Rewrite and Guitar-making: The art of shaving the braces

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.30.04 PMWhen a luthier is making the top of an acoustic guitar, he or she is faced with a delicate balancing act: the spruce used for good tops is thin, 1/8” or less. And the tone of the instrument depends on putting enormous tension on this fragile sheet. The top needs support, but too much support deadens tone. The solution: scalloped bracing. The luthier adds braces, then finally shaves away as much as possible, leaving just enough to keep the instrument from collapsing.

So, your point, John?

Rewrite is similar, and it helps me to use the model of the luthier. The first draft is the rough top, braces in the right places (plot elements, characterization and so on). The rewrite scallops the braces, usually removing unnecessary wood so the story can ring true.

I guess it’s possible to torture this simile too much, but the thought helps me through the minutiae – those gentle passes of the draw knife over the brace that give the guitar – and the story – its voice.

“Bloodline” on Netflix, March 20

Yes, I know it doesn’t sound like writing.  But it is.  Music, that is.  And my son Edward, not me.  See a first review from the Berlin festival.  Edward Rogers and Tony Morales wrote the music for this Netflix original by the creators of the enormously successful Damages.

BloodlineAm I proud?  You bet.

Show Me!

I was privileged to hear jazz singer Kate McGarry interpret Show Me, the Lerner and Loewe classic from My Fair Lady.  Most of my thoughts these days turn to writing, and these lyrics seem to me worth several pages explicating the admonition to Show, Don’t Tell:

Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,Kate McGarry
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat!

Warehouse 13

Just a quick personal note that SyFy’s Warehouse 13 will finish out with a short fifth season beginning April 14th.  My son Edward has written the music, and it’s been a good run.  Each episode goes to a different time, different place, which made it an exciting creative platform for a composer. The theme song was nominated for an Emmy.  Edward passed on these details:  “Hey gang… the PREMIERE date for Season 5 of Warehouse 13 is MONDAY, April 14, at 9pm  (4-14-14, which, btw, totals 14 when you add it up…).  I’m still finding out the full schedule, but if they show all 6 in order with no pre-emptions, the finale will air on Monday, May 19th.”

See Edward’s website for more of his music.

Stories vs. Genres

Over the last couple of years, I have been forced to learn about the difference between the drive to create and the (apparent) expectations of potential readers.  Writing is writing, and the doing of it is reward in itself.  It’s just that you need a  saw and hammer sometimes to fit it into the genre.

When I began writing my first novel about three years ago, it was my romantic notion that it should be an exercise in storytelling, a blending of oral tradition and whatever skill with the Mother Tongue I could muster.  I had wispy ideas of a plot, to be sure, but I found myself larding the first draft generously with diversions about my own special interests:  blues music and the southern gift of language and storytelling.  (Living as I do now in Minnesota, I don’t hear as much euphony.  We tend to keep it clipped.  Maybe it’s the 25 below.)  As a result, the first draft of Hack the Yak weighed in at 127,000 words.  (Most novels of my genre are 80 – 100 thousand words).

I finally figured out that the story needed to move more quickly, took out some material that I love, and squeezed Hack the Yak down to 88,000 words.  I hope that is closer to the publishing world’s perception of reader expectations.

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

Frank Ratliff, telling the story of Bessie Smith

I was just looking back at pictures and notes I took in March 2012 on the Blues Highway (Hwy 61 between Memphis and Vicksburg).  I justified the trip as part of writing my first draft.  As I worked through the novel, I had to cut most of the blues highway material, but it has provided a couple of short stories.  My character Mase in The Cle eland Travel Inn is based on … well, really, abjectly copied from … Frank Ratliff, the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksburg, MS.  I attempted to capture Rat’s storytelling voice in a non-fiction piece, Bessie Smith’s Death.

A fine writing teacher and novelist, Steve Ulfelder, mentioned in a class that his third novel was the one that finally made it into the marketplace (check out Purgatory Chasm or his new one, Shotgun Lullaby at his website) but said a bit wryly that the good stuff in the first novels is creeping back into his later writings.  An optimistic hope for me.

Rollin’ the Stone Up the Hill

I knew it had to happen, but I figured I’d be reading Hemingway or Shakespeare, Steinbeck or Joyce when it did.

I’m talking about the hit-upside-the-head feeling of being a talentless dSmashed Guitarrudge.  I recognized it right away, because I’ve had it more often than I care to admit as a musician, listening to other guitarists play spectacular stuff that I couldn’t touch.  Makes you want to go home and trash your axe.

So here I am, deep in the middle of the story arc of my second novel, Skins and Bone.  The Cape Cod Writers Conference has come and gone.  Lots of pearls, lots of help. Yes, they tell me, not all writing can be lyrical.  Really, you just have to plug along.  Write every day.  Pretty soon you’ll have something you can revise.  Then I pick up Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  Here are a couple of bits.

“He has a great smile, a cat’s smile. He should cough out yellow Tweety Bird feathers, the way he smiles at me.”Sleeping cat

“You drink a little too much and try a little too hard. And you go home to a cold bed and think, That was fine. And your life is a long line of fine.”

Drat!  Well, the good news is that trashing an Eberhard Faber #2 is not a big deal.  Wait a minute, I write on my computer …

A Reading

My Story Blues Highway was published in the May, 2013 annual Bacopa Literary Review, and I was asked to read a portion of it at the Bacopa annual meeting in Gainesville, FL.  Here’s the reading:

The Bacopa Review had 80+ short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry.  See the Bacopa website  for a copy.   My whole short story, called The Cle eland Travel Inn, is here:

A Storyteller, the Oral Tradition, and the essence of writing.

