Friday, May 28, 2010

Conflict! FIGHT!

I'm currently reading THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville, and is full of internal conflict, told in first person. This style lends itself to the traditional Banvilleian style of page-long paragraphs and ruminations on the beauty of bird eggs, but hidden in that fabric is the over-arching metaphors of internal conflict that turn the screws of tension so subtly, you become entranced in the plot without even meaning to be.
I thought it might be fun to spend a little bit of time talking about some aspects of story-telling, as opposed to my other bromides which go on and on without ever reaching any sort of denouement.  So, today I am going to follow after one of my blogging idols, Anne Mini, and talk about Conflict!  I know, intrepid readers, we are sailing into some frothy, jaunting waves for sure!  An actual discussion on craft?!  Cry the shipmates from the crow's nest of my Blog/Galleon, Dear God, Captian Ken!  Are you trying to capsize the old girl?

"No!" says I in a particularly jaunty pirate accent, "I am bringing her into her own!  Now wrack the garders, spool the tanks, swab the poop-deck, and hard to starboard!  We are venturing into forbidden lands!"

"But captain," says my first-mate, "think about the the families who may be torn asunder by such an ill-advised romp into such tremulous tides!"

"Ar," says I, "that I have Good Mister Common-Sense, that I have.  And after a long discussion within meself, I came to the conclusion that I do not care about you!  Yes, 'tis true!  For you are nothing more than a fictional construct of ubiquitous characters which I have created specifically for the purpose of spooling tanks, and gibbing the rafters.  So get to it!"

The first mate's shoulders slump and he glares at me.  "We do not know what 'spooling,' 'gibbing,' nor 'wracking' is, sir."

I put my foot up on the stern of the ship, peering out into the waving luminescence of the open sea.  "Nor do I, Good Mister Common-Sense.  Nor do I."

And that was some weird meta-lesson on conflict.  Bam.  Didn't know you were learning about conflict while you were reading some of my internal monologue did you?  Well, there you go.  Now, let me break it apart a little more with an example that is about as far away from pirates as you can get....

John Banville.  This guy.

Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea, and all around Irish badass.  I bring him up because of his ability to create conflict in places where one would not necessarily place conflict, namely in each and every character.  "But Ken," some of you say, rolling your eyes, "lots of authors have conflictual characters.  Characters conflict with other characters all the time, in fact, that's what conflict is."  True, true.  That is, but what I'm talking about goes far beyond two characters arguing or fighting, or one character battling within himself, what I'm talking about is having every character being a conflict within theirselves.  Right now, I am reading a book of his called The Untouchable.  Perhaps not as regaled as The Sea, but I don't think you can go wrong with either one of these books (or his newest work: The Infinities).  Let me try to explain this a little better...

There are many examples of this throughout the text, but I'll start here, for the sake of clarity, with perhaps the most obvious.  The party scene at the beginning of the novel (near the beginning of the second chapter) the narrator (Victor Maskell) concludes that "So what we were frightened of, then, was ourselves, each one his own demon."  Here we have the beginning of this meta-lesson, much more elegantly written than my poor excuse above

I think that's the kind of conflict that I most enjoy, and it's one that I see the least of. There tends to be this over-arching theme of protagonists being almost completely "pure" in that they will do good for good's sake, and leave out rumination as a gaudy excuse for waxing poetic, but I think it can be done correctly.
Characters should always be a conflict within themselves. Going back to the Banville example -- an anti-semite Jew; a ladies' man who lives in squalor; a beautiful woman, lovingly depicted as wearing a dress like "the carapace of a scarab beetle" -- we get these great examples of meta-conflict that all orbits around the main pillar that stands morbidly in the center -- the knowledge that Maskell was a Soviet spy.

It's really an incredible book. One point of conflict is important, but the main character should have at least, say, three different factors that should share the reader's brain, otherwise the work will seem, at least to me, rather disengenuous. Main characters, or POV characters need these extra layers in order to keep a reader guessing, and keeping them on edge. Keeping characters lying, and keeping your protagonists on shaky moral and ethical ground will lead to a much more satsifactory denouement.

Hm, this post kind of started rambling, but I think it stands for itself: keep characters interesting, and witholding secrets (for a logical, plot-driven reason) and coveting something that is, in itself conflictual, and you will have something that can fall into rumination on pidgeon eggs and get away with it... as long as it continues the plot.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Damn it.

I realized today why literary fiction so often has plots that are very loose, and/or non-existent, and its for the simple reason that, holy shit, all of a sudden, writing rules for ghostly habitation sound ridiculous amidst everything else I've written. I'm grumbling something fierce right now. Hopefully this is something that's doable. It would absolutely suck to get this close only to find out that what im doing doesn't mesh. Good Lord, give me strength, and some skillful muse that can help me wrench out this windy plot amidst everything else I'm trying to do.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Bad Poetry!

