Literary Heritage or Irrelevancy?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A couple of weeks ago there was what you might call a mini literary dust-up here in Australia following the revelation that over a third of the winners of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Miles Franklin Award) are now out of print. 

This prize was only awarded as of 1957 so we’re not talking about ancient tomes, but rather a body of literature that some people at least regard as critical. In lamenting this situation, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival said (and I quote) “the best writing is timeless, and without some recognition and understanding of our literary history, we’re forever focused on the new – as if history, knowledge and culture don’t play a part in our understanding of ourselves.”

In recent months there has been a lot of finger pointing about how people are losing touch with their literary heritage. This includes a lengthy debate over the failure of Australian universities to teach Australian literature and the generally shabby way in which our so-called literary darlings have been treated. 

I recently attended a lecture intent on helping revive interest in some of the so-called Australian classics and I have to admit I did start to wonder – should we really be worried about such dire pronouncements about our so called literary heritage? Or does the fact that no-one is reading these novels only point to the fact that they aren’t really classics that have withstood the passage of time. Maybe (dare I say it) they are just too dull to survive?

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing books out there that are no longer in print. There are also classics, however, that continue to be as popular as ever (people are still reading Dickens and Jane Austen after all). 

Should we really be force-feeding kids with books simply in the name of preserving ‘literary heritage’ (and to be honest I’m not sure I even know what this even means!) 

Likewise I feel passionate that we shouldn’t neglect our literary past or ignore well-written books in order to merely pander to popular taste but the study of literature is (I hope) about much more than either of these things….

And yet…

What does this say about the relevance of so-called ‘classics’ to readers today? Should we be forced to feel some collective guilt over what may just be a natural evolutionary process (whereby the torpid and the dull don’t survive?)

What do you think? No matter whether you live (and I’m assuming Australia isn’t alone in it’s predicament – although if it is, that might be even more telling!) do you think we should be concerned about our so-called literary heritage? Should we be worried about keeping the winners of prestigious writing awards in print – or should we just let history (and the readers) decide?

5 Things Every Author Needs to Understand About Self-Publishing


So now you are either self-publishing or thinking about self-publishing.
         Yes, welcome to the world of everybody.
         I have a question for you. Do you actually want to make some money at it?
         Here’s the good news: your ficus can make money self-publishing. Your cat, Jingles, can make money self-publishing.
         Of course, by money we are talking about enough scratch to buy some Bazooka at your local 7-Eleven. Or maybe a Venti White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks. That’s not bad. It’s something.
         But if you want to make some real dime, and keep it coming, there are a few things you need to understand.
1. You are going into business
         The authors who are making significant money self-publishing operate with sound business principles. Which makes many other authors as nervous as Don Knotts.

