Writing Dialect, Writing Sex

As an ardent student of the craft of writing, I keep getting these blasts of insight from what other people do. Which brings me to a taxi ride to the airport in New York years ago.

There I was, on the way to LaGuardia. Back then, driving cab was often the province of all sorts of artists. My driver, an articulate middle-aged black man, began to talk about the more salacious aspects of life as a cabbie. It turned out that the monolog was an extended sales pitch for his self-published book. He had a stack of copies on the front seat. Fascinated by a gifted storyteller, I bought a copy.

At home, I read it … most of it. The sex scenes were graphic (the lady who asked him into her apartment while she searched for money, then gave him a particularly enjoyable tip … and the contortionist in the front seat). But the book was, well, boring. The stories themselves did not quite justify the difficulty of reading them. On reflection, the writer confronted two difficult challenges at the same time: Writing dialect and writing about sex.

The great majority of the copy was written in New York Harlem dialect. The old adage, “We all sound stupid when we’re talking” is true and demands careful balancing of authenticity without the pauses, repetitions, y’knows we all are prone to. That’s doubly true when one is writing dialect. Faulkner is a great writer few people read because his prose is so buried in dialect. Flannery O’Conner does better. My taxi driver, no doubt striving for authenticity, flopped.

Then there’s sex. With apologies to the heaving bosoms and rippling muscles that are Romance Novelmandatory in certain sub-genres of Romance, sex is hard to write. My taxi driver went for authenticity and detail, reminding his readers that describing the purely physical aspects of sex is like trying to explain how a Rube Goldberg machine works (with lubricity). A member of one of my writing groups did a much better job with a very few words of free verse, reminding us that the suggestion of ecstasy paints a picture in the reader’s mind that’s much better than a step-by-step, groan-by-turgid-groan recitation.

I never did finish that cab driver’s book, but now, all these years later, it taught me a great lesson.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

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 (tpmahoney.com), 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.”

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

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!).

Soar like an eagle, but don’t forget typography

I have an exasperating problem. Here I am writing (rewriting, actually) an exciting novel, capturing great thoughts, basting it in the oral tradition, riding high. Except the quote marks keep coming out wrong.

There are two kinds of quote marks: straight up and down (like a typewriter) and curly. As the Chicago Manual of Style notes, straight up and down quote marks are ONLY for legal documents and philosophical treatises. I learned the difference right quick when my first edited piece came back marked up because my much-loved Scrivener software seemed to have salted my Times New Roman with straight quotes.Typography

I won’t bore you with the details, but after about four hours and several pounds of expletives later, I know the source of the problem, and I think I know the solution. The reason is I found a wonderful site covering many aspects of the appearance of a printed work. The site is Butterick’s Practical Typography.

When your protagonist’s voice is clear and consistent, when the metaphors and similes draw gasps of appreciation from your writing group, when you have taken out the grammatical gaffes and turgid prose, then you need to resort to Butterick’s.  Before you get shredded by your editor.

Editing And Playing Tennis Solo

I believe there is a version of the 5-stage Kübler-Ross model of grief related to editing: Denial/Surprise/High Dudgeon/Fascination/Damn, I’m glad I did it.

Kubler Ross Model

The Kübler-Ross Model

I’ve often been told that every writer needs an editor. Of course, my grammar and syntax are impeccable, so that admonition was easy to ignore. Pay for advice that I surely didn’t need? On my budget? Really?

Of course, I was in the first stage of the model, Denial.

A writing group friend caught me up short when he said, “Writing without an editor is like playing tennis with yourself.” My second novel is in draft and is being pummeled by my writing groups. But maybe the first novel needs … help?

Finally, I decided to dip a 50-page toe in the ocean.

When the manila envelope bearing the edited product arrived, I opened it wondering why I felt a little like the moment right before I ripped the paper off a present from my certifiably loony aunt. (You never knew what was coming. When I was ten, it was a heat lamp. Just the bulb.)

This is a waste of time. He’ll only be able to argue with word choice.

 First page: 4 marks. I gasped. Second page: 8. Third page: 9. Surely, he must be wrong.

Surprise threatened to become High Dudgeon.

I put the envelope aside for a couple of days and pretended to be too busy to look at the other 47 pages.

Then the fourth stage, Fascination, saved me. I don’t (well, didn’t) know the convention about single quotes, and the editor’s word choice suggestions were excellent.

Over the last several days, I have achieved the fifth stage, Damn I’m Glad I Did That. Guess I have to adjust the budget.

Critiquing: Electronic or Paper?

My writing has been enriched by my friends in writing groups.  I’m in three groups, and I think I see a trend toward electronic critiquing.  Two of the groups use MeetUp, which allows us to post files in advance of a face-to-face meeting.  The standard way of critiquing is to download and print the file, mark it up and review the markup at the meeting, then pass the marked-up copy to the author.  The other option is to download the file, use Word’s review function to make notes and then send the file to the author after the face-to-face meeting.

I would be interested in how other writers view the process.  For me, once the printing is done, hand notation is easiest.  On the other hand, for one monthly meeting recently, I had to print 105 pages.

What do you do

If you edit electronically and have tips on best practices, I’d love to hear them in the ‘Comments’ box.  For instance, do you make changes directly in the text or limit your comments to notes in the margin?

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

One Rule of Writing from South Park

Great writing advice.  Not Aristotle’s Poetics.  Not E.M. Forster.  Not even Stephen King.  They’re great resources, but …

TA-DA … South Park. South Park

Great short interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in which they divulge their ONE RULE of good writing!

You’ll like it.  Script writer, fiction writer, makes no difference … it’s good advice.  Simple and to the point.  (Contributed by my son, Edward.)