Monday, September 30, 2013

"And this'll be young Master Hawkins..."

I've written about perspective before, but dagnabit, it's important!  On Saturday we took the boat out for an early fall cruise.  It was a nice day on the water but if I were to rate the boating days this season, it would probably have not made it into the top five.  The weather just wasn't up to snuff - not really any direct sunshine and we couldn't really go very fast because it was so cold.

Don't get me wrong, I do still believe that the worst day boating is better than the best day commuting - even if a border collie is trying to kill you.  It's just that to me, it was business as usual - nothing special, just another afternoon on the water.

My younger boys brought friends with them.  It was a get-together that had been planned and rescheduled for months and originally hadn't been for boating.  But the forecast was for such a nice day (now Wednesday instead of Saturday) that we didn't want to miss it.  It was decided the friends could come along.

They had a blast.  I could tell they were excited and it was a joy to have them.  What I missed, most of the afternoon, was how significant the trip was for them.  I kept thinking, if only it warmer they could do this - or - if only the sun would stay out a little longer we could do that.

We heard back from their Mom as soon as she got home.  "They just kept talking about it.  Thank you so much for taking them.  They had so much fun."  We were glad.  I ran into their Dad yesterday and after I said hello he said, "The first thing they asked me when they got home was, 'Dad, can we get a speed boat?'"

My wife received a thank you note from one of them - a piece of paper covered with stick drawings (way better than mine) and other illustrations - showing the grandest time, giant smiles, and with a huge thank you.

I knew they were having fun, but I let myself be distracted by what was wrong with the day so I missed out on my own version of their happiness.  I didn't have their perspective.

In our writing, it is very hard to recapture that "first boat ride of the summer" feeling, but we need to try.  Failing to see the greatness behind the perceived structural or development issues of our work can keep you from appreciating the accomplishments you've achieved.

Share you work.  Let someone remind you that you can do this.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"I Wanna Soak Up the Sun."

I'm a little late with the post today.  We've been busy.  Instead of kettle bell class today we went out into the country and picked up a side of beef.  I'm not sure which side, and it's actually only half of a side since we split the beast 4 ways.  In between our house and horse country is cow country.  It's also in full fall swing and we passed a couple of pumpkin patches and a farmer's market.

The forecast this afternoon was for sunny skies and a general warming.  Could be the last of the boating weekends so we rushed along to make the window of good weather - thoughts of last year's near fiasco running through my head.  I checked the weather about 6... billion times and it was consistent.  Partly cloudy giving way to sunshine, no rain, light wind.

We've putted down the river, out into the big river, and frozen the whole way under not 1 layer of clouds, not 2 layers of clouds, but under a canopy of gray with 2 sublayers.  But we pressed on.  There was hope.

It was worth it.  I'm anchored now, just off our favorite rocky beach, watching the children splash the shore searching for shells and teeth.    The sun came out while I was writing.  The waves are rocking the boat just enough to remind me why I love the water.

Life is good.  I'm very lucky to be where I want to be, doing what I want to do, with the people I want to be with.  Do I have everything I want?  What a silly question, but as Sheryl Crow said, "It's not about getting what you want, it's about wanting what you've got."

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Any place there's truckers, there's truck stops."

Another Friday!  I got in a bit of trouble last week for not really explaining the piece very well - at all, really.  Chock it up to literary aspirations.  I have no such pretension this week.  It's pure, unadulterated, uncompromising, and unashamedly pulp for today's short story.

I got the idea for it on a recent business trip when I received an email with the photograph of my waiting car and instructions for finding it.  I didn't write the story then because there was only a scene in my mind, not a real story.  Then I woke up in the middle of the night and remembered a novel I'd read by Piers Anthony.  "Now there's a good twist." I thought.

Company Man
By Jon Stark
September, 2013; 1193 words

I walked out of the terminal building of Garrett International Airport with my roller bag in tow.  It was a small place - three doors shared a wall in small lounge, each assigned its own gate number - and there was only one rental car company.

But I didn't need a choice.  There was vehicle waiting for me with the equipment I needed, a pre-programmed GPS, and a file folder with targeting information.

The sun was hot in Texas that time of year - you know, one of the 51 weeks that it isn't the middle of January - and a steady wind blew from the west like a hair dryer in my face.  It wasn't a short walk to the fire station where the truck waited for me, but it gave me a chance to settle into this place and make sure nobody was following me.

Not that I expected it.  My assignments were kept very secret.  I wasn't even sure who my control officer was.  I didn't really want to know.

The truck was a black Suburban.  I'd received a picture of it while stuck in Atlanta.  I always got stuck there and I thought perhaps the universe conspired against me.  Now I think that the airline system was so convoluted it wasn't possible to have a smooth even if the company tried to arrange it.

I drove out about 20 miles until I found my acquisition point - a Sonic located at an intersection that the mark was going to drive through.  I'm not supposed to call them marks but old habits die hard.

There was time, so I ordered food while I waited.  Sure enough, at 5:53 pm, the blue minivan of Rick Taylor turned down the road by where I was parked.  I followed.

The road took us into the countryside almost at once and there was no traffic.  I kept my distance but wasn't worried about being spotted.  I was a master of the loose tail - it was something of a speciality for me, part of how I landed this gig.  Besides,  I'd been in the same position before; when you think you've broken free from "the life" you don't look back.

The van turned down a long drive.  I stopped on the road to give them time to get settled.  Rushing now would just make it harder.  He'd be spooked because, no matter how much you swore you'd never look back, when you are in your own driveway you always look back.

That's why I'm here.  I looked back and saw the man sent to retire me.  When I was the mark.  It turned into a job interview and here I am.  That was 1963.  There have been costs.  You should not envy my wealth or prestige - or vocation - but it is far better than the alternative of an eternity roasting in the fiery pit.

The evening was dawning when I left the truck and began my trek to the house.  It was probably a quarter of a mile but in the wasteland of West Texas my view wasn't obstructed in the least and my only company were other slithering reptiles and coyote sneaking off on some errand much like mine.

