Friday, May 18, 2007

Dirty Work -- Part II

by Renee Holland Davidson

Read Part I first

Two hours later, Rickert--one chin richer than in the photo--bulldozed through the double oak doors. A man and a woman, one on each side, quick-stepped to keep up. Both wore blue blazers with blue-and-red striped ties, the executive uniforms of Cal West Bank. They stopped at the valet stand, shook hands all around, and drove off, each in their own car. Nothing hinky here.

Rickert squeezed himself into a steel blue Jaguar, an easy tail, as long as he wasn't an amateur Andretti. I brushed the cornbread crumbs from my shirt, and flipped the ignition, waiting for a yellow VW to fall in behind him before I pulled out of the parking lot.

Ten miles down the main drag, then onto the freeway, headed north. No dodging and dancing for this guy--the Jag plowed a steady seventy in the second lane for fifty miles, then a quick exit on Lakeview Lane.

Lakeview was a narrow two-lane road that first snaked through Bixby canyon, then corkscrewed up the mountain to the town of Carrington. Towering pines and wrought-iron fencing surrounded Alpine-styled castles, and in the middle of it all, Lake Carrington--a 700-acre manmade play pool for the liposuctioned, Botoxed set.

I passed the exit, certain Rickert would spot me if I followed him through the canyon. It didn't matter; I knew where he was going. One of the names Jessica had given me was Bob Harvey, Rickert's business partner and best friend. Harvey had a vacation home overlooking the lake, and I had his address in my pocket.

I took the next exit and found an all-night diner. Figured I'd grab a cup of java and give Rickert some time to get settled in. I wondered whether I'd find the old boy playing an innocent game of Texas Hold 'em with a few pals, or another not-so-innocent game of poke-her.

Forty minutes later, I was cruising down Lake Terrace Road. When I reached Harveys' Haven--a redwood and glass structure that looked like a cross between a cathedral and a ski-resort chalet--I slowed down. No sign of the blue Jag, but he'd probably stashed it in the four-car garage that fronted the circular driveway.

I drove farther up the street and pulled into the dirt lot of a house still under construction. Camera in hand, I hoofed it back down the street to the Harvey place,

An automatic gate blocked the driveway and the man-gate next to it was locked. I slung the camera cord around my neck, said a little prayer that a spiked post wouldn't impale any precious body parts, and climbed over.

The floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the house must've made for some awesome views, but privacy be damned. Lights glowed in the empty kitchen and family room. I'd walked three-quarters of the way around the house when I heard a scream from an upper window.

It wasn't a jackpot hurrah, and it wasn't a scream of ecstasy; it was trouble.

Pulling the revolver from my waistband, I reversed direction, heading for the French doors that closed in the dining room. Before bashing in a pane, I jiggled a doorknob, surprised to find it open. I crept inside, ears perked; all was quiet. The dining room was dark, but light from the kitchen shone onto the nearby staircase. Gun drawn, I headed for the stairs.

One foot on the first step, and the lights blazed on, momentarily blinding me. I slammed myself against the wall, and dropped down to one knee; pointing my gun up the stairwell.

A bitter laugh, then a shrill, taunting, "Hey, cowboy."

I recognized the voice immediately. Phoebe! My head buzzed. Phoebe? Phoebe and Rickert? I recoiled at the images exploding in my brain. Couldn't be. Something was wrong.

She stood at the top of the stairs, smirking, hands on her hips.

"What are you doing here, Phoebe? Was that you who screamed?"

Raised eyebrows, a slight shrug, then, without a word, she turned and walked down the hall.

I hesitated. Was Rickert up there? Did Jessica think he was messing with my wife? Was he messing with my wife? Who screamed? And why? I felt like I'd taken a sucker punch to the noggin.

Phoebe looked cool and calm as the glassy lake, but I wasn't primed for a high dive. I held my gun in front of me as I sprinted up the steps.

At the landing, I stopped, took a deep breath, then pushed open the first door on the right. Bookshelves lined the back wall behind a desk the size of a tugboat. In front of the desk, two overstuffed chairs. Phoebe lounged in one, legs crossed, that same smirk still painted on her face. Rickert slumped in the chair next to her. At his feet, a broken bottle of Jack Daniels bathed in a pool of glass shards and whiskey, and protruding from a bloody wound at the base of his neck--my switchblade.

My jaw clenched. "What happened?"

She aimed a remote control at a television hanging from the ceiling in a corner of the room. Two quick jabs with her thumb, and the screen lit up. Me, the star of the show, clambering over the front gate in hi-def color. "Well," she said, "looks like a jealous husband seeking revenge, don't you think?"

