Thursday, July 28, 2016

Close Reading 2

Zestful Blog Post #171

Welcome to the second installment of Close Reading!

I’m writing an article for Writer’s Digest magazine about pivot points in story development. While skimming around my bookshelves for examples last night, I found myself absorbed in rereading passages from James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity (first published serially in Liberty magazine in 1936). Now, the passage I’ll quote below is not an example of a pivot point. I’ll discuss those in a future post, after the article is in the can. But this passage just grabbed me, and I want to show it to you and talk about it. If you haven’t read the book (or seen the excellent movie, 1944), the protagonist is an insurance salesman, and he’s just entered into a plot with a woman to kill her husband, share the insurance payout, and live happily ever after.

[begin quote]
All right, I’m an agent. I’m a croupier in that game. I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. That’s all. When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back of that wheel, instead of out front. I had seen so many houses burned down, so many cars wrecked, so many corpses with blue holes in their temples, so many awful things that people had pulled to crook the wheel, that that stuff didn’t seem real to me any more. If you don’t understand that, go to Monte Carlo or some other place where there’s a big casino, sit at a table, and watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball. After you’ve watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn’t be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn’t leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate. No, he wouldn’t care. Not that baby.
[end quote]

That is a single paragraph, and it ends chapter 2 (of 14). This brilliant graph is an example of powerful narrative, and of strong character voice.

Of particular interest to me is Cain’s choice of the word [that] instead of [who] in this instance: ‘…watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball.’ Of course [who] would be correct. We are talking about a man, not a thing. If you were writing a term paper or literary essay, you would naturally write: [the quicksand that swallowed the hunter], but you wouldn’t necessarily write [the hunter that fell into the quicksand]. No, you’d write [the hunter who fell into the quicksand]. But Cain wrote the book in the first-person voice of his main character, Walter Huff (changed to Neff in the movie). And he shows us here, very quickly and subtly, that Huff is a smart man without much formal education. A guy who doesn’t care a lot about niceties.

What else does the reader learn in this passage? We learn from Huff that he sees life as a game—a deadly serious one, but a game just the same. We learn that he’s thought about committing insurance fraud for a long time, and he describes how that came to be: First he was doing his job, trying to think of scams to stay ahead of the crooks who kept trying to cheat his employer. To stymie crooks, it helps to think like a crook. Then, the progression kept going, almost-sorta-kinda naturally: He started to imagine himself being a crook—a successful one, not a loser, given what he knows from the inside. But that was just a fantasy at first, the kind of fantasy practically everybody can relate to. Then, however, the fantasy took hold and became a more realistic theory. Then, the right circumstances presented themselves, and now he’s got a solid plan that involves murder.

The way Cain constructed the graph is partly responsible for its impact. Huff drones on in the first few lines, then hits us with […that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips…] which practically serves as a bullet itself. Then we get to […so many corpses with blue holes in their temples…] The starkness of that, the blunt, cold frankness, all told in the same steady cadence!

And we learn how Huff rationalizes the evil he’s about to commit. He hasn’t got a soul, not anymore, he tries to explain; he’s seen so much evil he’s jaded. And then Huff paints a picture of the roulette croupier, he tells a little hypothetical story, and it’s so real even we hear the gunshot when it comes.

If there’s a paragraph in all of literature that portrays self-interested cynicism better, while at the same time ingratiating the character with the reader by appealing to the reader's logic and intelligence—I don’t know of it. The reader is meant to identify with Huff, and we do, we pull for him, because we appreciate his raw intelligence, his ambition, his drive to do a complicated, dangerous job properly. Elsewhere in the story we’re invited to dislike Phyllis’s husband and to fear Phyllis’s treacherousness. We hope Huff won’t come out of this too badly. This is the embodiment of noir fiction: The story of someone who commits evil and with whom we empathize.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Spare No One

Zestful Blog Post #170

Today’s post, about easy ways to make minor characters memorable, follows this raft of announcements.

Am happy to report that Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lam, published by Launch Point Press and edited by my good buddies Lori L. Lake and Jessie Chandler, won a Goldie award at the recent GCLS conference. My story, “Untold Riches,” leads off the collection, which comprises 15 stories by lezfic luminaries including living legend and all-around cool person Katherine V. Forrest.

Speaking of Jessie Chandler, her new book, Blood Money Murder, is launching tonight (July 21, 2016) at the fabulous Once Upon a Crime bookshop in Minneapolis. Congratulations, Jessie!

Remember that excerpt on internal dialogue I posted a couple weeks ago? From my chapter in the latest Writer’s Digest book, Crafting Dynamic Dialogue? Was totally floored and honored to have that very, as in MY, chapter be excerpted by Jane Friedman in her prestigious blog. If you check out that link, you’ll read more of the chapter than I excerpted here. For the full deal, get the book. And for a well curated collection of terrific advice on writing and publishing, sign up for Jane’s blog. Thanks again, Jane!

(Side note: If Jane excerpts you in her blog, she sends you a heads-up the night before so in the morning you know why your Twitter account is suddenly lighting up, and so you can check in and respond to comments.)

Here’s an interview of me talking about working for Writer’s Digest and other aspects of my writing life. Thanks to the Florida author and media guru Dona Lee Gould for interviewing me for her radio show Culture Coast on RadioEar Network. She did a wonderful edit job on the piece, as I tended to jump somewhat untidily from topic to topic. Thank you, Dona Lee!

Lastly, I’ve agreed to present “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS” on Saturday, October 8 in Venice, Fla. The event is a one-day intensive mini-con for writers called Sleuthfest on Saturday, put on by the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I’m honored to be in the company of such name brands as Elaine Viets, Neil Plakcy,  and Lisa Black. Special thanks to Randy Rawls (who will also be a presenter) for putting this act together! Local friends, I'd love to see you there.

[As this blog post contains so many items, I thought I'd throw in this photo I took at the Eastman museum in New York. It's an installation of bottles of dyes used in photography, in olden times when everything was printed on paper. Many items. For the heck of it.]

OK, so now here’s my post for today. It’s from (well, I guess here’s another goddam announcement) the September issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, on newsstands now. I wrote an article for them called, “It’s the Little Things,” and here’s what I had to say about making even minor characters memorable:

[Excerpt begins:] It’s easy to hotfoot it over a minor character, whether in fiction or nonfiction. But if the person is important enough to exist in the world of your story, let your readers picture that existence.

-        Pick a detail, any detail.

How would you describe the guy who bagged your groceries yesterday? Did you see him? What about the friend of a friend you met the other night? Or the baby held by the distant cousin who showed up at that family funeral?

Being observant in your own life helps when you need to come up with a detail to characterize someone. For a minor character, select just about anything, as long as you use something.

The knock-kneed cheerleader pointed and screamed.

-        Better still, pick two details.

The boss’s wife smelled like Jack Daniel’s and drove a red Ferrari.

Timmy’s chin quivered, but he gripped his bear tightly and kept quiet.

Even a character who appears only in passing should exist in the reader’s eye. For a super minor character, pick out just one detail. For a literally glancing description, make it visual.

The tram operator’s filthy hands worked the levers, and we were off.

The buxom croupier sticked the dice over.

-        Pan the crowd, then zoom in.

Describing groups of people can be challenging, but you cannot get away with such say-nothing generalities as:

The people at the party had on a multitude of different outfits.

Instead, give one or two overall details, then zoom in on one person as a representative.

Guests in classic Hyannisport gear—sweaters thrown over shoulders, loafers without socks—crowded into the refreshment tent. “Where’s the champers?” demanded a sunburned young woman in a tight white tennis dress. [end of excerpt]

Thanks for the great edit job on that article to top WD boss, Jessica Strawser. For more, get Writer's Digest.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Story Like No Other

Zestful Blog Post #169

I hope the title of this post made you do a double-take, because of course every story is like no other; every story is unique to some extent. Not every story in the world, to be sure, is terribly interesting or even worthwhile, which is the point. If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook—or Facefriends, as my brother, who does not have an account there, gamely refers to it—you might have seen my post the other day about my YMCA buddy Chuck. I’ve copied the post below, after the picture.

Of any post I’ve ever put up on FB, this one has received the most likes, comments, and shares. I’m not terribly active on FB, so to me the following stats are remarkable: as of this writing, 197 likes, 29 comments, 5 shares. I have 1,087 friends on FB, though almost all of my posts are public and I think anybody can like, comment, or share. People have been moved to tears by the post. It’s a story about a guy who got a tough break and who is working his damnedest to overcome it.

My point today is to reinforce simply this: People love stories. People learn from stories. People get inspired by stories. People NEED stories. If you tell a story from your heart, with love and truth, you will succeed. What is success? It’s reaching readers, even one, with something meaningful to them. If you are a storyteller, you are a core asset to this world. Tell it plain, tell it fancy. But tell it.

Took this selfie yesterday while chilling for a few minutes with Chuck in the snack room.

