Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.

“Killer Women” and “Sisters in Crime”

 

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Don’t for a minute think the only books women want to read—or write—are chick lit and romances. London’s first crime-writing festival, organized by the all-female writing collective Killer Women, was held recently at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall. This creepy Victorian building was picked for a reason: it’s where the inquest for Mary Kelly was held—you know, Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim.

Killer Women (whose tagline is “criminally good writing”) was started a few years ago for many of the same reasons women writers in the US launched Sisters in Crime in 1987. SinC’s mission is to “promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.”

As the festival report points out, “women dominate crime fiction.” Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold annually. They outnumber both male writers and readers in the genre. So, what’s the problem? Why are groups like these needed?

Are Women Good Crime Writers?

Writers are attracted to the genre, one Killer Women founder says, because it “allows you to say almost anything and explore emotions that—particularly as a woman—are not acceptable to explore . . . and it allows you to give the bad guys their comeuppance.”

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has said that women writers may actually be better at scaring us, because “since childhood we have learned to imagine this”—the possibility for violence in our lives. We’re the ones careful when walking at night, watching the shadows, lying in bed listening for the squeaking stair tread. We read about violence as a way of processing that fear and, perhaps, preparing ourselves for the worst, as well as that satisfying bit of revenge (need some fMRI studies here!). Like the line from the Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” “if you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.”

Three-Dimensional Characters

Women writers are in a good position to create more believable female characters too. It’s a long-standing concern that too many women in crime fiction (and film/tv) are present only for titillation—as one Shoreditch participant put it, “running around in their panties, chased by a serial killer.” Their only role is become the victim of a grisly crime or to have (always steamy) sex with the male protagonist or both. Killer Woman member D.E. Meredith calls this sexualization of murder “morally dodgy.” And boring, I say.

Women as calculating protagonists—actors, not victims—has become a standout trend with the growth in popularity of the “domestic thriller.” The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Megan Abbott’s recent You Will Know Me, and numerous variations on the theme have opened new territory.

Feats of True Grit

suitcase, Asian

photo adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

In this political season, when so much airtime has been expelled on the issue of immigration and the negative characterization of immigrants, I’m reminded of what a rich vein of stories the immigration experience has provided us and continues to do so.

Immigration Stories in Literature

Shawna Yang Ryan has written a beautiful meditation on recent immigration. Her mother immigrated from Taiwan when she married Ryan’s father and worked for a time as an “Avon lady”—a desperate choice that daily forced her to confront strangers at their own front doors and in their language, to face rejection. “To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit,” Ryan says.

The immigrant’s persistent sense of dislocation and not-belonging has nourished many great stories. We think of Cólm Toibín’s Brooklyn. We think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, of Sandra Cisneros and her culture-straddling kin, never feeling fully at home anywhere, of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. We may even think of The Godfather and his literary family.

And In Your Own Back Yard

These stories, separate and unique, yet all similar and at a fundamental level, shared, are the sometimes uneasy bedrock of America, “a rich array of experiences: loss, longing, duality, triumph and contradiction,” as revealed by the immigration stories of Latinos who work for National Public radio.

Members of my mother’s family came to America as early as 1634, but on my father’s side, I know little. I’ve researched and developed a speculative jigsaw puzzle of these grandparents’ separate experiences. Hungary was all my dad knew, and the rough time period, 1900-1910.

The treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I changed their origin story forever. My grandfather, to the best I can determine, came from a part of Hungary that is now Romania (Transylvania, to be exact), and my grandmother, about whom I know even less, from a Hungarian region ceded to Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic.

Share your family’s immigration experience at MyImmigrationStory.com, whose message is a nice counterpoint to the political debate: “Statistics do not tell the story of immigration. People do.”

Writing Police Interviews Right

police-station

photo: Jelm6, creative commons license

As in real life, in movies, television, and stories, police interviews—whether of witnesses or perpetrators—are vital to figuring out what has occurred. Interviews reveal facts (maybe) and impressions of everyone involved (for sure). Experts at several recent crime-writing conferences talked about how writers can get this aspect of police work right (also see this post), specifically when it comes to interviewing witnesses and in officer-involved shootings.

