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 realnews.ink.  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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from www.sallyforth.com)

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

What is writing like?

Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of Legoweeks ago.  He began by quoting a novelist.  The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing.  He said:

“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

Show Me!

I was privileged to hear jazz singer Kate McGarry interpret Show Me, the Lerner and Loewe classic from My Fair Lady.  Most of my thoughts these days turn to writing, and these lyrics seem to me worth several pages explicating the admonition to Show, Don’t Tell:

Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,Kate McGarry
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat!