Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

cultural iconography

by Toni McGee Causey

I heard a discussion not long ago where a writer talked about how he had gone out into his city and literally walked the number of paces it would take to go from point A to point B. He timed it so he’d have an accurate depiction of the action sequence he was writing. In the middle of writing his book, a big catastrophic event occurred which changed that area of his city, rendering his description inaccurate, and he fretted about the fact that locals might hold his feet to the fire for not being exact.

Another time, a fellow author discussed how she was the curse of local restaurants; the restaurant she mentioned in her first book went out of business within the first couple of months of publication. The restaurant she mentioned in her second book went belly up before the print run was complete. To prevent this from happening again for her third book, she chose a restaurant that was a local favorite and had been in business for over thirty years… and before she could turn in that book, its doors had closed (and was a surprise to the community). She really wanted her books to detail real places, smells, sounds, so that people could "walk the paths" of her books.

I think they failed to see that no matter what their genre, what they were actually writing were historicals.

Every book is a cultural reference point, and it can evoke the truth of the place and the time while still being flexible with exacting detail.

Even urban contemporary is still a historical, because you’re writing from the perspective of where you, the writer, are, in your culture, in the framework of what you know, now. You might be writing fantasy, or SF, and you may be creating worlds you feel we’ve never seen before, but you still have to relate them to what we know now, in some way, so that we, the audience, can see what you see. You also (in SF) have to take into account the newest inventions and extrapolate out, so that each generation has an advantage over the past, because we’ve seen more technology. [Those Star Trek transporters don’t look all that extreme once you see a fax. And communicators fail to impress once you’ve had a hands free cell phone.] If you’re writing a crime contemporary, you’re still writing a historical because you’re depicting that moment in time, in that culture, with the tools available to those people for detection and communication and transport.

All we have to do is look at "contemporary" spy thrillers from the late eighties, early nineties and see the woeful lack of cell phones, Bluetooth, internet, signal jammers, DNA recovery methods, etc., to see this in action.

Or, hell, just look at the clothes.

There’s no way to avoid that issue. (Nor should we.) Worlds are built, whether it’s contemporary or SF or an actual historical, and they need to be to transport the reader out from the room they’re in–the one where the dog has thrown up on the carpet or the kids have just bopped each other on the head or the boss was on a tear or someone in the family has a terminal illness. Readers need details to hang onto, to build images in their minds and forget where they are.

Here are a few important things on my checklist of what works / doesn’t work for me as a reader. (As a writer? I’m sure I make mistakes and there’s always room for improvement.)

1) Beware of writing the MapQuest version of a story. Yes, setting details matter and verisimilitude is a cool thing, but I unless I need to know that it’s eight steps from that elevator to that archway for some damned good reason, (like step #9 is gonna trigger a bomb), then ease back. Once or twice? Not a big deal, I’ll roll with the writer. An entire scene’s worth? Very likely to be boring… unless the writer…

2) Make the details relevant to what’s going on, right now, for the character. Two sentences (or, and this is not uncommon, an entire paragraph) about, say, a painting on a wall or the decor of a room is going to jerk the story to a halt. Unless the character cares about that painting deeply, unless [for example] it was stolen from him or she used it as a murder weapon or it’s the center of contention in a family dispute and just seeing it reminds the character of something pertinent to the story, keep it brief. Not only brief, but if a writer is in a character’s POV, give the details as the character(s) would interpret them.

3) Watch out for the name brand cheat. Not everyone in the world will necessarily know the denotation nor the connotation of every name brand under the sun. Ten years from now, is that name brand still going to be immediately recognizable without any descriptors? Using a name brand as a signifier of something about a character is normal, but without any other descriptor, for a lot of people, it’s just a void string of words and the writer has lost an opportunity to create an image and an impact. Does the name brand of the cigarette matter, for example? or the fact that they’re unfiltered? or his anger at people asking? telling him where he can and cannot smoke?

4) Evoke the culture of those characters. If you accept the premise that anything, once committed to paper, is somewhat historical, then realize that a few months to a few years from now, that place and time and culture will have changed. People are going to be traveling back in time to the era a writer is depicting, even if it’s right now. Taking contemporary fiction as my main example here: show me the world they’re in. I know writers who avoid naming any popular restaurants or detailing any technology in the hopes of extending the life of their fiction, an effort to prevent their world from feeling dated, but the lack of cultural details can end up being generic. Generic is not memorable. What do the characters see? Taste? Smell? How is that different from their own childhoods? Early adolescence? Not that a writer needs to have a running commentary on every iconic detail he or she lists, but the character is bound to have some attitude about the items, or else why bother listing them? McDonald’s? Fries to die for or a culinary abomination?

5) Order of appearance. Smell can strike us long before we see the item. Sounds, as well. Keep in mind the texture of the details, and keep in mind that sighted readers (vs. readers of Braille, for whom I cannot speak) operate within a sighted world. If a writer fails to give the description of a character until page 312, the reader will have long long long ago filled in a detail and will be jarred when they get to the writer’s because it will be too different than the way they "saw" that character. Or thing. Our minds’ eye will go where you direct, in the order that you direct, and it then fills in. If I say to you: worn black and white checkered tile floor, scraped raw where the heavy wood door has swung open for years, small tables crammed into every nook, clean white cloths draping onto the cracked leather seats of old ladderback chairs, the candlelight absorbed into dark paneling, where are we? What did you just see on those tables? I’m betting you filled in some details like salt and pepper, probably the short squatty glass globes, silverware (plain, no frills), a taller canister of Parmesan cheese, a little white ceramic tray of sweeteners, possibly even candles on the actual tables, possibly menus.

6) It all means nothing without the character(s). Whether the writer is using first person POV, third, intimate or even second, how the writer sees the world should not be identical to how everyone in the story sees the world. The world has to be filtered through what the character perceives as important. (Probably the only exception is omnipotent where there’s authorial narration, but even then, there should be details built on the characters’ perception.)

