|"The Writing Center." |
Original Pillar to Post fiction by Tom Basinski
Sunday, May 4, 2014
SUNDAY REVIEW / "THE WRITING CENTER"
FICTION BY TOM BASINSKI
Detective Bob Ames had met many failures in his life, and now he was one. Bob saw himself as a writer. He had worked on the staff of every school newspaper of every school he attended. He kept a daily journal, following the advice of a writer who spoke at his junior high career day.
Bob became a police office. After 10 years in patrol, Ames became a detective, finally ending up in Homicide. When a pulp magazine writer interviewed him on a case his team solved, Bob asked how he could become a writer. The writer connected Bob with his editor in New York. “Crime writers are a dime a dozen,” said the writer. “Cop writers are a rarity. The New York editor accepted Bob right away.
Bob wrote true crime stories for a chain of detective magazines for several years and received checks, which he cashed for real American greenback dollars. Bob thought he had arrived.
Bob knew he was a writer too; felt it in his bones. If more than a few days went by without putting pen to paper, he became uneasy and in need of his writing “fix.” (Bob write longhand and typed for several years until, kicking and screaming, he bought a computer.) Bob realized as a writer he had to get the readers’ attention, give them a buildup, a little unexpected letdown, then have the tale conclude with a flourish. Bob labored meticulously at his writing. He re-wrote, edited, and re-wrote some more. He would let a story sit for a week or ten days, then work on it again. He loved every minute of it.
Then, one day when Bob was happy and successful, his literary world came crashing down. The chain of detective magazines folded without warning. One of the magazines had been a barbershop mainstay for 70 years.
Bob was crushed, at least for a while. Then, Bob decided to make something positive out of his misfortune. For years Bob and been threatening to write “the book.” He had always called himself “The Poor Man’s Joseph Wambaugh.”
He had resisted doing a book because of the uncertainty. “In writing for the pulp magazines I get instant gratification. I write a story, send it in, and two weeks later I get a check.” Bob saw the demise of the magazines as his wakeup call. Now was the time to do the book. Plot and characters were not a problem. Bob had been toying with those ideas for years. He had the proper murders in mind. All he had to do was sit down and begin writing the damned thing. Or, so he thought.
Bob had completed about 40,000 words when he met another cop/writer; this one had just sold his first work of fiction, a nifty paperback thriller. Bob asked the cop how to get started. Should he get an agent? Could he submit a partial manuscript to a publisher? What did they want?
The cop said Bob should get an agent, but it would be very difficult to get an agent out of the blue. He said an agent would be more receptive if Bob were recommended. He told Bob to join a writing group. The cop said he had started out in a group. The people were ordinary people who liked to write. The prospective writers helped each other with suggestions. The moderator of the group would have connections to agents. The cop learned there was a Writing Center that had groups in his city of residence.
Bob visualized going to the group meetings for a couple of months and then selling his manuscript. After all, Bob had hundreds of murder mysteries and his work in progress was unique. Move over Michael Connelly, Robert Parker, and Raymond Chandler.
Bob looked up the address and went to scope out the Writing Center. It was a three-story red brick walkup in a dilapidated section of downtown, populated by the Chinese at the turn of the century. Bob loved the place immediately. This was what a writing center should look like. He didn’t want some glass and steel monolith with sterile conference tables.
Bob walked up the stairs, smelling the smell of an old building, musty, but not unpleasant. The stairs creaked slightly. He liked that too. At the top of the stairs on a table were brochures which advertised the kinds of writing groups offered at the Writing Center.
Bob thumbed through them. There was the “Women’s Literary Symposium” which Bob labeled “The Pissed Off Lesbians’ Group” who wrote about female oppression. Bob put that one down right away. There was the Poetry Group. Not for him. There was the social, recipe-exchanging group. Not today. Then, there was the fiction critique group. Yes, this was it, a place to get his fiction critiqued.
Bob learned the cost and the requirements. Each week he was to bring 10 pages of fiction for as many members as there were in the group. He would read his fiction aloud and the others would critique it when he was done. It sounded good to Bob. He would start at the beginning of the next month, two weeks away. He would go back to his manuscript in progress and rewrite the hell out of his first 10 pages.