I didn't knock.  I didn't break anything.  I just walked in.  He was sitting in the dinning room, drinking light brown liquid from a high ball glass with a single ice cube in it.  His wife was with him, her back to me, and she was talking.  It took a moment for her to realize he had stopped listening and was looking over her shoulder.

That's always the tricky part.  When they aren't alone but there's only a single mark.  I mean target.  Sometimes they see me.  Sometimes their mind won't comprehend me and I remain invisible.  Mrs. Taylor (the second one, according to my targeting package) saw me.

"Who are you?" she said.

"It's okay, Honey." said Mr. Taylor.

"It most certainly isn't."  She turned in her chair in an attempt to see us both.  I had frightened her, certainly, but her man wasn't the least bit concerned about seeing me.  I watched his hands.  The glass shook a little, but he wasn't making a move.

From another part of the house I could hear the sound of a children's sitcom.  A burst of real laughter carried into the room over the canned stuff that had been running since I entered the house.

"Your children are safe, Mrs. Taylor." I said.  She stood.  I watched her hands too.  I was in Texas.

"Get out of my house." she said.

He asked, "I suppose I don't have time to say goodbye?"

She looked at me with comprehension overdosed on apprehension.  She moved to stand beside him.  She-wolf.

"It's probably not a good idea." I told him.  "Doesn't make things easier for anyone."

He nodded then finished his drink.  "No need to put it off then."

He stood.  She rushed me then, no weapon but a woman's sudden rage.  She was very strong and angry.  She wasn't like us and her violence was desperate, clumsy.  No match for a company man like me.

I escorted Mr. Taylor to my truck.  Night was full on by then and we walked slowly, watching the stars blinking on.  He was philosophical, resigned but feeling the need to justify himself to me.

"I left that life behind me years ago."  he said.

I nodded.  This was normal behavior.  Most people didn't run from me.  Most people didn't fight it.

"My wife doesn't really know what I did.  I started fresh here."  He continued on with me in silence for a few yards.  "I suppose I should have told her."

"It might have helped."  I said.  "You might have been forgiven then."

He laughed at me.  "Like that ever happens."  But I watched it sink in.  "Does it ever happen?"

"It happens all the time." I said.  "I got waved off at the front door one time.  I had knocked, got the call, but never went in.  You just have to know the right guy."  I rubbed my arm where his wife had grabbed on to me.  "I think she could have made the introduction for you."

He pondered that.  "I should have told her."  A few more steps.  "Will she be okay?"

I thought about what he really meant.  Back in the house she was probably regaining consciousness.  She'd see the overturned chairs, the broken plate, and his body slumped on the table next to a spilled glass.  She would grieve.  But she wouldn't remember my visit.

"She'll be okay.  So will your kids."  I couldn't know that for sure, of course.  I've retired multiple generations of the same family, but he didn't need to know that and there was plenty of time for misery ahead.

We climbed into the truck and as I swung around to head south he asked, "How long is the trip?"

"It's relatively short." I said.  They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but all the deliveries I've made have been on asphalt... and the traffic's a bear.

Note #1: Do you have a story prompt for a future "Friday Fiction" entry?  An idea you think will stump me? - or just something you'd like to know where I might take it?  Post it in the comments sections and you'll get to here me say, "Challenge.  Accepted."

Note #2: The novel is called "On a Pale Horse" and if you enjoy science fiction at all, I recommend it.  The only similarity to this story is the idea that there are "civil servants" working the roads of eternity.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"I like to canoe."

This was a great weekend for movies at home.  There was the "Wow, that was so much better than I expected but what's happened to Harrison Ford?" and the "Nicholas Sparks Productions should focus on making films for the Lifetime network rather than the big screen".

I'm going to save Bond v. Indiana Jones for another day and instead focus on "Safe Haven" - a film that was probably a good read but fell short of being good.  I am comfortable enough in my masculinity to admit that I have read a Nicholas Sparks novel - "The Choice" - and thought it was very good.  I've also watched several of the movies made from his books and understand why many people like them.  Characters are emotionally engaging, there is sentimental wit, and true love always prevails.  Again, I'm comfortable enough in who I am to say, "Go true love" and I'll root for it everytime.

"Safe Haven" however, was not up to snuff.  Sorry, die hard fans.  What follows is a bit of a spoiler but, as testimony to both the less than stellar story telling and my lack of wifi for research/fact checking, but not much - I don't remember enough about the film to really give too much away.

The opening was extremely well done.  It was very clear what was happening and it captured my attention in a taught, compelling manner.  I wanted to know what was going to happen and, while it was obvious things were not quite what they seemed, we didn't know how it was wrong.

Then it got both confusing and predictable.  There was never any real challenge for the protagonist.  She got away and then everything was perfect.  Whatever she needed, she got.  No work.

There was the typical Sparks seaside small-town.  The typical boy and girl with personal issues meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after.  Plenty of small town charm but no depth.  There was only one twist and my wife nailed it 20 minutes in.  The mystery of the plot was under developed and never really applied pressure to the protagonist.  The police investigation was obviously not on the books - the only question was what the relationship was between the cop and the blonde.  The cop could have been an outstanding character but he was under-acted and really nothing more than a stereotype.

The personal relationship between the man and woman was not portrayed the way you would expect from someone who was behind "The Notebook" or the one about the girl with the terminal cancer and her overprotective parents.  It was far more "Dear John" than "Message in a Bottle".  The man was good, well acted and consistent and believable, but it wasn't enough.

Perhaps the biggest dissapointment for me was the relationship between the woman and the oldest child.  It was, as expected, adversarial, but the resolution occured outside of the story.  They went from not getting along to being best buds and we didn't learn why.  I felt robbed of the only the only thing in the story I wanted to see.

