Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Only Hat I'd Rather Wear Than "Writer"... Grandpa. Today is Sunday, and Sunday is my favorite day of the week, usually, but today I'm recovering from (remembering fondly) our annual summer cyclone of kids. Our six Daniel grandchildren (Hannah, Justin, Meili; Mimi, Nellie, William), plus their parents Morgan and Vivian; Ben and Anne. And a new member this year, Tyler, Hannah's fiancee.

Anyhow, this Sunday, this writer is taking the day off.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Author as Proud Papa-To-Be

I have just finished reading an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of my next book, Behind the Redwood Door, forthcoming from Oak Tree Press on November 22, 2011.
I am pleased.
I’m pleased with what a good-looking novel this book is. I haven’t seen the cover design yet, but the design of the text pages is elegant. Somebody named Linda Rigsbee designed the text with care and talent.
I am pleased.
I’m pleased with the story. This is a novel full of big issues—sibling rivalry, a multi-generational family feud, a newspaper war, small-town politics and corruption, and ethnic conflict. But it’s also a novel of love and humor, populated by fleshed-out people who are lovable, detestable, wise, dumb, annoying, and amusing.
Who just said all that? The author, of course. This novel’s biggest fan.
Why do I like this book so much, aside from being its parent? Well, for one reason, Behind the Redwood Door takes place on the North Coast of California, up in Redwood Country, not far from Oregon. This is where Susan and I have lived for the past eight years. The town and the county of the novel are fictitious, but the scenery and the weather are real. The interludes of historical background are fictitious, too, with such fictitious themes as mistreatment of the Native population and exploitation of the land’s natural riches.
This book is the third, and final, Guy Mallon mystery. I think it’s the best of the three. The first Guy Mallon book, The Poet’s Funeral, was a frothy send-up of the publishing industry in general, set at the 1990 ABA convention in Las Vegas. The second, Vanity Fire, was a darker, Faustian tale of how even a small-press publisher in beautiful Santa Barbara can risk his soul.
This new one, Behind the Redwood Door, set in 1999, is about the same man—feisty, pint-sized Guy Mallon—who has given up publishing, has moved to the quaint and quiet, lovely and rugged North Coast, but still hasn’t learned not to step into steaming piles of trouble. Since this book doesn’t involve the book publishing business, it can and will be read as a standalone novel.
The Redwood Door won’t be coming out for another four months. Don’t worry, if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’ll be hearing from me again when the book is published.
This is just my chance to share a bit of my pride and pleasure during the publication process. Oak Tree Press has been a pleasure to work with, I’m learning how to be less shy when it comes to promoting my writing, and I want to share with you my pride and my pleasure.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

MAKE 'EM LAUGH, MAKE 'EM CRY: How to Write a Funny Short Story

Okay. Lessee. Okay. A guy slips on a banana peel and falls on his butt. No, wait. The guy's all dressed up, on his way to the career interview of a lifetime, and he slips on a banana peel and falls in a steaming pile of dog feces. Make that cat feces.

Did you hear the one about the man who was so poor he was reduced to eating his own shoes?

How about the woman who reads someone else's mail by accident, misunderstands, and thinks the man she loves is two-timing her. It breaks her heart.

This working-class married couple lives in an apartment in New York. They yell at each other constantly. Their best friends are neighbors, a couple that also yells at each other. Sometimes the two couples get together and they yell at each other. By the way, one of the men is obese, and both of the men frequently threaten their wives with violence.

So this salesman runs out of gas on a country road. A farmer takes him in for the night, but the salesman abuses the farmer's hospitality by seducing the farmer's teen-aged daughter, making her pregnant and ruining her life. The farmer forces the two strangers to get married at gunpoint, thereby ruining both of their lives.

There's this starving coyote, see. His prey eludes him and he accidently runs off a cliff and falls thousands of feet to the rocks below.

A nice Italian or maybe Jewish or maybe both fruit vender is minding his own business when a gangster, a yuppie, and a cop all bash their cars into his pushcart, destroying his inventory and scattering all the money he's earned that week.

A homeless drunk needs to urinate so bad that he.



That stuff isn't funny.

Maybe I'm not telling it right. People have been laughing at this material forever.

It's not funny. It's sad.

I didn't say it wasn't sad. What do you think humor is, anyway?

Humor comes from sorrow, suffering, pain, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Why is it all the Warner Brothers cartoon characters have speech impediments? What's funny about speech impediments? I don't know either, but those voices make us laugh. And speaking of cartoons, check out the topics covered by the comics in today's paper. An average day might serve up unruly children, meddlesome parents, nagging wives, boring husbands, divorce, overeating, poverty, taxes, crime, political corruption, sexual harrassment, job stress, school stress, traffic accidents, sports accidents, phobias of all kinds, greed, jealousy, illnesses ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer's Disease, and many different kinds of death, from shipwrecks to the electric chair. For starters. Real thigh-slappers.

