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?

 

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First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:

 

Crossroads

Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.

 

I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.

FIRST PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.

THIRD PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.

FIFTH PARAGRAPH:

— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”

SIXTH PARAGRAPH:

— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.

SEVENTH PARAGRAPH:

— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.

EIGHTH PARAGRAPH:

—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by TKZ Guest Blogger Toni McGee Causey

Toni - the saints of the lost and found

Note from Joe Hartlaub:  I am pleased to announce that I am relinquishing my blog post (but not my fedora) this Saturday morning to author, screenwriter, and certified wonderful person Toni McGee Causey. Toni initially grabbed the attention of the book world with her Bobbie Faye trilogy, a popular set of addictive books that defied genre classification. Her latest novel, the newly published The Saints of the Lost and Found, goes in a much darker direction, one which will please new and faithful fans alike. Toni has graciously consented to tell us two spellbinding and chilling real-world stories that describe how The Saints of the Lost and Found came to be, and to answer any comments and/or questions which you might have today as well. If you like the stories you read below, you should buy and read the book that they inspired. Please check with your local independent bookseller, and if they don’t have it, please ask them to order it.

Thank you so much, Toni, for sharing your talents with us this morning…SJ

Toni McGee Causey

One of the most dreaded questions a writer can field is the ‘Where do you get your ideas’ question, especially with regard to longer fiction. It’s the kind of query that has a million answers, and often the author has no real clue how they put this idea with that one, stowing them somewhere in the crannies of their minds where the random ideas may bump and roll around until they become so entangled, they form a completely new idea. Or mess. It can work both ways. What makes this one better than that one? What makes this one the thing you knew you would use for a book, when there were a thousand other notions that seemed just as viable shunted off to the side, where hoarders even feared to tread.

This is the one time I feel like the kid at the back of the class who finally has an answer, who raises her hand with an “oh oh oh PICK ME PICK ME, I KNOW!” squeal.

THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND is the story of a woman, Avery Broussard, who sees lost things. Glimpses, like photo snapshots, of anything (or anyone) someone has lost bombard her as she moves through life and interacts with anyone. Lost keys, a phone, cameras, money, love. A child. Imagine having that ability to know the condition that lost thing is in, and see it, but not always be correct. She can see something lost in a wheat field, but may not know which wheat field.

Now imagine… you have that skill and you’re trying to find a lost child… before a killer can finish his task… and you fail. One of your rare failures.

Avery fails… and runs… and the story starts with just what happens when you cannot outrun your own abilities, or the vengeance someone will take for your mistakes.

So, where did that idea come from? Two odd-but-true events that took place probably fifty years apart. The first happened to my dad. The second, to me.

My dad told me his story… and he’s not one to believe in anything extra-sensory. He swears it’s true. He and my Paw Paw had been hunting. My dad’s family were very poor, and if they didn’t hunt, they didn’t eat. This was back in the days of the Great Depression, and my Paw Paw’s three hunting dogs were prized because they helped most of the hunts be successful.

On one such trip, two of the hunting dogs returned, but the best one did not. My Paw Paw and Dad searched everywhere, and couldn’t find her. Dad was about ten years old at the time, and after they’d been searching futilely for a while, Paw Paw told him to get in the truck. They drove for about an hour (once they were out of the woods), far south of the property they’d been hunting on, and my Paw Paw pulled up to a very old house where an even older black man sat on a rocker on his front porch. His eyes were milky-white, the cataracts were so thick, he could not have seen who it was who’d driven up, and he had no phone. When Paw Paw got out of the truck, Dad was surprised that the old man started talking first—and knew who they were. Without anyone having said a thing yet.

“You lost a dog a ways back,” the old man said by way of intro, and Dad said his hair stood straight up on his head.

“Yep,” Paw Paw said, but didn’t elaborate as the old man turned his head and sort of stared out into the trees. Trees he couldn’t see.

He hummed to himself for a few minutes, kinda nodded as if figuring something out, and then said to my Paw Paw, “You know that river where you were hunting?”

“Yep.”

“Well, about two miles west of where you were, the river forks. You know it?”

“Yep.”

“Take the right fork, and go on down a ways, ‘bout a mile or so, and your dog’s hung up there in the barbwire fence.”

Paw Paw thanked him, promised him some food from the hunt, and he and Dad climbed back in the truck, heading the almost hour drive back to where they’d been hunting.

My dad’s not the kind of person who believes in woo-woo stuff, especially something like this, so he indicated he thought it was all a waste of time, but they found the fork in the river, veered to the right, and about a mile from the fork, the dog was hung up in the barbwire fence.

