Keeping it Simple…

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That voodoo that you do…. (Encore)

I’m tossing this one back out a second time since it garnered some positive reactions the first time. It’s something I think of as almost urban fantasy. This one comes by way of a little town in Mississippi. It was originally published in my collection of short fantasy tales, Mysfits (available here).

Cookies

Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston

Sara Sweets bit the arm off the postman and chewed contentedly. She had waited until after the day’s delivery in case anything interesting showed up, but nothing had. No surprise, Tuesday mail usually sucked.

She ate the other arm. The best thing about voodoo cookies, aside from the taste, was that they worked any time of year. St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Arbor Day. Didn’t matter.

She thought about how her dog, Pretzel, had barely gotten out of the way when the mail carrier tried to kick her–the second time. Sara bit off one of his legs. And then the other. Cookie paraplegia. She giggled.

Pretzel, curled up at her feet, looked up as cookie crumbs landed on her head. She shook her ears, sniffed at one of the ginger-colored crumbs, and then ignored it. Pretzel had definite ideas about food. She preferred meat. Fresh or not didn’t seem to matter much.

Sara put the remains of the postman cookie in a Glad bag, sealed it, and dropped it in her apron pocket. It wouldn’t do to finish him right away. He needed time to think about what he’d done, and she needed time to remind him in case he’d forgotten. Anybody who’d kick a little dog like Pretzel had probably kicked dozens of others, maybe hundreds. Even thousands. The postman was a piece of work. Well, a piece of something.

She knew where he’d be: Hobart General. Loxahatchee wasn’t Biloxi, after all. One hospital was plenty.

“C’mon, Pretzel. Time to go.” She patted the wicker basket affixed to the handlebars of her bike. The little dog bounded up her leg, jumped into her accustomed place, and curled up again.

Bright fall sunshine and dark ominous shade alternated as she pedaled under stately hardwoods down McGlover Street toward the hospital. Dark and light. Happy, sad. Couldn’t have one without the other. She passed through what served as downtown Loxahatchee with its cherub-topped fountain. The sculptured water feature had been donated by Hobart’s widow, in a partially successful effort to elevate the public’s memory of the county’s most notorious bootlegger (and former state senator).

~*~

Pretzel had gotten the hang of the therapy dog business pretty quickly, and several patients–mostly children–dearly loved her efforts. It was a boon for Sara who lived for her volunteer work, though she was getting a little too old to be a candy striper. Wanda Wilkins, the charge nurse, had pointed that out often enough. Sara was too polite to tell Wanda her own retirement was considerably overdue. But, as soon as she managed to find a suitable artifact, Sara would bake a big-ass cookie with Wanda’s name on it.

“Hey Miz Sara,” said Jarvis Jones, the custodian. Jarvis had bloodhound eyes, a bald head, and a kind heart.

“How’s the family?” Sara asked.

“They fine, Miz Sara, jes’ fine.” He reached down and scratched Preztel’s head.

“We got any new customers?”

“Not yet,” Jarvis said, “but I heard the ambulance a while ago.”

Sara couldn’t suppress a smile.

“You wouldn’t know ‘nuthin’ ’bout that, right?”

“Not a thing,” Sara said. She stared into his dark eyes. “I heard Jarvis Junior got into some trouble.”

“Naw,” said the custodian. “A little argument is all.”

“With Nora Platt? Nobody has little arguments with Nora. Fact is, nobody in their right mind goes near that woman. She’s scary.”

“You scared of her?” Jarvis asked, surprised.

“Maybe.”

Jarvis crossed his arms and frowned. “Now I’ve heard ever’thing.”

It wasn’t that Nora frightened her. It’s just that Sara couldn’t get close enough to Nora to find an artifact without giving Nora the opportunity to find one of hers. Stalemate. “Is Junior okay?”

“He’s not walkin’ too good, but he’s still workin’.”

“Pain?”

“Some.”

She put her hand on Jarvis’s shoulder. “Want me to look at him?”

“Would you?”

“Bring him ’round to the house after dark.”

“You’re an angel, Miz Sara. You truly are. I’ll see you later.” Jarvis turned and walked away, pushing a cart loaded with tools.

“I can’t promise anything,” she called after him.

Jarvis waved without looking back.

Fortunately, the moon was full. That gave her some options. She was considering them when a door opened suddenly and knocked Pretzel across the floor. The dog regained her footing, if not her dignity, and Sara found herself nose to nose with Wanda.

“Oh, it’s you,” the charge nurse said.

“You almost squashed Pretzel! She’s–”

“Animals don’t belong in a hospital. Lord knows what diseases they carry.” She leaned forward and touched the strap of Sara’s apron with a pudgy index finger. “Ever wash that thing?”

“Of course. I–”

“Next time, use soap,” Wanda said.

Sara decided to make Wanda’s cookie even bigger. With sprinkles.

“There’s a new patient in 21B. He doesn’t like dogs.”

“That’s okay. Pretzel doesn’t like mailmen.”

Wanda fixed her with a suspicious glare. “How’d you know he was a mailman?”

“There are only about two secrets left in Loxahatchee, and neither involves him.”

