Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Half my life’s in books, written pages.
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it’s true, oh
All the things come back to you…
Dream on!
– Aerosmith, “Dream On”

We’ve had several discussions about dreams here at TKZ. I believe the consensus rule of thumb (or, in deference to Brother Gilstrap, guideline of thumb) is never open with a dream. As Les Edgerton states in his excellent book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books):

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Ah, remember the days of SASEs and paper manuscripts?

The only exception is when you alert the reader in the first sentence that it’s a dream, as in Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier). Even so, I would counsel against the dream-sequence opening.

As for a dream later in the book, I recommend doing it only once and only for the specific purpose of revealing the character’s emotions at an intense time. Dean Koontz does this in Chapter 15 of The City:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain … (etc.)

The exception to this advice is when dreaming is an integral part of the plot. See, for example, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Recently, I discovered another way to use a dream. It’s a perfect device for a mirror moment. Those of you who’ve read the book know there are two types of mirror moments that can occur in the center of the novel.

One moment is when the character has to look at himself, as in a “mirror” (sometimes literally) and reflect on who he is, inside. Will he change for the better? The rest of the novel is about whether a fundamental transformation takes place (as it does in, e.g., Casablanca).

The other type of moment is when the character looks at her situation and realizes she’s probably going to die. The odds are just too great. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games. In the exact middle she assesses her situation and says to herself, This is an okay place to die. The story question for such a moment becomes will the character gain the strength and smarts to fight and win against the odds?

Here’s today’s tip: Either of those moments can be given to us through a dream.

I was re-reading John D. MacDonald’s final Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In this one McGee is dispatched to find a stolen boat. When he does, he discovers a grisly scene—three horribly murdered bodies. A bit later someone tries to kill McGee. Then there’s another attempt on his life. Why? McGee has no idea, except that it must have something to do with what happened on that boat. He undertakes a laborious investigation to find the answer. But he keeps running into a wall. Thus, in the middle of the book:

The cold had awakened me from a dream. I had been in a poker game at an oval table, with the center green-shaded light hung so low I could not make out the faces of the men at the table. They all wore dark clothing. The game was five-card draw, jacks or better to open. They were red Bicycle cards. Every time I picked up my five cards, I found the faces absolutely blank. Just white paper. I wanted to complain about this, but for some reason I was reluctant. I threw each hand in, blank faces up, hoping they would notice. All the rest of the cards were normal. I could see that each time a winner exposed his hand. There was a lot of betting, all in silence. A lot of money. And then I picked up one hand and found they were real cards. I did not sort them. I never sort poker hands or bridge hands. The act gives too much away to an observant opponent. I had three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds. In the dream I did not think this odd. They were waiting for me to bet when the cold woke me up. In the dream I had been shivering with the tension of having a good hand. The shivering was real. 

Why did he dream this? McGee knows there are people out there to kill him, but cannot figure out who (he can’t see the faces of the other players). He has talked to many potential witnesses, to no avail (blank cards). The knowledge he does have may be misleading (like having three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds in a poker hand). The shivering in the dream is uncertainty, brought into the real world.

It seems to me a perfect way to show us “the odds are too great” type of mirror moment. A dream can easily be used to show the first kind, the “is this who I really am?” type.

To make it work, the dream should have those bizarre details we get in dreams—like blank playing cards which suddenly become cards of the same type. Of course, the symbols should relate somehow to what’s going on in the story.

A good dream sequence works emotionally on the reader. In some cases it may cause the reader to pause and ponder, trying to figure it out. Either outcome is a good one, as it gets the reader more deeply invested in the story—which is what every writer dreams of, yes?

What Would A Famous Writer Tell You?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a fun little exercise I’ve used from time to time to jumpstart the ol’ creative battery. It only takes about 90 seconds. 

Begin by finding a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted. Sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor. Relax. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. 

