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Wednesday, March 18, 2015
If the middle of my cake is soft, I know I should have left it in the oven longer. If the clothes come out of the dryer damp around the seams, I know I pulled them out too soon. In other words, if I don’t finish my task, I have more to do. It’s easier to understand than nuclear fission.
Life is too short to waste on mediocre anything, and I apply this mantra to my own writing. How can I expect others to overlook a half-baked center in what I serve?
Recently I started reading a second novel in a series that attracted me with the dynamics between the main characters. Whoops! Something happened before the main conflict that changed the focus of the lady detective. She gave her dinner time with teenage kids more value than her murder investigation. I quit reading because the characters were boring. The first chapter promised intrigue that was too long in coming. I was bogged down in mundane details that felt like quicksand.
I am willing to spend time with the thick intricate tales told by Elizabeth George when the complexity of a character is revealed slowly one layer at a time, like real neighbors. But I don’t want a minute description of activities or relationships like those I have endured in my daily routine. There is no tension. There is a reason for the popular saying, “Skip to the chase.”
In other words, a writer risks losing readers when a cooking segment is too long and with no purpose. Or when an inclusion of a parent-teacher meeting has no vital information for the plot, or a long rant on clothing or music reads like a Wikipedia entry. The characters seem to be searching for a plot. That’s when a reader’s eyes glaze over. She does not turn the page. As a writer, I don’t want that fate for my stories.
Some pros advise putting a conflict on every page, like a collection of scenes showing cause and effect, a string of dominoes falling one by one. I think that each scene should move a reader toward a goal, an obstacle, or the stakes.
Literary agent Donald Maass suggests in The Fire in Fiction that the middle of a good story has an outer turning point and an inner turning point. The main character’s acceptance of the challenge and the stakes of pursuing a goal is an outer turning point. An inner goal of a major or minor character can change and become a turning point that sets up a larger conflict. An inner goal keeps the story moving on a secondary level.
For example, in my short story “Dead Man Hanging,” a gentlemen farmer is discussing with the sheriff the possibility of a scam on his houseguest when a body is found at a hotel. In the first scene, the farmer has no intention of getting involved in law enforcement, but the circumstances yield to the great flood of 1916. The sheriff needs deputies. As the investigation proceeds, their philosophies tangle, and the farmer’s perspective changes. (This story was published in January in the anthology History and Mystery, Oh, My!)
Screenwriter Blake Snyder gave excellent advice in Save the Cat. He insisted the turning point in the middle is preceded by fun and games. He considered this a back door to the premise of the story, a related tangent. Snyder pointed out that often the subplot carries the theme, which is a debate on the pros and cons of a particular issue. In the movie, Miss Congeniality, the premise asks and answers the question: Can a tomboy win a beauty pageant? (See the Buddhapuss Ink March 4 blog post about format by writer Selaine Henriksen.)
I nurture the growth of my characters on the theory that their changes will influence the direction of the story. I imagine a writer making choices like Goldilocks. Too much change and the reader is lost in a flurry of hot events (like bar hopping). Too little and a reader is lost to cold boredom. We can’t please all of the readers all of the time, but we can make an effort for a happy compromise. A comfort zone is an elusive target, isn’t it!
I try not to be engrossed in details that are superfluous, embroidering my sentences with fancy words and phrases like a literary art project. A verbal Renoir. When the heat is turned down, the center of the story becomes mushy.
Beware! When we promise chocolate, we can’t serve mud. Yuk! How rude!
© 2015 Georgia Ruth
Georgia Ruth lives in the foothills of North Carolina. Now retired, she managed a family restaurant for ten years and worked in sales for fifteen years. Both experiences produced rich soil for her fertile imagination. Georgia is a member of Sisters in Crime and Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has stories published online for Stupefying Stories and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and in print, Mystery Times Ten 2013 by Buddhapuss Ink. Her story “The Mountain Top” will be published in a Sisters in Crime anthology in 2014. Her website is http://georgiaruthwrites.us
Thanks, Georgia, for a great piece! Avoid the “squishy middle,” no one wants to read something that's half-baked. We're looking forward to seeing more from you soon!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series. We will be taking a short hiatus for a few weeks. Until we return, Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat
Buddhapuss Ink LLC is proud to be a small, but solid house, known for great fiction and nonfiction books, that are written for readers with brains, by authors who have more than just one book in them.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
That morning I took my wife Stacy to chemo on the way to work. She had driven herself to her first treatment, but we quickly realized that she wouldn’t be capable of that again and that the whole process was going to be inconvenient, messy, and much harder than we had originally thought. This all happened the day of her fourth treatment, and it seemed as if the whole thing would go on forever. I didn’t know how she was getting through it; I didn’t know how I was getting through it, and I’d already had a lot of doubts that I ever could. I was beginning to have fantasies about jumping into our car by myself and driving somewhere—Seattle, the South, Cincinnati—just to see what it’d be like.
