How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

John Abbott’s Kitchen Boy

By Vicki Weisfeld

My name is Aaron Jeffries. I am twelve years old. I want to write what happened to me in the War of Independence, so that other boys will take note.

I am a single orphan since 1775, when my father cut his hand hauling ammunition boxes at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He got poisoned blood and Died. When he went to join up with General Washington, I asked why he did not side with the Tories, so he could stay here in New Jersey with us. He was a powerful admirer of Doctor Franklin and quoted him back to me: “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

I surely do not want to rise up with fleas, but I miss my father and blame the Redcoats for taking him. Our mother was hard put to feed four children, so in the spring of 1776, when I was eight years old, I and my older sister had to quit school and be put out to work, while the babies stayed home.

John Abbott House

John Abbott House; photo: Blake Bolinger, creative commons license

Mother sent me to Mr. John Abbott. He has a fine big house about two miles away, and I could walk home on weekends. So that you will not think I am too much of a Braggart, some of what I tell below I copied from letters Mrs. Abbott wrote my mother. She said I could.

Mr. Abbott was away most days, being active in Politicks. Mrs. Abbott and her sister ran the place and were very regular in their ways. I helped Gus, the hired hand, take care of the chickens and the garden, which I did know how to do. A lot of things I never done before and had to learn about them. They had me polishing the brasses and the silverware and carrying dishes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. I was working for Mrs. Abbott only about two weeks when a greasy dish slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor. That broke one of Mrs. Abbott’s fancy plates!

She gave me a Broom and told me to take the pieces to the cellar and put them in a big pan she used for broken dishes and glassware and the like.

“My mother buries them in the yard,” I said, thinking to give her helpful advice. “Behind the chicken shed.”

“I can’t be planting a new flower bed and be cut to ribbons by a buried piece of crockery,” she said. I understood that. She did not want Poisoned Blood.

I found the pan and set the pieces in it like she said. After that, on hot days, I’d go down to the cellar and study those broken pieces and pretend they were treasure in a treasure chest.

Mrs. Abbott wrote to my Mother about it: “One day this week Aaron dropped a dish that broke, and I know he sorely regretted it. If he mentions it to you, please reassure him that we understand accidents happen. He moped a bit, so I think it troubled him. There’s no need. He’s a very good boy, always helpful and interested in everything that goes on around here.”

Boy in Snow

photo: Chris RubberDragon, creative commons license

That fall we harvested and preserved the farm’s fruits and pickled the vegetables and stocked the root cellar. We had meats in the smokehouse too. Mrs. Abbott sewed me a warm jacket, and her sister knitted me a sweater. Once when it snowed on Saturday, Gus took me home in the wagon. After that, Mrs. Abbott got me some Boots.

Mrs. Abbott likes inishativ. She said she does not want to have to tell me every little thing. If I see something that needs doing, I should just do it. I told Gus she was complaining her kitchen knives were dull, and he said we should get busy and sharpen them.

“You be careful,” she hollered out the door when she saw us with the grindstone. “You can cut yourself to ribbons doing that.” That was true, and I Was careful.

One night in early December, a long while after dark, we had a Visitor. A wagon pulled up out front and we heard a knock. I ran to the door and opened it wide. It was Mr. Samuel Tucker, who is a friend of Mr. Abbott.

I knew him because he came to the house a few days before and brought boxes full of papers. He and Mr. Abbott hid them in the Attic under my bed. Mr. Tucker was the State Treasurer for New Jersey. Mr. Abbott said that meant he was in charge of all the Money for the state. He told me that that money would help us win the War. I brought Mr. Tucker right into the front parlor.

They sent me to bed, and I did not know any more about it until the next day when I was in the cellar fetching a pot of jam and saw a big Barrel that had not been there before.

I asked Mrs. Abbott about the barrel, and she started talking about the Chores I had to do that day, so I knew she did not want to discuss it. I would have to see about it on my own and I did.

Barrels

photo: Pixabay

I went down to the cellar that afternoon and had a peek. A ways down, there was some straw, and I pushed it aside. Underneath were more gold coins than I ever hoped or thought to see and paper money. Later I found out it was more than twenty-five hundred pounds, the whole treasurey of the State of New Jersey! Mr. Tucker had been dessprit to find a good hiding place for it.

