Monthly Archives: October 2017

It’s the second most wonderful time of the year!

“Live is sweet, be not too shy!”
“Live is sweet, be not too shy!”
I love Halloween a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. I love handing out candy. I love seeing people in costumes. I love all the spooky stuff. My favorite Halloween movies are either the classic black & white universal films or the more comedic ones (Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Hocus Pocus, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Haunted Honeymoon, Young Frankenstein to name a few…).

We have our usual boxes of full size candy bars (my husband’s motto for the season is: “Fun sized isn’t!”). We have picked a couple of movies to watch tonight (Hocus Pocus and Witches of Eastwick). I have some pumpkin spice drinks ready. It will be a night of spooky fun!

I hope yours is a great, spooky All Hallow’s Eve as well!

Donald Duck: Trick Or Treat Folks ☻1952 Halloween Cartoon:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

For the birds

It works better if I stay back from the window and have the camera zoom.
It works better if I stay back from the window and have the camera zoom.
After putting up the new bird feeder over a week ago and being really happy when birds actually started using it, a new part of my morning routine has become peeking between the blinds to check on the feeder (since opening the blinds sends the birds scattering, and I’d only just have to close them again before I left). I only caught birds actually at the feeder when I peeked once, but I could notice from day to day the level of seed in the feeder decreasing at a noticeable rate. Which was good news, since the other style of feeder we had up all summer never had the seed level decrease the whole time.

On Friday, a work-from-home day, I had the blinds open all day. The birds flew away when I opened, of course, but soon came back. There were several points in the day Friday when there were between three and four small birds arrayed around the perch of the feeder, and three or four more on the deck under the feeder pecking up seeds. A couple of times a crow would fly up and intentionally chase the other birds away, then it would land on the deck and eat a bunch of the spilled seeds. At one point there were two crows on the deck both amicably eating, put when a third crow landed on the rail, the other two leapt at it, cawing and flapping noisily. Earlier in the summer I had deduced that there was a mated pair of crows with a nest in one of the big evergreens behind us, so I suspect the two that were happy to share the deck are that pair.

The feeder’s package had said it held up to two pounds of seeds. I’d filled it completely full Saturday before last, and by this last Saturday, the feeder was a bit less than half full. So Saturday afternoon I took the big bag of seed out to top off the feeder. There were a couple of birds on the feeder and at least one on the deck when I opened the sliding glass door. They scattered immediately, but landed on the branches nearby and chirped at me rather insistently. I interpreted it as them trying to get me to leave so they could get back to eating.

Anyway, while I was getting the feeder down and such, I managed to spill maybe half to three-quarters of a cup worth of the seeds from the bag in a spot right next to where I was working. I filled up the feeder, hung it back up, resealed the bag and put it away, then came back out with the broom and dustpan. I had already planned to sweep the whole deck. The birds scatter a lot of seeds in the course of eating. And they get everywhere. It’s the only thing worse than pine needles. I swept up everything except the little pile where I had spilled, and once it was altogether I only had one dustpan full. And about half of the volume of what I had was the aforementioned pine needles. So while they knock a lot of the seeds out of the feeder while they’re eating, they also eat a lot of the spilled seeds.

So, they appear to go through about a pound of seed a week.

I took this one during lunch on Friday. On work for home days I like to eat lunch out on the veranda. This little guy was the only one brave enough to come back to the deck and hop around eating while I was there. Several times he was no more then three feet from me.
Once I had finished sweeping and put the deck furniture and such back to their usual positions, I then scattered my spilt pile under the feeder. My reasoning being that the seeds on the deck will rot once they get damp, but a lot of the birds like to feed from the deck rather than the feeder (some times I look out and there are none on the feeder, but several on the deck pecking away). I probably won’t intentionally scatter any seeds on the deck in the future (unless I have another spill). But I do have to note that on Sunday afternoon when I went out, it was clear that the birds had eaten most of what I spilled. There were seeds on the deck, but it looked like their initial scatter had after a day last week.

I need to try to get more good pictures and see if I can identify them better. The black-headed chickadees were easy to identify, but none of the others are an exact match of the pictures of any other birds in my Audubon book. I think most of them are sparrows, but I also hear the distinct “chick-a-dee” style trilling when I don’t see any black-headed chickadees out there, so maybe we’ve got some other species of chick-a-dees, too.

