Saturday, August 27, 2011

This Was A Mistake

I was stumbling through the Web when I landed on a blog on Tumbler. It was an interesting blog written by a 17-year-old entitled “The Frustrations of Being A Writer”. It had some astute observations, coming from such a young source, although I had to smile at the phrase “during the first couple years of my career”. Still, I enjoyed reading the blog, so I started exploring other blogs on Tumbler and came across this:

I landed on a blog that had only one post: “This was a mistake.” As a writer, I recognized the power of those four words. Dozens of potential stories popped into my mind, all beginning with those four words:

“This was a mistake,” he thought, as he pushed the red button, launching the missiles. “It had to be a mistake.” But his orders had been clear. Thinking was outside his pay grade.

“This was a mistake.” She stared at the gun in her hand and watched the blood envelop her shoe.

“This was a mistake,” she said, gathering her discarded clothes.

“This was a mistake,” the renowned scientist said, but it was too late to turn back. The experiment had begun.

“This was a mistake.” He looked down at her and wished he could take back the last 10 minutes of his life.

And so it goes. That’s how we writers think. So, I saw the lone blog post and my eyes drifted to the “About” box. “Just a 15-year-old kid that thought maybe he could meet some other teens and make a few net friends.” Fair enough. So how to explain his “This was a mistake” post?

My first explanation was frustration. Maybe he tried to set up a blog and couldn’t get it up and running, and just gave up. Or maybe he had had a blog but deleted all the posts because he didn’t get any followers or, as he phrased it, net friends.”

Then, it occurred to me he might have revealed too much personal information in his blog. “This was a mistake.” Maybe something embarrassing or that should have remained private was posted in an unthinking moment, and that information had now gone viral among his circle of friends and classmates. I thought back to my high school days and tried to imagine how dreadful it would be to be forced to sit in a classroom surrounded by classmates who had read excerpts from my diary the night before. Had he let slip the name of a secret crush or doubts about sexuality, or some admission of a past misdeed?

The writer inside me imagined more scenarios. “This was a mistake.” Had I just read an online suicide note? Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. There are about 11 teen suicides every day. My instinct was to reach out to him, but then I paused. Was I reading too much into his words, attributing a finality to them he never intended? Should I, an adult, even contact a teenager online? Would that be viewed as improper or even creepy? Would I later be saying of my well-meaning intentions, “This was a mistake?” Then, I realized the post was three days old. If it was an online suicide note, it was probably too late.

I checked back a few weeks later. There were no new posts. I hope he just gave up on his blog, and not on his life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One Day

A friend of mine died, I learned today.

She was not the first friend I’ve lost, but her death was made more meaningful by two facts: I had known her a long time and she was my age.

For 18 years, I saw her every day. We had moved into the same building a few doors from each other and although we became neighbors by chance, we soon became friends by choice. She was a single mother, raising a little boy. Occasionally, I would help him with his math homework, or keep him out of trouble. There was a day in particular, I recall, that earned me his ire. He was about 12 and I caught him playing with fireworks behind our building. I confiscated them and he was irate. How dare I take his firecrackers! He had paid for them with his own money! I had no right… I told him he had 10 toes, 10 fingers, and two eyes, and I was ensuring he would still have them at 6pm when he mother got home from work, at which time I would turn his stash of firecrackers over to her and she could give them back to him, if she wished. I did, and she didn’t.

By today’s standards, some parents would have berated me for interfering with their child, but she didn’t. She thanked me. They moved away a few years ago and I lost touch with them. Until today.

Living near someone for 18 years, you might think you’d know all about them, but you’d be wrong. People are multi-faceted and there are always sides you don’t see. One afternoon, shortly before she moved, I saw her holding a sketchbook. I never had an inkling she could draw. She showed me her sketches and they were good. No, they were outstanding. I told her she could have a second career as a children’s book illustrator. She replied she hoped to do it “one day.”

I knew what that meant. When I was a reporter, most of my colleagues were daytime journalists and nocturnal aspiring authors. They all had a novel in their desk drawer they were working on, and had been working on for years, or decades. They all planned to publish it… “one day”.

I’ve had this discussion with a writer-friend. He believes it’s best for writers to wait until they have matured as writers before becoming published authors. He thinks it’s best to keep those novels locked away for 10, 20, or 30 years because (hopefully) a writer’s skill will improve with time, so one should wait and only publish one’s best work.

After he said that, I read Harlan Ellison’s 50-year retrospective short stories collection and was amazed by Ellison’s growth as a writer over a half century. My friend was right: I would be viewed as a better writer if I wrote for the next 50 years and then published only the last 10 years of my oeuvre. The flaw, of course, being that I would be dead by then, long before my work was published. My writing would end up in a desk drawer, eventually discarded; or like my late friend’s wonderful drawings that the world will never see.

When I tell people I’m a writer, they often respond they’re writing a book, too. They plan to publish it, one day. For me, one day is always today. I may be destined to write the Great American Novel “one day”,  but in the meantime I’ll publish what I write, as I write it; for wouldn’t it be a shame if everything I wrote before then were never seen because I had waited, one day, too long?

