Technique, again

I am taking a look yet again at my first novel, Fatal Score (initially called Hack the Yak), which I am preparing to query. I asked an editor to look at the first three chapters.  The results were eye-opening.

When I began writing, I used interior monolog (protagonist’s thoughts), which I laid down in italics.  The editor would have none of that.

I’ve mentioned before that the Big Duh I’ve learned by writing, now, three novels:  there is this thing called technique.  The writer needs that ineffable quality known as Voice, to be sure.  And Mechanics (grammar, lexical sophistication, punctuation) must be spot-on or
any self-respecting agent will trash the ms without reading it.  The Big Duh was this thing I call Technique.  Frustrating, is technique (in Yoda’s words).  Some parts are common sense (when they become obvious), like letting a reader know where she is, who is speaking and what time it is at the beginning of a scene.  Some parts seem like a random variable extending over time.  Nineteenth-century technique (never mind punctuation) is different than twenty-first century for no apparent reason.  Eighteenth century writing embraced long, Latinate words; Hemingway didn’t.

So, I live and continue to learn.

And, yes, I dumped most of the italics.

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.