Sketch No. 7: Ransom Note on Crinkled Receipt: A Farce
It’s been three days and none of us still has any idea just what Nessie might be up to going into Pastor Sweeney’s church like she did. I mean, she went in on a Sunday morning, so there’s always the possibility she was just taking in a service. She spends almost as much time telling people how Christian she is as she spends snapping selfies at the soup kitchen, selfies at the children’s hospital, selfies at the Book Mobile. So one would imagine the woman might sometimes, you know, actually go to church. But Father Jack’s service over at St. Francis is where she’s been going ever since Pastor Sweeney was brought up on charges. And that glare she shot at Confictura seemed to virtually scream that she was seeing Pastor Sweeney for some reason connected to the café . . . or the people in it.
Not knowing what’s going on with her has us all a little on edge, and so tonight’s meeting of Roscoe’s writing salon was probably not the best time for all of his students to up the stakes of what I guess can be called their protest. They’d been pestering Roscoe about something for a couple of weeks–until tonight, I didn’t know what for–but they wanted something and he said no, and all of it came to a head tonight.
At 7:30, when the salon meets, their big, round table was still empty save Roscoe. He wondered if that had anything to do with Nessie and the article in the Applewood Timber last week that sabotaged Mrs. Creaverton’s dance. I said that it was probably a coincidence. That, or maybe his students were just rediscovering their love of the Jeopardy!/Wheel of Fortune hour. Then Clarke walked in, a small white paper clutched in his hand.
Clarke, presumably his last name, is all he goes by because he feels that a writer who goes by only one name carries an air of mystery. He’s twenty-two and wears a short Afro. He has these flashes of genius in the otherwise nebulous thoughts he’s been conveying, both on the page and in person, since the 11/5 quake. I didn’t know him before then, but he used to be a valedictorian. People say he could quote Langston Hughes, Pearl S. Buck, and Salman Rushdie, among others. His plan was to take five years off after high school to save as much as he could for tuition, since substantial scholarships are about as real as the emperor’s new clothes these days. Now, unless this affliction brought on by 11/5 is cured somehow, it’s hard to see Clarke realizing the education, the future, he was destined for.
Tonight, he was wearing his usual three-piece suit, with one of my favorite ties, this Art Deco design. He also wore a blue ski mask. This is not a usual addition to the ensemble.
“Hey, Clarke,” I said as he walked past my table.
“Hey.” He gave me a nod and a friendly wave, then put a finger to his lips. “Shh, though, dude.” (Clarke, I’m told, has adopted terms like “dude” into his vocabulary only since the quake.) “I’m here anonymously. I don’t want Roscoe to recognize me.”
“Right,” I said.
“Hey, how’d you guess it was me?”
“Psychic,” I said.
“Oh,” said Clarke. “That’s pretty cool.”
Bear in mind, this entire time, Roscoe was two tables away.
Clarke went over to the big, round table where Roscoe sat back in his chair, legs crossed, stroking his chin. “My,” said Roscoe, looking up at Clarke, “whoever might this be?”
Wordlessly, Clarke shoved the small paper at him. Roscoe read it aloud: “‘Your Strunk & White’s Elements of Style has been taken hostage. Pay up for its safe return. You have ten minutes to agree to these terms.’” He turned the paper over. “Masked man who is most certainly not Clarke, I see this is written on the back of a receipt. Do you know what it’s a receipt for?”
Clarke, pushing his voice low, said, “Ah, pay no attention to that.”
Roscoe read, “‘The Elements of Style, $9.95.’ So not only is the book you have not even really my copy, but you’ve just reminded me how cheap it is to buy a replacement if it were my copy.”
“Does it say what the ransom is?” I asked.
“No,” said Roscoe, “but I know. It’s what they’ve been demanding for a few weeks now. A big spoon with their Great American Novel scooped up for them, ready for feeding.”
“Mm-hmm,” I said. “And that’s Roscoe-speak for what?”
