Author Archives: Lazarus Barnhill

About Lazarus Barnhill

Lazarus Barnhill is a native of Oklahoma who has lived all over the south. He holds three degrees, including a Doctorate in Spiritual Development. He has been obsessed with writing since he was a boy. A father of three and grandfather of three, he resides in North Carolina with his wife of 34 years and an irritating cat, Jessie, who is for sale cheap. Lazarus Barnhill at Second Wind Publishing, LLC: http://secondwindpublishing.com/LazarusBarnhill.html

If You Got Transcended Would You Know It? by Lazarus Barnhill

Being that I’m very seldom the “smartest guy in the room,” I get real excited when I recognize something that others—theoretically brighter folks—have missed. You’ve probably had that experience too: you “connect the dots” and see a reality others have missed; you show others around you something that then becomes obvious to them—“Aha!”

As it happens there are a couple areas where I’m pretty lucky at perceiving things—sometimes things that other, smarter people, miss. For instance, I’m pretty good at spotting scams—internet and otherwise. And also, with a couple (notable and embarrassing) exceptions, I’ve always been a good judge of character.

I have to say, however, the one area where I tend to “get” things others miss is in the movies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but occasionally I recognize things that top critics, “the experts,” don’t see (and this is not some vain fantasy; I’ll demonstrate below). You’d think I’d be proud of this, but actually it irritates the fool out of me. Most heavily advertised movies are formulaic Hollywood drivel. How many predictable “car chase-explosion-violent-revenge” or “true love-reunited-wiser-and-indivisible-after-90-minutes” or “pure-adolescents-triumphing-over-devious-adults” movies do we really need to see to know exactly how they’re going to end up and that they carry no message of any depth? On the other hand, periodically some movies do make it to wide release that have a message to share or have some quirky, engaging thematic elements. When the critics all seem to miss this, it makes me crazy.

For instance, recently the actors Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan made a gritty, intense movie called Drive. Of what famous classic movie was Drive a remake? . . . Obviously Drive was a close reworking of the western masterpiece Shane: a talented outlaw comes to the aid of an overwhelmed, humble man, his loveable wife and adoring son. He forsakes his well-ordered life as he rids the landscape of corrupt, powerful men—including two evil brothers and the professional gunmen brought in to kill him, and rides off into the sunset with a wound that may or may not be fatal. Clearly this retelling was the intent of those who made the movie. Yet much as I searched, I found only one major critic, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who even mentioned Shane in connection to Drive, and his comment was a passing remark about loner heroes. My favorite review of Drive came from Anthony Lane, a cinema critic of nothing less than the New Yorker magazine. He waxed eloquently, comparing Drive to a dozen other pictures, but somehow missed what should be an obvious reality—Drive is a remake of Shane. Carey Mulligan was even intentionally made to look like mousy, wistful Jean Arthur from the original.

Sometimes I wonder if movie critics are really not oblivious, but rather they are engaged in silent conspiracies. For instance, when I read the major critics’ reviews of Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, the comments were a mix of positive and negative—but I didn’t read any that discussed the powerful political statement the movie was making. Is it possible they all missed Spielberg’s message, spun from the lips of Dakota Fanning? It’s not hard to figure out what I’m talking about: rent the movie and, while you’re watching, remember it came out during a presidential campaign and that in our country one major party is characterized with the color blue and the other with red.

And speaking of a conspiracy of silence among critics, it’s difficult for me to remember a movie more lampooned by them than M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. While I’d never say it was one of Shyamalan’s better efforts, it was incredibly original, edgy and engaging and did not deserve the savaging it received from the big name critics. Why were they so hard on the movie? Could it be because the only character killed in the film—a cynical, self-important jerk of a guy—was a critic? Now go hunt up reviews of the movie and see how many major critics even mention that particular character or how important he was to the message Shyamalan was trying to express about creativity.

I can understand if critics don’t want to mention the veiled politics in a movie, or if they want to get back at a director who is a little too honest about them. What I most have a problem with is when they simply miss the obvious—and that’s wcomputerhere the movie Transcendence comes in.

Most major film critics panned the movie mercilessly. Commonly they said Johnny Depp’s performance was mediocre and uninspired; that the first time director, Wally Pfister, should stick to cinematography; and that the screenplay is a muddle of pseudoscience, special effects and uninformed theology. To all of that I say perhaps the movie would have fared better in their reviews if the critics “got” the real intent and message of the picture.

For starters, when was the movie released? Wasn’t it Holy Week? What’s the story line of the main character? Will Caster [Johnny Depp] is a controversial, prophetic Artificial Intelligence researcher. Caster is consigned to a slow death after being shot with a radioactive bullet. Shortly after his death, his devoted wife manages to upload his consciousness into an AI computer program and then onto the internet; briefly dead, Caster has come back to life. In this new form, however, Caster is different. He has become transcendent. Eventually this transcendent Caster develops the ability to heal the desperately ill and perform other apparent miracles. He develops a close cadre of disciples who speak with his voice because his consciousness also resides within them; these followers develop abilities to do miraculous, benevolent things and draw great crowds of the infirm to his wilderness compound. Meanwhile scientific and government authority figures become alarmed at his astonishing abilities with his potential for complete global dominance. They form an alliance with anti-cyber terrorists. Ultimately the person who conceives a way to destroy Caster is his closest friend, the guy who knows his “source codes” and enters into a conspiracy with Caster’s wife to upload a lethal computer virus into him.