I didn't hate the film, but I'm so incredibly glad I didn't see it in the theater.  I've heard that the romantic comedy/drama is dead and I'm starting to think it might be.  For fans of Sparks it's going to be enjoyable while you fold laundry or work on budget spread sheets.  The rest of us might want to just break out our old copy of "Pretty Woman" and reminicing about when movies about true love were something to... love.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"There's no reason to shoot at me, I'm a dentist."

I do not have a fixation with teeth.  I do not own stock in Colgate.  I just happen to think the occasional deep thought while applying fluoride to my chompers.

You go to the Dentist and she says, "You do a pretty good job brushing.  Your front teeth look great but you need to work on the back teeth more - they have a lot of tarter.  Do you floss?"  Of course you don't floss.  You don't have time to floss - you need to jump straight into the brushing. The more honest folks will admit this to their Dentist.  Others will think, for some strange reason, that they can lie and the person who went to medical school, who looks at mouths all day long, and knows what a flossed mouth looks like, will be fooled. 

As an aside, let me just say that you aren't fooling anybody.  Even really good liars aren't really that great.  Amazing liars though, they are pretty good.

The next time you go to the dentist, she says, "You do a pretty good job brushing.  Your back teeth look great but you need to work on the front teeth more - they have a lot of tarter.  Do you floss?"  You over compensated and were still in too much of a hurry to floss – a requirement for her approval.
This Dentist had flames on his car - "The In-Laws", 1979

Writing is a lot like brushing your teeth.  It won't make your breath fresher, but if you do it every day, twice if you can manage it, you'll have a brighter smile.  You'll also get a lot better.  But don’t be in such a rush to write that you forget to outline.  It shows if you do (or if you don’t).

When I was somewhere in the vicinity of 12, I wrote a short story and sent it to "Dragon" Magazine - the only magazine in our school library that was buying speculative fiction.  It was rejected with a form letter that stated, “You are worthless.  Be gone.” - but it also had a handwritten note that I should work on dialogue.  So I worked on dialogue (very short version of the story).  I had another rejection that told me I should work on action.  So then I focused on that.  But I didn’t outline anything.

I picked up some books about writing.  "Work harder on character."  "Work on plot."  "Work on authenticity."  Every book seemed to offer something different.  It was overwhelming.  In fact, the only advice that seemed to stay consistent was "Make sure you write an outline before you start."  It was also the only wild red herring goose that I didn’t chase.

Good dental health is not assured by flossing, but every dentist everywhere, even the 1 dentist that doesn't recommend sugarless gum for his patients that chew gum, thinks you should floss.  There's a reason for that.

What's holding you back from flossing - er, outlining?

Monday, September 23, 2013

"To me, it's just somethin' else I never got a chance to be."

I hope you never have to say that.  Don't lose track of what you are, and have been.

"Breaking Away"
It's okay to be inspired by your own accomplishments.  Stephen Roche won the Giro, the Tour, and then the World Championship all in the same year (1987).  Nobody does all three (except for him and the peerless Eddy Merckx).  I'm certain that his victory at the WC was inspired by his previous wins and historic placement.  There's a Wal-Mart in every strip mall because the Walton family was spurred on by their own success and rather than sit humbly on their heels, pressed on to the next level.  And then the next one after that.

I read somewhere that if you put a top 5 list in your blog, it will be far more popular so, to honor our first week of over 100 posts, I thought I make a list of the top 5 reasons this blog has been successful - to further inspire me, and hopefully, you.

5.  I wrote 100 posts on a tighter schedule then Delta Airlines.  When my schedule was disrupted I was able to still press through.  There were only a couple of days that I was supposed to post and didn't end up making it.  I have achieved the goal of becoming a more disciplined writer.

4.  I wrote something meaningful to someone.   I’ve gotten some wonderful emails about a few of my posts.  One post in particular garnered several private comments to the effect of “that was really well said and has made a difference in my life”.  Couldn't ask for more.

3.  I have created marketable work.  My Friday writing exercise has led to both total flops that nobody likes and short stories that have picked up some buzz - one scheduled to be published next month, the other being actively marketed by someone other than me.  Commercial success doesn't make you a writer, but it does offer some much needed inspiration on the days you wonder if anyone is really listening.

2. My weekly page hit count has grown.  Thank you.  No really, I mean it.  Talking to rocks and trees are fine when you’re wandering alone through the woods, but my goal is not to keep myself company online.

1.  I love to blog.   You all either like what I write or want me to be successful so you keep reading, keep commenting and (at least some of you) keep critiquing my prose.  I started a magazine when I was a senior in high school but couldn’t get any traction so (mostly due to the cost of postage and a lack of maturity on my part) I gave up.  R&A is successful and I don’t have any plans to quit now.

Have you seen any good movies lately?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"It's hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others."

We've done 100 posts.  Remarkable.  I feel like a successful blogger.  This wasn't a flash in the pan or the "greatest idea" that only lasted a couple of weeks.  Thank you for encouraging me along the way.  I don't think I've had made it this far if I thought there was nobody out there.

That sort of reads like a goodbye.  It is NOT a goodbye.  It's a "Please, please keep reading."  I've made some changes to the blog recently and I wanted to share them with you.

1.  Simpler background.  For whatever reason, Blogger is having trouble consistently displaying images.  I've simplified the wallpaper et. al. so that, hopefully, everything will load for you in a manner that allows you to read the text.

2. I've added an "about" page.  The "about" page is my first foray away from a single main page.  I have ideas for other pages and if you have any suggestions (lists, links, organization, whatever) please post them in the comments.  In the meantime, please be sure to enjoy my shout-out to Ann Rand - the "Who is Jon Stark?" page.  - before you go there, the shout-out is just the title.  The page is about... Jon Stark.

3. Category buttons at the bottom of the post.  You can vote for whether or not a post is cool or not cool.  You aren't going to hurt my feelings by doing anything except not using the boxes.  I thrive on feedback and wither without criticism.

4.  There are "like" buttons for Facebook, Google +, and Twitter.  If you enjoy a particular post, don't be shy about sharing it.