The big night came and Bob was excited. In the room he saw three wooden dining tables pushed together to form a long conference table. None of the tables was exactly the same height so whoever sat in front of the cracks had a two tiered surface. The chairs were old, wooden, and straight backed. Padding was minimal. Bob didn’t care. The place had character. Besides, he was expanding his horizons as a writer.
Bob was early and there were only two people in the room. One was a blond in her 50s, and the other a smiling, pleasant lady. The blond was ecstatic. “I just mailed off my book yesterday. I was so relieved to finally get it done. The revisions nearly killed me.” The other lady beamed back at here.
Bob thought this was great. The Writing Center produced writers who wrote books, and sold them. This is what life is all about. Yahoo!
Ned, the moderator, came in. Bob liked him immediately. Ned looked like a regular guy, not some scraggle-haired Bohemian. This guy looked like he knew words, words of this earth. Ned was in his late 30s, about five-ten with the beginnings of a slight paunch. Once again Bob thought, “Good.” That meant he wasn’t some egghead so absorbed in his work that he forgot to eat. Ned smiled and shook Bob’s hand.
Ned explained the ground rules of criticism to Bob. “You read your work out loud then you shut up. People around the room write suggestions on their copies, give verbal criticisms, and you continue to shut up. You are not to defend your work.” Sounded okay to Bob. These people are going to love my stuff anyway, he thought.
Bob looked around the room. He smiled a smile of anticipatory acceptance. The others who had filed in looked at Bob and nodded. There was Carey, the blond woman who had just shipped her book off to an agent.
At the end of the table sat Chet, big and burly. He was late 40s with a full beard and large teeth. Chet had a barrel chest and thick arms. This is probably what Hemingway looked like 20 years before he blew his head off.
There was Margie. Hard to tell about her. She was 50ish and plump, with straight, short white hair. She wore thick glasses which she put on and took off every few seconds, even when she wasn’t reading anything.
Ronald arrived, in his 30s, tall, thin, and blond with a wispy white mustache. He had a big smile that showed slightly jumbled teeth.
Lynette sat near the end. She wore sweat pants, a tight T-shirt, and was about 50 pounds overweight. Bob’s police mind named her “The Fashion Felony.” Bob wondered what was worse on a fat woman, sweat pants or Spandex. A problem for the ages, he decided.
Bob was as happy as he could be, although slightly nervous. These people were going to help each other become better writers, and that was why he was here. Some others entered the room, but Bob didn’t pay attention to them because it was time to start.
Carey led off. Hers was a blistering romance. It featured a breathless woman who Bob could envision on the cover wearing a flowing blouse down over her shoulders. Her ample cleavage would be displayed for all to see. Bob’s vision included some Fabio look-alike who would be holding her chin inches from his moist and poised and devouring mouth.
Carey was going fine until she started bringing in ghosts and dreams. Bob sat there puzzled. What the hell is going on here, he thought. She’s got herself an okay soft porn thing here. What’s with the dreams and spirits? Carey finished, beaming. Bob was incredulous. What is this shit, he wondered. Was anyone else as confused as he? Apparently not. People sat there scribbling criticisms and acting like they understood the story.
Ned asked who wanted to be first. Someone said he liked it; it was “pure Carey.” Everyone laughed. There were a few technical improvements suggested. They went around the room with most people putting in their two cents worth.
Ronald, the guy with the wispy mustache, said Carey’s work lacked tension.
Chet had a loud, booming voice. He used words that might send people scrambling for their dictionaries. He routinely used words like, “avuncular,” “syncopatic,” and “mithridate.”
When they came to Bob he was tempted to merely borrow one of his favorite Woody Allen lines: “Uh, excuse me, but I have to cut this kind of short. I’m due back on the planet earth soon.” But, he didn’t. Bob mumbled something about the story line being good, but the dream and spirit things were a distraction.
Carey glared at him, keeping within the rules, but undoubtedly marking Bob as an enemy for life. How dare this cad dispute the value of dreams?
Next, it was Margie’s turn to read. She was the stocky woman with white hair. She had only four pages. Margie explained to the group that it was either going to be a short story or a novelette. She didn’t know which. She began explaining the work, putting her glasses on and taking them off repeatedly. Ned finally said, “Margie, why don’t you just read it?”