Rest In Peace, my friend.
No man knows the hour of his death;
Too early or too late?
Premature publication, or might
Posthumous obscurity await?

Friday, August 5, 2011

And So It Goes...

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five when I was in school; but then, I didn’t attend Republic High School. Republic High is in Missouri, the “show me” state, unless what you’re showing is certain literature, in which case I suppose it becomes the don’t show me that! state. You see, the school board there banned  (yes, they still ban books in 2011) the Vonnegut classic, as well as two other books.

Actually, after a vote, the good village elders, oops, I mean school board, decided to let one book slip through. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, an award-winning book about date rape, made the cut because, in the words of School Superintendent Vern Minor, only one page was used to “tastefully” describe the rape.

Now, I have not read Speak, so I cannot say how Ms. Anderson described it, but I have never before heard of any rape described by anyone as “tasteful”. Never.

On the other hand, I have read Slaughterhouse Five. As a reader and future author, it changed the way I (and others) looked at storytelling. Vonnegut’s nonlinear approach was groundbreaking. But, according to Superintendent Minor, “The language is just really, really intense. I don't think it has any place in high school ... I'm not saying it's a bad book.”

Perhaps Superintendent Minor has never overheard Republic high school students talking in the school parking lot, or the locker rooms, or maybe he hasn’t heard the lyrics of the music they listen to, or seen what they watch on HBO. But he’s right about it not being a bad book: Slaughterhouse-Five was ranked 19th on Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. I read it in the 20th century too. Guess those poor Republic High kids are just growing up in the wrong century.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Literary Murder

I was having a writer’s conversation – that’s an arcane term to describe two writers discussing esoteric aspects of their craft, usually in a Denny’s parking lot at 3 a.m., continuing a conversation that began with dinner – and the topic turned to murder.

Literary murder, that is. Killing off one’s characters.

This is often a hard choice for writers. We don’t create our characters; we give birth to them. They become our  children. We rear them and guide them through their fictional lives. The decision to commit filicide – the murder of one’s children – can be as  emotional and conflicting as it is final.

Writers and readers can both develop emotional attachments to fictional characters. We go through the stages of loss, but to different degrees. While the writer may grieve for the deceased character – a voice in his head now forever silenced – the reader may stall at the anger stage.

But as much as readers may hate to see their favorite characters killed off, sometimes they must depart this mortal coil because … that’s life. In reality, people die. Even the ones you really, really like. Good fiction has to reflect the human condition, and mortality is the most human condition of all.

If the reader wells up with rage at the writer for killing a character, she should thank the writer having had the talent to bring that character to life, to make him real enough to relate to and care about, and real enough to die.

As I add up the characters I have killed in my novels and short stories, I begin to realize I am a serial killer. I can no longer stop myself. But I do abide by my own set of rules. My victims are either minor characters (Google “red-shirted ensigns” and “Star Trek”) or major characters whose death advances the plot, often leaving an indelible impression on the surviving characters or the reader.

Depending on how the character dies, his death may actually make him and his time spent within the pages, and the story itself, even more meaningful than had he survived.

Another factor is the calculus of how a character’s death changes the dynamic among the surviving characters. The story often turns in a direction it would never have taken had a central character remained in the picture.

Of course, killing off a character can be a disastrous mistake (can you say “Bobby Ewing”?). Soap opera writers have crafted many ways for deceased characters to return from the grave. Science fiction and fantasy writers also have a few escape hatches. Writers of more realistic genres may be unable to disinter the dead, but they can always bring them back through flashbacks.

The alternative was presented by the satirical Web site, the Onion: The fictionalized author too wimpy to kill off any of his characters and whose book is denounced as “life-affirming schlock.”

But I digress. I must return to my manuscript and commit filicide.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Angels & Sex, in the Age of Moral Relativism

Note: Today’s blog post has its genesis in a topic raised on the GoodReads Forum: “Angels and Sex” and a review comment: "An example of taking away the fundamental aspects of a being people know is when the author had the angel (Gabriel) have sex... I'm sorry, but when people think of Heavenly angels, they think of goodness and purity. They don't think of them as having human weaknesses, like sexual temptations."

All good fiction revolves around the human condition. Characters should not be two-dimensional cardboard figures. A writer must humanize his characters to make the readers empathize with them and their struggles. Even if his characters aren’t human.

I begin with the proposition that good and evil are not absolutes. No one is entirely one or the other. There is a sliding scale. Morality can often be a gray area, neither black nor white. Moral relativism suggests standards of right and wrong are products of, and change with, time and culture.

While my characters in the Halos & Horns series, the angel Gabriel and the demon Lucifer, have a predisposition toward good or evil respectively, they grow to question their beliefs and the assumption that their natures must dictate their destinies.

Of course, I weave this into the context of what I hope is an entertaining fantasy series. My goal is to craft stories the reader will enjoy but also cause him or her to think about the underlying philosophical themes long after the book is closed.

At the end of the day, I’m merely a storyteller and the tales are all make-believe.