Listening to One’s Characters

I am a product of my age and education. As a result, I read instruction manuals rather than pounding buttons on gizmos to see what happens. When I open the box, I look for the manual (or, these days, for the web address of the manual).  So quite naturally, I looked for instruction manuals on writing when I decided to write my first novel.  Stephen King, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, William Zinsser.  All fine books on writing. Manuals.

When I read how a character comes alive,  how the author follows along behind, discovering the character his own words create, I was, shall I say, skeptical.


Damn, they were right.

I discovered this through my critique group’s discussion of my elderly female hacker whose internet handle is Jake. In my novel Open Circuit, she has been called on by a fellow hacker, HoHumJr, for help.  He is being pursued by bad people and needs a place to hide while he decrypts dangerous messages and alters software.  My first draft pass has Jake quickly advising him to get on a bus and travel from Miami to her remote Wisconsin home, where he can hide out.  Critique group says, “Nope.  Not plausible. Jake would find some way to help him, but not bring danger on herself by having him come to her.  Doesn’t make sense.”

Hmmmpf, I thought.  They just don’t understand the reality that others in the hacker group wouldn’t help HoHumJr.  Wait a minute … the first aha … I know the reasoning, but I haven’t told the reader.  I often make that mistake.  No problem. I added a couple of paragraphs to hammer home why the trip made sense.

Next meeting … Nope, the group said.  Still not justified.  Yet, I had this strong feeling that HoHumJr had to travel to Wisconsin.  I agreed with my friends.  It didn’t make sense.  Was I just wanting it to happen because the plot required it?  No, that wasn’t it.  I could leave him in Miami, and the plot would work.

I finally realized that my character Jake had a life and feelings.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t help HoHumJr from afar, it was that she wanted to be part of the solution he was going to bring to the plot. That was what I had to tell the reader.  I had been going with plot logic, which my helpful friends in the critique group quite correctly shot down.  I should have been going with motivation.  I should have listened to Jake.

 

Critique Groups and the Mirror

As I pass through the stations of writing skill improvement, I am realizing that I have a custom set of writing weaknesses.  I got a notion of it from critique groups … the same issues kept coming up again and again.  It was cemented by the editor who raked over my second novel with a fine-toothed linguistic comb.  The same problems kept recurring.  For me, it was leading a sentence with description, following with action.  (“Hearing a knock, John went to the door.”) Or having a character say something, then having me as narrator come along behind and tell the poor benighted reader what the character meant (rather that writing the character’s statement well enough to convey the feeling in the words). And so on. There were … ahem … many others.

Conclusory Bludgeon

Any Google search will provide a list of tens or even hundreds of these writing mistakes.  It’s a little less daunting that one’s own style features a few … not all … of them.

There is an advantage of critique groups that has only recently become clear to me:  It’s easier to see one’s own weaknesses in other people’s writing.  As in: “The scene is engaging, but in the second paragraph, Jason’s facial expression and sigh says it all.  You don’t need the sentence that tells us that Jason’s exasperated.”  Oops … wait a minute … I do that too.  But I don’t see it as easily (ego, perhaps?) in my own writing.

Critique of others’ work teaches me to look in the mirror, and … oops again.  You already knew that without the conclusory bludgeon, didn’t you?

A Birthday Present from Grammar

I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:

Dear people of the World,

I don’t mean to sound slutty,

But please use me whenever you want.

    Sincerely,

    Grammar

A great card on several levels.  The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.

Which leads to the f-word (really?).  I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable.  Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories:  non-users and users.  Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it.  Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”

As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated).  My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter).  None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.

So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less.  Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.

 

 

Pantser … or not

There are two approaches to writing fiction.  A Pantser writes from the seat of the pants. The writer lets the characters pull the story along. An Outliner (maybe we should say ‘Engineer’) lays out the story … the plot line … then begins writing.  So far, I’ve been a Pantser.

My third novel has a complicated plot, and my pants are hanging around my ankles as I crow-hop through the plot.

Pantsers speak proudly but often vaguely of letting the story write itself, but I’m beginning to understand that it just might be a good idea to have a notion of what’s going to happen.  After all, Aristotle, the first author of a book (well, treatise) on how to write, tells us right up front:  the plot is the most important element of the story.

