Monday, November 19, 2012

You can't fight City Hall, but you can annoy it a little

I’ve been to a lot of town council meetings. Some are interesting. Most are not.

But I do find town councils interesting in general, just in a how-things-work kind of way. How things work currently is to ask the federal and state governments for money.

(This is not the interesting part. This is the depressing part. Regardless of where you stand politically, it’s depressing to think that towns used to be able to have things like sidewalks and stoplights on their own dime and now they can’t.)

What’s interesting is all the bits that still work the way they’re supposed to. How the police department connects to the fire department which needs the help of the water department which of course is tied to the sewer department and on and on and on. Tab A goes in slot B and then you wind it up and hey presto! A town!

Even more interesting than that, of course, are the bits that don’t work at all. Pieces of property that either belong to Mrs. Jones or Mr. Smith or the Blessed Church of Apollo the Redeemer which moved to Samoa in 1978 and then dropped off the face of the earth, or maybe it’s actually the city’s right-of-way, depending on which deed you’re reading. The council members are very sympathetic (“We absolutely understand your position, Mrs. Jones, and I’m sure if you hire a lawyer you can get an injunction against Mr. Smith’s emu coop, at least temporarily), but they have no idea what to do. The city attorney helpfully explains that legally, it looks like all parties have an equal claim but the city will have to put a $20,000 sidewalk on the right-of-way to establish theirs because that’s the way the land grant is written.

Public hearings are not remotely interesting, but they can be entertaining. I have a theory: A helpful public discussion can be conducted by as many as ten people. Get above that number, and it becomes necessary for each question to be asked by at least three people (because they weren’t paying attention when the other guy asked it). Go up to say, 20, and the first question will be asked at least five times, each time more emotionally than the last.

This is exponentially more true of radio call-in shows, which is why I cannot listen to them.

So why am I telling you this? Oh yeah, I’m a journalist again. Sort of. A little bit.

I gave up reporting a couple of years ago because it seemed impossible to write hard news all day and then try to switch to fiction at night. And initially I think this was true. I needed a break from my old life to change gears and learn a new trade. I’m still learning, but I have enough momentum now that I think I can try to combine the two.

And I really can’t do anything else to earn a living (I really, really can’t—I know all writers say that, but for me it’s true), so here I am. At the town council meeting.

They’re voting about dog poo today. After the budget hearing.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Formula 1 Fiction

So, there is the plot that naturally evolves, and there is the formula. And then there is the well-crafted plot that holds your attention yet never seems forced and that, it is to be assumed, lies somewhere in between.

I am struggling with plot just now. You read over things, and it’s obvious where the holes are. Where there is an element that should have been introduced earlier. Where things just ramble all over the place for no particular reason and you think seriously, people, do you think you’re living real life here? You’re fictional characters. Make with the snappy dialogue and steady, intriguing character development.

So, if element A needs to be introduced in chapter 2 so that it has more impact when its big moment comes in chapter 6, that means writing a new scene specifically for element A, which now means it takes us forever to get to element B and besides, the new scene is horrible, forced, the poor characters mumble their dialogue woodenly as though I’ve kidnapped them and forced them to read a script so everything looks natural even though they’ve got bombs strapped to their chests and of course, metaphorically speaking, I have.

But the new scene is essential. We need it for chapter 6. Because chapter 6 is just so sudden, and there’s much too much exposition there.

So I write it. I hope at some point it will be rewritten into something less stiff. But for now it just sits there, hoping against hope that someone will notice something is wrong and call 911. Although maybe it would be better to just go along with the kidnapper’s wishes and hope it all works out.


Seriously—it’s like these people haven’t even met me.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Primrose went like this: You arrived along a country highway, winding mostly through pine forest with the occasional hayfield, and turned in at the driveway on the right. The first driveway. You could also come by the second driveway, the other end of the road, but then you would have to circle way back around to our house, across the dam where the frogs hopped in the headlights at night and through the cattails at the end, and it would take forever.

Our house was the first house, on the left. On the right was the garden, which everyone shared. The garden, which will make an appearance later, had poor soil. I’m not sure why this was my problem, I was four.

If you went on past our house (which you should, I don’t like when grownups come to visit mommy and daddy, everything feels weird until they leave), you would pass by the apple trees on the left and then the weedy bit of the garden on the right, where daddy dug up Jerusalem artichokes to make into the best of the homemade pickles and also where he picked dockweed seeds to feed the gerbils that I didn’t know were going to be my Christmas present, even though I helped pick the seeds.

(Pickled carrots were the second best homemade pickles. The pickled cucumbers were, to be frank, mushy, funny-tasting and in all respects inferior to real, store-bought pickles. Let’s not even discuss the green tomatoes.)

(The fact that they bought a pair of young gerbils but failed to pick up any rodent-friendly seed mix tells you everything you need to know about my parents.)

The loop keeps curving left, around the dumpster, where Elizabeth sent me clambering around the bags of garbage to find junk food that her mother wouldn't buy for her, and the big house where that really annoying girl lives, the one who’s really, really young (six months younger than me AT LEAST) and doesn’t know how to do anything and TOLD when I was chewing gum even though I wasn’t supposed to without supervision and then you will come to the pond.