So if you’re acquainted with the gospel stories of Jesus of Nazareth, you’ll perceive a lot of common touchstones in this description of the movie. Caster is a portrayed as a Christ figure. His wife, who cares for his body and discovers that he has risen, is Mary Magadalene. Those close workers he heals and empowers are his apostles and the consciousness they share is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The government (Romans) collude with the Pharisees (zealous anti-AI terrorists) and the established scientific community (Sadducees) in an effort to end this new, explosive, supernatural power that has all knowledge and power and has transcended all earthly authority. His closest friend, Max Waters (Judas), conspires to betray him. There are numerous additional allegorical elements between the gospels and the film, but because I hope you’ll rent the movie (and because this blog has already become annoyingly long), I’m going to stop there to avoid giving any ultimate spoiler about the movie’s conclusion.

Believing as I do in rigorous scholarship, I think it’s necessary to point out that Transcendence is not an allegory. It is a parable. In literature the usual definitions are: 1) myth creates world; 2) fable explains world; 3) allegory restates world; and 4) parable destroys world. Movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told are “mythic” (remember please that “myth” as used here is a description of a particular literary device and not a judgment about the truth of the story). Movies like the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Shoes of the Fisherman are fables: they expand and explain the ideas first expressed in the gospels. Then there are allegories, retellings of the original stories in different settings. I used to say that the best Jesus movies were Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Bambi (yep, just as Walt Disney intended, Bambi is clearly an allegorical retelling of the Jesus’ story).

Parables on the other hand challenge the underlying assumptions of the original ideas. And this is probably a good place to point out that Jesus taught in parables. He used them to make his hearers question the absurd, unethical, restrictive teachings and assumptions of the religious culture in which he found himself in the first century.

Transcendence is the finest religious parable I’ve ever seen in the form of a movie. It seems to me that much of what the wise film critics mocked as lack of focus and consistency are in fact the intentional, internal contradictions of a film that is logically following through the progression of well-meaning people—both Caster’s disciples and those who stand in deadly opposition to them—struggling to deal with their own idealism run amok.

Pfister gives viewers two runs at the true theme of the picture. Twice we watch the scene in which a man asks Caster about the ultimate potential of sentient artificial intelligence: “Aren’t you talking about creating a god?” Guilelessly Caster responds with his own question: “Haven’t men always done that?” It’s important to remember that in this movie Caster and Pfister aren’t commenting about a Divine Being but about human beings. The point of Transcendence in the final analysis is a comment on every great religion: we human beings continually create and refine gods according to our ideals, then we won’t let them assume lordship over us. This is the ultimate religious parable, for it doesn’t confront our vision of a Supreme Being; instead it confronts our inability to be led by any Higher Power.

Transcendence plays on our shared human encoding: a benevolent, all-present, all-powerful Master is a real intrusion on our personal freedom, and that getting away from a power like that is essential to maintaining our humanity. We want a Supreme Being who chooses us, who fits our perception of the divine, who promises great rewards and who then stays out of the way while we do our thing. Caster’s wife, Evelyn, soon gets to the point where what she wants from her transcendent, totally imminent husband more than anything else is privacy.

I guess it’s sort of ironic: Wally Pfister created a movie that depicts how, when it comes to letting a Higher Power actually be our Master, human beings just don’t get it. And when it came to understanding the ins-and-outs and message of the picture, the critics just didn’t get it. –Laz Barnhill

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Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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The Part Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Play by Lazarus Barnhill

Philip Seymour HoffmanMy uncle was Ben Whitekiller. He was also Robert Vessey. Actually, of course, his name was Herbert — not Ben or Robert.

Herb was a peace officer in central Oklahoma and I grew up adoring him. As I became an adult and understood more of what it means to be a grown up, I began to see Herb in a clearer light, to have more of a circumspect understanding of his life. After he died in 2005, I wrote him in as two of the main characters in my police procedural, The Medicine People. Herb was the embodiment of Ben Whitekiller, the aging Native American, recovering alcoholic, who knows he has to come back to his little hometown to settle accounts from his misspent youth. Herb was also the essence of Robert Vessey, the whip-smart, jaded police lieutenant and investigator who never forgot what an encounter with Whitekiller had cost him. The resolution of the conflict between those two men was, in its way, my resolving of Herb’s legacy in my own heart.

So if you are like me, some of the characters in the books you write are conceived, developed and refined with a specific individual in mind — not always, but sometimes. And because that’s the case, I particularly mourned the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When I created the fictional character Magnus Thorsen in my novel East Light, I tried to envision a tall, clever, shaggy-headed, blonde fellow. Thorsen is an artist, a complicated, high-achieving, substance abuser who is discontent with what he has made of his life. He lives on the North Carolina coast in a cottage, the third story of which is an art studio that faces the rising sun. When he decides to take his life, he goes to his favorite secluded beach, only to discover a terribly injured young woman, whose life he saves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Thorsen engages in a complicated dance with Lt. Dot Stipling, the African-American detective who figures out his suicidal intentions and needs to keep him alive at least long enough to prosecute the girl’s attackers. I always thought the ideal person to play the part of Magnus Thorsen—complex, determined, supremely artistic—would have been Hoffman.

