Principle Guidance

The other morning I was cutting up a pineapple for my breakfast smoothie. Granted, using the canned variety is quicker, but I find something satisfying in taking one of these hefty chunks of weird-looking fruit and sawing it into edible bits.

pineapple

Being a writer, I wasn’t thinking about my list of to-do tasks for the day. Instead, I was thinking about my step-by-step process of taking off the top and bottom, then cutting the … um, whatdoyoucallit outer layer–the peeling, the scales, the skin, the armor plating?–bit by bit, taking care not to slice the plate-armor too thin because then it takes for-ev-er to pare out those prickles or eyes or thorns or whatsits. (Maybe I should have researched the various parts of a pineapple before writing this post.) I learned long ago by experience that you can’t and shouldn’t try to save too much of that luscious, delightful yellow fruit because it only makes the job difficult and frustrating. However you approach it–whether with all the super-nifty gadgets sold by Amazon or with a serrated kitchen knife and a bit of courage–it boils down to two primary tasks:  hacking off the plate-armor and then removing the core.

It’s a juicy, aromatic, sticky procedure. I just need big pieces to throw into my smoothie-maker, so they don’t have to be pretty. And I just need to focus on not letting any precious fruit skate off the cutting board onto the floor because the juice gets slippery.

Now what does pineapple carving have to do with writing? I was focused on my procedure–which is mainly to cut off the plate-armor instead of my finger and to drip as little juice as possible onto the floor–and from there my thoughts drifted to rules and how creative people usually loathe, despise, and abominate rules. Why? Because they hinder us and hamper us and handle us, and we want to do things our way.

In the past few lingering days of June, I’ve watched designer Rachel Ashwell–yes, the Shabby Chic creator–posting a series of visual tours of various homes of British designers and artists. While I’m not an aficionado of the Shabby Chic style or an Ashwell fan, I am finding these small Instagram tours of the shops and homes of highly creative people to be fascinating, and I appreciate her efforts to provide this diversion during lockdown.

These are not the highly stylized, commercialized, glossy designers featured on HGTV. These are makers of miniatures, wallpaper designers, milliners, leather artists, photographers, people who wrap their stairway railings in hand-stitched leather or pile children’s ballet slippers in unused fireplaces or hang scraps of exquisite, antique handmade lace from the ceiling in ethereal draperies to veil the room. They are NOT following design-school rules. Their sofa pillows are not karate chopped. The art on the walls is not color-coordinated to match the rug. Their kitchens are not regimented into efficient work triangles. They don’t have sectionals arranged around ginormous flat-screen TVs.

But the colors they use harmonize. The petals of peonies plunked in old jars drop delicately on table surfaces in natural just so patterns. There’s something magical and mysterious about veiling rooms in lengths of sheer voile and lace with low amber lighting beneath old paper parasols used as shades and mirrors so old and worn they barely reflect images, just shadows and flickers.

These are all images created by people that don’t worry about rules. Instead, they consciously or instinctively follow principles of design to make their rooms or creations work.

ballet costume imageparasol lampCB545_SERA_LACE_BATH-001_RT

The difference is key to taking yourself from basic wordsmithing to the next level, where  writing stories that soar and come alive is more than possible.

A rule is something arbitrary. It’s there for a reason. It works. It has boundaries. It is not flexible.

Principles–whether in art, interior design, or writing stories–show us the why and how of the craft we’re using. Principles are about how something works and why it works. Rules tell us to do something a certain way because that’s the way it should be done.

A rule says, Don’t write in first-person present tense. Fiction is always written in past tense and has been for at least the last two centuries.

A principle says, Present tense–especially when combined with first-person viewpoint–creates the illusion of speed and intimacy that appeals to twenty-first-century young readers.

A rule says, Never change viewpoint within a scene.

A principle says, Scenes are more dramatically effective when written from a single perspective.

A rule says, Create high-intensity action in a thriller climax by setting a hook then breaking to a new chapter and different viewpoint.

A principle says, When intense story action is needed, cross-cutting two different viewpoints through the usage of scene fragments will add to the urgency and sense of danger.

When we understand our craft thoroughly so that we grasp the underlying principles that yield well-told stories, then we can begin to break the rules.

Not for the sake of being rebellious and wild and unfettered and ridiculous. Breaking the rules of writing and storytelling isn’t about dumping anything and everything into the story, ignoring punctuation, dodging craft, and jumbling events into a chaotic mess. Breaking the rules of writing is about balancing on the support beam of guiding principles and bringing your characters and plot to life.

To know and understand writing principles is to know and understand the art of writing. When we master our craft, we begin truly to create.

ben peck whitson

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From My Bookshelf: SEMICOLON

The semicolon is a punctuation mark created in antiquity, long before the common man became literate. It reached its pinnacle in the nineteenth century, where literary giants such as Herman Melville and Henry James loved it. During the twentieth century, it gradually fell from favor, with influential authors such as Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut loathing it. Today, with all grammar and punctuation on the ropes, it is nearly reviled.

