Reading Outside the Box

DSCF0545Sometimes we don’t notice the self-constructed boundaries we live within. Often it takes stepping outside the box to recognize the limitations we’ve unconsciously imposed upon ourselves.

My reading tastes lean toward biographies and classic novels rather than contemporary bestsellers. I can’t stand a movie like Coyote Ugly. And I wasn’t going to read Eat, Pray, Love simply because of my physique—it’s hard to relate to someone needing to travel to Italy to eat pizza and pasta for the main purpose of gaining weight. Never gonna happen to me.

As you might guess the creator of those two works, Elizabeth Gilbert, is not in my reading circle and I didn’t expect to put any of her books on my “want to read” list.

So it was through happenstance—a free ticket to hear her talk and a borrowed copy of The Signature of All Things—that forced me to step outside my normal reading box.

As a narrator, Gilbert is a bit heavy-handed, but she’s got a confident voice with an excellent command of language and imagery. Her style is too verbose at times—three similes where one would do fine. Yet I often found myself admiring her firm hand as a storyteller. The thread of ideas, the history and deep-dive into botany, biology, and the psyche of an inquisitive intellect give the story a rich feel. Which is a real feat considering the main character, Alma Whitaker, is dull of face, thick of body, and has a sharp but unimaginative mind.

Born in the late eighteenth century, half English, half Dutch, Alma grows up in a small, but prosperous Pennsylvania family. Living a largely cerebral life as her father’s companion in his botany trade, it is only late in life (post menopausal) when she meets Ambrose Pike. He’s much younger than her and while there’s an instant connection between them, the attraction is unbalanced. The failure of their relationship is what drives the plot forward.

It was the sexual element Gilbert wove into the story that caught me by surprise. I’m not a prude by any stretch but the self-gratification of her main character was creepy, and the word quim was especially disturbing for some reason. The homosexuality was awkward too. None of it felt authentic to me.

Perhaps it’s because Gilbert couldn’t quite eliminate the 21st century sensibility in her narrator’s voice. Or perhaps it’s because the women of science and exploration that I’ve read about all seemed to lack a strong sexual side. I might have mistakenly assumed it’s necessary to be a scientist first and a woman second to be successful in the world of scientific study. My personal bias didn’t want to give room to Alma’s sensual side. This was probably more my fault than Gilbert’s.

The story ends in Amsterdam in a form of reconciliation with her mother’s family whom Alma never knew. The ending is inventive and provocative, culminating in Alma playing a hidden role in the discovery of natural selection. This is the twist in the story that was particularly satisfying to me. It’s so true that women have been and continue to be an unseen force behind the exploration and discovery of science and nature. Many of the important advances of man stand on the shoulders of a woman’s work. Rosalind Franklin and the structure of DNA is an example from recent history.

This is why The Signature of All Things played to one of my fondest musings—that there’s a trove of unknown women explorers, adventurers, scientist and true lovers of knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered.

And, what’s really amazing is that the same author responsible for a fluff piece such as Coyote Ugly produced an interesting novel about an intelligent, pragmatic virgin.

Step outside your box. You might just discover something new about yourself.

I’ve Got Your Back: Buddy Stories and Female Archetypes

by Scott Shields

Buddy stories date back to the beginning of literature, and they are a fantastic vehicle for writers to display their characters’ personalities.  Whether it is Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Frodo and Sam, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, or “The Dude” Lebowski and Walter Sobchak, countless male examples abound in all story genres.  Yet when looking for female versions of the classic buddy story archetype, the list becomes substantially shorter and the characters’ roles are often different than those of their male counterparts.

The first thing to consider is the moniker, “buddy story.”  The term “buddy” typically carries male connotations, yet there is really no other word in English to describe close female friendships in this way.  Women often use words like “girlfriend” or “sister” in this way, but these words are not exclusive to describing friendships, and they can carry very different connotations in other contexts.  In recent years, the abbreviation “BFF” (Best Friends Forever) has come into vogue, and this seems to be used primarily by females.  Still, no one currently talks about experiencing a “BFF story” in print or on film.  So for lack of a better term, I will stick with “buddy story” in describing tales involving two female characters on a fictional journey.

