Abrupt Edge Diary - 19

This is the eighteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

18.  What’s going on in Abrupt Edge

I promised to write a synopsis of the novel to this juncture in the manuscript. These are the threads of narrative that interweave to make Abrupt Edge:

  • The story of Jacob Gleason, a decent guy tending toward nerd, adrift, unfulfilled, looking for someplace to make his mark.
  • The story of Isaac and Asenath Wayman, cousins and exiles from a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint enclave who now run Abrupt Edge, a “sex spa,” out in the middle of a Nevada high desert nowhere.
  • The enmity between Isaac Wayman and his brother, Abraham, leader of an offshoot FLDS enclave called Glory, over a mountain spur from Abrupt Edge. This enmity leads to an armed conflict that is dubbed The Glory War.
  • The love story between Jacob and Gloria Bennett, a one time prostitute working in Abrupt Edge’s brothel, Carne Viva, but now Isaac Wayman’s personal, private executive secretary.

Jacob Gleason dreams of being an author.  He’s three years out of college, cranking out short stories, sending them out and collecting rejection slips.  Beginning to doubt his choice of vocations, he googles “writing jobs” and comes up with an enticing post that ultimately leads him to Abrupt Edge.  On the way, like a knight in an Arthurian tale, he’s tested, offered alternative choices, tempted, but in the end persists and arrives in the north of (imaginary) Mulee County, Nevada, to discover that what he thought was a job ghosting an autobiography is really a job memorializing a war between two madmen and their followers.

It doesn’t seem real, the place is truly Shangri La, and the notion of reporting on this Shangri La shooting it out with another one around the mountain seems about as remote as his being asked to write an episode of Saving Grace.

Besides, Isaac Wayman’s assigned his secretary to be Jacob’s mentor while he’s learning his way around Abrupt Edge.  She is articulate and smart, beautiful but approachable, a woman that sets off bells and other alarums in his soul.

Slowly but surely, he learns how this war with Glory may come about.  It seems Abraham Wayman’s own daughter, Marian, has run away to Abrupt Edge and is even now being groomed to become one of the functionaries at Carne Viva.  Jacob can’t believe Isaac won’t send her back.  It’s inevitable her father will seek a way, however violent, to get her back.

Meanwhile, Jacob has his first interview with a client, a young man named Justin DeFord, whose rich uncle thinks the Abrupt Edge experience will do his nephew good.  Justin, however, is not getting with the program:  he’s having moral qualms.  And his moral qualms resonate with Jacob.  They talk into the night and agree to meet for breakfast, but at breakfast there is no Justin.  He’s disappeared, and the best bet is, he’s been kidnapped by Gloryites, to be swapped for Marian.

That’s where I am right now.  There’s more than one way I can go with from here, alternative endings, all consistent with the character’s inclinations, and I’ll discuss those in the next posting.

Guerilla Health Care - 03

This is the third in a series of contributions to fixing the health care system without breaking the bank

Very simple story of how the health care system got this way

The health care system, continuing a tradition of medicine going back centuries, was propelled forward in the 20th Century by a combination of three factors:  the growth of health insurance, exponential progress in medicine, and the increased role of the federal government in health care.

Health Insurance. Universal health care and national health insurance were proposed as far back as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, but were opposed, for a variety of reasons, by organized medicine, organized hospitals and the insurance industry (and their policy spokespersons in government).  There was nothing like private health insurance in the US until 1929.  The reasons are numerous, but in part it was that medicine, in the early 20th Century, was a pretty uncomplicated affair.  Much of it was conducted in the home, fees for service were modest enough they could be paid out of pocket, and there was a tradition of pro bono or charity medicine for those who couldn’t afford care.

The Great Depression spurred the introduction and growth of private insurance, the labor movement accelerated it as health insurance became a negotiable benefit, and by the 1940s it was a not-uncommon commodity.  What emerged, however, was a mish-mash of  coverage, with few or no standards, no coordination and continued opposition to any kind of planned health care system.

