Friday, February 22, 2013

Dolls Behaving Badly

Enjoy this excerpt from Cinthia Ritchie's Dolls Behaving Badly. If you like it, leave a comment and purchase a copy. Links can be found at the end of excerpt.
Thursday, Sept. 15

This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.

I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.

I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.

I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.

I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.

I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.

Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa and plopped down to watch  Oprah on the cable channel.

What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.

Most of what she said was New Age mumbo-jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.

She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook, she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought-provoking actually happens.

“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”

I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.

This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to Write Fresh Dialogue

This week Cinthia Ritchie, author of Dolls Behaving Badly, gives us some hints on writing dialogue. Come back tomorrow for an excerpt from her work.

Back in graduate school, the worst insult a writer could inflict on another was that their dialogue was forced or stilted.

Bad writing was one thing. Bad dialogue, quite another. It insinuated that the writer had failed not only in his writing but also as a listener. It implied that you were hopelessly unaware or socially inept.

It was a double-whammy.

I wasn’t immune, of course, and I sat in the stilted dialogue “hot” seat more than once, cringing and shuffling my feet and wishing I had studied accounting or biology or one of those studious sounding subjects like psychics or chemistry.

Years later, I often think of those words as I’m writing dialogue, and they still make me cringe.

Because, face it, writing dialogue is hard. People in books don’t speak as people do in real life, since we don’t spend our days advancing the plot forward. We have no idea that we are part of a plot. Real life isn’t like that.

Writing is. And dialogue is the heavyweight of the story, sweating under the burden of multiple tasks: emphasizing character interaction, highlighting situations and moving the plot forward. It also controls the pace and tension. Every dialogued word holds double, and often triple, meaning. If it didn’t, it probably should be written as straight text.

But how does one write realistic dialogue?

First, listen to people talk. Very few of us speak in full and proper sentences.

Imagine writing this: “Andy, please set the table for dinner, and don’t forget the china plates my grandmother left me in her will.”

Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that sentence, but there’s nothing great about it, either.

Try this instead: “Andy, can you set the table, and don’t forget Gramma’s plates.” That’s more of how we speak in our real lives.

But wait! Didn’t I mention earlier than dialogue can’t reflect real life since it’s obligated to hold so many nuances?

I did, which is why I advise creating tension by inserting small slices of narrative within a body of dialogue (and the operative word here is small).

“Andy,” she growled, “please set the table, and don’t forget Gramma’s plates.”

Or, “Andy, please set the table,” Jane said, cradling her head in her hands. “And don’t forget Gramma’s plates.”

That still might not be great writing but it does do what dialogue is meant to do: Create enough tension to keep the reader guessing and ultimately, continue reading.

Other dialogue don’ts:

·         Using bad dialect or too much dialect/slang.

·         Using too many pause words such as “ums” or “you knows.”

·         Not breaking up dialogue with narrative (you know the heavy feeling you get when you open a book to find pages of unbroken dialogue? Don’t do to readers what you don’t want done to you).

·         Limit the use of “he said” and “she said.” Substitute with more active words: She yelled, he stuttered, she whined, he coaxed.

Dialogue dos:

·         Give each character a distinctive voice.

·         Keep dialogue fresh, fast and snappy.

·         Write from the characters’ hearts, not just their heads.

·         Keep the conflict alive by implying, not stating, the obvious and not-so-obvious

Of course, just as we sometimes say things we later regret, it’s inevitable that we will find ourselves, on rare or even numerous occasions, writing bad dialogue. When this happens, don’t beat yourself or your characters up. Apologize, make the proper amends, and move on.

Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist who lives and runs mountains and marathons in Alaska. Her work can be found at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, Memoir, damselfly press, Slow Trains, 42opus, Evening Street Review and over 45 literary magazines. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Fat Chance

Yesterday, we learned a few things about writing comedy from the hilariously comedic author, RJ Leahy. My review of his novel Fat Chance and an excerpt from the novel follow. (Unless otherwise noted, novels reviewed on my site were given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.) Leave a comment and tell us what you think.


Sean McDermott is a private detective in New York City, it says so right on his business card. It's on ok job, but it isn't as exciting as most people think, and that's fine by him. He makes it a rule not to get involved in active police cases or in any case where people are likely to get hurt--especially him. So why does the mob suddenly want him dead? Sure it's all a mistake, but dead from a mistake is still dead.

Taking advice from his friend, The Juke, he starts on a cross country drive to LA (what can I tell you, he has a few phobias, and flying is just one of them), and makes it as far as Mystic Falls, New Mexico before the borrowed Mercedes conks out. Mystic Falls? Think Green Acres--without the sophistication.

All he had to do was lie low and wait for the car to be fixed. A good plan too. It might have worked if only the local "character" hadn't turned up missing, with him as the prime suspect. Now if he ever wants to get out of this sleepy desert asylum, he's going to have to find her. Fat chance.


I gave Fat Chance five out of five stars. It is the best book by an indie writer I've read so far.

