It’s Shaped Like A Hook For A Reason

Read this. And don’t whine about the bad language. It’s Chuck Wendig. And you’re over 18, so you can handle it.

Read it? Good. It’s the most brilliant piece of writing advice I’ve read in years. How about that? The question mark is shaped like a hook. I’ve been taking some short stories I had drafted and subjected them to this treatment. What an eye opener. The sequel to “Highway 101” and “Bad History” that I wanted to write? Works so much better. Here’s how…

Question markTony Bolin is sitting in a rundown apartment alone.
He’s waiting for Roger.
Who is Roger?
Roger’s brother Sam died a month ago.
Bolin killed him.
How come?

I can have that written in about 500 words. There’s about two pages of that which culminates in a rather abrupt (but dramatic) ending.

Would this work on a novel? Probably not. A novel is a little more involved, but it could work as a first step, once you have a firm idea for the story. Then you can do the outline for real.

It’s now a permanent part of my writing routine.


Five Cylinders All Mine!

Northland VW in Cincinnati, Greta’s previous owner

Six years ago, my late father’s venerable Ford Taurus, dubbed “The Wintermobile” ran afoul of a common Ford ailment. It stripped a spark plug and sucked it into the engine. After an expensive and aborted attempt to replace the motor (which my brother eventually succeeded doing), I punted and bought another car. As this was the first time gas had hit $4/gallon, I went cheap and lightweight, buying a 2005 Dodge Neon.


It wasn’t a bad little car, easy on gas. But at the same time, it had a balky transmission and loose motor mounts. At 105,000 miles, it was pretty clear Mercedes had no freaking clue how to build an American car as the Neon began rattling and blowing minor parts. After blowing two sensors in a month (including a camshaft sensor I’d had replaced last year), I decided it was time for The Princess to either take Grandma to the grocery store or finish its life with the punishing duty of pizza delivery car. So about five minutes after my mechanic called to say the car was done (and remind me the water pump was on its last legs), a ad popped up on the Weather Channel site. One of the cars was a 2011 Jetta with 30,000 miles and the right price. I clicked on it, looked it over, and shot the dealer an email saying I wanted to look at it.

They called me by 6:30. I was at the VW dealership by 6:45. By 8:30, I owned the car, and The Princess was ready to be towed to auction. (The cheapest car on the lot was a 2005 Toyota Corolla that, despite the high miles, looked pretty clean. This dealer does not screw around.)

This was fast. But then the car was certified, so essentially, I benefited from VW’s sign and drive. That was not my first experience buying a car through the dealer. That honor went to a local dealer I’ll dub Irish Bastard Motors, or “IBM.” (Sorry, Big Blue.) IBM tried to sell me a 1988 Dodge Spirit that listed CV joints among the items that still needed repaired. My sales rep wanted to send me to buy the car as-is. I said I’d drive it off the lot as soon as they fixed the CV joints. The repair job would have been three times my car payment. They balked. I made them sell me a Camry. A month later, they told me the car was in an accident. I said that’s great, the transmission went out. By then, I learned you don’t buy a car, even a Toyota, with over 100,000 miles on it from a dealer. Strangely, one of IBM’s main dealerships is a BMW store.

A few years later, I went to IBM’s main competitor and bought a 98 Chevy Cavalier. They kept me at the dealership for six hours after promising me I would not miss work that day. I would not have minded getting screwed on the financing had they bothered to use lube.

So I vowed never to do business with either of those dealerships again. The Princess came from Hyundai dealer with a better rep. It helped that I walked in with a down payment, had pointed out the car I wanted, and made a counter-offer that suggested I wanted to save a buck, but without the delusion that I could get the car 25% under wholesale. I’ve seen too many people go in spoiling for a fight and come out without a car (or driving the 88 Yugo when they were going for a brand new Audi.)

Car buying has changed much since I bought that first car 21 years ago. The hard sell is a good way to chase customers off the lot, especially since the more daring auto buyer can go online and just order the car for delivery. Car Fax reports are almost mandatory now if a dealer hopes to move a car off the lot. When I bought the Cavalier, I demanded a Car Fax report several times before going home and ponying up $20 for one. Now?

“Would you like to see the Car Fax report?”

I’d already read it online.

