Category Archives: Writer’s Voice

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

Little Moments

SPOILER ALERT!
Do not read this entry if you have not read A Death of Honor.

Payne caught up as a uniformed man with a megaphone announced that boarding was closing to check for last-minute cancellations. Trinina looked harried. The steward guarding the path looked stern.

He handed her Nathan’s suitcase. “What’s the problem?”

“He won’t take this paper,” Trinina sobbed.

“It’s torn,” the steward said in a thick accent. He studied Payne and cocked his head.

“You see this?” Payne shouted, touching the cloth around his head. “Somebody tried to kill us for these papers. You’re telling me that she can’t get on because somebody made off with the corner?”

“It’s your paper,” Trinina said weakly.

“Those are the rules,” the steward said.

Payne put his hand between Trinina’s shoulders and shoved her up the path. “Go!” he shouted. “Go!”

She looked at him, eyes wide.

“Go!”

“I love you, Payne.”

Go on! Get the hell out of here!

She turned and ran up the path.

Yeah, I have to get used to putting spoiler alerts up now since hopefully lots of new people will be reading Honor in the near future.

My wife and I were proofing this book last week to make sure all the formatting was where it was supposed to be. I was having her read the first and last word of each paragraph to make sure they had all been broken up properly. Nearing this part, she was reading, “Payne, stern. He, problem. He, paper. It’s, head.”

She got to Payne’s line, “Go, here” and I stopped her.

“This is my favorite line in the book,” I said, having recently discovered that during an earlier pass throught the book – when I was scanning it, I think. “‘Go on. Get the hell out of here.‘”

My wife asked, “Why?”

I said, “Because this is the moment when Payne becomes a human being.”

“Sacrifice,” she said.

“Yeah. For the first time in the book, his actions aren’t all about him.”

Which is true. Payne becomes a human being at this moment in the book, which incidentally, was being made up on the spot by yours truly. At this point in the story, the mystery is solved. However, as I was writing I said to myself, “All they need to do now is get on the boat and leave.” Then I stopped typing and said, “Boy, that’s really boring. Let me see what I can do to spice up that ending.”

But the whole point of this exercise is that Payne’s humanity came back to him not in a bang, but in a whimper. In a little moment. There’s no blood rushing to his head, the jetty to the boat is not spinning around him, there’s no white-knuckled grip on Nathan’s suitcase. There’s no interior monologue debating the wisdom of his next action. It happens naturally. And that’s the way I think it should be.

I think there’s a tendency among us to overplay big moments, but I’m starting to realize that they’re best underplayed. For one thing, the reader has to think about it more, and I’m always for that – which is why I tend not to reveal everything about the world, its circumstances, and the people who inhabit it. Readers have thanked me for this.

There are times when it’s appropriate. However, since life itself is made up of little moments, I think revelations like this seem to ring truer when they’re not so broadly played.

My wife and I were watching The Blind Side again the other night, and there’s that moment in the first football game when Michael Oher grabs his coach and pulls him away to keep him from decking an unfair referee. Oher looks at him and says, smiling, “That’s okay, coach. I’ve got your back.” That’s the moment when you know that Oher has come to understand not just the game, but the fact that he can trust his coach and teammates and sees them as family. There’s no clap of thunder, no reverbed words ringing in his ears. It just happens.

Welcome to life. It’s full of stuff like this.

So the next time you want to show that change is in the air, turn off the thunder machine and draw a line through the histrionics. Turn the volume down and let it whisper.

It’ll be loud and clear to the reader.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part II

So if you’re often deprived of glory on the cover of a book, why ghostwrite at all? I think that’s all explained in this excellent article on NPR. But I can see from the look on your face that you won’t click the link and read the article. You want me to tell about my experiences as a ghostwriter.

Okay, here we go. But let me say that the number one reason, and the entire raison de etre of the NPR article has to do with financial stability, especially when one’s own projects aren’t selling well.

That was part of what was on my mind when my agent called me up way back in the mists of time ago – what’s it been, twenty years? He told me that the person whom I will refer to as Client #1 was writing a new novel with a science fiction flavor, and needed an actual SF practitioner to make sure it all hung together. When he told me the Client’s name, I was taken aback. I definitely knew the name, and was surprised that this person needed help writing anything at all, their backlist being full of all sorts of writing, including other novels.

