Finding the Core of Your Story

figurine

px here, creative commons license

Now that Glimmer Train is winding down its publication schedule, I find myself returning to earlier issues to read the author interviews again. Sometimes I’m in the very wrestling match with a short story that these notable writers describe.

So it was with my recent return to the interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade (interviewed by Jeremiah Chamberlin, Issue #100, Fall 2017). Quade authored the prize-winning book of short stories, Night at the Fiestas and her work has been seen in “all the best places.”

Chamberlin commented on how Quade resists big epiphanies in her endings. “There are moments where the stories turn of shift,” he said, “but the characters don’t experience Joycean flashes of recognition.” Quade explained that she writes slowly, and it sometimes takes her “a long time to figure out what’s going to happen in a story.” She might write a long buildup, putting in lots of potential elements, in search of the one that will reveal what the story is truly about and therefore, how to end it. Ah. Like me, a pantser.

Once she takes hold of her ending, the core of the story, she trims away what isn’t necessary and can “write toward the ending.” She also eliminates any unnecessary rambling that comes after the ending. Perhaps she’d heeding Chekhov’s advice “to cross out the beginning and the end” of a story,” as unnecessary warm-up and (one hopes) unnecessary explaining. This is an exercise that would have improved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in my opinion, but Chekhov said to do it because “it is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Eliminating the temptation of those further thoughts also prevents an overly neat-and-tidy resolution. Trust your reader to get it, he might have said.

The heart of the story may lie in the backstory, in an unworked-out thought or subconscious association that needs to come forward into greater prominence. During Quade’s revision process, she might list all the characters, settings, and objects she’s put into the story so far and see whether she should be doing more with some of them. “That will often help me find my ending.” Or at least get her closer to it. Those people, places, things are in there because they hold meaning, even if she hasn’t clearly identified what it is yet. It isn’t, perhaps, their surface meaning, but some significance for the characters.

I just read a fine story by Simon Bestwick, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (Crimewave 13), in which a man’s lover is murdered, her flat trashed, and all the cheap souvenirs she bought from second-hand shops smashed. He exacts revenge on the men responsible for her death, dropping a few bits of broken china or glass on their bodies—not because these fragments held meaning for him, but because they meant something to her. Memorable.

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If You Met Poe, What Would You Say?

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.

I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!

Dark like the days, and scary like the times.

What Writers Know – Part 2

typing

Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Writers receive an endless stream of advice about what they are doing wrong (!) or could be doing better(!!). Since most of us can admit that we are not yet perfect, this firehose of negativity becomes wearing. Recently, I posted a few words of praise for what we get right. With a promise of more to come.

My thoughts are prompted by Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recently reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”  Let’s look at the second half of his list, plus my own #13.

Prepare to pat yourself on the back.

  1. We can punctuate! We know that (in the U.S.), the comma and the period go INside quotation marks, the colon and the semi go OUTside, and the question mark and exclamation mark, well, it depends. We know (and I admit to still be working on it) not to overuse the dash, we know to put commas before independent clauses and not dependent ones, and, if the brouhaha over the Oxford comma is ever resolved, we stand ready to hear the outcome. I’ll acknowledge sloppiness in first drafts I read regarding the need for commas before AND after people directly addressed: “I’m telling you, Mom, but you never listen”; in city-state pairs (Princeton, New Jersey, is a fine place); and around the year in month-day-year trios (December 7, 1941, a Day that will Live in Infamy).
  2. We eye-roll over dangling modifiers we see in the local newspaper and eliminate them in our own work – “Through hard work, the draft was at last ready to go!” If only our drafts would do the work themselves.
  3. Our characters say or ask. They don’t chortle or declaim or insinuate or interrogate. And they usually do so without any adverbial boost. Those of a certain age may recall the “Tom Swifty” (I know a truly filthy one; don’t ask). Its perils may make using adverbs seem downright dangerous.
  4. We make sure the names and spellings of people and places are consistent. Of course. (I deliberately violated this precept in my short story “Tooth and Nail.” Bear in mind, the narrator was unhinged.) Moreover, spare me manuscripts whose characters are Berger, Brager, Benton, and Beaton. I will never keep them or anything close to them straight. We know many of our “readers” are actually audiobook listeners. A name heard is harder to remember than one read. Thus the nametag.
  5. We are not time-travelers. We don’t mistakenly flip back and forth between past and present, and we establish the way-back time with a “had” or two then drop the “hads” in the interest of simplicity. Led properly, our readers know where they are.
  6. Homonym errors. OK, enough about there, their, and they’re and its and it’s. We know the difference between carrots, karats, karets, and carets. But even when my brain knows the right word, sometimes my fingers do not. Words with homonyms are landmines: “reign it in,” “beyond the pail,” “the plane truth.” In a story set in Alaska in which a character was eaten by a bear (bare), I referred to his grizzly death. I was making a pun, but I’ve since run across writers apparently unfamiliar with the word “grisly.” Lee Masterson compiled a nice list of these and their cousins: heteronyms, homographs, and homophones.
  7. And, when in doubt, we consult the experts.


