Mondays Finish the Story – August 31st, 2015- A Day’s Work

Mondays Finish the Story challenge for August 31st, 2015— 150 words around this image–

 © 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and the opening sentence–

“The cemetery spread along the area known as Devils Abode.”

I don’t know what’s going on, but I seem to be kinda grim lately….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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The cemetery spread along the area known as Devil’s Abode. It was aptly named; the no-man’s land between the lines. Festering corpses lay between white-washed tombs. The ridge beyond was government territory.

“I see him,” my spotter said. His periscope peeked above the sandbags. “Bunker, just below the ridge-line, by those oaks. Aperture on the left.”

I located the opening through my scope. The bunker was well-hidden in brush, mounded over with earth. I saw movement in the bunker’s firing-port. “I see him.”

“Good. Wind’s from the right, about two knots.”

My cross-hairs centered on the man’s forehead. I held my breath, took the slack out of my trigger.

I hesitated.

“Take the shot. Take the shot!”

I squeezed the trigger. The shot surprised me, as it should.

“You got him!”

I slumped back into the trench. The barrel of my rifle was hot against my shirt. I didn’t care.

It’s not every day you kill your favorite teacher.

Some Words of Encouragement….

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Years and years and years ago, when I could still be considered a young man, my wife and I moved from California to Washington State so I could go to graduate school. One of my good friends in California gave me a going-away present. She was also an aspiring writer, and we briefly collaborated on some stories. Her gift was a handmade poster with encouraging quotes from notable authors about writing– frankly, one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received. It was entitled “Some Words of Encouragement”, and it hung on the wall of most of my work-areas for the next decade. Eventually, however, we moved into a house with severe space issues, so it was stored away.

This weekend I started clearing our garage, possibly in preparation to sell that same space-challenged house, and I found the poster. It brought back good memories, but more than that, the quotes were still pertinent to my writing process, and I suppose they would be to anyone else’s, too. It seemed a good idea to share them, and here they are.

Note– since I received these quotes second-hand, I cannot wholly vouch for their accuracy. But my friend was pretty careful and precise in most of her dealings, so I have no reason to think they are wildly off the mark. Also, the advice dates from the Dinosaurian Age, when there was only Traditional Publishing (and typewriters!), and self-publishing meant handing out mimeographed copies of your work on street corners. Because of that, some of the quotes should be taken with a grain of salt– but they’re still fun.

Lastly, I’ve tried to keep transcription errors to a minimum.

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SOME WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

“Tell the readers a STORY! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”

— Anne McCaffrey

“You are not your writing. That is, people can love you and hate your work. Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.”

— Ron Goulart

“Be persistent. Editors change; editorial tastes change; markets change. Too many beginning writers give up too easily.”

— John Jakes

“Study the writers magazines and pound the hell out of the typewriter.”

— Erle Stanley Gardner

Any advice, ideas or suggestions about writing from people not in the creative world should be staunchly ignored and the damaging mental vibrations quelled with a good hot fudge sundae.”

— Nancy Winslow Parker

“Always make sure you get paid.”

— Ron Goulart

“Ray Bradbury told me to put a sign on my typewriter: DON’T THINK! It works miracles. I suggest one above that: HAVE FUN.”

— Richard Bach

“Preserve time each day for absolute quiet and privacy, whether you’re writing or not. It is, after all, the inner life that alone nourishes the writer’s real senses.”

— Donald Spoto

“The ideas that at first seem most outrageous, even ludicrous, are often our best and/or most creative ones – they just seem strange because we have gotten beneath the level of cliche in reaching them.”

— Rosemary Daniell

“You are your own person. You do not have to see things the way others do– in fact it will probably bode better for your writing if you do not.”

— Valerie Sherwood

“Write it and send it in. The most crucial thing a writer does is produce.”

— Robert B. Parker

“Life is a short run – milk it. Write what you really want to.”

— Ralph G. Martin

“The beginning writer needs talent, application and aspirin. If he wants to write just to make money, he is not a writer.”

— James Thurber

“The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He’s entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling his time has been wasted, you’re in violation.”

— Larry Niven

“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.”

— Harry Kamelman

“It takes most of us writers a long time to learn our craft. So keep at it. Don’t give up.”

— Jacqueline Briskin

“Don’t write what you know – what you know may bore you, and thus your readers. Write about what interests you – and interests you deeply – and your readers will catch fire at your words.”

— Valerie Sherwood

Movie Review- “12 Years a Slave”

It often happens that I only see important films long after their first release. Usually this is because of some economic constraint– being generally broke, I have to pick my movies carefully.

