Terror at 20,000 Words

OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it. 

PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories. 

Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?

I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.

The Haven of Preparedness

Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.

Dentistry in my day. Public Domain.

This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose. 

But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story

Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous. 

Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.

Elysian Fields by Carlos Scwabe, 1903. Public Domain.

Fabulous

The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.

I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”

To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.

I must become a method actor. 

A Pantser.

Izzy—or izzn’t he?

A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them herehere, and here.)

These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama. 

Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories. 

The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.

I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.

There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler. 

I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself. 

If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.  

Protagonizing

What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction. 

Melancholy protagonist? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864. Public Domain.

In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.

Someone told me:

“The protagonist must protag.”

Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.

If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.

That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.” 

The plunge. . . . Photo by Clarke’s County, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.

But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge. 

Pray for me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Birth of a Book

Who is a writer? 

What is a writer? 

How does a writer come to be?

Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?

Athena emerges from Zeus’ forehead, armed and ready for battle. Attic exaleiptron (black-figured tripod), ca. 570–560 BC. Found in Thebes. Public Domain.

All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write. 

Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter. 

I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey

My Odyssey

Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.

I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.

Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold. 

I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.

I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started. 

For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! . . .
. . . but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things . . . . 

New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?

A New Chapter

There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.

The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:  

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.

I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.

Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016. 

But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.

A Novel Obsession

My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award. 

The Main Office of Larry F. Sommers, Writer–a spare corner of my bedroom. The mess is essential to the creative process.

Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”

So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois. 

Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.

I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!

We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War. 

To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences. 

Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway. 

He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.

What a novel this would make.

The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast. 

Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?

Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!

Which is how my novel, Freedom’s Purchase, came to be.

Next Week:  Update on the novel project.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

#

Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Radio Days

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

A boy named Izzy Mahler, seven years old, springs out of bed and dashes down the stairs. It is a Saturday morning in October, 1952. 

The Old Philco

Barefoot and pajama’d, Izzy makes straight for the wooden Philco radio, switches it on. Izzy remembers going downtown with Dad to bring home the Philco and its fine supporting table. Ever since—through three apartments, the birth of little Christine, and now the move to this two-story house just across the alley from Grant School—the Philco has been the Mahlers’ proudest possession, and the most useful.

Moving on to the kitchen, Izzy opens the refrigerator, takes out a quart of milk, removes the round cardboard cap from the glass bottle’s neck, and pours himself a glass. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and listens as the radio set in the living room spills forth Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, and Space Patrol. He sees every detail of each story.

Commander Buzz Corey is just cutting his way into Jelna’s spaceship with an atomic cutting torch when Mom and Dad come out in wrinkled pajamas, rubbing their heads with their knuckles. Izzy wishes he had an atomic cutting torch like Buzz Corey’s, or even just a plain old cosmic ray gun. He would give it to President Eisenhower for copying. That way, should American soldiers run into bug-eyed monsters from Planet Orkulon, they’d be ready.

Christine bangs her tin cup on the wooden tray of her high chair, but Izzy hardly hears. Why can’t you get a ray gun by sending in box-tops? he wonders. A ray gun would take more boxtops, and probably more quarters, than the usual things like the Lone Ranger decoder ring he lost while helping Buster Wiggins plant potatoes—but it would be worth it. He hopes none of the Wigginses will bite into a spud and break a tooth on his decoder ring. 

Now Christine squalls to beat the band, so loud that Izzy can’t hear the radio.

“Harold,” Mom says. Dad stares into space, as usual. Mom plunks down the checkbook with a loud WHACK! Dad sighs and sits down at the kitchen table.

Izzy goes upstairs and gets dressed. When he comes down, Dad frowns over his slide rule, while Mom knits her brows over numbers scrawled on paper with a pencil. 

Izzy opens the back door. Dad looks up. “Where are you going, son?”

“Out to play,” Izzy says.

“Be home for supper,” says Mom.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Out of the Ether

I was born in 1945 into a family that couldn’t, or at least didn’t, afford a television set until 1957, when everybody else had already had a set for two or three years. As a result, I was privileged to be present at the last stand of radio broadcasting as a mass entertainment medium—before TV gobbled up radio’s best shows, and most of its advertising revenue, added a few original programs of its own, and became—well, Television. As we know it.

If you did not experience those “radio days,” let me assure you: radio was great. All the action, all the drama, all the excitement, all the laughs of TV—only you could see it better, because everything played on the full color, panoramic, high-definition screen inside your mind—with all the pans, tilts, and zooms each story required. 

Stan Freberg, the advertising world’s comic genius, produced a radio spot, “Stretching the Imagination,” that perfectly illustrates the vast cinematic potential of the sound-only medium. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZ57EeX6vE.

An Embarrassment of Riches

What kind of shows did radio offer? Besides the Saturday morning fare Izzy consumed in our fictional vignette, there were:

Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. “roy_trigger_new_color72.jpg” by amycgx is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Westerns galore, all of the juvenile variety: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. But most of all, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 p.m.: “In the pages of history there is no greater champion of justice than this daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, led the fight for law and order in the early West. . . . Return with us now to those gripping days of yesteryear—the Lone Ranger rides again!

Northerns, starring Royal Canadian Mounted Police like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his famous lead dog Yukon King; and mountie Jim West, The Silver Eagle, voiced by radio legend Jim Ameche—one of the Amici boys from Kenosha, Wisconsin—on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Lone Ranger’s 6:30 time slot. 

Game shows like The Quiz Kids and The 64-Dollar Question. That’s not a misprint. Sixty-four dollars was the top prize. That was big money. When television came along, the same show was recycled, “isolation booths” added for showmanship, and three zeroes tacked on to the prizes—so it became The $64,000 Question.

Audience-participation shows like Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny or Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences, in which typical Americans made fools of themselves, on the screen in your mind, for fame, glory, and small sums of money. They may have been forerunners of what is today called “reality TV.” 

Comedies, glorious comedies of all descriptions. There was the pompous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; you could not even see his lips move—at least, on the radio. There were situation comedies of small-town life, like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve. Others relied on ethnic identities: The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the 2013 TV series of that name), Life with Luigi (in which Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish played the title Italian character), and Amos ’n’ Andy (a show whose African American title characters were created and portrayed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll). There were comedies about teenagers—Henry Aldrich, Corliss Archer, My Little Margie, and the high school denizens taught by Our Miss Brooks. And there were wholesome family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. (Leave It to Beaver, the classic exemplar of this kind of show, never appeared on radio; it was a creature of television only.) 

And then there was The Jack Benny Show, in some ways the forerunner of modern shows like Seinfeld. To say the Benny show was comedy is true enough; but it hardly does justice to the subject. Jack Benny was an institution. Perhaps a good subject for a later blog post.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author