5.  And speaking of sharing - Rejected and Alone is now on Facebook.  If you're a Facebook junkie, why don't you click on over and "like" the page.  For some silly reason, FB requires a certain number of likes before you have access to their toolkit.  The page isn't fancy right now, but it's another presence.  "I'm on my way, Jerry."

Do you like the daily features?  Is there a type of post you find much more enjoyable than others?  Which topics make you click away before you finish the first paragraph?  I'm WRITING this for me, but WHAT I WRITE is for you.  What do you want to know about?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"OK, when the alert level goes down, and the terrorists have been caught, we can have some chamomile tea and I'll tell you all my secrets. "

Today's train car is especially bumpy.  Makes it hard to type with any accuracy.  If there's a funky word that I miss in my "once over" please forgive me.  Meanwhile, let's press on with "Must See TV".

Or perhaps we should get on with what's not "Must See TV".  The long awaited Netflix disc arrived yesterday afternoon with the new "The Mentalist" - season 5 disc 1.  Woot.  Except that apparently we missed season 4.  A fact that became apparent in the first thirty seconds when the voice over said, "Previously on 'The Mentalist'".

I stopped the player.  We discussed for a moment.  I was all for pressing on - it's television, who cares if an episode or two is out of order.  My partner thought that, based on the preview, we had missed significant story elements and should wait until season 4 became available.  We compromised and didn't watch it.

The entire incident got me thinking about television in general.  We haven't had cable for nearly 15 years.  The house we live in now doesn't get anything through the air so everything we watch is prerecorded and by choice.  (Saves us hours of not watching commercials and keeps the kids safer.)  Five years ago when I would tell people I didn't have cable or get TV they would act like I was crazy and walk away.  That doesn't happen anymore.  Now it's more of, "Yeah, I should probably get rid of it too.  I stream everything."

And that's the fundamental change in television.  On-demand streaming of personalized content.  It has led to binge watching - where you will go without sleep for an entire weekend to watch three seasons of some show.  Or you will watch one series every night until you finish it and then pick another (which is more like what we do).

As the viewing habits changed, the format itself changed.  With streaming and DVRs (so much easier than VCRs) the story tellers could begin developing complex plots across entire seasons where each episode built on the previous one without the risk of losing viewers when they missed an episode.

Shows like “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” had done that before but they were considered "primetime soap operas".  “The Sopranos” and “24” really demonstrated the viability of the technique and now the majority of shows we call TV have critical story elements that direct the rest of the season in nearly every episode.

There were always changes in shows, but they were a big deal - like when Mac was killed on Magnum.  It was a double episode with lots of fanfare.  Then they introduced Maggie and that was that.  She stayed [the same] for the rest of the show.

Maybe I'm off here, but since every time I turn around there's a new service that streams to a new device, I don't think so.

But I could be wrong – what’s your exception to the new rule?  What show is like “Seinfeld” or “Cheers” where you can just pick up any episode, anywhere, and watch it?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Neatness is always the result of deliberate planning."

I actually remembered to enter the 5 minute fiction contest last night.  It went a little better than last time but I don't think I've quite figured it out yet.  The story itself made more sense - I took a minute (just a minute) to think about where I wanted to go before I started writing and wasn’t committed to a bad idea.  I'm reminded of a poster on the wall at work three employers ago - "Why is it that there's never enough time to do it right but always enough time to do it again?"

Today's "Tales From the Script" comes from Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest".  Long considered a classic by the people who get to pick that sort of thing, NXNW has been argued as the finest work by "the master of suspense".  I enjoy a good Hitchcock most of the time, most of the way through, but I've come to the opinion that the industry has moved too far for most people to enjoy the films.  They want Cameron or Tarantino.  You have to be in the mood for an antique to appreciate something like NXNW.  (I offer you to compare "Dr. No" with "Skyfall" before arguing that old movies are equally enjoyable to a modern audience.)

What I'm getting at is that I saw NXNW in my teens and it was okay but not something I cared to see again - it was an old movie and seemed a bit hokey, not suspenseful.  Reading the script, I was struck by how much has changed in the way we are supposed to tell stories for the screen.  But I also saw how valuable reading the story of a successful film from another time can be.  The script was fantastic.

Really, it was.  There were all sorts of bits in the dialogue that were very well done.  There were real expressions of emotion rather than mindless cursing.  Everything was innuendo - it was very clear exactly what the characters were talking about, but they never said it and while we knew what they were about to do (or had just done) there was no scene showing us any of it.  If nothing else, it's proof that a good writer will find a way, no matter what the rules may be.

On the down side, it was a very long read - as scripts go.  Enjoyable, but not the easy-to-finish-in-one-sitting that now populates the world.  There were huge long blocks of descriptive text.  They moved along fairly well but it was much more novel like.  There was also quite a bit of exposition through dialogue which is not only out of vogue, but extremely boring.

The comedy played through well and so did the desperation.  I felt quite certain, by the end, that I knew Mr. Thornhill.  For some strange reason though, as I read, I kept hearing Jimmy Stewart instead of Cary Grant.

I'm wondering if there are any Hitchcock fans out there?  What was your take on NXNW?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"The horror... The horror..."

Today's Tool of the Trade is emotion.  If you’ve ever read something that felt “flat” it’s because the emotional content (if present at all) wasn’t written from the heart.

This morning I’m pondering why Dylan Thomas’s poem came to mind yesterday as I sat to write.  I have been reflecting on the events in DC yesterday but I know there’s nothing I can write that will change anything and everyone has their own opinions and feelings on the matter.

The writer in me explores that event, reflecting on those who were lost but also thinking about those who were not lost, but were out of touch while loved ones worried.  What does that feel like?  What about being there?  Being alright yet unable to let anyone know.  Or not being alright - being terrified that at any moment the barely secured office door could be kicked in and you must face an enemy without compassion.  Fear?  Terror?  Hopelessness?  Resolve?  Impatience?