However, thanks to author Cecelia Watson and her critically acclaimed book, the semicolon has a witty and erudite champion. Watson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, which automatically makes her okay with me. She’s a historian and philosopher of science. She’s taught at Yale and been a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Currently she’s Scholar in Residence at Bard College. She handles advanced punctuation the way I wish I could.

cecelia watson semicolon

For years I felt myself to be a punctuation geek. During my childhood, no one else I knew seemed to experience the sheer delight in compound sentences, which required usage of a precisely placed semicolon. Although my formal training was rudimentary, supplied by my county’s public school system, I taught myself the rest of what I know through reading, reading, reading.

I have always felt punctuation to be architectural in a way. It supports sentences like pier beams support houses, and it enables the meaning to be conveyed efficiently like air conditioning circulating through a well-designed HVAC system.

More recently, as it’s become fashionable in certain circles to decry punctuation as elitist and therefore horribly wrong, I’ve begun to view myself as a punctuation defender. Where are we as a civilization if we discard literacy? If our public education generally is failing to teach children how to read with comprehension above a fourth-grade level, generally is failing to teach children how to write clearly so they can be understood, and generally is failing to teach children how to add, subtract, and divide without the use of their smart-phone calculators, then why aren’t we cleaning up that problem? So-called educators who sweep the problem of American’s declining literacy under the rug by telling children they needn’t spell words correctly as long as the teacher can guess what they mean are perpetuating a huge deception on the public trust.

Of course there are many dedicated teachers and brilliant teachers working hard in the trenches, coping with lack of funding, poor salaries, and overcrowded classrooms as they do their best to teach bright, compliant children along with those who are lazy, undisciplined, uninterested, or unable to pay attention. Systems too often become similar to factories, pushing children through regardless of results because more are pouring in. Not all children learn the same. Not all children fit the mold. One size or approach does not fit all. And there’s never enough time to give to those that don’t fit.

Lamentably, too many children never start off well or quickly fall behind. Poor home life, poor nutrition, poor parental enforcement of homework, etc. are all documented problems that hinder learning. Immigrant children enter classrooms with no knowledge of English and must struggle to catch up if they can. These difficulties–and more–are known issues. They are solvable.

However, the solution is not to throw knowledge away. We shouldn’t discard history. We shouldn’t pretend things that make us uncomfortable don’t exist and never did. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves about what is wrong, not if we honestly want to fix the problem. Why, then, is there this push within portions of our society to throw grammar and spelling away as things “invented by dead white men,” which isn’t necessarily true or valid? Why are segments of modern society clawing their way back to the Dark Ages with such enthusiasm? Are we so lazy that it’s easier to toss a subject or skill set than to make the effort to master it?

I understand that all people are not educated equally in this country–which is an outrage–but the solution should be to boost those who lag behind, not drop everyone to a level below mediocrity.

Again, being the product of a mediocre public education, I worked hard to boost myself because I wanted to be a writer. I figured out early on that the only way I could express myself was through a better understanding of grammar and comma placement. Through my adolescence, I observed the contrast between my eagerness and my classmates’ indifference. My high school English-class teachers droned through the lessons and made scant effort to help anyone comprehend why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. No doubt these teachers had burned out from years of trying to ignite fire in kids destined to be farmers and car mechanics. But don’t farmers and mechanics need some poetry in their souls as well as knowing how to spell correctly? And who is to say what a child might grow up to become, if taught the importance of standards and given the pride of mastering them?

Today, when I read certain product reviews on Amazon or social media messages, I wince at how poorly our language is handled. Yes, some individuals are dyslexic; some limped through language arts classes the way I struggled through geometry; and some simply don’t care. I get that. But compare a text message today with something written in 1865 by individuals with third-grade educations and be ashamed of where we’ve fallen. Are we living too fast and too busily for it to matter?

That’s enough of my tangential soapbox.

As for this book, SEMICOLON, it’s charming and witty, by no means dry. Granted, you won’t whip through it the way you might a novel. Although delightful, it’s not written for speed. But Watson makes punctuation a lively skip across history and popular culture. She explains how Raymond Chandler made the semicolon incredibly expressive.

Here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln on the subject:

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”

Finally, here’s a quote from Watson herself:

“Newspaper columnists and pundits have been giving it six months to live since at least the 1970s. But no matter how much its function has shifted over time, no matter how many rules are piled on top of it, and no matter how many people rail against it, as long as there are those of us who find it beautiful and useful, it will survive.”

And I say, long live the semicolon and all who use it well!

 

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In Defense of Story

So the other night I stayed up late, sieving Amazon’s books for my fall class on Category Fiction. (It’s a fun course designed to acquaint college students with a handful of the most popular genres in commercial fiction. I have them read selections from the various genres or subgenres I’ve chosen for the semester and let these budding writers rip the books apart for logic, writing craft, and plausibility.)

Each summer presents me with the challenge of reading potential novel after potential novel. This one’s too mainstream. That one’s plot falls apart in the middle. Another one sounds good in its description and reviews, but in reality it’s so darned silly I can’t read past Chapter Two. And on it goes, with me reading, evaluating, sifting, weighing a book’s solid technique in one area versus its flaws elsewhere, and trying to give my class a variety that will maybe ignite a renewed love of reading in them. The summer is never long enough, and if I land on an older book that really offers the craft I want the class to examine, chances are it’s out of print and only available from used book sellers in some rare hardcover edition costing $348.

I confess that so far this year I have maybe half or less of good contenders for my reading list. I’m aware that time’s ticking steadily away. And my rebellious streak wants to toss the stack aside in favor of books I really want to read for myself to suit my personal taste.

