Tag Archives: Dick Francis

From My Bookshelf: Alistair MacLean

Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.

I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.

I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.

MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.

So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.

Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.

Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.

I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.

A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.

If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat! 

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Slash and Burn–Part II

It’s one thing to declare, “Thou shalt always tighten thy prose!” and another thing to accomplish it.

I’ve heard all the tricks and advice. Haven’t you?

My favorite is, Imagine you’re being charged by the word instead of paid by the word. What would you eliminate?

Dick Francis was one of the leanest writers out there. His mystery novels were never superficial, but he possessed a knack for conveying vivid imagery, taut conflict, and internal anguish without gush or flowery sentences.

Blame that on his highly competitive nature. According to his autobiography, when he stopped riding as a steeplechase jockey and began writing for a racing publication, his editor would mark up his copy. Francis didn’t like that, so he learned to trim his words and convey his meaning precisely. His aim was to deliver copy that the editor couldn’t mark or shorten. By the time Francis turned his hand to writing mystery novels, his distinctive style had developed.

Every day, I fight the battle over baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, the likes of which are being displayed to you at this moment in a dizzying display of my ability to write the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose possible.

I LOVE sentences like that!

Unfortunately for me, almost no one else wants to read such stuff. So I let myself go in rough drafts and then I edit, edit, edit, burn, slash, cut, tighten, grumble, and edit.

Let’s use the above sentence as a little exercise. I believe it’s 42 words long, nearly twice the length an effective sentence should be.

First, we’ll label its parts:

Every day, I fight the battle over baroque [adj.], excessively [adv.] complicated [adj.] and convoluted [adj.] sentences, the likes of which [archaic phrasing] are being displayed [passive verb] to you at this moment [circumlocution] in a dizzying [adj.] display [repetition] of my ability to write the most [qualifier] overblown [adj.] rhetoric [incorrect word choice] and purple [adj.] prose possible.

#1–Use fewer words to convey your meaning.

Daily, I fight using baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a dizzying display of writing the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose.

#2–Weed out as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.

Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.

Oops! If I take away those adjectives, there’s no meaning left. Better put them back in, for now.

Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.

[The sentence is growing shorter. It’s not better … yet.]

#3–Shun passive verbs.

Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.

#4–Check your copy for echoes.
It’s easy to get caught up in the meaning of your prose and reach for the same word more than once in a paragraph or page without realizing it.

Always look for repetition. There’s more of it in your copy than you may think.

Wait! Did I just repeat a point?

Let’s move on to the example:

Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of writing rhetoric and purple prose.

#5–Are your word choices correct?

The shorter and clearer sentences become, the more an imprecise vocabulary will stand out.

Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of diction and purple prose.

#6–Is there flow?
Once you’ve whittled a sentence or paragraph down as demonstrated above, there may not be much left. Or the thing may lack smoothness. It may not convey your meaning the way you intended. It may have become a lousy sentence.

At this point, I ask myself if I should delete the sentence entirely.

If I need it, then I’ll correct bad flow by rewriting the whole thing, taking care to remain simple and clear.

I struggle daily against writing the complicated sentences best described as purple prose.

Whew!

It’s clear, but it seems stilted.

So how about this?

I face a daily struggle against writing what’s known as purple prose.

I’ve gone from 42 words to 13 to 12. My meaning is clear. I’ve retained a colorful term. A flowery sentence that once read like something from a bad Victorian novel has become concise and modern.

Best of all, even I understand what the heck I’ve been trying to say.

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Drat! (The Update)

Well, I was in error today. Sue Grafton’s W IS FOR WITNESS won’t be released until September 10.

And I didn’t dine tonight with Sid Halley. No, I spooned my soup without having the new Felix Francis mystery to read at the table.

So after a long day of eager anticipation, my evening has proven to be a bummer. The Francis mystery was indeed at my local bookstore, but I’ve decided to delay gratification in favor of a better discount. Blame it on the book budget, which is tight these days. (Especially after a binge at the estate sale.)

Still, I can be patient. These delays are but trifles. Meanwhile, I have plenty of other books to read.

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Books, Books, and More Books

Today is a happy day. Felix Francis, son of mystery master Dick Francis, has a new mystery novel out, one featuring the best Francis character of all: Sid Halley. I first met Sid on a sunny autumn day in 1983. I’d signed up for a college class on mysteries. ODDS AGAINST was the first assignment. I was sitting in my car on my lunch break, munching on a tuna fish sandwich as I read the opening page and fell in love with Sid forever.

So far, Felix has done a good job of following in his father’s footsteps. The Dick Francis mystery franchise seems set to carry on for some time to come. And that suits me fine.

Sue Grafton’s “W” novel in her alphabet mysteries series is also due in stores today. I have fallen behind in reading the Grafton stories, but I have been faithfully buying each of them annually. What a monumental job, carrying on with 26 novels featuring the same protagonist. Way to go, Sue! Only three more to go. You can do it!

