The Counselor or Whose Story is this Anyway?

One line we hear in writing workshops is “Whose story is this?” Somebody should have asked that to the studio before they released “The Counselor”. It’s got a good cast, Penelope is decent, Brad Pitt is better, Javier Barbem and Carmen Diaz are wonderful. Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, but I can’t recommend the movie. All that talent is wasted.

Cormac McCarthy (the writer) is an acquired taste. His stories are unceasingly dark, the good guys rarely come out on top and his tales can be hit or miss. The Road was a hit for me, but The Counselor misses by a mile.

Spoiler Alert! Mild spoilers below.

It all boils down to ‘whose story is it?” In this movie Michael Fassbender and Cruz carry the main narrative – we see them snuggling in bed, we see Fassbender dithering about jumping into a life of crime, but as a viewer, I didn’t care. Fassbender and Cruz were roadkill, victims of circumstance and malice. The much more interesting characters were played by Bardem and Diaz. We see a fair amount of Bardem, but I would have liked to have seen more. Diaz is the force that drives this movie, this is her story. She’s the one that counts, but we don’t see enough of her and the movie drags. I kept  punching the fast forward button. The problem was I was in a movie theater. Can’t recommend this one, folks.

The moral is when you’re crafting a story, a novel or a screenplay, figure out who is the engine that moves the story and focus on that character.

 

When the Comfy Chair Gets Too Comfy

A couple of years ago, I had a hell of a time leveraging myself out of an easy chair. If you’ve reached that certain age, you may have had the same experience. I realized that if I didn’t do something, I was going to up and die in not too many years. Time to get off my fat butt and do something, but what? Here are some steps you can take:

See a doctor. I like my doc because he mixes traditional medicine with some newer techniques. His first suggestion was Cross Fit. I checked it out and decided it was too rigorous for someone on the shady side of sixty. I have a couple of 50ish friends who do Cross Fit regularly and swear by it, but I’m long past climbing ropes and doing chin ups.

Found a Personal Trainer My doctor’s next suggestion was a personal trainer. He recommended Step-by-Step Fitness here in PDX. I went and chatted with the trainer. Yahoo! I’d finally taken that first step. The biggest advantage to a personal trainer is that she’ll pace your workouts to your abilities and fitness levels. I discovered I lacked aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility. She helps me with all three. Finding the right trainer isn’t easy. Some of the trainers at the local gyms have a one routine fits all view of training. You may find their workouts too easy or impossible. Don’t give up, keep looking. Two years later, I’m stronger, more supple and have more endurance.

Change nutrition This was and is the hardest for me. We live in a world of processed foods, sugar and empty calories. Finding your path to good nutrition is a struggle and I’m still struggling. I can say, that I eat less bread and other carbs now and even eat a vegetable now and again.

Buy a foam roller I do believe that foam rollers may have been invented during the Inquisition – they hurt that much, but Christ they are effective. I used to have extreme sciatica and bouts of bursitis, but with regular use of my foam roller, my sciatica and bursitis are under control.

Get a dog No, seriously. About the time I started working out, we got a Bichon puppy. Puppies may require almost constant attention, but their benefits outweigh their disadvantages. Most importantly, I have to take him out on at least a couple of long walks every day, rain or shine. If I don’t, he gets pesky and chews up all the toilet paper in the bathroom. The added bonus is that he gives me unconditional love. You may not think that counts, but it does.

 

Pumpkin

Pumpkin

Be persistent Getting in shape and staying there is a constant struggle, but once I hit a certain level, the struggle got easier. It’s like quitting smoking. I had smoked for thirty years and quit a dozen times before it finally stuck. The first six months were hell, the second six were difficult, now 15 years later I can’t even conceive of smoking—and the savings on smokes pays the freight for my personal trainer.

Get moving and keep at it. Good luck.

