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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You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love!

Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart

Friends and family members can be incredibly patient when they ask an author in their circle solicitous and innocent-sounding questions—like “How’s the book coming?”—and are met with blank looks, or, worse, groans and sighs.

Most authors today—OK, James Patterson’s an exception, and so’s JK Rowling—find that reaching “The End” is just the beginning of their work. Now they have to let the world know about it.  

If you have a sense of how much time and effort authors invest in their books, maybe you’ve wondered “What can I do? How can I help?” Yes, indeed, there are things you can do that will help! And, whatever you find time to do, you can be sure it will be greatly appreciated!

Ten ways you can help promote an author or book you admire:

  1. Buy the books! The author may have written it with readers like you in mind.
  2. Don’t be too quick to pass around a book; instead, encourage others to buy it. Amazon, or book stores, and the author’s publisher keep most of the price of the book. If a book sells for $16, the author receives $2 to $4.
  3. Remember, books make great gifts! Maybe a friend or family member needs a thank-you or has a special day coming up.
  4. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of book marketing. So, tell people about a book you’ve loved.
  5. What you say about the book in an Amazon or Barnes & Noble review will influence other would-be purchasers. No need for cringy flashbacks to high school book reports. Just say the two or three things you’d tell a good friend who asked, “Read any good books lately?”
  6. Share a few words about what you’re reading on social media—GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
  7. If you enjoyed a book, your book club might too! Many authors are willing to participate in book club discussions in person or by Zoom, etc.
  8. You can “follow” your favorite authors on Amazon. Search for one of their books, click on the author’s name, and their author page will come up.
  9. If your author has a newsletter, sign up! Author newsletters often include interviews, reviews, and favorites.
  10. An author’s blog and website are another way to keep track of their new releases and to learn more about them.

Many thanks, and happy reading!

Rules for Writing Fiction – Part 2


The Guardian’s intrepid pursuit of writers in their dens produced yet more fiction-writing “rules.” Such lists are excellent for those–surely rare–times when you really don’t want to write, but feel you should be Doing Something related to your work-in-progress. If nothing else, you can assess how many rules you’ve broken already.

Some of these are helpful, some insightful, and a few may bring a chuckle. Last week’s Part 1 is here. [My comments in brackets.]

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant (Hilary Mantel). Later she says “you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.” ! [I suppose by freeing herself of the tedium of arithmetic and spreadsheets, she has more time to engage in her preferred character-development strategy: having imaginary interviews with them. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall for her conversations with T. Cromwell.]
  2. Description must work for its place (in your story). It can’t be simply ornamental (Hilary Mantel).
  3. Find an author you admire and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters (Michael Moorcock). [So crazy, it just might work!]
  4. Think with your senses as well as your brain (Andrew Motion).
  5. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader”—there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else (Joyce Carol Oates).
  6. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand (Annie Proulx)[I do this sometimes when I’m stuck.]
  7. The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply (Will Self).
  8. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else (Zadie Smith).
  9. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day (Colm Tóibín).
  10. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane (Colm Tóibín).
  11. In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it (Rose Tremain) [A useful defense for us pantsers.]
  12. Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s (Sarah Waters).

Now, get out there and break a few rules!

“Rules” for Writing Fiction – Part 1

Some years ago, The Guardian newspaper collected “Rules for Writing Fiction” from numerous authors, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous “Ten Rules.” Some of them made me laugh or at least chuckle appreciatively (note how I just violated Leonard’s Rule #4—no adverbs!).

  1. Never open a book with weather. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. (Elmore Leonard)(And see this)
  2. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. (Margaret Atwood)
  3. Ask a reading friend or two to look at your book before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Margaret Atwood)
  4. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
  5. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job. (Roddy Doyle)
  6. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices. (Helen Dunmore)
  7. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand. (Anne Enright)
  8. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  9. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. (Jonathan Franzen)
  10. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. (Esther Freud)
  11. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Neil Gaiman) (Or, as I used to say about my writing group, they were super at diagnosis, but not so good at treatment.)
  12. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it. (PD James)

Next week – More Rules!

Met Your Metaphor?

In his July “language lounge” column for Visual Thesaurus, lexicographer Orin Hargraves dives in the deep and sometimes murky sea of metaphor. To get us in the mood for the topic, he cites the opening lines of Alfred Noyes’s poem, “The Highwayman.”

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Each of those lines, even though they combine unlike things are easy to picture. As Hargraves says, metaphors are fundamental to “how we make sense of the world and how we integrate new information with things we already know.” We take some aspect of one domain (darkness, sea, ribbon) and apply it to another thing: wind, moon, road. With a well-constructed metaphor, we know almost instantly what aspects of darkness, sea, and ribbon we should apply, ignoring their many other attributes.

Seeing life as a journey is such a prevalent idea, we probably don’t usually perceive it as a metaphor at all. Think of common phrases like: the hero’s journey; the road not taken; a trip to nowhere (waste of time); his first marriage was a detour; on the right path; choosing a hard road; got off on the wrong foot; they crossed paths with . . .; “we’re on the road to romance” (Sinatra). Scholars Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphors are essentially conceptual and coming up with the language to express them, as in the preceding examples, is secondary. We make inferences from these concepts and guide our lives according to the metaphors that derive from them (“just putting one foot in front of the other”).

But that’s a bit abstract. Hargraves focuses on a particular type of metaphor that most reminds me of a Hollywood pitch session. His examples: Twin Peaks meets Doctor Who; Le Corbusier meets Flash Gordon. Such metaphors assume a broadly shared cultural context between the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. I assure you that any metaphor where one of the noun phrases referred to a hip-hop star would sail right over my head. Unless the audience can sift out what aspects of the two nouns are being compared, the metaphor doesn’t work on its own.