Wanda scratched her head.

“I saw his mailbag in the ambulance when I came in,” Sara added.

Wanda sniffed, then stared at the dog. “That animal needs washin’, too.”

Lots and lots of sprinkles, thought Sara.

Wanda waved her down the hall. “Check with me before you leave.”

“Why? You gonna give me a paycheck?”

“We need to talk is all. Don’t forget.”

She left them alone in the hallway. Sheer habit caused Sara to look down at the floor where she spotted a long hair. She held it up to the light. Red. Just like Wanda’s. She pulled out an empty Glad bag, sealed the hair in it, and stored it beside the leftover postman cookie.

The rest of the day passed without incident, and Sara almost forgot about checking in with Wanda before she left. Pretzel remembered; she growled as they walked past Wanda’s office.

Sara knocked on the door, then entered. “You wanted to see me?”

Wanda looked over the top of her glasses the way old doc Swensen did. She probably thought it made her look intelligent. It didn’t.

“We’ve decided to terminate the Candy Striper program,” Wanda said. “It’s old fashioned, and doesn’t do much for the patients.”

“When did–”

“And no more therapy dogs, either.”

“What? Why?”

Wanda inspected the ceiling. “It isn’t sanitary. I’m surprised you got away with it as long as you did.”

“Who decided this?”

“The Administrative Team.”

“I didn’t know we had one.”

“We’ve always had an advisory committee. Now we’ve got a new chief administrator, and he values our input.”

Sara could imagine what input Wanda supplied. This definitely meant a stop for sprinkles at the Piggly Wiggly on her way home.

“So, that’s it,” Wanda said, standing. She held out her hand. “Thanks for everything. We’ll call if we think of something else you can do.”

~*~

Jarvis and Jarvis Junior arrived about the time Sara finished the dishes. She seated them at her kitchen table where the light was best and served them sweet tea and Nutter Butter cookies. It put Junior at ease.

“What d’you ‘spose set old Nora off?” Sara asked.

“Tell her, J.J.,” said Jarvis senior. “Tell ‘er what set her off.”

“You know she’s a big wig at the hospital,” J.J. said.

“Yeah, but I don’t know what she does. It sure ain’t work.”

J.J. sipped his tea. “She fires folks. She got Pap fired, but he was too scared to say anything.”

“I ain’t scared o’ nuthin’,” Jarvis said. “Least of all some dried up ol’ white woman. And I didn’t git fired; I got retired.”

“Same difference. You won’t get a pension.”

“Why not?” Sara asked.

“I’m not ‘vested.’ I’ve worked there for nineteen years, but I can’t get a pension unless I put in twenty.”

“Ain’t that a bitch,” Sara said, shaking her head. “That’s pretty low, even for Nora.”

J.J. set his glass down forcefully. “That ain’t the half of it. You know what folks say ’bout her.”

Sara frowned. “No. What do they say?”

“She got the power,” J.J. said. “That hoodoo shit. She can do stuff.”

Sara sat back. “Stand up and walk around for me.”

He limped around the room, then sat back down.

“Now gimme your shoe,” she said. “The left one.”

The young man hesitated, then untied his sneaker and handed it to her.

Sara held the shoe up to the light and squinted at it–all sides. She sniffed it, held it in both hands with her eyes closed, and finally set it on the floor and summoned Pretzel. The dog gave it a cursory inspection, then left the room. When Sara picked it up again, she was smiling. She reached inside and extracted a pea-sized pebble and set it on the table.

She handed him the shoe. “Try it on now.”

He did.

“Walk,” she said.

To his obvious surprise, the limp was gone.

“I swear I didn’t feel that in there before,” he said.

Sara was still smiling. “Wasn’t no hoodoo.”

“I wish fixin’ Pap’s job was that easy.”

She shrugged. “Y’all want more tea?”

They declined and eventually left. Sara cleared the table, put the glasses in the sink, then sat back down and examined the pebble. It was no more nor less remarkable than any other pebble one might find anywhere. Except that when Sara waved her hand over it, the pebble vanished. Satisfied, she finished eating the postman cookie.

~*~

The new chief administrator for Hobart General was a Yankee named J.B. Simion. Sara had no idea what the initials stood for, and didn’t much care. Anyone who took suggestions from the likes of Wanda Wilkins and Nora Platt was clearly an idiot and didn’t need to be in charge of anything.

Sara rolled out a thin layer of cookie dough and dusted it lightly with flour. She reached into the plastic tub which contained the cookie cutters her mother had left her and selected two generic shapes: one male, one female. Sadly, she didn’t have a nurse shape. Nor did any of the rest appear useful: cop, fireman, grocer, clown, soldier, cowboy. A few she couldn’t connect with a profession, although one of them favored a priest and another could have been a cheerleader. She opted to use the generic female shape with a good bit of extra dough. Voila–Wanda! She would just stretch the other generic shape to resemble tall, skinny Nora.