 

 

Quiet! I’m Reading Here

I’m proud to announce that I will be reading from my novel-in-progress,Thunderhead, at the Three Mugs Brewpub in Hillsboro, Oregon on November 2nd, 2013. I’ll join local authors John Copp, Linda Needham, Gregg Townsley and Jason Brick in reading from their works. The social hour starts at 5:30 pm with the readings beginning at 5:55 pm. You can find further information at the event’s Facebook page. Grab a beer, sit down, relax and hear some great writers showing off their craft.

 

Paulina Journey

Paulina General Store and Saloon

Paulina General Store and Saloon

 

Back in the 70s, I fought fires for the Bureau of Land Management during my collegiate summers. We were stationed at a small guard station just out of the village of Paulina in the center of Oregon. I journeyed back to the region a couple of weeks ago to go camping up the in the Ochocos and drove 60 miles over gravel roads to visit Paulina once again. Paulina has one business, a combination store and saloon. It also had some typical homey touches that you find in out of the way places.

Head on the wall

Folks there are quite creative in decorating their lawns. Nothing goes to waste.

Paulina Lawn Decoration

Paulina Lawn Decoration

If you head down the Paulina Valley Road, at the junction with Camp Creek Road, you’ll see an old pioneer ranch house.

Campcreek Road Ranchhouse

Campcreek Road Ranchhouse

Further back towards Prineville, you’ll see Eagle Rock, a birder’s paradise and stunning landmark.

Eagle Rock

Eagle Rock

I may sound flip about my time in Paulina, but I had some of the best experiences of my life there. It was when I realized that I was a capable person, able to work hard in extreme situations. Great sights, life long friends, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

You’ll hear more about the Paulina Valley in my upcoming novel, Thunderhead: A High Desert Novel, due out in mid 2014. Stay tuned.

For a parting shot, here’s a photo of an infamous wigwam burner. Outlawed decades ago, a few survive, rusting in the sunshine. They should be declared historic structures. Seriously.

wigwam burner

 

 

It’s Time for my Closeup

One of the hazards of writing a novel is when a minor character stands up on her (or his) hind legs and says, “I’m taking over this boat.” That’s just happened to me. I had a minor character, a 22 year old kid named Donnie Bradshaw, who I’d determined would be a murder suspect and not much else. Now, he’s clambering for an increased role and get this, his own voice. Here’s our introduction to Donnie in my novel-in-progress, Thnunderhead.

A logging truck sped down Stillman Road, dust rising in a plume behind it. Donnie Bradshaw sneezed then swung the 8 pound splitting maul, his long arms working as pendulum, letting gravity do the work. He struck the pine round square on and split the log in two.  He took up one of the halves and split it into wedges. Five, maybe six cords today. Three bucks a cord. Hell, he and Uncle Jack would be rich in no time. Donnie laughed out loud but there was no one about to hear him.

He loved this place, an old logger’s cabin, up in the Ochoco Mountains. The spring had been warm and the snow had melted for the most part, but snow melting meant that the skeeters were about. Damned bugs. He liked to cut with his shirt off, the sun hot on his back, and the skeeters attacked him with frenzy unless he put on the beautyberry lotion his ma had cooked up. It worked fine and didn’t smell too bad.

The rhythm of physical labor helped Donnie forget about the troubles down in Barnesville. He’d gotten into a tussle with Karl Hanke at the Brightside. Hanke and Debbie Quick had been arguing down by the Troll House, loud enough that Donnie heard them way up at the loading dock. Hanke twisted Debbie’s arm, yelling at her and Donnie wasn’t going to stand by and watch that, she was his friend. Friends didn’t abandon their friends, did they?

He’d stepped in and Henke had clocked him. No words, just a hard overhand right. Donnie had popped up ready to dance, he wasn’t yellow, but Debbie had jumped in the middle. “No, no!” she had cried, pushing them back like a prizefight referee. “Let it go, Donnie. I’m fine.”

Donnie stopped to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The eye still hurt where Hanke had slugged him. No mirrors around, but Donnie figured it had blackened. It wasn’t the first time he’d had a black eye, nor probably the last. He’d get Hanke back. This wasn’t over.