Nevertheless, I agreed to the project. I am always interested in new experiences, and I saw it as being more of a book doctor or maybe a midwife to the project. Terms of the deal were disclosed to me. My name would not appear on the cover. I would get one-third of the proceeds. And I was never, ever, ever, ever, to say what I had done for the Client.

So I flew to New York and took a meeting with Client #1, his agent, my agent (the two agents worked in the same agency, which is how my name came up in an earlier meeting) and the Editor. Client #1 brought an outline of the book, some seven typewritten single spaced pages, and read it to us, giving us some asides about the direction the book should take.

And I had an epiphany. I don’t read people at all, to the point where if it’s not obvious, I don’t have a clue, making me wonder if there are a few Asperger’s genes in my makeup. But as Client #1 read the outline, I suddenly understood something: Client wants to be the main character in the book. Badly.

Then I had another epiphany as I looked at the outline: I have an incredible amount of freedom in what this book is to be. Imagine if your client gave you the outline to the book, and when you took out the manifesto part (which made up some 5 pages of Client’s outline), the basic plot of the novel looked something like this:

Two friends sneak into an orchard to pick apples. While picking and stuffing themselves with apples, the two get into an argument. One kills the other with a shovel and buries the body under one of the trees, then tries to live life normally. But then things go wrong. There’s a police investigation, and the family of the deceased wants to know what’s going on. Finally, the murderer’s guilt turns into insanity, everything comes to a head, and the book concludes with an inevitable, yet shocking twist ending. The book’s thesis is that murder is a bad thing.

Can you feel the wheels turning in your head? There are a handful, a dozen, a million ways you can tell this story. Add to that your insight that this book is, say, an allegory for your client’s very public and messy divorce. Writer, you’ve just been given the keys to the playground. All the equipment is there, but you and you alone decide what you play on and when.

I went to town on the book. I wrote about some things I’d wanted to write about but could never fit into my own books. I tried methods and tricks of writing that I would never, ever use in one of my novels. I easter egged some things into it so if I ever had to defend myself as the ghost, I could prove it was my work. I had long phone conversations with… the Editor, one of the last of the hard-drinkin’ literary editors, about where the book was going and things we could do to move it along. I had a lot of fun with the project, even if at the end of things there was some creative dithering at the publishing house, and I kept having to rewrite passages so they would appeal to this or that demographic.

Most importantly, Client #1 loved the book. My insight had paid off. I took the two pages of vague idea that was given me and run with it. As for the manifesto, I took that five pages almost verbatim and turned it into a speech that one of the characters makes in the third act. It was all about the Client, and the client was happy indeed.

And then the roof caved in.

Late in the publication process, the book became orphaned. That means that the Editor behind the book leaves the publishing house for whatever reason, and there is no longer someone there to Champion it. After I had cleaned up the Client’s final edit, and after I had gone over the galleys of the book, a new editor came in with a blue pencil and decided to clean house. I didn’t know about this until a copy of the finished book came to me in the mail. If the editor had only called or asked, I could have helped… but he or she was dealing with an orphan, and so what?

It was a nightmare. I had done things like written A, B, and C – and then later came D, and it was a payoff of some kind. The editor had cut A, B, and C. Clues and characterization disappeared, and the end result was a messy potboiler. I’m not saying I had written some kind of literary masterpiece, but a lot of the structure was butchered, and, well, the critics picked up on it, and they weren’t kind. They especially picked up on the “D’s”, which sorely needed their respective A’s, B’s and C’s to work.

But God Bless Client #1, who soldiered on and promoted the book, and for all I know, it was treated as lovingly as that original outline I had been given in New York months before.

After all the hoo-hah had passed over the book being a bust, I asked my agent something that had been on my mind for some time. “Did Client #1 actually write those other novels that I see on the bibliography?”

There was a pregnant pause. And then, “It is the expressed position of this literary agency that the Client’s books are all self-written.”

So there’s that story. Like everything I write, it has run long – so it’ll be another day for my remaining adventures in Ghostland.

