The Red Pen of Doom takes on GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

go set a watchman

To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic novel that turned into an amazing film.

So when news broke that Harper Lee, who never published another novel, was coming out with a book-like object, and this book-like object would be a sequel to her big hit—well, that was huge.

It was also controversial, with sources saying Harper Lee never intended this to get published, that it was a draft, with the same characters later showing up in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

So here’s the first page, as printed on dead trees, and I allowed the last paragraph to actually finish instead of ending mid-sentence with “folding herself up” and such.

For previous posts bleeding red all over the first page of a novel, click away with your mousity mouse while enjoying some chocolate mousse:

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

GO SET A WATCHMAN

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched (We already know she’s looking and watching, so these words get slain.) The last of Georgia’s hills receded and the red earth appeared, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw (Looked, watched and saw all in the first paragraph, three shining beacons of bad writing, so let’s kill the last two.) her at the first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. (Now we go back in time for backstory, which is Boring and must die.) For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. (This would have been good in the present tense, as an exciting start to the novel: “So I’m flying through this tornado, wishing I’d taken the train.” Nope.) For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair. (More exposition and backstory without the barest hint of conflict.)

She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. (Nice imagery in the last line.) She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment – a roomette, they called it – but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to PULL THIS LEVER DOWN OVER BRACKETS, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.

End of Page 1

Notes from The Red Pen of Doom:

You don’t need Michael Bay explosions on every page, especially when we’re talking about lit-rah-sure.

But you do need problems. Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at them and let them find a way down. 

Jean Louise Finch (Scout) doesn’t get up a tree on this page one. There are no rocks aimed at her head, no suspense or trouble at all, unless you count the porter possibly walking in on Scout wearing only her pajama tops, though that sort of situation belongs more in a book with Fabio on the cover. 

This page one is all description, exposition and backstory.

Later in the book, we learn our heroine is traveling by train to meet the man she’s being pushed into marrying. That’s a real conflict. Why not foreshadow that?

Put her back on a plane instead of the comfortable train, and give us that tornado again, with a first line about Scout gripping the arms of her chair as the pilot headed insanely through the edge of a tornado and she headed insanely back home to a marriage she didn’t want.

Give us something. Anything. 

Because I’m feeling kind, I didn’t get into the brutal reviews of this novel, ones by people who pay the mortgage by reading and reviewing book-like objects of all sorts, or the whole controversial shebang about changing Atticus Finch from an iconic hero into a villain who’s sympathetic to the KKK.

I’m simply going after the first page, and the only job of a page one page is to make readers turn to page two, then page three and finally page 288 or even, if it’s a Stephen King doorstopper, page 1,104.

This first page fails at that job. I have no interest in hearing more about the interior décor of this train, no desire to see more of the scenery flashing by and no hope that this story will get any more interesting as it chugs along.

Verdict: Put it to rest, gently, far from the spot of honor on the library shelf for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Why MAKE ME by Lee Child gets graded on a curve

MAKE ME by Lee Child

I can’t count how many hardcover Reacher novels line the top shelf of my library. Lee Child is that good.

MAKE ME is his latest novel about Reacher, and it’s also good.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

Once again, our hero is (a) wandering the small towns of America only to (b) bump into a beautiful girl with a gun who (c) is investigating Some Crazy Problem Involving This Small Town.

This is also the plot of about 17 other Reacher novels.

The towns change. The nature of the evil plot changes. The women change.

Reacher never does

Lee Child is one of my favorite authors, the greatest living thriller writer, and Reacher is a great character. The brain of Sherlock Holmes shoved into the body of the Hulk, funny, smart and tough. A great hero.

HOWEVER: Child isn’t stretching a single writing muscle here. Don’t think he even had to warm up.

It’s as if the devil snuck into his bedroom late one night and said, “If I promise you riches and fame, the price being you have to write the same book every year—year after year, until you die—do we have a deal?”

If we’re grading Child against other thriller authors, he gets an A.

But we’re not. There’s a huge body of work, that top shelf full of Reacher novels already written. MAKE ME sits among them.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

There is proof that Lee Child can blow expectations out of the water, when he does feel like stretching those writing muscles.

One of the few first-person POV novels he did, THE ENEMY, slayed me with clever clues, revelations and twists. I’ve read it again and again. A great mystery, and the only novel featuring Reacher in the Army.

That’s not a coincidence.

No such thing.

I hope the next novel picks up the mold in Reacher’s big, strong hands and smashes it against the asphalt. That it doesn’t feature a beautiful girl with a gun and a badge who teams up with Reacher, sleeps with him, takes down the bad guys and disappears, like all the others.