7) Context within the framework of the bigger world around them. Writers shouldn’t assume everyone’s going to get the context automatically. I don’t mind (as a reader) occasionally seeing a song title listed, for example, but nine times out of ten, I have no clue what that song is or why it has some meaning in the moment. If a writer uses a lot of such things, then I’m lost. Odds are I–and many people like me–aren’t going to have all of those songs and contexts memorized, and if a writer is relying on that context to add a layer, they’ve just struck out. Doesn’t mean the writer shouldn’t include a song title or mention of a genre, but I chalk this up to the equivalent of preaching to the choir or hanging with the cool kids. Sure, preaching to the choir means the choir is most likely to "get" everything and the writer can show off their detailed knowledge and make inside jokes about what Maddy did last Thursday after the pot luck dinner, but the problem with the choir is that the choir is much much smaller than the audience. So sure, the choir might like to hear that riff, but everyone sitting out in that audience is going to wonder why they weren’t invited to Pot Luck Thursday and why they aren’t important enough to the writer to have the inside information and people don’t really pick up books to feel stupid. (Most of the time.)

Mostly, though, the point of what a writer mentions should be in service of the truth of the place. The truth as it was that minute for those characters.

Okay, there are more, but right now, the granddaughter is waking up and not terribly happy that she’s not the center of my universe and LSU’s about to kick off, so I am outta here. Meanwhile, how about any cultural references no nos for you as a reader? Or tell me who’s done the cultural stuff right, so that you really see their unique world, no matter the time frame?

 

color

by Toni McGee Causey

A long while back, there was an interesting interview where Diane Sawyer was speaking to writer Alice Walker about the order in which she perceived herself: was she black first, then a writer? or a writer first, and then black?

Walker responded by saying [paraphrasing here] that she saw herself in the order of: black, then woman, then writer.

There was some discussion wherein Sawyer tried to make the point that she didn’t see Walker in that order. (I believe she saw Walker first as a woman, then writer, then black), and Walker disputed that. Of course Sawyer saw her as black first, Walker stated. And the very fact that Sawyer had even asked the question made Walker’s case for her, unless Sawyer has asked everyone she’s ever interviewed if they saw themselves as black (or white or Hispanic or Italian or… ) first.

Then writer Christopher Paul Curtis was asked about Walker’s statement and asked how he saw himself, and here’s a part of his answer:

A lot of the so called multicultural young adult literature is actually
produced by white writers, and they’ll take on an Asian or an African
American voice for the book, or even more often, a Native American
voice. Now, on the level of a writer, I say that’s fine. You should be
able to write about anything you want to write about. But then, as an
African American, I’m conflicted by it because our story has been
defined by other people for so long that it’s very confusing to have it
told by other people. If everything were equal, it would be fine, but
everything is not equal, and authentic stories by African American
writers, by Native American writers, by Hispanic writers need to be
told by those groups. Then again, there’s a real scarcity of such
writers among those groups.

I’ve seen bookstores where there is a section dedicated to African American literature, but I can’t decide if this is a good thing (there’s specific focus, marketing effort, shelf space) or a bad thing (the sections are rarely in the middle of the store as far as I can tell, and segregate literature away from the mainstream and frankly, I forget to look there and it smacks of the assumption that somehow the African American experience is outside the mainstream). Furthermore, in the few sections I’ve perused, I can’t quite tell the defining characteristic which has a bookseller placing the book there vs. the fiction section, since some writers appear in both (Earnest Gaines, for example).

If a separate section were somehow beneficial to my friends? Then I’m all for it. But I can’t tell if it’s that successful, and I look around at our nation and wonder how on earth are we going to learn about each other if we’re segregating fiction? (I get that it’s a marketing attempt by the bookstores in the same way that labeling something "mystery" or "romance" is also a marketing attempt.)

Is it hubris to think that we can, of course, understand enough about another ethnicity’s challenges to write them accurately, authentically? Last year I was one of the readers among a group which included Clarence Nero, an astounding talent, and he read from his brutal fiction and I thought, you know… I couldn’t have written that. I’m not entirely sure that any amount of research or life experience would have given me the dynamics he drew. I’m not sure if he realized how powerful they were–I still remember his reading months later.

Or is it purely, simply, only a matter of research? Life experience? Is Mr. Curtis’ comment above true? And is the lack of writers from the groups he mentioned a result of an actual lack, or the absence of perceived market? Is ethnicity a niche? Is it beneficial for it to be marketed in that way?

~*~

WINNERS ANNOUNCED: Hey, everyone, go check out Allison’s post for the winners she’s announced for the BOOK GIVEAWAY.

the ending is nearer than you think

by Toni McGee Causey

I’m going to admit to something.

I will often go read the end of a book waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay before the middle. Sometimes I will read it after I’ve only read a couple of chapters. Many times I have stood in the store, read the opening, flipped to the end and read it, then bought the book.

[Waiting for the flailing and the heart attacks to subside.]

Back with me?

I know, it’s kinda like hearing someone licks the toothpaste tube before they re-cap it, or eats dessert before breakfast.

I know. [You want to watch a bunch of writers’ heads spin around? Admit this at a conference. I have several friends who think I’m nuts.] [Okay, probably most of my friends think I’m nuts, but we aren’t going to talk about that today.]

It never really occurred to me, to be honest, that this might not be the natural way of things until friends’ gaped at me when I mentioned it. I mean, I was the kid who opened her Christmas presents ahead of time, played with them, then re-wrapped them for my parents to see under the tree. Every night. All the way up ’til Christmas morning. The first few years, they thought I had an uncanny ability to guess what was in each gift. Then, once they caught on, my dad tried several tricks to stop me. He once marked every present so that all of the marks lined up with each other a certain way, so that if I unwrapped them and wrapped them back again, the marks would not line up. I saw the marks–he’d actually done it. Then I realized a couple of nights later… after experimenting with a couple of boxes… that he wasn’t going to remember where he put those marks, so I unwrapped them, played with them, re-wrapped and put new marks, all lining up. The next year, they hid the presents at a neighbor’s house. In the neighbor’s attic.

So. Yeah. Reading the end first. Never even gonna feel guilty about that.

The first time I admitted this to someone, they were slightly horrified. [Slightly being defined as a wide-eyed double-take that may have been accompanied by an, "Are you NUTS?"] And they have continued to be horrified. Some of them even outed me to friends [coughAllisoncough] [where, I am gleeful to note, I am not the only one].

One of the big concerns–and something I’ve been teased about–is that all the careful planning I put into a book is totally ruined by people like me, who go read that end first, who don’t take the trip as the author has planned it and therefore, cannot be surprised. And my gut reaction is this: if someone can go read the end of my book and know everything they need to know to understand the story? I didn’t build in enough surprises anyway. They should read that end and think, "Wow, I’m missing something here, who is this guy / gal, why are they important here?" or "Wow, that’s bizarre, I wonder why they’re even there?" or "Holy crap, they just did what? Why?"

