Creative Writing Rules: An Oxymoron?

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

A friend of mine (two friends, in fact) complained to me about a “mystery writing” class they were taking. It turned out to be a critique group of inexperienced writers and no formal instruction. Then, coincidentally, I met the course instructor of heard his rationale for this approach. He believes there aren’t rules for writing and that creative people violate the supposed “rules” all the time.

This puts him on the same page as Somerset Maugham who famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That viewpoint, of course, negates the huge number of useful guidelines that authors and editors—sometimes out of frustration or even desperation—have compiled. While established authors may have internalized them, they are especially useful for writers starting out. The most useful to me currently is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, packed with rich examples.

In the blog Criminal Minds last month, mystery/crime writers talked about the usefulness (or not) of online sites offering writing advice. Author Paul D Marks wrote, “The thing with all advice is to take it with a grain of salt,” which would seem to support the class instructor’s point of view, except that Marks follows it up with “First, learn the rules—you need to know them before you can break them.” In other words, budding writers have to start somewhere, and that’s what the instructor’s students seemed to be missing.

The very number of sources for writing advice can be a problem in itself. New writers need some means for separating the wheat from the chaff, the good advice from the irrelevant, the workable idea from the dead end. They need to be able to separate writing advice (structure, characterization, motivation) from editing advice (redundancies, overwriting, flaccid verbs). In their first draft, they need the former. In all the subsequent drafts, they need both. (Here I’ll share a list of powerful editing tips from Repo Kempt. If only I could get its full benefits by tearing it into tiny pieces and eating it.)

Ultimately, the panel of bloggers seemed to agree, the first key to good writing is lots of reading—reading in the genre the author wants to write in, seeing what works and what doesn’t. If they are reading some of the better advice columns and books along the way, they’ll be a bit more critical (in a good way) when they read. If a particular plot or characterization or passage of dialog really works, or falls flat as roadkill, they can take a moment to figure out why then look for a place in their own writing to use that insight or avoid that same carnage.

Novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann wrote a fine essay of encouragement for aspiring novelists earlier this year, drawing from his recent book. He acknowledges the instructor’s “rules are there to be broken” mantra yet provides enough orientation to the craft that a would-be writer is not snow-blinded by the blank page.

Good Storytelling Works, Regardless of Genre

draft

photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Genre fiction is no longer disparaged as the poor stepchild to literary (i.e., “real”) fiction. In some ways, writing it can be harder. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches all writers.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor, typically among the detectives or with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright. SO glad to see him again!

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up

characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.

Where Are Your Story’s Characters?

road trip, map, travel

photo: rabi w, creative commons license

Occasionally a book review will comment on the strong sense of place an author has evoked, so much so that the city or country almost becomes another character in the story.

Many details about the way a place looks, feels, smells, and how its denizens behave make up that reader impression.It starts with a clear—or clearly imagined—geography. Get the bones of the place right and you can attach all those memorable details to it. Create geographic confusion, and your reader may be lost.

I love maps, so imagine my delight to discover a kindred spirit in author Barbara O’Neal,  who wrote a fascinating Writer Unboxed essay titled “The Complex Power of Mapping the World of Your Novel.” It isn’t surprising that many science fiction and fantasy writers who create “new worlds” create physical maps of these places as a writing aid. My two novels-in-progress are set in real places—places I’ve been—and yet I rely on numerous maps, both paper and electronic, to plot my characters’ actions. O’Neal has connected with other writers who also need “that physical representation of the world of our imaginations,” she wrote.

Some authors go so far as to create a map on the flyleaf of a book–or on the back cover as in a “locked room” mystery I recently read—to keep the reader in the picture. That book, Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit, contained a map of the grounds as well as the layout of rooms in the hunting lodge.

Why It Matters

Without a firm sense of place, fantasy authors risk confusing their readers, but my readers would be writing angry letters: “You should know it’s impossible to walk from the Piazza del Popolo to the Colosseum in Ten Minutes!?” Either problem distracts the reader from the story and diminishes its believability. And it is a problem because, as author consultant Chris Roerden explains, “We humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings.”

