Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from http://www.sallyforth.com)

Fiction and reality

I have just returned from a trip to reality.

In my second novel, a main character is drugged and pushed off a Danube river boat. She ends up in a little town at the eastern edge of Austria called Hainburg an der Donau.

With my Internet resources, I was able to see a Google World view of the town, locate the hospital in it, observe the uniform of Austrian policemen, calculate the actual speed of the boat after it left Vienna for a trip to Budapest, view a plan of a boat similar to my fictional one. I knew the depth and temperature of water in late June, and I knew that a single screw (propeller) would most likely not drag an unconscious person through its blades. More than enough information to write a credible story, right?

A little over a week ago, my wife and I had dinner in VGruner Veltlinerienna with several friends from my former business life. Over a very nice glass Grüner Veitliner, I allowed as how I planned to ride the train to Hainburg the next day. Chuckles. Well, I said, part of my novel takes place … Outright laughter. “In Hainburg?” they asked, with the same inflection a Manhattanite would use to describe central North Dakota.

I mentioned that I had written ahead to the Tourist Bureau there (not-so-stifled laughter) and received a long German reply to my request to visit the police station. The Tourist Bureau had summed it up in four English words: “It is not possible.”

My friends Werner and Tina took pity on us and drove us to Hainburg the next day.

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg hospital

Hainburg hospital

The town was substantial, but definitely in the sticks, at least to my sophisticated city-dwelling friends. The hospital was far more substantial than I expected, and its design would not have allowed the story line as I had written it. The police department, the one which was “not possible” to see, produced a constable very like my fictional one and an interior design that made what I had written plausible.

I will make some revisions, but fiction is fiction. The lovely little town Hainburg an Der Donau with be portrayed, umm, a little inaccurately.

Best Mysteries/Thrillers — Fall and Winter Reading List

I am reading through a list of 15 36 48 books that I believe define the genre I’m writing in, Mystery/thriller.  I’ve attached my list as a separate page.

When I began writing, I didn’t choose a type of fiction or a genre. I just started  telling stories. To my surprise, I found I was writing what is now classified as a Thriller.

Trouble is, the Mystery (subcategory: Suspense, sub category: Thriller) world is huge, particularly since publishing houses discovered calling a book a thriller is a marketing advantage. In a thriller, Hero, frequently an ordinary person, Stack of booksdiscovers a big, bad problem, and we’re off.  My two novels, one complete, one almost so, run that way.

After a couple of years of research on my own (aka stumbling around), I ran into a lively discussion of fifteen great mystery writers at Minnesota Crime Wave. Energized, I made a list and amplified it with suggestions from my writers groups. The list includes mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Most mystery writers produce series (after all, when you’ve created discovered a good character, you have to let him or her live a little), so tried to find the single title in a series that best represents the author, with some outstanding help from the fine folks at the bookstore Once Upon a Crime and Karl Jorgenson, who reads widely and has encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. (See his reviews at Goodreads.)

Most of the authors on my list are famous, established writers.  I’ve added a few less famous writers whose works I’ve admired, including books from members of writers groups I’m in, Tim Mahoney (gangster-era noir) and Carl Brookins (several mystery series).  I did not include mystery categories distant from adult thrillers. That means I left out some fine works of writing group members. The cozy mysteries from Monica Ferris aren’t on the list, nor is Susan Runholt’s YA story, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia. Also missing are Karl Jorgenson’s (oops, John Sandfraud’s) send-up of John Sandford (a short novella) and Kara Jorges’ mostly romance novels. (There’s a fine caper mystery coming soon.)

I’m halfway through my list.  Trouble is, it keeps growing.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

Rewrite

GorillaI’m learning the wisdom in the writerly saying, “You never finish a novel, you just send it off when there’s no time left to rewrite.”

I’m in my eighth or ninth rewrite of Hack the Yak, still finding words to change, emotions to outline better, little plot quirks.  You know the old phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?  I’m afraid I may be in the ‘If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway’ phase of writing this novel.

Oops … an ellipsis where there should be an em dash.

Oh, well.  Per aspera ad astra.

The Blasted Backstory

I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.

She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”

Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?

There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …

stoploss insurance

Quieting the Mind, Digital Flotsam and the Beach

I had my knee scoped back in January, and my plot for Skins and Bone went to hell. At the time, I didn’t associate the two. In fact, I didn’t figure it all out until the knee improved and I got to the beach. Where I could walk. Where I did not have to check my e-mail, look at Twitter, get drawn into the abyss of looking at YouTube videos or bathe in the statistics the elliptical trainer spits out (320 calories <blip> 134 bpm <blip> 18 minutes left <blip>).

Beach walkingWalking on the beach (I race walk, look funny and sweat) allows me to quiet my mind and speculate on plot. The current novel is a thriller, so plot’s important, but I am not one to write an outline and stick to it. My characters don’t always follow outlines very well … they’re human, after all. Instead, I float ideas, then let the characters marinate in them.

I guess I just relearned what wise men always knew: Quiet the mind to let creativity flow.

With a Little Help From My Friends

Join a writing group, they said when I was starting out.

I was skeptical.

Now, here I am a year and a half into writing groups.  My friend Karl, himself an exciting writer, has helped me restructure the beginning of my first novel and suggested an important twist that will carry into my second.  Miranda, an editor, has ever-so-nicely restructured my query letter to be shorter and better.

Those are the obvious and wonderful advantages.  The more subtle part is that I have heard many different voices speaking from different points of view … short story, YA, romance, science fiction. I have sampled good (and, as valuable, bad) examples of the craft of writing.  I have seen other people’s characters jump off the page.  I have become a better writer with a lot of help from my friends.