“Rules,” said Roscoe. “They want my rules.”
Sketch No. 8: Shadowed Pickets, Ghost in the Phone: A Retrospective
The Housatonic River flows past Applewood, and that’s the body of water you can see from the aptly named Riverview Room at the back of Café Confictura. Roscoe once told me that the reason he likes conducting his writing salon in that room is because “a lit hearth feels warmer when, just beyond, there thrashes the cold of nature’s current. Dichotomy adds dimension to any experience; and dimension is always the writer’s pursuit.”
That’s how Roscoe teaches his students in the salon, and I suspect that’s how he taught when he was tenured at Fairburne College, a liberal arts campus in the southwestern part of the state. He prefers broader instruction, a sort of holistic approach, as opposed to diagnosing individual writing ailments. For instance, rather than saying you can improve your short story by slashing all the adverbs, he would examine one paragraph of one story, and suss out all the possible emotion and action and dimension that paragraph has buried in it. Getting to the heart of that paragraph wipes out a lot of the traps his students can fall into, including extraneous “mightily’s” and “excitedly’s.”
This holistic approach led to the name he gave his salon: “How to Write a Novel in 30 Years.” He explains his philosophy to each new member of his salon as this: there are how-to writing books out there that put speed before quality, the worst of which are those that claim one can write a novel in some given, usually short, amount of time. Maybe you can throw together a pulp book in, say, thirty days, he says, but novels, in the traditional sense, are different. A good, thoughtful novel, worth writing and reading, is the accumulation of years of education, life experience, writing, and revision. A novel worth writing hardly takes thirty days. It’s closer to thirty years.
So when Roscoe said that his salon students’ ransom was his own personal list of rules, I began to see just what the problem had been for the past couple weeks. Some formulaic list goes against everything Roscoe stands for.
The thing is, Clarke’s not the only student who’s regressed since the quake. There was a time Roscoe was churning out some damn fine writers from the salon. One was accepted into the prestigious Iowa program, several have had their stories published in respected literary magazines, and most have carried Roscoe’s recommendation with them into creative writing or English programs at good universities. Lately, though, the quality of all the students’ writing has plummeted, and no one seems to be learning from their critiques. Apparently, they came to the consensus that if Roscoe wants them to hand in decent writing, they deserve a starting point, something solid they can refer to.
When they first asked for this list, and he said no, that’s when they started demonstrating. First came the picket line in front of Roscoe’s house. Of course, all of these people have school or day jobs, so the only time they could come together was at night, but since no one could read their signs in the dark, no one knew just what their cause was. They did manage to get Roscoe’s attention one night, though. He invited everyone in and held an impromptu salon to correct the picket signs’ spelling errors and inexplicable overabundance of semi-colons and “whom.”
Then the prank phone calls started, which Roscoe had told Mrs. Creaverton about last week. “Yeah, dude,” a man would say, “this is Shakespeare. You know, the William one? Calling you from the great beyond. Yeah, I just wanted to say that I had a list of rules and that’s how I wrote all those stories . . . uh, plays, I mean.”
They got flustered and hung up soon after that, when Roscoe started asking questions about Falstaff and symbolism in Troilus and Cressida.
All of this, Roscoe explained to me while Clarke went up to order some hot chocolate. My guess is it’s the first ransom that’s ever been delivered by a guy who then asked if he could get coffees for anyone.
I said to Roscoe, “You know, with this regression or whatever it is, you might have to make allowances you wouldn’t normally make. You were used to dealing with the next Donna Tartts and James Baldwins. None of these people is a professional or academic writer to begin with.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Last week one of their protagonists ‘drugged himself right up off the floor.’ Now, unless that meant he scored some really good weed, you don’t need to tell me I’m not dealing with professional writers.”
“You just made my point,” I said. “Yes, okay; a list would clip the wings of a writer who’s moved on to more substantial critiques. But maybe here it’ll do some good. Give ’em a stepping stone.”