Fat Chance is a hilarious adventure from start to finish. Sean McDermott is a snarky New York detective who finds himself stuck in a small New Mexican town and forced to solve a missing person's case, in which he becomes the prime suspect. He meets a host of interesting personalities from the waitress at the diner who tells him of course he shouldn't have ordered eggs if he's allergic to peppers to the older Asian woman whose Cadillac has been altered to drive only under 40 mph to the mechanic whose name is Not Jim. The novel kept me up at night wondering what the oddball characters would do next. McDermott's dry wit is riotously funny, and the mystery keeps you guessing and has a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend Fat Chance to anyone who enjoys humor or a good mystery.


The red-haired woman was gone by the time I paid my bill and I made my way unmolested across the street to the gas station.  A red Jeep sat parked in the lot next to a rusted out green truck straddling a large oil stain.  I went into the garage and found the Juke’s car up on the rack.  A mechanic stood under it with his head deep in the machine's bowels.  There was a tag on the left side of his coveralls that identified him simply as Jim.
“How’s it look, Jim?” I asked.
There was a thump from the direction of his head, followed shortly by the head itself.  A tall, wiry young man, with a pate of thinning blonde hair dislodged himself from the car’s underbelly, rubbing his forehead.  “You talking to me?” he asked.
“Yes I am.  That’s why I call people by their name, so they know I’m talking to them.  Jim.”
He grinned and walked out from under the car.  “That makes sense, but my name’s not Jim.”
“Not-Jim, really?  What a funny name.”
“Huh?  No, I don’t mean my name’s Not-Jim, I mean it’s not…”
I tapped his nametag with my finger.
“Oh, that.  These overalls aren't mine.  They belong to my cousin.  This is his shop.  I’m just watching it for him while he’s gone.  His sister—-she lives in Albuquerque—-she just had a baby and he went to stay with her awhile to help out, what with her husband in jail again and all.  Anyhow, since he had these coveralls here and I was only going to be needing them a little while, it didn’t make sense to buy a new pair with my name on them, so I just wear his.  Never thought it would confuse people since everyone around here pretty much knows each other.  Of course you don’t, so I can see where you made your mistake.”
I scratched at an itchy growth that had just erupted on my arm.  That may have been the longest I’ve ever listened to a complete stranger.  I’m a native New Yorker.  In New York, any stranger who says more than three words to you, you don’t answer back.  You just throw them your wallet and run.
“Are you all right?” Not-Jim asked.  “Looks like you got some kind of rash.”
“Yeah, it came with breakfast. Look, my name is Sean McDermott and that’s my car. Any chance you know what’s wrong with it? And any chance the answer doesn't involve a family member?”
“Sure I do,” he said, beaming.  “Don’t see many Mercedes around here.  That’s what I thought when I saw your car with the note on the windshield.  I thought 'wow’, don’t see many Mercedes around here’.  But I figured your note gave me permission to take a look so that’s what I did.  Didn’t take any time at all to figure it out.  Actually, it was the first thing I checked after reading your note about the engine sputtering.”  He gave me a grin that mirrored the desert he lived in—vast and empty.
I waited, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to say any more without some prodding.  “Please go on.  I’m spellbound.”
“It was your fuel injector.” he said, suddenly braying and clapping his hands.  “Isn’t it always something simple like that?”
Not being mechanical, I had no idea, but I didn’t see the harm in humoring him. “Always,” I agreed.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, nodding his head.  “Just a fuel injector.  Only take a few minutes to put a new one in.”
“Great, I’ll just go have a seat…”
“If I had a fuel injector for a Mercedes, I mean.”
I stopped itching for a moment.  “Uh-huh.”
“But I don’t.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“I could order one for you.  There’s a store in San Pedro that can UPS any part here in two or three days.  Want me to do that?”
I pretended to mull the idea over.  “Gee I don’t know.  Can I drive the car without a fuel injector?”
He laughed.  “Not hardly.”
“I didn’t think so.  Well then, I guess the decision has been made for us, hasn’t it?”
“Huh?  Oh, right.  I’ll go ahead and order the part.  Want me to let you know when she’s ready?”
“Either that, or I could just call you every few minutes.”
He squinted and pursed his lips, considering my suggestion.  Finally, he shook his head.  “No sir, I really think my way would be better.”
“Well, if you really think so.  After all, you are the mechanic’s cousin.”
“Yes sir, I’ll call you just as soon I’m done.  Where you going to be staying?”
That was a very good question. I hadn't seen much of the town before the car went to crap, but I doubted I'd be getting a room at the Hilton. “I'm not sure. I don’t suppose you have a motel in town?”
 “Nope.  The closest one is in Dulce, about ten miles north.”
“But there's an Inn.  The Lazy Cat, just up the road less than a mile.”
“You’re a wonder Not-Jim.  Think you could give me a ride.”
“I guess I could, if it’s not too far.  Where you going?”
I waited for the bray that never came and realized he was serious.  “I was thinking maybe the Inn.”
“Oh sure I can do that.”  He looked up at my car.  “I guess it’ll be all right for a few minutes.”
“It’s not like it’s going anywhere, is it?”
He slapped my back.  “Not without a fuel injector.”
“Right.  Listen, you got a can around here?”
“A what?”
“A can.  A toilet.”
“Oh sure, right around back.  It’s open.”
“Great.  Do me a favor, lower the car and get my bag out of the trunk will you?  I’ll only be a minute.”
The walk around the side of the building to the toilet was through waist-high weeds.  Apparently, it wasn’t a well-traveled route, which made me wonder if indoor plumbing wasn’t a novelty in this town.  I made it to the door with only a few bramble scratches and was reaching for the handle when the door flew open.  A pair of huge breasts, barely contained in a pair of well-worn overalls, blocked my way. High above the breasts sat a head, and it was smiling.
