I think in Story. All the time. Day, night. Waking, sleeping.
I think in Story.
Doesn’t matter where I am or what’s going on, it’s the way my brain works. I can’t turn it off.
Truthfully, I don’t want to.
Scenes, characters, plotlines, motivation, story. They run through my mind unhindered. They bring order to the chaos of my thoughts. They inform the decisions and choices I make.
Whether I’m in a grocery story, walking down the street or sitting at my desk at work, I think in Story.
When I see a waitress at a restaurant, tired, but smiling, I wonder what she is thinking. I could ask her, I guess. But I won’t. I don’t need to. My mind fills in the gaps.
When I’m at a concert, the music intensifies the process, becoming a soundtrack to my thoughts. The scenes are sometimes so intense it’s as if I am really there. If there is snow in the scene, I can feel the cold. If tension fills the air, I can feel the electricity prickling at my skin. But often it is stories of sadness or contentment or melancholy that the music evokes, and these emotions wash over me, submerging me and carrying me away if only for a few moments.
When I’m at work and a problem arises, I see the back story, I see the motivations of all the players, and I see the through line to the climax. From this I often know which path we should take. In this I am the office problem solvers. But if they only knew. It’s not problem solving. It’s story.
It’s the way I’ve always been. It’s the way I will always be.
I think in Story.
[toni’s note: today I am letting Bobbie Faye Sumrall guest blog because frankly, she’s scary and she threatened me.]
Okay, look, people, you probably don’t know me. Unless you’ve read this crazy writer’s first book, and I am here to tell you, she’s seriously getting on my nerves. Like, bouncing up and down on the last one with a hacksaw in her hand. How in the hell her family puts up with her is a shear freaking miracle. You people need to do an intervention. Soon. Or I’m going to, and it won’t be pretty.
It’s not bad enough that she followed me around and then wrote a book about it. I’m kinda used to people following me around, and just because things happen to accidentally blow up whenever I sort of happen to be in the area does not mean that it was my fault, and really, I am tired of being on the five o’clock news. And could they follow me around when I’m dressed like a sane person? Nooooo, that would be too nice. They wait until all hell breaks loose and I have crap to wear and look like a reject from Ho’s R Us clothing line and of course, bad hair from hell, and that’s when they put my photo up on the TV. But this Toni? She’s worse than the rest of them combined, because she’s all in my freaking life every time I turn around and one of these days, I’m going to drop-kick her ass across the state, because I have about had enough.
I thought that after the first book, she’d get her fill. Sure, it was kinda crazy and lots of people chasing me and shooting and you know, unhappy with me in general (though I am hard-pressed at times to tell the difference) but I thought this was a one-time thing. She’d get her story, go write it and go away. Then she followed me around again and this one was even crazier; I was like the Pied Piper to the Psycho & Demented set, and did she have the common sense to leave me alone? What do you think? Do writers even have common sense? Apparently not, because there she was, squatting next to me, getting shot at, and I tried to tell her to go home, go do something useful, like paint her bedroom, but she just kept taking notes as the bullets whizzed by and it is not my fault that she got nicked a couple of times, damnit. I can only do so much.
So then I thought, fine… no one’s going to like the first book and she’ll get discouraged and go the fuck away. But did that happen? No. You freaking people are going to kill me. Some of you have actually reviewed the damned book! And you liked it! And you’re encouraging her! I mean, last week? Last week she was lying prone on her office floor, freaking out because she was certain no one on the planet was going to even read the damned thing, much less like it, and I have to say, as cruel as it sounds, that would have suited me just damned fine, because then she’d have been out of my hair. Permanently. Instead, this weekend, your Publisher’s Weekly goes and posts this fantastic review . And not just any old fantastic review, but a freaking starred review. And now? She will not shut up about the damned thing. I swear to God, I had to talk her out of tattooing it on her forehead. I mean, look at it:
*Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day*
Toni McGee Causey. St. Martin’s Griffin, $12.95 paper (320p) ISBN
Set in Lake Charles, La., Causey’s hilarious, pitch-perfect debut
chronicles one day in the life of 28-year-old Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a
magnet for mayhem who feels “a day without disaster would be a day in
someone else’s life.” For starters, a faulty washing machine floods the
trailer home she shares with her five-year-old niece. Then she learns
that kidnappers are holding Roy, her rogue of a younger brother, for
ransom and want nothing less than the tiara inherited from her mother
that Bobbie Faye plans to wear as the queen of the upcoming
pirate-themed Contraband Days Festival. After a simple bank trip turns
into a nightmare and thieves get away with the tiara, Bobbie Faye
commandeers a truck and its hunky driver, Trevor, for a wild chase
through bayou country. Friends cheer her on, while others take bets on
her next calamity. Causey doesn’t miss a beat in this wonderful, wacky
celebration of Southern eccentricity. /(May)/
Now she’s already planning to follow me around for the rest of my frigging life. I am never going to be rid of her, am I?