I went to pick her up on my lunch break, when the treatment was scheduled to be over, but she was still inside. They had gotten started late, as they frequently do, so I picked up a Time magazine and sat off by myself to wait.
I was reading an article about terrorism and wishing I wasn’t when someone near me said “I’ve seen you in here a few times.” I didn’t think the voice was speaking to me, but I glanced up out of politeness and saw that it belonged to a heavyset guy in his late sixties or early seventies. He was wearing glasses that were twenty years out of date, shiny charcoal pants, and a powder-blue jacket over a navy shirt with red stripes. He was sitting three chairs away from me, but I couldn’t recall whether he had come in before or after I’d arrived. I vaguely remembered having seen him here before, but we had never exchanged words. I didn’t really feel like doing so now.
He waited for a few seconds, then put his index finger in the cleft of his chin, grinned faintly, and said, “I once saw a woman face down these three guys with guns. You believe that? Took those guns right away from these guys during a robbery, and she was just a little thing. Pretty too. You believe that?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I mumbled, “Sure, it could happen.”
He waved his hand and chuckled. “Naw, you don’t believe it.” He looked away, then looked back at me before I could continue reading. “You wanna know how I know it was true? I know because I was there. Now, I gotta ask you not to repeat this to anyone, you understand. Most people who know me know this about me, but when strangers find out something like this about you, they sort of start to stare. Anyway, don’t blab, but I know all this because I used to have a mean streak in me a mile wide. Used to hit the bottle pretty good, too. I know about this little girl because I was one of the three guys.”
“Now, I can still read you. You want to know why I’d let this little girl take a gun from me. I’ll tell you right now, it was all luck. I had pointed guns before, but this thing with the girl was before I ever pulled the trigger on anyone. She caught me and my buddies at just the right time in our lives, when we didn't really want to hurt anybody, you understand? And she just happened to be in the exact right position in the exact right place when we walked in so that she could do it, and the guy behind the counter picked just the right moment to mouth off, and a hundred other things happened or didn’t, both before and after she came at us, so that before we knew it we were running down the street away from the place, not only no richer than we had come in but poorer because we had all dropped our guns.” He finally stopped and had a good laugh, and then, incredibly, went on.
“I gotta say, too, that at certain times in my life I’ve had this weird sympathy for people, you know? That’s probably why I’m not the way I was anymore. I would just look at someone I was after, and suddenly I would root for them. Because they were the good guys, you know? I’d feel that way even though if they won, it would mean I had lost. But I would start to root for them anyway, and do a sort of half-assed job. Mostly I would get done what I was trying to get done anyway, ’cause people are scared to death of guns, but that time with that little girl was—God—she was like some kinda force of good. I remember laughing my head off most of the way after we left that store. As bad as I hurt from what she did to me, that was the best I’d felt in a long time, and it wasn’t even for me. It was, I dunno, sort of like proof that the world works the way people say it does. That the good guys do win. Sometimes, at least.”
I put my finger in the magazine and waited. I wasn’t sure what to say. I was vaguely uncomfortable but fascinated at the same time. The old guy seemed sincere, and completely in control of his faculties. He could have been lying, but if he were I couldn’t tell. And suddenly, I wasn’t sure if I cared. This surprised me a little bit. I had thought I wasn’t in the mood for conversation.
He waved his hand again. “I was gonna tell you that was the damnedest thing I ever saw, but I forgot about this other thing. That thing with the girl was unlikely, you know? It wouldn’t happen more than one time out of a thousand, but it could happen, and so it did, and it happened to happen to me. But I once saw something that was completely impossible. You believe that? I mean, this was something that couldn’t happen, but it did, and right in front of me. You gotta remember, if you want me to tell you this one, you gotta promise me that you’ll remember that I’m telling you that this happened right in front of me. This ain’t no ‘my buddy told me’ or ‘I once heard,’ ok, this really happened. You gotta promise me that you’ll keep an open mind here, ’cause if you start this thing with a bad attitude it’s gonna fall completely flat.”
