Showing posts with label style. Show all posts
Showing posts with label style. Show all posts

10 June 2019

Muddling or Mulling Mueller

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I poured gas on a Facebook fire when I took people to task for bitching about how hard it was to read the Mueller Report. They complained that it was obscure, confusing, drenched in legalese, etc., etc., etc.
I disagreed.

I downloaded the cheapest version I could find onto my Kindle. That edition is 770 pages long and has no page numbers. It only tells me how much I have read and how much time I need at my current rate to finish the whole document. When I entered that discussion, I had read 25%, roughly 190 pages, and had more than three hours left in Volume I. Without timing myself or having page numbers to check, I guess I was reading about 60 pages an hour.

I am 72, have acute astigmatism in my right eye, have had cataract surgery in both eyes, and am mildly dyslexic. I also have a condition called "auditory subvocalization," which means that I hear a voice saying the words when I read. I can't read faster than the words in my head can be spoken. I don't know how fast that is, but in spite of all these "issues," I had no trouble grasping the content of the report.


My perception is that the average American doesn't read enough to be skillful, the academic equivalent of the guy who plays golf once a month and wonders why he doesn't get better. I see many (usually older) people reading at my health club, often on tablets, eReaders, or their cell phones, but few read a "real" book anymore.

Seeing a few words on a small screen changes the impact and effect of the prose because you may not be able to see how long or short a paragraph is, and it makes a difference. A paragraph is a form of punctuation.

Years ago, Chris Offutt warned writers at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference to proof-read and revise from hard copy instead of on a computer. He warned us about the "screen-sized paragraph" because it changes or removes context and rhythm.

As we dumb-down reading lists in schools and people read on smaller devices, they lose the ability to absorb and process words in a larger context. I suspect that's one reason so many people have trouble grappling with Mueller's report. That said, I give them credit for trying to read it at all. I don't know a single other person at my health club who has made the effort. Conversely, two of my musician friends have read more of it than I have (As I post this Friday morning, I have finished Volume 1).

Remember, Mueller was not trying to write a page-turning best-seller. He is a lawyer charged with investigating issues and presenting a report to the legal branch of the United States government. He was constrained by departmental guidelines and the rules of law and evidence. Naturally, the document uses legal jargon. My biggest surprise is that it doesn't use much more of it.

This passage is where I stopped reading to write the first draft of this post:

On February 26, 2017, Manafort met Kilimnik in Madrid, where Kilimnik had flown from Moscow. In his first two interviews with the Office, Manafort denied meeting with Kilimnik on his Madrid trip and then--after being confronted with documentary evidence that Kilimnik was in Madrid at the same time as him--recognized that he met him in Madrid. Manafort said that Kilimnik had updated him on a criminal investigation into so-called "black ledger" payments to Manafort that was being conducted by Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau [REDACTED: Grand Jury].

Manafort remained in contact with Kilimnik through 2017 and into the spring of 2018. Those contacts included matters pertaining to the criminal charges brought by the Office and the Ukraine peace plan. In early 2018, Manafort retained his longtime polling firm to craft a draft poll in Ukraine, sent the pollsters a three-page primer on the plan sent by Kilimnik, and worked with Kilimnik to formulate the polling questions. The primer sent to the pollsters SPECIFICALLY called for the United States and President Trump to support the Autonomous Republic of Donbas with Yanukovych as Prime Minister, and a series of questions in the draft poll asked for opinions on Yanukovych's role in resolving the conflict in Donbas. (The poll was NOT SOLELY about Donbas; it also sought participants' views on leaders apart from Yanukovych as they pertained to the 2019 Ukraine presidential election.)

The Office has NOT uncovered evidence that Manafort brought the Ukraine peace plan to the attention of the Trump Campaign or the Trump Adminstration. Kilimnik continued his efforts to promote the peace plan to the Executive Branch (e.g., U.S. Department of State) into the summer of 2018.

The passage uses long sentences (the average is about 28 words), but few subordinate clauses, appositives, or modifiers (I could do with a few more pronouns, but the repeated proper nouns are clear). It's less convoluted than Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, or most of the other Victorian behemoths we were forced to confront in undergraduate days. In the 20th century, Faulkner, Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are much more complex. In a good translation, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are easy to read, and Mueller's excerpt has a lot in common with the Russians (Yes, I see the irony).

The excerpt is not difficult to read because of the vocabulary, except for the unfamiliar Russian names. The normal structure is subject, verb, complement, over and over. The four words in bold caps are the only adverbs in the entire passage, and two of them have the common "-ly" ending. If you read the passage aloud, it moves smoothly and quickly. If the names are a problem, substitute "Smith," "Brown" and "Jones" for Yanukovych, Kilimnik and Manafort and listen to what I mean.

