Tongue in Cheek Short Stories

There are certain forms of short story that present facts mixed with rather preposterous circumstances or situations. The net result is a rather humorous story, especially if the reader quickly catches on to its underlying farcical nature. Like most all short stories, the ending is intended to be a surprise. Further, the ending should amuse, typically by playing on an idiom or using a bastardized twist to a well-known phrase or bromide. I call these Tongue-In-Cheek, or TIC, short stories. I do so because their only reason for being is to insight laughter (maybe even guffaws for the exceptionally good one). These types of stories seem to be especially common in the science fiction genre. I’ve observed over the years that many SF fans have a dry sense of humor, so I suppose it all fits.

I recently read one of these stories which is what prompted this post. The story differs from my description above in one notable way: it was a novelette rather than a short story. Being of longer length I found myself disappointed in the ending. Not that the ending lacked humor. It would have been just fine had the story been half as long or less. In my opinion, a novelette is too long a piece for a TIC story. Why? Because when I put the kind of time needed into reading a novelette I’m looking for something more than just a punch line at the end.

The author is a professional and did a great job of using what I would describe as an “old English” style narrative that seemed to fit another time and place (supposedly far in the future). I would also say the story was as much fantasy as it was what I consider SF.

Many publications still pay based on word count. Maybe the author got more money for his efforts, but for sure he got no guffaws from me. Not even a heart-felt chuckle.

 

FICWA Regroup

 

29_light-night

In my most recent post (September 29, 2017) I introduced the concept of FICWA (Fiction Inline Commentary Writing Approach). My plan was to continue posting on this method as I demonstrate how it can be used. Unfortunately, the FICWA write-up requires several MSWord features, primarily line numbering, that WordPress does not support. In order to get my Sept. 29 post loaded into my blog I used a very cumbersome and time-consuming work-around. Consequently, I’ve decided that I will develop a separate booklet for the FICWA material rather than try to post it. Once I’m far enough along in writing the booklet I’ll have a downloadable version available.

Exploring fiction writing methods has been a major interest of mine since I took my first fiction writing seminar years ago. I’ve read many of the recommended books on the subject and I still feel there is much useful research to be done. Every writer tries different approaches as they develop their skills and discover what things work best for them. During one writing seminar I attended the speaker made a profound observation. Although he was primarily a science fiction author, he stated that, “All fiction books are mysteries.”  I immediately understood what he was getting at; we read stories to find out what happens. If we knew what happened our motivation for reading the story would diminish.

A very popular storytelling technique these days is to start by showing a glimpse of the ending scene of the story and then go back to the beginning. I say a glimpse because enough of the ending is shown to tantalize us and pique our interest, but no so much as to give away the ending. In other words, the mystery is still there to goad us into doing the reading.

My point is that mysteries naturally lead to questions like: who did it, or what happened, or who won, or when or where did an event take place, or just plain why? The core concept of FICWA revolves around the questions the story generates and the answers it gives. I’m thinking that’s key to it all.

Inline Commentary Fiction Writing

In this post I’m going to introduce a possible method for fiction story writing. I got the idea while attending a fiction writing seminar where the speaker offered this tip: “I like to write sentences that beget other sentences.” I’d never heard this expression before but it seemed worth a closer look. I understood what the speaker was getting at: write a sentence that refers to, or alludes to, things that require further elucidation. Then, in subsequent sentences the writer has some idea of what to write more about — those things needing elucidation. (Clearly this is more suited for those of us who are pantsers).

As an example, consider the following sentence:

line 1

Notice two things about this sentence. First, it has a line number on the left (more about this later). Second, this sentence raises a number of questions. Assuming it is the starting sentence of a story, then: 1) who is “I,” 2) who is Mark, 3) why would I think he wanted to kill me, and 4) what did he do that shocked me? Also, 5) we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in, nor 6) the timeframe of the scene. There are also the 7) inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.

