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Because, back in the day, my early days, phone numbers weren’t all numbers. We had exchanges, like CRestview, BRadshaw, HOllywood, OLeander, NOrmandie, and so forth, and a phone number would be listed using the first two letters of the exchange name, plus some numbers. In Los Angeles, in the 1950s, that looked like CR 5-5555. Or, BR 2-2222. If you were saying your number, you would say the exchange name, i.e., “My number is CRestview 5-5555.”
Back then phones had rotary dials, not buttons, and two or three letters were assigned each number, just as on phone key pads now. (Note that “dial” has persisted as a verb when we speak of using the phone, i.e. “drinking and dialing,” or “dialing for dollars.”
Rotary phones were still the standard when technological advances rendered the old exchanges obsolete in the 1960s. The old two-letter exchange designations converted to all numeric. “CR” became “27,” and the phone number, 275-5555, or, you might be assigned a new number. So, why didn’t the alpha disappear as soon as the all-numerical conversion was completed?
One good reason was that our phones were hardwired into the wall. Until the late 1970s, if you wanted a phone installed, you had to call the phone company and arrange for a man (and it was always a man) to come out and stick it into the wall for you. This often meant taking a full day off work. To have a phone removed, same thing. Pain in the butt. Once you had a phone installed, that phone stayed installed until you left.
During the 1970s, rotary dials gave way to push-button keypads, but the new keypads had letters, just like the old dials. And then a big change came, about 1980, when telephones were freed from being hardwired. Yes! You could now go down to your local PacBell (or other Bell) store, buy your phone, and plug it in yourself. This did involve one more visit from the phone company to install the jack, but still, a big improvement.
Toll-free numbers (like 800) had started appearing in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until around 1980 and the breakup of the phone company that toll-free numbers became cheaper, and affordable for smaller businesses. Along with that, it became possible for local businesses to afford a vanity phone number, one that spelled something out on the alpha keypad, something customers would remember. Enter 1-800-GET-CASH, 1-800-4MY-TAXI, 1-800-GOTJUNK? We needed letters to dial, or punch in, those numbers.
The 80s brought answering machines, the first car phones, personal computers, the internet, and email. Then, in the early 90s, people began to send text messages.
Some people, that is. Not me. I got my first cell phone around 1995. It weighed about as much as a small brick, and came with a big, rechargeable battery that was good for about one and one half phone calls, before it needed to be recharged. And even when I traded that in for a text-enabled phone, there was no keyboard. In order to text, you had to switch to alpha mode, and then punch a number two or three times to get the desired letter. Good thing those letters were still there, right?
Within a few years, phones grew mechanical keyboards. I had one…I tried to find it just now, out in the garage, in my Electronics Graveyard, but couldn’t. A tiny, but full, keyboard slid out, and it had buttons the size of pinheads. And then there was the Blackberry, where texting really took off. Then, a little over a decade ago, the smart phone, which comes with a virtual keyboard, and a keypad, but still with its alphabet. The only use remaining for them is to dial (there’s that word again) those vanity toll-free numbers.
I suspect the alpha days are numbered, though. My Apple watch has a number keypad, but no letters. No doubt an Alexa or Siri-type solution is just around the corner for those vanity numbers, and all we will have to do is say the name of the business to be connected!
Four years ago, I decided to take a break from blogging. Dozens of times since, I have considered picking it up again.
During my extended break, things have happened. Our daughter went to grad school and got a real job. I had my thyroid out. We’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, London, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki, among other, less exotic, places. I’ve had two stories published online (Sockdolager and Allegory), and another to come out, soon, from the venerable print zine Tales of the Unanticipated. We had a long-lived pet cockatiel die, and adopted a new one. None of these events disrupted my schedule enough to keep me from blogging, and yet I stopped dead, as suddenly as if I’d fallen into a sinkhole.
I joke that laziness stopped me, but that is untrue. I would not describe myself as driven, but I would say I’m a pretty reliable plodder…the sort of person who does laundry on Monday and pays bills on Tuesdays, and writes very nearly every day. I’ve gotten stuff done, just not blogging. I might cite perfectionism, and that would be closer to the mark. I want everything I write to mean something. You know, there’s so much stuff out there. Lots of blathering. Most of it doesn’t mean much of anything, nor does it seem to have much of a purpose. And while “meaning” and “purpose” are different concepts they go together for me. Meaning is always useful, and that which has purpose means something.
I don’t know which things I write will end up meaning something to someone, so perhaps, “meaning” and “purpose” are concepts that need to be considered. My posts don’t get a lot of response, but I am grateful for the responses I do get, and am a bit amazed to still get the occasional comment after a four-year hiatus. Apparently there is occasional meaning here, but I can’t predict when or where or for whom.
I’ve been mulling over how the need for meaning and purpose can throw a stranglehold on a person ever since reading the second book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, A Closed and Common Orbit. In it, the AI protagonist tells us that animals don’t have a purpose. Human animals, however, are obsessed with the concept of having a purpose, of searching for the meaning of their lives. With that bred into their very souls, they have programmed their AIs to be purpose-focused as well. AI Sidra finds herself needing to re-invent herself to survive. Re-inventing oneself involves lying about one’s past, but she is programmed only to tell the truth. In figuring out how to undo her own programming, she comes to recognize survival, friendship, and love as purpose enough.
The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.
In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.
Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.
Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.
The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.
That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.
I’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.
Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.
The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)
These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson. I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.
And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.
There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.
These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.
There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:
- Proper sleep and diet
- Some minimal socializing
There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:
- Baking cookies
- Cooking Christmas dinner
- Holiday Decorating
- Gift Wrapping
- Parties and large social gatherings in general
- Sending Christmas cards
All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.
The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.
Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.
I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.
Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.
Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.