         “I’m just not wired that way!” they’ll say. “I want to concentrate on my writing! I haven’t got the time or inclination to think about business decisions.”
         But guess what? Even if you have a traditional publishing contract, you’re going to have to give time and attention to business, namely marketing.
         What if you spent a little of that same time and effort learning the principles of successful self-publishing?
         Of course, a lot of authors now want to go right into digital. Well, don’t do it until you fully understand that it’s a business you’re going to be running. That business is you.
         Learn how. The basics are not that hard. In fact, I’ll have a book out soon that’ll help.
2. Your mileage will vary
No one can replicate another author’s record. Each author and body of work are unique. Innumerable factors play into the results, many of which are totally out of the control of the writer.
If you go into self-publishing expecting to do as well as author X, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Instead, concentrate on being the best provider of content you can be. See # 5, below.   
3. This isn’t get rich quick
         In the “early days” of the ebook era, those who jumped in with both feet (Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, John Locke) and those who had loads of backlist (Bob Mayer) or caffeinated series ideas (Lee Goldberg) got some nice returns.
         Now, the future for the overwhelming majority of writers is about quality production, consistently and over time. A long time. Which is fine if you love to write. 
4. You can’t just repeat “buy my stuff” and expect to sell any of it
         We have left the age of sales and are now in the age of social. The way you market today is not by hard sell but by relationship. Even if you’re putting together sales copy, you have to think about how it offers value to the potential reader.
         What isn’t valuable is a string of tweets that are little more than “buy my stuff” or “please RT this” messages. Some authors think it’s a numbers game and repeating these messages will work over time.
         They won’t. They’ll annoy more people than they’ll attract.
5. It is first, and always, about the book
         I don’t care if you can out promote and out market anyone on the internet.
         I don’t care if you can afford to spend $100,000 to place ads for your books.
         If your book fails to catch on with readers or, worse, turns them off, you’re not going to do well over the long haul.
         Which is how it should be, after all. The quality of the writing itself should be the main thing in this whole crazy process.
         So you should concentrate a good chunk of your time, even more than you do on marketing, on a writing self-improvement program alongside your actual writing output.
         One of the reasons I’m conducting intense, two-day writing workshops this year is to take each and every writer who attends to that next level, where green is earned year after year.
          Now is the best time in history to be a writer. No question about it. The barriers to entry have been destroyed and opportunities to generate income have taken their place. But you have to think strategically. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, puts it this way: The biggest challenge faced by self-published authors, it’s not marketing, it’s not discoverability, it’s adopting the best practices of the very best publishers. It’s about becoming a professional publisher.”
       Of course, if you have trouble with that, you can always partner with your cat Jingles. 
We’re fast closing in on the Austin, TX 2 day fiction workshop, June 16-17. To get the special room rate, sign up with the hotel before June 1. Details here.
I’ve posted a new writing video on Agents. If you want to know what a pitch session feels like, tune in

Here, there and nowhere …much.

   John Ramsey Miller


It was dark in the room, barely lit by the porch light filtering through red bedroom curtains, so Max was further stunned when he realized that a banging on his front door is what actually startled him awake. Who on Earth could be here at…4:17am? He attempted staying as still as possible, hoping the visitor had yet to hear anything from within. I mean really, it could be anybody! Anything!
Max peered through darkness of the bedroom doorway and into the corner of the living room. He attempted leaning over just enough to view the vehicle of the unwanted visitorrealizing they probably parked on the opposite side. Max didn’t receive visitors often.
Three more alarming strikes against the metal screen door that never closed quite correctly, clanging incessantly through his head. He could hear a voice, but the sound of that CLANG-CLANG-CLANG! was overwhelming his every thought, seeming to fill every corner of his mind and soul. 
“–please, Max, just answer the door! It’s Jill, just open the damn door already!” Oh. It sounds like my sister. Well, it could be my sister. He began feeling frantic, unsure who or what to believe anymore. Lately, people were no longer who they said there were. He knew how crazy it sounded in his mind and tried keeping these sort of ideas to himself, but it was getting more and more difficult by the day, yet he knew beyond a doubt it was Truth.
Max gradually stood up straight without moving his feet, worried the creaking of his knees was as loud as it seemed. He slowly took a step toward the door, thinking he could possibly escape to the back of the house, but instead slipping on one of his countless piles of notebooks. The entire pile fell to the floor, scantly missing another larger pile.
“Max, I can hear you in there, will you please just talk to me? You’ve got to talk to somebody. We used to talk so much.” He knew that much was true, but wasn’t sure if the Visitors could know so much.
Missing Pieces seems the perfect title for this submission. It’s like the whole piece was a tissue left in a pocket and found after being run through the dryer. Now it’s everywhere and yet nowhere.

First paragraph:
How can he be “more” stunned if he was sleeping and we didn’t see him stunned the first time? I might do something like this, “It was dark, but no darker than it had been on other occasions in the dead of night. Thank God the porch light was on and illuminating the bedroom (?) through a curtain redly. THE CLOCK!!! Dear Lord is that the time???”  Or not.