After cutting out the three shapes and adding pertinent details–an extra chin on Wanda, knobby knees on Nora–she stared down at the generic man shape. She didn’t know anything about J.B. Simion. She’d never met him. She mashed the dough back into the bowl then removed another gob, tossed it on the counter and rolled it out. At long last, she smiled. There was a little something she knew about Simion after all. She tossed the generic man back into the container and pulled the clown figure out.

She used a lot of sprinkles on all three.

~*~

“What’s this all about?” Wanda asked as she entered the room set aside for administrative meetings. It doubled as the gathering place for the Loxahatchee Kiwanis on the second Tuesday of every month. Sara liked the Kiwanis. They were always busy with projects to help the unfortunate, and Loxahatchee had more than its share.

“It’s just a little gesture of appreciation,” Sara said. “Pretzel and I thought it would be a nice way to say thank you for letting us be a part of Hobart General all these years.”

“You brought the dog?”

“Oh my, yes. We made a farewell visit to the children’s ward this morning. They were sad to hear Pretzel wouldn’t be coming back.”

“I hope you explained to them about the sanitation issue,” Wanda said. “We’re only looking out for their wellbeing.”

“I explained that in detail. And also that Mr. Jarvis wouldn’t be around anymore.”

“They know him?”

“Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t drop by to tell ’em a story about how lucky they are to be at Hobart General, and how sick kids who come here almost always get better.”

Just then Nora and a man entered the room. “Mr. Simion, this is a former volunteer, Sara Sweets. Nurse Wilkins you already know.”

He nodded at both of them.

“Y’all just have a seat and git comfortable,” Sara said. “I’ve got some tea and cookies for you.”

“We’re all rather busy,” Wanda said. “We lost a patient last night.”

“The mailman?” Sara asked.

Mr. Simion appeared alarmed. “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess,” Sara said. “He didn’t look very good when I talked to him yesterday.”

“You spoke to him? He was in intensive care.”

Sara smiled. “I never said he spoke back. I just chatted away like I usually do.”

When Wanda stopped rolling her eyes, she focused on the plate of cookies Sara left in the middle of the table. “Did you make those?”

“Yes’m,” Sara said, pouring iced tea into four tall glasses. She passed them around.

J.B. Simion reached for a cookie, but Nora brushed his hand away. “Don’t forget, we’re going out to lunch in a while. I’d hate for you to ruin your appetite.”

“I’m sure one cookie wouldn’t hurt.”

Nora cleared her throat. “Fact is, we should all watch our sugar intake.” She gave him a glare that nearly melted the buttons on his sport coat.

Simion withdrew his hand.

“Suit yourselves,” Sara said, reaching for a cookie. She selected the thickest one, its top crusted with multi-colored sprinkles and held it up for all to see. “It’s an old family recipe. Most folks love ’em.”

Nora swallowed hard as Sara took a slow, loving bite of the confection.

Wanda and Simion sipped their tea. Nora watched them closely. Eventually, she sipped from her own glass.

“This is really quite good,” Simion said. “The flavor is–”

“Unusual,” Wanda said. “But… delicious.”

Nora yawned, then straightened. “I quite agree. May I have some more?”

“Certainly,” Sara said. “There’s plenty.”

Wanda and Simion yawned, too, but managed to empty their glasses. Sara refilled them.

“Would you mind if I invited our custodian to join us?” Sara asked. “It’s his party, too.”

“Sure, sure,” Simion said.

Nora put her head on the table and snored.

Wanda pointed at her and laughed, then slumped sideways in her chair.

“S’matter with them?” Simion asked.

Sara shrugged. “Tired, I reckon.”

Simion’s head hit the table with a thud.

Jarvis opened the door and peeked in. “You okay, Miz Sara?”

“Absolutely,” she said, biting the head of the clown cookie.

The custodian reacted to the three sleepers with alarm. “Didja kill ‘em?”

“’Course not,” Sara said. “They’ll be fine, long about tomorrow. For now, we need a gurney and your truck.”

“You sure about this?” Jarvis asked.

“Damn skippy,” Sara said. “Now go round up that gurney.”

~*~

Sara and Jarvis sat in the cab of the custodian’s pickup. Though long past its prime, the vehicle was far more practical than Sara’s bicycle for moving bodies. They stared across the street to the fountain where, except for their sparkly party hats, Nora, Wanda, and Simion were as naked as the concrete cherub.

Jarvis spoke without taking his eyes from the trio wading around the fountain. “Tell me again why they movin’ so slow.”

“That’s ’bout top speed for a zombie,” Sara said. “Plus, the water slows ’em down a might.”

“Why don’t they just climb out?”

“They’re followin’ orders. Can’t do anything else. I told Simion to chase Wanda, but not catch her. Told Wanda to chase Nora and Nora to follow Simion. They’ll keep it up for another couple hours unless somebody ties ’em down.”

Sara patted Jarvis’ hand. “Before I told ‘em to climb in the fountain, I had them throw away your retirement papers and reinstate the candy striper and therapy dog programs.”

Jarvis smiled contentedly and pointed at the photographer from the Loxahatchee Ledger, the weekly newspaper. “Them three could end up famous.”

“I ‘spect so,” Sara said. She handed him a cookie, and they munched happily as more and more locals gathered to watch Hobart General’s Administrative Team doing slow-motion laps around the town’s cherished water feature.

