What Book Wasted Your Time?
What Book Moved You?
Let’s All Take A Quiz.

By PJ Parrish

Sue’s post yesterday on the need for creativity in our trying times got me to thinking — why has my urge to write anything gone pffft?  I figured it out — all my creative juices lately are going to helping me and my own stay sane.

Not easy in these times of cabin fever, quest for toilet paper, and real fears. I’m walking more than ever, and I gotta tell you, there’s been an unexpected joy in seeing my neighbors and friends out more. And this morning was really lovely — I was all alone with my dogs, a hovering dawn fog and a very loud symphony of birdsong. (Loud because there are no cars).

Yesterday, I ventured out to a toy store to buy a jigsaw puzzle. The sweet young clerk told me they are doing a bang-up business.  Seems even the kids are getting tired of video games and Scrabble is sounding pretty exotic.  I am looking for good things, small as they may be.

I am also reading more. Normally, I cleave to fiction but this week I started Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels. It is a history of our democracy, with every wart revealed and wonder exalted.  It’s beautifully written and very affirming.  We will get through this, Meacham says, we’ve endured worse. You don’t believe me? Well, here’s the sad story of Nathan Bedford Forrest…

Books are so vital right now. Whether you’re escaping to Treasure Island or retreating into the romance of Danielle Steele. (Although I’d vote that you should re-read Judith Krantz. She’s much funnier and very randy). I wish the libraries were not having to close right now.

So, forgive me today if I have no good writing advice. My mind is elsewhere. Let’s play a game instead.

One of my favorite stops in my Sunday New York Times is the By The Book feature in the book review. Famous folks are interviewed, asked the same questions week after week a la the format popularized by the great James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio. (“What sound do you love?” “What’s your favorite curse word?” “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”)

This week in By the Book, Emily St. John Mandel was questioned. (She’s the author of one of my favorite books Station Eleven.)  So here are the questions, but I am going to give you my answers. That’s because I will never be famous enough to be asked but always wanted to be.  Please weigh in with your comments and answer any of the questions that move you!

What book are on your nightstand? The Meacham book, plus Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat. Just added a really ratty copy of Wuthering Heights that I found this week at the GoodWill. I figure it’s time.

What’s the last great book you read? Your first thought is usually your best one. I immediately grasped upon Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I still think about the people in that book sometimes.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, how?).  Somewhere foreign so I can’t understand anything on TV.  It’s raining. My dogs are snoring at my side.

What’s your favorite book no one else heard of?  Well, my tastes aren’t esoteric enough to dazzle anyone and I refuse to make something up to sound important. So I will recommend two: Jim Harrison’s memoir A Really Big Lunch. If you love cooking, wine and great writing, this is for you. (A tip from Jim: Don’t drink and cook at the same time. But if you must, only one glass of prosecco.)

Also, try Di & I by Peter Lefcourt.  Leonard Schecter, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, goes to London, meets the unhappy princess and they run off to travel across America in a mini-van, and end up running a McDonald’s in Cucamonga, California.  I’m a royalist and love books about the twisted Windsors. This made me laugh til I cried.

Which writers working today do you admire most? I will read a grocery list if Joyce Carol Oates writes it. Or maybe I am just envious of her work ethic. So that’s it. Your turn…

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? This was easy.  My own first book, Dark of the Moon, written with my sister, remade a sibling into a beloved friend.

How do you organize your books? Roughly by subject. Crime fiction on one shelf, my dance books from days as a critic on another, etc.  My husband has shelf with rock biographies. I recommend Keith Richard’s Life because anyone who is more durable than Astroturf deserves to be heard.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Do I remember? Hell yes, I remember, because these books take up valuable time and energy and leave you angry for months for being so gullible, sort of like a bad blind date. So this gives me yet one more chance to trash Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. (I mentioned it in Jim’s Sunday post).  I love fiction set in old England. But this was first-person pretension and overwrought prose prettified with preface graphics of family trees. Which still didn’t help me keep all the guys named Thomas straight.  A friend told me I have to let this go and suggested I read Infinite Jest to regain some perspective.

