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 ├ętude 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?