Sunday morning I saw a squirrel get hit by a car.  There was a mad dash of indecision, he went for it, and the wheels went right over him.  Then he scurried off the road, dragging his back half with his two front feet, tail uncharacteristically flat on the road.  It's the first time I've ever felt bad for a squirrel.  (Don't worry, I'm over it.)  I've hunted squirrel - so what was different in my response?  I spent longer than usual trying to figure out both the feeling and the reason because, obviously, there was a nuance.

To write believably, your characters have to feel authentic.  To write distinctively, you have to tap into nuance and bring your readers fully into the experience of your character.

After what happened yesterday in Washington, after watching the spontaneous reactions of the responders, the survivors, the family, and comparing that to the prepared speeches by government officials (which offered nothing in the way of emotion) I think I figured it out.  With the squirrel I saw tragedy happening. I know what was coming.  I also knew that the squirrel knew.  He didn't just dart out and get hit.  He started out, paused, continued, went back, and then went for it.  He knew the danger and it scared him.  I knew the danger too but was powerless to prevent it even though it was right in front of me.

I hate being powerless and seeing terrible things happen that I can't stop is awful.  When I was 13 my mother drove her electric scooter off the edge of a ramp and crashed into the parking lot.  It was far enough down to damage the machine, send her belonging flying, and knock her out for a few minutes.  I was four feet away and knew exactly what was going to happen but there was nothing I could do to prevent it.  She was sprawled out on her back, several feet from the scooter, not moving at all.  All I could do was call for help and pick up her glasses from even further away.  Useless.

Don't be powerless in your writing.  Draw on emotion, explore everything that you start to feel and remember what causes it.  Your stories will come to life.  Unless they're about Zombies.

Is there something you’ve witnessed or experienced that has provided a strong emotional muse to your work?  I’d love to hear about it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I don't memorize poetry.  It's not how my mind works and I have to be in the proper mood to even appreciate it.  Sort of like painting.  I can't draw a convincing stick figure and when walking through an art gallery I'm no more swayed than if I were a grade school art show.  I appreciate certain pictures, but I couldn't tell you why they are better than others and I'm sure that someone "in the know" would laugh at my plebian tastes.

In school we had to take art classes.  I nearly failed because I can't paint a water color and my art teacher was convinced I was being difficult - "Anyone can't paint water colors."  Wow.  That stung.  I wanted to paint water colors, would love to be able to do it, but I can't.

We also had to learn the Pythagorean theory and quadratic formula.  The only thing I remember about either is that my last math teacher had a t-shirt with the quadratic formula on it.  The shirt was yellow and the formula black.  There was a radical symbol in it somewhere.  Haven't used it since then.

We had to read Chaucer and Steinbeck.  Twice for "The Red Pony" and once for "The Grapes of Wrath".  I didn't get Grapes but thought it was better than the Pony.  I suspect I was too far removed from the setting and the trials of being an adult and caring for a family.  I argued terribly with my 8th grade English teacher about "The Red Pony" because she found symbols everywhere.  We had a test on the symbolism.  I remember asking, "How can you even say that?  You're making this up.  You don't know what Mr. Steinbeck was thinking when he wrote it."  She smiled sweetly and told me that if I wanted to pass I needed to accept that the black pot symbolized death.  I gave in and passed - with flying colors thanks to the end of the unit project.  I wrote "Ode to Billy Buck" and recited it to Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire".  It was so over the top (both the writing and the reciting) that even my classmates enjoyed it.  I of course, with the arrogance of youth, tossed the masterwork and couldn't recite a single stanza of the four minute monstrosity for you today.

That wasn't good poetry.  It was shtick.

But in the middle of being exposed to everything so that we might find purpose, some of my classmates and I did.  I found a poem that spoke very clearly and stayed with me not because of catchy rhyme but because I got it.  And those lines from Thomas were committed to my memory as I read them.

Today is Monday.  Be inspired – there is  a week waiting for you.  Don't give up.  Ever.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"I never guess. It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty."

I'm sitting in my local library.  A marvelous place.  Things have changed in libraries over the years.  I remember visiting the library during the summer one year when I was probably about 9.  It was amazing.  All these books, and we could take anyone we liked?  More than one?  I picked out a Three Investigator's - "The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot".  My father read it aloud - we were all fans of Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob.  Funny that I don't remember Bob's last name.  I keep wanting to write "Woodard"...

I don't think the library we visited was very big, kind of a small house that had book shelves in every room sort of thing.  The library I sit in now is huge.  There are still more books than movies or audio recordings, but most of the people here are using the computers or participating in activities ranging from simple paper crafts to learning English as a second (or ninth) language.  I remember people being surprised that you could get books on tape at a library.  Now there's a sign that says, "We still have thousands of titles available on VHS and audio cassette - ask at the desk".

"The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot" was a wonderful book with a memorable cast of feathered characters.  "Too Too Too Be, or not Too Too Too Be.  That is the question."  Of course it was actually 222B and we were to "call on Sherlock Holmes."  Great stuff.  "Three Severns lead to 13."  Now that's new math.  But in the climactic scene?  It all made sense.

It was a great book, one that I remember to this day.  I got it at my first real experience with a public library (school libraries were different).  It set up a pattern that has sort of ruled my library experiences since - the shelves are filled with great books.  Too many to possibly read.  Every time I walk through a library I am taunted by possibility.  What's this one about?  Would that one be worth my time?  I've got three here, but that looks amazing, maybe I'll try it?  I wonder what that's about?  You get the idea.  Choosing a book is a microcosm of the choices we make in life.  Each choice takes away from the possible, sort of shuts a window on an opportunity.  I may only be able to get to three books, so each one I settle on means that's a slot I can't fill with something else.  In life it's the same - I'm only 22 once so I can go to college, raft down the amazon, try to become a movie star in LA, or ride my bike across the country.  Once I've picked one, the others aren't available anymore - maybe I'll get to them later, but at 23 I've got a whole new set of choices...

