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 …

Writing Dialect, Writing Sex

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 Romance Novelmandatory 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.

To Genre or Not to Genre, That Is the Persistent Question

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?

Does my Muse care about genre? Of course not.  She admires Ursula LaGuin, who said Museof genre, “I don’t want to live in some gated literary community just to get respect from the ignorant.”

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.

MN Crime WaveThat 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.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat 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.

Herman Melville … Sore Butt?

I wonder if Herman Melville’s butt got sore.

He looks comfortable enough here, doesn’t he?Melville  Or is that a look of pain?

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.

The Grammar Question

One of the great advantages my writing groups give me is a breadth of vision about ‘normal’ grammar. I’ve learned to stay in the middle of the grammar continuum, which to me looks like this:

Stuffy <——————————————-> Stupid-boring

It’s pretty easy to stay away from the far ends. I can’t have my characters saying, “There’s just no telling to whom that e-mail was addressed.” Not in 2015. (Well, maybe a stuffy lawyer or professor.) But making a millennial sound natural doesn’t suggest writing ‘like’ several times in a phrase, either.

The difficulty comes when a word or construction is in the process of flux. Do I use my old guy grammar (suspiciously close to the stuffy end of the spectrum) or jump to the painfully colloquial end.  After all, OMG, stuff is changing all the time, Mother Tonguey’know?

This quote from a recent New York Times article causes me immediate pain: “Then he pours the beige beverage into jars and chills them before bringing the containers to work the next day at Metrodigi, an education technology start-up.” (Bold italics mine.)

The Chicago Manual of Style site says: bring; take. The distinction may seem obvious, but the error is common. The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring {bring home the bacon}. If it’s away from you, use take {take out the trash}. You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.”

The helpful interlocutor on the website notes, “I’m sure some people (here and elsewhere) will think concern about bring/take is pedantic. I have to admit to accidentally mixing them up and getting called out about it.”

The writing groups (20-somethings to 70-somethings) generally keep me in the middle of that continuum. Beyond that, I guess I’ll just, like, struggle along.


The Novel and Budweiser

Word has it that Amazon has taken yet another step in the value chain that is writing. They have the distribution part down pat, and the production part? Well, they have that, too. So where does a restless creative force go next? Pretty obvious: The making of the product, which is to say, the writing.

In the near future, if you’re a hyper-qualified Prime member and you’re knocking around Amazon looking for something to read, you will be able to tell Amazon the genre and the plot elements you’d like and their algorithms will whip up a story for you and drill it right into your Kindle. And you wondered where art comes from.

Now, maybe I’m biased, but that strategy will (of course) work well for Amazon in the short run, but I bet the result will be a Budweiser.

There is a little town in Bohemia called Budvar. Folks have been making beer in BudvarBudvar since before recorded history, and it is good beer. When you’re next in Vienna or Prague, ask for a Budweiser. You will get a beer from that little town in Bohemia, and it will have only a vague resemblance to the Budweiser you can get in the States. The beer from Budvar is the modern version of the beer Budvar has always made, and its flavor is a function of a master brewer’s palate.

When the Budweiser from Budvar arrived in the States, it was probably pretty similar to the delicious stuff that now comes from Budvar. But in the years since, it has been run through consumer testing, the cost accounting department, the advertising department, and so on. The result is essential Crushed Beerbeer. Beer stripped of any taste that might offend. It is light. It is bubbly. It is aggressively anodyne, if that is not an oxymoron.  It is high-priced water. As a result, not surprisingly, a whole new industry has sprung up – Craft Beer, aka beer that tastes like beer.

So, I’m wondering how long it will take for automata to reduce writing to its essential drivel and for Craft Writing – aka Not Drivel – to triumph once again.

The Difficulty of Simplicity

I keep running into the oh-so-true bits that slap me upside the head:

A comment from Benjamin Moser (New York Times Book Review):  “Today, I realize that clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.”

A comment from Tim Mahoney (, who has a couple of great books set in the days of Prohibition, back before St. Paul, Minnesota had discovered “Minnesota Nice,” in last night’s critique group:  “watch out for the word ‘because.’  What follows it is almost always an explanation. If you need an explanation, you’ve often not done a good enough job of creating the scene or the emotion.”

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

Rewrite and Guitar-making: The art of shaving the braces

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.30.04 PMWhen a luthier is making the top of an acoustic guitar, he or she is faced with a delicate balancing act: the spruce used for good tops is thin, 1/8” or less. And the tone of the instrument depends on putting enormous tension on this fragile sheet. The top needs support, but too much support deadens tone. The solution: scalloped bracing. The luthier adds braces, then finally shaves away as much as possible, leaving just enough to keep the instrument from collapsing.

So, your point, John?

Rewrite is similar, and it helps me to use the model of the luthier. The first draft is the rough top, braces in the right places (plot elements, characterization and so on). The rewrite scallops the braces, usually removing unnecessary wood so the story can ring true.

I guess it’s possible to torture this simile too much, but the thought helps me through the minutiae – those gentle passes of the draw knife over the brace that give the guitar – and the story – its voice.

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.