I studied Rickert. Three chins lolled on a blubbery chest that should've been stuffed in a super-sized bra. A gargantuan gut splayed over elephant-thick legs. "You weren't..."

She shook her head in disgust. "Give me some credit." She threw a glance his way. "I didn't even know him."

"Then why..."

"Doesn't matter."

I looked back up at the television, where I stood in freeze frame. "What do you want?"

"Help." She paused. "You dump the body, I destroy the clip." A nod to the computer on the desk. "And the copy I emailed."

The phone rang. Phoebe plucked a handkerchief from her pocket and used it to pick up the receiver. "Hello." Another glance at Rickert. "Yes, it's done." She listened, eyes focused on the ceiling. A quick intake of breath, then a long exhale. "Good." She hung up the phone and closed her eyes for a moment.

"Who was that?" I asked.


"How do you know her?"

Phoebe inspected her newly manicured fingernails. "My bartering club."

The pieces finally fell into place. My words came out slowly. "Where is she?"

"Dallas," she whispered.

"At your father's?"

She looked up at me, her eyes dark as Texas crude. "I don't have a father," she said.

Dirty Work -- Part I

by Renee Holland Davidson

Ten minutes before closing time on a Friday night, and in swept this babe, a classy-looking broad with enough karats on her fingers to choke a rabbit.

"Sam Stickman?"

"That's me, Honey. Who's asking?"

She slow-strutted across the office, giving me plenty of time to take in the action: bare legs tanned golden, stiletto-heeled black patent leather sandals, toenails painted maraschino red. "I'm Jessica," she purred.

She dropped a handful of C-notes on my desk along with a headshot of a smarmy-looking dude. "No contract, no records." She paused. "That's my husband. I want him followed. For months now, he's been coming home late with nothing but lame excuses for company."

What kind of sap stepped out on a skirt like this? She was an eyeful, all right, packed real tight in a white silk number, curves in all the right places. Reminded me of my old lady--way back when. Yeah, the broad was a class act once, but that show closed a long time ago.

I stared at the picture on my desk--gray strands slicked down in a kamikaze comb-over, a bulbous nose, and double-decker chin, old enough to be her father's older brother.

She saw the confusion in my eyes, fingered the almond-sized diamond that hung from a trio of gold chains around her neck. "No man makes a fool out of me, not for any price."

I hated this track-down-the-philanderer crap--bad karma between blood brothers and all that. But it was damn hard to refuse those sultry eyes. Besides, wifey had been keeping her claws tight on the purse strings lately, and my wallet was light. Only be a matter of time, she promised, Daddy Dearest would be wheezing his last breath soon, and then we'd be coasting Easy Street. In the meantime, we were rough-riding the potholes.

I shrugged and pulled out my notebook. "Have a seat, Miss Jessica."

She sat, her skirt riding so high, Sharon Stone would've winced.

I forced myself to concentrate on the blue-lined paper in front of me, jotted down the information she rattled off: addresses, phone numbers, car make and license plate. Hubby had packed for a weekend business trip that morning, said he was leaving straight from the city, after a late dinner meeting at Romano's on Fifth and Alder.

When she was finished, I stood up. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"I'll be out of town for a few days. I'll call you when I get back.

"Fine." I held out my hand.

Her touch was cool, her fingernails sharp. A slight nod, and then she turned and sauntered toward the door, hips switching from side to side. She stopped in the doorway and looked over her shoulder. One eyelid slid down in a slow wink, a miniscule upturn of the lips, and then she gently closed the door behind her.

I exhaled a long, low whistle, grabbed my handkerchief from my breast pocket and mopped my forehead. Collapsing into my chair, I yanked open my desk drawer, pulled out a fifth of whiskey and revived myself with a stiff shot.

When I got home, Phoebe was yapping on the phone. She hung up the minute I walked into the kitchen, her face flushed red as a tomato.

I threw my jacket over a kitchen chair. “What’s wrong?”

Phoebe brushed a swath of bottle blonde from her face with the back of her hand. Her fingernails had grown half an inch since morning and turned Pepto-Bismol pink in the process. “That Emma, you know how she riles me.” She pecked me on the check and I gave her neck a nibble, but she pushed me away. “Not now!” She stomped over to the stove, picked up a lid and started stirring like she was paddling upstream in a hurricane. "She's asking to borrow money, again. Just a couple of hundred, she says--like it's nothing."

