Halloween Countdown: The Story Behind the Story

tiger, mask

If you asked, I’d say I don’t write horror, but two of my published short stories do include a ghost—maybe. The closest I’ve come to horror is a story Kings River Life published for Halloween 2021. (You can read it here.) “A Question of Identity” is a much-reworked and rethought tale originally written in response to a request for stories about masks. Because our home is full of masks, this was a theme I could resonate with!

In it, two preadolescent girls, neighbors and best friends, each receive a box with a Halloween costume in it—a fox for one and a tiger for the other. Where did they come from? No one knows. Few questions are asked. The moms are just grateful that’s one shopping errand they can cross off their very long lists.

When the girls put on the costumes, the unexpected happens, which is why it evolved into a story that’s much more about identity than Halloween. When they exchange costumes, their parents don’t recognize them, and even after Halloween is over and each girl has her own costume again, their effects linger. You may conclude that those new identities have a dark side.

It isn’t a mystery story leading to a solution, so you never know where the costumes came from, and that uncertainty contributes to the spookiness. As Charles Baxter says in his wonderful book, The Art of Subtext, “the half-visible and the unspoken—all those subtextual matters—are evoked when the action and dialogue of the scene angle downward, when by their multiplicity they imply as much as they show. A slippery surface causes you to skid into the subtext.”

At least, that’s what I was going for!

Reading Lessons: Green Monsters & Flawed Characters

see, eye, green

In Nicky Shearsby’s new psychological thriller, Green Monsters, the first-person narrator, Stacey Adams, makes no secret of her hatred (her word, not mine) for her married older sister, Emma. Emma is a successful businesswoman, lives in a huge house with her dishy husband Jason and toddler daughter, has a designer wardrobe, yada-yada-yada. Perfect, in other words.

Emma’s every remark is perceived as a subtle dig at Stacey’s lack of achievement, her lower status, all the ways she is less. Implications all the more piercing by being true. Stacey lives alone in a cramped apartment and squeaks by with work for a temp agency at a job she cares about not one little bit.

This is a book that, despite its strengths, has a number of significant challenges buried in the set-up described above. Stacey has an almost Manichean view of the world. People are unambiguously either bad (Emma) or good (herself). There’s no gray here.

Shearsby does a powerful job conveying Stacey’s obsessions. The book cover describes her as a “narcissistic psychopath”; however, no mental health professional makes that diagnosis. When, eventually, the plot requires a reversal of Stacy’s attitude, I had been so persuaded of her pathology, I doubted whether Stacey would be capable of any recalibration. If she’s truly a psychopath, it isn’t plausible to me that one day she would simply get past it.

Any story where the main character has a severe mental disorder faces difficulties. And, in Green Monsters is also the narrator Leaving aside that a character’s quirks could become tiresome to the reader, it can be almost too easy to predict their actions. (Of course she sleeps with her sister’s husband—not a spoiler, says so on the cover. Of course, he’ll pursue revenge to the ends of the earth.) Such characters, propelled by their pathology, typically have little control over their lives, and all the reader can do is watch their downward spiral. (By contrast, in Tana French’s Broken Harbor, the apparent schizophrenia of the main character’s younger sister is brilliantly portrayed and viewed not through her eyes, but his.)

This isn’t to say that all characters need to be “likeable,” far from it. But they do need dimension. What do they do all day? What do they value? What are they interested in, and is it something that makes the reader interested in them? I never had the impression Stacey was interested in anything other than her sister’s husband and their trysts.

In the right hands, with the right project, there are always exceptions to any general observations about writing. But I’ve read enough stories that take the point of view of a deranged serial killer (which, thankfully, Stacey is not) that I have seen how hard that is to pull off. If I were trying to distill the main lesson for me from reading Green Monsters, it would be to give my characters the kinds of lives that will keep readers interested even when they are monsters, green or otherwise.

