Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.

 

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The Return of “Phelps”

Just in case any of you cared about my silly frog story, here’s a postscript:

“Phelps” remains alive and well in my backyard. He, like most of the toads, has figured out the safest area–unreachable by the dogs–and the best hunting ground–where the side door light shines all night to attract insects.

He continues to freak out when he encounters me, but I’m okay with that. And he no longer paddles in the doggie water bowl–unless it’s after midnight.

I’m also told that there’s no way an eagle would ever drop him. (Like eagles can’t make mistakes?) I’m told that he would indeed leave a plentiful, safe water source and hop a quarter-mile uphill just to incarcerate himself in my backyard where there’s scant safety, limited water, and prowling Scottish terriers. Uh, sure. I think my theory of how he came here is better.

In any case, what a survivor!

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From my bookshelf: Phyllis Whitney

Recently I stumbled across a treasure trove of immaculate hardcover copies of several Phyllis Whitney titles. They are thin volumes, probably Doubleday book club editions, and missing their dust jackets, yet they have been well cared for and look–and smell–brand new. I circled them, debating within myself–should I pounce or were they too out of date for today?

I first learned of this author when I was a professional writing student at the University of Oklahoma. My teacher, Jack Bickham, was a huge fan of Ms. Whitney’s works. He considered her a master of suspense writing and always spoke admiringly of how she would write two books–adult and young adult from a research project.

Finally, I pounced. I’ve read a few of her novels in the past, and while I never became a huge fan I recalled that her books were competent reads. I remembered Bickham’s admiration so I knew they were sound in craft. They weren’t musty. They were $2 each, and they would make a welcome change from what’s currently in the bookstore.

Phyllis Whitney was born in Japan to American parents in 1903. She died in Virginia when she was 104. Her first book was published in 1941; her last in 1997, when she was 94. She authored 39 adult suspense novels; 14 young adult books; 20 children’s mysteries, and several books on writing in addition to numerous short stories. At the height of her career, she sold millions of copies and was published in 30 languages. And although she died in 2008, she still has an active Web site. It is not difficult to find her books, and many are available in electronic format.

Over the weekend, I sat down to read one chosen at random. Without any blurb copy off the missing jacket, I had no idea what it would be about. Title:  THE WINTER PEOPLE. And I rediscovered how smooth and lyrical Ms. Whitney’s prose is.

By today’s standards, the suspense element of the story is mild, and yet the characters are psychologically complex. Modern readers know the terms:  sociopathic, schizophrenic, neurotic, pathological, border personality disorder, etc. However, Whitney doesn’t use labels. She just creates the characters and lets them take action. The evil that’s depicted seems more sinister because it lacks the terminology. As I read, I found myself thinking, I’m glad I’m not having to deal with these people in real life.

The second aspect of the story that struck me is that Ms. Whitney relies so heavily on narrative. Her scenes are short and intense by comparison to long passages of summary. I think this reliance on narrative is reflective of mid-twentieth century style. (THE WINTER PEOPLE was published in 1969.) Narration is a mode of discourse that holds readers somewhat apart from the story action, and yet it moves quickly. Today’s genre fiction tends to be more focused on dramatic scenes and their emotional aftermath, moving in sequential order, with narrative taking a back seat to them. Both ways of approaching story are viable, but styles have changed.

The third thing I noticed–with great pleasure–is how Ms. Whitney sets her hooks. They are as precisely placed as a laser cut, and even if they are merely foreshadowing they are inserted exactly where the story’s interest begins to flag. Click, and she has your attention caught once more. I believe her hooks and their placement are what generated Bickham’s greatest admiration. When I read Ms. Whitney years and years ago, I wasn’t yet good enough at writing to share that admiration. Now, I see her mastery of craft at work.

I am delighted I stumbled across these half-dozen or so books. I look forward to reading the next one in the stack.

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Goodbye, “Phelps”

This post is not about writing techniques; instead, it’s about a visitor that stayed in my backyard during the Olympics. I first found him in the bottom of the dogs’ water bowl. Thinking he was one of the obese, complacent toads that live in my yard–and not certain how well toads swim–I tried to rescue him.

He needed no help from me. One huge leap shot him out of the water and across the patio with lunging, floppy desperation. Startled, I recoiled and missed a good look at him before he gained the safety of the shrubbery. That was no toad. Mine are all well-fed and rather gentle. They hop in straight lines with ponderous dignity. I am grateful to them for doing their job eating insects, and my dogs gave up hunting them four summers ago, which has been a relief to us all.

What was this thing?

The next night, he was back in the water bowl. I got a better look at his long legs and markings before he leapt forth. The evening after that, he moved to the larger tub of water that I keep for my dogs to cool off in during very hot weather. I decided our visitor was a bull frog, and because he was so fast off the mark, I called him “Phelps.”

The question then became, Where did “Phelps” come from?

I live atop a hill. There are drainage ponds several streets away–all downhill. The closest creek is even more distant, and located on the opposite side of a busy four-lane street. So I couldn’t imagine how “Phelps” had laboriously hopped to my yard from any of those water sources. And while he was good at swimming and leaping, he wasn’t very adept at crossing the lawn. His movements on land were always frantically, desperately swift, but he was also unnaturally awkward, as though something was wrong with his legs. He was so obviously a creature of the water, yet neither I nor my terriers wanted him paddling in their daily water supply.

How, I wondered, could I catch him and take him back to a pond?

Another factor entered the equation of this puzzle. A pair of young bald eagles came into my neighborhood at the same time as “Phelps.” They would circle over houses, emitting their distinctive, two-note whistle. The sun would glint off the white feathers on their heads, and smaller birds would fight them ferociously away from nests. One morning, an irate mockingbird chased the eagle directly toward my open garage door, but thank goodness the eagle flew over the gable instead of straight inside.

I am always delighted to watch eagles, and I felt sorry for this pair. Until this spring, much of my neighborhood still contained undeveloped land thick with cedar trees and brush–home to coyotes, field mice, and rabbits. Now the brush has been bladed off, with streets and lots cut for yet more new, overpriced tract homes to be built for people who typically live in them for less than two years before their corporation transfers them elsewhere. Why had the eagles come here? Had they perhaps hatched here last year and now returned? If so, how sad a homecoming. Yet I’ve never noticed eagles here before so possibly they were seeking new hunting grounds.

It’s my guess that one of the eagles must have caught “Phelps” from a drainage pond and then dropped him in my yard. Poor “Phelps” was probably injured somewhat, which would account for his ungainly flop-hopping.

The eagles did not stay long, no doubt due to the poor hunting. The last wild habitat in this location has been eradicated, and they have gone.

“Phelps” is also gone, as suddenly as he came.

Although my Scottie–also known as the Spook–will no longer hunt toads and totally ignored “Phelps,” the Spook’s brother is much more strongly hard-wired to hunt and–whenever they corner prey–has always been the one to doggy-up and bite the toads despite their nasty taste. On the last evening I saw “Phelps,” he flung himself from the water bowl as usual and shot across our lawn, but that time he crossed paths with the Executioner, who gave chase.

I did not see the Executioner pounce, but although he’s slow, deaf, and portly, it’s possible he delivered a killing bite to poor “Phelps.” I searched the grass for a frog corpse and found nothing. Perhaps “Phelps” crawled into the shrubbery before he died. Or perhaps “Phelps” found a gap beneath the fence boards and went on his way. Let’s hope it was the latter scenario. Perhaps he will end up in a neighbor’s ground-level fountain and live happily thereafter.

At least, while he was here, he did not sing.

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Writing for Gold

[Update:  the following post is an edited, shortened version of the original which was published during week one of the 2016 Olympic Games. Due to events involving one of the athletes whom I used as an example, I decided to remove mention of other athletes–including Gabby Douglas–as well. Therefore, I have pulled the teeth of this piece and retained only its primary points. Accordingly, you will find comments at the end from readers that refer to the original post and not the version available now.]

 

Warning:  if you’re tired of hearing about the Rio Olympics, please log off because I am enjoying them and intend, in this post, to tie them into writing.

