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, look for Fayet’s items 7-12 next week!

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.

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

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

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

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

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

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

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

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

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

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.

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.

Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)

Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)

Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)

Edwin's, restaurantKnife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping  and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

The Cheese Course

Cheese pairings

Recently, I took a local class on cheese appreciation. Great, something where I already have skills! Having a husband from Wisconsin, how could I not be? Look up Olsson’s Fine Foods online and you’ll find that the owner, Dutchman Rudie Smit, teaches numerous cheese appreciation and cheese-making classes. He’s a fount of knowledge and lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Our small group of enthusiasts learned the history of cheese—which became popular in part because the originating people from the Tigris-Euphrates area were lactose-intolerant, and cheese is easier to digest than plain milk—why certain cheeses are the way they are, how to pair them with wine or with sweet and savory accompaniments, and how to design an appealing cheese plate. This came in very handy over the holidays, when I inflicted elaborate cheese plates on a succession of dinner parties.

But who would have thought the class would provide inspiration for my crime-writing? Such as:

  • What really happened up when Pietr was alone up at the mountain hut, supposedly making the cheese?
  • Did Lady Fauxpas seal her fate when she insisted blue cheese be served with the bottle of fine champagne?
  • Where was the characteristic tweed pattern on the rind of the “manchego” that poisoned G. Lutton?

You see the possibilities. Say cheese!