Earlier this summer, I mentioned in a post that I don’t allow myself to buy used books anymore due to my mold allergies. Well, two weeks ago, I fell off the wagon and bought a handsome old set of Bulwer-Lytton novels, circa 1892, quarter-bound in leather with illustrations. They have been sadly abused over the years, and when I found them at a junker’s overstock sale, they were heaped on a table outdoors in the baking sun. Some of them were broken; some intact. The seller gleefully told me he’d thought about removing the illustrations and selling those separately, but it was “too much trouble.” I bought them the way I would give a stray kitten a saucer of milk.

Someone has to save these relics of a more elegant and graceful life. Someone has to find them a better home.

It was like picking up an elderly gentleman who’d fallen in the gutter through no fault of his own and couldn’t quite stand up again.

So these books are now in my garage, awaiting a little leather polishing, until I can find a good home for them.

But as harmless as that act of salvage seemed, it opened a gate that I can’t seem to close. With Bulwer-Lytton residing in stately decay in my garage, I stumbled over a partial set of Abbey Girls novels by Elsie J. Oxenham, a series popular in Great Britain during the 1940s. I found them in an antiques/junk shop. The books were piled on a rickety table, obviously part of a series. They looked gentle and fun. They looked interesting. I succumbed in a mad splurge, refusing to even give them the “sniff” test for mustiness.

Now I dare not open them and breathe in their scent, so how will I read them? Alas. They called to me like sirens, and I could not resist their song tho I die for it.

This past weekend, I attended an estate sale liquidating the home of avid readers. There was the room filled with old, rare, and collectible books: Victorian authors, Edwardian authors, books with Art Nouveau cover illustrations, classics, and weighty old medical tomes. There was also the room of children’s books: picture books, chapter books, YA adventures, and an entire set of Nancy Drew. Then there was the room of modern paperbacks, chiefly romance and general fiction. There was the room featuring writing references and books on the writing craft. There was the room of sewing, quilting, and craft books. And outside, stacked on long tables ranging across the patio and into the yard beneath big shade trees, were the rest of the books: boxes of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories, boxes of Agatha Christie, boxes of John D. MacDonald, and boxes and boxes and boxes of just about everything else.

I told myself no, no, no. I tried to be strong. I tried to resist. But then I found the Perry Mason books, at 25 cents each. I was outside. The scent of musty old books occasionally wafted through the fresh outdoor air before being blown away by the Oklahoma wind. I knew better. I did. And I bought them anyway.

What is it the English say? You might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb?

Okay, so hang me now.

I went for the volumes of Elizabeth Gaskell (she of Cranford fame). I went for Anthony Trollope. I found a book written about life on the prairie and one about teenage flying aces in WWI. I did my best to reject books bearing evidence of “tooth of worm” and those printed on such acid-corrupted cheap paper that the pages were an ugly dark brown. I kept saying to myself, “Put that back. Don’t get that one. You have enough. That’s too many.” And I came staggering out of that house with two huge shopping bags of wonderful reading–astonished at my dissipation in throwing all good sense to the winds.

How will I read them? Wearing a paint respirator mask, I suppose. (After I’m done with Felix Francis and Sid Halley.)

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Don’t Warm Up

How do you launch your story?

Do you think it begins with the first word you write on page one?

Do you think it begins when the protagonist is thoroughly introduced to readers?

Do you think it begins when trouble appears, cloudlike, on the protagonist’s horizon?

Or, do you just start typing and hope for the best?

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in Driver’s Ed., my driving instructor tried to teach us to merge and turn our vehicles more assertively by saying, “Hit that car! Try to hit that car! Move!”

I don’t think it was an effective way to teach tentative teens. I understood what he was trying to do to us psychologically, but the concept of intentional collision so alarmed me that I tended to freeze up rather than mash down the accelerator.

Now, as I teach my students how to get their stories moving, I experience frustration similar to what my driving instructor must have gone through.

Start the story on page one!

Make your words count. Make your character introduction count. Get something happening that is pertinent to the plot and start advancing it.

Know what your protagonist wants on page one!

Most writers dawdle in the opening when they haven’t a clue of what their main character’s goal is. You can’t arrive if you don’t know where you’re going.

Make sure your protagonist is in trouble on page one!

What are you waiting for? An invitation? Student writers meet with me all the time to justify why nothing is happening, storywise, for the first eleven pages. “There’s all this background the reader needs to understand.”

Readers don’t need to understand anything except what’s happening right now!

In other words, when I pick up a book to read, I don’t care how the protagonist came to be trapped in a dead-end canyon with hostile mutants closing in. I just want to see if the protagonist is going to find a weapon and survive the encounter.

The back story can be explained later. Much later. Opening with an info dump means Wally Writer is infatuated with his little story world but hasn’t gotten around yet to plotting. Readers seldom have patience to wait while Wally pulls his act together.