Progress in Medicine. In the meantime, there were advances in public health that changed the major causes of death among Americans—we began to live longer—and the same was true of medicine.  There was, for example, a dramatic decrease in the rate at which women died in childbirth as more and more births were attended by physicians in hospitals.  There were advances in the understanding of variations in human blood, making transfusions less risky and enhancing the survival of surgical patients.  Likewise, antibiotics changed what we died of probably more than anything since the introduction of pure drinking water through municipal systems.

Infusion of Government Funds. Still, at the end of World War II, there had been decades in which the supply of hospital beds hadn’t kept up with need.  With rapidly improving medical technology, a general advance in affluence, the existence of affordable health insurance, it was considered necessary by the federal government to intervene by adding to and modernizing hospital facilities.

In 1946 Senators Harold Burton and Lister Hill fashioned a bill to provide federal construction funds for hospitals in areas with shortages of hospital beds.  In California, where I am familiar with the program, the state matched the federal funds and together these amounted to two-thirds of the cost of construction, the other third being raised by bank loans, philanthropic donations or private capital.  At about the same time, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation began to rapidly increase public monies available for health and biomedical research.  Both root causes of disease and dysfunction as well as therapies aimed at preventing death or long-term disability created another great leap forward.  The focus turned from communicable diseases, which had been tamed largely through public health measures, to the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, such as cancer.

As we became a predominantly urban society, with a burgeoning middle class, the diseases of affluence plus changes in the people’s expectations increased the demand for health care services as well as the cost of care.  Cost became no consideration in decisions about conditions which, forty years earlier, might have been borne with resignation. With the advent of Medicare in 1966, a class of patient—retired persons of modest means—that had traditionally counted on family and charity to attend the illnesses of advanced age, became a steady source of income for, particularly, hospitals.

Policy makers still had no consistent vision of what constituted a proper health care system, nor what should be the government’s role in operating it.  Some favored federal intervention concentrated on the treatment of catastrophic illness, such as end-stage renal disease; others favored a system that concentrated on preventing illness, and for a time health maintenance organizations were seen as a way to keep ever-increasing costs down while preventing chronic illness and disability.

The question is far from settled.  According to the National Coalition on Health Care, in 2008 we spent more on health care than on defense, or some 17 percent of the nation’s wealth.  We are continually told by organized medicine, hospitals and insurance companies, despite evidence much to the contrary,  that universal health care, with a single payer, is inferior to our laissez faire catch-as-catch-can system because you will have bureaucrats making medical decisions.

In 1929 many Americans were lucky to get any medical care (other than “folk medicine”) between birth and death, and even those defining events might be outside a hospital.  In 1969 by contrast, the average person spent three of his last twelve months of life in an acute care hospital.

And sometime in the ‘70’s, in Los Angeles, Mabel’s friend got her CAT scan because she had a headache.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 18

This is the seventeenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

17.  Oh frabjous day, calloo calay

I have found my way out of the forest and I can see the trees once more.  It might as well have been writer’s block (see my previous post) because for two weeks I’ve been recycling through Part V of my novel-in-progress, not making much progress at all.

I boxed in college.  Yes, besides feather merchants and bongs, Berkeley had featherweights and boxers of other weights and I was one.  I wasn’t bad as a boxer, I was not so good as a competitor.  Put three judges around the ring and a referee in the center, I got stage fright, which, come to think of it, is an analog to writer’s block.  When those guys weren’t around I could hold my own with light-heavies and middleweights (I was a junior welterweight).  And lest you think that sparring is a patty cake exercise, the only time I was ever knocked out was sparring with my lightweight teammate, one weight division lower.  Leo Gaspardone’s left hook was dynamite at lightening speed and could have taken out a heavyweight if it landed on the button.

In boxing you learn lots of things:  footwork, punching technique, how to use the ring, reading your opponent, defense, combining punches and so on.  You must learn to integrate all those actions—and then forget all of them, and like the Zen archer, just let it happen.

Same thing in writing novels.  You have to learn how to create a story, how to create a character, pacing, dialog, the right amount of  pertinent detail, how to imbue your words with a level of emotion that transcends the emotional freight of individual words, and, most importantly, how to “kill your little darlings.” You have to know what’s enough.  Like boxing, you must integrate these skills—then you have to let go and let the words come out.