So here is my homage to Philip Seymour Hoffman and the part he never played. The book, by the way, will coming out this summer from Second Wind:

~~~~

Magnus opened the big glass doors onto the deck and slid open the screens.  He stepped out to the railing and looked down.  The tide was going out.  Down the beach someone was throwing tennis balls into the surf for a retriever to chase.  Twenty yards away, a gull was hanging nearly motionless in the air, waiting in case Magnus had food crumbs to throw.

“Forget it.  I’m not a tourist,” he muttered.

It was nearly thirty-five feet from where he stood to the dunes below.  Almost forty if he stood on top of the handrail.  When he first decided to kill himself, he thought about jumping from this upper deck, making it look like an accident.  Only, if he had been pretending that he didn’t mean to die, he couldn’t leave notes for his son and parents and lawyer and bookkeeper.  Then too, he might have survived the fall and been crippled by it.  He also thought about hanging himself from this railing.  The problem was that, if he didn’t break his neck, hanging would be slow and awful.  And no one in the family would want to live in the cottage.  And its worth on the real estate market would have diminished as well.

Where was the lieutenant, he wondered.  Turning from the water, he saw her walking around the room, looking at the canvases on the walls and easels.

“See anything you like?”

“They’re really very beautiful.”

“You think?”

She faced him.  “I can’t help but notice that they are all finished.”

“. . . Well most of them are fairly old.  I didn’t do any of these for customers.  I did them for myself, or to try a new technique, or to demonstrate something to someone.”

“Where are your ‘works in progress?’”

He shrugged.

“Did you run out of clients who wanted portraits done?”

“I have a whole stack of work over there on my desk.  I just haven’t started them yet.”

“Why haven’t you?”

Magnus took a drink of his coffee.  “Just waiting for my muse, I guess.”

She walked through the studio toward him.  “You know what I think?  I think you finished everything you were working on and didn’t start anything new because you intended to take your life.  Everything about this place and your actions before you stumbled onto Lisa Faucet reveals an intent to commit suicide.”

She stood beside his main drawing table, her hands on her hips.  It was a place, he noticed, where—with the sun streaming into the studio—the pure consistency of her complexion and the finely etched lines of her face appeared to glow with their own light.  And at that instant she didn’t seem to Magnus to be a police officer hounding him, but an exquisite countenance, begging to be captured on canvas.

“I have a friend who is a musician,” Magnus said.  “To him, the whole world is reducible to beat and melody.  If you’re a doctor, you view everything according to how it impacts a person’s health.  And if you’re a police officer, everything and everyone is suspicious.”

She smiled grimly.  “Mr. Thorsen, you can change the subject all you want.  You can have me follow you from one room of your house to another.  You can try to distract me with egg coffee and beautiful artwork.  But nothing changes the reality that you were going to kill yourself yesterday.”

Slowly he shook his head.  “That is strictly your assumption.”

The phone rang.

“Now what!” he exclaimed.  He looked at the little clock on the supply table.  “It’s just now 7:45!”  The phone rang again.  “How did I get so popular?”

She stared at him.  “Aren’t you going to answer it?”

“No.”

“Might be the hospital.”

There was a third ring.

“No,” he said.  “The hospital has my cell number.  Nobody who has my home number would dare call me before 8 a.m.”

“Why’s that?”

There was a fourth ring.

“Because they know I’m painting.”

The answering machine, with a robotic voice, spoke, “Please leave a message after the tone.”

There was a protracted beeping sound and suddenly Grady’s angry words were amplified through the room: “Mag-man!  What’s this shit in today’s paper?  You better pick up.  I saw your name listed by a gun permit.  What the hell you need a gun for?  This has something to do with going down to Scotch Bonnet by yourself, don’t it?  You didn’t tell me nothing about no goddamn gun, son.  You better, by-god, be calling me back or I’m calling that hot police lady myself about this.  And you better, by-god, be at the meeting tonight.”  There was the sound of Grady abruptly slamming down the phone.

Magnus stared at the answering machine, refusing to look at her.  He didn’t know what to say, and he felt like a little boy caught in some naughty act.

“Hot police lady?”

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I called you.”

“So he is talking about me,” she said.  “I take it that’s you A.A. sponsor?”

“Well he was, up until a minute ago.”

“. . . You have a black sponsor?”
He tilted his head and looked at her.  “Yeah.  Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know.  Just surprised me.”

“Surprised him,” Magnus said, “when I told him that a black woman is Chief of Detectives. . . .  I told him he would have met you before I did, if he just hadn’t sobered up.”

She laughed.  She had a beautiful smile.  Somehow it was a relief to Magnus to see her smile.

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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The Death of Smut Boy by Lazarus Barnhill

It was a voice mail and it alarmed me.

In early autumn, 2008, I came home from work to find a terse message on our answering machine: “This is your mother. I need you to call me right away.”

My immediate assumption was that something had happened to my father. Dad was in mid-stage Alzheimer’s at the time and was given to wandering. When a dementia patient “sundowns” and get lost in an urban area, that’s dangerous. Only Mom and Dad lived on a 400 acres farm in central Oklahoma, where wandering is equally dangerous and it’s pointless to put out a “silver alert” sign. And even though Mom had become the official operator of all vehicles, Dad was not above climbing up on the tractor for an unannounced excursion or deciding he needed to sneak a ride in the truck to “check the culvert” or “see if the water in the pond is down.”

It was a relief to me—momentarily—when my father answered the phone. Then, as soon as I identified myself, the other shoe dropped.

“Oh,” Dad said, “is this ‘smut boy’?”

I knew immediately why my mother left me an urgent phone message. Several days before the call came in I had sent my folks copies of my first two novels published by Second Wind Publishing: Lacy Took a Holiday and The Medicine People. Each of those books had a love scene that was—in my view—tasteful, realistic and nicely written (and maybe a little arousing). Mom found those passages, along with a few scattered naughty words here and there, to be unacceptably graphic. We spent half an hour on the phone having an intense discussion about poetic license, the expectations of fiction readers in the third millennium, and the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate language and sexuality in a novel. My mother also warned me that my “day job” might suffer. I was, after all, the senior minister of a church and she cautioned me that the congregation might find out about my books and the naughtiness therein and, yea verily, fire me. When none of that impressed me, finally Mom fired up the big guns.