It’s like asking readers to read a rough draft instead of the polished version.

Bring in an antagonist fast.

“Oh no!” my student writer protests. “I want the reveal to be a surprise later.”

My response is usually, “Why?”

What are readers to do in the meantime, waiting for the big plot twist? Probably they’re going to read someone else like Dick Francis, or John D. MacDonald, or Agatha Christie, or Robert Crais.

I’m not saying that you mustn’t conceal some shadowy villains from being identified, but they need to be present. (Even J.K. Rowling injects Voldemort early on.)

Story trouble and conflict need to come from a source. They don’t just drop from the sky as random bad luck. The quicker an opponent appears–say, no later than page two–the quicker your story will get on track . . . and stay there.

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Hitting the Iceberg

Character design involves an entire plethora of details and construction, including background development. Where many writers run aground is regarding how much background to devise and include.

Hemingway’s famous Iceberg Quote advises using only ten percent of what you know about a character in your story. The other ninety percent should be reserved for your knowledge base alone.

However, it’s easy to crash into that iceberg rule after you’ve worked so hard to round out a character.

How, you may ask, do I know what to use and what to leave out?

The only answer I can provide is, “It depends.”

What kind of story are you writing?

How long is it? A short story or a novel?

How complex a character are you designing?

What story role will this individual play? Protagonist? Antagonist? Sidekick, etc.?

Is background motivation necessary to advance the plot?

John Grisham’s breakout novel, THE FIRM, provides no background on the protagonist Mitch other than a couple of sentences about Mitch’s brother serving prison time. Background isn’t necessary here because the book doesn’t need Mitch’s past. He isn’t motivated by what’s happened to him before the story opens. Instead, the novel focuses on the mystery of what’s really happening in this law firm where Mitch now works.

In contrast, the Dick Francis mystery, ODDS AGAINST, features a protagonist whose past is doled out in bits from start to finish. Sid’s background is important because it feeds his motivation through the ongoing plotline. Francis is careful, however, to avoid info-dumps and never stalls the story advancement to indulge in them.

The two novels demonstrate how wide background material can range.

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Fishy, Fishy–More Hooks

The first hook you write in your plot may be its most important one–not so much in terms of story advancement but in catching a reader.

After that, how many hooks do you need and how often should you place them?

For grins, I’ll divide hooks into divisions and title them as

                        Minnows

                                       Marlin

                                                Sharks

                                                        Whales

Let’s deal with them in reverse order, or from least used to most used.

Major hooks (whales) should be set at key turning points in the plot’s progression. They’re huge plot twists. They should really surprise readers, maybe even galvanize them out of their chairs, saying “Whoa!”

You need a whale of a hook (groans, please) in the center of your book. For example, [**spoiler alert **] in the middle of the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, the house is blown up.

A book will probably have two such enormous hooks, possibly three, depending on its genre and the intensity of the stakes. The advantage of these hooks should be evident. The disadvantage of using them is that each successive whale should be larger. You must keep topping yourself through the course of the story. Agatha Christie’s mystery, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, ends with a massive plot twist so effective that I’m not going to reveal it to you here.

Use the whale too soon, and your story dries up to a disappointing finale. Use a whale too often, and you’ll either become absurd and/or campy.

So, use a killer whale in the middle of the story and a humpback in the story climax.

Moving on … the hooks I consider to be sharks can be plot twists or turning points. They should be startling and intense. I often think of them as “stingers.” In thrillers, a shark is the first revelation of the villain to readers. Each time viewpoint shifts back to the villain, another shark is placed.

Sharks may also appear at the end of chapters, because you never want a chapter to close without grabbing the reader in some way.

Sidney Sheldon’s book, IF TOMORROW COMES, opens with a shark-level hook: “She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

The marlins are strong and agile. Like their real counterparts–the actual sporting fish–marlin-type hooks exist to keep the reader entertained and the pace moving along.

Marlin hooks fall at the end of scenes. All scenes should end with hooks. Some will be quite small. Some will be intense. But ordinary scenes advance the story via strong setbacks (your marlins). I also recommend that, whenever possible, you open your story with a marlin as well.

Think of it leaping from the water, flashing bright in the sun, catching the reader’s eye and heart.

Okay, now for the minnows. I know they skew my metaphor because they aren’t salt water fish like the others. But minnows are small, insignificant creatures. We don’t even eat them. We only use them for bait.

Bait … a key word. Don’t you set a hook with bait?

Yep. Minnows are small questions raised in readers’ minds. We use one, or three, or five at a time. We fill a page with them, or a chapter. Minnows seem insignicant when they appear, but they’re niggling at the back of the reader’s thoughts. Slip in enough minnows, and you create a worry for the reader, a concern about a character’s safety or situation. You use minnows to build anticipation for a coming event. You let minnows entice readers into turning another page, and another, and another unti–pow!–was that a shark that just hit?

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