“How’d you do it?” Jarvis asked.

“It was the tea. I call it zombie juice, but it’s pretty much just tea with a little somethin’ extra added to it. It’s harmless. They’ll be back to normal in no time. ‘Cept they’ll most likely be unemployed.”

Jarvis suddenly looked worried. “Back to normal? They’ll have us locked up for sure. What’re we gonna do?”

She shook her head and rocked back and forth. “They might remember going to the hospital, but after that, everything’s going to be a blank.”

“You sure?”

Sara laughed. “Zombie juice only works during a full moon, but that’s the only drawback.” She gave him a hug. “You want another cookie?”

~End~

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Huge debate: Prolog or Prologue? (Encore)

Actually, I’ve known writers crazy enough to get into arguments over nonsense like this. Toe-may-toe or Toe-mah-toe? Prologue or Prolog? Seriously? The awful truth is they’re completely missing the point. Either spelling is okay, but using either is not. At least, not in a novel. If you’re writing a handbook for hustlers or a cookbook for caring cannibals, then go right ahead. A prolog may be just what you need. But if you’re writing a novel, there’s a better than even chance that what you put in your prolog/prologue will be ignored by a serious chunk of your readers.

Do you really want to take that chance?

Just for giggles, let’s assume that whatever it is you’re thinking about putting in a prolog is critical information your readers will need to have in order to gain the proper appreciation for where your story is, where it came from, or where in the world it might be headed. Let’s further assume you’re actually a real, live writer who can string nouns and verbs together in a readable fashion. Fair ’nuff? Okay.

So, why not make the prolog material just as readable as the rest of your story? Why risk dumping it off to the side where some readers will zip past it like they do stranded rush hour motorists on the Interstate?

For many writers to whom I’ve offered this alternative, the suggestion is often received not as a useful tip, but as a sad reminder that they haven’t finished writing, and that they can’t simply pour out some historical background stuff in pseudo-scholar mode and get away with it.

That said, one needn’t go overboard the way Michener did in Centennial, where the first 80 pages or so dealt with the formation of the Earth, heaving seas of molten rock, the rise and fall of magma, and shifting tectonic plates, among other things. (Sorry Jim; that part sucked.) All of which merely justified the existence of a cave in Colorado. (I’d have been tempted to go with something like: “Look, Lame Beaver. It’s a cave!”)

When I was working on Under Saint Owain’s Rock with Barbara Galler-Smith, my writing partner at the time, we wrote a prolog explaining the existence of an ancient letter that spilled the beans on a supposed saint. The entire plot rode squarely on the back of this tidbit, but it took place some 700 years before the rest of our story occurred. Fortunately, we had the good sense to recast that bit of data into a very short, but still interesting opening scene. A punchy first line helped a lot. See for yourself:

 Llancerriog, North Wales — August, 1307

Owain cover 2013Sainthood required more than a massive headstone and a dozen village idiots. Finally, Owain — Saint Owain — lay dead, and all Meleri could think was good riddance.

That didn’t mean the truth had to be buried with him. She wrote a letter of confession meant for the Abbot of Sant Dewi’s monastery, and for his eyes only.

Knowing her soul depended on its contents, she listed the name of every villager who had taken part in the affair and recorded, as faithfully as she could remember, the role each had played. When finished, she signed her name and affixed the family seal. All she needed was a safe place to hide the letter. If anyone asked about Saint Owain, she’d deliver it and let the world know the truth — though it ruin them all.

Kindly pardon the blatant plug, but the example is entirely apropos. If the material is good enough to include in your book, why not make it as compelling as the rest and include it right at the beginning? Yes, it’s backstory, but it’s essential, so treat it that way. Hook your reader with it! Make them drool to find out just exactly why it’s important. 

That’s the way to handle a prolog. Or prologue. Whatever.

–Josh

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It’s Easter, 2022; we should rejoice….

Many people around the world find this Christian holiday to be the most important. It’s a day when a profound number of people pray and give thanks for salvation. I imagine a great many people living in Ukraine are praying today, too, for there is a monster at their door, and salvation is not a certainty.

Try as I might, I cannot see any way around my utter contempt and disgust for the Russian madman who sent that monster to prey on his neighbors. I read with a growing sense of horror about the ever-expanding list of murders perpetrated in this madman’s name, if not directly by his hand.

He can stop the killing and the destruction at will, but he chooses instead to have still more innocent people slaughtered in order to reach his goal, whatever it is. Why can’t he be content simply being one of the richest people on the planet? How can that not be enough?

And why, pray tell, has his 700 million dollar yacht, currently docked in Italy, not been sent to the bottom of the sea? My hope is that such a thing is planned, and those planning it are merely waiting for him to be aboard.

There are many agencies accepting donations to aid the besieged people of Ukraine. My wife and I have sent money to more than one. Please do the same, because prayer alone isn’t enough.

It’s time for regime change in Russia, time to clean out the oligarchs, the generals, and the politicians who are profiting from this insanity. If not now, when? How many countries will have to be crushed under a Russian boot heel before the world decides enough is enough?