I hope the villain is memorable and, for once, a match for the hero. I hope Reacher has to truly suffer, sacrifice and change to actually win.

I hope.

Verdict: MAKE ME gets four out of five folding toothbrushes.

Related posts:

Put your writing to the Screen Time Test

writing meme spiderman dear diary

While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.

This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)

So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.

I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”

And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.

The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.

Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.

MOBY DICK

by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

Verdict:

The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Let’s say it: Lee Child has a Superman problem.

His hero, Reacher, is beloved by fans for having the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the body of Conan the Barbarian. The man never gets outsmarted and is invincible in a fight. Here’s the last post about these books: Secret recipe for any Lee Child novel

The latest Reacher book, NEVER GO BACK, slams smack-dab into the Superman problem. Because an invincible hero puts the B in Boring.

Did I enjoy the book? Yeah, it’s always fun to read about Reacher. With every new novel, though, Reacher struggles less and less to overcome the bad guys.

If the hero doesn’t sweat, the reader doesn’t worry. Or care.

Because I do care about Reacher and Lee Child, here are six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK.

Lee Child's NEVER GO BACK is something you should read. Do it now.
Lee Child’s NEVER GO BACK. Buy two copies, one of each cover, because I say so.

1) Don’t simply remake THE ENEMY

The only other novel with Reacher in the Army was Child’s best book: THE ENEMY, a true mystery with all kinds of crazy twists and turns and a real sense of menace. Just like that book, the latest novel has big-shots in the Pentagon and such as the criminal masterminds, using other officers as their puppets.

That book was first-person and visceral. It put you in the head of Reacher and made you feel what he felt, see what he saw. I’ve happily read that book seven bazillion times.

NEVER GO BACK starts out feeling like that book, with the full force of the Pentagon and Homeland Security poised to squash Reacher … until he escapes them, easily and repeatedly.

THE ENEMY was amazing, and the ending isn’t a clear win. Reacher is demoted and leaves the service. This latest novel doesn’t hold a candle to that classic.  Which proves that yeah, you should never go back.

2) Give Reacher a real daughter, not a fake one

What are the odds that the bad guys randomly picked a fake daughter for Reacher who looks like him, thinks like him and even talks like him?

I’ll tell you the odds: zero.

The fake daughter is an achy breaky big mistakey. It feels like Child planned on making the daughter real up to the end of the book, then decided nope, Reacher can’t have a teenage daughter, because that would tie him down in future books. So he turned her into a ruse.

If you’re gonna do it, do it.

3) One-sided beatings aren’t really fights

Fight scenes are a Reacher staple. A novel without Reacher getting blood on his elbows would be like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie without him doing the side splits and kicking a single guy in the face.

However: there’s a big difference between a fight and a beating. Every fight in NEVER GO BACK is a cake walk for Reacher, who doesn’t even break a sweat when he takes out two angry rednecks with both hands behind his back.

Give us a real fight. Let’s be realistic and let the bad guys land a punch for once.

This leads to Number 4.

4) Tough guy villains better be tough

In this book, there’s one thug we keep getting told is a giant muscle-freak with weird ears. A monster who looks like a match for Reacher.

So for hundreds of pages, you keep expecting the final battle between these two men to be epic. I was getting the popcorn out.

The fight between Reacher and this incredible hulk was over in about two seconds. Boring, and a huge let-down. Come on. That’s like showing us Darth Vader on screen for 90 minutes and Luke training with Yoda for 20 minutes only to have the two meet for the Greatest Lightsaber Battle of All Time … and have Luke cut Darth Daddy in half within two seconds. No.

The badder the bad guy, the longer the fight should last. Redneck idiots can get dispatched in a paragraph. Medium baddies should take a chapter. The boss villain should take a couple of chapters.

When every villain, big or small, goes down without Reacher chipping a nail, or doing anything at all (see Number 6),  it’s not exciting.

5) The Girl with a Gun has to be some kind of Challenge

It’s totally fine for Reacher to swim in a sea of attractive women, just like 007.

What’s not fine is for the Girl with the Gun to fall in love with Reacher in about two micro-seconds and be like a loyal puppy dog for 300 pages. THE ENEMY had a good love interest, with a conflict: he was an officer, and her commanding officer, and she was a sergeant. There was risk, and you got a real feel for the sergeant with them doing the investigation a long time before falling in the sack. It was credible and interesting.

A perfect woman who falls in love with Reacher instantly and never really does anything, well, she’s cardboard and snooze city.

6) Finish with a bang

So the bad guys are two high-powered dudes with insane connections, the ability to track Reacher in real-time, a lust for power and a network of thugs. It’s suicide for Reacher to go after them, right? They have the full reach of the Pentagon and Homeland Security to smack him like a fly.

