Showing posts with label good writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label good writing. Show all posts

04 December 2016

Writing the Obvious


by Leigh Lundin

What makes a good writer?
He English good.


We take for granted our favorite authors are good writers. Like a talented musician, an Olympian gymnast, or an Oscar-winning actor, they entertain us on a professional level. We might not always experience a virtuoso performance, but we’re satisfied if we receive our money’s worth.

A few decades ago, I got to know workers in a factory. A supervisor– a portly, prejudiced and petty little man, lucky to have a job at all– complained about managing Portuguese women. Mr Eddy infamously said, “Their English, they don’t speak good.” In office jokes, that morphed into “They don’t English good.” He of the immense girth never understood the giggles behind his back nor grasped the fact the Portuguese senhoras had him well in hand. When the ladies answered the phone, the conversation went like this:
“Is Mr. Eddy ’round?”
“He shore is.”

Of course the man was complaining about the accent while failing technically correct English himself. Both are among the standards by which we judge people’s ability to communicate.

Regarding pastiches, I tend toward a dour viewpoint. Few authors who attempt take-offs of Sherlock Holmes and other great characters reach the high bar in my mind. There are exceptions including Dale Andrews and James Lincoln Warren.

Last month, I read David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lagercrantz’s version was… adequate. I couldn’t lay down Larsson’s novels, but while Lagercrantz’s effort was moderately entertaining, it wasn’t unputdownable.

I thought about what we admire in writing. A dozen or more factors may strike us as fine craftsmanship, and we may at various times accept differing conclusions. We may mix-and-match, perhaps appearing contradictory to others but no doubt consistent without our own mind.

Take for instance our own B.K. Stevens’ collection, Her Infinite Variety. I read the first two stories featuring Iphigenia Woodhouse and her professor mother. You will not find characters like them elsewhere. They’re engaging and Mrs Prof Woodhouse, well… She’s the kind of person you’d affectionately delight in unless she was your own mother. Then you’d frantically Google ‘matricide’. In discussing the characters, Bonnie mentions Nero Wolfe, but it’s more complicated than that: Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor. If it sounds complicated, it’s simply fun.

Following are a few writing criteria that could appeal to us readers.
Technically Correct
In some ways, this is both the most and least obvious, the English teacher criterion. We don’t notice the mechanics until bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation intrudes upon our consciousness. An author has to do is get the basics right, but a writer like Art Taylor is much more than an English professor.
Character
Jan Grape is able to sketch characters without bogging the reader in descriptions. Most of us enjoy character-driven stories and we tend to remember great characters from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lector. Mysteries found in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody / Ramses series aren’t especially noteworthy, but her characters in the larger storied context are wonderful. As Steve Liskow points out, your character is your brand.
Plot
I admire a clever plot. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent strike me as clever, clever plots. The versatile John Floyd has dreamed up hundreds of smart plot lines.
Beautiful, Poetic
Moving, Powerful
Descriptive: Visual, Aural (5+ Senses)
Sometimes the writing is so elegant, we follow it instead of the action. Janice Law, for example, uses word art. A personal opinion poll reveals in no particular order: Baudelaire, Willian Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, William H. Gass, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Tao Lin, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Virginia Woolf.
Clever Wording
Clever Wordplay
While the above are noted for their word-smithing, Chaucer and Voltaire are known for misdirection. Voltaire says one thing but means another. Similarly, Chaucer is equally hard to pin down.
I enjoy wonderful wording on a small scale. Erika Jahneke may be disabled, but her writing dances: “Lotta gimps, lotta problems. Nobody I see all day has a leg to stand on.” “Flirtatiousness is not usually considered an independent-living goal.” “As a human being, his best ratings would come if God graded on the curve.”
I find a few mystery writers particularly rewarding in their descriptions: John Lutz, Sue Grafton, Caroline Graham, Brian Freemantle, F. Paul Wilson, Michael Marshall Smith, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Noah Hawley, Susan Dunlop, Sparkle Hayter, and Anne Perry. Short story specialist Rob Lopresti is another smart, smart word guy.
Descriptively Precise, Accurate
Exact writing is highly valued in technical writing and legal circles, but beyond brain surgery and rocket science, accuracy is critical when baking a cake, sewing a shirt, or building a boat. When it comes to fiction, Michael Crichton comes to mind. Likewise, James Lincoln Warren uses great precision in his historical novels. I also point to our Melissa Yi’s Hope Sze medical series. And then we come to a special case, Brian Thornton. Who else would dare write The Book of Bastards?
Informative
Some authors are known for authentic minutiae, whether historical or relating to some specialized subject such as archeology, glass-blowing, or bell-ringing… or economics like Eve Fisher, spying by David Edgerley Gates, and old Parisian pickpockets by RT Lawton. Our Paul Marks lovingly describes historical Los Angeles and O'Neil De Noux depicts New Orleans much as Jeffrey Deaver paints New York City. The trick is to make the subjects interesting, not bore the reader with useless trivia, but allow an open reader to gather a little knowledge. I’ve written a short story (yes, I know I should submit it sometime) of an actual mystery set in the British Midlands. It’s accurate down to fine details including names, documents, and court testimony.
Funny
Janet Evanovich is known for her humor in her Stephanie Plum series. Likewise our Melodie Campbell writes comedy, combining droll with drama. Barb Goffman writes gentle pieces from absurd situations such as kidnapping a groundhog.
Clever Cultural References
At one time, educated people were well-versed in classical literature. At a minimum, everyone understood the Holy Bible and many had at least a smattering of Greek and Roman mythology. Mention Sisyphus or Cerebus, Scylla or Charybdis, and listeners knew who you were talking about. To be sure, Harry Potter draws upon classic literature and mythology, but these days audiences are more likely to expect pop references.
Clever White Space
You may wonder about this item. This falls in the less-is-more category. While shorter chapters and less dense wording allow text to ‘breathe’, they won’t by themselves mend bad prose. But in this situation, consider Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. In One Virgin Too Many, she has two or three chapters in a row with about the same number of sentences. Why? She uses the technique to portray an intimate seduction scene. Trust me, it works.
Clever Bland
How can bland represent good writing? Most of the previous examples draw attention to the author, especially the beautiful and the cleverly descriptive. The story slows or even stops as the reader ponders the golden words on the page. But a more subtle writer, perhaps self-effacing but certainly disciplined, secrets himself behind the scenes, letting the puppets entertain the audience without making them aware of his (or her) presence. Ideally the story maintains a brisk pace allowing the reader to submerge in the setting among the characters and the plot. Lee Child impresses me as an author who disdains frills; he stands back and lets the action do the talking. That says a lot.

