AshEdit—News About Books & Writers

March 28, 2009

Elaine Ash and Keith Rawson discuss “Life on the Mesa” March 25th/09

Filed under: Uncategorized — ashedit @ 5:21 pm

Spoiler Warning: If you have not yet read Keith’s story, scroll down to the previous post and read it there, first.

MARCH 25TH, 2009

ELAINE ASH: Hi Keith, how are things in Arizona?

KEITH RAWSON: Great, thanks.

EA: Well, let’s get started talking about your story, “Life on the Mesa.”

KR: Okay.

EA: First, you have a great sense of style and a good grasp of craft. And you already know that’s true to a certain extent because you’re already published in the e-zines.

KR: Yes, I published in the most recent Plots with Guns Issue # 5, the second most recent update of Pulp Pusher and more. [See Keith’s bio at the end of his story, which is the post below this.]

EA: So the burning question is, “Why hasn’t this story been accepted?” And there is a reason why it hasn’t been accepted. And my feeling is, as the writer, you are so close to it…the writer stands in the character’s shoes, and it’s very, very difficult to have an overview of the story when you’re inside the story. So here’s my opinion: the story is not finished. The ending is not satisfactory. As a writer, you instinctively knew you were ending on a very high point of suspense. You felt that, and you knew it. And you said, “Aha this is my ending.” But actually, it wasn’t. Your climax was just getting going.
So let’s talk about the character Mac.

I understand that he’s an individualist, and he’s part of that individualist community, and that’s a very, very interesting part of the story to readers. It’s fascinating. But more about that later. Mac is described as a very large man, imposing, scary, and he’s got all these great survival instincts. But his actions are so brutal and elemental, I didn’t buy that this character would give a hoot to editorialize about an accountant with two children and a wife in the suburbs. That seemed more of something that would be coming from someone who had already worked in a corporate job and escaped, and understood that life. I just couldn’t reconcile that thinking with somebody called “Dirigible” and so I wanted you to tell me more about this guy.

KR: With this type of community there is a very anti-corporate, anti-establishment type of attitude running throughout the entire community. He’s come from rural Arkansas. He feels that overall alienation where he’s been constantly pushed aside by the mainstream and I think that’s where his rage focuses, on that outside society that’s always pushed him back.

EA:What forays has he made into that society that they would have pushed him back?

KR: It’s just his overall appearance. He’s not attractive, he’s the consummate outsider. I do keep him kind of vague and there’s not as much character building in this as normal but the number one thing is…it’s kind of hard to verbalize….

EA: Well, this kind of rural kind of guy has probably never lived in a big city…they might know vaguely that they hate the big corporation, but they would never be so clear about hating a suburban accountant with two children, unless something had specifically happened to make him hate a guy exactly like that.

So I looked and this and I said, “Aha, I think this is Keith talking, and he really hasn’t gotten underneath the skin of this character.” I think the guy would have a lot of rage…but expressed in that particular way? It doesn’t seem genuine to me.

KR: Absolutely. It’s definitely something I can explore a little more.

EA: Get inside the skin of this guy. His external actions are completely believable, how he gathers that water. Here’s the good part, there’s not another false move on your part as the writer. There’s not another thing that doesn’t suit the character. But when I got to that accountant explanation it went, “Clang!” It didn’t fit for me.

Now, if you’re passionate about him expressing himself that way about the accountant etc., then you’ve got to back that up with more that will make it real. So you need to either add more to really make us believe this is the way he thinks, or get rid of it. (Laughs) You have a choice.

KR: In all honesty, it’s not something I’m really holding onto. It’s more or less adlib words on my part, so…

EA: You don’t have to make a decision right now. I’m just pointing it out to you and you can decide later.

KR: What else did you see that could be improved?

EA: The two young people who show up with nice teeth, the city slickers, I believe that he’d have rage against them, because they’re suburban kids that come from people with money. He probably would have taken quite a few dirty looks from people like that throughout his life, but there’s no clue in the story that ties his rage to them. You could drop a few clues in there about a past experience that would make him so vengeful he’d torture and eat them. That’s what I think you were trying to do with the accountant and two children. Your instincts were right, but the example was a misfire.

