All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned from my Parents

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

If you’ve never read humorist Robert Fulghum, treat yourself by buying his books. His most famous one is ‘All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.’ More than 17 million copies of his books are in print, in 31 languages, in 103 countries.

On the downloads tab of his website, he had a delightful offering – Argentina Tango Chronicles – tales from a solo traveler. Since I am traveling solo to northern Italy in the fall, I can’t wait to read how Fulghum makes the most of his trips where he reinvents himself in foreign lands. Yes, he even changes his name.

Robert Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas. In his youth he worked as a ditch-digger, newspaper carrier, ranch hand, and singing cowboy. After college, he had a brief career with IBM, but he wasn’t satisfied. After completing his graduate degree in theology, he served 22 years as a Unitarian parish minister in the Pacific Northwest. He’s taught drawing, painting, art history and philosophy. He’s also an accomplished painter and sculptor and sings, plays guitar and mando-cello. Fulghum even marches in parades, playing cymbals and tambourine.

Now that’s a diverse resume. He’d be a blast to hang out with.

His good-natured stories about families and life lessons are told with subtle ‘feel good’ humor. I love reading his short stories at bedtime, particularly after a long, trying day. His humor, and his ways of structuring a short story, always makes me laugh.

Fulghum’s work makes me think about my own upbringing and what I’ve learned from my parents. I’ve been blessed with a loving family and wanted to share my parents with you, my TKZ family.

***

My parents (Ignacio & Kathryn) have been married 68 years. They had a picture-perfect wedding in San Antonio at one of the oldest active cathedrals in the United States, the stunning San Fernando Cathedral, founded in 1731. We are blessed that they are still healthy and active and thriving. Good genes.

My dad is 93 years old and still going strong. I call him ‘the renaissance man’ because there is NO TOPIC that doesn’t interest him or that he wouldn’t try. He gave me my love for art and self-expression. He also gave me a competitive spirit and a ‘never say never’ attitude at trying new things. In his career, he designed and built things – an architect who became influential in developing downtown San Antonio. He actually named the Riverwalk – the Paseo del Rio. He retired early, but that didn’t stop him from exploring his love for the many things that still interest him. He has a mind like a sponge, always learning. I hope I have a fraction of his ability. He loves to cook, especially gourmet food and exotic recipes. This is the guy who dug a pit in our backyard to cook game on a spit or who wrapped fish in banana leaves to cook in an underground oven.

To this day, my dad studies food and painting techniques as if he were a young man. He’s a constant inspiration on how to grab life and hang on tight. He loves mind puzzles and the strategies of playing chess. Despite having hearing problems–due to his stubbornness at wearing hearing aids–he’s quick with a joke that makes me laugh. I usually say that my worst habits, I got from my dad, but I’m thankful I inherited other things too.

My mother is 90 years old. From her, I learned my lifetime love for reading. I have many fond memories with my mom, but she literally taught me how to devour books and planted the seed for my love of writing. Summers off from school were spent at the library (in the stacks) and I came home with dozens of books to read. My mom’s compassion for people and her generosity helped me see the world in a different way. That certainly gave me the insight to write about the lives of others in my books. She’s my best friend. We talk several times a day and I am their primary care giver, living only minutes away. Quite a change from when I was an angry rebellious teen. Even with our age difference, she has an intriguing mind that has adjusted over the years. She accepts a great deal and tries to understand things. We have long talks about how everything has changed, but she is curious and I love it.

Both my parents have a great deal of humor, but they are different. That doubles down the fun. I buy my mom the latest in Youtube (she calls it U2) viral video-wear, like her ‘Honey Badger Don’t Care‘ shirt or the Weiner Dog tee she’s wearing in this pic. Dad tries not to be seen with her in public when she’s wearing them. (Isn’t she cute?)

But on a day of weakness, even dad can be persuaded to do crazy family stuff, like the time we did a retreat to celebrate Willie Nelson. Long story. Even my dogs have headbands and braids.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) Please share what you learned from your parents or your childhood that has influenced you as an adult.

2.) Any funny stories to share?

Now if you’ll excuse me. My tambourine lesson is in thirty minutes.

3+

National Shooting Sports Month

By John Gilstrap

August is National Shooting Sports month!

Okay, so it doesn’t rate a special tree in the living room or lights in the window, but National Shooting Sports Month provides unique opportunities for writers to familiarize themselves with the weaponry their characters use.