I am serious. You people better do something about this. Quick. Because if she keeps this up, she’s going to get her ass shot and it won’t be my fault. I cannot help it if I am a magnet for disaster. I have a talent for “wrong place, wrong time” — if that were a category on the SAT exam? I’d make a fucking perfect score. So do something. Warn her. Kidnap her. Teach her how to knit. I don’t care, just get her the hell out of my life.
Bobbie Faye Sumrall
Ours is a world governed by the first impression. Beauty may be only skin deep, but often that’s as deep as we go. Marketing in our consumer culture is essentially about recreating that first impression over and over again. Sometimes the effort is explicit. AT&T becomes Cingular, which becomes AT&T again. Federal Express gets a new logo and a truncated name. At other times it’s more subtle. A new campaign to re-create our relationship with an old brand. Every time a fast food chain throws out a new slogan and jingle, they’re doing it. Coke and Pepsi battle to make a good first impression over and over again.
As individuals, we’re often willing participants. New clothes, new hair, spectacles or contacts. I grew a beard this spring, producing a new look and, in my own way, a new first impression. We see something different and we want to try it. Or we see something old presented in a new way and we have a new response to it.
I’m not suggesting this is all bad. At times there is real value in re-inventing ourselves, especially when the people in our lives are participants in our transformation. The stimulus might be superficial, as in the case of a fellow’s new beard. Or it might be profound — illness often inspires to change our lifestyle: stop smoking, eat differently, exercise more. As people, the ability to adapt at need is hardwired into us.
As readers, we accept this readily. In many cases, we celebrate our willingness to limit ourselves to the first impression. “If a novel doesn’t grab me on page one, I move on to the next book.” Or, “Page one? The first paragraph!” Or even, “One sentence, that’s all you get.” Bouncing around the blogs and review sites, you’ll often see this approach to new work touted. The Page 69 Test is a variation on the same theme, one I think is fun and cool and interesting. But a variation on the first impression all over again.
I do it myself. I don’t want to sound like I’m somehow above all this first-impressiony goodness (or badness). I judge books by their covers too, or at least by their first few pages. I give something a quick hit, then move on if it doesn’t grab me by the balls and give a hard squeeze.
Among publishing professionals, it’s part of doing business. When your slush pile is a mile high you don’t often have time to go past a first impression. If it means you miss something, well, the pile is pretty damn deep. Something else will pass the first impression test, sooner or later.
But as readers, don’t we have the luxury of being more patient? When I’m at the bookstore, my paycheck is only on the line in reverse — it doesn’t depend on me getting through a slush pile and finding the one gem among the gravel.
How many classic novels would never have a chance today because they don’t hit the pavement in third gear and accelerate from page one? I see a few books on my own shelves, books I dearly love, that I got a chance to read only because they were published fifty or a hundred years or more ago. The Scarlett Letter. The Lord of the Rings. Crime and Punishment. Just to name a few.
And yet I have to admit, I’d probably give many of these same books, if published today, short shrift. What are the stakes? I’d be asking as I learned that Hobbits started out as three tribes an age ago. Then I’d put the book down and pick up a contemporary novel with a marketing-driven approach to story telling. Start on page one and don’t let up, keep making new first impressions, because if you ease off even a little, someone who made a more recent first impression will move ahead of you. How many slush pile readers today would get through the introduction to The Scarlett Letter, despite it’s critical value to the story?
Perhaps the problem is not the first impression, but what we’ve come to allow as an acceptable first impression. Plot. Drama. Energy. Movement. These are all okay. Atmosphere. Lyricism. Poeticism. These are not.
Among readers of so-called genre fiction, good writing on its own is often viewed with suspicion, as if it’s some kind of trick. I all but made a pariah of myself on DorothyL by suggesting that good writing could be its own reward and that not every sentence of every novel needed to be plot, needed to be fever pitch story advancement. Sometimes through good writing we see other things of equal or greater value. The idea went over like a bad Super Bowl ad, and taught me to open my big mouth, if nothing else.
There’s nothing wrong with strong story. I don’t want to suggest there isn’t. Hell, I LOVE strong story. I just worry if in our impatience for story we aren’t losing sight of other things. Shorting ourselves as readers. Coke and Pepsi have to do what they have to do. But we’re readers and sometimes writers, not corporations pitching the same thing again and again to the same audience.
On the one hand we say that a work can’t be considered great until it’s passed the test of time, but on the other we don’t want to take the time to give a work a chance. That, to me, is the tyranny of the first impression.
What do you think? Is impatience a virtue I’ve become blind to, or could we stand to slow down a bit?