Or will some modern-day Chamberlain agree to let the Russian bear eat a few smaller nations in the hope that it will satisfy his insatiable hunger?

It’s Easter. I should feel more charitable.

But I don’t.

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My memory resembles Swiss cheese… (Encore)

baby_swiss memoriesThe bigger the memory, the bigger the hole. Or, maybe it’s the better the memory, the bigger the hole. That’s not really the issue. It’s more of a “which hole represents what” kinda thing. I’ve no problem with stuff I can remember, my problem is with the stuff I can’t remember. Double-check the photo. See all the undocumented holes? Those are the ones I’m talkin’ about.

And, if the Swiss cheese analogy is just too… well… cheesy, consider an alternative. My memory map probably looks more like the Great Plains in the 1600s, shortly after a half zillion bison stormed through. Sorta flat. And pretty thoroughly mulched. Probably smelly, too. So how is one supposed to scrape up enough memories there to build a memoir? How do we remember what we’ve forgotten?

stairs to nowhereConundrum. How does one get anywhere from nowhere? I posed this question to one of my classes and asked them to come up with a list of things someone might have forgotten. Each student contributed five, and I merged their efforts into one big list.

There were surprisingly few duplicates, probably ’cause I listed most of the easy ones in my examples. (Rank has its privileges, right?) Anyway, my loyal followers came up with some gems, and I present their suggestions to the world of memory-challenged memoir writers. I hope the items on the list will spark some recollections of things you quit thinking about long ago.

And, if this list causes you to think of still other items I can include next time around, won’t you please take the time to note them in a comment?  I welcome any and all input.

Herewith, then, an incomplete and hopefully soon-to-be expanded list of things a memoir writer might’ve forgotten about (in no particular order). Do you remember:

  • girl-kissing-pigThe first time you kissed someone you weren’t related to?
  • Being lost somewhere, at any age?
  • The day your sister or brother was born?
  • What really went on at Girl (or Boy) Scout camp?
  • Your first visit to an outhouse?
  • The first meal you cooked for your spouse?
  • The first time a world event shook your life?
  • Preparing for your first day of school?
  • Show, striptease. Handsome guys with sexy bodyStupid graduation stunts?
  • The first time you tasted popcorn?
  • Visiting a deserted house, or one that should have been?
  • The first time you tasted beer?
  • Something you did that you never, ever wanted your parents to hear about?
  • What you hated the most about your first job?
  • The first time you went somewhere you weren’t supposed to go?
  • Dollarphotoclub_72098022 smThe first time you hurt yourself doing something stupid?
  • Moving to a new home?
  • The person you never dated, but always wanted to?
  • The first movie star or musician you fell in love with?
  • Learning to drive?
  • Breaking the rabbit ears on the TV when you tried to adjust them?
  • Sneaking into a drive-in movie in the trunk of someone’s car?
  • Burlesque Pin-up Character IllustrationDiscovering that the “show” you bought tickets for wasn’t quite what you thought it would be?
  • When you borrowed something without permission, and it got damaged?
  • The first time you rode a horse?
  • The time you wanted desperately to impress someone, and made a fool of yourself?
  • Seeing the ocean for the first time?
  • The first time someone you loved or respected deeply disappointed you?
  • Your first trip to the dentist?
  • Learning to read?
  • Something that scared you when you went to the circus?
  • The first time you discovered that something you firmly believed in simply wasn’t true?
  • The “not so proper” things that went on after closing at the “ever so proper” place where you worked?
  • The last thing you loaned to someone that was never returned?
  • The person you’d most like to apologize to?

That’s probably enough for this go-round, but it’s an interesting exercise. If you can’t find some long-lost memories in this list, you’re just not trying hard enough!

–Josh

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It’s All About the Sex — Part 2 (Encore)

Last time we scratched the surface of writing sex scenes. The essential takeaway was that a sex scene should be two-fold, at least. In other words, make sure there’s more to the scene than just sex. Pick an extra element that’s most likely to advance your story, complicate the lives of the characters, and/or draw out their innermost secrets, desires, or motivations. If your reader doesn’t learn anything new as a result of your sex scene, then you’ve failed in your job as a writer. You’ve wasted that reader’s time, and most likely her patience, too.

In the previous visit to this topic, we focused on scenes where some sex actually occurred, and you’re likely wondering how one might write a sex scene that didn’t involve sex. In part, it’s about the chase, but there can be other aspects, as well.

Sex figures into all my novels in one way or another and serves as an important element in one or more subplots. Sometimes it impacts a primary player, sometimes not. Could I have left those scenes out? Probably. But not without weakening the motivations and/or consequences of the characters involved. The breakdown works out this way: too much, too little, too late, and too bad. Forgive me if I use examples from those books to illustrate. I’m a lot more familiar with them than anyone else’s. And for those who haven’t read them yet, I promise not to spoil anything terribly important.

A pair of very young, and very small, native Americans fall in love at the start of A Little More Primitive. Their host is a young woman forced into a life of solitude in rural Wyoming. She has no problem with folks having an active love life; she dreams of having one of her own. But instead, she’s forced to observe these two youngsters who have just discovered sex, and they’re obsessed with it — day and night, here, there, everywhere.

