Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Writing sex and profanity

As a reader, I have sometimes wondered at the choices writers make in their presentation, specifically, the presentation of sex and profanity.

Please understand, I am not here advocating limits on the freedom writers have. But it is important for readers to understand that when they read, they are looking at the result of choices made by the writer.

As an example, when writing a scene containing sexual tension, I could write something like “she unbuttoned her shirt, exposing” various body parts and provide any amount of active and passive description. Or I could write what actully wrote in Unthinkable: “And three shirt buttons were open instead of just one, revealing nothing, suggesting everything.”

With regard to language, some writers seem intent on f-bombing their readers into oblivion, or at least numbness. Some use high-yield profanity as a way to express ratcheted-up tension. In some cases, the use of profanity seems rather arbitrary. Take Tom Clancy’s first books as examples. In The Hunt For Red October the language started moderate and increased steadily in foulness as the book progressed; but in (I think) The Cardinal Of The Kremlin the language at the beginning was stronger and fell off as the book went on; in (I think) The Sum Of All Fears the profanity was held at a fairly constistent, relatively low level. Realizing this, I wonder whether the author’s use of profanity is more of an étude or exercise than anything else.

In both Unthinkable and Seen Sean? I chose a very PG level for language, actively bowdlerizing from what I thought was the likely language in one scene of either book (and in both cases sacrificing a small amount of irony). Why? Simple: I grew up loving mysteries from the time I was in junior high school (or earlier), reading Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, etc. These are books that are appropriate for audiences young and old, and I wanted to fit into that tradition.

So when I read comments by an author along the lines of “this was the best way to show some character trait” or “this is the way people like this really talk,” then you, the reader, need to be aware that every single description and use of the language is the result of a choice made by the writer.

And, if you are a writer, you need to realize that some readers will be willing to put up with only lower levels of language and sexuality. In my mind, it’s a question of whether you are willing to limit the size of your audience. If that’s what you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of your creative freedom, go for it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A new science fiction short story

Those who know me know that my regular gig is traditional mysteries. I love to read them and enjoy writing them. However, once in a while …

I have posted (and will leave in place for a short time) a new science fiction short story, “The Janitor.”

It’s quite short — less than 2,800 words. How did I come to write it?

The idea came from an episode of the wonderful Writing Excuses podcast, the April 7, 2013 episode called “Brainstorming with Brandon.” One of the regulars, Brandon Sanderson, brought a short story idea to the table for discussion with the rest of the crew, and together they threw ideas about,  searching for a good story. Listening to the show on my way to work (my iPod connects to my car stereo), I found myself pounding my steering wheel and saying, “That’s not the story! I know what this story is!” Outlining it took about 20 minutes, and the bulk of the story was written in a couple of evenings.

If you read it, please leave a comment on this post with comments, suggestions, whatever.

The story won’t be available here forever, so read it now by clicking on the link in the second paragraph or in the menu bar at the top.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Starting a scene by breaking the rules

The “rules” say conflicting things:
  • A good start for a scene is in media res, i.e., in the middle of things.
  • You shouldn’t start a scene with dialog.
There’s an obvious conflict here, since the middles of lots of scenes are dialog-heavy.

My approach has been to (sometimes) start a scene with a single line of dialog that presents a challenge from the speaker to the listener.

Unthinkable started with “So you see, Mr Penfield, we can’t really be communicating, because true communication is impossible.”  There follow
  • a couple of sentences about the speaker;
  • a couple of sentences of setting;
  • resumption of the action.
I still think it’s effective.

In Seen Sean?, the opening line was, “I hope the schedule change didn’t rattle you too badly, Corwin.”  So we establish that
  • there was a change in the schedule;
  • the speaker had the authority to change the schedule
  • he’s speaking to someone who had a different expectation.
After the opening line, there’s an immediate establishment of characters (the victim and his assistant) and setting (the victim’s condo).

Again, I stuck with it because it worked.

It’s interesting (as an artifact) that the original opening of Seen Sean? (click on the menu above or on the book cover to  the right) didn’t start with dialog, but just with a hint of trouble: “One Tuesday in early September, about halfway between the start of school and the first hint of autumn air, a tall, broad-shouldered man with steel gray hair, deep blue eyes, and no wedding ring strode into the office of Fleming Properties with an assistant in tow. Lisa McCloskey recognized Charles Jamison, U.S. Senator, at once.”