So in reading this I’m not at all sure if it is dark or light? Is he is in bed or hanging from the ceiling? So… how does Max know what time it is? Wouldn’t the clock light the room somewhat? Or did the mad hatter tell him what time it is? How does he move without lifting his feet? When did he get out of bed? Did he leave the bed or is he astro-traveling? He is looking out of windows without getting out of bed!  Is the driveway empty?

Okay, author.  First of all, put yourself in Max’s house and maybe even in his bedroom. Imagine what is happening and what the reader is seeing, as you tell the story and slow down. Allow Max to actually do things as he goes from point A to… well you get the drift. Here is Max and this is what he’d doing. Don’t jump from his mind to the voice at the door. Is this about Max’s insanity? Or is everybody else is insane? Is this about Pod people? Would I read deeper into this? Of course I would. It’s hilarious. It isn’t very good, but I think it could be if it is fully thought through before being committed to paper.

For God’s sake go back and try again. And then you may have to try again after that. This can take years and hard work. This is a tough line of work and the righter you do it, the harder it is.  Think hard before you write. Remember: if this is easy you are doing it wrong. “See” what you are saying. Don’t write what you have not seen like it actually happened. Tell me what you are seeing and feeling and smelling and tasting.  Put me there. You may know what Max is thinking, feeling, doing, but I have to know what you know and see what you are seeing. Otherwise you are just playing at lining up words. I got nothing from reading this opening that I’m curious enough about to justify investing more time.

When I write, I am almost telling myself a story and typing it as I go. But I only write after I have thought all the way around and through the scene. In my opinion (and that is all it is) this piece is more sloppy scribbling than storytelling.

So go back at it and don’t quit if you know you can do better. If you don’t think you can, then get out now.

Please, for Christ’s sake… take the narration away from Max before he hurts someone and give it to his sister… At least she’s safely outside the house.

Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal

By John Gilstrap
My next book, Damage Control, hits the stands on June 5.  In this edition of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, Jonathan steps into a trap when he and Boxers travel to Mexico to rescue a busload of missionaries from the hands of a drug cartel.  Someone in Washington betrays him on what should have been a routine ransom drop-off, and the result is a lot of dead hostages and kidnappers.  As Jonathan and Boxers escape with the lone survivor, the cartel and their sponsors in Washington move heaven and earth to stop him.  Publishers Weekly gave the book a glowing review, and I’m pleased to report that my publisher, Kensington, is pulling out some new stops in the promotion department.
One of the coolest things I’ve been asked to do is a video blog that brings readers deeper into Jonathan’s world.  I’m calling it “Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal.”  In two-minute segments, I’ll give overviews and demonstrations of the weapons Jonathan has at his disposal.  So far, I’ve completed videos highlighting Heckler and Koch’s 5.56 mm HK416 (designated the M27 by the US Marines), the Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber pistol, and the Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.  By the time I’m done, the series will cover, at a minimum, the 7.62 mm HK 417 and the amazing 4.6 mm HK MP7.  I’d like to do some episodes on explosives, too, but I haven’t yet figured out the logistics of that, what with all those pesky ATF rules.
While I’ve written a few movies over the past decade or so, I haven’t actually shot one in a long time.  The last time I edited a film, I used a home version of a Moviola, literally cutting the film and splicing it with tape. 
When first approached about this video blog thing, I had no idea how I was going to do it.  Sure, I have a digital camera that shoots video, but I’d never actually shot video with it.  Plus, since talking heads are boring—and, in my case, shiny—I knew I’d want to do cutaways.
Well, lo and behold, my Windows 7 program comes complete with Microsoft Movie Maker, an editing program that is way more powerful than I would have imagined.  More than adequate for my needs.  You simply drag the segments you want to work with to the work window, and you can make precise cuts. 
With the first episode in the can, as it were, my next challenge was figuring out what the hell to do with the 60MB files.  They’d choke anybody’s email server.  Enter:  For $149 a year, you can email an unlimited number of HUGE files to people.  The Kensington team is thrilled with the results.
My only frustration—and I’m turning to you dear Killzoners for help—is how to do voiceovers in Movie Maker.  From what I can tell, on the digital recording, the audio track and the video track are all together.  Is this correct?
Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal” will be exclusive to Barnes & Noble for the first few weeks of its existence, but then I’ll add it to my website and upload it to YouTube.
I feel a new obsession coming on.  I deeply don’t need another obsession.