At one time, it was nothing--back in the days when she was still Phoebe Moore, only child born to an over-the-hill Texan oil tycoon and an under-the-sheets Vegas showgirl who'd first partied her way to Moore's bedroom, and three years later, to the high-rent district at Forest Lawn.

My Phoebe, once sweet as cherry pie, without daddy's dough, she'd hardened to a bitter crust.

Her eyes were glued to the murky brown stew she’d whipped into a tidal wave. "You've got to call her, Sam. Tell her we don't have it."

Phoebe liked to call me good-for-nothing, but I was always good enough to do her dirty work. Haggle with the bill collectors, snake the stopped-up sewer line, explain to her money-mooching cousin we weren't Dialing for Dollars.

"I'll call her later." I watched her at the stove; all four burners were fired up. "Don't tell me we're having company for dinner." Just what I needed, one of her gabby friends nattering in my ear.

"No, I'm cooking for the Jamisons. Shelly's doing my nails this month."

Phoebe belonged to some bartering club. Bunch of broads met a couple of times a month, swapped cooking for cleaning, haircuts for sewing, who knows what else.

I planted myself in the nearest kitchen chair, tilting on the back legs. She usually hated when I did that, but tonight, no reaction. “Got an out-of-town job," I said. "Leaving tonight, should be back in a day or two."

"What kind of job?"

"How many times I gotta tell you, Phoebe? Can't say." Sure, I could've said, but a man needs a little breathing space.

She skewered me with an icy stare, then turned her back on me. "Fine, I've got my own plans, anyway."

"Yeah, like what?"

Crimson lips curled into a smirk. "Can't say."

After dinner, I poured oil-black coffee into a thermos, wrapped up a couple hunks of leftover cornbread, smacked Phoebe on the cheek, and headed for the garage. I checked the trunk, taking a quick inventory of the overnight bag I always kept there, then slid behind the wheel.

Romano's Ristorante took up two-thirds of the bottom floor of Overton Hotel. I'd been inside the place a couple of times--clattering silverware and clinking glasses dueled with business chatter. Stuffed suits hashed out deals in high-backed booths, and, rumor had it, even more deals got banged out in deluxe suites on the upper floors.

I pulled into the deserted parking lot of a beauty shop across the street, pulled my cell phone from the visor, and punched in the hotel's number.

"Overton Hotel, how may I direct your call?"

"Put me through to Carl Rickert's room, please."

"I'm sorry. There's no one registered by that name."

I pushed "end," then called the restaurant and asked for Rickert again. Gnashed my teeth through five minutes of smooth jazz, Muzak-style.

"Rickert here." Deep voice with a don't-like-interruptions edge.

I flipped the phone closed and glanced at my Timex--ten after seven. If Jessica was paranoid, and hubby was humping nothing but a pile of business contracts, it could be a long night. I'd need some company.

I fumbled under the passenger seat searching for my ole buddy, Jack Daniels; found nothing but a tattered Thomas Guide and a crushed fortune cookie still in its plastic wrapper. What the hell? I'd just cracked open a new bottle last Saturday night, a couple of snorts to fortify myself for some Midsummer Night crap Phoebe had dragged me to. A bunch of fairies in tights and face powder, spouting Shakespeare and prancing around, faces screwed-up looking like they needed a healthy dose of Ex-Lax.

I knew I shouldn't have trusted that skew-eyed valet. Put a red vest on a Burger King reject and watch all the suckers line up to hand him their keys and a fiver to boot. Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Shit! What kind of idiot was I? I punched open the glove box; yup, it was gone--the lock-picking kit I'd shelled out 150 smackeroos for. What else was missing? I fished around, hunting for the switchblade I'd procured a couple years back--a donation from a baby-faced mugger wannabe. One swift, well-placed kick to the family jewels, and the kid had dropped the knife, clutched his gonads, and whimpered off.

I sighed; the blade was history. Guess I was lucky I still had the car.

Part II

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Addendum to Handling Criticism

I think that last post sounded more somber--dare I say negative--than I meant it to.

A review with meaningful criticism is Always a good thing... and so it is with this one. I'm grateful for the input, both the directly stated stuff and the things I've inferred from it.

The opportunity to take corrective action on a story is exactly why we ask for feedback in the first place (or at least it should be).

Handling Criticism

I just received my first critique of an extended stretch (nearly 100 pages) of my suspense novel

The verdict:

There was no ticker-tape parade for me, the conquering hero. No key to the city. No line-up of fatherless strippers come to do my bidding.

Though I suspect, way down deep inside, that some things went unsaid (I should clarify that by saying, some bad things went unsaid. Good things always find voice), overall I would characterize it as a soft good review.