FB post:
So. This story. Last year while lifeguarding part time at the local YMCA, I met a guy named Chuck. Middle-aged, scrawny, disabled from a stroke. Used a base-line manual wheelchair, shoved himself along mostly with one hand and one foot. Had much trouble making himself understood, but I learned he'd been doing rehab for months. I operated the lift to get him in and out of the pool, where he regularly, doggedly attended water exercise classes. Made a point of calling him by name and cheering him on.
Last summer, a few months after getting to know him, was driving past the bus stop near the Y and saw him sitting in his chair in the hot sun waiting for the bus. The bastard was using THE BUS to get to and from his water exercise classes. How much easier to just stay home and vegetate in front of the TV? How much easier to just say, "I can't; (it's too much trouble)." How much easier to say, "I don't have a helper; I can't." Solo, he was helping his own crabbed-over, big-black-glasses-wearing, buck-toothed, determined ass.
After my six-month stint lifeguarding, which ended last December, I didn't see him as often, but I did see him. Yesterday, when I was swimming my lengths, I saw him in the water exercise group and waved. Later, as I was leaving the building, I saw him WALKING along the sidewalk outside. Using one arm-cane, big brace on his leg, glasses held together with a walnut-sized wad of Scotch tape, slowly, slowly, he was walking on his two feet.
Ran up to him. "Chuck! You're walking!" He smiled and nodded, and that was a hell of a great moment. A hell of a great moment. A hell of a beautiful sight. [end of post]

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Reverse Reading

Zestful Blog Post #168

Hi! I’m always so happy to see you. (I’ve never said that before in this blog, but it’s true. Everyone who reads my blog is my friend, because I get about as intellectually intimate as it’s possible to get, here. As soon as I upload a post, I imagine you reading and thinking along with me.)

The other day I wanted something to read that would be pleasantly stimulating but require no heavy lifting, so I cracked open my old Sherlock Holmes collection at random and read “The Naval Treaty.” Reread it, actually, but it had been so long that I didn’t remember the plot. As all Holmes readers do, I tried to guess the solution to the mystery. [Spoiler alert from here on; I’ll be discussing plot specifics.] I was fairly lazy about it, but one early hint stuck in my mind, and lo and behold, yep, the criminal turned out to be the fiancĂ©e’s brother.

Sometimes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories with so few clues for the reader that you have to just wait until Holmes tells you what he was up to offscreen, so to speak. But this one actually revealed to the reader pretty much all the information Holmes was privy to. So I went back in one-page increments (roughly) from the end, noting specifically how Doyle constructed the plot and planted clues.

The setup: A trusted Foreign Office employee named Phelps is given the original of a pending naval treaty between Great Britain and France to copy over. In the midst of the job, he steps out of the room to get a cup of coffee, and the original is stolen. Phelps is in deep trouble, the British government could be screwed if the treaty ‘should fall into the wrong hands’ (love that trope), the police are stymied, and Phelps appeals to Holmes for help.

It would take many paragraphs to unpack and discuss all the complex facts and clues, including a nice red herring subplot involving the office charwoman, but here’s what grabbed my attention first: Holmes and Watson go to the unfortunate official’s house in Woking and are welcomed by his future brother-in-law, a guy named Harrison. Holmes remarks that the man is not a member of the family; Harrison looks down and sees that Holmes must have noticed his monogram, and says, “For a moment I thought you had done something clever.”

A most generous hint from Doyle! One who belittles the skills of Holmes usually pays a price. Going back further, I saw that Harrison was placed in London the night of the theft; Phelps had planned to ride the last train home to Woking together with him. Now that is an actual clue: a factual bit of business that twines into the plot. That thread is left lying through most of the rest of the story, though Holmes, we learn at the end, picked it up and made use of it immediately.

Then I read the story again from the beginning and noted all references to Harrison. Most were minor and offhanded, with the main sturm und drang involving the charwoman. I noted Harrison’s behaviors and figured out the timeline for him, and saw how Holmes would have zeroed in on him after excluding other possible thieves.

So: For learning good plotting skills, repeated close readings can be tremendously helpful. As a reader, you can pretty much figure that the shouting and arm-waving are often a smokescreen; the train tickets and bedroom assignments can tell the real tale. As a writer, take the time to read closely, reread if possible, and make notes, zeroing in on particular elements that catch your attention. Try reading out of sequence: backwards, as it were. Watching one key character all the way through a story can yield great insights. Short stories are wonderful for this, because you don’t have to invest a ton of time to learn valuable stuff. I don’t read everything so tremendously closely, but I do read slowly, and I like to reread books and stories I consider excellent.

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