A few years ago, I found myself trapped into participating in a Nielsen phone survey. One of the questions asked what my favorite sports were. I answered “The Olympics” and “The Kentucky Derby.” Granted, I was messing with the survey taker, but I was also being honest. I love the Olympic Games. Some events are my favorites. Some are merely interesting. Some bore me. That’s okay. I like the thrill of competition. I like to see people who have trained themselves to their maximum potential being tested–and sometimes bested.

However, the point of this post is about drawing lessons from champions whether they are on the track, swiveling around a pommel horse, playing beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, cycling, or pounding a keyboard. Elite athletes are all about training, discipline, sacrifice, and courage. They continue despite pain and injury. They give 150 percent, and they believe in their dreams of victory. They also know that no matter how good they are, there is a real possibility that a competitor will be better. They could place 4th or 5th in the race, and go home knowing only that they tried their best and it was not enough to grab glory.

Writing for publication is all about training, dedication, discipline, and sacrifice. It’s all about having dreams–that this story will pull together and be good enough to sell, or this novel might be the bestseller. And it’s all about putting in the long, sometimes tedious hours to make that dream happen. But dreams–no matter how big–need a reality check as well.

I tell my students:  “Just because you’ve written something, that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Just because you write something good, that doesn’t mean it will sell. And just because a piece of your writing is published, that doesn’t mean the public will read it.”

Writers, like athletes, need to train for victory but be prepared for defeat. There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. You can write an amazing story, and be rejected because the editor just bought someone else’s work for the last slot of her publishing schedule for that year. It doesn’t mean your story’s no good. It means your timing was slow.

When an amazing athlete who has persevered despite adversity, inadequate facilities, injuries, and financial hardship loses a gold medal by ninety-nine one-thousandths of a point, that’s agonizing. It’s easy to shout, “Unfair! He deserved to win!” Yet in fact, he lost because another athlete was just that microscopic scrinch of a point better.

Consider a runner about to come in third, but achieves silver because she leans forward as she crosses the finish line, and that lean puts her ahead of a competitor that would have otherwise beaten her. That will to win marks the champion spirit. It’s why one horse racing neck and neck with a competitor in the Kentucky Derby will stretch out its nose at the finish, wining by a whisker–always driven by the will to make it, to keep trying.

When Mo Farah of Great Britain tripped and fell in the men’s 10,000-meter race, he got up and resumed the race and won. That is the heart of a champion. And every writer who is trying to break in and stay in needs that quality.

There will be writing disappointments. Getting published is hard, so hard that sometimes writers are too timid even to try. Yet you must try and keep trying, no matter how many rejections you collect or how much they hurt. Evaluate yourself and what you’re doing in your stories–or not doing. Make adjustments.

Sometimes, rejection is not about the quality of your work at all. You write for a fickle public. And public taste changes. You can sell a manuscript to a publisher and, months later, by the time your novel reaches publication, the trend may have shifted to a different genre, leaving you in the dust. Your quality has not lessened. But the world has changed on you.

After you’ve poured months of sheer hard work into a project such as a novel, to have it turned down or picked apart or ignored by an editor hurts. It will always hurt. But you must put it behind you and evaluate why you were turned down so you can move forward, either by fixing the manuscript’s problems, or marketing it elsewhere, or deciding honestly whether it’s worthy of self-publishing electronically.

The latter option should never be a crutch, a safety net, or a refuge of self-deception. Use it–not to dump flawed manuscripts into the public arena–but to offer readers a crack at your story when editors just can’t make a place for you.

Editors do make mistakes. (Think about how many of them rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter story.) Remember that editors are trying to play it safe in the fiction game. They have to answer to corporate bean counters that don’t care two cents for good writing and only want sure winners.

Well, folks, fiction is never a sure thing. We writers are jugglers of words and phrases on the street corner, hoping we have a plot or characters brightly colored enough to catch the eye of passing pedestrians. Sometimes the pedestrians stop and applaud. Sometimes a city bus roars by between our performance and the audience that turns away, disappointed in what they failed to see.

So we try again. And again. And again.

Train yourself. Know your craft. Write to the best of your ability, no matter how hard or challenging it is. Stick with it to the end. Stick with it despite the rejections and barricades between you and publication. Be gracious in disappointment. And use victory to propel you forward to the next challenge, that next and better story that lies within you.

