King For A Year: Review of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

Shawshank RedemptionI was fortunate to participate in author Mark West’s King For A Year project – 52 reviews of Stephen King’s works throughout 2015. I revisited a favorite story of mine from King, the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

You can read it here – King For A Year: Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, reviewed by David T Griffith.

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‘Opening The Vein’ on the HWA Blog

All that withers

Got an article up on the HWA Blog today, ‘Opening The Vein’. It’s all about creativity and putting your blood into it. And there’s a free book to be had, so make sure to read and comment, please.

http://www.horror.org/blog/halloween-haunts-2013-opening-the-vein-by-john-palisano/

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Where do I begin (in writing for business)

A common question for anyone with a concept that merits exploration and writing about: Where do I begin? This was the first thought that came to mind as I prepared to write this blog. The blur of ideas swirling through my brain right were each vying to surface, holding each other down to drown rather than allow any the opportunity to escape unscathed. My ideas were composed of hardened exteriors with spines and claws capable of taking anyone’s fingers off, yet malleable amorphous bodies lay beneath the surfaces waiting to express themselves.

I’m sure everyone experiences this difficulty when they set out to write something, some may call it writer’s block or procrastination, for others it’s seen as a matter of organizing thoughts. Whatever your perspective, they are all essentially different terms for the same thing.

So where do I begin to apply this blog to effective writing that is applicable to any reader who may stumble across this  article? Good thing I kept asking myself this, it’s like I’m working through another cycle of missing motivation – see my previous blog entry on motivation to learn more. And now I’ll step outside of my head.

Grab attention

In business writing, the example I’ll use throughout this exercise, it is important to begin with a succinct message that immediately grabs attention. No different than journalism or fiction, really, though the intended audience of any corporate communication is expecting another doldrum memorandum or speech. You can’t let dull happen. Ever. Let’s use a speech here, don’t ever start a speech with “I’m so glad to be here, my name is _______ and I’m really happy to meet you. My accomplishments include….” Everyone’s heard that intro before, it’s expected and exhausting, the audience is already staring at the light fixtures or shutting their eyes to take a nap. Instead, begin with, “Here’s your solution…..” or “Tomorrow we will begin….”

As tempting as it is, you may want to avoid at all costs beginning a speech with the words “I killed your baby today, she deserved it.” Attention grabbing – absolutely. A few will find the humor, unfortunately, most will not. But think of a similar and relevant statement that will command the attention of even the most apathetic employee. Then carry that heightened moment forward with further supporting details.

In medias res

Then there is beginning in medias res. Unless you are a writer or have been enrolled in a writing program, you are less likely to encounter this term. Thing is, you’ve seen it used in movies, TV dramas, and books of all kinds. SImply explained, it’s beginning the story in the midst of action from the middle of the narrative, an abrupt flash forward if you will, that immediately draws the audience to an upcoming conflict that early part of the story is building up to. I find it a fun literary device as I don’t always like to tell stories in chronological order. Think about how this can apply to preparing a presentation or speech. Open with a teaser that immediately engages the audience, then transition to the beginning of the story you are about to tell. Just don’t lose the momentum that opener initiated.

Begin with the end

There are other aspects to where to begin, such as sorting out your thoughts, like my opening paragraph to this blog entry. Sometimes, those swirling thoughts are so overwhelming and cumbersome that the best place to begin is with the end. What is your intended result? Who are you talking to and why? If you are persuading an audience that a new process will benefit the company by reducing expenses thereby improve their bonuses, start there and follow with supporting information like how this came to be and why it will work, then close with a reiteration of your initial point. SImple, right?

Where this blog entry started and has headed I couldn’t fathom before I began. This idea was one of those soft-bodied cores beneath a spiny exoskeleton when it was first spawned, difficult to approach until I found exactly the right point to access its warm and bountiful interior. I hope that you have come away with something useful in your own writing endeavors, even if some strange visual metaphors to remember this by.

Writing Craft: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I found myself reading a kindred spirit in the writing style of Wells Tower. Tower takes a comprehensive approach to character development and story complexity, with the attitude of a fellow Gen Xer. Well-written subject matter carried a dark subtext, but not usually of some harrowing violence or a macabre scene – though the unusual title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” certainly filled that role, following a violent story of Viking invaders with hints of fantasy and speaking in current day vulgarity. These were stories about every day real people living real lives in the face of adversity and challenging interpersonal relationships.

The stories all fit the slice of life style I studied in college twenty-plus years ago, though much more developed and filled out. The darkest element was what was not written; the ambiguity. The stories ended with little-to-no closure after setting up tense scenes, elaborate intertwining storylines, and characters the reader can easily become vested in. For example, in the story “On the Show” we are left wondering if the perpetrator of an awful child-molestation act at a carnival is caught during the on-going police investigation. While the story follows the momentary lives of several characters at the carnival, his identity is casually revealed near the end as he thinks about his wife and daughter following a cattle competition he had just hosted:

But he doesn’t care for the pointless velocity of the carnival amusements. Looking out at the whirling skyline of the fair, he can’t help thinking about all the earth you could move, all the beef you could haul with so much fuel and good steal. He thinks, too, of last night, of the boy in the Honeypot, and feels a pleasant ache, like being rasped on the back of the sternum with a jeweler’s file. There’s a want in him to take a stroll around, but he pushes it down. (Nook Ed., p. 148)

With exception to the title story, I found myself struggling to accept the stories’ endings; I wasn’t ready to finish when they did. The lush prose and witty language made for compelling page turning, but the endings left too much unresolved.

