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How Do I Write Effective Dialogue?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 25 March 2017 · 21 views

I got this question at my most recent reading and my short answer was that I'm not sure I do, at least in terms of writing that is ever going to be commercially viable. And that's because my dialogue apparently doesn't follow the rules. I tried following the rules for exactly one book. I didn't like it and it's strongly my sense that the people who read the book didn't like it. I got that sense when they said, "I didn't like it."

Let me back up a little. As you may or may not know, before I went independent I had dreams of going old school, legit, agented publishing with a publishing company. When I finished what I thought was the final draft of Harsh Prey, I started querying agents. I did that for two years, sending out multiple queries every month. Not a sniff. In fact, I literally got one actual human response. Every single other one was the dreaded auto reject that any aspiring author can practically recite from memory: "Thank you for your excellent submission. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time, but please don't give up. It may be just the vehicle someone else is looking for."

But like I said, I did get one human response and it was a highly encouraging one. It was actual
extemporaneously composed words from a human being who clearly had read the excerpt that I had sent. She spoke specifically of characters and scenes. A New York literary agent actually read something I wrote. She said she liked Harry and his voice but I needed to work on pacing and dialogue issues. That was great! I mean, it was terrible because I had no idea what she meant by that, but it was great because it was actual direction from someone who worked in the business. By the way, she also said I should feel free to re-query when I fixed the problems. I did. No reply at all. Not even an auto-reject.

So I found someone who knew what the agent meant: an editor. She explained that I was using too much detail in my descriptions, that people didn't want to know every single object in a room. And she said that my dialogue was too long too. She said that in commercial fiction, dialogue is chopped down and doesn't sound like people really talk at all. She said the idea isn't to re-create the way people actually speak, but instead is just to convey information and allow the narration do the heavy lifting. For instance, in some scene, I may have two people eating dinner and my version may look like this:

"Could you please pass the salt?"
"Here you go. You want the pepper too?"
"Sure, thanks. So, did you have a nice day?"
"Well, it started out rough, but yeah, it ended up great. That client I've been working with finally green lighted my proposal."
"Wow, that's fantastic! I'm excited for you."
"Thanks. I'm excited too."

The more commercially viable version makes the characters sound like Tonto to me:

"Pass the salt?"
"Pepper too?"
"Sure. Nice day?"
"Started rough. Got better. Won an account."
"Fantastic!"
"Thanks."

That is what a lot of commercial fiction dialogue actually sounds like, but I wasn't comfortable with it. I wanted to be commercially viable, though, so I gave in to the man, so to speak. Lots of short, terse, clipped dialogue that made the characters sound like they were only budgeted so many words a day and they didn't want to pay for overages. I chopped a full 12,000 words from my original manuscript. I had to admit that the pacing was a lot better. The story clipped along now, whereas it kind of sauntered before. But I still didn't like the dialogue. It just didn't fit my style. I'm a dialogue guy. I will often take a scene that was mostly narrative and convert it to almost all dialogue. But that's how it finally went out when I finally decided that two years of querying was enough and went independent.


People seemed to like it okay. In fact, some people really loved it. But the main negative comment (other than embarrassing proofreading errors that they pointed out and have since been fixed) was that the dialogue just didn't ring real. It was too short and clipped and terse. It didn't sound how people talk. So I went back and re-wrote all the dialogue in Kisses and Lies that I'd already written and made it the way I was comfortable with. I used full sentences and, in many cases, let the dialogue tell the story, while giving the reader a real sense of who the characters are by the way they talk. And the dialogue, especially between Harry and Dee, is my favorite part of all of the books. I hear the conversations in my head and record them verbatim.

Does that mean I'll never be commercially viable? Maybe. Maybe even probably. Will I change it? Probably not. If I got an offer from a publishing house that said they will definitely publish me if I alter it, I guess I would have to consider it. But I wouldn't definitely say yes unless their offer had a lot of zeroes attached to it. Like I said, Harry and Dee are two of my favorite people, real or fictional. And one of the things I love about them is how they speak with each other. It would be awfully hard to give that up.

So what do you think. If you've read my books, which version do you like best? I'd love to hear from you.

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Where Do My Characters Come From, The Final Chapter

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 18 March 2017 · 40 views

As I hope you know, I've spent the last three weeks answering the number one question I get asked at author and book events, which is, "Where do your characters come from?" I talked about Harry, Dee, and Jenn, and I want to wrap up this week talking about a few characters who are inspired directly by folks I know. 
The real-life Keith, Jennifer, Jonathan
and Maria, aka Pepper.