As things turned out, it wasn’t such a good place, because a Woman in Trenton knew what he’d done and pretty soon hundreds of Redcoats marched up to Mr. Abbott’s house. He was in Philadelphia.

I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when I heard their racket, and I did not need to think twice to know why they were there. I took a candle down to the cellar, thinking to guard the state treasurey if I had time and could figure out a way.

I heard soldiers stomping overhead, and soon one of them came down to the cellar. He was very tall and had to bend over because of the low sealing.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“The kitchen boy.”

“What are you doing down here?” He pointed his Brown Bess at me, the bayonette close to making a hole in my new winter shirt.

“Fetching a pot of jam,” I said and pointed at the full shelves. “Do you want some?”

“What’s this?” He pointed the bayonette toward Mr. Tucker’s barrel.

“Our broken dishes and glassware.”

“So much?” He looked at me, narrowing his eyes.

I kept quiet.

He lifted the lid of the big barrel with the tip of his bayonette. “I see,” he said.

“Those pieces can cut you to ribbons,” I said and held out a small pot of plum jam. He put it in an inside pocket.

“On your way,” he said.

I took my candle and he followed me up the stairs. Mrs. Abbott and her sister were in the front parlor. When they saw me come up from the cellar with the bayonette of the soldier right behind me, Mrs. Abbott went pale as milk.

This is what she wrote my Mother: “You can believe, my dear Mrs. Jeffries, that my sister and I were absolutely quaking when that Redcoat marched Aaron up the stairs. He did not look injured, nor was he crying, but we had no idea what had gone on down there. I called him to me and the three of us stood together in the parlor speaking nary a word. After a few minutes the soldiers upstairs clomped down with Samuel Tucker’s boxes and carried them out to their wagon. They didn’t know it, but the papers in those boxes will be useless to them!

“‘I hope you are finished,’ I said to the officer in charge. ‘We’ll have ourselves quite a time putting everything back in order.’

“He was not pleased with my tone, but his English manners would not permit him to be rude to a lady, and he swallowed his temper. I counted seven soldiers who had entered my home, and seven who left. Nevertheless, Aaron helped us search the house to be sure. I’ll let him tell you himself about the very good deed he did that day.”

Once the Redcoats were well away and we saw they had not left behind any spize, Mrs. Abbott put her hands on my shoulders and asked, “What happened down in the cellar?”

I showed her how I had dumped the broken dishes on top of New Jersey’s money. It looked like a barrel full of dangerous Sharp Pieces.

“So he left with nothing?”

“I gave him a pot of plum jam.”

She laughed for pretty near five minutes at that and told me how proud of me she was. And that is why I got to go back to School, with Mr. Tucker and Mr. Abbott sharing the cost of my Schooling and me still helping Mrs. Abbott and her sister every Saturday.

Broken crockery

photo: Ann Larie Valentine, creative commons license

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Note:  The New Jersey state treasury was indeed hidden from the Redcoats under a pile of broken crockery, though not by fictional eight-year-old Aaron Jeffries, at the John Abbott II house. The house is now the home of the Hamilton Township Historical Society and available for tours. One hundred fifty years after this story takes place, Scotsman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and a small cut was no longer a potentially deadly hazard.

This short story was published in the July 26, 2017, U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

 

 

Family History Models (Part 2)

tree

photo: bananaana 04, creative commons license

How you decide to tell your family story depends on your goals, the amount of time you have to spend, and what you’re comfortable doing. I’m a mystery writer, and I approach family history as if it were a mystery story—conflicting clues, unreliable information, secrets—but nevertheless enabling some sort of conclusion.

As last Friday’s general tips for organizing and reporting your genealogical findings emphasized, there is no one “right way” to do this. Three ways to narrow the task of presenting your data were described yesterday. Here are two more elaborate, but very different, options.

Broad in Information, Simple in Execution

My goal in exploring my family’s story has been to understand better the context of my ancestors’ lives, so my family history includes a lot of information about the places and times they lived in. In this, I’ve had the great benefit of contributions from other family members and especially the partnership with a first cousin who lives many states away.

