Welcome to the new digs.

If you typed in tonimcgeecausey.com and got here–to themisfitchronicles.com, then everything worked as it should. I’ve built this new site in order to consolidate my writing news, blogs, etc., with my photography and design/remodeling. There will be far more updates here than on the old place, which necessitated the move. I highly recommend xuni.com and Maddee and Jen over there for anyone who’s looking for someone else to build a site for you.

For me, though, my business has grown–both the writing business, and the photography (and, well, the remodeling, too). I’m still populating the galleries, so you’ll see a lot more new pics in the coming days, and more blogs (much shorter, unless I get on a tear).

And… I’m going to be giving away the THREE Bobbie Faye short stories, for FREE, in just a couple of weeks. They’re all done, formatted, and the covers are finished. We’re finishing a couple of minor details, and ONLY the SUBSCRIBERS to the newsletter will get them free. Plus other stuff, and news, in the future, about what’s coming up next, so tell friends, if you know someone who’d be interested.

Major thank you and hat tip to CJ Lyons (www.cjlyons.net) who walked me through the stages of getting this puppy set up, when some of it made me want to smack something, hard. Fairly frequently. She has been immensely patient, and a wonderful friend.

More updates, very very soon. Stay tuned!

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The sounds of Mardi Gras

There are voices in the Quarter–loud, laughing, arguing. People woohooing, still, which will likely go on ’til midnight, Tuesday, when the police declare Mardi Gras over, and en masse, make everyone get off the streets and go home. The voices surge and fall, a tide that will rise and ebb again toward morning. Everything from, ‘Ma’am, are you okay?’ to someone who fell, to someone yelling at someone else to meet them at Tippitina’s, to the Jesus contingent who are roaming around the Quarter with signs, alternately singing hymns or screaming at the people that they are sinners. Lots of people milling the streets, pausing often to catch beads thrown (by tourists, mostly) from the upper balconies of the hotels, and cops every other inch, the clop clop clop of horses hooves as they patrol on their giant beasts. Someone is singing now, slightly drunkenly out of tune, and funny, and helicopters keep making rounds overhead–several, from different agencies, keeping watch. Everything gets punctuated every few minutes by the crackle of glass bottles in garbage bags being thrown out of the Hard Rock restaurant onto the already overflowing garbage bins set perpetually on the curb.

It’s like living behind the scenes of the big top, knowing all the magician’s tricks, and enjoying the show anyway.

Benches at dawn in the French Quarter

It was a rare morning in the Quarter — it had rained, and so no one was moving around or sitting on the benches. The sidewalk washers had just finished the slate where I’m hunkered down to take this shot–those are suds you see under the bench. They wash the sidewalks and the Square every morning, about 4 a.m., and if it hadn’t been raining, I’m sure those benches would have been filled by six. As it was, I got lucky with the light coming in, and the fog that was starting to drop in the background.

a shot of the benches in front of the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter

Graffiti building at Ursaline and Decatur in the French Quarter

When I was out one morning with my husband in tow, I grabbed a bunch of shots of this building. The building itself is gorgeous–I have another version that shows all the stories above, and how beautiful the old brick really is. At the time, I thought the graffiti both beautiful and ugly. We are constantly battling the tags on our own street, and it was frustrating in a way to see so many tags on such a gorgeous old building. I’m all for street art when it’s really art, and not just someone who’s ready to piss on the world by damaging property (rather than art, which at least expresses something).

And then… as I developed the shot, I ended up loving it. It’s a mark in time for this building–which was, ironically, about to undergo renovations (and I hadn’t realized it at the time). Just a week later, orange plastic “wire” barricades were thrown up around the building and signs from the construction company were put up. (And those signs were almost immediately covered in graffiti, so they added a secondary fence.) I’m going to be curious how they manage in the future, once the building is re-done, to keep the graffiti off it, since it’s such an iconic place, now.

I’m glad I got the shot; that moment is lost in time, and no one will be able to go back there and get just that shot. It’s amazing how fast that happens here, in a place so old, you sort of assume it always stays the same, when there’s nothing further from the truth.

[singlepic id=16 w=964 h=600 ]

Be Bold

by Toni McGee Causey

(written mid-2013)

There was a time when I was terrified of the blank page. It had so much potential for mistakes, for making the wrong choices, for derailing into something derivative, and I’d freeze up. Second guess myself. Wonder. And lose time.

