Too Much of a Good Thing

scissors, blood, editing

If you read a novel like most people do, you try to picture the people, the scene, and the action as the story progresses, as if you were watching a movie. The details the author provides are, presumably, intended to facilitate not just the visualizing of the action, but your understanding of its importance. So more details are good, right? Not always. Details in and of themselves are not helpful; it’s their significance that matters.

A point-of-view character’s global state—physical, mental, emotional, and, at times, spiritual–changes as a story progresses. In novels where chapters alternate among different point-of-view characters, their “global state” helps readers differentiate among them. Yet, a moment-by-moment inventory of all these factors becomes tiresome. Worse is when authors pause the action in a tense scene or before a big reveal to give a rundown of a character’s feelings. If adequate groundwork has been laid, readers can guess how the character feels, anyway. Constantly interfering with the progress of the action makes readers stop caring—and reading.

Suppose a story provides a minutely detailed description of the appearance and state-of-mind of a man walking to a bus stop. And then suppose he’s hit by the bus and is only a walk-on in the story. Readers who followed the author’s lead and created a precise mental picture of a character they’ll never encounter again are justly annoyed. Still, the man did wear a mud-splattered overcoat with a missing button. Out of a lengthy description, those few details might be significant. Perhaps he was an inveterate jaywalker, which might be worth knowing, particularly when the bus driver goes to trial.

In other words, minimize the details that aren’t relevant to the story, and don’t merely strand readers on an island of facts. Here’s a good example:

“He was thirty-two years old, trim, a tough guy, six foot two, and, essentially, in your face. He was wearing one of his two-dozen identical black Armani suits, with one of this three-dozen identical navy button-downs, with one of his four-dozen thin black ties. . . . As for his hair, it was thick, the blackest black, and slicked-and-greased back like a Jersey guido.”

Every sentence raises questions. “A tough guy?” “In your face”—how so? What’s with the weird wardrobe? Is he a New Jersey guido? Questions like these keep readers reading. Which is what you want, and they do too.

(The excerpt is from William Baer’s entertaining new novel New Jersey Noir: Cape May.)

CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Resurrection on the Cutting-Room Floor

scissors, blood, editing
(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The first draft of one of my novels was 135,000 words—1.5 times what was remotely saleable. Since I didn’t plan on writing solely for myself, I couldn’t risk being thrown in the circular file before my doorstop even reach an editor’s desk! So I began to cut. In the many subsequent drafts and rewrites, I’ve always had one eye on shrinkability.

When my editor—the stellar Barb Goffman—suggested I beef the novel up in some areas, I knew we weren’t just talking addition, we were talking subtraction too. A number of characters were easy to jettison altogether, but a few that had to be trimmed still spoke to me. The three most promising I’ve turned into published short stories, something J. Todd Scott may have done with a character from High White Sun (a short story in, I believe, Mystery Tribune).

One character I didn’t want to lose is a murdered Roman priest who thinks his classic migraines are communications from God. Although his death remains in the novel, his backstory is repurposed in “The Penitent,” published last year in Bouchercon’s Passport to Murder.

A mafia fence launched his career by masterminding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston, a resume-enhancing crime unrelated to events in the novel. That story became “Above Suspicion,” appearing in the current issue (#26) of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Another priest, Anglican flavor this time, intervenes in an assault on my protagonist, no doubt saving her life. While this priest has only a minor role in the novel, his giddy nonstop talking charmed my beta- (or perhaps I should say gamma-) readers, and I worked him into a story—“What Saved Them”—published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

The transformation from novel excerpt to complete short story turned out not to be as easy as I expected, and each presented its own challenges. If you’re ever tempted to resurrect one of the darlings you’ve just killed, here’s what I learned.

Four Tips for Authors

1. If the characters involved in the short story remain in your novel (that is, if you haven’t gotten rid of them altogether), you need an eagle eye for continuity. You can’t have your character driving a Porsche in the story and relying on Uber in the story. More important, they cannot do anything in the story that would affect the action of the novel.

