Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short: Part 2

red pencil, grammar, comma

photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license

Authors of crime/thriller/mystery novel have to keep track of a lot. They must develop those pesky clues, forge a logic chain with no missing links, and avoid too-convenient coincidences. They must convey everything readers need to know without actually giving the punch line away or making it irritatingly obvious information is being withheld. No wonder early drafts of a book can be full of problems!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the common plot and character pitfalls (the “thinking” pitfalls) I find in the dozens of crime/thriller/mystery novels  I review each year. This post concentrates on typical problems found in the actual writing.

Writing Pitfalls (the Biggest Ones)

  • Clichés in language and gesture – at least five chapters in a recently-read thriller ended with a character setting his/her mouth/jaw in a firm line. Using a cliché to express a thought is a writer’s shortcut. While certain characters may speak in clichés, if that’s their thing, narratives should struggle for freshness. That helps characters and settings feel unique, not like cardboard cutouts.
  • Unartful explanations—Readers often need background information—about politics, finance, weapons, a character’s training, whatever—but indigestible chunks of it that read like a resume or briefing paper feel amateurish. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Smith,” is hardly better.
  • Over-explaining – Example: A Chinese scientist who’s volunteered to become a CIA source explains to an agent how his country’s government has hurt “many people who deserve better,” including his father. The agent immediately thinks, “His motivation appeared to be revenge for his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government.” Duh. Then, in case the reader doesn’t get it yet, the author continues with what is actually a very good way of underscoring the point (good because it adds new information, the agent’s judgment): “He’d take revenge as a motivator any day” and explains why. This would have been just fine if that clunky over-explanation were edited out.
  • Mixed or inept metaphors – Example: “Trying to learn the ropes had XX feeling like a fish out of water.” I can’t picture that at all. Can you? Here’s a simple, effective one: “Out of [his police] uniform he just looked like an impatient kid waiting for his father.” I see this clearly.
  • Ending each chapter with a cheesy cliffhanger. Example: “My God! XX thought. The Americans will never know what hit them.” Actually, in this book, they will. Here’s a better one: “She closes her book and shuts her eyes to look up at the sun, unaware of her two observers.” Menacing, not manipulative.
  • General sloppiness – I’ve said enough about typos in my book reviews. They suggest a lack of care. Here is other evidence of it: homonym problems (hoard instead of horde, rein instead of reign, desert instead of dessert, and on and on); changing the name of a person or place, but not catching all the uses of the original name (“find and replace,” please); and of course, distracting factual errors.
  • Lack of support matter – OK, maybe I’m crazy, but I believe quite a few thrillers would be improved by the inclusion of tailored supporting material. For example, maps that show the principal places mentioned in the novel (I admit to a pro-map bias here), lists of acronyms and abbreviations, especially for novels involving multiple international agencies, lists of characters and how they fit into the story, and so on. The goal should be to bring readers in to the circle of cognoscenti, not shut them out.

Working out the plot of a story and developing the characters involved are completely different tasks than effectively writing the whole thing down, and rushing into print rarely serves the material—or the reader—well. I hate to see a good plot ruined by weak presentation!

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Over the past 21 months, I’ve read and reviewed 62 crime novels and thrillers for crimefictionlover.com. While a number of them rise to greatness and many effectively get the job done, a surprising number were not ready for prime time, and a tiny number should have gone straight to the landfill. Many works fall short because author s believe their book is “done,” and it isn’t. Too often, I find myself saying, “Damn!—With a little more effort, this could have been soooo good.”

As a writer myself, I take into consideration the author’s hopes and effort, knowing it’s hard to see the flaws in one’s own children. That’s what editors are for. Yet, the acknowledgements pages of poor books often heap extravagant praise on their editors, whom I envision curled up under their desks, weeping. Authorial intentions aside, my primary obligation is to potential readers. Will readers’ limited reading time be well invested if they pick up this particular book?

The common problems in crime/thriller books I’ve read recently fit into two overlapping categories: pitfalls in thinking (mostly related to plot and character), listed below, and pitfalls in writing. Thinking and writing problems are mutually reinforcing, since poor writing makes poor thinking more obvious. For those who respond to examples, I’ve included a few from “actual books.”