The pond is more or less the center of everything. Not of the houses—most of the houses in Primrose are down a little side driveway that cuts off from the loop directly opposite the pond. But the pond is the center of life. It is where every Primrose child spends every waking moment of every summer, at least when there is an adult available to lifeguard. If you were lucky enough to live within sight of the beach with the tree and the rope swing that I couldn’t reach without help (people should really loop it up in the tree when they’re done with it—I would only use it a little bit when no one was there, and I totally would not drop into the water because I know that’s not safe), then you could quickly see that there are people there and be down in the water as soon you figure out the weird straps on your bathing suit.

But sometimes, you might head down to the red clay beach and discover that people are not swimming, they are fishing.

The people at the end of the drive are very into fishing. Not the people at the very end—they’re the ones who are Jewish and attempted to explain about dreidels, although not very successfully—or the house in the woods, that’s Elizabeth’s—the people right on the road with the big porch. They’re very into fishing. If you walk by their house on the way to Elizabeth’s and they’re out on the porch cleaning fishing things, they might give you a cool rubber worm that looks like a gummy worm but with better colors and is sparkly. I am fairly certain mine was the only neighborhood in North Carolina, if not the entire United States, in which all pre-kindergarten children had a collection of rubber bait worms in their toy boxes. There was a fair amount of competition over who had the brightest, most sparkly worms.

Some of them smelled like fish or something rotten. That was kind of weird.

Sometimes the people who were very into fishing would sit on the red clay beach and fish. More often, I believe, they went elsewhere to pursue their hobby—the pond produced an unimpressive catch. But they used the local water to keep their hand in, and they would bring extra rods for any kids who happened to be around.

And, while it was still a disappointment to find everyone At The Pond but Not Swimming, fishing turned out to be fun. You threw your rubber worm in (an ugly one—do not use your best worms, then Elizabeth will say hers are more neon and awesome than yours and she will be right, as she is about most things), and in a few minutes, out came a fish, all wriggly and silver. Then you took it to the lady who was really into fishing, and she would exclaim, and praise, and take it off the hook. Then you threw it back.

Fishing was fun.

One day, when we were all fishing, our instructors said something very strange: The very next person to catch a fish would not get to throw it back. The next fish caught would be taken up to the garden and buried to fertilize the soil.

There was something wrong with the soil in the garden. It wasn’t good for the plants. Dead fish, however, are very good for plants. I don’t know exactly how they managed to communicate this to a dozen small children, but in the end it was understood.

So: We were going to kill a fish.

I did not want to kill a fish. I also didn’t want to stop fishing. Fishing was fun. They were all shiny, and they wriggled.

Being an unusually analytical child, I decided to do the math. There were—one, two, three, six, man this crowd can’t keep still—a lot of kids there. A lot of hooks in the water. The odds of MY hook catching the very next fish were, well, you might as well talk about getting hit by lightning, amiright? And my line was already baited and I had cast all by myself and everything. So I kept fishing.

And I caught a fish.

It bit really quickly, and it was a big one, big as both my hands.

I thought, maybe, maybe they weren’t serious. Maybe they’ll let me throw this one back.

And maybe they would have, if I had protested and cried, but at the time I had this life philosophy that if I never opened my mouth in the presence of anyone who was not my parents it would exponentially increase my chances of surviving the many terrors of the universe, so I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything.

I was also opposed to facial expressions, and most eye contact.

The lady who was very into fishing took my fish off the hook and strung a bit of fishing line through one of its gills and gave it back to me.

Go up to the garden, she said, dig a hole in one of the beds, and bury the fish in it.

So I held on to my little loop of fishing line and left, swinging my fish beside me. I walked up the hill behind the red clay beach. After my back was turned and I was past the rope-swing tree, I cried.

I cried as I went past the big house where the really annoying girl lived. I cried as I went through the apple trees, and past the dumpster.

I cried across the driveway, and through the weeds where daddy dug Jerusalem artichokes. I cried as I randomly picked out one of the raised vegetable beds and shoved some of the mulch aside. I cried as I laid my fish, my big fish that was as big as both my hands, on the dirt, and pushed some leaves back over it.

Then I went home.

After that day, when everyone was at the pond fishing, I just sort of wandered around, looking at my feet, checking the apples on the trees (they were always green, except that one time when there was a red one, and after I showed it to Elizabeth she ate it), wandering down the hill to see if Elizabeth was home and maybe we could play with her rabbit.

Once, I watched a hawk battle a black snake between the bushes in front of the annoying girl’s house. The hawk stood on the grass and kept trying to pounce. The snake stayed coiled just like a snake in the movies and struck, and nobody down at the beach got to see it.

But mostly I just wandered and studied the grass.

I’m pretty sure I never spoke to the couple who were really into fishing again, although they may not have noticed, since technically I did not speak to them in the first place. After the new baby was born we moved away, and I didn’t see everyone anymore, except Elizabeth, whose mom brought her to visit a couple of times.

Also, one time I got to go visit her, at her new house on the lake with the thick weeds that caught between your toes when you went swimming and the neighbor’s pitbull who kept us trapped on the trampoline by circling around and looking scary.

But that’s an entirely different story.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dan Harmon on the basics

Dan Harmon is posting interesting things about plot and whatnot at

Story Structure 101
Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we'd naturally do. ....

  1. . A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. . But they want something.
  3. . They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. . Adapt to it,
  5. . Get what they wanted,
  6. . Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. . Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. . Having changed.

Read the whole thing.