Revisiting the Ten Second Rule

17 Jul

I was asked a rather interesting question the other day.  A friend of mine asked me if all novels must begin with a Big Bang to capture the attention of the readers. She was basically asking about The Ten Second Rule, my name for the fact that you have about ten seconds to convince a potential reader that your book is worth their time, so that opening paragraph better be a doozie!

But does that mean you need to start with a spectacular explosion, killing, or spine-tingling scene?

No!

A Big Bang can simply be spectacular writing, writing so good that a potential reader would be foolish to set your book back on the shelf.  “To Kill A Mockingbird” comes to mind immediately.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

There is no Big Bang with the opening paragraph in that book.  The same is true with “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale pink in the red country and white in the gray country.”

No slam-bang there either.  What we do see, in both examples, is just enough of a hint of impending doom…or impending chaos…to entice us to continue reading.  The tone is brilliantly set in each example.  We are given just enough of an appetizer that we really want to taste the main dish.

They are both brilliant in their simplicity.

So yes, the Ten Second Rule still applies, but that doesn’t mean someone has to die to accomplish it.

REMEMBERING BACK

A baseball coach I had back when I was fourteen or fifteen told me once that the most important pitch of the game was the first pitch.  I guess it was his version of the Ten Second Rule.  He counseled me to make that first pitch purposely wild, either a foot over the head of the batter or a foot behind him, just close enough to get his attention, and just wild enough to plant that seed of doubt in the batter’s mind, so he didn’t spend too much time getting comfortable with that bat in his hand.

Just something for all of you to think about.

WALK SOFTLY BUT CARRY A BIG STICK

That was my Dad’s way of approaching a day.  He was not one for grandiose gestures or statements.  He did not brag or showboat, but if push came to shove, he was a good guy to have backing you up.  He was a perfect example of low-key in tone, and he would have loved the opening paragraphs of Lee and Steinbeck.

Me, I prefer killing someone to begin my novels.

Whatever floats your boat!

Have a great day!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

 

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A Journey Through My Mind

10 Jul

I was writing this week’s “Writers’ Mailbag,” and I mentioned being curious about the saying “dog days of summer,” so I looked it up and discovered it was in reference to the Ancient Greeks and the star Sirius. Evidently Sirius can be seen in the summer in Greece, and the name Sirius means “dog star.”  The sighting of Sirius back in ancient times signaled the arrival of hot, miserable temperatures . . . thus our calling mid-summer the “dog days of summer.”

Which then got me thinking about the old 60’s band Three Dog Night, so off I went to find out the origin of that phrase . . . I was unable to find out exactly WHEN that phrase became an idiom in our language, and there is some dispute whether it originated with the Eskimos or the Aborigines, but its meaning is not disputed.  Back in the old days, before central heating, a really cold night called for desperate measures, and one such measure was to have your family dog sleep with you.  A cold night meant one dog; a very cold night meant two dogs, and an extremely bitter cold night was a three dog night.

And for those curious about such things, the lead singer of Three Dog Night was Chuck Negron, and the band hit stardom in 1967.

Speaking about summer, can you guess which Major League Baseball Team holds the record for most wins in a single season? It’s the Seattle Mariners, perennial losers and the only team in the Major Leagues to never play in a World Series.  In 2001 the Mariners won 116 games.

Oh how the Mighty have fallen!

Life really is fascinating!

Random musings on a Friday morning . . .

My mind then went back to my first dog, Sugar, when I was four. Sugar ran off, and when I was five my parents got me a little rat terrier named Pixie, and Pixie was with me for the next seventeen years, a constant companion during my formative years and yes, she slept with me many nights whether it was cold or not.

And then we jump forward forty-seven years to my next dog, Maggie May, our new puppy, and hopefully Maggie and I will grow old together.

Random thoughts for sure, but I guarantee you that some of those thoughts will eventually be in short stories or a novel down the road.

The mind of a writer . . .

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

4th of July Randomness

3 Jul

The 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July!

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . “

Lovely thoughts, eh?  I guess it’s all in your definition of what a man is.  Back when those words were written, a black man was not a man.  An “Indian” was not a man.  A woman was not a man.  A man, back then, was white and a property owner.

But lovely thoughts at least.

What about now?  If Bill Gates has a child (I actually don’t know if he does or not), is his child the equal of a child born into severe poverty in Mississippi?  Is his child the equal of a black child born in the slums of Chicago? Is his child the equal of a Native American child born on the Devils Lake Indian Reservation?

Just random thoughts . . . I certainly have no political agenda here, but a writer’s brain is always tossing these things around.  We are the observers and the chroniclers of our generation, so we need to pay attention, to question, and to surmise.

That’s what we do as writers!

Of course, if you write travel articles, I guess none of that matters, so ignore what I just wrote.