Friday Five (new series)

(click to embiggen)
It’s the fourth Friday of October. It’s also the final Friday of October. Which means that NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, and we’re careening ever more quickly toward the Yuletide Season.

Two weeks ago I posted “Friday Links (is anyone reading edition)” which contained far fewer links than my typical Friday Links post. I explained why I was feeling that the number of people reading the posts didn’t seem to justify the number of hours I spend most weeks assembling the post. Last week there was no Friday Links… and not one person sent a message asking after them. So, clearly there isn’t a gigantic audience that I simply wasn’t aware of for my weekly round-up.

As I said in that post, I read news all the time, so bookmarking stories that might be interesting to share isn’t the part that takes a lot of effort. And I like having routines, so having a task to work on a particular kind of post on a particular evening each week is something I can enjoy doing. So, I’m going to try a slight modification. Welcome to the inaugural Friday Five post. It will consist of only the five stories out of everything I bookmarked this week that I feel must be shared. Here we go:

Links of the Week

Four Quitters Walk Into a Bar.

A Beginner’s Primer to Black Queer Literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible.

Warning of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbers.

Drug Companies Make Eyedrops Too Big — And You Pay for the Waste. It’s not just eye-drops–but wasted prescription eyedrops add up to $3.4 BILLION dollars in wasted health care money a year in the U.S.–this and drug packaging issues (such as the doses of chemotherapy) add up to a whole lot more billions wasted.


I will continue to share links to obituaries of people I think ought to be remembered, and they won’t count against the Five.

Robert Guillaume, Star of ‘Benson,’ Dies at 89.

Fats Domino, Architect Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Dead At 89.

Things I wrote:

We have birds coming to the bird feeder.

Gentlefolk, start your (word processing) engines!

Writer’s write: don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings.


And here are five videos for your Friday:

Fats Domino Ain’t That A Shame:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Queen – All Dead, All Dead Lyric Video (Hybrid Version – long lost recording of Freddie Mercury paired with the instrumental track):

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

STRANGER THINGS Theme – Shirtless Violinist – Soundtrack:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

The Addams Family Original Theme Music:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Hocus Pocus – I Put A Spell On You:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings

“The night was <del>humid, moist, hot, foggy</del> <u>sultry</u>”
“The night was humid, moist, hot, foggy sultry” (click to embiggen)
The title of this series of blog posts comes from a running gag in the movie, Throw Momma from the Train, which begins with the protagonist fighting with the opening line of his novel. He goes through many variants: “The night is hot.” “The night is moist.” “The night was humid.” “The night was foggy.” “The night was hot and moist.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King of Siam might say…

The frustration about the opening line is a symptom of the character’s internal conflicts, but as the story goes on and the external conflicts snowball into ever more ridiculous issues (not to mention the very real issue that the protagonist becomes wanted for the suspicious disappearance of his ex-wife), the opening line becomes a symbol of all the conflicts, internal and external. And so, when the possibly senile Momma interrupts the main character while talking about the word choices (while they are fleeing the police on a train to Mexico), to tell him the word he’s been looking for is “sultry” it forces the crisis point of the plot.

What I love about that surprise (besides being funny) is that it doesn’t just come out of left field. It had been established earlier in the movie—more than once—that Momma is a crossword enthusiast. One of her son’s daily routines is to fold the newspaper to the crossword and lay it out for her with a cup of tea. We see it several times. The son mentions “Momma’s crossword” at least once in the dialogue.

It was foreshadowed.

But subtly. And because of what happens next (and the epiphany that follows from it) we see that the opening where the character struggled to find just one word eventually leads to the character finding his voice again.

So the opening led to the ending.

I don’t know the process that Stu Silver (the screen writer of Throw Momma from the Train) went through to produce this specific script, and movie making is a different kind of storytelling than prose writing, but we can take some educated guesses. First, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if originally the movie started with a very different opening. It is quite possible that the discussion about opening lines was originally something written in the middle of the story, and it was only when the writer was trying to come up with a reason for the protagonist to snap that the whole “Sultry! The word you’re looking for is sultry!” came up.

