Category Archives: Stuff That Defies Categorizing

The Chicken Hanger: a Story for our Times

I don’t fancy myself a book reviewer. But I want to tell you about a novel that has stayed with me for several years, one I feel is in keeping with today’s messed up management of the border. The book is The Chicken Hanger, by Ben Rehder. He’s been called the Carl Hiassen of Texas for his comic crime novel series: The Blanco County Mysteries and The Roy Ballard Mysteries.

But The Chicken Hanger is a literary novel, quite a departure from Rehder’s usual work.  The story is about Ricky Delgado, who crossed the border into Texas illegally and works with other migrants at Kountry Fresh Chicken in Rugoso, Texas.  When the story begins, he’s sick, but going to work nevertheless, at the worst job he’s ever had. He’s a chicken hanger, meaning that he grabs squawking chickens one at a time from a crate as they enter the plant and hangs them from shackles on an overhead conveyor belt.  Of all the workers doing live hang, he is the fastest–30 birds a minute.

Learning that his brother has been shot and injured trying to cross into Texas, Ricky must decide if it’s worth seeking justice, a move that could expose him and lead to his deportation. And he faces another dilemma when he learns what is making him and other workers at the plant sick.

A big reason the story succeeds is that it’s not limited to the immigrant perspective. A rancher, who tries to scare off immigrants with warning shots, finds a bloodied backpack and engages in a cover-up. A Border Patrol agent faces the toughest decision of his career.

Btw, I encountered this novel several years ago when my husband, Tim, narrated it for the Texas Talking Book Program. He subsequently narrated Hog Heaven, a book in The Blanco County Mystery series. The story is as funny as The Chicken Hanger is sobering.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

–John Green

My Scrivener Pitfall Work-around

In December, I wrote a post entitled “A Year of Scrivener.” I continue using this comprehensive software for writers as I work on my WIP, Candlelight Confessions. It’s not without its pitfalls, however. It may be that if I’d upgrade, the problems would go away, but I’ve already established a work-around that addresses the issues.

My approach to organizing my project is to label scenes, which then appear in the Binder, a table of contents of sorts. (Some writers organize by chapter, but I find it easier to move things around if I use scenes.)  Also included in my Binder are Characters and Research.

Scrivener can be wonky. Items sometimes change their position in the Binder,  Or more alarming, they vanish from the Binder.

The other day, I wanted to check on my description of Señora Garcia, but her name wasn’t listed under Characters. I discovered that her name and that of another character had migrated to the Research category. That’s an easy fix. Just drag and drop them where they belong.

What is scary is wanting to open a scene and finding it’s not in the Binder. If it’s not there, where is it? One way to fix the problem would be to create a new scene label in the Binder, then go to the text I compiled as a Word document the previous day or week or month, depending on when I last worked on that scene. Then I could copy and paste the scene into Scrivener.

I wondered if the scene still existed in Scrivener but was hiding from me. So I did a Search on the word Hoosier, which I knew appeared only in that scene. The Search Results showed one item, a scene labeled “Bonnie Burned.” I clicked on the item, and there was my text. Leaving the scene open in the Composition window, I Googled a question about restoring a scene to the Binder. The solution was to click the page icon next to the scene title and, in the drop-down menu, click “Reveal in Binder.”  Voila.

Tattling on Myself

As I wrote rather piously in the post “Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff,” I am the self-appointed name sheriff for my critque group, Austin Novel in Progress.

Imagine my chagrin when I discovered I’d used the name Andy twice in Compromise With Sin. One of the characters appears as a secondary character in my WIP and the other is mentioned as the husband of Madge Anderson. Madge calls him by his given name, Clement, not Andy.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.

— Gustave Flaubert

 

 

Thank you, Philip Roth

Remembering Philip Roth last week, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast archived interviews Terry Gross had done with the literary giant. I was especially gratified to hear the author of more than two dozen books including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Everyman, talking about his writing process as an act of discovery.

“I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write . . . You begin every book as an amateur. . . . Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence,  the book reveals itself to you. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”

I couldn’t agree more. My experience is there’s nothing that compares to the joy of discovery. And I learn to write as I write. That meant it took 24 years to get Compromise With Sin into print, and I’m sure I tossed at least 100,000 words.