I jumped back. “Shit.”
The big head looked alarmed.  “Sorry, did I scare you?”
I recognized the woman as the one the waitress had identified as Fat Chance. She was a good half-head taller than me with a glassy-eyed grin showing a mouth full of mule teeth in various shades of off-white.
“Scared me?  No, I always say 'shit' when I enter a men’s room.  It motivates me.”
She nodded slowly, as though seriously considering whether that might not actually help.
“I'm kidding, you just startled me, that's all.”
“Are you sure?  Sometimes I scare people even when I don’t mean too, just ‘cause I’m so big.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.  Were people frightened of Mr. Ed?  No, you didn’t scare me.  Look, are you coming out or…?”
Her grin widened.  “Hey wait, I know you.  I saw you through the diner window.”
"Yeah, I saw you too. That’s kind of how windows work.  Nice dance, by the way.”
She laughed.  “I was waiting to have my Jeep looked at again and it was such a beautiful day, I just felt like dancing.  You ever feel that way?”
“Not since my days as a showgirl.  I don’t mean to press the point, but are you through in there?”
“Oh sure,” she said, but made no sign of moving.  “You’re new in town aren’t you?”
“Is this a survey?  Yes, I’m just passing through.  I’ll only be here a few days.  Now if I could just…”
“Well, welcome to Mystic Falls,” she said and extended a wet, dripping hand.
I wouldn’t have been more traumatized if she had offered me her own beating heart.  Hopefully, she’d just washed up.  That would be the logical answer.  But looking at her I got the distinct impression that washing wasn't much of a priority.  Was she more particular about her hands?  I couldn’t see past her, so I had no idea if the restroom even had a sink.  If not, what fluid had she gotten on herself? 
I decided not to take the chance.  The tides could change, land masses could rise and fall, she could grow another finger or lose three, but I was not going to shake that hand.  A dozen heart-beats later, the hand was still extended, she was still smiling, and a bead of sweat had formed on my upper lip.  I made a move to wipe it off.
Misreading my intentions, she suddenly reached out and grasped my hand in hers, squeezing it tight and forcing the unknown liquid between my fingers, completing the transfer of bodily fluids.  “My name’s Patty,” she said, “But people around here just call me Fat Chance.”
“How rude,” I managed to squeak out.  I pulled out of her grip and stared at my defiled hand in horror.  I didn’t know what manner of disease you could get from simple skin contact, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.  If there was no sink in the restroom, I would assume the worse and do what had to be done, consoling myself with the knowledge that great strides were being made in prosthetics every day.  I began rubbing my palm against my jeans.
“Oh I don’t mind. It's a funny name. Besides, I’m not so much fat as big anyway."
I gazed up from the vigorous abrading of my hand.  "Let’s call it a toss-up.  Look, Patty—can I call you Patty?  Patty, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, but my teeth are floating.  More importantly, if I don’t get to some soap and water soon, I’m going to have set my hand on fire, so do you think you could step out and let me in there?”
Her expression abruptly shifted from one of cheerful bewilderment to embarrassed surprise.
“Oh. Oh sure, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were trying to get in.” She stepped out and let me pass. “Maybe I’ll see you around later.”
I squeezed past her.  “Anywhere but another men’s room.”  I slammed the door shut.
Thankfully, there was not only a sink, but a full container of pink soap, which was only half full by the time I finished scouring my hand.  I had rubbed the skin raw, but at least I wouldn’t have to learn to eat left-handed. 
I finished my business and came around the building to find the red Jeep gone and Not-Jim sitting in the idling truck. There was no radio, but he was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and bobbing his head to the rhythm of some internal music. “Oh hey, there you are. I thought you fell in.”
I jumped in the cab, settling into a vinyl seat stained with something dark and unidentifiable. “Nothing quite so sanitary.”
He put the truck in gear and pulled out of the lot.  “So, where you from anyway?”
“New York,” I said, clinging to the door in an effort to avoid contact with the stain.
“Wow.  Always wanted to visit a big city like that.  What do you do there?”
I considered telling him I was the mayor, just for kicks, but I think impersonating the mayor of New York is a capital offense.  That’s not an officially policy of course, I understand it just happens.  I played it safe and went with the truth.  “I’m a private detective.” 
“No kidding?  So you ever solve a murder or anything like that?”
“No kid.  Mostly I do surveillance work.  Divorces, dead-beat dads, that sort of thing.”
“Oh," he said, and seemed disappointed.  I didn't blame him.  It was my life and I was disappointed.  I’d never intended to do this for a living.  I’d gone to college for Christ’s sake.  True, I changed my major with the seasons and never graduated, but I like to think the potential was there. 
"Bet you see some sad stuff huh?” he asked.
“Uh-huh, sometimes it’s all I can do not to break out in tears.  Which reminds me, I need to make a call."  I pulled my cell phone from my jacket pocket.
"Cool, a cell phone.  Always wanted one of those."
"Yeah, they're all the rage back home."  Instead of the usual menu, a 'no service' warning flashed on the screen.
"Sorry, I should have told you," Not-Jim said, "you can't get cell phone service out here.”
"So it seems.  Wait a minute.  If you can't get service, why do you want a phone?"
"Oh you know, just to have."
He was beginning to remind me of my nephew. Nice kid. He was going to MIT until he suffered a head wound skate-boarding.  Now we have these same kinds of chats. 
I really wasn’t in the mood for conversation, but I figured since the kid was giving me a lift, the least I could do was act interested.  “So tell me something, why is the town called Mystic Falls?  You actually have a waterfall around here?”