I’m guessing this because most first drafts don’t begin with the same opening that will ultimately be used in the final draft. Quite often we don’t know how the thing ought to begin until we’ve finished the first draft and we’re looking at the ending. Which is why my first rule I mentioned in the first post in this series was: Don’t get hung up on the first line. Just get the story going, knowing that anything can be fixed in rewrite. Once you have finished the first draft, if you’re happy with the overall shape of the tale, then figuring out the beginning is a matter of looking at the ending and how the character got there, and figuring out which kind of beginning works best with the tale, and try writing several.

If you aren’t happy with the overall shape, ask yourself why. And if you can’t write down specific problems, if all you’ve got is “I don’t like it” or “It doesn’t work,” then there may be nothing wrong with the basic structure of the story, just that you’re feeling doubt. But to be certain, remember to do each of the following:

  1. Read it aloud in a room by yourself. All sorts of problems in stories become crystal clear when we do this.
  2. Show the story to someone you trust to give you honest feedback. If they say the story isn’t working, they’re probably right. But remember that when a reader tells specifically what is wrong and how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. If they say they lost interest at a particularly point, yes, by all means, try to figure out what you did wrong there, but take the reader’s reaction as a general observation of overall soundness, not for detailed diagnosis.
  3. If your current draft has an Into Pot, Already Boiling beginning, try rewriting it as an Opening Statement to the Jury, and then as a Calm Before the Storm. Neither of those may be a better beginning, but comparing them may give you a clue as to what you need to fix elsewhere before the story structure is sound.
  4. Confirm that you have an emotional hook and have given the reader a reason to sympathize with the character.

If after all of that you still think the beginning is wrong, go pick up a favorite book that you know really well. Read the first two pages of this other person’s book. What kind of beginning is it? Write your own, using one of the other types. Do this a few more times until you’ve managed to create three alternate beginnings for this other person’s novel that you believe might work to hook the reader. Now go back and re-read your story. Having made yourself write several openings for another story, you should have some fresh insight into openings. If anything comes to mind now, give it a go.

Finally, it is vitally important to remember this: there is no such thing as a perfect opening line. But there are hundreds if not thousands of good enough opening lines. There are slightly fewer good, maybe great opening lines. It won’t be the end of the world if you wind up putting a story out there into the world with a good enough opening line. And chances are, after you’ve done all this work, your opening might be closer to greatness than merely good.

And you should never feel ashamed of writing that is “merely” good.

Writer’s write: don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good

“If the pen fits, write it.”
“If the pen fits, write it.”
Sometimes my posts grow out of a personal rant in response to something I read elsewhere, such as this one disagreeing with someone’s definition of what constitutes a writer. The definition I gave of a writer that time was someone who writes, specifically someone who tells stories in the form of sentences strung together into a narrative. And while I made a distinction between the act of writing background information and the like rather than the actual sentences comprising the story, I was focusing on the act of writing, and not talking about quality or merit. Which isn’t to say that quality isn’t an issue in writing. Anyone creating art of any kind hopes that what they create is good, right?

All too often, that wish for the artwork to be good becomes the greatest obstacle to finish the story. It’s like the proverb, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” It is easy to fall into the trap of rewriting and revising a story (or a single scene) again and again because it isn’t perfect. We may scrap what we’ve written already altogether and start over from scratch because we don’t think it’s good enough. We may refuse to ever show our work to anyone because we don’t think it’s good enough.

If you are caught in that kind of a cycle, it isn’t easy to get out. As frustrating as it is to be in that situation, let me tell you it is at least as frustrating for your friends and loved ones to watch you spin in circles. I don’t have a magic solution, but I have a suggestion. You need to let it go. Show the imperfect draft to someone you trust. Think of it as tearing a bandaid off all at once, so the pain is over quickly. If you can survive showing it to someone, that should tell you you can survive moving forward.

It’s okay if the person you show it to doesn’t like it. But it is even more important to make yourself believe this: it’s also okay if they like it. Don’t listen to the voices in your head telling you that they are just saying it to be nice—listen to this person (who you chose to show it to because you respect and trust them, right?) who is telling you they like it.

And if you’re having trouble believing someone who tells you they like something you wrote or drew or made, think about this: when you don’t believe them, you aren’t being self-deprecating, you are insulting them. You’re saying that your friend has poor taste or is too unsophisticated to judge quality.