Now imagine that you are walking through a beautiful meadow. Take time to smell the flowers. (Note: there are no cows in this meadow.) 

Up ahead you see a cabin with a bit of smoke curling out of the chimney. Vividly imagine this cabin. Notice the materials and the colors. Smell the smoke. 

You walk up to the door and find it slightly open. You step into the cabin and see a famous writer—or one of your personal favorites—tapping away at a keyboard. (Note: The writer can be deceased, but try not to pre-choose who it is. Let your right brain hop in and provide the answer.)

The writer looks at you, slightly annoyed at being interrupted, and you tell said writer that you have come for one piece of writing advice that you desperately need. The writer, who is somehow familiar with your work, thinks for a moment, and says, “_______.”

Here’s what happened when I did this a few days ago. The writer was John D. MacDonald. He was writing on an electric typewriter with his ever-present pipe in his mouth. 

He finished typing a sentence and looked at me.

I said, “Sorry to interrupt, but I really need a piece of advice for my writing. Would you mind?”

MacDonald took a couple of thoughtful puffs, then said, “Work harder on your sentences.”

I wanted to pull up a chair and ask him to elaborate. But he waved me off. “I have to get back to work,” he said and started typing again. 

I walked back through the meadow, pondering his advice. I remembered something he once said about his own style. He wanted it to have “a bit of unobtrusive poetry.”

The key word is unobtrusive. He didn’t want readers noticing the poetry, just feeling it as it served the story. 

I had to admit I wasn’t taking enough time lately to think about my sentences. I determined to do more light editing after I’ve written a scene to see if I can add just a touch of unobtrusive poetry. I started to think about how. I can:

  • search for more active verbs.
  • freshen an adjective.
  • come up with a metaphor.
  • put the strongest part of the sentence at the end. For example, instead of He was holding a gun when he came through the door I can arrange it this way: He came through the door holding a gun.

You can do this exercise whenever you need some inspiration. In the past I’ve received advice from Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler.

Then I let them get back to work. 

Care to try it? Don’t make something up on the spot. You want your subconscious to participate. Follow the steps for at least a minute and a half. 

Who did you find in the cabin, and what did that writer tell you? What will you do with the advice?

The Eyes Have It

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

She put one hand behind her and flipped the snap of her halter and tossed it to the floor, staring at him with eyes of liquid smoke in which there was a curious and great disinterest.From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Eyes. Windows to the soul. “Traitors of the heart,” Thomas Wyatt put it. He would know. He was accused of ruffling the sheets with Anne Boleyn and got to write his poems in the Tower.

So yes, eyes are important. We look people in the eye when we meet them. (If someone doesn’t look at your eyes when they meet you, watch your back!)

It’s the same with characters, isn’t it? The reader forms a picture of a character—eyes included—whether you choose to describe them or not.

So the first decision you make is whether to include orb details at all. My own preference is to describe them for major and strong secondary characters. Most minor characters and “spear carriers” (those little one-offs needed for a scene, like a waiter or doorman) usually don’t need them.

Once we decide to describe the eyes, we usually first think of color. Something along the lines of She had blue eyes and wore a yellow dress. Functional but not memorable. More lush is Margaret Mithcell’s famous opening to Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocracy of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends.

(Note: those green peepers were so important to fans of the book that when blue-eyed Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett for the movie, there was an uproar. Producer David O. Selznick took care of that by having yellow lights trained on Leigh’s face in closeups, turning blue to green.)

You can add to the color by including the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, as in Richard Prather’s noir story “The Double Take”—

Her eyes were an incredibly light electric blue—shooting sparks at me.

Similar is the description of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs:

Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

David Copperfield describes the first time he saw the face of Uriah Heep:

It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.

While color is our natural default when describing eyes, it’s not a requirement. A popular alternative is metaphor.