He shook his head.  “Nope, the closest one is the Nambe Falls, in Santa Fe.”
“But isn’t that like, a hundred and fifty miles from here?”
“Yeah, at least.”
I couldn’t figure out which was bothering me more, the itching, or the new headache that had just perched itself between my eyes.  “So if you don’t have a falls, why the name?”
“Well sir, not many tourists come this far north and the town really needed some extra money, so after seeing all the tourist money the Nambe Pueblo was getting from having its falls, the city founders decided to try and cash in on it.”
I tried one more feeble attempt.  “But you don’t have a falls.”
“Well sure, but by the time the tourists figure that out, there’re already here. That’s how we got our town motto.”
“And that is?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, but it didn’t help.  When I opened them, he was still there.  
“Besides, there’s all kinds of other things to do around here.  Take me for instance, I’m an arrowhead hunter.  Well, not just arrowheads but pretty much any kind of artifact I can find.  I spend most of my free time out in the hills looking for stuff.  It’s a blast.”
“Really?  And that’s what you do for entertainment?”
He nodded.
“Wouldn’t it be less painful just to take your own life?”
     He slowed the truck.  “Huh?”
"Nothing.  Don’t mind me, my possible death from anaphylaxis has made me a little grouchy this morning.  Why are you stopping?”
“We’re here.  I told you it was only about a mile.”
 Not-Jim pulled the truck off the road in front of a single level, dilapidated building.  The siding was gray clapboard, sun-bleached and pealing.  A torn and tattered awning partially covered a sagging porch that ran across the front.  
“What is this?” I asked.
“This is the Inn.”
I looked back at the building.  A carved wooden sign hung precariously above the screen door.  A painted cat, probably once bright yellow, but now faded like everything else, slept peacefully below red lettering which declared that this was in fact, the Lazy Cat Inn. 
“That is not an Inn,” I informed Not-Jim.  “That is an outhouse.”
He got out of the truck laughing and grabbed my bag from the back.  “Naw, it’s the Inn.  The outhouse is in the back.”
With little other choice I followed him up three rickety steps and through the front door.  The foyer was nothing more than a small room with a desk and table.  A large black woman sat with her back to us in an easy chair watching TV, her head resting on a white doily.
"Morning Casual," Not-Jim said.
The woman nodded slightly. "Mornin'", she answered, not bothering to turn around.
"Got a man here needs a room for a few days."
"No pets," she said, her attention still focused on the television.
I considered the sign above the door. "What about cats?"
"No pets."
"Right, no pets."
The TV show segued into a commercial and the woman rose, turning her large frame toward us. "Well, how long you be staying?”
Not-Jim answered.  "Just a couple of days, maybe three.  Just till I can get his car fixed.”
"What's wrong with your car?"
"Apparently it needs a new fuel injector," I replied.
She shook her head.  "Ain't no auto parts store in this town. He'll have to order one.  Take two, maybe three days."
"Yes, I think we’ve established that."
"Where you from?"
"New York."
"He's a detective," Not-Jim added.  “But he's never solved a murder case.”
"Is that a fact?  Well, you won’t be solvin' one here either.  We all god-fearin’, law-abiden’ folks.  Ain’t nothing needs detectin’ around here."
"Like I said, I’m just passing through.  Sounds like you're not exactly from around here either.”
“That count for detective work where you from?  No sir, I'm from Georgia, born and raised.  Still be there too if that fool husband of mine hadn't dragged me out here, rest his soul.  Been here goin' on thirty years and my accent ain't thinned a bit.  Georgia will do that to a body.  Well, we got a room available.  Seventy dollars a day.  There's coffee and muffins for breakfast and if you at the table by six you welcome to dinner.  Nothin' fancy, but you won't starve."
"Seventy dollars sounds a bit steep."
She narrowed her eyes.  "Sleeping outdoors is free."
"I see your point. By the way, is there a phone in the room?"
"Course there's a phone. You think you in the boonies?"
"The thought never crossed my mind, although there was some mention of an outhouse."
Not-Jim smiled sheepishly.  "I was just pulling your leg."
"Norma!" the woman shouted.  A pretty Hispanic girl in jean shorts and a pink halter top entered through the kitchen and leaned against the wall, loudly chewing her gum.  "Norma, is room three ready?"
"Cleaned this morning," she answered between gum clicks.
The woman turned back to me.  "We got four rooms.  You in number three, that's down the hall, last room on the right.  Only other guest right now is Mrs. Akihiro.  She a China woman in room two."
"Akihiro sounds Japanese."
"Japanese, Chinese, it’s all the same to me.  All I know is she come here from Texas for a few days every year to visit her husband."
"Once a year?  That’s what I call a long-distance relationship."
"Longer than you think.  Her husband don’t live here, he died here about four year ago.  Used to haul chickens from Dumas to Sacramento every month.  Fell asleep at the wheel one night up by the reservation and rolled his truck over a cliff."
She shook her head.
"Terrible accident; body parts was everywhere—-fingers, toes, wings, beaks.  Ambulance people tried to scoop him all up, but apparently it ain’t so easy as you might think—telling a chicken from a Chinaman, I mean.  Anyways, they got his weight off his driver’s license, picked up a hundred and thirty pounds of pieces and buried ‘em.  Now his wife come every year 'bout this time to pay her respects.  We don't serve chicken while she's here.  Hope you ain't got a taste for it.”
“I hadn’t really thought about…”
“Well good, I’m sure you’ll like it here just fine.  Norma will show you to your room."
I picked up my bag. "Thank you Miss..."
"Laye, but you can call me Casual."
"Excuse me?"
"My friends call me Casual; you might as well too since if you ain't a friend I don't want you in my place."
"Casual Laye," I repeated.
The big woman crossed her arms. "That's right."
A half dozen witty responses flashed through my mind, but all of them would have had me sleeping outdoors.
