Ah, yes … Suspense

“Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense – the only literary tool that has any effect on tyrants and savages.  … She only survived because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next. …  (A story) runs like a backbone, or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary.  (It) can have only one fault:  that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”  Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster

          EM Forster

                         EM Forster

So, SUSPENSE is safe to survive and will not be drowned in a sea of gorgeous sentences and ungorgeous snippets of banality delivered as tweets.  The ‘tyrants and savages’ of the brave, new electronic world shall not stifle a good old suspense-driven story.What a relief!


A Reading

My Story Blues Highway was published in the May, 2013 annual Bacopa Literary Review, and I was asked to read a portion of it at the Bacopa annual meeting in Gainesville, FL.  Here’s the reading:

The Bacopa Review had 80+ short stories, creative non-fiction and poetry.  See the Bacopa website  for a copy.   My whole short story, called The Cle eland Travel Inn, is here:

On Writing from the master of mystery and crime

elmore-leonard1-c4b445dd335d73a2096095ed3b2a2f27dd4be19c-s6-c30Yesterday, we learned that Elmore Leonard has passed on, perhaps to write in another sphere.  The New York Times published an obituary and an op ed piece describing him as having elevated the genre.  Leonard wrote a piece on making a narrator that doesn’t usurp the story that is beautiful for its brevity and clarity.  I have extracted it (how could you fool with the words of a master?) in deference to the widely advertised short attention span of, well, almost everyone.  Mr. Leonard would tell you (and does, several times, in the complete article), that there are exceptions to each of the rules.  He says:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather:  If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

2. Avoid prologues:  A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

(Even) if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:  If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

I just checked the first pages of my first novel, and I believe it took me to page 70 to violate all of the rules (except the prologue … I washed that out months ago in rewrite).

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.

Pelvic Affiliate

The English vocabulary is arguably the largest and richest of all languages.  So, why are there so many concepts with no word at all?

In particular, why is there no word for grown up people who are in a relationship that includes both friendship and sex, but neither children nor marriage?  ‘Friend’ is too broad.  ‘Special friend’ is too cute.  ‘Girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ is both inaccurate and insulting.  ‘Mistress’ for woman … we won’t go there.  The best one I’ve run into is my cousin Gamble’s term, ‘pelvic affiliate’, but that doesn’t really capture friendship.

I suspect that social inertia is involved … after all, such a relationship wouldn’t have been much discussed even thirty years ago.  I’m tempted to make a new word up, since my story happens in 2050.  I really need something to describe the relationship between my two protagonists, Joe Mayfield and Louise (Weezy) Napolitani.  He’s 40, and she’s 36.  The relationship built during my first novel, and, as Weezy thinks at one point, recalling a song lyric, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”

Any ideas?

PS: This issue was neatly described by Professor Anne Curzan in a Teaching Company course called The Secret Life of Words.  If you are a word mechanic, aka Writer, you will be made more capable by this wonderful dissection and explication of the enormous, colorful bag of tools we all use.


ta-daMy story called Blues Highway (see more on the Writing page), has been accepted for the 2013 edition of the Bacopa Literary Review. 

The 2013 print edition is expected by mid-May.  The 2012 Bacopa Review featured “award-winning prose and poetry from 43 writers, New York to Los Angeles, and Australia.”

I’m excited!

Another Book on Writing

Several Posts ago, I asked for advice on books on writing.  I got some great answers to add to my short list.  One that I missed is This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley.  It’s a great, short, pithy treatise on writing by a skilled and prolific writer.  It speaks to my difficulties and aha! moments like no other book I’ve read.

A Storyteller, the Oral Tradition, and the essence of writing.

I need a pick-me-up, folks.  In these dark days of gun-blasted insanity, I need something to remind me of the deep current of goodwill and understanding that runs through most of our lives.  Something comforting.

As a child, I loved bedtime stories … didn’t we all?  Maybe that’s why one place I have turned for comfort is a story.  This one was told by Frank Ratliff, whom I met last March in Clarksdale, MS.

Frank … ‘everybody calls me Rat’ … is the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel.  The Riverside was originally the colored-only hospital in Clarksdale, which is about fifty miles south of Memphis and the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta and thus the incubator of country blues and a great deal of rock ‘n roll and R&B.

The hospital was closed about 1940, a few years before Rat’s mother bought the building

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

Chairs along the front of the Riverside Hotel

and opened it as a hotel.  The original building had six or seven patient rooms, plus an operating/recovery room.  The great blues singer Bessie Smith was brought here after a car accident on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale in September, 1937.  It was here that she died.  Rat told me the story … the real story … as we sat in the chairs that front the Riverside.

