Smile, and the whole world wonders what you’re up to

It is said (apparently inaccurately) that the Inuit have many words for ‘snow.’  Why would that be?  Why, because they see a lot of snow, of course.

English has very few words for ‘smile,’ even though we see a lot of them (I hope).  Grin.  Grimace. Beam. Smirk. Maybe even Simper. And you can drag in fellow travelers Squint and certainly Leer. But really, not a very large collection of descriptives for something a writer needs often.

Smile, look, walk, and similar words  indicate classes of action but do not show specifics. Use them, and you leave the reader knowing what happened but not having a picture in mind.  They’re placeholders for better description. Boring, as well.

All of this was grating on my mind yesterday.  I was writing a three-person sequence in which a lot of smiling was going on, not all of it happy.  Sure, I could tell the reader that Weezy’s smile masked anger, but how does that look?

I decided to take a break and walk around Lake of the Isles, my favorite in-city lake in Minneapolis.  Usually, I use my walking time to work out plot and character issues, and that was the way I started my walk. A couple of blocks along the way, a late middle-aged man approached.  He took me in, then gave the very briefest horizontal stretching of the lips in a straight line.  Hard to tell whether it was a smile or gastronomic distress. That got me watching the people I encountered.  A young woman gave me the “I am smiling because I’m cool but don’t get your hopes up” rictus (ahh, rictus … I missed that as a near-synonym).  A young father gave me a possessive, prideful smile as his two, young bike-mounted sons ran me off the walking path. A mother’s joy-to-the-world smile as she glanced up from her baby. A hajib-wearing woman smiled with her eyes.  A young packed-with-energy guy gave me a nod of recognition as he ran by, served up with a smirk.  (I race walk. To him, I was surely old, hefty, and weird.) A woman gifted me a happy smile that took in her whole face – mouth, eyes, and forehead. It was the kind of smile that makes you want to know the person just to understand how she has successfully figured out the puzzle of life.

I was reminded there is no such thing as a generic smile.  The smile is a creature of the structure of a face, as well as the inner beauty or turmoil of the person smiling.  Guess I have to work harder on my smiles.  No one said writing would be easy.

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):

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.

Plot Complexity and the Value of Regularity

A fine Minnesota writer, William Kent Krueger, plans his mystery novels out in detail, I’m told.  He is well known for going to a diner each morning and writing.  His stories are detailed and coherent, and his prose is clear and finely balanced.  His Ordinary Grace won the 2014 Edgar for best novel.  Clearly, he knows what he’s doing.

Kent Krueger was one of the founders of one of my Minneapolis critique groups, Crème de la Crime, although he has left the group under the pressure of success.

One of my several conceits when I began writing seriously several years ago was that writing is an organic process.  We plant the seed of a character, and the character grows through the story.  The story must have an arc, and main characters must grow through the arc. Ahem. Like many of the other conceits, that one is true but not sufficient to justify waiting for inspiration to carry me away on its gassy clouds.

I’m not a person who thrives on having a regular schedule.  I feel guilty about that in a number of areas of my life, but I always have excuses: those immediate quotidian issues and tasks … groceries, dentist, car service, getting the books back to the library … seem to jump in front of writing.

I mention all of this because I am realizing how important regular writing is.  The more complicated the story, the more important regularity becomes.  In my third novel, of which I’ve drafted perhaps a third, the plot has, as they say in the bi’ness world, a lot of moving parts. If I were clever like Krueger, I’d be writing every day, which would keep the plot details in my head at all times and prevent the egregious plot mistakes I’m trying to backflush.

Too late for a true New Year’s resolution, but I hereby resolve to write on a more regular schedule.