Dutch had called him in the office later that day. “Can’t have fighting in the yard,” he’d said and canned Donnie on the spot. Donnie felt sorrowful. He’d liked that job, loading railcars, better than pulling green chain, moving irrigation pipes or bucking bales. They had a good crew, Debbie and Elmer and Roy. Now it was all gone, the joking, the hard work, being part of a group. Damn, Snotty, that’s what the milljocks called Dutch Van der Sloot behind his back. Donnie resolved to call him that to his face if he ever got a chance.

Debbie had dropped by his home that evening and told him it might be better if he’d get himself scarce for a few days. Donnie couldn’t see the use of that, but he trusted Debbie, said “Sure enough”. Debbie kissed him on the cheek, a sisterly kiss, and told him everything would be fine. She’d make sure of it Donnie trusted Debbie. Everything would be hunky dory.

While he chopped, four prop fighter planes buzzed over in formation like geese, heading west. There’d been a bunch of military planes flying overhead lately, both fighters and bombers. Folks all concerned about the coming Russian invasion. Bunch of bullshit if you asked Donnie. Though he did worry about the draft. He had no desire to go across the Pacific and shoot at folks that never did him harm.

Donnie walked over to the shade of a pine tree and swigged water from a canvas water bag. The water was warm, but refreshing. He resolved to refill the bag from the creek during his next break. Have to make it quick, he wanted to split another half cord before dinner.

Another truck chugging up the mountain roused Donnie from his thoughts. From the sound, it wasn’t a log truck, but his Uncle Jack, here to pick up another load of wood. A chill went through him as he stood in the shade waiting, and he put on his shirt.  Maybe with the money he and Jack made from the wood, he’d buy another shirt. Man should have more than two shirts, he thought.

Uncle Jack backed the truck up to the stacked lumber so they could load it easier. When his Uncle climbed from the truck, and walked towards him dragging his gimpy foot, Donnie knew something was wrong. Jack’s broad smile was missing and his shoulders were hunched as if he carried a burden.

“Is Ma okay?” Donnie asked.

“Just fine,” Jack said. “Merle Cameron called. Sheriff Harkness is asking about you.”

“I didn’t do nothing bad.”

“Harkness is a good man. He won’t shanghai you.” Sometimes Jack’s words came out wrong after the logging accident when he lost the working part of his left foot and got conked on the head. He meant railroad, but Donnie knew what he meant, most of the time. “Everything will be fine.”

That’s just was Debbie had told him.

A Cast of Characters

At a loss for realistic characters? You need look no farther than your local coffee shop. Local coffee shops have a resident population that is a microcosm of wider society. The coffee shop where I hang out (which will remain nameless for obvious reasons) has a rotating cast that would work well in your novel or short story.

One player is the knucklehead: the kid who’s there every day soaking up the wi-fi, but never buys anything. Never. It’s not that he’s short of dough. He’ll buy a two foot long poorboy sandwich and a can of soda at Safeway, then head over to the coffee shop and hang out for hours munching on the sandwich and bugging the staff.. Independent coffee shops survive on their clientele, but this guy stiffs the shop and the employees. There’s got to be a reason why—Nobody can be that obtuse—I just haven’t figured it out yet.

Then you have Bill and Harvey. Bill holds court in the coffee shop every day, opining in a loud voice about whatever topic crosses his mind. He’s an authority on everything and absolutely nothing. His foil is Harvey. Harvey’s an older feller, can’t see too well and his health ain’t that great. Here’s a recent exchange.

Bill (quite loudly): Harv, you’re in bad shape. You’re blind in one eye and can’t see so well out of the other.

Harv: Smiles

Bill: You should do something about that. Oh, right. You can’t

Harv: Smiles

Bill: And that bad ticker of yours. You ain’t got long to live, Harv. Not long at all.

Actually, I haven’t seen Harvey recently. I hope Bill’s prediction hasn’t come to pass.

Of course there are other characters: the 65 year old drama queen, the couple that sneak in and steal the house newspaper and leave thinking that no one notices, and the bombshell that has a crush on the male barista who is a truly nice guy. They’re all waiting for you to write them into a story.