Category Archives: Writing Methods

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

Handwriting is on the Wall

I have just heard the news that cursive writing will no longer be taught in Ohio schools, making it the third state to abandon the skill (behind Indiana and Hawaii). The keyboard is king now, the thinking goes, making unnecessary a discipline that teaches manual dexterity at the fine motor level. In these modern times we live in, cursive is slowly being traded as a youth-learned skill in favor of manipulation of a joystick.

That’s pretty sad. We’re slowly losing something useful, something that was a rite of passage in our schooling, and something that serves as a unique identifier and perhaps even a mirror of our personality.

I say this in spite of my never having really gotten the hang of cursive. My penmanship was wobbly and inconsistent, and I always had to labor at it. Printing worked better for me, probably since I did an unusual amount of writing as a kid before the cursive lessons started. I was actually faster at printing, and over the years, my printing evolved into it’s own kind of cursive, though it doesn’t look anything like when I try to write in cursive. It’s neither writing nor printing, but it is distinctive.

Quality cursive is a subjective thing anyway. Two of my oldest friends vary widely in the quality of their penmanship. One has a tight, elegant, kind of writing that resembles a city skyline. It’s amazing looking and could be a font. The other writes in broad, palsied, wavy lines that look like Charles Schulz’s lettering in the last few years of his life. Even his printing is sad looking. But both are enormously successful in their respective fields.

What always amazed me was how cursive seemed to cookie cutter the handwriting of girls. Our cursive system turned out millions of girls who wrote with broad, loopy writing, the kind that seemed to encourage the dotting of “i’s” with tiny hearts or flowers. Being a callow youth, I immediately judged girls on this kind of penmanship, and I never dated anyone whose writing looked like that.

In fact, my wife has the most amazing handwriting I’ve ever seen. It took me a couple of years to be able to read it on the first pass. Her letters are long and thin and slant off to the right like a field of wheat bending in a breeze. The loops she pens are gracefully thin and tight, with just enough space inside to distinguish one letter from another. It’s graceful and compact and is as unique as she is.

My children, on the other hand, were educated during the ascendancy of the keyboard, and interestingly enough, they both lean more toward printing than any brand of cursive. Further, what training they did get in cursive managed to generify their penmanship, and their styles of printwriting are remarkably similar. Both have a practiced signature, but it consists mostly of straight lines occasionally interrupted by a loop. But as their father, I can tell them apart.

Perhaps it’s time for cursive to go, given how keyboards now dominate our lives. But that’s not a good thing. It was a good discipline to learn. It gave you a unique marker beyond the fingerprint. From personal experience, I can say that writing by hand gives you a more intimate connection with the words in your head. For most of the novels I’m working on or have planned, I already have opening scenes written by hand (including the soon-to-be-released The Mushroom Shift, which was the first time I wrote a first chapter by hand).

Time and progress leave things behind, and for better or worse cursive is looking more and more like a dinosaur. However, being modern has its price. I can’t imagine Sullivan Ballou’s letter or the train station scene in Casablanca being improved by a laser printed missive in perfect 12-point Times New Roman.

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.

5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel (via Global Mysteries)

If you’re an aspiring mystery writer, or an aspiring writer in general, you should make Nancy Curteman’s Global Mysteries blog a regular stop on your social media rounds. She has great topics, posts more regularly than I do, and doesn’t dither like me.

Here’s her latest, another ball knocked out of the park.

5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel Red herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in directions that do not lead to the apprehension of the real villain. Here are five strategies for creating red herrings: 1. Choose an innocent character and give him a motive that makes h … Read More

via Global Mysteries

Exclamation Point Points

After thirty years of my wife insisting, I am now reading Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. And it’s a wondrous thing. For a first novel, Auel created a rich world based on sound (at the time) scientific speculation, bent the rules within acceptable parameters, expertly manipulated plot twists and turns for maximum effect, and created a modern classic that can be read as a great adventure or as something much deeper (I could make a great argument for its being the ultimate feminist novel). It’s a Great American Novel.

I only have a few minor quibbles with what she’s done with the book. I’m wondering if the dialogue is a little too rich for being sign language. She ends one chapter too many with antagonist Broud plotting to get even with heroine Ayla (as my wife puts it, it’s almost like he’s twirling a mustache while he thinks these things). And Auel uses exclamation points in action scenes on occasion.