Roth’s comments reminded me of an aha moment that occurred to me as I was writing a scene. One objective was to show protagonist Louise Morrissey’s compassion, as she was not always an admirable character. The scene involved Louise’s caring response to the family of two brothers who accidentally drowned in Crescent Lake. In my first draft, the family was not known to the reader. Then I decided the tragedy struck Henryetta, Louise’s cook and housekeeper. For me, that hit home, as I already knew and loved Henryetta–and I hoped it would be meaningful for the reader. It’s moot, of course, because that scene didn’t survive a later revision. But it impressed upon me the importance of having readers invested in characters so that when something good or bad happens, the reader feels it emotionally.

Btw, this icky background color appeared and I can’t get rid of it.

Your comments? Leave a message.

Quotable

A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.

–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, Publisher, Denver Post

 

 

 

Tweet Your Story

 

I once wrote a blog post entitled “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It was about Six Word Stories, and a few blog readers came up with some good ones of their own. Other than that post I’ve never done anything more with the subject of flash fiction.

I was trolling Twitter recently and came up with a few things to pass along.

ShareAStory InOneTweet

Here are two of my favorite examples from #ShareAStoryInOneTweet, where all the stories have a medical theme:

From AbbersMD:

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

From Ali S. Raja, MD :

You: Student nurse who asked me to come to bed 24 to help you clean up a geriatric patient who had soiled herself, just to see if I would.

Me: Intern who took one look at you and ran right over. 14 years later, we still laugh when people ask us how we met.

Serious Flash Fiction

Serious Flash Fiction’s contest is open to anyone, with no restrictions as to genre or theme. Write a 269-character story, end it with #SFFiction, and submit it by June 23rd. The best entries will be published in an anthology.

Onward

Onward, the literary zine of English Department students at Universitas Padjadjaran (that’s in Indonesia), is currently inviting six-word-story tweets. Send them to #SWOnward.

Can you write a story in 269 characters? Or write a six-word story? Tweet it and post it in a comment here. I’d also like to hear about other flash fiction opportunities.

Quotable

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.

–Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

Cracking the Bestseller Code: Who Cares?

For today’s post, I set out to write a review of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. But I’m abbreviating that review because as both a writer and reader I don’t care much about bestseller lists.

Abbreviated Review

Writers are bombarded by countless forces that influence what goes on the page–dreams, real-life experiences, snatches of conversations, cousin Fred–and it was merely a matter of time before it came to this: an algorithm purporting to tell us how books hit the top of the charts. Believing that books don’t just randomly make the New York Times  bestseller lists, the authors set computers on a quest for patterns to explain how it happens. They (the computers) explored this frontier with a tool called text mining.

Topic, plot, characterization, style–the authors coded for all of these qualities and interpreted the findings. For example, in terms of topic, the top two authors were John Grisham and Danielle Steele. If putting those two authors in the same bucket seems odd, the book offers an explanation. Among the shared characteristics found in books by Grisham and Steele, the most striking is what the computer model found to be overwhelmingly present in bestselling books: human closeness and connection. “Scenes that display this most important indicator of bestselling are all about people communicating in moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.”

I found The Bestseller Code to be of interest to writers and readers in terms of not just what qualities bestsellers share, but also in terms of the authors’ analysis. That said, bestseller lists don’t drive the choices of many of the writers and readers I know.

Who Cares?

I wouldn’t object to seeing Compromise With Sin land on a bestseller list.  But I’m happy that some people are reading and talking about it. If asked what audience I intended when I was writing it, I have to say, “I wrote a book I’d want to read.” Similarly, the books I choose to read are usually recommended to me by friends.

Many of the indie authors I know write books that appeal to a niche audience, a fact that almost guarantees they won’t have mass popularity. While the best of these writers strive to learn craft and meet professional standards, they don’t have to twist themselves and their work into virtual pretzels to satisfy agents and publishers.

And that’s the joy of going indie.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

–E.L. Doctorow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirror Neurons: Connecting Writer and Reader

Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into  her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .

Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.

A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.

The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying  as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

–Gustave Flaubert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollywood Bidding War for Compromise With Sin

Rumors floating for weeks have just been confirmed: Compromise With Sin, the debut historical novel by Leanna Englert, is at the center of a fierce Hollywood bidding war. Said to be vying for the rights are Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Sheldon Shackleford, III, Roseanne Barr, and Norman Grabowski.