Nevertheless, it’s fun to have an official reason for browsing through Amazon the way I used to browse the shelves at my local Borders bookstore.

I was looking for mysteries, solid ones where the protagonist sleuth actually investigates and deduces instead of posing in descriptive passages, mouthing witty or surly dialogue, and somehow stumbling across the critical clue by sheer luck, the work of some minor individual deemed unimportant to the story, or through provoking the villain into coming out of hiding. The problem that evening was that I’d just finished reading a rock-solid investigative mystery where the English village inspector gumshoes back and forth like a basset hound on the trail of a rabbit, meticulously piecing together tiny bits of lies and information into an eventual whole. It was a book written by J.S. Fletcher called MURDER IN THE PALLANT. I think it was published in 1926. There were no forensics, not even fingerprints. It was refreshing to read as the sleuth questioned and re-questioned characters, turning the evidence this way and that like a giant puzzle to be solved. Trouble is, the book’s not readily available even in Kindle or audio formats. And maybe it’s a bit too stodgy for twenty-year-olds who’ve only heard of Perry Mason because HBO now has revived the show.

Even if I decide to assign one old-school mystery, I need to find a modern version for contrast. Somehow the other evening, as I tracked mystery authors across Amazon’s many trails, I ended up in science fiction to check out the new 2020 Nebula winners, then fantasy, and from fantasy browsed my way into juvenile fiction.

The past five years or so have brought a strong push from publishers to supply diverse books, most particularly in the sf, fantasy, and kid markets. Those genres are possibly the easiest to open up to different ethnicities, although they are by no means the only ones. I found Nigerian authors, writers of Middle-Eastern descent, and characters ranging from Asian to Hispanic to Indian.

I think of my childhood and how I would have reveled in such books, eager to learn about all sorts of people and cultures.

Yet as I read descriptions and critical reviews that were so persuasive in selling many of these offerings, I would then dive into the reader reviews and find comments like, “Don’t believe all the hype about how good this book is, ’cause it was all fancy language and no substance.” Or, “Everyone says this is a really great book, but I thought it was too slow getting started. Who wants to read half the book before anything happens?” Or, “You’ll really like this story if you don’t mind its lack of ending. It’s just manipulation to get you to buy the next one.”

I’m trying hard not to be overly critical or make sweeping generalizations, but for the past few years I’ve been increasingly concerned by the emphasis on publishing according to a social agenda instead of publishing to provide youngsters–or any reader–with a rousing good yarn.

Admittedly I’m the very worst type of book consumer. I want new, fresh, different, diverse, and and and I want a well-crafted, dynamic, engrossing plot about layered, intriguing characters.

You see, I’m seldom an “either, or” person. I’m very much an “and” person. I want it all. I expect it all, or at the least I expect a darned good try to provide me with it all from the authors I read.

And too many of the current crop of new fresh voices are not giving me the “and.” I’m getting “or.”

That’s not good enough.

I think of children readers–some wide open and receptive to what’s new and different; others cautious and reluctant to try anything beyond their comfort zone–and are they being served only novelty at the expense of good story? When plots are stretched and manipulated to deliberately incorporate certain elements desired at present by acquisitions editors and librarians–to fit an agenda, if you will–the contrivance starts to show. The plot starts to wobble like a planet knocked off its axis by a passing comet.

Here’s what I want:

*Strong plot focused on an objective;

*Vivid protagonist with much to learn and willing to strive hard to achieve the objective;

*Powerful villain seeking to thwart or destroy the protagonist;

*Exciting conflict and story action;

*Intriguing setting;

*Dimensional sidekicks and companions to both protagonist and villain;

*Clear direction; and

*A suspenseful, nail-biting, enthralling climax that resolves the story question.

Give me all or most of that, at any age level young or older, and I’ll happily read about David Weber’s starship captain Honor Harrington, or Walter Mosley’s mid-century Los Angeles, or a Tess Gerritsen medical thriller, or talking dragons in Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, or Hispanic mythological creatures in Ryan Calejo’s CHARLIE HERNANDEZ AND THE LEAGUE OF SHADOWS, or WWII villains, or Asian children in training to combine martial arts with ice skating in Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN, or whatever silly school adventure Gordon Korman has cooked up next.

Henry Lien author photoTemeraire covercharlie hernandez coverdevil in a blue dress coverhonor harrington covergordon korman cover

Children need to read many things and be exposed to many topics and situations. Children also need to read well-crafted stories, not agendas. When a writer can do that, then that writer is truly opening a new world in their minds.

Consider THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak. It’s mainstream. It’s long. Its narrator is Death. It deals with Nazi confiscation of people’s books and how those books were burned in community after community across Germany during World War II. None of these issues seems like something children would read, yet it has been hugely successful in capturing both young and adult readers. Its message is very strong, and its voice is fresh, yet it offers story first.

book thief covermarkus zusak

Social agendas may be well-intentioned, but don’t sacrifice story for them.

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Revising the Revision

The book in progress sits atop my printer as a hard-copy draft, awaiting revision. I’m letting it cool down before I start editing. I need some time and distance to gain objectivity. I need to find a hot-pink editing pen for when I’m ready to spread out the pages to slash and burn.