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, the same group that puts on the massive SHOT Show every year), the month-long celebration encourages shooters, gun stores and range owners to make special efforts to introduce more people to hunting and the shooting sports.  Have questions?  Walk in and ask some questions.

There will even be special events.  On August 17, I will be giving a presentation on the weapons Jonathan Grave uses, at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The details are still in play, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to do any live fire exercises.  That would have made the even really fun.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here on TKZ over the years discussing gun stuff.  Guns handling and gun play are nearly impossible to describe accurately unless you’ve done some shooting.  There’s a feel to the grip and the recoil.  There are weight and balance issues peculiar to different weapons.  There’s a method to loading magazines.  National Shooting Sports Month will provide perfect opportunities for you to get hands-on training.

A couple of years ago, my publicity team from Kensington traveled from New York to Virginia–and then on to West Virginia with me–as part of a publicity plan to shoot copies of Scorpion Strike, whose cover featured a number of bullet holes.  These young ladies were as anti-gun as you’d expect from New York City.  As we entered the range complex at Echo Valley Training Center, they mocked the shooters they saw and cowered at the sight of firearms being carried out in the open.

When I got them on the trigger, though, everything changed.  After hundreds of rounds apiece, they were enthralled by the sport.  By the end of the day, I had them advancing and shooting at steel targets.  When their magazines ran dry, they dropped them and slapped in another.

In four hours at the range, their world view of shooting–and shooters–had changed.  They’d learned new skills and had had a fun day outdoors in the fresh West Virginia air.

Marksmanship is about precision.  Just like golf or tennis, your number one competitor is yourself, and experience combined with good instruction is the only way to advance your skills.  Here’s a website that will direct you to a shooting range in your area.  Even if you have no experience–especially if you have no experience–drop in and sign up for some beginner instruction.

If you’re afraid of the weaponry, embrace your fears.  A firearm is just a tool and your instructor won’t let you pose a danger to yourself or others.  Don’t worry about recoil.  It’s never as violent as what you see on movies or television.  (I know, right?)  Just hang on to everything tightly and keep a balanced stance.

For your first outing, shoot with either a small caliber or a big gun.  Preferably both.  Physics lesson: The heavier the gun, the less the felt recoil, and the smaller the load, the less energy to trigger that equal and opposite reaction.

So . . . Who’s game?

4+

On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail.  Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader.  It’s like a tonic.  Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.

Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood.  I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.

Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day.  Here’s a sample of some I got this week:

Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny

Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.

Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl

And then there was this one:

I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.

Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.

Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?

I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.

Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?

The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”

About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk.  Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.

“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.

That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES.  We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography.  Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles.  Some are privately owned.  What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?

Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.”  Here’s the first verse:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out.  Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”

On the east side of the island
Not too far from the shore
There stood the old house
Of fifty years or more
All the doors and windows
Were locked inside and out
The fate of those trapped in there
Would never be found out.

Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals  into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.

Now comes the last piece of serendipity.  While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea.  I knew I had found my family’s mother home.

When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today.  One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.

Wolves…

Oh yeah.

But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.

Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.

And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.”  Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.

I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.

My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.”  Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.

Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.

________________________________

Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

 

5+

What Are We Missing?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day I did an incomprehensible, dreadful, noxious, scandalous thing—something so shocking to the conscience that it threatens the gossamer social fabric that tenuously binds us together as a people and a nation.

I left the house without my phone.

I know, I know! But hear me, please.

My daughter was visiting us from Denver. As is our tradition on such occasions, we get a meal from that Southern California institution—the envy of hamburger lovers everywhere—In-N-Out. I looked at the clock and saw it was 11:15 a.m. On a Saturday. Which meant the cars would be lining up and I’d better get going to snag our grub.

I grabbed my wallet and keys and hopped in the car. As I pulled out of the driveway I patted my pocket.

No phone!

Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)

Halfway down my street I thought, Should I go back and get it? Nay, I must go get in line! Also, In-N-Out is only five minutes away from my house. What could happen in that span of time that would necessitate communication? An earthquake? Possibly! This is L.A., after all. But that was a chance I was now willing to take.

When I pulled in behind a moderate line of cars, I wondered, Now what? I couldn’t check email, scan Feedly, or play a quick game of app backgammon. Why, I could not even tweet!

What to do, what to do? Well, here you are. In line. Waiting to order. Why don’t you try something different, like observing something? 