Not a lot. I’ve noted two or three instances. Not enough to drag her down into L. Ron Hubbard pulpdom, but enough to make me think about the subject.

My policy on exclamation points is that I never use them in narrative:

The cars collided.
– not –
The cars collided!

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when you put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, it adds an enormous amount of emphasis on what is being said. It had better be darn important if you’re going to do it!

Second, when you put an exclamation point at the end of narrative, it feels final. Like there’s nothing else that needs to be said beyond that point. You’ve made the ultimate statement on the subject!

Back to our car accident description above. If I dared to write The cars collided! I would not follow it up with anything else. The emphasis would all be right there in one sentence, which, like haiku, had better say exactly what you wanted to say on the subject since you punctuated it thusly.

However, without the exclamation point, I would go on, perhaps turning the accident into a ballet of broken glass and bending metal:

The cars collided. The grille of her car went first, shattering, blowing back against the wall of the radiator, which bent and burst, hemorrhaging sticky green fluid across the asphalt road. The hood crumpled up, bending into a tent as it was pushed up over the engine. Then the windshield webbed and gave way into thousands of jagged pieces, spraying in on her as momentum carried the car forward. By this point the airbag on the steering wheel was just a memory, having caught her head as it whipped forward, collapsing as the seat belt caught her and threw her back.

Now go back and imagine that with an exclamation point after the first sentence. It breaks breaks up the rhythm of the words, too much of a full stop to allow anything else to proceed.

I should note here that if you’re writing a novel for young readers, all bets are off. Exclamation points in narrative bring a different tone and add a sense of excitement to the proceedings. That’s probably why, when I see exclamation points in narrative, it comes across as having a juvenile feel.

On the other hand, I have no problem using them in dialogue – just not all the time. Again, it has to do with the rhythm of the words. There are times when I might want to write:

“Get out of my house,” screamed Kate.

and there might be times when I want to express it this way:

“Get out of my house!”

To me, either is acceptable. It just depends on how you want the dialogue to flow.

So my advice is don’t use exclamation points too often!

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.

A Chat About Place

I’m going to try something here. A few days ago, a friend of mine who has decided to try and write a novel popped up in my chat window to ask a couple of questions. Instead of writing at length about the subject, I’m going to just put the transcript here and see what happens. If you have any questions or followup on the subject, feel free to comment:

Brian: how much detail do you put in your environments?

Brian: I sprinkle some of it here and there, but don’t go overboard

me: depends on how important it is to the story

me: the next novel I’ll be converting for Kindle [The Mushroom Shift]

me: is set in Wyoming in the winter

me: and the setting and the weather play an important part of the story

me: it’s oppressive to characters in an already oppressive situation

Brian: how do you pick cities for your stories?

me: well

me: if you’re Stephen King you stick to places where you’ve lived

me: ; )

Brian: I am going to just use this area… I can change it later if I want

me: I tend to pick places that I think are interesting

Brian: there are a million of those types of areas

me: What suits the story? The Company Man and Drawing Down the Moon are both travelogues of sorts, bouncing around different versions of the US. The shifting locales helped shape the stories.

me: Sometimes the story dictates the location – Wyoming for The Mushroom Shift, New York for the Pembroke Hall novels.

me: Then sometimes it doesn’t matter. When I wrote A Death of Honor, I deliberately did NOT mention a specific city, and have had people assume it was New York, LA, etc.

me: There’s another book I’ve gotten a lot done on that is set in a Canton-like milieu, and needs to be that way for a couple of reasons. And the UFO novel has to take place in Gillette, Wyoming because Gillette is the perfect place for it to occur.

Brian: My story will take place in a canton like area.. more rural though…

me: See? Based on what you’ve told me, it needs to set there. It’s dictated by the story.

One thing I will add that I didn’t say in the chat is that sometimes Place can be as much a character as any of the people in your novel. I’m thinking of films like Body Heat, Do The Right Thing, and just about any movie by the Coen brothers, who have taken Place As Character to a whole new level.

Have I missed anything? Grab your atlas and check.