Monday, April 25, 2016

When Ruth Is Stranger Than Fiction, Part 2: Spider Spoon

In my spare time, I write fiction; and one of the rules of fiction is that in order to keep readers on the hook, the writer must maintain believability. This doesn't mean that stories can't have unbelievable elements in them. Readers will gladly put up with impossibilities as long as the writer can create a scenerio in which such impossibilities are believable. Hence the continuing popularity of science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk. 

One way to maintain believability in a story is to set expectations early. Therefore, if you need the hero to cut his way through some ropes to save his own life during the climax of the story, he can't suddenly pull out a pocktknife and think, Thank goodness I always carry this trusty thing around! I knew it would come in handy one day! Unless you've already built the pocketknife into the story, readers will feel that this is a cop out. Therefore, to create believability, you must mention the pocketknife early on. Have your hero pull out the pocketknife in Chapter 1 to open a box; show him using it to whittle a twig in Chapter 4 as he ponders deep thoughts over a campfire; inform us in Chapter 6 that it's the last gift given to him by his dearly-departed grandfather. That way, when he suddenly pulls it out in Chapter 22, readers think, Oh yes, of course! His trusty pocketknife!

If only real life had the same sort of believaibility built in. It rarely does, however. In real life, unbelievable things happen all the time--so unbelievable that, if it weren't for eye witnesses, no one would take our word for it.

Take, for example, the Spider Spoon Incident.

One moment, I was enjoying a delightful lunch with my sister-in-law and some nieces and nephews. The next moment, I was goggling at the impossibility of Spider Spoon.

We sat at the family dining-room table enjoying conversation over beans and rice. I'd just dug out a healthy scoop of rice with a broad, shallow-bowled spoon when my sister-in-law asked me a question. Since the question related to The Great Gatsby, a novel with which I maintain a complicated relationship, my answer was not short. The entire time I was talking, I held my spoon poised near my mouth, elbow propped against the table. 

At length, I finished my diatribe comments. I turned my head, looked down at my spoonful of rice.... and saw a spider rapidly descending toward the tabletop on a delicate thread--a thread attached to my spoonful of beans and rice. 

Struck speechless, I went pop-eyed and extend my arm to its full length. This action brought the Spider Spoon directly into my young niece's personal space. Flailing a stiff hand outward in panic, she karate chopped straight through the tendril, sending the little spider, still attached to his little weblet, flying who knows where. I dropped the spoon and frantically patted my hair, my arms, and my torso, suddenly itchy everywhere.

"What's happening?" asked my sister-in-law, who--based on her perspective from the other end of the table--had just witnessed me shoving beans into my little niece's face, her karate chopping at nothing, and then me slapping myself repeatedly.

"SPIDER SPOON!" I spluttered, wondering who would ever believe this. 

The best we can guess is that, at some point during our heated discussion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the spider had floated down from above--either from the overhead light fixture or from an air vent--and somehow landed directly on my upraised spoon. Whether this was by design or happenstance, we will never know. The spider cannot be reached for questioning.

If this scene were fictional, it would require quite a bit of work to be rendered believable. First, it would need to be foreshadowed by, at the very least, a conversation between characters about the migratory habits of household spiders. Second, our protagonist would have already seen a spider drop down on something (or someone) else, thinking to herself (by way of building some rather delicious irony) I'm so glad that's never happened to me! I would probably just die

Life, however, does not require such believability. One minute everything's fine, and the next minute, snakes fall from the sky and spiders crawl out of your lunch. 

Remember this when your own Spider Spoon moment comes: the best you can hope for is to have a quick thinker in your corner--someone who's good in a crisis and ready with a well-placed karate chop. And, of course, witnesses on hand to corroborate the unbelievable.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Publication Announcement: Praise the Lord and Pass the Exposition

Many of you have already heard my news: I've signed a multibook publishing deal with Pelican Book Group to produce a trio of comic suspense novels. 

What this means for me is that between now and December, I will be working hard to meet deadlines. I fully expect to be burning the midnight oil afternoon writing candle at both ends for a while. 

What this means for you is that sometime within the next year, I'll be offering up my first novel for your enjoyment/summary judgment. Once in your hot little hands, this book will be yours to do with as you wish: read, critique, share, cherish, sleep with under your pillow, burn on a pyre, throw into the Grand Canyon, save in a locked bank vault to bequeath to your firstborn child, praise to the skies, or fillet alive on Goodreads. 

At any rate, it'll be yours to do with as you wish. Whatever the outcome, I'm just excited to have finally clawed my way into the publishing industry.

The good news for the blog is that I don't foresee many interruptions. Although my posts might vary in length as I push toward deadlines, I fully expect to continue delivering the weekly, well-balanced doses of ridiculousness and reason that you've come to expect, continuing next Monday with the second installment of "When Ruth Is Stranger Than Fiction." 

In the meantime, praise the Lord and pass the exposition! 

Monday, April 11, 2016

When Ruth Is Stranger Than Fiction, Part 1: A Rain of Snakes

Fiction writers know what it means to trip the line between believable and unbelievable. While writers trust that readers will suspend their disbelief for the sake of the story, they also know that suspension of disbelief will only stretch so far. That's why although it seems counter-intuitive, writers cannot subject their characters to the same sort of sheer randomness we're subjected to in real life. Hence the famous quote about truth being stranger than fiction.

Life is absolutely stranger than fiction, and never more so than when it subjects us to complete randomness. I'm sure we've all experienced circumstances that, if they appeared in a story, would strain readers' credulity past the breaking point. I know I have.

Take, for example, the night the snake fell on my head. 

There was no warning, no context, and no foreshadowing. There were no lowering skies, no premonitions of danger, and no sudden, minor-keyed leitmotifs. I simply stepped out of my friend's front door when out of nowhere, a baby rattlesnake dropped down on my head. It then slithered onto my shoulder before bouncing onto the sidewalk below. 

Perhaps you'll be impressed to hear that I did not react in any way. I didn't gasp or faint or scream. I merely stood still in the doorway, goggling. 

"A snake just fell on my head," I said calmly. 

My non-reaction is due partly to the fact that I live in Florida, where events such as a rain of snakes are never totally off the table. Honestly, though, I just really didn't realize what was going on until it was over. My first thought was that it had been a frog, a lizard, or some other variety of non-alarming amphibian or reptile. These little creatures routinely plaster themselves to the fronts of our houses in the evenings to soak in the last dregs of warmth left behind by the sun; and when we open and shut our front doors, they occasionally fall off. 

But no. It wasn't a frog or a lizard or even a dreaded bufo toad. It was a snake. 

I'm now forced to live in a world in which a snake has fallen on my head. What's more, if it happened once, it could happen again; and if it happened to me, it could happen to you.

Truth stranger than fiction, indeed.