What Can We Steal From David James Keaton’s Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities?

Title of Work and its Form: Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, short story collection
Author: David James Keaton (on Twitter @spiderfrogged)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: I was amused by the playful manner in which Mr. Keaton tells his fans how they can get the book, so I share it here:

If you’re looking to buy it (did I already post these retailers somewhere? oh, well), here’s a link to the Comet Press website, as well as links to Barnes & Noble (for locals), Carmichael’s Bookstore (for locals), Powell’s, Indiebound, and Amazon. I listed those in order of preference. Buy it from the publisher or the real stores first, unless you need it on Kindle. Who knows where that Amazon money goes.

Hey, Fish Bites Cop! has a book trailer!

Bonuses: Here is “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel,” one of my favorite stories from the book.

Want to see Mr. Keaton read his work?  Sure, you do:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:

Discussion:
Mr. Keaton is very clear with regard to the theme of his collection.  Each of these stories does indeed involve “authorities.”  There are police officers, the captain of a fishing vessel, high school coaches, paramedics…Mr. Keaton may be very focused, but he doesn’t have a one-track mind.  Indeed, Fish Bites Cop! is bursting with creativity; the gentleman doesn’t go more than a page or so without turning an underlinable phrase or making some kind of connection that may elude most readers.  (Why else do we read, after all?)

Here is the book’s table of contents.  (I added the POV and page counts myself, of course.)

Title POV Number of Pages
Trophies 3rd 2
Bad Hand Acting 3rd 8
Killing Coaches 1st 8
Schrödinger’s Rat 1st (we) 13
Life Expectancy In A Trunk (Depends on Traffic) 1st 8
Greenhorns 3rd 12
Shock Collar 3rd 4
Third Bridesmaid From The Right (or Don’t Feed The Shadow Animals) 1st 11
Burning Down DJs 1st 6
Shades 3rd 6
Three Ways Without Water (or The Day Roadkill, Drunk Driving, And The Electric Chair Were Invented) 3rd 11
Heck 3rd 4
Do The Münster Mash 3rd 4
Either Way It Ends With A Shovel 3rd 14
Castrating Firemen 1st (directed at silent interlocutor) 5
Friction Ridge (or Beguiling The Bard In Three Acts) Play 14
Doppelgänger Radar 3rd 4
Queen Excluder 3rd 12
Don’t Waste It Whistling (or Could Shoulda Woulda) 1st (directed at silent interlocutor) 3
Three Minutes 3rd 3
Bait Car Bruise 1st 3
Clam Digger 1st 8
Swatter 1st 8
Three Abortions And A Miscarriage (A Fun “What If?”) 3rd 14
Catching Bubble 3rd 3
Doing Everything But Actually Doing It 3rd 9
The Living Shit (or Mosquito Bites) 1st 6
Warning Signs 3rd 3
The Ball Pit (or Children Under 5 Eat Free!) 3rd 6
Nine Cops Killed For A Goldfish Cracker 3rd

Mr. Keaton bowls us over with at least one lesson: like him, we should write a lot.  Now, I’m sure he has some sort of science fiction-type device that gives him 30 hours a day instead of our 24, but we really have no excuse.  I know…I know…you would finish a story, but…

  • You have a Great Writers Steal essay to write.
  • You’re not in a good mood.
  • You don’t have any of your fountain pens with you.
  • You’re stressed out about teaching-type stuff.
  • You figure no one wants to read anything you write anyway.
  • You realize you’re not good enough to do much of anything.
  • You’re bummed that your Tigers aren’t playing as well as they should and that Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season.
  • Ooh…there’s an Onion video I haven’t seen before.

There’s only one solution to these very common problems: Just write stuff.  Duh.  We all know we should just shut up and finish a piece, but that can be hard to do sometimes.  But do it anyway.  Just look at all of the stuff that Mr. Keaton has published in only a few years.  So let’s get back to work, right?

Mr. Keaton also seems to enjoy a technique that reminds me of the work of Lee K. Abbott in some ways.  Check out some first sentences from Fish Bites Cop!:

“She was sure one of them was watching her.”

“Before the night ends with me crashing through the woods in a stolen police car, I’ll drive around stuck on one thought.”

“There were sitting down to dinner when the phone rang.”

“I will leave work to get you a cigarette because you’re crying.”

