. But no, McCullers throws one high and tight when we were expecting an off-speed breaking pitch. His smile was stupid.  No way around this one. Stupid is offensive. I suspect that McCullers didn’t go around calling people stupid just because of how they looked. But she’s very much aware of human nature. She knows that her readers – meaning all of us – can’t help but to make these kinds of judgments, even if we are polite enough to keep it to ourselves. So when she says his smile was stupid, she knows we’ll get it. She doesn’t want us to like this guy.

The other guy is tall. Ok. He seems intelligent, just by the way he looks. Another unfair generalization that we make all the time.

He’s immaculate and soberly dressed. This tells us a lot. He may not have any control of his height or the way his face is structured, but he can sure control how he dresses. And he cares about his appearance. He’s not flashy or fashionable, just immaculate.

He’s friends with his opposite. Sure, the fact that they’re both mutes has something to do with their friendship, but you get the feeling that the tall guy has befriended the dreamy Greek because the dreamy Greek needs a friend. So we like this guy. All of this in the first paragraph.

Two mutes. Two friends. Always together. But very, very different.

Where is this going?

Very simple language. Very simple descriptions. And with that, an undercurrent of tension that compels the reader to turn the page.

Another strong beginning.

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