What say you, guys? Your turn to talk about books. Stay safe. I know that sounds banal but sometimes banal, like rice pudding, is what works.

 

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Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Embed from Getty Images

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, where an expansive style is part of the experience (e.g., Thomas Wolfe), you should strive to write tight. You’re telling a story. Your goal is to draw readers into that story, fast, and keep them there. Every sentence should serve that purpose. Writing tight means no excessive prose, no over-padded paragraphs, nothing to get in the way of the fictive dream.

Now, this does not mean you can’t have what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. The key word is unobtrusive. It does its work pleasantly, then steps out of the way. Not this:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. (Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)

Eh? What? Is that a typo? Phthisic? What the heck is that? (It’s actually a word. You can look it up. Which is not a good way to write, sending readers to the dang dictionary!)

Instead, this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker)

So let’s look at some ways you can write tighter.

Cut Flab

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein defined flab as “superfluous words and phrases.” Most flab comes in the form of adjectives and adverbs. Stein’s advice is to cut all the adjectives and adverbs in a manuscript, then readmit only “the necessary few after careful testing.”

As an example, I want to show you a sentence I read in a non-fiction article posted on a popular sports website. It had to do with NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting into hot water with the league (a habit with him):

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and ultimately blamed the officials for the Mavericks ultimately losing the game.

We’ll get to the repetition of the adverb ultimately in a moment. But first, does that word help this sentence in any way? No. It adds nothing but flab. How much stronger it is this way:

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and blamed the officials for the Mavericks losing the game.

And, of course, using that adverb twice in the same sentence is truly felonious. You need to watch for the same thing in your paragraphs, too. I call these…

Echoes

Take a look at this:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

The repetition of alone is an echo. While it doesn’t violate any rule of grammar, it is what I would call a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes the reader out of the scene. The repeated sound is jarring.

The solution is simple: cut one of them. You could do it this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

Or this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he didn’t want to talk to anybody.

The exception to this guideline is when you purposely want to emphasize a word, as in the following:

His shirt was black. His pants were black. His boots were even blacker, if that was possible. He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.

Dialogue

As I contend in my book on the subject, dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. An agent or editor, or reader for that matter, knows good dialogue because they’ve seen so much of the bad variety.

One of the marks of effective dialogue is compression. Unless there is a reason a character long winded, keep the dialogue tight and to the point.

The easiest way to do this is to cut words. You can almost always cut a word or two out of dialogue and make it sound better. Example:

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Max said.

“Well then, what do you suggest we do?” Henderson said.

“I don’t know, drive around to the back maybe.”

“That would be a stupid thing to do.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that’s where all the cops will be.”

Can we tighten this up? I think we can:

“This isn’t a good idea,” Max said.

“What do you suggest?” Henderson said.

“Drive around the back maybe.”

“Stupid.”

“Why?”

“That’s where all the cops’ll be.”

Obviously you adjust according to the way your characters talk. But you will be amazed how much better your dialogue sounds when you trim the fat this way.

How would you describe your default writing style? When first drafting, do you tend to write long and cut? Or do you write lean and add? 

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Mastering the Basics: Point of View and Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We have another first page for critique today. See you on the other side.

THE OIL PATCH PROJECT

1. Slinging Pebbles at Goliath

Southwest National Laboratory
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Monday in October

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers pushed open the door labeled “GEOCHEMISTRY LAB,” strode across the room to a workbench, and picked up a bulging old briefcase that was sitting among tools, a voltmeter, and a jar of vacuum grease. The place smelled like acetone.

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory, locked into Jim’s eyes. “You’ve been spending a lot of vacation time at those oil meetings. Doesn’t your wife care?”

“I suppose, but she’s occupied with her own business.”

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen. It was pleasant to be around Mattie, the lovely tech who analyzed his samples and generated the data.

“No,” he said, as though answering a question about the weather. “I’ve got the facts … it will force change. I can’t let them continue dumping salt on the land.”