A Small Focus Can Yield Big Insights

Most Americans may recognize Ernest J. Gaines’s name—he died in 2019—through his most famous novels, A Lesson Before Dying, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, In My Father’s House, and the televised version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which received eight Emmys. His awards were plentiful in both the United States and France, where Pittman, the first neo-slave narrative, was for a time required reading in schools.

Gaines tackled the problem of race relations that haunt American society through the careful exploration of his characters’ interior lives. He took his time writing them—A Lesson Before Dying was written over seven summers. Summer was his writing-time, because during the rest of the year, he was teaching at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (alma mater of author James Lee Burke). Such a long gestation gave him time to reflect on his characters and develop them to the extent he desired, a practice treasured by some authors and shunned by others (you know who they are).

He started early. When he was 16, around 1950, he wrote his first novel. When, to his adolescent mind it was “done,” he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with a string, and sent it to New York. “It looked more like a warehouse lunchbag than it looked like a novel manuscript,” he said in a 1995 interview. He’d cut his paper in half to be book-sized and written on both sides. “I had done everything wrong that you possibly could do.” If that book was a failure, when it reappeared fourteen years later in more conventional and complete form as Catherine Carmier, it was a success and is still available on Amazon as a reissue in paper, Kindle, and audio.

Gaines had a solid education and credited the influence of Turgenev, Hemingway, and Faulkner as influences. Mississippi’s small communities and the people who lived there, in the way Faulkner described them, closely paralleled the places and people of Louisiana—except for the Cajun cooking and music! Just as Faulkner confined his stories to the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Gaines too concentrated on a limited setting for his Louisiana stories, Bayonne Parish. (This is much as current best-seller Scott Turow sets all his novels in fictional Kindle County, Illinois.)

From Hemingway, he believed he acquired a sense of understatement and short sentences. From Turgenev, short chapters. Put it all together with a number of other classic influences and you have what became unique voice. One that could produce many memorable lines, including: “Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.” Applies to so much of life.

If I had to name the authors who’ve influenced me, the list would be long. I’d have to include Charles Dickens, who was so expert at creating distinctive characters. I also admire how he tried to write about important things (treatment of orphans, importance of family, overcoming setbacks). That’s why his books really resonate 210 years after his birth. Analyzing Elmore Leonard’s dialog was a revelation. He leaves out so much, all of it unncessary, because what his characters are saying is perfectly understandable. And so many others. Knowing that I do tend to sop up the style of whatever I’m reading, I never read government reports.

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Promotion, Promotion

Yesterday, The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish sponsored a pre-launch event for author Jennifer Givhan to talk about the development of her soon-to-be-published novel River Woman, River Demon. She was joined by Isabella Nugent, a publicist for Givhan’s publisher Blackstone, and the two discussed the publicity strategies they developed for the new book.

The inspiration for River Woman, River Demon, Givhan said, was a series of personal upheavals. She gives credit to both the strength and spirit of family for helping her weather these challenges and giving her a profound sense of herself as a person. This carries over into her book publicity strategy, where she looked for activities compatible with how she sees the world. It was an important idea that an author’s marketing activities have to be true to them as a person, in order to feel authentic (and doable). Otherwise, they can be awkward and unpersuasive.

This leads naturally to the notion that the author and the publicist need to develop a strong, mutually respectful, partnership. There are many ways to publicize a book, and the publicist has to hear it when the author isn’t comfortable with something.

The whole strategy development process for River Woman, River Demon took about nine months to plan and carry out. One of the first tasks was to cast a wide net for blurbs from other authors that then could be used to garner media publicity. During downtime, as the book was getting ready for market, Jenn made it a point to respond “yes” to as many requests for blurbs or other assistance from other authors as she could. Giving other writers uplift, she believes, not only makes her feel good, but in the long run will be of benefit to the larger writing community, herself included.

She recommends teaming up with other authors for publicity—doing readings together, interviewing each other, and so on. Authors working with smaller publishers may have a somewhat easier time making connections with their “sibs.”