Read What Writers Know – Part 1

What Writers Know – Part 1

red pencil, grammar, comma

Martijn Nijenhuls, creative commons license

Nearly irresistible clickbait for writers are articles like Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recent reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”

When I see such lists, I figure that not only will they point out my many writing shortcomings in excruciating detail, but the sum total of no-no’s will be a pretty accurate description of my actual writing style. It’s as if I’ve learned nothing.

And that’s not true, not for me, not for any of us. Surely we’ve learned something.

So what are these pitfalls we may stumble into, even the bestselling among us (though if we are best-selling, do readers actually care about these problems)? And can’t we think of them instead as mountains we’ve climbed and conquered? Show, don’t tell? We’re on it. Head-hopping? Never.

Here’s the first half of Fayet’s list recast as what we’re doing right. Very possibly, more often than not.

  1. Tell, don’t show. Every good novel or story has some of both. It’s a balancing act. Showing takes words, and sometimes we just need to move things along. “Get to the point!” I tell myself. We put the compelling parts of a story in scenes and dialog and summarize the quotidian so that readers reach the good stuff faster. That’s a judgment call and we practice making it every day.
  2. Strong opening narrative. In early drafts, I tend to open a story (or book chapter) with a warm-up. Thankfully, I recognize and delete my engine-revving. Drive, baby, drive!
  3. Manage description in action scenes. While we know to slow down the action in a tense situation, we know not to do so by, say, describing what the antagonists had for breakfast (unless it contained a mystery ingredient like ground glass). We know to be judicious. Too much detail “slows the pace, lessens tension, and interrupts the flow of the scene,” Fayet says. Very true.
  4. Believable conflicts. Unless our story is set during the Crusades, we create situations that couldn’t be solved if somebody would just pick up the damn phone. We may even make having or using the phone a huge liability (extra credit for you, Gin Phillips). We make sure characters’ external and internal conflicts are powerful enough for readers to invest time and interest in. Thankfully, thrillers are no longer, by definition, about world domination-sized conflicts, and we take advantage of that broader field of play.
  5. Viewpoint. Despite watching movies where the action shifts from the perspective of first one character to another and back again, we recognize such shifts may not work on the page. And agents and editors frown on them. Why give them an excuse to dismiss my work? We avoid head-hopping and stay safe.
  6. Never Assume! Of course our future readers will only know what is on the page (in our current draft). Here’s where my short attention span turns out to be a plus. Every time I read a draft, it’s pretty much all new to me. We know the perils of changing character names or introducing (or deleting) major plot points, etc. At the head of my draft, I maintain an annotated table of contents so that if I do make a change, I can quickly find the other places that mention this character/setting/issue and make everything consistent, or lay the groundwork for later happenings. A book is an ecosystem, and surely we know even a small change may ripple through the entirety. (Wait, was that cat black or white?)

For another pat on the back regarding things you’re doing right, here is Part 2.

P.S. Read my new short story “Tooth and Nail” in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.

Color is More Than a Shade

Red Costume

JessicaJohnson, Pixabay

How much worse “The Masque of the Red Death” is than “The Mask of Death”!

Writers are forever trying to encourage their readers to “see” what they see in their heads, to both literally and figuratively “color” their perceptions. Why is that so important? Color is memorable, color can be trendy, and, most important, color incites emotions and connotes layers of meaning.

