"How This Critter Crits"

How This Critter Crits

By Jay Squires


How This Critter Crits
Chapter One
            It took me over forty years to discover FanStory.  During those years writing was in my blood.  Unfortunately, so were laziness and a whole lot of other distracting things.  The net result was I managed to publish only one novel and a handful of short stories - oh, and one poem.  All occurred within the last five years.  I try not to think about how far I might have gone had I dedicated just half my energies spread out over even a measly half of those forty years.

            But that's my cross.  I'll just thank you for not reminding me I am carrying it.

            I have been a FanStory member for about three months now.  I've shared some  stories and poetry here.  Some liked them.  Some didn't.  In other words, some were quite bright, others lacked critical discernment.  Life is simple, given the right mind-set.

            Over the last three months, I have reviewed some five-hundred stories, poems and essays.  I call it reviewing.  I prefer "critiquing," but that would make me a critiquer, and I just don't like the way that looks on the screen or page.  Neither does my good friend Mr. Spell-Check  "It's not a real word," he tells me, underscoring his conviction with a squiggly red line—and that, by gum, is good enough for me!

            So the search began for a fitting name for the process.  It didn't have far to go.  I happily settled on the shortened "crit," and called myself a Critter.  Yes, I like that—I do indeed!  A Critter!  It has something of a maverick ring to it.  So what, that Mr. Spell-Check doesn't like it.  What does that anal-retentive pedant know?

            So with my title, Critter, at the ready, I felt emotionally and intellectually prepared to launch forth and crit.

            Before I tell you how that went, allow me a little side step to fill you in on some other stuff.

            My other job—my wife and my children call it my real job—is selling insurance.  I've been doing that for about as long as I've been writing.  I mention this for one reason.  As a businessman, I realize to be successful you have to know how to keep score.  You do that by checking your progress periodically.  I check quarterly - at least I try to - and I check my results against my goals.  It's called a quarterly report.

            Since I've been a FanStory member for three months, may I offer this as the quarterly report of my critting experience over that time.  I want to say, without hesitation, I flew by the seat of my pants during this, my first quarter.  My journey was experiential and not at all organized.  Of course, I had a ball!  I'm still having a ball.  So with the first quarter behind me, let's pop those corks, friends.  Raise high the glasses.  Toasts are in order.  I'm a Critter, you see.  And I'm in good company.  We're all Critters.  Viva los Critters!

            If you got the idea I'd been feeding my crits a diet of enthusiasm and emotion, you're absolutely right.  But today marks the end of an era, my friends—a three-month era—ha!  And it simultaneously begins the second, third and fourth quarters of a new era.  Thus, I shall be ushering in an era of responsible critting.  As much as possible, I will be rating quantitatively as opposed to emotionally and arbitrarily. 

            As loose and disorganized as my critting has been, these past three months, I've been able to slot each piece I read into one of four categories.  The borders between them kept shifting, expanding and contracting, for the reasons I gave above.  And as we explore them, you will easily see how one (using the impersonal "one" takes the heat off me nicely, thank you!) can be generous or damning to the degree that one is arbitrary in one's critting.

            These, then, are the categories, or groupings, into which I ceremoniously or unceremoniously slipped your soul's work after it had satisfied my literary palate:

            A small percentage was superb.  A larger number was good.  A small number was good to passable.  And a percentage, about as small as the superb group, was abysmal.

            To the writer of superb fiction (script, essay, poem, or whatever else), I awarded a 6 star.  My comments were glowing.  There were also a small handful of writers whose work only deserved a 5, but got a 6 for any number of stupid reasons—subjective reasons.

            If the writing was very good, the writer got 5 stars.  Strangely, my comments in those instances could be equally as glowing.  Some effervesced, even scintillated.  There were also a fair number of superb submissions who only got 5s because, alas! I had already squandered my 6s.  Guilt-ridden, I spewed praise over these.  If praise were water they'd have been drowned, in some cases scalded by my boiling passion for their genius.

            For good-to-passable works, they received 4 star ratings.  I made copious comments and suggestions, usually in the area of grammar and punctuation, on what they could do to improve their submission.  In nearly all these cases I offered to re-read their work with an eye to improve the rating as long as they either made the suggested changes or justified their not making the changes.

            Then come the abysmal submissions.  That this is a delicate category, I am fully aware.  Generally, though, I give this group a 3, rarely a 2.

            There are some for whom English is a second language.  I have befriended a few of these wonderful people, and I have nothing but praise for their high courage.  I can only imagine how sterling their writing might be in their own tongue.  For whatever reason, though, they chose to bare their souls in English.  In my crit I try to bring this out in the open right away.  Most all their errors are in the areas of grammar and punctuation, and often there are so many I can only generalize, suggesting they watch their agreements between nouns and verbs, double negatives and the like.  I also have suggested some on-line grammar sites.

            It is easy for me to imagine myself trying to communicate in their country; so I make an effort to exercise a great deal of tact while critting their writings.

            Falling into the abysmal category, there is also a strange breed of writers who seem to have a cultural or literary chip on their shoulders.  Their writings are written and submitted in a way an unwilling high school student would submit a composition paper.  Their personal biographies are often abrasive and challenging, and even vulgar.  I wonder why these people paid their membership in the first place.  Yet submit they do, sometimes prolifically.  Usually they refuse to spell check or edit their material.  Their grammar is atrocious once you figure out what the words are that are laid out on the screen before you.  I tried at first being tactful with them, going to great lengths to point out that they might want to consider changing this, adding here or deleting over there.  But did they want that?  One, quite to the point, commented after I reviewed his script that I reminded him of his mother!  Oh my ...

            Finally, there are those stalwart warriors who submit daily, who truly want to improve their writing and have a healthy approach to receiving criticism.  Their only problem is they have not come close to mastering even the basics of the writing craft.  Still, their need to reach out to others, to find an audience for their souls' stirrings, can bring tears to this old man's eyes.

            So there we have it: a bit of a confession of a flawed, short life in the FanStory world of literary criticism.  Here I am, dear fellow Critters, warts and all.  Tell you what—you don't twitter and point at my warts and I'll overlook your enormous Critter butt ....
*   *   *
Next installment:  The flesh and bones (with enough fat for the flavor) of an attempt at applying the same yardstick to all crits.

Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a week or so,  you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier text to read.


Chapter 1
WHY This Critter Crits

By Jay Squires

            If you missed the launching of "How This Critter Crits," you can find it in my portfolio. It's about a three or four minute read, so the way I figure it, you'll be rewarded about one-quarter cent per minute of reading time. But please don't read it for the two cents you'll get. Ultimately, you'll feel cheapened and tawdry acting under that motivation. Read it, instead, because you hope it might address issues you've wondered about. Read it because you might find it entertaining and enlightening. Read it because, like the mountain, it is there. Hell, read it because you have five minutes before the Viagra kicks in. Whatever—just read it!

            But given all those reasons, if you still choose not to read it, I reluctantly offer this summary:

            "How This Critter Crits" was, itself, a summary—a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory. Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.


How This Critter Crits

Chapter One


            I think it was the second day after posting How This Critter Crits I received a particularly glowing response. I had already answered probably twenty of them—mostly favorable ones, with a few being, well, less than sterling.

            Anyway, I scrolled down her crit to the response box, and after thanking her for her kindness, I told her how—owing to what she and others had voiced—I literally quaked in my figurative boots. I told her I'm like the rookie ball player who listens to, and then internalizes, what the press is saying about him: to wit, that he will break the home run record, if not this year, then surely the next. Does he, for one moment, reflect that the press's job is to sell newspapers and they're notorious for being wrong? Just once, does he let the thought that his teammates still have the nerve to call him "kid" bring him down a notch? Oh, no! Not this rookie!

            Instead, the first time at bat he points to the center field fence (Babe Ruth style), and with the first pitch he closes his eyes and leans into a mighty swing that miraculously sends the ball far over that same fence. As he trots around the bases, his hat in his hand, nodding his head right and left, and grinning fatuous acknowledgment to the cheers of the standing fans—inside him, his stomach is churning. He bristles to himself, "There you go ... Now you've done it, dummy! You had to go and point your stupid finger, didn't you? Thanks to your idiot finger, you've got yourself one long, scary season ahead of you!"

            Anyway, I haven't looked back at my answers to your wonderful crits, but I think there's a good chance I might have spewed a little enthusiasm all over you about the segments that are to follow. So ... if you find me pointing to a fence here or there, please forgive me.

            One of the reviewers of How this Critter Crits asked me why I found the need to invent "Critter."  After all, what was wrong with "reviewer?" It's a very good question. And while I can't promise you a good answer, I can promise you a rather long one.

            I choose Crit/Critter only for myself, and I choose it partly because it's fun, fanciful and informal. But did you notice I snuck in a "partly" back there? It's because there's another reason I choose not to review or call myself a reviewer. And I want to say right away my reason is highly subjective.

            It involves a bit of a story, so bear with me. There will be a point to it, somewhere near the end. I promise you. Here goes:

            About three years ago, I published a novel—my first. Okay, it was my only novel, a mystery/thriller, entitled The Dead of Winter, and you have no idea how proud I was! I thought it deserved national if not world-wide recognition, with a place on the shelves of every library in the United States. Of course, it got neither. None of that should be important to you. But besides my just wanting to say it, it does segue into the subject I want to broach—and somewhere toward the end of that subject, it offers the point I promised.

            The story has to do with all of us writers whose books were birthed by this particular publisher.  (By the way, don't expect me to mention the publisher's name,* and though some of you may figure it out before I'm finished, please don't shout it out.) What is important, as I said, we’re all of us writers. You see, we had a message board which the publisher owned, and on which we could chat, share ideas about marketing our prides-and-joys, pluck a person up when he was down, bring a person down a peg or two when he was too full of himself. We had a brotherhood, a sisterhood. And life was good in the hood!

            You've been very patient, so now I'll at least approach the point. Our books were sold on, among other book dealers. If you are familiar with the books found on Amazon, you've noted the "star" rating system, very much like FanStory's (but without the venerable and elusive six star rating). As a reader, you can say a little or a lot about your opinion of the book's worth, and rate it accordingly. Of course, prospective buyers may peruse those reviews and make a decision whether or not to buy it. So the rating is important.

            Now, because of our brotherhood, sisterhood relationships (the groups and sub-groups and cliques formed on "the board", as we called it), there was a lot of inner buying, selling, and giving of books to one another. It was a kind of literary incest, if you will, within our brotherhood/sisterhood. But with it came a price. Once you had one of your friend's precious cargo in your hands, had read it (and some of them were sheer anguish to read), you were expected to review it. And this is how that worked in the hood: one presented the review first to the board where it was peppered with oohs and ahs and half dozen variants of work of genius. Then, after that book’s author gushed his approval, he gave the reviewer grateful permission to place it, with the full five-star rating, of course, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders.

            I did my share of reviewing. Oh, yes! Probably more than ten authors got my rave reviews with not one less than a five. My own novel sits elegantly on Amazon, though I have since severed my contract with the publisher. Ten reviews (I counted them just today) still reside there, all but one penned by authors on our board—yes, by my friends, my brethren, my sis-tren. All fives. All bristling with verbs and dripping with syrupy adjectives. And of course, in this case, all sincere, all worthy, all true.

            Now, to take this story to its conclusion, and the promised point ... I remember an incident concerning one of the darlings of the publisher, and a formidable Titan among the published writers there. As I checked out the message board one day, I happened upon his posting which blistered with invective for a newbie upstart who dared to deposit a three star review on Amazon, with comments advising the prospective buyer that the plot was thin, the characters thinner, and how she was saddened for the tree that gave up its life for this novel.

            The poor young lady was, indeed, a newbie, her book having been published only the previous month. She was abashed. She shot back an answer that she was sorry but she was under the impression she was supposed to be honest in her reviews.

            A few minutes later, his reply came sizzling back. "Honest? Honest!" he seethed, while, I'm sure, flinging spittle over his keyboard. "Who the hell told you we're supposed to be honest? We're here to help each other sell our books. No more, no less!"

            Well, to say their exchanges sparked controversy on the board is understated. Adherents pitched in both camps. Battle was imminent between pragmatism and idealism; between doing what works and doing what's right. Ultimately, it would be whether you would choose to be lying to, lying for and lying with each other, or "to thine own self be true," as someone, perhaps a writer, once said. As a matter of fact, since I took the time to look up the quote, and determined he was a writer, let's let Mr. Shakespeare finish his thought: "And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

            Now you know the how and the why the other "partly" came about. I warned you it was subjective. But to me it's very real. Call this process we're all involved with what you want. Review away, if you wish. As for me, with a little shudder of remembrance I can't seem to dislodge, I choose to crit. And whether my crits are good or bad, inspired or pedestrian, this much I pledge to you: they represent the best I can do with the knowledge I have at this moment in time. Further, I know you want—no, you should expect—any critter to deliver only the best he has in him. For your part, I am going to assume that with your creative offering, you are announcing to each and every critter out here: "This is the absolute best, most highly polished, work I can offer at this moment. Please help me find ways to make it better."

            We only grow, as writers and critters, by stretching out of, and beyond, the creative skin in which each of us resides at every individual moment in time. We exist in a true symbiotic relationship. We feed off, and at the same time nourish, each other. And what each of us deserves is what is true and genuine in the other.

            If, however, flattery is what a person craves, allow me to whisper in that person's ear the name of a publisher whose authors will gleefully offer a full, fragrant dose of it—for a price, of course ....

            At the conclusion of "How This Critter Crits" I previewed what was to be this, the second installment, saying it would contain "The flesh and bones (with enough fat for the flavor) of an attempt at applying the same yardstick to all crits." Little did I know someone would innocently ask me why I don't call myself a reviewer. It just goes to show there are no innocent questions ... or short answers. Allow then, if you will, today's offering to be as an enormous set of parentheses between the first installment and the third. And in that third installment I will try, once again, to explore the method I will use in trying to apply one and the same yardstick to all crits.

Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.




Author Notes *As clarification, back when I submitted my novel to this publisher, electronic self-publication was in its infancy, if indeed, it existed. Was it of the Vanity Press ilk? I certainly hope not. I didn't pay them to publish my novel. And people could buy it directly from the publisher. My wife's aunt did, and I was embarrassed to hear how much she paid for it. The publisher also made it available to Amazon (but not Kindle, which I don't think they had at the time), again at the same price my wife's aunt paid for it.

The biggest way the publisher made money on the sale of books was to sell them to the author at "wholesale," which he/she in turn could sell at whatever price he/she felt was bearable in the marketplace.

Twenty years later, two shelves on my bookcase sag under their weight.

Chapter 2
Macro/Micro Critting

By Jay Squires

What you may have missed:
          The preface, "How This Critter Crits," was a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory.  Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.  The second installment, "Why This Critter Crits,"explored the reason why I chose "crit" and "critter" over "review" and "reviewer".  The answer may surprise you.
          There is a chuckle or two in each.  Combined, you'd be looking at only 5 minutes reading time.  Personally, I've found them to be abundantly entertaining bathroom reading.  But then, you may not have your computer in your bathroom.  So, that should be your first priority - unless you want to print them out.
          So ... with crits held high, let's proceed.


(The Nuts and Bolts in the Road Where the Rubber Meets)

Chapter Two

            One of the weekend activities my wife and I enjoy is going to open houses.  I can almost hear some of you, out there, saying, "Get a life, Jay!"  Well, despite your sarcasm, we do find it entertaining.  I have my ever-present mug of Starbucks in the cup holder, and next to it sits Roseana's 44-ouncer of diet Coke we picked up from McDonalds along the way.  You can't drive two miles without coming across a Starbucks or a McDonalds, so our containers are never empty.  And those establishments always have restrooms, so our bladders are never entirely full.  Add to that an air conditioner blasting out frigid air during Bakersfield, California's blistering summers, and a heater that keeps our feet toasty during the winters, when the temperature dips way down into the thirties or even the twenties (which is rare because, well, this is California), and you have the recipe for a perfect Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

            Could life be any sweeter when you have with you the woman you've loved for forty years, your beverage of choice at hand, a controlled environment inside, and outside a city of two hundred and fifty thousand, with a labyrinth of streets to explore for that elusive one-in-a-million home you can't live without

            Of course, we will live without it.  You see, we have no intention of buying.  We are anathema to realtors.  We stand proud, thumbing our noses at them.  We are lookey-loos.  Understand us, Critters, and love us ... in spite of it.
            According to our newspaper, there's an open house over on the next block.

            As we pull up to the curb, I notice the drapes pull apart just a little, then settle back.  Behind those drapes, feet would now be scurrying about, a blur of hands, picking up clutter, tidying countertops; parents telling the kids to stay in their rooms and be quiet. 

            The homeowners might well be wasting their time.  See, we don't know, yet, whether we'll even go in.  There are other important considerations. 

            "Look at those."  I am referring—with an inclination of my head first right, then left—to the houses on either side.  The one on the right is in obvious disrepair.  Plywood covers one window, like a patch over an eye.  The stucco is leprous.  The grass is uncut, weedy; trees are untrimmed, with their branches hanging over onto the roof.  An engine-gutted pick-up is hunkered in the dirt, off to the side.

            "Behold, my love, the Bakersfield hillbillies before striking the bubbling crude."  I am thinking out loud.

            "Now, Mr. Drysdale ... aren't you being a bit of a snob?"

            I frown.  No one wants to be called a snob.  I direct my attention to the house on the other side.  It is exquisitely cared for, but has been painted a gaudy pink with powder-blue fascia and shutters.  The window coverings are white and lacey and corseted to the window frames.  A miniature pink picket fence, not more than a foot tall, lines the walkway to the door.  A two-foot-wide strip of blooming groundcover is on either side.  Okay, this is a gal house.  No poker night here.  No Monday Night Football.  I don't voice this prejudice, though.  I dare not voice it.  In fact, I don't say anything at all.  I just glance at Roseana, then away—but not until I see her grin start.

            "You could always ask her if she'll let her husband come over and watch the game with you."  It's uncanny how she follows my thought processes.

            "I don't know what you mean," I say.  But then I have to smile.

            She finishes the last of her diet Coke and sets the cup in the holder.  "Let's go for it."

            "Let's," I answer, and I push open the car door.

            Ascending the steps to the long sidewalk leading to the front door, I turn my attention to the house itself.  It sits far back on a large expanse of lawn.  It would require a lot of upkeep.  Rose bushes have been cropped down below the huge picture window.  But the rosebushes won't stay below the window.  And thorns prick, even through gloves, when you cart the cut stems to the trash. 

            Still and all, the house, itself, has good structure, good bones.  Its stucco finish has been painted a pale yellow, with a brighter yellow framing the windows and the eaves.  Nothing screams out, "Look at me!  Look at me!"

            Before we get to the front door, allow me to issue a challenge:

            Take me away from Roseana, the beverages, the car with all its comfort features and remove me entirely from that neighborhood, (knowing I'll be back to join my lovely wife before the front door opens).  Further, allow me to preserve not only the memory of this house, but also all aspects of the houses on either side, including all my prejudicial baggage, then plop me down in front of my computer, cranked up to the "Start Reviewing" screen on FanStory.  What do we have?

            We kind of have—I say, kind of have—my personal model for macro critting (and I trust if you didn't make careful note that I italicized "my," back there, you'll go back now and check it out.  We'll wait ....)

            When I double click on "Start Reviewing," it means I've already answered in my mind a critical question: "Do I have enough time to do a decent job critting a piece of writing that is very important to one of my colleagues?  Am I rested enough and in the right frame of mind? 

            These are important considerations.  Roseana and I choose weekends to house hunt, so we'll be relaxed.  And we wouldn't think of beginning at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the signs start coming down at 5:00.  And why would we go hunting at all if we weren't in the mood for it?  It would be too much like work, like a job, wouldn't it?  Likewise, we critters wouldn't click on a story or poem after we'd had a run-in with our boss (or spouse) earlier today, and risk the replay of our acrimonious conversation being superimposed on the lines we’re reading.  We wouldn't, would we?  Well, would we?