Today I’m offering a critique of an excerpt from VANGUARD RISING. I believe it serves as a great example of unexpected openings. Read on, and you’ll see why…

 The darkness was all encompassing. Dan could turn in any direction and save for the glow from the radio in the dashboard[,] there was only black. It was very fitting, it matched his mood. He had been feeling the black, emptiness since he woke up this morning. It was getting late. He looked at the clock on the radio faceplate. It had just turned ten.
     The glowing radio dial meant there was noise coming from the speakers in back. He didn’t hear any of it. He only heard the storm in his mind. You don’t amount to anything. You’re a failure. Nothing you do is right. He pictured every mistake he had ever made. Every embarrassing moment he had ever experienced was brought to the surface, magnified tenfold.
     When he was up he didn’t think about those things. But he was down right now. Way down. And he had been this way for days. He couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted it to stop.
     Dan knew this personal trial well. He would put himself through it almost routinely. This time was different. The void he felt in his belly would be silenced this time. For good. 

     He reached over and opened the glove box, allowing the door [to] drop freely. He sat and stared for a moment at his savior nestled inside. One of the many things he had inherited from his father after his death. The cold blackness of its six inch barrel seemed soothing to him somehow. It was a statement of ultimate control in his world.
     He reached in and grabbed the checkered walnut grip. It seemed heavier than [it] was only a few hours earlier. In the dim light of the radio he read the barrel, Colt Python .357 Magnum. For some reason, maybe because she knew it had value, she had kept it instead of selling it to one of his father’s friends.
     He had found the last of the ammunition in the house. His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral. It seemed fitting that he came across it this morning in the garage by accident. Eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer.
     He needed something to give him a feeling of control. Knowing he had it was burning at the back of his mind all day. He had a gun, and now he had bullets to go with it. They were even the right ones, 145 grain Winchester Silver Tip hollow points. More than enough to do job.
     He unlocked the cylinder and swung it open. Six rounds. He only needed one. With a quick flick of his wrist the cylinder and its lethal cargo snapped back into place. He pulled the hammer back quickly with his thumb. The trigger moved rearward in its housing. It was in single action mode. Just another four pounds of pressure and it would be over.
     He raised the revolver up and placed the barrel under his chin. Four more pounds of pressure. The top of his head would most likely be blown off. The bullet would probably put a hole in the roof of the car. Four more pounds is all it would take. His index finger rested on the trigger hesitantly. Is this what he wanted? Four more pounds. With a squeeze of the trigger he answered.
     Then came the blinding white light out of the darkness, and everything was once again black.

All in all,  I think this is a very strong beginning. As I said at the outset, losing a character on the first page of a book is unexpected, and can do a lot to draw a reader in. I’m curious to find out why Dan was feeling depressed enough to kill himself, and to know who said those terrible things to him. Clearly he’s lost his father relatively recently–could that alone have been the impetus? I would definitely keep reading to find out more.

A few technical points. I inserted edits in brackets, where a word was needed to clarify what was happening. I also think that since he was given a name, it should be used more frequently: “Dan” in place of “he” in several more spots. 

The language could also be trimmed some, which would help with clarity and would additionally serve to drive the reader toward the conclusion more rapidly. For example, “His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral” is a bit wordy. Better to say, “She’d thrown it all out after the funeral–except for the eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer. It seemed fitting when he’d come across them in the garage this morning.”

Also, there are a few places where punctuation could be used to strengthen the impact of a sentence. “With a squeeze of the trigger he answered,” might be better served by inserting a comma, “With a squeeze of the trigger, he answered.” I’d advise the writer to go back through this passage and carefully examine all the punctuation choices to make sure that they add to the narrative flow.

