Yearning, Desire, and Fiction

In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.

Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”

Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.

Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.

Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.

Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.

Photo: eluj for Pixabay

Characters Who Do Bad Things

Handwriting, boredom

Ran across an old interview with Kevin Canty, a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula. At the time of the interview, he had some observations that seem particularly germane to writers of crime fiction.

To start off, he observed that people—readers, and maybe, sometimes, writers too—typically think “people who do bad things are a different class of people,” separate from the rest of us. Part of the writer’s job is to establish common ground between character and reader, no matter how alien—figuratively or literally—the character is, so that when the character does that bad thing, the reader believes in it and feels the pain of it.

The example that comes right to mind is the loss I felt when I realized Michael Corleone was beyond redemption. I had my hopes until then. Another is the character with the doomed-to-fail love affair (Carey Mulligan in An Education). Or the character who’s struggled to get clean who is again tempted by drugs (practically every musician biopic you’ve ever seen). Noooooo, we say.

These bad choices can’t just be dismissed, because, as Canty maintains and every war has proved, there are a lot of capacities in each of us. As a writer, what he tries to do “is reduce the distance between the reader and the character,” so that capacity remains viable and their choices and desires retain meaning.

At the same time, he makes sure the story actions “somehow reflect the characters, the people that are in them.” Whether bad or good. I recently read a thriller in which the main character joins the French Resistance. There were many excellent reasons for a Frenchman to do so, but most did not. So what was it about this character that propelled him to that choice? The author didn’t convincingly say. The important insights revolved not around the fact that he joined, but why he did.

“Love your bad guys,” writing coaches say.

Photo: Florian Pircher for Pixabay

Writing Tips: Strong Openings

Jane Friedman’s writing advice is always welcome, and a recent column, “Five Common Story Openings to Avoid,” has that irresistible (“If I only do THAT . . .”) specificity. Skipping ahead to the bottom line, she confirms that almost any story opening can work if it’s done well enough, but she cautions against assuming your story will be the exception. You may be handing some overwhelmed agent/editor/publisher an excuse to say “no.” In general, then, here’s my take on her examples of weak openings:

  1. A waking up scene – These don’t make for very compelling reading, Jane says, even if the character is awakening on an important day. The reader doesn’t know that yet. There’s a lot readers don’t know at the beginning of a book, of course, but the opener probably needs to provide more than the quotidian to keep their interest. Gregor Samsa’s waking up to find he’s turned into a bug is compelling, but Kafka snagged that one.
  2. A transit scene – Scenes that describe a character moving from one place to another typically lack engaging drama, Jane says. Regular commuting hassles don’t cut it, but a strong voice or compelling situation may. The wonderful novel The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson is hardly anything but transit, the 100-mile trip a local delivery man makes, back and forth, back and forth, along a single road in rural Utah and the indelible characters that people his route. Deon Meyer’s thriller Fever, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, starts with a dangerous trip to a highly uncertain future.
  3. A “rocking chair scene” – This is where a character is alone, mulling over their life or recent events. If this is necessary backstory, there are more dynamic ways to introduce it, she suggests. And preferably in manageable bites. I have a tendency to write a couple of paragraphs to rev my engines before the action of the story begins. The fix is easy. When I edit, I chop off those paragraphs and get going.
  4. A crisis scene – Jane says opening a story in the middle of a crisis may seem dramatic, but often doesn’t raise interesting questions. Readers have too little information to appreciate the stakes. She calls this “false suspense.” Similarly, I’m not engaged by openings that use ostensibly dramatic dialog, such as “Oh, no!” Katie cried, “This is the worst day of my life!” As a reader, I don’t know anything about Katie yet, so her “worst day” assessment carries no weight. I’d call this “false excitement.”
  5. A dream sequence – “A common trope and a tired one,” she says. The problem with this opener is that, in a dream, anything can happen, whereas, to be interesting, characters need to be responding to their situation, making decisions, and coping with the consequences. A dream doesn’t offer true choices or raise valid story questions.

A common thread among several of these openings is that characters are alone, and when they are, the lack of interaction with others doesn’t give the reader a useful second perspective, or a view of how characters relate to others. Sometimes that’s on purpose, as when you gradually realize the narrator you’ve come to trust is unreliable. Editor Ray Rhamey has a nine-point checklist for the first page of a novel, which  is a useful way to make sure your first page does everything it needs to.

Related content:
First Line Mondays, getting off to a good start
“Come in, Sit down . . .”, how Stephen King opens his books

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay

How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).

A Juicy Idea

The origin stories of novels are as varied as their authors. The idea for the Harry Potter series first came to J.K. Rowling while traveling on a train delayed between Manchester and London. (No more whining about airport delays, please. Use your time wisely). Lee Child has variously attributed the creation of Jack Reacher to sheer commercial motivation and as “an antidote to the all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that peopled the genre.” The writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, authors of several crime thriller series, began by leveraging the pair’s publishing and museum experience.