The first pair I want to talk about is the pastor of Harry and Dee's church and his wife. Their names are Jonathan and Pepper and they are based on two of my best friends, Jonathan and Maria Delgado. Jonathan is the Family Life Minister at my church and Maria, his wife, is known, mostly by me, as Pepper. I've talked about her before. She has become my unpaid personal assistant and designated beta reader just because she wants to be. And they are both my great friends. In the storyline, Jonathan performs the memorial service for Emma Grace and Pepper becomes Jenn's confidante after she is rescued from the clutches of her crazy father. They are pretty much exact replicas of my Jonathan and Pepper in that they are some of the kindest, most loving people I know. And, in a fun twist, the fictional Pepper knows an author named Joe Stephens. 

With my Dr. Mathur at a
Baltimore Orioles game.
The next character that is based on a real life person is Dr. Jennifer Schoenhut, who was Dee's therapist as she learned to cope with the loss of Emma Grace and then Harry's as he tries to overcome the guilt of maiming Jenn's biological father. Dr. Schoenhut, known affectionately to Harry as Doc, is based on the female half of my other best couple friends, Keith and Jennifer Schoenhut. Keith hasn't appeared directly in any of the books (yet), and the real-life Jennifer is not a therapist, but the fictional one is just like her in pretty much every other way. She's beautiful just like the real one. They have a baby named Samuel (my godson) and she is such a good listener who loves people enough to tell them the truth that they need to hear even when it is not necessarily what they want to hear. She helps Harry to become accountable for what he has done and to find his way to grace and forgiveness. It's that kind of compassion and love that I see from my Jennifer all the time. 

Finally, a character who is definitely based on a real-life person is Dr. Priya Mathur. Her from-the-real-world counterpart is Dr. Poonam Mathur. While my Dr. Mathur is not an OB/GYN (she studies infectious diseases), her caring manner and brilliance are definitely just like the fictional one. And she's so humble that she will disagree with everything I just said. But don't believe her. I may be prejudiced because I love her like a daughter, but I'm also right. 

So that winds up this portion of my series on reader questions. Next week: Where do I get my story ideas? 


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Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 3

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 11 March 2017 · 49 views

The cover of the book where we meet
Jenn Bezaleel, who becomes Jenn
Shalan. The young lady on the cover
is Courtney Stackpole, a former
student.
It's the third week of my series-within-a-series in which I'm answering questions I get at author events, specifically what inspires the different characters in my books. I've already talked about Harry and Dee Shalan, the titular characters in my Shalan Adventures series. This week, it's their adopted daughter's turn.

For those of you who haven't read the books, Jenn Bezaleel is a runaway that Harry is employed to find. I say Harry instead of Harry and Dee because Dee is dealing with an advanced and complicated pregnancy. But when Harry locates Jenn, who he's discovered has been sexually abused by her father, he calls in Dee to talk with Jenn, figuring correctly that she'll respond more positively to a woman than a man. Long story short, Dee and Jenn fall in love instantly, in the mother-daughter sense. It takes a bit longer for Jenn to warm up to Harry, but eventually, their bond is unbreakable as well. Along the way, we find that Jenn's stepdad, an old friend of her father, has been trying to molest her as well, with the knowledge of her father. So the Shalans take in Jenn, eventually adopting her. So Jenn Bezaleel becomes Jenn Shalan.

So where did I get Jenn's character? The short answer is she is every female student I've ever known and loved like a daughter, which, to some extent, is every one of them. But in reality, and some teachers won't admit this, we bond more closely with some students than others. Over the years, I've had students, male and female, who have gone beyond being students and become friends and even like extended family. I have two former students who were on my speech and debate team years back who are as close as I'll probably ever get to having real daughters. Jenna and Poonam live far away, but stay in touch regularly. They visit me when they can, which isn't often because they have very busy jobs, and I visit them as well. I love them so much that it's hard to imagine being able to love a biological child more. So in that way, she is inspired by them and my unfulfilled desire to have "real" children. I never could, so I do it through Harry.