Now we come to the end, It’s horrifying…but he’s getting away with it. And in crime, most generally, if somebody’s getting away with it, it’s making some kind of larger point. So either the victim deserves it, which in this case, these people obviously don’t deserve this kind of horrible punishment for stealing. Or we have to be so sympathetic to the person delivering this cruelty, that we understand why he’s doing it. We know it’s not right, but we understand. We have compassion for him. And so far we don’t.

KR: In all honesty, with the few other editors I’ve worked with, they’ve mentioned that there’s a coldness running throughout my characters. That the motivation’s not always there, like I’m outside of the character himself.

EA: The reader is surprised by this ending too. Because this cruel streak comes as a complete surprise. We’ve been led to believe he’s an individualist and that it’s dog eat dog out there, but if he was just a normal-but-eccentric guy doing what he had to do, he would have just killed them. It was his job to take care of it for the community, fine. He didn’t need to carry on and torture them. So if he’s gonna torture them, then there’s got to be a really [expletive deleted] good reason why. And you have not set him up as a psychopath. He’s accepted by the community, there’s nothing in his past to make us understand why he’s done this. I came to the end and I said, “Wow, I didn’t expect this, and I don’t understand why this is happening. Therefore, I don’t have a sense of what is going to happen after this story ends.” And that’s what the editor is left with by the end. It’s just hanging. And I think that’s why the story hasn’t been accepted as yet

Now in case you’re wondering, the story will be absolutely kickass once it gets these things resolved. So I think it’s just a little more thinking on your part. Let me ask you this, are you tied to how he tortures them and what he does to her at the end?

KR: I’m always open to suggestion as far as developing the ending. How I look at it is if it can improve the story and provide more punch at the end, then I’m usually for it. I think that was my issue with it as well, because it seems to come abruptly to and end.

EA: If you want to keep this ending the way it is right now, you might want to carry this on a little bit and then have her turn the tables on him. And either she gets away or she kills him. Then you’ve got a surprise, a twist at the end, and all this gratuitous torture is paid off because our victim has triumphed over the bad guy. Because the minute he starts this torturing stuff he’s the bad guy.

If you don’t like that one, there are other choices. Let’s take this from another direction. This story is close to your heart, so what do you think of these young punks showing up and stealing from the community? What do you really think about them?

KR: If I lived in this particular community, and my survival was based on what I could forage, grow and hunt, I would feel pretty damn offended. The elders of the community come to Mac and explain that these thieves are threatening their community because they’re going outside the boundaries we’ve set. The boundaries are that you can’t take away from the community overall. Extreme punishment could very easily happen in this type of society because it’s existing outside of law enforcement, outside of mainstream government. They police themselves. And this is the kind of punishment I could see being meted out, especially since these individuals are considered a menace and they come to Mac and say, “We accepted you. We allow you to exist here. We need this help from you because you’re stronger than we are. We can’t deal with it because we have this abject fear of these two newcomers who are not conforming to our society.” And they basically unleash Mac upon them.

EA: So if the community asks him to take care of the situation and then he does it exactly as planned, that’s not enough for a story. You can’t say it’s going to happen and then have it happen without something going awry, a surprise.

KR: In all honesty, as far as the girl releasing herself and taking vengeance, I’ve see this so many times before in novels, shorts and movies. You can see it coming. She gets out of her bonds somehow and takes her vengeance on a scary character. So I’m not comfortable with that kind of ending. I’m trying to think of what would round it out. What do you think of retribution from the community? They didn’t know that he would actually cannibalize them.

EA: Now there’s an interesting idea. Let me ask you this: what would the community do?

KR: Let’s say that the girl is released from her bonds and kills Mac. She goes running for the other huts in the community for help. But she’s still considered a threat. And their reaction is to take her down and make sure she doesn’t escape.

EA: Now that would work. Let’s just go back here to where the community cast a vote about this. The council elders made a trek out to the couple while they were still alive, and asked them about the stolen food. Expand that scene, give the elders names, and put some dialogue in there while they go to Mac and ask for assistance. We will know them as characters at that point. And they’ll be the ones that appear for the retribution at the end as she goes screaming through the huts. We’ll know who’s going after her.

KR: I like that.

EA: I see you are passionate about this justice system happening outside the norm. This is your chance to expand ideas along that line, throwing it into the dialogue here and there as they rationalize the retribution. It makes sense why they would choose this extreme way to deal with these people because there is no police force going to come and help them. So you can get your thesis in there as an author.

KR: My wife and I lived in an alternative culture when we first got together.