Maybe one of the ways I’ve lucked out in life is that I never had people who told me everything I made was wonderful. My mom has absolutely no problem telling me which parts of my published works she wishes I had done differently, for example. Back when my nice Grandma was alive, she similarly had no trouble saying, “I don’t understand it, and didn’t really like it, but if you’re happy…” And don’t get me started on my evil grandmother!

Which gets me to the other part: if people don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it is awful. It may mean the story (or painting or whatever) simply isn’t for them. I think every author that I have ever said I loved, has written at least one book or short story that left me cold. I absolutely adore many other things they’ve made, but for one reason or another that one either put me off, or bounced me out, and left me unsatisfied. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that book or story was bad. It just means that story wasn’t for me.

Let go of the doubt. Let go of the fear. Rip off that band aid and let the art speak for itself. Don’t apologize. Don’t tell people it isn’t very good. And don’t reject any compliments you may get.

If you decide to shelve it after showing it to someone, fine. As long as you move on to the next story. Because a writer writes… and keeps writing!

Gentlefolk, start your (word processing) engines!

It’s nearly time!
Do you like stories? Have you ever thought about telling stories? Do already know that you like telling stories? Do words make you happy? Do you have a favorite word processor, or a favorite pen, or a favorite writing notebook or the like? Do you like a challenge? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work on a creative project at the same time a bunch of other people are working on something similar? If any of the above applies to you, then you might want to give NaNoWriMo a try.

I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once again this year! If you don’t know what that means, let me quote their website:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.

There are rules, but for years I participated as a Rebel, until a few years ago when they dropped the one rule that kept making me a rebel.

  • Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch.
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction.
  • Be the sole author of your novel.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.

That second bullet is the rule that they changed. Most years I use NaNoWriMo as a motivation to work on some stalled or otherwise unfinished projects rather than starting from scratch, which is why I was always over in the Rebel category. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and I find that having a few friends participating and mutually cheering each other on (and in a couple of cases to try to race against, word-count wise) helps me get a lot of work done.

NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. But I’ve seen people who didn’t think they’d like it come out happy that they’d given it a go.

Usually about this point in this post I would veer into some advice about the virtues of getting a draft down and not worrying about quality. And probably will write something about that in the next few days, but a friend shared an interesting post that goes in a slightly different direction that I think many people might find valuable. I should note a couple of things. The Story Nurse gives out customized writing advice, and this particular letter writer talks about struggling with thoughts of suicide and other types of anxiety, and how trying to force themselves to power through stalled writing projects makes that worse. So, consider yourself warned.

Story Nurse #66: Getting Past the Confidence Sinkhole

Having more than one friend who has found that a lot of their frustrations with writing and similar projects were actually symptoms of untreated mental health issues, I can appreciate how the sorts of advice people like me often give out (“just put one word after the other, whatever it takes”) is not only not helpful, but can actually cause harm. I like the way that the Story Nurse breaks out some things to try that are completely different that just trying to force more words out. I am particularly enamored with this suggestion:

Set the goal of creating works that are explicitly for practice, rather than going directly to big projects that you care passionately about. The less emotionally attached you are to the work you’re doing, the less energy you’re feeding into that self-doubt dynamic.

She also suggests keeping a compliment file. That’s a place where you save kind things people say about your work or just about you.

Anyway, take a look at that column. I think several of her suggestions for this letter writer are good things to try. And check out the Story Hospital website for earlier columns.

And if you’re planning to participate in NaNoWriMo, and would like a writing buddy, you can add me: FontFolly. Let’s tell some stories!

We have birds coming to the bird feeder

Trying not to scare the birds away by taking a picture from the further window.
Trying not to scare the birds away by taking a picture from the further window.
At our old place we only sort of had a yard. Our first two landlords (yes, the property ownership changed hands twice during the 21 years I was there) were quite happy to let us manage the two flower beds near our door, and to grow tomatoes in containers, but the lawn portion of the yard and the bushes had to be left as they were. The original landlord had very specifically said he did not want Ray and I to put up a bird feeder, because in his experience they just attracted rats. When the new owner took possession (after Ray died and after Michael and I had gotten together), she said she had no objection if I wanted to put up a bird feeder. But then the question became where.