“Listen, son. I want to give your books as gifts to your aunts and uncles for Christmas. And I can’t do it with those words and all that sex in there.”

Hmm. Well, the books were still in proof. So I did what I thought I would never do as an author. I cratered. I had the publisher remove a couple paragraphs and a few words from each of the books. Mom was happy. For me it was strangely defiling. I did not feel embarrassed at content of my novels before I censored them, but I did after I took out those couple paragraphs. I felt as if I sold out.

Next year, on the sixth anniversary of the release of Lacey and Medicine, I’ve decided to reclaim my literary prerogative. Along with a couple new titles I’ve written, Second Wind will rerelease my first two novels with new covers and with the original text intact.

What about my aunts and uncles? What about the sensibilities of the congregation I pastored? Well, between them my surviving aunts and uncles have sixteen children and more grandkids than I’ve ever been able to count. I’m pretty sure there’s no physical act I described that they haven’t experienced—and probably weren’t embarrassed at the time. And I have retired from the ministry. A couple from my former church bumped into me a few months ago and discovered during our conversation that I had completed a sequel to Lacey Took a Holiday, called Caddo Creek, which is about to be published. As the dear lady expressed her delight, I had to warn her: “Linda, I’m not a preacher anymore.” She didn’t get it right away, but her husband roared. I think he understood what I was getting at.

Smut boy lives! Well, actually, I never was smut boy. I’ve reclaimed my right to write as seems right to me. So I guess that means “smut boy” is dead and Lazarus has risen to write again.

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Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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How To End a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

What about a good ending? Here are the final paragraphs of Charlie Cherry’s Ninth Step, a work that will be coming out in the spring of 2014 from Second Wind:

Susan answered the door, barefoot and wearing the clothes she had worn to school that morning, her shirttail out.

“Charlie!”

“Hi.”

“Uh—did you—did you find her?”

“Yep.” He nodded. “I did.”

“Are you—did she—”

He shook his head. “She’s remarried.”

“Oh.” She tried not to show the relief that spread across her face. “What about Sloan? What about, you know, your amends?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I can tell you all about all that. But that’s not really the reason I came back.”

Susan slouched against the doorframe. There was a hint of anger in her voice. “Just looking for a cheap place to spend the night?”

“Not really.” He looked over his shoulder at the Mazda. “You have a week-and-a-half off beginning now, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she replied cautiously.

“Well, I got my doings done and I’ve still got the better part of two weeks myself. I have a few hundred bucks just burning a hole in my pocket, and I was wondering if you’d like to go down to San Antone and walk the river with me.”

For a moment she hovered in the doorway. She stepped toward him and leaned forward, looping her arms around his neck and pressing her lips to his.

She breathed at length and said, “Do you want to leave in the morning?”

“Well look. We kind of rushed into things last night. Surely we can slow down and do thing a little more romantically.”

Her expression was curious. “More romantic than last night? Like how?”

“Well, let’s go pack your stuff, and I’ll take you for a moonlight ride with the top open on my rocket. We’ll cruise on down to this barbeque house I found in Dallas. Best pecan pie I’ve had in fifteen years.”

She was smiling, her arms a swing and her face moving gently a few inches beneath his. “Then what?”

“Well, then we’ll drive on down the road ‘til we find just the perfect spot to spend the night.”

“Salado.”

He shrugged. “Wherever you want, darlin’.”

They kissed, a deep, sweet kiss. He straightened.

“Come on now. I’ll help you.”

She turned and went inside. He watched her graceful steps. “Pack light. I imagine I’ll be picking you out a few things. How do you suppose you’d look in one of those white senorita dresses?”

“A senorita with freckles?”

“I love freckles. . . . Susan?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel about stepchildren?”

Before we talk about what’s right (I hope) with the passage above, let’s talk about what can go wrong with the ending of a story. If we put our heart’s blood into writing a manuscript, we need to make sure we don’t bleed out before we reach the end of the story.

First, there is no “happily ever after” if we are writing for adults. In this sense, Margaret Mitchell did a better job of ending Gone with the Wind than Shakespeare did with Hamlet. At the bittersweet ending of GWTW, Scarlett is torn with grief and guilt, and yet clinging to hope. The story has come to an end, but the reader is left yearning for more. Indeed readers immediately and constantly clamored for a sequel. There could never be a sequel to Hamlet—everybody was dead. Killing off your main characters is often (as demonstrated by the current most popular male romance author) just another way of not having to deal with the complexity of human life. Hollywood movies, of course, are the land of “happily-ever-after-pat-ending-where-the-good-prevail-and-the-bad-get-what-they-have-coming.” But if you decide your story is going to be more real-to-life than a Hollywood blockbuster, you as an author have to decide to give your readers what the story allows you to give them.

In the passage above from Charlie, I give my readers multiple resolutions to several issues the main character faced throughout the story: what became of the girl he loved and was violently separated from in high school; what will he do to the vicious adult who beat him mercilessly when he was a teenager; what will happen between him and the girl who secretly loved him in his youth? In each case the result was not what the reader might have suspected. My intention is that the reader find the ending surprising, hopeful, plausible, uplifting and fun.