For reasons I don’t totally understand and have no great desire to analyze to death, I’ve been concentrating, for the past two weeks, on footwork and forgetting proper punching technique and use of the ring.  Which has made my punches lack power while Abrupt Edge has been bobbing and weaving and otherwise dominating me.

Part of it was trying too hard, which was draining mental energy, which reduced concentration, which in turn made me have to go back again and again to read and absorb what I’ve written in the past month or so.

I finally took a few days off and regenerated my juices and then tore through reading the last several chapters and went on to produce the thirty-fourth chapter of the novel, which is not bad if I may say so.

Next post I’ll do a 500 word synopsis of the story to this point and ask anyone who actually is reading this to speculate with me about which way to end the tale.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 17

This is the sixteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

16.  That old dodge, writer’s block

Whoever thought up that idea?  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes reports that Robert Cohn, after his successful first novel, is suffering from writer’s block.  Jake really believes Robert’s a flash in the pan, who wrote his one autobiographical novel and can’t produce a second because he isn’t really a writer.   It’s a rather brutal portrait of a literary poseur who otherwise behaves badly, such as crying at the wrong time (which, for Hemingway, seemed to be any time a man cries), and not taking it well on learning he was just the current boy toy of the beautiful but neurotic Brett Ashley.  In other words, he takes himself too seriously, which isn’t in Hemingway’s code of manliness, writer or no.

Listen; there’s no psychiatric diagnosis called Writers Block.  It doesn’t appear in the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases.  It’s simply shorthand for what a particular writer is experiencing as difficulty in getting the words out.

The reasons can be manifold, but they aren’t peculiar to writing.  The best place to start, wanting to discover why the stoppage, is the work itself.  Among organizations that give away money for social endeavors, “sustainability” is a big buzzword these days.  You want to open a shelter for battered women?  It needs to sustain itself by the end of the grant period-a neat trick, given how coveted black and blue women are.

In a more straightforward way, a long work of fiction needs to be sustainable.  Consider Abrupt Edge:  It’s one thing to conceive of a brothel deluxe in the middle of a wilderness, it’s another to make a novel populated with harlots, their highbrow johns, and all the support staff such an establishment would require.  If the dictum, “write what you know” is in any way valid, who would know the insides of a courtesan, a CEO, a madam and a bidet polisher equally well?

Truth is, no one knows anyone else’s insides.  If Abrupt Edge were being written by a committee of courtesans, CEOs and bidet cleaners, they wouldn’t know much more than I do about the characters in Abrupt Edge.  For they are characters, phantasms that come out of the writer’s head.  They must be plausible, they must be what most readers might imagine them to be, but to make, say, Gloria, the young woman who’s been assigned as guide to Jacob Gleason, the narrator, to resemble a Tenderloin hooker would be as bad as making her into an Orange County housewife.

I had a secretary once who’d been a prostitute.  She referred to herself as a former call girl.  As secretary she was efficient, loyal, intelligent, hard working and insightful.  She saved my bacon more than once.  She wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t find her at all alluring.  She was frank to a fault, unabashed about liking sex and seeking it as often as she could.  She is the only person of either sex I’ve known who regularly saw a doctor to be checked for STDs (VD we called it back then).

Same workplace, interestingly enough, I watched another female employee being turned out.  When she was nodding off at her typewriter, showing up for work late and otherwise being less than useful in her job, we knew something was wrong.  She was a natural platinum blond with true peaches and cream skin, all sorts of curves, an easy laugh.  She had let herself get led into drugs and prostitution by a small-time punk hustler (I met them on the street one day after she was let go; he offered me a professional discount on a piece of her ass) and it was sad.  She didn’t have my secretary’s self-confidence, she didn’t know how to say no to a hustler, she was a miserable human being.

That’s all I need to know about prostitutes to write Abrupt Edge.  But I only know the insides of any character by plumbing myself.  I’ve been the whore, the CEO, the champ, the chump, even the madam.  Its when that well is polluted, when I am having a hard time accepting the limits of my own soul, that the words have to be squeezed out like the last dollop of toothpaste from a tube.

