Sunday, August 26, 2012


The word “trope” is one of my favorite writing terms. It refers to a creative device that’s not quite a cliché, but is sufficiently familiar as to be recognizable to the reader (or viewer of it’s regarding a movie or TV program). Tropes have been on my mind a lot lately. One of my many side projects these days is writing a treatment for a television sitcom that I think will strike the right chord in these times. Including tropes in the sample episodes is a necessary evil and somewhat tricky business, too. You want to put in some familiar gags to give the audience a comfort level with the material, but at the same time, you want to avoid coming off a hackneyed and stale.

So it’s no surprise that when I was at the Y the other day and found myself without my ear buds, that the thought of tropes returned to keep my mind occupied while I did my cardio workout. As a mental exercise, I came up with an example of a trope that could be used in different ways within a similar scenario.

The scene takes place in a health club, full of all kinds of fancy machines and attractive people in exercise gear. Most everyone is very fit, though you may have a few “regular” people working out among them. Enter your main character, a guy ready to exercise. Let’s call him Joe. The basic action in the scene is this: Joe walks over to an unoccupied treadmill, gets on it and falls, at least once, due to his ineptitude, cockiness or any number of other reasons. As he lies in a heap, bruised and humiliated, he becomes an object of ridicule, ending the scene.

Sound familiar? Could be something that happens to Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory or Mr. Bean (or even Jack Tripper, in Three’s Company, if you’re a 70’s TV fan), right? Will you laugh even if you saw this in another show before? More than likely, yes, because one of the basic rules of comedy is people laugh when others fall down, as long as they don’t really get hurt.

Let’s see this in action. Here is the scene with two different Joes.

Joe #1 is a macho guy. He looks like he’s been working out for years, but he’s not a muscle-bound weightlifter. He’s dressed in the most gaudy workout clothes out there, designed to emphasize his physique. You know the kind of guy I’m talking about. Anyway, this Joe walks in like he owns the place. He scans the gym slowly, an animal on the hunt. He’s obviously looking to see if there are any hot women he can flex for. He spies some lovely ladies near an unoccupied treadmill, so he strides over to the machine and climbs on. Joe looks left, then right, smiling his most winning smile at the two women, then starts up the treadmill. Everything seems to be going fine at first as Joe trots at a low speed. He’s looking good (he thinks), smiling as though there’s nothing to this and nods to the two women like “this is the way it’s done.” For their part, neither woman really respond much, something not lost on our friend.

Then Joe decides it’s time to pick up the pace to raise the stakes, so he hits a button or two and starts jogging faster. He looks at the two ladies again, but they’re unimpressed as they continue their own exercise. Not to be daunted, Joe hits the button several more times until the treadmill is turning at an almost maniacal pace. Now it looks like Joe can barely keep up, but he keeps that rictus of a smile plastered on his face as he struggles to pump his legs fast enough to match the machine’s speed. He then makes the fatal mistake of looking at both women to see if they’re watching and KA-BLAM, he slips and the treadmill launches him backwards on his butt. The two women finish their exercise and towel themselves off as they step over the now prone Joe.

Pretty funny, right?

Joe #2 is totally different. He’s a geeky-looking fellow, not conditioned at all, wearing unfashionable clothes -- checkered shorts, extra long athletic socks, an “E = MC2” T-shirt, and the like. It’s obvious he’s probably never stepped into a gym before and he appears to be lost with all the bustling activity going on, not to mention all the machines standing like trees in a metal forest. He wanders sort of aimlessly, looking with more than casual interest at some of the other exercisers and appears a bit befuddled by their obvious skill. He backs up and bumps into an unoccupied treadmill. A woman comes up to him and asks if he’s using it and looking confused, he stammers he is, then climbs on. Joe stares at the panel with all the buttons and lights and tries to figure it out. The woman looks on and asks if he needs any help, but of course, Joe’s ego is going to trump his common sense here and he declines. He pushes one button and nothing happens. Then he pushes a second one and the treadmill begins to turn. Joe has to grip the handrails to prevent falling over and straddles the moving belt, watching as it rolls under him. Still hovering over him, the woman tells him he needs to step on the belt and walk at the pace it is moving. Joe thanks her and tries it.

