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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

There was an article in the Washington Post this weekend about a kid who broke his neck in a swimming accident only to survive as a C5 quadriplegic, hooked up to a ventilator and paralyzed from the neck down. Stories like his are all too common, and even become big news ala Christopher Reeve.

Many years ago, I started writing a story about a guy who gets paralyzed in a C5 accident, and though I wrote almost 10,000 words of it, I never finished. I originally envisioned a sad tale about loss, a guitar player has an accident and gets paralyzed, losing the thing most important to him in the world, playing guitar. Through sheer willpower and some magic realism, he experiences a miraculous healing, where he can walk again, and he stumbles out of the hospital naked, looking for a guitar. Of course, this is a stupid story, and in the writing of it, it became a different animal entirely.

I was bothered by the miracle ending in my original idea. I realized that for quadriplegics, some of whom I would like to read the story someday, might feel cheated because for them there is no miracle ending, no magic realism to come restore their bodies and give them motion and feeling. Of course, the paralyzed character (named Blaine)had to change in some way, and I decided that the change would be his acceptance of his condition, and that acceptance in a metaphorical way restores him. This is a more mature, more nuanced approach, and as I discovered, extremely challenging.

I also knew that playing guitar wasn't compelling enough to highlight the element of loss that I wanted to develop into the theme of the story, so I chucked that too. I added a new character, a girlfriend who leaves him after his accident. I was going through a break up myself, so I was able to channel a lot of those feelings into my hero's sad story, which I liked. Another female character named Mary acts as a Yoda-like figure, who guides Blaine to the zen-like acceptance of his condition.

There was an unexpected element that arose during this period, and that arose from some rudimentary readings of ancient Chinese philosophy. I absorbed the Tao Te Ching, Chang Tzu, Sun Tzu. I ignored the paegentry and just listened to the words, slowly I began to understand it. It's kind of like those Magic Eye pictures. If you stare at it long enough and let your eyes go fuzzy, it all becomes clear.

So I started quoting from the Tao Te Ching in the section breaks, trying to write scenes that didn't directly reference whatever quote I had selected, but would be explained by them in some esoteric way. Talk about a challenge.

Here I had envisioned a mostly internal story (since he's a quadriplegic, it's going to be a little short on "action") about a quadriplegic man (who possesses a condition I knew little about) who goes through some kind of vague accepting process with the help of a nurse named Mary, with relevant quotes from the Tao Te Ching. Pardon me while I pat myself on the back for even coming up with the concept. But can I pull it off?

I couldn't. But after reading about that kid in the Post, it made me want to try again. Maybe now, with time, some of the more personal elements that I had been channeling into it will be a little muted, which means I won't drone on about them in drearily over-poetic language. Plus, my subconscious has been chewing on the idea for a few days and I think I figured what the story will be about.

It's about that moment when reality smacks you in the face, when you realize nothing will be the same again, that what's done is done and there's no going back. It's a feeling I've experienced several times in my life. When my parents divorced, when I found out my brother was going to be a father at age 17, when someone dies or moves or doesn't talk to you anymore. It's when you wish things aren't the way they are.

And I'm not trying to make any grand statement about that experience. I'm just trying to capture it.

To accept the irrevocable
Is to let go of desire.
-Tao Te Ching

Monday, July 04, 2005

So I lied. Instead of reading The Long Goodbye, I picked up Alice Walker's The Color Purple and read it in two days!

Now I've seen the movie countless times, enough to appreciate the genius in every frame and every word of dialogue (much of which is cribbed directly from the book, mind you), and after seeing the movie again a few weeks ago, I said to myself...get the book. Sooner or later, in my visits to Books Unlimited or the thrift stores I troll for reading material, I knew it would come up sooner or later, and last weekend it did.

At first I was a little put off by the fact that it's written in the dialect of a poor uneducated Southern black girl, which can be hard to read because it doesn't seem to make much sense. Witness:

Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw. She more pretty then my mama. She bout ten thousand times more prettier then me. I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motocar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some.


Alright, so it's not the King's English, but it's certainly evocative, and that's really what writing fiction is all about. The primary goal of any fiction is to conjure images and emotions using the telepathy of language. Following the rules of good grammar is secondary. The voice of Cellie may be poor, uneducated, and difficult to decipher at times, but it's vivid in a way that straightforward prose couldn't be.

Of course, this idea will be reflected in my own work now. I find myself getting too stiff with the language when I write, making it too perfect, the sentences almost mechanical. That's great for a brochure or a formal letter or some such, but for fiction, especially fiction relying on a first person narrative voice, too much adherence to the "rules of grammar" can be dry and boring. I have to remind myself that it's okay to write incomplete sentences. Okay to be a little sloppy in the language if it still rings true.

So even though The Color Purple has absolutely nothing to do with detective fiction, it provided a certain amount of inspiration in terms of "voice" for the Max Beatty books. If Max has no voice, then there's no point in reading about him, so it's absolutely crucial that I get that part down.

As far as chapter one, which I'm still working on, I got stuck at the very end of the chapter. The sex scene. Yes, there is a sex scene in chapter one. Might as well start off with a bang, right? It was either that or an explosion and this is a low budget production, so I went for the sex scene.

Actually, the sex scene is crucial to the plot, or I should say the subplot, which is somewhat more interesting than the actual plot (which is basically the hunt for a serial rapist). The subplot, of course, is Max's infidelity and the crumbling of his marriage, which is set in motion when he visits Abby's apartment and ends up making love to her before he leaves.

I think I have the transition from all-business to boom-shaka-laka-boom, which I was worried about at first. But now it's the actual details of the love-making that I have to get down. I want it to be more implied, with just enough details to know that 1) they are enjoying themselves, 2) Abby is a fine woman, and even finer in the nude, 3) it wasn't planned or thought out at all. However, I don't want it to descend into titilation ala Penthouse Letters. No peeling off of panties and "entering her." No way. This is in Max's voice, remember, and NO ONE talks like that, especially Max.