In the case of 12 Years A Slave, however, my delay was because I knew the story would hit me hard–

And I was right. This would be a hard movie to watch if you were Russian or Chinese or Bengali. It is harder to watch as an American; it is harder yet to watch as a white American; it is harder yet again to watch as a Southern white American; and it is even harder to watch the movie as a Southern white American who came out of a natal culture in which racism was an acceptable way of viewing the world. I grew up among people who, to put it bluntly, thought George Wallace in the 1960’s was simply doing God’s work.

It’s safe to say I bring a lot of baggage to this film.

***Mild spoilers below***

The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. As the title indicates, it took him twelve years to regain his freedom, and during that time he gained an intimate understanding of the institution of slavery, as it played out in the lives of ordinary people, both white and black. In 1853 Northup was able to get a message out to his family and acquaintances in New York. He was liberated, and then wrote his memoir with the help of a white Northern editor.

The film is not 100% accurate to Northup’s memoir– a conversation or two are invented, and a few pieces of the story have been changed. On the whole, though, it is faithful to the spirit of the memoir, which is a hair-raising depiction of the dehumanizing horror of slavery, from the inside. There really hasn’t been a film like this before, on this subject. Roots and such-like treatments pale to near-invisibility by comparison.

The film itself is superbly put together, and well-deserved its three Oscars. The cast out-does itself– Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as the erratic and cruel Edwin Epps, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first, comparatively humane master, and Lupita Nyong’o, now famous as Patsey. Cameo appearances abound, including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. I don’t think there’s a false performance in the whole ensemble. The script, by John Ridley, captures the cadence and tone of the speech of the period, no mean feat.

For me, however, the power of the film is how it takes us into a world we can hardly imagine nowadays– the life of a slave in the antebellum South. Depictions of slavery in film have all-too-often been sugar-coated pieces of Confederate propaganda, and even when they were not, they have rarely penetrated to the depths of what American chattel slavery really meant.

12 Years A Slave, by contrast, does not blink. From the moment Northup wakes up in chains, after having been drugged and kidnapped, we are shoved into a universe in which normal human relationships are twisted out of all recognition by the supposition that some men are property and some are owners. In this world slaves are sometimes not even cattle– they are objects which may be destroyed at will. It’s a descent into some abattoir of human spirit and worth.

It feels, in fact, Orwellian, in that it seems to posit the same soul-crushing hopelessness, the same sense of being obliterated beneath an all-powerful authoritarianism. The movie goes to great lengths to prove this feeling is legitimate. The slave regime of the South before the Civil War was, quite simply, a system of tyranny, carefully designed (in a bitter irony, by people who thundered their love for liberty) to maintain control of the slave population, and to deny it any role other than that of un-recompensed laborer. It was illegal in most or all Southern states to teach a slave to read; slaves needed passes to move about beyond certain areas; and, for the most part, slaves had no appeal against cruel treatment. Aside from the law, there was the willingness of the white majority to engage in vicious vigilante reprisals against even rumored insurrection or disobedience. The movie shows all of this– whippings, rape, the inability of Northup to protect his friend Patsey from Epps’ violence, the slave patrol on the road casually executing runaways, the secrecy which the slaves were forced to adopt to protect themselves from Big Brother in the plantation house. Punishment and terror are routinely meted out to slaves as means of keeping them in line.

It also painfully outlines the extent to which slavery ensnared white as well as black. Even the relatively decent Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cannot keep Northup safe, and must yield to the necessity of debt when dealing with his slaves. For other whites, the absolute nature of the power they have over slaves corrupts them, from Giamatti’s heartless slave-dealing to Epps’ rape of Patsey. Because of their corruption, the whites often live in delusion, blaming the slaves for their own failures, or even the vagaries of nature. Mary Epps blames Patsey for her husband’s ‘attentions’ to her, and visits cruelty on Patsey in retaliation. Epps feels at liberty to impose terror on a whim, and another white overseer retaliates against Northup when Northup shows himself to be smarter than the overseer.

There is, thankfully, little or no trace in the film of the Confederate lie that slaves were content with their lot. This is tyranny, plain and simple, of the same species as the Nazis or the Soviets, only with a different focus. And none of the slaves in that focus are signing up for extra helpings of servitude.

This was a hard film to watch, but I am immensely glad I did. It’s a powerful indictment of America’s original sin, which still reverberates in the racism that justified slavery and which still taints us as a nation. This is, sadly, about as American a film as you can find anywhere. And we need to own that history and that truth, so we can do better.

I highly recommend it.