There was a time when I’d let what someone said affect how I chose to proceed. How I chose to live. I’d let an insult fester inside and I’d tell myself that they were right, maybe they were right, and I shouldn’t be a writer at all. I tried to do other things, tried to find another passion, because I thought there was nothing worse than wanting something so badly as to write something that would impact people, only to fail at it. Failing was humiliating. The potential of that humiliation, constantly thrumming in the back of my head, stole the joy from me when I did succeed. I’d always think, “Well, for now I’ve done this thing. These people think so. But they could be wrong. What if they’re wrong? And when all is said and done, I’m nothing? I’m insignificant? I should have spent my life doing something else?”

I’d have longer moments when I’d push on in spite of the fear, but it never really left me. I’d just battle it back, write in spite of the terror, and send it out to be read by my friends, or my agent, or, God help me, an editor, with something akin to an anxiety attack. What if I’m not good enough? What if this thing I labored over, loved, birthed… was a joke to everyone else?

As writers, we learn (eventually) to be thick-skinned, if you’re anything like me. We get hammered and beaten up and stomped on, and we know it’s a part of the natural selection process of throwing things out there in the world. There is no one book or movie that is going to capture absolutely everyone’s love. Nor should there be. There is no explanation why some things catch fire and others don’t. Try to figure that out, and that way lies madness. You may figure out what’s marketable, you may figure out one thing that’s a part of the Zeitgeist, but odds are, it’s something just beyond explanation. You may be a bestselling author, and your books snapped up, but will they be remembered? And really… does that matter?

All these things would swim around my head, slowing me down. I thought the blank page was hard. I’d let people who meant well derail me from my own self-confidence. I’d let an agent, who meant well, steer me the wrong direction because she thought she knew what would sell, fast. I’d let a lot of things slip in and make me doubt what was important. I was afraid of the blank page.

I misunderstood what was important.

I should have been more afraid of lost time.

We take time for granted. We all do it, it’s just human nature. We can’t live each and every moment like it’s our last—the world would be chaos if we did. We rely on the normal, the mundane being the mundane, in order to function.

But December 18th, 2012 changed that for me.

I held my brother’s hand while he was dying. Mike McGee is… was… my only sibling. We’d spent the last year-and-a-half together, almost every day, fighting his cancer. He had a rare gamma-delta T-Cell lymphoma. The survival rate was abysmal, and that was with a bone marrow transplant. But… in spite of the odds, he kept getting better. Faster than they had ever seen. He kept fighting off the impossible, and the doctors and nurses were constantly astounded. There was not a soul in that hospital that he came into contact with who didn’t leave him more encouraged in their own life.

They called him Coach. He was a fifth degree black belt, a Master, and had won an international championship in sparring, and a large number of other medals, many first place, and trophies, in international competitions. He had his own school, and had taught over twenty-thousand students, and was stubborn as hell. He was the kind of patient who was like a Pied Piper, going to every other patient’s room and encouraging them and, if they could stand up at all, getting them to walk a few laps with him because the nurses told them that walking helped them handle the chemo better and gave them all a greater chance of winning.

He kept beating the odds. He had a rare allele cell that made matching him almost impossible… and yet, they found a match. He came out of remission but they found the match just-in-time, and so he could have the transplant. He survived that, only to battle graft-vs-host disease, which is horrific. He was winning that, when he was diagnosed with a virus. He beat that, too, and they discovered the cancer was gone.

Gone. 100% gone.

He was going to go home in a couple of days. He walked around the floor, making trips to the exercise bike, where he rode forty miles in five mile increments. I can’t ride forty miles on a damned exercise bike in a day, and I was annoyed with him. Get that. Annoyed.

He woke up the next day with double vision. They were thinking a mild stroke, maybe as a result of the meds, maybe something else. Potentially, it could have been the lymphoma coming back, but it could also have been a fungal infection. They were saying, at this point, that he would go home, still, and would have to have some mild rehabilitation to help strengthen that left side, but he would likely be okay. He might not do spinning jump kicks anymore, but he’d still be able to teach.

They just weren’t quite sure what had caused it.

