Tag Archives: Jean Shepherd

An Ode to ‘A Christmas Story’

Every year at Christmas I find myself sneaking away from the festivities to catch a few minutes of A Christmas Story on the TBS 24-hour marathon. The story centers on young Ralph Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun for a Christmas present. The movie features elements of the three-act story. In act one, Ralph’s mother thwarts his plan. In act two, it’s his teacher who throws cold water on it and in act three, the big man himself, Santa, nixes Ralph’s wish for a BB gun. At each turn, Ralph is told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

What I love about this move is the authenticity of the story. Authenticity is something to which each writer should strive. The theme is universal—the desire to bring a little joy into the lives of children of a working class family. The “old man,” Ralph’s dad, is a working stiff who enters contest to win prizes and awards, which leads to a hysterical chain of events when he wins a lamp featuring the fish net stockings of a shapely female leg.

There is no cornball schmaltz in this film (okay maybe the ending is a little corny). The dialogue is dead-on realism, especially the scenes where Ralph interacts with his friends. These scenes are spiced with the kind of braggadocio and one-upmanship that all boys display with their peers.

The scenes where the family are at the dinner table or out shopping are similarly genuine. My favorite line is this thought from Ralph, spoken by Jean Shepherd, on whose work the script is based. “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that to this day hangs in space over Lake Michigan.”

Several years ago, I took my son to visit “the house on Cleveland Street,” the home where many of the scenes were filmed. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, the house has been lovingly restored and serves as a museum and tribute to the movie. It was all there, the tree, the kitchen cabinet where Randy hid, even the infamous leg lamp.

Cleveland was reportedly chosen as the site for the movie based on the willingness of Higbee’s department store to allow the movie crew to film inside the department store during Christmas season.

The movie’s message is open to interpretation, but during my visit to the museum across the street from the house, I read an interview excerpt in which Shepherd said it was intended as a paean to dads everywhere who worked in menial jobs and strove to create a little magic in their children’s lives.

It remains one of my favorite holiday movies.

What is your favorite holiday movie?

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It’s Here! My First Novel: Small Change

Small Change. A Novel. By CG Blake

I launched my first novel, Small Change, over the weekend, culminating a five-year journey. I don’t even know where to begin in sharing with my fellow writers what I learned on this journey. Instead of one of those obnoxious “buy my book, buy my book” posts, I am going to highlight some of the major lessons learned:

The book you start out to write may not be the book you end up writing. Small Change began as a short story I wanted to bring into my local critique group. The premise was the wonder a small child feels when he experiences his first family vacation. I was going for a Jean Shepherd-type story. Jean Shepherd was a writer, radio talk show host and raconteur whose book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was the inspiration for the TBS classic, A Christmas Story. My main character was John Sykowski and his family was from the Chicago suburbs. As I began developing the characters and the boy’s family, I realized I needed another family for them to meet on their summer vacation at a lake resort in Wisconsin. This family would be the opposite of the main character’s family. That family became the Crandales, from rural Iowa, headed by a second-generation minister. As I began writing, I realized the story of these two families had more potential than I imagined.

Do outline, but don’t be afraid to make mid-course adjustments. After I abandoned the short story in favor of a full-blown novel, I prepared a bare-bones outline of about a dozen milestone scenes. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to outlining. The first draft served as my outline. I made one major change during the first draft. The character Rebekka, the daughter of the minister, was originally envisioned as the classic “wild child” of a clergyman, who drank and got high and had promiscuous sex. The problem with that was that I already had such a character, her younger brother, Ben. I completely redrew Rebekka as a painfully shy child and I explored the possibility of a romantic relationship with the main character, John.

Your first draft is only the beginning. I completed about eighty percent of the first draft during a period of feverish inspiration and activity in the fall of 2007. By the summer of 2008, the first draft was done. I put it aside for four weeks and then began the revision process. I realized how far I was from a finished product. I began sharing selected sections with members of my critique group. In the spring of 2009, I sent the first 50 pages to two agents I had met at a writer’s conference. They were extremely helpful, but passed on the project. One agent told me I sounded like an adult trying to sound like a 10-year-old child. John was 10 when the original story began. After numerous attempts to fix that problem, I decided the story started in the wrong place. I wrote a new chapter that started the story when John was 14, an easier voice for me to write.