Crimewriter John D. Macdonald’s 21 Travis McGee novels all contain a color in their titles (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, The Lonely Silver Rain, etc.). This was done on his publisher’s advice, according to Wikipedia, in the belief that people on the go would be more willing to snap up a book if they were sure they hadn’t read it already, and putting a color in the title would help them remember—itself an interesting insight into the power of color in our visual memory.

Book marketers notice color trends, too, like a rather acidic yellow streaking into prominence in cover art. Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2018 is Ultra Violet, “A dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade,” that Pantone says “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future.”

Yes, purple is associated with the Crown Chakra, but that sounds like a heavy burden for one color to carry! However, sure as Plum Mouse mushrooms follow the lonely silver rain, Susanne Matson’s new book, published earlier this month, not only has ultraviolet on the cover, but as its title.

If you don’t understand the Plum Mouse reference, read yesterday’s post here!

These digressions bring me to my infatuation with a fun little book, Fortune-Telling Book of Colors, a compendium of insights into color choices and their meanings. For example, the one-word association for Prussian Blue is “elegant,” whereas sky blue is “selfless” and indigo, “stable.” The book offers many kinds of insights into colors, their associations, and psychology, including insights into people who prefer various colors. The character description for green-lovers like me begins “You cannot abide others telling you what to do . . .” Surely an error.

The book lists the common phrases that include colors. For yellow, they are yellow-bellied, yellow card, yellowdog contract, yellow fever, yellow journalism, and yellow streak. It describes colors’ significance in different cultures. In Japan, my green symbolizes eternal life, but in Indonesia, it is “forbidden,” lest an evil sea goddess swallow you up if you stray too near the shore. A somewhat more scientific approach is embodied in “Blue as Can Be: Treasures from the Color Archive,” by Simon Schama in the September 3 New Yorker.

Kassia St. Clair’s 2017 The Secret Lives of Color describes the fascinating history and significance of 75 colors—a deep dive into the rainbow pool. There are these cultural history components to our attitudes toward color and personal history components beyond an author’s ability to anticipate. People who grow up in a happy home where the kitchen is painted turquoise may ever after feel an affinity toward that color. If the association was negative, just the opposite.

turquoise, silver, jewelry, earrings

(photo: author)

This is where the ability to describe a color accurately helps (see yesterday’s post for more about this). Is your turquoise the coolly inviting shade of a Bahamian swimming pool, is it the heart-piercing turquoise of an Arizona sunset, or the dusty turquoise of your mother’s favorite earrings? What penumbra of meaning are you trying to evoke? Additional descriptors add new associations and richness to your descriptions by making them more precise.

As writers, we don’t pick the color of a room or a coat randomly, even if the connections behind our choices are mostly unconscious. Because our readers also have both conscious and unconscious associations with colors, we owe it to the strength of our vision to describe them with precision.

Name That Color

DressAuthor Rowan Hisayo Buchanan asks an intriguing question about perception in her recent Catapult article, “Is the Green You See, the Green I See?” The answer to that one is “probably not,” given the 2015 social media uproar over  the question “what color is this dress?” The controversy generated some 10 million tweets, as people variously perceived a washed-out photo of a horizontally striped dress as white with gold lace or, as it really was, blue with black lace. (For the record, I’m a white-and-gold gal).

Buchanan, author of the novel Harmless Like You, describes the challenge of finding the precise term to describe a color, because it makes a great deal of difference whether a “red dress” is described as scarlet (suggesting something about the wearer) or the maroon of dried blood (suggesting something else entirely). My writing coach loves the example of an old, decaying house with shutters of “fungal green.” “Fungal” not only describes the shade of green much more exactly (I see lichen) but conveys something important about the house itself.

In my short story set during the Revolutionary War, an eight-year-old boy sees a frightened woman “go white.” But how to describe that in terms a boy of that age, education, and era would use? “White as chalk” is a cliché, “white as paper” was possibly anachronistic, parchment being ivory. I settled on “white as milk.”

Buchanan’s quest for color enlightenment led her to Sanzo Wada’s A Dictionary of Color Combinations from the 1930s, which describes hues in charmingly evocative Japanese and English. Ivory Buff in English is White Tea in Japanese. Grenadine Pink is Washed Red. And my favorite of her examples, Light Brown Drab is Plum Mouse.

Ballard consulted several other color classification books too, including Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821) which, she says, “hoped to bring together science and art.” Out in a new facsimile edition, the publisher calls it “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.” Darwin took it with him to the Galapagos.