The next ten days were a blur. He got significantly worse each day. He started losing more of his balance, more of his eyesight, more of his hold on what was going on. He couldn’t stand on his own and I was lifting him out of the bed to get him to the bathroom, and holding him there so he wouldn’t fall. My six-foot-two-inch brother, one of the toughest human beings I have ever known, and I was having to lift him.

And he would say, “This is not going to get me. I am not going out this way.”

I want you to know there are worse things than a blank page. There are things so much worse than what a critic thinks of you, or what a reviewer says. There are things so far beyond that minor pain that when you live through them, if you live through them, you will look back and think, “Why in the hell did I let that matter? What the hell am I waiting for?”

Those last few days, he was in the ICU. He’d fallen, bloodied his head, and there was significant swelling in his brain. They had to do a procedure where they put a shunt in there to continuously drain off the fluid, and even that wasn’t working. They’d done a biopsy of the area of the brain where the lesions were—the things they had thought, at first, were just pools of blood from a burst blood vessel—and we were waiting to see if they were lymphoma or fungal infection. With lymphoma, there was zero hope. With fungal infection, the doctors thought there was a slice of a chance. What I didn’t understand then, but came to understand when one of the specialists took me aside and showed me his MRI, was that a fungal infection isn’t like what we think of when we say “infection”… something that can be cured and made to go away. It is something that’s actually killing the brain cells where it’s living, and as it grows, it kills more of the brain. Getting medicine in the brain in enough quantities without killing other organs from the high dosages is a Russian Roulette, and they had already tripled the dose of anti-fungal meds when he had had the first signs of a “stroke.”

Picture a hurricane, like you see it on the weather channel. Now imagine two interlocking hurricanes, barreling into the brain stem where autonomic reflexes—breathing, swallowing, heart—are controlled. That’s where these two infections were, and they were growing exponentially. They were fungal, and they were far outstripping the speed of the medicine.

The last day, he was on a respirator, blind, unable to move except his fingertips. The day before, he’d been able to move his hands a little, and when one of the doctors talked obliquely about how bad he was doing, and wondered what his wishes were, he grabbed my sweatshirt and tugged, and then waved. I didn’t understand he was waving goodbye, until he pulled his hands together… and it was very difficult for him to do… and clasping his hands in the traditional fist-in-cupped-palm formation, bowed his head.

I asked him if he was bowing out, and he nodded. mike b & w

He had two more strokes that night.

I talked at length the next day with five different teams of doctors. Every one of them wanted to do just one more thing, but when I asked, “Will this save him, will he have a chance to recover?” they each and every one of them had to admit that no… there was nothing they could do. He was now blind, almost unable to hear, unable to speak, unable to move, and was on a respirator. He’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live that way. He’d cried in my arms when the cancer came back. I had held him, remembering all the times we fought as kids, all the good times we shared, the two of us against the world, and he’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live like that.

Hardest promise I’ve ever made.

I held his hand when they pulled him off the respirator, and pulled the shunt out of his brain. I made sure they gave him enough morphine so he wouldn’t feel pain, wouldn’t panic, wouldn’t be afraid. I held one hand while my mom, and then my husband, when my mom could no longer watch, held his other hand, and I talked to him. He squeezed my hand three times… I love you… and I asked if he understood what was happening, and he squeezed once for yes. I told him so many things, watching the monitors as they showed him breathing slower and slower, as they showed the oxygen rate dropping. I knew that once it was below 88%, brain damage—permanent—would start, and it was the point of no return. Inside my own head, I was screaming for him to not have to go. I think that part of me will always be screaming. It doesn’t really shut off; you just get used to it.

I talked to him of how much we loved him, and how he’d been a hero to so many people. I told him how proud I was of him—how we all were, mom and dad and his nephews. I told him how much I was going to miss him, and that there was a karate school in heaven with a bunch of new kids for him to teach. He squeezed my hand at that one, but it was a weak squeeze. I told him it was okay for him to come visit me now and then (we both believe in ghost), but not when I was in the shower, because that would just be gross, and he smiled. There were a thousand things I wanted to tell him, and I had so little time, and I knew it, as he slowly changed color and his breathing slowed and slowed and slowed, and I felt the grip of his hand go lax, but I talked to him and talked to him, running out of time, until the doctor pulled me away and told me that he was gone.