What do you think? How much should an author break the rules in an opening?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Naming my main characters

When I sat down to write Unthinkable, I knew how the book should start: We enter the scene with a single line of dialog (I know: the “rules” say you shouldn’t do that; maybe more in another post), and a main character’s name is given in this line.  I typed “So, you see, Mr” and stopped.  I didn’t know what his name was.

With exactly four words written, I had no idea what the next word should be.  And it was a main character’s name.

At this point I didn’t want any of my characters’ names to be symbolic or referential (though this changed somewhat when I got to Seen Sean?).

Obviously, I was “pantsing,” but hey, it was my first novel and I (mostly) knew where the story was going.

I just didn’t know a Main Character’s name.

So I sat. I thought. I sat and thought.  Some more.

The first name that came to mind was “Penfeld.”  That sounded almost right, but a quick search of the 1990 U.S. Census data showed no entries for that name.  But there was a name that was close: “Penfield”  And that was that.  Though uncommon, “Penfield” had the advantage of being easier to pronounce and spell than “Crigler.”  You might not believe some of the variations we’ve seen and heard — but I digress.

My police detective, also a main character, still needed a name.  So I just pulled a name, “Mason,” out of the air and I liked it: it was common enough (it’s in the top 150 in the Census data), and it conveyed a solid, plainspoken feel.

What do you think?  Were the names chosen well in spite of my lack of method?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Foreshadowing, imagery, characters and what’s next

I was starting to wonder about an event that will happen in the second quarter of the WIP.  To do this, I needed to pull a recurring character onstage, one who hadn’t been seen since Seen Sean? And I needed to begin foreshadowing a major event that happens later on.

So I picked up the character, put her in a scene in a natural way. And I had no idea where to go from there.

So I spent time noticing what she noticed.  And I still didn’t know how to foreshadow what’s coming later.

So I thought some more.

And then I realized that what she noticed is already a symbol for the situation as it is now: Outwardly, everything is going along normally, but pressure is building behind the scenes, and the slightest disruption can make the whole thing fall apart.

If you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ll recall a conversation between Aronnax and Nemo about how glass is strong but fragile.  What my character tells the MC is that her job is like that, little realizing that the MC is in just such a position.

What do you think? Does that accomplish enough?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A plea to ebook publishers

I have at least 3 books on my Kindle in each of which the font is specified by the book, i.e., the the user has lost control of the presentation of the text.

See, in a physical book, someone (a worker, a craftsman, an artist) makes the presentation choices for the reader because there’s a physical product that has to be delivered. But in an ebook — and I mean a book of words: zero or few graphics (other than the cover); zero or few simple, narrow tables — the only point is the words. Almost all books are filled with plain, Roman text, with the occasional italics or boldface in the running text. (Chapter and section headings don’t count in this discussion).

If you’re publishing a book of plain text, please, I beg you, leave the font to the reader’s discretion: the face, the size, the line spacing.  These give the reader the ability to adjust the comfort level and get to the words.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why do I write traditional mysteries?

Thrillers are bigger.
Young Adult (i.e., fiction for high-schoolers) is bigger.
Romance is bigger. (Ignore the howls of laughter from my wife.)
Paranormal romance is bigger.
Heck, zombies are bigger.
And yes, I know erotica is bigger. (But I wouldn’t read that, much less write it.)

So why write traditional mysteries (sometimes called cozy mysteries)?

2 reasons:

  • It’s what I love to read. I don’t mean that I read mysteries exclusively. This year I have read (partial list):
    • A Tale Of Two Cities
    • The Lord Of The Rings
    • The Hunger Games (all 3 books)
    • 212
    • The Bible (I will finish the entire thing by the end of the year. It’s a foundational document for our society, and to understand the West, you must understand this book.)
    • The Red House Mystery
    • All The Blue-Eyed Angels
    • No Time To Run
    • Invisible
    • Vimana
    • Prophecy (ARKANE thriller by J.F. Penn)
    • The Space Between
    • Creative Spirit
    • Disintegration
    • Doctrine of the Trinity (John Owen)
    • Brainrush II
    • Storm World: Speaker Of The Gods
    • The Flinch
    See: Thrillers, YA, supernatural, SF, religious works, and, yes, mysteries. I didn’t like all these equally. One I would warn you off of because of the quality of the writing; in one I would warn you of the content.
  • Traditional mysteries are appropriate for a very broad audience. I fell in love with the genre in late elementary or early junior high school. My great uncle, T.O. Dahl (who attended the US Naval Academy with Robert Heinlein), lived across the street from us; he loaned me copies of several books by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was hooked.
  • Mysteries, as a form, give almost infinite possibilities in story telling: All the categories that are currently “bigger” can be subsumed in the archetypal seeking for truth. Or a story that is primarily in another genre can have elements of a mystery. (Will Katniss wind up with Gale or Peeta?)