In Werner’s, each color was given an animal, mineral, and vegetative reference. For example, Prussian Blue (one of my favorite colors) was specified as “The Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake,” “Stamen of Bluish Purple Anemone” (vague in itself), and “Blue Copper Ore,” in case you have any of that lying around. However, it does widen the field of people who can appreciate this blackish-blue color, which included the folks outfitting the Prussian Army and Vincent Van Gogh. He used it predominantly, along with other blues, when painting his “Starry Night.” Philip Kerr’s excellent thriller Prussian Blue was not referring to color, but to the compound’s use as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning. What a truckload of associations!

Tomorrow’s Post: “Color is More Than a Shade” talks about why these allusive color descriptors are important.

Inspiration

lightning, thunderstorm

pixabay, creative commons license

The title alone of Kimberly Bunker’s essay for Glimmer Train—“The Fear of Not Saying Interesting Things”—is irresistible. She says this fear never stops her from talking, only writing. I’d guess many authors and most talkers, judging by overheard conversations, feel the same way.

Bunker favors waiting for interesting subjects and ideas to appear versus trying hard to find them. Which is not the same as waiting for your Muse to ring the doorbell, accompanied by her handmaiden, Serendipity. Said Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

This seems to be Bunker’s message, too. “Cultivate a mindset that’s receptive to but not obsessive about ideas, and . . . be methodical about pursuing ideas that seem worth pursuing.” In other words, find the right balance between the idea that inspires and interests you and the necessary work to polish up that idea for the public.

In some respects this is the same wavelength the young Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, was on when she wrote prayers at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. One of them began, “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” I suspect most other writers would expect more credit.

In a letter to “A,” she also wrote, “the greatest gift of the writer is patience . . .” Here again is needed a balance between the patient, painstaking work of getting a story or book into shape while preserving that initial lightning strike of inspiration.

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

Comfortable Ambiguity

pond

photo: Jill111, creative commons license

Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:

In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!

If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.

But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.

As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.

Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.

Making Myself Clear

Bell

photo: analogicus on Pixabay

Loving this long lithub article by Francine Prose about the need to write clearly. There’s nothing like absenting yourself from a manuscript draft for a couple of months to reveal all the unintentionally vague, poorly expressed thoughts. Short stories can turn up murky, but a novel—with its larger number of theme, characters, plot strands, and ultimately, purposes—can be downright impenetrable. And getting the words right, making the text clear, as Prose says, “is harder than it looks.”

In some novels, every word seems exactly right, in exactly the right place, like bells change-ringing. It’s something to strive for. In rereading my own work, I come across sentences that are like an impenetrable hedge around a thought (if there is one). I have to stop myself and ask, “what are you saying here?” If there is some kernel in there, it is so masked by syntax and verbiage that even I, who should know what is intended, can barely find it.

Prose excerpts letters from Chekhov to the young Maxim Gorky in which he suggests (advice frequently resurrected now 120 years later) that Gorky dispense with excessive modifiers. “The brain can’t grasp all of this at once,” Chekhov says, “and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.” Simplification was one key to finding my way out of brambly sentences too. And if a whack through the brush and can’t find the kernel, well, that’s why I have a delete key.

The noted editor Harold Evans provides “ten shortcuts to making yourself clear” in his entertaining and helpful book on “why writing well matters.” His book in its entirety is about giving writers the tools to unravel knotty prose.

Prose advises writers to ask themselves, “Would I say this?” She clarifies that she doesn’t mean they should write exactly the way they would speak (listen to conversations on the train and you’ll see why), but that “they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being.” In her brand new book, What to Read and Why, she discusses some of her favorite writers and what makes their work enduring, along with an essay specifically “On Clarity.”

Time and a balky memory give me distance from the words I’ve so carefully and at times inartfully put on paper. Assessing whether a sentence or passage is clear requires reading it as if the writer were a stranger to it, Prose believes. As writers, we’re on a quest. She says, “Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”

Simplicity is not the only cure for confusion. Prose cites long and grammatically complex sentences of Virginia Woolf’s that, though they require an attentive reader, are nevertheless clear. Inviting and assuring the reader’s attention means making the subject and the characters interesting, providing sufficient motivation for readers to fix their attention on them. A subject for another time!