5:55. December 18th. I learned that there was nothing else that mattered, other than living the way you want, living boldly, pursuing your dream. That’s what Mike always did. We didn’t always understand it, and he wasn’t always a success. He’d had failures and frustrations, but he had not quit. Not even when everyone told him there was no hope. Every single doctor there cried. The nurses cried.

And I left him there, knowing, strangely, that he’d lived his life fully and boldly and out loud, and he’d died knowing that he’d achieved most of his dream—to teach little kids karate. To teach them how to handle bullies simply by being more self-confident. To prepare them for the real world by encouraging them to get as much education as they could. He had students who’d gone on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, military, firefighters, etc. Whatever failures he might have had, he gloried in the successes.

I’m telling you now, live boldly. If your dream is to write, then write. Send it out. If it doesn’t work? Learn from it and try again. And again. And again. And however many times you need to try. Quit waiting for life to come along and give you permission. Quit caring what your peers say. Quit listening to reviews or bullies or people with opinions that you don’t respect. Learn from those you do, ignore the rest, and keep trying.

If you don’t love the writing? Do something else you love. Period. Don’t waste your life because you think you ought to be doing something because you told a few people that’s what you were going to do and now you dread it and hate it and it’s like pulling teeth to make the time to write. There’s nothing more glorious about writing than there is teaching or creating art in some other way or science or math or firefighting or being a police officer or being the best damned secretary you can be. Find your place, wherever that is, a place you love and LIVE IT, BOLDLY.

Time is the thing to be afraid of. Time is short. Mike didn’t know, that day that they told him he was going to go home in a couple of days that, in reality, he would die about ten days later. People in car wrecks each day think they’re going to have tomorrow, and then they don’t. People have heart attacks in their shower, or they’re standing and watching a race finish, and a bomb goes off.

You matter. Who you are, how you are in the world—matters. And don’t you forget it. You never know who you’ve helped. Someone like me.

Now go. Live boldly. Don’t squander this time you have. You matter. Remember that.

 

mike-and-me-at-hillcrest-drive

Comfort Reading

by Toni McGee Causey

COMFORT READING

Somewhere, there is a woman, sitting in a room, three days past a rape. Her bruises are turning purple and in a few more days, they’re going to be that greenish hue of ghouls. She hasn’t looked in a mirror, yet, but the swelling is starting to abate, and she can open her jaw without the execrable pain. The screaming is almost entirely in her head, now. The stitches hurting her remind her she’s alive and she’s not really sure why people keep telling her that, as if that’s a good thing. She’s not sure she wants to be. There’s been just enough time to get past the initial shock, the stunned chaotic business of having lost any sense of strength in the face of the world. She has had just enough time to be processed, and there should be a stamp for her forehead: file # 56449A.

Oh, people have been caring. They have been very professionally caring. All of the people, scads of them. They have been very careful not to touch her or move too fast. Everyone is diligent about addressing her respectfully, using her name, always making sure she feels like an individual. She can see it, see in their eyes how she is now different. The opposite of the person on the other side of the desk, where there are things like strength and weapons and confidence.

And right now, she is finally alone, though the moat around her has turned into an ocean, and the screaming, it just keeps on coming. For a few minutes, not having to deal with anyone else is good. A relief. But then there is the silence, and in the silence, it all happens again. She cannot close her eyes, because it’s all happening. Again. She cannot talk to someone, because the screaming will break free. Or the tears. Either may kill her.

She needs. Needs. To be somewhere else, other than here. Other than this thing she’s become. Needs to be able to step outside of her skin for a little while. Maybe a long long time.

She’s going to go to her bookcase and pick up something. Maybe it’s something where the woman kicks someone’s ass. Maybe it’s one where the good guy wins. Or the DA is brilliant. Or the girl comes of age and has confidence. Whatever it is, she gets to step outside of the bruises and the cuts and the broken bones for a little while. She gets to live a different ending. A different beginning. Have a safe place to be. And somehow, maybe, have a little hope that this thing, too, will pass.

Write a story for her.