To his surprise, he’s moving along quite nicely and he smiles, pleased with himself. Unfortunately, curiosity creeps in and he can’t help but push another button to see what happens. The machine speeds up and Joe barely keeps his feet while maintaining the treadmill’s pace. Somehow, the machine speeds up some more without Joe’s intercession this time and he’s now struggling to keep up. The machine ramps up another notch and now Joe is running as fast as he can, panting like a madman. The woman tells him to hit the red button, but Joe can’t hear her over the roar of the machine. She yells again, “The red button!” and he repeats it after her, then sees the button she means. He presses it; the machine stop immediately, but Joe isn’t expecting that and his forward momentum sends him careering over the top of the treadmill and he lands face first in front everyone. The woman walks over to him, bends down and instead of asking him if he’s okay, she wants to know if he’s done using the machine now. He replies with a resigned “yes.”

Can you picture it?

I’m sure you can imagine other Joe scenarios (like Joe who has a crush on one particular woman, sees her there and wants to impress her on the treadmill, and his shoe lace gets caught in the mechanism, sending him flying). Or what about if you add a prankster to the mix? Either it’s a friend or rival in any of the above circumstances who sabotages the machine while Joe is on it -- say by stepping on the back of the belt or pulling the plug -- and the consequences are the same with poor Joe sailing this way or that, landing on some body part that’s going to hurt like hell later.

Want to know more about tropes? Check out this link.

Tropes, my friends -- fun for the whole family, don’t you think?

- Michael

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Organizational Me

Those people who know me are quite familiar with my lifelong preoccupation with organization and its scion, time management. That’s not to say in this area I’m practically perfect in every way (to quote a description of Mary Poppins) -- God knows my wife can point to examples of my LACK of organization, to be sure. However, in certain areas of my life, most notably my writing, I’m forever actively pursuing my ideal world and devote much time to the effort.

For many years, I’ve used Microsoft OneNote to keep my writing organized. OneNote allows you to create a notebook-like structure that you can arrange to handle all of your writing needs. For example, since I write many different types of pieces, I break mine down from top down beginning with Movies, Television, Non-Fiction and Fiction. Both Movies and Television are broken down into Comedy, Drama and Action / Adventure. Under Fiction, there are Novels, Novellas and Short Stories. Under Non-Fiction, you’ll find General Essays, Technology and Blogs. Each of these is split further until I finally get to different sections for each work-in-progress, with a separate section for story ideas and snippets, the latter of which is just a container for fragments of prose I compose out of the blue with no other intended purpose other than to get an idea out of my head and maybe use some day.

Unfortunately, OneNote is not a cross-platform product, leaving me bereft when I migrated to the Macintosh. For a while, I continued to run OneNote on a Windows virtual machine, but that grew old pretty quickly. Then I discovered Evernote, a true cross-platform product that allows you to maintain your data in a cloud and makes it accessible to all your IOS, OSX and Windows devices. I found my nirvana! The only challenge was moving all my data from OneNote to Evernote. There was no easy migration path that I could figure out, so I did what anyone would do - I avoided it.

For the last few years, I adapted Evernote into my organizational system, only moving some of my active WIPs from OneNote into it, but leaving 90% of my older unfinished material to gather digital dust. Until recently, that is.

I finally broke down and began the long arduous process of moving all my old data into Evernote. It took several weeks to go through everything I had and then rearrange Evernote to accommodate it all. I tried to maintain the same organizational system in Evernote that I had in OneNote, but I had matured that process significantly in Evernote. Besides, since Evernote doesn’t have multiple layers of hierarchy (unlike OneNote), I had to learn to live within the two-layer system they have and then figure out how to go from conform my old structure to my new one. Trust me, this was a lot more work than it sounds like.

In the end, I’m pleased with the results. All of my legitimate projects (current and future) now reside in their own Evernote folder, with story ideas, snippets, fodder (web articles with potential story material), articles and the like all occupying their own folders. I have documents in a general Writing folder dedicated to Titles (book, story, whatever), Names (people and places, of either real or made-up names), Opening Lines (starting sentences that just come to me) and Loglines (single sentences describing a film idea, like “An amateur scientist discovers the secret to immortality, only to discover that the government will do anything to prevent the invention from getting into the wrong hands.”).

The best part of this exercise is not only did I pick out the next twelve stories in the last of the Foothills collections (tentatively entitled Life Beyond the Foothills), I have another dozen as back-up (for another collection down the road), PLUS I have thirty-six more for a three-book sci-fi series of twelve stories each. Not all of these stories are complete yet -- some are merely titles and general plots, others are halfway through the first draft, etc. However, I’m now ready to start the next book for real!