            But wait!  You only have two "member cent pumps" and $3.42 in member dollars in your stash, and the story you promoted yesterday is already beginning its inevitable greased descent.  You need to pump some life in it, and you need to do it now.  You need to pump ... it ... up ....  I guess it's up to each of us, individually, to deal with that dilemma.

            So the first consideration is: do I have enough time and am I in the right mindset to do justice to another's pride and joy?

            Assuming I can answer "yes" to both, I do a double click on "Start Reviewing," and check out what's next on the queue.  It happens to be "Spiritual Poetry," and with it, the next consideration I have to face.

            I bring back to mind the Clampets' hovel and Barbie's precious domicile.  And I ask myself, do I have similar Spiritual prejudices, as well, on the surface, or lurking beneath it?  More basically, do I have poetry prejudices?  And more basically, still, do I have the skills to adequately crit poetry, particularly the more formalized, rhymed and metered variety?

            In reality, I won't have to dredge for an answer to each of those questions.  Rather, from my emotional center the answer will come of itself with a resounding "Yes!  Yes!"  Or it will be a "Yuk!"  If it is a "Yuk," now is not the time, nor is this the place, to begin a program of poetry appreciation—not at the expense of the poem in question.  Save education for another day.  Okay, Jay, double click on "Next."

            "But wait," I might stall.  "Poems are usually short.  There's a twenty-five percent chance I'll get a member pump.  I can read and crit three or four poems in the time it would take for one prose piece—and give me better odds at getting my prize.  And simply by reading them, I'll even get better at understanding.  I'll learn, and while I learn, I'll be generous with my crits ... and in the meantime, five or six additional pumps could be mine."

            Don't you even consider that brand of logic, Jay!  Double friggin' click on "Next."

            I do.  And of course I'll do it again and again, as long as I'm honest with myself, as long as I ask myself the tough questions about each choice that pops up.  Do I have a bias against romance stories?  How about a predisposition against children's literature?  Or this: am I prejudiced against a particular short story which warns me that my ears are about to be scorched by the language the writer promises to use, and he will provide, free of charge, a bevy of sweaty, naked bodies writhing on the floor emitting animal sounds?  I may even have to admit to an unseen judge that I am over eighteen.  Oh, my!

            But you get the idea...

            As a critter, don't we need to stand outside the story or the poem, the script or the essay for a spell?  We've got the time.  We're in the right frame of mind.  So, now, don't we need to sit at the curb for a moment, as it were, to scan the environment, to look left and right at the surroundings?  Shouldn't each one of us seek for the answer to the question: "What will my comfort level be in this neighborhood?  And if I'm not comfortable hereyet choose to stay here—am I liable to treat my neighbors unfairly?"

            Let's assume I've found the neighborhood in which I can be comfortable.  I make my selection of what I want to crit.  It's a crime novel.  What's next?  I start reading, right?

            Well ... not quite.  Not when I'm in the Macro part of the Macro/Micro critting system.  I'll have plenty of time to read it.  In fact, by taking not much more than a minute now, I should be able to make the reading go more rapidly and enjoyably—and more importantly, I might do a better job helping the writer strengthen his piece.  And bonus time!  By focusing on the elements of effective writing, how can I help but improve my own writing skills?

            As a fellow critter, let me ask you a question.  If I were to hand you a Tom Robbins novel to read, after thanking me profusely, would you sit down, grab a beverage, open the novel up to chapter fifteen and start reading?  Of course not.  But why not?  That's what many writers on FanStory expect you to do when you select a chapter of their novel to read.

            So, let's say the selection I have chosen to look at (to decide whether or not I'll crit) is chapter seventeen of a crime/thriller novel.  By now, most characters are well developed, a few are killed off, and the story line has taken many twists and turns.  What, then, should the writer expect of me as a critter?  And what expectations should I—what expectations should we, fellow critters—have of the writer?
            This is a good place to ask you to hold that question in mind.  The next segment is just around the corner.  In it I'll wrap up macro critting.  We'll explore together the overall structure of the selection, we'll weigh it, measure it, check out its thickness—still trying to decide whether it's something we want to devote our time to.

            So, until then, keep writing, keep critting.

            And if you happen to see Roseana, tell her I love her and I'll see her before long.  She'll be the one on the walkway between the front door and our car—the one with the bewildered look on her face.  Alas!  She seems to have lost her husband!  He was there just a moment before ....

          Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.

Chapter 3
Macro/Micro Critting -- Continued

By Jay Squires

What you may have missed:
My first three months with FanStory I critted without method, by the seat of my pants, as it were.  The preface of How This Critter Crits, explained that and pointed me in the direction of how I wanted to crit.  Chapter one, entitled Why this Critter Crits, explained the emotionally tinged meaning "review" and "reviewing" held for me.  In chapter two, Macro/Micro Critting, I introduced the reader to the hobby my wife and I have of house hunting and drew parallels between standing in front of the "open house" and standing in front of a selection to crit.


            For those of you with me last time, and are now waiting to join me once again with my wife ... I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you.  I must leave Roseana on the sidewalk, in mid-stride between our car and the front door of the open house we were to visit.  I have other, more pressing concerns that won't leave me enough time to squander away an afternoon.  I need to spend some serious hours in front of my computer.

            Don't worry about the love of my life, though.  She has the car, and she'll find her way home.

            After living with me for forty years, Roseana understands—or even if she doesn't understand, she has learned to accept—my propensity for occasionally wandering off.  It is, always honorable.  I don't do it often.  I always come home.  I'm never gone long ... and it's almost always not a physical sojourn.

            I don't just wander from Roseana, it appears.  I seem to have become pretty adept, of late, at wandering from the subject.  Some brothers and sisters of the critter persuasion, whose opinions I respect, have suggested they appreciate my humor, my honesty, my occasional self-effacement ... and then they say, almost in passing, they can't wait until I actually get into the subject of critting.  Then there were the others who were immensely relieved that, following my lead, they could come out of the house-hunter's closet.  But then, rather obliquely, they asked when they could expect me to get into the subject of critting.  One critter was more direct, bless him.  He simply suggested I quit with my similes, metaphors, and analogies and get with the program.

            So, with just a little thumb of my nose at his request for me to dispense with my metaphors, allow me to introduce the pure vanilla brand of macro/micro critting:
            However (and even at the risk of having more than one of you sigh, "Here he goes again,") short of dropping down, now, to a single-spaced, 8-point-font-footnote at the end of this piece, I need to take a minute to draw a big circle around everything macro/micro critting is and leave outside the circle everything it isn't

            First, I inject myself right in the middle of the circle.  I am developing macro/micro critting to help me work through the maze of considerations and choices I must make every time I face a new piece of writing.

            When I use the terms "we" and "us" it is because I'd like to believe there is a degree of mutuality in the critting process just as there were with some of the preconditions we discussed last time.  Also ... it can be pretty lonely in the circle all by myself.  So, if you want to jump in with me at any time feel free—and just as freely jump out when inclination or mood strikes you.

            Secondly (and why do I have the feeling some of you critters, comfortably inside the circle during the first three segments, will soon leap out?) the subject matter inside the circle must be genre selective.  It will encompass: short fiction; the novel; and non-fiction, including biography.  It will be easier to list what will be left outside:  they include poetry and scripts.

            I adore poetry.  I love its grandeur and its economy.  And how I admire the scriptwriter, who can do so much with the dramatic power of the spoken word.  Personally, though, I am not up to the task of helping any of these writers advance their craft one iota through my suggestions.  And yes, I have critted poetry and scripts here.  And yes, I may offer my comments on some of them in the future.  But for the time being, I have not sketched out for myself a methodology for either. 
*   *   *
            With that circle behind us, we need to carry on where we left off last time with the problems inherent in critting an isolated chapter of a novel when the writer is well into the body of the work.  We'll look at the options the writer has.

            You know, it's significant to me that the first adverse comment I received as a result of my well-intentioned but less-than-tactful crit, came during my first week with FanStory.  Her comment began with (and here I'm paraphrasing from memory and altering everything but the truth of it), "Of course you don't understand why Harvey acted the way he did.  You'd have found that out in chapter 2.  That was the chapter where I explained the reasons why he has absolutely no self-esteem, now, because of the incident in the third grade when his dad came into his classroom, pulled down Harvey's drawers and spanked him in front of all his classmates.  And jaysquires, you'd have known if you'd had just taken the time to read the chapter just before this one, that Heloise did not throw up all over Harvey and his car because of the desperately clumsy and overly wet kiss he planted on her lips, but rather because of the slice of bad pizza she ate while she waited for him to pick her up."  That's how her comments began.  They ended with, "So, jaysquires, if you come across anything else I've posted here, please feel free to pass it by.

            It would lead to a nice, tidy conclusion if I could stab a self-righteous finger at the fact that her chapter did not include a summary of preceding chapters.  The fact is I don't remember.  I suppose I could go back and check the archives.  I'd rather not.  I choose to leave that crit in my past.  One of you might argue the lady hurt jaysquires' feelings.  To that jaysquires would counter with ...  "Why, you son-of-a-bitch!"  Yes, I want to close the door on that crit, if you don't mind.

            The critter doesn't have to go far on FanStory to find any number of examples of other novels-in-progress.  Some will have summaries.  Most won't.  From the writer's standpoint, I must say I am mystified at the latter.  Why would anyone go through the agony each of us goes through to finish a piece—to change it, to polish it, to change and polish it again, until it says just about what he wants it to say, then box up and send out to the publisher or agent pages 125 to 132 without any explanation?

            The other night, Roseana and I watched Studio 60, Sunset Strip.  It was the third episode.  We had seen it from the beginning, so we got to know the characters and the developing plot and the theme right from the start.  But it wouldn't have mattered much if it had been our first time, because as we sat waiting, diet Coke and mug of coffee at our elbows, the words greeted us: "Previously on Studio 60, Sunset Strip," and there followed a one minute collage of scenes that would have brought a chimpanzee up to speed.  Can you imagine NBC offering the weekly chapter of its mega-multi-million-dollar product any differently?

            Why should the novelist on FanStory treat his or her own creation with less respect?  Yet some do.  And I'm sorry, but that just flat mystifies me.

            These are the choices I find the writer has:

            He can ignore the problem.  That way the problem simply doesn't exist.  There are no requests.  No injunctions.  The chapter is just "out there" for you to shoot at.  And it's sad—to me, it's quite sad.

            He can ask the critter not to read the chapter until he has read all the preceding chapters.  If ignoring the problem is sad, expecting someone to do this is laughable, particularly if the writer is well into the story.  He would be just as successful garnering readership by structuring his novel and posting it as one 350-page chapter.

            He can invite the critter to have a go at the present chapter, but only crit for SPAG.  Now this is precious!  The writer might just as well mandate, while he is at it, that we read it from end to beginning, using the logic that we'll pick out more nits if we don't contaminate our SPAG-quest by following the pesky plot.

            And that leaves us with the following strategy: The writer can do a brush-stroke summary of everything that led up to the present chapter, providing a more detailed summary in the chapter just before.  The way I see it, this last method is the only one that makes sense—it's the only method that gives the writer a fighting chance at finding an enthusiastic audience for his novel.

            If you agree with me, but can't imagine how to begin doing this, or you're staggered by the potential enormity of it, may I suggest a resource to study?  We have, right here at FanStory, a novelist who used this method with imagination and flair in his novel series, Vision and Sound: Their Stories.  You'll find it in the MichaelCahil’s portfolio.  Here is a link to Chapter One, “A Threatening Orphan”. Study a dozen or so prefaces to chapters carefully.  They are an education, not just in filling the reader in on what happened previously, but also in chapter salesmanship.

*   *   *
            While the writer has one of those four options from which to choose to introduce the best of what remains of his novel, the critter has only one responsibility in the face of whatever choice the novelist makes for his present chapter:  His responsibility is to bring into the novel the best that's in him of his attention, his experience, and his caring.

            Would you agree with me we're all built pretty much the same regarding our attentiveness to something we are interested in?  Leaving aside the Zen master with 20 years meditation experience, on the one end, and the scatter-brained Gilliganesque twit on the other, aren't we left with you and me and 95 percent of everyone else huddling in the middle with our similar abilities to focus on what interests us?

            How about caring?  Am I naïve in thinking because we all know how wrenchingly difficult this job of writing well can be, we should have more than a small amount of empathy for our fellow writers?  If I don't care about the quality and accuracy of what I am critting—well, shame on me!

            There is one variable, though, and that is experience.  Some of us have a fair number of writing years under our belts, and about as many years spent critically reading huge numbers of successful and unsuccessful writers within our specialty. Others have only recently been bitten by the writing bug.  Some have taken a few creative writing classes.  (There are even a few people I've come across on FanStory who have taught some creative writing classes.)  There are some others—and I'm talking about good writers—who haven't taken a class of any kind since they dropped out of school in the seventh grade.  Some here are walking encyclopedias of grammar.  And then there's me, who is ecstatic over this curtain of cyber-privacy between the writer and myself that allows me to thumb through my dog-eared copy of Woe Is I and The Elements of Style, and toss out corrections and suggestions, (even choosing the word "ellipsis", for example, over "three dots", and EM dash over “two dashes”), as though the terms casually rolled off my tongue.

            So, how can we reconcile effective critting with such wide ranges of experience? 

            Some of the best advice I ever got on my first novel, a mystery thriller, a year before it was ready for publication, came from a young man after I assured him I wanted his unvarnished opinion of it.  I really wanted the varnished and glittery stuff of unbridled praise.  But that was irrelevant—and it certainly wasn't to be the case!  He sat across the table from me in a coffee shop, rubbing the back of his hands, nervously, trying to figure how to begin.  Finally, he said, "It was really long."

            "Yeah—I—okay," I said.  "Long."

            "I liked the beginning.  I really got into it.  (Translation:  Good opening paragraph, compelling first couple of pages.)  "And the ending ... I, um, I really liked that."  (Translation:  He made it to the end.  Good.  And he found it satisfying.  Good plot resolution.)  "But ... but somewhere near
near the middle ... "  Here he started tracing the imaginary contour of a swayback horse.  (Translation:  Uh-oh!)  "Near the middle I, um, really started losing interest in Noah.  You know?"

            It was some of the best advice I ever got; and from someone who wasn’t a writer, but one who liked to read.  He knew intuitively what worked and what didn't.  And this didn't work.  He knew it sagged in the middle, but didn't know enough about the writer's techniques to explain precisely how.  No writer, or book on creative writing, ever explained to him how the plot has to have an ever increasing number of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome on his way to a major, seemingly impossible obstacle, the overcoming of which will result in the climax and the denouement (which—dare I mention again?—he liked in my novel).

            What he did, though, was make me look back into the belly of my novel.  It made me seek the answer to the hard (unasked) question:  Can I have Noah (who was fast on the trail of the Indian Cult leader who had kidnapped Noah's nephew) stop in mid-chase to preside over a success seminar?  Never mind that the cult leader had Noah's nephew and other novices in a hilly hideaway that Noah wouldn't be able to get to anyway, until dawn of the next day.  Ignore that the seminar showed a side of Noah that could scarcely have been revealed in any other setting.  The hard fact was that the seminar took three hours of fictional time, and fifty pages, and about an hour of actual time to conclude, during which time the reader hankered for the showdown between Noah and the Indian cult leader.

            At that point, only two people had read my unpublished story.  One thought it had all the makings of a best-seller—if not the Great American Novel.  The other thought it suffered through excess saggage.

            The point is, the critter doesn't have to have the word saggage in his arcane literary vocabulary to be helpful.  It was plenty effective for my friend to say, "somewhere near the middle I started losing interest in Noah."

            Regardless of the level of experience, with honesty, caring and patience anyone can deliver a helpful crit.

*   *   *
            In the next segment of How This Critter Crits we will finish Macro Critting with ways to preview (read that, pre-view) and size up what we've chosen to crit.  It will be a short chapter, but it will take us to, and through, the doorway into micro critting.

 Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.

Chapter 4
Macro-Critting (The Wrap)

By Jay Squires

NOTE: Please read "Author Notes"  before you continue. BTW, if you've already found this, you have no need for the information that it is ON PAGE 3 AT THE 70TH POSITION.
A Succinct Sketch of What
Many Have Read, and Perhaps You Should Too:
The preface and Chapter one of How This Critter Crits, describes why I felt the need to develop my personal method of critiquing (critting) manuscripts and why I proudly call myself a critter instead of a reviewer. Chapter two and three explore in a general way the two processes of critting: Macro- and Micro-Critting, and focus in on the former. With macro-critting, I highlight the procedure this critter takes to first choose, then overview the selection. In a nutshell, this includes all that precedes the line-by-line and word-by-word study and enjoyment of the text.
With the chapter you're about to read, we finish macro-critting. We get naked for a good part of it. I hope you enjoy it. I know I did.



It was the spring of 1960 and I was hell-bent on capturing the Pulitzer, or even the Nobel Prize for literature. Better yet I would win the Pulitzer Prize the first year and the Nobel Peace Prize the next. Ambition and self-confidence I owned in spades. That's what enduring the last eighteen months in Tripoli, North Africa—although rent-free and stipend-earned, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force—will do for you. You have plenty of time to either drink or dream. Drinking made me dizzy at first, then pukey afterwards.

But there I was, eighteen months later, standing in the phase-out line, in Charleston, South Carolina. My discharge papers in hand, I had the goofiest smile that crazed-joy could produce pasted to my face, while I just itched to get to the head of the line. I was about free to slay the dragons of my choice. And my choice was clear.

I had a vision—a plan. I even had a time frame: five years. That should do it. Yep.

But with all that I had a nagging concern. I was only twenty-one years old. I lacked experience. More than that, I lacked formal education. I could go to college. But how could I attend all those classes and still find time to write the novels that would earn my dreams? After all, I only had five years.

I remembered hearing about a learning program that was pretty much in its infancy. It was called The Great Books of the Western World. The editors boasted of a complete college education within its volumes. I wasted no time. As soon as I got home I ordered the set.
*  *  *
This is not about the failure of my five-year plan. It's not about the failure of a twenty-five year plan. And since dreams die hard, it's not even about the failure of a forty-five year plan. What it is about, indirectly, is the set of The Great Books of the Western World. I say "indirectly" because it is rather about a particular book that accompanied the set. The editors—realizing, I'm sure, few people can successfully wade through the "Great Books", even with the lesson plans—included another book, entitled: How To Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler.

I didn't even open Mr. Adler's book until after I'd butted heads with half a dozen of the "Great Books", selected randomly. I emerged dazed. I was emotionally battered and bloodied by my brief encounter with wisdom.

"Of course you failed to conquer your difficulty cracking these books," Mortimer Adler chided me. "You approached it too reverently, too seriously. More importantly, you didn't read it straight through from beginning to end. You stopped to look up unfamiliar words and reread difficult concepts. You checked out each footnote and cross-reference. By the time you got to page 10 or 20 you were so bogged down, and the finish line looked so impossibly far away you slammed it shut in frustration. Right?"

How could I disagree?

According to Adler, a book needs to be read three times. The first time is a quick read, to get the overall feel for the subject. The second time ... the second time through the book
the sad fact is I never got into the second reading. I sailed over the surface of most all of the "Great Books", at least those that lent themselves to sailing over. By the time I finished a particular book, the last thing I wanted to do was go back for a second, and then follow that with a third read. Besides, I had developed a sophisticated excuse mechanism that had me convinced I would certainly get back to the second reading—just not now, if you don't mind.

I think I do remember (through the haze of over forty years) something of which Adler's second reading was comprised. It had to do with breaking the book down to its component parts, then studying those parts in relation to each other part and finally to the work as a whole. I don't have a clue what the third reading was all about—only that there was one.

*  *  *

If I haven't adopted the body of the first and the second reading of Adler's How to Read a Book as a model for macro critting, at least I've adopted its spirit. In fact, I've made a pretty tasty stew of the first reading mixed with what I remember of the second.