Another huge, disappointing mistake authors make is that the ending does not live up to the buildup of the narrative. There is a famous horror author who does a splendid job of building suspense and anticipation throughout his overly long novels, only to have them fall flat time and again because of really lame endings. Your ending has to be as big as the story that precedes it. When readers hear Charlie, above, promise Susan he’s going to tell her what happened to him that day, they know that she will be astonished—just as they were surprised—to hear what he found out in the previous few hours.

Finally, leave your readers wanting more. All of the major questions and issues Charlie Cherry faced at the beginning of his story have been resolved by the end, but the resolution is intended to make the reader want to know what happened next in the characters’ lives. I’m not suggesting that you leave yourself an opening for a sequel—although books do sell better if they are part of a series. Rather I’m saying that you want your readers, after they finish that last line, to keep wondering what will become of these characters they’ve come to know, with whom they’ve experienced adventures.

So a good ending 1) is plausible, realistic and complete enough to satisfy all the main themes of the story without solving all the world’s problems, 2) has an ending that is as big and satisfying in its resolution as the story that precedes it, and 3) leaves your readers brooding about the characters and events and feeling sorry that the story has ended.

And that, I think, is a good place to end the essay.

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This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

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Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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How To Begin a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

Novels, novellas and short stories are very distinct literary forms. O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi is hugely different in its construction from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One would be tempted to say that, as different types of literature, they have virtually nothing in common.

The longest epic and the shortest tale, however, can have two enormously important things in common: they can engage the reader from the beginning and they can leave the reader satisfied but wanting more at the end. In this brief essay I’d like to share my ideas about what makes workable beginnings and endings. I think these ideas are universal in that they apply to creative fiction regardless of its genre, setting or length.

A key idea expressed to me repeatedly by the folks at Second Wind is that my story should grab and hold the attention of the reader from the very first line. As one of the editors expressed it to me, the first line should seduce the reader deeply into the narrative. I’ve been told that a good example of this is the first line of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday:

She woke up realizing she had been sleeping in a bed smaller and softer than the one in which she made her living, and that she was wearing the sort of flannel nightgown she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl.

What’s good about this sentence? It begins a story with no build up (back story). Another way this is described is in media res (“in the middle of things”). Speaking for myself, I find that introductions, forwards, preludes, prologues or whatever you want to call them tend to slow down the process of a story. True, there are a lot of great novels with prologues (Brad Stratton’s White Lies is one; so is Nicole Bennett’s Ghost Mountain. These two novels, however, each use their prologue to describe a crime and they do so with no back story whatever. In this they are exceptions that prove the rule).

In the text above, the reader immediately knows something about the character being described, the setting and even a little of the history of the character. An author should be able to weave back story into the narrative as it moves along. By the bottom of the first page, the reader knows a lot more about the woman being described, but not because the author has blatantly explained it. I have found that readers will be quite attentive and sleuth out the things they want to know about your characters, which will further draw them into the story.

This leads to the concept I call “introductory mystery”: the beginning paragraphs of a story, regardless of its length, deposit curiosity in the mind of the reader so that she/he will be drawn along into the narrative at least long enough to discover why a character said something or reacted in a certain manner. One example of this appears in the opening pages of Come Home to Me, Child, the crime/mystery novel I co-authored with Sally Jones. Within half a page the main character, Elaine, is interrupted and overwhelmed by her new neighbor, Police Chief Larry Daughtry. As the narrative continues after Daughtry abruptly walks away, Elaine asks Tim Starling, her contractor, to explain this intrusive man with whom he has long been acquainted:

“What about the chief?”

“He went into the Marines. Became a military policeman or shore patrol—whatever they call ‘em. Did three or four hitches and came back to work in law enforcement around here. He started as a Cochran County deputy and, about five years ago when the chief’s spot came open in Veil, he was the natural choice. I guess.”

“He seemed happier to see you than you were to see him.”

Starling chuckled. “I always thought Larry was a kind of a thug. He bullied me. Not that he was the only one.” He began to stretch his tape measure along the yard. “It’s the divine right of football players to torment band guys.”

Although the contractor’s explanation satisfies the introductory mystery of what sort of person has just barged into Elaine’s life, the story proceeds to plant more elements to hook the reader’s curiosity: why does the officer know so very much about her family; why is he so interested in her recent medical problems; and why is the police chief so interested in Elaine’s plan to move her gazebo twenty feet across the yard? These seeds of mystery blossom through the course of the narrative in ways intended to gratify the reader’s curiosity, but also to draw him/her ever deeper into the story.

As the police chief in his oppressive manner reveals to Elaine just how much he knows about her and her family, the reader is also learning the back story of what brought the main character to this place at this time and what is happening in her life. If, as an author, you can keep the pacing and dialogue smooth and natural—allow subject matter to emerge as it would in the flow of normal conversation—the narrative will give ample opportunity to simultaneously reveal the back story of the characters even as you develop them and their relationships.

So a good beginning 1) seduces the reader further into the story, 2) begins with narrative at the expense of back story, 3) plants elements of mystery in the reader’s mind—some to be quickly revealed even as seeds of greater mystery are planted, and 4) reveals back story through the narrative process so as to introduce the reader to the characters without impeding the process of the story itself.