His eyes were wet wounded rugs.
(Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan)

He hadn’t shaved for four or five days. His nose was pinched. And his eyes were like holes poked in a snowbank. (The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler)

I’ve been in front of X-ray machines that didn’t get as close to the bone as that woman’s eyes. (The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe)

She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (The High Window by Raymond Chandler)

Richard Matheson’s famous Sci-Fi story “Lover When You’re Near Me” takes place in the distant future on a colonized planet inhabited by creatures called Gnees.

He sat there, momentarily reflecting on her eyes. They were huge eyes, covering a full third of her face; like big glass saucers with dark cup rings for pupils. And they were moist; bowls of liquid.

I’m saving the best for last. Here is an eye description I’ve never forgotten, so perfectly did it capture a character. It’s from Darker Than Amber by the great John D. MacDonald:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

The eyes have it—perhaps more than any other descriptive element they can give us a sense of who the character is and what mysteries dwell within. Use color, metaphor, and/or the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, and your fiction will be looking good.

How do you go about describing the eyes of your characters?

Writing Hardboiled Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Would there be a Mike Romeo without Race Williams?

Scholars are pretty much in agreement that the first—and for a couple of decades the most popular—hardboiled series character came from the typewriter of the prolific pulp writer Carroll John Daly. His PI, Race Williams, appeared in over 70 stories and 8 novels, up until Daly’s death in 1958.

Today Race and Daly are all but forgotten, having been overshadowed by writers like Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald. I think this is a mistake. The Race Williams stories, though not on par with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Continental Op, are still a fun, juicy read—exactly what America was hankering for during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

Race Williams made his debut in the December 1922 issue of Black Mask. He became the prototype of the hardboiled private eye, with these features:

  • First-person narration, with attitude
  • Lots of action
  • Cynicism
  • Dangerous dames (the femme fatale)
  • A dearth of sentimentality
  • Violence to end things, usually from a gat

It’s clear that Daly’s style and popularity influenced Chandler, who took the PI story to its heights. And because of Chandler we’ve had a long line of popular PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Mickey Spillane, creator of arguably the hardest of the hardboileds (Mike Hammer), and at one time the bestselling author in the world, said Race Williams was his inspiration. In fact, in the mid 1950s he wrote a fan letter to Daly, who was living in obscurity in California. The letter said, in part:

Right now I’m sitting on the top of the heap with my Mike Hammer series, but though the character is original, his personality certainly isn’t. Sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever read some of the statements I’ve released when they ask me who I model my writing after. Maybe you know already. Mike and the Race Williams of the middle thirties could be twins.

Yours was the first and only style of writing that ever influenced me in any way. Race was the model for Mike; and I can’t say more in this case than imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. The public in accepting my books were in reality accepting the kind of work you have done.

Side note: this effusive praise got into the hands of Daly’s agent, who began a lawsuit against Spillane for plagiarism! When Daly found out he was incensed, and fired her. He was actually delighted with Spillane’s letter because it was the first fan letter he’d had in 25 years.

Speaking of Spillane, and his lifetime sales of around 225 million books, what explains the popularity of Mike Hammer? According to Prof. David Schmid in The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, the factors are:

  • Hammer’s absolute conviction about matters of good and evil
  • the way he keeps his promises
  • his brutally effective approach to problems and challenges
  • his impatience with the system
  • his fondness for vigilante justice

Most of these factors are baked into my own Mike Romeo series. To them I’ve added some unique elements, which is a key to writing any current hardboiled hero. You want to pay homage to the past, but you also have to make it feel new and fresh.

I look back and see a clear line of influence:

Carroll John Daly >> Raymond Chandler >> Mickey Spillane >> John D. MacDonald >> Mike Romeo

So the question of the day is: can you discern a line of influence in your own writing? How far back does it go?

The Period is Your Friend

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Image by David Frampton from Pixabay

It’s a First-Page Critique bonanza here at TKZ. This one was submitted as a thriller. See you on the other side of the waters.

Turbulent Waters

In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion
Characterized by chaotic changes in pressure.

