Seeing the Bones

By Janis Patterson

No, this isn’t a forensic column, at least not in the physical way. No bones, no blood, no autopsies, no dead bodies. Instead I’m talking about the skeleton (again a bone reference, sorry -) of your story.

Not long ago a dear writer friend of mine and I were talking (while sitting out under a leafy tree, eating ice cream – lovely!) about writing technique. She was telling about a conversation she had had with another writer about the skills needed to construct a good, sound, readable story. She used a story she had read for an example. It was a good story (I had read it too) but it lacked something. There was a ‘mechanical-ness’ about it. You could almost hear the writer thinking, “Have I put enough emotion here?” “I should put more description here.” “Got to watch my beats and pacing.” “What is the proportion of dialogue to narrative?”

It was, she said, like looking at a hand performing a graceful motion, but instead of seeing the skin, you saw the working of the bones through the skin.

And I don’t care how carefully the story is crafted, that is bad writing.

A story (short, novella or full novel) should take the reader away, give them a different reality that is totally believable within its own framework – not a look at how the story is created. It would be like being taken for a ride in a luxurious car, but with every action a mechanical voice announces “turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the right, now turning steering wheel 90 degrees to the left to get back to straight progress” or “applying 10% brakes to slow down for approaching crosswalk” or some such nonsense. It would take all the pleasure out of the drive.

Every action and reaction in a book should happen because it is dictated by the needs of the story – the action and the characters – not because of some esoteric road map of plot shape, beats, pacing, dialogue/narration proportions and other underlying necessities of construction. Readers should see the story as a cohesive whole, unbothered by the mechanics.

The reader should see only the gesture, not the bones beneath.

The Great Printer War

by Janis Patterson

Normally I am very soft-spoken. Normally I am temperate in my language. Normally… but nothing about this situation has been normal, not even my language.

Years ago I bought an inexpensive little b&w laser printer – nothing fancy, as at the time I did very little printing. Most of my work and documents etc. were done on-line. A printer was a luxury, so I got a cheap one. It came with a decent-sized cartridge and I got almost two years of printing before the cartridge expired. I bought another; it was more expensive by a few dollars, but…

Another year or so and another cartridge, for a few dollars more… (sounds like a title, doesn’t it?) and as I still did very little printing I went ahead and paid.

Until last week, when the current cartridge ran out and to my horror I found that the cartridge (which is fairly small) cost almost twice what I originally paid for the printer itself! To my mind that is just wrong, especially since lately I am printing so much more than before!

Well, on our last two trips to the computer store to get things The Husband needed I had been looking around and fell in love with one of the Epson ink-tank color printers. It is supposed to do everything – copy, print, scan… the whole nine yards. And while Epson makes three versions of this kind of printer (with escalating features and prices) I decided I could afford the least expensive. I mean, it’s an investment, isn’t it? My cheap old one was a number of years old, so who knows how much longer it would last, and even if it did the cost of three cartridges would almost pay for the new printer plus a year’s supply of ink… and just think of the colorful things I could do – holiday letters, birthday greetings, handouts for my ladies’ club… You agree, don’t you? Well, please do even if you don’t, because I did it and I need validation. So I bought the printer.

Except I didn’t. The computer store didn’t have one, just their mock-up floor model. Same thing with the office supply store where we’ve shopped for years. Both offered to have one delivered to me, but could give no idea of when. So, muttering angrily, I went online. Amazon could get me one in just six weeks. The on-line version of our computer store felt sure they could get one to me in just five weeks. The printer’s manufacturer was out of them in their store, and had no idea when they’d get more!

Finally, my muttering growing into a full growl, I checked online at a national we-sell-everything store and found they could get me one in two and a half weeks. Knowing when I was licked, I jumped on it and sent them my money.

Mirable dictu! Three days later they said they could get one delivered to my front door in two days. I was delirious with joy. Until the thing arrived. I unpacked it, removing all the tape and packing materials (some of which were in the oddest places!) and put it on my desk. Then the unholy circus of installation began.