Meanwhile, I’m mulling over cover art and branding strategies. I’m brooding about the tentative title, FICTION FORMULA REVISION, which I dislike but can’t think of anything better. (Why is it so easy to invent a pun or quip for an Instagram caption, but a book title won’t come?)

My thanks to those of you that sent “likes” of the last book update but asked no questions. Normally I welcome questions, but my email has been down and inaccessible for the past three or four weeks. While the problem hasn’t been solved, a Band-Aid has been applied so I’m operational again. I think it will hold well enough for the time being. (Fingers crossed.)

And boo hiss to this darned plague that has all technical-support agents overworked and under-helpful. Doesn’t the universe understand that when I’m at this stage with a book, the least computer hiccup freaks me out?

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Quote for the Day

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

I stumbled across a variant of this saying a few weeks ago. I don’t recall now where I saw it. A niggling thought in my brain suggests I might have seen it on Instagram. Anyway, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I came across the scrap of paper and tried to hunt down who said this.

Apparently no one and everyone. It’s so good people of various professions have used it, tweaked it, applied it, and shared it. I have no doubt you’ve encountered it or some variation of it as well.

It speaks to me for obvious reasons, chiefly because I make a living teaching college students how to change their status from amateur to professional. Of course, I help others besides students. Anytime I share writing craft or explain how a story is structured, I am focused on the professional approach, which is writing with the aim of being published and paid.

There are, of course, many who write for the sheer pleasure of self-expression. They fill journals with the joys and tribulations of their lives. (They may even make the journal itself.) Others sustain the fading art of letter writing. Some amuse themselves penning character sketches or generate blogs or share inspiration on Instagram. Countless individuals write stories for their children or grandchildren. And there are those who go about their lives and occupations with a yen to share the stories swimming in their imaginations but who are stymied by having no idea of how to express them.

When I chose writing as my dream, my life, and my profession, I focused my practicing toward one chief aim:  to have my novel on the public library shelf in my hometown. In my childhood, the library was the most magical place I knew. I daydreamed about living there among the towering shelves filled with books. I didn’t mind that it was housed in a ramshackle old building next to the railroad tracks, with brick walls, uneven floors, and large plate-glass front windows from the days when the building was a store. Those details added to the magical kingdom, and as a child I used to plot ways and means of being locked in by mistake so I could spend the night there.

So when I realized I wanted to be a writer I could think of no achievement higher than being shelved in that wondrous, shadowy place. I would choose an armload of books to check out and then go and stand next to the shelf in the “C” section, where someday my novel would belong.

But to reach that objective, I had to get published. And to get published, I had to submit my work. And to submit work that would be accepted by the editors that kindly, or curtly, or impatiently rejected what I sent to them, I had to write stories that were good. And to write good stories, I had to learn what I was doing. And to learn what I was doing, I had to practice. And to practice properly, I needed training.

Fortunately, I received training in the Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. The objective there was not to write creatively, but instead professionally. Oh, the hours of practice I put in, trying to master scene conflict and moment-by-moment dramatization. I would write a scene, only to realize when I read it over that I’d left out some critical plot point. Inserting it would mess up the moment-by-moment/stimulus-response order of dialogue. Then I’d have to rip apart the scene and rewrite it.

I learned to place a small checklist of plot points next to my typewriter–yes, I started my career back then–so I wouldn’t forget key comments. I learned that even as I grew more adept at my craft I would still have to edit and edit and edit. I grew to understand that no matter how delicious breaking a rule of technique felt during the heat of composition, that in the cold light of revision it was far less effective than I’d believed. Of course that meant I had to go back and rewrite the section properly.

And finally, after so much trying, practice, writing, rewriting, and care–I found I didn’t need the checklist. I could park two opposing characters in the same locale and know they would go where they should.

I’m not boasting that I’m as polished and smooth as I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not bragging that I never feel the urge to toss the rules of good craft. I’m not saying that I don’t indulge that urge. I still check my copy. I still edit. I still go back and undo the rule-breaking for something better.

But I get the quote. I live the quote. After so many years of hard effort, it’s good to know this is how I roll.

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Book Update

My book on revision is coming along. I’ve written all the chapters. Now I’m trying to decide whether to add a few frills. I’m also asking myself if I’ve included enough, if I need to supplement with any additional information, and if I’m ready to edit.

Nonfiction is such a different writing experience than fiction. With the latter, you know when you’ve sewn up the story. With nonfiction, there can always be another chapter, another paragraph, another point. Someone text-messaged me the other night, and the small but important piece of wisdom I was about to insert into a block of text flew right out of my head. I’ve yet to recall it, and I have a strong suspicion it might be gone forever–or at least until I upload and the book goes live.

Anyway, this is mainly to let you know that my blog posts may be a bit sporadic as I try to polish the book and get it done. I’m not disappearing on you again. I’ve just got my head primarily wrapped around this project at the moment.

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From My Bookshelf: Ellery Queen

Last week I pulled a book with acid-brown pages from my precarious stack of to-be-reads. I had found it at a thrift store earlier this year before the world tilted on its axis and we all fell down a rabbit hole. I grabbed it because it was written by Ellery Queen, a classic whodunnit mystery author I fell in love with as a teenager.