Hargraves gives an example from fiction (source not named) of what could have been an obscure pairing, but the writer explains it sufficiently to make it work:

“So what do you want in a man?”
“Butch. Beautiful. Brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into (the) fray while making the world safe for democracy. At night, playing Bach cantatas while curing cancer.”

I know next-to nothing about Captain America, but with that explanation, I get it.

For Your Bookshelf
Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Reading Lesson: Bonnar Spring’s Disappeared

Bonnar Spring’s new thriller, Disappeared, is without doubt an exciting read, a heady combination of romance and menace. Romance, that is, in the “heroic and marvelous deeds” definition, not the “falling in love” one.

American sisters Julie and Fay, both adults and married, are together in Morocco for a girls’ getaway. Fay suggested it, in fact, insisted upon it. In Ouarzazate, she slips away on a mysterious errand. She leaves Julie a note explaining that she’s visiting a distant village, she cannot say why, and will be back in two days. But she doesn’t return. Julie vacillates between anger at Fay for having a hidden agenda for the trip and worrying herself sick. With no help from the US Consulate, and with the barest clues to go on, she sets out to find her sister.

In unraveling the reasons this book appealed to me so (aside from the confident, skillful, and evocative writing, which I don’t for a minute discount), I hit upon several.

First, the setting is somewhere a little mysterious, more exotic than, say, central London. It’s a place where there are unknown possibilities, where the outcome of situations is unpredictable (deftly exploited by the trailers for the new Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain movie, The Forgiven). I’ve visited Morocco twice myself and both times felt my senses overwhelmed by so much—so much strangeness, so much to look at, smell, and taste, so many new sounds. Even in a metaphorically far country, Ouarzazate is even farther, located on the opposite side of the Atlas Mountains from the more cosmopolitan cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. It’s back of beyond country, the gateway to the Sahara.

The setting teems with inherent dangers. The general ones that face a woman alone in Morocco’s southern and rural areas, where women are typically veiled and isolated. And the specific ones linked to Fay’s strange disappearance, as well as the bad advice Julie sometimes receives. Whom can she trust? The safeguards we take for granted—including social norms, charitable institutions, people we can ask for help—are simply not there. Unease operates at multiple levels.

Another source of the book’s appeal is the search for the sister itself. Looking for a missing sibling is a believable quest, one Julie is totally dedicated to. The story—her story—never loses its strong sense of mission.

Finally, there’s the complete unpredictability that’s part-and-parcel of any standalone thriller. For me, a good bit of a story’s tension is dissipated knowing protagonists will live to see another book. It takes the edge off the dangers they face. I know other readers are drawn to series—especially as they’ve become attached to or self-identified with a protagonist. Perhaps the attraction is partly because the tension is more manageable. In a one-off, anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Reading Lessons: Conversation

I recently read Gary Phillips’s One-Shot Harry, which I snagged with a successfully bid in the Authors United for Ukraine literary auction. Phillips is a Los Angeles-based Black author of twenty-two books, but this is the first I’ve read.

What most struck me about this book, set in 1963, was the dialog. Phillips’s characters speak in a remarkably engaging way. Yes, they’re Black and maybe their families originally were from the southern states, and some influences on their speech may be cultural. Having read some really boring dialog in my time (and written some), their talk was really fun.

My mother, born and raised in rural and small-town Texas, also spoke in a colorful way. She had a saying for everything. As a young person, I thought this way of speaking was much too countrified and worked hard to excise it from my own speech—going for bland, a bad choice. But, as I grow older, I find these long-forgotten words and idioms cropping up again. What do you call a baby or cat’s toy? A play-pretty.

Authors like to show their characters doing everyday things, perhaps in the hope that because going to the grocery store, putting in a load of laundry, and filling the tank with gas are tasks everyone does, readers can relate to them. But these quotidian activities are, let’s face it, mostly boring. What makes them interesting enough to put in a book is how the character feels about them and how they describe them. If Mercedes dreads the grocery store because one of the produce workers always manages to brush up against her, or if doing the laundry reminds her of the time the dye from a new red t-shirt turned all her husband’s underwear pink and he hit her for it, then it’s getting more interesting. What’s more, none of these tasks needs to be talked about in a ho-hum way.

Here’s an exchange as I might write it:
“I’m a substitute math teacher. But I’m working in the Bradley campaign more these days.”
“What’s math got to do with it?
“I look for patterns, where to find likely voters, based on their interests and affiliations.”
“You can figure all that out?”

Here’s how Phillips did it:
“I’m a substitute teacher. I teach algebra and geometry in high schools and at a couple of community colleges [note how the specifics add realism]. But I’m doing more of the Bradley kind of work these days.”
“How does the math work in that situation?”
“I look for the patterns to develop profiles. Frequency of voters in an area—break it down by those who attend church, got to PTA meetings and so on [more specifics]. It’s boring shop talk, but you asked.”
“No, I’m digging it [toss in some slang]. You break down how segments of the voters vote?”
“Exactly. Ultimately, what excites them to come out and vote. Now them cigar-smoking white fellas overseeing the state Democratic Party figure just running a negro candidate is enough to get colored people to the polls [her attitude toward the politicos]. Which admittedly is accurate to an extent.”

The effect of Phillips’s richer conversation is additive, not easily summed up in a specific example. But if your character thinks going to the gas station is going to use up too much of his cash and prevent him from taking his wife out for dinner, maybe he’d say more than “Going to the Sunoco.” Maybe he’d say, “Gotta fill up the damn tank again and turn over my Saturday night supper money to those profit-squeezing vampires at Rich Oil Company.”

Order One-Shot Harry from Amazon here.