Her story was about a 19-year old girl who moved away from home to attend art school. Right away she discovered she didn’t like it. She became a recluse, gained 35 pounds, and made a vow to draw a nude self-portrait every day. Bob wondered where this was going. As the story continued, the group learned that Margie’s heroine had accumulated over 400 self-portraits and began writing love letters to Van Gogh. “What?”
Bob put on his mental brakes. Margie’s story sounded good in the beginning. Here was a woman growing and transforming. He liked the nude self-portraits too. Who knows, it might be an illustrated book. Bob wondered what this Van Gogh shit was all about. The group barbecued poor Margie. Bob liked the possibilities, but not the letters to Van Gogh.
When the criticism was over, Margie looked disheartened. It was too bad. Bob was intrigued by the idea of someone arriving at a new situation like art school and learning it wasn’t what she thought it would be. The story should be what she would make of her new situation, and how she could develop both as a person and as an artist.
Bob also liked the portrait angle. There could be some good sex in there with a repressed 19-year old girl becoming aware of her own sexuality. Maybe there could be a grocery delivery boy or something like that because she was a recluse. Bob told himself to get his mind out of the gutter and into literature.
Ronald said the work lacked tension. Bob ran his mental computer back a few minutes. Isn’t that what he said about Carey’s work?
Chet, the Hemingway look-alike said something about magnanimity and corpulence. Go Chet, go!!
Lynette, the fashion felony, delivered her biting criticism in a Roseanne Barr like whine. Lynette read her work next. She was on page 80, about a quarter through her work. She gave a short synopsis for Bob’s benefit and started in. Hers was a novel set in a Central American jungle. The story was an adventure/romance.
The heroine was a blond beauty and the hero was a Latin. Every time Lynette read a Spanish word in her story, her voice changed from the whiny Roseanne tone to that of a monolingual Spaniard. She didn’t say “tortilla” like everyone else. She rolled the “R” a few beats more than necessary, and heavily accented the second syllable. Instead of saying, “torteeya” like most people pronounced it, Lynette said, “TordrdrdrtTEEya.” Bob said to himself, “Puh-LEEEze.”
Lynette’s story was good, Bob had to admit. This woman, in spite of an inability to push herself away from the table, sure knew how to write a flowing sentence that made the reader want to go on to the next sentence. Bob was not surprised that all the white guys in the story were idiots or villains, and all the Spanish speaking men were virile, sexy, and smart. Bob likened to Lynette to having a Latin version of “Jungle Fever.” Bob called it “Barrio Fever.”
Bob noticed that most of the criticism around the room was different than what he was thinking. He thought most of the people were full of it, in fact. Carey criticized like she wrote. She was definitely from another world. “I think you should have some voodoo spirits get involved in the search for the gold,” Carey told Lynette. Bob’s eyes grew wide as he searched the room for support in the form of shared incredulity. No takers. Lynette looked at Carey like she wanted to pull her eyes out, but followed the rules of silence.
Ronald said the work lacked tension. Sonofabitch, he said that about everyone’s work, Bob thought.
Bob had now heard three pieces of fiction. Carey’s was pure horseshit. Margie had possibilities, and Lynette’s was good. The criticisms, however, were vague and other worldly. Bob wondered how anyone could improve his work listening to these people.
Ned, the moderator, gave excellent criticism in all three offerings, although I thought he went light on Carey.
Ned’s criticism offered three possible suggestions for Margie’s fat girl who painted nude self-portraits. He had a few ideas for Lynette and her Latin Jungle Fever. This Ned had his act together. He gave criticism that was positive, helpful, and would make the story better.
Ned announced it was time for a break and they would return to hear Bob’s work. Bob hit the bathroom, got a cup of coffee, and passed out the first 10 pages while the others were milling around.
Before starting, Bob told the group he was writing a novel, a murder mystery and the rest was self-explanatory. The story started with the protagonist eating lunch at his desk. A dispatcher called telling him a body was found in a massage parlor on the east side of the city. The rest of the team would meet him at the scene.
