Saturday, February 27, 2010

The thing about writing rules

is that they're made to be broken. No set of rules that works for one writer will work perfectly for another. Most writers will break their own rules when it feels right.

I've been thinking about this topic a lot since I read the Guardian piece I mentioned in my blog the other day. What has lingered most with me is a contradictory pair of feelings: Just about everything every writer said is worth considering, and just about everything every writer said is worth ignoring. More the former than the latter, but still, both apply.

For example, Elmore Leonard warned against adverbs and opening with weather, both solid pieces of advice. Consider, though, this beginning to a novel:

"The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary."
and this one, from a later book by the same author:
"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town."
Both open with weather. The first uses an adverb. Despite, that, both are gorgeous, and I'd read this author all day.

Of course, I do read this author every chance I get: these are the words of James Lee Burke, who for my money is one of the most amazing writers and stylists working in English today. The first is the opening line of The Neon Rain, the book in which Burke introduced Dave Robicheaux. The second is from a later Robicheaux novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

In the interest of fairness to Elmore Leonard (who, I must note, is an amazing writer who knows more about writing than I ever will), I have cheated a bit here. He specifically said not to go on too long with weather, and he also said there are exceptions. Burke wove action into the first line of Neon Rain, and a great bit of business occurs in the third line of Electric Mist. Burke is also clearly an exception.

Still, my main point remains true: Each of us should consider all of these rules and then choose the ones that make sense to us.

Except, of course, the one about writing, putting butt in chair. That one, we should all follow.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Yes, you do

You need to hear this song right now. Who am I to stop you?

There. That's better.

Crazy Heart

A group of us saw this movie last Saturday night, and the reactions were decidedly mixed. No one hated it, but feelings ranged from "meh," to "I didn't believe the redemption," to "I quite liked it." I was the one with the last reaction; I very much enjoyed it. Since the film ended, I've been thinking about why the reactions were so mixed and, in many ways, so muted.

One factor has to be the plot, which we've all seen many times. It was also a great deal in basic shape--but not conclusion--like last year's The Wrestler, another film about a broken-down man who gets a shot at redemption.

Another factor is the sheer discomfort the film makes you feel. Watching an alcoholic destroy himself and put innocents at risk is generally not a pleasant experience.

At the same time, the movie entices you with its music, its cast, and most of all, Jeff Bridges. The songs are country blues, and they're strong tunes. The cast members all deliver the goods. Maggie Gyllenhaal was charming, sexy, smart, and yet damaged enough to make her character and her actions believable. Colin Farrell was, to my surprise, absolutely wonderful in his role as the former sideman who'd made it big. The always great Robert Duvall did his usual wonderful job with a small part.

Jeff Bridges, though, was the star and the main reason to watch and everything you've read that he was. He deserves every award he's won for this performance, and if he doesn't take home an Oscar, the Academy has gone blind and dumb. He vanished into the role, as he so often does, but this time the character was on the screen almost every shot and so strong a personality that a single misstep would have looked as out of place as a porn film at a prayer meeting.

I definitely recommend this film. If you go just to see Bridges, fine; that's reason enough. I feel, though, that there's a lot more waiting for you than that.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sarah and Scott rule

Today brought some always welcome strangeness and humor courtesy of my kids. I thought some of you might be able to use a little of both, so with their permission I'm going to share these little moments with you.


The phone rang as I was heading down to yoga. Here's how the conversation went:

Sarah: I probably should have learned this somewhere in life, but I haven't, so I need to ask you.

me: Okay.

Sarah: If cream cheese is so runny that it's practically liquid, and if it tastes really terrible when you take a bite of it on a bagel, do you think it's bad?

me: (after choking back laughter) Yes.

Sarah: Drat!

me: How much did you eat?

Sarah: Only a bite.

me: Then you're probably fine.

Sarah: Right! Time to get some crackers!

We said our good-byes then. Sarah left in pursuit of something for morning nourishment (which, I learned later from her she never found). I headed down to yoga class.


It snowed this morning, not so much that it stuck on the streets but enough to cover some grass and to look lovely in the air. The day began cold and stayed that way for all but a little bit of the afternoon.

So, of course, Scott chose shorts and a Hawaiian shirt to greet the day.