Now, just in case you're wondering, soft good is a whole lot closer to dreadful than it is to really good, at least from the perspective of getting your book published. In order for a company to invest energy, money and brainspace in your novel, they’ve got to love it. Lukewarm affection just ain’t good enough.

A soft good review means--once you accept that your reviewer has a point--that you’ve got serious work to do.

In my case, several of the complaints were relatively minor (and some addressed issues I already had concerns about*). But there was also the more surprising issue of a major character not working and her decision-making seeming inconsistent.

Beyond the criticisms that were raised (and perhaps buried in the unsaid stuff mentioned above), I got no sense that this book would be burning a hole in the reviewer’s desk, demanding to be read.

This, of course, is where the waters get murky, the traveling tough. It’s as if I were a doctor presented with a patient who has a general malaise, a patient with non-specific, I have no energy, Doctor, kind of symptoms.

It’s valuable input, just like the more directed stuff, but it requires more work on my part to divine some corrective action. Before I send this book out into the cruel world for assessment, I’ve got to believe that, for my trusted readers at least, it sings.

*a lesson for another time… Don’t ignore the stuff you already know is broken, hoping that for everyone else it will work.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Character Naming Tip

Actually, this blog entry should be called a character naming anti-tip, because it starts with the pain I'm having renaming my characters after I've lived with quickly-chosen names far too long.

During an in-class critique of my last submission from my novel, several people agreed that they were having problems with two of the character names, Aidan and Devlin. Apparently, the shape of these two words is too similar and causes confusion, however subtle, for readers.

The trouble, from my side, is that I've come to know these characters with the names they carry. Forcing new ones on them turns them into impostors. I'm sure, once I've lived with some newly-chosen names for a while, I'll get comfortable, but for now, it makes me feel like a liar.

Don't do a careless job of naming the characters in your novel. You'll only pay for it later.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Trouble With Beginnings

Beginnings are nasty. They are ugly. They are wicked.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been reworking a suspense novel that I'm anxious to get out into the world. For the most part, my writing has followed a semi-linear path; I began with the notion of several major scenes that I planned to hang the book on. I started from the first and charged along until I hit a rough patch, at which point I went wandering.

This wandering generally landed me in a scene for which I had a reasonably clear vision. At some point after completion of the new scene, I would head back to the trouble spot, hoping to have a clearer head and a new idea.

At this point, with over 400 pages and 80,000+ words, I've decided to start from the beginning and work my way to the end, without allowing for any side-trips.

So, I've been stuck working on the first chapter. For all novelists, this part of the book represents a brutal challenge for one simple reason--we haven't yet convinced our reader that time spent on our book will be a better investment that grooming his long-neglected ear hairs.

Our reader, be she an agent, an editor, or a prospective paying customer at Wal-Mart has a hair trigger at this point. She's as likely to drop our book in disgust as she is to pass wind.

There is no time--and are no words--to waste.

Beyond the need to entertain in those first few paragraphs, we've also got to set the tone, give a hint of genre, and introduce some important problem. It's a heavy burden.

In my quest for a strong first chapter, I've started my book with two entirely different scenes and re-written each of those numerous times, trying to get that first chapter to sing. Most recently, I introduced what could be perceived as an annoying gimic in the first chapter, an odd tonal thing with he main character having an internal dialog with himself. I thought that, if it worked, it would create a striking tone that readers don't see every day.

The problem was, no matter how many ways I tried to re-write it, I couldn't make it work. So, finally, I've come to my senses and--mostly--abandoned the notion, pulling some of the thoughts into a more traditional narative flow.

Having done these repeated surgeries on my first chapter, I can no longer see the material very well. So I'm going to be looking for trusted eyes to help me out here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

More On Stragety*

In my recent post A New Voice, I detailed how enthralled I am with the notion of writing an enduring children's story and mentioned that I had started my first children's novel.

Later, when I was talking this over with a friend, I started to feel foolishly misdirected. I had, after all, talked about the mainstream suspense novel that I've been working on for a good stretch, a novel that's over 80,000 words and should, if I had my wits about me, be nearing completion.

How, I thought, can I sensibly charge ahead with a new novel?

It felt like a serious loser's gambit.

I decided, after some abusive self-assessment, that I would park the new novel and turn my attention back to the nearly completed one.

My first order of business was to print out the 400+ pages and give it the first clear-headed read I've ever had. Predictably, parts of the novel felt like they need serious attention. Not so predictably, the excitement I'd felt for the story when I first started writing it came charging back. I rewrote a couple scenes, rearranged some story elements, and wrote a couple new scenes that felt immediately at home.