The novel, set in the early 1900s, tells the story of one woman’s betrayal and search for redemption after her loved ones are tragically ensnared in her web of deceit. The story is set amid a fictional account of the controversial campaign to prevent blindness in newborn babies, and presents Helen Keller as a confidante of protagonist Louise Morrissey.

“I was recently asked what my wildest hope was for this novel,” Englert said. “I truly hope it will bring about world peace. Barring that, I’d want people to say, ‘The book was better than the movie.'”

Happy April Fool’s, y’all.

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse”

In my lifetime I’ve probably written fewer than a dozen short stories, mostly for my own amusement. Thought I’d publish one here.

 

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse,” by Leanna Englert

I’m squatting here in what used to be Gospel Bob’s double-wide. He ain’t here no more—he’s got a new address at the county jail because of what he done over at the courthouse. Me and Bob used to spend a lot of time in this double-wide watching TV. Here’s where I got away from the wife and the projects she was always hounding me to do. He never had no beer, though, so when she really got to me, I’d go drink at her at The Thirsty Goat in Canyon, and afterwards, when my head exploded, Bob would say, “You sure got her good.” He just had a way about him, that Bob. But I digress. (Got that word from Wheel of Fortune.) The sheriff’s boys turned this junk heap Bob called home inside out—found some cash and Lucchese ostrich boots and a Rolex–but never found the jewels Bob bought with the money.

You see, me and Bob watched PBS is how I knowed where they was hid. Out here in the West Texas boondocks we wiggle the rabbit ears every which way, but PBS is about all we can get.

Gospel Bob was night janitor over in the Randall County courthouse—that’s where he did his embezzling. He pastored our little True Gospel Church for a dollar a year in what used to be the Washateria—it still smelled like soap so bad the wife couldn’t go there because she was allergic. It wasn’t no proper church with an organ and choir and hymnbooks. Some of us brought our own camp chairs, and the rest leaned against the walls where posters half-peeling off said: “No loitering. Washer, 50 cents. Dryer 30 minutes 25 cents.” The place felt more church-like after Bob got the accordion last year. Sheriff Gearhart’s wife played it, and the sheriff sang the hymns. They said he cried when he clamped the handcuffs on Bob, and I believe it. When I heard, I about cried myself.

I always liked Bob, partly because he allowed as how he was forty-five years old and got his sinning out of the way before he got born again. The wife didn’t like him, though, probably for the same reason. What she didn’t know is he kept me from running off, told me I’d feel some kind of miserable if I left and her weak heart gave out, said when I needed to get away to pay him a visit. That’s how we got to watching so much TV together.

He preached a lot about tithing—could make even us dirt-scratching farmers ante up come time for the offering. He walked the walk. He give most of his janitor’s pay to the church. He didn’t have a car. He hitched or rode a rusty old bicycle so small his knees bowed out. His only extravagance was Western stuff, like horseshoes and Navajo blankets he bought at flea markets and yard sales. His pride and joy was this great big wagon wheel chandelier from the old Stagecoach Inn fire. It was only burnt on one side. The chandelier, that is. The Stagecoach Inn pretty near burnt to the ground.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t no way a wagon wheel chandelier could fit in a trailer, not even a big old double-wide. You wouldn’t even be able to stand up under it. Well, Bob is handy. He knocked out the roof and raised that ceiling up so high, why it felt like the lobby of a grand hotel. OK, maybe I exaggerate.

Sometimes Bob would hitchhike to Amarillo. I swear by all that’s holy, I thought all he was doing was prowling the flea markets. I know for a fact that’s where he got the accordion. I never seen him myself when I was on the road—I’d of picked him up–but folks said he was a sight, standing on the highway with the dust devils and grasshoppers. He’d be holding a saddle or something and trying to thumb a ride.

Turns out this pious old bachelor was leading a double life with a bottle-blonde sweetheart named Rita over in Amarillo. Here’s how I found out. I seen it on the TV at The Thirsty Goat where they get the NBC channel pretty good. I was drinking a cold one and watching a Will and Grace re-run when the Amarillo news broke in, just when Jack was trying to tell his mother he was gay. I about fell off the stool when I seen Bob on the TV in handcuffs. Seems that Rita told the cops and TV everything when he dumped her. There she was, quite a looker, telling the reporter how Bob would come to Amarillo with a wad of cash, buy him and her some fine clothes, and they’d stay at the Marriott and order room service, the whole nine yards. They’d go around to pawn shops, and sometimes he’d buy precious gems, like diamonds. Never gave her any, she said. Sure, he didn’t. She said he stuffed them in his overalls pockets before he hitchhiked home.

