The Stories Begun











It’s writing Tuesday again!!  I cannot tell you how glad I am for this!  Usually I have at least one idea running around in my head, but not this time.  So, it’s time for another thousand or so words of creative something.  Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been re-reading a TON of my old stuff and determining what I want to do with it.  Some of it is still in that scary writer’s limbo: I know I want to do something with it, I just have no idea what that something might be.  Some of it has moved up into the “work on it soon, you dip” file (this is a slightly more urgent file than the “to be worked on” file mentioned in the last writing Tuesday post, just to be clear).  None of it has been tabled.  But, because of the nostalgia trip, I decided this week’s one shot (and next week’s) will be from images in as yet undeveloped scenes from these stories that have been flitting around in my conscious for a while.  This week’s scene is at least three years old (I began saving the ideas for it in April of ’08) and it’s about time I started writing parts of it down.  It’s from the rodeo family series I’m developing, the third book called Life on the Edge of the Grand Canyon.  The series is currently named after the first book because I’m too lazy to figure out what I want to call it.  Mostly, I’m working on this because it involves one of my favorite characters.  If I could marry this man, I would (Is that weird, creating a character you’d marry? NAAAAHHHHHHH!!).  You’re welcome, Celeste (That’s right, I so know you would, too!).

Addison hated to call Jason with something this huge.  Well, she hated to call anyone with something so monumental, but Jason Stern especially.  She wasn’t a fool.  She knew how he felt, she knew that whatever she asked of him–unreasonable or no–would be done.  It felt like she was using him.  Then again, shouldn’t thirty years be enough time to get over someone?  It wasn’t as if she hadn’t given him his space.  He had come to her after thirteen years of silence.   That should have meant he was over her.  That should have meant that calling in a favor wasn’t a big deal, that they were just friends and that was that.  That should have meant she didn’t have to feel guilty.

But she did.  Addison could spend all day with the wouldacouldashouldas, but it didn’t stop the truth of how she felt.  Or the fact that she knew that thirteen years had been enough time for Jason to become a good man, but not enough for him to “get over” her.  Thirty years had been enough for that, maybe, but not enough for him to want somebody else.  Jason was a problem, a good friend, but a problem.  So, Addison hated to call him with anything, but especially something this huge.  Who was she kidding?  This wasn’t just calling in a favor.  Besides, she knew that it hurt her husband, Levi, that Jason might be able to do something that Levi couldn’t.

However, despite all this, Addison needed Jason.  Or, more correctly, her daughter, Coreen, needed him.  So, Addison called.  Three seconds, two rings, one deep breath.

“Hello?”

“Stern!”

“Ad!”

“That’s me.  Please tell me you’re home.”

“I am.  What’s wrong?”

“Who says–”

“Don’t play with me Ad,” Jason snapped at his long-time friend.  “Let’s be honest, you call me for two reasons: good news and bad news.  You never call just to say hey.  Besides, who on this green earth cares if someone’s home if the news is good?”

“You’ve got me there.  On all counts,” Addison said tiredly.  “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Never you mind.  At least, not right now.  Tell me what’s wrong and we’ll figure out you bein’ a lousy friend later.”

Addison winced.  When she had met Jason, he hadn’t been nearly so honest or straight-forward.  She had taught him that.  Some days she appreciated it.  Some days she regretted it.  Most days, she couldn’t decide.  This was one of them.

“Coreen’s pregnant.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, that’s about all we can figure to say ourselves.”

“Is the boy in the picture?”

“No, and we don’t want him to be.  Lousy son of a buck, that one.”  Ad smiled through the tears that started to fall.  Jason had been the one to teach her that phrase.  When she was new to college rodeo, Jason had been her gateway to it all for a while.  During this tough time, these were the small things that she had to hold onto.

“What can I do?”

“I hate to do this to you, I really do,” Addison paused for a long moment, gathering the courage it would take to make this request, “but is it possible for you to let Coreen live at your place for a while?  She can’t do school and be a mom at the same time.  We’d come out and pick her up if we could, but she won’t let us.  We’d feel so much better if she were taken care of by someone we know and not in a dingy apartment paid by some waitressing job.  We’ll pay you rent, we’ll help out with any unexpected expenses of any sort, you won’t be responsible for her much at all, she’ll just be a really quiet roommate.  You won’t even see her that much, seeing as you’re on the road so much!” Addison rushed through the last part of her proposal as fast as she could, part from nervousness, part from guilt.  Was there even a justification for her request or was she completely out of line here?