"Nice name.”
"Think so?  My fool of a daddy sure did.  Thought it was the funniest damn name he ever heard.  Signed that name on my birth certificate then up and left me and my momma laughing, with the door hitting him on the ass on the way out.  You want to know what it’s like going through life with a name like that?  I learned to fight before I could even write that stupid name—and fight good too.  I tell you, there are boys back in Georgia who still got to eat out of the left side of their mouths to this day.  Damn right.”
“Sorry I brought it up.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for.  Besides, I caught up with my daddy in time.  Took me twenty-two years to find that man, but oh I found him, yes I did.  He didn’t think the name was so damn funny when I left him though.  No sir, he didn’t think it was funny at all.”
“Uh-huh.  Look, if I’m not being too personal, why not change it?”
“Fool, do I look like I’m trying to steer clear of men at my age?   If that name makes them take a second look, then so be it.  I can use all the help I can get.  Anyway, Norma will show you the room.  Bathroom is across the hall; ain't got no outhouse."
The Hispanic girl pushed herself from the wall without taking her hands from her pockets.  “C’mon.  The room’s this way.”
I picked up my bag and followed her.  Not-Jim called out after me. 
“Don’t you worry about a thing Mr. McDermott, I’ll have your car ready in no time at all, yes sir no time at all.”
I waved back vaguely, still scratching and studying the girl in front of me.  She was obviously young—I put the over/under at fifteen—but you couldn’t tell that from the back.  In the race to adulthood, her ass had lapped her and was now waiting for the rest of the body to catch up.
She was small and compact, but with legs that were long and slender, or maybe it was just that her shorts rode so high on her that they looked long.  I was going to explore that theory in more detail when she stopped and leaned back against the wall, cutting short my inspection.  She smiled and threw back her shoulders, purposely accentuating the obvious.  She nodded to the door across the hall.
“That’s your room,” she said, gum still clicking.
I shifted my bag to my other hand.  “Thanks for all the help, but are you sure you’re cut out to be a porter?”
She rolled her eyes.  “I’m not a porter.  I just clean the place for Casual after school and on Saturday.  I’m only working so I can save enough money to get out of this town when I graduate.”
“And when will that be?”
“Two more years.”
I did a quick calculation and figured I’d been dead on for her age.  “Going anywhere in particular?”
She nodded her head vigorously, almost swallowing her gum in the process.  “Uh-huh.  California.  I’m going to Los Angles and be a actress.”
“Be an actress,” I corrected.  You have to watch for that.  Films are talkies now you know.”
"Very funny."
“It's the medication.  No, really I'm just messing with you.  I like your plan.  It’s a wonder more young girls don’t consider that.”
“Yeah, well my mom says I’m advanced for my age.  So where are you from?"
"New York, but I'm on my way to California, coincidentally, to Los Angeles."
"No way.  That is like so cool."
"Funny, I hadn’t really thought about it in quite those terms."
Her face broke out in a wide grin.  "Maybe I could go with you when you leave."
I smiled back as an image of the two of us together in the car flashed before me. I won't go into detail about the mental picture, but I will say that my conscience immediately bitch-slapped me.  And I deserved it.
"What happened to waiting for graduation?"
She swung her head and kicked the floor with her sneaker. "Well yeah, but by then I'll be old."
"True.  I hadn't considered that."
She leaned forward in what I took to be a suggestive pose.  "It would be a lot of fun," she said breathlessly.
"I'm sure it would be, right up until my inevitable arrest and ritual prison sodomizing.  No, I think you should stick to your original plan.  Get an education first, then take L.A. by storm, one casting couch at a time."
She straightened herself and walked close to me, close enough that I could smell her bubble gum.  At least I thought it was bubble gum.  It took me a moment to realize it was her perfume.  Who had the bright idea to dip girls this age in sugar?  "You think I'm so young, but I'm old enough.  You’ll see.”  She smiled.  “I need to get you some clean towels.”
“Clean towels?  Well now you’re just spoiling me.”
She turned and hip-swiveled down the hall, never taking her hands from her pockets.  Lucky hands.
The room was small but clean, the bed covered in a green quilt, probably handmade.  I picked up the phone and was almost surprised when I heard a dialing tone.  I phoned the Juke.
“Sean.  Good to hear from you.  In L.A. already?  You see Sharon?  How is she?  Did she like the present?”
“Relax.  I'm not in L.A. yet.  I’m in New Mexico.”
“Mexico?  Wow kid, you have one shitty sense of direction.  Hang on, I got a map.”  I heard a drawer open and the rustling of paper.
I laid my head in my hand.  “Juke…”
“Hold on, hold on.  Ok, here’s what you do: make a u-turn then head north.  If you keep the ocean on your left, you can’t miss California; there should be signs.  Call me when you get to L.A.”
“I’m in NEW Mexico, Juke.  It’s a state.”
There was a pause.  “I knew that.”
“No you didn’t.  Listen, your car broke down.  I’m stuck in a little town called Mystic Falls.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You never heard of New Mexico. I’m going to be delayed a couple of days.”
“What’s wrong with my car?”
“Nothing, it’s just a bad fuel injector.  I’ve got a mechanic working on it.”
“There?  Are you out of your mind?  They’ll be chopping it up for parts.  That is a fine precision machine.  It needs an engineer—preferably German.  I know, I know, a barbaric race but they still make the best mechanics.”
Talking to the Juke was often like taking a ride on a rollercoaster, and I was already dizzy.  “Ok, I can see this call was a mistake.  Listen, I’ll get back to you when I get to L.A.”
“All right, all right.  Just make sure you don’t come back in a low rider.  Oh, and don’t drink the water.  The last thing you need is Montezuma’s revenge.”
“I told you, I’m not in…” 
The phone went dead.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