Isn't a struggling writer's blog obligated to have on it some really bad poetry?  I think so.  Here's mine.  I wouldn't post it if I didn't think it was worth reading.  I laughed a lot writing it, and that's enough for me.  I think any poetry I ever write will end up just being Seussian story telling.  I got this idea from watching one of those TLC shows about "the most haunted places," and there was a ghost in a hotel that... turned on televisions.  I thought "how horrible would it be if I were a ghost, and all I could do was turn on a tv?"... and then I realized that rhymed, so I wrote poetry.  That was the extent of my muse's interplay on all of this.  Deep, right?

A Not-Particularly Scary Ghost Story

If I were a ghost, how sad would it be
If all I could do was turn on the tv?

My soulless body would undoubtedly scare
Enough to make the locals beware;
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

I would live in a big house, all caked in grime
I try moaning and groaning just to pass the time;
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

Queues set up, so windy and long,
And visitors pay just to hear my song;
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

“Where is screaming?” they bellow with rage,
“I want a ghost, a phantasm, a rattling cage!”
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

“That’s not a ghost,” the little boys grumble,
“That’s just bad wiring, a mistake, a fumble.”
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

A séance takes place inside the great hall,
Wishing and hoping I may answer the call,
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

So, I turn on the tv, and turn it up loud,
“That doesn’t count!” exclaims the belligerent crowd,
But all I could do was turn on the tv!

“Show us your power, oh harbinger of death,
“We await your sign with bated breath!”
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

“A sacrifice is needed!” a fat lady reports,
She's very scary: black lipstick and cargo shorts.
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

Pentagrams and sheep’s blood are strewn all around,
Then everyone sits, cross-legged, not making a sound.
…But all I could do was turn on the tv.

They all get up, eyes rolling, virulent and rude,
Saying that they don’t understand my attitude.
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

“I have an idea,” the woman says again,
“Toss the tv out!  That’s a fine place to begin!”
But all I could do was turn on the tv.

They toss it out with an old “heev-ho,”
I get very angry when I see the screen go,
Because all I could do was turn on the tv.

What happened next was quite the blur,
And why twenty corpses surrounding me? I’m not sure.
Because, after all, all I could do was turn on the tv.

The tv is back, and my soul is on the mend,
But now I have twenty of the worst kind of friend.
They shriek and holler, bang pipes and curse,
Loud, obnoxious, caustic, terse.
Oh, how I wish that they would just let me be,
Because, honestly, all I want to do is turn on the tv.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Twenty Minute Oil Change

I began writing this essay while I was going through this stuff, but it took me another two days to get it to where it is somewhat publishable. I think that there is still some stuff that I would like to add, modify, and subtract, but for the sake of a 1.5k word essay, it will do. The title of this essay is "Twenty Minute Oil Change," and it is a recounting of my time at the hitherto named carshop "Qwik Lube". I have changed the name to avoid any sort of legal recourse, and all information regarding the specific sale has been changed.

I am writing this from inside an incongruous amalgamation of various states of disrepair and failure. Qwik Lube is an anachronism, surrounded by hulking bodies of lustrous steel beams and girders that hold within them, like some titanic filigree, lambent windows that reflect the sun, causing the structures to shine like great, princess-cut gemstones. I, on the other hand, am in a squat white, slap-dashed tin structure, marked with the tincture of years with rust, grime, and dirt that pock its outside walls and corners like liver spots and furuncles on an old drunk. A veritable rough amongst diamonds, he looks to be either on his way up, or way down from another epic bender, attempting to forget his embarrassing lot in life. Cast to the gutter, and sleeping off a roiling hang-over, he lays, prostrated among the benthos, carrion, and detritus that swirl and scurry about him, to which, he simply mumbles, “let me be, let me be.”

As a general rule, I try to make it a rule to avoid places anthropomorphized as a miserly drunk. Perhaps that is both shallow and vain of me — if you said so, I don’t think you would be wrong — but I am an indelible creature of comfort. The way I see it, humanity created beds, roofs, air-conditioning, and plumbing so that I don't have to live out in the wilderness among all the shit and dirt and gadflies. Camping is uncomfortable, and so are thirty-year-old rust buckets that are visibly deteriorating, and I am willing to fork over a few extra dollars for the creature-comfort of knowing that I will not be lanced, decapitated, or otherwise crushed by an oxidized girder. With this in mind however, there is a radical difference between “few dollars” and “twenty.” Thus, I approach the double garage doors with a feeling of apprehension, spurred on by the promise of diminution.

