What This Old Dog LearnedFrom Teaching New Writers

By P.J. Parrish

You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t mean the one above. That’s my dog Bailey. She’s as smart as a whip, but at fourteen, she’s not about to let me balance a Wishbone on her nose. I am talking about myself here. Let me first stipulate that I am an “old dog” (way past AARP induction age and been published now since 1985). Yet I am definitely still learning new tricks.

This point was driven home to me last week when my sister Kelly and I were up in Michigan teaching a two-day fiction writing workshop at Saturn Booksellers. It was pretty intense and we worked our charges hard, giving them Powerpoints on the twin pillars of plot and character, and on the finer points of transitions, pacing, theme and voice, rewriting, and what “show vs tell” really means.

But we also forced them to actually write, giving them quick exercises on a host of topics. We would show them a photograph and give them the opening line. Then they had five minutes to write to the assignment.  I was surprised at the quality of the short pieces they produced. I think they were, too.

Almost all of them, they admitted, felt bogged down and somewhat defeated by their works in progress — all for different reasons. But there was something liberating about doing those short-burst exercises that recharged their confidence and got their mental muscles moving again. (For some reason, this photo below, for the dialogue exercise, really inspired some great offbeat writing. Go figure!)

We also offered to critique the first ten pages of their manuscripts. There was some good stuff in their submissions and the mistakes tended to be the usual ones of craft that we here at The Kill Zone talk about all the time. But it was the big-picture issues that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Because even after ten years of teaching, after publishing twenty novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories, this old dog is still learning — from my students.

Here are my top big picture points from our Michigan workshop.

Chose your entry point carefully


Where do you begin your story? This is, to my mind, maybe the most important choice we make as writers and one I struggled with mightily on my WIP. I changed my opening five times before I finally hit upon the right moment to begin my tale. It’s like those astronauts in “Apollo 13”: You come in too late you burn up. If you come in too shallow you skim off the atmosphere and fly off into space. Many folks pick a point too early and the reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. This is why prologues usually fail; it’s just the writer clearing his throat or doing a backstory dump. Here’s what agent Dan Lazar hates to see: “Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”  But if you come in too late, you create confusion for the reader aka “coming out of a coma syndrome.” (ie where am I? Who is that? What the heck is going on?”)

Things to consider when picking your entry point: Early on, tell us who the protag is and make us care about her. Create a conflict for the protag in the opening pages. Establish the stakes. And make the opening scene compelling enough that we must read on. But don’t get too clever. Here’s Dan Lazar again: “A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”

Don’t try too hard


Nothing’s more cringe-inducing than a writer who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing. Whether it’s lame humor, groddy sex scenes, overly didactic themes, ten-dollar vocabulary, or cutesy attempts to be different (“Look, Ma! No punctuation!”), writing that calls attention to itself is just…bad writing. Yes, we all admire inventive writing, but there’s only one George Saunders. You are not him. Neither am I, alas. Remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story. This is something, my friends, that I need to have tattooed on my forehead.

Read. Read. Read some more


Our students, who ranged from a 17-year-old writing vampire YA to a great-grandfather writing a WWII novel, were all pretty good on this account. But we stressed to them that they have to read with an analytical eye, dissecting how other writers spin their magic. I have gotten lazy on this account lately, telling myself that I just don’t have time to read. But up in the Michigan woods, I read two terrific books — Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Blue Hour by T. Jefferson Parker. From Koontz I re-learned  the importance of rich characterization and how to handle an unreliable narrator. (Which I am grappling with). From Parker, I got a great lesson in how to handle dual protagonists. If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Don’t be afraid


One of the hardest things for our students was exposing themselves and their writing. This is why we made them write in class and share. Fear is a common affliction among writers. I’m not immune; I’m afraid I don’t have the chops to pull off my WIP story. For the yet-unpublished, the fears are more basic. They are afraid of scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, rejection — you fill in the blank. I know folks who have slaved for years over their books (aka The Thing That Has Eaten Up Ten Years of my Life) who have never worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Yes, we get personal gratification from the process. But the purpose of writing is communication. You have to put it — and yourself — out there.

Make your story compel someone to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel.” If you do that, well, then you can relax a little. Because you’ll know then that you really are a writer. Peace out. Woof.

0

Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
     Uni-sex
     Low-fat
     Karaoke
     Over-the-top
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
    Hooches
    Mixers
    Breathers
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.


Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.

Commas

Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:


“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“Why?”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

0