Finding the Core of Your Story

figurine

px here, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. If you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you’ll help me fill the jar. Thank you!

What Writers Know – Part 2

typing

Kiran Foster, creative commons license

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

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

Prepare to pat yourself on the back.

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


Read What Writers Know – Part 1

What Writers Know – Part 1

red pencil, grammar, comma

Martijn Nijenhuls, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color is More Than a Shade

Red Costume

JessicaJohnson, Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turquoise, silver, jewelry, earrings

(photo: author)

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

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

Name That Color

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration

lightning, thunderstorm

pixabay, creative commons license

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

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

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

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

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

Making Myself Clear

Bell

photo: analogicus on Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing about Risky Encounters

woman with groceries

photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The Gift of Fear is a two-decades old book about recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer—whether of a spouse, a girlfriend, or a mass shooting—people say, “We had no idea he’d . . .” This book, like the FBI report released yesterday, says baloney to that. There are signs. People just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime writer, I hoped those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement on ways to prevent violence and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the grating “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying bags up to her apartment. He followed her inside, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Walter Mosley’s Advice for Author Readings

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter MosleyWalter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”

He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”

Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.

Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”

He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.

Check out more of his wisdom in this recent interview.

The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.