The truth is, the ending of a book sells the reader on the next book. But it also–if it’s done its job–makes the reader feel vindicated for having plunked down their money on this book. They should leave the story feeling immensely satisfied and surprised, feel as if the story couldn’t have turned out any other way, that it was organic, and yet, they did not see it happening like that.

The other truth is, you, as a writer, have no control over the crazy people like me, who will read the end first. I think the most difficult thing I had to accept as a writer was that sometimes, people weren’t going to read my book all in one sitting. [gasp] [real life, how dare it get in the way?] I write the book to be read as this mounting tension, the intense build of crosses and double crosses and humor which builds on other layers of humor, and if someone stops and starts a few times, that rhythm is broken. It’s like listening to a song a few lines at a time over several days: it just does not have the same impact like that as was originally intended.

So, what I take from this — and from crazy people like me — is that the ending has got to have that wow factor. If someone reads the first chapter and then reads the end, they’ve got to be confused and, at the same time, feel a sense of confidence in me… they’ve got to sense that I have confidence in where I’m taking them, and that it’s not predictable. And it’s got to be satisfying.

My analogy is the roller coaster ride. I know how the ride ends before I get on the thing. I want to see where those little cars roll in so that I know those people lived. I once was literally flying out of one the cars as a teenager on a roller coaster ride when our high school group went to Astroworld. Had the boy next to me not realized it and grabbed my ankles as they went past the safety bar… I was airborne… I’d have been out of the ride. I learned to hold on. [Didn’t stop me from riding.]

So, how about you?  Read the end before the rest of the book? Wouldn’t dream of it?  What other reading pet peeves do you have?

~*~

I have the absolute THRILL to announce that, starting next Sunday, Allison Brennan will be alternating Sundays with me. She’s not only a terrific friend, she’s one of the stellar bloggers around and I’m honored that she’s going to be here. Plus, she’s just a damned fine writer, so she’s always got great insights.

~*~

Gustav: as I write this, all hatches have been battened, supplies laid in, stores with empty shelves gape vacantly into the night, and people are evacuating. I’m keeping tabs on friends trying to fly out right now from N.O. International, including our own Alex and friend of Murderati Nancie–hopefully, by the time this posts in the morning, they will be safely on a plane. Thank you for all the kind emails–much appreciated.

Are we having fun yet?

by Toni McGee Causey

30,439 minutes.

That’s how long I have ’til I turn in this book.

30,439 minutes.

And the story. Wow. Living, breathing, bearing down on me, playing live in front of my eyes.

I might be looking right at you. I probably don’t see you. I’m seeing the story. I’m pretty sure I’ve changed clothes within the last couple of days. I think.

A few people said, "You have how much to write in the next three weeks?" One writer friend wrote to me that she knew how I felt with a story staring at me with blood in its eye.

30,438 minutes.

I cannot explain to you the joy. The absolute utter explosion of high that comes from being in this place in the story and knowing that it works and not really caring about the deadline because I’m having fun. [For the record, I don’t always feel this way at this point in the story. Sometimes, that never comes. Sometimes, I only know that feeling about the time the book has been out for a couple of months and I look back and think, huh, that worked there for that little space, wow, who knew?]

Now, a lot of the times here, we’re talking about craft and marketing and what to do or not do and how to sing the hokey pokey with one foot in while you’re turning around, your hand on your head, fingers crossed in a special voodoo spell, hoping to appease the publishing gods, but sometimes, I think, we all get a little caught up in the angst of the business, all keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times and no standing that we forget what’s really important.

This is supposed to be fun.

I’ve done hard. [minds out of the gutter]

I’ve worked three jobs, making ends meet. I’ve had a baby and gone back to work the next day, because that’s what it took. I’ve scrubbed toilets as a janitor [and for the record, and retroactively to the lady who worked for the state who constantly threw those little circles punched from a three-hole-puncher–the vacuum did not pick those up, so thank you for making me have to stop and get down on my knees when I was eight months pregnant to pick them up because you wanted to be sure I was doing my job]… I’ve made cold calls as an insurance salesman, I’ve wrecked concrete forms, I’ve cooked for crews, I’ve stood in front of a classroom as a grad student and taught Nietzsche and Heidegger, I’ve watched a friend die a bloody death from leukemia, I’ve lost people, I’ve watched a child hooked up to an IV in the hospital, not knowing if he was going to have brain damage from the infection, and I’ve been dealt personal blows that had me sitting in the dark, wondering if I could keep standing, and I am here to tell you, this writing thing? Utter flipping joy.

I’m betting you’ve done hard, too. I’m betting you have life issues pressing down on you, that you’re busy, hellified busy, that somewhere, some of you are hurting and some of you have lost something and some of you feel a little bludgeoned and a whole lot overwhelmed, and somewhere, one of you is wondering why you’re fooling yourself that you’re a writer.

Do you love telling stories? Do you enjoy the spark of the new idea, the look when you sum it up for someone? The hope that this time, you’ll share that dream you’ve had? The pleasure of a nice turn of phrase, of seeing something on the page that you wrought and realized, wow, that was successful, that sentence right there. And maybe that one over there?

Embrace that. Few people in this world have figured out what brings them joy and you’re lucky if you’ve found it. The joy has to be in the process, in the day-to-day, because those are the moments we live. Not the end results. We don’t live there. We live in the process, in the effort. It’s what we control.

It’s easy to be scared in this business. It’s easy to get caught up on the treadmill, and just about every author has had moments of intense fear and doubt. You have the opportunity to humiliate yourself nationally. And if you’re being honest, you’re putting something of yourself on those pages, something of what you know to be the truth, and there’s just no way around that fact, no matter how much of it’s fiction. If you’re doing it right, you’re putting yourself in there. A lot of times, when we focus on all of the details of the writing process, it can feel like the list grows exponentially until you’re weighed down, ground to pieces. In all of the marketing bullshit, the networking, the learning curve, we can forget to celebrate the joy. (And we’re all learning, we’re all looking around, grateful to be in this with fellow writers who are willing to extend a hand and say, "This is what worked for me, this is what failed," because this is a scary, big, puzzle.)

You have to love this to do it. No, that’s not quite right. You have to be insane and in love with the whole notion of telling stories to do this. To keep working through the story, to get it right, to get the words strung out just so, so that they touch the other person on the other end. You have to feel the joy from the right detail, from the moment when it comes together, from the dream.

