The Road To Her True Self #flashfiction

Nova traveled along a straight arrow highway in her four-door Honda Civic. Her book of CDs lay in the passenger seat. She had been on this road, the road to being her true self, since leaving her parents’ house for good.

“Be careful where you stop, Nova. Be careful who you’ll meet.” Her mother had said.

At first, Nova only stopped in well-lit places for gas and fast food chains. In this way, Nova made excellent progress on the road to her true self. She stayed steady and healthy and safe.

One day, Nova’s hands gripped the wheel at ten and two, when she noticed the country road expand to an eight-lane thoroughfare with north and southbound traffic. She waved at her fellow travelers, but they moved too fast to notice.

Eventually, she spent too long on this road. It was hard to get noticed by other people. She became very lonely, and took the off-ramp headed west. The sun was an orange ball of fire in the distance.

“I’m going to stop today,” she said out loud. “I’m going to stop, first chance I get.”

It was a squat brick building on the side of the road. The sign read, “Welcome Weary Travelers!”

Nova made a friend in that squat, lone building. They hit it off. They took a chance. Nova’s friend would join her on her journey. She didn’t have to be alone anymore!

As the two pulled away in Nova’s Civic, her friend popped a CD in the disc player. It was a long-distance back to the highway. They rode with the windows down. The music blared, the night was chilly, the moon shone bright.

“It’s just up ahead,” Nova’s new friend had said, “the highway is just past this light.”

It was more of a toll booth, a giant structure leading to the highway. Hundreds of cars waited in line. A massive mechanical arm moved up and down, letting each one through. A little man sat in the control tower.

“Okay,” said Nova, a little unsure. She turned to her friend. “I guess we wait?”

The night turned to day, and the day turned to night. The full moon that illuminated their faces and street and other cars disappeared behind the cosmic shifting of the earth. The days turned to months, to years, to decades.

“I know they’ll let us through,” Nova told her friend, “We just have to wait a little longer.”

Nova’s friend began to lose hope. To her right and left were other cars that had been waiting too. There were grey-haired men and women with wrinkled faces. There were corpses at the wheel.

“Don’t you see!” Nova’s friend finally said, “They’ll never lift the mechanical arm for us!”

But Nova would not give her friend up. She would wait until the end.

Nova’s friend died the next morning, in the passenger seat with the CD case on her lap. Up ahead, the traffic moved. A giant mechanical arm lifted. A green light shone up above. Nova changed the CD, turned on the ignition, and continued on her journey to the road to her true self.

Land Survey #flashfiction

Two neighbors Sam and Dennis, live side by side in a residential area. Sam is built like a refrigerator and lives in a colonial-style home. Dennis is very tall and has a habit of hitting his head against things. His is a Spanish style home with vaulted ceilings. Established oak trees line the streets. Heat radiates off the pavement.

Sam pulls into his driveway one evening and crosses the lawn to Dennis’s front door.

“This tree is causing damage to my property,” says Sam, “Come, let me show you.”

“But I’m having dinner. Can I come after?” Says Dennis, a fork in his hand.

“Please come now.”

Dennis follows Sam to the invisible line that separates his lot from Sam’s. On top of that invisible line sits an oak tree. It’s roots jut out from the ground like city walls. Sam’s driveway has started to split and buckle.

“I have a land survey,” says Dennis, “that we can review, but in case this tree does sit on the property line, I’ll go 50/50 in getting the tree removed.”

“But I don’t want the tree removed,” says Sam. “I want a smooth driveway and a better house and a better car and a better life. But this tree is the start of it. It’s all because of this tree.”

Dennis stares at his neighbor. “I can’t help you with any of that,” he says, “except the tree. We can remove the tree.”

“But I don’t want to remove the tree. I want a front yard that doesn’t look like shit. And a better house, and a better job, and a better wife. It comes back to this tree.”

“Well, listen, I can’t help you with your driveway. Or your car or your house or your life. But I can help you with the tree. But you can keep the tree and still fix your driveway. Then you can have the oak tree and a nice driveway.”

Sam glares at Dennis. “Screw you, Dennis. Screw you and your Pollyanna advice! I’m not a child!”

Sam rages off across his lawn and into his front door. Dennis is left standing by the oak tree. It’s a good looking tree, Dennis thinks. It provides a lot of shade. It helps keep his house cool in the summertime and helps keep the electricity bills low.

Dennis returns to his house to eat his dinner, which is now room-temperature. As he’s loading the dishwasher, he thinks about the tree. He doesn’t want to remove the tree. What a pain in the ass it is to have a tree sitting on a property line.

Shattered glass jolts his attention to the front room. One of the arched windows facing the street is broken. There’s a brick on the floor wrapped in copy paper, attached with a rubber band. Dennis opens the note and reads.

You deserve this brick through your window for your stupid advice.

Dennis sweeps up the glass from the floor. A piece scratches the hardwood. He remembers the cardboard box from his new picture frames and covers the window with the cardboard. He searches the city website for tree ordinances.

Handling Character Descriptions A La Tom Wolfe

I’d never been so happy to sit and watch Penny play soccer as I was the other day. The rain from earlier in the afternoon brought with it fresh tropical air and a blue-streaked sky, and it was good to sit back and watch the kids do normal kid things. The league has taken great pains to reduce COVID risk: the teams are small, the drills are spread out, and the scrimmage time is short, to name a few things. The field where she and Nick play sits at a slight elevation, surrounded by a giant pond with a sprawling hospital campus in the background. On the north side of the field is another, larger lake, with a wakeboarding water park, climbing tower, and mechanical zip-lines.