Picking out the books is a great exercise for being able to live - sort of like switching which leg you put into your pants first (something I've done since 6th grade just to prove that Mrs. Lawrence was wrong - she wasn't, by the way but I'm stubborn).  If I can't pick out my three, I'll get none.

Don't waste your life in indecision, pick something and do it or you'll wake up some day and say, "When did I become 80?  I never even got a chance to do anything."  Just remember, as you're making your choices, there are really big snakes in the Amazon and the fish will eat you.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"You'll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle."

In the spirit of “The Usual Suspects”, this week’s original fiction tries to get all Verbal Kint.  There are 43 song and album title references.  This was a great exercise and I encourage you to try it.
There's a reason Stillwater sounds like Heart
“You’ve Got to Have Heart”
By Jon Stark
September, 2013; 344 words.

Spy versus Spy.  Black on Black.  You spend your life Alone, running with a Brigade of Bad Animals.  Some think I am Heartless, a Wild Child who learned the Secret.  Sure, I like to Kick it Out, maybe Even it Up every now and then – get some of the Rage out of My Crazy Head.  You may think my life is Nothin’ At All but you don’t know the hours I’ve spent Stranded, struggling to get Back to Avalon.  You haven’t lived the Cruel Nights of doubt, absently humming a Sylvan Song while cooling my heals outside of the Dog & Butterfly, always certain that the next gust is the cleansing Mistral Wind that will sweep me away.  Inside the pub I Wait For an Answer and then, There’s the Girl, though we are Strangers of the Heart, when our gazes cross –the unspoken “I Want Your World to Turn.”  In the dark she Rings Them Bells and I know I haven’t Fallen From Grace.  At least not yet – Under the Sky where Anything is Possible and she is not afraid to say, “I Love You.”  When Desire Walks On, she traces my scars and whispers, “You Ain’t So Tough” and I wonder if it’s true, but it can’t be.  Her next words an anathema – “Will You Be There?”  “I didn’t Want to Need You” I tell her.  “Run” she taunts.  But I can’t run, not with her, she’s such an Easy Target and the people of my world are Heartless.  I can Never run away - you say it’s choice - but ask yourself, Who Would You Run To?  If Looks Could Kill she’d have slain me a hundred times, “These Dreams” she tells me – “When I Dream of the Archer and see How Deep it Goes, I know you are lost, that your destiny is in the hands of a Little Queen prodding a Voodoo Doll, taunting you.  Taunting us.”  That’s not really it though.  This life is a part of me.  It’s The Call of the Wild, How Can I Refuse?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"I'm the Doctor."

Today's "Must See TV" is "Doctor Who".  It isn't for everyone, but if you get it, well, there's nothing qutie like it anywhere.

I really like the reboot.  Usually reboots fall flat on their face - I liked Agent Cho in "The Mentalist" but the new Hawaii 5-0?  The show just didn't have legs.  "Dr. Who" on the other hand has had as many reincarnations as James Bond and, believe it or not, each Doctor's fan base is just as rabid about  who is the best.  Personnally, even if Sean Connery ever played the Doctor, I think David Tennet nailed the role.

The great thing about this show is that you absolutely never know what you're going to get - other than the obvious off-beat British humor.  Unlike Star Trek which is locked into it's own uiverse and has a sort of "here we go a warping"  "again" about it, this programme just has a set of rules for its main character and then pretty much anything goes, from Santa Clause hit men to pigs running parliment to a deeply evil spirt being banished to the edge of the universe.  And not our universe mind you.   They may be funny or terrifying.  They may be set on Earth or deep space.  They may be a single episode or part of a more complex multi-episode opera.

I first met the Doctor when I was about 7.  It was summer and I thought I'd see what was on our old TV in the attic that played Public Television - the screen wasn't black and white, it was red and white, very hard to watch, but without it I'd never have seen "All Creature Great and Small" which, while not inspiring me to become a veternarian, did start me off on a love for British roadsters...

I was struck, even then, by its uniqueness.  And then there's the theme song.  My oh my, the absolute best theme song ever.  For the reboot they kept the original.  Sure, it's been digitally remastered and touched up a bit, but it is the most distinctive, hard driving, synth fueled song on the planet - er - universes and perfectly captures the Doctor's personality.

The writing is top-notch, the acting and special effects are fitting of a successful TV show.  It stays true to its rules and has a loveable, yet tragic, main character with intriguing flaws and needs.  I would say it is the best science fiction series ever made, although that may require putting the "Twilight Zone" into its own category (original, not the reboot which, while entertaining, wasn't quite of the same calibre).

I know there are Doctor haters out there but I don't let them get me down.  Haters gotta hate.  For the rest of us, there's a hip and exciting alternative to the drudgery of another battle in the neutral zone.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"He's not your friend. He used you because you're a cripple."

You know how every once in a while your life seems to be humming along just swimmingly and everything (except the traffic lights) is going your way?  That "excelsior" feeling of ever upward?  I've been coasting a bit on the warm fuzy everybody has been giving me on my "Fiction Fridays" writing excercise.  Last night the universe corrected itself.

My cousin's fiance is a regular entrant for a specialized weekly writing contest.  A couple of months ago she was a finalist and mentioned it on Facebook.  She didn't win but it indroduced me to the contest - essentially, every Tuesday you are given a prompt at precisely 1930 hours (central) and you have ten minutes to write a story incorporating the phrase.  Could be anything.  Right up my alley.  Except that I always forget about it.  Well, my cousin's fiance won last week and so I was reminded about it in time to enter.

1.  It's a lot harder than it sounds.  I've written from prompts, even told ghost stories from prompts.  Once I took a bet from John Michealbock that no matter what phase he came up with, I could write a coherent story between lunch and dinner.  His phrase?  "Not Even Rigormortis."  I'm not sure where he came up with it, but the story was a winner.  It's not a perfect piece by any stretch of the imagination, but the concept was great - if a little out-dated now, 20 years later.  He was impressed.  For me it was fun - it's what I do.