Very often, female buddies appear in comic roles.  Mistresses Ford and Page from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor set the precedent for female friends who get themselves in and out of trouble together for the sake of a good laugh.  These character types would later appear as Lucy and Ethel in the 1950s and two decades later as Laverne and Shirley.

What is interesting here is the roles these female comics play compared to their male counterparts.  In comic roles, the male buddies usually have two roles:  the straight man and the fool.  The fool is often brunt of the straight man’s jokes or the victim of other characters’ actions.  There is also a hierarchical structure to these relationships;  one of the guys is clearly in charge, whereas the other follows orders.

This dichotomy of roles seldom exists to this extent in female buddy stories.  Instead, the women are either equal in their foolishness or they are the normal “everywoman” characters trying to overcome the foolishness of those around them (more often the idiotic men around them).  Does this suggest that audiences are uncomfortable with the notion of witnessing a woman being victimized in this way or being made to look foolish?  Or is it simply easier or more natural to cheer on female underdogs as they navigate a foolish and oppressive society together as equals (perhaps a more realistic scenario for women, historically speaking)?

Sometimes female comic roles dabble in the dramatic sphere and depict the various life stages of women.  For example, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell portray good friends who navigate the minefields of men and romance together in the comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams explore teenage friendship in the history-spoofing film Dick.  Likewise, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion features two lifelong friends who have supported each other through the travails of adolescence and adulthood.  Cultural differences are bridged in the comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham, as are the realities of domestic abuse in Fried Green Tomatoes.

Law enforcement, a long-standing platform for male buddy stories, has its feminine counterparts as well.  The television series Cagney and Lacey broke new ground in its portrayal of women detectives, and in the comedy The Heat, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy play a female odd couple waging a battle against crime.  In this female cop version of The Odd Couple, Bullock’s character plays the straight role while McCarthy plays the uncouth fool.

When surveying women’s roles in dramatic films, none conjure the female buddy archetype better than Thelma and Louise.  In a picaresque story reminiscent of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (a story that mirrors many elements of Twain’s novel), two friends are brought closer together as they race west while dodging the law.  While they are on the highway, life is good.  But with every stop along the way, they find themselves getting deeper into trouble until they run out of road and there is nowhere for them to go but down.  Truly, they are BFFs to the end (or at least to the end of their steep downward journey).

The buddy story archetype has long been rich ground for writers, particularly where male characters are concerned.  Nevertheless, the list of female examples is rather sparse, comparatively speaking.  In thinking about the roles that women have in these narratives, it is striking how many films depict the female buddy archetype not so much in pairs—as is most common when the characters are male—but rather as an ensemble of female characters.  Is this because close female friendships do not exist in pairs very often in real life, or are there other factors at play?  Perhaps this will be the topic I explore in my next article.

Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 3

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Two days ago, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers.  Yesterday, I posted an update to the story opening.

I was happy to find that the writing group had responded favorably to the revised opening.  The “final” revision feels like less of a re-write, though it was built up from a blank page again; the difference being that I kept one eye on the previous take, retaining the pieces that had worked and incorporating most of the notes along the way.


Team Approach – further revised beginning

Just before it dripped into his eyes, Thom Champlain wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and continued to adjust the sensitivity of the sensor he was calibrating.  He did this with practiced efficiency, the product of quite a few years in the field waiting for his big break.  If practiced efficiency played a bigger role than luck in this endeavor, Thom would have moved up the ranks already, instead of sweating out here in this remote canyon, miles from anyone else but Mickey Barton.  But, since luck was the prime mover in his line of work, there was no instead to be had.  Mickey, dressed in a camouflage shirt and wearing a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers that had probably been purchased at a truck stop, piped up, “Anything I can do to help out?”