I will freely admit that much of the appeal of a bird feeder for me is to actually get to see (and hear) the birds. So I wanted to hang it somewhere that I could see it from a window in the house, right? But at the old place I almost always kept the curtains closed, because most of the windows were very close to either the sidewalk (and there was a lot of foot traffic in the old neighborhood) or the walkway to the neighbors’. So whenever the curtains were open it felt as if I were on a stage rather than in my own home. And because the lot the building was on had a steep slope, and our unit was essentially a split-level, the only window whose curtains were routinely open was in the computer room, where the windowsill was about 10 feet from the ground. So if I had found a location to hang the feeder where I could see it from that window, we would have required a ladder on uneven ground to refill the feeder. The upshot was that there was no place that appealed to me to put a feeder so we never had one.

At the new place our veranda is on the third floor (from that side of the building) with tall tress screening most of the view. There are blinds instead of curtains on all the windows, which give us more options. The blinds of the big living room window and the sliding glass door, for instance, are almost always open.

Shortly after we moved in, we bought a sock-style bird feeder kind of on impulse. A friend had been talking about all the goldfinches he got visiting the sock-style feeder he had on the balcony of his apartment, so when I saw one in the store, I grabbed it. After we hung it up, I got one sparrow, but not eating from the feeder. It was eating the seeds that had spilled on the deck when we first set up the feeder.

The feeder was out there all summer. We moved it a few times, thinking that maybe being too close to the window was a problem. It wasn’t just that we never saw any birds at the feeder, the amount of seeds never changed, and there was no bird poop underneath the feeder (something several people warned us we’d be cleaning a lot of once birds starting using the feeder).

I see and hear birds outside from time to time, but never at the sock. I eventually came to the conclusion that at least some of the seeds had started rotting inside the sock, and that clearly a sock-style feeder wasn’t recognized as a food source by the birds in our neighborhood. But I still wanted to try to get some birds visiting the veranda. So we picked up a different type of feeder and a fresh bag of birdseed. I hung the feeder up Saturday. It was raining most of Saturday, and the only birds I saw flying around were crows.

But Sunday morning, while I was out on the veranda having a mug of coffee. A chickadee started flitting in the vicinity of the feeder. It kept flying near it, then flitting away and chirping. Probably being scared off by me. So I went inside. As soon as I got the glass door shut and had walked over the the other window the bird was perched on the feeder and eating enthusiastically. And as I watched, a brown sparrow landed on the other side. They chirped at each other and kept eating. I figured if I opened the blinds further to try to take a picture that would scare them off, so I went over to the glass door to get a picture from there. The second bird had flitted away by the time I had the shot lined up. About five minutes later it was back. I sat down in the living room and just watched them through the blinds.

More birds coming to the feeder!
More birds coming to the feeder!
Over the course of the day, more birds showed up. Some birds went after the seeds that got scattered onto the deck by the other birds eating at the feeder. It appears that the new feeder is a success. I’m hoping this means that there will be a lot more birdsong audible at our house.

The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale

A few weeks back I started this series (part 1, part 2, part 3) referencing a running gag from the movie Throw Momma From the Train, where one writer is hung up on his opening line, trying hundreds of variants of “The night was…” instead of just concentrating on the story itself, then fixing the opening later. The opening is important, of course. When your story is published, you won’t be there to whisper in the reader’s ear “It gets really good once it gets moving. Keep reading and scroll down. It’ll be worth it.” Your opening line (and paragraph, and scene) must do that for you.

The three classic openings are:

  • Into pot, already boiling.
  • The calm before the storm.
  • Opening statement to the jury.

Let’s look at each type:

Into Pot, Already Boiling

With an Into Pot, Already Boiling opening, you begin with something happening. In the first post I made on this topic, I called this method “when the protagonist is hit in the head with brick.” In that post, I talked about the classmate who buried the best opening line for his sports story on page 11: “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.” Into the pot already boiling doesn’t have to be an action-packed opening, there doesn’t have to be violence or fighting or even danger. For example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s short story, “Are These the Actual Miles” is:

Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it. Toni is smart and has personality. She used to sell children’s encyclopedias door to door. She signed him up, even though he didn’t have kids. Afterward, Leo asked her for a date, and the date led to this. This deal has to be cash, and it has to be done tonight.

