Showing posts with label Ken Follett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ken Follett. Show all posts

01 February 2016

The Last Camel Collapsed a Noon

The last camel collapsed at noon.” This is the opening line of Ken Follett's THE KEY TO REBECCA, and it says a lot. You have a fairly good idea where you are, and you know that the people in this story are in some serious trouble.

Several years ago I was asked by Rice University to speak at their summer writer's workshop on the subject of hooks – those words that entice a reader to stay beyond the first line. And, I've discovered, that first line, paragraph, or page needs to be a dozy. Before I wrote my first mystery, I was told that if I wanted to write one, I'd better get a dead body in there pretty damn quick. So, the first line of my first Milt Kovak, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY, is: “Her body was found by her daughter-in-law.” See how I did that? “Body.” That means dead, right?

While I was preparing for my Rice workshop, I sat down on the bed and went through every mystery I had in my house. The bed didn't collapse, but it was touch and go there for a moment. I read the first lines and paragraphs of every book and found the ones that grabbed. And, strangely enough, they were differences enough for me to categorize them. Why not? I like to be neat.

Slap in the Face: Bill Crider's SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT: “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.”

Goosebumps: William Bernardt's PRIMARY JUSTICE: “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'”

Too Cool for School: Raymond Chandler's TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

The Scenic Route: James Lee Burke's THE NEON RAIN: “The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary.”

I could go on. But let's sum up. What questions should a reader be asking at the end of the hook? My favorite, as a writer and a reader, is to get the response: “What the hell is going on here?” Always a good question – if the reader is hooked enough to care. Then there's this: Is this person, this character I've already decided I like, going to make it all the way through these three-hundred-odd pages?”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is now part of the language. People who've never read Dickens use that line in everyday conversation. That's a hook.

27 July 2015

The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon

Several years ago I was invited to give a lecture at a Rice University summer workshop for writers. I was given the assignment of discussing hooks or opening lines – which led to one of the more enjoyable research studies I've ever done. My research consisted almost primarily of pulling out every mystery on my bookshelves (and believe me there were a lot then and even more now) and reading the opening line or paragraph. Then trying to figure out why it worked. If it did. Sometimes it didn't. Hook me, that is. And that was the entire reason for my lecture. How do you hook a reader, how do you keep them reading your book beyond that first line, paragraph, page or chapter? There's got to be a hook.

I entitled this essay “The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon” because, to me at least, Ken Follett's opening line in THE KEY TO REBECCA is one of the greatest. Why? Because you learn so much from those six simple words: You get a vague place – not a lot of camels on the streets of Manhattan – one is to assume this is a desert area, and one can also only assume that these people are in very deep doo-doo. 
But I found so many more wonderful opening lines, and all of them so different that it led me to do my own classification of openers: Slap in the Face, Character, Travel Log, and Puzzler, among others. Here's the short list, honed down from a much, much larger one, that fits perfectly in these categories.

Slap in the Face: PRIMARY JUSTICE, William Bernardt – “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'” DEAD BOLT, Jay Brandon – “His child was on the ledge.” And one of my all time favorites, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT, Bill Crider – “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” In all three of these examples, I dare the reader not to read on! These opening lines grab your attention and keep you riveted.

For a really good example of a character opening I go way back to one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, who wrote these opening lines for TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

Sharyn McCrumb once honored me by using my book, CHASING AWAY THE DEVIL, in a class she was teaching as an example of how to hook the reader. When she told me that, I had to go back to the book and read that opening paragraph to figure out why. I knew I didn't kill anybody in that first paragraph, knew there wasn't any great action. So why did she single out this opening?

The third week in November is Pioneer Week in my home, Prophesy County, Oklahoma. There's nothing in this goddam world I hate more than Pioneer Week. They make us deputies dress up for it. In chaps. And cowboy hats. And boots. And spurs. And real-live six-guns on our hips. It's goddam ridiculous.” I had to read this a couple of times before I realized that this, like Chandler's opening paragraph above (although unfortunately not nearly as classic) is a character opening. Milt Kovak's personality is smeared all over those few sentences. The reader knows, right off the bat, what kind of person he/she's going to be sharing the next several hundred pages with.