And you have to take a moment, when you’re writing, to remember that joy, to remember why you’re writing.

Publishing isn’t for sissies. It’s one of the cruelest forms of self-abuse I’ve seen, because there’s just no way to make everyone happy all of the time. You’re going to be putting yourself out there for people to judge, for people to criticize, for people to think you’re absolutely a moron for trying, but if you love it? It really doesn’t matter, because there is just nothing else quite like it.

We tell stories to connect. From the ancient times of sitting around the campfire, from Beowulf to the Dark Knight, we sit around the campfire now, sharing the world. It’s how we know how other people live, feel, think, how they deal (or don’t) with what life throws at them. It’s what makes us human. Politics? Nope, even monkeys have it. Stories? That’s our gift from the universe, our ability to say to someone, somewhere, "hey you, I know just how you feel." To reach into that spot where they’re feeling like there is absolute darkness and share it, or bring them some light, or some laughter, or some feeling of justice. And it’s a gift given to us, the storytellers, not that it’s our gift back to the world, because really connecting? Moving other people? If we get lucky enough to manage that, what an incredible joy.

When I got married, my dad had one piece of advice. We did the typical father-daughter chat the day before, and I don’t know if he remembers it as clearly as I do, and I know there were probably a thousand things he wanted to tell me in that moment, that one quiet moment we had before the chaos began. And he said, very simply, "Keep it fun."

Keep.

Active verb there. Don’t wait for it to be fun. Don’t expect fun to come to you, gift wrapped. Keep. Work for it. Look for it. Make it.

Best advice I’ve ever gotten.

30,425 minutes.

And I am incredibly grateful for every single one.

So how about you? What brings you joy?

controversy sells

by Toni McGee Causey

Or does it?

You may not have seen the discussion of a publisher pulling the book, The Jewel of Medina, off the publication track in May due to a potential backlash. Author Sherry Jones wrote a fictionalized version about Aisha, the young wife of prophet Muhammad. According to The Wall Street Journal article four days ago, an extreme controversy arose once the ARCs went out for blurbs, and one particular person whom the author had hoped would give it a positive spin, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin… hated it.

Ironically, the author of the Journal article is Muslim, and laments the fact that the book was pulled, saying, "This saga upsets me as a Muslim — and as a writer who believes that
fiction can bring Islamic history to life in a uniquely captivating and
humanizing way."

Ms. Spellberg, an American, said:

the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work… I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last
Temptation of Christ,’" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a
novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I
don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with
the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a
sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."

There are quite a lot of Christians who would say that the latter description is exactly how they perceive that adaptation, and there were protests, far and wide.

Ms. Spellberg alerted the head of a popular Muslim site about her concerns about the Jewel of Medina, who posted about the book without having read it. It snowballed from there within just a few days, if not hours, to the point where editors and publishers felt there was a very real threat of potential retaliation if the book went out into the public. In a letter to the editor
of The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Spellberg denies having been the sole
responsibility for the novel being pulled and says she felt "[i]t was
in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to
warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some
Muslims." (I’d be very curious to know what other press she notified.)

Also from the WSJ article:

Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an
editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to
Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before
from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to
write "Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.")

"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major
danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett
wrote. "Denise says it is ‘a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff .
. . a national security issue.’

The book was pulled from the marketplace.

I have to say that the part about all of this that surprises me the most is the surprise over the fact that there would be potential retaliation. There are extremist groups in many religions. Hello? Crusades? KKK? The death threats made over The Da Vinci Code?

So if you "can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography," that begs the question, what exactly can you do? And who’s sacred history is fair game?

The globalization of communication (i.e., the internet) has not only changed how fast we can communicate about a controversy, but just how much information is available out there. Within a very short time, Sarah over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had been emailed a copy of the prologue by the author and then Sarah led a very interesting discussion of the work on her blog–where readers of Muslim faith felt (I believe) a welcome spirit to comment, pro or con. That same globalization, however, allows for rumor, gossip, ridicule, lies and threats to be circulated with equal abandon–and that latter aspect is a threat to any sort of real learning we might have of others.

In a day when a cooking show star, Rachel Ray, can have a commercial pulled because she wore a scarf that someone then tagged with negative comments, we have to wonder: where are we going from here? I don’t think anyone in their right mind, if they were speaking to Rachel Ray directly, would have had the thought that she was pimping for murderous extremism–yet, they felt safe enough implying that (or, in some cases, outright accusing it) of the star while "reporting" on the internet. Michelle Malkin, who started the insanity, said:

Ray hawked Urban Outfitters scarves on her website before appearing in
the Dunkin’ Donuts ad. If she (or whichever stylist is dressing her)
wasn’t aware of the jihad scarf controversy before she posed for the
Dunkin’ campaign, she should have been. [italics mine]

Because absolutely everyone should investigate the background of every item of clothing they wear in public, lest there be some sort of potential negative association?

And every book ever published ought not offend anyone.

This is not a case of censorship (the publisher was free to publish, they chose not to), nor is it a case of oppression (the threats had not been made yet), nor is it a case in the Ray example of actual promotion of a violent act (seriously, like I need an example here?). This is a case of fear.

We’ve managed to become a country who feeds and chokes on fear.

The thing is, where art goes, so goes a culture. Art leads the way. Art–writing, pushing those boundaries, painting, photography–informs, questions, makes us think. Are we becoming a nation who feels that our side–and only our side [whatever that side is]–is right and there’s no room for allowing for the fact that the other side just might have some intelligence and be willing to have an open discourse? Are we becoming a culture where art is only commerce?

Art is a dialog.

And we’ve pretty much stopped talking and started shouting and ridiculing.

I don’t know of a single person who really had a change of heart because they were shouted at and ridiculed, and I don’t know of a single side who made themselves look better by being a bully. I also don’t think we learn anything by agreeing with each other and portraying everything down party lines. Where’s the individuality in that? Where’s the humanity? We’re not a homogeneous blob of people–we’re each unique, with unique experiences, both with our own religions and politics, as well as experiences with others. Do we all really want to be a big homogeneous blob? Do we think the rest of the world really ought to pick up and think exactly the way we do? How interesting is that?

So where are the lines drawn? Is it right to publish a book which possibly disrespects a religion? Do we say it’s okay to target one, but not another? Have discourse about one, but protect the other? Is it wrong to have a text which fictionalizes that religion? Or does it open a dialog? Do we really want other people vetting what we read and see and deciding if we’re smart enough to understand it and whether or not it’s accurate? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and inciting to riot?