Or how about this opening from Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud:

The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four fleet shadows dark against the wall. The fall was high, the ground was hard; they made no more sound on impact than the pattering of rain.

Or this classic from Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman:

Jacob Fielding stood in a small room and stared at a body.

This is the kind of opening that most people think off when they talk about a narrative hook. The advantages are that you engage the reader’s curiosity right away. This disadvantage is that you have to balance filling in background with keeping the story moving forward. The more intriguing the opening is, the more leeway the reader will give you in filling in those details. This kind of opening can work for any story, but it is particularly good for a story when most of the plot is driven by the external conflict.

The Calm Before the Storm

With the Calm Before the Storm you show the readers a situation that isn’t obviously a conflict. It seems like a perfectly ordinary day, at first. It’s okay to start by lingering over details–though you should at least hint that there is something else going on. If you hint that something is amiss, the reader will stick through the detail to find out what it all means. But you have to know that something is going to happen, you have to have those hints, and you need to stick to details that create a context for what’s going to happen. For example, the opening to Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front:

We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another mess-tin full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. That puts a man in a fine trim. We have not had such luck as this in a long time. The cook with his carroty head is begging us to eat; he beckons with his ladle to every one that passes, and spoons him out a great dollop. He does not see how he can empty his stewpot in time for coffee.

The hints are there: five miles behind the front, we have not had such luck in a long time. The reader knows that this peaceful situation can’t last. But this opening also demonstrates another trick of this kind of opening. The reader comes to a story expecting something to happen, for the character to have some kind of problem. So more you emphasize how good things are, the more the reader will suspect you’re about to drop on anvil on someone.

That isn’t the only way to start with a scene which seems to be calm, but really portends something worse. Last week I quoted the beginning of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Let’s look at that one again:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Something is amiss, but it isn’t clearly anything serious. The narrator’s little sister had a nightmare and went to sleep in Mother’s bed. It’s only at the end of the paragraph that you get that ominous mention of the reaping.

The Calm Before the Storm can also work with almost any story, though it does go really well with tales where the plot is driven more by the internal conflict–stories where the reader often fears more for whether the character will remain true to their principles or loyal to their companions than whether they survive the external conflift.

Opening Statement to the Jury

The Opening Statement to the Jury is is the hardest one to pull off, because you begin by explaining, in at least an abstract way, what’s going to happen. It’s not unlike when a stage magician tells the audience what the trick is going to be before it happens. But it can be very rewarding if you pull it off. Because by beginning with the statement of your theme, you can also tell the reader’s what’s at stake, and what the conflict is going mean. One example comes to us from Edgar Allan Poe, as the opening line to his short story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”:

There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.

It’s a little abstract, but it can be very effective, especially if what is at stake is a moral dilemma or personal tragedy. I was shocked some years ago when a story I’d been struggling with the opening to for years (and the middle of the story also had some problems in each draft), finally crystallized around a statement to the jury. This is how I finally opened the short story, “The Throne of Osiris”:

It was Karaya’s gift and curse to know the feelings of others better than her own. Perhaps this is what had first drawn her to Faust, in the months after he joined the crew. Despite the considerable talents of the geneticists who designed her, and the battery of experts who had trained her to derive reams of information from the subtlest nuances of body language, Faust had been opaque.

I tell you Karaya’s tragic flaw in the opening sentence, then distract you with those other details, so that as the plot of the tale unfolds, you almost forget the opening line. Until you reach the end of the story, and realize exactly what that opening sentence meant.

An Opening Statement to the Jury can be especially effective in a tragedy. Though I don’t necessarily mean where everyone dies. In my story, for instance, the external conflict is resolved victoriously: the protagonist and all the the supporting characters survive, the villains are defeated, and the population of an entire planet is saved. But, in the end, the protagonist fails to realize something important, and her internal conflict remains unresolved, though the reader has little doubt that that part of her tale is going to eventually lead to tragedy.

And that gets us to the main type of story you should consider this sort of opening for: if what the story is really about is something bigger than either the external conflict alone or the internal conflict alone.

How Do You Choose?