Good idea. What did I see? A parking lot. Wait … next to the In-N-Out building itself—three lovely palm trees.

One of the things I love most about my hometown is the palm trees. You see them everywhere, often in serried rows observable from the freeway. Nothing says L.A. more than a burnt-orange sunset with palm trees silhouetted against the sky.

Okay, so what else did I see? Nearby those palms was one of the ugliest eyesores of our current landscape—a cellular transmission tower. Is there any man-made thing on earth more opposite Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo than one of these dull, gray snarls of protuberant antennae and parabolic receptors?

The symbolism was not lost on me. Here was a perfect metaphor of our hyper-connected state, the loss of appreciation of beauty due to digital pervasiveness.

There! I now had irony to go with my observations!

And soon I would have grilled onions to go with my cheeseburger. I observed the young man who was tasked with taking orders from car windows. During peak times, In-N-Out uses a real live person to speed up the ordering process. It’s the toughest duty in the whole operation, especially when the sun is beating down on the asphalt, as it was that day.

But the young man could not have been more pleasant. In-N-Out trains their people well. I have not met one sourpuss there. Unlike many other places these days.

I started to ask What if about this fine fellow. What if he took an order from a guy in a black sedan, and saw a gun on the seat? What if someone passed him a sealed envelope (and what would be in it)? What if a flying saucer got in the car line and a green alien asked for a Number 2 with a Diet Coke?

Story sparkers from observation. What a concept!

Which brings up the idea of a diary or journal. I have it on no less an authority than Ward Cleaver that this is a good thing for a writer. I give you this excerpt from a Leave it to Beaver episode called “Beaver’s Secret Life.” Beaver’s 6th grade teacher asks the class what they’d all like to be when they grow up. Beaver chooses writer. That evening, the subject comes up at dinner:

JUNE
What made you decide to be a writer?

BEAVER
I think it’d be neat making up stuff and getting paid for it.

WALLY
Sure, Beav. They got guys in the publishing company that fix up your grammar and spelling and stick commas in and junk. Some writers don’t even have to write at all, they just holler their whole book into a machine.

BEAVER
Gee, Dad, that’s really neat. Can you get me one of those machines so I can start being a writer?

JUNE
I don’t think it’s quite that easy.

WARD
That’s right, Beaver. I think your first step should be to do what Somerset Maugham did.

BEAVER
Was he a writer?

WALLY
With a name like that what do you think he was? A linebacker for the Colts?

WARD
He kept a diary, Beaver. He jotted down everything that happened, you know, people he met, interesting things he did.

JUNE
Then when he was ready to write he had all that background he could get stories from.

BEAVER
Would you get me a diary so I can start making up junk?

WARD
Sure we will, Beaver.

So what about you? Do you keep a journal or diary to record interesting things and people?  

How are your powers of observation these days? Has your smartphone atrophied them?  

Do you feel naked if you don’t have your phone with you?

 

16+

The Graveyard of Stories

Photo by Chris Liu, unsplash.com

I have at least once before mentioned in passing how what we see with respect to a published novel — or for that matter, any work of art — is but the tip of the spear, the polished, honed, and sharpened result of a whole lot of effort. I happened across something recently that everyone who labors in the arts to whatever degree of success needs to read over and over about again about getting to that tip. 

You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now. 

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

It doesn’t just happen with books.  Music? It happens all the time. I personally know of one band that was huge in the 1980s and labored for seven months on their fifth album. They spent well into six figures while doing so. There was a change of personnel at their record label and the new sheriff decided to pull the plug on the new record on the theory that the label wasn’t going to chase good money after bad. The band was informed of this in the middle of a tour. The same thing happens in the film industry. At least with books you can sometimes and to some extent control that portion of your destiny, as John has.

My best advice? Be like John. Confront the failure, embrace the suck, and try again. Oh, and you might pick up a book or five of his to see what he is striving for and will no doubt achieve once again. You won’t be sorry.

That is all I have for today. How is your summer going? Are things humming along or are you turning a project into compost and trying again? Good luck and best wishes either way. 

 

14+

First Page Critique: Reluctant

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page from the prolific pens of our TKZ readers. I’ll make my comments after you read it.

Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya, Israel
11 November 1982

The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll. Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

“Okay Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving her a few more breaths with the ambu-bag. The self-recrimination momentarily halted, I slid the laryngoscope blade into her mouth, and gently lifted.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something……what, urine? I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube, when the emergency-room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting the stretcher under my patient, nearly causing me to lose visual of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!” Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing.” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.

