Month: March 2014

What Makes a Story Good?

A part of this blog is to explore what makes a story good, or a character interesting. What do I know about this subject? Not much. Which is ok, because we’ll be figuring that out as we go along.

I just posted a story about a little boy who lost his milkshake to the clutches of evil ice. Why does that kid matter more than the one I’m sitting next to at the library? For one, the boy had big tears running down his face. When a chubby kid has tears running down his face, you want to do something about it. The kid next to me is reading a book, and I want to do nothing about it.

There are stories out there that would be absolutely amazing if the main character wasn’t sitting at a library reading a book. I know, I know, people don’t write stories about people reading a book in a library, but some people tell their story with that kind of theme. Stories that go on and on and then end before anything happens. It’s very difficult to listen to a story like that.

What are you getting at, Benjamin?

Make your story worth telling. Give the main character crocodile tears if it will draw up some sort of emotion for the listener. Who cares if it’s true? My friend said this of writers:

“I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearances of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar – if he is financially fortunate” (John Steinbeck, East of Eden).

See what I did there? I told you it was my friend, so you were at least a little bit curious who this genius was. But, since I am not financially fortunate you can’t call me a liar.

Now go out and tell your stories. Make them interesting. Embellish them. Give the antagonist really long nose hairs if you need to, but keep your listener engaged. It’ll keep you engaged, too.

Garbage Trucks and Milkshakes

When I got home from bringing my wife to work this morning, I was stuck in my alley waiting for a garbage truck to finish collecting the trash. Garbage trucks fascinate me. Massive machines that run around town picking up trash, emptying bins and squashing it down so it can fit more. What’s not to love? The hydraulics slowly devouring candy wrappers and rotten food. It reminds me of a garbage monster.

Anyway. I’m not telling you about garbage trucks today, I’m telling you about what happened while I waited.

As I sat mesmerized by the beast in front of me, I noticed a chubby little African boy skipping down my alley with a medium sized shake from McDonald’s. He looked like he was on top of the world. He was wearing a t-shirt that barely wrapped around his 8 or 9-year-old belly and was singing.

He went to the other side of the garbage truck to enter his apartment building. That’s when I saw his feet slip out from under him, shake flying through the air and his little hands smack the dirty ground.

I had to wait a few more minutes before the truck cleared out and when it did, it ran over what little remained in the McDonald’s cup.

I pulled up to where the little boy was standing, looking shell-shocked at his treat with crocodile tears running down his puffy cheeks.

“Hey buddy, are you ok?” I asked as I handed him a napkin. He couldn’t answer because he was pretty shook up.

“Do you need anything? Are you bleeding? Can you get inside?”

“No, I can’t get in the house,” he responded with a shaky voice.

“I think your sister is waiting for you at the door,” I said. And she was. She was at least two years younger than him, but her hand-on-hip stance told me she had been waiting long enough for that shake to come home. He turned around and went running into the building without looking back

I don’t know if the little guy got another shake or not. If he didn’t have a way inside, you can bet that I would have walked back to McDonald’s with him to buy him another.

Throwback Thursday – Seg-weighs

The term “throwback” always has confused me a little. Many years ago, Pepsi had their “throwback” that came with the tagline, “For a limited time you can get real cane sugar instead of the chemicals we typically manipulate into tasting like sugar!” I don’t know if it’s still around or not. But when I stopped drinking throwback Pepsi and did a “throwback” to the chemical crap, I just thought about “throw up.”

I see people on Facebook posting old photos of themselves labeling it “Throwback Thursday.” I saw one a couple of weeks ago of a younger version of my aging uncle. When I thought of all the time that had past since his high school years, it was more like “Throw(my)back(out) Thursday.”

But, instead of berating popular culture, I’m going to feed into the hype and add my own Throwback Thursdays to this blog. I mentioned in an earlier post that many of my stories are posted on my old blog. I don’t want those stories to be lost on my new readers, so Thursdays are  going to feature those stories. Below is the first of these. I hope you enjoy.