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Escaping Oz

Creative and imaginative idea + skill and training = published writer.

Although not easy to achieve, this equation is simple. So why are there so many frustrated, baffled, intimidated novice writers out there who can’t get their creative and imaginative ideas on the page? Could it be that far too often, they are never taught the basic skills that craft a story?

When it comes to teaching fiction writing, I divide instructors into two camps:  those I call the wizards of Oz and those that actually understand and share with their students the mechanics of the writing craft. The latter are terrific, and congratulations to any student lucky enough to find them.

However, today  let’s consider the wizards and the harm they do to writing newbies that trust them for guidance that’s never imparted.

The wizards play a smoke-and-mirrors game of shrouding fiction writing in a veil of mystery, as though it is some obscure, barely understood rite attended by the handmaidens Vagueness and Opacity. Their classes may be muddled emotion-fests (“Roberta, why don’t you share with us what you felt as Ambrose read his story?”) or they offer exercises in elitism and the so-called critical reading that focuses on  works written only to be critically read. In either case, they are shams.

In the 1939 MGM film, THE WIZARD OF OZ, there is a huge buildup about the Great Oz before the protagonist ever encounters him. He is represented as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful wizard. When Dorothy finally gains audience with him, great puffs of purple smoke float across the projected features of the Great Oz. His booming voice is stern and scary, thundering at her to forget her goal of returning home to Kansas. But once the green draperies are pulled aside, he turns out to be a con man operating levers on a smoke machine. He’s refused her request, not because he’s so mighty and majestic she’s beneath his notice, but because he really doesn’t know how to help her. He’s not intimidating or powerful. Nor does he possess magical abilities. And because he lacks these qualities, he’s puffed himself into a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity while hoping no one will ever guess the truth–which is there’s nothing to him at all.

Too many writing programs at all levels in American public education are taught by wizards practicing what I call the Oz Factor. Teachers toss a published story at students much as a zookeeper chucks a raw piece of roast at a tiger. The students read it. They discuss it. The teacher rhapsodizes over it. Some students appreciate it. Some don’t. Then the teacher says, “Now that you’ve seen good writing, create a story of your own.”

What? Hold on a moment!

Would you expect a neophyte surgical student to watch an operation and then be told to “try it” on the next patient? Is a hair stylist trained to cut hair by looking at a fashion model? Is a naval pilot taught to fly a multi-million-dollar jet by playing a video game? Do we learn how to write a novel by observing an author at work every day for several weeks?

No. No. No. No.

The teacher of my example is probably sincere in her desire to introduce her students to writing. She has shared a fine piece of literature with her class. But sharing isn’t enough. She may feel frustrated when the majority of her class fails to write anything worthwhile for their assignment. She may wonder why the youth of today have so little to express.

The fact is, young writers have plenty to say but are hindered through a lack of tools by which to express their ideas.

If a teacher fails to provide clarity of instruction in the writing craft or doesn’t know how a story works on the principles that underlie plot progression or how a story is built from start to finish, how can she convey anything useful to her class?

From a student’s perspective, there is often bewilderment and frustration generated by not knowing what the teacher wants.

(Just because you pop the hood on a Chevy Corvette and show students its engine, that doesn’t mean any of them has the least comprehension of how to change its oil.)

Those who really know how a story is written can explain it. Those who don’t, can’t. And when someone can’t explain it, then the Oz Factor usually comes into play. Recently a teaching colleague of mine who is not a novelist forwarded a taped interview to me. It featured an obscure short-story author describing how an idea grows in his mind before it morphs to the page as though in a dream. If that works for him, terrific, but it doesn’t explain anything to anyone else, does it? And after all, idea generation isn’t what most students need to know anyway. They need to know how to turn their ideas into viably plotted tales.

Utilizing a monkey-see, monkey-do method instead of teaching nuts-and-bolts craft is a bogus approach–however well-intentioned–to writing instruction.

My experience with young writers is that they often feel their writing instructor is all-seeing and all-knowing, but that this knowledge of writing is hoarded or that their teacher possesses special skills but chooses not to share them. Writing is therefore perceived as an ability granted only to a special few members of the inner circle. These are the elite participants in class, the ones the teacher favors. Once again, the Oz Factor is at work. Some writing wizard has snowed these inexperienced acolytes, taken their tuition money in exchange for a diploma, and promised them knowledge they never acquire. And sadly, sometimes the more prestigious the writing program, the thicker the snow job.