Mueller's document illustrates how adverbs weaken prose. Chris Offutt (above) said that adverbs are the weakest words in English, but I didn't appreciate how right he was until now.

Strunk and White bury their advice to "Avoid Qualifiers" on page 73 of my current coy of The Elements of Style, and they discuss "Little," "Pretty," "Rather" and "Very" in one paragraph. They don't expand to explain how and why adverbs in general are weak, but Mueller demonstrates it for us. Adverbs QUALIFY or LIMIT a verb. They don't add, they subtract. A strong verb DOES or IS. When you add an adverb, it DOES or IS only to some extent.

For vigor, Mueller's writing reminds me more of this writer, whom you might recognize:

Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.

This paragraph from Hemingway's "The Killers" averages about 22 words per sentence. The average word in the Mueller excerpt is 5 letters long and in the Hemingway passage 3.8 letters.

I wonder how many people who had trouble reading the Mueller Report are still reading THIS.

06 April 2019

Dreyer's English

by John M. Floyd

The other day I discovered, while piddling around on Amazon, a book called Dreyer's English--An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. At first I didn't pay it much attention--I already own a lot of books about language and style. Some are worthwhile and some are not.

Then I remembered my wife telling me about a recent NPR interview with the author, Benjamin Dreyer, who is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. I looked up the broadcast online and listened to it, and that made up my mind. This book sounded different from most of the others. I ordered it, received it in two days, and read it in one evening. (The book is no small, stick-it-in-your-pocket volume like The Elements of Style; it's almost 300 pages.)

As it turned out, it was delightful. Or as close to it as that subject can be. Literary style--grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, paragraph structure, word choice, word usage--can be a dry (Dreyer?) topic. But this book was not only informative, it was fun.

Here are just a few of the (mostly paraphrased) pointers and observations I found interesting in Dreyer's English.

- You don't always have to precede a sentence-ending "too" with a comma. It's okay to write "Me too."

- Feel free to end a sentence shaped like a question with a period instead of a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn't it.

- Always use the series (or serial, or Oxford) comma. You know this already, but the second comma in "red, white, and blue" is the series comma. Its use can prevent the following disasters:

Dreyer's example: Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector. (Which implies that Mandela might've been older than we thought, and had an odd hobby.)

My example: Attending the party were two hookers, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. (Which implies two people instead of four.)

- Limit your use of words like very, rather, really, quite, just, pretty, and surely.

- Ignore the Big Three grammar/style "rules":
1. Never Begin a Sentence with And or But
2. Never Split an Infinitive
3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition

(I happily break them all the time, but it's good to hear an expert say it's okay.)

- Never use an apostrophe to pluralize a word. This also holds true for abbreviations: CDs, ATMs, IDs, SASEs.

- When a possessive apostrophe is used with a word ending in "s," put another "s" after the apostrophe. (Strunk and White agree with this.) Mr. Jones's tractor, Colonel Sanders's recipe, the boss's wife.

- If the title of a work starts with "The," include it in a possessive construction:

Incorrect: Carson McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Correct: Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

If you don't follow this rule, you could end up with something like this:

James Joyce's Dead
(Which Dreyer says sounds more like a tragic headline.)

- Cut back on exclamation points. He says, "Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime."

- Always use a comma if there's any question of clarity.

His example: In June Truman's secretary of state flew to Moscow.
My example: In time travel will become less frustrating.

- Hyphenate multiple-word adjectives:

first-rate movie
fifth-floor apartment
all-you-can-eat buffet

- Merge prefixes with main words hyphenlessly:


(Unless such a combination looks confusing or awkward, like recreate or coworker.)

- Don't use "hissed" if what is spoken contains no "s" sounds. "Take your hand off me, you brute," she hissed.

- A tip for recognizing passive voice vs. active voice: If you can append "by zombies" to the end of a sentence, you've written a sentence in the passive voice. The floor was swept (by zombies).

- "Blond" is an adjective: He has blond hair; she has blond hair. Both "blond" and "blonde" are nouns: A man with blond hair is a blond; a woman with blond hair is a blonde.

Examples of our evolving language:

"light bulb" became "light-bulb" and then "lightbulb"
"Web site" became "Web-site" and then "website"

- Dreyer's view on internal monologue (or what he calls "articulated rumination"):

In the old days, authors said: "What is to become of me?" Estelle thought.
This eventually became: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
And now we're more likely to see: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.

A final piece of advice:

- Sometimes it's better to just reword a sentence than to struggle with what's right or wrong or politically correct.