Jake Burton knew next-to-nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey, and he knew even more about the fine art of negotiation with thirsty men. 

“I dunno, Jake. State law says every boat’s gotta have a certified captain and a licensed and bonded mechanic aboard. Fines are high if the Coast Guard catches you.”

“Nobody’s going to catch me—you said it yourself, the engine in that boat is running smooth, and the trip only lasts four hours. You’ll be back on board for the afternoon tour.” Jake pressed the knuckle of his thumb against his upper lip to stop an itch, then pulled a fifty from his wallet, slapped the worn leather shut, and handed the bill to the other man. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.” 

The mechanic took the bill and stuffed it into the pocket of his oil-stained coveralls. He scratched his head. “I’m just not sure. I could lose my job—”

“Okay, look, here’s another twenty. Honest, that’s all I’ve got. You’ve officially cleaned me out.” He pulled a lone bill and stood for a moment holding the empty wallet wide in illustration. “But, I do have a little something else you might like.” 

The man took the bill, pushed it into his pocket with the fifty. “What’s that?”

Jake pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “See that blue Ford pickup in the lot? Well, there’s a brand-new bottle of Crown Royal still in the box under the passenger’s seat. I could toss that in to sweeten the pie.” 

The mechanic shielded his eyes against the bright morning sunlight and looked across the marina parking lot. “You mean that old beater?”

Jake nodded and tilted his head. “Deal?”

The mechanic shifted from one foot to the other, pulled the lobe of his left ear, and sighed. “Yeah, okay, deal. Just make sure you bring my box back the minute you get off the boat. And don’t lose any of my tools overboard.” Without another word, shuffled off to the blue truck, the purple box, purple bag, and golden liquid.

Jake dug through the contents of the borrowed toolbox, but was interrupted by the threatening notes of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—the ring tone he’d chosen for his ex-wife’s number.

***

JSB: On a macro level, I like this scene. It’s active (dialogue is always an action) and there’s a disturbance—a criminal enterprise is afoot and an angry ex-wife is calling! I certainly would turn the page to find out what she has to say, and what Jake’s boat trip is all about. I get a Florida-noir vibe from this, which is John D. MacDonald territory. I’m interested.

Now let’s see if we can’t do some editing which will ratchet up that interest for the reader. Beginning with your epigraph.

You probably know that an epigraph normally goes on its own page. That’s what I’d advise here, as it gets in the way of the active opening. Also, the way you have it makes it look like lines from a poem (the capital C in Characterized). Surely it’s not, unless it’s the worst poem ever written. So why is it broken up that way? It should be: In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion, characterized by chaotic changes in pressure.

Further, an epigraph always requires a source. Thus:

In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion, characterized by chaotic changes in pressure. — Diesel Maintenance For Dummies

A good epigraph should entice the reader, raising the question What does this have to do with the plot? and somehow preview the tone of the story.

Thus, I actually like this quote because it does those things, especially the last part, chaotic changes in pressure. Two good things in a thriller. Just put it on a stand-alone page and tell us where the quote comes from.

On to the first line.

Jake Burton knew next-to-nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey, and he knew even more about the fine art of negotiation with thirsty men. 

An often overlooked aspect of the craft of fiction is the shaping of sentences for greater effect. I’ll start off with this tip: The period is your friend! Use it like voting in Chicago: early and often.

This is especially important in thrillers, because you want the prose to pack a punch. One sharp jab or left hook is better than three glancing blows. I feel you opening line  is like the latter—it’s three sentences strung together. That’s a lot of work for the reader. Yes, there will be times when you want to use a more complex sentence structure, but I’d advise you not to do it off the bat.

And consider another aspect of the effective sentence: the right word to end with. You should always end with the most potent word or phrase, for the obvious reason that it will more forcefully compel the reader to keep reading.

Here’s a suggested edit:

Jake Burton knew next to nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey. 