Thinking Pitfalls

  • Using increasingly gruesome torture and death methods (or a surfeit of comely young women/child victims) in the hope of sustaining reader interest. Bloodletting is easy; creating complex, unique, and engaging characters with grounded, understandable motivations is hard.
  • Mechanical problems—Where and when did stuff happen? Chris Roerden calls lack of clarity about the story timeline “crazy time,” and it drives readers crazy.
  • Galloping unreality—Example: after a big-city police chief spoke at a news conference, “several reporters broke into a round of applause.” Not any journalists I know. Another: two undercover CIA agents are scouting a computer research lab on a busy Chinese university campus. “‘That’s the building the lab’s in,’ XX said, pointing.” Pointing? And I don’t know how many times a bad guy has used a chloroform-soaked cloth to disable a victim, when a single moment of fact-checking would reveal this doesn’t work!
  • Technological non-fixes—Either using technology when it’s not needed just to sound cool, using it wrong (weapons, especially), or not using it at all–say, not picking up the phone to ask a simple question that would solve everything.
  • Lack of engagement—Some authors just want to sell books, often choosing the method describe in the first bullet, not provide the reader with a deeper, emotionally engaging experience. Crime/thrillers often appeal to the head, but the best ones capture the heart too. “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it,” says Donald Maass.
  • Cheesy theorizing—When characters come up with premature but enthusiastically adopted explanations of what happened or whodunnit, readers know they are being misled.
  • Failure to answer all the plot questions—Did the author just forget a main character’s spouse mysteriously committed suicide? Did he forget the police psychologist dropped the case’s murder book on a city street? For that matter, why was he carrying it out of the office anyway? Big questions need answers.

Further Reading for Authors

Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books

(photo: wikipedia.org)

Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.

 

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for CrimeFictionLover.com—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website: MurderinCommon.com.

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.

What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Ben Long got his first potential client and his first real girlfriend on the same day in June 1952. He’d opened an accounting office on the second floor of a Nassau Street building above a clothing store. The hum of the store’s customers drifted up through the ductwork in a vaguely companionable way during the new firm’s early, idle days.

Ben wasn’t worried about the slow start to his business. He had a clear-eyed sense of the man he was, and that man would be successful. He’d graduated from a prominent West Coast business school, and his proximity to Princeton University would burnish the sophisticated and confident image he aspired to project.

During Ben’s lunch hours, he took long walks through the university campus, studying the buildings and the easy manners of the students—all male, then—lounging on the steps and lawns in their cardigans and pale trousers. Some wore straw boaters, just like his, though as a businessman, he wore a suit. Plenty of young women were about. They poured out of the administrative offices and the professors’ lairs, carrying their lunches and spreading their skirts to sit on the grass.

Princeton UniversityHe attracted unexpected attention as he criss-crossed the campus, so he kept a ready smile as he sped forward on his long legs, loosening his tie and tipping his hat to the ladies. On that memorable day, he was in a bit of a rush because of that impending first appointment.

“We’re all talking about you,” said a Breck-girl blonde, who hurried up beside him, striving to keep up. She looked like a midwestern kid—clear-skinned, bright blue eyes, illusions intact, like the freshman girls at his alma mater.

“Really. Why?” Was his outsider status so easy to detect? He plowed ahead.

“We all know you,” she said and, when he gave her a quizzical glance, added, “or feel we do.”

“Oh?” He took a second look at her and slowed.

“I mean, we know who you are.” She blushed and fluttered her hands.

He’d never seen her before. He would have remembered. “You’re sure about that?”

They were about to reach University Place, where he would turn back toward his office.

“Sure. You’re Jimmy Stewart.”

That stopped him. Her blue eyes radiated sincerity. He couldn’t meet those eyes with a lie, tempting though it was. Smiling, he said, “Hate to disappoint you, but I’m a CPA. I have an office on Nassau Street.”

“Oh, certainly.” She laughed. “Jimmy Stewart, Class of ’32.”

“Sincerely. My name is Ben.” He stuck out his hand.