The front wheels of my car roll over the black rope sensor laid out in front of the adit, and a bell rings from inside the garage. From somewhere, I hear the muffled sound of a moan, followed by the emergence of a face from underneath a car. The face scowls at me. He looks pissed; he looks like he’s ready to get home. I can’t say I blame him either. It is five-thirty and the shop closes at six. It is kind of a dick move on my part.

Earlier that same day, I was told that I have a “disarming smile.” I try to disarm him. He does not disarm.

When he gets up to my car, he says, “oil change,” and I nod in agreement, but it isn’t a question. I believe that if I had asked for anything more complicated, he would have told me to fuck off. He stands in front of my car, guiding it into the garage. After I park, I remove my keys from the ignition and a hand darts through my open window, mere inches from my face. “Keys,” says a different voice, and I hastily relinquish them. The acephalous hand requests that I wait in the waiting room (where one usually does do the waiting).

I perform my task admirably, grabbing my notebook and tucking a black pen into the crook between my upper ear and temple and leap away from the harried action already taking place beneath my car’s raised hood. The door slaps closed behind me obdurately.

When describing the waiting room, we must use the term “room” liberally. It has four walls, and although the walls did not come into contact with the ceiling, it is essentially room-like. Perhaps the phrase “waiting cell” would be more applicable. The cell is, in itself, an interesting phenomenon partly because of the pungent odor of cheap cigars that entwines itself around the entirety of the dozen square feet of the enclosure. This strikes me as odd not only because of the incongruity of the idea of someone smoking inside a building lined with oil, but because the smell does not permeate any other part of the garage. I am happy to report that I am in solitary confinement in this waiting cell. For this, I am grateful. Although I wouldn’t say I am an agoraphobe, there are not many things as distressing as perfunctory small talk in a confined space with a stranger. Five chairs are backed against the near wall, and I sit in one, and slide another in front of me where I lay down my notebook, and begin writing.

I have discovered the source of the cigar smell. It is being generated by a small air-freshener sitting astride an ancient vending machine. I now find I have more questions than I had previously: What company would manufacture an air-freshener that smells like a Swisher Sweets? Furthermore, what kind of patron opts for the “eau de cigar” over, say, Lavender Breeze, or Vanilla Heaven? Finally, in what kind of musky hell is the aroma of a spent convenience store cigar an improvement over the original stench? These questions I dare not breach for fear of the answers.

I am beginning to realize how awkward I must look — crumpled overtop of a chair, partaking in the entirely emasculating task of writing in something that looks like a diary. The two mechanics are talking to each other, and, as if I am eighteen all over again, I am struck with the sudden fear of being called a nerd; back to the days of high school and college where being caught reading a novel not assigned by a teacher could get one relegated to the ghettos of the “Unpopular Table.” Where anything that you did was scrutinized, tested, prodded, and subjected to a litmus test of “brosimilitude.” Everything must feed into that man-ethos: video games, and slightly delirious, ball-grabbingly uncouth jokes that must be told over and over and over. I hastily tuck my journal away, and go about doing something more mind-numbing and drab: I turn on the boob-tube.

The TV turns on with the satisfying pop of cathode ray tubing heating up. The picture warbles, then the noise drowns out, and gives way to sweet undiluted picture. ESPN, baby. SportsCenter. What’s up with the Phils? In-depth look at the NBA playoffs. Gridiron. Steroids. Sex, sex, sex. Who’s going to win the west? MVP candidates. Stats, scores, analysis. Cold hard facts and figures. Pasty white guys in glasses and bad suits. Women in sex-kitten, business-chic. Sex. Commercials. Beer commercials. Here comes the Silver Bullet. Areolae perk beneath painted-on wife-beaters. Who needs a woman when you have your favorite lite beer? Nutri-system. Viagra. Guy stuff. SportsCenter.

I get lost in the programming. I am so inundated with OBPs and SoGs and triple-doubles and breasts that I almost don’t hear the hood to my car shutting. My car is done, but my mind is still riding the bibulous carousel of cleavage. I open the cell door and walk through, where my friend, the pissed mechanic, is frowning at the checklist in his hands the same way a doctor might check vital charts. I know what he expects — it is something of a ritual between man and mechanic — the obligatory “once-over,” pointing out obscure and seemingly irrelevant gaskets, cogs, and other whatsits. A sign of masculinity achieved and maintained. Cars, sports, tits: the trifecta of testosterone.

I duck from the obligation, ready to get on my way back home to read a book, and write a story. I thank him and enter my car without much more than what is deemed polite, but I would not even know where to start in this charade. I drive away from the waiting cell. I drive away from the drunk man, mumbling in basso profundo, "let me be, let me be," as he nurses his aching soul, drowned by cirrhosis, aching with priapism, and lost among vainglorious virtues that are inherently empty and mindless.