Walter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”
He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”
Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.
Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”
He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.
Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.
In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.
She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.
When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.
As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.
While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”
Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.
Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.
Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?
We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimageof Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”
To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.
Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.
Ricardo Fayet, one of the founders of Reedsy (the service that links authors with top-quality expertise in many areas of manuscript development and publication) recently wrote a BookBub post with the enticing title, “12 Common Writing Errors Even Bestselling Authors Make.” Since I’m sure I make them all, I read it carefully.
Fayet based his list on feedback from the developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders Reedsy employs, and the items on it fall into three broad categories: narrative problems, creating confusion, and grammar/punctuation. The grammar/punctuation problems are the ones we’d expect, and the sources of confusion can be boiled down to point-of-view problems (sound of gnashing teeth—mine!) and when writers omit relevant information, or more likely, when they include it in draft #1, but lose it somehow in draft #12.
“Show, Don’t Tell” Again
If only someone would show me how to do that and quit telling me! Sure, we know that creating scenes and dialog makes the action of a story more meaningful for readers. Yet this SDT issue keeps coming up. In my writer’s group, “I want to see this in a scene” is practically a mantra.
At the same time, dialog that goes nowhere is deadly; scenes that don’t contribute much are a waste of energy. A pithy summary can move a story forward quickly—say, when we need to close a gap of years or introduce a new setting or character. That’s information that changes the chessboard. It has to be just as relevant and interesting as a scene. A crime novel I read recently gave a two-page information dump, on cue, each time a new character was introduced. Bad enough, but these “back stories” were hackneyed, full of predictable details. Cardboard descriptions of cardboard characters. Better to skip it.
Overdescribing and Overexplaining
Can we show too much? Yes, if we fall prey to overdescribing. No point in having a character “nod her head”; she can just nod. No point in having a character get out of his chair, walk to the window, look out, then turn and say . . . . Let him just “look out the window and say.” Labored locutions are common in first drafts, because we’re visualizing the action of a story and setting it on the page. We need to be attuned to them, though, so we delete them later. We need to trust that readers understand people don’t leave the room without getting out of their chair first (though I can imagine situations where that extra information would be needed). More about overexplaining here.
Showing, not telling and avoiding over-explaining help give a story a strong opening. Elmore Leonard famously advises never to start a story with the weather. Yet a surprising number of books begin with something like “It was a bright, sunny day. Hot for May.” I yawn, unless May is one of the characters. It isn’t weather per se, it’s the banal we need to avoid.
I tend to write a couple of opening paragraphs—like I’m warming up—before getting to the story’s action. My critique group advises me to delete them, and I do. They must have read Chekhov, who said: “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” My flaw isn’t exactly lying, it’s more forecasting the direction of a story before even I know what that will be.
Check out this opener from Mick Herron’s MI5 thriller, Slow Horses: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses”; and Deon Meyer’s post-apocalyptic adventure tale, Fever: “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why.” Starters like those make readers keep going.
Regarding Chekhov’s point about endings, we should leave it to “you, dear reader” to form a conclusion. Although I liked Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, the last twenty pages were a sort of rambling essay on the book’s meaning, as best I could figure them out. To me, they were a turn-off and unnecessary. If I didn’t get it after reading 750 pages, I wasn’t going to.
Unbelievable! Please, no
Fayet says Reedsy editors find frequent examples of “unbelievable conflicts.” I wonder sometimes why a protagonist doesn’t just pick up the phone and clear up the whole matter. Though keeping secrets is a common source of story conflict and tension, we need to show (not tell) why doing so is important to this character in this situation. Clichéd actions are as unsatisfactory as clichéd dialog.
Thrillers and family dramas are equally prey to preposterous situations. I suspect this holds true for the romance genre, as well, judging these books by their covers. We can show all we want, but if what we’re showing is unconvincing, our millions of readers are lost.
On the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”
The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.
So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).
When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.
You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.
The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.
The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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!