Last week, having whipped through the latest John Sandford crime thriller and at loose ends for something to follow it, I thought, why not? and decided to reacquaint myself with this classic detective story. I remembered the title–TEN DAYS’ WONDER–and vaguely recalled that I hadn’t much cared for it when I read it in the 1970s. But that was all I remembered. I started reading, and nothing about the story came back to me except that the protagonist Ellery is a novelist + amateur detective and his father Inspector Queen works for the NYC police department.

The first two chapters of TEN DAYS’ WONDER (1948) barely held me. They were strange, and the characters seemed talky and static. However, the story quickly got better and better as it went. Before long, I was caught by the smooth, well-written prose. The characters were intricately drawn. No one was a stereotype. Time was taken to set up the crime to come and for me to get to know the players involved. The murder, surprisingly, didn’t occur until the third act of the story.

Reading it as an adult, however, I kept wondering what had drawn me to this kind of writer so long ago. I remember that as a kid I read just about anything and everything, and at that age I thought I had to finish every book I started. I grew up in a pleasant little southern town with an economy based on factories and agriculture. We had no bookstore, and I practically lived in the public library. It stocked only a handful of Queen mysteries. Every few weeks my parents and I would drive twenty miles to a larger, college town, and I would pounce on the spinning paperback racks in search of more Queen. They had semi-lurid covers in the go-go-girl style of the late ’60s/early ’70s. I thought they looked silly, and fortunately no one forbade me reading them.

ellery queen 3

Because, based on the book I reread this week, Ellery Queen is worthwhile. I think perhaps it’s the characterization that enthralled me so long ago. I know at that age I tried to read Agatha Christie and loathed her because I found her stories to be merely puzzles with next to no characterization. Now, I appreciate Christie very much. I can see past the superficial simplicity to her nuances and layers. And I want to find the rest of Queen’s stories now and read them anew.

Before I sat down to write this post, I looked up the author, who was actually two male cousins–Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee–who created Ellery Queen as a series character and decided to write under his name as their pseudonym. The first Ellery Queen mystery appeared in 1929 and the books ran until 1971. The ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE–for years a strong competitor to the ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE until they became sister publications under the same owner–was founded in 1941. I think it’s incredible that this magazine still continues today. There are over thirty EQ novels plus short story collections written by the cousins. Additionally there are some EQ novels written by hired ghosts, including science fiction authors Jack Vance and Theodore Sturgeon. There are juvenile Ellery Queen books, and the cousins also wrote mysteries under another pen name, Barnaby Ross.

ellery queen 2

I am intrigued that I no longer have my used copies of EQ mysteries. I remember only two plot events from two different stories. Were they that forgettable? And yet, mysteries from the Golden Age of the 1930s and ’40s so seldom are. Last year, I sat down and read my first Mickey Spillane book, and it was a page-turner. For the past two or three years, I’ve been devouring as many Erle Stanley Gardner books as I can dig out of musty estate sales and antiques stores. Today I started reading a Leslie Ford mystery–the second by this author that I’ve come across. And although she has a very dated style, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books still give me a tingle every time I stumble across one. Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth … ah, bliss.

In January, trying to find new mystery authors, I browsed the shelves. My local Barnes & Noble’s mystery section is overrun with cozies. While I’m not adverse to cozies by any means, I find all the punster titles a bit too twee, as the British might say. In desperation, I dug into the small row of offerings at Walmart, only to find the trendy Ruth Ware kind of stories where the protagonist is a hot mess psychologically and is fashionably unreliable. No thank you.

And even if books are currently considered non-essential and slow to ship, I’m still eager to see what EQ offerings Amazon has in stock. It’s time for Mr. Queen and me to resume our former acquaintance.

ellery queen 1

P.S. If you notice, two of the book covers featured in this post are for the same novel. The first version is a pulp cover, albeit a very tame one. The second version is from the 1960s and slightly more upscale, if that adjective can ever be applied to a paperback mystery. 🙂

 

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Lose the Laundry

No, I’m not talking about your dirty clothes. Today’s post is about a necessary writing responsibility called description.

Do I hear groans? Quick! How many of you skip descriptive passages when you’re reading fiction? It can become boring pretty fast sometimes, and it’s slow. It puts the story on pause while the writer evokes some lovely–or clunky–imagery.

So if it has all these things going against it, why am I even bothering to bring it up? Why not ditch description altogether? Didn’t Elmore Leonard advise fiction writers never to include the things that readers skip?

He did.

However, we shouldn’t ditch description completely. Why? Because our stories need it. Description helps orient readers to our story world, particularly when your setting is purely imaginary. After all, remember that your fans have never been to the planet Faraway unless you describe it to them.

Secondly, description shows readers what our characters look like, especially in their introductions when they’re making that all-important first impression. Without description, I might read maybe half of a novel, all the while imagining–for whatever reason–that my viewpoint is stocky and red-haired, then suddenly discover that this individual is tall, willowy, and blonde. It’s like walking down a staircase and missing a step. Even if you catch your balance and avoid falling, you’ve taken quite a jolt.