The final sentence could be tightened up. Rather than: “Then came the blinding white light out of the darkness, and everything was once again black;” I would  say, “A blinding white flash, then darkness fell again.” A small change, but in the end that can be what makes the difference.
What do you all think of today’s submission? 

First-page critique of ARTIC FIRE

By Joe Moore

Here’s another submission to our first-page critiquing extravaganza. It’s called ARCTIC FIRE. Have a look. My thoughts follow.

Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position. Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.

Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.

After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.

And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing. The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.

The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.

I’m not going to get into any nitpicking here even though there are a couple of punctuation errors. Despite the fact that this is decent writing, the major problem is that nothing happens. It is 100% narrative backstory. After reading it, I have no idea what the story is about, what’s at stake, what the story question is, and why I would want to read page 2.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the pitfalls of starting a story in the wrong place. And I along with my blog mates have tried to emphasize that there’s really no need for backstory at the beginning. This first page contains important information, but we don’t need to know any of it yet.

My advice to the writer: find a point in the story where something happens that jolts Ben Sanders out of his “ordinary” life into an extraordinary situation because of physical, mental or emotional stress. Delete everything that’s written up to that point. That’s where the story should start.

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page and good luck.

Setting things up

Today’s critique is for the first page of THE SET UP. My thoughts follow.


    While I wait in line to pass through airport security, I check my pockets.  Just my wallet, cell phone, and a ticket stub for the parking garage.  And the envelope.  No car keys.  No knife.  No gun.
    I left my girlfriend, Carly, in Vlad’s Lexus with her iPad and orders to put the windows down if she smokes.  Vlad is real particular about his car.
    A ticket to Philly is in my hand, but I’m not going on any airplane ride.  I just have it in case the TSA agent asks.  I do this kind of thing all the time, but a trickle of sweat runs down under my shirt collar and I flinch.
    They send me through the cattle gate, then wand me, and I grab the plastic tub with my stuff.  Except the envelope.  That’s still in my jacket pocket, damp with sweat.  They stop an old lady ahead of me and give her the choice of getting groped or getting radiation sickness.  She must be ninety.
    It’s almost eleven o’clock, and it’s tough getting around all the moms with baby strollers and the stressed-out business types.  I could use my size to push through, but I look at them and see the exhaustion on their faces and forget using my elbows and just walk.
    I find Gate D11 and slow down to look for the men’s room.  The setup is pretty standard.  You pick an airport and name a gate that’s inside security, that way both parties have to go unarmed.  Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange.  Simple.
    It’s a different Mexican every time, but we’ve done three trades with them so far and it’s gone fine.  I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat, but then he goes to the window and gets on his phone.  Not my guy.
    10:59.  I pat the envelope for the tenth time and go to the bathroom door.  There’s a folding yellow sign in front, with a picture of a guy slipping and falling.  I smile and go around it. 
    The bathroom is big and cold.  …

* * * 

My comments:

I was drawn in by this first page, after stumbling a bit on the title. (The noun version of “to set up” should be “setup” or “set-up”.) I like the narrator’s straightforward, present-tense voice. Present tense and first-person POV are tricky to handle, but this worked well for me.

I thought the idea of having crooks meet at the TSA-controlled airport was fresh.  I did wonder how the narrator had pulled this rendezvous off repeatedly, what with no-fly lists, and the fact that by now he must be on record for buying tickets he didn’t use. If nothing else, I’d think he’d be nervous about that aspect of it. He’s described as being generally nervous, but the more specific his fear, the better.

Overall, the setup of THE SET UP was handled efficiently and well. I did object to the use of generics (“Vlad” and “Mexican”) was too broad-brush for me, leading me to expect that I’m about to get a familiar Russian mafia vs. Mexican drug ring tale. I think it could use some compelling detail here to bring the reader more into the situation. 

