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MY BIRTHDAY GIFT FOR YOU

July 7th, 2009 2 comments

MY BIRTHDAY GIFT FOR YOU

 

The day this column appears, July 8,  is my birthday. I am 63. I do not feel a day over 62.

And truly, I am upbeat about the whole aging thing. I mean, we have the optimistic words of Cicero, who sagely said:

As I give thought to the matter, I find four causes for the apparent misery of old age; first, it withdraws us from active accomplishments; second, it renders the body less powerful; third, it deprives us of almost all forms of enjoyment; fourth, it stands not far from death.

Cheery guy, huh? You know … If life hands you a lemon, say, “What in the hell do I want with a goddamn lemon? And besides, I’m allergic.”

Not that I’m feeling old … But my thumbs hurt. I mean, arthritic thumbs: Where the hell’s the telethon for that? You contribute to the March of Thumbs lately? And you know, I’m a guitar player, and the thumb thing is not doing my Travis picking any good.

You see, the syncopated style of thumb and forefinger playing was pretty much developed by Merle Travis (who wrote “Sixteen Tons”)–and right up until the end of his life, he was known for the limberness of his thumbs. He died at age 66 … Goddamn.

Here’s another Power of Positive Thinking quote:

There was no respect for youth when I was young, and now that I am old, there is no respect for age–I missed it coming and going. –J.B. Priestly

You mean Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” nailed it?

Anyway, as a writer at this stage of my life, I’ve started to clear away that which I no longer need and / or will never use. I got rid of the four Citizen ribbons for the dot matrix printer that spouted first noise, then smoke, then flame back in 1987. I donated to the library my issues of Writer’s Digest from 1973-1978, including that so helpful issue in which Richard Bach, author of  Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah offered his “10 Point Checklist for Writing Popular Philosophy.” I pitched that letter from Vantrash Publishing that assured me they were indeed seeking new authors and that subsidy publishing had been the route that led to Edgar Alan Poe’s success and lifelong happiness.

But I came across a number of story openings from years gone by. Just openings. The stories didn’t get written. And I decided I was as likely to write the stories sometime soon as I am to take up ballet.

So, here is my … Happy Birthday Gift to you!

More than a few writers have declared launching the story is the most difficult task in the entire storymaking process, so …

Take any one of the story prompts below.

(I still like ‘em. Really.)

Write the story.

Keep it under 1,500 words.

Send it to me before August 8 (of 2009–this year in which I am 63 years old!) as an attachment to onlywrite@aol.com. Slap Storytellers Prompt in the subject line.

The three I like the best will win … What else? I’ll send you a Mort Castle book of some sort, a rarity that will be signed to you (or to Ebay upon request).

Now howzat for a birthday gift …–from the birthday guy who, truly, is not feeling all that old, in part because of his good and artistic wife, his jolly friends and talented students who do not allow fossilizing, and those wonderful people who’ve gratified me by giving a chunk of their lives to reading what I’ve had to offer.

Cherish all your happy moments: they make a fine cushion for old age. –Booth Tarkington

 

I. It was Saturday night. Harlinville’s graveyard.  The full moon was lovely, Lee Anna thought. It was silver and it was gold. The night was beautiful, warm but not muggy, with a breeze so gentle sometimes it surprised you, because, suddenly, when you weren’t noticing anything else, there, there it was.

Lee Anna Covington was 15. Her father was A) _______, B) _______, C)_________ or D) Who the hell knows or gives a double-dutch goddamn. Her mother was a drunk and a doper and a whore.

###

II. Last Saturday, I asked Phyllis why it is that no one warns you: Middle-age is hard. There are times it seems you are either coping with loss or  preparing  to cope with loss.

Phyllis said she could have told me that a while ago.

But I would not have been ready to listen.

###

III. “Nobody ever dies there,” he said.

“Fathers don’t go away there,” she said.

“No.”

“No one goes away. They don’t go away and leave their little girls alone.”

“They don’t go away.”