Yet the final confrontation … never happens. Because the bad guys shoot themselves in the head.

What?

Maybe I’m nuts, but I believe, deep in my Swedish soul, that the end of a novel or movie should be more exciting than the beginning. The beginning was exciting. This ending wasn’t even as suspenseful as six random rednecks surrounding Reacher in the motel.

If you set up Reacher as some kind of invincible Superman, the bad guys can’t be cream puffs who fold at the end. To make it interesting, you have to make the villains even tougher than Reacher.

That hasn’t happened yet. Not even close.

I hope someday it will. Because that would be an amazing book.

I threw it on the ground — why people stop reading books

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Like you, dear reader, I devour books. I eat them for breakfast, munch on them for lunch and blast through an endless buffet of books in bed, waiting for the Sandman — because books, they are THE BEST.

However: there are books, even famous best-sellers and literary masterpieces that eager graduate students dissect for their dissertations, that are simply unreadable. You start them, you want to be blown away by them and instead, you toss them through the air to test their aerodynamics.

Goodreads asked their peoples about books they started, and wanted to love, but simply couldn’t finish.

Some books at the top of their Couldn’t Finish List include:

  • FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which is complete trash, and not in a good way. Here’s my take on the first page of that stinker: The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, written by a fellow Swede, and I wanted to love this book, I really did, but couldn’t get past page 30-whatever. 
  • ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand, who couldn’t write her way out of a wet paper bag if you handed her a sharpened pencil. I took a red pen to the first page of her most famous book here: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  • CATCH-22, which I’ve read a zillion times and love. Maybe I’m crazy.
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS, an immense and dense tome that I started to read and despite being (a) on a beach in Maui and (b) chock full of mai tai’s, I couldn’t (c) get past the 60-page introduction to the prologue or whatever because it was massive amounts of academic text lecturing me about the sociology of hobbits and elves, with no story whatsoever, and it put the B in Boring.

So I agree with Goodreads about throwing most of these books on the ground.

Here’s the story with all kinds of comments.

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

The kitteh is surprised

Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.

Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.

Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.

What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.

The kitteh is surprised
Surprise Kitteh is surprised.

This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)

The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.

How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.

Ways to make your audience curious

Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.

WHAT happened? (mystery)

Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.

  • Who really killed JFK?
  • Did aliens really land at Area 51?
  • What caused the Great Depression?

WHY did it happen? (whydunit)

This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.

How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?

Debates about the present are value choices.

Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.

What WILL happen? (thriller)

  • Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
  • What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
  • Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?

WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)

  • Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
  • Why is Tommy Lee Jones in some movie with Meryl Streep about lovey-dovey nonsense?
  • What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)

What should you do about the FUTURE?

Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.

  • As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
  • Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
  • Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?

Ways to surprise your audience

It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.

Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).

Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.

A good surprise must reveal something:

  • a secret you hinted at before
  • how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
  • how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)

Stretch your editing muscles

Proofing for boo-boos is easy. Line editing is tougher.

Structural editing is the toughest.

So let’s play around with a little flash fiction from Joey’s contest and see what we can do, first with a standard edit job, then with a different kind of big-picture spitballing.

Original flash fiction entry by Mayumi – 196 words

Stone stairs and the blood of Landstanders foolish enough to raise arms against him disappear beneath Fin’s boots, as every step takes him closer to the top of this tall, windowed tower, and to the girl trapped within.

“Wavewalker!” a guard warns, but he’s silenced by metal tines already streaked red; it’s the same for his partner beside. And up Fin runs, never stopping. His muscles ache, his lungs burn, but the door is just ahead, and suddenly he’s crying her name as his spear splinters the heavy wood:

“Cauda!”

He’s barely broken through when she rushes up, arms thrown around him. And though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifts to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim. “You came.”

Time is short – more Landstanders are surely already racing to reclaim their princess prize – but still he cups her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kisses her, for fear it will be the last thing he ever does.

He draws back at the taste of tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispers.

The spear creaks in his fist. “There’s always a way.”

# # #

Comments:

Of all the entries, this one had the most action, which is probably why I liked it. Other stories mostly hinted at action to come, or actions in the past.

Edits: switched to past tense instead of present, fixed various things.

Edited version – 178 words

Blood on the stone stairs disappeared beneath Fin’s boots, every step taking him closer to the top of the tower and the girl trapped within.

A guard’s shout was cut off by a blade already streaked with red. And up Fin ran, never stopping. His muscles ached, his lungs burned, but the door was just ahead, and he cried her name as he spear splintered the heavy wood.

“Cauda!”