Murky, sure.

But as artists, I think we’d better figure it out and start leading the way, because otherwise, the fractionalization of this country into sides incapable of progress because the whole is broken into pieces is just going to increase.

Where do you think the lines in the sand should be drawn?

How brave should artists be?

-toni

 

sex, action, conflict

by Toni McGee Causey

So, let’s talk about sex.

Hard? Easy? Demoralizing? Uplifting? Inspirational?

No, not the act itself. You’re on your own, there.

I’m talking about scene construction.

Ten or so years ago [according to my Measuring Whatchacalit, my highly scientific measuring device] [hey, I don’t make these things up, I just report them], sex scenes weren’t all that common in thrillers and mysteries. I’m not entirely sure why not [though I suspect someone will enlighten me in the comments if it was anything more than the culture of the times], but the genres were pretty well focused on the crimes, the will-they-survive it [thrillers] or the who-done-it [mysteries], and if there were sexual components of the story, the moment of the act was generally kept off-stage. It is ironic to me that the two genres which  had an intense laser-beam-like focus on the violent details of characters’ lives often shied away from a major component of what it is to be a human: sex. Emotional entanglement, vulnerability, machinations, not wanting to be alone, or pushing people away… using people, being used, heartache, longing, requiting, destructive, or satisfying, sex plays a huge role in life, but was generally relegated to behind-closed-doors.

Not so much anymore.

Things, they are a’ changin’.

Just the fact that the ITW included a panel the first two years [and I presume this year as well, though I missed it] on how to write sex scenes in thrillers and mysteries is an indication of how the genres are crossing boundaries.

It’s about time, really. When you think about what you can do with a character during a sex scene, how exposed they are [mind out of the gutter people], you realize it’s a significant tool for developing the idiosyncratic uniqueness of that individual. Sex is chaos and a fulcrum of pressure all at once, and character under pressure = story.

How a person responds to sex–to the option of having it, attitude, history, vulnerability, willingness, expertise, frankness–on and on–create useful story reasons for delineating the act itself.

Which of course begs the questions as to how much to describe, are there any general consensus of what’s "acceptable" and what’s not, what kind of language, and so on. We had a terrific panel discussion on this topic with a really terrific audience at RWA this weekend. Our panel title was "Sex and the Single Title" and included publisher Matthew shear [St. Martin’s Press], Roxanne St. Claire, CJ Lyons and moderator Jordan Dane. Some of the general opinions about what to do and not do for successful sex / romance scenes might be of interest here, so I’m summarizing. [I would love to give individual attributes as to who said what,  but I will screw that up since we overlapped. Also, there are a lot of other great writers who’ve taught us or blogged on this–too many to name here.]

One: think of any sex scene as an action scene [and I do know Jennifer Crusie said this very well on her blog at some point]. Every single scene you write has to have some sort of conflict, whether implied or overt, and that means the sex scenes as well. If the scene can be taken out of the story without changing the story, then it’s gratuitous and a waste of space. Sadly, it’s also a wasted opportunity.

In the arc of a story, people have wants and needs and vulnerabilities and self-protection and goals and motives and all of these things have to come into play in a sex scene. The scene should be about action–not just desire. Choices, not just romantic notions. Exposure, risk. The two people cannot possibly want the exact same thing in the genera sense of their world. Sure, they may both want an orgasm right then, but however immediate that desire and however it may momentarily supersede their other goals, those other goals are still in motion and should run as an undercurrent to the action of the scene. Those other goals / wants / needs are subtext to each and every action.

Two: things have to get worse. Great sex is fine, everyone can go at it like bunnies, but you have to remember that this scene is a tool to tell the story, and the story is about conflict and rising stakes / tension.

Three: sex scenes have to reveal something about the characters–whether it simply expands [deepens][you try to think of a verb that doesn’t have a double entendré here]–we need to know more about the characters involved after the sex scene than we did before. What is equally important is that they have to learn something about themselves and/or each other and this knowledge should be relevant to the outcome of the story / the creation of their character arc.

Four: the sex is about these characters and their specific reactions. That means that if these characters are funny,  there should be humor. If they have control issues, that should come into play. Their personality should shine through that moment, and if it doesn’t, then the scene is generic. If someone could lift that scene up and put it in another person’s story, then you’re missing the characters’ personalities and their specific problems / needs, which should be feeding your story.

Five: the language you use should be in sync with the rest of the book. Period. Do not over describe–get to the heart of the emotional response, the risk, the consequences. Set the scene, sure, give it personal flavor, but just like any other action scene, make your point and get moving to the next scene. If you stay too long, people get bored and will start skimming. Conversely, if you’re going to write a sex scene, don’t be chicken–write the scene. If you can write graphic violence, if you can write about a mother’s heartbreak at the death of her child, if you can write about an employee killing his or her boss, and give these things the dramatic conflict and detail to make the point, then why wouldn’t you do the same for the one act that exposes the character, both physically and emotionally?

There’s more… we covered a lot of ground, but I think this is a good point to ask you all for talking points: do you include sex scenes? Do you prefer not to read books that have them? Don’t care? and please add to the pointers above… I’m on my way to a meeting and as you read this, I am flying home. I’ll check in from the airport though [have a new nifty travel computer], so I’m very much looking forward to this discussion.

figuring out what they’re not telling you

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting
positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale
line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes,
it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot
you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers
that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing
what is making them–those people who buy–say "no, not for me." In the course of a discussion
on Backspace (a while back), someone asked,
"How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?" I had gone
through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a "fix-all" sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking
at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to
that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help,
I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of
listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they
were not
saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my
characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the
way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and
no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked.  Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in
order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked
them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at
those things and say, "What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this
list?" This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the
critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the "gestalt" — the
overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when
it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative
shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an
advantage because it was easier to see it as a "whole" when trying to
break it down. )

With that in mind… 

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

"I couldn’t put it down."

That whole "couldn’t stop reading" aspect is critical, especially if
you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world)
or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the
read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these
were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to
realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting
world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the
heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not
doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no
clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So
they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re
telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, "I don’t
know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why." In the book world, this translates into "I can’t get the marketing team behind it."

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts
(the romantic comedies), but they were "soft." What the hell is soft?
It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing? 

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused.
We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t
think "soft" was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle
of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a
vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying "I couldn’t put it down."