I need a pick-me-up, folks.  In these dark days of gun-blasted insanity, I need something to remind me of the deep current of goodwill and understanding that runs through most of our lives.  Something comforting.

As a child, I loved bedtime stories … didn’t we all?  Maybe that’s why one place I have turned for comfort is a story.  This one was told by Frank Ratliff, whom I met last March in Clarksdale, MS.

Frank … ‘everybody calls me Rat’ … is the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel.  The Riverside was originally the colored-only hospital in Clarksdale, which is about fifty miles south of Memphis and the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta and thus the incubator of country blues and a great deal of rock ‘n roll and R&B.

The hospital was closed about 1940, a few years before Rat’s mother bought the building

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

and opened it as a hotel.  The original building had six or seven patient rooms, plus an operating/recovery room.  The great blues singer Bessie Smith was brought here after a car accident on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale in September, 1937.  It was here that she died.  Rat told me the story … the real story … as we sat in the chairs that front the Riverside.

Storytelling is different from writing in at least one important way:  it includes a storyteller.  A good storyteller can put art into idle conversation, and people like Rat that have the gift are few and far between.  Rat has the soft diction and slow cadence common to his part of the delta, and he understands that there is music in language.

Here’s how he told the story of Bessie Smith’s accident, as nearly as I can transcribe it:

“They say Bessie died because no hospital would take her, but that’s not right at all.  They brought her here, right here, laid her up in the front room of the hospital.  See, what really happened was they had this terrible accident out on the highway.  Right behind them was a car with a doctor, white doctor, and another man.  The doctor took one look at Bessie and knew they were gonna need to get her to a hospital.  He sent his friend off to try to make a telephone call, but they were out in the country.  Only people around there surely didn’t have telephones.  So it took a while to get in touch with the funeral parlor, get the hearse to come out.”  Rat pauses, looks up toward the morning sky, assembling his words,  “See, they didn’t send no ambulance to get a colored person in those days.  Just a hearse so they wouldn’t have to make two trips if the person just happened to die on the way to the hospital.”

Rat reflects for a minute, purses his lips, “After Bessie died, newspaper up North said she was refused at the white hospital, but that makes no sense.”  He punctuates the obvious with a nod.  “No sense at all.  No driver woulda tried to take her to the white hospital in the first place!  Not when the colored hospital was a few blocks away.”  He shakes his head, reflecting on the foolishness of the press story.  “No, she died right here.  But white folks here in Clarksdale were embarrassed by the attention from the newspapers up North.  Maybe that’s why they closed this hospital a couple of years later.  Then coloreds had to go up to Memphis to the hospital … fifty miles or more.  Wasn’t ‘til many years later that the hospital here took colored folks.“

He pauses for a minute, finds a segue, and continues,

“When my daughter was born, they had a colored side of the hospital, but it was full, so they put my wife out in the hall on the white side … first time anyone knew of that happenin’.  Her doctor was a practical man, livin’ as he was here in the South.  He understood his obligation … you know, the oath he took … so he took both colored folks and white folks.  He had one office where he saw his patients, but he had two waiting rooms.  Like I said, he was a practical man.  I always wondered what the white folks woulda thought if they’d known the chair they was sittin’ in had been occupied by colored folks just a few minutes before.”Frank Ratliff, storyteller

He nods his head remembering, then goes on, “Of course, segregation was good for the Riverside.  Only hotel in Clarksdale that would take black people, so all the bluesmen have stopped here.  They used to practice downstairs.  As a child, I’d sit and listen.  Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk.  You name a famous bluesman, and I’ll bet you he’s stayed here.  Yessir.”

That’s the story.  My written version can’t quite catch the tempo, of which Rat is a master.  It would fit pretty well into an 8-bar or 12-bar blues.

There’s a nice video of Rat showing off the Riverside on YouTube.  If you’re anywhere near there, you owe it to yourself to stay there.  For the stories.

Writing, storytelling and the music of language

I’m finding that the process of writing sometimes gets in the way of the goal of writing, which is storytelling.

Language may be the most important gift from the genetic dance that formed us.  It allows us to remember things and share ideas beyond tribe and lifetime.  But writing is a johnny-come-lately at maybe 6,000 years old or so, and writing seems to want to squash the tempo out of language.

I have to admit a little bit of a grudge against you, Alphabet.  After all, you hijacked our stories.  Oh, Alpha, I know you didn’t mean to, and I know it was important to count heads of cattle and amphorae of wine so we could get on with the business of civilization.  But, Alphabet, you made us too often ignore the music of language. Before you came along, I suspect that there were no stories without music.  Even if unaccompanied by instrument or choir, spoken words always have music.  The oral tradition values that sound and rhythm.  You can still get whiffs of it today, but modern media often override sound and rhythm with sound bites and volume.  It’s hard to compress art into a Tweet.

I spent a lot of my career writing for business.  Precise, accurate, dry writing.  Facts strung together by logic in pursuit of matters legal and financial, didactic and persuasive.  I enjoyed it … there is a challenge to making something clear in as few words as possible.  ImageWriting the novel has been different and harder.  Tone and rhythm are take effort to maintain.  I test out my words by speaking them.  I do it to find their natural melody.  I have a pretty strong suspicion that nobody’s going to read something with no beat and no flow.



Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.  Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English.  I believe it.  What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage?  Every day.  I hope you will join my pilgrimage.  I’m writing a book … well, several.  Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way.  I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me.  C’mon, it will be an adventure …