Jenn also invested in an outside publicist, interviewing a great many, which resulted in some free consultations, even though she was up-front about her budgetary constraints. Even staying within budget, this extra help was useful. Jenn and Isabella talked about the importance of identifying all the different sets of contacts Jenn has. She is a novelist, but she’s also a poet, and those connections in the poetry world have led to some unpredictable good results and cross-promotions. “You don’t know who all of your readers are, and ultimately, they may connect.” I’ve certainly found that in promoting Architect of Courage. Reviews, help, invitations end up coming from all sorts of wonderful places!

I describe my promotion strategy for not driving myself crazy right here.

The Malleability of Time: Javier Marias

Award-winning and much-translated Spanish novelist, translator, and short-story writer Javier Marias died September 11 from complications of Covid-19. You have to admire someone as dedicated as Marias, who began seriously writing as a young teenager, and at 17, ran away from home to join his uncle in Paris so he could write his first novel. Despite writing 15 novels and three collections of short stories, he considered himself “more a reader than a writer,” or so I learned in an interview conducted some years ago.

The main characters in his three-volume novel, Your Face Tomorrow, took what could have been a risky path, in that they were based on real people—one of them (even chancier) his own father, including his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, and Sir Peter Edward Lionel Russell of New Zealand, Professor of Spanish Studies and Director of Portuguese Studies at Queen’s College, Oxford. Russell also experienced the Spanish Civil War first-hand, on assignment from British Intelligence. He further served the Intelligence Corps of the British Army during World War II.

In his conversations with the two men, Marias believed they were hopeful the books would be published (they died before the third and final volume appeared). In an interesting way, Marias’s fiction, based however loosely on their own stories, gave them an opportunity to live slightly altered lives Wouldn’t we all like to go back and handle certain people and events differently? “Mistakes, I’ve made a few,” sings Sinatra.

Rethinking one’s history is another example of Marias’s preoccupation with manipulating time, touching it, in order to bring out the important moments that get washed away in the ceaseless flood. In part he has tried to accomplish this by way of numerous digressions. At one point in Your Face Tomorrow, a sword is about to fall, and he makes a left turn to talk about different kinds of swords and their history. Meanwhile, the reader is maybe thinking, “enough already. Get on with it.” But Marias believed the experience of what the sword ultimately does is different if readers have those moments of swordly contemplation.

I’m thinking about how much Riku Onda packed into Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight which is a novel of moderate length that takes place all in one night and, simultaneously, over decades, as twins review their relationships, their suspicions, and the reasons they cannot keep living together. There’s so much more in there than the highlight reel you’d hear if you asked one of them about that night a year, a month, maybe even a week later.

Even experimenting with the elasticity of time, it seems Marias was a pantser (writing by the seat of his pants, rather than carefully plotting in advance). He said, “I’m not the kind of writer who knows everything before I start writing a book, or even while I’m writing it.” When he said, “what I really like, in a way, is to find a story out.” I think of that as “the experience of discovery,” and it’s what makes writing exciting for me too.

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Book Clubs are Authors’ Friends

So far, three library book clubs and one “unaffiliated” club in three states have decided to read my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, and give their members a chance to ask me questions about it. The first one of these occurred last week, when my “home” club—the mystery book club at Princeton Public Library—read the book.

This is one of those activities that Zoom has made much more doable! The group not only includes ten or so members from the Princeton area, but one of us has moved to Maine, one is here now but for some months was based in Richmond, Virginia, and I think one or two of us are Florida snowbirds.

Group leader Gayle Stratton and I agreed that, in the interest of candor, the group would have about 45 minutes to discuss the book before I joined the call for the second half of our meeting. That apparently was an unnecessary precaution, because it seems they were unanimous in reporting they enjoyed the book! Their questions covered plot, intent, research strategies, publishing, favorite characters—a whole array of issues.