Thom considered the question, but, really, Mickey had already helped by just reporting that he had seen, and acquired only slightly blurry footage of, something out of the ordinary.  That was how these outings usually started, some regular Joe going about their regular day to day happened to stumble upon the weird, the unexplainable, the just not quite right.  And the blurry, hastily snapped photos and cell-phone videos usually came along for the ride, even though every once in a while the footage the reporter provided was good enough to move their story up or down in the queue: up because it really might be Bigfoot or down and out because it was very clearly a very hirsute Uncle Earl romping around in the woods.  So, Thom gave his traveling companion the usual “Nope, just about done here.  Then we get to wait for sundown,” before resuming the task at hand.

Mickey, satisfied that he had done his duty in offering, returned to whittling a little doo-dad, a keep-your-hands-busy activity that he had picked up as a youngster.  Thom, satisfied that he had deflected Mickey’s well meaning question, ran the final tests on the sensor and found it ready to go.  He had already set up the multi-array camera unit, giving him both visible and infrared capture capabilities.  Given the distance that they had had to traverse with backpacks, Thom could only bring in light gear.  If this venture panned out, then he could request an air drop of extra items for the next phase, maybe even get a few more field agents on the scene.  But that was putting a cart full of basketed eggs before a thirsty horse, since he first had to get the proof.  Proof of whatever: as long as Mother Nature or human intervention didn’t explain it, it was all within the scope of the Extra-normal Research Group.

As the sun sank below the canyon rim, the light took on an eerie glow, highlighting the rock formations that studded the walls.  Surely there were plenty of caves and crevices up there to hide whatever wanted to stay hidden.  Thom had watched Mickey’s shaky video enough times to know that the creature it appeared to capture was about the size of a bear cub and it was easy for bears to hide themselves from prying eyes even in well traveled wilderness areas.  So, it stood to reason that something else of that size, since the video pretty clearly showed a non-bear, unless bears had all of a sudden started sprouting leathery wings, could just as easily hide as well.  With the equipment all set up, Thom suggested that they move downwind a hundred yards or so to wait.  He had remote monitoring capabilities, so they’d know if the sensors tripped from an acceptably safe range.


This time the notes were very lasered in, as I would expect from the reviews of a piece that has gone through a few revisions: subsequent reads bring up additional items.  This is one of the values of having others read your work – they will see things you don’t and offer additional perspectives.

1. Job vs endeavor?  Word choices can convey the character’s feelings about their current situation, so give the reader that extra bit of info by picking well.

2. Re-read to discern voice/tone.  Each character has a voice, reading the dialogue out loud to yourself can reveal inconsistencies.

3. Expand the description of Mickey whittling as comparison to Thom’s work with the sensor equipment.

4. Decisively convey the specific time-frame that is covered.  Hours, minutes, etc.?

5. Thom’s motivation and frame of mind needs to be clearer.

6. One thing as a what if to consider – flip first two sentences to grab the reader.


Despite the fact that I got some very good notes on this version, the overall discussion was that it was now a good anchor point from which to go forth and to hold on to those notes as things to consider when going back through after the first draft of the entire piece was done.  In other words, these are nuance items not affecting the overall story arc.

I hope that this three post series has given a glimpse into the cycle of writing->feedback->revision->feedback that often occurs within our writing group.

Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 2


Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Yesterday, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers. Given the notes and recommendations I had received, I scrapped the original story as written and developed a revised opening (despite already having continued along the original storyline, some pieces of which may find their way back in later).  Instead of a team of researchers, I re-imagined the process as a single agent acting as the initial contact with a report that the group had deemed as having real possibility.  This new opening is set “in the moment”:


Team Approach – revised beginning

“Well, it sure took you guys long enough to send someone out here.  I posted on your website a bunch of times over the last year.”  Dressed in a camouflage shirt, jeans, work boots, and a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers, Mickey Barton looked every bit as Thom Champlain had expected.  As the local liaison for the Extra-normal Research Group, Thom had come to this remote canyon with Mickey to ascertain whether the strange phenomena that Mickey had reported was something the group would be interested in studying.

