A Poorer Place

•September 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Well, here’s how out of touch I’ve been: two of my favorite writers died — one in January of this year, one almost exactly a year to the day earlier — and I didn’t know it until last month.

This is telling commentary not just on my vigilance about current events, but also about the “normal” media outlets’ obsession with housewives, Lady Gaga, and like shallow bullshit — and the absolute disregard they have for literary contributions and those who make them. Realizing I missed these two losses has forced me to start checking the NYT obituary page every day. But that’s a rant for another time.

One of the writers is someone I’ve written about in this blog — Robert B. Parker. I think the respect and esteem I have for his writing is well documented in my post about him. The other “tell” that a writer has left his mark: when the writer dies, the reader feels the personal, emotional loss of the characters he or she created. I feel that loss. The world is a poorer place for Spenser being silenced, and for his walks in Boston all being lamentably now locked in the past.

The other was John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole. For the uninitiated, Rumpole is a rumpled (pun intended), cigar-ash-wearing, Chateau Thames Embankment-drinking, aging, and absolutely anachronistic barrister who ekes out a living on his overdraft and the meager earnings he gets from defending every imaginable English lowlife. His days are tormented by Sam Ballard QC, his head of chambers, and his nights by She Who Must Be Obeyed, his wife Hilda. He is erudite, yet possessed of great common sense. He resists all efforts on the part of She Who Must to instill ambition in him with a willful inertia that is awesome to behold. And in his own way, he solves his mystery, wins his case, and gets his way. If you haven’t met Rumpole, by all means seek him out — and if humanly possible, listen to Leo McKern’s reading of him in audio format. McKern played him in the BBC series based on the books, and reads him to perfection. On my long-ago trip to London, the tube station near my hotel obligingly let out within a block or two of the Gloucester Road, where Rumpole returned every night to She Who Must in their mansion flat. I walked the Gloucester Road, and there were indeed some buildings there that looked like what I imagine a “mansion flat” apartment building to look like. I hope when next I see them, I can still conjure Rumpole trudging up the stairs, latchkey in hand, singlehandedly bearing the crushing weight of his role as protector of the rights of the accused.


Spenser for Characterization

•August 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I said in a previous post that genre fiction how-to books were great places to learn necessary skills for good writing. Well, genre books are a great place to find examples of these skills in action. In some ways (but not in all), they’re even better than “literary” fiction for this. For one thing, many genre fiction writers write series — if they can’t get characterization, dialogue, setting, etc down pat, you won’t come back for books two-through-infinity, and there goes the writer’s livelihood.

So you’ll often see me pointing you in the direction of genre fiction for quick, clear examples of aspects of writing well done. (That sentence, my lovelies, was foretelling.)

I’m a fan of mysteries. In between rereading Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga,” and reading Ivan Doig’s “The Eleventh Man,” Alan Greenspan’s “The Age of Turbulence,” Eric Alterman’s “Why We’re Liberal,” Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less” and Barbara Hambly’s “The Emancipator’s Wife,” I’ve also been flat devouring Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” mysteries.

Spenser’s sidekick is a character named Hawk. Parker does a great job of illuminating Hawk’s character, and the measure of Parker’s skill here is that Hawk does nothing to make that simple, because Hawk is… minimalist, shall we say? He shows up when needed. He says little (but that little is “cherce” as my other favorite Spencer, Spencer Tracy, would say). He has few rules but those are rigid. He does what is needed, as efficiently and with as little muck as possible. He bows out.

One tactic Parker uses to tell us a lot about Hawk despite his minimalism is Parker makes it clear that Spenser and Susan (Spenser’s girlfriend) know Hawk very well. So we learn about Hawk both because of their reactions to him and discussions and assumptions about him, but also because it’s clear that they do know him so well: if they say something or assume something about him, the reader knows he or she can believe it. Even this last serves a second purpose: the fact that Spenser and Susan are so sure of their assumptions about Hawk tells the reader that Hawk will be true to what they know about him. He’s a mystery, but oddly, also a known entity.

A second tactic Parker uses is to take advantage of what the reader knows about Spenser. Spenser is a first-person narrator: we know him pretty well. So Parker illuminates Hawk by having Spenser point out how Hawk is similar to himself, and how he’s different. We know Spenser, so by contrast or comparison, we know Hawk.