That having been said, Jenn is really none of them. As I've said before, Jenn has the face of a former student named Courtney, who kindly agreed to be the cover model for the book, but the resemblance
Jenna and Poonam with me, along with
Jenna's husband Mitch.
is superficial. I didn't base Jenn on any one of those young ladies. She is, in the truest sense, a character I created from scratch. Yes, she resembles many of my former students and even some of my friends, but only in the most generic sense. I could point to lots of women I've met over the years who share some of her traits, but not enough that I could say that I based that trait on any of them. Similar to Dee, Jenn is my idealized vision of an adopted daughter. She's been through a lot and she needs protection, but she hasn't let it misshape her to the point that she's incapable of love. She's smart, loving, enjoys being taken care of but is independent at the same time. She's taken the awful things that have happened to her and channeled them into a desire to help others who are being hurt by someone in power over them, which is why she wants to follow in her adopted parents' footsteps.

So, to sum up, Jenn Shalan is inspired by every female student I've ever known, but based on none of them. That may or not make sense, but it's the truth.




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Where Do My Characters Come From, Part 2

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 04 March 2017 · 49 views

As you may recall, I'm in the midst of a series of posts in which I answer questions that I commonly hear at author events. Last week, I talked about Harry Shalan. This week, it's his better half, Dee.

Dee is much more fictional than Harry. She's not based on anyone in real life, though she is probably very distantly inspired by my ex-wife, who is a redhead and a nurse who has a beautiful singing voice. But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. While Harry's family is based on mine, Dee's is completely fictional. She has a family history of difficult pregnancies, which is nothing but a fiction for the sake of the story.

Dee is Harry's partner and equal in a lot of ways. He openly admits she's a better shot than he is, at least against paper targets. She's athletic, keeping up with Harry in the gym. She can more than hold her own in hand-to-hand combat, and she's got a quick, deductive mind. And on top of all that, she's a bit of a bombshell. So in that, she's not really inspired by any one true person. When I write her, though, I see Karen Gillan, who played Dr. Who companion Amelia Pond, minus the adorable Scottish accent, of course. If my books were ever made into movies, she would definitely be who I would want to play Dee.

Karen Gillan (wikipedia.com)
There is one part of Harry and Dee's life that is drawn from real life, at least in part. How they fell in love is inspired by the night I met my now ex-wife in that it is similar in nature, if not in the exact incident itself. Again, I fictionalized the event to fit the flow of the story, but I did hear Andrea before I saw her and fell in love with her voice. But in real life, it was literally the first time I ever saw her. In "Harry and the Redheaded Angel," they had known each other as schoolmates, but were meeting for the first time as adults.

So, while Dee has a tiny kernel of inspiration from real life, she's really just pretty much my dream woman. Does she have flaws? Yes, but they're flaws that come from loving too much. She's high maintenance, but in a good way. Her faith is important to her and so is her family. She's loving, affectionate, kind, drop-dead gorgeous but completely unaware of it, fun-loving, athletic, sexy, and she laughs at Harry's jokes. Who could ask for more? Oh, and did I mention the red hair?

Next week: Jenn Bezaleel Shalan

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Where Do My Characters Come From?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 25 February 2017 · 43 views

An author event in Charleston where
I, no lie, answered this exact question.
As you may recall, last week I started a short series in which I respond to common questions I get at author events. Last Saturday, I discussed where I get book ideas. This week, I begin responding to the folks who want to know where my characters come from. So here goes. There's no short answer to that, so I'm going to concentrate for a while on one character at a time, starting with this question:

"Is Harry Shalan you?"

Seriously, you should
see my classroom. It's
like a museum.
I get that all the time. The short answer is no. The long answer is a little more complicated. It's really hard to deny that he and I are strongly connected. I'm an English teacher and he's a former English teacher. He only taught for one year, though, and I'm in my twentieth year at my school. I was a seminarian and he was too. But I quit to take a job at a church while he quit to become a gumshoe. I like trains and superheroes and he likes trains and superheroes. And my friends who read my books say that Harry sounds like me in their heads, but that is pretty much where the resemblance ends. He's a tough guy and I am decidedly not. He has shot people and put away lots of criminals. I have shot paper targets and put away lots of pizza. He is athletic and muscular, his body only marred by the occasional bullet wound. I give dad bod a bad name and my body is only marred by my gall bladder surgery scars. He's happily married to a gorgeous, sexy redhead. I am decidedly less successful in the romance department. Ladies, I am, as hard as it is to believe based on my description of myself, available.