Why traditional mysteries? Why not noir or supernatural or hard-boiled or juvenile or …?

That’s easy: To have to broadest appeal. Look: fundamentally I’m telling human stories. So in Unthinkable, everybody knows the dotcom-bust victim; everybody knows the alpha-girl in high school; detective shows are so popular that a tall, handsome detective who cracks wise is easy to picture.

So that’s why. How have I done?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Turning a genre meme on its ear

You know that scene where the detective gathers the suspects for the big revelation? Hercule Poirot almost always staged one of those scenes, beginning with AC’s first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles.

I remember the day I was thinking about how those scenes seemed contrived, artificial.  Two weeks later, I was writing one of them for Seen Sean?

I did my best to turn the meme sideways:  People come and go throughout the scene; one of my main characters gets a strong slap on the face; one of the series’s recurring charcters wants to kill someone; and in the end, no one (else) dies or goes to jail.

What do you think?  Did I pull it off?

Monday, October 15, 2012

First novel as autobiography (sort-of)

It is said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical to some extent.  While none of the events of Unthinkable happened in the real world, the autobiographical aspect comes into the descriptions of the grief of the victim’s family.

When the direction of the story became obvious to me (this was early on), and I knew that writing about the emotions experienced by Barbara Penfield’s family would have to be displayed in some measure, I had to draw parameters around what I would describe.
  • It would draw on the grief I felt over my father’s suicide.
  • It would not be tawdry or maudlin.  On the contrary, restraint was the key to authenticity.
  • Since this was a murder mystery (not lit-fic or chick-lit), simple external description would be sufficient.  Barbara’s family would have to stay on stage, since they were involved (ahem!) in the murder’s solution.
  • When it was time for the emotional cloud to lift, it would be through an experience the family shared.
  • When, after the solution is known, a reconciliation occurs, it would only come with regret.
If you’ve read Unthinkable, how did I do?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dual main characters

When I started the Mason & Penfield Mysteries I had this notion that there were 2 people, John Mason and Ron Penfield, who would share protagonist duties.  But I wanted to avoid a certain number of relationship types that had been done before:

  • Mentor/protégé — This has been done a lot. (If you’re is tempted to say mentee rather than protégé, be warned: I have snipers hiding in the ceiling where you’re reading this.  Capiche?)  Mason, the police detective, has a protégé, but he is (mostly) used as Mason’s extension.
  • Movie/drinking/sports fan/etc buddies — This relationship is too casual to make sense for a murder mystery series.
  • Strangers who meet and combine forces — I find this more plausible than the recreational buddies above; it offers plenty of opportunity for tension between the dual (duelling?) MCs.  But every conflict would be a surprise to them as well as to the reader. I wanted more familiarity between them.
  • Partners — Again, there is plenty of room for conflict, but without some hook (like the detectives on the TV show Common Law), it’s difficult to make them unique.
  • A/B partners — i.e., one partner starts the investigation, then turns it over to the other.  While this provides structure, there’s no reason for the 2 people to not be 1, since they function as 1 anyway.
  • Husband/wife — think Tommy & Tuppence. Don’t think Hart To Hart.

What I settled on was 2 guys who were former co-workers, and who had a grudge between them, a grudge caused by one’s misbehavior; who had gone down separate career paths in the meantime. In Unthinkable, Mason is forced to investigate Penfield; by the end, each understands the other a little better. A few months later, in Seen Sean?, their friendship is strained by Penfield’s actions, but they wind up cooperating to reveal the killer.

My WIP (work in progress), [title redacted] is starting out a little differently: We begin with a dead body and lots of police procedure.  This puts Mason center stage, and at my current point (about 20% of the first draft is complete), Penfield is just stepping onto the stage.

Two questions:
  • What do you think about the interplay between Mason and Penfield?
  • What other dual protagonist types can you think of?