I am not a computer person. I am a writer. I put words down one after another. I speak several languages with wide variations of fluency, but computer-tech stuff flummoxes me, especially when it is written by someone who is not only a computer genius, but to whom English is obviously no more than a third or fourth language. Translating what the manual (manual? a two-sided cheat sheet that came with the machine) said into sensible English took longer than unpacking the thing. Even when the directions were fairly clear, there were no indications if you should be doing whatever was the next step on  your computer or on the printer screen. AAAAUGH!

Fortunately the loading of the ink reservoirs (something I had feared because I am a klutz) was easy as pie. Priming the print heads was automatic, and topping off the tanks with the remaining ink as easy as the first filling.

Then came the bad part. I had to download programs and sync with my wifi, and that is when both computer and printer turned against me. I finally gave up trying to connect the devil device with the wifi and went with my standby plug USB cord. Then I had to make the computer recognize that there was a new printer attached, something it most definitely did not want to do. The instructions were of no help, not even telling me on which machine each action had to be performed.

By now I was in full swear mode, turning the air blue with such fluency it was a wonder that my mother’s ghost did not come back to wash my mouth out with soap. The Husband, who is equally or even more than a techno-naif than I, stood by and very wisely did not say a thing.

After about twenty minutes of following vague instructions down rabbit holes and clicking on all sorts of improbable things, the new printer shook itself with a growly groan and began to spit out perfectly printed test sheets.

Why? How? What had I done? I have no idea. I would swear that I had done the same thing at least three times before, but nothing had happened until that minute. Maybe the cyber-gods had taken pity on me; I don’t know and really don’t care as long as the (several expletives deleted) thing works!

In these days where even the smallest home computer seemingly can do everything but the dinner dishes, why do we have to go through these trials? Why can’t everything be set where when you get a new piece of hardware you just plug it into the wall socket, then plug it into the computer and presto! everything works. Seems like I remember something from years ago called Plug ‘N’ Play. What a wonderful concept! All the owner should have to do is put in the proper plugs (even I can do that!) and the two machines start to talk to each other and then start to work. Does such a wonderful idea still exist in the real world? It should. It really should.

Truth vs Stereotypes, or Do Grandmothers Giggle?

by Janis Patterson

In these days of fraught political correctness when being offended at something has become almost a career choice, we as writers have to be very careful about what we say. We must always be on our guard against using stereotypes and prolonging misconceptions. But sometimes it’s hard.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story for inclusion in an anthology centered on wedding days. I thought it was a pretty good piece – four generations of women in a family (girl, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) and their reactions to a wedding coming up the next day. Of course – as you have doubtless already noticed – I am a dyed in the wool contrarian, so naturally I had to do something different. The bride in this case was the grandmother, who was marrying against her mother’s and daughter’s wishes – the granddaughter was in favor of the match. During the course of this familial sturm und drang the grandmother/bride and granddaughter have a special moment and the grandmother giggles. This is when the reader first realizes that the bride is the grandmother, not the granddaughter.

I thought it was a special moment.

The editor thought differently. She almost exploded with angry disbelief. “You mean the bride is the grandmother? And she giggled? Grandmothers,” she stated unequivocally, “do not giggle.”

I replied with my usual tact and polite restraint that I was a grandmother, and I giggled frequently. In fact, a dear friend once stuck me with the nickname of ‘Giggles.’ The editor was openly disbelieving. Well, after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion the giggling stayed in the story, but the editor was most vocally unhappy about it and we’ve never worked together since.

Another story, this time a stand-alone novel, another year if not another decade and another editor. I had my characters out driving in the remote wastelands in the Texas panhandle. This is the area where you can drive for two hours and never see another car or sign of human habitation. My characters found a bad car wreck, but the driver was still alive. They picked him up and drove him to the hospital in whatever town was closest. (It’s been years, and I don’t remember…)

Well, the editor went ballistic. How, she asked, could I be so uncaring and stupid as to move an accident victim? My characters should have called (as if there were any cell service out there) for an ambulance and waited with him until the ambulance arrived. To do anything else, she yelled, was irresponsible.