She held it as if it were glass. “If you say so,” she giggled. She giggled enchantingly.

“And you are?”

“Cathy.” He could imagine her mother saying, “Speak up, dear.”

He still smiled. He still held her hand. The day was warm. The breeze made the sky-blue hydrangea heads bob agreeably. They were the exact shade of her eyes.

“Cathy, I’m pleased to meet you.” Awkwardly, he gave her hand a parting squeeze. “Well, goodbye. I have to go.”

“Sure. I know you’re busy,” she paused, “Jimmy.”

Back at the office, he studied his reflection in the men’s room mirror. Tall and lanky. Long neck with a head blobbed on top—like a safety match, his brother said. Brown hair, blue-grey eyes projecting a hefty dose of sincerity. Bland expression. Too bland, in his opinion, but perhaps it was a face on which people could project what they wanted to see.

Maybe that’s why people on campus stared. Did they really mistake him—even briefly—for James M. Stewart, Princeton ’32?

His first prospective client, Charlie Caputo, certainly did not look like a movie star: dark, compact, a little paunchy, face sweating on the warm day. Caputo launched into a long convoluted explanation of his money woes. Ben had to keep lassoing his mind, pulling it back from thoughts of Cathy and how she thought—or pretended to think—he was the famous actor, a man whose films he had seen many times.

“If I understand you correctly,” Ben broke in, “you want an accountant who will make sure you don’t pay any taxes.”

“There’s loopholes. Find them. Next time I’m in town we can discuss it further.”

֍

He ran into Cathy nearly every day after that. They’d walk together across campus, at a slower pace than he preferred, but he didn’t mind. They started eating their lunches together. He brought a blanket. She brought two five-cent Cokes from the vending machine. Under the summer trees they talked about everything and nothing. Her friends from the office sometimes joined them, and it was hard to believe they all could laugh so much.

Like Cathy, they persisted in calling him Jimmy.

“Ben,” he’d say.

“That’s not what she says.”

“Hey, I’m only twenty-four! Do I look in my forties to you?”

“Remarkably well preserved.” Cathy pushed a deviled egg into his gaping mouth, silencing him.

Business picked up. Ben hired a secretary. He joined the Rotary Club and attended testimonial dinners. He took Cathy to a Rotary picnic, and she was amazed at how easily he talked to people, how many friends he had.

“When you’re in business in a small town like Princeton, you have to have friends,” he said.

“You sound like a character from one of your movies!”

He glanced around to make sure no one had heard. “Cathy, please stop doing that. People will think—”

“They will think you’re a success at whatever you do? You can’t help yourself. You’re just so pleasant.”

“Sure.” To himself, he quoted Elwood P. Dowd’s mother: “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Under his breath, he added, “For years I was smart, I recommend pleasant.”

“Wasn’t that a line from Harvey?” she whispered.

“You may quote me.”

֍

On their first real date, Ben took Cathy to dinner and a movie, Bend of the River, featuring, naturally, Jimmy Stewart. Ben had read the book and thought it might help Cathy appreciate the part of the country he came from.

“I know where you’re from,” she said, humoring him.

“Oregon.”

“Jimmy,” she said, as if to a small child with a tall tale. “Western Pennsylvania.”

Maybe if she weren’t so darn cute, he thought, I’d make a stink about it, but it’s all so ridiculous, why bother?

Instead, he said, “What is it you want, Cathy? What do you want? You want the moon?”

As if summoned, the moonlight pooled in the tears forming in her eyes. “You know,” she said, “it’s a wonderful life.”

֍

One hot day in August, when they sat close together on the campus lawn, she said, “Having fun?”

Half of him knew it was dangerous, but the other half wouldn’t stop, and he said, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

She laughed. “That’s definitely from Harvey. You’re too funny!”

He sighed. Being with Cathy was becoming more than a habit, it was something he needed. Like a drug. But this day he couldn’t linger. Mr. Caputo was expected.

That meeting didn’t go nearly as well as lunch with Cathy.

Caputo slapped Ben’s tax plan on the desk. “The loopholes you found aren’t enough. Not nearly enough. Why report all my income? I got enough problems without forking money over to Washington.”