***

This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

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Writing: Uncovering A Surprising And Beautiful Buried Treasure — by Lazarus Barnhill

Decades ago when I was in my early teens, my father and I were driving through the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma — laden with switchbacks, dips and hairpin turns — when we saw a motorcycle come toward us and flash past in the opposite lane. It was ridden by a helmetless Native American whose face was totally expressionless. Sitting behind him, a young woman pressed herself against his back, her eyes closed — whether in ecstasy or fear I did not know. The bike was moving so rapidly I caught only a two or three second glimpse of them. Still the impression, as you can tell, remained with me for a lifetime. My dad was also seized by the vision. I could sense him reflecting on their appearance and disappearance and I heard him mutter, “What about that? An Indian on an Indian.”

That solitary image remained with me in the brooding recesses of my awareness for forty years until it became the central vision, the cathartic scene of a novel that built itself around that impassive visage of the man on the motorcycle. My second published novel, The Medicine People, began in my mind with an imagined picture of that Native American standing silently in a jail cell, his hands around the bars, waiting for a certain person to come and speak with him, knowing the dialogue between them would permanently alter both lives.

That’s my creative process; that’s how stories develop themselves for me: I experience something striking and the retained memory of it marinates and evolves in the depths of my mind. The stories grow, sometimes as with Medicine from the middle simultaneously toward the beginning and end, but sometimes from the end backwards or even, conventionally, from the start to the finish.

Once the basics of the story have germinated and I have a grip on where they are going, the real fun begins. With my first published novel, Lacey Took a Holiday, I was inspired by a Natalie Merchant song that described a cowboy professing love to a drunken saloon girl. She wakes the next morning to discover he has disappeared. From that image, Lacey the character and Lacey the story took root in my thoughts. By the time I started actually writing the book, I knew where the journey was going to take this saloon girl. The actual writing process had more in common with uncovering a surprising and beautiful buried treasure than figuring out how to put the “flesh” of details on the “skeleton” of preconceived story. From that single original image, the story develops and completes itself.

That’s the basis of my little literary world. Writing is exciting and strange — how odd to think that an entire story can coalesce and emerge from the flotsam from my lifetime of disorganized observations and faded memories. And, for me, perhaps the most exciting aspect of writing is the notebook I keep by my bed with the basic images—some with partial outlines and possible characters — for two dozen “treasure chests” I haven’t yet begun to open.  —- Laz Barnhill

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The Top Ten Reasons We Need a Good Laugh by Lazarus Barnhill

A couple weeks ago I tried an experiment. For a solid week I turned off my computer at 11:30 and turned on the TV. I alternated daily between watching the monologue of Jay Leno and of David Letterman. My goal was to determine which of the two was the better comedian. I watched Leno Monday and Wednesday and Letterman Tuesday and Thursday. What did I decide? . . . Well, honestly, neither one of these guys is all that funny. On Friday I watched Leno’s monologue and then tuned in to Letterman’s famous “Top Ten” list. That made it official: you can combine the two and they still aren’t funny.

In my judgment (and I realize this is strictly my jaundiced opinion), these two guys are unfunny for different reasons. Leno constantly goes for the quick, easy, often dumb joke. His studio audience responds with regularly timed courtesy laughs, so much so I wonder how they’d respond if he said something really funny. Occasionally he does say something fairly clever, but his delivery is so popeyed and cute that it spoils the gag—like someone ruining a joke by laughing at his own punch line.

Letterman doesn’t really try to be funny so much as he coasts along trying to be hip. His entire presentation is a perpetual NYC insider joke: “I’m too fashionable to do anything but pretend to take this seriously; and if you’re hip, you’ll laugh at this pretense along with me.” The currency of Letterman’s humor is patronizing cuteness. His Top Ten list is an exercise in hipness, a big part of which is making certain nothing really funny ever gets listed.

So what? Well the reason I tried my little experiment was because I needed a good laugh. Ever been there? And what can be crueler than tuning into a TV comedian who gets millions of dollars a year because he’s supposed to be funny and not getting anything like a legit chuckle? I have this burning desire to express a thought to these two guys: you two are paid to make us laugh; we have no desire to listen to your pandering and coasting. Once upon a time, each of you knew how to be funny and you need to find that place again—and here are the top ten reasons we need a good laugh:

10. We need to remember we’re still alive. A good laugh is living proof of living. Among the prominent things dead folks don’t do is laugh.

9. We need to show God we can take a joke.

8. Laughter is free. And it’s free to laugh at people who are at different economic stations than we are. [True story: Year ago I went to an independent film at the ritziest theater in St. Louis. There I saw a well-to-do fellow come up to the kid running the concession stand and inform her that she had to hold his pager during the show so she could come get him if it went off. Funniest thing about it—the guy had utterly no idea why I was laughing.]

7. Laughter is a universal time machine, taking us individually back to our best or worst moments without cost, grief or regret.

6. A good laugh washes away our anxiety; that is, it yanks us out of what we regret (the past) and what we fear (the future) and brings us back to the present, if only for a moment. We see things more clearly after a good laugh, and make better decisions.

5. A good laugh is hard-wired into reality and truth. A spontaneous belly-laugh momentarily cuts through the sham and self-deceit of civilized living like a breath of cool, fresh air in a stuffy, moldy room.

4. A good laugh is spiritual, like a miracle: you never see it coming; it overwhelms you despite yourself; you can bask in it and be refreshed.