Travel Log: THE JUDAS GOAT, Robert B. Parker – “Hugh Dixon's home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.” Marcia Muller often opens her books with vivid descriptions of northern California. But her opening lines for PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN'S EYES – “At first they were going to kill me. Then they changed their minds and only took away thirty-six years of my life” – is a good example of the Puzzler category. Others are Joseph Wambaugh's opening line in the THE ONION FIELD, “The gardener was a thief,” Barbara Michaels' opener for THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE,The house talked,” and Jonathan Kellerman's first line of OVER THE EDGE, It was my first middle-of-the-night crisis call in three years.”

A book does not necessarily start at the beginning of the story. A writer can always go back and pick up the chronological beginning of the story – a beginning that may not be overly dramatic. Of course the beginning of the story needs to be there – but not necessarily on page one. Page one should be reserved for the hook.

While writing FAT TUESDAY, Earl Emerson wrote these words on page 127, chapter eight: “I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” He said it took him weeks to junk the book, re-plot the story,and regain the momentum of the narrative, but he was able to move those lines to page one, chapter one. Now that's a hook.

In journalism they teach that the lead (or hook) must grab a reader by the lapels, must punch him in the nose to make him read the story. Seize his attention and don't let go. The hook in a good mystery should punch the reader in the nose while at the same time seducing him. The hook shouldn't answer any questions, but ask them. A good mystery opener should seduce the reader into believing that the answers to those questions are worth the wait.

29 April 2013

I Found My Thrill (but not on Blueberry Hill)

The original title at the top of this was simply "Thriller."  When my grandson stood behind me and saw that, he asked, "G-Mama, are you writing about Michael Jackson?"  I'm not, so I changed the title though I'm not writing about Fats Domino either.  (BTW, my grandson is the ONLY person who can stand behind me while I write without igniting my wrath.)

Somehow I don't believe this photo really
needs a cut line.
As some of you know, my Callie Parrish Mystery series is so close to cozy that I don't object to being classified as a cozy writer.  I wrote the first one following what I thought were the guidelines for cozies, but Berkley Prime Crime thought not and  marketed them as Mainstream Mystery.  I've also done some writing under pen names because I didn't want to offend or upset those wonderful people who read about Callie and Jane nor disillusion any of my former students that Ms. Rizer might say something that wasn't "nice."

I'm presently trying to find a publisher for a new thriller, and when I do, it will be published under the name Fran Rizer.  I've decided I'm too old to try to protect my reputation any longer, and the students I last taught are now grown. It's not going to hurt for my readers to realize that while Callie Parrish doesn't use profanity, Fran Rizer knows how to spell those words!

Since my genres sometimes cross, I researched genres again when I finished this book to see what I'd written. Yes, there are several murders (way more than the maximum of  two  allowed in a cozy), but I wasn't quite sure what  to call this book.  After all, I researched cozies before the first Callie book, and didn't hit the target. My agent helped me.  He calls this a southern mystery thriller.  Everyone knows the meaning of southern and mystery, but what exactly IS a thriller?

I'll share my findings with you, but please don't think I'm comparing my thriller with the ones mentioned in this article.

First off, I don't believe in writing "formulas."  There is no formula for writing a thriller, but there are shared characteristics.  The biggest one is obvious:  thrillers "thrill."  The plots are scary with great risk to the characters, making the reader either eager to turn the page or scared to turn the page and see what's next.

Thrillers cross many writing genres and can be divided into different categories:  action thrillers, military thrillers, psychological thrillers (like Hitchcock's Psycho), romantic thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, spy thrillers, and even more.  The stories begin with a major, generally life or death, problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve it only to find the threat grows bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous.  The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is dramatic, and the book ends with a short wrap-up.

Recognize these people?
The thrillers that most interest me are the thriller murder mysteries. Some are classic "Who-done-its?" Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is that kind of thriller.  We don't know who committed the murder(s) until the end.
Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Peter Benchley's Jaws are "How-done-its?"  The readers (or movie viewers) know who the bad guy is from the very beginning.  The tension and thrill is in the question, "Will they catch him/her/it before more people are killed?"  Note that the bad guy doesn't have to be human.  It can be an animal like in Jaws.
Dick Francis died in 2010.  He had
received numerous awards including
three Edgars, the Crime Writers'
Association Cartier Diamond Dagger,
 and the MWA Grand Master Award.