His example:
Instead of saying "It is I who am late" or "It is I who is late," say "I'm late."

My example:
Instead of saying "Everyone take their seats" or "Everyone take his seat" or "Everyone take his/her seat" or Everyone take his or her seat," say "Sit down."

Some of his advice I didn't agree with. I prefer a.m. and p.m., he prefers A.M. and P.M.; he prefers "mind-racking" to "mind-wracking"; he doesn't like the word actually and I wouldn't be able to live without my actuallys, etc. (But my wife was kind enough to remind me that he works for Random House and my major was electrical engineering, so . . .)

The book also clarifies dozens of often-misused words and phrases: breach/breech, continual/continuous, discreet/discrete, everyday/every day, evoke/invoke, loath/loathe, mantel/mantle, onboard/on board, peak/peek/pique, underway/under way, workout/work out

And it lists (as a sort of bonus) many often-misspelled or mispunctuated people names, place names, and brand names. A few examples: Anjelica Huston, Katharine Hepburn, Ann-Margret, T.S. Eliot, Nicolas Cage, Bleecker Street, Caesars Palace, Fontainebleau, Savile Row, Dr Pepper, Froot Loops, JCPenney, Plexiglas, Reddi Wip

To sum all this up, I haven't enjoyed a book about language this much since Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and that was sixteen years ago.

Give Dreyer's English a try.

05 January 2017


by Eve Fisher

Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!

30 April 2016

To Whom It May Concern

by John M. Floyd

Having been a writer for several years now (and a reader for many more), I have accumulated what I suppose is an adequate vocabulary. The funny thing is, I sometimes find myself avoiding the use of perfectly good words when I write my stories, for the simple reason that they aren't often used in real life. Examples? Well, there are the many less-than-well-known-and-rarely-used suspects, words like myriad and plethora and beatific, etc.--but I'm talking mostly about words that are widely known but still not used much, in either fiction or in normal conversation. Here are three that come to mind: periodically, frankly, and whom.

What's wrong with "periodically"? Nothing--except that you seldom hear it or read it. Probably because it's just as easy to say "often" or "occasionally" or "regularly" or "now and then," which mean almost the same thing, minus the raised-eyebrow reactions. And what about "frankly"? Nothing wrong with it either, my dear, except that "honestly" seems to work better and sounds a little less pretentious. (I was once told that if you hear someone say "frankly," watch out, because whatever comes next is probably a lie.) But the one I most avoid--notice that I didn't say eschew--is "whom."

Yes, I know, there are many times when "whom" is correct, or at least grammatically correct, and it even sounds right, from time to time, as in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The problem is, it usually sounds--especially in dialogue--uppity and constipated. Anytime somebody says to me, on the phone, "To whom am I speaking?" I picture the late John Gielgud, or maybe Carson on Downton Abbey.

I don't need no steenking rules

Apparently there are others who (not whom) agree with me. Here are a few quotes and observations on that subject that I've found in my "how to write" books:

"Whom has long been perceived as formal verging on pompous . . . The rules for its proper use are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop whom into their speech whenever they want to sound posh."--Steven Pinker, A Sense of Style

"'Whom do you trust?' and 'Whom will it be?' are technically correct but painfully stilted. Go ahead and use Who do you trust? and Who will it be? except in the most formal of writing."--Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

"As far as I'm concerned, 'whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler."--author Calvin Trillin

"About half the people you hear spewing the word whom in everyday conversation don't really know how. They're bluffing. They know just enough to get it right sometimes--that's all they need to make themselves feel like big shots."--June Cassagrande, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

"In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing . . ."--Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

Going by the book

If you do choose to salute to the Grammar Police and perform your duty, when should "whom" be used?

The rule I like best, although I've forgotten where I first heard it, is simple. (Since any discussion of objects, participles, noun antecedents, subjective cases, etc., makes my head hurt, I prefer simple rules.) Here it is:

If you can substitute he, she, or they in the sentence, use "who," and if you can substitute him, her, or them, use "whom." (For him the bell tolls.)

Sometimes it gets tricky. "I'll date whomever I want to date" is correct, but so is "I'll date whoever wants to go out with me." The second sentence requires the "who" form because it's the subject of another action within the sentence. But my dumb rule always works.

More examples:

Judy invited to the party only those who she thought would behave. (She thought they would behave.)

Judy wouldn't tell me whom she invited to the party. (She invited them to the party.)

I don't know who is going to take me to work. (She is going to take me to work.)

I don't know whom Dad told to take me to work. (Dad told her to take me to work.)

For whom the spell trolls

I still believe, though, that you should minimize using whom if your fiction is, like mine, more informal than formal. Can you imagine one of your characters--unless he or she is an English professor--saying the following?