In subsequent paragraphs we start filling in this information, mindful that in so doing we can allude to still more things that require elucidation. For now, which of the above questions do we address first? Well, let’s just draft an arbitrary sample of a plausible next paragraph and see what we find.

line2

line3

This paragraph addresses questions Q3 and Q4 above, but that’s about it. Further, it adds to our list of questions: 8) who is ringing the doorbell, 9) what do “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare mean, 10a) why did Mark kill himself, and 10b) why did Mark jump instead of putting his gun to his head and pulling the trigger? Of these questions it seems to me we first need to address Q8 – who is ringing the doorbell. It is human nature to respond to an incessantly sounding notification, be it doorbell or phone. Anyway, the “I” in the story can’t do anything for the guy who went over the planter so he may as well answer the door.

line4

line5

line6

Now we have a partial answer to Q1 and Q2. We know that “I” is Jeff Bailor and that Mark is Mark Wye, an accountant. However, before going further it is evident that we could use some help in tracking all these questions and answers. Below is a simple table that may do the job. This is where the line numbers come in handy. In MSWord these numbers can be readily added on any selected text. However, I don’t think it necessary to be too precise in referring to them. The idea is they help us refer back to the general area in the text where the question or answer was presented. For example, the line number could just as easily refer to the paragraph containing the question or answer. Also, note the line column to the left of the addresses column refers to the line (or paragraph) that gives an answer to the question. Note that the line numbers in this post apply only to story lines. Also note that many answers are not complete answers; that is, we can expect more complete information later on.  For this reason the column on the right is titled Addresses meaning the entry may not be the complete answer. Cells in the table that are left blank mean no entry has been identified for them yet. Thus we see, for instance, that I have not yet addressed Q6 – the timeframe of the scene.

 

line QUESTION line ADDRESSED
1 1 – who is “I,” 40 Jeff Bailor
1 2 – who is Mark 40 Mark Wye, accountant
1 3 – why would I think he would want to kill me 2 Mark was brandishing a gun at him, threating to shoot
1 4 – what did he do that shocked me 8 Ran out to the balcony and jumped over the planter, plunging to his death
1 5 – we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in 47 In Mark Wye’s apartment on the 7th floor
1 6 – the timeframe of the scene
1 7 – inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.
1 7a – what is the relationship between the two men 35 Mark was Jeff’s accountant
1 7b – what brought them to be together at this time and place
5 8 – what did Mark mean by “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare”
19 9 – what caused the two cops to come to the door, especially with guns drawn

 

This is a lot to take in in one post, so I’ll end it here and continue the discussion in a subsequent post. I’m not sure if this method has been identified by others; I can only say that I came up with it on my own from the inspirational tip mentioned in the beginning. For lack of a better term I’d call this method the Fiction Inline Commentary Writing Approach, or FICWA. If I had to define it in a few sentences I would describe it as: a writing tool consisting of original numbered-line fiction text interspersed with inline commentary. The later focuses on the identification and accounting of explicit, implicit, or anticipated questions and answers raised in the fiction text. A simple table method is used to facilitate Q/A tracking. The table need not be embedded inline and in fact is more easily used if in a separate window (assuming a computer is used).

 

 

 

 

OADA and Character Drive

OADA_jpg

 

Character motivation is also part of the OADA model (see my August 25 and Sept. 2 posts). Fiction writing classes often emphasize the importance of knowing what the protagonist wants. What the protagonist wants gives focus to the story and forms a basis for whatever motivation s/he might have. All characters have wants even though it’s the protagonist’s wants that the story centers on.

The truth is that wants say a lot about a person; they can be incredibly telling. For example, suppose one of my middle-age characters has wanted to be a successful novelist all of her adult life, yet has failed to complete her first manuscript. We immediately know that she is not applying herself; no one has to tell us this. More telling is when we learn she has no plan to achieve what she wants. She is either a person who can delude herself or she is trying to delude others.

Some wants have a time limit. Suppose my nineteen-year-old character wants to break into major league baseball. He has joined a minor league team and is doing all the right things. However, we all know he only has a limited number of years to make it into the majors. That’s the nature of professional sports. It also happens to be pretty typical of other pursuits, like the performing arts.

Our character’s plans for achieving what s/he wants comprise his forecasted trajectory through the story. If the want is significant enough, at some point it shakes up his routine existence. Also, it is typical that a preliminary trajectory may be altered along the way. The character may realize that the grind of going to medical school, for instance, is more than he bargained for. Or the wannabe thespian character may decide to leave New York City after years of disappointing audition outcomes. Characters, like people in the real world, should be a work-in-progress. We learn from our mistakes; we try new things knowing they may not work for us; and we have varying levels of risk tolerance at different ages. Adult wants can be tied to human traits such as determination, work ethic, biases, beliefs, talents, and life styles.