There’s the usual suspect — how others react to him. (In a book featuring a different lead character but also taking place in the Boston area, one character makes an oblique reference to a Boston-area private eye and that “terrifying black man” he hangs around with. Hawk — who else?)

Hawk isn’t necessarily the most likable guy, but he is someone you’d want on your side. He seems to have few friends (well, I’ve counted two) but I suspect that’s because you have to take him on his own terms, and Spenser and Susan do that. Again, Parker uses contrast with Spenser’s and Susan’s acceptance of Hawk to illuminate this aspect of Hawk’s character. Every once in awhile some woman comes along who tries to have a serious relationship with Hawk but finds the rigidity of his own terms too difficult to navigate. So she ends up bailing, and we end up having what we know about Hawk and Susan and Spenser and their various interactions reinforced by comparison.

Oh — and savor the dialogue between Hawk and Spenser. It’s priceless.

Good Reasons But No Excuses

•January 1, 2009 • 1 Comment

It’s been too long. And as my title implies, I have reasons but no excuses.

In January 2008 I got a new job — incredibly challenging. Six weeks later, my mother — who had always been healthy, strong and vibrant and who was 10 years younger than my father — was diagnosed with terminal, metastasized lung cancer. In the middle of this, I started questioning whether or not I wanted to stay in my then-relationship. (I guess the “then” gives away what my decision ultimately was.) My entire life was in upheaval and everything that was not necessary to move forward got put on hold — including the writing.

By March, I’d pretty much decided to leave the relationship but was putting off the actual exit until we could see what effect Mom’s chemo would have on her prognosis. In June, she had her last chemo and was doing so well we were all convinced it had worked wonders. False hope: it shrank the lung tumor but every other tumor grew in the meantime. However, during the time we thought it had worked well enough to make an actual difference in her timeline, two things happened: I told my ex I was leaving, and, that same week, I met face to face someone I had happened to meet online the week before — and knew as soon as I laid eyes on him that I was supposed to be with him forever.

She deteriorated quickly. She died on August 31. Four days before, on her last lucid night, she met the man I married four months to the day later (last Saturday, in fact), and he was with me when she died. I have not begun to assimilate her loss nor the joy my new husband brings me, but I am trying to look both of these huge changes in my life squarely in the eye and take whatever they have to offer.

I expect my next few posts may deal with how profound experience changes one’s writing. The loss of my mother was my first experience with the death of someone I was close to, and meeting and marrying Jon is easily the most profound and life-changing love experience I’ve ever known. I’m still a writer. But I am no longer the same person who last wrote here all those many months ago.


•March 1, 2008 • Leave a Comment


Two events have occurred: I’ve taken a new job (minor), and my mother has become very, very ill (major). I won’t be around for a bit until the dust settles here. I’ll post when I can, but at the moment, I have to spend my time and thought elsewhere.

Characterization Through Another’s Eyes

•January 20, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I just started reading a couple of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. One thing stands out: the way Stout’s narrator, Archie Goodwin, becomes the window through which we see Nero Wolfe and how effectively Stout portrays Wolfe through that window.

(For the purposes of this post, the one book I’ve finished so far was called “Might as Well Be Dead.”)

Nero does some of his own portraying; that is, Archie reports conversations and actions of Nero’s that he himself witnesses. But a lot of the characterization of Wolfe comes from Goodwin himself. Examples:

1) In this book, at one point a cardinal house rule is violated (Nero has a lot of house rules). Goodwin characterizes him by predicting three possible reactions on Nero’s part — and since Goodwin knows him very well, one presumes they’re all reactions that are steeped in likelihood. Now, Nero reacts a fourth way, and it makes sense — but Stout’s purpose of elucidating Wolfe’s character via the predictions is accomplished. Goodwin does this sort of speculation on Wolfe’s motives several times in this book, and each of the speculations reveals something about Wolfe’s character.