In the firehose of information about authors and their books that flows across my computer screen daily, I recently noticed another intriguing origin story. A mother and son duo created a new book called The Gourmet Gangster. It combines episodes in the life of a fictional New York gangster who owns an upscale restaurant with real recipes the apocryphal restaurant serves. And the book’s roots are as quirky as the title suggests. Here’s how it came about, according to author Marcia Rosen.

“I wrote the mysteries, and my son Jory provided the recipes. Together we created some murderous titles and decided which types of food would best fit the stories.” These titles include “He’s a Dead Duck” paired with a recipe for Duck à l’Orange and a recipe for “The Quiche (Kiss) of Death.”

But the impetus for the collection goes even deeper. Marcia says in the book’s epilogue that her father was a Jewish gangster in Buffalo, New York, who owned a gambling hall and consorted with a tribe of colorful local characters. She says: “Remembering my father, and picturing him at a restaurant he owned when I was a teenager, initially inspired me to write about events set in a restaurant.

“I’m a mystery writer, so of course they had to be about murder, mayhem and, I thought, a fun bit of madness. Loving short stories, I decided to write a series of short mysteries, all involving the same criminal organization and taking place in a restaurant called Manhattan Shadow. The stories are from my vivid and sometimes frightening imagination, played out for the pleasure of mystery lovers.

“The idea of adding recipes made good sense, since my father was a chef. Level Best Books, our publisher, suggested putting a recipe before each story. ‘Great idea,’ I responded. ‘My son is a fabulous cook; he can create the recipes.’” And that’s how Marcia and Jory ended up with “The Chicken Piccata Caper,” “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and, of course, “A Deadly Delicious Dessert,” based on Marcia’s father’s recipe for donuts.

Says Marcia, “As I considered mystery stories for the book, I thought about places familiar to me. One story, ‘He’s A Dead Duck,’ was a reminder of a duck pond we lived near on Long Island, years ago. I loved the idea of creating a story beginning with a duck recipe!”

Son Jory (a marketing/advertising executive by day) adds, “In my family, today, we truly look forward to our evening meals. I have three kids (two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a boy, age 3). My grandfather would have adored them. What I cook allows my children to get know my grandfather through every bite of the cuisine he created. I hope the recipes in my mother’s book inspire good memories and experiences in others, too.”

“Really,” Marcia says, “I’m deadly serious!” Read more about Marcia’s writing and her series, The Senior Sleuths, on her website.

The Blues Are More Than a Color

peacock, bird, proud

Authors appreciate the power of color to not just describe a shade but evoke an emotion. How different is your reaction to a woman’s dress described as sky blue (flirty) versus electric blue (bold) versus navy (conservative)? The color choices tell you not just about the dress, but something about the wearer as well.

The colors of things are such distinctive characteristics that we have a full palette of clichés about them—another reason to give their descriptions careful attention in your prose.

Sherwin-Williams, the paint people who each year bring us the “color of the year” (read my take on their ironic choice of Living Coral for 2019) puts well-spent energy into trend forecasting. And there definitely are color trends. One of them may show up on the cover of your next book. Certain colors are so trendy that they age quickly and not well. The 2020 Color of the Year, by the way: Naval. Good old navy blue.

S-W’s color aces have announced the company’s colormix forecast for 2020. Their several palettes are lumped under the rubric of “wellness,” because, they say, designers are seeking colors that enhance social, spiritual, physical, and emotional factors. Go for it! Interestingly, a S-W marketing manager looks to our world in describing her goals: “Designers want color to enhance the story they are telling.” Raising my hand.

You might check whether one of the S-W palettes inspires an overall feel for a character or setting you’re working on. Scandi authors will likely stick with gray. Or, maybe you just need to repaint your office. A collection of some of my favorite books about color, described here and here too.

Photo: jpeter2 for Pixabay, creative commons license

Instant Replay

I wondered, seeing the cover for The Sleepover, if it was inspired by Adrian McKinty’s new best-seller, The Chain. or an example of the hive mind at work. The chains in McKinty’s book have nothing to do with literal chains, of course, and I didn’t warm to that book’s cover (though the book is great).

Then I saw this pairing. Though the new Through a Daughter’s Eyes is apparently nothing at all like Eimear McBride’s eye-opening The Lesser Bohemians, it sure conjures it. Cover copy for the latter says it “glows with the eddies and anxieties of growing up, and the transformative intensity of a powerful new love.” And lots of sex.

What Do Book Club Audiences Want?

Author Kathryn Kraft in Writer Unboxed says book clubs have “the potential to serve as a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists.” We’re all familiar with the marketing boost books have received thanks to the endorsement of Oprah’s book club and now Reese Witherspoon’s (with more than 800,000 followers), among many others.

Millions of Americans belong to book clubs—the formal kind that have regular meetings in libraries and living rooms—and the loosely organized kind that operate through social media, including GoodReads, with its 90 million members. A 2015 BookBrowse survey of people who read at least one book per month found that over half belong to at least one book club, with the percentage of readers who are book club members rising with age.