I got confused by the action flow. On the first read-through, when I read “I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat,” I assumed the narrator was already in the bathroom, and the guy was popping out of a stall. Later I wondered why the author described the bathroom as “big and cold” when he’d already been in there for a while. I had to pause and reorient myself. By preceding action with “Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange,” you’ve already put the reader’s head in the bathroom. Don’t then backtrack to the gate area for the guy popping out of his seat.

I thought the tension fell off a bit in the last paragraph, probably because I was confused during the first read, and thought he was exiting from the bathroom. I had no idea why he would smile, since he hadn’t made the exchange. 

It should be an easy fix to focus the action so that readers won’t get confused by the  flow. I admit that I’m relatively easily thrown as a reader. Not everyone would trip over the issues that misled me, but you don’t want to lose any reader on the first page.

Was I the only one who got confused? Anyone else have anything to add?

Responding to Feedback/Criticism

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We have done a number of first-page critiques in recent weeks and I thought it might be a good time to think about how writers should respond to feedback and/or criticism. I think I speak for many when I say that dealing with criticism is one of the hardest things you have to do as a writer, especially when you get a myriad of comments, some of which are contradictory! 

Even some of our recent critiques show that feedback can be a very subjective thing – what might be a really compelling first page for one person may be a complete let down for another…so how should writers handle criticism?

I think first and foremost, you need to take note of consistent feedback about a particular aspect of your writing. With many of our first page critiques there was a commonality of responses – often that the page involved too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’, or that it failed to have sufficient dramatic weight to tug a reader into the story. This kind of consistent feedback is useful stuff and, though sometimes a writer has to suck it up, it’s worth listening to. 

It becomes more problematic when there are contradictory comments, especially if the feedback is ‘this really worked for me’ versus ‘this didn’t work at all for me’. Such contrasting responses are harder to deal with – not merely because you can never satisfy everyone (if you did it would be way too dull a world!).  

Here is my rule of thumb: If it speaks to me as a valid criticism (deep inside, once I get past pride and ego…), then I take it on board. If not, I seek additional validation from others that I trust, to see if they agree that the criticism has merit. Many times, especially in a writing class, some criticism is more about the  reviewer’s own issues that the work itself.

As a writer you have to get used to all forms of criticism, because you’ll get it from fellow writers, readers, agents, editors and reviewers.  How you respond can be indicative of how seriously you take your art. Here at TKZ, I have been very impressed by how the people who have fessed up to their submissions have taken the critiques and comments provided. Everyone has behaved professionally and has been gracious and respectful of the feedback offered. Thankfully, we have seen for the most part only insightful and helpful commentary…but for many of us, there will come a time when it won’t be, and we will have to work out how to respond (or if to respond at all, as sometimes it is better to remain silent!). It could be the crazed one-star Amazon reviewer, or the snarky anonymous commentator…or it could even be a scathing review in a prestigious book review (we can dream, can’t we!)

So, how have you all found the first page critiques so far? Are they helpful in a wider sense or limited to the author who submitted them?

Have you ever had a really wrenching ‘criticism’ moment  – and, if so, how did you deal with it? Were you tempted to get into an all out flame war with someone who dissed your work or did you just take a deep breath and hoped to disappear into the floor?

Jump, and Figure Out What to Do When You’re Up There

Got an email some time ago from a guy I played high school basketball with. Nice to hear from him. Those were glory days. We had one of the best teams in the city. I wrote back and finished off my email with this: “We had a great team, didn’t we? A bunch of hard working, normal guys . . . and Jim Caruso.”

Caruso. He was a year ahead of me and clearly not wired the same as I was. I was dedicated to being an athlete. I didn’t smoke, drink, party or stay up late. Caruso was the exact opposite. 

To give you a picture, we were once playing in a winter league at another high school. We drove over to Pacific Palisades on Wednesday nights, played, drove home. To get there and back we had to take twisty Sunset Boulevard. 