How much of the above an author wants to deal with in a story is s/he’s call. However, a common complaint from fiction readers is that too many of our characters are overused. I think much of this stems from using simplified character. Humans are complex; we don’t always know what we want and we certainly can have multiple wants – sometimes conflicting wants. Our wants can be short-term and long-term. Logically, the short-term is more about intermediate wants whereas the long term is about goals and dreams. That said, many characters (like people) move their dreams into the short term. I once met a young lady working in a NYC smoothie shop who had been there six years trying to break into theater. After I made my purchase and left it occurred to me: how many more years was she willing to try before she either succeeded or gave up?

Interestingly, there can be interplay between wants and self-identity. Our character may desperately want a big house on a hill, a CEO position at a big company, a few million dollars to spend, or to be a star on a TV show. S/he may never feel happy about themselves if they go through life not achieving such goals. On the other hand, some who do achieve their goal allow it to define them. They can’t very well separate who they are from: 1) their occupation, 2) their domicile, 3) their need to be in the public’s eye, or 4) their expensive toys. As an aside, several best-selling authors have mentioned that, despite their photographs on their books and at bookstores, most of their readers wouldn’t recognize them if they were alone in an elevator with them (as many have been at events such as workshops). So, if one strives for fame and fortune, perhaps writing novels is not the optimal career path.

I’ve been focusing my fiction work on characters who are complex and adapt to the events that influence their lives. They have multiple wants and priorities for fulfilling them. They can see opportunities when they present themselves. They also fail. In contrast, it’s easy to find many drama series on TV that have grown stale. The reason is clear: even though the characters appear to have their wins and losses over many episodes, they never really change. I insist on one quality for all my protagonists: they must learn from their mistakes.

 

OADA and the Routine

OADA_jpg

 

In this post, I want to talk more about the OADA model for writing (see my August 25 post). The accompanying illustration shows more of what comprises OADA. While further OADA development is needed, this graphic introduces the ROUTINE SCRIPT as well as other stored matter that resides in our MEMORY. Let’s face it – no one can function without memory. Not only that – without memory we have no identity. Don’t believe me? Then talk with someone who has firsthand experience with the unfortunate souls suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

When I sit at my computer and start writing with a fresh, blank screen I do what a lot of “pantsers” do: I think about my characters interacting with situations. I tend to think this way because that is how life unfolds to us humans. When folks hear about something happening to a friend or relative, only part of the news is the event itself. The rest of the news is how it affects them. For example, suppose Sam’s close friends know he lives paycheck to paycheck and is just scraping by. If they learn Sam was mugged by a street gang and his injuries will keep him laid up for a few weeks, their first thoughts revolve around his medical condition. Once they know he will recover, their thoughts shift to how will he pay his medical bills and recover his lost wages. The mugging was the event; being injured and penniless is the situation.

Another way to think about this example is that Sam has been temporarily removed from his routine (day-to-day) life and now faces new challenges. During Sam’s routine existence his OADA process pretty much ran on automatic. Sure, he still observed, assessed, made decisions, and acted; it simply wasn’t anything noteworthy. For example, he observed that it was going to be a cold day so he assessed that a light jacket was advisable. He decided to wear it, thus he grabbed his jacket and put it on. This routine existence is represented by the ROUTINE SCRIPT shown in the graphic under the MEMORY area. This doesn’t mean Sam doesn’t have hopes, dreams, plans, wants, and the like. It simply means all those things are stored another place in his memory, perhaps in the location called PLANS, WANTS, & EXPERIENCES.

Now, however, Sam is confronted with a new situation. Now his OADA process is running in high gear, thrashing around in his memory searching for ideas and options based on his experiences and knowledge. Sam’s mind, like most of ours, thinks in terms of questions: how can I recoup the money I’ve lost from missing work? How can I get money to pay my medical bills? How can I avoid another mugging – I didn’t have any money on me anyway?

Fortunately, Sam’s friends come by and let him know they can help with the bills. He has done a good turn or two for all of them over the years and thinks perhaps they can help solve his problem. Each of them gives him a slip of paper with the amount they can contribute. Luckily, Sam sees that his friends will indeed help him over the hump. With their help and his short-term disability income, it should be enough to get him back on his feet.