Stay tuned for more …


Monday, August 6, 2012

Labor of Love

Slightly longer than four years to the day, I published my second short story collection, Secrets of the Foothills. This book is the second of three books in the Foothills series, the first of which was entitled In The Foothills. [Ed. the capital “T” in “the” was completely intentional. Don’t ask.]. If everything goes according to plan, the final collection will be published in less than two years from now.
What keeps authors driving toward completion, especially when faced with the daunting task of creating from scratch a plausible narrative, rewriting, editing and polishing the draft so that it sparkles, handing it off to beta readers and editors who red-line the hell out of it, rewrite, re-edit and re-polish and so on, only to send it timidly into bookshelves (virtual and real) throughout the world?

Simply put, insanity.

Sure, you were expecting something more poetic with the title “Labor of Love,” but in truth, we authors have to be a little bit out there to do what we do. The same goes for artists in any medium, I guess. Voluntarily baring one’s soul for a public flogging certainly isn’t a sign of someone playing with a full deck, right? And yet we do it, willingly, gladly, even joyfully if we’re doing it right.
What does it take to be a writer? Talent, sure. Guts, absolutely. But if you’re not a little bit eccentric, you may just be like Sisyphus pushing that big ol’ rock up that hill, year after year, typed line after typed line. It’s not going to work for you no matter what you do. If you’re not non compos mantis, you need not apply. Really.

We writers are the odd ones, always looking off in the distance, trying to resolve some conflict our main characters have found themselves in, because God knows we didn’t put them there, right? Or when we finally show a little mercy to our protagonists, we’re busy dreaming of new ways to torture them. We’re sadists AND we’re masochists, it seems. Yeah, we’re normal alright, aren’t we?

Of course, I’m just kidding. Who among us who take the craft of writing seriously could ever see ourselves doing anything else? We’re not crazy -- we just have something to say and want to do it in the only way we know how and damned the consequences. We want to create people or worlds or whole universes simply because we feel this is the best way our message can go out to get through to the right people, if only they would listen.

Writing is truly a labor of love. It’s the best way I’ve found to say something profound and in an entertaining way. There’s power in knowing you can do that. You know what I mean, those of you who love to create.

So, keep your pen sharp and your quill well-inked … and remember, publishing a book isn’t an end, it’s only permission to start a new one.

~ Michael ~

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wherein I Channel My Inner Hemingway

Lately, I've been listening to To Have and Have Not on my Nano while working out at the gym, which was a novel by Ernest Hemingway on which a movie of the same name was loosely based. The film is one of my favorites from the 1940's because it stars Humphrey Bogart, one of my favorite actors of all time, and the nineteen year-old actress, Lauren Bacall.

A variation on a tweet someone posted triggered the following vignette in the mode of the popular literature of the time, featuring the daring exploits of characters like Harry Morgan, Bogart's character in the film, or Sam Spade and Rick Blaine, two other roles Bogey played in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, respectively.

She smiled with the look of someone who knew all the answers. I couldn't help thinking she'd be a real knockout if she would wipe that smug grin off her face. Instead, it took all I had to sit in the same room with her, especially after what I knew. I had no choice, though. I had a job to do.

"Nothing to say, Mr. Bishop?" she said, her eyes narrowing like a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. "I'm all ears."

"And all wisecracks, too," I said to her with a sneer. "Look, let's put all our cards on the table, shall we?"

She grinned that grin again, then crossed her legs, one long stem slowly over the other, and leaned my way.  "Sure. I call."

"Fine, I'll play it your way. The way I see it, Mrs. Talbot, you had three chances to kill your husband. The first two, well, they'd be kind of messy and complicated. You don't strike me as all that bright to pull either of them off."

She batted her eyes and turned her finely chiseled profile where I could admire it. "Go on."

Look at her, I thought. So damn cool. Wait until I deliver the punch line.

"Like I said, three chances. Number three has something to do with your husband's little drinking problem."

"So he drank, so what?"

"Drinking makes a man weak, that's all. Weak men make for stupid husbands. They tend to spend a little too much time hanging around with people who are even weaker."

She uncrossed her legs and leaned back, stretching those long limbs. I turned my head so as to not appear interested in the view, but she knew I couldn't help myself. She chuckled.

"Lots of people are weak, Mr. Bishop. You must meet plenty in your business."

I pulled his last cigarette out of the pack and gestured with it. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all. I'd join you, but I quit years ago. Please continue, though. This fairy tale you're telling is just getting interesting."

I lit the cigarette and walked to the other side of the room. She tried real hard not to watch me. I leaned against the wall and took a long drag on the butt.

"Let's see, where was I?" I said.

"Weak associates of my husband."

"Oh, that's right. Your husband enjoyed the company of some women of, let's see, questionable morals?"

"Questionable tastes, too."

"You could say that. Anyway, the way I see it happening is this -- he was out cavorting with one of his dates--"

She sat up. "Dates? That's what the kids are calling them now?"