This week my guest is R.J. Leahy, author of the hilariously funny mystery, Fat Chance. He writes on how to write comedy. I'd listen to him because his book proves he knows how what he's talking about. Come back tomorrow to see my review of Fat Chance and an excerpt from the novel.

“Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”

It’s an old acting cliché, but it could just as easily describe the difficulty in writing humor into fiction.  It’s easy enough to make people cry.  We’re all saddened by the same things: heartache, illness, death.  But humor is strikingly individualistic.  What’s funny to one person may not be to another (flipping through the channels one day, I happened upon a Three Stooges short that soon had me laughing out loud.   This earned a pained expression from my wife, one that could best be described as, pity).

And unlike the visual comic who has other tools available: facial expressions, pregnant pauses, and most importantly, other audience members to help push the comedy along (ever notice how much more easily you laugh when everyone around you is laughing?  Hence the invention of the laugh track), for or better or worse, we have only the written word to get our readers to smile.

But as difficult as humor is to get right, it is a tool every writer needs in his box.  Even the bleakest novel can benefit from a bit of levity, if for no other reason than to give the reader a break from the intensity.  Like everything else in writing, an ear for humor is developed from experience and practice, but you may find the task easier, if you follow a few simple rules.

1.)  If your character cries/laughs, your reader doesn’t have to.

Dialogue should be funny to the reader, not the characters.  The characters play it straight.  Only we, the readers, should catch the joke.

            “That’s him, that’s the one.  He hit me, Capt’n.”  Quig touched the growing lump on his head. “And hard, too.”
The Captain held up his hand. “How many fingers do you see?”
Quig looked down, kicking at the grass.  “Aw Captain, you know I’m no good at me numbers.”
“Aye.  Just checking.  Many a time I’ve seen a blow like that shake loose a few extra smarts in a fellow.  Don’t appear it did in your case.  Pity.”

Having a character laugh at something obvious is a classic case of, “hanging a lantern”—an annoyingly unsubtle way to point out to the reader that this was meant to be funny.
2.) Like perfume, humor should be discovered, not announced.

Tom:  I can’t believe we avoided stepping in puddles for six blocks, just to have a truck splash water all over us!
Mike:  I know.  It’s totally ridiculous!

Talk about hanging a lantern.  Never point out the irony or incongruity of a situation.  Readers should be able to figure it out themselves.  If not, you’ve missed something.

3.)  Don’t give us a stand-up routine.  Humor flows from the character’s interactions within the novel.

Too often, writers try to insert jokes into their prose.  This seldom works.  Humor should be a natural outflow of the character’s personality.  Is he sardonic, cheerful, introverted, stoic?  The type of humorous thoughts, actions and dialogue you attribute to him should be consistent with his personality.  That doesn’t mean he can’t step out of his comfort zone from time to time, but be true to the nature you’ve given him.
4.) Don’t forget your narrator. 

Unconventional similes and metaphors; irony and exaggeration; they can all be used by the narrator to add humor to a piece, either subtle or broad.  Hitchhikers Guide; Catcher in the Rye; Even Cowgirls get the Blues, are only a few of the works that use the narrator masterfully to convey humor and wit.