Where Dr. Adler advises a quick, don't-stop-for-the-wounded, approach for the initial reading of a book in an effort to get the feel for its overall cognitive structure, I suggest an intimate relationship between the reader and the scroll-button.

Intimate? Yes, friends, intimate! I want you to go down on that scroll button. Got that? I want you to go down on it and to ride it languorously from top to bottom. Slowly ... I want you to enjoy it, to slide down it with senses wide open.

Let me ask you, is there anyone who does not remember with heightened vividness his or her first time? C'mon, you know what I'm talking about. Right now, in the privacy of your own personal space, recall this first time again. Come on! You're not gonna be tested.

So are we there yet? .... Okay, I see we are. Now, if I can crack through that smile, let me suggest yours is the type of glazed, non-focused, unthinking, intuitive receptivity one should strive to bring into this phase—and only this phase—of one's crit. There will be plenty of time, later, for laser intellect.

Am I going overboard with this? Perhaps. But less than you might think at first glance. I feel I'm close to its spirit.
While I enjoyed watching you scroll, above ... now, with some trepidation—okay, some titillation, too—in a moment I'm going to let you watch me. Once I start, it never takes long. I promise.

I've developed through the years a previewing posture toward what I'm preparing to read. I've fine-tuned it during the last couple of months of daily exposure to the varied fare here on FanStory. It is, above all else, an attempt to achieve a senses-wide-open receptiveness to the piece. So you will forgive the sexual imagery I used above, and accept it in the context of this receptiveness—consider it a metaphor for it, if you will.

I promised you could watch me, so with the preceding as foreplay, here I go:

First Selection: A short story. The scroll bar is about 1/3 inch, a medium to long piece. (This is a part of the selection process used to determine whether I have the time to do a decent job with this piece. I'm using it for classification only, so don't accuse me of not smiling. I still have a broad grin on my face. My eyes are glazed. I'm not thinking, I'm intuitive as all hell—I qualify!)

                  My cursor on the scroll-bar, I drag it down the page slowly, languorously: but already, the hinterland of my awareness picks up on a heaviness, an uncommon density. Remember, I'm not reading words, just storing impressions away. There are no breaks—is no "air," between the lines. I keep scrolling down this dark block of print. There is a heavy, thick, almost suffocating slowness to it.

As I scroll down I feel the brief promise of relief a quotation mark intuitively brings. Ah! People. Human interaction. Joy and tragedy. But I scroll farther down and realize what I so briefly saw was like an air bubble rising thickly through oatmeal. You've seen it, yourself. You've seen and heard it in your own kitchen. Blup .... Blup .... You get that feeling of trapped air. All too brief. And now it's past and on and on I lumber and plod through this oatmeal-thick block of words to the end.

I've scrolled through countless stories like this. A few I read (if they were short). More of them I skipped. In all cases I asked myself, what was the writer thinking? Does the writer care that readers are passing his story by? When I commented on it to a few writers whose stories I read they told me they submitted it with all the spaces in the right places, but somehow the edit-Nazi sucked the spaces right out. And I'm sure it happened. But the first thing I do when I push the send button on my posting is pull it back up, look at it as a reader would, and scroll down it. Don't you do that? Of course you do.

Second Selection: a short story, about the same length.

                  If the weight of a piece is on a continuum, and the one I just scrolled down was the Sumo Wrestler of all short stories, what do you suppose we'll find at the other end? Let's look ....

The cursor is on the scroll bar. The scroll bar is at the top. A smile is plastered to my face. (My memories may go back a lot farther than most of yours, but they've got stayin' power, friends.) Through glazed, half-closed eyes, as I begin the downward scroll the first thing my intuitive radar signals to me is a feeling of barrenness, with lines lying across the screen like limbs of trees, whose fruit has been stripped from them. I go down and down and I can go faster because there are fewer lines, spaced farther apart, barren lines, fruitless lines. And then another feeling invades, an image, really. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Bain, God rest her hundred and ten-year-old soul, chiding me for padding my assignment. I stay with the image—or it stays with me—as I scroll to the end.

The same questions arise when I get there: What was going on in the writer's mind? I'm not talking about double-spaced postings here—I mean triple, even quadruple spaced. And you could lay a small fist down between a scene break. Why?

And please, let's go further than artistic license. Hell, yes! As a writer, you should say whatever you choose, however you want to lay it out on the page. That's your prerogative as a writer. But what of the reader's rights? Rather, let's step beyond "rights." That's pretty cognitive and political. How does this writing affect the reader viscerally? Does the reader feel like he’s going to encounter anything moving? Or profound? Is he going to feel the writer takes his subject seriously? Is he going to feel the writer is taking him, the reader, seriously? Does he care? Is the writer saying, "I don't have a whole lot to say, so I'll just spread it out over a lot of pages?" Be forewarned, Mr. Writer: In some far beyond, Mrs. Bain is wagging an arthritic finger down at you—and her gradebook is open! If that doesn't slide you down the continuum toward the other end, nothing will.

Before continuing, I need to ask a question: Am I right assuming most writers on FanStory want to have their work published? And with the star rating system we have here, isn't its whole tenor based on readiness for publication? 5-Star is defined as "Ready For Submission." (In this series’ Micro-critting portion, I'll admit to a little different take on the meaning of the star system.)

In the first and second selections above (assuming both were SPAG-free), pretend that you were the overworked, underpaid, anxious-to-be-promoted freshman editor-in-training for a popular magazine. Say these samples were tossed on your desk. What would your response be? Wouldn't you bang your knee or snag your dress in your zeal to get these two off your desk and onto the slush pile?

Just as I couldn't be more serious about this critter's Macro-critting method, I also couldn't be more serious about asking the above question. If your answer is "yes" we'll proceed to the last few considerations. If your answer is "no," then I guess I'll proceed.
*  *  *
It's your wife's birthday. You set the package on the table in front of her. You wrapped it yourself. It took you over a half-hour because you couldn't get the paper folded just right. You curled the ribbon by pulling it between your thumb and a butter-knife blade, and now it sits like a precious, permed head in the center of the package. You finished it off with little red hearts nested within the curls.

Your wife admires your handiwork. With a loving smile she begins to unwrap her present, first sliding the ribbon off the package so as not to spoil all the beauty you achieved. She gently pulls the end flaps away from the tape to prevent its ripping. At last she has the paper folded neatly with the ribbon on top of it sitting next to the box. She removes the tape from the flaps of the box, pulls them open and peers inside. The smile that was on her face has vanished. She scowls at you, and thrusts the empty box in your face before stalking out of the room in tears.

Your eyes follow her, a look of astonishment on your face. You spent so much time wrapping the package. And this was the thanks you got. Women!

What is the point to all this (besides the fact you were lucky you got away with nothing more than cardboard cuts on your face)? The point is this: Beautiful packaging doesn't make up for having nothing inside—whether you're a wife or a reader.

Let's examine some empty box indicators. First of all, and quickly, let me say what we are not talking about are actual contents. We're talking about appearances and readers' preconceptions. We're talking about factors besides weight that might cause the reader to push the skip button.

Regarding the previous short stories, we won't have to scroll down the screen (or down memory lane) again, because the following subjects we would already have encountered. If we weren't aware we'd encountered them, then that's just dandy. It means they were unobtrusive, a part of the fabric of what we scrolled over. I'm talking about font size, font style, and other gewgaws and doo-dadery.

Tell me, would this have jarred your sensibilities? A handful of stories I've read used at least size 16 fonts for words, or whole sentences, they want to emphasize.

And how precious is this? (Unfortunately, this is as close as the "edit font family" will let me get to "script," so you'll have to exercise the imagination writers are supposed to have.) I can recall reading at least two pieces here written in script.
Finally, one story I strained (read that eyestrained) over recently was in a size 10 font. When, I commented it was difficult to read, he told me he wrote for himself and it was easier for him to read. If there were just the two of us, I'm sure his logic could have pinned me to the floor. But I think there are a lot more in my camp. I know the editors are. Editors insist a manuscript be submitted in size 12 font. They also mandate the style to be Times New Roman, Tahoma, or similar—not script!
Fortunately, we needn't give it any thought. The computer you type on is pre-set with that style and that size. That should tell us something.
*  *  *

This has been a mighty long ride down the macro-critting road. I don't know about you, but I look forward to scuffing some elbows and knuckles digging into and sifting through the actual text. That begins next time with micro-critting, and with it will come a glimpse, or at least a sniff, of a hierarchy of values we can place on the various parts that, together, make that manuscript what it is. I hope you'll join me for the fun. It should elicit a degree of dedicated disagreement. Oh my!

 Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS

Author Notes PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not go into my portfolio to read chapters. When you do that (even if it's only to look at it), the system picks up "Last viewed" and triggers a reject of the "revive" certificate, that you qualify for ONLY if it hasn't posted in the last two years. Without that certificate, there IS no notification to my fans that has posted ... and yes, you have to go searching for it. I'm sorry. It's not the way the system should work, but it's the way it DOES work.

If I mention one more word to Tom about it, I'm afraid he's going to banish me to FanStory Siberia. I can only ask for your understanding, and prayers that it works like it SHOULD work for the next chapter.

Chapter 5

By Jay Squires

NOTE: If you've been with us from the beginning of "How This Critter Crits," you may skip this summary and deduct 11 seconds from the reading time. If you are a newcomer, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself with what's been covered so far:

A Bird's Eye View
         The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
         The last two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.
         With this present segment we add definition and contour to the quest. Our eyes are wide open. Our feet are on the ground. Enjoy ...

 (Chapter Five)
I think it was the Cheshire Cat who said, "A really fine place to begin is the beginning." He didn't? Well... no matter. (I think you're wrong, but that's fine.) You'll have to admit, though, it sounds like a C. S. Lewis line—at least allow me that! What? How embarrassing! Did I say C. S. Lewis? I meant Lewis Carroll. Okay! Okay, then, whether or not the Cheshire cat said it... or Lewis Carroll penned it—still, the beginning is a fine place to begin; you'd agree with that wouldn't you? How could you not!

And even after all these chapters, it so happens that's where we are ... at the beginning.

After having taken, you'll recall, a selection of short fiction on a quickie cursor-slide from the top of the screen to the bottom to get a general feel for it, we've put our clothes back on and pulled back up to the top. We are hunkered over our monitor, now, leaning in to the first paragraph. Yes, a really fine place to begin is the beginning—if it is a really—fine—beginning.

That is the subject of this first chapter of Micro-Critting: Beginnings. And Endings.

Oh, and Salesmanship.
*  *  *

There hasn't been a significant period of time since 1972 that I haven't been a commissioned salesman. I was not a good salesman in the beginning. For about six miserable months during 1979, following a grass-is-greener move to a different insurance company, I was forced to supplement my income by taking over my sons' paper routes. They thought it was unfair. But they would have thought being put up for adoption unfair as well. In the end, it was rather like a large and powerful country subduing a couple of smaller, punier ones. Now that I am, perhaps, ten years from drooling senility and they both stand a head taller than I—looking back, I can see it more from their perspectives.

Why wasn't I a good salesman back then? I mean, I was committed to it for the long haul. I was patient. I patiently waited for the customer to come up to my desk and say, "Jay, I would sure like to buy $100,000 of life insurance. Do you have an application and a pen?" Yes, I was patient. I had mastered quite a winning smile. But for some reason, no one came to my desk. Meanwhile, we were starving.

I guess I always understood it intuitively, but it took me years to accept the lesson that you can't make the sale until you get in front of the customer. And you won't get in front of a customer until you first get his attention, and then his interest.

*  *  *

Role-play with me a moment: Pretend you're the customer. You've cautiously invited the salesman into your home. He is standing in front of you. What he is selling is this: it's the chapter, somewhere near the middle, of a novel. It was the title of the novel that grabbed you—the teaser the salesman used to get your attention and sparked in you an interest for what he sold. The title he used to get in front of you is not always an accurate indicator of the value of what's inside. But it's an important first impression.

At this point we'll stop saying "salesman" and "he" because the salesperson sitting across from you, grinning like, well, like a Cheshire Cat, just happens to be FanStory's own, Raven Aorla. She got her foot in your door with her novel's title: Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon. And who wouldn't be captivated? Squiggled right down in the middle of the cognitive part of your brain, eats away the question: What in the bejeebers is a Magical Mormon? You know what a Mormon is, of course. You've probably seen pairs of them on their bicycles and in their white shirts, pedaling wherever these Missionaries pedal in their white shirts and impeccable manners. But when you throw in "Magical," well, something magical happens to your conception of "Mormon."

Raven Aorla is here to sell you chapter 7 of Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon. With the title nibbling away at your curiosity, you dip into the first paragraph:

"Some might say proposing marriage while cleaning kitty litter lacked style, but Derrick Jangoral had style. It just happened to be different from everybody else's. Besides, being the owner of a pet store made him clean kitty litter quite often. He still tried to look suave, wearing all black over a long, spindly body. Even with cat hair covering his clothes he seemed more the artistic type than retail."*

Now, tell me the truth, with that paragraph behind you, isn't Derrick Jangoral someone in whose company you'd enjoy spending a few pages? No long-term commitment needed. How about just one page with a gangly guy clad in black, faintly redolent of seasoned kitty litter—oh, yes, and someone who had just proposed marriage while looking up from the litter box he was cleaning? One page? Personally ... betcha can't read just one.

*  *  *

Shall we let Raven leave your home now? She has work to do. Besides, if she's done a good job selling you on the first paragraph, she's confident you'll pay her handsomely for it once you get to the end. You might say it's in the stars!

*  *  *

It's enough, then, to have an opening sentence so compelling it reaches up, grabs you by the throat and drags you into the page and all the way through the first paragraph. Right?

The answer is a resounding "wrong!"

The dynamic opening of a story is a promise—and the writer had better plan to deliver on that promise. Suppose I am presenting a life insurance policy to a young couple. According to the reckoning I did preparing for this appointment I knew a life insurance policy with a $100,000 death benefit, (assuming they paid the premium every month until the husband's age 65), would provide a supplemental retirement benefit of $900.00 a month for the rest of his life. That's what my figuring told me. That's the company's promise. But listen! I want this sale. I really want it. It will be just enough to push me over the top, to give me a nice bonus and a trip to Hawaii. And all I'd have to do is put a 1 in front of the 900.

So I've made my decision. I'm sitting across from the customer. How's this for my opening?

"Mr. Jones, would you be interested if I showed how you could invest $50 a month in an insured savings plan, knowing if you died your widow and children would receive a tax-free check for $100,000? That's tax-free! But wait a minute, I'm not finished: if you live to age 65, you stop paying the $50 to the company, and instead, we will start paying you $1,900 each and every month for the rest of your life. And you can spend every penny of it, Mr. Jones, because next month, when you go out to your mailbox you'll find another check for $1,900 waiting for you. How would that feel, Mr. Jones?"

What's wrong with being on the selling end of this scenario—other than in being against the insurance code and civil law—and just as pertinent, the fact that, with my luck, I would still be alive when he turned sixty-five?

What's wrong on the most superficial level is that it just doesn't smell right. It seems too good to be true. And if he chose not to heed his nose, he would ultimately realize—okay, maybe forty years later, but by the time he finally arrived at "the ending"—that it didn't live up to my original promise.

Back to FanStory, does the first sentence, or paragraph, of the story you're reading seem to be promising more than it can deliver? You may not have to arrive at the end of the story to discover this. Often it becomes clear before the end of a paragraph or two. An example:

When John was seven he loved cats, but they didn't seem to want to return his love; when he discovered this, he contrived ways to let them, individually, know he didn't appreciate that: ways like hanging them, shoving fire crackers into that soft place under their tails, or—his favorite—microwaving them for a minute-and-a-half, on high.

John's love of cats stopped when he was eight. He was in the third grade and his teacher noticed how much artistic talent he possessed. She encouraged him and urged his parents to do the same. They bought him an easel and supplies ranging from pastel chalks, tubes of oil paints and acrylics. He sat out behind the house for hours, painting trees and mountains and vagrant clouds.
At first, you might think the writer is contrasting the second paragraph with the seven-year-old cat-loving John. But if this were his intention the writer would have transitioned after the ironic first sentence in the second paragraph, and taken the story in a more logical direction. If, after a five-page short story or a 250 page novel, there is nothing in John's character that ties back to the first paragraph, then the writer has sold you a $1,900 a month retirement benefit for fifty bucks a month.

Now that we've looked at an example of a first paragraph that promised more than it delivered, let's look at an example of an opening that promises little or nothing at all:

Alice woke at seven o'clock, shut off the alarm and went into the bathroom. She took a shower, dressed and left the house. On the way to her first class she stopped and bought a chocolate donut at the bakery. She saw Bill sitting on the school steps.

"Hi, Bill," she said, and she smiled.

"Hi, Alice," Bill said.

She pushed open the door and went inside.

Here we have no promise at all. Do we have any investment in what happens to Alice? Should we even care?

Let's see if the writer could have rescued it: Suppose her first thought when she woke was of Bill, whom she would like to know better. After all, didn't we almost detect a slight pulse when she smiled at Bill? How about if her smile revealed the frosting from her chocolate donut was slathered across her front tooth? Now we have a hook!—a hook that is an implicit promise. Then, as long as her greeting to Bill figured prominently in another part of Alice's story, the promise in the hook will have been satisfied.

*  *  *

Provisionally, you may let the salesman into your home (or the writer onto the screen of your consciousness) based on the titillation caused by his first few words, but you let him linger awhile based on the promise inherent in his first few hundred words. Together, you might say these comprise the first impression.

But how important is the last impression? While I won't insult you by asking how important the ending of a short story or a novel is, I will beg you to be gentle while I point to something almost equally as obvious: that is, the difference in function between the ending of a short story and the ending in the chapter of a novel.

There is little structural distinction between short fiction and a novel. In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2003 (I believe the year is correct, but can't confirm since my copy sold for about a quarter at our last garage sale), I remember the argument proffered that the margins between the two are blurred at best. One short story in that book was over 140 pages long. We've all read novels shorter than that. The argument about the difference being in the passage of fictional time equally falls through the cracks. Though I don't have the novel in front of me, isn't it James Joyce's Ulysses that chronicles the life of Bloom over a 24-hour period—and takes several hundred pages to accomplish it? It has to do with pacing and progression, which will be addressed in another segment.

For matters of convenience, this critter has settled on the following working definition of short fiction: Fiction that can comfortably be read in one sitting. What is important here is that the writer wants his reader to be so thoroughly engrossed as to devour the piece all at once, as it were. There is a hungry anxiety about the writer of short fiction. His feet are always tapping, his fingers drumming.

The novel, on the other hand, can be distinguished from short fiction by its division into chapters allowing the reader to enjoy a separate life away from, though hopefully not totally outside of, the novel. Regardless of his genre, the novelist must be a realist. He knows few readers are going to read his novel throughout the night and into the next day. I like to think of the great novelists (such as Honore de Balzac, G. K. Chesterton and Gertrude Stein, to name a few) as portly and patient. Likewise, I'd like to think of any great novelists who were not portly or patient as being mere exceptions to my rule.

For its greatest possible impact, then, short fiction needs to be read at one sitting, while a novel, to reveal its greatest potential, should be read in no fewer increments than one chapter at a time. Still, phones ring when they ring, babies cry when they cry, bladders urge when they urge, so only in a perfect world can you read short fiction at a sitting.

The best that even the writer of short fiction can do is to keep the level of interest higher at various junctures, such as scene breaks. One source** suggests you work that strategy on the paragraph level—that the writer should strive to have each paragraph develop and grow out of the hook of the preceding paragraph, and so on, like beads strung on a necklace.

I say, let us go pee.

But as a critter of short works I will not hesitate to praise a writer for his or her savvy placement of that perfect combination of words at the end of a paragraph or at a scene break that serves to heighten the tension or leave the reader wondering, "Why?", "Who?", or "Where?"

