Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

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!

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books

(photo: wikipedia.org)

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

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

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

 

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praise for a Writing Group

Room at the Table, Writing, Writers

The “Room at the Table” Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fueling Creativity with—YES!—Boredom

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

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

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

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

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

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

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

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

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

Billie Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

unmade bed

photo: Peter Lee, creative commons license

In the current issue of The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty has an intriguing piece titled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” (in the “Culture” column, no less). Hmm. For real cultural insights, skim the article and read the comments.

Rafferty attributes women authors’ strength in this genre to the growing popularity of “domestic thrillers,” the kind where your enemy sleeps next to you. Gone Girl catapulted this resurgent genre to public attention. Theirs “is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized,” Rafferty says. His characters’ motives were more basic (sex and greed) and their methods more direct. “Take that, you punk!” bang, bang.

Rafferty thinks Chandler’s lone detective genre is almost as dead as the corpse in the dining room, though plenty of popular books are clear heirs to that tradition. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippman, and the Strike/Ellacott books of J.K. Rawlings (writing as Robert Galbraith) feature investigators working outside official channels. Their investigations are a bit hard to pull off in these technology-reliant days, but they can usually find a friendly cop to snag certain kinds of information for them. Cell phone logs and whatnot.

As a person who reads a large number of books in the crime/mystery/thriller genre—reviewing 46 in the past year for CrimeFictionLover.com—I can tell you there are some really tired tropes out there—heroes with arcane martial arts skills, who know thirty-two ways to kill a person in two seconds flat, who get beat up but bounce back in record time, and who never met a woman they couldn’t bed. A few of them also have a sense of humor.

The “girl” novels discard all that. Instead, they rely on astonishing levels of manipulation and the workings of the characters’ minds, which Rafferty says often dwell on unresolved adolescent angst. A few years hence, those features will likely seem just as tiresome and overworked as the boy wonders. I laughed out loud reading this from one of the commenters on Rafferty’s article: “I think that after a certain number of introspective life years, the Self as object d’art is too debunked to stand much further scrutiny.”

Rafferty cites a bunch of female authors he admires, including Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Tana French. Their type of storytelling, he says, doesn’t depend so strongly on heroes, making it “perhaps a better fit for these cynical times.” Less gunplay, more emotional violence. I’d add to his list Becky Masterson, Meghan Tifft, and Cecilia Ekbäck.

But here’s where his argument gets tricky. By conflating crime fiction, mystery, and thriller genres, he makes his argument a bit difficult to follow, because they have different foundational premises and conventions, and their readers have greatly different expectations. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the audiences for John Sanford and Agatha Christie.

Yet he says today’s women writers have “come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it” (emphasis added). In today’s psychological thrillers, authors “know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.”

Reviewing my own reading of some 60 books in the broad crime/mystery/thriller category over the past 18 months, I find that whether a book is interesting, well-written, genre-stretching, and good entertainment does not depend on the author’s gender. Women and men were equally likely to write a book I liked. Great books are simply great books.