I laughed in spite of myself. "Just hear me out."

"Go on, I'm listening. But hurry it up, I have my own 'date' tonight."

"So he was cavorting pretty closely with this blonde number, but you had enough. So you followed them from the gin joint back over to that one room walk-up he kept for his private meetings."

She stood up and walked around the desk, then leaned against it with her perfect hip. "Sounds like it's getting interesting."

"Quite so, in fact. You stayed in the shadows and entered the apartment building just behind them."

I watched her smirk and for a moment, wished I could shake her until she stopped her gloating.

"You look perturbed. Was it something I said? I'm just wondering how I could've followed this loving couple into a locked apartment building," she said.

I jumped at the bait. "Locked? How did you know it was locked?"

She sat back on the desk and smiled. "An unlocked apartment building in this city? Let me tell you one thing, Mr. Bishop. My husband may have been a philandering drunk, but he was no fool. I lived with the man for five years and he was a nut for security."

"That may be true, Mrs. Talbot, but he was a sloppy drunk. That night he made a fatal mistake."

"What's that?"

"Someone else -- another tenant, perhaps -- left the door ajar. Maybe something blocked it and your husband and his lady friend didn't notice in their, shall we say, 'festive' mood, leaving it ajar as well."

"So what? I just waltzed on in there without a key? How did I get into his apartment then?"

I stubbed out the cigarette against the wall and waited a moment as I sized her up. She's going to make one gorgeous inmate, I thought.

"Well?" she asked, now getting impatient. Good, I like impatient. It leads to mistakes.

"This is how I see it. You waited outside the door for a while, imagining all the sins the dearly departed were committed, getting more and more steamed. A neighbor, a gentleman next door maybe, sees you, this somewhat attractive woman, pacing around the hallway, anxious to get inside. You explain you're the guy's secretary and you need to get in his place to get some papers for an important meeting your boss is having in the morning."

Her laugh started out as a soft chuckle, then crescendoed into a full-throated, bawdy laugh. I had seen this many times before and I waited her out.

"Shall I go on?" I asked.

"By all means."

"So you flash your baby blues and maybe a bit of bare leg and the guy's drooling at your heels. It just so happens he has a spare key to the apartment, given to him by your husband in case of emergencies."

"Like when important papers are needed?"

"Yes, just like that. So he let's you in and without so much as a thank you, you close the door in his face and get to work."

"And what work would that be, Mr. Bishop?"

"Murder. The real world's oldest profession. Ask Cain."

She stuck out her chin in defiance. "You ask him."

"Wish I could, Mrs. Talbot, wish I could. Were you ever your husband's keeper?"

I sat back and watched her jump off the desk and head toward the door. 

"I think I've had enough of your questions, Mr. Bishop. I hired you to find my husband's murderer, not to make up stories about how I killed him. I loved Howard, more than anyone ever! To hear you tell it, I'm a cold-hearted killer and I'm nothing like that, I tell you."

She cried a few tears and pulled a hankie out of her bag, then dabbed her eyes. For a moment, I almost believed her. Almost.

"Don't you want to know how the story ends?" I asked, taunting her.

"I told you, I'm done here."

"Then why aren't you walking out the door?"

Her shoulders slumped in defeat and she slid into the chair next to the desk. She didn't say anything, but her eyes begged me to end her misery. I was happy to comply.

"Now here's where it gets interesting. You walk into the apartment, expecting them to be locked in the clinch in the living room. You planned to confront him, maybe break a lamp or ashtray or something. But he wasn't on the sofa necking with the blonde. The bedroom door was closed, but you could hear them in there."

She sank lower in her chair, the tears flowing for real now. I had her where I wanted her.

"While the loving couple were making noise, you were getting madder and madder. Then you spotted the blonde's purse on the coffee table, so you decided to do a little snooping, figuring they were going to be busy for a while.  As you were looking, you found a .38 stuff in one of those hidden pockets that come with those things. For a minute, you thought you'd leave it there, but something came over you. Disgust? Maybe. Jealousy? Probably."

Mrs. Talbot blew her nose in unladylike fashion and wiped her eyes again. Her mascara ran like a dime store watercolor, but she didn't seem to care how she looked at the moment. Her eyes told me to get on with it.

"Just then, you heard the door knob rattle, but there was nowhere to hide. There you stood, your hand in some floozy's purse, holding her loaded gun and you were about to be confronted. The first one out the door was the blonde. She screamed when she saw you, but froze. Your husband, dressed only in his boxers, came running out to see what the commotion was and there you stood with that gun in your hand. He made a run for you and before you knew it, you pulled the trigger just once. Down he went like a sack of eight balls."