It struck me funny when Rita said he’d whine about not being able to live like a rich man in his own town for fear of getting caught—he told her that was the embezzler’s curse.

Anyway, here I am in the double-wide. I bought it for a song when they auctioned off his stuff to pay back some of the money he embezzled. Told folks I wanted it for a workshop. Didn’t tell a soul about my PBS theory. See, Bob and me seen this documentary about this Russian czar who had a grand palace and rubles to burn. Besides showing off with paintings of naked ladies and gold faucets and priceless antiques, he had these jewels stuck atop the chandeliers where no one could see them. But he knew they was up there, and I guess that made him feel rich. I remember now Bob saying how silly that was, but he never said nothing about it being a good hiding place.

I held my breath when I first come inside that double-wide, my double-wide. I had to clear a path through all the junk so I could drag a step ladder over to the chandelier. I climbed up and sure enough, there they was—diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. Looked like Gospel Bob had routered out a groove in the wagon wheel so’s you couldn’t see the jewels unless you got way up high. I got dizzy standing on that ladder thinking about how rich I was. I climbed down, shaking like a whore in church.

Before I bought the double-wide and found the jewels, I used to lie awake nights stewing over how I could make the payments on my second-hand Ford 150. Now I thrash around nights stewing over what to do with my fortune. Sure, I could sell the jewels and buy ten brand-new pickups, Ford 350s, even, and I’d still be richer than sin. But I ain’t clever enough to make up a story anyone would buy. Everybody, including the wife, would suspicion the money was ill-gotten gain. I’d just end up sitting next to Bob in jail.

The wife’s on my back, after me to build her a cabinet for her sewing machine now that I got a workshop. Damn. That ain’t the worst of it, though. You know what chaps my butt? I can’t help Bob, even though I could have enough money to post bond and buy him one crackerjack lawyer like that Kardashian fellow who got O.J. off.  But I guess he’s dead anyway.

I sure do miss Bob.

Quotable

If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.

–Beverly Cleary

 

A Word’s Disturbing Origin

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

I had planned a different post for today, but it got highjacked by a thought that grabbed my mind and held it hostage. So bear with me, please.

Have you ever felt like exercising on a treadmill was torture? I know I have. But that was before I learned the disturbing origin of the word treadmill and came face to face with my own ignorance of a shameful piece of our history.

In the early 19th century, the treadmill, which only vaguely resembles its namesake, was invented in England with a dual purpose: to punish convicts and grind grain. Presumably if the punishment was sufficiently brutal, it would discourage the miscreant from further criminal activity.

The treadmill spread to the colonies and America where it caught on in prisons and workhouses. There’s an unforgettable scene in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. It’s set in the workhouse on Magazine Street in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves sent by their masters worked the treadmill grinding corn. To punish the slave girl, Hettie, her owner sends her there. Hettie describes the treadmill as “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were climbing it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.” Read the book.

Prior to its appearance in gyms and homes, the treadmmill was a device used by doctors to perform cardio stress tests. Who named it? Could the person who coined that word have been ignorant of its pedigree? Or knew it and didn’t care?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

–Elmore Leonard

Five-Dollar Vocables in Fiction


I have a decent vocabulary that includes a few five-dollar vocables I might casually drop if I should ever find myself at a Mensa meeting. Words like terpsichorean, which refers to dancing, and even better, boustrophedonic, which describes the plowed  furrows left by a turning ox (or tractor).

 

But generally in my writing I eschew such terms because as a reader, I find they pluck me out of the story and plop me back into the reality I intended to escape.

I’ll make an exception, though, for the novel my book club recently read: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Set in Scotland, the story is about a socially backward woman who devours books she selects at random, and even though she’s not intending to sound erudite, her speech often has a textbook quality. So when Eleanor sent me to the dictionary a number of times, I wasn’t annoyed because I understood this to be an important character trait.

Some of the words:

  • friable: easily crumbled
  • rhotic: an adverb describing dialect in which the “r” sound is hard (e.g., American Midewestern, as opposed to Scottish)
  • badinage: humorous or witty conversation
  • rebarbative: unattractive and objectionable

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

–Eleanor Roosevelt