“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

Elaine Viets’ critique:
I assume, since the date is written European style, that the author is not an American. The story feels authentic and starts off with a bang. However, it quickly loses its impact when the second sentence trips over Dr. Moshe Sabin’s memories as he tries to save the life of the little girl on the stretcher. That sentence (Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure) is hard to read.

Rather than loading the action-packed beginning with extra information, why not wait until the little girl is breathing? That would be a good time to add the back story about the doctor’s previous failure.

The story is also slowed by medical jargon. Since many of us watch hospital dramas, we have a pretty good idea what an ambu bag is and we may even know where an endotracheal tube goes, but the phrase “lose visual of her vocal cords” should be in plain English.
Why not say: “nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords”?

A laryngoscope is a fearsome-looking contraption. It would be a good idea to briefly describe it and the difficulties and dangers of using it – especially the blade.
What is an IDF medic? Tell us what those letters stand for.

Suppose the author began this way:
The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll.

“Okay, Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving the child a few more breaths with the ambu-bag.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something . . .what, urine?

I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube (AUTHOR, TELL US WHERE ARE YOU PASSING THIS TUBE), when the emergency room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting my patient’s stretcher, nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!”

Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing,” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

Blinking hard, I tried to terminate the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I’d tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.
“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

 

Anonymous Author, the last three paragraphs are outstanding. Congratulations on an intriguing first page. I’d really like to read this novel.
What do you think, TKZ readers?

Win Backstab, the first e-book in my Francesca Vierling newspaper series. The police say the deaths of the St. Louis columnist two friends were accidental, but Francesca is searching the city for their killer — before he finds her. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

3+

The Honest Epitaph

Photo: Ben Churchill [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Having recently celebrated a birthday that was (once again) well past my life’s statistical half-point, I’m feeling a bit maudlin. And maudlin is so dull!

So, tell me. What would your honest epitaph be? It’s the very last bit of writing you share with the world. I’m not looking for the reverent words that loved ones will no doubt honor you with, but the words you would put on there if you didn’t mind embarrassing your kids, your partner/spouse, your mom.

Remember, it’s important to put honest bits of yourself into everything you write…

A few of mine:

“She Wasn’t Good, But She Had Good Intentions.” (via Lyle Lovett)

“Wait! That Wasn’t What I Meant to Say!”

“She Was F.I.N.E.”

“Go Away, I’m Reading”

“Of Course I’m Listening”

“She Was Late for Her Own Funeral”

 

Now it’s your turn, TKZers!

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique – Counting Mountains

Credit: Joshua Fuller, Unsplash

Good morning, TKZers, and let’s welcome the brave Anonymous Author of Counting Mountains. Please enjoy this first page submission then we’ll open the discussion.

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Title- Counting Mountains

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London. My name used to be associated with my family, my university, my friends, and if I’m being optimistic, maybe my photography, or my smile.People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in thousands of people’s minds. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted- but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering. Even though it hurts, it’s cathartic, like pulling six-foot weeds out of the ground, or trying to reconstruct a broken clock.

I’m attempting to build my story – and the Ripper’s – from the ground up, pulling strands and dark clumps out of my head that are hiding and digging themselves in; picking out the broken parts, so that I can hope to build something new and shiny out of the rot.

Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path. They are all different shapes and sizes, but they are all mountains, and they are all difficult to breach.

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the beginning of our story, it was cold. I remember the cold being a constant reminder of how far I was from home. We were in the winter of 2010, the coldest winter on English record and in anyone’s memory. The feeling of cold in England seemed worse than the cold I had felt in actual cold countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold I felt that winter in England was harsh and bone deep, like a blow I wasn’t expecting.

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Brave Author, I found a lot to like about this first page. It doesn’t start with action or in media res. It opens with the character alone thinking—a technique that we at TKZ often caution against. However, the voice is strong and the situation is compelling, making me want to know more.

In other words, even though you take a risk by ignoring conventional wisdom, your technique works. Well done.

Why does it work? I believe it’s because of the theme.

Tessa Stynes has been the victim of “the Ripper.” She also feels responsible for other deaths evidently caused by this serial killer. She survived where others didn’t. Her name is linked to horrific crimes—she is doomed to a haunted life of guilt by association.