In promoting the novel through interviews and book events, I’ve found I most enjoy the q&a. It’s always fun to see how different people interpret the same things. It’s a challenge authors frequently face. They have to walk the fine line between explaining too much and explaining too little. Although I work hard to make the text clear, questions still come up. In general, I’m a big believer in trusting the reader. When I’m reading, I hate the feeling I’m being spoon-fed. If an author tells the character’s dog died, she doesn’t need to tell me the character stayed in bed all day because she is sad. I know why she did that.

Just after Labor Day, I spent two days at the Library of Virginia genealogizing, and saw a big poster for its book group. The club was planning to discuss SA Cosby and Razorblade Tears on September 14. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of Razorblade Tears and its predecessor, Blacktop Wasteland, both of which delve into what Cosby has called “the holy trinity of Southern fiction—race, class, and sex.”

This was an opportunity not to be missed! Another Zoom success, I thought; I could call in from New Jersey. Disappointingly, he wasn’t on the call, so I missed my opportunity to ask whether part of his process is reading his books out loud. His dialog is so spot-on perfect, I figured he must do that. Then his publisher hires the genius narrator Adam Lazarre-White for the audio versions (highly recommended). I’ll just have to wait for another chance to ask Cosby my question.

If your book club reads fiction—be in touch!

The Demands of Craft: Why Details Matter

Handwriting, boredom

In an interview published a few years ago, but well worth this second look, author Alexander Parsons provided considerable useful advice (and support!) for other writers. Now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Parsons is the author of the award-winning Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun.

New writers, he believes, are lucky they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. It looks deceptively easy. “The more you commit to it, the more time you spend learning the craft, the more overcoming your ignorance feels like an extended alpine stage of the Tour de France,” he said. Good writing—and isn’t that what we all aspire to?—isn’t a skill, or a practice that you just “pick up, like learning to throw a Frisbee.”

Parsons would probably endorse the idea that a good writer is always learning the craft. There’s so much to know, so many craft details, that you can’t take it in all at once. In my own case, I have gradually tried to teach myself to recognize my own writing tics—you know, the weak sentence structures and repetitive word patterns that appear in a first draft, as I’m setting the story down, but need to be scrubbed out later. (Examples: “There is,” “there are,” “things” instead of more concrete nouns; sentences with too many adjectives or too few.)

In the Shadows of the Sun included portions that take place in the Philippines and Japan, neither of which he’d visited at the time he wrote about them. Research—in books and photographs—let him visualize the setting, but he believes the lack of first-hand knowledge also freed him. “The landscape of fiction is always the landscape of imagination,” he says. “Fiction organizes and alters the factual to serve the larger truths embodied in the work.” I interpret this to mean not just the larger facts of plot and character development, but also reaching down to the sentence and word level. Possibly many readers gloss over the precise details, but I cannot help but think that at some level, they sense the difference between a red dress that the author describes as “cherry” versus “ruby” versus (god forbid) blood-red.

Parsons’s first novel, Leaving Disneyland, explored prison culture and its effects on inmates, current and former. Learning enough detail about that world to write about it forcefully, honestly, and authentically took him several years, he says. Despite the amount of effort involved, he believes mastering the details of a character, a place, an environment let you write “from a point of view that takes you out of your comfort zone.” Scary, but possible.

When writers take on that challenge, they not only connect with the story they’re trying to tell, but also with their readers. It’s easy to create characters that are thinly disguised versions of oneself, but they are ultimately thin, not very satisfying, gruel.

Writing Tips: Lingua Franca

I read (and liked!) Daniel Mason’s debut novel The Piano Tuner several years after he was interviewed in the late, lamented short story magazine Glimmer Train, and only now rediscovered what he’d said about it.

The Piano Tuner takes place in Myanmar, and Mason faced a dilemma that all of us who write stories set in other countries and cultures face: how much do you express in English, and how much in the language of the people speaking?