But I still think about that book and what a great time I had in its creation. I still feel bad for Client #1, who so badly wanted it to be something special, but lost control of the whole thing. Then I think in this era of DVD’s with author’s commentaries, why couldn’t the publisher go back and do a restored version without all of the butchery, with A, B, and C put back in. Then I go back to my own writing, and vow to fight to the death if one of my own books is ever orphaned.

Next Episode: The Movie Star. And no, it’s not Shatner.

Milquetoast

A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene One (Finished)
Pages, 9/19/06: 4
Total pages: 118

The courtroom scene is finished. Now I know what Richard Nixon must have felt like when the troops started coming home from Vietnam.

It wasn’t without at least one casualty. Getting toward the end of the scene, the antagonist decided to get in the face of the protagonist. But things don’t turn out the way he expects, and he retreats to where his attorney is sitting. The attorney looks at him and says something like,

“This isn’t like standing up to a bully on the playground”

and then goes on to explain the situation.

I stopped when I wrote that. It seemed awfully milquetoast to me – too understated for the height that the emotions were running at the moment. So I highlighted and changed the line.

“This isn’t like kicking the ass of a bully on the playground.”

And in context with the rest of the explanation, it was perfect. Yes, I know I’m not writing this kind of language any more, but this just fit, coming from a neutral character as it was, a commentary on how the antagonist’s emotions were running in contrast to the real life situation that was unfolding around him.

In my writer’s ear it was perfect. And I went back in and changed the line one more time:

“This isn’t like punching out a bully on the playground.”

Not nearly the impact, but stronger than the original. It made me happier. Not just because I was respecting my own standards. Because I was also respecting the audience’s standards.

See, this is a Christmas show, and that means family show. And granted, it’s probably going to be a bit talky for kids under the age of twelve, and maybe a little scary to that same age group – the idea that a stranger can come and try and take you away from your family – and even though you hear mild swearing and double entendres in G rated films now, my including that line would make me part of the problem.

Plus, I’m staying true to the genre of holiday entertainment, something you can take the family to and have it safe, no matter what your standards are. Had it been a straight courtroom drama, the line might have stayed in. Or not.

This whole issue may be moot anyway. This is still the first draft. There are many rewrites to come. That whole bit may end up with a red X through it in the next draft.

So I guess today’s lesson is this – It’s an honorable thing to make compromises like this, to think of the audience when writing. That’s what you’re doing when you pick a genre and write it. If you flout the conventions of the genre, you’re going to end up in a New York art gallery showing off crucifixes submerged in urine or covering yourself with chocolate and masturbating in public, with government art endowments and grants from people with too much money on their hands as your only source of income.

And under those circumstances, if someone comes up and tells you that your work made them cry, it’ll be for all the wrong reasons.

Listening:
Bats and badgers,
gnats and gadflies,
waterboat men,
Wake up for the greatest day of all
Ants and dormice
open your eyes
mobilize now!

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Literary Profiling: The First Novel

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was tapped to read an ARC of a forthcoming CBA novel, Waking Lazarus by T.L. Hines, with an eye toward providing a blurb for the cover (providing I liked the book). Well, I liked the book, I wrote the blurb, and I’ll review it here when the publication date gets a little bit closer.

What I’d like to discuss is something fascinating that happened when I first started looking at the ARC. My Writer’s Voice-O-Matic went off the scale, telling me that I knew the author of the book. And the author of that book was none other than my friend Tom, whose novel Critical Incident I had just read in manuscript form.

Now if I were into conspiracy theories, I could have made a good one for the case that Tom had written Hines’ book. Besides the remarkable sameness of technique in structuring the book, there was the troubling notion that Mr. Hines’ initials are T.L., and Tom’s last name starts with L – T.L. – get it? Tom’s book is regionally specific to the Northeast Corner of Wyoming, and Hines’ book is regionally specific to Southeast Montana, and there’s some overlap into a part of Wyoming that’s a relative stone’s throw from Tom’s stomping grounds.

Had Tom gone off and started a career as a novelist without telling me, perhaps wanting to spring it as a surprise on me? I don’t think so. I might not be the first person Tom would tell if he clenched a book deal, but I think I would be in the Top Five.