Witness Interviews

Police detectives working today in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and other countries are likely to have been trained in cognitive interviewing. These techniques, developed and tested over the past 30 years, improve the amount of information witnesses recall, avoid the creation of false memories, and reveal discrepancies in testimony.

The detective may ask open-ended questions that walk the person through the hours before the event, encouraging as many details as possible. Such careful establishment of the context of the crime helps the interviewee recall it in greater detail. Similarly, the interviewer may suggest reconstructing events backwards. In all cases, interviewers encourage reporting even the smallest detail, which may be hooked, in memory, to something significant. And, buried in there may be an important clue.

This academic video from the University of Queensland describes the scientific underpinnings of cognitive interviewing and the tests that have been used to demonstrate its greater effectiveness, in terms of amount and accuracy of information recalled, compared to traditional question-and-answer interviews.

Police-involved Shootings

Police officers involved in a shooting are generally not immediately taken away for an extensive debrief. When their stress levels are too high, they may be unable to provide coherent descriptions of what occurred and may not recall key information. A delayed interview

24 to 48 hours (ideally, two sleep cycles) later produces more cogent details. From a writer’s perspective, this delay gives the media and community time to speculate on the events and to be concerned “nothing’s being done.”

Additional considerations in writing about officer-involved shootings are covered in this interesting article about how the police react to such events and move toward investigation.

Miranda and the Police Interview

streaker

No Miranda for you!? photo: Jonas Bengtsson, creative commons license

When Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department in 1963, accused of kidnapping and rape, it’s a cinch that of all the things he thought might happen to him, the likelihood his name would become a verb was probably nowhere on the list.

In crime fiction, cops “Mirandize” suspects all the time. Too often, perhaps. Leslie Budewitz, a lawyer and president of Sisters in Crime, says that giving every character a Miranda warning is “one of the 12 common mistake fiction writers make about the law.”

Writers of crime novels and screenplays often don’t get their Miranda facts straight. The Miranda warning is based on the Fifth Amendments self-incrimination clause and the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney, in words familiar to any consumer of U.S. popular culture:

  • You have the right to remain silent;
  • Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law;
  • You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during the interrogation;
  • If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you

As John Schembra points out in the comments below, some states have slight variations on the core Miranda rights, cited above, particularly as they apply to juveniles. Some of those interstate differences are described in this Wikipedia article (and subject to change).

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (in Berghuis v. Thompkins) a controversial case involving the right to remain silent, which some scholars believe weakened Miranda protections.

At last month’s Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin, police training officer Mike Knetzger agrees that fiction provides Miranda warnings far more often than actually appropriate or used in practice. He outlined the three essential elements that must be present for a Miranda warning to be necessary.

Crime + Custody + Questioning

The occurrence of an actual crime seems an obvious prerequisite, but in many situations, police may simply want to talk to a person—for background or as a witness, not yet a suspect. Violations and infractions (civil offenses) are not “crimes.” Examples are traffic tickets and the one Knetzger gave—just possibly from on-the-job experience—running out of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field stark naked.

Individuals must be “in custody.” Even if they are at the police station, if they are free to leave, they are not in custody and, therefore, receive no warning. However, if they make “spontaneous statements” there—“He trashed my cooking one time too many and I hit him over the head with the frying pan”—those statements can be used in court.

The questioning of the individual must be intended to elicit incriminating evidence, not just make general inquiries. After a crime is committed, the police may ask a great many people about the events and the people involved. None of these are necessarily suspects—yet.

Next time you see, read—or write—that a fictional character receives a Miranda warning, ask yourself whether all three of the above conditions are met.

“In a Surprise Move, God . . .”

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

photo: Derek Key, creative commons license

Is the inverted pyramid dead? That trusty journalistic technique that crams all the basic information about an event—the who, what, when, where, why and how—into the fewest possible words at the top of the story, then proceeds to fill in decreasingly important details?

Award-winning hard-boiled crime novelist Bruce DeSilva thinks so, and said as much during a panel at the recent Deadly Ink conference in New Jersey. DeSilva was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a novelist seven years ago and worked on stories winning nearly every journalism prize, including the Pulitzer.