“Ad, don’t be stupid.  When does she move out of the dorms?  She’s at U of A, right?  I’ll make sure I’m there to pick her up.”  Jason didn’t even bother to say yes.  As if there had been any doubt he would do what Addison asked him to do.  She called and he jumped.  There was a disturbing pattern to it all, but in many ways it was the least he could do.  He owed so much to her after the way he treated her when they were together that he had a lifetime of paying her back before he could call it even.

“She has until the end of this week.”

“Good, I’m in town until next week.  I’ll be able to help her get settled.  And don’t you even think about payin’ me rent.  D’you still have my e-mail, hon?”

“Yeah, Stern, I do.” Addison sighed.

“Send me hers and her phone number.  Make sure she knows to expect to hear from me.  We’ll arrange a time for me to help her move out.  I assume you want to be kept in the loop without her knowing?”

“You always were a quick study, Jason.”

“Maybe.  I don’t know about that.  Does she know you’re callin’ me about this?”

“Not yet she doesn’t,” Addison admitted.  “I didn’t want to get her hopes up.  I’ll only send you her info if she agrees that moving in with you’s the smart choice.  Frankly, I think it’s her only healthy choice, but what do I know?  I’m her mother, I haven’t known anything since she was fourteen.”

“You can’t beat yourself up about that, Ad,” Stern objected.  “Every teen is like that.”

“You’d think that, but not every teen runs off to college and gets pregnant their Freshman year.”  Addison wished she could take the judgmental words back as soon as she said them.  She was so glad her daughter hadn’t been there to hear them.  This was one of the reasons Addison secretly thought it was a really good idea her daughter wasn’t letting Levi and Addison come pick her up.  Things were just too volatile right now and were liable to blow up in their faces.  Perhaps in a few months, but right now there would likely be some unforgivable words said that wouldn’t just damage the parent-child relationship, but the grandparent-grandchild relationship to come.  It was time, hard as it was, to back off.  “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know you didn’t.”  Addison was grateful that, no matter how awful she could be, she had a friend like Jason, a friend who always saw the best in her.

“Just keep her safe, Jason.  Do what I can’t.”

“You bet, Ad.”

Jason was glad of the silence as he hung up his cell phone and tossed it on the couch in his sparse living room.  Well that’s going to have to change, he thought at no one in particular.  This was no atmosphere for a teen, much less an expecting mother, much less a child.  He was lucky, though, he had the means to change that.  It was time for a change anyhow.

See you next week with something else inspired by the archives!

~RJLouise

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The hook: proof that writers really do write for the audience and not just for the pleasure of writing.  Any writer who tells you otherwise is full of a bunch of hooey.

This particular element of any work should have been covered in your first essay writing class in high school, maybe even middle school.  It probably went something like this:

TEACHER:  After reading your essays, “What I Did This Summer,” we have a few things to work on.  Most of you are familiar with basic paragraph structure with the intro, body paragraphs, and conclusion.  That was well done.  However, you do need to repeat that same structure within the paragraphs as well.  Have a topic sentence for each paragraph, followed by supporting body sentences, followed by a concluding summary sentence.  Everyone understand so far?

STUDENTS: Yes, Miss Hannigan.

TEACHER: Good.  I knew that wouldn’t be too hard.  There are some finer points of structure that we’ll cover later in the week, but something you all struggled with was the attention getter.  Does anyone know what that might be?  Yes, Millie?

MILLE THE KNOW-IT-ALL:  The Hook!

TEACHER:  That is another name for it, Millie, but what is it?

MILLIE THE SLIGHTLY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL:  It’s a sentence or two that draws the reader in and convinces them to continue reading the story or, in this case, essay.

TEACHER:  Very good, Millie.  An attention grabber, or hook, can be a story told at the beginning of an essay, a definition of a word that the essay centers around, or perhaps a shocking assertion.  It can be other things as well, anything to garner interest.  However, a hook is not, “Today I’m going to talk about what I did this summer.”  That was similar to, if not the exact first sentence in more than seventy-five percent of the essays I collected last week.  Today’s in-class assignment is to re-write the first paragraph of your essay on a separate sheet of paper with an appropriate attention grabber.  Millie, please put your hand down.  Even yours can be improved upon.

MILLIE THE ENTIRELY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL: Oh.

I may have enjoyed putting that together a bit too much. 🙂

In blogging, the world of hooks is a bit different than it is in the world of essays or even books.  Titles are ever so much more important in blogs than in essays or books, in my opinion.  The title has to act as the hook, to stand out amongst a mess of titles to the reader, quietly surfing the internet.  The title has to be enough to convince the reader to follow the link.  However, it is never going to hurt your cause as a blogger to have a hook in the body of your text to greet the reader who has already made the decision to follow the link.  They deserve an interesting blog, too.