But what about the final paragraph, or the last, say, couple of hundred words? What about the "last impression?" There are a lot of ingredients that go into a piece of short fiction to make it a tasty and satisfying treat. Most are outside the scope of this chapter and will be covered later. Here we're concerned with "last impressions," and the important assumption is that the writer wants you to feel a certain way when you leave his story. He wants you to feel: happy, weepy, angry, optimistic, uplifted, forlorn or any of probably scores of emotions. If I feel any of these and I know it is precisely what the writer wants me to feel, I can't wait to let him know he has been successful.

The one emotion he doesn't want you to feel is indifference. You may not be able to put your finger precisely on the problem, but you've just invested a half hour in a story that ends with the main character being cut in two by a machete and you're sorry, Mr. Writer, but you just couldn't care less about either half of him. It ... just ... doesn't ... matter. Obviously the writer has a problem. And to the extent that you want to be a helpful critter, you've inherited a problem, too.

*  *  *

Now, the ending of a chapter in a novel is different. The effects of the individual chapters are cumulative, characters and story lines growing or devolving, but always from the previous chapters. If there are twenty chapters in the novel, the realistic novelist realizes there are at least nineteen chances the reader might put that novel down and for whatever reason, never pick it up again. He knows, as a writer, what he needs to do at each end of the nineteen chapters. To the reader, the writer's motivation is irrelevant, but the mechanics of its employment must be seamless, and grow naturally out of the preceding action:

Let's return to Alice at her sixth period Spanish class. Her desk is in the row nearest the door, while Bill's desk is in the front row. It is just minutes from the end of the period. Her best friend in the whole world, Hortense, pointed out to her this morning she had frosting on her front tooth, but took away the sting by assuring her Bill was myopic as well as vain, which was why he sat in the front row and why he didn't wear glasses. He probably hadn't even been able to see her face, earlier, let alone the frosting on her tooth. Relieved, Alice decides to follow Hortense's Bill-winning strategy just as soon as the bell rings.

The bell rang. Alice tensed. She stacked her books in a neat pile on the corner of her desk and gazed over the top of them at Bill. She watched him stand, turn his licorice-black eyes in her direction and amble up the aisle toward the door.

Oh, my God, it was going to happen! It was actually going to happen! He would pass by her desk. A faint smile seemed to be twitching at the corners of his mouth. Was it for her? No, he grinned, instead, down at Greg who got to his feet, then punched him, playfully, on the shoulder. Howard and Jenny laughed.

Bill resumed again toward the door. He was five feet from her ... and now Hortense's strategy seemed suddenly very, very stupid. But when he was two feet from her and the reasonable part of her said, "No," the desperate part of her swept her forearm across the surface of her desk. The books crashed to the floor. The timing was all off. The big Geography book landed on its end, did a half-flip and struck Bill smartly on the shin. He shrieked, grabbing the injured leg in both hands and hopping on the other. You could hardly call it hopping. The third jump found him coming down on the corner of the Spanish Book. It sledded out from under him and he landed indelicately on his back. He lay there groaning while Alice slowly got to her feet, gathered her books from the floor (one had skidded all the way to the wall), cradled them in her arms as she quietly left the room.

Outside, Alice leaned back against her locker. She was surprised her eyes were dry. She felt strangely calm. Of course, she would have to leave the school. She might have to leave town. She hoped Bill was all right. But really, it shouldn't have happened. Maybe someone should convince him to own up to his myopia and wear glasses.

If the end of a chapter you've completed has doors left open and questions left unanswered, aren't you likely to turn that page? Even if you have to leave it to go pee, aren't you likely to rush back to the next chapter --assuming you don't take your book with you in the first place?
 *  *  *

 *  Derrick Jangoral: Magical Mormon, By Aorla, Raven, FanStory, Jan. 14, 2006NOTE: Unfortunately for those of you interested in persuing her novel, she and her portfolio are no longer at this site.
** The First Five Pages, By Lukeman, Noah, Fireside Books, Copyright @ 2000

 Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS


Chapter 6
Micro-Critter and the Eavesdropper

By Jay Squires

If you've been with us from the beginning of "How This Critter Crits," you may skip this summary and deduct 11 seconds from the reading time. If you are a newcomer, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself below with what's been covered so far:

A Bird's Eye View
          The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
          The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece. It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus. I call this process Macro-Critting.
           The last chapter began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. In it we discussed "beginnings" and "endings," and looking for the effectiveness of "hooks" in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works.

(Chapter Six)

Ask the first two hundred people you meet on a busy city street what the last story they read was about and you'll discover something fascinating. You'll discover you're lucky if twenty people answer you. If you make careful mental notes, however, of the hundred and eighty who ignore or sneer or snarl at you, or call you a pervert, won't you be feeding a rich diet to that unconscious birthing-bed of creativity in your mind? Especially if you note the nuances in how something is said or left unsaid. Can't we count that, at least, as a blessing? Nothing wasted? Nothing lost?

A bonus ... but, alas! The hundred and eighty aren’t our focus today.

So, on to the titillating twenty: As you patiently listen to each of their responses unfold, I'm betting within the first full minute (probably with the initial sentence out of his or her mouth), you'll find what you're looking for. Then, like a competent casting director you'll be able to say, "Thank you. We'll be in touch."

What was it you were looking for, anyway, and so soon found? Mouth open expectantly, fingers twitching and your right hand, flattened out and ready to fly up like the hand of a school crossing-guard so you can shout out, "Stop right there!" after you've heard words such as these: "... And so this old man catches this huge fish, but before he can bring it to shore, sharks eat it."

Or, you hear about how, "a really big, but dumb, guy is killed, as an act of love, by his protector and best friend...."

So, what is it you're almost sure to hear about within the first minutes?

People! People interacting with other people, or wrestling with unsettled or warring parts of themselves, or—almost always tragically—with their physical or social environments.

That first person was telling you about what happened to the old man in The Old Man and the Sea. Assuming he read it deeply, and was sufficiently articulate, why did he not point out to you that this is one of the most cogent examples of man persevering against all odds, fighting unrelenting nature and his own frailty? And while you’re at it, ask yourself if the flyleaf of the novel would tout the novel’s loftier ideals.

The answer is “no”. As important as theme is, it isn't the first thing that comes to mind when asked what the book is about. And  the publisher will be the first to tell you theme does not sell books.

Study the faraway look in the second person's face as she revisits in her mind the emotion of that final scene when Lennie takes the bullet in the back of his head after his best friend, George, has tricked him into gazing out across the water and fantasizing, aloud, their lifelong dream together. With Of Mice and Men, the reader experiences, only with afterthought, an example of what may be one of the most moving tributes to the depth of friendship and the flimsiness of dreams.

The point is, before the reader can ever get to the layers of meaning, vaulted symbolism or the themes that will provide intellectual fodder for generations of readers, he needs—no he craves, his interest demands—the more elemental mind/heart connectivity with real, breath-filled people.

The opening scene of a story may be a snowy hillside the day after a blizzard. The writer has seen such a scene many times. Even if he had never actually been there, though, and was reared, say, in Santa Barbara, California, he's researched the geography of the place thoroughly (albeit from a leather chair in the city library).

What's important is, he wants the reader to experience the beauty of that snowy hillside the day after a blizzard. He's got the plot to his story inside his head, but first he wants the reader to get the intimate feel of the place. He wants him to experience the ache of the cold in his bones. He rhapsodizes with his reader the eye-achy whiteness of the surrounding hillside, how the brittle knuckle-joints of the branches pop and break and shatter like glass when the wind brushes them against each other.

Oh ... and then there's the cottontail that hops by almost undetected against the white. A cardinal dips and flutters by and looks like an artist's splash of crimson against the white canvas of the snow bank. The writer could go on and on, page after page of what he sees and hears and what he wants the reader to see and hear.

The question, though, is whether the reader will go on and on. Sheer beauty and majesty aside, how long before the reader's inner voice shouts louder than the words on the page: "Show me the people!"?

The reader craves drama.
First Entrance of a Character: Story is about conflict and relationship and how relationships change or even how they stay the same because of the conflict. In other words, it's about people doing things to other people. It's about the effects of what is done to one character, or both, or all.

Above all, story is not the writer telling the reader what people are doing to other people, though he/she is careful, even scrupulous, in telling the reader what that conflict is and what effect it has on one character or both or all.

Drama! That's what the reader wants. And, he'll settle for nothing less.

As a critter, my antenna is up from the outset for the first entrance of a character who's right in the middle of doing something.

The Greeks (I want to confidently assert "Aristotle," but then one of you Fanstorians will just as confidently assert, "You're all wet, Jay!") introduced a concept: in medias res, which translates to start "in the middle of things." Chances are I'll see it in that opening paragraph (which, you'll remember, was touted as being so important in the last segment of Microcritting).

The hook is generally set firmly in the jaw of conflict, or perhaps the mere suggestion of conflict, within one person or between two or more people—and it's often right there in the first few paragraphs.

But, you're a patient critter. If you're not introduced to a person, or people, agonizing about something in the opening, you'll read on about all that beautiful snow; you'll even let the cold creep into your joints, just as the writer wants; oh, you'll frolic in your imagination with the snow bunny and dodge once or twice those bloody cardinal's wings ... but, if you're like me, before too awfully long you'd better be witness to someone trudging through that beautiful snow. Preferably his face will be distorted by a look of sheer terror—but, it might be a knowing smile, instead, a smile you find yourself craving to know about.

That just may suffice for the moment.

Sooner or later, though, now that the writer has your attention, you're going to want to know (and if the writer is savvy at his craft, he's going to intuit precisely when that need to know is most intense, and is, at that precise moment, going to lay out for you on the page), just what is holding the other in such a thrall of terror—or what that incongruous smile is concealing.

You've been a patient critter already. May I ask you to be patient once more? Please forgive me an aside (and some of you are saying in one voice: "That's all it's been so far ....") It came about because I read back to myself the parenthetical palaver in the preceding paragraph and noticed something seems worthy of note: I noticed, and I'm hoping you have as well, that there can be an almost alchemical interaction between the writer and his reader. Further, I think this interaction occurs in everything one reads, differing only in degree.

It has to do with timing. In fact, in the final analysis, timing may be the single most important element in the writer/reader embrace. Don't expect any profound explanation—not from me. I can only tell you by way of example that with parts of some of Robert Frost's poetry, I have felt our brief embrace—no more than a polite guy-hug, really.

With Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas In Wales,"—whew! there is an intensity in Dylan's and my embrace, from beginning to end, that edges right up to the, well, inappropriate. In fact, if I'm foolish enough to try to write anything just after a reading of "A Child's Christmas In Wales," my words will come out with a Welsh accent.

I fully believe, being admittedly ignorant as I am of the process, that without some degree of this alchemical phenomenon at work when I read, it would be impossible for me to crit—at least without being guilty of duplicity and fakery.

Now, back to the subject of people and drama I was introducing before I so rudely interrupted myself and you:
Character one + Character two = Sex or Physical Conflict or Dialogue: Few Stories are going to sustain themselves long without a visit by what is to the left of the equation. The reader's attention and his patience are going to wear thin with too much of even the most gorgeous description. What is "too much" will vary with the reader, and the writer may prolong the moment by introducing breathing things to the environment. But to continue with the bunny or the cardinal much longer, the writer had better start inventing names for them. That might buy him perhaps a page. Afterwards, he'd better have another rabbit or bird, or two or three, stage right. And, at that point they really need to meet each other ... and quickly (The writer, and the reader, feel it—it's a "timing thing".) So what are the options?

Character one + Character two = Sex: Sex? Whether bunny sex, cardinal (of the bird variety) sex, or human sex, when it is exclusively undertaken, it is written, or photographed or filmed to be enjoyed in the smoky back room, at one of those special bookstores that is usually picketed once a year (or, figuratively speaking, entertained in that naughty basement room of our imagination). By itself—and again, exclusively undertaken - it is not story.  [Note from 2015: The above was penned before Fifty Shades of Grey was even a gleam in Hollywood's eye ... ]

Character one + Character two = Physical Conflict: I suppose a good writer can sustain physical conflict with warring bunnies and birds a while longer when it is undertaken exclusively—but not on the human level. There is the win/lose drama inherent in physical conflict in the lower animal kingdom with whom the reader may personally identify. It may be a territorial domination. Or a to-the-death struggle over the rites of breeding.

We've all watched documentaries on Discovery, the Learning Channel, or National Geographic Channel, which explore with the viewer the first two equations above, with everything from termites to chimpanzees. Would we watch an hour of such programming, though, if it weren't for the narrator? Perhaps he might fill us in on what is vital to our understanding of what is transpiring, but more often than not he is alluding subtly, and not too subtly, to a human corollary in the perused animal behavior. Ultimately, these narrators point out the existential urgency in animals, mammals, birds and insects, to communicate. How many studies have there been on the language of species as varied as chimps and whales? Whether the "language" code will ever be cracked, notwithstanding, it is important these creatures seem to need to speak to and understand each other. They have an urgency to communicate. There is a need for dialogue in the lower animal kingdom.

How much more so, then, in Man?

Character one + Character two = dialogue: It is only with the addition of this yeasty ingredient, dialogue, to the story-muffin that the reader's interest can really start to rise. At this point I want to include as dialogue, introspection (self-talking) as well as verbal exchange between two or more characters.

It might be fun, if not instructive, just for a moment, to take a slightly different slant on what dialogue is. When the reader reads dialogue is he not eavesdropping? He is listening in on stuff that's really none of his business.

It's an argument between a husband and wife. It's none of his damned business. If he were in the conversation, it would be his business. But he's not. His nose is pressed in a book. He might as well be sitting on a park bench and listening. Or maybe peeking around the corner. Also, whatever he is seeing, like the spittle flying out of the husband's mouth as he thrusts himself in his wife's face—none of his damned business! He is eavesdropping.

This is an important distinction. There is a distance between the reader and the written word. The bridge between the two is the imagination, the writer's and the reader's individual ability to visualize and agree together as to what those letters that are strung together in various lengths and separated by strange marks and spaces, mean
and not only what they mean but what image they splash up in some theater a little above and behind our eyes.

Still and all, we're just eavesdropping on what the writer wants us to see and hear. It is the responsibility of the writer and his craft to involve the reader so much he does not realize he is eavesdropping. He wants nothing less than to render the reader oblivious to the fact he is reading. A tough challenge, at best. He has no control over the distractions in the reader's environment. What he can do—what he must do—is make certain his offering is not one more of those distractions.

I hope you'll come back for a visit next time when we take a look at some of those unfortunate writer-controlled distractions. We will explore reality crashers, which I define as "anything that crashes through the illusion of reality the writer labors so hard to create, causing the reader to realize he is eavesdropping. We'll focus on the reality crashers inherent in well-intentioned but poorly crafted, or ill-conceived, dialogue.
Join me, won't you?

 Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS

Chapter 7
Micro-Critting The Illusion Crashers

By Jay Squires

If you've been with us from the beginning of "How This Critter Crits," you may skip this summary and deduct 11 seconds from the reading time. If you are a newcomer, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself below with what's been covered so far:
           The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
           The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece. It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus. I call this process Macro-Critting.
           The last two chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. First, we discussed "beginnings" and "endings," and looking for the effectiveness of "hooks" in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works. Then, last time we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.
           Join me now, won't you, while we expand on dialogue and explore the first of writer abuses in that area which can break the mystical bond between himself and his reader.


(Chapter Seven)
The fiction to which we, as writers, should all aspire is a systematically maintained illusion of reality.  In the first draft, I started that sentence with the modifying phrase, "In my opinion." I did it because I didn't want to begin this chapter out all wrong. I didn't want to ruffle any feathers. I thought it would be better to be a little more modest, but after I studied each word individually and contextually, I scrapped that beginning in favor of the straightforward and uncompromising way it stands. I doubt there's enough looseness in its structure for dissent to wriggle in. I don't believe, the more I look at it, that it's truly profound. Only profoundly true. And that ain't bad. So, let's explore it.

Have you ever been so enrapt by a piece of fiction that you've lost complete track of time? Neither have I—and thank you for being honest. But aside from that admission, I do love reading. I love reading good, really good, quality fiction. The better the fiction the more vital is the mystical (I use this word, "mystical" a lot because I can't find an exact synonym) connection between the writer and me. And though I know it might sound bizarre to some, I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway: when that connection is there, I feel a powerful kind of psycho-synergism at work. I’m cognizant of the writer's tireless quest to find a willing prisoner who is eager to be shackled to the movement and pulse of his message, and respond to it. I also know—and I haven't a clue how this happens and realize it flies in the face of logic—the writer has a sense, on some level, of my spirit moving across his landscape along with my dependency on its unimpeded movement. If he hasn't this sense then how can he possibly expect empathy from me, or anything beyond superficial understanding?

Admittedly, this deep-level connectivity happens rarely. But when it does I come closest to losing track of time.

In chapter 2 of How This Critter Crits we explored what the reader needs to bring to the story. These have to do with his recognition of, and decision to deal with, biases, those physical/psychological factors such as having enough time, being in the right mind-frame, and energy level, and such environmental considerations as the elimination of distractions and maintaining optimum comfort and lighting while reading. These are the responsibilities the serious critter owes to the writer.

What responsibility should the serious critter expect of the serious writer? We needn't go any further than the last part of the sentence which opened this chapter: " ... a systematically maintained illusion of reality." The body of this chapter, and the next, will be concerned with the interruption of this illusion.

*  *  *
An Illusion Crasher is ... anything the writer does which crashes through the illusion of reality he is trying to maintain and jars the reader's consciousness with the realization he is no longer immersed in the illusion. He is merely eavesdropping. Through a careless tear in the fabric of the fictional reality, the reader's attention has slipped out. For a moment, at least (and perhaps forever), he is outside the magic of the story. At that same moment the mystical connection between the writer and his reader has been breached. A writer should look at this with horror. At the same time, he should pray the reader will be forgiving. Here are some common types of illusion crashers:
Speaker tags: Artificial at best, speaker tags should only be used to prevent confusion over who is speaking. Abuse in this is obvious:

"Are you alone?" asked John.

"You can see I'm alone," said Betty.

"Can't you just answer me directly?" asked John.

"Can't you ask me an intelligent question, then?" asked Betty.

"There are other rooms, Betty. People could be there," said John.

"Face it, John ... why would they, knowing you are here?" asked Betty.
Something is definitely bubbling in the cauldron beneath the surface of their relationship, but before you have a chance to let your attention nestle into all that delicious tension, reality crashes in on you. With only two characters, a male and a female, as long as only dialogue follows, uninterrupted by narrative or description, “name” tags are only needed the first time each speaks. And even following splashes of description "he" and "she" will do just fine.

A good writer will actively look for ways to avoid unnecessary speech tags. In well-developed characters there might be singular distinctions separating their dialogue. One character may stutter. Another may be identified by his use of slang; a third, by her use of profanity. But even without these painfully obvious examples, an effective writer will strive to imbue each prominent and recurring character with his or her distinctive rhythm, as distinguishable on the page as the voice of a dear friend or spouse could be picked out of the din of the crowd.

Another tag-avoidance strategy is to precede speaker's dialogue with meaningful action:

Joseph tugged at his collar. "Am ... am I next?" Not only has he been identified without a tag, but also the action that introduced him enlarges the dialogue meaningfully.
Unnecessary or non-pertinent dialogue: It seems ironic to me that the very effect of reality many beginning writers try to achieve can be a singular reason their readers' fictional reality is crashed into. It might go something like this:

"Yo, James."

" 'sup, Bobby."

"Nada, James. 'sup with you."

"All's cool."

"Ha'n't seen you for a few."

"Been around. Don't ‘member seein' you, either."


"Still do'n Joan?"

"No ... broke it off."

"Where you goin'?"

"Shoot some hoops. How ‘bout you?"

"Goin' to the library. Wanna go?"

"Nah, don't feel like readin'. Wanna shoot some hoops?"

"No, better study."

"Suit yourself. See ya, dude."