Stepping back for a moment, I don’t see that I have much of a story to write at this point. I don’t have anything against happy endings but I do want to avoid routine and predictable situations. The truth is that the day-to-day routine of our characters plays an important role in a story. It provides the backdrop, the reference from which we (as readers and writers) can recognize what’s changed. We can also better understand what the character is thinking and feeling when things change by knowing what passed for the status quo before the change.

I could build a story by making Sam’s situation more challenging. Let’s say he is about to divorce his second wife and will have to pay more alimony (he’s still paying alimony to his first wife). This pretty much means the help his friends offer is not going to get him where he needs to be. He has to consider more drastic action, like selling his car or subleasing his apartment and moving in with his brother Larry.

There are more options for Sam to look at, any number of which will cause him to depart his routine life. Then things will start getting interesting. However, I’m going to stop here with this example because it has illustrated my points.

There are two more points I want to make on this topic. One is that making changes in Sam’s life could eventually lead to his establishing a new routine. In other words, routines are not permanent but over time can be re-cast. This underscores an aspect of human nature: most days in our lives are, well, routine. The second point addresses the unique challenges that science fiction and fantasy writers face when they are worldbuilding. They have to consider what is routine in their world and what is not. Since their worlds are different from what we human readers know to be normal, they have to clearly make us aware of the distinction between routine events and the unusual.

 

OADA Model for Writers

Understanding human behavior in military operations has long been of interest to defense analysts. For several decades I made a living performing analysis and simulation of pilot performance and air combat for the Air Force. Our primary focus was on simulating the human decision making process. One process model we used extensively was comprised of four steps: 1) observe, 2) assess, 3) decide, and 4) act, or OADA. The general idea behind this and similar models is that, when we humans perform rationally, there are clear steps we follow. The first is to observe the situation around us; the second is to assess any changes in our situation; the third is to decide what action (if any) to take if a situational change occurs; and the forth is to take the selected action. Naturally, this is a continuous process we humans “run” in our minds over and over again while we’re awake. The most basic instinct of humans is survival and this process model supports the survival impulse.

As an illustration, suppose I’m walking down the left side of the street when I observe a truck coming towards me on the same side of the street. I initially think nothing of the truck, of course, unless I observe that it is being steered erratically. If its motion is erratic I quickly assess this information and decide to smartly walk toward the left, away from the street and to a nearby brick building. The truck now has my full attention as I observe its continued erratic movement. I move faster and notice an entrance into the building that I can duck into. I observe that the truck has not reduced speed and is now coming over the curb, heading in my general direction. As it does I run into the recessed entrance and try the door. It opens and I enter just as the truck’s front corner hits the front of the brick building and it starts to buckle. I jump as far into the building foyer as I can and, seeing a woman behind a large custom desk, yell to her to take cover as I crawl for the left side of the desk.

In the above example it is obvious that I’m continually observing the situation, assessing what has changed, deciding what I should do about it, and then doing it. When writing about a protagonist (or any character) in a story I find it useful to keep this OADA model in mind. Why? Because I can logically consider what my protagonist is thinking about and what s/he is doing. If nothing much is going on around him, he may be thinking about his goals (wants) and the plans he has developed for reaching them (foreshadowing). Or he may be mulling over events of the past (giving the reader a taste of backstory) or formulating questions or issues that will serve to guide his future activities. In other words, there are many things our characters can be doing and much of it goes on in their minds. Why is this so important? Because knowing this information gives the reader clues as to the character’s worldview and what meanings they associate with what situations. For example, a woman may be in a dangerous situation but feel that as long as her pet Rover is with her she can fend off any attackers. The reader may understand and even relate to this viewpoint but may have a different assessment of the situation. The point is the reader understands why the woman acts the way she does.

There is much more to say about the OADA model and ways to expand it to serve as a tool to help us writers navigate character behavior. This is the first of several posts I plan to write on the topic so stay tuned.

 

Blame Transference

Novels are a rich resource for examining human behavior. To be sure, human behavior is what story writing is all about. When we read a novel and see some parts of ourselves in it this makes the novel more meaningful, more real, and more relevant. We may also see character behaviors that offer insights into the behavior of people we’ve encountered.