Consider the 1987 comedy film, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, in which Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher. Yes, there is comedic exaggeration in the movie, but his method of teaching illustrates the fakery I’m discussing in this post. He tells his class, “A writer writes!”

When I watch the classroom scenes, I’m reminded of another movie, 1962’s THE MUSIC MAN, where the con man Professor Hill introduces the “think method” to the band members, assuring them that if they think long enough about the tune he’s assigned they’ll be able to play it. In the film’s happy ending, the “think method” works just enough to save Hill from being tarred and feathered.

But in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, what caliber of writing is submitted by Billy Crystal’s students? Dreck.

As a teacher, he’s frustrated with his students and struggles visibly to be courteous. He gives blatantly false praise, and he ditches class at every opportunity. Yet what has he actually taught them? Nothing. The only student he ever shares any writing craft with is Owen, and then only because Owen stalks and pesters him for knowledge. And because he inadvertently teaches Owen–much in the way he might toss a stick into the shrubbery to distract a rambunctious puppy from bothering him–Owen eventually writes a viable plot that’s published.

When wizards of Oz assign students to write a story, they–like Billy Crystal’s character–offer no nuts and bolts instruction of how to do so. Instead, like him, they say in effect, “Just do it. If you’re talented, then you can write. If you can’t write, then you aren’t talented.”

Students that manage to scrawl some kind of loose narrative in such classes are praised. Maybe they’re invited to read their effort to the rest of the class. And although their story may be contrived, ludicrous, or fail to reach a cathartic climax, they’ve written! Behold the effort. Ignore the result.

All the while, a far more talented student may be scrunched down in the back of the class, her mind teeming with a fantastic story world and dynamic characters, yet she’s blocked from writing because she can’t bridge the chasm between her mind and the page. There must be some way to move her characters to the next plot event, but how? If she asks the teacher–a wizard will brush her off, saying, “You haven’t read enough. Go look at James Joyce. Or pay more attention to what your peers are doing.”

Adding to the student’s confusion are the rambling scribbles of classmates praised for writing what her story sense tells her is poorly plotted. If she dares disagree or asks too many questions about construction specifics, she’s likely to encounter the elitist blockade of the Oz Factor. If she probes too deeply into what the teacher doesn’t know–thereby jeopardizing the Oz mask–this student will be told she just doesn’t understand and should consider doing something besides write.

Of course she doesn’t understand the puffery and obfuscation of what should be a clear, easy-to-grasp process of conveying exciting, reader-engrossing story. The writing principles that make a plot flow, that keep readers turning pages, that generate excitement and emotion in readers, have been in play since antiquity. They are simple and clear. They are proven. Sophocles understood them. Shakespeare understood them. Agatha Christie understood them.

But not all so-called writing instructors understand them.

In praising or rewarding weak writing that may be stylish, witty, pretty, or profane–while offering next to no plot–and in ignoring dynamic storylines that wobble but could roll if given correct guidance, these wizards perpetuate a phony pseudo-fiction that doesn’t come close to a soundly plotted genre story and satisfies only the elitist audience contrived for it.

Such a closed, isolated system leads eventually to extinction.

Civilization, however, needs good stories. It is through the art of the story that we share experiences and emotions. It is how we bond. It is how we realize truths. It is how we vicariously survive almost-insurmountable tests and emerge victorious. It is how we play and make believe. It is how we cheer and boo and gasp and live our dreams. It is how we discover what it means to be human–both flawed and wonderful. In these ways, stories serve our society.

Fakery and style alone cannot feed our psyches the way well-constructed stories can. Muddle teaches nothing, and when nothing is taught stories falter.

I consider Toto to be the real hero in THE WIZARD OF OZ. While the other characters are milling around and falling for the great con, Toto just pulls the curtains away and reveals the truth. That is when Dorothy’s dilemma and all the other issues are finally sorted out.