Rob Gregory Brown posted earlier this week about the bruising that occurs when someone doesn’t like your work.
I haven’t had any seriously negative responses to my book (yet), but I’ve gotten a fistful of comments objecting to the too-frequent use of the “F” word in VINNIE’S HEAD.
Well, okay: Johnnie, the narrator, says “fuck” a lot. Really a lot.
And there is a perfectly good argument to be made for not overusing potent verbal formulae.
And maybe I was guilty of overdoing it.
But I think there are good arguments for saying “fuck” a lot in fiction.
One is simple realism. A member of Long Island’s criminal underclass would naturally say “fuck” a lot. Who am I to stop him?
Evildoers from the President and Vice President on down to other, lesser criminals use the F-bomb routinely. Sometimes the microphone is left on. I’m okay with that.
Saying “fuck” a lot creates an atmosphere, a verbal baseline. Obscenity is the air Johnnie LoDuco breathes, emphatic profanity the way he understands the world. (Though he doesn’t understand it very well.)
Some of the occasional squeamishness about the “F” word may have its roots both in Puritanism and status anxiety. It’s a class thing. Only “vulgar” people use the f-word. It’s not a word for “polite” society. Sex and aggression and contempt snarled up in a single expletive.
So maybe saying “fuck” a lot is transgressive, subversive, if only in a slight way. Okay, a very slight way. But I think we need all the transgression we can get.
And I think crime fiction — hardboiled, neo-pulp, noir crime fiction, at least — is a subversive genre by nature, digging under scam and pretense. (Not sure if Vinnie fits exactly inside those categories, but the main character sure swears a lot.)
Profanity is a very minor part of this, sure, it’s one marker among many. But I think we need to leave it alone and give “fuck” some breathing room.
Or maybe I just use it too much.
Any thoughts on this?
When I see a movie I really like, I usually head over to the Internet Movie Database to find out what other viewers thought of it. It never ceases to amaze me how different the reactions can be. Especially when the movie I thought was a 10-star, absolutely brilliant piece of work gets one star from several people, with post titles like DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME and A COMPLETE MESS.
I often wonder if these people saw the same movie I saw or had somehow wandered into a theater that was showing a counterfeit version. I constantly have to remind myself that viewing “art” or creative work is a completely subjective process.
There has been a debate going on in several blogs lately about literary vs. genre fiction and the “snobbery” we sometimes encounter in the book world. I jumped into the conversation in reaction to several comments suggesting that there are good books and bad books, period. And while I understand the sentiment of such a statement, I still believe it’s all subjective. Who decides what’s good and what’s bad?
We all do. For ourselves. And no one else can tell us how to define these things. As the old saying goes, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” There are those, like myself, who think chef Roy Yamaguchi is a genius. And there are others who prefer the simple recipes of chef Ronald McDonald. Go figure. But who am I to tell them they’re wrong?
So what this all brings me to is the title of this post: Bruised Egos. What every writer has to prepare him or herself for when his children are finally out there in the world is criticism. Not everyone is going to love your book.
I have gotten several complimentary emails and comments from people who have read KISS HER GOODBYE. It’s always very gratifying to know that my story and characters resonated with them in some way, that they rushed home to finish reading the book, that they’ve passed the book on to friends or family members because they want to share the experience.
But for every ten of those reactions to your work, there’s always one who didn’t care for it. And in this day of the Internet, a simple Google search while steer you straight to that one.
No matter how much you prepare yourself for criticism, nothing bruises your ego more than a negative remark about your work. Tess Gerritsen has talked about this on her blog, about some of the scathing remarks reviewers have made and her attempts to deal with them.
The trick, of course, is to simply let it roll off your back, remind yourself that this is only ONE person out of ten. But the human animal seems to have this strange need to remember only the negative. When we look back at our lives we often look back at the mistakes we made rather than revel in our accomplishments.
As you may have guessed by now, I recently stumbled across a reader’s reaction to my work that was less than favorable. He was clearly not impressed with my book and his comments cut right to the bone.
I don’t say this to elicit sympathy or fish for compliments. I’m a big boy and I’ve been in rooms full of studio executives who have torn my work to pieces. But for some reason this reader’s negative comment sticks with me and, for the sake of my damaged ego, I have to remind myself that our definitions of good and bad truly ARE subjective.
I have to remind myself that every time I go to the Internet Movie Database, the range of viewers opinions about the same piece of work is all over the map. That you can’t please everyone and, if you think you’re going to, you’re deluded. It’s an impossible task.
Yet it sticks with you. The negative stuff. And I have to wonder why.
I doubt I’ll ever know the answer. And I suppose the only thing we writers can do is to let the wound heal, deal with the scars as best we can, and keep moving on.
