Books — Part II

Last time, I wrote about some literary fiction I’ve read during my hiatus from writing my fourth novel. I figured I had too much material for one blog post, so I made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between Literary Fiction (always intoned with those capital letters) and mysteries (always lower case). I really do hate the distinction. There are fine writers in both groups, and the distinction seems foolish to me. Here are some mysteries I read both for enjoyment and edification:

Dark Sacred Night (Michael Connelly) Harry Bosch, one of the great detective protagonists, works with Renee Ballard, a Los Angeles detective. This is a police procedural at the detail level. Connelly makes the details work for the story, giving a realistic picture of how a detective’s day might actually play out, with all the high points and frustrations rolled in over the story line. Both Connelly and Alex Lettau (below) have a challenge most writers have difficulty overcoming: the technical lecture. Ballard the cop speaking directly to Bosch the former cop would say something like, “LT’s gonna need a DD5.” Both cops … but few if any readers … would know what that means. Sometimes, details are unnecessary, a reality I need to remember. Connolly handles the problem nicely … the narrator steps in and gives reader a line of succinct definition. Just enough to answer the reader’s “huh?” Lettau provides more detail, and repeats definitions so reader will be sure to know the precise etiology of the disease he’s discussing. Balance is the issue, and I can see some rewrite coming in my stuff.

Yellow Death (Alex Lettau): I’m always looking for stories similar to mine. Agents want ‘comps’ to give an idea of what kind of book yours is. In that spirit, I picked up Yellow Death, which has some similarity to the plot of the story I’m writing now, Fatal Cure. Yellow Death is written by a doctor, and the plot detail shows it. The main characters are medical professionals … doctors, epidemiologists, public health officials … and there are a lot of them. Most would speak to each other in medical dialect, leaving most readers scratching their heads. The detailed medical terminology gives an air of authenticity to the story, a good thing. But Lettau stops and explains his terms almost every time a technical conversation occurs. That slows plot development, and the idea of imminent catastrophe (five days!) needs the plot to move quickly. A learning experience for me, since my series leans toward technical jargon.

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell):  Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, is surely one of the great British mystery writers. I said in my review that reading it reminded me of watching a tree sloth make its way slowly along its arboreal path. That wasn’t meant as an insult; the slow ballet of the tree sloth is beautiful, and its slowness allows appreciation of each movement. Vine’s plot moves that way.  I did have a difficult time keeping attention on the reading. The slow, slow, slow development played a part, but I didn’t particularly like the main characters. Learning in detail the inner workings of the mind of a person you don’t much like is a job of work.  Lesson learned. Characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. Fine writing, but I struggled to finish.

One Mississippi (Steve Ulfelder): I admit to bias for Ulfelder, who was my teacher in a marvelous seminar on mystery writing several years ago and was nice enough to review my first book. That said, this new series featuring Arch Dixon and his unlikely sidekick Kevin Day looks really great. Ulfelder has just the right touch of gritty detail when he’s taking us through the underside of Boston. Ulfelder reminds me that a great protagonist is usually one or two steps away from being a villain, or at least an incompetent. I have some work to do there.  Ulfelder is also master of the sentence fragment to punch up tension and keep the story moving.


Collision: Football and Storytelling

Those of you who write know that writing comes to invade much of your life. You see an expression on a face in a crowd and think about how you would capture it in words. You see a news item that makes you add a twist to your plot. Putting words around life becomes a constant. Which brings me to football.

A few days ago, I read the beginning of my fourth novel to a critique group. One of the members said. “I like the beginning, but then you take me into a biotech development hub. Interesting, but it slows the story down.”  I was contemplating that comment, going back and forth about whether to cut the offending section.  I took a break to watch a University of Florida football game. (If you’ve lived in Gainesville, Gator football puts a stamp on you, even after you leave.) I was half thinking about my writing dilemma when Florida captured a Tennessee fumble, or seemed to. There followed a half-dozen video replays, shots of refs conferring, several minutes of ads, replays, conferences. Finally, a decision. By the time, I had lost track of the game. I had just read an article in which a sportswriter talked about the new safety rules and technology that made it possible for millisecond, millimeter measurements slowing the game, destroying its rhythm. The writer credited falling viewership on the delays that alter the rhythm, which is to say the emotion, of the game.

The same is true is true about writing, it seems to me. Like football, there is a rhythm to a story, and that rhythm needs to be ever-present in a writer’s mind, because rhythm is an important component of the emotional bond between the reader and the story. That bond makes the reader turn the page.

Looks like that bit about the biotech incubator is out. I loved writing it. I worked there (well, not the fictional one) for several years. I know the people, the structure, the kind of events that go on … and I neglected rhythm.  

Maybe I’ll get a chance to put it in later.