A Writer’s Doldrums, or the Poison of Doubt

It’s probably some sort of literary postpartum depression thingie, but since publishing Princess of Fire I haven’t had much energy for writing. At most I’ve doodled a few hundred words here and there on different projects, none of which have yet gelled. Somewhere in the distance looms Princess of Stars, for which I absolutely have no energy at the moment. On top of that, real-life has been handing me a few tasks of an urgent nature, which means even less time and energy for scribbling.

Publishing always causes me to reflect on my writing, i.e., it engenders doubts about whether I know what the hell I’m doing. With Princess of Fire the self-doubt was especially sharp and bitter– I stumbled through the book’s four drafts and had to finish with a extra-hard push to redeem a host of lingering crimes. Then typically, in my exhaustion, I make the mistake of reading really good writers, like Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brian, and the distance between my feeble efforts and the prose of those who are real writers wraps itself around me and threatens to squeeze the life out of me like some anaconda of inadequacy. Cognitively I know that comparing yourself to other writers is one of the worst things you can do; nevertheless, I do it a lot.

Somehow, though, my sense of inadequacy never quite quashes my need to write. There are those who view the need to write as an addiction, and I can see some truth in the idea. Fortunately, it is generally a positive addiction, if there can be such a thing. So, eventually, I am sure I will once more crank up the narrative machine and feed my need.

And maybe– just maybe– I will someday write something decent.

Later.

Mondays Finish the Story – August 24th, 2015- A Family Visit

Mondays Finish the Story challenge for August 24th, 2015– 150 words based on the following picture–

 © 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“The family had no idea that little Luigi would grow up to be…”

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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“The family had no idea that little Luigi would grow up to be…”

“Do not speak of it.”

“But, Auntie…the whole world….”

“Silence!”

“…he was such a beautiful child….”

“…Yes.”

“I used to read him stories, remember? He would laugh. Afterwards he would always kiss my cheek.”

“I know.”

“It broke my heart, what he did in Marseille. And then Shanghai. And London…dear God, London….”

“As I said, it does no good to speak of it.”

“Auntie, we have to speak of it. He is coming….”

“…Yes….”

“Where did that little boy go?”

“Power…the world…what some people call ‘real life’.”

“No…something else went wrong. Not enough love…the cruelty of his father, that bastard….”

“Rehearsing it all does not help us now.”

“No. You’re right…. I’m afraid.”

“Courage. He’ll be here soon.”

“But we’re family….”

“Family or no, it’s all the same. All of humanity has to bow to Luigi Cavallo.”

“…Dictator of the World.”

“Do not speak of it….”

An experiment in tense– An Incident on Franklin Road

I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I was lured to the novel by the BBC mini-series, and I’m finding the book pretty compelling. That’s quite aside from the subject matter, which is one of my favorite periods of history– the writing itself seems very clean and direct, but with striking turns of phrase. Mantel also, somehow, manages to get away with blocks of exposition that would kill other books– in fact, she dares describe the attributes of Thomas Cromwell, the viewpoint character of the novel, in one long paragraph that appears designed to set off ‘show, don’t tell’ alarms across the literary world. You hardly even notice, though, because it works with the rest of the text.

And it’s all done in present tense. I’ve never tried writing in present tense to any extent, but it seems to have worked in Wolf Hall. I understand that some people consider present tense in fiction a passing fad, or the mark of the amateur or the mediocre. As may be; I make no judgments. But I’m going to try a little experiment. I’ve had this opening scene for a detective novel in the back of my head for a while. Detective fiction isn’t normally my cup of tea, although I had my John D. MacDonald period some years ago, and Sherlock Holmes, well, Sherlock Holmes, but this scene keeps coming back to me. Interestingly, the world I’ve started to build around it has some distinctively slipstream, or even magically realistic, aspects to it– altogether different styles for me. So I’m going to give it a whirl in the present tense, and see what happens.

Warning– there’s language and serious violence, so sensitive readers beware.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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It’s hot down at the road’s edge. The asphalt seems sticky underfoot. He wonders whether, if he stopped for one minute in one place, his shoes would weld themselves to the road surface.

Ten men, sweating in their prison jumpers, ply double-edged weed cutters, slicing down the tall grass overgrowing the shoulder of Franklin Road. Dust and chaff rise in the heated air, enveloping them. They work steadily, in silent rhythm, only a few words now and again. The guards stand well back, before and behind their line. That’s just in case one of the cons decides to take a swipe at a guard with his tool. Every bull carries a shotgun, butt-plate on hip, to discourage any sudden insurrection. They don’t let the cons talk a lot. They’re here to work.