DeSilva apparently was warming up for a turn on the Writer’s Forensics Blog, where he goes into the flaws in the pyramid in more detail, repeating this “what the Bible would have been like if a journalist wrote it” example:

In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said, ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.

His point was that the transition from the artificiality of journalese to writing fiction is difficult. The two require a completely different voice. In fiction, the depiction of events is more realistic in that they generally unfold chronologically, with the wwwwwh answers coming near the very end, not in the first sentence or two.

Needless to say, other former journalists on DeSilva’s panel—including author Dick Belsky—pushed back. Belsky thinks the techniques of journalism, such as digging in and getting the story and grabbing the reader’s interest up front, do translate well. And, the profession provides a believable background for his character, investigative reporter Gil Malloy.

Fellow panelist E.F. Watkins said the hardest thing about her transition from busy newsroom to chair in a quiet office, alone, was learning not “to give things away too fast.” But, she knows how to meet a deadline and how to get her facts right.

According to DeSilva, the main lesson he learned from his journalistic career is that “writing is a job.”  A job you go to daily, in the mood or not, in the company of the muse or not. “You put your butt in your desk chair every day and write.”

Praise for a Writing Group

Room at the Table, Writing, Writers

The “Room at the Table” Table

Each year, our local Chamber of Commerce newspaper publishes a summer fiction issue, and this week nine members of my writing group had our work published—every one of us who submitted, as far as I know!

For some time I’ve felt the many rewards of having this close-knit writing group, which we call Room at the Table, in acknowledgement of our welcoming spirit. The irony is, there isn’t any more room at my dining table, where we meet, because we’ve gradually grown to 15 loyal members. The group is about equally divided between men and women, all of us “over 35,” and the genres we write in are diverse.

Each month we spend two hours critiquing about eight submissions by fellow group members, sticking more or less to our rule of thumb of 1500 words apiece. Some members say they come for the snacks, but they all come with carefully reviewed submissions, ready to discuss. We laugh a lot.

Group members provide enthusiasm, help people get unstuck, ask the occasional big question (Where Is This Going?) and generously share our ideas, grammatical obsessions, candid feedback, and praise.

Occasionally, we do a group exercise, and one such, which involved imagining the characters of a ghost story, created such enthusiasm among three of us that we all wrote the story and were all published. This past spring we each wrote a short story on the theme of “being stuck,” and are thinking of turning the result into a story collection.

I’ve heard woeful tales of critique groups that like to eviscerate the author. That isn’t us. Our members recognize that serious writing is a lonely task and publishing is hard. We go out of our way to be supportive even when delivering the message: “needs work.” We’re supportive outside our meetings too. One of our number recently had a short play read by professional actors, and four of us trekked into Manhattan to see it; another, a Brit, appears in local pantos, and we go see him.

In March and October, we do readings of our fiction at the local library. We’ve done this five times now, and attendance is growing! It’s great to hear applause and laughter (in the right spots). And, of course, we serve snacks.

Fueling Creativity with—YES!—Boredom

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

In her faculty days, President of the Rhode Island School of Design Rosanne Somerson used an unexpected teaching tool: boredom. In a recent Metropolis essay, she says,

When I used to teach graduate students in furniture design, I would assign them an abstract problem that required them to sit in the studio and draw through free association over a long period of time without getting up from their seats.

 

After about 45 minutes, most students would start to squirm and get uncomfortable . . . I encouraged them to push through the discomfort because . . . right after the “squiggly” stage, something incredible happens.

Often, she said, students would stumble upon a completely new direction for their work, “something completely new and unexpected.” So, no getting up for a drink of water, no texting, no checking email, no snacks.

Somerson thinks of this purposeful elimination of distraction as creating time and space for the imagination to reawaken. Her drawing through free association sounds much like the freewriting practice writing gurus recommend for authors, with much the same motivation behind it–breakthrough.

Constant connectivity has made de-distracting our lives increasingly difficult. By filling our mindspace with constant and, let’s admit it, often mindless media consumption—yes, I watched the video of the cat playing the piano—we don’t clear the mental field for “creativity and discovery.” As Joshua Rothman said in a New Yorker essay last year, “Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.” Well, maybe not driving, not here in New Jersey.