"Back atcha."
The writer of the above dialogue is eager to tell you that in real life there is something of a sheer, but impenetrable curtain separating even the closest of friends, not allowing for intimacy. "In real life," the writer tells us, "people talk around intention. People don't rush to get to the point. By rite of tacit understanding and acceptance, they are extravagant in their evasiveness. It's the way it is in real life, my friend. It's reality." And he smiles, parentally, and goes on to proclaim that the artist's responsibility is to hold a mirror up to reality. Then, he follows this profundity by asking you to consider what reality is.

"Listen," he says, "I mean really ... listen! Listen to the words you say to the person you meet on the street. Listen to what's under them and around them. There is this gulf between you. If you listen you can hear it, you can feel it. You like to think you are friends—you and this person you meet on the street; you see each other all the time, but the reality is, that there's this distance (maybe only as diaphanous as a curtain) between you and him, between you and her, you and me, between you and me and everyone else on this planet. We all have this distance between us. And what appears, to the uninitiated, as meaningless dialogue, such as I created above, can grow into something profound if it is not terminated by their shared denial and their subsequent departure, but is allowed to go to its natural, gulf-narrowing conclusion at which one reaches a brotherhood of understanding and acceptance ... and ... and ... " And how the writer goes on and on!

Still ... I know without much doubt he would soon have my head bobbing like one of those bobble-head dolls, and have me believing there is—there actually is—this distance between characters which is a palpable something the reader must patiently deal with before the forward movement of the plot can, in reality, be got on with.

While he has me totally mezmersnoodled, however, I'm counting on the majority of you savvy critters in Fanstoryland to point out to the writer that the fictional reality his mirror is supposed to reflect is a kind of condensed and distilled reality. Tell him, while you're at it, that if he has the need to demonstrate this proposed chasm between people he'd better, paradoxically, find a way to bring people together dramatically to show it. He'd better do that because, however profound the message beneath the fiction, it won't be communicated until it is read. And it won't be read unless it is engaging. And trite, superficial conversation is not engaging.

And that is the reality of that.

So, stand up, square your shoulders and assert to him—assert to me—confidently: "There is no place in a well-intentioned story for non-pertinence in dialogue, for flab, for waste. Every word should be carefully chosen to play its part in moving the storyline forward."
Thank you .... I needed to hear that.

And now, buffered with the truth of it, I think I'm ready to explore with you, next time, other ways a writer's illusion can be crashed into.
Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS


Chapter 8
Three More Illusion Crashers

By Jay Squires

                The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
                The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece. It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus. I call this process Macro-Critting.
                The last three chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. First, we discussed "beginnings" and "endings," and looking for the effectiveness of "hooks" in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works. Then, we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.
                Last chapter we held a magnifying glass on dialogue and explored the first of writer abuses in that area that can break the mystical bond between him and his reader. Now, may I invite you to look at three more examples of writer abuses with dialogue?

(Chapter Eight)
It seems only yesterday that I posted the last chapter about those two illusion crashers, dialogue (or speaker) tags and unnecessary or non-pertinent dialogue. I know it wasn't just yesterday. It wasn't yesterday, or last week, or even two weeks ago. I know this because I have been frantically working my brain knuckles to the skull bone for at least that long, critting my colleagues' creations to hone my critting craft, to hopefully help some, and to earn not just their respect—but well, forty-two-point-three-eight member dollars as well as twenty-seven member cent pumps. Fortified and funded, then, I'm ready to launch into three more examples of illusion crashers under the heading we'll call Being Set Up. Join me, won't you?
#     #     #

Being set-up: Suppose the writer needs to convey some information to the reader—information that is needed to further the momentum of the plot, for example, or add some insight to a character. It's his call. The options are his ... not all of them good. He can, if he chooses, step in, as author, and lay it out all nice and neat for the reader. Sometimes this is necessary to increase the pace of the narrative and to move the story from one physical place to another or back (or I suppose forward), in time.

My main concern here is the transition into and away from dialogue. It can be a distraction, an illusion crasher, unless handled adroitly. If it's too obvious he is trying to make something known to the reader, it is called author intrusion. To this critter, the writer's announcement could well be preceded by an "ahem," as though saying, "May I have your attention, please?" In the body of story it may look something like this:
"Why are you pulling away from me, Mary? Just a moment ago you said you loved

"Please, let's go a little slower, Mark."

"Slower! You want to go slower! I knew you were the one I wanted since we slept on our mats together in kindergarten. Come on, darling. Just let me—"

"Don't! You're scaring me!"

And the author steps in:[Ahem...] Mark had no way of knowing—Mary had never told him, but kept it her dark secret—that while she was away at college, and he was home waiting for her, a young man she thought she could trust had forced himself on her. She thought he was her friend. Now, she agonized over whether she should tell Mark. Would he understand? Would it be all over between them?

"Is there someone else?" Mark asked.
Yes, Mark, there is someone else! It's the author. And he's a most unwelcome "someone else" to the story.
The second way the writer can translate important information to the reader is to get inside the head of a point-of-view character and let that character mull it over. Assuming that character is Mary, this can be a bit subtler. Unlike the "author intrusion" type of distraction, the reader feels at least connected with one of the two characters. Nevertheless, when it is used to avoid dramatic action it has something of a "pssssst" feeling to it—certainly less stark than "Ahem," but nonetheless, inviting the reader to scoot over close and listen to something that's meant for his or her ears only. Observe:

Mary pulled away from Mark, still feeling the tingling impression his fingers had made on her arms. She thought she was ready for this evening. This room had to have set him back close to a hundred dollars. Then there were the flowers and dinner. Now, as she looked across the bed at him, all she could think of was [Psssst—Psssst—Psssssssst!] that night, a year ago, when Buford walked her home from the school library. She thought she could trust Buford. He knew she had Mark waiting for her at home. Still, in the shadows next to her dorm he pushed her against the wall and forced himself on her. How could she tell Mark now that the closer they got to the moment he was waiting for, all she could think of was Buford?

"Is there someone else?" Mark asked.
Was there someone else? Mark, Mark, Mark—if you only knew!

And there is the rub: If Mark only knew. This scene is central to their fictional relationship. Mark's reaction, if Mary gave him the chance to react, would be crucial to the plot of this story. The reader needs to be part of the unfolding present action of the plot.

While I am a big fan of being privy to the thoughts of the point-of-view character (I love getting right in there and swimming around all that gray matter), vital exposition comes out of the mouths, or the actions, of the characters who have life-changing interests in the outcome of the plot.

So, as a critter, I ask no more from the writer than to have the incantation of his words on the page so thoroughly engage me I am oblivious to the tape and staples and glue that hold all the parts together. If the writer leaps onto the page to flatly inform me of something the characters should, instead, be performing in stereo and full color, on the screen of my mind, then the fictional illusion is shattered. Even if the writer conspires with his point-of-view character to have her whisper in my ear that same information, the impact of it affects me similarly: I'm forced outside the story; I've become merely an eavesdropper!

But wait ... the writer has come up with a third method of sneaking information to the reader. Since I've developed a fondness for Mary and Mark, we'll let them exemplify this distraction. Only, I'll have to ask that you forget all about Buford and that little incident beside the dorm. It happened, all right, but let's just say Mary worked it out with Mark. Love was stronger than Mark's wounded pride or manhood, or whatever is wounded in times such as these. They marry and move on, have one child, Mariah, who grows up, falls in love—or rather, stays in love with a young man she'd known since kindergarten. We'll call him Marcos. Mariah is going off to college. But she pledges to stay faithful to Marcos, who secured a management position at the local Taco Bell.

This is the point at which the writer chooses to begin his story. Just remember: this is a brand new story. You've never even heard of Mary or Mark ... or Buford—especially not Buford! It's all still in the writer's head. When he feels the time is right he will spring it on you. As a matter of fact, it appears you won't have long to wait:

"Darling," Mark said, putting a hand on Mary's arm. "What a delicious meal."

Mary couldn't conceal her smile as she stood up, set his plate on hers and gathered up the silverware. "Well, I did get my degree in home economics, you know. I wanted to make sure when my husband returned from a hard day at Firestone he would have a comfortable home and a warm meal to look forward to." She took the plates and utensils to the kitchen.

"You're a wonderful wife, Mary," he said loudly enough she could hear him over the running water in the sink. "But you know I don't work that hard. Remember, I'm a manager there."

"I know, darling," she said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel and sitting again. "It's hard to believe you're still working there. You started there right out of high school."

"Yeah, just when you left for college."

"You waited for me."


"And now Mariah is going off to college."

"Our daughter's all grown up and going off to college."

"I hope she's grown up enough." Her eyes filled.

"You're worried about her, aren't you?"

"Well ... you remember what happened to me!"

"You mean what Buford did to you—that bastard!" He put both his hands over hers. "It wasn't your fault, darling. You fought him off."

She sniffed.

"I know how hard it was for you, Mary ...."

"Would you like some dessert, dear?"
#     #     #
Now, for those critters who actually took me at my word and erased from their memories the first two examples of the drama that took place between Mark and Mary and Buford, I set out in italics the information the writer was trying to sneak into the dialogue. I have a hunch, though, I needn't have gone to the trouble. It should have been as painfully obvious to read as it was simply painful for me to write. In this case, perhaps just slightly more than the preceding two instances, didn't you feel gaggingly set-up?

Admittedly, examples of being set-up are likely to be less obvious and less an assault on the reader's intelligence than the three I've penned. Some might even be so subtle as to slip past him in a cursory reading. If he wants to be a serious critter, though, and especially if he aspires to be a serious writer, he needs to develop an ear and an eye at least as sharp as those of the editor to whom he sends his story. He should train himself to look for dialogue in which one character says to another what is already known by both. Signal words that seem to pop up at these times might be "Remember ..." "As you know ..." "I know ..." or "You mean ..." Not far from those words you might well find the information the writer wants you to have.
#     #     #
The serious writer knows accurate and realistic writing is hard work. To write well is extremely challenging. The writer who sets his reader up, as in the ways shown above, is abrogating that challenge and his responsibility to the reader. This is, of course, assuming he is not a beginner, unskilled in the rudiments of the craftand Lord knows, we've all been there! But the experienced writer who still sets up his reader is almost always being lazy. He is trying to get from point A to point B by taking the most direct route. He has a story that is important to him, or he wouldn't have a need to tell it. He knows (or he thinks he knows) where it should begin and he knows, more or less, where it should end.

The problem is, our writer chooses to take the thoroughfare and drive straight away, looking neither left nor right ... while the reader wants (read that as needs) to take the surface streets, to stop at a stoplight here and there, to slow down here to study a billboard, to hurry through that vaguely threatening part of town back there, to be alive to the surroundings, to pull over to the curb and take ten minutes, or an hour and ten minutes, to stroll through the park with his protagonist and her sweetheart.

To take the thoroughfare, on the other hand, to take the quickest way to get from A to B, the primary emphasis is to get his story told. He elects to tell it. The reader craves being shown what is happening in and around the characters. The reader wants to slide in among them. He wants to cavort with the characters, to laugh with them, perhaps even to cry with them. Above all, the reader wants to fully engage his own brain and his own heart, to let both resonate with the thoughts and feelings of those characters who are let loose in their own created world.

"And that," as dear Robert Frost would—and did—conclude: "that makes all the difference."

Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS

Chapter 9
Intermezzo B.Y.O.B

By Jay Squires

          The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
          The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece. It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus. I call this process Macro-Critting.
          The next three chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. First, we discussed "beginnings" and "endings," and looking for the effectiveness of "hooks" in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works. Then we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.
          We finished off the last two chapters with a half-dozen or so common dialogue abuses, any one of which could interrupt the precious bond between reader and writer.
           Now… join me, won’t you, as we take a longish intermission from the nuts and bolts. Take your cigarette or potty break. I’ll just hang around with you and lay down some of the ground-rules for my process of deep-level analysis. Ladies, don’t forget to lift the lid when you finish!


(Chapter Nine)

First, you select a short story to study.

Choose any, I suppose, though I would start with a published story. Here, the unpublished, undiscovered writer leaps to his feet. “I object,” he shouts, his words arriving a millisecond before the fine spray of spittle. “Why published? Why, why, why? Are you saying my story isn’t as good as one that is published?”

“Not at all,” I say. And I’m quick to tell him, because he frightens me in his boldness and his passion, I don’t mean his story is not at all good; rather, I don’t at all mean the published story is better.

But now that I’ve talked myself into a lonely corner of utter consternation, I realize I ended up telling him just about the opposite of what I had intended to say. What I really wanted to tell him, and would have if I had any courage at all, was this: “Look, buddy, I don’t know if your story is better than a published story. I don’t know because I haven’t read your story. But if you think it is better then you owe it to yourself and thousands of readers to try to get it published. Because, like it or not, publication is the benchmark for a story’s success. Then if it does get published it has already exceeded a certain industry standard. We have to assume it is better, or at least more salable than the vastly larger number that did not rise to that standard. At bottom, it’s a lesson in economics. Forget art! An editor does not choose a story for publication which won’t make money for his publisher. Economics one-oh-one.” 

My hope, at this point, is that the propulsion from his newly acquired enthusiasm catapults our writer out the door on his way to buy manila envelopes and stamps. Either that or out of his angst he slumps back down behind his word processor, grumbling, perhaps, but no longer belligerent.

I’m counting on one or the other. I’m counting on it because this is not a chapter about how to get a story published. I know it started tilting in that direction, but that’s not the chapter’s intent. It’s much more modest. It’s how to get the most out of reading a story. It’s about how to align your deep-level analysis as closely as possible with the writer’s vision.

Again, first you need to choose a story—a published short story. And while we’re at it, why not choose a short story that represents the best of published short stories? Why not choose one from one of those “best of” anthologies? You can go on and on and get more and more rarified, selecting from the greatest American short stories (if, for example, you are American), and finally the world’s best … here, though, we might have overstepped our boundaries, from the perspective of this stage of our learning. 

There’s something to say for a person selecting a story which is a part of the cultural tradition with which he is familiar, which would also mean something written in the same century—perhaps even the same decade—in which he lives. In other words, choose from the best of the best of the stories that are written with something of the same language pattern you use (born out of a similar cultural and social environment). This is a starting point, for this chapter, anyway; it certainly is not a finishing point.
I’ve chosen a short story by Alice Munro which she wrote sometime before 1968, since that was when it was copyrighted. Her biography tells me she is older than I, but not by much. Since one’s mind bathes in the same pond of shared humanity as one’s contemporaries, there is a kinship on the social and cultural level we do not share with the likes of an Anton Chekhov, a Guy de Maupassant, or even a Samuel Clemens (though we come closer to the latter). Alice Munro and I have shared in the effects of at least three major wars, with all their ramifications; we’ve developed morbid imaginings out of the dread of atomic and hydrogen bombs—and the cold war they spawned. On the positive side, we’ve witnessed the birth, and struggled through the infancy and adolescence of television; and we proudly watched on those same televisions as men walked on the moon. These are our shared memories: the archetypal memory of the art of our century.
I’m not in any way trying to say you and I can’t plumb the deeper meanings from the translations of foreign writers, or of writers two or three centuries older than we, regardless of their language. That would be a slap in the face of my English teacher, Mildred Bain, may she rest in peace. But the classics have been around a century or five; aren’t they likely to still be there a month or two from now? I’m merely saying in order to develop a close understanding of the craftsmanship of first one writer and then a second and a third, why stack the deck against ourselves?

Furthermore, since many of us want to earn our livelihood from our writing, why not study the fictional models that are representative of what is published today? Really study them! Not blindly copy their styles. Study them! Learn what makes them tick. Learn also what makes them clatter and clunk. And most importantly, by learning to recognize tick-tockery as well as the hyper-clatteral and the infra-clunkery, you might just learn what to embrace in your own writing, what to add to, subtract from or abandon entirely. You’ll learn to recognize what works and what doesn’t. You’ll develop an ear and even a nose for what’s right and what’s not. 

Let’s not make the process more than it is: it is simply taking a story, chopping it into its parts, at first, possibly, with the studied caution of a medical intern, but later with the deftness of a surgeon. You'll take it apart, then put it back together again, take it apart once more, and put it back, but this time switch parts. You may elongate a section and compress another. All the time you’ll ask questions and look for the answers, what-if-ing all over the place. You'll zero in on a part of it, brush away some grit, and see if it moves easier.

During the entire process, you’ll be doing nothing less than searching out the life energy that runs through the piece.
Some may worry that such literary surgery is almost a sacrilege. But I maintain the story, when it is complete and synchronized in all its parts is as perfectly balanced as a tightrope walker on his high wire. Such a story resists major modification. If you can make improvements to it without interrupting its integral life energy, that is, without altering the basic premise of the story, then you’ve helped bring it into a better balance and focus.

Can we believe a tightrope walker learns his craft on a wire strung between two buildings, four hundred feet from the ground? Wouldn’t he, instead, flail about at a height of more like three feet from the ground? I know I would.

Equally as important, if you cannot make any changes to it, if you cannot alter it without throwing it out of balance, then haven’t you learned something more about balance? Haven’t you, through deep-level analysis learned how the writer brought about this miracle of literary equilibrium?

With your short story opened on the table in front of you, your pen in hand, coffee cup at your elbow, you’re ready to begin. I hope you’ve chosen a magazine or book that can be written on, not a library book or one you borrowed from a friend. Choose a color of ink that stands in contrast to the print in the book. I use red ink with a fine point so the letters it forms are crisp, even when written small. Also, you might find a yellow hi-liter can be handy for blocking out sections.

I should say a few words about the approach I use to arrive at a deep-level understanding of a story: Very simply, it is the approach I useIt’s not the only approach. It may not be the best approach for you or anyone else. It is the best one for me—though even in that, it is evolving, so what is the best today may not be sufficient a year from now, or even tomorrow. Oh, yes—and at the risk of sounding tutorial in nature, I am not going to say throughout, “I do this,” or “I do that,” because it gets rather cumbersome. In all cases, know it is implied, though.

So … as Howie Mandel would say on Deal Or No Deal, “let’s get it on!" …
* What can I tell you ... Howie Mandel's  "Deal or No Deal" was big when this first posted.
Important note: Please do not go ahead with the next chapter. It isn’t promoted and it hasn’t been edited since 2006. In a few days you’ll have the advantage of a full promotion and a much cleaner and easier read.  JS


Chapter 10
Sweet Exegesis

By Jay Squires


           The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.
           The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I've chosen. The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the "weight" and the "movement" of the piece. It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus. I call this process Macro-Critting.
           The next three chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. First, we discussed "beginnings" and "endings," and looking for the effectiveness of "hooks" in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works. Then, we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea nothing creates drama like dialogue.
We finished off the last two chapters with a half-dozen or so common dialogue abuses, any one of which could interrupt the precious bond between reader and writer.
           The ground-rules laid down for my process of deep-level analysis, cigarettes are snubbed out and toilet lids lifted—but don’t plan on going back to your seats just yet I promise you the curtain won’t rise on the nuts and bolts of critting until intermission is over. And I’m not ready for that to happen any time soon. So … light up another or peel open a Baby Ruth and skip along with me. We’re gonna have some fun!
The short story I selected is from Alice Munro’s collection entitled, Dance of the Happy Shades. It is called “Walker Brothers Cowboy.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin dissecting or sniffing at vagrant corners or tatters of a story before first reading it in its entirety. A good mechanic, when a car is brought to her because the owner feels/hears a strange sound-thingy when he accelerates, doesn’t begin by yanking out the carburetor or the spark plugs, though experience tells her that might well be the problem. She is going to turn on the engine and listen, isn’t she? She may even want to drive it a few blocks, feeling its response in traffic. In any case, if she is a good mechanic, she’s going to withhold judgment until she plays the entire situation against her own senses and her own experience.

So you start by reading the short story from beginning to end in one sitting. This is not the time to look up an unfamiliar word (its meaning can probably be figured out by its context) or to stop reading, midway through, to feed the dogs or mow the lawn. Be committed to reading it through in a single sitting. You’ll want to do this because as you are reading it’s important to try to stay uninterruptedly in touch with what your feelings are telling you. Try to become aware of a tone that noses into the story as you read. Is this tone light, playful? Sad, mournful? Is it bristling with suspense, or is it slowly, deeply pensive? Does the tone change over the course of the story—go from playful to sad? The reverse? Just note it, mentally. Don’t write anything about it yet. You’ve plenty of time for that later.