Which brings us to the final piece of advice:  Read.

Find those books that make you laugh and study them. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Melody in our Hearts by Roberta Capizzi

Yesterday, we read about why Roberta writes romance novels. Today enjoy an excerpt from her debut novel, The Melody in our Hearts. Please leave a comment telling us what you think.

The Melody in our Hearts

*** April 14, 2010 ***

When Valerie accepted to fill in for Dr. Moore on a rainy Wednesday night, she would have never imagined she would be faced with her two biggest fears: losing her best friend and walking into an operating room, both in one night.

It was close to midnight, and it had been a very quiet night so far, which was weird for the ER of a big city like Boston. However, she had to admit she was happy about it. She hadn’t been too pleased to find out, when she had been called in at the last minute to replace Dr. Moore, that she was the only surgeon in the ER that night. Ever since she lost that patient on her operating table six months ago, she had never been able to walk into an operating room again or pick up a scalpel. Just the thought gave her the creeps and was enough to cause her to have severe panic attacks, which was why she had asked to be moved to the ER, where she wouldn’t have to operate or be anywhere near an operating room. Everybody knew that, so why hadn’t they called someone else to fill in? Were they playing some kind of psychological game with her mind, hoping some bad casualty would be brought in, and she would be forced to go back into an operating room? Well, there was no way she would; they could forget it. Her surgical career was over, and nothing would ever make her change her mind about that.

She had spent the last forty minutes in the office behind the nurses’ desk, checking patients’ records and thinking of the lovely dinner in a posh restaurant she had given up when she had taken the call. Her best friend, Ryan, had come back to Boston the night before after being away for almost two months on a long European tour, and he had invited her to dinner, wanting to tell her everything about the places he had been. It had flattered her that Ryan had invited her instead of his gorgeous girlfriend, and she was glad that, in spite of who he was now and whom he was dating, their friendship was still as important to him as it was to her. She had missed him so much; ever since he had become a celebrity and started traveling around, she always felt as if a piece of her heart went away with him wherever he traveled. She never felt complete until he came back, but he had never been away for such a long time before. It had been really tough on her.

She decided to send him a text message, suggesting making dinner for him tomorrow night, but she had barely managed to write a couple of words before the doors to the hospital opened and two paramedics rushed in, pushing a stretcher with a man on it. She sprang up and ran to them, followed by Sharon, one of the elder nurses. When she reached them, Adam, one of the two paramedics, updated her on the patient.

“Male, thirty-two, crashed his car. He’s unconscious; the airbag has caused him head and chest injuries; he’s lost a lot of blood and probably has internal damage. He needs immediate surgery.”


The word rang in her head like an alarm bell: That man needed a surgeon, and she was a surgeon after all, but she knew she would never be able to operate on him.

“I…I need to call someone else.”

“Someone else? What do you mean? Valerie, aren’t you a surgeon?”

Adam was surprised. He had heard about what had happened a few months before, when she had asked to be moved to the ER; nevertheless, he would’ve never thought a doctor could really refuse to save a patient. Most of all, he would’ve never thought Valerie would be capable of such a thing: He had seen her at work, and she was great at what she did; seeing her hesitate like that just didn’t seem normal.

“I can’t,” she said, shaking her head and taking a step back. “Please don’t ask me to walk into an operating room again. I simply can’t do it. We need to find someone else.”

A wave of nausea and dizziness took hold of her body, just at the thought of being forced to walk through those doors and pick up a scalpel. She leaned back against the door frame.

Two nurses rushed toward them, ready to assist her with the patient, but when she turned back, they noticed the expression on her face and the fear in her eyes, so they both froze in place.

“Sharon, call Doctor Walker!” Valerie shouted, panic-stricken, and Sharon stared at her in disbelief: Doctor Walker was a neurosurgeon and lived only five minutes away, but it wasn’t close enough. She could see the man needed immediate surgery, and they couldn’t afford to waste any time.

“Valerie, by the time Doctor Walker gets here, the man will be dead already.”

“I said call Doctor Walker! I’m not going to lose another patient on the operating table; just call him now and stop wasting time!”

Sharon flinched at the tone of her voice: She had known Valerie as a surgeon for quite a long time now, from when she was still working in the higher wards, and she had never seen her lose control, not even under the most stressful circumstances. She had always thought that Valerie would make a hell of a surgeon; she was one of the few doctors she knew who had taken up the job as a mission, as a way to help people and save lives, rather than just a way to get money. But now, as she was standing there, her back to the paramedics, she looked like a scared puppy. Sharon was almost tempted to take her in her arms and pat her back soothingly.

“Doctor Walker’s not answering.” A nurse came out from behind the reception area, and they all turned to look at her. “I tried while you were talking; his phone’s switched off. He’s not on call tonight so he might be in bed already.”

“Then try somebody else, for Heaven’s sakes!” Valerie screamed, totally out of control now. “I can’t operate on the man. You all know very well I can’t do it, and we can’t let him die!”

“No, we can’t,” Sharon said, with the soft tone she always used with her kids when they needed to be reassured. “That’s why you’re gonna have to do it, Valerie. You’re scared now, I understand it, but you’re a good surgeon, and I know you can do it.”

