Showing posts with label Philip Roth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Roth. Show all posts

25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction

By Art Taylor

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:

Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!

24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?



Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump

By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.