3. It’s a presidential election year. Presidential election cycles should be renamed: “the year of living seriously.” When did a political candidate say something funny that wasn’t a dig at somebody else?

2. We need to laugh down the walls between us. Being serious, earnest and worried about our differences hasn’t worked.

1. We all have at least ten things to cry about.

True story: On lucky April 13, 1988, my beloved red Nissan pickup was totaled in downtown Tulsa by a drunk driver who ran a red light and t-boned me. After making sure the other driver (and his drunken girl friend) were not seriously injured, I stood in the middle of the intersection looking at my crumpled vehicle. A tall, earnest fellow hustled out of the Dodge dealership on one corner of the intersection, informed me that he had called the police and said, “This may be a bad time to ask this, but are you in the market for a truck?” For a split second I was furious. And then I laughed, a nice big, curative laugh. I don’t need anymore car wrecks—but I could use a few more good laughs.

***

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People, available from Second Wind Publishing.

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Everything That Converges Must Emerge (a play on Flannery O’Conner’s wonderful title Everything That Rises Must Converge)

[I’ve only had a few real passions in my life, and most of them date back to my childhood.  As a kid, I could always outrun all the other kids.  Through the ebb and flow of the years, the love of running has remained with me and expresses itself now in road racing; I hope to run my fourth marathon, the inaugural Charleston Marathon, in January.  Another, even greater, passion is writing.  These two passions have mirrored each other in many ways throughout my life, each teaching me lessons about the other.  At last they have come together in a novel I hope to have in print around the first of the year.  It’s called The Boston, and tells the story of the first American born runner to win the famous Boston Marathon in more than twenty-five years.  The scene below comes from the fourth chapter in which the main character, Ron Jerdin, is conversing with Lillian Smits, a young woman who is riding with him to a foot race.] 

            “So why do you really run?

            Ron settled back in his seat, staring over the steering wheel at the highway before him.  No one had ever asked him to talk about running before.  Reporters and admirers often asked about races and his experiences in them, but never about the purpose or the essence of what it meant to run.  And for all the years he had run so many miles, he wasn’t sure he could express what it meant to him.

            Beginning slowly, he said, “I run for every mile after the first mile.  When I run, the farther I go, the more I belong to myself.  I have . . . serenity.  When I run, the world stops being a place of excruciating pain.  And as long as I run, the world can’t hurt me. . . .  When I run, I become something that very few people can be and very few can understand.  It’s almost like having the ability to fly without leaving the ground. . . .  When I run it’s a time machine.  I put myself in this virtual capsule and I’m gone to the land of clarity and beauty.  An hour or two or more passes.  I come back and nothing has changed. . . .  When I was hurt and couldn’t run, running waited for me.  A day came—just a week or two before your sister went to the Olympics—when I finally made it back to running.  I could run as far as I wanted without any pain.  And I knew I was back and that running had waited for me.

           “The whole time Marianne was gone to the games, I brooded and sat around feeling angry at myself, feeling like a failure because of the injury and the surgery and the misery.  Only, I would go out and run in the morning and again in the evening and the feelings would leave me for a while.  Running got me through that time when there was no one else.”

           “. . . You make running sound like a woman.”

           “Ha.  No.  It’s more like . . . well, I heard about an American Indian runner once—maybe it was Billy Mills—who said that Indians run to draw strength from the earth.  I get that.  When I run, there comes a point where a connection opens between me and another place and goodness begins to flow in.”  He smiled.  “Was that philosophical enough?  I said way too much.”

          “What did you mean when you said you run for every mile after the first mile?”

          “Oh.  That’s something I learned from my cross country coach back in high school.  He said, ‘Remember, boys, nobody likes the first mile.  The first mile is the price you pay to get to the zone.’”

         “The zone?”

         “Yeah.  I used to think he was talking about ‘runner’s high,’ you know.  When your endorphins kick in after a run or a race and you’re buzzing.  I discovered, eventually, the zone is more than that.”  He glanced at her.  “Want some breakfast?”

– Laz Barnhill

 A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.”

—John Berryman

 

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People, available from Second Wind Publishing.

 

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Chick Gross-Out Movies

                The most exciting day of the week for me as a child was Wednesday.  That was “dollar night” at the Riverside Drive-In of Norman, Oklahoma.  My mom would make a grocery bag of popcorn (cooked in bacon drippings and seasoned with coarse salt, by the way) and my parents, my sister and I would ride out to the show in our ’52 Chevy.  They let the whole carload in for a buck because the movies were not new releases.  They were classics.  Sitting in the back seat, I got to see some of the great movies of the mid 20th century: Hitchcock thrillers like Rear Window and Vertigo, comedies, noir films, family movies (I was pretty much in love with Hayley Mills after The Parent Trap and Pollyanna), sci-fi, horror (I had to beg my folks to let me see those great Hammer Frankenstein flicks) and of course westerns like Shane, High Noon and Red River (one of the most traumatic experiences of my young life came when Gary Cooper was almost lynched at the end of The Hanging Tree).  I grew up loving movies and understanding the differences between film genres.

                Because I’ve been aware of movie genres and subgenres for fifty years now, I feel as if I’m on pretty firm ground when I say that a new subgenre has emerged, one I’m wrestling with and frankly a little irritated by.  We all know what “chick flicks” are (recent example: The Notebook) and we’re all familiar with “frat boy” movies that rely on disgusting adolescent topics for laughs (The Hangover for instance).  Over the last few years a new subgenre has emerged that combines these two.  I guess we could call them “chick-gross-out-movies” [these are not to be confused with “gross out” movies that have chicks in them, like Saw].  These are movies clearly intended to be viewed primarily by women, but they have a strong element of disgusting behavior or dialogue that disqualifies them from being true chick-flicks.  They are really less chick-flick than romantic comedy, but the “not for mixed company” conversations and events disqualify them from that genre as well; plus there always seems to be a girl-and-guy-finally-get-it-right-at-the-end theme.