At that, he stopped and waited for my answer, even though we didn’t know each others’ names and I had said less than a dozen words in our entire conversation. This was my last chance to get rid of him, but instead I closed the magazine, tossed it on the table, and said “Yeah, ok. I promise.”
He grinned. “Well, ok then.” And then he fell silent. He tapped his chin for a few seconds, and then fiddled a bit with his glasses. Then he got up and walked away.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I kept it to myself as much as possible, but I sat there in that waiting room, a sad, lonely man in a conservative suit, and snickered into my hand until tears rolled down my cheeks. I had to take off my glasses to wipe them away. When I finally had myself under control, I retrieved my magazine and tried to continue to read. I quickly found that I couldn’t keep my mind on the article. I kept thinking about the old man. His story had piqued my curiosity, and the man himself had me doing mental calisthenics. Who started conversations with strange men in the chemo waiting room? And who did it the way he did? And of those, who would either lie this way or give out information that personal and damning? And, after all of that, who would get up and leave right in the middle of the conversation?
I finally gave up on the reading and got up to put the magazine back. I was going to spend the rest of my wait processing this guy, trying to figure him out. It beat terrorism, disease, and financial ruin.
As I was sitting back down, though, I saw him again. He walked across the waiting room and started talking again even before he was fully seated. “I can’t tell you not to get old because you can’t much help it, but I will tell you to take care of your kidneys when you do. Most important part of your body, the kidneys. Next to your heart and brain, I guess. And the lungs, and maybe the stomach. But the kidneys are right up there, and when they don’t work right you just can’t be yourself anymore.” He chuckled and rolled his eyes.
I felt like I should reply, but before I could think of anything to say he was off again. “Anyway, so once about twenty years ago I was after this guy. I had just gotten out, you know from where, and I wanted him for, well, I guess I won’t give you details since we’re not best friends yet” he grinned at me again “but I wanted him and bad. So I asked around, and it took me a while, but I found out where he lived, and where he hung out, and I went to his place and I waited. I didn’t have to wait long. He came out before I was ready, so I followed along and he went into a bar.”
“Now, this guy didn’t know my face too well, and it had been a long time since he had seen me at all, so I went inside too and took seat at the other end of the bar and had a drink myself. He went to the men’s room once or twice, but he wasn’t in there long. Had good kidneys, I guess. Anyway, he never tried anything sneaky, never tried to slip out or anything, and never looked twice at me. If he’d done any of those things, I might have put the whole thing off, but since he seemed pretty oblivious I decided that tonight was the night.”
“Now, I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re into, so maybe this is all stuff you know, but if you never been in a situation like this you’ll need to know that on TV and in the movies they get this stuff all wrong. Guys like me, if we’re successful, we never talk to guys we catch up with, or take them places to cover up.” He chuckled. “They don’t call it kidnapping because you only do it to kids: they call it that because you have to be as stupid or inexperienced as a ten-year-old to try something that complicated. Anyway, what I was gonna do was lay up for this guy and take my opportunity if it ever came. If not, I’d wait for another night.”
“So I got ahead of him and stepped into an alley, but when he walked by there were a couple of other people on the street, so I held off. I thought about it for a while, and then decided that I could try his place and have some relative privacy. He lived in a little apartment building, and it was kinda shabby so I thought that security would be pretty bad. If I could get in, I could find some way into the apartment without leaving too much evidence and take care of business, so I left the alley and walked to the building.”
“Before I could try the front door, I spotted him up on the roof. He was just standing there, leaning on the low wall that ran around the building and staring off into space. I kept walking so he wouldn’t spot me and then circled around to the back of the building. There was a door off a small parking lot, and it was open, so I walked in like I belonged and hiked up six floors to the door to the roof. He had somehow or another bypassed the fire alarm on the door and had stuck a piece of brick in it so he wouldn’t get locked out. I looked through the crack and saw him, still standing in the same place. He was shaking a little bit, and it suddenly occurred to me that he might be crying.”