So I was driving back once after a game. It was a cold night in the canyon, and I carefully guided my Ford Maverick along Sunset. Suddenly, a convertible comes tearing by me. I don’t remember who was driving, but I do remember who was in the passenger seat: Caruso, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, his sweaty blond hair blowing in the wind. I remember he was laughing. 

The thing was, Caruso had all this natural athletic talent. He was about six feet tall and built like a bull. And that’s how he played basketball. He had one speed, full, and I don’t think he ever took a shot that looked the same as any other. He was at his best when driving the lane and jumping in the air…then figuring out what to do once he was up there. Which was usually something very cool that either ended up with the ball going through the hoop or off the wall.

This drove our coach, John Furlong, absolutely crazy. Furlong was a strict disciplinarian and team-oriented coach. He yelled a lot. He got red faced mad at you if you messed up too badly. None of us wanted to be on the wrong side of Coach Furlong.

Except Caruso. He just didn’t seem to care. No matter how mad Furlong got at him, Caruso would take it silently, then go out on the floor and pretty soon do the same thing again. Which was why Furlong wouldn’t start him. But he couldn’t keep him on the bench for long because, despite everything, Caruso was too good not to be in the game, scoring points and grabbing rebounds. 

It was impossible not to like him. He had this infectious smile and he seemed to go through life with a certain damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead kind of joy. In pickup games he’d always be laughing, joking, talking smack and slapping you on the butt when you did something good.  
Jim Caruso graduated in my junior year. The next year we had another great team at Taft High, this one disciplined and predictable, much to the relief of Coach Furlong. Still, I couldn’t help feeling our team lacked a certain, what’s the word, exuberance? I missed seeing Caruso cutting through the key, doing his thing, a thing uniquely his own.

Then one Saturday I was in the gym shooting around and a fellow teammate came in.

“Hey,” he said, “did you hear about Caruso?”

I stopped shooting. “No, what?” I figured maybe he’d been picked up on a DUI or something.

“He’s dead,” my friend said.

I just stared at him, stunned. 

“Killed in a car accident,” he said. 

And I immediately remembered that night I saw Caruso in the convertible, and thought maybe this wasn’t such a shock after all. In fact, looking back, it was both sad and oddly predictable. That year, in our high school yearbook, there was one of those “In Memory Of” pages for students who’d died. It was the last any of us would ever see of Caruso, and that was hard to believe.

I don’t know what was going on in Jim Caruso’s life. The only thing we had in common was basketball. It was enough. I didn’t want to emulate his off the court antics. What I did want to do, when the situation was right, was go for the wild shot, the totally improvised move, just to see what happened. I knew you couldn’t play a whole game that way, but you at least needed to have that kind of fearlessness in your arsenal. 

I draw an analogy to writing here. Discipline, fundamentals and hard work are still the keys, but you have to be willing to “go for it” sometimes. You have to jump in the air and figure out what to do when you’re up there. Fearless.

I still have this indelible picture of Jim Caruso. It was in a pickup game, the first time I’d ever played with him, just before I started at Taft. His name had been whispered to me. Everybody knew about Caruso. I was a little bit intimidated at the prospect of playing with him. But then we started the game and I remember just watching him, marveling at his raw ability. Crunch time came and the game was tied. Caruso did his thing, driving toward the hoop and jumping up with a taller guy all over him. He seemed to hang in the air for a full minute. His legs were splayed and his left elbow (he was a lefty) stuck out like divining rod. And then somehow, some way, he got off a hook shot (it was the only shot available to him) and it banked off the backboard and through the net.

And he came down laughing and turned around and looked at me as if to say, “See? That’s how it’s done, son.”
And sometimes, it is.