Then I realized something. Both of these books were first novels. True, Tom’s novel is his second, but he hasn’t been published yet. Therefore, when Critical Incident gets published, it will be his first novel – and he’s still in the process of getting a grip on his writer’s voice.

Hmmm. Two first novels with remarkable similarities in construction. Could I think of any others?

Yeah.

I looked at my own first novel – and that’s where things got tricky. A Death of Honor did not fit the profile I was seeing at all. But my novel Desperate Measures did. And what do you know – Desperate Measures was the first novel I ever wrote, but it was beaten into print by ADoH.

Any other first novels? Well, there were things about Waking Lazarus that I thought were influenced by Stephen King, and what do you know – Carrie fit the profile as well.

So what was it I was seeing? Here’s a look at some things they had in common, with the caveat that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had my hands on a copy of Carrie:

Single Word Chapter Titles – Hines used single words like Waiting, Drowning, Burning, and Discovering. Tom used one to four words, many with the word “the” – The Fire, The Handoff, The Introductions – and if I recall, some of the titles worked as spoilers for what was in the chapter. I sat out the chapter titles, and I plead amnesia with King.

Lots of Really Short Chapters – The longest probably no more than 2,000 words. There’s something to be said for the form – short chapters make the plot race along. But I think it telegraphs the sense of a new novelist not yet comfortable with really stretching out within the confines of a chapter and letting the story lope along. King did it beginning with Salem’s Lot. Ditto for me with ADoH and every other book except for the ones that followed Desperate Measures in the trilogy, since they had a form they were bound to (and in Precious Cargo, I had one chapter that was one sentence long). Nowadays my chapters lope along at a length of 3 to 5,000 words. It seems to suit me well.

Following Lots of Characters Around Through the Plot – This is a well-established stylistic form, but all four firsts juggled viewpoints through their casts of characters. Hines probably had the smallest cast, but jumped characters to build suspense. Tom jumped around to show the different effects that firefighting had on its practitioners. King and I both fell into the suspense category, and we both had comparatively large casts. Nowadays, King still wanders from character to character. I tend to focus on following one person around (which has led me to kill off some perfectly suspenseful moments for the sake of maintaining narrative continuity), and in the Pembroke Hall books I “took the plunge” (as my old college English professor said) and went First Person.

Odd Narrative Devices – I’ll cite King here first because these all started with his use of italics, caps, exclamation points and other punctuation to stress supernatural urgency IN!!! A!!! VISUAL!!! MANNER!!! LIKE!!! THIS!!! or (sometimeslikethis). Hines uses it supernaturally in a more low key manner, which reflects the difference between his growing style and King’s (which has seen many moments of overkill). I was somewhere in between, using italics to convey the inner thoughts of a character who literally had another person running around inside his head. Tom sat this one out, almost to distraction, showing the thoughts of others in quotes like dialogue. But his editor will sort out those things according to the house style when the time comes.

A Choked Ending – In the race to the end during the final act of the book, there’s a tendency for a new author to falter. There’s a number of reasons for this. They could be still trying to convey information that was better off delivered as exposition in the first two acts, or because (speaking from personal experience here), the words were rushing out so fast and hard that something had to give. I’ll excuse King here because 1) as I said, it’s been many years since I looked at Carrie, and 2), his book had been through an editor by the time I saw it. I’ll cop to this in DM although you won’t see it in print – suffice it to say that the original version of the book was probably 50,000 words longer than the finished product. Hines’ book, which has been through an editor, seemed to have some narrative gaps in the race to the end, but that may have been because the hour was late and I was devouring pages. Tom is the worst offender here, but it’s a draft and hasn’t seen an editor yet, so he’s excused.

Now, granted, not every first novel falls into this pattern. The first exception I thought of was John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, but on the other hand, it’s arguably his best novel, and what he’s come up with since have been pale imitations. And there are many more debuts that don’t fit this criteria. However, let’s factor in that these were the authors’ first published novels – who knows how many drafts of same or other finished novels are sitting crated in their basements because they didn’t make the cut, because they were still honing their craft?