“Seg-weighs”

Segways. I’ve noted in the past how much enjoyment I get from making fun of them.

I have considered that I should probably take a Segway tour before I pick on them, but then I thought about my dignity and decided I’ll just make fun of them. Most things deserve a benefit of the doubt. Not all.

The first thing I think of when I see a Segway is GOB from Arrested Developement who is rarely off of his Segway. He conducts himself in such a shameful manner which gives the impression that Segway drivers are conceited, arrogant (redundency empowers the insult) jerks who only come down from their high horse (or wheels) for a free chocolate covered treat from the banana stand – in which there is always money.

I also cannot help but think of the owner of the Segway company who died in a freak accident on one of his own machines. These “scooters” are not here to help the world get from one place to another. They are here to take over the world one multi-millionaire at a time.

“Help the world get from one place to another”? That’s an interesting statement. These wheelie-pods are 6 inches and a heart attack away from walking. Here’s a novel idea: bikes. Sometimes you can rest while still moving forward, yet still get some of that much recommended physical activity.

Dana and I were at a park on Sunday watching not one, but two Segway tours go by us. Both groups had nearly 30 tourists brimming with pride and glee as they sped through the park in a single file line. I shouldn’t have stared, but they were just as much a spectacle to ogle at as the Mississippi, Stone Arch Bridge or downtown skyline.

The faces were rather fun to interpret, too. There was an older woman who looked like she was having the time of her life. Her discontented husband looked like he’d rather have stayed downtown to find another corn dog to smother in ketchup. They must have had come to a compromise. He must have told her that he would be willing to go on one of those stupid tours she had been talking about for months before the trip to Minneapolis as long as he didn’t have to walk. He would be willing to take a bus, train, horse and buggy – anything but walking. But he woke up that morning to his beaming bride holding a brochure and two tickets to a Segway tour.

“That’s not what I meant!”

“Doesn’t matter! You said anything but walking. We’re not walking, dear, so get your shoes on. It’s starts in an hour!”

Now that I think about it, her smile may have had a touch of smugness in it.

There was a small family, too. Two parents, two little girls and an early-high-school-aged boy. A high school boy on a Segway tour with his parents and little sisters. Imagine his face. Moving on.

The tour guides had smiles plastered on their faces like a row of flight attendants thanking their passengers for flying Segway Air. I could see a hint of stress behind their eyes, though. They knew that the highly-read man wearing an archaeologist’s hat over his helmet was going to continue his barrage of questions until the last of the procession had parked his or her shiny Segway and the tour security had ushered the questioner off the premises.

“This is what I have to look forward to until the end of the summer. God help us.”

If cleanliness is next to godliness, Segway-ness is next to laziness. It’s probably the only time that standing will require a helmet. At least I hope it is.

Introvert/Extrovert Spectrum

There are many types of writers out there. Many of the writers I read about or know are introverts. Even the results of Googling “Famous Extroverted Writers” all talk about introverts. Try it.

Introvert writers sit back and observe the world and turn their observations into beautiful prose. Seemingly happy to sit at their desk at home hammering out ten thousand words per day. This, at least, is how I imagine them. 

That is not me. If I am at home I get zero work done. The garbage starts smelling, asking me to remove it from the premises, or the dishes are clanging around vying for my attention. But the biggest killer of production is Netflix. Or Candy Crush. Or anything that’s not writing. 

So I get off my butt and go to the coffee shop. People are actually more productive in a setting where caffeine hangs in the air like a low cloud. It seeps into one’s clothes, nostrils and brain and forces him/her to work on whatever project with which he/she brought. This works on me. Maybe I’m buying into the marketing of a coffee shop, or maybe my coffee-soaked brain just wakes up when it’s soaked with coffee. But I think there’s something more here. 

That being the introvert/extrovert spectrum.  