The theme of guilt by association works because it’s a universal plight. Most people have suffered injustice where their proximity to a person, group, or incident taints their  reputation. There’s an immediate bond between the reader and a character who reminds us of the unfair shunning we’ve experienced ourselves.

Further, the Author has set high stakes. Tessa is not the victim of everyday petty injustice. The stakes of her suffering are life and death. Others have died in a “massacre.” Although this story is being told about events that already occurred, there is a suggestion Tessa herself might die in the future from repercussions of the tragedy.

James Scott Bell talks about death stakes that can be physical, professional, or psychological.

Tessa states: I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

She has faced all three forms of death that Jim describes. First, she almost died from knife wounds (physical). Second, she apparently once had a good name as a photographer that’s now tarnished (professional). Third, her musings show an ongoing emotional struggle that prevent her from living a normal life (psychological).

The Brave Author takes another chance by addressing the reader directly. In theatre or film, this is called breaking the fourth wall when a character speaks to the audience.

This technique momentarily disrupts the fictive dream the author wants to create, which can have negative results if the reader is pulled out of the story.

However, it can also promote the sense that the author is sharing an intimate secret with the reader. This character who witnessed terrible crimes is willing to reveal knowledge no one else has. The reader wants to learn the inside truth of what really happened.

For those reasons, I believe breaking the fourth wall works here. 

The setting is London in winter of 2010. Tessa is evidently a visitor to England, a stranger in a cold, forbidding land. The mood is chilling, physically as well as emotionally. Nice job of making the setting and weather reflect the plot.

Now to the aspects that tripped me up:

The Australian Massacre in London is treated like a news event that everyone’s heard about. I googled it and didn’t find a corresponding real-life occurrence. Not a problem but it momentarily sidetracked me.

By using “the Ripper,” readers have certain automatic, ingrained reactions to Jack the Ripper, who killed victims during the 1880s. That reference started me down a historical path. However, you then say the story begins in 2010, leading to other questions: Will this be a time-travel fantasy? Or is there a new Ripper in contemporary London?

These are not necessarily problems but merely things to consider as you draw readers into the story. You want to be mindful not to lead them off onto false trails.

You write strong, active sentences but the order in which you present them could be rearranged for more dramatic effect. What do you think of this:

People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

My name used to be associated with my smile, my family, my university, my friends, and my photography.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in the minds of thousands of people. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted—but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London in 2010.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering.

Next, you go into a mashup of similes and metaphors about pulling weeds, repairing a broken clock, strands of hair, clumps, digging, shiny objects, and mountains. Because these figures of speech are not obviously related to each other, they got distracting. Suggest you stick with the mountain motif, since that’s your title, and delete the rest of the debris.

Regarding semicolons: I fall into the camp of never in fiction. If you do use them, use them correctly.

Delete the semicolon in: Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The sentence could be rewritten in two ways:

1. Someone once said to me: there are mountains in everyone’s path.

2. Someone once said to me there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The second option (without punctuation) is my preference since it’s not a direct quote.

The following is a nice segue from Tessa’s thoughts into the story:

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the paragraph that follows, you use a variation of cold seven times. Even if you intentionally repeated the word for effect, it wore thin.

The line like a blow I wasn’t expecting didn’t work for me because blow is a sudden, abrupt action whereas bone-deep cold creeps in more gradually, like gangrene.

There is additional repetition and overwriting in that paragraph you might condense. How about this:

The winter of 2010 was the coldest season on English record and in anyone’s memory. I remember the harsh, bone-deep chill that felt worse than the cold I’d experienced in actual frigid countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold was a constant reminder of how far I was from home.

Brave Author, you took risks with this opener and they paid off. Your voice, theme, and premise are all compelling and make me want to read more. Good job!

 

How about you, TKZers?

Did this opening draw you in?

What suggestions do you have for our Brave Author?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for 99 cents from July 7-14. Here’s the link.

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First Page Critique: A Goan Holiday

Happy Monday! Today’s first page review is for a novel entitled A Goan Holiday – which seems appropriate since I just got back from India (although, sadly, I’ve never visited Goa). My comments follow and I look forward to feedback from our great TKZ community. Read on!