~*~

Somewhere, there is a man, sitting in a hospital room. His wife has cancer, and he’s been there, every day, before and after work. Except now, he can be there full-time, since he’s lost his job. He’s spent days seeking help, trying to find a way to keep her there, to make sure she has the care she needs, when all of his benefits are gone. He’s filled out more paperwork in this one week than he’s done in a lifetime, and only barely understands half of what they’ve told him, if that.

He’ll try to get a second mortgage for the house. Sell off the second car, trade his in for something cheaper. The savings–such as it is, there’s not much with two kids–is gone. The retirement will go next, and that might last a month, at this rate. They don’t qualify yet for any sort of Medicare or help. His sister is at his house, boxing up stuff to sell. Doing it while the kids are at school, so they don’t see.

The screaming is almost entirely in his head, now. The anger, the rage, the helplessness. His wife’s asleep, and sleep is so rare with the pain she’s in, he can’t risk turning on the TV. She’s been in too much pain for him to leave the room, though.

He’s lost. He sees it in the eyes of the nurses, sees it in the eyes of the administrator. The woman running the accounts payable office. He’s become this other thing, this person he doesn’t know, and right now, for a little while, he needs. Needs. To be somewhere else but here. Someone else but him.

He’ll slump down in the God-awful chair they have in the room, punching a pillow that one of the orderlies found for him, and he’ll crack open that favorite paperback he grabbed on his way out the house this morning. For a little while, he gets to be a hero. He gets to fight crime or solve problems, save the world or save the girl. For a little while, he gets to have hope.

Write a story for him.

~*~
*I wrote this piece long before my brother was diagnosed, long before I was a woman in a hospital, watching him die, and the screaming in my head just wouldn’t stop. I needed. Needed. A place to go, a chance to escape, a world where the good guy won, the bad guy was destroyed, and people didn’t die of cancer. I still have days like that, and I probably always will, where I will only be able to remember holding his hand while desperately trying to tell him everything in the tiny minutes we had left, when that becomes so overwhelming, the screaming in my head will not stop.

Write a story for me.

Figuring Out What They’re Not Telling You

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes, it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing what is making them–those people who buy–say “no, not for me.” In the course of a discussion on Backspace (a while back), someone asked, “How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?” I had gone through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a “fix-all” sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help, I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they were not saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked. Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at those things and say, “What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this list?” This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the “gestalt” — the overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an advantage because it was easier to see it as a “whole” when trying to break it down. )

With that in mind…

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

“I couldn’t put it down.”

That whole “couldn’t stop reading” aspect is critical, especially if you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world) or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, “I don’t know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why.” In the book world, this translates into “I can’t get the marketing team behind it.”

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts (the romantic comedies), but they were “soft.” What the hell is soft? It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing?

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused. We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t think “soft” was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying “I couldn’t put it down.”

I’d get stuff like, “I love reading your scripts, I will always give your agent a read overnight for your stuff,” and “Your characters and your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s funny!” Which is great! But no one was saying, “Ohmygod, I had to pee and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you.”

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money.

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to guess what “soft” meant at the time (since this was a fairly common excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was the opposite of edgy. Well, not everything can be edgy, so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’

How did that apply to me?

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check
clear goals………………………. check
obstacles………………………… check

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.

True.

But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.
The problem with writing so “indirectly” is that for the first part of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested, but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily, or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations, but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper, more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work, but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s critical to the character.

So the new list:

interesting characters…….check
clear goals…………………… check
motivation……………………..check
obstacles…………………….. check

Then I looked at the “obstacles” and analyzed my writing, and I realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing.

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed, there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the story.)

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting that “I couldn’t put it down” reaction consistently, I knew I had stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat. But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the “I couldn’t put it down” sort of responses from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive “sold” line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything.

[I originally published this piece over on Murderati when I blogged there.]

Where Grace Lives

by Toni McGee Causey

[This piece was written during Hurricane Katrina. We had no electricity, but had a generator and, weirdly, DSL, but not a phone. I blogged–I have been online in one journal form or another since about 1998–and I wanted to try to capture the experience of going through a hurricane. My kids had been in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew came through and tore up the place, and I’d written nothing about it. I thought, and it’s hard to believe this was my point of view then, that Katrina would be mostly wind, a lot of downed trees, and maybe a few days without electricity, but I wanted to record it.