2) Goodwin points out when Wolfe is playing a role versus being himself. In one scene in the book (actually the same scene as the one in the above example), Wolfe buys time to think and creates anticipation in his listeners by filling pots in his orchid room. Goodwin points out that the action is totally fake: a key step in the filling has been omitted. Now, there are two dynamics at work here. The first is that he’s characterizing Wolfe by outlining both the lie and the truth in his behavior. The second deserves it’s own paragraph, thus:

3) He’s portraying himself, Goodwin, as knowing Wolfe’s habits well enough to be able to spot fakery — and if he knows him that well (the reader says to himself), well, he must know what he’s talking about and the reader should believe him. In other words, Goodwin is establishing himself as an authority on Wolfe. He does this throughout, in many ways — for example, even when Wolfe says something brilliant or surprising, Goodwin seems to expect it — he knows Wolfe well enough not to be surprised by him.

4) Goodwin makes frequent references to Wolfe’s appearance, habits, likes, dislikes, and thought processes.

5) Goodwin has set his own life up, in many ways, as an accommodation of Wolfe’s mandates and limitations — this tells the reader that Wolfe’s is a powerful personality and, also, that there must be some strong payoff for Goodwin to do this. It also keeps the reader’s eye squarely on the ball: the temptation is to think of the narrator of any work as being the main character. Well, if you want to think Archie Goodwin is the main character, fine, but Stout won’t let you lose sight of the fact that Goodwin thinks Wolfe is the main character.

6) Goodwin talks about Wolfe’s probable reactions to hypothetical situations — say, the idea of having a woman in his life. Now, Wolfe does not actually have a woman in his life — but Goodwin knows how he’d feel about it.

And so on. Now, a main method of characterizing a fictional persona is via the reactions of others to the character. Stout is a good example because it is an extreme example — the main character is seen exclusively through the eyes of the narrator, who either comments on him or reports things that occur involving him, over numerous books. Stout died more than 30 years ago and his books are still in print. He must have gotten it right.

Editing is a Juggling Act

•December 24, 2007 • 2 Comments

I’ve recently undertaken a couple of nonfiction editing jobs, which, of course, have brought everything that goes into editing back into focus. Editing isn’t one job: it’s a number of jobs that can’t necessarily be done all at once. Here are a few of them, from micro- to macroscopic.

1) Typos. What’s misspelled, or spelled correctly but misused — like “roll” for “role,” or “there” or “they’re” when you actually meant “their.”

2 ) Grammatical errors. And by God, police yourself out of things I see in published works all the time, like subject-pronoun agreement (the worst is using “their” when the correct word would be “his” or “her” — if you can’t get around that with a singular subject, make the whole damned sentence plural!) The other especially annoying one is — and yes, book editors miss this one a lot — using “of” when it should be “have” as in “would of” when it should be “would have.” YIKES!

3) Wrong word errors. Now, first of all, make sure you know what every word you write actually means. If you stop and think about it, you’ll be amazed at how many words it’s easy to use fairly correctly but if someone actually pins you down about the meaning, you have a hard time articulating it. (Ok, define irony. Define fortuitous. Define pragmatic. Define paradigm. Define catholic. Define hopefully — not the colloquial, misused meaning, but what it actually means. Define presently — and which definition is the preferred usage, as opposed to the one people use a lot mistakenly?) And never use “over” when you mean “more than,” “less” when you mean “fewer,” “since” when you mean “because” or “as,” “centered around” when it should be “centered on.” Amateur mistakes, all.

4) Vagueness. Two particulars, here — first, non-specific language (like using the word “thing” all the time, or describing something as “nice” in your exposition. Characters talking to each other — well, that’s different, because people say “thing” and “nice” all the time. But in the expos –no.) And the second is weakening qualifiers (kind of, rather, quite, very). Those are used quite often, very annoyingly, and I’m rather irritated and kind of tired of seeing sloppy editing that leaves those phrases behind.

5) Stylistic mistakes — by these I mean things like “there is” or “there are” constructions, which weaken writing, or using passive voice when active is better.