Stuffing another paper into his briefcase, Checkers reached for the old dinner jacket and tie he kept behind the door in case the lab’s brass brought official visitors from the Department of Energy.

“You can’t take on the entire oil industry, Jim.”

“Well, I’ll have to. I registered as a technical witness this time.” He brushed a stray hair from his eyes.

“Jim, you’re playing Don Quixote. The oilmen play for keeps.”

“I’m David facing Goliath, not Quixote fighting a windmill.”

She watched him hurry out and shook her head. “They’ll kill you,” she said to the closing door. “I should know. I grew up in the oil patch.” She wished she hadn’t mentioned his wife.

***

JSB: All right, let’s roll up the ol’ sleeves. I am assuming this is going to be a thriller. Thus, the first thing that needs to change is the title. The Oil Patch Project sounds like a chapter from the annual report of a city council’s energy committee … or a children’s story featuring bunnies. Maybe it’s the world Patch (e.g., Sour Patch Kids). Anyway, it isn’t a compelling thriller title, so I suggest you review this post and come up with alternatives.

I don’t like the chapter title, either. This could be the subject of a whole post, but outside of juvenile lit I’m not a fan of giving titles to chapters. In any event, “Slinging Pebbles at Goliath” is confusing. David grabbed five smooth stones from a stream, suitable for killing. So if your hero is taking on the David role in this book, why is he only using pebbles? You may have an ironic meaning in mind, but it tripped me up. Do you really need it?

Then we come to the location/day stamp (we’ll get to the actual content soon, I promise!) I’m not against these, but I do think you need to be more specific. “A Monday in October” has me thinking, Wait, aren’tyou the author? How come you don’t know the date? I’d thus use “Monday, October 13” or just cut it and indicate the month in the text (if necessary).

We’re writing a thriller here, right? Titles and character names are crucially important. Don’t use the name Checkers. It sounds funny. A clown or a dog (see, e.g., Richard Nixon) might be named Checkers, but not the hero of a thriller.

Okay, let’s get to the content. I want to concentrate on two big areas. We can nitpick sentences here and there, but I’d rater you get your craft in order on these two items before you do anything else.

First is the dialogue. It’s expository. Review my post on the subject. You have the characters saying things not so much to each other as to the reader. In a few short paragraphs you’ve told us all about the high stakes. We need to see them, feel them, as they unfold for the main character. Don’t be in such a rush to tell us everything about a scene. Readers are patient if there is some real action and tension happening.

Don’t confuse the reader with wrong pronoun placement. You have:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen.

That is Mattie’s line of dialogue, but you have Jim’s pronoun immediately following. No, no, never, never. It should be:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?”

He stopped to listen.

Also, you have Mattie using Jim’s name three different times in this short segment. Once is enough.

Now on to the second problem—Point of View. The first two paragraphs are omniscient, with the author telling us about each of the characters in the scene:

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers…

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory…

Then we drop into Jim’s POV:

It was pleasant to be around Mattie...

But at the end, we switch to Mattie’s POV:

She watched him hurry out…

This is called “head hopping.” The effect on the reader is subtle confusion. Who am I supposed to care about? Whose story is it?

So here’s what I want you to do, author.

  1. Study Point of View

Don’t worry. Many, if not most, new writers struggle with POV. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it makes an almost magical difference in your writing. You can begin your studies right here at TKZ. Emeritus blogger Jodie Renner did a great series on POV a few years ago:

POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There 

POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View 

  1. Study Dialogue

Get a few novels by dialogue masters and see how they do it. Notice how tight their dialogue is, how there’s no rush to give out information, how it is consistent with their characters, and how it contains tension or conflict. Let me suggest Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker (1980s and 90s Parker) as exemplars. Perhaps others will have suggestions in the comments.

And for the definitive text on the craft of dialogue, I humbly suggest this one.

Don’t let this discourage you, author. Craft improvement is hard work. But the rewards are great. Study, write, get feedback, write some more. Do this for the rest of your life. You’re a writer, after all.