Probably my proudest moment as a teacher,
the year I received the Milken National
Educator Award. The young lady with
me is one of many inspirations for
Harry's adopted daughter Jenn. Her name
is Marissa and she and her husband
are expecting a baby soon!
Because we have the same voice and I know we have the same speech patterns, I guess you could say that Harry is, to borrow a DC Comics concept, me from a different Earth in the multiverse. Actually, if you want to know where I got the idea for creating a character in this way, the answer is my writing hero Robert B. Parker, who stole the idea from his writing hero Raymond Chandler, creator of the iconic Philip Marlowe. He was open about the fact that he based his main hero, Spenser, on himself. He created a character who sounded and thought about the world just like he did, but that was where the resemblance ended. I loved Spenser from the moment I started reading that first book back in the 1980s, but his worldview is a lot darker than mine, so it makes sense that in stealing Parker's idea, it would be by creating a character who wasn't as sullied by the world as Spenser is. Like Spenser, Harry sees himself as an Arthurian knight born out of time and believes he's in the world to help the weak and defend the downtrodden. And he has a code that guides his life. But Harry's code and Spenser's code are different in a lot of ways. One of the big differences between Harry and Spenser is in religious beliefs. Harry, like me, is a man of faith, while Spenser is agnostic. That gives a completely different tone to my work from that of Parker. For one, you'll find not a single curse word in any of my books. There are, hopefully not too graphic, sex scenes in my books, but they are always between Harry and Dee and that's on purpose. I think it's important for the world to understand that Christians aren't anti-sex. And while Harry never judges, always helping and encouraging, he and Dee are quite open about their beliefs, especially with their daughter Jenn.

I could go on and on talking about the one fictional character I probably know better than Spenser, but I think that will suffice. To sum up, the answer to the question with which I started this post is yes and no. Harry is me, but he's most decidedly also not me. Does that clear it up?

Next week: Dee Shalan

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Where Do I Get My Story Ideas?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 18 February 2017 · 44 views

I like to answer questions about my writing. I much prefer that to the actual readings. I just realized that as I typed it, but it's true. I don't know if it's the interactivity of it or that I'm not confident that I do a good job of reading, but I do know that I like to talk about the process I go through in my writing. And that's true despite the fact that, no matter how many times I do events, I get the same few questions every time. Once in awhile, someone will surprise me, but mostly it's some combination of the same three or four questions. So I thought I would do a short series of posts in which I answer those queries. 

One thing that is almost always asked, especially at events that aren't with other authors, is where I get my story ideas. The first time I was asked that, I have to admit that I was taken aback to realize I didn't have any idea. And the reason for that is that when I first started writing Harsh Prey, my first book, it was more about the characters than the story itself. I had two people who loved each other deeply, but one of them wasn't sure if she could deal with the violent job of the other. It was almost like I had a snapshot and I built the whole story out from that still frame. It's not almost like that, actually. It's exactly like that. I had no idea where the story was going. At the beginning, I asked myself, what if she's been gone to decide if she can deal with his being a detective and she calls, only to have the violence of his job intervene? And that seemed to work, so I had to ask why the violence happened. The answer was what propelled the story. But regardless of what happened in the detective half of the books, they were, and always will be, more than half about that relationship between Harry and Dee, and now Jenn and Emma Grace too. The Shalan Adventures are, for good or bad, stories about a loving family and the things they go through together. It's almost incidental that he's a gumshoe. 
The second Shalan story, Kisses and Lies, was loosely inspired by an event in the life of the young lady upon whom I based the leggy blonde at the beginning of the book. She had gotten married--in fact, I had performed the wedding--and found that her new husband changed immediately afterward. It was nowhere near as violent as it was in my fictionalized version, but it was, as usual, this series of what-ifs. What if he had been hiding something darker? What if it got violent? What if there were a family dynamic that added a level of depth? And the story grew from there.

The next two, In the Shadow and Dawn of Grace, are really one giant story arc broken into two books. The arc actually begins at the end of Kisse and Lies when Harry finds out that Dee is pregnant. That story was always going to be primarily about them losing that baby and then getting it back. I made the story of Jenn to parallel that. The Jenn part was again inspired loosely by real life events, though no one incident in particular. I'm just exposed to and touched by stories of abuse against young people because of my job as a high school teacher. And when I started writing In the Shadow, I just chose a young lady who was my student and made her the face I saw when I imagined the story in my mind. This young lady wasn't just my student. She was one of my adopted kids, the gang who eat lunch in my room and stay after school to watch movies while I make pancakes and come see me after they graduate when they come home from college. So when I pictured someone doing terrible things to her, it helped me tap into the rage that drove Harry to do what he did at the end of the book. 