6) Point of view errors — if you start a paragraph in one character’s head, you better almost always end up there, and you better not have him know things he can’t possibly know — like what someone else is thinking if the someone else hasn’t voiced it, or what someone else’s motive is for doing things when the motive hasn’t been voiced either. Here’s a point of view error with commentary: “I watched him [we’ve established we’re in my head]. He stood there [so far, so good, I can observe and know that without being told] silently. Suddenly he turned, afraid [trouble! How can I know that, based on what I’ve already revealed?]. He thought I was going to kill him [uh, i’m a mind-reader now?]. I admit, the thought was crossing my mind [now I’m back in my own head, but the reader is getting seasick]. He was trying desperately to figure out how to distract me and make me move from between him and the door [but since I’m reading his mind again, I know better, don’t I?] . Avoiding point-of-view errors is why you often see “he seemed to be considering” or “she appeared to blah blah blah” or “he sounded” or “she looked,” because if you’re writing in anything other than third-person omniscient (and even then, a good bit of the time), you can’t know what someone else is thinking or feeling, you can only know what they’re displaying for the world to observe, and your own reactions to it.

7) Consistency errors. Susie has a red hat on page 7 but on page 30 it’s suddenly indigo. Or Susie’s name is spelled Susie on page 1 but Suzie on page 25. Or Mark and Susie’s first date is in springtime and they become inseparable immediately, but date 3 (which presumably takes place the same week) is spent out looking at the leaves changing color. Or your character is pregnant for 58 weeks, once you’ve added up all the time that’s gone by. And it doesn’t have to be internal inconsistency either — it can be inconsistent with your audience’s understanding of how the world works. For example, if your character is a 12-year-old and it’s October, the kid better be in school. If you have him out doing other stuff all the time and it’s not a weekend or after school or otherwise explained, you’ve screwed up in the eyes of your reader. Other inconsistencies arise out of errors of fact or anachronism — putting the First World War in the 1920s, or having a character using a microwave oven in 1949.

8 ) Character-development errors. If by the end of your work, your character’s actions don’t seem inevitable based on what your reader has learned about your character, you’ve dropped the ball. People don’t act out of a vacuum — they have pasts that shape their presents and actions. Your characters are motivated by the goals they’re trying to achieve that form the center of the story, but how they approach them and why those goals are important to them arise out of their pasts, histories, and natures.

9) Time-on-stage errors — did you leave subplots undeveloped throughout and suddenly pop them in to resolve them at the end? Did your main story line take a back seat to what should have been a subplot? Do you have characters who are important to the story but who aren’t seen enough? Or unimportant characters who spend too much time out there?

10) Too much exposition, not enough dialogue. Pick up books like the one you’re writing and thumb through them. Look at the ratio of dialogue to expos. Think about your own work in comparison.

12) Unanswered questions — all your little mysteries either have to be resolved, or closed in such a way that the reader understands a sequel is forthcoming.

13) Writing that assumes the reader knows more than you’ve told him. This is especially troublesome in nonfiction writing — you’re putzing along writing about how to knit, and you suddenly say, “having determined that you need a 9-gauge needle” and your reader thinks, “wait a minute, how did I determine that?” You haven’t put all the knowledge the audience needs down on paper — and this is easy to miss, because you already have the knowledge, so you aren’t going to experience the hole in the writing the same way your less-knowledgeable audience will.

14) Big picture errors. You wanted to make a certain thematic point but too many elements of your story lean in a different direction. Or the entire work is funny and lighthearted and then on page 297, it suddenly goes black. Or your characters fail to react appropriately to something serious when the reaction is called for. Or you spend 200 pages building up to something and then, when you finally reveal it, you do so in a way that doesn’t merit the 200-page build-up. (Like, you spend 200 pages FINALLY getting your heroine to MEET the guy she’s been fantasizing about all this time, and then, on page 201, without even talking about how the meeting went, you say “and then they got married. The end.”) Now, I’m not saying that variations of this kind of thing can’t work, but you better know what you’re doing. And if it doesn’t work, you’d better be ruthless about undoing it.

Well, that’s a start. I’m sure I’ll think of other things to edit for, and we’ll get to them all in time.

Off the Wagon Bigtime

•December 24, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Ok, so we went out of town over Thanksgiving and then I got embroiled in a big project and I haven’t written a word in over a month — not on the novel, anyway, although I’ve written a freelance article for the DBNJ and so forth. But I will get back on that horse.

In the meantime, have happy and productive holidays — the kind writers’ dreams are made of!