2. Writing under time pressure is something that distingueshes me at work.  I am used to fast deadlines where the finished product has to be perfect.  Memos.  Policy directives.  Training plans.  "Jon, fix this.  I need it by 2pm."  No big deal.  It's what I do.

3.  Spewing out a story when you haven't had time to truly formulate it results in a lot of words - the discipline of always writing, not just when you feel like it really paid off here - but not necessarily a good story.  That's what I did.

4.  I didn't realize how significant an extra 20 minutes when you are writing a compact 500 word story or how vital those minor changes I make to dialogue or description are during my review of what's been written.  I didn't have time to go back over and it showed.  First draft is not what I do.

My wife read my entry and said, "I'm dissapointed.  You're better than that."  I agreed with her.  She said, "No, really.  This is awful."  I agreed with her.  Then she said, "This has your name on it.  Can you delete it?"  Now that's honesty.  Some people might be put off by that, hurt even.  But I'm a writer.  "Rejection is my petrol.  It keeps me going."  What that said to me was that all of the, "I really liked that" comments meant that she really liked it.

She read the other entries.  Some of them were good.  One was very good - I was impressed.  She said, "Remind me to remind you next week.  You can win this easily."  That's not true.  Writing an original story in 10 minutes from a prompt that could come from anywhere isn't easy.  But she's right too.  I can win.  It's like playing speed chess, the rules are the same but there's a twist.  When you learn the twist you excel.

Challenge accepted.  10 minute fiction contest, get ready.

Today is supposed to be "Tales from the Script" but I haven't finished "North by Northwest" yet and the other script I read this week, "The Usual Suspects" was a huge dissapointment.  I remember the movie - two scenes specifically that stand out - but reading the script, I don't see how it sold.  It's not all that.  The two big scenes?  They were all about Kevin Spacey.  If John Goodman had played Virbal Kint then the movie would have tanked.

What it did do very well - but you had to get through it - was set up a reality that hooked you in and then turned everything you thought you knew on it's head.  Take out the last 10 minutes of the film and it wouldn't be anything.  The entire story hinges on the climax.  Thing is, today, I don't think the script would have been read that far.  If it was a novel I probably wouldn't have kept reading after the first 50 pages.

Sorry there's no picture today, I'm writing directly from my iPad.  Of course, you already know what Kevin Spacey looks like...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road."

Today was a big day for some people.  Me for instance.  I got to put together a "Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot" ring before I'd even finished my first cup of coffee.  There were also arrows (with suction cups) flying through my kitchen/hallway/foyer.  Okay, I don't really have a foyer, but if my house was newer or bigger, there'd be one.  And an arrow would have flown through it.

What could possibly lead to this sort of pandemonium in my usual very peaceful routine?  I'll give you a clue.  It's a boy who for some unfair reason absolutely loves mornings.  Birthday mornings even more than the rest.  #4 has hit the last of the single digits.  I love his exuberance.  I hope he never loses it.

Which leads to today’s “tool” – triggers.  Specifically, things that make you say, “Hmmm” and spark creative ponderings.  To wit:

There's a very interesting vehicle in the parking lot of the train station.  I've seen it nearly every day for months, in different spots, but never the owner.  To be fair, I see many of the same vehicles every day but only know a handful of the people who drive them (today, of course is the exception - I'm parked between the black F-150 of roundish goatee dude and the yellow Solstice of  sandy haired cigarette smoking man).

The vehicle in question is a Toyota FJ Cruiser.  Silver - with a white top and black accessories.  Sharp looking cars, and very popular but this one is special.  It has a lot of accessories.  There's a huge metal bumper with a winch on it up front as well as custom rims and off-road tires.  The roof rack has a jack, two shovels, a pick axe, full size off-road tire, and a cargo box.  Off the rear are gas cans, a big old whip antenna, and a Thule bike rack riding in the hitch - support arm folded down.  There's even periscope exhaust.  This is a serious outfit for playing in the sand.

Thing is, it's got a blue and white tag hanging from the review mirror.  You know the one I mean - the white is in the shape of a wheel chair.  It's always parked in a space reserved for the handicapped.

At first I was drawn to the truck - it's really, really cool and I'd love to have a setup like that even if I’ll never race Dakar.  Then, when I noticed the parking permit…  The irony was striking.  In the months that have passed since I first saw the machine, I've talked to some friends about it and we have a few different ideas about how it came to be owned/driven by someone who is mobility impaired - but they're just guesses.  I think I'd like to meet the person who owns it – a person who hasn’t given up, on anything.

My wife would look and see a silver car.  Most people would see a tricked out FJ.  But if you’re a writer, or an adventurous soul, it's the physical incarnation of a dream.  Just looking at it takes you to another place, and the possibilities are endless.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"I want my 2 dollars."

Monday's posts are, as you know, about inspiration.  Before we get to the post though, I want to say thank you.  We crossed 3,000 page hits this weekend and that blew me away.  More than just the hits though, your comments - both publicly on the blog and privately by email - have been an incredible encouragement to me as I pursue "the impossible dream".  I have to admit to a bit of hubris at BCREED's comment on Friday's post - "more like Hemmingway than you think" - my goodness.  I must begin writing in... Ernest.

Now the post:

It's very easy to be demotivated.  Let's face it, most everything doesn't actually work.  Plans are always disrupted.  The odds of becoming an astronaut are, well, astronomical.  It takes money to make money.  Every traffic light is red.

Pretty grim, isn't it?  Enough to make you hit snooze a couple of extra times.  But listen, before you become suicidal, take a moment to think about it.
Best. Movie. Ever.  Maybe.
Most everything really does work.  You only notice when there is a problem and usually that problem isn't major.  Okay, if the washing machine is spewing water all over your new rug then that's kind of major, but how many loads of laundry have you done?  How many more will you do after it's fixed?

You were planning to catch the 4:30 show but since Kelly couldn't get off work you'll have to see the 6:00 instead.  Plan was ruined.  Time to slit your wrists?  Of course not.  What was the goal - to be there at 4:30 or to see the show?