They quoted me a payment based on VW’s best interest rate (short of 0%.) That was the one panic moment I had. Had my credit recovered from the layoff three years earlier? “Um… Can we go longer if you get some bad news?” I got some bad news. They couldn’t give the original interest rate, so my payment was $5 more than originally quoted. On the upside, Nita and I have matching car payments. When I mentioned that her bank couldn’t get her as good a rate as VW, the finance guy actually high-fived me. (Um… My wife reads this, doesn’t she? Er… Prank caller! Prank caller!)

So, the car? As the caption above reads, she’s been dubbed “Greta.” Yes, I know that rhymes with “Jetta,” but that wasn’t why I picked the name. Greta is a German name, and this is my first German car. Essentially, a Volkswagen is an Audi is a Porsche, which have all owned each other at various times since the 1930’s. Dr. Porsche was that rare German engineer who, while adhering to the German obsession with precision car-building, had this odd idea that cars eventually breakdown, and that it might be nice if a mechanic could fix the car by yanking out a part and putting in its replacement. Gee, that sounds like…

American cars. Japanese cars. Korean cars. Yes, GM and Chrysler still need to learn Statistic Process Control (Huh? That’s the thing that makes Japanese cars put more miles on them than the average Apollo command module.). However, I’ve known people who keep their more expensive German machines over 100,000 miles only to discover that it’s easier to replace the space shuttle than to find out what broke on their Beamer or their Benz. Yes, kids, we Americans like to drive cars a really long time. Why? Even the cheap ones are expensive.

But Greta handles like an Audi Quattro (I’ve been able to drive a couple over the years. Sweet cars.) She also has more room than any car I’ve owned except the Wintermobile. And speaking of Audi, Greta sports a five cylinder engine, which gives me V6 power with 4-cylinder mileage. But I know what you’re asking. What about the most important part of the car?

How’s the sound system?

I took Nita and AJ out for a spin last night. (They all want to drive Greta. AJ informed me he’s taking it to Western New York this fall. Hmm…) AJ cranked the sound system up and was able to adjust the sound to his liking quickly. (I had to reset it this morning.) Nita felt the music. Oh, yes. We will be blasting Zeppelin this summer.

A lot.

What about The Princess? Do I miss it?

Not really. It handled sloppy and was a bit underpowered. She did her job, but in the end, she was a needy car that looked sporty but drove like a Pinto. I’m glad I had it when I did, but I really don’t miss it.

Besides, I can plug my iPod into Greta. And isn’t that the only reason to buy a car?

Friday Reviews: How To Read And Why by Harold Bloom

How to Read and Why

Harold Bloom

I admit I came into this book with some trepidation. Bloom has a reputation for being rather pompous. He spent a considerable amount of time in the aughties railing on Stephen King and bemoaning the popularity of the Harry Potter series. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I don’t really like people who spend a lot of energy being against something. It’s like the peace movement in the sixties. You only really remember John Lennon anymore because Lennon wasn’t really against anything. He was for peace. His friends, the radicals who befriended him when he came to America? They were against… Well… Everything. It’s why political movements usually fizzle out. No one wants to listen to you whine when you have no plan to do something about a problem.

Which brings me back to Harold Bloom, who spent a lot of time being against Stephen King for writing about monsters while he examined modern American life. And he didn’t like JK Rowling’s “style” in the Potter books. (In Bloom’s defense, neither did I. I listened to them on audio, which made for some great listening and let me into the stories much better.) But how did he get into a position to where he could rile people up? He isn’t the only tenured English professor at Yale or NYU, schools where he taught for decades. Why don’t we care what they say?

Because, my friends, Harold Bloom wrote some books about literature. And these books are about what Harold Bloom is for. So if you want to get someone’s attention and convince them to your point of view, tell them what you’re for. Maybe this should be required training for aspiring politicians. (That breathing sound you hear is me not holding my breath.)

Bloom introduces his book by telling us he is approaching 70 (He is now well into his 80’s), and doesn’t have time for subpar work. Never mind what he finds to be subpar. Ain’t nobody got time for that, including an eldery literature professor. Instead, he divides his book up into five sections: Short stories, poems, novels – part 1, plays, and novels – part 2. This is not an academic treatise, though it does have an academic flavor. No, this is a personal work. These are works that have resonated with Bloom, and he tells you why. Most modern literature, he posits, ties back to Shakespeare, though some of it, particularly short stories, owe more to Chekhov. Even poetry seems to flow from Shakespeare, and Bloom did something I had no idea was possible: Make me interested in Milton. I never liked Milton simply because he was a Puritan, a philosophy I never really cottoned to even as the child of Evangelicals. But Milton’s Satan, Bloom points out, is a rebel and truly the hero of Paradise Lost. Oh, the real Satan, for believers, is evil, but this explains why, and it shows why Old Scratch as a character is so appealing in even the cheapest of our entertainment. Milton was a subversive, and I am all about the subversive.