He’d barely broken through when she rushed to throw her arms around him. Though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifted to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim.

“You came,” she said.

Time was short – more soldiers were surely racing to reclaim their princess prize – but he cupped her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kissed her despite the fear it would be the last thing he ever did.

Fin drew back at the taste of her tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispered.

The spear creaked in his fist.

“There is always a way.”

# # #

So, a typical editing job. Nothing fancy.

I’m more interested in the guts of a piece — short story or stump speech, HBO series or Hollywood blockbuster. What’s the structure, the setups and payoffs? How do things change?

So here’s another flash fiction entry. No line editing here. Let’s look at the bones and spitball some options.

# # #

I’ll never forgot that old, mossy stone porch. Johnny and I used to lie there after the dances, enjoying the smooth coldness of the stone against our sweaty skin, and talk about what we would do with a building like this if it were our home.

“First off,” he would say, “I’d kick all these damned people out!”

He used to love to make me laugh. I thought I couldn’t live without him. We were both 17, and it seemed like the perfect life lay before us. Everything in the world was perfect, if only for a moment.

That, was of course, before the booze took hold of him.

It’s hard to believe, only a few short years later, here I stand looking at that porch, with its glorious white columns, standing tall and proud, with the fadings of Johnny’s fists on my face. Oh how life changes so cruelly.

He will wake up soon, in the E.R., and wonder how he got there. He will yell and call out my name. The nurses will not know that “Jenny” means Jessica, because they will not know that in his drunken confusion he often mistakes his mistress for his wife.

# # #

Nice. I like it. There is a difference between the beginning (Love Story by Taylor Swift) and the end (Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks).

How can we pump up the story without adding Michael Bay explosions, robots fighting and Megan Fox randomly running around in short-shorts?

Most of this piece is either remembering the past or predicting the future. So my first crazy idea is to make it all present tense, because there’s instantly more tension if it’s all happening now.

Let’s strip away the pretty words and look at the bones. Boil it all the way down. Right now, the original gets down to something like, “Wife plans revenge on cheaty McCheater.”

How can we change the structure to something happening now, and make it so memorable that it gets down to a sentence that makes your jaw drop. So, let’s spitball here. (Note: theese are not the words, but story / structure / outline.)

# # #

Jessica loves Johnny SOOOO much that she wants to marry him. They’re on a picnic at this amazing stone tower. It’s romantic, and yeah, she actually bought him a gold band and might ask him tonight, if it feels right. It’s a modern world. She wants to be married, and to him. And he seems super polite and nervous today, like he maybe is thinking the same thing. Her entire life could change tonight. It’s beautiful and perfect.

She’s decided to ask him. Why not? But he beats her to the punch. “Jessica, can we talk about us?”

She says, sort of quietly, “I’d like us to be forever.” But he’s starts talking about some new job, in some other city, and some girl named Jenny who he sort of slept with.

So when he stands up to awkwardly hug her goodbye, she sort of pushes him off the tower.

# # #

Now that can boil down to “You would not BELIEVE what happened last night” headline: Woman pushes cheating lover to his doom — on night she hoped to get engaged

Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.

As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote  5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.

Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.

The technique of journalism writing.

HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”

As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.

The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”

Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.

However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ’em.

It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.

Here, I’ll give you proof.

Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say  500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?

A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.

One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.

I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”

If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”

Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.

Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet

Special to The Vidette

by Guy Bergstrom

 

MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.

The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.

“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.

“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”

Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.

“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.

They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.

Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.

The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.

The search

To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.

He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.

“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”

He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.

Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?

To the top again

Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.

He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.

Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.

Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.

The cave

Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.

Near the top, he heard faint howling.

“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”

Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?

At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.

He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.

To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.

After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.

Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.

“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”

No help

Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.

“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”

After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.

At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.

Stranded dogs? Not a priority.

Lost hope

Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.

She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.

Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.

“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”

A daring plan

Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.

“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.

Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.

They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.

Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.

On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.

“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.

Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.

Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.

Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.

The Silver Panther Rescue Team

At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.

This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?

On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”

Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.

Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.

“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”

The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.

They kept driving.

All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.

As they reached the top, the sun showed up.

Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.

Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.

They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.

And then they started climbing.

Do or die

There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.

Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.

Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.

After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.

“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”

Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.

They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.

Home

“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”

After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.

“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”

Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.

Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.

Epilogue

Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.

Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.

“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.

Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.

“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.

“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

FREEDOM

By Jonathan Franzen

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill did were not so loyal to their city as not to (if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long, and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty trouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads) It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds) Early on, Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzle drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)

(end of page 1)

Time Magazine - Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.

I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.

Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.

Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.

Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.

As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.

The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.

It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.

Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.

Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.