Whiskey is a strong word to end on. It’s got a good sound. It also raises a mystery in the reader’s mind: How is Jake going to entice this mechanic, and why? Leave it there. Lose the part about negotiation. That’s telling us what we’re about to see. Let the action of the scene do the work.

Notice also that I removed the hyphens from next to nothing. You don’t use hyphens to connect words unless they are being used as an adjective, e.g., Florida-noir vibe; minority-owned business.

So get in the habit of looking for alternative sentence endings. I wouldn’t do this while you’re actually writing, because you want to be in flow. That’s why I like to edit my previous day’s work before I start in again. It’s the best time for me to look at my sentences.

Now, after that first line, which is in Jake’s POV, the next action (and remember, dialogue is action) should be from Jake. Having the mechanic talk first is a slight jolt to our expectations. Not fatal, but it does require a bit of readjustment as we read. Instead, you can simply reshuffle some of the dialogue. I’ll do a little of it to show you what I mean:

Jake Burton knew next to nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey. 

“See that blue Ford pickup in the lot?” Jake said. “There’s a brand-new bottle of Crown Royal still in the box under the passenger’s seat. I could toss that in to sweeten the pie.”

The mechanic shielded his eyes against the bright morning sunlight and looked across the marina parking lot. “You mean that old beater?”

“Deal?”

“I dunno, Jake. State law says every boat’s gotta have a certified captain and a licensed and bonded mechanic aboard. Fines are high if the Coast Guard catches you.”

“Nobody’s going to catch me. You said it yourself, the engine in that boat is running smooth, and the trip only lasts four hours. You’ll be back on board for the afternoon tour.”

Notice a few edits. I put in said as a dialogue attribution. You don’t have any in this entire page. I fear you may be falling for the It’s more skillful and literary never to use any dialogue attributions at all trap. It’s a trap because you end up using a lot of innocuous action beats to indicate who’s speaking. Like Jake nodded and tilted his head (which is something I have trouble picturing). Every time you do that the reader has to do a little “work” to form a picture. They’re also subconsciously wanting to know the significance of it. If it’s only to clue us in to who’s talking, that creates an unneeded burden for the reader.

I once read a novel by a friend who had boasted to me about not using a single said. About halfway through the book, I kept wondering why I felt tired reading it. Like it was a bit of a slog (not a good thing for a thriller). That’s when it hit me. Instead of said I was getting a lot of pulled his earlobe and tapped the desk with a pencil and crossed his legs. None of those things had any significance to the story. They were just substitutes for said. The pictures were wearing me out.

The beauty of said is that it does its job almost invisibly and then politely gets out of the way. It doesn’t require any reader effort. Use action beats on occasion for variety, yes. But make sure they reveal something relevant, like the character’s emotion:

Danny spit out his coffee. “You did what?”

Here’s another sentence that takes some effort: Jake pressed the knuckle of his thumb against his upper lip to stop an itch, then pulled a fifty from his wallet, slapped the worn leather shut, and handed the bill to the other man.

Yeesh, that’s four actions in a single, run-on sentence. Is it really crucial for us to know that Jake suppressed an itch? Or that he slapped his wallet shut? Maybe this pays off later, but if not I don’t see any point. Call in your friend, the period, once again:

Jake pulled a fifty from his wallet. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.”

The mechanic looked at Ulysses S. Grant. “I could lose my job—”

I took out the bit where the mechanic stuffs the bill in his pocket, because if he’s thinking he could lose his job, he wouldn’t accept the deal yet. I do, however, I like the detail of the oil-stained coveralls, as it adds to characterization. How about this:

Jake pulled a fifty from his wallet. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.”

The mechanic looked at Ulysses S. Grant. “I could lose my job.”

Jake stuffed the bill in the pocket of the mechanic’s oil-stained coveralls. He pulled a last bill from his wallet. “Here’s another twenty.” [Etc.]