As I read Walker Brothers Cowboy I perceived at the onset a feeling of forlorn family disconnectedness, followed by a contrasting interlude that yields a sort of stolen freedom and hilarity. Then the story progresses into that self-indulgent titillation that familiar danger brings, and then toward the end it folds back on the tone with which it began. I shall explore this more fully later, but for now it’s enough to note this kind of relational weariness with which it begins and ends, while in the middle is kind of a cowboy’s lonely freedom.

With the story read, it is now time to distill it to its main story line. This you will want to write down (I mean on your own selection you’ll be working on). You’ll be referring to it throughout. It should be no more than a few sentences, a short paragraph, at most. 

Ben, the father, had become a Walker Brothers route salesman after losing everything in a silver fox raising venture. One Saturday, he takes his daughter and son on his route, his wife declining to go. After a lackluster sales day he takes the children to meet Nora, a friend from many years ago, and it soon becomes apparent through innuendo and veiled commentary that theirs had been more than a friendship.

 Develop the story line for your selection. It is important to stay with the main story line. That is the skeleton giving the story its posture, the bones and ligaments holding it upright. To expand on this metaphor, the flesh, the meat filling out the story is more the function of character, while the skin, the casing that holds the flesh together and against the bones, can be likened to—likened to … well, I don’t know exactly what it can be likened to. But I do know this, fellow critters: The genius in employing an apt metaphor is in knowing when to cease employing it. Consider it unemployed!

Character and Point of View: With the skeleton established, it’s time now to get to the flesh that is on the bones. Taking a close look at character, we need to find out into whose head(s) the writer wants his reader to be allowed access. Who is the viewpoint character? If there are more than one, who are they and what are their functions relative to each other? In the Walker Brothers Cowboy, the viewpoint character is the daughter. Since it is told in the first person, hers is the only viewpoint.

This raises another question—one that needs to be answered here and in the story you’re studying. That question is whose story is this? You need to be very circumspect in deciding this. Most people would assume the viewpoint character to be the subject of the story. We will see later why I feel this is not the daughter’s story at all; rather, it is her father’s—Ben’s—story. It seems noteworthy that Alice Munro went out of her way not to give the little girl or her brother names in the story. I think she wanted to make sure it was not perceived as the wrong person’s story.

We’re not quite finished with viewpoint character yet. We still need to ask why the writer chose a particular viewpoint character instead of another. In this inquiry, as with all aspects of the story’s deep-level analysis, we need to make an assumption which is so easily shunted aside as obvious we could easily overlook its significance. It is the assumption that the writer is responsible for each decision, miniscule or major, he makes in the story. While we would like to think each decision was mapped out in advance, the truth is many are happy (and some not-so-happy) accidents.

Those critters who are also writers need to think about the last story they wrote. Did they give much thought in advance as to who would be their viewpoint character? Did they spend any time thinking of how the story thrust would differ with a different character’s mind and emotions being penetrated? And finally, should their story be told in the first or third person?

Why did Alice Munro choose a young girl, who I’m guessing to be between ten and twelve, as her point of view (POV) character? And staying with her, for a moment, why didn’t Alice Munro make the daughter a worldlier sixteen or seventeen? Why didn’t she make the father, Ben, the pov character, especially since it is his story? How about the young girl’s even younger brother? Though he is nameless, too, and his age indeterminate, I would put him at between five and seven. Rather than adopt the easy conclusion that he is too young to be a pov character, it might be more instructive to examine what the story would be like as seen through his personal filters; we can do the same thing with Ben; we might even consider Nora, the woman with whom he and the children are visiting. Is there anyone who would not be a candidate? How about Ben’s wife—the children’s mother?

Let’s get rid of a few of them right away. It might be instructive for the critter to go back to the short statement of the story line. There, you’ll see why it couldn’t possibly be Nora as a pov character, much less the mother/wife. Either character would make a fascinating pov character; each would have a potentially moving personal story to interface with Ben and the children. But keeping the personal history and timeline of all the same characters intact, it would not—could not—evolve from the same storyline. Nora’s personal story line would begin with seeing Ben and the children driving up to her house that day. It would end when they leave. The storyline for the mother/wife, on the other hand, would conclude when Ben and the children leave for what she perceives as a tedious and demoralizing day of selling.

That leaves the young boy and Ben. Let’s start with Ben. How would the story have played out if told from the Ben’s pov? As I said before, it is his story after all. As a novice writer, I’d have chosen Ben as the viewpoint character in a heartbeat (I’m not so sure I could resist it now). I would have wallowed around inside his head and worked very hard to convince the reader, and even Ben, himself, that his wife gave up on him the moment he failed in his silver fox pelt venture. Now she is ashamed, humiliated over his route sales job; she is deeply, profoundly ashamed of him. He knows this and it cuts him to the quick. He also knows she is clinging to the past—to better times—back when she still loved him. He thinks if he could just get her away for a while, for a day in the country, a change of air, things would somehow right themselves. Of course, he expects her to decline, and she does. He knows her expectation would be of going with him on the Walker Brothers route. So he volunteers, instead, to take the kids with him, to give her a rest.

This is where I’d explore the eternal optimist Ben is. I’d show his love for the children and their unqualified love for him; I’d have him singing songs he makes up on the spot about being a Walker Brothers salesman. He never once grumbles, though he doesn’t come close to making a sale. He even barely sidesteps a pan of urine poured from the second story window, and then back in the car he makes up a song about it.

They will be having a glorious time. I’d make sure of that. 

At this point, though, my internal warning system would start alerting me I need to start stirring some new ingredients into the soup. The flavor is thinning out.

I will have Ben, on a whim, turn the car onto a road away from his sales territory and have that road take him to a farmhouse owned by a woman named Nora, who lives there with her blind mother. I will let the reader know, little by little, that this woman had at one time been more than Ben’s friend. It will come out gradually. I will tease the reader with a clue here, a hint there. But then, since it’s Ben’s story, I will bring it out more openly in their dialogue. Nothing will be happening with the children there. But as his conversation with Nora connects with those shared memories from their past, I will let the reader experience first-hand the agony and torture beginning to tighten around his soul. He knows the children are really his safety net. With them there, nothing will happen.

The four of them have been drinking orange drinks, but after Ben and Nora empty theirs, she removes a bottle from its hiding place under the lid of the piano and she pours whiskey in both their cups. Before long, Nora has the phonograph on and is whirling the bewildered young girl around the floor, teaching her how to dance. Oh, how I would then ratchet Ben’s personal agony to its greatest intensity when Nora asks him to dance with her! He declines. But before I would let him leave that scene I would make sure the reader feels every twinge of temptation he feels and I would leave the reader with a feeling of impending loss of that sunny spot from his past which has now been expunged. He’d leave for home, secure in his mind nothing had happened, yet full knowing nothing would be quite the same.

So Ben would have been the viewpoint character I’d have chosen. I’m sure of it. And I’d have dragged the story into an obscurity my rendering of it deserved. Instead, it was left, happily, in the capable hands of Alice Munro.

That leaves the young boy as a potential pov character. He is innocent, trusting, and literal in his interpretation of experience. So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is he is innocent, trusting, and literal in his interpretation of experience. His father is “truth” to him and his "strength." Why? Because, well, because he is his father.

The father sings, as they motor past Lake Huron:

                                                         “Where are the Baptists, where are the Baptists,
                                                         Where are all the Baptists today?
                                                         They’re down in the water, in Lake Huron water,
                                                         With their sins all a-gittin’ washed away,”

Observing this the narrator says of her sibling: “My brother takes this for straight truth and gets up on his knees trying to see down to the Lake. ‘I don’t seen any Baptists,’ he says accusingly. ‘Neither do I, son,’ says my father. ‘I told you, they’re down in the Lake.’

Then, in one of the most telling scenes of the story, we can at once see why the boy could not be the pov character; we see at the same time why it couldn’t be Ben. We’ll see why it had to be the girl. She says:

“On the way home my father does not buy any ice cream or pop, but he does go into a country store and get a package of licorice, which he shares with us …. My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from the thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the licorice, that there are things not to be mentioned. The whisky, maybe the dancing. No worry about my brother, he does not notice enough. At most he might remember the blind lady, the picture of Mary.”

 The alert reader’s creative inner hearing will pick up an echo when he reads the words above: “My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home.” What does that remind me of, the reader thinks? He begins to thumb back to an earlier page. He recognizes it when he gets to the scene where Ben comes back to the car after barely missing his baptism by urine. Settled back in the car and rolling a cigarette, he says, “Just don’t tell your mother that. She isn’t liable to see the joke.”

By choosing Ben’s daughter as the pov character, Alice Munro brings to this story a dimension of human understanding and truth, I’m convinced, could not have been achieved through any other character. 

Meanwhile, in the story you’ve chosen, while hanging on dearly to the skeleton, have you isolated the point of view character(s)? Have you tested other characters to see how the story would be altered with a different pov character? Whose story is it? The same as the pov character? Are you certain?

                              Until next time …
March 14, 2007

                              Of course, this being the last in the series, There was no "next time".

I don't remember why I discontinued The Critter series when I did. I believe I went on hiatus from FanStory to pursue other employment-related goals, but I'm not certain. Now that I'm back, I may choose to add to this series as the mood strikes me. If I do, I hope you shall provide the same generous and kind support you gave this repost.

Chapter 11
Good, Evil and Warts

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED IN MARCH OF 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney. ENJOY!



I watched an interview with Justin Bateman Monday morning on the Today ShowHe was hawking his new movie, which marked his directorial debut.

As writers, we're all cast in the role of director with each story we write.  Tuck that in the back of your mind. Or not—since it's pretty obvious.  I'll get back to it momentarily.

Anyway, either Natalie Morales or Savannah Guthrie—one of the two I always get mixed up because they look like they could be sisters—was interviewing Justin Bateman.  Now, in this movie he played a school teacher who was coaching a group of kids for a spelling bee competition.  The character was apparently pretty hard on them because one of the questions Natalie or Savannah asked him was, Your character was pretty mean, wasn't he?"

"Well," said Justin, "I don't know that I would call him mean."

And what followed is the theme of this post:

By the way, I don't even remember what words he used to justify the behavior of his character—mainly because I was getting ready to go to the gym (which at my age isn't a vanity but an essential) and I can't say I was paying a lot of attention.  Anyway, the words themselves didn't matter.

It was during a stint on the treadmill, though, that the thematic worm began to burrow into my noggin.  It came up for air a couple of times during crunches and again during curls.  Knowing the worm'll find no nutrients in that gray sponge to help turn it into a butterfly, I'm going to yank it out now and take a good look at it.

And here goes:

As I said, whatever words Justin used to justify his character's behavior aren't important.  What is important is that something urged him to defend his character with, "You know, Natalie or Savannah, I can't really agree he was mean."  And he proceeded to go into the back story of the character, the stuff that probably didn't make it into the film, but nevertheless made the character what he was.  It wasn't, but it could easily have been: His dad always told him he was stupid.  And his mom, who wouldn't dream of contradicting her husband, suggested he might want to consider driving a bus for the city instead of going to college.  Or it could have been this: after the first kiss he ever planted on the first date he'd ever had, the recipient and the love of his life announced: "Ewwww, you slobbered!"

Whatever!  Some-such-thing caused him to feel the need to live through his students, and by Jingo, they weren't going to fail him now!

I remember Jay Leno (and I'm sure of that—no one looks like Jay Leno) asking Anthony Hopkins about his role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.  Leno's question was more like "how could you get into the role of such a vicious character?"  Again, I'm afraid I don't remember Hopkins' exact words, but it did involve his automatic-search-mechanism for a redeeming quality in the character.  One is not born with a fanatical craving for fresh-cut, raw flesh.  One is the product of one's past.  And the bottom line: the character of Hannibal Lecter was not pure evil.

Serendipitously, for this blog post, on Tuesday, one of the Today Show twins interviewed Kyle MacLauchlan, who is the antagonist in the new series, Believe.  Again, she asked the inevitable question.  This time I scrambled for a pen and wrote down his response: "I wouldn't say he was evil—just misunderstood," he said with an ironic smile.  "He wants to do something positive for the world, but he just has it a little backward."

I don't think I'm far afield in suggesting that most of you can come up with similar interviews you've listened to of actors and their roles.

An actor, to be convincing in his role, must become, as closely as possible, the character he portrays.  But to do that, there has to be a human element in the character—a redeeming trait.

In the first paragraph I asked you to tuck something away in the back of your mind that I'd get back to later.

If you'll kindly pluck it out now ….

I said, "As writers, we're all cast in the role of director with each story we write."  Now when Natalie or Savannah asked Jason Bateman how hard it was to be both actor and director in the movie, he said something he and I, both, thought was kind of clever—which was that as the director he had one less actor to worry about.  On the level of humor (and in the interest of being charming in the interview), I knew what he meant and it gave me a chuckle.

As a director, though, he does have to worry about each and every character in his film, including his own.  He must be willing to dig as deeply into each character as he needs to in order to find his or her individual humanity.

As writers we must do the same.

Secularly speaking, there is no person, real or invented, who is pure evil.  If he were pure evil and real, he would be dead, because no one including himself can exist as pure evil.  If he were invented as purely evil, he could not exist because he would not be believable—to the reader and to himself, as the writer.

Again, secularly speaking, flip the concept: there is no person, real or invented, who is pure good.  In both the real and the invented version pure good cannot exist because it is the pinnacle of a standard that is impossible to live up to.  In other words he or she would be unbelievable.

As writers we must hold each character up to the scrutiny of the rule-of-not-quite:

It was probably thirty years ago, while thumbing through an issue of Writer's Digest, when I came across an article on character development.  The title of it was something to the effect of Give Your Characters warts.  I was at the time an insurance salesman and (because of the bad rap salesmen were given) our company's credo was authenticity.  Be believable to our prospects.  We needed to convey the warm and fuzzy feeling of "here I am, folks, warts and all."  If we could fit it into our presentation we were encouraged to actually use those words.

As salesmen, we needed to be authentic to be believed and trusted.  As writers, our characters need to be authentic to be believed.

Both need their warts to show.

But I want to take it a step further:  At the point we writers are creating our characters we need to make sure the good guy is not too pristine (in order to be authentic), and the bad guy is not too evil (for the same reason.)

It may be as simple as adding warts in the first instance, and slathering ample applications of Compound W in the second.


Author Notes For those who don't know, Compound W is a wart remover. Works pretty well.

Chapter 12

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON JAN. 26, 2014 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney. ENJOY!

The other day, I was moved by a friend's blog post.  It was a very honest and compelling post in which she exposed to her readers her sense of frustration in finishing another year without enjoying the sense of emotional fulfillment or financial rewards her intelligent, well-written, and helpful book should have provided.  She is a spiritual woman, a woman of God.  I sensed a crisis—not of faith—nothing could shake her faith in God!  But that other crisis in faith: faith in herself.

Secularly, I think we can call it a crisis in confidence— and it can be especially poignant at year's end.

How many of us plod into the year-end with similar feelings of diminished confidence, at least when contrasted with the buoyancy and unbridled promise we had felt at the beginning?  I have a hunch you're not the only one holding up your hand.  I for one have been there … In fact, I've visited frequently … and recently.  It's lonely being there.  I don't want to go back and revisit it. 

But I'm the cause of it ... at least for me.

And I'm the only one who can fix it ... again, for me.

These last two days, I've been putting some thoughts to paper (or to computer screen).  Let me first say I believe there's little new under the sun, so what you'll have here are some old, worn thoughts, hopefully all spiffed up with some new clothes.

I'm calling it the Phases of Creating (but just between you and me, it was Jay Squires, Author, who was responsible for that pretentious title).

Still, here we go:
Phase One:  Envisioning!  You start out your new year (or your new novel, short story, painting, rug-making, whatever), with all the wonder and the excitement and the promise of the Great Unknown.  The taste is raw, crisp and sweet.  Your vision is crystalline.  The end is clearly in sight, within your grasp and you anticipate, you even romanticize, the difficulties you might face along the way to the end.  This is the gunpowder in your musket.  Without it the ball will simply roll out of the barrel and fall to the ground.

Phase One-and-One-Half:  Planning!  I don't even want to give this a phase of its own.  It has nothing to do with structuring your novel, outlining it, or notching in a middle to a beginning and an end.  That's all part of the execution phase, most likely its first step.

What I'm talking about is preparatory to all of that, and probably second in importance only to that glorious envisioning.  It is the carving out of the time you will devote to your project.  I mentioned in a previous post that I used the "Don't Break the Chain Calendar" as a tool for my time planning (Free and downloadable, by the way!).  I was determined to write for three hours every day on my fantasy novel.  Okay?  At the end of each writing stint I put a red X on that day of my calendar. 

Folks, this is nothing less than the ball in your musket!  If you don't plan, then at the end of the year, or before it, you'll be shooting out a cloud of gunpowder!

Phase Two:  Execution!  I think it was Henry Miller who said, "When you sit, sit … When you stand, stand … But don't wobble."  When you write, write.  When you paint, paint.  Don't say after your block of one-two or three hours that you've been writing or painting when you spent most of that time on the phone or reading your past chapters, or repainted that shadow from the twig.  All you're doing is wobbling.  And you know it!

This is not a procedural.  There are as many different procedures as there are writers, painters, sculptors or rug-makers.  Procedure is an individual thing.  The one constant, though, is this:  there is honest and dishonest, good and bad, true and false.  And to get to the honest, good and true, you must work through the dishonest, bad and false.  I found it took me one hour on an exceptional day, two hours on most days, of dishonest, bad, false—and throw in phony for good measure—writing before I got to the honest good and true.

And here is the critical idea that sums up what I've been trying to say up to this point:  If I hadn't established my plan of writing three hours a day, each and every day, and reinforced it [in my case] with a tool, like the calendar I mentioned above, I would likely have not gotten past the first one or two hours of dishonest, bad and false writing.

Now, if you execute the plan you envisioned, you will, one fine and glorious day, be able to scribble or type the end.  That, if it's a novel.  If it's a painting—well, I guess you let it dry!

Essentially, you've pulled the trigger.  Felt the recoil.  The as-yet-unanswered question is: did you reach your target?

But not so fast!  You are about to enter (not the Twilight Zone, but):

Phase Three:  The Big Oh-Oh!  The honest, the good and the true can be encapsulated with the title of Genius or Inspired.  The dishonest, the bad and the false, in my case, bear the title of Jay Squires, Author.
I'll finish my 600 + page fantasy novel in about a week.  It will have been written by Jay Squires, Author.

The first thing I'll do after weighing it in at about a pound and a half is to admit it’s much too long for commercial publication!  Knowing that—and further knowing I want to validate my efforts by getting it published, I'm going to have to go back, chapter-by-chapter for perhaps another 2 or 3 hours a day, onward through what could be another year. 

And what will I be doing?

You can call it revising.  Some call it editing.

Essentially, what I'll be doing is winnowing out the oh-so-refined-and-pretty voice of Jay Squires, Author.  (I know him well.  He'll be easy to find.)  It'll take work, but what will be left when I finish, if it comes anywhere near to matching my phase one vision, should be the essential, the simple integrity, the honest, the good and the true.
And I know I'll have hit the target.

Or one sure as hell hopes!


Chapter 13
ButterflyMan Slipped From Chrysalis

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON APRIL. 24, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney. ENJOY!

ButterflyMan, Slipped From Chrysalis
I'm sitting here in my office chair, at my office desk, my palms on the back of my head, elbows up and to the side, staring out the glass office door. The stenciled letters spelling AUTO, HOME, BUSINESS & LIFE INSURANCE are backwards to me so the passersby on the sidewalk heading down to the 7-11 can properly read it and perhaps come in and spoil my reverie while I am thinking, "Well … another springtime is here."