Truth, honesty, and clarity should support learning the craft of writing. Writing teachers have a responsibility to part the veil, end the mystery, and step past the purple smoke. They should draw back the curtains and show their students that scene construction is a clear, easy-to-follow process, that the judicious placement of hooks keeps readers engaged and turning pages, that characters can be introduced in myriad ways with myriad effects, that solid plots need villains, and that stories should build to a conclusive, emotionally cathartic climax built around story principles even the ancient Greeks used to pack theater seats.

As one of my students has said, “Showing the process behind things doesn’t reduce the value of the end product.”

Beware any teacher that proclaims writing can’t be taught. Writing skills certainly can, and should be.

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Letting Go

For every thing, there is a season ….

We humans were put in charge of this planet, to tend it, nurture it, govern it, and take care of it. And when you nurture something, you have a responsibility toward it. You owe it the respect of accepting and fulfilling that responsibility. Sometimes responsibility dictates that you must kill and remove for the betterment of others. That is why we humans raise and slaughter livestock for consumption and leather goods. It is why we clear fields and plant them, and later harvest them. It is why we pull weeds from our flower and vegetable gardens, removing the plants that we don’t want to make way for those that will flower beautifully or bring us bounty to eat. It is why we chop tree roots that are threatening our house foundation.

Today, I put aside memories, regret, and sentiment and set about bringing down my biggest, first, most special, and oldest Linda Campbell rugosa rose.

In a past post, I chronicled the removal of a different, smaller rose bush of the same variety–the second plant in my current yard to succumb to the horrid rose virus now rampant across our nation. That bush held no sentiment in my heart other than its beauty and ease of care. Yet I fought the virus, fought the inevitability of the plant’s eventual demise. I kept young Linda going longer than I believed possible before I finally gave in to the ugly “witch’s broom” effect and took her out.

IMG_1366{The deformity isn’t showing well in this photo, but the affected canes are thick and soft, the leaves remain red and strangely shaped, the buds cannot open.}

Several times this year, I have daydreamed about reconfiguring my large front flower bed. It’s probably the worst landscaping I’ve ever had since I rented my first little house in graduate school and could only afford six marigold plants. At my current address, the largest plants grow in the front. Weed trees sprout in the back. The perennials are in the wrong places. The entire composition fails to please me. And if a front flowerbed is supposed to be the jewel of a home’s entrance, this one would be what’s known as a “dead rhinestone.” It has no sparkle. At its very best, it offers a mishmash of brief spring bloom. All last winter, I thought of making a few changes, of adding a bistro set, of moving the birdbath, of installing stepping stones and mulch, of making it beautiful.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

These days, all but driven from gardening of any kind by dicey joints, tendonitis, and mold allergies, I tend to think and imagine more than I actually accomplish. I have let my responsibilities to my beloved plants slip quite a bit. So I’ve been thinking about changes without making any actual push to bring them about.

Old Linda Campbell is the anchor of this front bed. Since I moved here, she’s been my showstopper, growing huge and wide and tall in the front curve of the raised bed next to the sidewalk and covering herself with enormous red bouquets of bloom all summer long. She was the first Linda Campbell rugosa I ever purchased. I bought her for the front bed of my previous home, and she thrived there in the cheap sand the builder used instead of topsoil, sheltered by the sun-warmed brick in winter and bronzed by the sun in the summer. How she bloomed! How she grew! I cut her back constantly so that visitors could walk past her without being snagged on their way to the front door. She evaded blackspot, required no dead-heading, didn’t care whether I fed her or not. We loved each other wholeheartedly.

IMG_1145{Here’s old Linda from a different year, blooming away.}

When I moved, I dug her up and plunked her into a large pot. She thrived. She survived the wind-whipped drive to her new location. She survived being dug up again by a so-called landscaper and left lying on the front lawn with her roots exposed until I saved her in the nick of time. For thirteen years she has been MY ROSE. Some of her canes are nearly as large as my wrist. Because of her, I bought several other Linda Campbells, but none of them have ever grown or bloomed as magnificently as she.

But last winter, she began to fail a bit. Last summer she contracted blackspot and staggered against it. This spring she stood a bit ragged, with dead canes in need of removal and her first flush of bloom for the season less than stellar. And then, a few weeks ago, I saw the mutated new growth that told me what was wrong.