“And just what would such a list look like? ‘Number one: learn the past tense of drag’?”
“Do what you always do,” I said. “Instead of zeroing in on the picayune, give them the tools that will help them in a broader sense. So they’re stuck in this fog right now. So what? Regardless of that, they’re here. They’re dedicated. They show up, looking for help. They’re not pretending they’re these great authors. But they want so much to become great. They want to work hard for that. It takes a lot of guts to pour your heart into a story, admit you need help to make it better, and then work hard for that.”
Roscoe’s scowl had yet to lift.
I rolled my eyes, and resigned to the more obvious argument. “Okay, they’re paying you. If they stop, who’s gonna supplement your pension?”
This, he seemed to ponder.
Clarke came back in the room, trying to sip cocoa through that little mouth slit in the ski mask. Roscoe said to him, “All right. Why don’t you tell the others they don’t have to stand outside freezing anymore. I’d like to talk to you all.”
Hesitantly, Clarke peeled the ski mask off. “How’d you know they were outside?”
“Deductive reasoning,” said Roscoe, “based on keen observation. We’re going to study a Sherlock Holmes story in the near future. I think a lesson in observation is needed.”
Before turning to go out the front, Clarke pointed at Roscoe and said to me, “This guy’s so good.”
“He really is,” I said.
There’s a back entrance to the Riverview Room with a ramp for wheelchair access. For the past few minutes, the whole salon had been on the ramp, pressed up against the panoramic window. One young woman, Allie, was in front, shielding the glare from the interior lights with the Strunk & White.
I said to Roscoe, “I’m glad you’re being flexible on this.”
He said, “My wallet gives me no choice in the matter. You’re right. They pay. I can’t lose them, and I can’t afford it if they give me bad word-of-mouth.”
But it was more than that. I know my little speech got to him. He loves the writers in his salon. He loves their drive. They stay up late, they get up early, they change jobs and living situations to better support their dreams of becoming good writers. Anyone can write. Practically everyone who’s ever written “Chapter 1” at the top of a page has been writing stories since they were a child. But the members of the 30 Years salon, even in this strange altered state they’re going through right now, don’t just want to write; they want to write well, and they know they’ll get there with guidance from a teacher like Roscoe. While they may fight him at first blush when he critiques their work, they always come around to his advice. They always work even harder right after a critique, in part to prove to Roscoe, and to themselves, that they can write. Roscoe respects them for that. His heart embraces them for that.
Besides, even if he didn’t care a whit about anyone like he’d have us all believe, bad writing drives Roscoe insane. He’ll do just about anything to rid the world of it. It’s like the princess and the pea. Stick some pulp under his mattress and he’ll actually feel misplaced commas poking up at him. He’ll be tossed and turned by lousy sex metaphors and clichés tearing at each other’s bodices.
Pretty sure that paragraph would keep him up. Maybe I should grab a copy of his list too.
Sketch No. 9: Round Table Rules: A Study
After the group came in and got drinks and sat down around the table (and Roscoe’s brand spanking new Elements of Style was handed to him), Roscoe told them all to take out their notebooks.
“As requested,” he said, “off the top of my head, with absolutely zero time to prepare, here are my top ten rules of writing. Number one–”
“Ah,” said Clarke, raising his pen and cringing a little. “I don’t think it should be ten.”
“You have a problem with ten?” said Roscoe dryly. “Ten? The perfect number, the number of the universe, the completion of all, symbolically pregnant ten?”
“Yeah, exactly, man. It’s too establishment,” said Clarke. Others nodded. “We’re artists. We’re offbeat. We’re outside, looking in at all of you.” He swept his arm to indicate anyone not at their table.
Violet, passing through just then, muttered, “Which is why all of us turned off the lights and pretended we weren’t home, oui?”