“Aristotle identifies six aspects, or “parts,” of tragedy: PLOT (mythos), CHARACTER  (ēthos), LANGUAGE (lexis), THOUGHT (dianoia), SPECTACLE (opsis), and MUSICAL  composition (melopoiia).  The most important aspect of tragedy, to which all the others are subordinated, is the plot.” (Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, Margarlit Finkelberg.)

My friend Karl is the plot whisperer in my writing groups.  He suggested Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, which makes a book-length project out of suggesting that the structure of modern fiction is always the same.

Brooks has continued the tradition of adding complexity to structure advice.  We have moved from Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure through the Middle Ages playwrights (five is the correct number of acts) to Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition—rising action—climax—falling action—denouement) to Brooks, who suggests nine steps.

1 Opening scene
2 A hooking moment (in first 20 pages)
3 A Setup inciting incident (can be the first plot point)
4 First plot point (20-25% through story)
5 First Pinch Point (3/8)
6 Context-shifting Midpoint
7 Second Pinch Point (5/8) middle of part 3
8 Second plot point (75%)
9 Final Resolution

Brooks promises a much shorter development cycle if I am mindful of the steps.    I could use the help.

 

Writing with Feeling

I read a submission guideline the other day that sliced novelists into ‘beginner’ and ‘experienced’ using the following cleaver:  “you may consider your work for the experienced category if it has been critiqued by people other than friends and family.”

I get it.  Your wife’s going to tell you it’s great.  Family harmony vs. weak characterization … harmony wins, right?

Well, that’s all well and good as a general case.  However, my wife Beverly is not a general case.  She is an educator of many facets … kids, science outreach, young (we’re talking preschool through elementary), old (adult to ancient).  And, in all those facets, writing has been her central organizing idea. Here’s a reminder from her current writing course that rang a bell with me (hehehe):

Wearing a Suit and The Oxford Comma

I went to a shiva yesterday for a friend’s mother.  It was in the evening.  A bit uncertain about dress, I wore a conservative suit and a tie.  When I arrived, I realized most of the people were more casually dressed.  A bit embarrassed, I mentioned to a friend that I felt overdressed.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’re never overdressed in a suit.”

And yes, this does relate to writing.  Modern punctuation trends seem to be minimalist to the point that one is occasionally confused (as in “Let’s eat Grandma.”).  My tepid response to this trend has been to drop the series comma before ‘and.’  The editor says No … stick with the Oxford comma (red, white, and blue).  The publisher can always take it out.  But one is never overdressed in the Oxford comma.

 

 

Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

Pitch Conference

Ahh, the pitch conference.  Three minutes to explain your darling child of a novel to a polite but dubious agent.  Three minutes for her to ask probing questions that tear it apart.

I enjoyed most of the Writers Digest pitch conference in St. Paul, Minnesota last Saturday.  The classes were more reminders of ideas we writers should always have in our heads than anything new.  Mystery writer Kristi Belcamino reminded us to “get in late and leave early” so that you give the reader the essence of an action, rather than all the steps (hearing the knock, walking to the door, turning the knob).  Set up a ticking clock. (To know that you have to catch a flight to Istanbul is just information.  To know it’s an hour before takeoff and you’re still in the security line raises the stakes.)  This is stuff most writers know, but I, for one, tend to bury important things in prose, then have to trim.

I had some hope of discovering how a self-published work of fiction finds readers.  For all the good ideas, warnings, and suggestions, there was not much there.

Possibly the best takeaway for me was a session in which first pages of novels were read aloud to six agents, who then indicated when they would stop reading.  One of the pages read was from a talented author in my Wednesday critique group. The agents had comments similar to those the critique group had when its members read that first page.  Heartening to hear that the group is on point.  Also very interesting to hear the agents’ take on what works and what doesn’t.  Good writing is necessary, but not sufficient.

In any case, the experience kicked me into yet another rewrite.

Music, cadence and writing

My son Edward, a composer, sent me a cryptic note:

Great article about two of my favorite things…. music and Vin Scully.

The article is about the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. Professors at USC’s music school studied why Scully’s lines were so memorable, why so many people remember them verbatim. I’ll hope you watch the video embedded in the article and see why those lines work so well.  But, a spoiler: Screenshot 2016-04-04 23.40.10music.

Not surprising, really. A wordless tune is appealing to us in many ways, one of the most important being cadence. Songs lay words over melody and cadence, and a great prose passage pays attention to cadence.

I’ve always thought that great story tellers lean heavily on cadence … we almost hear the music as they speak. A good reason to read one’s work aloud.

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.