And, finally, description helps evoke emotions or physical sensations through what our point-of-view character experiences. After all, if your protagonist has just proposed to the girl of his dreams and she turns him down, he needs to feel the emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, anger, and disbelief. Maybe we toss in resentment and stir up a bit of jealousy toward the guy she’s choosing instead. Or, if your point-of-view person is coshed with a blackjack at the end of Chapter Four and comes to at the beginning of Chapter Five to find herself trussed with rope and her face smushed into the gritty texture of old carpet that smells like dog urine and mold, then you have to share those descriptive details with readers or how will they know she’s shivery and nauseous from the throbbing pain in her skull and needs to keep her eyes shut against the dizzying spin of the room around her.

Hmm. So despite its bad rep, description is necessary. Does that mean Mr. Leonard is wrong? Not at all! It means we have to make description fun, fast, and lively enough that readers don’t want to skip it. Or, like tricking a toddler into opening his mouth so we can spoon in green peas, we have to slip description past readers before they realize what’s happening.

It’s helpful to remember that there are two major types of description:  laundry list and  dominant impression.

Let’s get the laundry out of the way, shall we? Early in my career, an editor criticized my manuscript for featuring too many laundry lists. I had no idea what she was talking about and kept piling on more and more details in my descriptive passages, which was the wrong thing to do and exactly what this editor did not want. Somehow, I finally revised that project to her satisfaction or exhaustion–not sure which–and publication deadline was met.

For clarity, let’s define laundry-list description as old-school enumeration of endless details about a setting or a character. Often such description begins with one side of a room and systematically moves the reader’s eye around as it catalogues the colors, furnishings, and architectural features. Or it might start with a character’s glossy black hair pinned high atop her head with only one long curl allowed to rest on her sloping shoulder, then moving down to address the widow’s peak of her hairline, her wide-spaced cerulean eyes with thick curling lashes, her pertly perfect nose with three adorable freckles scattered across its curvature, the rosy fullness of her lips, and the dimple in her chin. Fiction of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century often features such passages. Because every detail is lavishly attended to with equal emphasis, description tends to be long. More information means more word count. Longer imagery grows slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r until it becomes … ZZZZzzzz.

The other type of description is dominant impression, which focuses on a single image you want to get across to readers. What is the most important or notable aspect of the treasure cave that you need to convey?

Well obviously it’s the treasure.

All other information can wait. If that cave holds fabulous riches, then go bold with it in a couple of sentences and make sure you emphasize specific, well-chosen details. Consider ropes of immense pearls, rubies and emeralds winking in the torchlight, heavy Spanish doubloons heaped on the floor. However, don’t catalogue every jewel or count the bolts of shimmering silk cloth. Instead, what is it about a heap of treasure that would stand out to you first and foremost? The glitter-fire within the jewels? The gleam of the coins? If you want this trove to dazzle, then focus on how it shines and sparkles in the flickering torchlight. It’s the dazzle that’s the dominant impression, not each item.

Of course, if the treasure your hero expected to find is not in the cave and instead he encounters a pile of human skeletons in rotted clothing with baleful red rat eyes gleaming from among the bones, then you’ll want to focus on whatever your overwhelming disappointment leads you to notice. Maybe it’s the stench–dank and putrid–like standing in a mass grave. Hit with one vivid metaphor–ideally less of a cliche than my examples–and keep the action moving.

Every few pages, if needed, you can insert a descriptive phrase to supplement the dank dismal atmosphere or the empty gloom within the cave or the glum resignation on the sidekick’s face or the sharp twinge in the protagonist’s stomach as his ulcer perforates from the stress of failure and sends him to his knees in agony.

By pausing only briefly for a swift, vivid impression for setting establishment or character introductions and by mixing descriptive words into the story action, you’ll be able to lose the boring pile of laundry and keep your story exciting, plausible, and vivid.

 

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Catharsis Time

Whatever happened to good story endings? Have you seen them lately? Sightings seem increasingly rare in the market push for series novels and movies with sequel after sequel.

Last week, I was reading THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE by Susan Wiggs as a potential candidate for my fall class on genre fiction at the University of Oklahoma, and–without giving away the ending–I found myself suddenly reading a classic, properly designed story climax. The transition into it was a bit bumpy, but by golly it was there.

oysterville Wiggs

Some modern authors still write this way, I thought to myself. It’s not completely extinct. Yay!

It’s unfortunate that I momentarily dropped from suspension of disbelief to notice the story construction, but I was so surprised that my inner teacher clicked on. It gave me heart. It gave me hope that maybe the pendulum is swinging back to good plotting. Or maybe I’m clinging to this example a bit too tightly, like a drowning swimmer clutching a piece of flotsam.

So what, exactly, am I nattering about?

Story climax, that’s what. Of ending a story instead of merely stopping it. The framework of building story suspense in such a way that readers are provided with an emotional catharsis.

This is all about answering whatever story question was posed at the book’s opening, rather than simply planting a big fat hook in the final sentence and leaving readers dangling–possibly bewildered, certainly unsure, and indubitably annoyed. I hate it when a book stops this way. Don’t you?

Maybe you’re thinking a series installment can’t be concluded with the first book, but while the series needs to go on, the first book has to end. Which means there’s the book’s question to answer while suspending the series’ question.

One is answered definitively and emotionally. The other continues to beckon. If this writing principle is not understood, then all is left hanging with a messy muddle of events and abandoned characters.