“I stood there for a few minutes and weighed my options. I didn’t really care how he went over the wall. He could do it under his own power for all I cared, I just wanted him to go. The brick in the door made me think he wasn’t serious about jumping, but maybe he was debating the issue and wanted to be safe in case he decided against doing it. Either way, I figured that him going over the side would be the best way to get it done, especially if anyone knew he was sad or depressed. The problem was, he might not do it, and if he didn’t, I’d have to take care of it some other way, some way that was more obvious. I decided, just like that, to give him some help. The possible negatives of waiting to see if he did it himself outweighed the positives, if you can tell what I mean, so I backed up a bit, went through the door at a dead run, and hit him with my shoulder at full speed.”
“Now, I’m a big guy—partly ‘cause of the kidneys, you know—but this was all muscle back then. I thought I’d hit the little guy, and he’d go flying, out over the street, just like he jumped hard. When I opened the door, though, he turned around and took a step forward a lot faster than I thought he would. Okay now, don’t worry, he went over the side, but instead of flying out there like I thought he would, his legs hit that low brick wall and he flipped and dropped out of sight straight down the side of the building, head first.”
“Now, this is the important part, the impossible part. I know I’m an old guy, and a little long-winded, but this is the part you really want to pay attention to, got it?”
He stopped and waited while I nodded. I was leaning a bit forward in my chair, and my fists and jaw were clamped shut. I felt a lot of things, all the possible reactions to his story that I could imagine, some of them contradictory. But mostly, I just wanted him to finish the story, to get to the point. I was petrified that he’d get up and walk away again.
He didn’t. “I followed through with the blow and ended up leaning on the wall, pretty much the way the guy himself had been before I came in, and I saw the whole thing. I’m tellin’ you; none of this really could have happened, except that it did. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw.”
“This little guy, he fell two stories face first, and then he grabbed a window sill with his hands and stopped himself.”
“Now, you got to understand how impossible that is, and it ain’t even the impossible part of this story. We’ll get to that, but for now let’s focus on this. This guy was surprised and probably hurt, going down the side of a brick building face first. Now, if we weren’t somewhere public, I’d ask you to put your arms out, but for the sake of a little discretion, here, I won’t. Just imagine it, though…you’re going face first toward the ground, arms up above your head. The first thing to hit anything, anything like, say, a cement windowsill, would be your palms. Now, how are you going to hang onto this thing with your palms on top and your fingers curled underneath as you keep falling, and your head and feet switch places? Huh? I dunno, either. An acrobat or a stuntman might be able to, I guess, but this guy wasn’t either one. He must’a been the luckiest guy alive, even though he was just barely still alive, and not for long. I thought he was going to hang on for a few seconds or a minute or two but he was going to lose his grip, and he was going to fall, and even though it was four stories instead of six, he was going to die. The only problem was, I thought, that he might hang on long enough for someone to see him or, even worse, for whoever lived in that apartment to open the window and pull him in. He hadn’t had a good look at me yet, and I pulled back so he wouldn’t, but I didn’t want him to get out of this. He’d have his back up, you know, and it would be a lot harder to get him later. So I went back to the door, kicked off a shoe and used it as a doorstop, got the piece of brick, and dropped it on him.”
“It hit him, square in the face, and I ducked back behind the wall and waited for the thud. He didn’t let go, though. After a few seconds, I walked toward the corner of the building and looked over the edge so he wouldn’t see me. He was still clinging there; feet scrabbling against the brick and blood dribbling onto his shirt. I looked around the roof, but I didn’t see anything else to drop. I didn’t know what to do. His grip looked as good as it ever had, and as time went by I knew it was more and more likely that somebody would see him. I thought about the gun in my pocket but didn’t want to lose my chance that everyone would think it was suicide or an accident. I was at a complete loss.”
“Then the guy just fell. One second he was holding on, and the next second he was halfway to the street. I started to feel relieved, and I watched him fall, watched his coat billow up around him, and his hands wave around, feeling for something else to grab. It was done, there was no question in my mind, you know? No question. But I’m careful, so I waited until he was all the way down before I took my eyes off him. Just to be sure.”
“He hit the sidewalk feet first, bent his legs, and stood up. You believe that? Then he ran his hands up and down his whole body, and just walked off. Walked fast, but he didn’t even look back up at me, just went around the corner and disappeared. And he didn’t even break a bone. You believe that?”