As for my current work in progress, it grew out of a scene from a classic book. I read it as part of the AP reading last summer. It was about a young lady taken in by someone purporting to be her father, but he turns out to be a very bad man. Over the course of the week of the reading, I started building a story on that concept that had nothing to do with the original book at all, but that evolved from that situation. What if a teenager had no family and suddenly someone came along saying he was her long-lost father and he wanted to take her in? So that made me ask the next question, which was how did she come to have no one? Was she always an orphan or did she have a family that she lost somehow? And what if, like in the original book, he wasn't really her father? Why would he be interested in taking her in? I knew he had to have some ulterior motive, but I really didn't want it to be anything sexual. I'd had enough of that dark realm and wanted his motivations to be evil in a completely different way. So the story built from there. 

So I guess the answer to the question of where I get my story ideas is that I start with a character or a group of characters and a beginning point--a snapshot in time--and I start asking what if. What if this happened? What if he or she reacted in that way? And once I've asked and answered enough of those what-ifs, I have a book. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake. I better wrap this up and have some breakfast. 

Next week: Where Do My Characters Come From?


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Do Authors Have To Have Had a Miserable Life?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 04 February 2017 · 51 views

I've heard a lot of people say that in order for someone to be a good writer, he or she must have led a dark life full of sad experiences and alcoholism and just misery in general. When I first heard that, I thought I was doomed to failure because, as I only half-jokingly say, I grew up in a combination of a Norman Rockwell painting and a situation comedy. Sure, there were tough times, but life in general was happy. Or at least that's how I remember it--I've found over the years that there are less than positive events, like family fights, that, when I've been reminded of them, I realize I have absolutely no recollection of them. You may think that means I'm blocking out bad memories, and maybe I am, but I would argue it's more about having a terrible memory in general. I am occasionally reminded of happy events that I don't recall at all either. 

But I digress. Let's get back to the question of whether an author's life must be one of abject wretchedness in order to be successful. I should probably say that, depending on your definition of success, I may have no right to answer the question. I've made no best-seller lists, won no contests, or even succeeded in obtaining an agent or publisher. So if your definition is a traditional one, I've been an utter failure. And maybe that's made me a better writer. But that's not how I measure success. The fact that I've written four novels and a novella that people have enjoyed makes me successful. I have people who like my characters and my voice as a writer. I have a tribe. It's a small one, but it's real nonetheless. So I feel successful. And like I said, I haven't been abused and filled with mental anguish all my life. 

So why do people think that authors need to have lived like that? I guess probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many authors, like creative people in practically every field, have suffered from hard lives, substance abuse, and/or mental illness. But I think we only notice those folks for the same reason we notice the bad news on TV and the Internet before the good. We're drawn to the negative, the lurid, the spectacular, not really paying attention to the fact that for every wacked, out pill-popping, drunk author/actor/singer/artist, there are many quite successful ones that lead lives of quiet normality. 

But what of the argument that in order to write about sad things, one must have experienced those things? Well, the short answer is that that's just silly. Based on that thinking, no man could ever write in the voice of a woman, no white person could ever write in the voice of someone of any other race, and no one who has never been to another country could ever write about that place. And yet people successfully do this every day. How? Paying attention and being sensitive. 

Harry and Dee, the protagonists of my Shalan Adventures series, lost a baby. I've never experienced that, and yet people who have read my books say that I handled the emotional responses to that event accurately and with sensitivity. I've also never been sexually molested, physically or psychologically abused, been shot, or shot anyone. And yet my readers tell me that I've told stories about these events with believability. How? I know people who've gone through many of those things. I've listened to them talk of their experiences. I've hugged and cried with them as they've struggled with them. And their experiences have informed my writing. 

What of the things I've not experienced directly? As I've said before (like last week), good writers are first voracious readers. For every word I've written about the ins and outs of the life of a detective, I've read thousands. I've read books, articles, pamphlets, interviews, medical reports--you name it, I've read it for the sake of being able to write about it in a way that rings true. 

