Cross Fudginating

My latest post on the Southern Author’s Blog, A Good Blog is Hard to Find:

“My biggest problem is my brother, Farley Drexel Hatcher. He’s two-and-a-half years old. Everybody calls him Fudge.”

That was all it took.  Twenty words.  Three sentences.  And from that point on, I knew I wanted to have books in my life, and that someday I would write books that made people feel the way I felt at that moment.  It wasn’t so much that Judy Blume had launched into the introduction of a character I would fall in love with, nor was it that I knew, right then and there, that no book would ever be as thoroughly awesome as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  Rather, it was that it took less than five seconds to accomplish it.  It was that my life’s path could be so irrevocably altered in the span of a breath.  I might have only been seven, but I knew that was a power I wanted to have.  To have and to master.  Jedi style.

This was my face when I read the line, as it happened.

I began to pour through books, looking for more examples of this power to influence, this directional wind vane of literary might.  I wanted to know if this was a gift that was solitary, handed but to the great mastery of Judy Blume, or if there was a community pool of creation that all authors could simply dip into when they were ready.  When they reached that point in the book, wherever it might have been, where they could lean back in the chair, crack their knuckles, say, “This is about as good a spot as there can be!” and dip into that basin of beautiful phrasing, and monumental simplicity.

Turns out that doesn’t exist, just in case you were wondering.  I looked.  Ponce de Leon had nothing on that search.

Which meant, quite simply, that it was a matter of skill, rather than fortune.  That was good.  After all, I could learn skill.  It’s much harder to learn fortune.  Most often, you’re kind of left standing out in the open, your arms wide, waiting for something pleasant to hit you.  Which is a funny thought, because I’ve never been hit by anything pleasantly.  It usually hurts.  Quite a lot.  So, I snapped out a pencil, grabbed a notepad, threw away the broken bits of the pencil that didn’t care for the “fortunate” hit it took while waiting to be grabbed, gently picked up another pencil, and began writing.  I wrote a story about a young boy, walking his way to a Little League baseball game.  He was nervous, distracted, lost in thought about how the game would play out, and what his ultimate hand in it would be.  He hoped his team won.  It was the championship, after all.  As luck would have it, though, he was so engrossed in thought, that he stepped in a hole, and twisted his ankle.  It was tragic.  It was catastrophic.  It likely meant he would have to sit the game out, if he could even make it to the field.  Somehow, our young hero found the strength to hobble his way, and then the courage to take the field late in the game, when his team needed a hero.  He got the hit that won the game.  All was well.  My pencil, and I, were very happy with what we had created.  I was a writer.

Of course, it didn’t have a Fudg-errific line, or series of lines, but it was mine.  It was breathtaking.  It was, well, it was horrible mostly, but it was the beginning of a great career, I was sure of it.

I discovered, some time later, that not only can this power be utilized in the story, but it can also kick you in the seat of the pants as soon as you open the book.  Kate DiCamillio demonstrated this, as well as any writer can, in her book, Because of Winn Dixie. Behold:

“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog.”

It was this opening that educated me fully on the power, and importance, of an opening sentence.  In the beginning, just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  Hence, when the day finally arrived that some crazy person boldly decided to pay actual money to put my work into print, they did so even after I threw everything I had into my first sentence, and managed, in that moment, to completely miss the point.  Instead I re-created the opening line of a rather old joke.

When the Anti-Christ and Satan entered the bar, nobody took notice.”

That was it.  There it was.  My Fudgey Winn Dixie moment.  It wasn’t horrible.  But it wasn’t Judy Blume.  It wasn’t anywhere in the pool of really cool things that authors write when their brains are on fire.  It was…good, but not necessarily great.  So, I kept at it.  I keep at it still, I should say.  And I continue to tell myself that I can do this.  I can write that memorable, life-altering line.  I can change lives with twenty words, and five seconds.

Or I could try stand-up.

You should always keep your options open.  Just don’t stand out in the middle of everything and wait for them to hit you.  That hurts.

Ducky Thomas Goes to Richmond

This is Ducky Thomas:

 

This is Ducky Thomas. He is a duck named Thomas.