A Goan Holiday

For the leftover hippies sunbathing nude on the beaches of Goa, drug-induced illusions were often indistinguishable from the breath-taking reality of the moss-covered cliffs and the bright blue sea. Back in the ’sixties, Vagator was one such beach few knew of until a forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers trudged down the mud track to the nearby village, starting a hippie stampede to the settlement. The disgruntled children of the West left the residents puzzled by adopting the matted hair, the rancid clothes, and the broken sandals of the homeless, seeking enlightenment in LSD and heroin, but there was one enterprising fellow who saw in the new arrivals a chance to make an easy buck.

Gossip had it his ramshackle shed at the far end of the beach was the designated cop-free zone where the hippies rented cots to crash at night. To the surprise of no one who knew him, the owner of the establishment disappeared one day, only to resurface the next week as the corpse found in a fishing boat adrift a few miles from the shore.

Half a century later, the shed’s owner was forgotten. Rich, young locals and backpackers from around the world still partied to trance music on the moonlit beaches of the former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, the pungent smoke from industrial-sized rolls of charas, the home-grown weed, swirling all around. White surf frothed over rocks, tickling the feet of the stoned couples as they groped their companions for the night and made promises which wouldn’t last past daybreak.

The shed itself morphed into a hip café which served delicious seafood and fine wines for exorbitant prices. It was where the rich and the famous were frequently caught in carefully choreographed candid pictures. At least, that’s what the kaamwaali bai—the maid—employed at the Joshi vacation home a few miles away claimed. The woman showed up at her leisure and barely did any work if she could help it but always carried news of the movie stars spotted in the seaside village where her cousin lived.

None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi, skirting the group of tourists dancing to ear-splitting music on the beach despite the ominous dark clouds rolling across the half-moon. Each screech from the synthesiser thrummed across her skull. Even her eyeballs were vibrating.

Overall Comments

To be honest, this first page reads more like a travelogue at first than the start of a novel.

In my opinion it suffers from way too much data dumping about the history and clientele of the beaches of Goa and also from a lack of immediacy. Everything in this first page feels distant and third-hand to me – whereas I really wanted to be sucked into the drug scene at the beach and the ear-splitting music at the bar. I wanted to be introduced to a main character I could care about. I I wanted an inciting incident that would draw me into the story. Instead, I wasn’t sure who the book was really going to be about: Was it the forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers who started the hippie stampede to the settlement? Was it the enterprising fellow who saw a chance to make an easy buck and whose corpse showed up adrift a few miles from the shore? Was the maid who showed up at her leisure and barely did any work relevant to the story at all? Is Anjali Joshi who shows up in the final paragraph actually the protagonist? All of these characters have great potential but they are placed scattershot on this first page with no hint as to their relevance or importance to the story.

In this first page, nothing about the actual story is really clear and until the reader gets a handle on the story itself, the description and background to the drug culture in Goa doesn’t resonate (and, though I liked some of the detail and descriptions, most of this information could be inserted into the first chapter in discrete chunks rather than all at once).

So my main recommendation to our brave submitter is to start again – start the novel where the story really begins. Let us walk along the beach with Anjali Joshi and feel the music (I liked the image of her eyeballs vibrating BTW). Let us be drawn into the drama of an actual scene. Who is she? Why is she there? What incident is going to propel this story forward? Is it the discovery of a celebrity’s corpse? What dark events do the the ominous dark clouds suggest? Once we get these answers on the page, then, as readers, we will want to turn the page and care about the novel and its characters moving forward. Until then, this first page reads more like an interesting catalogue of the drug and hippie culture of the Goan beaches rather than the beginning of a novel.

TKZers, what advice would you provide to our brave submitter. How would you tackle the issues I’ve outlined?

 

 

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Writing Outdoors

By Mark Alpert

Now that summer is here in full force, I’ve started taking my laptop to Central Park and writing outdoors.

This would be a frustrating endeavor in most parts of the park, which is usually packed with tourists on even the hottest days, but I live near the entrance to the Ramble, an area that’s been left in a more natural state than the Great Lawn or the Sheep Meadow. The Ramble is laced with a confusing tangle of crisscrossing pathways, so most of the tourists avoid the area. (They seem deathly afraid of getting lost.)

In particular, I head for the bird-feeders. They’re in a spot that’s especially hard to find, even for someone like me who’s been visiting the park for 50 years. As you can see from the above photo, the bird-feeders are empty of seed right now; I think the conservancy fills them only during the migration seasons, when the birds are famished. But a lot of species stop by anyway, maybe out of sheer undying hope.

Which, coincidentally, is also what you need to write fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite outdoor writing locations?

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