Valerie shook her head, taking a step back away from Sharon and closer to the stretcher.

“No, I can’t. I just can’t.”

Her legs started to shake, and she had to lean against the stretcher for support; she just couldn’t operate and risk losing another patient on her operating table. One had caused enough trouble in her mind, and she was still trying to come to terms with it.

Then, as she looked down, she noticed the man’s hand sticking out of the blanket, and she saw a ring on his right ring-finger. The vision took a few seconds to register, but when its significance reached her brain, her blood went cold and drained from her face, while her legs suddenly turned into jelly. It was a Celtic ring, their ring. The symbol of their friendship they had bought together so many years ago, before Ryan had moved to Boston, and which he considered his lucky charm. The same ring hung from a silver chain around her neck, together with the shamrock he had bought her at Tiffany’s on her twenty-third birthday. She instinctively touched it, feeling it under her scrubs.

“Oh my God,” she whispered, as she took a better look at the ring on those long, pianist fingers. It couldn’t be him; there must be someone else who wore the same ring, who had the exact same beautiful hands. She immediately moved closer, and for the first time since he’d been brought in, she looked at his face, half-hidden behind the oxygen mask. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The paramedics and nurses temporarily disappeared, and when she removed the oxygen mask from his face for a second, tears welled in her eyes and her legs gave in.

“No, no, no, no!” she screamed, and when Adam grabbed her, seconds before she collapsed, she turned back and held onto him as if she were about to fall off a precipice and he was the only one who could save her. Tears started flooding her cheeks, and Sharon rushed to her, trying to understand what was wrong, and started stroking her back.

“What’s the matter, Valerie? Do you know him?” Sharon asked, although she presumed it must be so.

“He’s… my best friend,” she whispered, her voice cracking.

“Ryan?!” Sharon asked, knowing very well how important he was to Valerie. He had showed up at the hospital every now and then when he wasn’t touring or promoting his music, and she had always thought they were such a lovely pair, although Valerie had always insisted they were like siblings. “Valerie, we can’t waste any more time then. You’ve got to do it.”

Valerie shook her head, as her whole body was shaken by sobs, and she turned to Sharon, feeling like a child seeking comfort in her mother’s arms.

“I can’t. I don’t want to kill him!”

“You will if you keep waiting for someone else to come and operate on him, Valerie, can’t you see?” Sharon’s tone was soft but had a firm edge now, and it somehow helped Valerie to regain control of herself.

“You’re a surgeon, and you’re the only one among us who can save him. If you don’t do something now, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.”

“What if something goes wrong? What if he dies? I can’t lose him….”

“Then do something! You can save him, Valerie; you can do it. I have faith in you. You’re one of the best young surgeons I’ve ever met. And I mean it.”

Valerie sobbed, and suddenly the whole situation felt unreal, as if she were living in a sort of awful nightmare: Ryan was fighting for his life on a stretcher, there were no other surgeons on duty, and she was the only one who could do something to save him, but she was too scared. She had lost a patient, and she had given up on the surgical career forever, but if she didn’t do something now, if she didn’t manage to get over her fears, her best friend, the most important person in her life, would probably die, and she would regret it for the rest of her life. Would she be able to live with that horrible guilt?

But what if she operated on him, trying to save him, and she killed him? Would she be able to live with the remorse of having killed him? She wondered what would be worse: Ryan dying because she didn’t have the guts to pick up a scalpel and do what she had studied so hard for, or Ryan dying after she had done whatever was humanly possible to save him?

“Valerie, every second counts. You’ve got to make up your mind: What are you gonna do?”

Sharon’s voice shook her out of her reveries, and she took another look at Ryan, lying almost lifeless on that cold stretcher, his face covered in blood and scratches, his skin turning paler as seconds ticked by. No, she couldn’t watch her best friend die because of her cowardice, knowing that she could have done something if only she had been braver.

“Right, okay. Take him into operating room one; I’ll be right there. Sharon, please keep trying for Doctor Walker: I will need him for a neurological consultation anyway. Delia, go get the portable ultrasound machine. And would someone please call Doctor Fox and get him down here? I’m quite sure he’s in intensive care tonight, and I’ll definitely need a hand.”

Everyone immediately followed her orders, and when she met Adam’s eyes and saw his approving smile that indicated his faith in her, she suddenly felt she had made the right decision.

A minute later the whole team was in the operating room; Delia ran in holding the ultrasound machine, and Valerie immediately checked the situation. It looked bad, but she knew she could fix it if they all worked quickly enough.

She put on her lab coat, surgical cap, and white latex gloves and took a long, deep breath.


As she expertly made an incision on her best friend’s skin, she wondered what her life would’ve been like if Ryan hadn’t been part of it: Would she be a doctor now? Would she still be in Ireland, or would she have moved out anyway? Would she be the person she was now, or would she still be the shy teenager who never seemed to fit in? No, her life just wouldn’t have been the same without Ryan, and it would mean nothing without him now. With her hands stained in her best friend’s blood, she began reciting a rosary, praying to God that her knowledge would be enough to save Ryan’s life.