Just as the detective was checking his briefcase for the essentials, a buddy who worked Internal Affairs walked in to tell him the FBI was nosing around asking about him. The rumor was the feds were there on a civil rights complaint. The first chapter ended with the detective driving to the scene thinking about solving the killing and wondering why the FBI was investigating him. Bob flipped the last page over, pleased with himself.
Ronald started off. The story lacked tension, he said. Bob was wide-eyed. Lacked tension? Jesus Christ! In 10 pages you have a murder and you have the hero enduring an Internal Affairs investigation while he tries to solve the murder. What the hell did Ronald want? Carey’s criticism didn’t have anything to do with dreams or witches, but was equally useless.
Ned came through with something that wasn’t flattering, but was helpful. “I’m here to help you write something you can sell,” he said. “Here’s the way it works. You send your proposal to an agent with the first 10 pages, a synopsis, and cover letter. The agent reads the letter, the synopsis and the first 2 pages.” Ned stopped and held up two fingers, pausing to make sure it sunk in. “Two pages only. If the agent isn’t grabbed in the first two pages, he doesn’t read any more.”
Bob glanced down at his first two pages. There was nothing there that grabbed even him. Ned continued. “You can’t say to the reader they should stick with you because it’s going to get better. As a beginning writer, you gotta get ‘em by the neck and not let go. If it doesn’t grab them in the fist two pages, you’re finished.”
Bob was crushed, demoralized, devastated, castrated, and disemboweled by the criticism. He was angry at all of it, except for Ned’s which he believed was true. Screw the others. They’re a bunch of losers anyway. Bob didn’t remember the rest of the night. He sat there in a daze, not listening to the others.
Bob dragged himself in the front door of his home shortly after 10 and told his wife he was a shitty writer and it was over. After leading a relatively successful literary life, Bob was now a failure. By the time Bob was out of the shower, he was a new man. Screw ‘em. I’ll keep on going. Bob knew what to do now. The book is good. Bob just had to work on the beginning.
The next day Bob was at his computer, positive he was a writer. Nothing like charging back from a little setback to let you know you couldn’t be kept down. Bob’s wife likened the Writing Center sessions to group therapy. You hear things about yourself you don’t want to hear.
Ned had encouraged Bob to go forward in the story. He could come back later and work on his weak beginning. That is what Bob. He shortened his second 10 pages and reduced them to 6, reworking, editing, and economizing. The main character in Bob’s murder mystery, and some of the other detectives, made comments about the O.J. Simpson trial and the subsequent acquittal from time to time. Naturally the comments were critical, cynical, and humorous.
At Margie’s time to criticize, the put on and took off her glasses about four times in succession. She fidgeted and made a face like she was downing castor oil. “I just wish we could put this O.J. Simpson thing behind us. Can’t we forget about it? It’s over and I think we should do something better with our lives than keep dredging up what happened. I’m sorry, that’s all.” Her glasses were off and she was wringing the bows with her fingers.
Another group member was equally mystified. “Why do these cops keep mentioning the killings and thinking about them. Don’t they know it’s over?”
Because this was a question to Bob, Ned let him answer. “These detectives talk about the case and verdict because they believe it was a miscarriage of justice. My hero thinks about the case every day. You see, there are ‘detectives who work Homicide’ and there are ‘Homicide detectives.’ My guy is a Homicide detective. His homicides mean a lot to him. Not only that, the killing of any human being means a lot to him, whether the victim is a street hooker or some big-city socialite.
“The hooker and socialite cases don’t get the same play in the newspaper. The public thinks the Homicide unit picks up the paper every day and decides what cases to concentrate on based on what stories appear. That’s baloney. Guys work their butts off on cases that never get in the paper. All cases get the same play in the mind of the detective. My detective is outraged by what happened in the Simpson case. The only problem is my guy can’t do anything about it. So, he combats his anger the best way he knows how, with cynical cop humor. Killers walking around free bother my hero. He’d like to take care of matters himself, but that would put him right in the category of the killer.”
The room was silent. Bob had never spoken much about anything, and if he did it was a quiet one-liner or a simple statement of criticism. Nobody had ever heard him speak with such passion. After more silence the group continued as if Bob had never said anything.