The pimp hat was a gift from Sarah.

From the look on Scott's face, I don't think he expected Rana to snap this picture--but with deep reservations he agreed to let me post it.

Scott, like Kyle, clearly has a pimpin' style.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Many sets of rules for writing

This past Saturday, The Guardian ran a very interesting and already much discussed article, "Ten rules for writing fiction." Enough folks have mentioned it to me that I'm going to give my take on it.

First, it's a fun read, at least if you're interested in writing. The article quotes many different writers, so no matter what kind of fiction you like, there's probably someone here whose work you read and enjoy.

It's also a useful read, provided you enter it with the goal of seeing how other writers think, not with the idea of gaining your own writing rule book. You should see what resonates with you, and ignore the rest. The rules are not consistent across all these writers, nor should you expect them to be. This is not a single advice tome; it is a sampling of the wisdom of many people.

That said, one rule appears in almost every list, and you should follow it: Write. Work at the job. Put ass in chair and fingers on keyboard (or hands around pen or pencil), then write. Write.

Of course, I would amend that rule as follows: If you can possibly stop yourself from writing, do so. The world is full of fine and noble activities. If, however, you must write, then do so, and let nothing stop you. Write, finish what you write, and move to the next piece.

It is no surprise that so many of these successful writers offer variants on these statements. After all, if they had not written, finished what they were writing, and then written again, you would not know of them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Man vs. animals

Our house sits on about four acres. The bulk of the land is in a broad strip behind us, where the woods starts only five yards or so past the edge of the lower rear deck. Because we're close to the woods, critters wander by from time to time.

The other day, one of our visitors, a raccoon, decided to start dining at one of the bird feeders hanging off a deck post. The raccoon had been doing this for a while before I saw him, so it was cocky and set in its ways and didn't dash into the woods until I stepped onto the deck.

You can buy solutions for this sort of problem. You can put out humane traps. You can shoot the animal. You can buy concoctions, such as coyote urine, to spread over the ground where the animal enters the deck. The idea behind this last approach is that the animal will smell a larger predator and stay away.

Or, you can handle it yourself. That's the approach I favor, because it's both simple and it's fun. Here's what you do:

1) Eat a lot of meat, preferably red meat.
2) Drink a lot, preferably something nasty like Diet Coke.
3) Wait until you really have to pee.
4) Go pee around the perimeter of the entry area.
You. The coyote. Close enough.

I've used this strategy many times successfully in the past. I've even done it for friends; I'm a helper.

(Yes, the friends requested it. What kind of person do you think I am? Okay, most of the time they requested it. Anyway....)

So, the other night I ate a bunch of red meat, drank a ton of water and a can of Diet Coke with Lime (I wondered if the citrus flavoring would affect the results; hey, I am a scientist as well as a writer), and waited.

When I couldn't wait any longer, I made my way down the two short sets of steps of our multi-level rear deck, looking downward and left and right frequently in case the raccoon was out there, and reached the end of the deck. I unzipped, prepared to pee, looked up...

...and found myself less than six feet away from deer.

I stared at the deer.

It stared at me.

In the short time it took me to evaluate the pros and cons of peeing on the deer, it clearly read my mind and raced off.

I concluded my mission and then wondered for a few days if I should write about this little adventure. All my better nature argued against it, but of course my strange side won.

Thank goodness it was a deer and not an angry raccoon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A one-question quiz

When you see this description on the menu

Double Dog Wrap
Two all beef hot dogs, chili, slaw, and
cheddar grilled in a flour tortilla
do you
(A) declare it the most disgusting dinner option you've seen in a long while
(B) wonder aloud about whether they grill the hot dogs first, the whole thing, or both
(C) consider how many days of your life you'd be sacrificing if you ate it
(D) order it with great glee
(E) all of the above
My answer: (E), of course!

Which, as you might expect, is why I found myself staring at this dish on Saturday night and wondering what I had gotten myself into. Though the photo is a bit dark (I forgot BlogCam and had to rely on my iPhone), I think it will give you at least a hint of the weirdness that was the Double Dog Wrap. The hot dogs themselves were huge and so firm they were more like kielbasa than classic tube steaks. The tortilla was indeed grilled. The vast mess on the inside combined all the key ingredients in a kind of chunky brown semi-liquid substance that you don't want to think about or stare at for long.