I opened up my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle and two shot glasses. I pulled out the cork and poured both glasses full, then walked them over to where she sat and placed one in front of her.

"Drink," I told her. "You look like you can use a belt."

She shook her head, but watch me sip mine. After a moment, she picked up her glass and took a taste, then a little more.

"Thanks, I needed that."

"I figured. Mind if I continue?"

She just shrugged and took another sip of the rye. I took that as a go-ahead.

"After you spill your husband's blood on his nice gray carpet, you confronted the blonde who now knelt down on the floor, cowering like a whipped dog. You told her to get up, but she just shook all the harder. You yanked her to her feet by her hair--"

"Her hair? How would you know that?" she asked.

"The cops found a clump of her hair with the damaged follicle at the crime scene. Forensics took note that the shaft was broken in two or three places. They theorized you pulled her up by her bottle blonde tresses."

"Smart cops," she said, swallowing the last of the booze. "Hit me again, barkeep."

I laughed and gave her another dose. Celebrate while you still can, I thought.

"Go on."

"Not too much more to tell, really. The blonde stood there, shaking like a leaf in her unmentionables, begging you for mercy. You hit her hard, once, twice, with the back of your hand to her face. She spit out the blood along with the fake tooth you knocked out and forgot about. You turned and she thought you were going to leave. But she made one mistake -- she thanked you for sparing her."

Mrs. Talbot finished the second drink and sat back.  "Go on, finish what you started," she said with a gesture of her hands.

"You heard 'thank you' and you saw red. You turned the gun back toward her, aimed it at her head and shot her twice. She didn't stand a Chinook's chance in Hades.  After that, you wiped off the gun and put it back into the blonde's purse, then left as quietly as you could. The neighbor was a nosy character, though, and had a lot to tell the cops when they interviewed him."

"Like what?"

"Well, Mrs. Talbot, I can't give away all the best parts, can I? You'll hear plenty at the trial anyway."

I lit another cigarette, satisfied I had done my job.

"Give me one of those, will ya?" she said.

"I thought you quit."

"I did, but I could use one right now."

I flipped out a cigarette and handed it to her.


I lit hers with the end of mine. No sense wasting a good match.

"Thanks," she said, taking a deep drag and blowing out the smoke with her perfectly painted lips forming a tight circle, her eyes closed like she was lost in a dream. "So now what?"

"The cops are on their way over. It's up to them."

"What makes you think I'll stick around?"

I shrugged. "Where do you think you're going to run off to? Besides, maybe if you cooperate, the judge will go easy on you."

"I see your point."

"You're a funny one, Mrs. Talbot."

"Why's that?"

"There I was, telling you the entire story of how you committed a double homicide, even filling in conversations I figured you had even though I wasn't there to hear them and you didn't even challenge me on the details. What gives?"

She smiled, her well-manicured eyebrows arched quizzically. "Come now, Mr. Bishop, a girl has to keep a few secrets, doesn't she?"

"What secrets might that be?" I asked, sensing a fuller rendering of the truth was coming. I sat back in my chair and laid my crossed legs on the desk. "Humor me."

She leaned toward me. "Oh, I admit your tale was pretty engaging and had me going for a minute. I almost felt like I did kill them. But you got it wrong."

"How so?"

"I was out of town the day my husband was murdered."

I jumped and sat up. "You mean to tell me that's your strongest hand?"

"I'm just telling you what happened. You can decide whether or not it's the truth."

"That a job for the cops."

Just then, the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and listened.

"Bishop, it's O'Shea. Is the Talbot woman still with you?"

"Why yes she is, Lieutenant," I said, winking at her. "In fact, she's sitting right across from me."

"Well, we have a bit of a problem. Can you come down to the station?"

"What about the girl?"

"Don't worry about her now, just come down."

"Alright, Lieutenant, if that's what you want. See you in an hour."

I hung up the phone and just stared at it.

"Anything wrong?" she asked, a grin plastered on her face. A grin that said she had an ace in the hole and just went all in.

"Nothing I can't handle. Look, I have to run. You're free to go."

"Wait, what about the cops?" she asked, blowing smoke in my direction.

I leaned toward her. "Listen, I wouldn't get too cocky if I were you. The cops have enough evidence to put you away for life, if you're lucky. Me, I don't care whether they give you the chair or not. Just one thing -- I advise you don't get lost quite yet."

She stood up, stubbed out her cigarette and sauntered to the door. "Who, me? Lost? Why would I get lost? I'm an innocent woman."

With a final flip of her hair, she walked out the door and slammed it behind her.