Becoming an astronaut is very hard.  But they are all very good at what they do.  Becoming a police officer or a teacher is also hard.  You know what's easy?  Working at a convenience store or becoming a parent.  Anyone can do those jobs.  Thing is, doing the job and being good at it are two completely different things.  Sure, some professions are exclusive.  That just means that you need mad skilz to make it.  I hope you have the discipline to develop mad skilz for the easy jobs, that you become part of the top 1% of cooler restockers in the world.  Or that your kids love you and turn out well.

Have you ever wondered where those first dollars came from?  Sure, it's easier to make money if you have money, but it's also easier to lose it.  You've still got to know what you're doing and, trust me on this one, if you do know what you are doing, there are people out there with money.

I have ridden with people who get green lights.  I've heard stories about people who have gone from downtown to the suburbs without hitting a single red.  Those people are my heroes.  When I lived in New York City it took me about 75 minutes to drive just under 8 miles to work.  Two miles of that was on Ocean Parkway.  I never got green lights.  (Okay, maybe once.)

I still don't.  My wife always asks why it took me so long to get to (insert ANYWHERE) and I laugh.  It's because of the red lights.  Always.  I just don't do green.

But that's okay.  My goal isn't to hit every light at green.  Or to have a predictable life where all of my plans work out exactly.  Or make a lot of money.  Or even to be an astronaut (anymore).

Don't sell yourself short chasing meaningless goals.  Choose your greatness and become awesome.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"When we have mastered these tactics, we will use them to seek out and confront the forces of evil."

Discipline is about doing what you don't want to do.  Self-discipline means that you don't need Staff Sergeant Purcell in your face telling you that you are, and I quote, "An insult to all of the hard working maggots in my great country."  We give the concept a lot of different names and try to make it a nuanced sort of thing, but at the end of the day something is either done or it isn't and that fact is determined by whether or not you did it, and you did (or did not do it) because either you, or someone else, made you.

There are times where that's easy - like eating cake - or hard - like not eating cake.  Sometimes we are asked to be something other than who we really are.  I believe that if you become that thing through self discipline you will not become lost, that you will be able to return to you when the job is finished.   Maybe haunted, maybe with a different perspective on the world, but still you.  Folks who are forced into the discipline are more likely to become lost.  Maybe that's hogwash - I don't have any credentials in the field, just experience with several different institutions.

When I was in high school I had a handful of very good teachers.  One of them (I'll call him Mr. Plumley) flew Hueys in Vietnam.  Slicks.  The ones that zipped into combat to drop or pick up troops but didn't have any weapons.  You didn't know he did that, at first.  Then you would hear stories, first from kids, and then maybe something as an example for a lesson.  But the lesson examples were very tame and more likely than not had nothing to do with the army.  By the end of the year we all knew he'd flown helicopters "back then" but not much else about it - certainly not what flying those helicopters really meant.  I did get him to talk about it a little bit - the movie "Firebirds" came out one of the years I had him and he went to see it.  Thought is was crazy.  "They flew loops.  If we went off level by more than 15% we were in trouble."
What a horrible movie.

Vietnam was something our parents didn't talk about.  All we knew was from watching the A-Team and Rambo.  I had met people who wore the war like a badge, but Mr. Plumley wasn't like that.  I was fortunate to have him more than once.  During my senior year, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we went to war to avoid a repeat of Hitler's march on Europe.  He didn't say much about it.  Never said we should be more involved. Never said we should stay away.  I had other teachers who were much more vocal.  One of them took us to see "Born on the 4th of July" and then insisted we write an essay supporting Ron Kovic's position.

That same senior year I was able get Mr. Plumley to tell a couple of stories one on one.  I was fascinated by flying and was keen to hear about what it was like.  (My Grandfather flew in B-17s and I peppered him for years to tell me about it.  He did - once.  I get that now, but didn't then.)  Mr. Plumley and I had gotten to know each other a bit by then (when I turned in a test then took the meter stick next to the desk, turned sideways holding it between him and me, and said, "Mr. Plumly, if I were a ninja, would you be able to see me?"  his straight faced, immediate response was, "No, Jon.  I wouldn't.")

He told me about flying from a forward location back to a main base over enemy controlled jungle at night when the low oil pressure warning light came on for the engine.  Everything else looked normal, but that warning light was unnerving.  The three of them conferred and decided to press on - "Must be a short" - but that light haunted them so finally the crew chief covered it with tape.

He told me about a British helicopter that was struck by an artillery shell shortly after take off.  The Americans never fired artillery during flight ops, but the Brits, well they followed the "big sky doctrine".  Mr. Plumley did not subscribe to "big sky" and I don't think I do either.

He told us about rotor failure training.  We'd never heard of such a thing.  On TV when the rotor stopped you died.  He said that "since a Huey had the glide ratio of a safe in free-fall, you didn't really get to pick a good place to land, you just sort of fell out of the sky and tried to time the feathering of the collective just right so you didn't break your back on impact."  After class I asked if he ever had to crash-land his bird.  He said, "No.  I didn't."  There was a pause and he looked out the window.  I still remember that conversation like it was yesterday.  Then he said, "There was one time we were coming in and it was really hot."  The pause again.  "We were just above the trees, maybe 20 or 30 feet.  The gunship in front of us was shooting like crazy, enemy was everywhere.  They took a direct hit that cut out the rear rotor.  They didn't have time to do anything, everything was so cranked up they spun around almost three times before crashing."

There was a lot he left out of that story.  He answered my question and I heard something amazing but didn't have any life experience for context.  He must have been terrified.  He must have been taking fire too.  He knew the guys on the bird that went down.  Probably saw them burn to death, or getting shot.  He was over there for a long time, I'm sure he flew into the fight like that many times.

But you'd never know it to talk to him.  Mr. Plumley wasn't a war hero, he was a teacher.  A good one.  Most of what I remember had nothing to do with his time in the service.  I hope that now, retired and safe with his family, most of what he remembers has nothing to do with it either.