TAKING A MID-MORNING BREAK

It’s been my custom for quite some  time now to take a mid-morning break from writing . . . nothing major, just ten minutes to go out and feed the quail and chickens in our backyard.  It may not seem like much, but ten minutes is important, and I always return refreshed.

My reward for a day’s work is waiting for me out at the farm each afternoon.  Sometime between one and two each day I go out to feed the hundred or so chickens we have there, and after I do that I always lay down under some trees in the pasture and watch the clouds float by.  I spend about a half hour doing that. It’s my break period for the day, a chance to clear my mind, think of nothing in particular, and re-charge my inner batteries.  I think this is vitally important for people to do, but surprisingly few do it.  It is so easy to say we are too busy, but really that just means we don’t choose to do something beneficial for ourselves.

Well I do and I’m better for it.

Have a great week!

bill

It’s All About Perspective

26 Jun

One of the chickens is cackling up a storm right now. They do that after they lay an egg, announce to the world that a new egg has entered the scene, rejoice and be happy!

It’s kind of cute, but at the same time it can be annoying as hell.  This one chicken has been cackling, non-stop, like a record stuck in one groove, for over ten minutes, and she just left “cute” behind and is now in danger of me throwing a rock at her to shut her up.  LOL  They always seem to gain great pleasure from doing their cackling right outside my door when I’m trying to write, and that tests my patience on some days . . . like today!

Some writers are like that.  Hell, a lot of people are like that, cackling about their latest accomplishment.  It’s cute at first but after awhile it is just plain annoying. Especially on social media . . . my good Lord, Facebook is overrun at times with people who fluff up their plumage like peacocks, strutting around showing off their latest colors, crowing about their latest accomplishments, and generally being a nuisance.

My dad used to say that if you have to brag about your accomplishments you really aren’t very confident in who you are.

Of course that opens up a whole new discussion: what is bragging and what is just casual conversation? It’s natural to want to share with friends what you have done.  It’s natural to be proud of writing a new book.  So when do we leave “natural” in the rearview mirror and say hello to annoying boasting?

I know a guy who is clinically-depressed. For him, getting out of bed in the morning is a huge accomplishment, and yet he doesn’t cackle when he does it.

Random musings!

Anyway, the chicken is done cackling now, so all is well in the backyard for the time being.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Pig Manure by the Square Yard

19 Jun

It’s time for me to mention one of my all-time pet peeves . . .

Since childhood I have heard people say “you can be anything you set your mind on . . . you just have to work hard and be determined.”

What a load of pig manure that is!

It simply is not true!

Give me a couple hours and I can give you literally hundreds of examples which point out the fallacy in that statement, and I really think it is unfair to feed that garbage to people.

I can teach a person how to write the English language.  I can teach them how to write a short story. I can teach them how to write a novel.  But there are some people who will never, and I repeat never, be able to write a best-selling or critically-acclaimed novel.  They just don’t have what it takes, period, end of story!

And that’s all right!  For the love of God, it is all right.  Accepting our limitations is all part of the human experience.  We cannot all be great at all things, and that’s just the real of it. I will never be a great salesman.  My heart just isn’t in it; my introverted personality prevents me time and time again, and I’m fine with that.  Hell, folks, I will never be a great writer, and I’m fine with that.

I mention that because someone recently asked me the best way to get her articles purchased by a magazine.  Now I don’t know much about this lady; her writing is all right, as good as some, not as good as others; she writes food articles, so the field she is trying to break into is a tough and crowded field. I told her to find a unique approach to the food articles, something never done before . . . whether she does it, or can do it, is a question which will be answered, one way or another, in the coming weeks.

But if she fails in reaching her goal, it by no means indicates that she is a failure.  Very few writers actually get published in magazines.  Not all writers “make it,” and to me that is perfectly okay.  Writing should be an endeavor of the heart, first and foremost.  The passion has to be within the writer, and the primary impetus for writing, and the primary goal of writing, should be the actual process of pen meeting paper and creating something.

Anything over and above that is pure gravy!

The path to heaven is littered with some very good writers who were never published.  That’s just the real of it.  That’s why I set as a goal, somewhat facetiously, somewhat seriously, to become the “Greatest Unknown Author.”  It is enough for me, today, to be the best writer I can possibly be.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Where Have You Gone, My Bonnie Blue?

12 Jun

Where have you gone, my Bonnie Blue?

I just finished a short story.  I’ll publish it Thursday.  First one in quite some time, and it felt good.

Of course it’s dark but hey, that’s who I am much of the time when in creative mode, a seer of the dark side.

I’m actually not a dark person.  I enjoy life.  I’m not depressing to be around; some would say I’m actually enjoyable to talk to; but man alive, I can go dark when writing.

