Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English. I believe it. What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage? Every day. I hope you will join my pilgrimage. I’m writing a book … well, several. Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way. I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me. C’mon, it will be an adventure …
I am reading through a list of
15 36 48 books that I believe define the genre I’m writing in, Mystery/thriller. I’ve attached my list as a separate page.
When I began writing, I didn’t choose a type of fiction or a genre. I just started telling stories. To my surprise, I found I was writing what is now classified as a Thriller.
Trouble is, the Mystery (subcategory: Suspense, sub category: Thriller) world is huge, particularly since publishing houses discovered calling a book a thriller is a marketing advantage. In a thriller, Hero, frequently an ordinary person, discovers a big, bad problem, and we’re off. My two novels, one complete, one almost so, run that way.
After a couple of years of research on my own (aka stumbling around), I ran into a lively discussion of fifteen great mystery writers at Minnesota Crime Wave. Energized, I made a list and amplified it with suggestions from my writers groups. The list includes mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Most mystery writers produce series (after all, when you’ve
created discovered a good character, you have to let him or her live a little), so tried to find the single title in a series that best represents the author, with some outstanding help from the fine folks at the bookstore Once Upon a Crime and Karl Jorgenson, who reads widely and has encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. (See his reviews at Goodreads.)
Most of the authors on my list are famous, established writers. I’ve added a few less famous writers whose works I’ve admired, including books from members of writers groups I’m in, Tim Mahoney (gangster-era noir) and Carl Brookins (several mystery series). I did not include mystery categories distant from adult thrillers. That means I left out some fine works of writing group members. The cozy mysteries from Monica Ferris aren’t on the list, nor is Susan Runholt’s YA story, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia. Also missing are Karl Jorgenson’s (oops, John Sandfraud’s) send-up of John Sandford (a short novella) and Kara Jorges’ mostly romance novels. (There’s a fine caper mystery coming soon.)
I’m halfway through my list. Trouble is, it keeps growing.
I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.
The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along. Also, because it’s thought on the fly, it includes repeats, irrelevancies and meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on, which we tolerate and edit out.
Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for.)
Here are some I struggle with or see in my writing groups:
Bring/take: Most people seem to know the difference between transporting something toward where we are now and transporting it away. That said, common usage is collapsing to just plain “bring.” Writing needs to minimize confusion about motion. I’m sticking with the distinction.
Lay/Lie: Difficult because lay is also past tense of lie. But lay is something you do to an object and lie is an action you do to yourself. (Furthercomplicated by the fact that no one is interested in getting lied or even lain.) I stick with the distinction.
Who/whom: At least in speech, few of us observe the difference. I try to rework sentences to use who, thereby getting over the speed bump of the reader trying to remember the correct application of the rule instead of following the story line.
All part of the accretion of the craft. If you have ones that bug you, let me know.
My prior post leaned heavily on Brown and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Here’s a nice review from a website with much valuable advice on writing from an editor.
Originally posted on Doorway Between Worlds:
I picked up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by editors Renni Browne and Dave King because several of my editing colleagues recommended it as a solid resource for authors. There are many books on how to write and comparatively few on how to edit your own writing. Yet this is such a critical task for writers if they want to submit a solid manuscript for further editing or publishing. I was really looking forward to reading through this book, and I’m glad to say it was a winner.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is focused on the details of stylistic editing. The authors assume that you have already dealt with the larger structural concerns of plot, character arc, and theme. The book covers a broad range of topics relating to the mechanics of editing: showing vs. telling, characterization and exposition, point of view, proportion, dialogue, interior monologue, sound and voice, repetition, and…
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I’m beginning to understand that most of writing involves choices about where to land between extremes. The issue I’m currently working with in rewrite is the question of how much to tell. It came up because I got widely different comments in writing groups on the lead passage of my first novel:
“So you’re the dumbass.”
The woman plopped into the booth across from Joe Mayfield. The bite of over-easy egg halfway to his mouth dripped a spot of yolk on his pants.
He put down his fork and tried for an offhand smile but knew it came off closer to a rictus.
The woman suppressed a grin and picked up a menu.
Joe had seen her come into the diner, now nearly empty after the breakfast rush. She was tall, not quite stick thin, out of place here in farm country in her cargo shorts, MIT T-shirt and an untamed mop of chestnut hair. Not the thug he’d been watching for since ditching Doughboy back in Orlando.
One writer’s take was: “I want to see more about the place. Sights, sounds, smells. This isn’t real to me.” On the other end of the spectrum: “Why do I need to know what she looks like? And what about Mayfield, your protagonist. Don’t you want to know what he looks like?”
I finally came up with what you see above. Because I’m writing in Joe Mayfield’s point of view, it seemed important to get the description of the woman we will come to know as Weezy. But she’s challenging Joe, and the challenge is what sets the story in motion. So I chose not to spend words to describe the diner. (The scene recurs later in the book, and there is a fuller description there.)