So successful writers don't have to write or drink themselves blind in order to get the voices in their heads to shut up for a while. They don't have to have been beaten or neglected or abandoned as children. They don't have to have been or done anything. But they do need to be aware and sensitive enough to internalize those experiences when they happen to the people around them and/or the characters they read about. So I guess the key to being a successful writer is compassion. Well, that and the ability to, you know, actually write. All the sensitivity in the world won't help if you just don't have a way with words. But the reverse is true too. Great wordsmiths who can't feel others' pain will write beautifully crafted, eloquent words that ring hollow to the reader. 

So maybe being good at writing is less about any one thing and more about lots of things coming together. Which makes writing a lot like life in general. The happiest, most fulfilled people are the ones who have the ability to enter into and come alongside the lives of the people around them and also have found a career that combines their passion and best abilities. 

You notice I didn't mention money in there. In my opinion, anyone who measures success based on their bank account is going to end up miserable. There's nothing wrong with making millions of dollars, but it should be a by-product of success, not the end product. 


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Narrative Voice: McCourt, Kafka, or Stephens?

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 28 January 2017 · 58 views

I thought that this week it would be nice to get back to my normal subject: writing. But I should quickly report for those who are wondering that Mom continues to make progress. She is walking well and seems to be becoming more engaged as time goes on. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers. 

And now, back to my writing process. I thought it might be interesting to talk about a challenge I'm dealing with at the moment as I work through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively entitled EJ. In case you don't regularly read my blog, the protagonist is named Elizabeth Janeway and is known by all but her mother and one other close friend as EJ. As with many stories, it starts in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and then passes the point where it began roughly halfway through the story arc, finally ending a number of years later. In this case, EJ is sixteen as the story opens and then it immediately flashes back to when she's six, with the plan to have her be a young adult, probably less than twenty, at the very end. 

Frank McCourt
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?title=User:Suhanri_
Simanullang
So my initial choice was point of view. Was I going to go first person from EJ's perspective? She is, in her mother's words, quite precocious, even borderline brilliant, for a youngster, but did I want to write in a voice that changed as it aged? It worked well for Frank McCourt in one of my favorite books, Angela's Ashes. Granted, he was writing a memoir. Yes, he could have written it as a memory told by an adult, but part of the brilliance of his writing was that he wrote it in an ever-evolving voice that grew and changed as he matured. The first chapters read just the way we would imagine a young Frankie would talk, with long, roaming run-on sentences and sudden diversions brought on by a highly thoughtful, observant child.  But by the end, as a teenager boarding a ship for the United States, Frank's mind is more disciplined and mature, as is, by extension, the narrative. So he was never writing in exactly the same voice. I've always been intrigued by the process he must have gone through. But, to be honest, I'm just not sure I could pull it off with the memorable flair that McCourt, with his lyrical Irish rhythm that sounds like poetry, seemed to accomplish with no apparent effort. I decided I wasn't brave enough to try. 

Franz Kafka
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
publicdomain
So that left third person. But I still had decisions to make. Was it going to be fully omniscient or just reveal the thoughts of one character? I considered EJ's mother, allowing her to marvel at the old, thoughtful soul she'd somehow brought into the world. But the story arc is such that this just wouldn't be possible to carry through the entire book. So I then considered changing whose thoughts the narrator revealed partway through the book, a la Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis, a tale that tells the thoughts of Gregor Samsa from the morning he wakes up to find he's been changed into a giant dung beetle until the day he dies of self-imposed starvation. After Gregor's death, we suddenly begin to hear the thoughts of his parents, who, sadly, have not learned anything from their son's tragic life and death. 

I wasn't scared of that. But I found I wasn't intrigued by it either. I still clung to the idea of telling the story from EJ's point of view. So I decided I would split the difference. My third person narrator is a separate voice altogether, but only EJ's thoughts are revealed. And, in a lot of ways, I have the best of both worlds because when I want to, I can lapse into sections in which I allow EJ to take over the narrative, so to speak, and use her voice when it suits me, going back to the patterns and cadence of the narrator when it doesn't. This is where the challenge comes in. I need it to be a conscious choice when I move from one to the other. Otherwise I run the risk of falling completely into one or the other partway through. Either one would work if I chose to do it that way. I trust that the way I am doing it, with a balance between the two, will also work. But I have to stay consistent. Slipping unconsciously into EJ's voice and staying there won't work at all. Neither would starting by allowing EJ to slip through occasionally and then just forgetting that as the story progresses. Either of those would make it apparent that I didn't maintain the narrative voice I planned to adopt. That's just sloppy writing and good readers won't buy it--in the literal or the literary sense. So I can never stop asking myself if I'm speaking as the narrator or I am allowing EJ's voice to filter in. As I said, she's quite precocious and tends to talk even when I don't want her to.  