I tried to explain that in that part of Texas it would be irresponsible not to get the man to the hospital as quickly as possible, as he might die in the time it took an ambulance to respond. This editor – who, by the way, was openly proud she had never been west of the Alleghenies – was completely disbelieving, and turned down the book simply because of that. She had offered me the out of rewriting, and (if I really insisted) making them closer to a town where an ambulance was a logical inclusion, but I declined. The loneliness and isolation of the area were too deeply interwoven into the story – almost a character in itself – and part of the moral understructure of the book. We agreed to cancel the contract.

Yet one more story about a New York editor, though it has little to do with a book. I had worked with this editor several times, and was tossing around an idea about a couple being trapped in an ice storm. She absolutely hooted at my idea of setting it in North Central Texas, because, as she said “everyone knows Texas is tropical!”

Well, apparently the weather gods were tired of Yankees being so ignorant about Texas, because within a very few weeks we had a paralyzing ice storm that pretty much shut down the city… and it was the middle of April. There were photos on the front page of our newspaper of horizontal winds and trees breaking under an inch thick coating of ice. Smiling with unrepentant glee, I risked life and limb skating over the ice to get a fresh copy of the paper from a nearby box, stuck it into a big padded envelope and sent it to her. I didn’t even include a note. The subject was never mentioned again.

So – even when it does not even touch on the ungodly mess of political correctness (which to me brings up images of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride) we all have to be very careful about indulging in the lazy shortcut of stereotypes and misconceptions. We write fiction, but to be believable fiction, it has to have a firm grounding in basic truths.

Time to Write and Other Fictions

by Janis Patterson

I used to have a dream… a dream of a place where I have no responsibilities, no job to go to, no social obligations to fulfill, no time-consuming errands to run, no organizations to which I have made promises… nothing but time and quiet in which to write. The archetypical ivory tower.

Well, I can tell you the archetypical ivory tower is very overrated. Like everyone else, The Husband and I have been pretty much self-quarantined at home for what seems like the last couple of aeons. Oh, we have gone to the grocery about once a week (a giddy exercise in freedom!) and once to the bank (drive-thru only) and occasionally to pick up a take-out meal from Desperados, our very favorite Mexican restaurant (food is good as ever, but just not the same experience), but to a modern couple living in a big city with lots of connections and work and organizations, our recent adventures have been pretty thin.

Which, you would think, would be wonderful for my writing. Aside from fixing dinner most nights and a load or two of laundry each week, I have nothing to do but write.

Except I can’t.

The Husband is very good – most of the time – about not bothering me while I work. It took a couple of years in the early part of our marriage, but he did learn that when my office door is closed no one disturbs me unless there is blood or flame! (I should say we’re an older couple, and it’s just the two of us and one very bossy little dog.) While we’ve been sequestered he’s been working his way through some stuffed old boxes of his stuff that date from the time of our marriage.

Me – “You need to go through those boxes and get rid of a lot of that stuff.”

Him – “I know what’s in every one of those boxes, and it’s all stuff I want to keep.”

Me – “Well, then, go through and pack it carefully in new plastic boxes – those cardboard boxes are yucky.”

Him – “I’ll get around to it.”

Repeat this conversation a time or two a year for almost every year – and there are a number of them – we’ve been married.

Well, the Chinese plague lockdown has taken away all his excuses. He can’t go to work, we have no meetings, and he can watch only so much idiotic TV, so he finally said he’d do one box. Of course, that led to another and another (we’re actually seeing parts of the storage room floor we haven’t seen in a couple of years!) and now it’s a treasure hunt.

Him – “Look at what I found! I’ve been looking for this!” is repeated several times a day. The first few times I was jubilant – and just a little bit self-satisfied – but after a day or two I decided I had to work and went behind the closed doors of my office.

Except I can’t.