It’s all about the chase in Under Saint Owain’s Rock as an American adman and a civic-minded lass from a tiny village in Wales slowly realize they’ve fallen in love. After numerous unclaimed opportunities for the most intimate personal explorations and experimentation, their grand finale occurs after the final page.

In Resurrection Blues we find a woman on the wrong side of forty whose husband has abandoned her in favor of strip clubs. In response, she connects with a sinister male who lavishes on her the attention she craves. Despite repeated setbacks, she keeps angling him toward a randy rendezvous, but when their lustful moment finally arrives, so does a distraction that’s too great to ignore.

Treason, Treason! features two unusual, sex-centered scenarios. In the first, one of the participants fades away to nothing — at precisely the wrong moment. In the second, another couple is heavily engaged in the most ancient of joint exercises when… Well, suffice it to say, things go wrong. Expected outcomes, readers learn, can never be relied upon. There’s always an alternative; there’s always a surprise.

The 12,000-Year-Old Whisper plays host to a Stone Age couple busy spooning, among other things. They’re new at it, after all. For them, having sex while somebody watches, cooks, skins an animal, or sweeps out the cave is pretty much the norm. In this case, however, it’s the observer who feels uncomfortable, and in a very humorous way.

So, in at least half my novels, the sex scenes don’t mirror the established norm. (Nor, by the way, do they in any of my other books.) I don’t care to employ the stereotypical, often diagrammatical approach to sensuality. And for a very simple reason: it’s just not as much fun.

It occurs to me that I may be shifting my own innate discomfort with writing sex scenes onto my characters. But then, why should they get off easy? (Once again, no pun intended.) Sex is a profoundly important part of living. It follows that the problems and complications arising from it are fair game and should provide plenty of fictional kindling. If we ignore it, we’ll never get those emotional fires burning as hot as we need them to.

In short, the trick is to make sex a by-product rather than an end-product, at least in terms of plot and story arc. I welcome your comments, observations, and feedback.

–Josh

PS: Pardon the delay in posting; my bride and I were traveling, which by the way, can be a tremendous source of story material. If you haven’t tried it lately, think about it!

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It’s All About the Sex — Part 1 (Encore)

If you’re writing a novel for adults, and these days “adult” often means Young Adult, too, there’s a very good chance you’ll need to include some sort of sex scene. Many writers new to the craft approach this opportunity with mixed feelings, not the least of which is fear — fear of looking bad in a relative’s eyes, fear of kickback from friends or employers, fear of failure, etc. Sadly, little I say here will make those fears go away. BUT, I have a strategy you can use to make the process less difficult. Better still, that same strategy could vault your sex scene from something you had to write up to something you’re proud of.

For openers, we need to look at the “why” behind the scene. There has to be a reason for it, even if it’s simply character development or procreation. If all the scene does is go through the motions like a stripper who’s done the same dance a thousand times, it’s unlikely to be memorable. It may not even have enough sensory value to make it worth reading. In these cases your best bet may be to settle for “…and they made love.” Or maybe “…and they went to bed.” Or, in extreme cases, “…unto them a child was born.” You can always just cut to the fireplace.

That all assumes there’s nothing else to be gained from the scene. If that’s all you expect from it, then make it short and forgettable — the written equivalent of wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Don’t waste your time, or the reader’s, with a recap of how they undressed, where they went, what they did, how long it took, or if there were any encores. It just isn’t necessary. The only folks who might care are likely not buying books, assuming they can even read (a fact not in evidence).

Ah, but what if there’s a secret to be revealed? What if one of the players isn’t who (or what) he or she claims to be? What if there’s a tell-tale mark visible only when disrobed, or seen under ultraviolet light? What it it’s not visible at all? What if it has to be felt or tasted? (Okay, I’ve written a lot of science fiction. <smile>)

What if the sex isn’t as important as where it happens — be it in the Lincoln Bedroom, the back seat of a limo, in the King’s closet, on the moon, or any place else for that matter.

What if it’s the timing that’s important? Maybe the encounter occurs between two people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be, at least, not at that particular moment. Say, when the king walks by, or the Publisher’s Clearing House people come calling? (“Mabel dear, just where were you on Super Bowl Sunday?”)

What if the sex is between estranged partners, old lovers, spies for different countries, or some other combination of good and bad, dark and light, plaid and stripes? Any such combination of character or circumstance can provide the angle a writer needs to make the ordinary interesting. Let’s take these one at a time and see what can be done with ‘em.

There’s a secret: Who doesn’t love this gambit? Let’s say the sex is merely a means to enter a certain room, one containing the top-secret Toilet Plunger of Death (sometimes referred to as the McGuffin — essentially an object or other motivating element which drives a plot). A bounty of potential actions and consequences can bloom from a motive like this: a theft attempt, an effort to hide the thing, a call for help, an effort to silence someone, etc. Now imagine any one of these options, or several, set against a backdrop of seduction. Suddenly, the sex isn’t just something happening between consenting adults, it’s a means to an end (no pun intended).