“Well, I don’t know, Mr. Caputo. There’s ways to reduce your taxes and there’s ways to get into trouble.”

“You remember what I said I’d pay you?”

“Yes, I do. You said ten thousand dollars a year. That’s a lot of money, Mr. Caputo. I’m not sure—”

“How much would make you sure? Twelve thousand? Fourteen?”

“No, now, come on, Mr. Caputo. Maybe you need some other kind of accountant.”

“You think about it. When I come back, I’ll want your answer.”

Fourteen thousand dollars a year! Ten, even, would make marrying Cathy and starting life together possible—no, perfect. Ben tapped out a thinking rhythm with his pencil.

֍

September approached, and posters appeared advertising a forthcoming talk by famous alumnus James M. Stewart, ’32, sponsored by the University drama club. “Public invited.”

Here was his chance to put Cathy’s embarrassing fantasy to rest. He couldn’t be Jimmy Stewart, sitting next to her in the audience and watching the real one on stage. But as the date of the lecture approached, he hesitated to mention it. It was a harmless delusion, and did she truly believe it? She’d introduced him to her parents as Ben, and that’s what they called him.

“So I’m Ben now,” he said that night as they walked home arm-in-arm.

“You don’t think they’d let me go out with a movie star, do you? I couldn’t tell them that.”

Once again, his mischievous side won out. “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules, if behind them they didn’t have a little ordinary everyday human kindness,” he said. “In this case, helping us be together.”

She sighed. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My favorite. One of them.”

The light of the streetlamp, hidden among the sycamores, barely lit the walk up to her house.

“I’m going to your lecture next Wednesday,” she said. “All the girls in my office are going. We’ve got our tickets.”

Increasingly nervous about the lecture, he’d decided not to go with her. Maybe he wouldn’t go at all. The likelihood of disastrous disillusionment was too high. “Are you sure that’s wise? What if you don’t like the guy? Where does that leave me?”

At the top of the steps, he embraced her, and all five feet two inches of her strained upward toward him. “But I do like you. A lot.” As she said this, someone inside switched on the porch light. They kissed anyway.

The rest of the weekend was agony. What did she really believe? Whatever it was, it was bound to come to a crashing conclusion. He’d lose her, just as he was realizing how desperately he wanted her. “It can’t be anything like love, can it?” he asked himself, Philadelphia Story-style.

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On Wednesday, Ben closed his office at two and walked across campus to the lecture hall where his alter ego—or was it his nemesis?—was scheduled to speak. A crowd already filled most of the seats, and he saw Cathy and her friends about halfway down. He’d thought about joining them, but instead leaned against a pillar and tried to distract himself by reading the newspaper.

After a hushed moment, the most famous member of Princeton’s Class of 1932 strode onto the stage. In his homey drawl, he charmed the audience. They applauded, they cheered, Cathy and her friends were on their feet. It was over. People streamed up the aisle past him, talking and laughing.

He hid behind the newspaper again as Cathy and her friends approached. Someone called to her. “Cathy, what did you think?”

“He was great!” she said, “But he’s not my Jimmy.”

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Mr. Caputo came to the office at five, and Ben handed him a neat stack of papers. “Here’s the tax plan I worked out for you,” he said.

Caputo skipped to the end and looked up, fuming. “This isn’t what I asked for!”

“These strategies are all legitimate.”

“It’s not what I asked for.”

“So you’re asking me to lie and cheat?”

“If you say so.”

“And you’ll pay me well to do it too.”

“Ten thousand a year.”

“I just want to be clear about all that.” Ben imagined himself looking in the mirror again, but it was Jimmy Stewart looking back. Jimmy Stewart as Tom Destry, Jr. Big dented hat, drooping neckerchief, six-pointed sheriff’s star. He let Tom Destry speak for him: “You know what I have to say to your offer, Mr. Caputo? ‘Nobody’s gonna set themselves up above the law around here, understand?’ You go to hell.”

 

This story was published in U.S. 1, Summer Fiction Issue, July 27, 2016.

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.