2. Originally, I’d engaged in vigorous head-hopping in the scene where the priest dies. I found I could park the novel’s point of view in the head of the assassin, yet write the short story from the priest’s perspective. Same events, two points of view. That was fun.

3. The story of the fence had a strong core from the get-go because of the extensive detail about the ISG theft. I wrote new backstory—waybackstory—about the character’s childhood in Fez. And of course more extensive setup and denouement.

4. OK, it’s fun, but is it a story? The Anglican priest was a character. His story had to be developed from scratch using the dialog I’d salvaged. But who was he? How would he behave? What changed for him? The rescue of the woman would plausibly have a long-term impact on him and it became a source of reflection, laying the groundwork for his subsequent actions.

Because you don’t have a blank page when you deal with bits excised from other works, there are many more than the customary limits on your degrees of authorial freedom. Whether the resurrected short stories prove useful in marketing or whether they are just good stories in their own right, you can feel good about creative recycling!

Head-Hopping: A Bad Thing

rabbit, fancy

Doesn’t matter how you dress it up, head-hopping is still bad (photo: Ross Little, creative commons license)

Fiction-writers struggle with the issue of point of view. Whose point of view should a story or part of a story be told from? What point of view will create the most impact for readers? Should it be first person (I/we), second (you, rarely used), or third (he/she/it). Should the whole story be told from one character’s point of view or several?

The mystery/crime novels I write tend to alternate points of view between scenes or chapters (victim-detective-victim-criminal-detective, etc.). And that’s what got me into trouble. I became so comfortable thinking in different heads, I forgot I shouldn’t combine them in one scene. Or I got to the point where I couldn’t tell when I did!

Jumping from the thoughts of one character to another within a scene is called “head-hopping,” and will earn an author severe black marks from prospective agents, editors, and publishers. Why is this important? Because it’s confusing for readers.

My editor was happy to point this out. I’m just thankful I couldn’t look into her head when she was marking up my manuscript. And here I thought I was p.o.v.-savvy (previous post)! I’m leading a discussion on point of view today, and here’s an example of head-hopping I developed for the group, taking one of my scenes and making it only a teensy bit worse head-hopping-wise than the original. I’ve underlined how you can tell whose head you’re in and inserted some explanations in italic.

      “Two men in Vatican maintenance uniforms and hardhats were setting up safety barriers marked “Do Not Cross” atop both sets of crypt stairs.
“What—?” Father Maratea looked up at them from the bottom of the steps. [Since we have his name, and, to him the others are the anonymous “two men,” reader will assume we are in Father Maratea’s head.]
“Good afternoon, Father.” The shorter of the two, a remarkably pale man, smiled broadly. “We’re here to repair the wiring under the crypt floor.” He spoke quickly, and turned serious. [Father Maratea could conceivably detect that the man turned serious, so this is still in his head, but getting iffy.] “Only a matter of time until—”
Father Maratea didn’t understand any of this, but he’d caught one unexpected word. “Fire? This building is stone. Stone doesn’t burn.” [definitely Maratea’s head]
“Sure, the parts we see are stone, but underneath there’s subflooring and sub-subflooring.” The man remembered another danger, and said, [oops! HOP!] “And, we have to do it today. We can’t expose hundreds of weekend tourists to the risk of a major combustion event, toxic fumes.”
The tall man nodded, impressed by Nic’s gift for invention. [oops! Hopped into the other man’s head.]
    AThey let Father Maratea think for about a half-minute [now you’re definitely in the thieves’ heads] before the first man glanced around and sniffed the air, as if a malodorous smoke might even then be curling up the crypt stairs. [could be either thief’s head or Maratea’s.] “The quicker we get started, the sooner we’re done.”
“Oh, all right,” the priest said, perplexed by the difficulties this posed. [the thieves might be able to detect that he is perplexed, so this gets only a caution.]
Father Maratea turned to them. “How long will this take?” His tone was peevish. Something about the pale man nagged at him, but the thought wouldn’t take shape. [Oops! HOP!!]

I’m sure my editor was tearing her hair out at the merry way I jumped around here. But now I’ve fixed all that and am moving smoothly ahead, no hops!