My local PBS station recently aired a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, SANDITON. I love Austen’s stories with their complex, quirky characters, witty banter, and romantic plots. Eagerly I settled in for a light, charming costume drama and wondered how the scriptwriter would tie up Austen’s story line.

Spoiler alert!

He didn’t.

sanditon cast

Now, in all fairness, this was intended to be a multi-season television series. However, it was canceled, leaving viewers without any satisfying, completed, cathartic finale. We took the time and trouble to tune in for eight weeks, only to be left with a gaping wound in the plot. There’s no poetic justice, no satisfaction, no happy ending. Subplots are left dangling like severed arteries. When I called a friend to ask for her reaction, her reply was simply, “It’ll be on next week.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“It has to be!” she insisted.

But it wasn’t. And now I find that it set a big hook to draw us onward to Season 2, only there won’t be one.

Such are the uncertain vagaries of the television industry. I liked TV better when weekly shows were episodic, tying up that evening’s story problem in twenty-four or fifty minutes, depending on its time slot. In the 1990s, television began to mirror novel construction with long subplots and story lines that arced over an entire season or multiple seasons. Very risky in a business where ratings can end everything with a chop of the ax.

My training in writing principles is that you never, never, never leave your readers thinking their book is missing a chapter at the end. Austen, ill at the time, could not help an incomplete manuscript. The modern scriptwriter for BBC, could, but chose–or was contracted–to take a huge gamble that failed to pay off.

In that sense, I suppose, he followed Austen more closely than any of us expected. However, it’s still, from the audience’s side of the fence, a cheat.

And while I could wade into theories as to why the drama failed to enchant American viewers sufficiently to save it, that’s not the point of this post, so I’ll refrain.

A story’s conclusion should bring the two primary roles of protagonist and antagonist together, face to face, in what French theater calls the (allow me to provide the translated term) obligatory scene and what American westerns refer to as the showdown. The problem between them has to be settled, unless the story is continuing in a series, in which case the problem between them has to be settled partially.

Consider, if you will, J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series. In each book, Harry grapples with the series problem, stemming from his antagonist Voldemort. He also struggles with a different story question in each separate book, which is resolved as it concludes. Rowling handles this dual responsibility beautifully across the seven-volume plot.

harry potter books

Per the actual catharsis, readers need to be manipulated–or enticed, if you prefer a less blunt term–into believing all is lost for the protagonist. The final cost of achieving the story’s goal is too high. Perhaps it demands the sacrifice of a friend or loved one, or perhaps it asks the protagonist to violate her inner code. Whatever that barrier is, at the end of the story the protagonist either backs away from an unethical solution or stands for what is right, despite threatened personal cost.

Therefore, the key to a compelling story climax lies in making readers believe–or fear–that the story goal is lost and the protagonist is defeated. Once a writer achieves this, then there comes a reversal of expectations, and the protagonist succeeds after all. It is all smoke and mirrors. We writers are wizards within the kingdom of Oz. We create an illusion of defeat in order to make victory that much sweeter and more enjoyable.

If the apparent defeat is skipped over, then the reversal will seem contrived and cheap. If there is only defeat without reversal, then readers are left disappointed and unhappy because poetic justice is not served.

Fiction, unlike some aspects of real life, should provide the protagonist with what is fair and right at the denouement or closing of the story.

Stripped down like this to its pieces and parts, climax catharsis can sound contrived and cheesy. But all story construction is contrived by writers. What’s key is to write in such a compelling and entertaining way that readers forget we are pulling the strings behind a curtain.

 

 

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Narrative Comeback?

In technical terms, narrative is defined as summarized story action told to readers by the author. It’s quick, economical, and useful for transitions or dispensing a lot of information in condensed form. It’s biggest drawback is that it’s telling instead of showing, and readers may grow detached from the story events or characters.

jane eyre cover

In the middle of the twentieth century, narrative was a popular mode of discourse in women’s fiction, particularly in the so-called Gothics that were mega-hot during the 1960s and ’70s. If you’ve never heard of Gothics, they were a sub-genre of romantic suspense and highly derivative of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE in that they featured a naive young woman without family going to work in a huge, spooky mansion and meeting a handsome wonderful man who turned out to be a villain and a gruff, brooding, irascible man who turned out to be the hero. Some had historical settings while others took place in modern times. The covers featured a somber Victorian manse in the background with a young woman running away from it, usually clad in a diaphanous nightgown. Gothics grew so popular that in the 1970s there was even a daily soap opera called DARK SHADOWS that unfortunately aired just before my high school let out for the day. If I walked home at lightning speed, I could sometimes catch the last five minutes of the program, which made for very disappointing viewing since that was always the cliffhanger. Given that soaps did not play reruns and VCRs hadn’t been invented yet, it was a frustrating situation.

Dark Shadows

But I digress.

Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Norah Lofts were leading authors of this era. Two years ago, I stumbled upon a small treasure trove of these authors at an estate sale and snapped up an armload. (I believe I posted about it.) What struck me in reading these books was how heavily they relied on narrative rather than the moment-by-moment scene action and reaction I had been trained to write.

victoria holt

By the early 1980s, Gothics had fallen from public favor. Women’s fiction shifted from historical adventures to contemporary. The bedroom door flung open wide. Conflict between heroine and hero intensified, and moment-by-moment story action was depicted along with sharp-witted dialogue.