I’d get stuff like, "I love reading your scripts, I will always give
your agent a read overnight for your stuff," and "Your characters and
your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s
funny!" Which is great! But no one was saying, "Ohmygod, I had to pee
and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what
happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you."

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel
a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what
translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money. 

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to
guess what "soft" meant at the time (since this was a fairly common
excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was
the opposite of edgy.  Well, not everything can be edgy,
so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the
two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that
there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the
reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’ 

How did that apply to me? 

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the
surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check 
clear goals………………………. check 
obstacles………………………… check 

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up
with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when
I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed
until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty
important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.

True.

But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.

The problem with writing so "indirectly" is that for the first part
of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to
eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the
main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested,
but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain
to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily,
or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons
all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what
they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations,
but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much
information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My
assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper,
more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work,
but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active
instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is
forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and
that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to
do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a
surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they
must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even
if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it
to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still
need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard
time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s
critical to the character.

So the new list: 

interesting characters…….check 
clear goals…………………… check 
motivation……………………..check 
obstacles…………………….. check 

Then I looked at the "obstacles" and analyzed my writing, and I
realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally
tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing. 

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…   

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult
areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after
the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed,
there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a
worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to
brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when
confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence
to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist
after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the
story.)

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your
character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are
getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is
really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders
the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort
of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The
stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep
increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story
that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put
down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice
or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging
on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting
that "I couldn’t put it down" reaction consistently, I knew I had
stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher
levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to
really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the
negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are
not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the
brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat.
But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be
able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the "I couldn’t put it down" sort of responses
from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive
"sold" line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not
every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating
part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with
your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a
matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything. 

I’d love to add to my examples of movies or books with double layered motives. Especially any good sting type of movies (like, well, THE STING) where the motives hit the switchback trail a couple of times and still keep you utterly compelled. So what have you seen (old or new) where the motives were utterly compellingly written?

nuking the ‘fridge

by Toni McGee Causey

By now, I assume that anyone who was really in love with the Indiana Jones movie would have gone to see #4. If you haven’t seen Indiana Jones and the Crystal McGuffin, er, Skull, there be spoilers here. The entire blog. I would warn you away from if you haven’t seen the movie yet and still wanted to, but I am doing you a favor. (And let me just stop for a second and to say to those of you who
enjoyed this film… I love you, you know I do. I think you’re smart
and funny and all kinds of great and your hair is really cute today, but I want to know where you got the
crack you used while you were enjoying this film, because clearly, I
needed some.)

This movie was so classically bad, so widely panned, it generated a phrase — "nuking the fridge" — a new way of saying "jumping the shark" — which occurs when a series has "passed [its] peak, since [it has] undergone too many changes to retain
[its ]original appeal, and after this point critical fans often sense a
noticeable decline in the show’s quality."

Near the beginning of the film, Indiana Jones has escaped from the Cold War Russian Bad Guys with Bad Accents in the dessert at area 51, and has managed to find himself in a small town… he goes to the trouble of climbing over a fence, if I remember correctly, and breaking into a house–his plan? To use a telephone to get help. I will go along with that. The initial sequence was bad, the whole magnetic skull thing bad (if you put a cloth over something strong enough to pull coins to it, the magnetization is not going to stop because of a cloth. Or a piece of wood, like the lid to a box. And if the box is lined with something blocking the strong magnetization, then you can’t use magnetization to find the box.)

So okay, I’m going to forgive the opening. Fine. Indy’s inside the house and he then sees that there’s a family sitting in the living room, and on closer inspection, realizes they are mannequins. Indy runs outside, only to have the camera pull back and show that there are plastic people on the lawn, mimicking real people–a child pulling a wagon, I think someone’s mowing or watering a lawn, whatever, all plastic.

Supposedly, the town is filled with mannequins. I’m not entirely sure how he missed all of those as he was making his way to the center of that town, nor why he didn’t choose to break into the house on the very outskirts of town (maybe only the center of town had phone service back then). A loud siren blares, with some sort of loudspeaker announcement that the nuclear blast is imminent.

You know, because those mannequins needed to be told to brace themselves.

So Indy runs back inside (after bumping into one of the nicely painted mannequins–and they needed to be pained… why? exactly who was supposed to be around to care if they were lifelike?)… anyway… he’s running back inside to try to find a solution (because saying, "I am so fucked" at this point in the movie is probably a bad thing) (which is what most of the audience was thinking)… and Indy’s great solution? He climbs into a lead-lined refrigerator (thank you Speilberg for that shot of the "lead lined" on the refrigerator, because without that? your credibility might have been completely questionable) and closes the door just as the nuclear warhead detonates, melting all of the mannequins and destroying the houses.

Whereupon we cut to a scene supposedly far outside the blast zone to see that refrigerator (and no other furniture or real debris) flying through the air and landing and rolling and then Indy popping out of the fridge. Safe.

I’ll be the first to say that story logic? Sometimes can out-maneuver a writer. Sometimes a writer will put in months of work and revisions and the story has evolved in their head to the point where they will give a character a reason for doing something toward the end of the book or movie that is completely illogical when taken in context of the beginning. Sometimes in the process of writing, a writer will figure out a better person "whodunit" or a better villain or a better piece of dialog, whatever, and they’ll have to backtrack, rewrite or polish… and when doing so, small threads or hints from the original plot may be left behind which can screw with the ultimate, final logic. Occasionally people don’t catch it, and it can make a reader not really trust that writer if they are yanked out of the story with conflicting information that’s never resolved; however, most of the time they will forgive the writer a bad sequence or flubbed clue if, ultimately, the story makes sense. If, in the final moment, the emotional journey they traveled on was worth the price of the toll, the reader will be okay.

But there are two kinds of logic at work in any story. There is the immediate plot structure (which can be told out of order, but at some point, has to have a cause-effect sensibility), and there is the logic of the world created (these kinds of things happen in this world, these kinds of things don’t.) That latter kind of logic skips hand in hand merrily down the street with tone.

If logic is skipping to a samba beat and tone is skipping to an aria, the audience is going to see the result and feel everything is off-kilter, out of focus, and feel like the world in front of them has been violated, out of sync.

