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.

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Music to My Ears


by Kelli Stanley

First, I gotta thank my hostess, thriller author extraordinaire Michelle Gagnon, and the rest of the fiercely fabulous Kill Zone team.

So I admit it. I’m old enough to remember the days before the Sony Walkman, let alone the iPod. The days before music and entertainment because so personalized, so catering to both whim and instant gratification, that you waited around listening for “Jack and Diane” to play on the FM station. It usually did, in between the Go-Gos and Pat Benatar.

Of course, the irony with all this personal cocooning is that people now have an even greater need to socialize and share … but instead of playing a boom box, you can post an iTunes play list or even pretend to be a DJ on Blip.FM.

And, of course, if you write books, you can share what you listen to through your writing.

Quick poll for authors—raise your hand if you’re influenced by music when you write. Do you listen while you type? Does it set the mood, the tone, the pace for your scene? Do you channel Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho for your serial killer segments and switch to Bach for your upbeat ending?

This is one way to use music, and I’ve heard other authors claim that they like writing with the volume up. Me, I’ve never been able to hear my words and Gershwin at the same time, so I don’t actually listen when I write. But to sort of set the stage, to get in the mood … that I can do. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and the Great American Songbook, an affinity that served me well with my latest novel.

Y’ see, listening is particularly helpful when you’re trying to lose yourself in time. Because City of Dragons is set in 1940, I immersed myself in a lot of music from the era—and had to be very careful to not access something anachronistic. I wanted to hear what my characters did, and I was writing about a period in American culture when music was truly a mass medium of popular entertainment … and when our entertainment—thanks to radio drama—was more audio than visual.

The music was key to me feeling like I could capture the past. And then it became about character, too, about my protagonist reacting to that world, particularly the irony of achingly romantic big band swing juxtaposed to the atrocities of war.

So I found myself becoming immersed in the music, actually using it in the book. And I felt confident about being able to, since some writers I greatly admire—like George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen—reference music and lyrics in their works.

The rub, of course, is the permissions phase … something I didn’t know much about. But warning, all you Springsteen fans who want to include “The River” in your latest novel … the author is responsible for either acquiring permission or rewriting the scene.

In my case, I found out too late and had to rewrite certain scenes, retaining a line of lyric and hopefully the flow and rhythm and emotion of the original draft. But—like a DVD director’s cut—I was able to link up a City of Dragons playlist on my website, so that, whenever possible, you can listen to the music my characters do.

It’s a cool way of sharing not just what I like to listen to, but what became an intrinsic element of the book, and a kind of instant time machine back to February, 1940.

So … how do you respond to music in books? And what’s on your playlist today?

Kelli Stanley’s second novel, City of Dragons, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, and an Indie Next Book for February. Kelli’s debut novel, Nox Dormienda, won the Bruce Alexander Award and was nominated for a Macavity. She lives in San Francisco, and frequents old movie palaces, speakeasies and bookstores. You can find out more about her and her books at her website: http://www.kellistanley.com.




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Charmed Nearly to Death

Below: Harlan Coben hits me up for a blurb.
Kidding.

He knows I’d never blurb an Amherst grad…

I’ll say one thing, Bouchercon ’08 held the appropriate moniker. People sent to the hospital with food poisoning, people tumbling down flights of stairs, people consuming alcohol in levels roughly equivalent to those experienced at college frat parties (far be it for me to condemn that behavior, however, as anyone who saw me in the bar on Thursday night can attest).

Bouchercon ’08 was truly one for the record books. As has already been noted on various blogs and lists, the Jordans and Judy Bobalik did a phenomenal job of organizing something that makes herding cats look easy. Let’s call it the equivalent of herding parrots. And despite the few inevitable mishaps, it went off largely without a hitch. Here, then, are my belated comments on the experience…

The Panels: Wow, I ended up on some great panels. Those bribes really paid off. Booze and books (or something like that) with Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Liz Zelvin, Con Lehane, and the inimitable Ali Karim moderating, Gordon’s Gin in hand. Lively and lots of fun. I also loved the one on “Psycho Killers,” here I thought I was an expert but I learned some things (like the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Seriously. Ask Mark Billingham if you’re curious). My only complaint was that my fellow panelists were all far too witty and well-informed. I much prefer to be partnered with dullards, it makes me look so much better in comparison.

The Food: I might be alone in this (although I suspect Robert Gregory Brown would agree with me), but I could not seem to get a decent meal in Baltimore. Part of that might be due to the fact that I ate a fair portion of my meals at the hotel restaurant, Shulas. Never expect a good meal from anyplace bearing any relation to football (I should have learned from all those years I ate at Boomers in NYC.) Lots of salt, copious amounts of butter. I escaped relatively unscathed (although the girl who vomited on Alison Gaylin in Burkes came dangerously close to hitting me as well). But I was definitely a little disappointed in the cuisine: I don’t mind a mediocre entree, but I do mind paying $30 for it.

Baltimore: I didn’t see all that much of it, not having a rental car, but wow– the Harbor? Awesome. I quickly learned, however, that there was only one proper route back from the harbor to the hotel. Take the street running parallel to that one, and you were quickly in the midst of seedy bars and places named things like “The Jewel Box.” I might be wrong, but they didn’t appear to be selling jewelry. Though I’m a hard core fan of The Wire, stumbling on set is unnerving. I kept expecting Snoop to turn the corner with her nail gun.

Lee Child: The man throws the best parties. Do whatever you must to get invited, they’re amazing. And Lee is always a class act.