Clarke didn’t seem to hear her. He stood, his impassioned speech compelling him to rise. “We are removed from the masses and everyday flashes of media, entertainment, and business as usual. For it is only from our lonely perch that we may cast a creative eye upon the other, and sing out that which we observe: our triumphs, our failings, our most human condition.”
Violet and I shared a look of shock. Roscoe opened his mouth but stayed silent a moment, before uttering, “Clarke, that was profound. Really reflect a moment and try to hold on to that level of inspirati–”
Clarke’s phone buzzed on the table in front of him. “Yeh-hay! Ebay sneakers are mine. In your face, SneakyFeet73!”
Scowling once more, Roscoe said pointedly to him, “And is SneakyFeet73 also removed from the everyday flashes of business as usual?”
“Psh,” Clarke blew through his lips. “He was removed from this one.”
Roscoe dropped the torch he’d carried oh-so-briefly for Clarke’s muse. “If not ten, how many rules do you want?” he asked the group.
Allie spoke timidly into her long hair, which she twisted close to her mouth. “How about nine and a half rules? Halves are edgier.”
“I don’t know how half a rule would work,” said Roscoe. “‘Do unto others’? ‘Don’t look a gift horse’?”
“Be imaginative,” said Allie. “That’s what you’re always telling us.”
This advice actually seemed to soften a few of Roscoe’s hard lines. “Touché, Allie. Touché.” And then he listed his nine and a half rules, which I copied down verbatim just in case I could talk him into printing them up as this week’s To-Go. (Spoiler, I did talk him into it, and you can check out all the rules beneath this post.)
Since tonight’s session started late and drove itself a little off course, when he was done with the rules, Roscoe suggested that the group spend the rest of their time looking over the pages they’d brought to share, and finding weak spots where they could apply the rules. Clarke got up and came over to Roscoe’s chair, and shook the professor’s hand.
“Thank you,” said Clarke. “I’m sorry we picketed your house and called you at two a.m.”
“Oh, Clarke,” said Roscoe. “I’m sorry you picketed my house and called me at two a.m. too.”
“I think those rules are really going to help us, though. They were, you know, meaty,” said Clarke. “So, next week are you gonna cover, like, parts of speech and stuff?”
Roscoe handed him the copy of Strunk & White. “Why don’t you hold on to this awhile longer?”
“Cool,” said Clarke. He held it tight.
“I meant read it.”
“Oh.” Clarke saluted him with it. “Right-o, moan cappy-tain.”
From the next room, Violet groaned.
A little after nine, once everyone had left and the cafe was closing, Roscoe had his head down on the table. Mrs. Creaverton walked by with a push-broom. “Rough night?” she asked him.
Since he didn’t pick up his head, it was impossible to know for sure, but I’m pretty sure he whimpered something about tossing himself from the back ramp into the Housatonic.
Mrs. C ran a comforting hand over his hair, smoothing it back. She did this several times. He became completely still, as though afraid any movement on his part might disturb the moment. When she patted him on the shoulder and continued cleaning up, he lifted his head. I laughed to myself at his smile, which was this adorably doofy thing most people get when they’re in that perfectly toasty spot between sober and drunk.
As she walked away, Mrs. C said to him, “I’m sorry it was such a tough one for ya, hon.”
“That’s okay,” he said, touching his head and running his hand over the spot where hers had just been. “Totally worth it.”
The 9 ½ Rules of Writing
by Roscoe Belesprit
1) Read. Study good novels. Start with major award winners and classics, and go from there. A bestseller does not necessarily a good novel make, even a New York Times bestseller. We all love the New York Times but, let’s be clear, we know more about how sausage is made than we know about what goes into the Times’ formula for choosing their more obscure “bestsellers.” Read these good novels slowly enough so that when a phrase tastes particularly luscious, you savor it, and discern just what about its flavors delights you. Look up words. Absorb it all, from subject matter to the mechanics of the writing. But also read your own novel. When you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time to read it again, and again, and again, until you’ve revised and polished all you can. And if you’re finding that you don’t want to read your story over and over, you’re tired of it and it bores you, that’s a pretty good indicator that something’s wrong and you either need to start again, or move on to your next idea.