Another BookBrowse survey of more than 5000 book club members, conducted last year, found that “overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will promote good discussion.” In other words, they’re looking for books whose features intrigue them.

Recognizing a learning opportunity here, Kraft analyzed a number of book club reading guides to discover major topics presumed to promote book club discussions. They relate to issues writers ponder all the time, and it’s encouraging to know they get readers talking too. Here they are:

1. A protagonist with a unique perspective – Think Maggie Gee’s new book Blood, with its unforgettable narrator Monica Ludd or Rice Moore in the Appalachian noir prize-winner Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin. Characters with strong voices like these give book club members “a chance to look at life in a new way,” Kraft says.

2. A character or characters readers can relate to – I have nothing in common with manipulative New Orleans gangster Frank Guidry in Lou Berney’s November Road, but I certainly related to him. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like me (please, no!) for that to happen; the character just needs to be richly portrayed.

3. A story that reflects some larger issue – In this way, the character’s deeply personal experience can become “universal and political,” Kraft says. Gin Phillips’s thriller Fierce Kingdom begins with a mother wanting to take her toddler home, and the rest of the book is about that thwarted journey. Home is always more than an address.

4. A structure that helps set expectations and convey meaning – Denise Mina’s Conviction, with its story-within-a-story format not only engages the reader in two plots, the relevance of the second story gives the protagonist a chance to reflect on her past and motivates her current actions. Think Dov Alfon’s A Long Night in Paris or Chris Pavone’s new The Paris Diversion that puts the time of day at the head of each chapter in this fast-paced thriller that takes place over a jam-packed 11 hours. The ticking clock is one of the thriller genre’s most popular structural devices. It sure sets expectations.

5. Endings that are tidy or open-ended? I’m sure there’s lots of discussion on this point. Kraft comes down on leaving endings looser, which gives readers a chance to think about all the novel’s foregoing elements and, in an act of co-creation, what’s most likely to happen next. “Imaginations are not constrained to what occurred between the covers of the book,” Kraft says. It’s like movies that end with a “where are they now?” feature as the credits roll, which evoke that same feeling of limiting the possibilities I might prefer. I believe Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing would have been stronger without Tate’s final discoveries. Let readers puzzle it out.

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay   

Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

draft

The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Deadly Ink: Characters

Handwriting, boredom

Very possibly I made an impression on my daughter’s new in-laws last month when I said how, with most women, you can talk to them about their careers or their kids or what they’re reading, but in my case you could talk about blood spatter.

You might think this would have been a conversation-stopper, but my daughter’s new sister-in-law immediately launched into how her son had bled so profusely after knocking his head on the kitchen counter. “Oh yes,” I said knowingly, “scalp wounds. Lots of blood.” It pays to know your stuff.

I added to my trove of crime and thriller lore this past weekend at the annual Deadly Ink conference, an intimate group of crime and thriller writers and readers, mostly from New Jersey and its Manhattan suburbs. It’s a great place to expound upon crime-writing topics and to hobnob with other like-minded folk. Guest of Honor this year was energetic and down-to-earth author Wendy Corsi Staub, who participated beginning to end, and our Toastmaster was Dick Belsky.

I ended up on three panels, Character (you need them!), the Dark Side (who, me?), and Building Suspense. The only suspense was whether I could think of something useful to contribute. Regardless, the panels were all lively and fun and, since almost no one ran out screaming and demanding their money back, they may have actually been useful or, possibly, entertaining.

I had made some modest preparations for the Character panel and focused my remarks on what I’d brushed up on, character description. Sometimes writers describe characters readers only see once or twice. Not necessary.. Sometimes they give a complete height-weight-eye color (so often green, have you noticed?)-hair color-complexion rundown. Also not necessary, I said, except when these details are relevant to the story, like six-foot, full-figured Monica Ludd, who uses her size to intimidate (or seduce) in Maggie Gee’s new novel Blood, reviewed yesterday.

I cited Stephen King in On Writing, who says a character’s description begins in the writer’s imagination and ends in the reader’s imagination. No need for details. Let your readers fill in. When they do, they own the character and that’s exactly what you want! For King’s character Carrie White, all he said was that she was a high school outcast with bad skin and a fashion-victim wardrobe. What more is needed? We’ve all known and maybe sometimes been that person.

That led to a discussion of how the movie version of a character can become our indelible picture of a character—Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire—and what happens when that picture conflicts with our internal picture—Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Total fail.

Donald Maass (Writing 21st Century Fiction) further points out the paradox that the more unique you make your characters the more universal they are. Readers can latch onto some aspect of a character and relate to it, almost no matter what. What you don’t want are bland, generalized, two-dimensional characters with no unredeeming attributes. Give them flaws! Too-perfect characters are boring and not believable.

This excellent panel was moderated by Lynn Marron and included the estimable Jane Kelly, D.W Maroney, and Dick Belsky.

(Tomorrow: More from Deadly Ink)