 

Recently, Ducky Thomas had an adventure.  He went to Richmond, Virginia on a trip.  It wasn’t the grandest of trips, but it was exciting all the same.  He went on this journey with me, as I took to the town as a speaker at the James River Writers Conference.  Unfortunately, however, he did not attend the conference, as it cost quite a bit of money to pay the way for an attendee, and, well, ducks are just not allowed in the library.  So, while I was away, he manned—er, ducked–the hotel room where he…well, I suppose I should let his words speak for themself:

“I’ve never gone on a trip before.  For that matter, I’ve never gone anywhere before.  Before this weekend, I had only been out of the bedroom, where I stay, just once to sit on Zach’s desk.  He said he wanted to take my picture, which was okay with me, but ducks aren’t much on make-up, and don’t often pose for pictures, so I was a bit nervous about it all.  And that was just for a picture!  Imagine how I felt when he asked me if I wanted to go to Richmond! ‘Golly!’ I had exclaimed.  ‘I don’t even know what a Richmond is, but I sure do want to see it!’  So, sure enough, he told me I could go, and went to something called, ‘Target’–which I believe is not far away, but must be a magical place, seeing as how he returned quickly with a wonderful black traveling house with wheels for me to ride in.  Who knew there were such things in the world!  It had plenty of room for me to rest comfortably, and I was able to keep all of Zach’s belongings safe during the trip–though I do have to admit that the darkness made me sleepy, and aside from some bumpy moments, I slept quite a lot.  Fortunately, no one tried to open the house, and before I knew it, Zach was opening the door and I opened my sleepy eyes to see something amazing!  It was a brand new place, much bigger than the bedroom I’m usually in!  And, it had a really big window that let me see one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen!  Ever ever!

 

This is what a Richmond looks like!

 

 

There were lots of what Zach called, 'outtomobeels.' That's the rolling things over there!

 

 

Whoa. Richmond.

 

Well, boy, was I excited!  I just sat in that window ALL day long!  And when it got dark, everything got all sprinkled in little lights everywhere.  It sure was incredible!  Zach was gone most of the time, where he said he was spending time with the Righter people, who like to talk about the Righter things.  Apparently, Zach knows something of this Righting, because he was very excited about all that he had done while he was there.  He was almost as excited as I was about seeing the Richmond all day!  Well, anyway, he told me that he sat on a panel about religion, which does sound kind of unpleasant, and maybe a little painful, but he didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all, so I guess it’s not that bad.  I listened as he talked about his adventures that day, and then the next day too.  He spent an awful lot of time with the Righters, where they talked about the Right way to do things, I suppose.  It’s good that people try to be Right, I’ve been told, so it’s even better that they have conferences to discuss it.  Zach said that the people there liked him so much that they bought all of the books that were for sale!  Yay for Zach!  He said that there were more panels that he sat on (I still don’t know why he sat on them, but, I’m just a duck, and will not understand, I guess).  There was one on Fan Tah See, which is, according to Zach, about make-believe stuff that is in stories, and sometimes has dragons, magic, and shallow vampire characters that only little girls like.  And then there was the one on Die A Log, which is a funny name to me.  I mean, from what I could tell from my perch over the Richmond, it seems to me that logs–which I know from a television show that I watched with Zach, come from trees–are very pretty, and very helpful to things.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill one.  But Zach made it sound kind of delightful, and said that the Righter people asked a lot of really neat questions about Die A Log that he, and two other Righters by the names of David L. Robbins, and Lauren Oliver, answered.  I don’t know them, but they sound neat!

Well, he just seemed to really enjoy his time, which was wonderful to hear, because I was beginning to worry that I might be having too much fun looking at the Richmond–more fun than Zach–and that made me feel bad.  I didn’t want Zach to miss out on the fun, either.  He did sit with me for a while watching the sun rise one morning, which was really neat!  I had never seen that before either!  I was glad he got to see it too, though he had to leave before I could tell him that.  But I think he already knew.  So, I guess that was pretty much it, after that.  Zach said he met lots of new people, and that there was something funny about something he said the Righters called a, ‘humanzee.’  I don’t know what that is, but as I’ve said, I’m a duck, and I don’t really know too much about things. Zach told me, as he was putting me back in the black, boxy house, with wheels that he hoped that he could keep in contact with his new friends, and that some of them were really nice, and pretty good Righters that needed to simply believe in themselves a bit more.  I liked the way that sounded, and so I just smiled at Zach, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.  The next thing I knew, we were home again.