Cutting grass along a country road isn’t one of the prison’s plum jobs. That’s the license plate makers and the colonial furniture makers, for the trustees who get to use the power-tools and presses. Out here are the unskilled, the screw-ups, the cons a couple of clicks away from losing their privileges because they were slow to move or gave a bull a stare one second too long. They get to sweat and spit out grass stems and worry about rattlesnakes.

He’s a screw-up. He knows that. He carries it with him everywhere he goes. In a way, the heat and grass and sweat are his purgatory, and he’s all right with that.

“Dunn, goddamn it,” Officer Gaskin says, “get that fucking sunflower. What are you, goddamn blind?”

“Sorry, boss,” he says, and he cuts the tall flower off at the root. In truth, he had thought to spare it, because it looked healthier than he did, and sunflowers remind him of his sister.

There are benefits to working on the road-crew, if you like sunshine, fresh air, and occasional surprises. You find all sorts of things cutting the grass alongside a country road– hub-caps, blown tires, mufflers, windshield wiper blades. Some things are better than others– it is, of course, Screech who finds the dead raccoon, rotting and maggot-writhing in the heat. The scrawny bastard spends five minutes puking, with Officer Brandt growing exasperated. On the other hand, there was the day, enshrined in road-crew legend, when Blake found the unopened five-pack of lubricated condoms. He had never seen the big man so happy.

Most of what you find is junk and contraband, and the bulls don’t care. They just tell you to shove off the road. Sometimes it’s different, though. The story is that last summer another crew found a wallet with five thousand US dollars in it. The guards instantly confiscated it, to “return it to its owner”. The consensus among the road-crews is that the owner never saw either wallet or money again.

He wishes he could find something that nice. Not that he’d be allowed to keep it. He’d just like to hold something in his hands that reminds him of a life elsewhere, where they sell condoms and people actually have wallets with money in them. Just for a moment.

They sweat through the morning, the sun increasingly their adversary. All of them are sweat-drenched and covered in bits of slaughtered plant life. It’s a relief when Trippe calls a halt for lunch.

The bulls are in a pretty good mood today; they let the prisoners sit in the shade of a couple of locust trees to eat their meal. They get cheese sandwiches on stale white bread, a pickle each, and all the lime kool-aid they can drink. It’s always lime kool-aid out on the road crews. No one knows why. They hate it, but they drink it. It’s the only liquid they have.

He sits with Blake and Gopher as they eat. The bulls made Gopher scoop up the dead raccoon and dispose of it in the drainage ditch. He is still muttering about it. “Stinking bullshit, man,” he says. “I’m always the one they’re picking on. Man, I can’t hardly eat, that thing stunk so bad.”

“You could always give me your sandwich,” Blake says.

“Shut the fuck up,” Gopher says, and he takes a bite of his sandwich.

He notices the one man sitting by himself. “Check it out,” he tells Blake. He indicates who he means with a lift of his chin.

Blake looks. “Sumbitch,” Blake mutters. “Six months and he’s still holding himself apart.”

Gopher looks, too. “Who’s that? I ain’t seen him on the crew before.”

“Newbie,” Blake says. “No, he ain’t been until now. Musta screwed up somehow.”

“But who is he, motherfucker?” Gopher says.

“Name’s Sanger,” he says. “Got sent up for mail fraud, or something stupid like that.”

“I heard it was an online scam,” Blake says.

“Not sure,” he says. “One way or the other, they got him.”

Gopher looks puzzled. “That’s it? Why ain’t he doing time in minimum security?”

“The way I heard it,” he says, “he threatened a bunch of people.”

“He threatened a bunch of people, Jack, ‘cause his daddy is some boss over in Archerport,” Blake says. “And I don’t mean some guy running an insurance brokerage, neither. The sort of boss you don’t want to get cross-ways of. Apparently Mr. S there thought mentioning his daddy would scare some folks, get him off the hook. Instead, they tacked on some hard time and told him to shove it.”

He looks at Sanger, wondering why, if his father is such a powerful man, Sanger is doing any time at all. The dark-haired youngster turns to look at him, as if feeling eyes on him. There is a deadness behind Sanger’s eyes. He turns his head away, chilled.

Too soon the bulls are yelling, “Everybody up, get up, ladies, c’mon, you lazy twats, move your asses.”

The cons get up, muttering, cussing under their breath, groaning. They step back out into the sun, picking up their tools.

It takes a while to get back into their previous rhythm, but soon enough the cons are cutting through the grass as before. The sun declines toward the west. The heat doesn’t lessen, but the day is heading toward its end. He pictures showers and his bunk back in the cell-block.

All day they have seen only the occasional car along Franklin Road. Once or twice trucks have passed, buffeting the cons with wind and swirling up chaff. “Sumbitches,” Gopher mutters to him.