EA: Now we’re getting to the good stuff.

KR: We’re a nice suburban couple now with a nice little house, a lawn and a child. But we used to be longhairs, we travelled, we lived off the land and lived in national parks for four months. Before I met my wife. I lived in a commune with about 4 acres of land where we played music. So we experienced a lot of these types of people who are transient, living out of vans, in forests, this small subculture. And recently we’ve seen them settle in these unclaimed national park areas where they’re not really getting a lot of interference.

EA: Now we’re finally at the meat of what this story is really about. And that is why at the ending, the story is not really finished. The story is not about Mac and his psychopathic personality. The story is about the alternative justice system of these people. So the story isn’t finished until the community’s justice is resolved., and the people handle it however they’re going to handle it. That is the real ending of the story.

KR: I like it. I like where the elders are actually meeting and talking

EA: They could be arguing about what to do, and maybe everybody goes silent. Nobody really wants to spell it out, but we know what this is, the young people have got to be murdered.

KR: Yeah, I see it now.

EA: Mac is almost a red herring in this story. He seems like the main character but he’s not. The real main character is the community, but we only realize it at the end. The minute you started talking about them, you came alive and gushed with information. That passion just wasn’t there for Mac. So he’s really not the heart of the story. The heart is this community of people, of which he is one tiny little satellite, and it’s seen mostly through his eyes until the end. So with that in mind, now you can tell us how you really feel.

KR: Okay!

END NOTE: To clarify, Keith decided that the story needs an additional scene or two with the elders, and an expanded ending. Mac’s character does not need more motivation or explanation, he’s fine as is. In order to get to the real meat of the story, Keith and I had to “walk through” the details of Mac’s character. Only then, did the real story reveal itself. —EA


  1. I definitely had not thought of the “community” aspect to the story enough. Interesting.

    Comment by Charles Gramlich — March 28, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  2. The one thing that’s missing from the transcript is the emotional tone of our conversation. When Keith started talking about his past experience with similar communities, all of a sudden he came alive. He was full of information, unlike when he was discussing Mac’s character, and had little to say. So it was obvious to me there was an important element of the story as yet untold, and Mac was not the character to do the telling. It was a matter of asking Keith questions and fishing around until it surfaced.

    Comment by ashedit — March 29, 2009 @ 1:31 am

  3. This has been a great exercise. I like the exploration of the community. I would have liked to see the spin of having the community having to use Mac to solve the immediate problem of the young couple and the then have the older elders, upon discovering the cannabilism, get rid of Mac. Two problems/threats to community solved. Why? If Mac were to do do this to the couple, a what point would he do it other members of the community.

    As I look at mystery writing I find many stories as ways to explore not only deep human nature, but also as ways to explore solving social problems. So what do we do with predators in our communities?

    Comment by Mystery Dawg - Aldo — March 29, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  4. You understood where I was going, Aldo. This is the direction Keith is going with the revisions, maybe not exactly, but that’s the direction. What do we do with predators? Well, I’m no officer of the law, but I do know that having the biological father in the home with his children is shown statistically to be the best protection for both boys and girls from predators. Apparently, predators have a healthy fear of reprisal from bio-dads, and target children without fathers more frequently. Sad, and revolting, but true.

    Comment by ashedit — March 30, 2009 @ 5:06 am

  5. I really, think that this is a great exercise and it’s certainly given me a lot to think about regarding stories I’ve written and how I would rewrite/ expand them. I really look forward to Keith’s finished story. Elaine,Keith – brilliant!

    Comment by Paul Brazill — March 30, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

  6. That’s why she’s the Editor over at Beat to a Pulp. This story shouldn’t have a problem finding a home once it’s complete. Keith has all the tools just needed some fresh eyes and words to clear the rejection from his brain. Yes Paul, this is a great exercise, something here for everyone. Can’t wait for the finished product…

    Comment by Frank Bill — March 30, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

  7. Hi Paul, great to hear you say that! I’m thinking about giving a jumbo-low, introductory special rate to BTAP readers and contributors who missed participating in the Challenge, and would to like the benefit of one-on-one coaching and editorial feedback through revising their own material. At some point, every writer needs individual feedback to hear what it is they’ve already got under their belt, what they still need to learn, and the best way to develop those new skills. If there is enough interest, I will do it. If a reader would like to inquire privately, my email is

    Comment by ashedit — March 30, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

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