Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English. I believe it. What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage? Every day. I hope you will join my pilgrimage. I’m writing a book … well, several. Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way. I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me. C’mon, it will be an adventure …
It is said (apparently inaccurately) that the Inuit have many words for ‘snow.’ Why would that be? Why, because they see a lot of snow, of course.
English has very few words for ‘smile,’ even though we see a lot of them (I hope). Grin. Grimace. Beam. Smirk. Maybe even Simper. And you can drag in fellow travelers Squint and certainly Leer. But really, not a very large collection of descriptives for something a writer needs often.
Smile, look, walk, and similar words indicate classes of action but do not show specifics. Use them, and you leave the reader knowing what happened but not having a picture in mind. They’re placeholders for better description. Boring, as well.
All of this was grating on my mind yesterday. I was writing a three-person sequence in which a lot of smiling was going on, not all of it happy. Sure, I could tell the reader that Weezy’s smile masked anger, but how does that look?
I decided to take a break and walk around Lake of the Isles, my favorite in-city lake in Minneapolis. Usually, I use my walking time to work out plot and character issues, and that was the way I started my walk. A couple of blocks along the way, a late middle-aged man approached. He took me in, then gave the very briefest horizontal stretching of the lips in a straight line. Hard to tell whether it was a smile or gastronomic distress. That got me watching the people I encountered. A young woman gave me the “I am smiling because I’m cool but don’t get your hopes up” rictus (ahh, rictus … I missed that as a near-synonym). A young father gave me a possessive, prideful smile as his two, young bike-mounted sons ran me off the walking path. A mother’s joy-to-the-world smile as she glanced up from her baby. A hajib-wearing woman smiled with her eyes. A young packed-with-energy guy gave me a nod of recognition as he ran by, served up with a smirk. (I race walk. To him, I was surely old, hefty, and weird.) A woman gifted me a happy smile that took in her whole face – mouth, eyes, and forehead. It was the kind of smile that makes you want to know the person just to understand how she has successfully figured out the puzzle of life.
I was reminded there is no such thing as a generic smile. The smile is a creature of the structure of a face, as well as the inner beauty or turmoil of the person smiling. Guess I have to work harder on my smiles. No one said writing would be easy.
Louise Penny, quoted in the New York Times book review, August 24th: “I don’t buy into the notion of genres, perhaps for obvious reasons. I think that’s an effective marketing tool, but nothing more. Good storytelling is good storytelling. There are no borders or boundaries in literature and to try to define is to limit. Finis.”
Oh, Joy! Wonderful! Even ends in fine, archaic Latin.
… But, oh, yes. She’s published.
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.
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 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.
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.
As I pass through the stations of writing skill improvement, I am realizing that I have a custom set of writing weaknesses. I got a notion of it from critique groups … the same issues kept coming up again and again. It was cemented by the editor who raked over my second novel with a fine-toothed linguistic comb. The same problems kept recurring. For me, it was leading a sentence with description, following with action. (“Hearing a knock, John went to the door.”) Or having a character say something, then having me as narrator come along behind and tell the poor benighted reader what the character meant (rather that writing the character’s statement well enough to convey the feeling in the words). And so on. There were … ahem … many others.
Any Google search will provide a list of tens or even hundreds of these writing mistakes. It’s a little less daunting that one’s own style features a few … not all … of them.
There is an advantage of critique groups that has only recently become clear to me: It’s easier to see one’s own weaknesses in other people’s writing. As in: “The scene is engaging, but in the second paragraph, Jason’s facial expression and sigh says it all. You don’t need the sentence that tells us that Jason’s exasperated.” Oops … wait a minute … I do that too. But I don’t see it as easily (ego, perhaps?) in my own writing.
Critique of others’ work teaches me to look in the mirror, and … oops again. You already knew that without the conclusory bludgeon, didn’t you?
I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:
Dear people of the World,
I don’t mean to sound slutty,
But please use me whenever you want.
A great card on several levels. The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.
Which leads to the f-word (really?). I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable. Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories: non-users and users. Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it. Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”
As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated). My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter). None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.
So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less. Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.
I recently applied to a contest that asked, as part of the upload, what the genre of my novel is. I answered dutifully, Thriller.
Yes, I know that the judges have to have some way to classify submissions, and I have just read a bit about plot, timing of events, when backstory is best introduced, and so on.
Problem is, I am reading Redemption, a fine story of New Orleans by Frederick Turner. I have studied New Orleans music and give presentations about it. Turner creates 1913 New Orleans – Storyville in particular – with such skill that you swear you’re there in that so steam, seamy, funky place right along with his protagonist Fast-Mail Muldoon. When you read his descriptions, highly articulated, precise, and unafraid to use a full vocabulary, you think “Literary Fiction.” Turner doesn’t mind taking a healthy paragraph to describe the quality of the mud on the banks of the Mississippi or a chapter to let Fast-Mail Muldoon ponder lost love. But if Turner were to submit to my contest, Redemption’s genre would be Historical Fiction/Suspense.
Just a reminder for me that fiction writing is story-telling. Storytelling is about language; thus all fiction ought to be “literary,” and the whole point of telling a story is having a compelling plot.
Perhaps a banal observation, but I’m relatively new to the business side of writing. It’s easy to get lost in trade arcana.
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.
|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)|
|7||Second Pinch Point (5/8) middle of part 3|
|8||Second plot point (75%)|
Brooks promises a much shorter development cycle if I am mindful of the steps. I could use the help.
I read a submission guideline the other day that sliced novelists into ‘beginner’ and ‘experienced’ using the following cleaver: “you may consider your work for the experienced category if it has been critiqued by people other than friends and family.”
I get it. Your wife’s going to tell you it’s great. Family harmony vs. weak characterization … harmony wins, right?
Well, that’s all well and good as a general case. However, my wife Beverly is not a general case. She is an educator of many facets … kids, science outreach, young (we’re talking preschool through elementary), old (adult to ancient). And, in all those facets, writing has been her central organizing idea. Here’s a reminder from her current writing course that rang a bell with me (hehehe):
Over the past couple of months, I’ve attended three conferences (one by Internet) that featured pitches or queries. Friends asked for a summary. The summary grew longer than a blog post, so I made it into a page, here.
The summary covers some of what I learned. The experience proved that the nexus of art and business is anything but clear, but it helped me understand that querying and pitching are much less about writing quality and much more about business. The agent’s operative question, at least at first, is not, “Is this person a fine writer?” or “Is this story/character/plot captivating?” It is, “Will this book sell?” Nothing at all wrong with that, but it helps me write a better query. As one presenter said, a good query letter induces the agent to ask for some/all of the manuscript (where that fine writing resides); the query/pitch is a business proposition.