From this we might conclude that authors possess extensive training in human psychology. It’s true there are authors who have such training but my research suggests they are a small minority. Apparently this is not a big handicap for most novelist judging by their success. However, readers must judge for themselves how well an author captures human behavior in a story. I observe that many adults have a good grasp of human behavior. Indeed, one need not be old to have encountered many human emotions in one’s self and in others: anger, sadness, excitement, elation, enthusiasm, curiosity, apathy, disappointment, hubris, revenge, and many others. Furthermore, most adults have some understanding of how people relate to each other, including displays of: respect, envy, pity, jealousy, abuse, disregard, resentment, love, and hate. Most emotions can be expressed either against things or against ourselves, or against other people.

In this post, I want to draw attention to blame transference. The word blame suggests that something has gone wrong and there is the issue of who’s responsible. The responsible party is of course the one to blame. The consequences of such blame depend on the circumstances, but a screw-up at work could result in loss of pay, status, or even the job. Our egos can also suffer when we do the adult thing and accept blame when appropriate.

Blame transference is all about people assigning their blame to someone else (or something else) who is not responsible. For example, if Sue has a lousy childhood because of her parent’s dysfunction then they are responsible. Whether Sue blames them or not, interestingly, is another matter. Suppose Sue grew up never feeling unconditional love from her mother. She might blame her mother for this – except she has another conflicting emotion: the desire to put her mother’s needs above hers in an attempt to win her mother’s praise and acceptance. Sue has confused and even replaced the underlying long-unmet need for maternal love with a here-and-now need for her mother’s praise and acceptance. An objective observer might suggest to Sue that as a mature woman she accept that the past cannot be changed and acknowledge her mother’s shortcomings (even confront her if Sue feels the need or will). Further, Sue would do well to seek praise and acceptance elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are not enough objective observers around and Sue doesn’t get the insight she needs until much later in life.

I can say without hesitation that I’ve been guilty of transferring (my) blame to others on several occasions. In general, I can say that at the time (thankfully years ago) I knew I was reacting badly to a difficult situation but didn’t realize I was “taking it out on someone else.” Fortunately, life has a way of educating us as we age and are better able to look back and see things for what they were. As a result, I now do my best to look out for potential transference situations, both in myself and the people around me.

I don’t think fiction writers give this behavioral phenomena as much attention as it deserves. Considering that it can and does cause all manner of problems in people’s lives it should be on the short list of problems for protagonists to have to deal with.

The Perfect Murder Mystery

I’ve read my fair share of mystery novels. It’s a genre I enjoy, although I’m not an expert sleuth. Even so, after years of exposure to mystery stories and “true crime” TV shows I think I’ve got the hang of what an aspiring villain should not do when committing a murder. It’s pretty straightforward – just look at those who got caught and what they did wrong, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The first thing a villain must do if committing the perfect murder is have a plan. Whatever the villain does, he/she must not commit a murder at the spur of the moment. The reasons for this are evident in the subsequent rules that follow.

Rule #1: No crimes of passion.

Another painfully obvious observation from true crime stories is that law enforcement is always looking for links between the victim and the killer. These include relatives, in-laws, co-workers, bosses, love interests, and rivals. Clearly, as detectives find and identify links, they hope to discover all possible suspects and then narrow in on the guilty party.

Rule #2: No known relationship to the victim.

Hitchcock’s 1951 movie Strangers on a Train gives us an interesting twist on this rule. In the story two men who meet on a train explore the idea of each killing someone the other wishes to have killed. One wishes his wife dead and the other wants his father dead so he can get his inheritance. Because they are otherwise strangers, this “exchange” of murders represents a good example of Rule #2.

However, another thing that becomes obvious from these stories is that people who go soliciting other people to do their killing make a crucial mistake: now at least one other person knows about their nefarious plan. If the other person goes to the police (before or after any murders happen) the villain is exposed.

Rule #3: Confide in no one.

This was the error made by the murderer in Hitchcock’s movie. Once one of them killed his co-conspirator’s intended victim, the co-conspirator knew he did it. Later a witness verified who the killer was when the “innocent” co-conspirator refused to go through with his side of the deal.

So, we come to the situation where the villain must do the dirty deed himself. The first smart thing to do is to make sure that no forensic evidence is left at the scene of the crime:

Rule #4 Leave no forensic evidence at the crime scene.