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Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve written often in this space about my admiration for the pulp writers of old. As I was learning the craft myself, I often turned to these writers for inspiration. Not just for their stories, but their practices as well. I found they did three things above all—they were productive, persistent and professional.

Productivity

The first mark of the successful pulp writer was productivity. They wrote. They wrote a lot. And they usually wrote on manual typewriters, several of them producing up to a million or more words a year.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Indeed, perhaps the most prolific author of all time, Frederick Faust (better known by his pen name Max Brand) wrote 4,000 words a day every day for about thirty years. How on earth did he do it? Especially since he drank whiskey all day and then, when finished with his fourteen pages, settled down to his serious drinking? (I do not recommend this method.)

Pulp writers had to be productive. They had to put food on the table, especially during the Depression. They were often being paid a penny a word. (Erle Stanley Gardner figured out that if he used a character’s full name in dialogue attributions, it was an extra penny. Thus, you’ll see his Perry Mason stories filled with: “Come in,” Perry Mason said. “Hello,” said Paul Drake. “Shall I stay?” asked Della Street.)

Be productive. Set a weekly quota of words. What can you comfortably do? Up that by 10% and keep track of your daily output on a spreadsheet. Review and adjust your quota every year.

“The most critical thing a writer does,” said the late Robert B. Parker, “is produce.”

Persistence

In the pulp days, if you wanted to break into a market, you had to overcome hundreds of rejection slips. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of pulp, most magazines had headquarters in New York. Many a writer moved to the Big Apple so they could walk around and knock on doors and meet editors personally.

While they waited for a break, they continued to write and cop “hobo soup” at the automat. (That’s where you’d get a cup of hot water and dump in a healthy dose of ketchup, salt & pepper, and stir, then crumble in saltines—all these ingredients were free.)

Now, with digital self-publishing a viable option, you don’t have to wait to be published. But in most cases you’ll have to wait to make significant headway in the market. How long will it take before you start seeing more than coffee money come your way? That all depends on how productive you are (see above) and if you operate like a professional (see below).

Professionalism

The pulp writers approached writing as a job. They had to. They didn’t have time to sit around cafés gabbing endlessly about theories of literature. So they studied the markets, figured out what worked in those markets, and learned how to make their own writing better.

You can do the same. Study markets, expand your craft, and keep writing and adding your own spices.

When pulp writers sent in a manuscript, they made sure it was typed cleanly. When they talked to an editor, they made sure they spoke cleanly, for burning bridges was a fast route to the soup kitchen.

They had egos, sure, but they kept them in check because publishing is a small world. On occasion they’d push back on an editor messing with one of their stories, but they tried to keep it respectful. It was a good thing Twitter did not exist in the 1930s.

Professionalism still matters. Even if you self-publish, readers will pick up a vibe about you, stretching from the design of the books themselves all the way through your social media footprint.

So be wise about your profile, remembering what Erle Stanley Gardner said: “I serve the reading public.”

So should you. Which is why I’m happy to announce a new book, one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s designed to teach the secrets of the great pulp writers, everything from how to be more prolific to the best plotting methods to my exclusive Start-a-Plot Machine.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available now. Here’s where you can get it:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

PRINT VERSION

A final word on pulp fiction. A certain class of literati has sniffed at its very existence. I even read one jeremiad that claimed commercial fiction writers have “sold their souls” to the “devil” of profitability, and how can they even look at themselves in the mirror?

Yeesh.

Well, I continue to shave in the morning and my mirror is clean, and I delight in what a successful pulp writer named William Wallace Cook (writing under the pen name John Milton Edwards) wrote over 100 years ago:

The tale that moves breathlessly but logically, that is built incident upon incident to a telling climax with the frankly avowed purpose to entertain, that has no questionable leanings or immoral affiliations—such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.

An honorable goal, I would say.

So, TKZers, how are you stacking up on the three Ps—productivity, persistence, professionalism?

18+

To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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