I also imagine someone, staring at me from one of the apartment windows in the complex across Columbus Street. That person might wonder at my hands so placed behind my head, my elbows high and out, my well-toned lats filling that part of my gawdy Hawaiian shirt and at the glazed look in my eyes. In fact, he might fancy  I am,  instead, a huge Monarch butterfly fresh-slithered from my chrysalis, which he wouldn't see owing to the distance, and also the fact that my former crunchy springtime home lies like a discarded garment at my feet, hidden behind my big, impersonal insurance desk.

Oh, yes it is most definitely spring.

My imagination flutters me about the room, dipping and rising and soaring and flittering, and the man in the apartment has now vacated his window, falsely believing he had not been staring at a butterfly at all, but an old insurance man sitting in his chair behind his desk.


 I've experienced probably sixty springtimes, nearly all of which I might remember the magic of, if I really put my mind to it. Even if I were to try to recapture the memory of the springtimes earlier than that, it would be irrelevant. Why? Because you don't need springtime when all of childhood—assuming it is not meddled with—is tender and fresh. All life is magic, or should be, to the pre-teen child.

My reality is I'm 73 years old. But then again, no one who's reading this is likely to be cavorting around in the tender, fresh wonder of childhood, either.

So, I'm thinking we all need our springtimes. Am I right? What does springtime conjure up in your mind? Spring cleaning? Or Easter? And isn't springtime the most popular season to marry? How about planting time? And dare we omit nestlings chirping in the trees, or butterflies flitting from flower to flower? What have I forgotten?

One doesn't have to go too far to find the common thread running through all these? Springtime is a time of new beginnings.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious with the above statement, I'd like to take it a step further and suggest the first day of spring should be the true New Year's Day. Sure, a few things would have to be tweaked, but I'd wager that once done, the rational mind of man would have a closer association with the truth of new beginnings that reside in man's soul. And because of that … I'd wager another thing: our New Year's resolutions would have a far better chance of succeeding because our souls are already geared toward change, improvement, betterment.

We'd have to do something about the college bowl games. I'll put my people on it.


How do the seasons play out in our creative life? As a writer I wonder, is it just me, or do the fresh sprouts nudging the soil of our creative minds seem more abundant now? Notwithstanding, we may be still pregnant with undelivered projects of springs and summers past we've been pushing through one more exhausting winter of fitful contractions.

No one said creative project-bearing would be easy!

And now, as if to confound us, these new ideas are germinating in our minds with surprising ease and are as fresh as a peach-blossom-wafted breeze. With that tingling in our nostrils who could be blamed for wanting to take a break from all the pushing and grunting?

(Can I hear some of you complaining the old coot is waxing awfully poetic? Well, you young whippersnappers, springtime's the reason. Blame it on springtime!)

Complaints aside, though, are we beginning to see there just might be a downside to springtime for the creative mind. I hope you'll explore that with me in Part II.

Chapter 13
I Love You SPRINGTIME...Now Buh-Bye

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON May. 13, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney. ENJOY!

Chapter 13

Part II


We concluded the first springtime post with the question: "Is there a downside to internalized springtime for the creative mind?"
So… is there?
Oh, you bet there is! I'll give you an example:
Insurance agents (and I'm guessing it would be the same with all salesmen), are notorious for summarily ditching what works for them: a perfectly successful phone technique, a dynamic sales presentation, or flawless methods of turning nos into yeses. Suddenly, they just stop using them. Then, midway into their commission's downward spiral, when their manager asks them why they stopped doing what was successful and made them money, most will sheepishly admit: "I knew it worked, so I wanted to try something new."
To try something new …. And that, dear reader is the lure—the siren—of springtime!
Let me ask you this:
How many of you have amputated stories, or sheaves of half-worked melodies lying in the bottom of your desk drawers, or blocked out sketches on canvases stacked in our closets? How many of your past creative impregnations—after a rough winter's labor—become pre-term-stillborn when challenged by springtime's new shoots? To try something new.
Let me start the survey myself:
I have two unfinished novels and about eight or nine truncated short stories. No songs, I'm afraid. No canvases.
How about you painters reading this? Or songwriters? You other writers? 
Personally, I don't know the first thing about technique in painting, only a little more about songwriting: I can hum a ditty. But I do know what all three have in common. Throw in playwriting and sculpting, and I'm still in familiar territory. And so are you!
I know they all began with an idea, which I'll call a vision—however unarticulated the vision was.
If the vision was true there was a powerful, if not burning, desire to bring that idea or vision to completion. Dare I say it? I shall: To give birth … to the novel, or the short story, or the painting, sculpture, stained-glass window or architecture, or the song, tune, opera, or symphony!
Of course the all-important medium between Vision and Birth is Time.
Could it be simpler? If the vision produced a desire that was consistently powerful enough over time there would be a joyous delivery.
For the formula lovers amongst us, I offer:
The Challenge: Visit the graveyard of projects past. Let's do a little disinterring.
For the purposes of discussion let's say it's a writing project you pulled out of the graveyard of your drawer.
               1.The beginning-to-unravel point: At what point did you start losing interest in your project? You didn't just one day say, "Okay, I'm no longer interested in this." It came by degrees. And there was a reason for it. Chances are the reason is going to take you right back to the vision.

(Welcome Back, or is it welcome forward?)
               2.The Vision: Close your eyes. Think back about the germ idea that started you thinking about writing a novel. I read once that William Faulkner's germ idea for The Sound and the Fury came with seeing a little girl (who became Caddy) sitting on a limb (or was it a fence?) and wearing dirty drawers. It's important to know the germ idea is not the vision. In fact, the germ idea, in the beginning, tends to link more to desire.
The vision, then, comes when you can see your story's beginning and some hazy or perfectly etched out ending. And there is a strong feeling or an exact knowing that the ending will somehow grow out of the beginning and be pleasurable, though not necessarily pleasant. This may seem like vague gobbledygook, but if you examine it carefully it takes into account the many types of writers, some, but not all of them successful, and their methods.
               3.The Desire: If your vision is powerful enough you'll move heaven or hell to give it expression. Now that's desire! What happens, though, when vision and desire are not entirely in sync?
Vision without Desire is a someday proposition. One of these days … when you have a weekend free, when the kids are in camp, when you can afford a new laptop, when the stars are in alignment, then, surely then you'll get around to it.
OR ...
Desire without Vision is a wandering generality. (Actually, that great salesman and trainer of salesman, Zig Zigler coined the term). Many times the desire is nothing more than a strong wish to be famous, to show that high school English teacher, or boy-, or girlfriend, how wrong they were about you. Perhaps, you're in love with the romanticized notion of being an author. See a little bit of you in any of these scenarios? If so, your projects are legion. It's just that they don't often see completion. 
So … instead of it being a wandering generality, make your project a meaningful specific (Also, thanks to Zig Zigler). But how do you achieve that? There is no substitute for marrying the Vision to the Desire—or to be more accurate "re-marrying" the Vision to the Desire. When people remarry, it's usually because they remember the vision (what was so good about their first marriage.) And that gives them the desire to recapture it. The same with your project. There are no shortcuts here. You need to spend a good long time remembering what moved you in the original vision
               4.Time: Okay, you have your vision remarried to a strong, sustained desire. That it will take time to bring your project to a natural birth, is a given. So why dwell on it? I'll tell you why:
Just as a marriage or a remarriage will succeed or fail based on the frequency of affectionate contact between the two, so too will your creative project. Frequent kisses and hugs and tender words … and frequent turning on of your computer, and opening your chapter file and applying pressure to the keys are recipes for long marriages and completed projects. Time is only abstract until you use it (I said that, not Zig Ziglar)! We live in, and through, time.
Inspiration is a LIAR! Anyone sitting around waiting for it knows that. I thought I remembered a quote that "Inspiration comes disguised as hard work." I Googled it. Nothing! The closest I could come was "Opportunity comes disguised as hard work." Herbert Prochnow wrote it. If he wrote it because he had been sitting around waiting, in vain, for opportunity, I believe he would agree with me that opportunity and inspiration are both liars!
If you don't want the re-marriage to go dry on you don't wait for inspiration to move you to continue on with your project.
Make romancing your project a daily practice. I can't stress the importance of this more! In my Writer's Journey newsletter (Now defunct, sorry.) I shared my commitment of writing two hours a day, every day, no exception, on my Fantasy Novel. I've done it through illness, injury, birthdays, anniversary and—the hardest—laziness and boredom. For four months and eight days I've continued the daily romance. (In case you've counted the days, yes, it was a New Year's resolution!) Each day I checked off, in red ink, one more success on my "Don't Break the Chain" calendar. (It's free if you're interested: See Author Notes. ) I've bludgeoned and finessed my way through seventeen chapters I know I would not have otherwise written. My rough draft will be completed in ten months and will be edited over the remaining two.
               5.The Birthing Process: Don't you just love metaphors? If time is the gestation period for completing the novel, as I laid out the process above, it would be so easy and clean to just say: "and now we have a brand new, freshly clean and swaddled novel ready for the public to Oooh and Ahhh over. 
So new! So fresh! So clean! NOT! I choose to have the gestation period end and the Birthing begin where it should … with labor!
Don't you tell me to relax you *&%#@&! You did this to me!: Okay, you've put the last period on the final word of your novel. You've reached the end of the gestation period. You lean back and sigh. But there's something niggling at your complacency. Is it really ready for your novel to see the world? The nigglings are two minutes apart.
What's happening inside? For all intents and purposes your novel's finished. It's been in a happy place. Ever since vision and desire came together and there was the first word, the first line, the first paragraph, it didn't have anything to do but lie in warm, cushioned comfort … and wait. But now the last period is in place. Finis!
Or is it? You know it's going to be excruciating if you take it through the final stage of labor …
E D I T I N G! Part of you—you don't consider it the irrational part—wants it to stay right where it is: What could you do better? It's perfection …. First things first, you need to get an agent, then buy stamps and a manila envelope. But wait! You suddenly feel an overwhelming pressure trying to get you to push … push … PUSH! You realize you don't have any choice. Not if you want a healthy, viable novel. What were you thinking? You must go through labor.
And so you do.
And so do we all.

Author Notes "Don't Break The Chain Calendar" (Paste in your browser):

Chapter 14
The Christmas Card and the Library

By Jay Squires


NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON JUNE. 19, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney.

The Christmas Card and the Library

I went to the library today.  My son, David, works there.  I went there to deliver a Christmas card to him.  No need to go back and reread the sentence.  It was today.  It was a Christmas card.  There's a story there.  I'll tell it to you if you like.  That was not the intent of this blog, though—telling the story, I mean—but life is complex.  That's why I don't often write in simple sentences.  To meet life's complexities head-on, and write about them, I often write in compound sentences, sometimes complex sentences.

But the story … okay: 

Last Christmas we gifted many of our loved ones cash or gift cards.  David was one.  We bought him a fifty-dollar movie gift card.  He loves movies and since they were going through a financial rough patch, this gave him an opportunity to go to a movie without feeling like he was taking food off the family table.

Not too long ago, my wife and I heard on the grapevine (actually, the grapevine was my other son, Joe, who also loves movies), that the brothers went to the Marketplace Theater where David pulled out his gift card to pay for his ticket.

The teenager in the booth ran it through the scanner and put her mouth to the hole in the glass:  "That'll be nine-dollars and fifty cents," she said, around her chewing gum.

David said, "Yeah, go ahead and use the card."

"You used the card," she said.  "Fifty cents worth."

Of course he told her the card was for fifty dollars, to which she retorted, "No.  Fifty cents."

David's a pretty mildly tempered person, but he was getting a bit heated at this point.  "Why would anyone buy a gift card for fifty cents?  Do you even sell gift cards for fifty cents?"

"No," she replied and popped her gum.

That happened sometime in January.  Joe told us about it, I believe, in May.  I don't remember how it came up, but it was a rather oblique reference, as I recall.  It was probably, by agreement between the brothers, that we weren't to hear about it at all, but it somehow just happened.

My wife and I talked about it.  I mean, it wasn't our fault.  We paid for a fifty dollar gift card.  It was the movie theater's fault.  Specifically, it was the fault of the person who sold us the card.  But it was David who had really lost out.

So last night my wife dug out a Christmas card from the drawer.  At the bottom of the greeting she wrote, "Merry Christmas all over again," and tucked in two twenties and a ten.

And I took it to him today.

Well … that's the story, but it's not the blog post I had intended.

What I really wanted to tell you was this:  As I was walking across the library parking lot, clutching the Christmas card, I found myself flowing forward with a river of library patrons, most of whose arms were loaded down with books.  One backpack so filled with books the wearer was forced to walk in an awkwardly erect posture, threatening to fall over backwards, which conjured up images of a turtle on his back, unable to right himself.  Children skipping, laughing out of sheer joy, screaming, well, because they were children; parents exhorting, "Now you remember you whisper when you go inside."  A little boy talking in excited tones to his sister, " … and I'm gonna get me a book about horses and I'll ask mama if I …" and his thin voice blends in with, and is blanketed by, other voices and noises and celebration.

Difficult to pin down, hard to put your finger on … this community of festivity, this carnival of expectation; hope—the possible unwrapping of a mystery inside those walls, between the hard, musty covers of a book plucked randomly from one of the thousands of shelves, the voice in the book, that one voice that says with precision and certitude what you have been forever feeling, but thinking you were alone, and lonely, in the feeling of it.  But here you find a friend, a confederate, a confidant, here—here in this book, taken from that shelf within the whispering walls of the Library.

And I am being swept along, thinking about this and almost trip over a young man, hoisting in his arms a mountain of books, one of which slides down the slope and while he bends to pick it up two more fall, and making a wild grasp for all of them the entire mountain collapses.

And I stop and help him.  I pick up a one-volume Works of Balzac, a Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and a paperback western novel.  He lifts a huge tome entitled the Essential Dictionary of Music Notation, and a few more paperbacks.  Enormous green eyes stare up at me through coke-bottle-lenses and he thanks me.

I continue on, thinking about all this and what it is urging me to remember.  And then I do remember.  I remember something I had read, or seen on TV, or heard …something that was from a respected source told us we were, mentally, becoming a nation of pablum ingestors.  We have lost our intellectual teeth and are growing incapable of thinking on our own.  A dangerous thought: other people thinking for us!  Books being replaced by television; outdoor activities by video games.

We've all heard the naysayers.

How many aspiring writers have given up in the face of such cultural inevitability?  I remember thinking back then, "What's the bloody use in writing! Who will be there to read it, anyway?"

Today, with Christmas card in hand, caught in the flow and flood of this army of cultural dissenters, I hear and see, and yes—I feel: the alphabet is hearty, the squiggles and squams of punctuation still function, words, almighty, slippery, wriggling, palpitating words, still have meaning thanks to this army, thanks to this marvelous, beautiful army converging in to burst through the door and into the mystery world inside the whispering walls.


Chapter 15
The How of Rejection

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON JULY 24, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney.


Over my Saturday morning treat of biscuits 'n gravy and coffee at Carl's Jr., I happened to be reading a short story by William Saroyan (pictured at the left). The story was called Seventy Thousand Assyrians, and typical of Saroyan, it had a humongous title with very simple content that seemed to go nowhere but went everywhere, if you know what I mean.

He writes about a young man (the writer, William) needing a haircut; having little money, he goes to a barber college where he can get one for 15 cents. (This took place in the thirties.) While he is waiting for his turn he strikes up a conversation with a sixteen-year-old lad, also down on his luck, and waiting for a haircut. The young man tells him he is heading to Portland, Oregon since there is no work in the lettuce fields of Salinas, which is in California. And that brings me to Saroyan's narrative. And I quote:

"I wanted to tell him how it was with me: rejected story from Scribner's, rejected essay from The Yale Review, no money for decent cigarettes, worn shoes, old shirts, but I was afraid to make something of my own troubles. A writer's troubles are always boring, a bit unreal. People are apt to feel, Well, who asked you to write in the first place? A man must pretend not to be a writer. I said, 'Good luck North.'"

A fine short story, worth every writer's perusal. But it was just the reading of that one paragraph that set me to thinking about the life of the writer then (1933), and now. And it got me thinking philosophically about the writer back then and at present. About their psyches. About the subtle deeper layers, then and now. And I'm way out of my own depth here, I know that. But has that ever stopped me before?

Thinking about it, and including it in my blog, are two different things, though. The decision maker was that my Kindle Fire alerted me I need to charge it now! I had just enough juice left to type out the above quote before the screen went gray.

The electronic age—how apt is that?

"I wanted to tell him how it was with me: rejected story from Scribner's, rejected essay from The Yale Review." I'll go back and pick up the rest of the quote later, but right now the keynote difference between the two parts of the quote is not the results of rejection but how one is rejected. And the very important impact time has on rejection. Very important!

Many writers are not old enough to have experienced the submission/rejection phase of which Saroyan speaks. I am, and some of you are. What Saroyan had to do was write, edit and put in its final polished form the manuscript he wanted to submit. He knew there was protocol. The editor, or his lackey, would be looking for a reason not to have to finish a piece to its end. There were hundreds that had to be waded through before closing time. The writer couldn't fold it and slip it in a regular size envelope. Folding not allowed. So, he had to purchase manila envelopes. He needed two for each manuscript—one in which to put the Ms along with the second, folded, stamped manila envelope—alas! for the returned Ms. With the returned Ms would be the rejection slip, suitable for framing, wallpapering or wadding up. If Mr. Saroyan were fortunate there would be no coffee stains or other tale-tale signs on it, so he would be able to use the almost virgin Ms to send to the next one on the list.

Each submission represented about a month out of the writer's life. Thirty days. Maybe even longer. And each additional unsuccessful month meant a little more abrasion to his soul. But I promised not to talk about the effects of rejection just now. Only the process, the how, of rejection.

Effort. Money. Time. These always have been and always will be the constants. How they are allocated will differ over the years.

Mr. Saroyan had a typewriter. While he created, he had to x-out the offending words, writing the corrected ones above or below the lines. But for his finished Ms he needed perfection (back in an age without white-out or correcto-tape) and if that meant tossing an otherwise perfectly good page because in the last line he wrote to instead of too, so be it!

Effort. Time.

Then came the computer age!

Just having the ability to make all the editing changes on the screen (with spell-check, find and delete, insert, cut and paste) before the Ms is printed, the computer presented an enormous saving in time and effort. And then, with the advent of the internet, all of a sudden Scribner's, The Yale Review and a hundred-thousand other magazine and many book publishers have moved right next door. So to speak. There goes the neighborhood!—again, so to speak.

Now the writer whips his Ms into near perfection, pulls the publisher up on-line, pastes or attaches the Ms, pushes the submit button, and voila!, he is about ten days, instead of thirty from rejection—or acceptance, let's not forget that, with the payment sent to his Pay-pal account.
[This blogster is getting frugal in his retirement. If this post looks familiar to any of you it is because it was posted in my once lively, now defunct, Jay Squires Writer's Workshop Newsletter. I think it has enough general interest it should be included here. Curiously, I had an earlier blog post entitled THEN AND NOW (A WRITER'S LIFE)—a title which I totally plagiarized myself by using in my Newsletter (fortunately, there's a law against suing oneself or I'd lose what little income I have in my retirement—I had that good a case against me!) Even more curiously, I apparently had forgotten I used this same title, though the content in the two articles was entirely different. Anyway ... hence the PART II here.]
* * *
(A Writer's Life)

It was about 1961 or '62. I had just moved from a comfortable room in my parents' home to a flat in San Francisco I shared with three others, only one of whom I remember. His name was Joe, and I remember him because he, like me, left a comfortable home in Santa Maria, California, to experience life in San Francisco.

We were oh-so-ready to begin our suffering.

Joe knew one of the others who rented the flat, so he was given the only extra bed. I slept on a mat—I believe on the floor of the largish closet, though I'm not sure whether it was in the closet or whether that was my idealized version of where a suffering artist might sleep. In defense of my poor memory, it was over 50 years ago and we were only there a couple of nights … since I was not aware I was to be expected to share in the rent. Barely having enough for the bus trip from Santa Maria, and not knowing the first thing about real suffering, as in working, or living on the streets, I phoned my parents to wire bus fare to me. Which they did.