Oh, and a good “Up yours, pal!” to our critics does wonders. But we should probably keep those to ourselves….
Last night I read and talked about my book in M is for Mystery in San Mateo, surrounded by hundreds, thousands of unread books.
I love bookstores.
Sometimes I think that if I could just own a bookstore, and sit in it and read, all day, then I would never write again.
I know it wouldn’t be like that. There’d be work to do, books to unpack and shelve, invoices to pay.
I’d never get away with sitting around and reading all the time.
And, no matter how much I liked to sit around and read, I would end up writing about the experience:
Sometimes a bookstore will come back to me.
Finding a book I’d forgotten about, a book double-shelved
And suddenly re-appearing,
A book fallen behind the couch or under the bed,
I remember where I first laid eyes on it
(if not always when)
so that every book gives me the history
of the bookstore where I bought it.
Were they real, these bookstores? Some I think
I made up, discovering a suppressed memory
Of that shop two doors down from City Lights in San Francisco
Just south of Vesuvio’s
With big glazed windows on either side of the door piled with books
And letting in an unusual amount of light for a bookstore
Although it seldom reached beyond the first high row of homemade shelves
Forming nooks and bays and canyons of print and paper.
Or the otherworldly bookshops of Chicago, the International Workers
Of the World bookshop with its portrait of Joe Hill
That shared a dusty loft filled with motes and slanting light and the
Ghosts of the 1930s
With the bookstore of the Surrealist Internationale.
Or a bookstore in London’s Notting Hill that I remember as circular
Though it couldn’t have been, it must have been my head that was turning,
With books of spirit photographs
Lying next to avant tomes by the latest brilliant Brits.
And who could forget the secondhand booksellers of the Bay Area,
Bald, broad-shouldered Tuvia presiding over the incredible staggering booktowers at the
Old, pre-fire-marshal-inspected McDonald’s Bookshop in the Tenderloin,
Or Moe of the old original Moe’s, pricing books in the basement,
Cigar defiantly alit,
Or all the many bookstore clerks your own age, long-haired and bearded and bespectacled
Whose jobs you envied with a low-simmering grudge,
Whom you might later see in the bars and Chinese restaurants of North Beach,
Surrounded by the glimmering aura imparted by the overwhelming presence of books.
And the best bookstore of all, the one whose shelves contain
All the books I didn’t buy, that I marked down but never returned for,
That I (shamefully) mis-shelved in incongruous sections, fooling no one,
Meaning to come back and redeem them,
Putting a first edition of Raymond Chandler
Upside down among sociology texts, books about golf.
Or books I left behind in a dither of indecision and then suddenly
Turned around in my tracks on my way back to work
And race-walked back to the bookstore to retrieve,
Only to find them gone, carried out under the arms of which of those
Agh. This is the bookstore I’m looking for, lost in the rain, my
Cheap umbrella turned inside out,
The address written in bic pen on a torn-out page of spiral notebook,
Already soaked and illegible in the rain-streaked light.
by Sean Chercover
It has come to my attention that this is International Ken Bruen Appreciation Day.
Haven’t read Ken Bruen? You are in for a treat. His writing is, quite simply, some of the best crime fiction written in this day or any other day. His novels touch both the sacred and the profane, and show us that sometimes they are one and the same.
Yes, novels, but you could also use the term prose poetry and you wouldn’t be lying. Ken’s use of language is that good. He’s a jaw-droppingly great wordsmith, and if you write fiction, you must be jealous. I know I am. What the rest of us need a page to say, Ken says in one sentence. One perfect little sentence that packs more emotional wallop than all the ham-fisted heaping of words upon words. How the hell does he do it?
And something more. Ken’s books take us to very dark places, but they bring us back again, with a new perspective on the world. At once funny and tragic, his novels leave us emotionally shattered, but somehow spiritually cleansed. Bruen’s characters may not catch a glimpse of redemption, but his readers do. No White Hats and Black Hats for Ken Bruen. Ken doesn’t sit in judgment over the characters he creates, doesn’t label them Good Guys and Bad Guys. More determined to understand than to judge, Ken introduces us to some of the most deeply disturbed, pathologically antisocial members of our odd little species, and does so in a way that makes us say, “Yes, this too is what it means to be human.”
That’s a thing or two about Ken Bruen, the writer.
And then there’s Ken Bruen, the man. But that shit is personal, and I’m not really good at talking in public about people I love. Suffice it to say that Ken is one of the most warmhearted, generous, honest and brave people I’ve ever had the good fortune to call a mentor, and a friend.
So, on International Ken Bruen Appreciation Day, raise a pint of Guinness and a slug of Bushmills in the general direction of Ireland, and then go out there and buy a book written by the man himself.
Hell, buy two; they’re small.