What really makes this personal is the final section on novels. He includes two African-American authors: Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Morrison, he says, he cannot form a final opinion on because she is still working. Ellison, on the other hand, is the one writer in the entire book that Bloom knew personally. He relates a couple of discussions with the late author of The Invisible Man near the end of the book. Interestingly, he explains how Ellison had no black authors to draw from as white authors do from their European roots. Ellison’s Invisible Man is, by the author’s own admission, the spiritual descendent of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And Bloom asserts that Melville, rather than Twain or Hawthorne (both cited as literary heroes by Bloom, but not examined), as the father of the American novel.

For me, How to Read and Why, opens up a treasure trove of work I might not have looked at before. I am, of course, an unabashed fan of Shakespeare and Hemingway. I’ve shied away from Dostoevsky for the sheer maddening length of many classic Russian novels. But poetry has always seemed a closed book to me. As much as I love music and even took a class dissecting those modern poets, The Beatles, as well as doing the same to the Rolling Stones on my own, verse has always remained elusive to me. I’ve written maybe two poems in my adult life, both to my wife when we were dating. (And those are best kept between us.) But learning how to break down a poem and put it back together in context (any context, not just the poet’s) is something that’s come to me late in life.

And that is why people get worked up over Harold Bloom. He started out talking about what he loves.

Just Don’t Do It

computer typing signWhen I rewrote Holland Bay, I put the thing away for a couple of months, then took it out again, giving it a thorough going over. Now it’s a proofread away from bestsellerdom. Right?

Eh, no. I put the thing away last July, started on the SF novel, and completely forgot about it. It’s been with someone with whom I’m trading edits since then, and I’ve had to explain to him that no, I don’t want to even know it exists right now. “But this scene on page 15…”


And I’m discovering the wisdom of that all over again. I took out Holland Bay after giving the SF novel a thorough read-thru and putting it away. This time, I printed it out and took a red pen to it. Thankfully, I can look at this thing as a manuscript and not [*Gasp!*] my baby! Which is good, because whole paragraphs are getting excised as I go through this again. Not sure what to expect from my edit when it’s returned, but yes, Holland Bay is going to take a little more work.
I had this experience with Bad Religion. My publisher imploded during the beta process, so the red ink I got back sat in a file cabinet gathering dust. A couple of things happened. One, I was able to see the story as a story and not something I birthed. Second, since I used three betas, I would get stressed out over conflicting suggesting or stylistic comments that just did not sit right with me. Now I had enough sense of myself as a writer to say no if something did not sound right, and I also had enough confidence to find changes that would work if the feedback sounded off. Why didn’t this work for this particular reader? Would someone else have the same or a similar problem? If the suggestion doesn’t work either, could there be another way to make it better.
Time has a way of divorcing you from your work. In the brave new world where self-publishing is a viable option but the one-book-a-year quota still exists in traditional publishing, the best way to do that is to go to work on something else. In my case, I went from Holland Bay to space opera aimed at the YA market. The Hunger Games is nothing like The Wire, which should give you a picture of how these projects differ. In Holland Bay, I made up a city that looks very much like your city and mine. In the SF project, I made up a whole world that looks just like Earth, only it doesn’t. One has a gritty, violent setting populated by people you know, or similar to people you know. They’re all morally ambiguous, and good and evil are not so clear cut. The other has character types you may know, but the conflict is clear: People from the sky want to take away land from people on the ground. It’s more complex than that, and the main villain of that story is human, but the end result is the same. The good guys wear white hats, the bad guys black, just like the old westerns. (Just without the inherent racism toward Indians.)
As a result, Holland Bay is a long novel about cops and drug gangs, and none of them are what you expect them to be. That line I thought was so clever last summer gets cut. A paragraph gets rearranged. A scene gets flagged for complete rewrite. And it doesn’t hurt a bit.
But a writer needs to step away from their work despite the temptation to get out there with it and push push push! They say you need to be prolific to succeed, but you don’t have to be prolific now. Better to be prolific and good instead of prolific just to be prolific. For those of you going the indie route, everyone from JA Konrath, who is self-publishing zealot defined, to Dean Wesley Smith will tell you that you need to have a good story before anyone will buy your stuff. Otherwise, you’re just wasting paper and storage space.
And the reader’s time.