(in italics) “Are you going to bury someone?  Or dig someone up?”

What do we notice?  The story is well and truly kicked off.  Not only do we have plot and character and point of view, but we also have some stakes built into the story.  Now, it can be hard to have MASSIVE stakes present in the first sentence, but Mr. Keaton lets you know that SOMETHING COOL WILL HAPPEN and THE EVENTS MEAN SOMETHING TO THE CHARACTERS, SO THEY SHOULD MEAN SOMETHING TO YOU.

Compare to…hmm…what books do I have in front of me:

Aubrey Hirsch’s “Theodore Roosevelt:” “Teddy Roosevelt is almost certain that his daughter, Lee, is a lesbian.”  (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)

Elmore Leonard’s “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman:” “Carlos Webster was fifteen years old the time he witnessed the robbery and murder at Deering’s drugstore.  (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)

Lee K. Abbott’s “Dreams of Distant Lives:” “The other victim the summer my wife left me was my dreamlife, which, like a mirage, dried up completely the closer we came to the absolute end of us.” (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)

I think these examples are even more potent than the ones I discussed in one of my GWS Videos:

The point is that good things often happen when you supercharge your first sentence and make sure that it contains:

  • A hint about the central character that intrigues us or establishes important aspects of his or her personality.
  • The establishment of the POV so we’re not subconsciously wondering and we can relax into the narrative.
  • Something that immerses us in the eventual plot of the story.
  • An indication of the tangible or emotional stakes for the protagonist, or at least an indication that there WILL be BIG STAKES.

Mr. Keaton is particularly good at creating really cool images.  For example:

Only a guilty man soaks up enough electricity to power a city block, pulling fishhook after fishhook of Taser wire from his torso, all while cuffing any cop that got too close with fists half the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.

[He’s describing clams.]  At first, they’d just be foam trails off the tips of something almost invisible.  But when I’d lean down on my elbows, I’d see they were actually creatures that moved like anything else moved when it was exposed.  They tried to hide.  Looking close, I could see them desperately digging to bury themselves before the next wave.  Their time, jelly-like tongues would roll out like party favors, start twitching and shoveling, and then, impossibly, balance the entire structure on one end, then pull themselves down, down and gone.

So how do we pump up our writing with cool images?

I’m not sure if I’ve ever done this before, but let’s put a writer who is worse than Mr. Keaton to THE GWS TEST.  Today, we’ll look at the work of a crummy writer and see if his stuff can be improved with this advice.

Our contestant today is…me.  Let’s see.  One of the stories I’m shopping around is called “Masher Doyle.”  Let’s check out the first sentence:

Masher Doyle came into my life at the time I most needed him.

There is a hint about the protagonist…good, good…the first person POV is established…the plot certainly revolves around the relationship between the narrator and Masher Doyle…and there are emotional stakes; the narrator is describing a time that was bad for him.  Okay.  Not quite Mr. Keaton-worthy, but good enough.  Let’s look at one of the crummy images in my story and see if we can’t make it better.

Okay, here’s one:

When my mother sent me to the corner store for milk, she slipped me an extra forty cents so I could buy a pack of baseball cards. Before heading home, I would sit on the curb and slip my dirty thumbnail under the flap, pull it, then flip through my new cards.

What would Mr. Keaton do?  He would use powerful verbs and powerful adjectives.  Do I?  “slipped, extra, buy, sit, slip, dirty, pull, new…”  I dunno.  Those aren’t the most energetic words around.

Here’s another bit from Mr. Keaton:

It reminded him of a Halloween pumpkin he forgot to carve once as a kid, when he just drew eyes, nose, and a mouth with a black Magic Marker and then forgot about it until New Year’s.  When he picked it up, his thumb sunk into its eye as easy as he imagined a real eye would accept its fate, and it collapsed around his grip in a gush of rotten orange and black.

Yeah, see?  We all need to use verbs and adjectives that crackle with energy.

What Should We Steal?

  • Be prolific.  If you’re a writer, you should be writing, right?  So get back to it after you click on a few more GWS essays and watch a couple more of my videos.
  • Add some nitrous to your first sentence.  I haven’t seen any of the Fast and Furious films, but I’m under the impression that nitrous adds big power to a car, just as you should put big power into your sentence.
  • Employ energetic verbs and adjectives to create powerful descriptions.  Words can excite people as much as ideas.

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