Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Slay Your Darlings...

I don't know who first proposed the idea, but I've seen it repeated again and again in books about writing: Slay Your Darlings.

This piece of advice comes from a tendency among writers to compose something, maybe just a paragraph or two, and fall in love with it. It might be a strongly held belief, or a favorite theory, or an old anecdote you've been saving. It doesn't matter. You love it, even if it has nothing to do with the story being told.

And then you ask someone to read your work, hoping your darling will slip by untouched, like a fastball at the knees on the outside corner. No such luck. Your trusted reader will be quick to point out the flaw. "Hey, man, what's with this business on page three? Empty calories, dude. Are you trying to inflate word count?"

Ouch! Try as you may, there is only one true remedy: your little darling has to go.

There is a story in Like a Flower in the Field that is a perfect example. The title is, "Ten Thousand Lakes." Gary and Nancy are walking through a neighborhood in Minneapolis, talking about the climate in Minnesota. Here's their conversation:

          "Nancy, did I ever tell you my theory of how this region was settled?"
          "No. I can't wait."
          "Okay, so you know how it is in the winter, with snow up to the eaves and temperatures that drop to minus thirty or lower, and you never know if your car is going to start..."
          "You got that right."
          "And then in the spring, all that snow melts, basements flood, rivers overflow their banks, and you live with near-daily tornado warnings..."
          "Yeah, severe storms five miles either side of a line between two towns I never heard of."
          "Then comes summer with the heat and humidity--ninety degrees and ninety percent seem like the norm--plus mosquitos the size of hummingbirds..."
          "The mosquito, our State Bird."
          "Ah, but then comes fall, that glorious time of year. The morning air turns crisp and cold and the trees all around the lakes and down the river valleys put on their annual show, a spectacular display of red and orange and gold that is absolutely breathtaking..."
          "Right again."
          "Therefore, the first settlers obviously came in the fall. Otherwise, they would have hightailed it out of here and declared the area uninhabitable."
          Nancy was laughing now, enjoying my theory...and so I went on...

Gary goes on (and on and on) to say what kind, loving, generous people Minnesotans are. He even works in a "Ya, you bettcha." Alas, it was all for naught. It didn't fit the rest of the story. I had to delete the whole conversation.

But then...I really didn't slay my darling. I saved it to share with you.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Kernel of Truth...

Most stories begin with a kernel of truth, and this is true in my collection, Like a Flower in the Field. The kernel can be an old man playing saxophone on the streets of San Francisco, or a hard fall from the steps in my home, or a visit to a bar in Laguna Beach. But sometimes the kernel is a song.

        I keep goin' back to Joe's
        To that table in the corner
        Sippin' wine and starin' at the door...

"I Keep Going Back to Joe's" was a hit for Nat King Cole in 1963. Ah, but the definitive version is by Bobby Scott, from a tribute album to Nat recorded in 1990. The album is titled For Sentimental Reasons and you can find it online at your favorite music site (I found it on Spotify).

        Our old waiter knows we're through
        Still he sets a place for you
        Everything the way it was before...

It is a long track, more than nine minutes, with an extended piano solo set between the vocals. Scott was a great jazz pianist and his gift is on full display in this recording.

        I keep goin' back to Joe's
        But the guy who plays piano
        Never plays your favorite melody...

The piano solo is terrific, but it's Scott's vocals that make this the ultimate torch song. His voice "...speaks of whiskey and cigarettes," and this song is a perfect fit.

        Joe keeps busy at the bar
        Never asks me where you are
        He was there when you walked out on me...

One of the chapters in my book is a one-act play titled, "Closure." When you read it, I suggest you have Bobby Scott's rendition of "I Keep Going Back to Joe's" playing softly in the background.

A song can be a great kernel.