I probably would have dismissed the entire thing as completely far-fetched, except that it was my dad telling the story, he was sincere in his disbelief-until-he-saw-the-proof aspect, and I’d had enough oddball experiences finding things that other people had lost that I knew there could potentially be more at work than someone simply telling a tall tale.

For many years, I’d get flashes of where something was that I was looking for… I’d “see” it, and then sure enough, that’s where it was. I’d never thought much about it other than assuming I had simply probably memorized its location as I walked through a room—maybe something akin to a photographic memory—but I never assumed it was anything extraordinary beyond just memory, until one day, a friend was telling me about her mother’s lost high-heeled red stiletto shoe (her telling me was for a story reason), and as she talked about it, I “saw” the shoe underneath a very specific kind of porch.

I asked, “Does she live in a house that’s raised off the ground?”

My friend was a little surprised, and said yes.

I asked, “Is it a little higher off the ground than maybe normal… it has steps in the center of the front porch that lead up to the front door, and no railings?”

My friend was getting a little weirded out, because her mother lived in Nova Scotia, and I’d just completely described her home… Even though we both knew we’d never talked about where her mother lived, and I’d never been to Nova Scotia or to her mother’s.

Then I said, “Well, I have this weird image of that red shoe. If she faces the stairs and goes to the left, behind the third pylon, there’s a depression in the dirt. The shoe is lying there. But it’s been chewed on by a dog.

My friend laughed, because her mother didn’t have a dog, but she said she’d ask her to look anyway.

She called me right back. The shoe was where I described it, exactly. In the condition I described it.

How does that even happen? I have not a single clue.

That freaked me out. Plenty.

Not long after, a different friend, Julie, who lived in Arizona (and I lived in Baton Rouge at the time), was desperately looking for another friend, K, who’d left a suicide note. Many mutual friends had gone out searching, but K couldn’t be found. When Julie called me and told me what was happening, as she talked, I could see K… she was sitting by a large tree, eyes closed, having already died. Her white car (I didn’t know she had a white car) was parked nearby. I could sense water, but not see it, which was odd and I could also see a woman with a backpack leaning over K, not yet realizing that K had died.

I told Julie all of this. She was noticeably disappointed when she sighed and said, “Unfortunately, where we live, it’s a desert. There are no trees like that, and no water.”

And I completely understood–she was hoping for that magical solution, and I honestly couldn’t give it to her. It bothered me terribly to be so wrong, but it was a long shot anyway. I told Julie, “Ignore it then, it’s just an odd image.”

She called back four hours later, devastated. They’d found our K… two hundred miles north of where she lived, sitting on the bank of a dried river bed, leaning against a giant cottonwood tree. Her white car was parked nearby. A woman with a backpack who’d been hiking with friends had found her.

She’d only died about an hour earlier (Julie believed), based on a ticket she’d paid to enter the park. Witnesses would later confirm sightings of her when she’d parked and then gone and sat by the tree.

Aside from the shock and grief for the mutual friend, the entire conversation and ensuing discovery stunned me and if it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not believing it. What was worse, I didn’t know what to do about it. Help people? How?

Not long after, I told a couple of people, and the first thing they did was ask me about something they’d lost. It was a near-instant reaction on their part, and sometimes it was something important, but sometimes it was something that had just eluded them and they were tired of being thwarted. Every time, I ‘got’ an ‘image’ that popped in my head. And I was almost always wrong about my guesses. I think my ratio of correct “images” to questions was so low, it probably needed multiple zeroes after a decimal point.

I didn’t mind being constantly wrong. It was a relief, actually, because the hope that people have when they are asking about something lost is palpable, and dashing those hopes, or seeing their disappointment, was equally brutal.

Which lead me to wondering… What if? What if you could do this for real… But you’re human, you’re not perfect, and you make mistakes? Would you go to the police? Would you volunteer? Where do you draw the line?

What if everyone wants your help? How do you have a life? Do you hide your ability?

What if a child’s life depends on it?

What if your own life does? Or someone you love?

Years after losing K, Avery was born, and I think she’d probably been there all along, from the first time I found something… or maybe even as far back as when my dad told me that story about the hunting dog.

And those what ifs kept piling up, pressing forward, begging to be answered until I could ignore the question no longer.

THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND is not for the faint of heart. It’s a dark book, and it may break your heart, but it may also give you hope.

For me, it’s finally given me peace.

www.ToniMcgeeCausey.com

 

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