Place precedes passion: Consider the humble “Off Limits” sign, which is just as likely to be metaphorical as physical. “You can’t go in there; that’s the boss’s office!” Or the Queen’s craft room, the President’s boudoir, the mad scientist’s wine cellar, or the girl’s locker room. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. For some characters, there’s a profound and irresistible lure associated with almost any forbidden place or thing. Now, add the complicating factor of sex; make it the key to unlocking that untouchable domain. Or make it the reward. The point is, you have the chance to make it important.

Tick, tock: No, I don’t mean speed sex. (Besides, ick. And shame on you!) Under normal, non-marathon circumstances, sex requires a certain amount of time. This applies even unto really unsatisfying sex (about which I’ve only read, naturally). Point is, it takes time. And that time can’t be devoted to anything else, because, well, you’re busy. And focused. Sex tends to force both parties to keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and to remain there until the ride comes to an end. So, while your characters are doing the nasty, they can’t be doing something else, somewhere else. Once again, the number of motives which play to this theme are legion.

I’ll never forget ol’ what’s his/her name: What often begins as light-hearted amusement, just for old time’s sake, can lead to an emotional and/or psychological avalanche. In the case of enemies, it can have physical consequences, too. How many times did James Bond dally with dainties wearing black hats? Does this hurt? No? How ‘bout this? Whether you’re writing a thriller or memories from the old folks home, you have the opportunity to spice up the story or a relationship. In fact, handled skillfully, you can get enormous mileage out of one measly roll in the metaphorical hay. Consider the possibilities, not the least of which are offspring, guilt, shame, pride, boasting, lies to cover it up, lies to make more of it, maybe even failed memories. Who knows? It’s your story, after all.

Notice, however, that in all the examples thus far, sex actually takes place. There’s a whole gunny sack full of options available when little or nothing happens. I’ll address those next time.

–Josh

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I Already Miss ELM

We typically lament the passing of people we’ve known and loved. But I feel similar emotions about the passing of a wonderful organization called ELM, the Enrichment of Life Movement. Starting some forty years ago, ELM provided an amazing array of extraordinary classes for folks aged 55 and over. For most of its existence, ELM operated out of the First Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. I became involved with ELM as an instructor a couple of years before it celebrated its 30th anniversary.

ELM classes–as many as 60 in some sessions–offered something for nearly everyone: painting, crafts of all kinds, exercise, dancing, writing, stained glass, calligraphy, archeology, memoir, politics, history, dramatic works, health and wellness… The variety and scope of these offerings were astonishing.

And then came the pandemic.

A cadre of dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly alongside ELM’s minimal staff to keep the program afloat, offering online classes where possible, and a scaled-down version of in-person classes at the church. After two difficult years, a hint of sunshine appeared on the horizon as the pandemic subsided.

But it didn’t last.

The church opted to make some much-needed renovations to its buildings, including those which housed the classrooms ELM used (and for which ELM made substantial contributions over the years). With nowhere to go, ELM had no choice but to cease operation.

Why would I grieve for the passing of an organization? Because over the years it offered an astonishing lifeline–socialization, entertainment, and education for thousands of seniors. Though I pride myself on my ability to communicate, I struggle now to find words that express my depth of gratitude to ELM for the many, many wonderful friends I made there, and for the opportunities it gave me to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Will there ever be another ELM? I rather doubt it, but I’ve been wrong before. I never dreamed there could be an organization capable of making such a profound impact on so many lives, and doing so at a stunningly low cost. ELM never charged over $50 for as many 8-week classes as students could cram into their schedules. The lunches served in the church’s huge Family Life Hall were every bit as important as the classes, and many of those who signed up did so as an excuse to have lunch with old and new acquaintances.

My heart goes out to those who never had a chance to be a part of ELM. They will truly miss out on something wonderful.

In closing, I’d like to thank some of the people who tried so hard to keep ELM alive. If you know any of them, or see them, please thank them:

ELM Board of Advisors

Vann Prater, Chair

Kenny Voorhies, Vice Chair & Treasurer

Sharon Beeler, Secretary

Kaaren Robinson, Legal

Marvin Dudek, Volunteers

Debbie Butler, Fundraising

ELM Staff

Kelly Daugherty, Director

Nicole Daugherty, Asst. Director

Barbara Key, Bookkeeper

Linda Prater, Media Specialist

–Josh

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The Spice Rule (Encore)

45716708_ml-txtOne of the many things those who are new to novel writing fail to ask is, “How much is enough?” I’m not talking about length; I’m talking about specific kinds of content, something that impacts all writers in all genres, even those engaged in non-fiction (and not just memoir).

Writing “rules” can be worrisome for those who are compulsive about “doing things right.” So when they hear (from folks, like me, who profess to know something about the craft) that they should avoid using adverbs and stative verbs (is, was, were, etc.) they tend to go overboard, eradicating all such critters as if they were spraying a house for some sort of infestation.

This is nonsense.

As I’ve said so often before, the “rules” for writing are malleable. They’re not a one-size restricts all. They exist as guides, or suggestions, about what works well for most readers. An age-old maxim, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that one should learn the rules before breaking them. And more specifically, before breaking them on purpose.