The interviewer pointed out that Mason used a lot of Burmese words and phrases in his book, and Mason explained why. He said he usually kept the Burmese word when there was no English equivalent, or at least not a good one. Some of the words he could have explained, but then the novel becomes a dictionary, so he didn’t. Following that decision-rule, he used the word thanaka, rather than “the women whose faces were painted with sandalwood paste.” Good call.

In my upcoming novel set in Rome, the main character is American, but speaks Italian, and except when she’s talking with her brother, all the conversation is in Italian. I make the point about her language skills early (it’s even a plot point), and then drop in an Italian word, here or there to remind the reader that it’s not English being spoken. Certo (sure), Bene (fine), Cara (dear—oddly, a word I’d never use in English, unless the speakers were elderly!) are all words I use as reminder words. I also make sure to use the Italian name of the hospital where my character is taken: Ospidale Fatebenefratelli (Isn’t that great!?) Word order and speech rhythms can serve as reminders readers are in foreign territory too.

I especially admire the way Cormac McCarthy handled Spanish in The Crossing, set in Mexico. There was a lot of Spanish conversation, but he managed to reiterate the thought, not verbatim, but sufficiently, so that I always understood what he meant.

Mason said he used Burmese words for specific jobs, to avoid English connotations that don’t fit the Myanmar context, and, sometimes, just because of the way the word sounds. For example, the Portuguese word caatinga refers to scrubby brush-land, but to Mason simply sounds much more evocative and he used it in another book.

Just in case readers are uncomfortable encountering such an unfamiliar word, Mason put little instructions on how to say it in front of the word—just once, I hope. I don’t remember this, so it must not have been intrusive (and I don’t find any examples of this using Amazon’s “look inside” function). I suppose if an author used a great many foreign words, the pronunciation advice might become tiresome, but there might be other ways to handle it too—for example, including a glossary, correcting a “newbie” to the country, or having a character take language lessons. Readers figure out their own pronunciations for names of characters, for example, and go right on reading, so it isn’t a huge dilemma. But the occasional culture-specific reminder through language helps maintain a sense of the exotic.

Mason’s first collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthwas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Glimmer Train interview, he said he had a lot of ideas that weren’t 300-page ideas, but might make good short stories. “I’d love to try to do that again,” he said. He did. And was right.

The Male Point of View

Kevin Tipple, on his wonderful Kevin’s Corner website, which includes mystery and crime fiction-related news, a blog, and book reviews, included the following guest post from me last Sunday. It covers an issue people often ask me about. Check him out!

Thank you, Kevin, for your willingness to host a blog essay related to my new mystery/thriller Architect of Courage. In it, protagonist Archer Landis is a successful Manhattan architect whose orderly life falls into disarray when the woman he loves is murdered. That’s just the beginning of a summer of disastrous events that befall him, which put him and everyone around him in danger. Events that, ultimately, he has to try to sort out.

I’m pleased with the reader response, and one question people often ask is, what was it like to write a book from the male point-of-view? First, I never considered having a woman protagonist for this story, so I had a male firmly in mind from the get-go. I took into account that he is a successful businessman and a lot of the story’s action takes place in his office, not at home. His role as the leader of a prominent architectural firm is essential to who he is, and fits his “let’s get on with it” personality. You see this in his interactions with his staff, helping them move forward through a variety of difficulties.

In thinking about this post for you, Kevin, I realized that, in fact, most of the principal characters in this novel are men: Landis’s two principal associates, his lawyer, the police detectives, his right-hand when situations become dangerous. Many conversations occur among these characters, and in them, especially, I worked on the gender issue. Women (at least women of my generation) were socialized to express themselves tentatively, “It’s just a suggestion, but would you like a roast beef sandwich? Or, maybe . . . something else?” whereas a man would say, “Let’s have a roast beef sandwich” and be done with it. Of course I’m exaggerating. (See how I did that? Tried to get you to go along with my example by using the “of course.”)