While waiting for the money for bus fare, Joe and I did enjoy our own brand of suffering during those few days. We visited rundown bars on the wharf where I gagged down my first beer laced with equal parts tomato and clam juice. In the evening we pridefully donned our worn-at-the-knees Levis and visited more upscale bars where the beat poets frequented. I remember my heart racing at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's reading of one of his poems, accompanied by a jazz combo, and joining with the several others in the bar snapping my fingers in applause when it was over. The last line of his poem still resonates in me:

                                     "You! You in your Brooks Brother's suit, you son of a bitch!" 

It was so cool!

Other times we sat on the curb with bums, grilling them as grist for future stories and poems.

Joe was a much better writer than I. His poetry was full of angst and vulgarity. I practiced for the same effect in my prose, but to my eyes it was a diluted version of his. How could it be otherwise? I came from parents who loved me unconditionally. He came from a broken home and lived with his mother. My dad was a cop. His was a seldom seen slumlord for illegal Mexican farm workers.

In short, I was a suppressed, middle-class, spoiled, white boy. He was a free spirit, a low-born, poor, Mexican boy.
How much better was he equipped to be a poet?
* * *

I feel so privileged to have wallowed, however briefly and superficially, in the Beat tradition. To me, it was immediate and it was unique—just as every person feels his experiences in his generation are immediate, and unique.

The Beat movement of the 50's and 60's, however, had its roots in the Romantic Era.

The arts movement known as Romanticism evolved in the mid-1700's, and had its heyday somewhere in the mid-1800's. This came after centuries of oppression by the church and the state, where the individual creative person had little voice except to glorify and enlarge the institutions that wielded power over him. Man was depersonalized and subordinate. Then came what I would describe as the literary big bang.

Thanks to The Literature Network we have this quote that defines it:

"First and foremost, Romanticism is concerned with the individual more than with society. The individual consciousness and especially the individual imagination are especially fascinating for the Romantics. 'Melancholy' was quite the buzzword for the Romantic poets, and altered states of consciousness were often sought after in order to enhance one’s creative potential." [Italics mine]*

Substitute "Beat" for "Romantic" and it's tantamount to walking out of the Romantic door and into the Beat door.

The effects of my experiences persist stubbornly over time. The Romantic era, the Beat era and yes, even the Hippy era churn through the blood in this 73 year-old body. Oh, yes, and in very proper Romantic and Beat tradition, part of me still mourns my lack of suffering, the accidental ingredients coming together at my birth, and my middle-class, love-induced upbringing that always kept me, and will keep me forever, in Joe's shadow, spread out over 50 years.

Individually and collectively, we are cultural sponges. Movements and traditions are sucked in and are slow to drain from us. Individually, we cling to the belief we are unique unto ourselves. Yet, we are products of the traditions and art forms that preceded us. And the best—the very best—of what we are doing today resonates with the collective soul to reach far into the future and play into the artistic lifestyles of those creators generations hence.

It seems appropriate to end this with the famous poem by John Donne**

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." 

* For the complete article visit:
** No Man Is an Island, By John Donne, 1624


Chapter 16
Down and Out in San Antonio (Part 1)

By Jay Squires


NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON JAN. 13, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney.

Entry in Journal, Feb. 6, 1962, entitled Retrospective

          I wish I could remember how it all came about that Marty and I concocted such a harebrained idea to begin with.

          See, Marty and I had been taking a creative writing class at Allen Hancock Community College in Santa Maria, California.

          The professor was a first year Irishman, transplanted to California.  I'm sure his countryman, James Joyce, had ignited a fire in his soul and Professor O'Dwyer even had his own abstruse, obscurantist novel secreted away in his closet and was only teaching this class to keep the cinders alive until his own Finnegan's Rebirth  was, well, birthed.

          We'd been over to Mr. O'Dwyer's apartment a number of times during the semester, swilling bitter European coffee and platitudinously chastising the popular writers of the day.  It was college, after all!  Professor O'Dwyer frequently alluded to a novel in his closet that he was working on—but we never encouraged him further.  Marty, Joe (who was another friend and fellow classmate) and I often snickered to each other the suggestion that O'Dwyer would've loved to have taken any one of us into that closet.

          We only visited Professor O'Dwyer in twos or threes.

          I'd always wanted to be a writer—Marty, not so much.  We'd gone through high school together.  He was a year behind me.  Marty was not a stranger to harebrained ideas.  When I graduated high school, for example, and decided to join the Air Force, he thought it was a grand idea.  He somehow got his parents' signatured approval to not finish high school, recruited another friend of his by the name of Julian, and the three of us joined the Air Force on July fourth, 1957.  As a curious aside, since we chose such a momentous day in the history of our nation to join the military, we were sworn in by James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle, a very famous general of the day.  Afterwards, he walked down each rank, stopped before each new recruit, looked straight in his eyes and shook his hand.  Of course, you don't remember Jimmy Doolittle.  Shaking his hand was a great honor at the time, but, I confess, over the two days it took me to write this account, I couldn't remember his name for the life of me.  Only today, as I was preparing to post it, that famous general's name popped into my head.  I had to go to Google to make sure I was right.

          The three of us fancied ourselves as the kind of Three Musketeers.  We joined together, we would go to tech schools together and travel the whole world as the Three Musketeers!

          I never said we were mature, or even possessed good sense back then!

          Came the aptitude tests!  Marty became an airplane mechanic, Julian went to food management, and I was hustled off into the Security Service.

          Four years later, without as much as a howdy Musketeer during the four year interim, we were discharged, and dumped back into Santa Maria.  I have no idea where Julian ended up, but as I told you, Marty and I enrolled in a creative writing class.


          It might have begun as simply as this:  Jay, he could have said to me, or Marty, I could have said to him, how much money you got?  And after whichever one of us was being asked rooted around in his wallet and came up with an amount, the other would have done the same.  Both amounts would have been added together and the one or the other of us who initiated the conversation would have announced, Let's go to San Antonio, Texas.

          Sweet Jesus!   How funny memory is!

          The whole idea of this retrospective was (and it really was!) to get back to the roots of the history before I arrived with Marty in San Antonio, Texas, February 6th, 1962, in hopes of discovering the reason 
why we left the well-cushioned security of our respective moms' and dads' homes in the first place and launched out into the unknown, where no one knew, cared or even believed that we were immortal. Only our parents knew, but didn't have the words to tell us, that the world would do everything in their collective power to disprove it.   That is the world's job, after all!  We were to discover it, in our own singular souls, as all of us, singularly, must.

          Anyway, in the searching, in the unwinding of the skein of the past, I reacquainted my mind with a forgotten fact: Air Force basic training was at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.  Which is in San Antonio, Texas.  That geographical memory connected with its historical counterpart.  I remember that Marty never left Lackland Air Force Base.  He finished out his enlistment on that base, and spent a lot of time in San Antonio.

          And, now it was flooding back to me!

          While I had been shuttled off to Mississippi for schooling in Security Service and was subsequently sent to Libya, North Africa, to finish my tour of duty, San Antonio had become Marty's second home.

          Now, there was a modest little house in San Antonio which (stretching the image to its breaking point), became Marty's third home.  It so happened that residing in that home was a beautiful young lady, the name of Betty.

          So … now the memory of the prehistory has come full circle.

          It was Marty who asked me, "Jay, how much money you got?"

          And, now, the retrospective completed,  I'll save for another post the entry in my journal from Feb. 6, 1962.


Chapter 17
Down & Out--The Adventure Continues

By Jay Squires

NOTE: THE POST BELOW APPEARED ON JAN. 13, 2013 ON MY BLOG, JaySquires' SeptuagenarianJourney.

          Part One was titled “A Retrospective.” On further reflection it should have been called “A Peripatetic Retrospective.” It did wander about a bit. Ultimately, though, it did get Marty and me out of the military, through a course in creative writing and the decision to pool our money and begin our grand adventure to San Antonio. With a bag of PB & J sandwiches and a couple dozen hard boiled eggs, courtesy his and my moms, and an extra twenty dollar bill courtesy my dad ... we were off.
          Please join me now with:



Journal Entry, Feb. 7, 1962

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS. We'd been there a little over a week now, and Marty and I were no longer exhausted, unbathed, cold, and very nearly broke. The fact was, we found a two story home to rent in the very old part of town. We were now bathed and rested. The floor heater was rattling through the grates. We took turns straddling it, so we were no longer cold. Also, we were no longer nearly broke. In fact, with the first month's rent now out of my wallet and tucked, instead, into the landlady's apron pocket along with a promissory note that the last month's rent and a cleaning deposit would also transfer to her apron pocket in one week (with the arrival of my California unemployment check) ... we were very, veh-ree broke.

It had been Marty's harebrained idea to pool our money together, gas up my MG Midget convertible and travel away from the comfort of our respective parents' homes in Santa Maria, California, non-stop, to San Antonio, Texas.

Oh, a grand adventure awaited us!

Marty's Mom crammed a paper bag with waxed-paper-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while mine provided the hardboiled eggs. My Dad, out of sight of my Mom, slipped me a bill--I think, now, it was a twenty, but it might have been a ten. Money was tight for them. He struggled on a cop's salary, and my Mom graded potatoes in a packing shed for just a little above minimum wage.

So our first night in our rented two-story home in San Antonio, Texas, we ate the last few stale peanut butter and jellies and the rest of the eggs, the yolks of which were already turning greenish-gray.


LOOKING BACK, our first night there blurred at the edges, but how will I ever forget being awakened in the morning by the chant ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n ... ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n ...? These strange sounds were punctuated with the clanging and scraping of metal, and then followed again by: ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n. I looked out my bedroom window, craning my neck left and then right. Marty did the same from his window, since it faced a different direction. Neither of us could find the origin of it. We agreed it sounded human; the pitch registered higher, so it probably came from a female or an adolescent boy. It continued on while we sat in the kitchen, wondering aloud what we could do to score a breakfast. Ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n. After a few such interruptions we decided, hungry or not, to drive through the neighborhood until we found out the source of this irritant.

At the end of our block we hit pay-dirt.

There, sifting through the contents of a metal garbage can (plastic containers didn't exist back then), we discovered a young someone, hunched over, half in and half out of the can, thick, stubby legs and disproportionately large backside straining with the effort of retrieving something from the bottom. We didn't know conclusively that this was our prize until we heard echoed as from a canyon ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n.

Marty turned to me, and spontaneously, we erupted into a fit of laughter. Head and shoulders popped up from the can and for the first time we were able to put gender with the sound. She was female. Youngish, though her age eluded us. Turning to us, she stared, unafraid, with more a look of curiosity, her face smudged, her eyes wide-set, the skin puffy and dark underneath. "Ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n," she said, without expression.

I stared, open-mouthed. She was a Mongolian Idiot!

Okay, wait a minute! Wait just a doggone minute. Don't forget this was 1962. Down syndrome wasn't part of the American lexicon. Mongoloid was, but that would have been seen more in print--probably the scientific journals.

Marty's sister was a Mongolian Idiot, too.

I was embarrassed for laughing. I didn't know she was a Mongolian Idiot and I'd started laughing before I found out she was one, but I wasn't sure she knew when my laughter started.

Truth be known, I'd have been vaguely uncomfortable, anyway, standing there facing her. As with most of us, there was a barrier I tended to erect between me and anything unfamiliar.

Marty lacked that unfamiliarity. He felt an immediate bond.

"Hi," he said.

She didn't acknowledge his greeting. She didn't say anything, not even ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n. She just grabbed a few things beside the garbage can, never taking her eyes off us, and turned and walked away.

Back in the car I told Marty, "I felt bad about laughing. I didn't know she was a Mongolian Idiot."

Marty nodded. "I hope she has a mom and dad to take care of her. Do you think she's hungry? I hope she wasn't digging around for food."

FOR THE MONTHS WE LIVED IN THAT OLD TWO-STORY HOME IN SAN ANTONIO, we heard ayeeeeeeeent-a-kidd'n so often it became as unnoticeable as the chirping of birds two months into spring. I think Marty and I agreed the Oxford English version of her chant would have been "I'm not kidding". So if that's true, then what was she not kidding about? More importantly, what emotional hammer could have slammed that bizarre constellation of words into her mind, leaving them imprisoned there?

I do remember telling Marty a story lurked there, and the story needed telling. Now, over fifty years later, as close as I can get to the story is the incomplete newspaper version, the one you've been given here: the who, what, when, where--not even the how--and not nearly close to the why.

The timbre and the pitch of that chant, though, still resonate through my mind to this day. And it always conjures up images of reckless youth, adventure and boundless dreams.



Chapter 18
Written Today's Half-Pound Yet?

By Jay Squires

Have YOU Written Today's Half-Pound Yet?
A writer-friend, respected for his honesty, once told me the famous French Author Honore de Balzac, boasted that the daily volume of his writing was so huge he weighed it rather than counting the pages.  I tried to verify the quote today but struck out on both Google and Wikipedia.
But you know, it doesn't really matter!  If he did say it, he was probably exaggerating slightly as good fiction writers often do.  If he didn't say it but you have a chance to look over his prodigious portfolio, you'll probably agree with me he should have said it.
Besides, isn't it a wonderful metaphor for what many of us could give ourselves permission to do more of?  I mean, get the words outta your head, for cryin' out loud, and onto the screen.  Don't spend so much time crafting the perfect sentence somewhere behind your eyeballs, let it splash out in all its inane structure and grammatical incorrectness.  Let it be as rough as a block of granite, lying there.  Grab your mallet and chisel.  Now … let the work begin!

You’ve got your block of granite. Mallet held high. Chisel on its mark.
Your big ol’ ...  block of marble ...  juuuust waiting ...
                                                            Your Block
                                                                        YOU’RE BLOCKED.
      What does writer's block mean to you?  We've all experienced writer's block.  I've had a few writers tell me they haven't.  I try to wait 'til one of us leaves the room before I snicker.  I don't believe 'em!  Or, I believe they're not 100 percent committed to a writing career. 
      Are you a neophyte in the writing game?  Or have you been harboring the dream for the better part of your life?
      It really doesn't matter.
      The time frame is less important than the degree of dedication to the craft.  Let me explain.  If writing is one of the most important things in your life—if you can't imagine deriving as much enjoyment from any other activity—congratulations!  And you are a prime candidate for full blown WRITER'S BLOCK. 
      Why is that?
      I'll answer that question with another:  What image is conjured up in your mind when you bash face-first into that blank screen?  What thoughts race through your mind?  Isn't it the likes of: "Why'd I ever think I could write?" "A kindergartner can write better prose than I! "Who am I kidding?"  Etc.
                                                  Image result for writer's block
      Standards … Standards … Standards.  At the point we start taking our writing seriously we develop standards of excellence.  In most cases those standards are patterned after our favorite writer.  Or, if you've been a long time in the writing world your standards are probably now patterned after your own best efforts.  Regardless, when you reach that impenetrable and non-overcome-able blank screen you are—whap!— face-to-face with self-avowed personal incompetence!
      Is there a way over writer's block?  A way around it?  Or, can you burrow under it?  In short, can you get past that gigantic, dumb, white expanse that shrieks in a dog-whistle-silent way only you can hear: "Ignoramus!"  There are probably a hundred different ways espoused by a hundred different writers … but if your choice of methods doesn't enliven your fingers to dance across the keys and produce those wonderful symbols on the screen—then, it hasn't done diddly!
      So let's get down to basics.
      The great American psychologist/philosopher William James proposed a three-word theory that has proved itself again and again.  Those three words are "Actions create emotions."  Don't put them on the Interesting Thought Shelf without thinking about it.  Work with it.  If you desire happiness, act happy.  If you desire to be a successful writer, then keep your eyes peeled for your muse … and when you find her, kill her!  Or, at least send her packing!
       Once you are museless, rewrite the simple formula: If you desire to be a successful writer, write!  Put your fingers on the keys and keep pushing until the right rhythm and tune take over and your fingers dance on the keyboard.
       Allow me to get personal.  For close to a year, ending January 1st 2013, I was smack dab in the middle of the biggest writing drought I'd ever experienced.  The Sahara Desert of droughts!  Oh, I published my blog posts regularly, tweeting cute stuff on Twitter, maintaining a presence on Facebook.  I had a novel and collection of short stories doing decently on Amazon.  But my Writer's Conscience, whose voice sounded suspiciously like that of my Insurance Sales boss (I worked for Allstate): challenged, "What have you done for me recently?"
       In truth, I hadn't done anything recently to move my fantasy novel forward.  Nothing.  Nada.  I waited for that indefinable moment when all the stars lined up, and a warm fragrant breeze blew.  Yep, I waited for my muse to bail me out.
       So two days before the launching of 2013, I took a long, hard look at myself.  "I'm not a writer.  I was a writer, but I'm not a writer now.  A writer writes."  I would allow myself two days to wallow in my excuses, but starting January 1st I would again be a writer!
        I had the serendipity of having read a blog at the time, just a little paragraph out of the post, really, that gave a link to The Writer's Store.  They were offering a free downloadable device that Jerry Seinfeld developed to help him stay on top of his comedy writing. (I checked today, by the way, and it's still free!  Here's the link: )  It's so simple.  It's a 365-day calendar.  At the end of each day Jerry wrote he got to mark off that day in red!  The effectiveness resided in its title: Don't Break the Chain   He hadn't for the years he used it.  I was determined I wouldn't either.
        I needed to put some teeth in my personal commitment, though.  They're cleanly brushed, so use them if you desire or come up with your own.
        I knew some days:
                 I don't feel like writing.  Okay.  Accept it.  Then write. (I only do 2 hours per day.)
                 I'm sick, physically Ill.  Sorry.   Throw up.  Poop.  Write.
                 I put in 3 hours on my blog post today.  Great!  Now, put 2 more on your fantasy! 
                 I forgot about my Grandchild's b-day party. Go!  But when you get home—write  
                 My wife won a 3-day trip to Disneyland.  Go!  Play! Have fun!  Write 6 hours.
        You get the idea!  The two hours, daily, is non-negotiable!  But I discovered something about myself in the process.  About two weeks into it, I was writing with a joy I thought I would never experience again.  I was closer to my characters and the plot and the timing because all were with me every day.  And my family was taking me seriously again.
        With 72 red Xs on my calendar, I was 8 solid chapters into my fantasy.  One proud Papa!*
*Note: This was written 72 days into the year 2013. As an update, I completed the year without missing a day and was well into the second “Don’t break the Chain Calendar” when, as some of you may remember, my computer crashed. I lost about 18 chapters (which I STUPIDLY hadn’t backed up since I thought Scrivener automatically did).
So I should implant another tooth in my “personal teeth commitment” above:
           My computer crashed and I lost months of un-backed-up material. Cry! Swear! Shake your fists at the heavens!
           Then WRITE like there’s no tomorrow.
I’d love to tell you folks that’s what I did with my fantasy novel, but too many of you know The Trining sat on the shelf for several months.
During that time I fell off the wagon with my “calendar”. I became a personal misery drunk. My drink of choice was procrastination. Usually I drank it straight, but occasionally I followed with a chaser of “woe is me!”
Then, one day I’m ashamed to say, I was driving while procrastinating, and I almost ran over a muse who was jaywalking, as they are wont to do. My heart racing, reality crashed about me. I knew what I had to do.
I backed up and finished the job with the muse. I wasn’t even sure it was my own personal muse, but if it wasn’t, the dimpled grill of my Chevy HHR did some other writer a favor. Assured there was not even a twitch of a pulse in her, and being sobered by the event, I drove to the nearest Barnes and Nobles, purchased the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and resolved then and there, never again to fall off my calendar wagon.

Author Notes It dawned on me more than once (and since it can only dawn on one once, let's say it high-noon-mooned me the other times) that you folks may think I'm getting a piece of the "Don't Break the Chain Calendar" action. Let me assure you, I'm not-- though 10 percent of free might turn this clunk's head. I'm just a believer, that's all.

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