I’m not sure what kind of movie Indy 4 was supposed to be; once they set down the road of hyperbole, someone somewhere decided, and then a whole lot of other people agreed, that the logic of the sequence of events–the set pieces–was more important than overall story logic. If your sequence works, but violates the point of the world, the audience is going to feel it. They’re not just watching that sequence–they’re watching it in the context of the entire frame of the story. In addition, the tone has to match. If Indy 4 was madcap camp–completely intended to be something like Airplaine or any spoof? It would have totally worked. But we were not lead to believe they were spoofing themselves.

There are rules to the world a writer creates. Always. Worlds built on reality, worlds built on hyperbole. No matter the genre, the writer has to take the rules of the world seriously and honor the characters they’ve created.

And in the world of Indy 4, Indy is supposed to come upon incredible obstacles and then outsmart them. The solutions may be outrageous, but they are within the bounds of the bigger-than-life world. He’s supposed to be this affable, sort of smart ass professor, who in secret, is really a kick ass archaeologist.

He is not supposed to be the kind of guy who could walk into a town, climb over a fence and not notice that all of the people he’s scurrying from have not moved even a fraction of an inch. And are plastic.

I maybe couldda forgiven them that, if the rest of the movie had made some sort of sense. The McGuffin: must return the crystal skull of super smart alien to its body. Don’t really have a reason, other than it told Indy to. Okay. Fine. When he finds the location that he’s to return the skull to, there are 13 crystalline skeletons in a circle, one with its head missing. The one that is all of the way across the room from the door. The way the skeletons are sitting there, all intact except for the one missing head, the implication is that the skull was stolen after they were all on their thrones.

Um, how, exactly? When the skull is returned, they all come back to life and merge into one. If they were so smart, why wouldn’t they have noticed that someone was tiptoeing across the room? Were there aliens strippers distracting them? What? And I’d love to give the storytellers credit at this point that the skull was stolen before the beings were all sitting on their thrones, but that’s not how they told the story–and that’s not how the scene is shot.

The movie was not only ruined for me, because the tone and logic were so out of hand, but the series* in retrospect just looks silly now, instead of the cool iconic hyperbolic heroic kind of story that it was: where intelligence was sexy and capable of adventure.

So, story logic: vital. Don’t leave home without it.

Instead of us all skewering specific writers (I feel like Speilberg and Lucas can handle the rant)… what are your pet peeves that break you out of the story and ruin the experience for you?

*I will admit to sort of loathing the second one, but it really wasn’t this bad.

 

where grace lives

by Toni McGee Causey

[This piece was written during Hurricane Katrina. We had no electricity, but had a generator and, weirdly, DSL, but not a phone. I blogged–I have been online in one journal form or another since about 1998–and I wanted to try to capture the experience of going through a hurricane. My kids had been in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew came through and tore up the place, and I’d written nothing about it. I thought, and it’s hard to believe this was my point of view then, that Katrina would be mostly wind, a lot of downed trees, and maybe a few days without electricity, but I wanted to record it.

Little did I realize that I was going to have a blog that ended up getting picked up by several national news sources because I was one of the few blogs getting the truth out there before the national media figured out what was going on.

I post this today as both an urge to awareness–what’s going on in the Midwest with the flooding and in Northern California with the fires–but also as a thank you. I think, if you read the piece, you’ll see what a difference you made in our lives. Because you did.]

WHERE
GRACE LIVES

 

I passed a man at a shelter the other day.
He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue
t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was
something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve
seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans–it’s a hard life and it makes for
no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.

He was sitting in a metal folding chair,
slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made
me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into
it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of
socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the
grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere
along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated
shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.

When I looked back at that box, I wondered
what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that
these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box
wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard
for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that
this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no
words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked
up and caught my eye.

He had tears on his cheeks.

When I stood there, not sure what to say,
he shrugged and said, "I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t
believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much."

I mumbled something about it being the
least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly
inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.

It would be one among many things I could
not wrap my mind around.

On Tuesday morning, just a few days
earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown
through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.

It was only the beginning.

We managed to get our TV hooked to the
generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.

          New Orleans was filling up.

At first, it appeared that no one
nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the
generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on
national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet."

There was a steady thrum
of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world
gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep
deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too
great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet" was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what
was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they
“only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t
matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New
Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of
inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about
a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years
of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be
devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in L.A.  as fresh images of the ever increasing
deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain.
I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans."

And we did.

There are images which will crush me and
haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods
underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People
clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days
on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman
trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket
being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came,
too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t
leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing
over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her
breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for
one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving
to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave
since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on
their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department
could do nothing to stop it from spreading.

         There are
images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls,
a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying,
here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a
New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge
TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of
how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when
so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the
police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to
him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they
were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither
they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope
the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.

The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who
was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly
grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to
leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her
attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they
were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her
location. He never knew if they were rescued.

         There were the
talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded
to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas,
fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received –
they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the
water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various
government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people
up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go
back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were
the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where
streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices
cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.

         There are the
now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the
Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human
needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no
Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime.
People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on
others.

         Nothing but
dying and suffering in the Big Easy.

         The world
changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space: churches, synagogues,
and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge.  Other states took in many thousands, and yet,
thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and
forever as LSU.

        When you drive
up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is
the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a
construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the
national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.

If you looked a little past the stadium on
the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center, or P-MAC for short. It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the "Assembly" Center.

Its white dome and curved concrete ramps
will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became
an LSU student, years ago. Back before there was computer registration, we all
"walked through,” battling and jockeying in lines on the floor of the
Center to claim a "punch card" for the class we wanted — a slender 3
x 7 card with "chads" punched out, indicating the class for which
we’d just enrolled. We’d take the cards and climb to the second level and walk
around the mezzanine’s corridor, stopping at the various tables set up for each
task required and then finally, on to pay our fee bill.

It was exciting to be a part of that crowd.
It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a
promise of something bigger to come.

After the hurricane, we drove onto campus
and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back
toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being
overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated
Mike-the-Tiger cage, a luxurious enclosure complete with rocks to climb, a
waterfall, a very large pool and plenty of space to run and play. Next came the
concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up
toward a future.

Then there was the fence.

A fence.

There had never been a hurricane fence
preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So
around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left
turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the
guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, "Ambulances" and
had an arrow.

The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I
looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up.
This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the
tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about
loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many
evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans.

There was a table set up with laptops
so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes
(which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of
water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies
for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with
family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were
coming.

As we continued around the P-MAC, I could
tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses
and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave
danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those
in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their
stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs
ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly
over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes
— from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired
church ladies.