This is not a sure-fire guide to detection of a first novel. I just thought it was fascinating that so many freshman efforts all took so many of the same elements and put them into the same place at the same time. And for the most part, carried that manuscript across the publication goal line.

It could indicate that there’s some kind of hive mind mentality to what we do, or that many of us start in the same place. Or we all saw the same elements as a secure starting point for that first story that we wanted to tell.

It’s by no means a warning. After all, Stephen King got better. His next novel was the redoubtable Salem’s Lot. I got better – my second novel would be my first into print, and it bore not much resemblance at all to the first. With Critical Incident, Tom got better, and no doubt his next will be better still. And there’s no doubt in my mind that T.L. Hines will get better with his next novel, too.

So take heart. Even if you fit this pattern, the road is wide open ahead.

And Tom, if you are T.L. Hines, then we need to have a talk…

Listening:
The county sheriff had a hairlip
Louisiana’s pride and joy
He said politley as he cuffed me
“I never busted an English boy”

(via iPod Shuffle)

Almost White

Life has been happening, as usual. This getting to write one or two days a week just isn’t going to cut it. I need to hurry up and become a bestselling author so I have time to write.

Is that a Catch-22 or what?

I have been busy on the creative front. I’ve been working on an essay about plot pacing that was inspired when I saw the premiere episode of Skin, but it hasn’t quite jelled yet. It may become another two-part entry – we’ll see what happens.

I also had something major pop into my head on the commute to work this morning. And this one was almost a White Moment. Not quite – I didn’t go “Wow!” and nearly hit a city bus in my distraction, but I see it as a major concept.

(This is one reason I refuse to have a cell phone – the car is the last refuge from the world I have, and that half-hour in the morning can be very productive.* That’s one reason why I want to build a writer’s shed – one where the only phone line is connected to the computer. You have to be alone and undisturbed to be able to think these things out.)

So this brainstorm isn’t really a notion or an idea. It has more to do with voice. For years I have admired books like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker for the way they pushed language (and readers) to the outer limits of the form. The Burgess novel, of course, has Nadsat, the Russian based teen slang, which was both an interesting literary device and a wry comment on the times. Hoban’s book takes place generations after a holocaust, ostensibly written by a person who is barely literate enough to express his thoughts and describe events in his world. For decades I’ve told myself that someday I was going to write a book that pushed the frontiers of language like they did.

I was pondering something totally unrelated to anything when the idea hit me for the voice to use in an unspecified book. I don’t want to go into it too much, but as I started mentally composing sentences with it, the rules of usage began to pop into my head. It’s a language where, out of necessity, much is contextual, and you can’t really decipher the meaning of some words without seeing the words that surround it. There were some other side rules that popped up, too, such as modifying a word without without physically adding another word to the sentence (!!!).

The sample paragraphs I composed on the way in to work might or might not be the plot (well, there really wasn’t one – yet). I had a couple of character names that I liked and an opening sentence, but nothing beyond that. I’ll have to see what clings to the idea in time to come.

The only other things I know are that it, like A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, should be a fairly short novel, probably 50 to no more than 70k words. Any more than that would probably cause brain hemorrhaging in readers.

I also know that I’d probably have to be really established in order to publish this one. As in the publisher thinking, “Well, we do publish Joe Clifford Faust, so we’ll put this one out as a courtesy to him.”

This makes at least two books like this that I plan to write. The other will probably come at or near the end of my career (and might possibly end it) – but I think it would make a fine capstone novel. Unless I write it sooner.

NP – WAPS-FM

*The evening drive is rarely productive – I’m usually tired, brain-dead or both, and I usually listen to a CD or Sean Hannity just to escape.

Writing v. Storytelling

I came to a conclusion this weekend thanks to research for a novel that I decided not to write yet.

When I was in the throes of obsession with starting up a new writing project, my original idea was to bash out a comic mystery that could be the first novel in a character series. Fortunately, my subconscious informed me that this was not the project I was supposed to work on, but rather I was to write Deadline (which has already been chronicled).

But not before I asked my wife to pick up a Janet Evanovich novel for me during her next trip to the library. Evanovich writes comic mysteries about Stephanie Plum, a woman who stumbled into tracking down bail bond jumpers for a living. The titles of her books all have numbers in them; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, et al.