Now, I know why the amount of importance the title gets is so disparate between blogs and essays: teachers have to read the essays anyway.  I almost never bothered to title my essays in an interesting way until the last three or so semesters of college.  I’m sure my teachers appreciated the extra effort if they noticed, but I’m not convinced any of them did.  Why should a student bother to put in the time and effort to title a piece cleverly (which is surprisingly difficult) when the teacher/professor will–at best–come out of their essay daze long enough to smirk?

On the other hand, I do not understand the difference in importance in book titles and blog titles.  There are blogs I simply will not read because their titles are ridiculous, dull, or badly spelled.  However, there are plenty of books with incredibly boring or overlong titles (the non-fiction industry is full of run-on titles, it’s an epidemic), that I buy at sight.  My fiction book chosing process doesn’t even take the title into account!  I pick a book at random; look at the cover; read the back; if I am not satisfied at this point, I give the book ten pages or the first chapter, whichever comes last; read and then decide.  Any book that manages to capture me so completely that I go beyond the ten page/one chapter limit without noticing is a same-day buy.  Any book that I am enchanted, if not thrilled by goes on my ever-growing buy list.  There is rarely a time when the title comes into play.  I am entirely willing to judge a book by its cover (so long as that cover includes a blurb), but I would never dare to judge a book by its title.  I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has to do with the size of a book: with only half a dozen words representing, it’s harder to tell the content of many thousands of words at least (possibly hundreds of thousands) as compared to the content of a couple thousand at most.  The example that comes most immediately to mind is the book East by Edith Pattou.  I would not read a blog titled “East.”  East of what, where, who, and why the heck?  However, the minute a friend told me there was a book called East, I began to suspect what it was about and went through the process of getting it from the library.  Sure enough, it was an adaptation of my favorite version of ATU 425C (need a refresher on the ATU system–find it here).  Had I been in the position to perform my normal process, I wouldn’t have required reading the first chapter.  There was a polar bear on the front (a dead giveaway) and the blurb made the parallels clear.

So, that being discussed, there is another problem with hooks: one is never enough.  Cliff-hangers (and don’t we just hate them as readers?) serve sort of as reverse hooks.  They’re not meant to draw you in, they’re meant to throw you out of the story saying, “WHAT?  What happens next, you jerk?”  Then, if the author has toed the line of making you angry without infuriating you too entirely, you’ll dive back in.  If you’re lucky, the cliff-hanger just happens at the end of the chapter.  If you’re unlucky (Chris D’Lacey, I’m glaring at you for that business with Dark Fire), the author ends the book that way. 

While cliff-hangers used well are some of the best ways to keep a story going when you, now as the author, feel you might be losing an audience (by the way, if you’re feeling that way, highlight the section for a close look during the first major edit), used badly they can put off the reader, for good.  When FictionCentral.net was still up and accepting submissions (sniffles), that was one of the biggest flaws I saw in the fiction there (as well as at the fan-fiction sister site, though I didn’t frequent it nearly so much).  Authors, in an attempt to keep readers interested until the next chapter would often leave the chapter unfinished.  Unfinished does not mean cliff-hanger!  Even those talented with the cliff-hanger (of which I was not one, my talents lay much more to the flash-back) would abuse the talent and put one in every chapter.  The result was a frenetic piece of work that never did flow quite right.  Maybe that was because of the format of submissions (min and max words per chap), but I think it has to do with the acknowledged fact that readers have a small attention span!

Think about it, readers.  How often have you picked up a book that you know you adore and . . . oh my gosh, it’s been three months and I haven’t gotten past the first fifty pages!  What is the deal?  I don’t think it has anything to do with appeal and it’s a total myth that you can read a book too many times.  It has to do with what is grabbing you attention at the moment?  I’ve been working on a novel that’s barely over 500 pages for over a month.  It’s killing me.  I can do 500 pages in half a day.  Furthermore, it’s by one of my favorite authors!  But, despite how much I enjoy the author,  the snappy dialogue , the awesome one-liners, the great interplay between the characters, or even the fact that the next book comes out in a month and a half and I want time to read this at least once more, I can’t engage.  I’m SLOGGING through this reading of it, while still enjoying it.  For some reason, the subject matter is falling flat.  There’s nothing the author could have done to prevent this.

So, my goal for my writing is this: more hooks, but no more than I need.  I recognize the fact that I’ll never please even one reader all of the time.  There are days when even the best of my writing will not appeal to my dearest and most ardent fans (hi, Mom! 😀 ).  The result of trying to MAKE people read my writing will just be a horrific, jilty work that I’ll hate and won’t ever be proud of.  And, of course, as I’m adding these hooks, making sure they aren’t necessary to make the prose in the middle palatable.  That, too.

Time to go jump off a cliff and see where I land!

~RJLouise



et cetera