First Page Critique: OF DREAMS AND STARS

This is an excellent example of a first page by an author who does a great job of creating a mood but who needs to pay more attention to basic grammar and punctuation. Reading this first page is similar to being seated in a restaurant and loving the promise of the menu but finding spots on the glasses and — worse — a crusty flake or two of something unidentifiable on the silverware:
Between Dreams and Stars
John knew that if he didn’t find shelter soon, that this would be the end.  It would be fitting though, for this icy wasteland was the first place that reflected how he had felt for the past three years, since she disappeared.
The shrieking wind reached another octave.  John brought his arms and head towards his chest. Even if he could have lifted his head up, it would have been useless.  The wind distorted the snow and ice into a blinding static. Groping along the frozen mountainside, he struggled to bring one foot in front of the other, sinking deeper into the snow.
He felt like he must be getting close now.  The Sherpa, who remained thousands of feet and a day and a half behind, claimed that what he was after was within hundreds of yards of the summit.  This peak, with rock as dark as the night, was a nameless crag amidst the Himalayas. Anonymous, jagged, and relentless, it challenged John’s resolve.  He had to know.  John moved his leg forward and suddenly there was nothing. The narrow rock he had been on, slid down the mountain.  Losing his balance, he reached out, hoping there would be something. His left hand found a slim crack, it was enough.  He swung his right hand around and he fiercely clung to cliff, heart racing with adrenaline, his chest heaving with rapid breaths.
He closed his eyes and focused, slowly bringing his respiration rate down.  He began to inch his way backwards until after an excruciating hour he made it back to the last place he had solid footing.  He collapsed to the ground. The near fall had sapped a lot of energy out of him.  He reached for his pack to grab some food.  To his dismay it was gone.
Let’s get the bad and the ugly over with first so that we can focus on the good. The problems begin with the first sentence, and that’s not a good way to begin: two “that(s)” when one would do nicely with a comma the author doesn’t need at all. Try this:  “John knew that it would be the end if he didn’t find shelter soon.” You can switch the clauses around if you want.  Just use one “that,” however. Additionally, the absence of that pesky comma makes for a smoother sentence and introduction. It’s the first patch of storytelling ice that lets the reader slip right into the narrative and heightens the suspense. Let’s keep going. The second sentence is a bit overlong, and needs more than a comma to break it up. I’d like to know who “her” is as well. It makes the tragedy of “her” disappearance a bit more personal.  Maybe: “It would be fitting.  The icy wasteland around him was the first place that reflected his mood for the past three years, since (fill in name of ‘her’) disappeared.”
Similar problems surface and resurface throughout this piece. The author uses too many commas,  an ongoing problem I have with my own writing as well). “His left hand found a crack, it was enough,” is but one example. It could be separated into two sentences or set off by a semi-colon, if one likes those.  There are also some problems with adjectives and metaphors and the like (the wind doesn’t reach a new octave; the shriek of the wind would. Static would not be blinding, but a haze would be). Sometimes the author tells us the same thing one too many times. If John is cold, hungry and on the side of a mountain and he reaches for a pack of food and it’s gone, we don’t need to be told that he’s dismayed. “(D)ismay” doesn’t cover it in any event; I’d feel as if someone had p**sed in my cornflakes if I hadn’t already dropped them down a crevice. Add some good old fashioned typographical errors (“…and he fiercely clung to cliff…”) and it is quickly apparent that this piece needs some hard-nosed red-pencil review.
So. There are spots on the glasses and the silverware isn’t serviceable. The menu, however, is impressive. The author creates a great mood immediately. John is cold and hungry and between a slippery rock and a hard place that is waiting several thousand feet beneath him. There was a discussion here several days ago about opening a story with the weather. That is fitting and proper to do here. The weather is the story — at least for the moment — and it is a dangerous mother indeed. The author sets it up well, demonstrating that John is driven and desperate. He otherwise would be back at the lodge or camp or whatever, riding the storm out in front of a roaring fire while trying to talk the reindeer sweater off of a snow bunny. There is also that high peak where John is perched. You don’t have to be acrophobic when confronted with a stepladder in order to appreciate John’s predicament.  

I’d like to see what happens next and find out what happened to the “her” that got him on the mountain and the snow. First, however, the author needs to rev up the snow blower and make the path accessible.