A van comes along the road, up from the south, just as Blake slices through a bramble. “Well, look at that,” he says. He bends down. As the van passes the cons he bends down and picks up an un-opened water bottle. The plastic is scratched from its contact with the asphalt, but the bottle is unpunctured and the seal around the cap intact. “Lucky me.”

He is standing to Blake’s right; on Blake’s left, Sanger has stopped his work. The youngster is paying no attention to Blake; he’s watching the van– which has slowed, which has stopped. The back doors of the van open. Sanger throws down his weed cutter and drops to the ground.

“Blake!” he yells. He reaches for the big man.

The van doors open. Fire lances out from the darkness within.

Blake is hit even as he touches the sleeve of his jumper. His head explodes. He drops, pulling him down with him. The water bottle falls to the road and rolls away.

On the ground, he sees Officer Gaskin, standing behind Blake, the true target of the first burst, falling, a startled look on his face. Officer Brandt spins toward the van, his shotgun coming down, and bullets rip him and he falls backward into the drainage ditch.

The road crew is scattering in every direction, across the road, leaping the ditch and sprinting into the field beyond. A shotgun blast; Trippe is on one knee, firing. He pumps the shotgun, the empty shell twirls through the air. He is hit. He goes down, screaming, clutching his leg.

Two men climb out of the van. They wear bandannas over their faces, carry automatic rifles. They come and they pick up Sanger. The three sprint for the van. They climb in. The doors close. The van speeds off, its tires squealing.

He doesn’t want to move. He wants to stay right there, next to Blake, Blake who hadn’t had a chance. He will wait until someone comes to tell him to move.

But Trippe is still screaming. “Help me! Help!”

He wants Trippe to shut up. “Dammit.” He gets up.

The officer is gripping his leg. There is blood all over. He sees the blood pumping out between the officer’s fingers. “Help!” Trippe says. He’s already pallid.

He kneels down beside Trippe. He fumbles for a moment, unsure. “Tourniquet, tourniquet,” he mutters, like a chant from an ancient, forgotten tongue.

With shaking fingers he unbuckles the shoulder strap from Trippe’s gun belt. He wraps it around the officer’s thigh, high up near the groin. He ties it and pulls it taut. Trippe screams, but the blood stops pulsing.

“Call somebody, boss, call somebody,” he says.

Trippe lifts a shaking, blood-stained hand, plucks the radio mike from his belt. “This is Officer Trippe, Number Tango-5631– officers down, officers require assistance, we need ambulances at milepost one-five-niner on Franklin Road. For God’s sake, get here as quick as you can.”

Trippe drops the mike, panting. He looks faint.

“Hang in there, boss,” he mutters, holding on to the strap.

That’s all he focuses on– for how long he cannot say. The sirens only slowly intrude on his perception. It’s only when tires scream on the asphalt that he looks up.

Officer Weiss jumps out of the car, levels his pistol at him. His face is white with terror, or rage. “Get your hands up!”

He doesn’t move. “Boss,” he says, “if I let go, he’ll bleed to death.”

Weiss stares, and then it’s as if he actually sees what he’s looking at. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” he says. He lowers his pistol, runs to them. “Hang on, Jason, hang on!”

Weiss cradles Trippe’s head in his lap until the ambulance comes. The paramedics take the tourniquet from him; he pushes himself back and sits on the side of the road.

Then there are many officers storming about. They make him lie on his belly with his bloody hands on the back of his head. They’re taking no chances. He lies there as the ambulance takes off, its engine roaring.

Finally, they tell him to turn over. Officer Kincaid holds a shotgun on him, and Vice-Warden Phelps stands over him. “You see it all, Dunn?”

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Is Officer Trippe going to be all right?”

“He’s on his way to the hospital,” Phelps says. “That’s all I know. Brandt and Gaskin aren’t so lucky.” To Kincaid he says, “Get him back to the facility. We have to get his statement.”

Weiss comes forward. He pulls him to his feet. “You hurt anywhere?” Weiss asks.

“No, boss,” he says. “None of this blood is mine.”

“All right, then,” Weiss says. He takes him by the elbow, almost gently, as if unsure exactly what he is, and leads him to the squad car.
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Hmm– I have to say, the jury is out on whether this is more effective than a past-tense approach. I had to think about what tense I was using and caught myself automatically slipping into past-tense several times. That’s not surprising, but one obvious problem is that it is not always clear in the narrative which he “he” is referring to, since the viewpoint character never refers to themselves by their name.

But I’m glad I got this down. It’s just the opening scene of what could be a very interesting story.

Pray and Write

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