For the past forty years, most commercial fiction of various genres has been presented this way with scenes that demonstrate conflict without summary alternated with in-viewpoint processing of emotional reaction and planning of what the protagonist will do next.

Yet currently I’m seeing a trend back to narrative. I noticed it first–and this is by no means any sort of accurate or precise observation–in suspense thrillers featuring the so-called unreliable narrator. College students currently seem enamored of the type of female protagonist whose personal life is a mess, whose emotional life is erratic, and who may turn out to be the villain in a–gasp–plot twist at the end. My students find this extremely thrilling. I, alas, am less impressed by the so-called novelty of this approach since [spoiler alert!] Agatha Christie pulled this off in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in 1929, and therefore it’s hardly new.

murder of roger ackroyd

Last year, I picked up a romance novel by a successful author that I’d heard about but hadn’t read before. Given that this author has also written numerous well-received suspense books, I expected a skillful, engaging story written by expert hands. What I got was two opening chapters of exciting story action, written in moment-by-moment conflict, and the rest of the story in narrative. Okay, I thought. She was probably finishing off a long-term book contract and just wanted to get done.

the duchess Steel

Last month, I picked up a fairly recent Danielle Steel novel. I haven’t read Steel in years, but this had a historical setting in a time period I like so I gave it a try. I lost interest by Chapter Three because it was all narrative. The heroine’s problems are strong ones, and I wanted to sympathize with her, but the less-than-skilled summary held me too far from her. Okay, I thought. This is Steel, who is far from being one of your favorite authors.

oysterville Wiggs

This weekend, I started a book of contemporary women’s fiction by Susan Wiggs called THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE. I don’t believe I’ve read Wiggs before. She is smooth and compelling, and I’m enjoying the rather complicated story a great deal. However, it’s nearly all narrative. There are snippets of dialogue here and there, occasional scenes or scene fragments, then it slides right back into told-by-the-author format. Fortunately, it’s expertly handled, and my interest is held. But at the key turning points in the book, I’ve found myself slightly disappointed by the narrative distancing. I want to be in the moment when the protagonist is betrayed. I want to experience it vicariously. I want to participate in her face-to-face confrontation with the person that torpedoes her. And instead I’m being left out, kept apart, and told about it later. Hmmm….

Now, I’m a person that seeks patterns. I like overviews. I think about the cycle of history and how it so often repeats itself politically and culturally. I like to mull over the causes of events and piece factors together.

If genre fiction really is seriously trending into narrative–not just a few sub-genres, but across the board–then this is a large pivot point in how stories will be presented to readers.

So I ask myself this:  in terms of decor, one of the hot trends in the past five years has been mid-century modern furniture, with collectors grabbing pieces from the 1950s and ’60s. The retro movement is very chic, and some wear clothing and hairstyles of the era as well. The Bohemian style is also in favor. Called Boho, it features vivid colors such as orange, avocado, and turquoise, mismatched furnishings garnered from thrift stores, plants, macrame, and brass accents. So here we have the 1950s through the 1970s very much in vogue. In the 1960s and ’70s, narrative summary was very much the writing style.

Then I tilt the question around and examine it from a different angle. The past decade–admittedly rough for fiction sales–has seen only one market segment strengthen and grow. That’s the children’s market. It’s grown because adult readers moved in, attracted by simpler story lines and imaginative settings. However, these readers wanted more adult themes, which created edgier books and a category designed for so-called “New Adults.” While American juvenile fiction has long relied on moment-by-moment scene action, British juvenile fiction has held the tradition of a narrator telling the story. Three of the most influential children’s series have come from England: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS; C.S. Lewis’s NARNIA books; and J. K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER adventures. I might also throw in Brian Jacques and his charming REDWALL series for good measure.

the hobbit

And finally, I have to wonder if it’s not a confluence of a declining literacy in the United States that needs a simpler story approach and people being so overwhelmed with the now-constant barrage of global information that they can’t escape.

Declining literacy is one of my frequent rants, and I find it shameful that the most powerful, affluent nation in the world continues to see a decline in this area. My college students claim they are avid readers, yet only about five percent of them are currently reading fiction on a regular basis. The rest–when questioned–will reluctantly admit that they stopped reading at about age fourteen. They are hardly what I would call a sophisticated reader, and some of them are so lazy they will not read a novel if they don’t immediately understand its arcane vocabulary. They refuse to grasp the idea that this is how a person continues to learn and grow mentally.

As for the information overload, the Internet pours too much over us all day long. My phone dings frequently, bringing me news headlines. I receive work emails, personal emails, store and shopping emails, blog posts, text messages, and Instagram feeds 24/7. There’s no way to absorb or process it all even if I wanted to. I can’t even play a simple word puzzle on my phone to keep my aging brain limber without being assaulted by advertisements, Facebook enticements, and political messages. Yes, I can turn off much of it. I can block messages and unsubscribe to shut down emails. If I ever retire, I can become a complete Luddite and jettison my computer and phone. However, I’m not desirous of becoming a hermit. Setting aside the current pandemic where we want very much to know what’s happening, after attempting to process too much information all day long, do people really want to spend their leisure reading intense, conflictful, moment-by-moment scenes or would they rather glide along, safe behind the narrator telling them a story but not asking them to become too involved?

I wonder.

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