Even now, I don’t know why, but I did. Completely.
“Like I said,” he went on “impossible. But it happened, and there was nothing I didn’t see. I know because I asked the guy myself, when I caught up with him a couple weeks later. I did everything I just got done telling you I didn’t do. I caught the guy, I stuffed him in my trunk, just like on TV, and I took him someplace safe and I asked him about the whole thing. His take on it was the same as mine. He didn’t know how any of it had happened, didn’t know how he was able to hold onto that ledge, had no idea why he walked away from that fall. I won’t tell you what happened to that guy, so don’t ask me, but I will tell you that he was no Superman. I know for a fact he was as vulnerable to being hurt as anyone else.”
“I still think about that guy, to this day, when my brain gets bored and I need something to think about. You believe that? I never changed my ways because of this guy, and I never really even felt bad about any of it. But, when I get bored, instead of doing crossword puzzles like some of the other old codgers, I try to figure out how all this happened. And after twenty years and some, I still got no idea. Well, I gotta get going. Nice talking to you.” He stood up then and abruptly walked away, and I never knew if he heard my protests and ignored them, or was far enough away and deaf enough that he thought I just let him go.
A few minutes later, the receptionist took me into the chemo suite with Stacy. She sat in a huge overstuffed chair in the middle of a carpeted room that looked more like a motel suite than a patient room in a hospital: it was clean and comfortable but completely anonymous and without the bed. I thought Stacy would be watching TV or sleeping as the drugs dripped into the Mediport the doctors had installed in her chest, but she was just sitting there, eyes wide open. She waved to me weakly as I came in. She didn’t even force a smile.
I sat on the other soft chair without saying anything. I wasn’t sure if I felt better or not. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her, but for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel bad about that. I got lost in my thoughts for a while, then turned to my wife.
She was still staring at the wall, and the look on her face scared me a little. Softly, I asked, “What are you thinking about?”
She looked at me, took a breath, and said “Nothing.”
I sat back in my chair, looked away. We said little else until the treatment was done.
Then, in the car as we were driving home, I started feeling strange. I felt pressure inside my chest as if it was swelling. My breathing stayed calm, but my forehead felt hot, almost feverish. I thought about turning around and going back to the hospital, but none of my symptoms were unpleasant. They were more like excitement than anything else. If I were going to have a heart attack or something, I decided, maybe it would be for the best if I had it on the freeway, anyway. This thought should have depressed me, made me feel guilty, but for some reason, I didn’t feel any of those things. Instead, I grinned.
I hadn’t been aware that Stacy was looking at me until she asked what I was smiling at. I launched into the story of the guy in the waiting room, and not long into it I realized that I was enjoying myself, that I had been waiting to tell Stacy about him since he finished his story and left me so abruptly. My wife, I remembered then, was a great listener.
I started to play the old guy up, to make him even more ridiculous than he was, and I even got a weak laugh or two out of my wife. She really got into the story and asked me a few questions as I told it. She was as fascinated by him as I was, and when we got to the house we sat in the driveway for almost fifteen minutes, speculating about the guy, the stories, and what it all might mean. Sitting there in the car, unwilling to stop talking to each other, it felt like things were okay. It felt like I had her back, even though I hadn’t realized that I’d been thinking of her as being gone.
My wife went back inside then, and I drove back to work. I swore, but not very loudly, and then snapped off the radio so I could better imagine what the old guy from the waiting room would do if he got cut off. I decided that he might have done something drastic in his younger years, but I couldn’t imagine him even getting upset as he was now, so I didn’t get upset either. Instead, I sat back in my seat and watched the big vehicle weave its way through traffic, wondering the whole time who might be inside.
©2015 Tom Irish
TOM IRISH is a writer, teacher, and father who lives in Davenport, Iowa. His story, “Martin Lenk,” was featured in Mystery Times 2013, published by Buddhapuss Ink LLC. He has also been published in CALLIOPE magazine, The Mochila Review, and at thewritegallery.com
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when our guest is Georgia Ruth who will be talking about the problem of the “Squishy Middle” of a story. Until then, Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat
Buddhapuss Ink LLC is proud to be a small, but solid house, known for great fiction and nonfiction books, that are written for readers with brains, by authors who have more than just one book in them.