Next, it is wise to put as much time and space between the villain and the victim’s death as possible. The classic example of this is the killer secretly damaging the brake lines on the victim’s car. Later, the victim drives down a dangerous road and the brakes fail, causing the car to fall down an embankment and kill the driver. Naturally, the villain is careful not to leave a trace that he was the one who damaged the brakes. Also, the villain is many miles away at the time and place of the driver’s death. A similar but more dramatic approach is to mount an exploding device under the victim’s car. The car ignition could turn on the device and blow up the car and its occupant. Even better, the use of a time delay would trigger the explosion some time later, likely after the car was driven away. This scheme increases the likelihood that the car is moving when the explosion occurs, probably making the crime scene more complicated for the police to analyze.

Rule #5: Ensure separation in time and space between the killer’s actions and the time/place of the murder. Go for the appearance of an accident.

Complying with all the above rules is very nearly impossible. Thus, the villain needs a technological solution in order to achieve the perfect murder. Specifically, the villain needs a non-human (i.e. robot) co-conspirator that can do the dirty work yet never “spill the beans.” This could be something as simple as a flying drone programmed to fly to the victim’s location and crash/explode on them (essentially a smart bomb). Or it could be a sophisticated humanoid robot that gets the job done much like a human would (using a gun, knife, explosives, fisticuff, etc.). As long as these robotic devices are not traceable back to the villain, and the villain ensures he has a solid alibi, a perfect murder appears possible.

Now having laid down the theoretical requirements for the perfect murder mystery, there is only one concern left to address. If, as Rule #2 states, the villain has no relationship with the victim, why would they want to kill them? In true crimes, interestingly, this situation occurs rather often. It occurs every time a drug addict kills a stranger while attempting to rob them.

 

Read More Fiction – Simile Sins

Successful fiction writers have a few pieces of advice they all have in common. In this post, I want to address this one: read more fiction. According to this popular viewpoint, one of the best ways to learn how to write fiction is to read a lot of it. In the past few years I’ve tried to follow this advice by both reading more fiction and reading a wider range of fiction. Outside of my mainstay genre of science fiction, I’ve read mysteries, thrillers, YA, and adventures. This has given me a broader perspective on many aspects of story writing.

A consequence of reading more is I also read more closely. And hence, also more critically. I think this is natural for me as I’ve spent much of my life analyzing things. I tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph, consider its meaning, and then go to the next and repeat the process. I mentally combine the meanings as I read along and form a collective overall interpretation of the paragraph. If the paragraph is well structured it is clear to me what it says and what it accomplishes in the narrative.

I’ve found that some sentences can be very disruptive to this process. The nature of this disruption can be described by my reaction to reading one of them; usually the reaction is, “Say what?” I’ve noted that certain types of sentences cause this reaction more often than others. Specifically, this seems to happen the most when I come across similes.

Many fiction writers either believe, or have been taught, that similes are essential creative “brushstrokes” in the world of literary fiction. There’s no doubt that a well-formed simile is a joy to encounter. It tends to enrich us, perhaps even provide us insight. On the other hand, poor similes can throw me right out of the story. What follows is what I consider a pretty good simile:

“Getting Joe to take out the trash is like trying to push a rope.”

What makes this a good simile is that we are all familiar with rope and we all know that, while it works well for pulling things, it is not good for pushing things. Unfortunately, rope does not give us any insight into Joe.

The following is a sentence I arbitrarily picked from a published fiction novel involving sailboats:

“His fingers kept crawling up the sides of his jacket like crabs”.

Not bad in my view. We’ve all seen crabs or videos of them and have seen their sideways movement. There may even be a bit of insight if the jacket wearer’s fingers are slender.

Let’s try another one, also from a fiction novel but this one was published by one of the big five publishing houses:

“The blossoms smelled like sex as the warm breeze scattered a confetti of pedals upon us.”

Ugh! I have all kinds of problems with this sentence. First, I did a Google search and there are many opinions about what sex smells like. Only a few mentioned anything about blossoms or the like. Second, sex doesn’t really have much to do with the paragraph this line appears in (take my word for it) although the first-person author may have had romance on her mind. Third, the phrase a confetti of doesn’t work well when we all know that confetti is composed of different colored very small pieces of paper. I would drop out the phrase entirely. Here is how I would have written the sentence:

“The warm breeze scattered the fragrant blossom pedals upon us.” 