53191529_ml-txtIt’s at this point where the novice should employ the Spice Rule: “A little spice may save a dish; a lot may kill the diner.”

It’s true for many things one encounters in novels. Take dialog as an example. An occasional one-word sentence is fine; a steady stream of them isn’t. When using dialect with a character, be careful not to overload their speech with undecipherables like “you’ns” or “wud” or any other construction which reflects more on the writer than the character.

Southern accents, in particular, are often done in overkill mode, usually by Yankees and/or foreign transplants who simply don’t know any better. That’s not a valid excuse, however. For those of us who live in the South and have real Southern accents, dealing with such sloppy approximations is obnoxious and insulting. (Apparently, no one in Hollywood, and certainly, no speech coaches living there, have ever heard real Southerners speak. Thay nevah, evah, get it raht. Thay git this kine o’ she-it instay-yed. [snarl, heave])

When in doubt, don’t overdo it, whatever it is. Give the reader a break. To see the opposite of a practical application of this philosophy, spend some time on FaceBook. There you’ll be fed an unrelenting stream of cat videos and political rants, none of which interest anyone but the persons constantly posting the damn things. Where’s Emerson (“Moderation in all things”) when we need him?

Anyway, keep moderation in mind. Variety is the key–in dialog, sentence structure, subplots, characters, description, everything. Variety may well be the spice of life, but for everyone’s sake, don’t administer it with a shovel.

–Josh

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How much is enough? (Encore)

ImageWriters can be very competitive folk, especially when it comes to the topic of production. Like people in any other profession, some writers exaggerate while others are painfully honest. I know several who claim to churn out amazing quantities of prose, yet they publish very little. They can’t all be completely full of crap, can they?

Yes and no. Some writers refuse to publish independently. Therefore, they’re locked into what used to be called the “traditional” publishing route, though as we’ve seen, the tradition of sending your work to agents or editors with no thought of self-publishing is not the way it’s always been done, despite what the Big Five would have you believe.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having your book picked up by Simon and Schuster or HarperCollins or any other publisher of note. I’ll gladly stand and applaud anyone who can traverse the obstacle course that leads to publication in the “traditional” manner. A few people who publish this way will achieve wealth and fame. Their books will be picked up by celebrities and other influential folk, and overnight the writer’s names will become the subject of late-night talk shows and book clubs. There will be a bidding war for the movie rights, and editors will complain that they never got the chance to look at any of the manuscripts before somebody else jumped on them.

For most people, however, the real world provides a different scenario. Getting a book into an editor’s hands is a difficult and time-consuming process, and even if successful it often results in the publication of a couple thousand paperbacks which will stay on bookstore shelves for a few weeks. They will receive no fanfare or publicity beyond what the author provides, and after a couple months they’ll be removed from the shelf; the covers will be stripped off; the books will go into a dumpster, and the covers will be mailed back to the publisher for credit. The book will never earn out the author’s advance; the rights to the book will forever remain with the publisher, and the author won’t be able to sell another book to that imprint without changing his or her name (because the accounting department will never forget that their first book wasn’t a hit).1st-rounder

I apologize if my admittedly jaded view of the “traditional” method puts a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm. I’m merely being realistic. The odds of an anonymous writer making it big on their first novel are about the same as the average Pee-wee Football player’s chances of being drafted by the NFL in the first round. It’s on a par with the chances of any kid who moves to New York or Hollywood in hopes of becoming a star by standing in line at open casting calls.

The truth is, there are way more gifted people available than the system needs. It applies to publishing, movies, recording, professional sports–just about any field based solely on talent. And the really crazy thing, the thing that makes so many of us scratch our heads or swear or groan, is that many of the people who do make it really aren’t that good. Some of them just, simply, suck.

But, back to the main point: production. How much do you need to write? How many words should you aim to churn out in a day, a week, or a month? What’s the norm? What’s reasonable?

If there were a magic number, I’d gladly share it with you. How much you write depends on you and the demands on your time. Writing a novel is a tough job; it can take a very long time. On the other hand, it’s possible to crank out a damned good story in a very short time. I wrote and edited my first solo novel, Resurrection Blues, in six weeks. (That’s a record for me, one I’m unlikely to duplicate.)

I think two pages a day is a very reasonable target. Others will disagree. If I’m on a roll, I’ll produce a whole lot more than that. If I’m doing my taxes, or taking care of my grandkids, or bathing the dog, I’m not going to write much of anything. (Bathing the dog is exhausting!)

glassOddly, my bourbon consumption will remain fairly steady whether I’m writing, painting the house, building a deck or taking my grandkids to the zoo. If I approached writing the way I approach Kentucky’s finest, I’d get a helluva lot more written.

How much should you expect of yourself? As much as you can do. Try to write every day. If you can do two pages, that’s awesome. More is better. Less is okay provided you try to make up the difference later.

Two pages is about 500 words. The average novel is about 90,000 words. So, at 500 words a day, you should be able to write two novels a year and still have nearly a whole week to just goof off.

So, get busy!

–Josh

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