There are two reasons not to be surprised that funny short stories originate in pain. First, good short stories must have conflict. Second, good short stories are about life, and life is full of pain. The Buddhists are right: the human condition is full of suffering.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that we have humor to help us carry the load. In fact, the humor can carry the load for us. Got a problem? Turn it into a joke. Why do so many overweight people, of all ages, laugh so much?

If suffering is essential to humor, so is surprise. Another word for surprise, when we're talking about skillful writing, is irony. Irony is a one-two punch. A good cop/bad cop routine. You set your reader up gently to expect one thing, and then pow. This device can work wonders at the sentence level, with twists of phrase that leave the reader reeling and rolling. Irony is even more important at the plot level, with events seeming to lead in one direction and ending up in another. Irony in a plot often involves the concept of karma or so-called poetic justice.

Another essential quality of good short fiction is originality: the humor has to be fresh. It's true that there are only a certain number of jokes in the world, and they've all been told before, but there is an endless source of fresh humor in our imaginations. Even when we deal with familiar ideas, we can be original.

Another essential ingredient of successful humorous short stories is intelligence. That should go without saying, but there's so much dumb humor in our culture, even dumb humor that's funny, that I make a special point of requiring intelligence before I'll call a short story good. It can't trade on its humor alone; it has to engage the brain, not just the funny bone. The story must be, on some level, about something that matters. Obviously a story is first and foremost a story, and its first job is to entertain. This is especially true of humorous stories. But if you don't give the reader something to think about, your story won't last in the memory any longer than a comic strip or a sitcom.

Finally, of course, a good humorous story requires style in spades. Why is it that all the jokes I told at the beginning of this chapter introduction fell flat? No style. Zippo. Dullsville.

Everyone knows that the joke itself is only half the reason we laugh at a good comedian-if that. At least as important is the delivery. To tell a good joke you have to love language and practice daily all the many magic tricks you can do with it.

Become a magician and make your readers laugh so hard they hardly notice that they're crying as well.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Joy of Story: Some Writing Exercises

• Write a story based on one of the following archetypes: “Cinderella,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Cain and Abel,” “The Prodigal Son,” “The Myth of Sisyphus,” or “Pandora’s Box.” You may write from any point of view, and set the story in any time frame. Write from your own life.

Extra Credit: Write a story based on more than one archetpe at the same time.

• Write a story with the following theme: The most important thing I learned when I was young, before I knew any better.

Imagine a special place you like to go, a place that has much meaning for you. Write a story about going to that place, and being surprised to find someone there whom you haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Write a story with the following theme: Yesterday it all made sense.

Extra Credit: Do it in 99 words.

Think of something you feel strongly about an opinion that defines who you are—or who you are not—(vegan, pacifist, tea party member, hater of cell phones, facebook junkie, kayaker). Why is it important? Sell your reader on this. When did this idea come to you, and did that change your life? Show (don't tell) this in the context of a story.

• Write a story with the following title or first line: "I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone."

• Write a story about a childhood humiliation or triumph. How did it change you? Do you still dream about the experience, and if so, does the memory affect your behavior and your choices?

Write a story with this opening line: “When my mother told me, ‘That’s just the way it is, dear, so you’d better just get used to it,’ I finally said aloud the one word I had never said to her before.

• Write a story about an argument you had, but write it from the other person’s point of view.

Extra Credit: write this story (or any story) in words of one syllable.

• Write a Story about how you once stood up to authority. If you didn’t actually stand up to authority, but wish you had, write the story as if you had.

• Write a letter to a child of the future. Tell that child a story about a lesson you learned the hard way, so the child won’t make the same mistake.

• Tell the story of the most important choice you ever made.

•Write a story that starts with, or ends with, this sentence: “‘Get your hand off my knee,’ said the Duchess, as she stared reflectively into the fire.”

• Write a story that starts with, or ends with, this sentence: “‘Are you trying to tell me,’ my best friend said, squinting to hold back the tears, ‘that you never even met this person before?’”

• Write a story that opens like this: “Trick or treat!” the little devils shouted.
  I cackled. “Come inside, my precious morsels,” I told them. “I have something special for you!”

• Write a story with the following first line: “We’d been living together two months before he took a deep breath and said, ‘Um, if it’s all the same to you, do you suppose we could keep the glasses in the cupboard right-side-up instead of up-side-down?’”

• Write a story about an event that happened while you were traveling with the person you loved. How did that trip change you, or change the other person, or change the relationship?

Extra credit: Write the story entirely in dialogue.

•Write a story with this first line: “We stood on the bridge at midnight, as the clocks were striking the hour.”

Make up a story about a fight or argument that changed or threatened to end your relationship with your best friend.

• Make up a story about a relationship that changed your definition of the word “Love.”