One of what I imagine is most authors'
favorite haunts
I hope you'll forgive me if I sounded less like a writer and more like a literature teacher today. I find that my work as one definitely informs my work as the other. After all, if I weren't an avid reader and teacher of good writing, I wouldn't know about all the narrative options from which I can choose. Then again, if I weren't an avid reader, there's every possibility I'd never have been interested in being a writer anyway. I guess they exist, but writers who don't like to read seem rather chimerical to me. 

I hope you enjoyed this little trip into the tangled web that is my brain as I write, or at least as I think about and plan my writing. I'm one of those folks who doesn't really fully understand what he thinks until he writes it down and then reads it, so even if it wasn't helpful to you, it helped me make sense of some things. 



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Finding A New Normal

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 21 January 2017 · 55 views

Normal is just a dryer setting PIN or MAGNET - 1 inch normal pin, normal magnet, pinback button, celebrate being different, fridge magnetThe concept of normal is a tricky one. I don't mean normal vs. abnormal, as in psychology, etc. I mean normal as in normal routine. How long does something have to happen before it becomes normal? And how do we deal with it when our old normal is replaced with a new one. I guess when it comes to something large enough, it forces us to reevaluate our priorities.

For me, the old normal started changing when Mom started showing signs of Alzheimer's, though it was a gradual thing. I tried to be home more and started doing my own laundry (Mom had always insisted, against my protests, that the housework was her job.), and some cooking. But it completely changed twice when she had her stroke. Once when she went in the hospital and again when she got home. I knew the first change was going to be temporary in that she was, we hoped, going to come home sometime, which was when the real change to a new normal took place.
Mom and Dad

Now, instead of getting up and quietly having tea, doing my devotions, and mucking around on the Internet or writing every morning, I'm responsible for Lola, our dog. I get up, take her out, feed her her breakfast, have my breakfast, get in and out of the shower as quickly as I can, and get ready for work before they get up so Dad can have the bathroom for Mom. If they get up in time before I leave for work, I make them breakfast. After school is another big change. I used to take my time coming home or not come home for supper at all when I had things to do in the evening. Now, I go straight home so I can take Lola for a walk before making supper, followed by cleaning up the kitchen. If I have time and energy left, I work on school stuff or read. But most of the time, I just have time to watch a little TV before passing out.
Don's in the center.

The key word in all that is responsible. It isn't lost on me that, until recently, I've had it awfully good, with nearly no personal responsibilities around the house beyond what I volunteered for. Now, I guess I'm still volunteering, though my services are a lot more vital than before. I just hate to think of how hard, maybe impossible, Dad's task would be if he didn't have my siblings and me to help. I know there are many folks out there in that exact situation and my heart really goes out to them.

Barb helps constantly despite
the fact that she lives far out
in the country and has a farm to
tend to. 
So I've had to re-prioritize, cutting back on some things, like going to my students' sporting events and other performances, and stop others, at least temporarily, like writing for ClutchMOV. Oddly enough, I have found time to work on my book and somehow got a couple thousand words written this week. But there's no routine for that like there used to be either. I just have to write when I find a little time here and there and be okay with not having hours to sit at my keyboard at a time. I'm happy to accept the disruption when it means I still have my mom.

Mom's been home for a week and, though it doesn't feel like it yet, I guess this is the new normal. Or at least it will be until my brother Dave gets here this week. He'll be staying here to help as long as he can, which will mean yet another new normal. So maybe normal is a tricky concept because it just doesn't exist. Maybe I need to quit thinking about keeping things normal and just take each day as it comes. It would probably be less upsetting each time something changes.

I just want to say that I'm not writing all this to complain about anything or for recognition. I have nothing to complain about and deserve no admiration for doing what any adult child should be doing for his aging parents. I'm so completely blessed to have, at age 53, both my parents still living. And my mother has spent her whole life since her kids were born dedicated to doing for us, so it's a privilege to have a chance to pay even a little bit of that back. I just hope reading about these experiences can help someone who's going through the same situation with a loved one.