So this weekend I ended up with a copy of Hard Eight in my hands. Since I was struggling with allergies and the side effects of medication for same, I decided to put Cryptonomicon aside and breeze through the Evanovich.

Now I’m sure that Ms. Evanovich is a very nice lady, and she’s certainly had more success in writing than I have, but I didn’t particularly care for what I was reading. I got the distinct feeling that what I was seeing in the pages of Hard Eight was writing as opposed to storytelling.

To start off, early in the first chapter, she broke one of my cardinal rules of writing, the As You Know rule. This is a rule prohibiting dialogue between two characters who explain something that both already know solely for the purpose of enlightening the reader. Such bits of information usually begin with one character or the other saying, “As you know.” Here’s a sample:

COLIN POWELL: You called for me, Mr. President?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes I did. As you know, Colin, on September 11th, 2001, several teams of terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane was apparently scheduled to target Washington, but was brought down when the brave passengers mounted a counter-attack against the terrorists.

There are several literary crimes involved in violating this rule: such an exchange would never take place in real life, it sounds clunky, and it talks down to the reader, who is capable of figuring things out if they are delivered in a different way (such as through a “Why” character – someone who is not familiar with the main character’s world – reporters usually make excellent “why” characters, unless, of course, the novel is set in a news room).

I was ready to let this one pass by because we all make mistakes (although this is Evanovich’s eighth – eighth! – novel in this series). But as I read on, I saw other things that bothered me. For the first chapter or two, Plum (the narrator) would describe characters as being taller or shorter than she was. But I apparently missed the book where she said she was five-foot-two or whatever. The whole taller/shorter than me meant nothing (unless it was symbolic and dense old me just missed it). One character seemed to exist solely to remind Stephanie (and therefore us) of things that happened in the past (meaning other books). And a lot of the humor in the books seemed to exist simply for its own sake, as opposed to rising out of the story. Needless to say, when a character with the last name of “Cloughn” appeared, my first thought was, please don’t let this guy’s name be pronounced, “clown.” I think you can guess the outcome of that little wish.

Now maybe this is a manifestation of King’s Bloat in Evanovich’s writing. I don’t know because I haven’t read any of her other novels. She is a multiple NY Times Best Selling Author now, so her editor could be easing up on her. On the other hand, maybe she has always written this way, and it’s simply her style – in which case, I don’t like it.

Or it could be that she’s not yet in full control of her writing power.

What do I mean by this?

It seems to me that when we start out as writers, we reach a certain point where we realize that there is power in the words we are putting down on paper. We write things that make people laugh or cry or get angry, and when we see it work, we want to do it more and more.

For most of us in this racket, I suspect that this happens in high school, which is why most of our writings from that period are painful for us to read now. We haven’t been through that realization that (forgive me, Stan Lee) with great power comes great responsibility. If you use your power to write shamelessly manipulative fiction, your literary days will be numbered. So we develop internal editors in various ways that hopefully help us keep track of the fact that our primary purpose is to tell a story.

From there, we streamline our writing ability, learning how to ply the power of words while at the same time propelling the story forward. The trick is to integrate everything into the forward motion of the plot; this includes things like humor and characterization.

I’ve mentioned here before how I brazenly cut A Death of Honor by 20 percent, only to see when the reviews came out that I had gutted a lot of the characterization. Since then I’ve been working on having not two pieces of writing (a characterization bit and a propel-the-plot-forward bit) but one (a bit of characterization that propels the plot, or plot propulsion that reveals, develops or builds character).

So you take the step from writer to storyteller when you restrain the urge to plant a joke or a character bit for their own sake, instead making such things subservient to the plot. Even Al Capp understood that – and he was drawing a comic strip, for crying out loud.

Well, that’s the one good thing about writing. You get better as you do it. I may not be where I want to be yet, either, but each word I commit to a project gets me that much closer.

As for Ms. Evanovich – I’ll finish Hard Eight and see how I feel about it when I get to the end. Perhaps I’ll find a rationalization for Attorney Cloughn’s existence. But it had better be an amazingly good one.

NP – Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House