I think the things I write about are important.  I write about the shadow people, the underbelly of society, the homeless, the stained, the addicts and the drunks.  Put any label on them you want, but they are still human beings, and I guess I don’t want them forgotten.  So I pay tribute to them in my stories, in some small way telling them that someone has noticed their existence . . . someone cares that they are breathing . . . someone gives a damn for a few minutes.

And really, just between you and me, that’s all any of us really want . . . recognition and acceptance . . . and if we are really lucky, we win the jackpot, and we find love.

DETOUR

I was reading an article from a medical magazine the other day, and in it they explained that there really is such a thing as instant attraction to another person; there is some scientific explanation for it, some hormone or scent or primal whatever which is imprinted on us, and when we meet a person with a similar imprint, we are instantly attracted to that person.  I’m not sure I completely understood the scientific explanation, but I do find it reasonable and certainly interesting.  It actually explains a great deal about times in the past when I’ve been attracted to someone instantly, like I wasn’t even in control of my own mind or heart or body.

Instant attraction

What’s that got to do with creative writing?

Really?  I sure hope you didn’t ask that question.

I guarantee that information will be in a short story or novel in the not-too-distant future.

I’m not sure what you expected to gain from following this blog. I’m not sure what I expected to provide, but what you get is honesty and a sort of scatter-gun approach to teaching about the art of writing.  And hopefully you will pick up a tidbit or two which is actually valuable to you.

I feel the angst . . . I see the pain . . . I smell the fear . . . I hear the hopelessness . . . I taste the conflict . . . creative writing should be visceral.  If done correctly, your readers will break out in sweat, break out in song, check dark corners for the unspeakable, and remember, with a smile, long-forgotten feelings of the warm and fuzzy.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

No Plan, No Clue, No Worries

5 Jun

I rarely have a plan in life.

I’m being dead serious.

I have friends who have planned a great percentage of their lives. They knew in college what they wanted to do. They planned on two children.  They planned on retiring early and even planned on the amount of savings they would have when they retired.

Me?  No clue!  No plan at all.  I’m like the steel ball in a pinball machine, just rolling around waiting to be hit by the next flipper.  And the funny thing is, it works for me. I’m six months shy of seventy and I have no complaints at all about how it all worked out.

Now part of that equation is trusting in my abilities.  I know I will be fine no matter what comes round the bend, and I have to credit my parents for giving me that confidence.  A part of it is borderline fatalistic.  I know that shit happens when you least expect it.  All the planning in the world won’t stop a tornado from leveling your home, or a heart attack from stealing away a loved one.  What’s the old joke?  Do you want to make God laugh?  Tell Him your plans!  That’s pretty much my outlook on life.  I handle today, today.  I’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.  It works for me and that’s all that matters.

Now I mention all that because my writing technique mirrors my outlook on life.  I don’t plan stories. I don’t plan novels.  Most of my work, and there has been quite a bit of it, starts with a writing exercise . . . I was walking down a city street late at night . . . what did I see . . . and the story takes shape as I continue with that prompt. I do not outline. I rarely, if ever, know how a novel will end when I begin it.

I trust in my abilities and I trust in my muse.

Would my technique work for others?  Maybe, maybe not, but it works for me, and that’s all that’s important for this writer.

I will leave you with that thought. There is no “one size fits all” approach to life, or writing. In the final analysis, you have to do what feels right for you. I have known great writers who break grammar rules on a regular basis. I have known people who follow the beat of a drum most of us will never hear.  It works for them, an d that’s all that matters.

Have a brilliantly original day!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Where the Hell Did My Life Go To?

29 May

I am drowning in an abundance of riches.

I know of no other way to describe my life right now.

It seems like that would be a good thing, right?  But I’m actually being serious. I’m so busy doing the things I love to do that I don’t have time to sit back and just enjoy them. I’m too damned tired to smell the roses.

I’ve always been like this. I go balls out when I find something I enjoy.  I remind myself of a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere, all bright light and burning embers, only to fall to the Earth as little chunks of spent chemicals.  Something in my genetic makeup that makes me do this, and all the logic in the world doesn’t change it.

I’m easily twice as busy today as when I semi-retired eight years ago.  In truth, I can’t imagine what retirement looks like. It doesn’t register with me, like a foreign concept which will forever be too complicated for me to grasp.

But right now I have definitely overdone it!  I need to cut back a bit, and just writing those words fills me with dread.  What do I cut back on? Do I spend less time with the birds? I love raising them.

Do I spend less time with our puppy Maggie?  No chance!

Do I spend less time with the farmers market duties?  But I love that part of my life.

Do I spend less time writing?  I would rather cut off my arm!

See?  A dilemma for sure!

I’ll figure it out.  I always do.  A natural balance will, eventually, happen, if I’m willing to just get out of my own way and allow it to happen.