Don’t be concerned if the theme is not immediately apparent. I worried constantly during the writing of my first draft about the theme. The story didn’t seem to have a theme. It wasn’t until a comment made by John’s mother on her deathbed that the theme hit me in the face. The mother, Marge Sykowski, tells John that every family must have its secrets. It’s what keeps families together. It was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. Once I knew the theme I embellished it during the revision process.

Build in plenty of time for the editing and critique process, but set a schedule. This was where the project got way off track. I sent the manuscript out for review and then I just waited. I didn’t feel comfortable setting deadlines for my reviewers since they were graciously volunteering their time. I lost more than a year while I waited. In the meantime, I started and finished the first draft of another novel. I lost my focus on Small Change and it was difficult to get back into it.

Weigh your publishing options carefully. I really wanted to go the traditional publishing route. I believed strongly in this work and I was confident I could secure a publisher. However, all of my queries were met with polite rejections. In researching the publishing industry, it became apparent that first-time authors faced long odds in the current environment. In deciding to go the self-publishing route, I was heavily influenced by a guest blog post by Victorine Lieske on JA Konrath’s blog. A self-published author, Lieske said she initially queried a handful of agents for her novel, Not What She Seems, and was relieved when they rejected her work. She said she knew it could take five years for her to get published and she didn’t feel she had the time to wait. She also didn’t want to sacrifice her other responsibilities in the pursuit of traditional publishing. I felt the same way. As an author in my mid-50s I don’t have five years to wait. I want to get published and write more books. So I decided to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Writing a novel is a team effort. You cannot do it alone. So many people helped me along this journey, from my local critique group, a friend who is a graphic designer, my family, my book editor, our state authors and publishers group, and many friends who offered encouragement along the way.

I will be sharing other lessons in future blog posts. If you do want to buy the book:

Buy Small Change

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“A Christmas Story:” A Holiday Favorite

I find holiday movies are either really good or really bad. The bad ones are filled with treacly “sentimental hogwash,” as Henry Potter said in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Another favorite of mine is the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, the tale of nine-year-old Ralph Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. The great holiday movies are like novels; the story arc contrasts the joys of the season with the every-day struggles of families and individuals to make a better life.

A Christmas Story was based on the work of raconteur and radio talk show host Jean Shepherd. The setting was Hohman, Indiana, which was based on Shepherd’s childhood home of Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town outside of Chicago.

The story arc centers on Ralph’s quest for a BB gun for Christmas. In a successful novel, the protagonist faces obstacles on the way to achieving his goal. Ralph certainly encounters his share of obstacles. When he asks for a BB gun, his mom and teacher warn him that “you’ll shoot you eye out.” Ultimately, Ralph’s quest proves successful, but he has a mishap with the gun and breaks his glasses.

Not only is the story hilarious, the acting and the writing are brilliant. My favorite line, narrated by Shepherd, is when Ralph observed, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that to this day still hangs in space over Lake Michigan.” I wish I had written that line. The dialogue in the movie is authentic and sharp. Note to Disney scriptwriters: if you want to learn how young boys really talk to each other, pay attention to how Ralph, Flick and Schwartz interact.

Two years ago, I took my son to visit “the old house on Cleveland Street,” which is now a Christmas Story museum located in Cleveland, Ohio. During the tour I learned what Shepherd intended as the lesson behind the movie and it surprised me. I always thought the movie was about Ralph’s quest, but it was about “the old man.” Shepherd said his intention was to honor fathers everywhere who struggled in menial, dead-end jobs to save a little money just so they could create a little magic for their children. That’s what the BB gun was all about.

Every family has holiday traditions and one of ours is to catch part of the TBS 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. It never fails to bring a smile to our faces.

To my fellow writers, best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season

What is your favorite holiday movie?

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