Remember what I said back in part 1, don’t make the mistake of trying to pick the perfect opening at the beginning, and don’t spin your wheels because you don’t know whether you have the perfect opening. In the first draft, just go with what first came to you and keep going until you reach the end. Then, as soon as you do, flip back to the beginning and read your opening once more. Does it still work with your ending? If not, analyze your opening a bit. Figure out which category it fits, then try writing a new opening paragraph or so of each of the other types. Is one of them better?

Spend some time thinking about what drives your plot. Is your story primarily concerned with the internal or external conflict? Is there something bigger going on? Give each a try, and see how those read.

If, after reading these four blog posts and following all the advice leaves you without a killer opening, then what? Well, we’ll talk about that next week!

Coffee and tea and the raining and me

I drink coffee in the mornings and usually switch to tea in the afternoon. At least when I’m in the office. When I’m home (whether it be a work from home day or simply a day off), I’ll make a pot of coffee in the morning, and since I’m the only coffee drinker in the house, that’s usually more than enough for me for the day. Most of the time. If the weather is cold, I’m likely to make a cup of tea or two for myself in the evening. I’ll also opt for tea if I’m feeling under the weather.

The last couple of weeks my husband and I have been fighting off some kind of virus. One or the other of us will get some cold symptoms one day, and the other comes down with the same thing a day or two later. The symptoms never last more than a couple of days, and we seem to get better for several days… until it starts again. But it’s not just us. A number of my friends and several co-workers have been talking of experiencing the same thing.

On my most recent work from home day I woke up with the sinus headache making a comeback, so as I was getting things started, I set up the coffee maker to make a pot of coffee. But there had been just enough left over in the pot to fill my favorite mug, so I also stuck that in the microwave. And because I was feeling as if I were coming down with something again, I also turned on the electric tea kettle, which gets hot enough to make tea before the coffee maker can finish a pot.

I zipped off over to the bathroom to grab my morning meds and came back to the kitchen to find that everything was dark and silent. It took me a moment to realize what had happened. I’d actually tripped the breaker! At our old place we had to be very careful about not having certain appliances running at the same time as others. The place had been built in the 1950s and the wiring just wasn’t really up to a modern set of gadgets. So we had been very careful here, and had tested a few times to see if we had a similar problem. I was delighted that we could have the microwave and the dishwasher running at the same time without a breaker going.

But we had never had the microwave, coffee pot, and electric kettle all going at the same time, along with the under the cabinet lights that are on the same circuit.

I grabbed my coffee mug out of the microwave and sipped warmish coffee while the real coffee maker perked. And when it was done, I turned the kettle back on and made one cup of tea, because now I was craving tea. I know it’s weird, but when I’m not feeling well there is something soothing about tea that coffee just doesn’t deliver.

And because if was nicely raining and foggy outside, and I had a little time before I had to call into my first meeting, I went out on the veranda to drink the mug of tea. It was cool and breezy out there, so if I had lingered over the tea too long it would have gotten cold. As it was, it was barely above tepid by the time I reached the end of the mug and headed inside.

More than one friend had commented on my love of the veranda. I’m sure it seems very odd. There are so many things I liked about living in our old neighborhood, and I’d been happy living in that specific building for over 21 years. But it wasn’t perfect. There were things we didn’t have, such as a nice spot to sit outside if the weather was at all amenable. I mean, yeah, sometimes I would set up one of the camp chairs on the front lawn, but the lawn was just right next to the sidewalk, and we had a relatively busy neighborhood, so there were always people walking by and I always felt as if I was in a public space. It was always a little odd.

But I really like being able to hear the rain and the wind and the birds and the sound of the neighborhood. And opening windows gives you some of that… but also makes your heating bills really high. Having the veranda–being able to be outside but not have others walk by just a few feet away all the time is really nice. So I go out there a lot. Even now that the weather is getting cooler.

I have been using the temperature of the coffee or tea I take out with me to keep track of the time. Which is especially important if I take more writing out there with me, because it’s easy to lose track, and then wonder why my feet are swelling up with pre-gout because they’ve gotten too cold.

So I need the coffee to wake me, the tea to sooth and focus me, and the rain to inspire me.

Does that make me high maintenance? Or just human?

One brain, two brains, my brain, your brains!