I’m sure it’s just me, right? We always think we are unique in our problems, in our thoughts, in life in general, so I’m sure none of you have had a similar experience.  Lol  So don’t mind me while I voice my thoughts to the random universe.

SPEAKING OF RANDOM

Did you grow up thinking you were going to change the world? I did!

How’s that working out for you?

Truthfully we all affect our immediate environment/universe, don’t we?  Our very existence causes a ripple effect which touches countless others, so thinking we are going to change the world is, in fact, a cinch!

But if you want to throw a monkey-wrench into the situation, add the words “positively or negatively” to that question . . . are you changing the world positively or negatively?

Just something to think about . . . have a stupendous day!

Stupendous does not sound like the word it is, does it? Sounds too much like stupid . . . sigh!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Risk? What Risk?

22 May

“Hey, Bill, there are a couple roofing tiles about to fall off the garage roof.  Any idea how that happened?”

I had a real good idea how it happened. I had kicked them loose while jumping off the garage roof, something I was forbidden to do.  I knew it, and my dad, who had asked the question, knew it.  The only question remaining was this: do I tell the truth, and risk punishment, or do I try to b.s. my way through it, and risk worse punishment?

I knew I shouldn’t do it.  Hell, I’d been punished for doing it in the past.  But it was so much fun, climbing up on the roof and then jumping over to the neighbor’s yard, pretending to be Superman chasing the bad guys.  It just seemed, at the time, to be worth the consequences.  Facing my dad’s question, and his stern look, I was beginning to question my choice.

Grounded for a week . . . not bad . . .  could have been worse . . . could have been much worse . . .

I’ve always been that way.  Risk is usually pushed aside in favor of the experience.  It probably explains why I’ve had so many jobs.  Sure, it would have been nice to work at the same place for forty years and collect a great retirement, but at the same time it would have been dull as hell.

It also explains why I’m a writer today.  The safe bet would have been to remain a teacher until retirement, but eight years ago I laughed at the same bet and declared to all the world that I was a freelance writer, hear me roar!!!

And it all worked out, and one reason why it did work out is because I trust in my abilities.

I’m not sure what the central message of this post is. There are several, actually.  Maybe you’ll find one which speaks to you.  In the meantime, I have more roofs to jump off of.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Giving Thanks for My Parents

15 May

No talent there . . . or is there?

I’m adopted!  Many of you knew that already, but for the sake of this post I needed to repeat it here and now.  I’ve never known who my biological parents were.  I was adopted out of the foster system when I was nine months old and that was that.

About a year ago I did that DNA testing thing with Ancestry.com.  I wasn’t really looking for a connection to my biological family, but I was curious about medical history since I’m rapidly approaching seventy and, well, you know.

For the next few months I heard from people who might have been fourth and fifth cousins, so far removed from reality that I couldn’t get excited about it. Time passed and so did my interest in the process.

Then one day I heard from a woman named Rose and according to Ancestry.com we are first cousins.

Now we’re getting somewhere!  First cousins . . . that’s close enough for some serious information.

Emails ensued and information was finally discovered.  My biological mother’s first name was Dollie, and she lived in the Brinnon/Shelton area of Washington State, about twenty miles from where I sit right now typing out these words.

Dollie gave birth to me in 1948.  She was twenty at the time. I was declared legally blind by the family physician, and for whatever reason I was placed in the foster system, where I remained until nine months when my adopted parents, Dale and Evelyn Holland of Tacoma, adopted a blind kid and gave him love.

Dollie died in 1968 at the age of forty from acute liver disease.  You can probably read between the lines and surmise that Dollie was a heavy drinker.  I had an older brother who was in and out of prison.  I had a younger brother who died in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty.  Not much is known of my biological father, and I had a sister who seems to have slipped between the cracks of time.

It appears my biological family was a troubled group which was chased by tragedy.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a loving household and was given every opportunity to thrive.

As a footnote, I gained sight three weeks after being adopted.  The legally-blind kid saw for the first time, and what he saw were the faces of two people who loved him.  Can you imagine adopting a special-needs kid back in 1948?  Yep, some special kind of love right there.

REFLECTIONS

I don’t know how I feel about my biological family.  I’m sorry their lives were so turbulent.  I’m grateful as hell that Dollie chose to put me up for adoption.  It was the right decision for me and that’s for damned sure, and I hope it was the right decision for her.  I certainly have no negative feelings about my biological mother. She did what she felt she needed to do, for whatever reason.  The end result was me, here, now, typing away in the midst of a life I love.

The winds of fate!

I haven’t sorted it all out yet, but I do know this is a missing piece to the mystery of who I am today.  Someone once asked how it is I write so easily, and so realistically, about the dark side of human nature.  Perhaps that dark side is part of my DNA.  Perhaps I was saved a dark outcome by a simple wind of fate.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”