Carey’s and Lynette’s books continued on their same fashion. Chet continued to read from his work. Chet had an interesting background. He had studied to be a priest. He left the seminary and went to Vietnam as a marine. After that, he went to law school and passed the bar. The practice of law didn’t ring his chimes so he became a psychologist.
Chet’s writing was kind of a John Grisham spinoff about lawyers with overtones of shrink work. Bob thought Chet had a good story line. His dialogue, however, was ghastly, stilted and simply unreal. Chet’s characters didn’t just talk. They delivered long ponderous soliloquies in Chet-like language. His characters didn’t have conversations. They gave speeches. Every week the writers harpooned Chet for this. Chet seemed hurt by the criticisms. Ned helped Chet each week. “Real people don’t talk like this,” Ned had told him. “Even lawyers.”
On the fifth week Bob was in the room early counting out his manuscripts. Carey was there announcing to Margie and another woman that the agent had returned her manuscript, unread. She showed her letter of rejection like she was proud of it. The agent had berated Carey for her style of query letter, and indicated he hated the query letter so much he hadn’t even read the synopsis, let alone the manuscript. Bob wondered if this was the first time a query letter had been rejected.
Carey had a story out of the twilight zone that Bob liked, finally. He learned Carey had been and English teacher for a long time. Her story was about a horny English teacher who seduced a young Hispanic man just out of college who was assigned to do his student teaching with her. More Barrio Fever. Bob wondered if Lynette would get pissed because Carey didn’t properly accent the Spanish words in her text. Carey didn’t even try the accents.
Ronald’s work was pretty good. Bob was tempted to comment that it lacked tension, but he resisted.
The next week Bob took a break from his novel, which nobody liked anyway, and wrote a short story. It was a loose adaptation of a complicated case Bob had worked about 10 years before. The case had a twist to it that the detectives suspected one of two different people of doing the killings. They suspected one more strongly than the other. Just as they were prepared to arrest the one they thought did it, the other guy committed suicide after leaving a note of confession. The story ended with the seed of doubt being planted about whether it was a real suicide, or maybe the first suspect had done the killing and made it look like a suicide.
The first three critics all said the same thing: “We figured it out early on.” Bob was crushed. He had taken great pains to weave confusion into the story. The story ends with the conclusion that no one knew who did it.
The next four writers admitted they were completely taken by the story and the ending was a surprise, as it was supposed to be. Bob didn’t hear the four who liked it. He could only think of the smug three who said, “You didn’t pull it off.” Carey had written the top, “Rewrite!” like some kind of damned English teacher, which she no longer was. Ronald said it lacked tension. Now there was a new one.
With a great deal of tact and diplomacy Ned suggested Bob get away from the police genre for a time and try to expand his writing skills on another kind of fiction. Bob pondered that one over in his mind. He looked around the room and no one was even paying attention to Ned, or him, for that matter.
Bob agreed. He went home and wrote this story. When he read it aloud the next week, the group invited him not to come back.
Tom Basinski is no shrinking violet. After studying to be a Catholic priest for five years while earning a B.A. in English Literature from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, he traded his Roman collar for a badge and gun, patrolling and protecting the citizens of Chula Vista.
During his 17 years as a South Bay cop and 17 more years as an investigator for the District Attorney, Basinski wrote more than 125 true crime stories for the pulp magazines. Eventually, when TV killed the pulp segment of publishing industry, he focused his writing talents on non-fiction books.
So far, he’s doing just fine as a writer. In 2006, his first book, No Good Deed, (Berkley True Crime) has enjoyed commercial success. The story details a fiery murder in San Diego that took three years to solve and has many twists and turns, including the attempted contract murder of a defense attorney.
Currently, in bookstores nationally and on Amazon, his second book, The Cross Country Rapist is also available. It is the compelling story of a 1988 San Diego homicide that was not solved until 2005.
The book champions a tireless police investigation that ends in Daytona Beach, Florida and includes an exclusive prison interview with the convicted killer. Why does a future priest turn to law enforcement? “It’s like writing true crime over literature. I genuinely prefer bringing criminals to justice by grabbing them by the collar instead of wearing a collar.”