                One of the prime examples of this was the 2007 movie Because I Said So, that begins with a middle-aged mother and two of her daughters having a cell phone conversation with a third daughter about the penis of the uncircumcised man with whom she is about to have sex.  I’m sorry I described that, but you probably understand the dynamic I’m talking about now.  The same sort of dynamic is at work in Something’s Got to Give (did we really need to see Jack Nicholson’s naked behind or Diane Keaton’s gratuitous frontally nudity?), Knocked Up and a number of other recent pictures.  Recently I got talked into seeing The Backup Plan, that begins with Jennifer Lopez in the stirrups having in vitro fertilization and goes downhill from there.

                I’m at a loss here.  This is an honest question: who really, fully enjoys movies like this?  We actually had a family discussion about this not long ago.  My older son offered the opinion that the disgusting elements in these movies were put there to give guys a reason to sit through them with their girlfriends.  Maybe so.  After all, if you look at the list of producers, directors and writers of these movies, they are mostly men; plus they are all “Hollywood” shows and therefore essentially created by cookie cutters.

               On the other hand, if you want to appeal to frat boys, you get fewer laughs with a baby-being-born-“I-shouldn’t-have-seen-that”-scene than a scene of someone getting drunk and throwing up.  Can it be that the young women of the world are striking a blow for equality, asserting that females can be just as disgusting as males—and enjoy it?  Of course, perhaps this is just a sign that a new plateau or threshold has been reached: maybe it has just become that much more difficult to be shocking and outrageous, and if the movie kind of sucks you need that to distract your viewers.

               Another possibility is that I’m just old, irrelevant and out of touch.  I have to be open to this possibility I suspect.   Heaven knows, there are a lot of intimate human events, but I don’t play them for laughs, or use them to make my readers gag.

              Going back to the Riverside Drive-In, one of the first things I learned from the master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock is that you don’t have to show skin to be incredibly sexy or show graphic wounds to convey violence (in Psycho you never see the knife actually strike its victims) or shock people to scare them (the suspense of waiting for something that might happen is much more compelling than having somebody leap out of the dark and make a loud noise).  So I’m just going to keep being old-fashioned and strive for quality in my writing, and know that some filmmaker somewhere has the same values I have.

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People, available from Second Wind Publishing.

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The Best Thing About Being a Fiction Writer Is . . .

When the conference was over, Laz gathered the handouts and picked up his notebook and walked out of the assembly hall into the brilliant Carolina midday sun.  Everett emerged from the darkness at the same moment and the two old friends found themselves walking together.

“So what did you think of the conference, Laz?”

He shrugged.  “You first.”

Everett laughed.  “That pretty much answered my question.  I’m about the most idealistic person I know, but I have to tell you I got a little tired of the ‘high-and-mighty’ tone of the speakers.”

“All of them,” Laz agreed, nodding.

“I guess there’s something wrong with me,” Everett continued.  “They were saying all the right things and I know I was supposed to agree.  Intellectually I’m pretty much right with them.  Only . . . well, it’s hard to put into words.  Somehow all that righteous indignation put me off.”

“They were self-conscious,” Laz said.

 “Self-conscious?  How can you say that?  They did nothing but brag about themselves and drop names for the whole two days.”

“I mean they were self-conscious not in the ‘shy and embarrassed’ sense, but in the ‘I’m going to put myself in the limelight so you all will admire me’ sense.”

“Ah.  Yes, everything they said showed they were mostly conscious of themselves.  I think that’s it, Laz.  Despite the fact that I agreed with them almost completely in principle, their constant ingratiating attitude just sapped all my enthusiasm.  Listening to all those speakers pat themselves on the back, I got to where I thought this was a bragging contest.”

“You know what I kept thinking, Everett?”

“What?”

“I kept thinking, ‘This is why I’m a writer.  This is why I write fiction.’”

“. . . What do you mean?”

“Well, I feel just as strongly as all those speakers did—and pretty much in the same way.  And maybe I want to express some of my strong ideas.  Only, when a person gets up and makes a speech about a controversial issue, half the potential listeners have already tuned him or her out.  And two thirds of those who are on the same side as the speaker are only listening to hear things they agree with.

“On the other hand, when you write a story—if you do it right—you can draw in any reader.  You can express your ideas either in what your characters say or in what happens to your characters and how they respond.  As a writer you have the ability to show a realistic grasp of both sides of any controversial issue.  Most public speakers forget there are two sides to any issue because they’re so busy trying to prove their side is the valid, important one.

“When you write about a controversial issue, you don’t have to make it the center of your story to express it fully.  You just work it in.  For instance, when I wrote The Medicine People, I deal a lot with the quiet underlying bigotry Native Americans and Western European descendants still harbor for one another but never express out loud.  And while it was essential to the story, it didn’t overwhelm the novel.  Stories have the power to make an issue live in the mind of the reader the way a speech never can.

“And the best thing about being a fiction writer is, you don’t have to brag to get your point across.  The best writer is one whose reader gets absolutely lost in the narrative and—oops!  Watch out for the curb, Everett!  Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  Just clumsy.  What were you saying?”

“I don’t remember.  Let’s go get lunch.”

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday, both published by Second Wind Publishing Co.

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