Of course, this is no longer a simile. However, we all have experienced fragrant blossoms and can readily envision the wind scattering them on us. Sometimes as writers we work too hard to try to form creative, enriching similes. I’m especially mindful of the definition of words when composing a simile. If I end up with a simile that I feel might be a stretch, or is awkward, I take it out rather than risk throwing the reader out of my story.

Here is one last one –  taken from a book on fiction writing:

“Fiction writing can be a difficult, lonely job – like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”

This is pretty good although I’m not a big fan of it. On the one hand, I get what the author means. On the other hand, why the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest ocean. Perhaps the author didn’t think people would know that, or be that picky; after all, the Atlantic is the second largest. I think I understand the bathtub: we all are familiar with them, they have no locomotion, and no way to steer. Also, they are too small for much company. Thus, the trip would certainly be slow going and lonely at best.

Unfortunately, the bathtub offers no insight into writing (not even if one is talking about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Another reason I am not a fan of this simile is that, while I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (so I have no personal reference as to how big it is). I have flown across the Pacific Ocean, but that goes back to my earlier comment. Lastly, there is a strong element of danger in crossing an ocean in a bathtub that has no counterpart in fiction writing.

If I had tried to write this simile I would have left the ocean and bathtub out of it. Rather, I’d have gone for phrases like self-incarceration with extended periods of solitary confinement. The thing about self-incarceration that appeals to me is that, interestingly enough, it would give me plenty of time to both read and write fiction.

 

The King (Stephen) and I

2PIC_final

It never occurred to me that I should compare my life to that of any of my contemporaries. Of course, like most people I’ve always kept a general awareness of what people my age are doing; but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of myself to anyone. The idea came to me while reading the first part of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Early in his book Mr. King mentions he was born in 1947, the same year I was born. As I read on I discovered he had childhood measles, which I had, as well as having to have his tonsils removed. Me too. At this point I decided it would be interesting to look more into the similarities and differences between the highly popular writer and myself. In particular I was looking for actions, events, and/or influences in our respective lives that likely factored into the different career paths we took. Since I’ve never met him I used only what he provides in his book.

As I read on, other things we had in common during childhood included liking science fiction and comic books. He mentions that the newest 1950s technology (black and white television) was late in coming to his family. It was late coming to mine as well. Perhaps the greatest similarity of all, however, was his early display of interest and talent in story writing, and my early display of interest and talent in comic book art.

Regarding my early interest in art, during the first four years of grade school I was the “go to” kid for doing art projects in my classes. I think this came about when in second grade I was so fascinated by a newspaper comic strip called Dondi that I drew three full-size panels of a similar character and showed them to my teacher. She was so impressed she mounted them on the bulletin board for the school to see. I had used India ink and artboard – all very professional looking. Then in third grade (or was it fourth) another teacher had me do all the artwork for a large paper mural that she put on the wall. My mother was so proud of me she came to school and took several 3.5×3.5 inch photos of the mural, which showed a mapping of national parks. The two photos she took are at the start of this post. I did the small drawings that are shown around the outside of the map boarder. I also added lines running from them to park locations on the map.

The significance of showing these photos of my mural artwork is not to impress anyone (not that they would). Rather, it offers some proof of my artistic bent at an early age. For example, the teacher did not ask for volunteers to do the drawings; she simply asked me to do them.

As it turns out, however, I was humbled by the accomplishment Stephen King recounts early in his book. He writes that he was ill much of his first-grade year; so much so that he missed much of school and was held back a year. While homebound much of that first year he mentions reading many comics and writing a few stories. Most notably, he describes putting together a 4-page story that he had laboriously hand printed for his mother to read. Wow! I can’t help but be impressed – I don’t remember much about my first grade but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have written even a 1-page story by the end of the school year. In those days first grade Dick and Jane books were very basic i.e. “see Spot run.” I have to believe this action was a pivotal time in the author’s life, signifying a deep interest and talent in story narrative.

I no longer feel dismayed about never having gone anywhere with my artistic talents. While I did enjoy drawing, I did not display a comparable level of natural aptitude for art that King did for story writing. He mentions that his mother was highly supportive of his talent, and I can say my mother was highly supportive of mine. In those days the attitude of most parents towards their children was, “children should be seen and not heard.”  Fortunately, some mothers back then understood more about nurturing young sons than about useless, archaic proverbs.