I am not an introvert. I have introverted tendencies, and I’m married to an introvert, but I am not one. I get my energy when people are around me. I don’t even need to talk to them. I just want to be in a busy place so I can fool myself into thinking I’m not missing out on something. “Everyone else is here, so this must be the place to be. I can write,” is what I tell myself. If I’m at home I think, “Everyone is somewhere else having a blast without me. I can’t write.” Which may or may not be true. 

I am part of a writing group. This group is an online group, and I’ve met two of the fifteen or so people involved. It may be a stereotype to say all my writing friends are introverted, but when I asked the question, “Are there other extroverted writers out there?” I got my answer through the lack of response. 

I am going to make this irregularity work for me. Somehow. 

Welcome

I announced today on my other blog that it was discontinuing in preference to this blog. I was looking through some of my posts, and many of my favorite stories were told on that blog. In the next few weeks, I am going to be featuring some of those stories on this site. If you were a North Country Musing fan, please be patient with me as I build the content here. 

I appreciate you all very much. Please let me know if you have any questions, comments or helpful suggestions. Or unhelpful suggestions. Whatever. 

Grandpa Lessons

What makes a good story? My grandpa taught me the art of storytelling. The one instance he gave me actual advice was very formative. The rest of what he taught me came through observation.

I was fortunate to live within a mile of Grandpa while growing up and I probably spent more time at his house than at my own. Many of the stories he would relate were stories that transpired while I was present. This helped because I saw when and how my grandpa would embellish the events. “Embellish” is Writer for “lie.”

One time, my grandpa was telling me a story at which my mom was present. She sat there and continued to correct him. “George, that’s not how it happened.” “No George, he didn’t say that!”

Finally, Grandpa looked at her and said, “This is my story and I’m going to make it worth telling.” Which decidedly shut her up.

I just giggled because for a middle school kid to see his mom told off can be exhilarating. Especially when it’s coming from someone to whom she can’t talk back.

Several months later, I had a similar experience, except the roles had changed. I was telling Grandpa a story at which my mom was present, and she was correcting me. He didn’t give her many chances to alter my story, though.

“No, that’s not…”

“Sue, this is his story and he’s going to make it worth telling,” he interrupted without looking at her.

Grandpa George stood up for me in a moment that was critical. From then on I had the confidence to embellish my stories in a way that would capture the listener’s attention. Now I get to be a professional liar, and Mom just has to sit back and enjoy the tale.

Fifteen Minutes Could Cause an Aneurism

Shopping for car insurance can be a stressful experience to say the least. I updated our address with our current provider recently, and our premium shot up. When my wife and I originally got car insurance, I was a starving college student living off the meager income my wife was able to scrape together. We didn’t have a lot of coverage in the first place, and the amount we pay for our insurance is rather ridiculous. So we’re shopping. 

The forms one must fill out for a quote get tedious. But we must find the best deal with the most coverage. The deal we found is so much less than the rest of the quotes that we are nervous about what wouldn’t be covered. Our ship still hasn’t come in, though, so perhaps we should go with it anyway. God forbid we get into an accident and find out what is missing. 

I believe I will use this experience in a future book I will write – The Nationwide Tragedy of Progressive Farmers. It’s a working title. 

The Beginning of a Blog

When was the last time you cracked open a brand new journal? It seems that every time I get a new journal, the first page is a tricky one to write on. It’s wedged into the binding at such an awkward angle that it never stays put while I’m jotting down my thoughts. It’s doubly tricky because I always want my first journal entry to be witty, thought-provoking and written in my neatest handwriting with my favorite pen. But each time I open the new journal, I have to coax the page into cooperation. I have taken to skipping that page altogether and starting on the second. It’s kind of like pancakes and kids: the first ones are always throwaways.

I am having a similar struggle with my first blog entry. I want the first post to blow my reader’s minds. I want instant success and a thousand page views by midnight. That might be a little unrealistic. So instead of waiting six weeks for a spark of divine inspiration, I offer you an anecdote on the first page of a journal. Future posts will probably be funnier, deeper and generally interesting-er (more interesting?), but I need to start somewhere. Thank you for starting this journey with me.