We signed in at the non-medical volunteer
station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer
our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts
and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.

When you walked inside the entrance, you
walked down a slight slope until you reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC.
Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at
floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in
awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city
set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that
small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients
some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.

There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A
field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters
beating overhead bringing in evacuees from New Orleans,
and a row of ambulances, sirens
blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.

There was a M*A*S*H unit. In  Louisiana.

In my
university.

In the  USA.

It simply didn’t seem possible, that there
would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major
catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and
rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics
were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely
handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.

So many unbelievable things were suddenly
true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines,
without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses
could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s
cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just
grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.

In the USA.

          It was at the
LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful
for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to
the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those
years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful,
and maybe so much worse.

          Everything had
changed.

          We lost New Orleans, and many
many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?

          The business of
surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people
survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about
where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we
could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand
square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but
the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost
everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to,
if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children.
In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their
gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans,  and then they’d look at one
another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”

          We lost New Orleans.

          My family and I
walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the
ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes
were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited
homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.

          The heartbreak
kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely
resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real
thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would
post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any
information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my
dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every
waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.

          We lost New Orleans.

A few days into the disaster, many more
boxes showed up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we
needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here,
and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes —
they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies
damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. We got to bring them to
the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me
like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who
sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.

I don’t know how to explain the affect
these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things
were needed by so many people.

Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who
could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw
clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before
they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to
find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much
required, all of these supplies, it was more than that.

It was the message that we’re not alone.

The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still
palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put
men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can
create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not
get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my
mind around why they were trapped in
the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which
wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. I absolutely cannot fathom that these
people were trapped because sheriff’s at the foot of that bridge prevented the
people from crossing into their city of
Gretna just because they didn’t want people from New Orleans
in their city. And I can’t believe I live in a
country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one did anything
about it.

         New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no
sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.

I cannot understand how media crews could
show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome,
and FEMA or our Federal Government not "know" the people were there.
How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world,
and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we
handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs
prevented us from helping Americans? How?

How is it that more than two weeks later
when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports
from the outlying areas that FEMA still
hadn’t shown up?

Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.

I don’t understand these things. I know I
live in America.


Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America.

New Orleans was
still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone
forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America.

          And
the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was
staggering. It was like watching someone I love get
gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet
away, talking about golf scores.

          So when I say
to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of
frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted
step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the
local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with
loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling,
writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you,
because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.

We lost New Orleans.

We needed you, and you were
there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the
worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as
our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.

You made a difference. A big difference.
And we thank you.

 

 

~*~

This essay first appeared online, over several weeks. I was asked (almost at the time of online appearance) to contribute to a little book I have become very proud of: Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans. Publishers Bruce Rutledge and his brother, New Orleans Professor David Rutledge did a fine job capturing the city over a span of time, even the dark, gritty corners of it.

Have you ever been through a natural (if the breaking of the levees could be called ‘natural’) disaster? How prepared are you?

 

 

I stand as witness

by Toni McGee Causey

Sometimes, there are moments that redefine a life.

And sometimes those moments are when someone else is the star of the show, when you’re in the audience, third row, fourth seat from the left.

I stand as witness.

I stand as witness for a sixteen-year-old boy I never met. He changed our lives.

I understand he had an easy smile, dark mop of hair, about-to-grow-into his looks. That gangly stage of boyhood, steaming, bubbling, nearly ready to change the world.

I never saw it.

He was inclusive. Whether by nature or taught at home, it’s unclear, but he was the rare kind of kid who would look at someone new at school, and say, "Come on, join us."  He was, from what I heard, warm and friendly. Flawed, sure. Normal. He liked sports and computers and had a new girlfriend.

I never knew him.

There were rounds of meetings in L.A., producers who’d read my latest script. I was on top of the world, in one sense, this was my "show" and yet, I was wondering how to make this work, how to pull up my family and move them a couple of thousand miles away from their home. I remember the evening as clearly as yesterday: I was in a friend’s home–he’d had a party so I could see everyone at one time. He’d cooked three kinds of soup and I was astounded at how very good they all were, that he really ought to be a chef somewhere.

His bungalow was not far from Paramount’s entrance, and I saw the Hollywood sign on my way there and the night felt light and innocent and full of hope. Laughter erupted every few seconds at the gathering, people mingled, and I had just heard the voices of long-known friends come through the front door when my cell phone rang.

It was my son.

"Mom. Ryan was killed tonight."

I stand as witness.

In the previous months, my son had gone from alone-at-a-new-school to having a circle of friends, and Ryan had been the ringleader. Our lives went from being unsure and wary and tense to being happy because of the actions of this kid. He changed everything.

I never heard him laugh. I had been traveling and had deadlines and teenage boys are not exactly wont to hang out with mom.

I’d heard about him, though. Nearly every day. He brought a light into our home with my son’s tales of their latest antics.

I stood in the line to greet his parents at the funeral. They managed to have a grace I could not have mustered, had a drunk driver killed my son.

All of the kids in his class would go on to graduate and some have families. My son now has a daughter. His life changed twice–once when he met Ryan, and again when he lost him.

Because of Ryan, he had made friends, some who will last a lifetime.

I realized that night I did not want to be 2000 miles away if there were ever another call. I did not want to uproot our lives, because there are some things that matter so much more than the latest round of meetings. There are some things we have to do, and some things we choose to do, and for me, while writing was the dream, I realized I already held the other: my family.

My life changed. I decided to pursue fiction and wrote something funny, because I needed something in the face of tragedy, and it’s comedy I turned to. I realized that if my life were cut short the next day, I’d have at least been working on something I loved, something I wanted to do, to please my own instincts instead of doing whatever misguided thing I thought I was "supposed" to do as a writer.

At sixteen, Ryan may not have had a chance to change the world, but he changed my part of it.

He was here. He mattered. He affected so many.

The power of one word, one welcoming gesture, can ripple out, affecting those around them for the rest of their lives. In fiction, the power of one act of cruelty or bravery can drive a story. Zoë’s post Thursday reminded me of this. I try to remember that the minor characters are witness to the events around them. Writing isn’t just about the protagonist and hero–we’re all protagonists and heroes in our own stories. Writing is capturing the ripple, from the point of impact.

At Ryan’s funeral, six years ago, I was sitting third row, fourth seat from the left.

But I stand as witness.

-toni

How about you? What do you stand as witness?

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