“–don’t go away and leave you alone.”

“…alone you got no chance, no chance.”

She called herself Chance, EZ Chance and that’s the way it was for her. The aloneness.

 

THE FORMULA

September 7th, 2008 2 comments

In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”

I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.

And I sure do agree …

But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …

Uh-huh.

And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?

Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:

A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:

The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”

She wants to know: “What do you write?”

I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”

She frowns.

” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “

She frowns and sneers.

” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”

She frowns and sneers and grimaces.

” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”

And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!

Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—

Hey, you know how she says it.

But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,

Bucky, enough is too much.

So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:

“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”

Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,
right?”

Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”

So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.

A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.

A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
woodbine twineth.

And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!

And, you ask, what is that formula?

Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.

The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.

Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.

And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.

Nothing to it.

Put it in here and it comes out there.

+++++++++++++++++

(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)

STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED — MORT THE EDITOR

November 7th, 2007 3 comments

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
–T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

Ah, sometimes the burning bush talks, and instead of an offer for male enhancement drugs by email, you are given the chance to, once again, don the editorial chapeau and…

Tally ho! I am now the editor of DOORWAYS, and though publisher Brian Yount has dubbed me Chief Editor or Editor-in-Chief, I do not have or want control of artistic design, in that I can barely perceive parallel lines let alone draw them, nor, for that matter, all the magazine’s editorial content: a number of the magazine’s articles deal with paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical True Facts such as former President Jimmy Carter’s fishing trip on which he was attacked by a somewhat demonic rabbit and the latest attempt by the government backed AMA to suppress chicken soup cures for the common cold. The far outré is simply not my bailiwick: I was abducted by Grays in my eighth year and conveyed to their native planet (called Indiana) where I was given all the wax lips, Silly Putty, and Playboys I desired, but I had to promise my otherworldly benefactors I would never explore or exploit “Such things as Humanity was not meant to know” unless we watched A&E in the afternoon.

So, for DOORWAYS, I am handling much of the non-paranormal themed non-fiction, like arranging and editing the interviews with authors who actually abide in this dimension (you’ll soon get to meet novelist-publisher-educator-Italian Tom Monteleone, Ray Bradbury biographer Snappy Sam Weller, and fictionist-philosopher-Elvis impersonator Wayne Allen Sallee). But mostly, I’m editing the fiction that appears in DOORWAYS. Horror fiction, fantasy fiction, avant-garde, post-modern retro-fitted neo-noir, para-ultra-ab-normal fiction.

Good fiction. That is what I seek.

(Good fiction: to paraphrase Nixon’s Strokin’ Supreme Court attempting to define pornography—“I know it when I see it… Yeah!”)

Good fiction. That is what a number of people have sent me.

What I say to such people is, “Hey, that’s good. I’m going to use that.”

Fiction that could be good. That is what a number of people have sent me. If you send me something that wants to be good, that strives to effectively present your fictive vision, I will do what I can to help you achieve your goal.

And so I say things to such authors like…

A short story must be credible, a lie that can be believed. 
That’s because no one wants to be lied to. When reading a story a reader must be able to say, “Yes, given these circumstances, this could really happen.”

And credibility results when story people act like real people–or real people who have sense and act upon it.

Now, when do your story people stop acting like real people who have sense…

Or I say things like …

Remember, good dialogue sounds as real as real life conversations — without being as boring or meandering as 
most real life conversations.

Or I say things like …

A well developed protagonist is a fictional someone who is every bit as alive and just as much a unique individual as anyone we really know–really well–out here in RealityLand. That way we get to know the character so well that we like or dislike, or hate him. You never want a reader to feel only indifference toward a character–which is what we do feel toward people (fictional or real!) that we don’t know well.

And that means you must know your characters just about as well as you know yourself.