The overall flavor combo, though, was pretty good. It wasn't great, but it was a fun, filling, and tasty meal.

In case you're wondering, you can find this mess at The Diner on Glenwood South in Raleigh. The food there was generally okay but no better, so I can recommend the place only if you're up after two a.m. and really need greasy food--or if you just have to try this strange concoction.

As I did.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

UFC 110: How we did

Ouch! We called several fights wrong this time. So you can see the error of our ways, let me dive right into it, starting, as usual, with the undercard.

James Te Huna vs. Igor Pokrajac

We picked called Te Huna, and he indeed was the victor. They didn't broadcast this one, so I can't comment much on how it went, but Te Huna won by a TKO in the third, which is consistent with both of our predictions.

CB Dollaway vs. Goran Reljic

This was another fight they didn't broadcast, which may have been for the best, because it was our first error. Dolloway won a unanimous decision over Reljic.

Chris Lytle vs. Brian Foster

We didn't do any better in this fight, as Chris Lytle defeated Brian Foster via, of all things, a knee-bar submission in the first round. Like many people, I keep forgetting that Lytle is a BJJ black belt. Foster was winning this one, but he left his leg in easy grabbing range for Lytle, and Lytle capitalized on the error. The knee-bar was brutal, and Foster spent a lot of time on the ground in pain. I hope his knee recovers.

Stephan Bonnar vs. Krzysztof Soszynski

Finally, we got back on track in this fight, in which Soszynski beat Bonnar by TKO in the third. That said, what finally stopped Bonnar was not that he was losing, which I think he was, but instead a doctor's stoppage due to a cut from an accidental head-butt. The ref said the cut was from a punch, but the replay clearly showed it was an accidental clash of their heads. Had it gone to a decision, though, Soszynski still should have won.

So, at the end of the four-fight undercard, we were 2-2. Not very impressive. We had to hope that the main card would improve our percentages.

Mirko Cro Cop vs. Anthony Perosh

You have to feel bad for Perosh, who took this fight on short notice--and even turned out to have somewhat mixed feelings about it, because his parents are Croatian. Yes, he lost, via TKO at the end of the second, when the doctor wouldn't let the fight continue, but he gave it his all. He was just never in the fight. I would like to have seen Cro Cop against a serious fighter. I would also have liked to have seen Cro Cop throw more kicks; he used them rarely in this bout.

Keith Jardine vs. Ryan Bader

We were also right on this one, as Bader maintained his undefeated streak. What we didn't get correct was the way Bader would win: a knockout in the third. I had expected this to be a boring fight, but it wasn't, as the fighters traded punches and Jardine managed to stuff most of Bader's take-down attempts. In the end, though, Bader pegged Jardine and finished him.

Joe Stevenson vs. George Sotiropoulos

Just as I was feeling good about our main card chances, along came this fight. Sotiropoulos dominated Stevenson, who was game but always trailing, and won a unanimous decision. On the ground, Sotiropoulos put on a BJJ clinic and just out-classed Stevenson. Sotiropoulos was also more precise striking. I was very impressed by his performance.

We're now 2-1 on main card, and 4-3 overall.

Wanderlei Silva vs. Michael Bisping

Silva didn't knock-out Bisping, but he did win a decision in a very close fight. Silva was more controlled and precise than I've ever seen him. Though I don't think he has any chance of hanging with that other Silva, the champ, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei definitely earned the right to keep fighting.

And, he also made us 3-1 on the main card, 5-3 overall, and left me feeling good about how we would end the show.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Cain Velasquez

So much for that feeling. Either Cain Velasquez is for real, or Big Nog has taken one too many punches. Regardless of the reason, Velasquez out-struck Nogueira, looked consistently better for the short time the fight lasted, and then knocked out Big Nog early in the first round. Wow. With Lesnar, Mir, Carwin, and Dos Santos, to name but four stand-outs, all as possible opponents, Velasquez's next attempt to climb the heavyweight ladder won't be easy, but it should be entertaining.

We ended the evening with five correct choices and four errors, definitely not one of our best performances--but slightly better than a coin flip. Here's hoping we do better next time.


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