Little did I realize that I was going to have a blog that ended up getting picked up by several national news sources because I was one of the few blogs getting the truth out there before the national media figured out what was going on.

I post this today as both an urge to awareness–what’s going on in the Midwest with the flooding and in Northern California with the fires–but also as a thank you. I think, if you read the piece, you’ll see what a difference you made in our lives. Because you did.]

WHERE GRACE LIVES

I passed a man at a shelter the other day. He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans–it’s a hard life and it makes for no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.

He was sitting in a metal folding chair, slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.

When I looked back at that box, I wondered what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked up and caught my eye.

He had tears on his cheeks.

When I stood there, not sure what to say, he shrugged and said, “I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much.”

I mumbled something about it being the least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.

It would be one among many things I could not wrap my mind around.

On Tuesday morning, just a few days earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.

It was only the beginning.

We managed to get our TV hooked to the generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.

New Orleans was filling up.

At first, it appeared that no one nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet.”

There was a steady thrum of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet” was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they “only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in L.A. as fresh images of the ever increasing deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain. I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans.”

And we did.

There are images which will crush me and haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came, too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department could do nothing to stop it from spreading.

There are images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls, a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying, here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.

The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her location. He never knew if they were rescued.

There were the talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas, fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received – they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.

There are the now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime. People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on others.

Nothing but dying and suffering in the Big Easy.

The world changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space: churches, synagogues, and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge. Other states took in many thousands, and yet, thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and forever as LSU.

When you drive up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.

If you looked a little past the stadium on the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center, or P-MAC for short. It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the “Assembly” Center.

Its white dome and curved concrete ramps will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became an LSU student, years ago. Back before there was computer registration, we all “walked through,” battling and jockeying in lines on the floor of the Center to claim a “punch card” for the class we wanted — a slender 3 x 7 card with “chads” punched out, indicating the class for which we’d just enrolled. We’d take the cards and climb to the second level and walk around the mezzanine’s corridor, stopping at the various tables set up for each task required and then finally, on to pay our fee bill.

It was exciting to be a part of that crowd. It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a promise of something bigger to come.

After the hurricane, we drove onto campus and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated Mike-the-Tiger cage, a luxurious enclosure complete with rocks to climb, a waterfall, a very large pool and plenty of space to run and play. Next came the concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up toward a future.

Then there was the fence.

A fence.

There had never been a hurricane fence preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, “Ambulances” and had an arrow.

The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up. This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans.

There was a table set up with laptops so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes (which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were coming.

As we continued around the P-MAC, I could tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes — from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired church ladies.

We signed in at the non-medical volunteer station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.

When you walked inside the entrance, you walked down a slight slope until you reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC. Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.

There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters beating overhead bringing in evacuees from New Orleans, and a row of ambulances, sirens blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.

There was a M*A*S*H unit. In Louisiana.

In my university.

In the USA.

It simply didn’t seem possible, that there would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.

So many unbelievable things were suddenly true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines, without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.

In the USA.

It was at the LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful, and maybe so much worse.

Everything had changed.

We lost New Orleans, and many many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?

The business of surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to, if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children. In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans, and then they’d look at one another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”

We lost New Orleans.

My family and I walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.

The heartbreak kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.

We lost New Orleans.

A few days into the disaster, many more boxes showed up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here, and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes — they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. We got to bring them to the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.

I don’t know how to explain the affect these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things were needed by so many people.

Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much required, all of these supplies, it was more than that.

It was the message that we’re not alone.

The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my mind around why they were trapped in the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. I absolutely cannot fathom that these people were trapped because sheriff’s at the foot of that bridge prevented the people from crossing into their city of Gretna just because they didn’t want people from New Orleans in their city. And I can’t believe I live in a country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one did anything about it.

New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.

I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our Federal Government not “know” the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs prevented us from helping Americans? How?

How is it that more than two weeks later when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports from the outlying areas that FEMA still hadn’t shown up?

Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.

I don’t understand these things. I know I live in America.

Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America.

New Orleans was still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America.

And the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was staggering. It was like watching someone I love get gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet away, talking about golf scores.
So when I say to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling, writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you, because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.

We lost New Orleans.

We needed you, and you were there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.

You made a difference. A big difference. And we thank you.