Harlan Coben: Next time you see him, tell him Amherst is a safety school. He loves it, I swear.

My Voice: Started out normal, went through a series of phases from Lauren Bacall to Kathleen Turner on two packs a day to Froggy from the Little Rascals. I’m still recovering.

It was incredible linking faces to all those familiar names from various groups and blogs (such as this one), and I love it when people come up and introduce themselves by saying, “I’m your Facebook friend.” How 21st century is that?

Anyway, I returned home as always with no voice, twenty extra pounds worth of books (no checking the bag on this leg of the journey), a few photos, and a miserable hangover from lack of sleep and general overconsumption of liquor and salt. Whew. Thank god I have a full year until Indianapolis, this time I start training early…

PS- Stay tuned: next week I’ll tell you all about my tour of the FBI Academy in Quantico, including an interesting tidbit I picked up about what tomato sauce resembles under a black light.

Louise Ure, under attack by a rabid fan. Note her calm demeanor, this woman is pure steel…

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Ghosts of Bouchercon Past


I’m heading back east this week for Bouchercon, the conference that is de rigeur for crime writers and fans. This year’s event takes place in Baltimore, burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, and there are a staggering number of people attending. Which got me thinking about my first experience, lo those many years ago…

Not really. I was one of the happy few who braved the cold (and, apparently, the Russians) for the conference in Anchorage, Alaska last year. The ringing refrain appeared to be, “This isn’t a normal Bouchercon, no one’s here!”
But it was my first, and having nothing to compare it to, I had a rip roaring good time. Sure, the panels weren’t necessarily packed, but how could you complain when sidewalk vendors sold reindeer sausages, there was a late night Karaoke bar directly across the street from the hotel, and at least two “police actions” occurred nightly within a three block radius? For better or worse Anchorage appeared closer to “Deadwood” than “Northern Exposure.” So I thought I’d take advantage of this post to reflect on the high- (and low-) lights of Bouchercon 2007, aka “Bearly Alive.”

-Wandering down the streets at night looking for the next publishing party that featured an open bar (which seemed to consume a good chunk of every evening,) we ran into a drag queen in full Wonder Woman regalia. Here in San Francisco, that would mark an ordinary stroll, but in Anchorage?! Kudos to her for braving the cold, those wrist bracelets couldn’t have been doing much to keep her warm.

-Brian Thornton bringing down the house with his rendition of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I’m starting a petition to get Brian on American Idol, he was a giant among ants that evening.

-Apparently the Anchorage zoning laws mandate that every block have ten bars, ten gift stores selling virtually identical souvenirs, and one run-down restaurant with the ubiquitous reindeer sausage. God help you if you need a pharmacy, although considering that number of assaults and stabbings that occurred during our stay there, a pharmacy would seem to be a valuable addition to downtown.

-Why was I one of the only people who didn’t manage to see a moose? To hear others tell it, they were tripping over them every time they left the hotel. I suspect they were confusing moose with drag queens in superhero attire.

-Alexandra Sokoloff, Jason Starr, and I badly mangling Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” What Brian Thornton did to elevate the art of Karaoke, we erased with a few verses. I blame a lethal combination of reindeer sausage and whiskey, which combined to convey the delusion that we, too, might be able to sing. We couldn’t, as it turned out. Seriously, it was grim.

-Best panel: the one with the drug sniffing dog chasing David Corbett out of the hall (that didn’t really happen, but wouldn’t it have been funnier if it had?)

-Best author 30 minute slot: Declan Hughes. There’s a man who puts on a show when he’s reading. And there was juggling at the beginning. A tough act to follow.

-2nd Best author 30 minute slot: Rumor had it that Laura Lippman took everyone who showed up for her session out for drinks. Classy. And again, tough act to follow (I’m raising this argument with my publisher to explain why I need a bigger advance next time. How else am I supposed to buy rounds?)

-Worst 30 minute author slot: mine. My flight arrived late, and I didn’t receive the programming schedule until breakfast the following morning. At which point I discovered that I had been enlisted to spend 30 minutes entertaining strangers, and I had to be there in five minutes. I killed five minutes reading the paper with them, them mumbled for the duration. Awful. I promise to do better this year.

-Lukas Ortiz, Alex Sokoloff, Jason Starr, and I managed to get completely lost on a bike ride that began as a three-hour tour of the shoreline and concluded with us pedaling onto the tarmac at the Ted Stevens International Airport. And still, no moose.

Like I said, a rip roaring good time. I can hardly wait to see what happens during “Charmed to Death 2008.” Baltimore is going to have a tough act to follow, at least in my book. Perhaps they should import some drag queens, and maybe a moose…

PS: if you’re attending the conference, here’s where you’ll be able to subject yourself to more of my non sequiturs:

10:30AM Thursday: Author Karaoke with fellow kill Zone authors Kathryn Lilley and Clare Langley-Hawthorne. We WILL NOT SING, this I promise you. We will discuss book blog tours. And we might juggle.

11:30AM Thursday, Int’l E: I CAN’T STAND UP FOR FALLING DOWN: Booze, hootch & firewater in crime fiction. Ali Karim(M), Ken Bruen, Michelle Gagnon, Con Lehane, Elizabeth Zelvin

11:30AM Saturday, Int’l D: PSYCHO KILLER: Why are we so fascinated by serial killers? Brian Lindmuth(M), Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon, Jonathan Hayes, Alan Jacobson

PPS: For truly brave souls…
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