Quieting the Mind, Digital Flotsam and the Beach

I had my knee scoped back in January, and my plot for Skins and Bone went to hell. At the time, I didn’t associate the two. In fact, I didn’t figure it all out until the knee improved and I got to the beach. Where I could walk. Where I did not have to check my e-mail, look at Twitter, get drawn into the abyss of looking at YouTube videos or bathe in the statistics the elliptical trainer spits out (320 calories <blip> 134 bpm <blip> 18 minutes left <blip>).

Beach walkingWalking on the beach (I race walk, look funny and sweat) allows me to quiet my mind and speculate on plot. The current novel is a thriller, so plot’s important, but I am not one to write an outline and stick to it. My characters don’t always follow outlines very well … they’re human, after all. Instead, I float ideas, then let the characters marinate in them.

I guess I just relearned what wise men always knew: Quiet the mind to let creativity flow.

The Inimitable Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson Reading

Samuel Johnson Reading

Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

I was just finishing a story yesterday, preparing to submit it.  A couple of phrases I had written warmed the cockles of my heart.  I read them over several times aloud, letting the words roll off my tongue.

Then I read Dr. Johnson’s advice.

Damn!

 

Writing by Rule, or Invisibility

Like it or not, we all try to play by the rules.  Whether it’s passing through customs in a foreign country or having relaxed conversation with friends, there are always rules.  We’re brought up with rules, and we consider people who don’t know the rules badly behaved at best, psychopathic at worst.  People who know the rules pass through life with least friction.  People who like friction have to know the rules to break them artfully.

Writing is no different than other aspects of life.  There must be rules, right?  But if you look for them, you court frustration.  Great writers often differ on what constitutes good writing.  Perhaps the truest and most frustrating statement of writing rules comes from W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows Somerset Maughamwhat they are.

I draw three conclusions from this:

1.     A scientist might say, “There’s no unifying theory, so look for smaller hypotheses.”

2.     Maugham has a sense of humor.

3.     Turn off the Word grammar checker.  For reasons unknown, Word concludes that the ‘they’ in his rule is ungrammatical.

Looking around and through for help on writing in my niche of commercial literature, I ran into rules I think work pretty well from no less than Elmore Leonard (NYT, July 16, 2001).  He says:

Elmore LeonardThese 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.

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!

 

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.

Get the job done

I read this in a New York Times opinion piece on Alex Rodriguez:  Joe Torre said, “the really good hitter has to ‘concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. … There’s a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it’s always gong to be good. … Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.'”  If it hadn’t been about baseball, I would have sworn it was about writing.

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.

Finally!

As I said in my last post, I have been twisted around by several helpful critiques from several people in the know.  Each one makes a lot of sense.  Each brings some sense of the market for which I’m writing.  Trouble is, they all disagree.

I have finally hit on the way I want Hack the Yak to read.  What a relief!  I think I’ve integrated some of the comments, but mainly, I can quit twisting and turning.  I hope.