I hope you see the value of the period, and punchier sentences. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use variety. There’s no rule. Just listen to the sound and see if you can’t break up a longer sentence into two shorter ones. And end with a strong word or phrase.

Speaking of that variety, I like the last line, for it uses my beloved em dash. But I think there’s a stronger way to end it: 

Jake dug through the contents of the borrowed toolbox, but was interrupted by the threatening notes of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—the ring tone he’d chosen for his ex-wife.

Since you tell us it’s a “ring tone” we don’t need the added bit about this being her number. And ex-wife is a snappier way to end the sentence. You might even experiment with simply ex, which everyone understands. How to choose? Say it out loud a few times, and also (this is the key): how would your character say it? You want your narrative sentences to sound as much like the POV character as possible.

The difference your re-worked sentences make will be the difference between a good read and a great one—and it’s great reads that make a career.

Again, I like this setup. I’m interested in hearing what Jake’s ex-wife has to say, and what sort of caper he has in mind with the boat. With some editing, you can turn my interest into page-turning compulsion.

And now for a snappy way to end my critique: The End.

Comments welcome.

The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

Writing In Medias Res

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you regularly read books and articles on the craft of fiction you’ll often come across the term in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” (As opposed to writing in puris naturalibus, or “stark naked,” about which I have no advice.)

Many times the context in which in medias res is used is the all-important opening chapter. As you all well know, here at TKZ we’re big on helping writers get out of the gate grabbingly (I love making up words. And BTW, you can study past examples here.)

My own formulation of in medias res is act first, explain later. You don’t need a lot of exposition up front. Most authors, knowing their story world and characters’ backgrounds, think the reader also has to have a bunch of that info from the get-go in order to be fully engaged. Wrong. Readers will happily wait a long time for those essentials if what’s happening in front of them is tense, exciting, compelling, mysterious, active, or otherwise interesting.

Here’s an example from one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, A Purple Place For Dying. The opening paragraph:

She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.

That’s in medias res. We have some unanswered questions: Who is She? Why is she driving so fast on a gravel road when death is just a few feet to the left? What is McGee doing in that car?

Do you want to read on to find out? I do.

“What a stinking nuisance,” Mona Yeoman said.

Okay, at least now we have a name.

The cooling car made tinkling sounds. A noisy bird laughed at us. A lizard sped through the broken rock.

“End of the line?”

“Goodness, no. We can walk it from here. It’s a half-mile, I guess. I haven’t been up here in ever so long.”

“How about my gear?”

“It didn’t seem to me you had very much. I guess you might as well bring it along, Mr. McGee. Perhaps you might be able to roll enough of this rock over the edge so you can get the jeep by. Or I can send some men to do it.”

“If we’re going to keep this as quiet as possible, I better give it a try.”

Still more questions. What’s this about a jeep? Why does she have the ability to send “some men”? Most of all, why do they have to keep things as quiet as possible?

It is not until the bottom of page two that MacDonald begins to fill in some blanks:

She had met me at noon at an airport fifty miles away, quite a distance from her home base. She said she had a place I could stay, a very hidden place, and we could do all our talking after we got there. Ever since meeting her I had been trying to figure her out.

So have we! Which is the point. MacDonald dangles little bits for us to chew on, just enough to whet our appetite for more. Which is why we keep reading.

Try this: Make a copy of your opening chapter and strikethrough all exposition and backstory. Cut any necessary descriptions to one line. See if that edited scene doesn’t move better. If you feel you need some essential exposition or backstory, limit yourself to three sentences, either all at once or spaced out.

Also: Try pretending Chapter Two is your opening chapter. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In media res can also be used in any chapter opening, to quicken the pace. Simply give us the action before you give us the setting.

Suppose we have a scene in a judge’s chambers between a young lawyer from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and an angry judge. Let’s use first-person, with the lawyer as the POV character.