Storytelling is different from writing in at least one important way:  it includes a storyteller.  A good storyteller can put art into idle conversation, and people like Rat that have the gift are few and far between.  Rat has the soft diction and slow cadence common to his part of the delta, and he understands that there is music in language.

Here’s how he told the story of Bessie Smith’s accident, as nearly as I can transcribe it:

“They say Bessie died because no hospital would take her, but that’s not right at all.  They brought her here, right here, laid her up in the front room of the hospital.  See, what really happened was they had this terrible accident out on the highway.  Right behind them was a car with a doctor, white doctor, and another man.  The doctor took one look at Bessie and knew they were gonna need to get her to a hospital.  He sent his friend off to try to make a telephone call, but they were out in the country.  Only people around there surely didn’t have telephones.  So it took a while to get in touch with the funeral parlor, get the hearse to come out.”  Rat pauses, looks up toward the morning sky, assembling his words,  “See, they didn’t send no ambulance to get a colored person in those days.  Just a hearse so they wouldn’t have to make two trips if the person just happened to die on the way to the hospital.”

Rat reflects for a minute, purses his lips, “After Bessie died, newspaper up North said she was refused at the white hospital, but that makes no sense.”  He punctuates the obvious with a nod.  “No sense at all.  No driver woulda tried to take her to the white hospital in the first place!  Not when the colored hospital was a few blocks away.”  He shakes his head, reflecting on the foolishness of the press story.  “No, she died right here.  But white folks here in Clarksdale were embarrassed by the attention from the newspapers up North.  Maybe that’s why they closed this hospital a couple of years later.  Then coloreds had to go up to Memphis to the hospital … fifty miles or more.  Wasn’t ‘til many years later that the hospital here took colored folks.“

He pauses for a minute, finds a segue, and continues,

“When my daughter was born, they had a colored side of the hospital, but it was full, so they put my wife out in the hall on the white side … first time anyone knew of that happenin’.  Her doctor was a practical man, livin’ as he was here in the South.  He understood his obligation … you know, the oath he took … so he took both colored folks and white folks.  He had one office where he saw his patients, but he had two waiting rooms.  Like I said, he was a practical man.  I always wondered what the white folks woulda thought if they’d known the chair they was sittin’ in had been occupied by colored folks just a few minutes before.”Frank Ratliff, storyteller

He nods his head remembering, then goes on, “Of course, segregation was good for the Riverside.  Only hotel in Clarksdale that would take black people, so all the bluesmen have stopped here.  They used to practice downstairs.  As a child, I’d sit and listen.  Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk.  You name a famous bluesman, and I’ll bet you he’s stayed here.  Yessir.”

That’s the story.  My written version can’t quite catch the tempo, of which Rat is a master.  It would fit pretty well into an 8-bar or 12-bar blues.

There’s a nice video of Rat showing off the Riverside on YouTube.  If you’re anywhere near there, you owe it to yourself to stay there.  For the stories.

Writing, storytelling and the music of language

I’m finding that the process of writing sometimes gets in the way of the goal of writing, which is storytelling.

Language may be the most important gift from the genetic dance that formed us.  It allows us to remember things and share ideas beyond tribe and lifetime.  But writing is a johnny-come-lately at maybe 6,000 years old or so, and writing seems to want to squash the tempo out of language.

I have to admit a little bit of a grudge against you, Alphabet.  After all, you hijacked our stories.  Oh, Alpha, I know you didn’t mean to, and I know it was important to count heads of cattle and amphorae of wine so we could get on with the business of civilization.  But, Alphabet, you made us too often ignore the music of language. Before you came along, I suspect that there were no stories without music.  Even if unaccompanied by instrument or choir, spoken words always have music.  The oral tradition values that sound and rhythm.  You can still get whiffs of it today, but modern media often override sound and rhythm with sound bites and volume.  It’s hard to compress art into a Tweet.

I spent a lot of my career writing for business.  Precise, accurate, dry writing.  Facts strung together by logic in pursuit of matters legal and financial, didactic and persuasive.  I enjoyed it … there is a challenge to making something clear in as few words as possible.  ImageWriting the novel has been different and harder.  Tone and rhythm are take effort to maintain.  I test out my words by speaking them.  I do it to find their natural melody.  I have a pretty strong suspicion that nobody’s going to read something with no beat and no flow.