Dave and Barb
And I don't want anyone to think that I'm alone in this. My brother Don and my sister Barb are here an awful lot--pretty much daily--and they bring so much food that there are many days when I don't have to cook at all. But all of our efforts pale in comparison to the time and effort that Dad gives. Except for short little snippets when one of us stays with Mom so he can go get a haircut or go shopping, Dad is with Mom every minute of the day. He checks her blood sugar before every meal, makes sure she takes all her medicines on time (she takes pills or gets eye drops five times a day), takes her to her physical therapy, takes her to the bathroom--I could go on and on. All the rest of us help when we're not busy with something else. For him, there really is nothing else. And though I know it's got to be wearing on him, he never complains. I'm proud to be his son. There's no question about it: God gave us a double portion of love when He chose us to be Dave and Nancy's kids.

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Sometimes Love Takes Precedence

  Posted by Joe Stephens , 14 January 2017 · 46 views

Mom absolutely loves dogs.
I had some ideas for what to write about today, but none of them seemed worthy of my time. You see, my mother is coming home from the rehab hospital today. She had a stroke about a month ago and she hasn't been home since. She spent about a week in the hospital followed by three weeks or so in a rehab facility, relearning how to talk and walk and use her hand. Some of that has come along very nicely, other parts not so much.

What I can't get past, though I know I have no choice but to get used to it, is the fact that, even if her hand, which is lagging behind everything else in terms of coming back, gets better, Mom is 81 and has what appears to be pretty rapidly advancing Alzheimer's. So even if she gets completely well physically, her mind will continue to deteriorate until one day she'll not recognize her family. And there's not one thing I can do about it.

We all knew this was a possibility. Her sister died of the disease several years ago. So it was always a spectre that seemed to follow us around. Early in 2016, though, I started to realize that she was asking the same questions over and over and not remembering conversations we had just had. I wasn't sure if anyone else noticed, so I asked my dad. At first, he chalked it up to the fact that she's 81 and, to be fair, has always been pretty absentminded. I definitely inherited that. Just ask my students, who are constantly having to point out my glasses or my coffee cup when I can't find them. But then it got so pronounced that there was no denying it any longer; she was losing her short term memory. Well, there was denying it for her and she was none too happy if anyone mentioned it. Mom and Dad had a number of arguments, all borne, I'm certain, of Mom's fear that the spectre had finally arrived and wasn't going to leave until it was done with her. I can imagine I'd be the same way: deny it and it's not real.

Mom and Dad at a
family beach trip
from a couple
summers ago
Dad finally bit the bullet and kind of tricked Mom into letting the doctor do some tests. She didn't do so well, so the doctor put her on medication that, at best may slow the progression of the disease. We don't know if it's helping because we don't know how much worse she would be without it. It certainly hasn't made her any better.

Then the stroke happened. It was what's called an ischemic stroke, which means that a clot formed in her heart and moved up to block the blood flowing to her brain. The good news was that Dad was right there and got her to the hospital quickly and the clot-busting drug started working immediately. Her speech came back within a couple of hours and her leg is almost as strong as before. I was wondering, but didn't want to ask, if maybe there had been a partial blockage all along that could account for her memory issues. The neurologist said as much, so we all got our hopes up for a bit. But then the radiologist, an old friend of mine, told us that the MRI did indeed show the telltale plaques that denote Alzheimer's. There is still the possibility that a blockage had been exacerbating it and she's not as advanced as we thought, but the reality is that, at least as it stand at the moment, she has shown no improvement. The doctors say it still could happen, but we shouldn't assume it will.

And even if she's not as advanced as we thought, that just kicks the can a little farther down the road. The can is still there. So what do we do? We do what I constantly tell my students to do: live intentionally. Make memories. Treasure every minute we have with her so that there will be no what-ifs or I'm sorrys after we've lost her. That may mean bypassing some writing time, or at least rearranging so that I do it when she's asleep or busy at doctor's appointments or such. And it may mean not spending as much time with friends or at my kids' activities, or even deciding that the hours
Mom and my sister Barb on a different family trip
I often spend grading papers in the evenings is just not as important as being with my mom while I can be.

Why am I telling you this? Because deny it as much as we will, we're all terminal and we don't know how much longer we have. So treasure you're loved ones. Hug them. Tell them you love them. Maybe decide that ball game or work you brought home isn't so important after all. It's overused, but only because it's true--you don't know when the last chance you had to say I love you to someone will really have been your last chance. Don't look back and realize you didn't take advantage of it.






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