“Like I said, Mickey, sometimes it takes a little while for reports to work their way through the queue.  We recognize that folks on the ground give us our best leads, but the volume is such that it can take some time to find the golden nuggets in the sand. I appreciate you taking the time to bring me out here personally, though.”  Thom hoped this would placate the man’s surly feelings.

“My pleasure, I’m super interested in finding out what’s going on.  I’ve been camping in this same area for many years so I can tell when something’s not quite right.”

They trudged through the brush for another hour before Mickey pulled up and pointed ahead, “Right here’s where I shot the video I sent you.  I know it didn’t capture the full impact of what I saw, but I’m not a pro where that kind of thing is concerned, just happened to have my phone out.”

“Ok, we’ll set up here then – I’ve brought some stuff with me that should help get a clearer picture.  We’ve got a couple of hours before sundown.”

Thom unshouldered his backpack and carefully unpacked the two instruments that were light enough to bring on the hike.  He arranged the motion sensor array where Mickey had indicated and then hooked it up to the high resolution digital video camera.  The whole thing came together when the two worked in tandem with the camera tracking to the motion sensors.  All automatic and very precise.  If there was something to be seen out here, they’d get the necessary footage, for sure.  And Mickey seemed confident that there was something to be seen out here.

Thom enlisted Mickey’s help in testing the gear once it was set up.  This was more to engage Mickey in the process than out of necessity.  Most often, he worked alone.  And most often, he found nothing out of the ordinary.  But that was the local liaison’s job: get a trained set of eyes on things, separate the wheat from the chaff before bringing in a full team.  Eventually, Thom hoped to move up in the ranks and take on the more interesting assignments.  But the group worked on a merit basis, you had to prove yourself in the lower ranks, pay your dues with no screw-ups and patiently wait for the invite.  The group provided the tools to let the liaison’s do their job, after all, it was talent in using those tools that got you noticed.

After testing the gear, the two men just had to wait for nightfall.  They had seen nothing out of the ordinary so far, but Mickey had indicated in his reports that the strange things only happened at night.  That had Thom a bit skeptical.  After all, he was well aware that the extra-normal was not usually on a timetable and it was only a perception that night brought out more of the weird.  With the instruments calibrated, there wasn’t much chance that they’d miss anything.  Minutes gave way to hours and day gave way to night.  Thom was beginning to think he’d wasted the better part of a day when one of the sensors chirped, something that sounded all too natural.  It wouldn’t do to have some alarm blaring, skewing the results by scaring off whatever had caused the sensor to trip.

Thom peered into the darkness, not surprised that he didn’t see anything himself.  The video equipment was scanning infrared as well as capturing the visible spectrum with an extremely sensitive low-light mechanism.  Whatever it was that had engaged the equipment would show up when they reviewed the footage.  Thom would perform a preliminary check in the morning, then send the data on up the food chain.


The notes I received when reviewing this revised piece with the writing group were more focused on specifics as compared to the last batch:

1. Give each character a perspective and more interaction/conversation – the characters feel 2 dimensional, need to put some meat on them.

2. What if you approach it like Thom’s done this 100 times – 99 failures to get to a single success – how would that affect his motivation?

3. You make mention of a chirp sound – expand that to heighten the tension

4. Make stronger contrast between the two men.  Thom as the professional, Mickey as excited to be a part of the experience

5. What if you have a faster heighten – start late, leave early – start with them already on site and get right to the reveal.  Hook the reader early.

6. Even the lightest equipment isn’t easy to hump out into the wilderness, so pare it down to the essentials and give a reason for that specific equipment to have been brought along.


I felt that these notes were more about finessing the story particulars vs it being in need of major overhaul.  Come back tomorrow to see the “final” version of this piece, mostly dialed in and ready to be the cornerstone upon which the story is anchored.


Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 1

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Several months ago, I started a new story during a writing group pomodoro session – I came up with an opening line “We found the rip in our world quite by accident” and ran with it.  A month later there was going to be another pomodoro session where I intended to continue the piece, but I had made a commitment to the writing group to post something new to WattPad by that meeting as well.  So, I dusted off the start of the story, ran it through a cleanup editing pass (sometimes those pomodoro pieces get off in the weeds) and got it released to WattPad:


Team Approach – part 1

We found the rip in our world quite by accident.  Sure, there’d been reports of strange goings on in the Arizona desert, but they’d been filed by some pretty out there folks and it just sounded too incredible.  But, even crackpots want to be heard and eventually the volume caused the signal to overtake the noise and some clarity to rise above the chatter.  So, we dispatched a crew and we took it seriously, sending them with all of the gear they’d need, a well-appointed security detail, and a full support structure back at home base to mitigate the risks should any crop up.  See, we don’t take our responsibility lightly.  When you’re the lone defense against the extra-normal you have to keep things sharp, always striving for dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

The team on the ground covered all of the disciplines: cryptozoology, extra-terrestrial chemistry, ESP, alchemy.  Everyone has at least two areas of expertise so we can be efficient and nimble.  The smaller the crew the less noticeable they are, the easier it is to blend in and act like tourists.  Our security details are dispatched with advanced weaponry, nothing that screams out their purpose – the average joe would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the scientists.  Our vehicles look normal from the outside, nothing too flashy.  We try to avoid anything that would garner a second glance.  Now, the insides of those vehicles are a different story.  The highest of the high tech, stuff that would blow the mind of that same average joe: sensor arrays, long range scanners, data collection, chemical composition analysis.  You name it, we’ve either got it or are working on acquiring it.

So, when this team hit the ground, they were ready for just about anything – hours of training spent honing their particular skills, turning the extraordinary into second nature and habit.  Makes my job in the command center look like a walk in the park.  I’m more of a coordinator, keeping tabs on the real worlds reactions, making sure the team’s cover sticks.  Even I get some of that high end tech.  There’s not a police force in the country that we can’t tap into to get up to the minute intel.  Even some of the feds are accessible, and the ones that aren’t are already in the know about our missions and keep us in the loop as peers.  Mostly, I think they realize that without us, they’d be dealing with this stuff themselves.

Right away, we realized this mission was turning into something real and important.  The scanners registered something big, the sensor arrays tuned all sorts of disturbance: electromagnetic flux, super-gravitational bursts, extra-terrestrial chemistry – the whole nine yards.  Everyone was going to get a piece of this one.  Then we hit the first snag.  Everything was pointing to a remote piece of land, a small canyon that was privately owned.  It’s easy for us to make our way onto public land or anything managed by a government agency, but private property can get tricky.  I started working up a back story for a few of the team members, hoping we’d be able to bluff our way in for a little sneak and peek.  Once we had confirmation, we could bring in the state or federals to help get everything smoothed over, usually by offering the land owner a swap for something worth much more – usually they were amenable, sometimes not.  We always got in, sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but it was always quietly handled.

So, I put together a usual cover: environmental group looking to verify a species’ habitat in the canyon.  Usually that was better received than going in with a mining and minerals story.  We would send in the cryptozoologist since she could talk the habitat talk.  Even cryptozoology is rooted in regular earth biology and ecosystems.  Then we had to track down the property owner.  It was a desolate canyon, they didn’t live out there, they just owned it.


During the next writing group meeting, once the other members had had a chance to read it through, I got some great feedback:

1. The story had a subtle contradiction: this group apparently has lots of resources (the narrator even says that) but there is a “seat of the pants” vibe.

2. Inconsistent voicing: the narrator tries to be conversational but it slips into sounding like a filed report at times, giving a “well, this already happened” feeling.

3. The first person narrative is likely going to prove limiting since the narrator is removed from the action so everything will be filtered through what he was told, not what he saw himself.

4. What if you focused on the “feet on the ground” and put the action in the present, bringing the reader along for the ride vs telling them what already happened?


Even though I had already written the continuation of the original, I recognized the validity of these observations and embarked on taking things in a new direction (the value of having a smart group of folks whom you trust).  Come back tomorrow to see where I took it from there.