I did something I don’t normally do when I write a book response or review: I read some online reviews by other readers to see how they responded as I work my way through my own takeaways. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was loved by many readers though a handful disliked the lack of closure displaying the same feelings I had when I finally put the book down. Going back to my original point, it’s what wasn’t written that caught my attention. It was intentional to create discomfort, depicting the uncertainty of the real world. Not everything has a clean ending, or an ending at all, as we move through time and space interacting with each other.

As far as writing craft goes, it’s difficult for me to find specific focus on what I may have gained from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as I did from other recent books this year. His writing style shares many craft elements to my own. I will say this, though, it gave me a new respect for taking chances, particularly leaving stories intentionally open-ended. And it has spurred a new thought-process worth considering in forcing the reader to make connections and draw conclusions. I’m sure a few readers were put off for this reason, but I embraced it the trust and confidence Tower put on me.

Writing Craft: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Whimsical, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences portraying the inner workings of defective people facing situations outside of their comfort zones. Darkly humorous and grimly serious, George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia was unusual to read and hard to put down. Saunders nails the flawed protagonist’s portrayal in every story: egocentrics searching for self-esteem, self-deprecating narcissists looking for love, the last minutes of a troubled boy’s life, and a theme park living-history performer trying to get through serious life circumstances in the most mundane manner possible in a mockery of corporate America.

Saunders writes a seamless blend of inner thoughts and actions of the outside world. By varying run-ons with short abrupt sentences, he creates an organic portrayal of harsh reality in his characters’ observation of their worlds. Consider the following monologue from a motivational speaker helping an audience rid themselves of problem people from their lives in the story “Winky.”

“A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping in my oatmeal, and simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this sound maybe paradoxical? Wasn’t he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he’s going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?” (45)

The setup of the speaker’s story is drawn out, like he is stumbling through his thoughts, though it’s all intentional from a motivational perspective. As the scope narrows to the point, “how was that my fault?” sentences constrict themselves driving the point’s emphasis home.

A similar structure appears in the following passage from the title story “Pastoralia,” in which the corporate leadership sends out one of many memos to the living history performers in a theme park. It starts out short, becomes quite long, then reigns itself in. It is a bit long, but well-worth reading.

Regarding the rumors you may have lately been hearing, it says. Please be advised that they are false. They are so false that we consider not even bothering to deny them. Because denying them would imply that we actually heard them. Which we haven’t. We don’t waste time on such nonsense. And yet we know that if we don’t deny the rumors we haven’t heard, you will assume they are true. And they are so false! So let us just categorically state that all the rumors you’ve been hearing are false. Not only the rumors you’ve heard, but also those you haven’t heard, and even those that haven’t yet been spread, are false. However, there is one exception to this, and that is if the rumor is good. That is, if the rumor presents us, us up here, in a positive light, and our mission, and our accomplishments, in that case, and in that case only, we will have to admit that the rumor you’ve been hearing is right on target, and congratulate you on your fantastic powers of snooping, to have found out that secret super thing! In summary, we simply ask you ask yourself, upon hearing a rumor: Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, that rumor is false, please disregard. If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your lips to the tracks. Tell your friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock. Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks. (41)

Even though this is satire, I feel like I have come across similar self-aggrandizing corporate communications in the past, talking in circles, using many words to say so little. In this passage, the shorter, more specific sentences seem to be where the truth actually lies – the negative rumors. Whereas the positive rumors the author refers to are stumbling streams of thought aiming for justification by quantity of words.

Returning to the story “Winky,” this style of writing is used to depict the protagonist’s state of mind after finishing his session with the motivational speaker. His limited perception of wealth and his lack of worldliness are revealed through the process. Both humorous and sympathetic.

Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him. (53)

The tragic story “The End of Firpo in the World” brilliantly captures the racing imagination of a mischievous, troubled boy, Cody, as he plans a prank on his neighbors while quickly riding his bicycle around the block to assess the situation. Again, it’s long, but showing an abridged form would not do it justice.

Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they would conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special. (79)

So, what did I take away from the book that I can carry into my own writing? Like I concluded after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, breaking the conventions of proper sentence structure and grammar, the writing craft alone creates the mood and environment in which the story exists. The run-on sentences contrasted with the short abrupt statements, in this case, create a natural duality reflective of how people think and perceive the world. One idea begets the next idea, which opens a tangential thought and so on. The pathetic and tragic characters of Saunders’s stories, as whimsical as they appear, are real enough that I don’t question their identities and authenticity. My take-away is simple: creatively (i.e. break the rules) use the craft as appropriate for the story to give it credence; don’t hold back.