That’s why, when I undertake a novel, I put together a 10 to 15 page single spaced character sketch for each of my principals. My reader might never need to know if my protagonist prefer s real mayo to Miracle Whip, if his first car was a cherry red ‘67 Ford Mustang, if he likes Willie Nelson’s songs but can’t stand looking at the singer, if he had a pet collie named Lizzie when he was five, etc.–but I have to know if I am to present this character as a three-dimensional, well rounded human being–as I must.

And often, when seeing “could be good” fiction, I ask the submission’s submitter to submit a revision after thinking about my comments.

Then there’s, ah, other stuff I see.

For instance, little notes which serve as introductions for stories:

I know your guidelines say you want stories of no more than 3,500 words. This runs slightly over that: 8,500. I hope, though, you’ll make an exception in your word count requirements because…

At 8,500 words, my friend, your story had better be Moby Dick—with all sorts of new stuff about improving harpoon accuracy—and if you have that info in your story, you had better be Herman Melville.

But you wouldn’t tell Stephen King to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words. You wouldn’t tell Peter Straub to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words. You wouldn’t tell Herman Melville to limit his creative wonderfulness to 3,500 words.

No, but I will tell you to limit yourself to 3,500 words—the way our guidelines tell you to limit yourself to 3,500 words.

Or the cover letter that reads:

Hey, Mort, and how’s it goin’, man? Hope all is well with you.

Mind you, this comes from someone I’ve never met when I was in a conscious state, but hey, we have English in common, and we both can afford Internet service, so the tone is supposed to be chummy myfacey, right?

So … Well, thanks for you concern, but to tell the truth, even though my blood pressure is pretty all right and the cholesterol what it should be, I’m having a lot of pain in my left foot. I’m afraid I might have a spur on the heel. And, when the weather changes suddenly, my knees make it pretty rough to get up and down the stairs with the grace and speed for which I was once known.

Anyway, dude, I’m sending you my story. I think it’s pretty awesome. It’s made for that magazine you edit, I forget the name, okay? So, man, as soon as you can, let know when you want to use it.

Peace, man.

Thanks, man, and you know, I forget to mention above, but I’ve been having like memory problems myself, dude. Like I can’t remember what magazine it is I’m supposed to be editing but, you know, I’m sure that it’s an awesome magazine and as soon as I remember, I’ll let you know if I remember so we can use your awesome story, if I remember.

Another submission, from someone striving to convince me of his professionalism: He has… credits!

I’m sending you my story, “Southbound on the Westbound in the Night of the Long Day.” I have previously published novels with Authorhouse, Iuniverse, and Exlibris.

Let’s hold it there. I am of course pleased to learn of a writer’s credits: It helps me know if other gatekeepers have chosen to swing wide the portal and bid you enter the Realm of the Published.

But Authorhouse, Iuniverse, Exlibris, Exuniversalauthorhouse, ColorMeWriter, BookABunch Buddies… You haven’t been published—that is what you are telling me. You are either naive about writing professionally or you are pathologically and pathetically egotistical about publishing—that is what you are telling me. You are not for real—that is what you are telling me.

That is how you have introduced your story.

Then we have the cutey-pie-see-how super-eccentric and therefore creative as SponegeBob Jesus I am…

My story came to me from the mouth of Hell. It bubbled up in my brain as I lay in the viaduct where I squat with 17 gerbils named Fred. This is lair of the Siggorth Luvkraft and the Ramalamadingdong. Outside of that, I work as an account executive for Winky’s Hockey Puck, Inc.

Ah, I get it: You’re not writing surrealism. You live it. Obviously, you’ve mistaken me for Pharmacopeias by Mail and you need to visit their website to refill your prescription.

Now, truthfully, here is a recently received cover letter:

Here is my story. Thank you for your consideration.

Here is my response.

Every word of your 750 word story is a needed word. There’s cleverness in the language. And your writing is obviously informed by the wide, wide, wide of world of thinking and reading…

I read this and I’m glad I did.

I want your story.

The story is called “The Tiniest Souls.” It’s by Brian Price. You’ll be reading it in DOORWAYS.

It’s a good story—which is what this editor wants.

Mort Castle