Cup of coffee with the phrase, “Hello Darkness, my old friend.”
“Hello Darkness, my old friend.”
I’ve seen the opinion expressed more than once that there is nothing more boring than reading about other people’s dreams. But I have also noticed that the people who say that frequently are the sorts whose blogging consists of long cynical (and boring) discourses on how horrible every single person they have ever known is and/or how every book/game/movie/TV series episode they watch is horrible. So, I’m going to ignore them.

Recently I had a weird series of dreams. My husband leaves for work about two hours before I need to get up to get ready for my job. So most weekday mornings I wake up at least partially while he’s getting ready. So I may mumble something to him and roll back over in bed, then wake up a couple of times again before my alarm goes off, each time squinting at the clock and being relieved that I have time to get a little more sleep in. This was one of those mornings. Right after Michael left, I fell back to sleep and seemed to immediately begin dreaming that our friend, Keith, was trying to help me reach an important destination and was driving me in a car belonging to another friend, Mark. We kept getting interrupted by weird things, like a golden box full of Magic: The Gathering Cards being left on the side of the road, or a couple of people who desperately needed directions somewhere, and I was getting increasingly worried we weren’t going to make it to whatever we were trying to get to.

Then someone outside was revving their car motor, and I woke up enough to squint at the clock, note that I had only been asleep, at most, 25 minutes, and fell back again. And I began dreaming not about the weird road trip, but instead about trying to finish laundry. Except the laundry room was inexplicably located inside a hollow tree in a park that was perhaps across the street from my home. It was a little unclear. I kept running back home to work on errands, then back to the park to move the laundry from one machine to another. And there was this guy who kept stopping me in the park to ask questions. I kept thinking he was trying to steal my wallet, and then being relieved that I still had it each time I got away from him.

Something woke me up again, I peered at the clock to see that I still have nearly an hour to go before the alarm went off, and rolled back over to start dreaming about helping a bunch of people I didn’t know restore a six-color web press because we needed to get news out to the world because there had been some horrible disaster, the city was half destroyed, and so forth. I had been drafted to help because I had some familiarity with the process. Some moments the group I was working with included soldiers or government agents of some sort, and other moments we were all just ordinary civilians.

Then I heard another noise outside, pried my eyes open, and saw that my alarm clock was going to go off in less than twenty minutes. And I needed to go to the bathroom, but even though I only had a few minutes left before the alarm went off, I laid back down afterward and closed my eyes. And seemed to immediately dream that I was awakened by a noise outside and I looked to see what time it was and the clock clearly said it was 6:20pm, and I had somehow slept through the entire day or possibly several days and I need to get up right now and start getting ready…

…and I did leap out of bed, because I was convinced I was very late for work, and I grabbed my watch off the charger, strapped it on my wrist, was trying to get my thoughts together… and the watch on my wrist started vibrating because it was exactly 7:30 in the morning and time to wake up. And I stood there, after tapping the snooze button, for a good 40 seconds trying to figure out what was dream and what was reality, because I swear that the watch was flashing in weird colors both a time and a date later in the week just milliseconds before it started vibrating on my wrist, and I was standing there wearing the watch and its face was just changing to 7:31, so the jumping up and grabbing the watch had been real while also being part of the dream.

And while my watch has a lot of customizable faces, none of them look anything like the flashing “OMG, you’re late!” watch face which I could still close my mind and see in memory as if I had just been looking at it.

I don’t understand my brain. I mean, sometimes I am able to tell that a particular dream is just anxiety manifesting because of things going on in real life. And occasionally I recognize individual elements in a dream as probably being inspired by this specific thing that happened to us recently. But mostly they are just weird mishmashes of things that make no sense outside of a dream. So sometimes I think it is a pretty amazing that we manage to communicate and have conversations and such where we seem to understand each other.

Even more amazing that we can read some fiction that someone else has written and get caught up with it to the point that we imagine the events of the story, become invested deeply enough to care about what happens to the imaginary people, and even get into long arguments with other people about whether these imaginary people in an imaginary setting having imaginary adventures were portrayed realistically. Like the time back in high school where one friend angrily asserted, “Come on! A real dragon would never behave that way!” and another starting laughing so hard, he fell off his chair.

In conclusion: brains are weird. Not just mine.