My go-to advice for rewrite is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. They helped me answer my question of where to land on the spectrum of more or less description: “When you describe every bit of action down to the last detail you give your readers a clear picture of what’s going on, … you also limit their imagination, and if you supply enough detail, you’ll alienate them in the process. Describing your action too precisely can be as condescending as describing your characters’ emotions. Far better to give your readers some hints and then allow them to fill in the blanks for themselves.” (p. 147)
Thought for my writing day:
“Every medium has its limitations, and the central limitation of writing is that readers can only apprehend one word at a time, in order. Because of this, we are denied the grand simultaneities permitted to other arts. A symphonic chord, with its dimensions of harmony and tone color and dynamics and duration, can be heard all at once; a landscape, with its dimensions of form and color and scale, can be seen in an instant. But we have to talk a world into being. Ours is a spare art, an art of losses, and even our grand monuments are built one brick at a time.” (Elizabeth Bishop)
To torture the metaphor, too many bricks make for an ugly building. (Memo to self: Cut! Cut!) Too little mortar means the whole structure collapses. (Memo to self: You know what’s going on in the story. Let the reader in on the secret.)
A marvelous reflection on Shakespeare and indirectly, on writing
Originally posted on The Drunken Odyssey:
Shakespearing #40 by David Foley
I’m supposed to come up with some final thoughts about Shakespeare after my long trek through the plays, but I keep thinking about his books. I recently stumbled on a Times article from 2005 in which the author flogs the old idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have written his plays because he left no books in his will. There are several things wrong with this assumption, beginning with the question of whether Shakespeare actually owned the books he used; but it suddenly occurred to me that all the anti-Shakespearean arguments based on what’s in the plays—he must have owned tons of books; he must have been trained in law; he must have been a nobleman; he must have gone to sea—evade the central mystery of the work, which is a mind so preternaturally absorptive that it saw, heard, sensed all; everything was material to…
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As an ardent student of the craft of writing, I keep getting these blasts of insight from what other people do. Which brings me to a taxi ride to the airport in New York years ago.
There I was, on the way to LaGuardia. Back then, driving cab was often the province of all sorts of artists. My driver, an articulate middle-aged black man, began to talk about the more salacious aspects of life as a cabbie. It turned out that the monolog was an extended sales pitch for his self-published book. He had a stack of copies on the front seat. Fascinated by a gifted storyteller, I bought a copy.
At home, I read it … most of it. The sex scenes were graphic (the lady who asked him into her apartment while she searched for money, then gave him a particularly enjoyable tip … and the contortionist in the front seat). But the book was, well, boring. The stories themselves did not quite justify the difficulty of reading them. On reflection, the writer confronted two difficult challenges at the same time: Writing dialect and writing about sex.
The great majority of the copy was written in New York Harlem dialect. The old adage, “We all sound stupid when we’re talking” is true and demands careful balancing of authenticity without the pauses, repetitions, y’knows we all are prone to. That’s doubly true when one is writing dialect. Faulkner is a great writer few people read because his prose is so buried in dialect. Flannery O’Conner does better. My taxi driver, no doubt striving for authenticity, flopped.
Then there’s sex. With apologies to the heaving bosoms and rippling muscles that are mandatory in certain sub-genres of Romance, sex is hard to write. My taxi driver went for authenticity and detail, reminding his readers that describing the purely physical aspects of sex is like trying to explain how a Rube Goldberg machine works (with lubricity). A member of one of my writing groups did a much better job with a very few words of free verse, reminding us that the suggestion of ecstasy paints a picture in the reader’s mind that’s much better than a step-by-step, groan-by-turgid-groan recitation.
I never did finish that cab driver’s book, but now, all these years later, it taught me a great lesson.
Does one (say, an unpublished author) (say, me) try to conform his writing to the model of a genre? If so, what is the model?
Of course, my Muse can’t be bothered with piddling matters of commerce and the like. She did not mention that LeGuin presumably made her statement after she was published.
On the practical side of things, I get that you have to be able to describe what you’re writing in a few words. Leading a conversation with “My work is really impossible to classify, a unique blend of realism and fantasy leading to a confrontation between …” gets a polite smile and an invented need to be somewhere else. Quickly. Leading with the same description in a query letter? Fugeddaboudit.
It’s Aristotle’s fault, really. He stamped our pedagogy with the need to classify, and it stuck. We like to put things in well-organized cubbyholes. And really, I understand the need. An agent or publisher needs to know where a book fits. A bookseller (remember them?) needs to shelve it. Not tomorrow, not after 50 pages, but now.
That has led me to try to understand, in depth, the thriller genre I’m writing in and its relationship to others close to it. That quest led me to the Minnesota Crime Wave, three crime writers of serious intent and fine reputation. In particular, there’s a series of public TV programs featuring discussions between the Crime Wave (Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger) and often other writers. Episode 13 defined the Thriller genre better than I’ve seen before, and Episode 6 produced an excellent reading list that will occupy the rest of my summer.
My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person that she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me. The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.
The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).
Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.
I wonder if Herman Melville’s butt got sore.
I mean, the man wrote 206,000 words, then apparently did a rewrite, all in just a year and a half. . How many hours is that? Figure 100 – 200 words an hour and we’re talking 1,000 – 2,000 hours for the draft, and … I don’t know about you, but rewrite is twice as long.
So, let’s say at least 3,000 hours with butt planted firmly. Spread over a year and a half, that’s five and a half hours a day with no break, no vacation. Ouch!
I only mention this because my own backside has been complaining since I started writing. It’s an uncomfortable and unwelcome transition to add having a pain in the butt to being a pain in the butt (a somewhat longer-lasting problem).
Of course I live in a world of technology. Poor Melville! No FitBit or Apple watch to remind him to get his butt off the chair. No Herman Miller Aeron chair. (He probably couldn’t have afforded one, anyway.)
My butt still hurts if I write more than 1,000 words in a sitting, regardless of technology.