Most of our research has been on the Edwards family. There’s lots of information online about the Edwardses, much of it bogus. Here’s why, if you’re interested (large amounts of money are involved).

I haven’t taken the plunge of putting our family story online, though there would be many advantages of doing so. To date, it’s still a Word document—225 pages long, with 350 footnotes, photographs, charts, maps, and numerous appendixes. Coping with such a large and, in places, unwieldy document, I’ve learned one overriding lesson: don’t let your reader get lost!

People can grasp graphical “family tree” information quicker than text. A whole family tree, which can include hundreds of names, is probably best created online in one of the sites developed for that purpose. However, using descendant software (some of which is free and open source; see this discussion) to display a relevant portion of the tree keeps readers oriented.

map, New Haven

New Haven, Conn., 1641

Maps and timelines help your readers—and you, too!— stay oriented. For example, I found an interactive map of old London on which I can approximate the location of an ancestor’s shop in 1550. Maps can reveal relationships. The 1641 map of New Haven, Conn., shows the householders’ names, including our ancestor’s and that of their neighbor, a ship’s captain active in the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to him, the next generation of our family ended up in Tidewater Maryland.

Graphics are helpful too. Charts, maps, illustrations, bulleted lists—all those elements break up your text and enhance readability. Of course if you have family photos, that’s great, but feel free to be creative. Some of the pictures in our Civil War chapter are historical photos of particular battle-sites. Look for images that are not copyright protected so that you are free to “publish” your work to the Web. (Google Images > Tools > Usage Rights > labeled for reuse)

Narrow-to-Broad in Information, Elaborate in Execution 

Finally, there’s a true high-end way to go, with a self-published book. Find lots of information on those choices, including some pricing information, in this guide.

Ancestry.com has a publishing partnership with MyCanvas, for example, where you do most of the writing work. Another example is a company like Bind These Words, which combines family interviews with photographs and graphic elements. The cost of such a project depends on the time involved and number of photos/graphics. (I have not worked with either of them.)

These are examples to explore. While working with a commercial publisher is expensive, it might be appropriate for some defined piece of your project or to commemorate a special wedding anniversary or other family milestone.

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

Cliff-Hangers: Making Them Work

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

photo: Insomnia Cured Here, creative commons license

Mystery and thriller writers are often advised to end chapters with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward through the narrative, to create those page-turners, to make them read “just one more chapter.” Writing cliff-hangers sounds like one of the easier bits of lore to follow, but it can be deceptively difficult to write good ones.

Simple Guidelines

  • Don’t repeat the same formula too often, like asking a question—Would the police arrive in time?  (I’d advise almost never using a question, but that’s me.)
  • Remember that something that sounds compelling to you, embroiled as you are in the fates of your characters, can come across as ho-hum obvious to the reader. In a new thriller about the search for a serial killer, one chapter ends with the head police investigator saying, “We have to find him.” Well, duh.
  • Include a hint of what’s to come. This can be done well or, in this case, badly: “As she stood alone on the once tranquil country lane, she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered.” That’s the author strolling into the scene and explaining. Reader responds, “I hope so. This is a thriller!”
  • A good general rule to write on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen is this, then: never be cheesy. If you find you’ve written a cliffhanger that’s no more than a transparent attempt to ramp up the tension, better to delete it. I’ve jettisoned plenty of them.

Origins

Although the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have you think differently, Dickens did not invent the term cliff-hanger (though he certainly used the technique). That honor goes to Thomas Hardy, whose serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes left protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff, from whence he reviewed the history of the world.

Because Charles Dickens also serialized his novels, with people in England mobbing the newsstands and Americans clamoring for arriving ships to unload the publications containing the next chapters, I figure he knew a thing or two about writing an effective cliff-hanger, one that would kindle enough interest in readers to last a week or even longer. If you have any Dickens lying around, check him out or wait until my next post (There, a cliff-hanger with a hint of what’s to come).

Monday: Examples of effective cliff-hangers, past and present.

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.