The virus had her.

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I could have cut away the affected canes. I could have fed her, babied her, tried to save her, but it would be to no avail. There is no cure to this disease except destruction of the affected plant. Keeping her longer would be akin to propping up an elderly dog with cancer and letting it suffer just because I couldn’t bear to part with it.

Linda’s quality of life was doomed. So today I got out the large loppers, trash bags, my elbow-length gloves, and set to work. I bagged everything for the landfill trash since such diseased plants must NEVER go into the municipal compost. By rights, the cuttings should have been burned, but we aren’t allowed to burn in the city limits. And as I cut her down, bit by bit, I mourned her.

Roses have existed for thousands of years. They scented ancient Persian gardens and adorned the hair of Roman maidens. Their oils formed the perfume called Attar of Roses and have been the base of many other fragrances. Their petals were strewn before the chariots of triumphant Roman generals and down the aisles toward bridal altars. Roses symbolize love. The Tudors carved them into architectural motifs, and during the War of the Roses one faction sported the red Tudor rose and the other sported the white Lancaster rose. Roses have grown wild and tough and stalwart in old western homesteads, blooming at the broken steps of little farm houses long since crumbled or abandoned. They have grown from cuttings snipped by elderly women and passed along to granddaughters. They have rambled over fences, climbed archways, sprawled over doorways, and graced the White House gardens.

So why are they dying now? Why have we created horticultural messes with our gene splicing and hybridizations? What mite, what rodent, what gene manipulation is responsible? Is it transmitted via an animal? Is it airborne? I can’t bear to read about the latest discoveries because the disease breaks my heart.

In past years, I found effective stress relief from my day job by walking through my rose garden and dead-heading the spent blooms. These days, I let a lovely, nameless little rose given to me for my birthday swell its spent buds into rosehips, thereby blooming only once for the season, all because I can’t bring myself to walk among my plants with a bottle of rubbing alcohol to sterilize my pruners and avoid spreading disease from one plant to another.

In search of easy care, hybridizers created Knockout roses. No dead-heading needed, but then why walk among them? They need no care. They have no scent. Yes, Knockouts are pretty. They serve their landscaping purpose, gracing the borders of parking lots and filling corners of our yards as blooming shrubs. However, could Shakespeare have penned his immortal line about a scentless modern rose? I grow a few Knockouts, but can a scentless rose beguile the senses the way an old Bourbon or Damask rose can?

Am I to be the generation that sees the extinction of roses? Or will they prevail, the tough ones that aren’t hybrids, that aren’t grafted wimpy things that last for one season and die? We humans are modern. We are busy. We are tech-savvy, yet our super-wheat creates celiac disease and obesity, and our roses and bees are dying.

What does that tell us? Or are we too busy to pay attention? The trend du jour is to eat paleo, yet how many cavemen actually ate cupcakes made from almond flour? (We are kidding ourselves and ignoring too many warning signs of looming agricultural disaster.)

All these gloomy topics floated through my thoughts as I chopped and cut. In gardening, you know some plants will never thrive from the day you plant them. If they don’t solve the problem by dying, then they have to go. You know that some plants reach their natural end and have to go. You know that some plants bloom in peculiar, new, garish colors that surprise you–not in a good way–and they have to go.

As I cut old Linda down, I saw that I had been right to tackle this sad task now and not try to prolong her agony. For the tiny new cane sprouting from her very base was deformed. I have loved her, and I loved her today in putting her down.

All that remains is to dig up her roots. It will be a tough, difficult job–perhaps beyond my strength now–yet I will get it done.

IMG_1372{A sad ending to a great old lady.}

And will her disease spread to the other roses in the front bed? Who knows? The first plant to succumb in my backyard–a lovely old rose variety called Penelope–was yanked out and a replacement planted a scant foot away from her hole. And after a few years, the newer bush has shown no signs of the disease whatsoever. No other roses in that bed have contracted the virus. So maybe–fingers crossed–old Linda’s companions in the front bed will escape.

Ready or not, happily or not, the front bed is already being reconfigured.

IMG_1370{Spent blooms from another, lesser Linda Campbell rugosa unaffected as yet.}

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