If we set aside some distraction-free time, and, as Somerson suggests “bring back boredom,” we may find ourselves both more creative and more appreciative of today’s limitless fount of stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining distraction.

 

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

Billie HolidayFiction editor Beth Hill has written excellent advice to authors in her Editor’s Blog essay, “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” I covered four of her points here on Friday.

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

  • It isn’t necessary to stop the story’s action to define what something is or how it works, Hill says. These are digressions and most readers don’t like them. Many authors enjoy doing the research for a book (I do!). They aren’t just making stuff up, they’ve grounded their work in reality. They want to share. And probably shouldn’t. That said, readers of some types of sci-fi and techno-thrillers expect to be given an understanding of the science and mechanics behind the story. Authors who write in those genres get a little slack on the “how stuff works” front. I read a terrific military novel lately (The Empty Quarter), where Amazon reviewers criticized it for not explaining every acronym and term. I wasn’t bothered, thinking I’d figured most of it out, but reader frustration was great. So it may be that a careful balance is needed.
  • Hill says if a character speaks several languages, she doesn’t need to repeat her words or thoughts in more than one of them. Writers should pick phrases or opportunities to use the second language when the meaning will be obvious by word form or context. Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Spanish in The Crossing, and even though a not-to-be-specified number of decades have elapsed since I had high school Spanish–which certainly never touched the topics McCarthy writes about–I had no trouble following. This exchange between several Mexican men and two young Americans takes place after an old man has drawn them a map of where they want to go and walked away (McCarthy does not use quotation marks):

When he was gone, the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

In this and in many different and subtle ways, McCarthy confirms the reader’s understanding of what is said without a mechanical translation of every phrase (or, by extension, technical term). By the time I finished this book, I was following so well, I thought I could actually speak Spanish!

Again, I encourage you to take a good look at Hill’s full essay. Avoiding overexplaining will help keep you in step with your readers, which is what every writer wants!

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

Billie Holiday

Click photo for “Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

When I read a vivid description of a particular disease or condition, I confess I start feeling a slight pain in the target spot, an itch, a touch of malaise, a sink of nausea. (All the while being perfectly healthy.) Face it, lots of us suffer from–to put a positive spin on it–this kind of excessive empathy.

That tendency seems remote kin to the feeling I have when I read “advice for writers.” No matter how awful the writing habit is, “I do that!” “My writing is full of it!” But when I ran across fiction editor Beth Hill’s terrific essay, this time, I really, really think she’s diagnosed something important to me. Her brilliant Editor’s Blog essay is “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” Let me explain.

Hill says the problem of overexplaining comes up repeatedly in fiction manuscripts. Fundamentally, her common sense advice requires us, as authors, to trust our readers to understand what we’re writing about, without banging them over the head with a 2×4 of explanation. Hill says:

  • Inherent in our characters and the events they experience are (or should be) the reasons they respond to situations as they do. If responses aren’t clear, fix the set-up or the characterizations, don’t take the easy way out and just tell the reader why they responded as they did.
  • Sometimes we do a good job of showing a character’s response, then wimp out, feeling the need to reiterate why the character responded as he did–showing AND telling. No, no, no. Trust the reader.
  • Whenever we explain, there we are (voice of God), elbowing our way into the story. When we do that, Hill says, we are “using real-world explanations for fictional-world events.” That destroys the story’s fictional reality. As John Gardner would say, it jolts the reader awake from “the fictional dream.”
  • Unnecessary explanations need not be page-length, paragraph-length, or even sentence-length. They can be one or two insidious words. Hill’s examples include “Timothy hollered in pain.” Unless the point-of-view character is Timothy or unless she has ESP, she doesn’t know that Timothy hollered in pain. We can just say a character hollered or frowned or wept and trust the reader to figure out why, given the circumstances. (No “Angela wept as if the tragedy of the situation just settled on her” either. That’s still point-of-view character speculation.)

The second part of this summary will appear Monday, June 27.