Not all murder mysteries are thrillers.  Many are puzzles that are interesting and entertaining but don't sweep the reader into a thrilling action-filled ride. Dick Francis's works don't fit that category.  He was a master of the mystery thriller.

There are mystery/thriller writers whose works surpass the genre and become serious art.  Examples are:

Raymond Chandlers Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels; and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer novels.  They all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones. Somehow, I don't think I'll fall into that category, but I'm pleased enough with my new southern mystery thriller under my own name.

Wish me luck finding a publisher for this new venture.

Until we meet again… take care of you.

23 April 2013

Gratuitous Violence

Gratuitous Violence:  In literature, violence that is “unearned,” “unwarranted,” or “unjustified.” 
Collateral Damage:  Used euphemistically to refer to inadvertent casualties and destruction in civilian areas in the course of military operations.
                                                              — The Free Dictionary

        Last month driving back from the Gulf Shores of Alabama Pat and I (finally!) finished listening to World Without End by Ken Follett.  It took us a little over a year to get through this magnum opus since we only listen to audio books on car trips and since the narrated version of this particular novel weighs in at something over 45 hours.  The book is a sequel to a Follett classic -- Pillars of the Earth, which we also listened to and which deals with the building of a cathedral in the imagined town of Kingsbridge, England.  World Without End picks up the story two hundred years later, and focuses on the same church and the surrounding community and priory.

      Pillars of the Earth came in at number 33 on the BBC’s survey of 100 best loved books and was introduced to U.S. readers by Oprah Winfrey.  Ken Follett is also the author of a new trilogy focusing on world history from the late 1800s through the Cold War, two volumes of which, Fall of Giants and Winter of the World have been published.  I've listened to the first of these, and the second is queued up for our next car trip.  So, as you can see, we are Ken Follett fans.  He is is a great writer, and I read or listen to virtually everything he writes.  It was therefore with high expectation that we downloaded World Without End.  Probably 95% of the book was a very good read (err, listen).

      The rest was not.

        Stated simply, Follett (like a worrisome number of other authors) has what I find to be an unpleasant penchant for serving up detailed and unnecessary violence, inviting the reader to join him as he wallows in the torture, the blood and the death throes of others.  Lord knows we have enough of this in the real world without being subjected to it in the fiction we choose to read.

        Wait a minute, I hear you mutter.  This is SleuthSayers.  Virtually everyone here writes murder mysteries.  Certainly I have to plead guilty on that score – every Ellery Queen pastiche I have written kills off at least one character.  And various Ellery Queen parodies over the years have joked that those who allow themselves to stand too close to my friend Ellery must have a death wish since, invariably, someone in close proximity to the famous detective will die. 

        But there is a difference between the manner in which a Golden Age mystery typically portrays death and how it is handled by others, including Ken Follett, who, for whatever reason, allow themselves to become obsessed with the death itself.  The focus in the mysteries of Holmes, Christie, Wolfe and Queen almost invariably is not the violent act, but rather the detective's ability to use the deductive process to determine who committed the act and, even more importantly, how and why.  The violent act – the death of a character – is a necessary prerequisite to the deduction.  But that is it -- the stories are not about how people die, they are about how mysteries are solved.  As a result, the author generally does not force or expect the reader to sit through the details of the process of dying.   Indeed, more often than not writers of golden age mysteries leave death neatly off stage, or at the least take a deep breath and then try to get past the fact of death as rapidly and respectfully as possible.  Death is not, after all, why we are there. 