I don’t have to stay in the bedroom anymore.  Now I get to spend time on Zach’s desk while he does his Righting.  It makes me happy. But not as happy as knowing that Zach has promised to take me to other new places too!  I can’t wait!

 

It's a big world for such a small duck.

 

And Now Here’s Something We Hope You Really Like!

I was a huge fan of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  I still am, even if I’ve forgotten just about every episode, or clip, I’ve ever seen.  But what I do remember, and what I will always remember, is the opening sequence, and the theme music that goes with it.

A flying squirrel?  Are you kidding me?  How awesome is that?  Only slightly less awesome than a clumsy, but witty, moose, that much I’m certain of!

Hey, as a side note, I had a flying squirrel once.  His name was Quirkus. 

 He was awesome.  And he liked grapes.  And pockets.  And urinating on my shoulder.

But anyway, Rocky the Flying Squirrel got me to thinking about openings.  And squirrels.  And it occurred to me that, just perhaps, there’s a lesson in there for aspiring writers.  As always, there’s a story, albeit a short one.

The fact of the matter is that a story–any story–requires a handle for the reader/viewer to grab hold of.  Something to ensure that they grip that opening, and hang on until you reveal what all meant.  What that opening sequence had to do with anything.  And don’t fool yourself, it has everything to do with your story, and its ultimate end point.  Watch any movie, and in the first ten minutes, if it doesn’t give you something to grab onto, you’re done.  You don’t want to invest yourself in it, but in all likelihood, you spent the money to watch it, so, well, you endure it, and offer it a tepid, “Meh,” when the end credits roll.

In a book, you have the first few pages to hook the reader, if not less than that.  For the prospective agent, or editor, you have as little as the first paragraph.  You want to tell a story to begin your story.  You want to give the reader the feeling that they just unwittingly jumped into a car on the most exhilarating/frightening/horrifying roller coaster they will ever know. 

I journey to Richmond, almost every year, in October to attend the James River Writers Conference, where I have yet to fail to leave wiser than I arrived.  They have, for the past few years, opened the conference with something they call, “First Pages,” which is nothing more than a critique that is as much Sumo wrestling, as it is Pie in the Face.  As a writer, you anonymously submit the first page of your manuscript, or story, and two extremely talented readers perform your work before the 150 attendees, and a panel that usually consists of an editor, an agent, an established writer, and a roll of the dice.  I boldly submitted the first page of Anointed at one of these sessions, leaned back in my chair, and awaited the praise that was sure to come.

M-hm.

I was butchered, and justifiably so.  My opening was droll, rambling, and nothing happened.  It was a horrible opening.  It was a serviceable third chapter, but it did nothing to offer hope that it would be anything but what it appeared.  Who really wants to endure 336 pages of rambling?  Of course, the book isn’t 336 pages of rambling, but that opening that I offered left the impression that everything to follow was precisely that.  So, that weekend, motivated by the crudely horrible things that they panel said of my opening (not the work itself, but the opening), I wrote a scene in which Satan, and the Anti-Christ walked into a bar.  There was dialogue, there was some idle rambling (as it is a great tool of humor I employ), but there was also action, as the characters worked through the scene, and there was intrigue.  There were characters that immediately offered questions, and a story within the story; a story that played out through the entire work, and resolved itself in the end.

It was like stepping into the car of the roller coaster, and anticipating what was to come, rather than the feeling that the ride was over before it ever really began.  Give your reader a moment to look forward to the ride, give them a glimpse of the rails, the precipitous climb to that first drop, and perhaps even a few twists, and turns, beyond.  But don’t drop them in the car along the way, somewhere on a flat plain, where the only thing they can possibly feel is apathy for the ride.