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.


Google and Real Places

Google is wonderful.  For a person writing thrillers, it’s a critical resource.  Need a Russian phrase?  No problem. An overhead view of a village like Hainburg an der Donau in Austria (my second novel)?  Google Maps has you covered. The uniform of a Florida state trooper?  Google images. But … there is no substitute to actually having been there, having heard, having felt, having smelled.

I’m reading the end of a draft by a marvelous writer, Tim Mahoney.  (Extended sidebar:  If you’ve been feeling inundated by screaming headlines about today’s madness … an entirely new chapter beyond yesterday’s … take a look at  Mahoney is a newspaperman, and he aggregates the news that matters.  No Kardashians, no triple repeats of the latest presidential silliness.  Stuff that one might look back on a few years from now and say that was important.)

And now, back to the story at hand: Tim’s story takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  He was there.  Of course, I know that, and therefore am more inclined to believe the picture his protagonist paints.  But I can’t help thinking that an author can’t know when to mention the heat and humidity, when to comment on the exhaust from the motor bikes, without having been there.  Or maybe it’s writing with the confidence of deep knowledge.  In any case, his good writing plus having been there has taken me out of myself and into the story.

Hainburg panorama

In my second novel, I needed a place for an important event to happen (no spoiler … the book may yet get published), and the speed of the Danube current (google search) and the rate of progress  of a lovely riverboat  (ditto) called for the place to be Hainburg an der Donau.  I needed to have action in the hospital (google maps) and the police station (ditto).  I wrote Hainburg into the story and was quite pleased (well, after Tim and a cadre of other writers tore the draft apart).  Then I had a chance to go to the town itself.

I’m not sure why I changed the few words I did.  I left the hospital inaccurate but changed the police station to be just as it is.  An my constable benefitted from a friendly discussion with the constable on duty.

Maybe it’s just that I now believe what I wrote is real.

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!



Details Details

DInerI’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.

“Pardon me?”

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)

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.”

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.

The Blasted Backstory

I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.

She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”

Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?

There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …

stoploss insurance

Groped! … The result

Thank you to the fine folks who responded to my Groped entry (women, I assume, but you never know on the Internet).

girl surprised

(This person looks too much like an ingenue to be Weezy)

I asked to read you a passage describing Louise Napolitani … Weezy in my novels … getting groped by a guy she refers to as ‘the Lizard’ after the fact.  She’s at a fancy party, and the Lizard is the host.  Does she make a scene? Punch the guy?  Perhaps, as one of my friends suggested, dig her heel into his instep?  The conclusion was evenly matched between ‘don’t make a scene’ and ‘raise hell’.  Another interesting dichotomy was how to handle telling or net telling Joe Mayfield. As she says of her relationship to Joe, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”  Does she tell him, assuming that to not tell him might poison their relationship?  Or does she say to herself that she’s a big girl, and she shouldn’t risk prejudicing Joe about his new boss?

Tough questions for Weezy.  She’s no shrinking violet, and she’s unwilling to be intimidated by the Lizard.  She handles the grope itself with sarcasm but not violence, and she does end up telling Joe the day after the party.  I’m still revising, but I will put the scene up in a week or two.