2) Find your writing’s “Remember when” moments. Each chapter should have one: a character, an idea, an event, an exchange that is memorable. Imagine your characters sitting around reminiscing one day about the time of your novel. Each chapter should be interesting enough to make someone light up and say, “Oh, and remember when…”If you can’t find this moment, try reexamining your characters’ goals in the scene, and clarify them. Remember: in every scene, your protagonist must have her goal, and her antagonist must present some level of conflict to that goal.
3) Be fearless. This means to chance the unlikable. Don’t confuse this with shock value. Mass audiences like shock value. Ergo, if you’re writing shock, you’re not being fearless. Fearless means to take on the subjects no one talks about, or to address subjects from a new viewpoint, one that may not be popular but is honest. Create characters who are not devoid of morals, but who have conflicting morals. Create heroes, but imbue them with flaws. Make them stand strong against injustice when most folks shun them for not going with the flow. This is harder than it seems. We want readers to relate to our heroes, to like them. The trick is making them relatable yet inspiring at the same time.
4) Take reputable college-level courses in literature. Audit, if need be. For a novelist, courses in literature are more important than courses in creative writing (though you should have a few of those too). If you do decide to enroll in creative writing courses, research the instructor first. What has she written? Where else has he taught? You don’t want someone who will take your money and give you nothing but empty praise in return; and you really don’t want someone who is just as inexperienced with the written word as you.
5) Get down to business. Too much education is almost as bad as too little, and you don’t need your MFA to write good fiction. The classroom is a conventional, safe zone; therefore, it can be a dangerous place for those looking to make a living at the unconventional craft of writing. Novel writing in the real world bears absolutely no resemblance to writing in the classroom. It’s a business, and you don’t get an A unless someone thinks you can earn them money. So learn your basics, get out, write, and then revise revise revise, until you get good and salable.
6) Fight the temptation to consult writing guides at every block. Magazines, blogs, the “References for Writers” section at the bookstore are good for beginners, but you don’t keep reading Dick and Jane after you’ve mastered chapter books, do you? They will keep you stunted if you let them, and they can distract from your own journey to find what works for your story. If you really need a refresher on the do’s and don’ts, visit your library’s fiction section and refer to Rule #1.
7) Learn from constructive criticism, and remember no one’s ever too good to learn a thing or two. But also find constructive critics. This can be quite the challenge. Some readers might be afraid of hurting your feelings. Some might feel obligated to find so-called problems with your manuscript (because, hey, you asked for it), and so they criticize what would have been just fine if left alone. Some might make a living off critiquing. It’s possible to spend more on a professional editor than on a car. And by no means should you seek out strangers whose literary purview extends only to the fifty-seven vampire romances they’ve self-published and priced at $.01 apiece on Kindle. Screen your readers. Be picky.
8) Value yourself. Value your work. Some novelists want so badly to be published that they believe the nonsense about exposure being just as good as a traditional publishing deal. Bull. Does a surgeon give away bypasses? Does a CEO work for free just to get his company’s name out there? Following your passion and getting paid are not mutually exclusive unless you treat them as such; and if you value your work at practically nil, so will everyone else.
9) Don’t give up…on any of it. Revising stories, creating characters, chucking characters, outlining, not outlining, querying one way and then another, following up, throwing out whole novels–try it all, until something clicks. And even if it does click, never be closed off to new possibilities.
9½) This is inherent in every other rule: observe everything. As a writer, this is a big part of your job. Observation can pick the lock of any secret. Secrets of the human condition, secrets of society, secrets of the universe. While others jostle the knob of such unyielding doors, you find a way to open them, and you invite your readers to come inside with you.