We’ve lost something with GPS giving us a mostly narrow view of where we’re going and what we need to do next in order to get there. The “big picture” orientation a full-sized map provides is gone. (I laughed when I read a millennial’s observation that some of his co-workers use GPS to get to the office and home again, every day.)

O’Neal cites a growing body of research that shows our brains are wired to ensure we have a connection to places—“to be oriented, very intricately, to place, time, and thus, emotion.” The blind child Marie-Laure in Anthony Doerr’s magical All the Light We Cannot See navigates the physical world through the map that exists in her imagination. How her father taught her that map was Doerr’s powerful evocation of finding her place—literally and metaphorically—in the world.

The maps O’Neal creates in parallel with her fiction, like the reference points I establish for my characters, help us establish a consistent geography, are the first step in establishing a strong sense of place, which is, she says, “one of the most powerful parts of writing.”

Further Resources

American Nations by Colin Woodard – maps eleven cultural strains in U.S. history and politics; fascinating! Great insights for establishing “sense of place.”
Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden – helpful guidance and refresher for authors; winner of an Agatha Award for best non-fiction

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.”

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan

microphone

photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

Family History Models (Part 1)

Queen Victoria's Family Tree

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree

Once you begin working on your family genealogy, there’s an infinite way to organize and present it. You can keep all of it on Ancestry.com or other websites, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the flexibility of sending copies to family members who aren’t online, taking copies to family reunions, or having a few pages with you on a scouting trip to a history center or cemetery. Taking your laptop or tablet along isn’t always desirable.

Last Friday’s post covered general tips, today’s begins describing the wide range of ways to organize and report your genealogical findings, from the simple to the elaborate. Today and tomorrow, I’ll describe five of them.

Many kinds of reports can be created within the better software options.

“The Begats”

Some people are only interested in what I call “the begats”—who were the parents, the grandparents, the great-grandparents and so on. In addition to names, a genealogy organized this way often includes: dates of birth and death, date of marriage and name of bride/groom, and, possibly burial place. (The cemetery information is valuable, because many cemetery records are now online, for individual cemeteries or collectively, and they’re another research avenue.) Your begats may be in tree form, with boxes like an organization chart or it may be text.

When You Don’t Know Much

Sometimes, the choice about presentation style is dictated by the fact that you just don’t know very much. That’s the situation with my father’s parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from Hungary before about 1910. Research on the Ellis Island website brought up several people who might be them. Ship manifests, which provide key genealogical information, including age, home town, and place/person they were traveling to, helped me narrow my search.

The family history I prepared includes some background on the home towns of the two immigrants I believe are most likely my grandparents (about which my father’s generation knew almost nothing). Whether the information I found is correct in every particular or not, reading it you get some insight into the black box of their immigration story. You can get a feel for this kind of reporting with the stories of my grandmother, Maria Krausz, and grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi.

When You Have A Narrow Interest

Sometimes, you have a particularly narrow interest that suggests a focus for a family report. My seven-year-old grandson asked whether any of our family fought in the Civil War. I took the Civil War chapter of the family history I’ve written, revised the text to make it more suitable for a young person and added historical photographs and artworks.

The finished piece (25 pages) includes transcriptions of letters from our ancestors home. Since these soldiers they indicated where they were writing from, I summarized information about their units and the battles they participated in. I also created a Civil War family tree, focusing on the combatants. Grey boxes for our Confederate ancestors, blue boxes for the Union, and red lines for soldiers who died in the war. Seven so far.

Writing a complete family history is a formidable task, even for a writer like me, and much more so for non-writers. Taking a piece of it—in this case the Civil War, or the Immigrant Generation, or “Our Family in the Depression”—is for some people a manageable way to start.

WEDNESDAY: Family History Models (Part 2): The More Elaborate Options

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.

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.