I am facing two book deadlines (not counting my recurring blogs) and I need to write. Deadlines have been sacrosanct my entire life and I will do just about anything to meet them. Worse still, I pretty much know what I’m going to write, so it isn’t a real case of writer’s block, it’s just… just… The best description I can come up with is a non-religious accidie… a laziness or indifference to the entire process.

My mind wanders – and not creatively, as it should when you’re writing. I find myself either becoming fascinated with something that has nothing to do with what’s at hand or just shutting off and staring at something, such as the rose bush outside my window or the TV screen, and both are just about as edifying.

Perhaps the dirty little secret of this Chinese plague lockdown is a lack of structure. I’ve worked since I was in school, and most of the time done it well, but there has always been a structure. There have been structure-less days, of course, and on occasion a week or so such as in a vacation or an illness, but I always knew that at the end of  a certain period of time the structure would surround me again and that knowledge kept me going. Or started me up again, to be honest.

Now, with no real end in sight and a tragically changed world waiting outside my (metaphoric) front door, I don’t know what to do. I was always pretty good at living inside a structure, but I suck at creating one. However – I know something has to change, and the only thing I can influence or change for sure is myself, so I have been working at writing out a schedule. Somehow that makes it the more real. It’s about time I learned how to schedule… oh, I’ve always known how. It’s simple. The hard part, the part I must master, is fulfilling it.

Hope all of you are staying safe and well. Please take care of yourselves.

Confessions About the Covid Crazies

by Janis Patterson

How are you surviving the Covid lockdown, which – thankfully – is finally fading away?

While my office is in my home and I don’t go out too much in normal times (which, please Heaven, are finally coming back!) just the idea of not being able to go out or have any place to go to have driven me crazy. Crazier.

For the first time in many years I am not face-up against a deadline, usually multiple deadlines, which come racing at me like an express train. Well, I do have one, but it isn’t until October, and the way this year has been going who of us is positive there is even going to be an October this year?

And that’s why this post is so frightfully late. I forgot until last night, when the lights were out, our goodnights said and The Husband had drifted off to sleep. Suddenly I remembered and sat bolt upright, gasping at my unprofessionalism. Dragged from sleep he wanted to know what was wrong, but when I told him he merely snorted and said to go back to sleep. The sad thing is I did, which is very unlike me. This lockdown has activated my inner sloth – I chose the sloth as my spirit animal a few years ago when a prolonged bed rest was dictated while recuperating from a surgery, and the wee little beastie has played havoc with my work ethic ever since.

One good thing about this lockdown is that The Husband is only working half weeks – 2 ½ days – and this makes a perfect rehearsal for when he retires in the not-too-distant future. One thing I’ve learned – he is ignorant of the writing process, as I do 95% of it when he’s not here. Plus, he’s a science person, not a word person. I’ve been writing in our den for years, and not too long ago made the decision to turn the guest room into my office, a task about which I have been distressingly dilatory. I need to get on it NOW, so when he does retire fully I can retreat in there. I’m working on it every day, and trying to decide whether or not I can install a moat.

Plus, during this time of plague I have been slowly morphing from a writer who works at home into a housewife, a strange and alien creature I have never been before. I’ve been excavating the dining room (verb chosen deliberately) and for the last three days sorting through ancient tax papers that go back to 2007. So far The Husband has taken two enormous tubs of old papers to his office to shred in their commercial shredder.

I won’t bore you with tales of the strange wonders I’ve found during this time of excavation, but I did find my iron which I lost several years ago. It’s a fine example of cleaning making more work for you, because now I’m going to have to go to the trouble of losing it again, and do you know how hard it is to lose an iron?

Well, the clock is ticking (yes, we still have one that ticks, a Seth-Thomas kitchen clock that was a wedding present to my father’s parents in 1899) and I need to get this posted. I hope you all – assuming you have read this far – are safe and well and all in your world is good. Please take care of yourselves and believe we will get through this. At least, I hope so, because housework is making me crazy! Crazier.