In dry spells I drink a lot-used to, I’ve actually almost stopped-I watch a lot of TV movies, which actually can never hurt a writer except for taking him away from the keyboard, and I play a lot of solitaire.  Slowly my soul forms a pearl around the irritants that plague me (it’s what some call inspiration) and I push on.


That’s a topic for another post other than to say I must.  It’s my categorical imperative, my salvation.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 16

This is the fifteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

15.  Verisimilitude

In its list of synonyms for the word, truth, the American Heritage Dictionary gives this distinction to the synonym, verisimilitude:  “Verisimilitude is the quality of having the appearance of truth or reality” and adds this example as to its use:  “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (W.S. Gilbert).

I would not wish to have minced  words with Sir William, and I hope that none of my work ever causes him to harrumph in his grave, muttering “bald and unconvincing narrative.”

In his highly regarded How Fiction Works, James Wood doesn’t index the word, verisimilitude, but he has a lot to say about truth and realism, pointing out that you can have one without the other.  Thus, Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be considered more truthful than, say, the average police procedural crime novel (my comparison, not Wood’s, although he ascribes “harrowing truthfulness” to Kafka’s novel while any of us would admit, a man turning into a giant beetle is not terribly realistic).

Verisimilitude comes with a certain kind of novel.  For all of the charged words Faulkner uses in Sanctuary, there is still his incredible ear for dialect, his imagery of light and dark, highbrow and lowbrow, chifforobes and ‘coon hounds.  A Gregor Samsa could no more turn into a giant beetle in a Faulkner novel than a Czech bureaucrat in a Kafka novel would launch a jawful of tobacco juice towards a spittoon.

Yet in certain kinds of highly imaginary fiction, ideas you could never know except as the author tells them to you are mixed with minute details such as, in Ulysses, the sizzle of Poldy Bloom’s pork kidneys sauteing or the crinkle of the wrapping paper around the soap in his jacket pocket.  In a sense, stream of consciousness works as a narrative vehicle because verisimilitude buoys up the stream of words coming at you out of the characters’ minds.  It isn’t real, of course, no one thinks like that, and words certainly don’t come out of anyone’s mind at you.

I try to not let verisimilitude be my bête noire, but, if you’re writing about an imaginary brothel in an imaginary community in the middle of nowhere, you don’t want a reader saying, “No way!  You can’t pour concrete in hundred and twenty degree weather,” or, “Hey, I happen to know for a fact that a fully laden C-141 needs 8000 feet of runway to take off.”

Con Sellers, the person who taught me the most about writing fiction, wrote character-driven novels.  He said he was never sure what was going to happen next in his works, because it was the confrontations of his characters that caused things to happen.  He advocated creating character charts for all of the more than walk-on characters*.  That tends to take care of certain kinds of verisimilitude:  if it’s highly symbolic that Joe was born the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, he can’t turn twenty-five the day World War II ends.

I don’t remember Con talking about plot outlines or even chronologies, but I find myself edging towards both.  What date did Jacob Gleason leave Ashland for Abrupt Edge?  It’s important, because he walks around in the desert for a while and he might perish from either hypothermia or hyperthermia, depending on the date.  How many persons live in Abrupt Edge?  How did the first airstrip get built?

Next post I’ll go into a few examples of how I wrestled with some questions like this, and divulge a few details from my character charts.

Update: Since I wrote this post I’ve picked up Richard Price’s novel, Lush Life. If you want an example of verisimilitude-nay, the very quintessence of it, read Lush Life.  It’s cops and victims and punky hoods, loonies and lovers, aspiring actors and perspiring detectives, Lower East Side gentrified and ungentrified, history, psychology, sociology-and it’s almost too much.  Whiskers grow, sweat trickles, barf spews, hands grope, knees buckle.  One of Price’s blurbers says he writes better dialog than anyone.  I stick with Elmore Leonard, but I have to admit, Price’s dialog sounds like real conversation between real persons, in cadence, in vocabulary, in syntax—in other words, the essence of verisimilitude.

* I have an adaptation of Con’s generic character chart which I would Email to you if you put your Email address in a comment.