The next morning I was in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covering one wall. Judge Crotchetti was standing behind his swivel chair. On the wall above him, an oil-on-canvas Oliver Wendell Holmes glared at me.

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

To quicken the pace, go in media res by leading with the action (note: dialogue is a form of action):

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Judge Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

It was Monday morning and we were in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk…

When revising, take special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way? Go for variety. Open with some form of action. Move description further down the page. Get a little more medias into your res.

Have you ever thought about in medias res? Do you strive for variety in your chapter openings?

Smell Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.

Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.

Create a Tone

At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:

As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.

Boom. I’m there.

Reveal a Theme

In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:

Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.

Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.

Make a Comment

Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”

It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.

Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.

Show the Inner Life of a Character

McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.

I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.

I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*

So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?

*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.

How Long Should A Sentence Be?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Riffing off of Kris’s post on paragraphs and pacing, I want to drill down into the length of sentences. Kris touched on it, quoting Ronald Tobias: “Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive.”

We all know thriller writers favor short sentences. And maybe today, as attention spans constrict ever … Squirrel! … more, all genres (save “literary”) may lean toward lean.

But an intriguing article over at Literary Hub makes an impassioned plea for the “long and complicated sentence.” The author, Joe Moran, writes:

The style guides say: keep your sentences short. Write cleanly, cut as many words as you can, and don’t overburden your reader’s short-term memory by delaying the arrival of the full stop. But sometimes a sentence just needs to be long…

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two…A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge…

Every writer is a poet by default and every sentence a little poem. The longer the sentence, the more closely it resembles poetry, or should do.

That last point reminded me of what the great John D. MacDonald once said he strived for. He wanted “a bit of magic in [the] prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.”

MacDonald was clear, however, that he wanted those sentences to serve the story, never yank the reader out of it. That’s the essential principle in my view. The prose is the servant of the story, not the other way around.

Moran goes on:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

I agree that a great long sentence should be a look at life with more “alertness.” But you have to watch it with the “dazzle” part. You don’t want the reader stopping to think, Who does this joker think he is? Just get on with it! As Moran rightly notes:

A long sentence too should be a beautiful, indelible gift. It should give pleasure without provisos, not buttonhole and bedazzle the reader with virtuosity.

The way to do that is to make sure the sentence is consistent with the narrative voice.

But suppose you write in a lean, mean style. Would there ever be occasion for you to consider a long sentence? Yes—to show us the inner life of a character in moments of high emotional intensity. For example:

Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy was one of the great noir pulp writers, part of the Black Mask crew. His most famous novel is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He had an innate power in his prose, and most of the time it’s as hardboiled as a twenty-minute egg. But every now and then he’ll pull you in with style for the purpose of illustrating heightened emotion.

Here is a passage from his 1938 novel, I Should Have Stayed Home. We’re in the first chapter, and desperation is squeezing the narrator, a struggling actor in Hollywood. He’s been cooped up all day in his little apartment and has to get out. He charges out into the night. Note how the sound of the sentences gives the impression of someone walking fast and agitated.

On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time stars who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might just as well be working at in Waxahachie or Evanston or Albany; thinking if they were going to do this, there was no point in their coming out here in the first place.

The Brown Derby, the sign said, and I crossed the street, not wanting to pass directly in front, hating the place and all the celebrities in it (only because they were celebrities, something I was not), hating the people standing in front, waiting with autograph books, thinking: You’ll be lighting for my autograph one of these days, missing Mona terribly now, more than I had all afternoon, because passing this place that was full of stars made me more than ever want to be a star myself and made me more than ever aware of how impossible this was alone, without her help.

Not only does this provide a window into the narrator’s inner life, it also weaves in the description of place and a bit of exposition, too. Triple duty.

So don’t be afraid to expand the occasional sentence if the moment is right. If it doesn’t work out, you can hit the delete key. But if it does work, you’ve hit the delight key—for you and the reader both.