As I struggle through my character descriptions, I want to take a look at how a character description master does his thing and what I might be able to incorporate into my writing. On the drive to Florida, we listened to Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, and I was struck by how vividly Wolfe sketched each character. He’s famous for doing a few things: 1. He presents characters from different points of view so that the result is multiple character descriptions of the same character. 2. He uses unconventional means to start a character description. See this excerpt below:

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I am Charlotte Simmons

Rather than do the usual thing of going straight into a physical description of Hoyt, Wolfe uses the scene to make Hoyt active and create a sense of movement. So, in addition to getting the information of what Hoyt looks like, the reader gets the picture of Hoyt looking in the mirror, checking himself out, thinking he looks pretty hot because he’s got great teeth, a masculine square jaw, hazel eyes, and he’s jacked! The physical description is active in this scene.

First They Killed My Father

Here’s another example of the same thing, but in a less flamboyant style. The author, Loung Ung, offers a description of her mom from her perspective as a child, overhearing her mother’s friends talk openly about how beautiful she is. In this way, we can picture Ung’s mother moving through the house, handling domestic life (and reprimanding Ung) with effortless grace and beauty.

It looks like well-executed character descriptions do two things:

1. They serve to fill the scene and become part of the movement of the scene.

2. They serve to reveal the interior life of the character by only mentioning pertinent physical details, i.e., Hoyt is jacked therefore maybe he’s vain; Ung’s mother is beautiful, so much so that her friends envy her, therefore maybe she’s conservative in her ideas of femininity and is not endeared to her daughter’s tomboy tendencies.

Soccer.

How to Handle the Passage of Time in Writing

We arrived in good spirits (and making good time) in Central Florida on Friday. The sun was blazing, and the sky, clouds, and grass seem to exist in bumped-up saturation compared with Texas. While I grew up here, and eventually became a young adult, I couldn’t wait to leave home. So much so that when my plans to go away to college didn’t pan out, I enlisted in the military. But here I am again, 17 years later back where I started more or less. Sometimes I think this was a difficult way to do things. On the other hand, I left, I saw some places, and now I’m back, appreciating where I grew up more than ever before. So there.

I pulled up some examples to study how to handle time lapses in writing. Specifically, I want to know how to handle lapses in time that occur within the same scene (within the same chapter).

As I mentioned in a previous post, time is pushed along in a literary medium through words. In a visual medium, it’s movement that pushes the time continuum (think of the use of time-lapse techniques, for example). So, if I have a chapter in which I want to move from earlier in the evening to maybe two or three hours later, I have to fill the space from point A to point B with words before I can write something like, “later on…” If I don’t fill that space with enough words, the “later on” part will seem as if to come out of nowhere. Here are some examples of what I mean:

In the excerpt above from First They Killed My Father, the author has filled the paragraphs preceding “Later that night,” with dialogue that presents the context for the political catastrophe that is about to occur in Cambodia.

In this excerpt from The Hunger Games, Katniss recounts this lengthy episode with the baker’s boy and some loaf of bread in several paragraphs (not included here) before she says, “By the time I reached home…”

It’s hard to know how much prose is necessary to satisfy the reader with the sense that yes, okay, now enough “time” has passed and we can skip whatever happened in between point A and point B (in this case, Katniss’ trip home from when she received this loaf of bread). I suppose it’s best to ere on the side of more than less, so the time hack doesn’t feel contrived.

The Zoom and the Pan in Descriptive Writing

Today is the last day of projects at my house. The crew replacing many of my windows have been here since 10 am and are now attempting to replace the glass on the sliding glass door where my darling dog, Poppy, left hundreds of tiny scratches. Since the door is open, rather than air condition the back yard, I have turned off the central cooling unit and now sit at my kitchen nook in sticky solitude at a balmy 85 degrees.

In my letter from my editor, one of the (many) helpful things she recommended was for me to consider how I draw my scenes. “We need the zoom and pan,” she said. I think it’s relatively easy to tell what is zoom and pan in visual media. In literature, it’s a bit more tricky.

In this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s description of the countryside has this panning camera feel as he guides the reader through the village, the river, the plain, and the war.

In this excerpt, we (slowly) zoom in on the scene, taking in some sculptures, the chair, the cap, frescoes, and the lovely but doomed Catherine Barkley.

In each of these examples, Hemingway has guided the reader through the description, and it has a fluid, kinetic quality, much like the active panning and zooming of a camera. In writing, this movement feels more explicit since it’s words that must guide the reader through the scene. Frankly, it’s hard to put into words how this pan/zoom thing is different in words versus visual. Maybe it’s the same. The only difference is the difference between words and space and time. In other words, the medium. (Duh).

But like many things done well, if you don’t look for the pieces, you won’t notice them. It’s interesting to see what draws in the reader through Hemingway’s lengthy descriptions. Now for some reverse-engineering, here is a screenshot example from a favorite cinematography technique from Breaking Bad. One of the show’s trademarks shots is the use of what they call near/far, like this kettle that’s in the foreground, and the bokeh dramatic action in the background. How would words convey this or something like this? I’m searching for literary examples.