As Julie Andrews or John Coltrane might say, these are a few of my favorite things. What constitutes fine writing in your book?

30 July 2012

Brain Exercises


by Jan Grape

How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.

17 November 2011

Good Writing Sells


by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Travis Erwin

My friend, Travis Erwin, had his first-ever book signing this past weekend. The novel, The Feedstore Chronicles, is not the type of fiction he usually writes, but is a funny, can't-put-it-down, quick read. Travis describes himself as "a native Texan, a humorist, a devout carnivore unafraid to write or read a good love story."

A stereotypical-looking big ol' boy (he's past six feet tall) and refuses to eat vegetables (unless you count fried okra), Travis is a real friend when you need one. Instead of sitting in front of a computer, he looks like all he does is watch football (he is a Saints fan!). He has a beautiful wife, two rambunctious, good-looking sons and is a true enigma to me as he usually writes women's fiction.

Now if that last bit didn't stop you in your tracks, not much will. This is what I find interesting in what we're told as writers particularly about what will and what won't sell in the mystery market. When I began writing in earnest, writer's conference after writer's conference speakers directed us not to write serial killer stories as they wouldn't sell since the market was swollen with those kind of submissions. Well, serial killer stories continued to sell and show up on the bookstands, in the movies and on television on a regular basis.

We were told our characters had to be believable. A protagonist or even a sidekick that fell into the description of Travis Erwin would not be believeable to most editors. Heck, if I didn't know him so well, I'd agree.

My take on all this is that it is good writing that sells. If the story idea seems overdone -- as in the case of yet another story about teenagers and vampires -- well, that depends on the author drawing the readership in with a good tale.

Travis said his story is based on compilations of some people he'd met through the years and experiences that actually happened when he worked as a teenager in a feedstore. I think most writers use their personal history to create characters that ring true to the reading public. If we read about a detective who shares some of our own qualities, quirks or behavios, then the story is more plausible. I also enjoy when the hero isn't quite as heroic or "proper."

When Nero Wolfe consumes breakfast in bed while wearing silk pajamas, I know he understands the fine art of dining that most rushing about in the Fast Food World has never experienced. Dining with nero Wolfe is recalling a time when everything wasn't quite so hurried and long before grunge became commonplace in eateries. Unfortunately, "dressing for dinner" is regulated for a few times during the year in my own life, so I appreciate it when a writer arranges such an occasion in his own stories.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not all fussy all the time with my characters either. Sometimes the best fun is when characters do something that wouldn't pass muster with the politically correct crowd. There's something about a tough guy in detective novels that lures me into spending time with them. I adore Mike Hammer's hardboilded persona, even when he flies into a rage. Maybe it's because no matter how much we have benefited from the feminist movement in the workplace, a girl likes to know a man would and could protect her if needed. This doesn't mean I'm not above wanting the heroine to be able to take care of herself aka Stephanie Plum or Kinsey Millhone. I don't know many who like a wimpy woman these days in literature -- or in person. I want my heroine to be able to handle the bad guys all on her own and if she saves someone else while doing it, that's even better.

Sometimes I like to settle back with a good story that will make me laugh out loud. The Feedstore Chronicles fits into this category. Who doesn't need to lean back, kick off their shoes and just enjoy a fun story once in awhile? Thanks Travis for allowing me to do just that yesterday. You made me blush just a little, and that's probably a good thing, too.