"Guess with whom I had a date last night."
"It's not what you know, it's whom you know."
"Whom are you going to believe, him or me?"

Maybe you can. I can't.

I listed a quote earlier from A Sense of Style. That book also mentioned the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm, which showed an owl in a tree calling "Whom!" and a raccoon on the ground replying "Show-off!"

And this excerpt from an old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon:

NATASHA FATALE: Ve need a safecracker!
BORIS BADENOV: Ve already got a safecracker!
NATASHA: Ve do? Whom?
BORIS: Meem, dat's whom!

William Safire, author of the New York Times's "On Language" column, once said, "Let tomorrow's people decide who they want to be president." According to Steven Pinker, if Safire can misuse who/whom in this way, so can he.

Questions? Anyone? Anyone?

What's your opinion, on all this? Do you, like Natasha, use whom at every opportunity? Do you avoid it like Kryptonite? Do you often find, or have you ever found, the need to use whom in a piece of fictional dialogue? Fictional narrative? Have you ever substituted who even though you knew it wasn't grammatically correct? Is your head beginning to hurt too?

Whatever your views, I wish good luck to all of you who write stories, and to all of those for whom they are written.

29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You

by Robert Lopresti

First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.

Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"

03 June 2013


by Janice Law

Many years ago when I was a high school student, I innocently remarked to my art teacher that I would like to be an artist. I’ve always remembered his response: “Learn to be a painter then hope.”

No doubt today he would be pilloried for discouraging young creativity, but, of course, he was entirely correct. Art and that illusive thing, creativity, emerge out of craft and not out of thin air.

For this reason, and because I was largely self taught in both writing and painting, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of ‘creative’ writing courses. Twenty years plus teaching college students also convinced me that we go about teaching writing almost entirely backwards, emphasizing academic and research-oriented writing, which few people will ever do once they leave the ivy halls, and teaching the sort of professional writing most will do in business and journalism as an upper level speciality.

So what do my reservations about college writing courses have to do with mystery writing? Just this. If you are trying to write mysteries or their big cousins, thrillers, or their more distant relatives the romance or fantasy, first learn the basic functional professional writing style and then learn the formats of your chosen genre.

Sure, we all like to think our writing is stylish and that on good days we could channel Raymond Chandler or Fred Vargas or Kate Atkinson. But lets face it. Most genre writing relies on clean, straight-forward prose with fast moving verbs and only a judicious sprinkle of eye-catching adjectives.

It’s no secret that many highly successful genre writers move over from journalism or other professional writing where they learned to write clearly, grammatically cleanly, and concisely. They also learned something else which I spent almost two decades teaching humanities majors desperate for some practical advice: how to discover a writing format, how to analyze it, and how to copy it.

I realize the ‘C’ word is out of favor, but whether you are learning to construct a press release – always my publishing class’s first exercise – or the cliff-hanging save the world type thriller, you’ve got to master the form. Ideas are great, style is wonderful, but both need a container, and that container is the format, the form that readers expect.

Of course, it is a lot easier to teach someone how to write a press release – who, where, what, why, when, in the first graph, a couple of the now obligatory quotes, a brief elaboration of facts, plus contact info– than it is to write a novel or even a short story. But as with learning languages, learn one and the second is easier. In the case of writing, easier because the beginner is already looking for structure and has taken the first steps by learning to analyze one form.

And how is this done? Read, read, read, but read actively. That is, begin to pay attention not just to the story, in this case, but to how it was done, what the various ingredients are – action, dialogue, exposition– and in what proportions.

If one does that consistently, soon one realizes that there are only so many patterns. In our genre, these include the chase, the woman in jeopardy, the step-by-step investigation, the revenge plot, the caper, the sure thing gone wrong, and my own favorite, the so called ‘biter bit,’ where a bad guy is ‘hoist on his own petard’ as Shakespeare, that master of many genres, so aptly put it.

Unlike a lot of writers, I started first on novels and came to short stories later, but the process was still the same. In my case, I destroyed cheap paperbacks of several favorite writers – Eric Ambler, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy Sayers, to be exact – by underlining dialogue, exposition and action in various colors, giving me a visual representation of the structures and making me read the novels ultra carefully.

Was this self education successful? Modestly. I am not a gifted plotter and, yes, structure is still a difficulty for me. Someone with a greater talent for plot structure, even if a less skillful writer, would do as well or probably better. But one plays the hand one is dealt.

One cannot acquire more talent or better ideas. But one can become a skillful enough writer to convey the ideas one does have and good enough at developing the structure of stories and novels to put them in.