       And to me this captures what is wrong with Ken Follett’s handling of violence and death.  Winter of the World, like those mystery stories discussed above, is also not about death -- it is about the cathedral, and the lives of those living in its shadow.  True, death is a part of life, for Follett's characters as much as for the rest of us.  But unlike many of his writing colleagues Follett renders his kills in excruciating  detail and on center stage.  Thankfully a reader can skip pages, and a listener can fast forward, but if one reads, or listens to, every page of World Without End -- which, I emphasize, again, is otherwise a very well done piece of literature -- he or she will learn all there is to know about various ways to impale people, what it is like, minute-by-minute, to be burned at the stake, how to skin a thief while he is still alive so that his hide can eventually be nailed to a church door, how to bate a bear while killing it, the detailed process of how best to torture a cat to death while onlookers bet on how long the creature will continue to breathe.   I cover these incidents in three lines of text, but each (and others) comprise many pages of World Without End.  (I haven’t seen the miniseries version of World Without End but I am told that there the producers decided -- what the Hell? -- to set fire to a central character who otherwise survives the book version  un-charred.) 

      And why, one must ultimately ask, does the story vector into one of these episodes every 100 pages or so?  Unlike the deaths that must occur in order for a classic mystery to progress, or that are otherwise necessary for Follett to tell us the story of his cathedral, each of these incidents, particularly in the degree rendered by the author, is completely unnecessary to the progression of the story.  If anything, much of the violence interrupts Follett’s narrative of the church, the community, and the priory.

        Which leads me back to the quotes at the top of the article.   I do not like the notion of “collateral damage” in the real world – the premise that some innocent death is necessary in order to render a greater good – but I understand it.  I can also understand, and use, the concept in fiction.  It is what mystery writers do to an unfortunate few of the characters that we create.  Our victims may be innocent, but they sometimes still need to die, and at our hands.  We accept that they must do so in order to progress the story, to portray the character of the killer, or to lay a foundation for the deductive process that will ultimately unravel the murder in order that the villain can ultimately be unmasked.   However, while our characters are only born from our imaginations, this is no excuse to subject them to unnecessary violence – if we are good at what we do, we commit a great deal of effort attempting to bring our characters to life.   So why kill them without a reason?

       I can push this analysis uncomfortably further down the spectrum.  For example, I have enjoyed the entire Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris.  The violence that Harris subjects the reader to may at times be every bit as graphic as that portrayed by Follett in World Without End.  But there is a difference – each act is necessary to understand Hannibal, and therefore to progress the story.  The same can be said of the new NBC series Hannibal -- you may not like the underlying story but it cannot be told without also depicting the underlying violence.
      By contrast, nothing in Mr. Follett’s story is furthered by devoting pages to describing how to skin the thief alive, how to bate the bear, or how to torture that cat to death.  Those episodes  serve no purpose other than to perhaps titillate a reading public with tastes far different than my own, and I hope, different than most of ours.  When Follett stoops to this in the course of an otherwise interesting plot the violence is (again hearkening back to the top of the article) “gratuitous.”  It is “unearned,” “unwarranted,” and “unjustified.”

        In the end, we each have the freedom to write to our own tastes and within the constraints we impose on ourselves.  In the marketplace it is the reading public that will ultimately determine what and how much it is willing to take in.  But at base I share the view of writer and educator Jack Harrell who has grappled with the ethics of violence in What Violence in Literature Must Teach Us, an essay that comprises one chapter of Ethics, Literature, Theory, edited by Stephen George (Rowan & Littlefield 2005).
When the writer inflicts violence in fictional characters, three conditions must be met in order for the violence to be warranted, in order for it to have moral and aesthetic value.  First, the character must be presented in such a way that the readers are able to care about them.  Second, given the plot and circumstances, the violence must be inevitable.  And third, there must be sufficient tension in the story:  the violence itself must be challenged by an equal, opposing force.
      I think that Harrell comes close to nailing a general rule for the use violence in fiction.  But I also think that any rule, or approach, is difficult to apply with certainty in the writing process since there are, after all, an infinite number of stories out there.  There are churches, and there are also cannibals.

      Broader guidance may be gleaned from a source a bit further removed from the field of fiction -- the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart.  When the Court grappled with the issue of how to craft a useful and generally applicable definition for “obscenity” in the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Stewart, in a concurring opinion, offered the following rule for situations amorphous enough to make the articulation of specific guidelines difficult.  Justice Stewart’s proposed approach to identifying obscenity was this:  “I know it when I see it.” 

     So, too, gratuitous violence.