Even after having completed two unpublished novels, I've never been sure how to handle the pacing of the work necessary to craft a such a long work of fiction. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends that we simply tear through a first draft--seeking no outside critique--in order to protect the fragile energy required do the work.

John Gardner, in On Becoming A Novelist, recommends parking a novel for at least six months after its initial completion in order to be able to read and edit with a clear head.

In the case of my suspense novel, I hit a flat spot--not so much with the story, but with the writing energy--some months ago and then began to wander. On the good side, it served the purpose of giving me some editorial distance and allowing me to see the story fresh. On the bad side, it allowed my mind--and eye--to begin to stray.

Not smart for a writer with serious ambitions. And not a move I plan to repeat any time soon.

As part of my quest for discipline in the writing process, I've set a goal of July 15th for getting this book finished and out into the world. In the end, it's pretty clear that bits and bytes--even hundreds of thousands of them--have very limited value. The story--in printed form--has got to get out into the world for evaluation. The final goal, after all, is a sale.

I'm hoping that the act of stating my intentions publicly--and writing the finish line on the calendar--will help encourage my drive to completion.

Along the way, I'll let you know if I learn anything that I find interesting or useful. And I'll tell you when and how I stumble.

Wish me luck.

*My apologies to Bugs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Superhero Worth Watching

I went with wife and son to see SpiderMan 3 today. I've been a big fan of the series and wasn't disappointed with this one.

Spiderman stands alone among the superhero films because of the human complexity of it, both for the heroes and the bad guys. Superman, by contrast, has always been populated by simple-minded lunkhead thugs and a star whose complexity only shows itself when he's deciding whether to wipe with double or triple-ply.

Heroes shouldn't be unwaveringly perfect. Their lives and quests should involve real internal struggle. There must be moments of weakness.

Bad guys shouldn't be bad through-and-through, or maybe it's fairer to say that they shouldn't be bad without interesting reasons. Being bad, alone, is not interesting. The why of it might be.

Even if you're not typically drawn to the genre, the Spiderman series is worth studying for this effect alone.

Friday, May 04, 2007

My Son's First Stand-Up Gig

The other day, my 7-year-old son was in his room with an adult family member (whom I won't name to protect his/her dignity) when this particular adult had a pungent gaseous moment.

Without hesitation, my son looked at the offending visitor and said, "Take a bum mint."


Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Sad Abuse of the Word Flaunt

I just read a post called Deliberately Flaunting The Rules at one of my regular photography stops on the web.

Now, lets get one thing straight... to flaunt something is to show it off.

You might, for example, flaunt your new double-D's after Dr. 90210 has had his way with you. But you would flout the rules of etiquette if you showed them off at your niece's baptism.

flaunt = exhibit ostentatiously or shamelessly

flout = show contempt for

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A New Voice

For the longest time, I’ve dreamt of writing an enduring piece of fiction for children. It represents the Holy Grail of writing achievement for me.

Why, you ask?*

The opportunity to surprise, to enthrall, to drive a thirst for stories is immeasurably bigger with the young.

In our youth, we are more easily and more deeply influenced by the stories we read (or have read to us). The good ones—the moving ones**—stay with us in ways that nothing we read as adults ever will. That impact is a result both of our un-cynical innocence (how else would the simple-minded preachiness of the Hardy Boys move so many generations of boys?) and the very limited history we have with stories—we haven’t yet grown hardened to the tricks story tellers will play on us through the years.

And beyond our innocence and clean-slatedness, we are also unshakably receptive to the absurd in our youth.

The potential for such remarkable and long-standing influence draws me to children’s fiction like I’m drawn to no other form. I always had a vague pull in that direction, but in recent times—perhaps it’s a response to my 7-year-old son’s burgeoning love of story—the drive has grown immensely stronger.

In response, I’ve started a novel for children. The biggest challenge I’m faced with, in the early going, is a question of tone. I can play the story--a realistic-fantasy, for lack of better-tuned language--straight, like I would a mainstream novel, or I can attack it with an absurd tone through-and-through, like much of Roald Dahl’s work(James and the Giant Peach, The Twits).

Tone is something I’ve never given this much attention. Its exploration opens up all kinds of possibilities and challenges that I’ve solved on auto-pilot in the past.

In the next few days, I’ll post more about the specific scene exercises I’m planning to undertake, and I’ll post a few different permutations of specific scenes.

Stay tuned…

*I know the question didn’t even occur to you, but play along with me here.

**for me, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings leap to mind