I reviewed all the dialog numerous times to make sure the “weasel-words”—the things you say to minimize importance or weaken a statement—were removed, except in instances where the speaker was genuinely unsure. I don’t know, what do you think? (See?) A document search found every instance of the word “need,” which I usually replaced with “want.” There’s a subtle difference between “I need you to finish that floor plan” and “I want you to finish.” Once you go on the hunt for weasel-words, they’re everywhere!

By excising that fluff from the men’s conversation, the women’s voices became more distinctive. Yes, there are women in Architect of Courage! One character readers single out is Landis’s receptionist/assistant Deshondra. She’s young and a practitioner of upspeak? You know what I mean? It makes sense that her conversation would be kind of (there I go again) a counterpoint for the men’s because of her youth, inexperience, and gender.

All this focus on how Landis expresses himself provides a window into the more fundamental issues of how he thinks, analyzes problems, and reacts to situations. Even though he doesn’t talk about feelings a lot, his behavior reveals what’s going on inside.

I have a second novel that includes chapters in alternating points of view, female (my protagonist) and male (a police detective). Compared to Archer Landis, I find the female protagonist harder to write. There’s too much “me” in there. She’s not me; I need her to bring her own self to the project. What I want to avoid is a book in which the main character seems to be the author projecting, what I call wish fulfillment literature. Action heroes are prone to this.

Thank you again, Kevin, and I hope your audience members who read Architect of Courage will enjoy it!

Have you read Architect of Courage yet? Order a copy here and check out that male point of view!

Theme vs. Meaning in Fiction

Author, teacher, and literary agent Donald Maass recently wrote a thought-provoking essay in Writer Unboxed in which he makes a distinction between “theme” and “meaning” in a novel. I’ve written about theme before, specifically, whether a writer should set out to create a book around a certain theme and how hard that can be to pull off, because it focuses the writer on an abstract concept, when creating a story is the dominant concern. At least that’s true for novels written for US and UK audiences. Characters in novels translated from other languages often seem to wander in some misty realm without reference to the concrete world of, say, peanut butter sandwiches, and perhaps it’s because they’re written to theme. Just a guess here.

The theme of my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, is redemption, which I discovered embarrassingly late in the game. And now that it’s printed and has covers around it, I am still recognizing minor themes. These likely reflect attitudes and beliefs so ingrained that I don’t consciously think about them, but that come out nonetheless.

According to Maass, a novel with a theme “points out something we must heed about ourselves and our world,” whereas a novel focused on meaning aims to “tell us who and how we are.” Or, as he says, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. Genre novels (mysteries, thrillers, romance) tend to be of the former type, and coming-of-age stories and historical fiction tend toward the latter.

It’s easy to think of examples of both. On one hand, the theme of books like Razorblade Tears (SA Cosby) and many police procedurals is that justice is being done, while the theme of The Water-Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi) and The Cartel (Don Winslow) is the urgent need to put things right before it’s too late. On the other hand, “meaning” books, like The Ones We Keep (Bobbie Jean Huff) and The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) describe life as it is, sort of, with all its bumps and distortions and wierdnesses.

This distinction is worth thinking about, but as to how it affects the reader, Maass further suggests that the thematic approach is like being told something, and the meaning approach is like sharing something. “Literary” fiction mostly camps out in meaning territory and disdains genre fiction’s tidy endings, whereas genre writers defend their approach, saying that at least their stories have an ending.  

While I’m persuaded Maass has articulated an interesting distinction, perhaps it shouldn’t be interpreted too rigidly, too either-or. For one thing, authors are wholly capable of bait-and-switch. For most of their pages, Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) and Atonement (Ian McEwan) seems like coming-of-age “meaning” books, and only at the very end do you discover they’ve upended the “justice will be done” theme. Currently, I’m listening to My Heart Is a Chainsaw, by horror-writer Stephen Graham Jones, and I would be hard-pressed to place it in either category. Can’t I choose both?

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