Archive for the ‘Good writing’ category

Joe R Lansdale’s East Texas adventures

June 17, 2007

Do you ever have sudden enthusiasms for writers?

You come across a book – perhaps remaindered, or in a second-hand shop, and therefore cheap – and you buy it because you like the look of it. It hangs around for a while on the bed-side table, untouched … and then you run out of other stuff to read and pick it up. And it blows your socks off. You race through the book and immediately start scouring the bookshops for other masterpieces by the same writer.

This happened to me with Vonnegut, with Gore Vidal, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos … hell, a lot of my current favourites. And then you discover that these guys have been around for years, and you’d never heard of them before. What happened? How could you have been so dumb not to have known of them?

Well that’s just happened to me again with Joe R. Lansdale. I found a book called Mucho Mojo being recommended in a book shop, and it was reduced in price, so I looked at the back cover blurb and it seemed interesting so I bought it.

Wow, what a revelation! Lansdale has been around for years and written at least 21 novels, 12 collections of short stories, 5 anthologies and two non-fiction books. How could I have been so dumb?

The Lansdale books I’ve come across and am slowly working my way through are in the series of semi-detective stories set in East Texas, and starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is intelligent, knows martial arts, is loyal to his friend Leonard but just has no real ambition. He works at a series of dead-end jobs that barely pay the rent, but do give him the opportunity to get involved in plots that don’t need him to hold down a profession or career.

Leonard is a one-off in crime fiction, so far as I know: a middle-aged, black, gay martial-arts expert who has a series of relationships with guys that are handled sensitively but without being sanctimonious. Between them, Hap and Leonard get involved in stories that are funny, tough, violent and tremendously well-written. Here’s the first paragraph of Bad Chilli:

“It was mid-April when I got home from the offshore rig and discovered my good friend Leonard Pine had lost his job bouncing drunks at the Hot Cat Club because, in a moment of anger, when he had a bad ass on the ground out back of the place, he’d flopped his tool and pissed on the rowdy’s head.”

How could you not carry on reading a book that begins like that? Lansdale writes with verve and insight, giving a real sense of the slightly run-down part of East Texas in which Hap and Leonard live. The relationship between the pair is also handled beautifully – they fight, they argue, they spend days when they’re not talking to each other … but they’ve always got each other’s backs.

And Lansdale also handles the action perfectly as well. The fights are described with panache and real physicality, but without the brutality of some writers in the genre. They remain realistic even in extremis.

I’m on my fourth in the series so far, with at least two more to go afterwards. I’m beginning to regret already that soon I’ll have read all of them. That in itself says something about this fantastic writer.

Joe Lansdale
Altered Life

The development of a scene

June 3, 2007

I thought it might be interesting to look at how a scene develops in the writing process. I guess many non-writers think that a writer sits down each morning and writes out the scene that’s next in the book. Then finishes and goes to lunch.

For most of us, that’s not the case. Sometimes we have a clear idea of what happens in the scene, and to whom. Sometimes we have a vague notion that – to fulfil plot requirements – ‘something’ needs to happen, with a particular outcome.

This scene is from the book I’m working on at the moment, called The Secret Place. It’s a follow-up to Altered Life, the book that introduced my private investigator character, Sam Dyke. Altered Life was narrated exclusively from Sam’s perspective, while in The Secret Place I’ve opted to try out a technique several PI writers are using now – slipping into the close 3rd person point of view of a different character.

The scene is part of a chapter in which we see the ‘bad guys’ for the first time. They’re the Wilder twins, Little Jimmy and his older brother, Pete. Ostensibly they’re builders in Liverpool, while in fact they’re hard-nosed gangsters with a number of scams going on. When I first outlined the scene, it began with them arriving at a building site they were running, and their intention was to use a laptop to track down the position of a ship that was sailing from South Africa with contraband on board that they were awaiting. But I couldn’t find a way to start. When I got to that point in the writing, this is what came out:

(Arrive at site. One man standing around. No work being done. Piles of bricks and timber in a corner, under tarpaulin. Ground muddy. Half erected building to one side. They go into a Portakabin, then through another door into a back room. Pete locks the door and Jimmy boots up a laptop.When it’s booted, he loads the Leocate software, enters his username and password and tracks the shipment coming from SA.)

I then went straight into dialogue.

For an outline, this is fairly specific. I seem to have ‘seen’ the situation – the man standing around, the piles of bricks, the half-erected building. I’d even done my research and found the ‘Leocate’ software, a kind of GPS system that could be used to track items worldwide. But all this was displacement activity because I found I didn’t want to describe the physicality of the scene – the prose wouldn’t come. It was easier to get into dialogue than describe the set-up.

Two months later, and I’d managed to get into the scene, like this:

The site was empty. They walked on the planks that crossed the muddy ground and went up the steps into the Portakabin. Pete had the key and he looked around before opening up. That was him – always secretive. Jimmy followed him inside and shut the door.
‘Fuckin cold in here.’
‘Put a jumper on.’
They grinned at each other – that was their mother’s saying whenever the gas meter ran out and they didn’t have any money.
‘Get ‘er going,’ Pete said, and Jimmy pushed past him into the cubicle at the back. He unlocked the cabinet and took out the laptop, then booted it up and navigated to the tracking web site. He zoomed into a section of the ocean north of Africa.

So the single man on site has gone – it would have led to complications about what exactly the twins were up to on site, so it was better to ditch him. I’ve given some detail about the muddy site, but not mentioned the piles of bricks or the half-erected building. Also, the Portakabin doesn’t have two rooms, just a locked cabinet. I’ve also taken out the reference to Leocate because by this time I wasn’t sure it would do what I wanted it to do.

The other thing that’s happened is that I’ve taken the opportunity to build the relationship between the twins by mention of their mother. The scene immediately prior to this shows them arguing in the car as they’re driving to the site, but I thought it would be natural for them to have forgotten that and to be able to share a family moment through the use of the mother’s phrase. So even while doing one thing – showing the twins looking at the position of their contraband – it’s possible to use the scene to do something else – build their relationship. It also showed the poverty they’d come from – to have a gas meter into which you had to feed coins. It says something about their social situation as children.

The latest re-write looks like this:

The site was empty. They walked on the planks that crossed the muddy ground and went up the steps into the Portakabin. Pete had the key and he looked around before opening up. That was him – always secretive. Always worried about what might happen if it went wrong. Jimmy followed him inside and shut the door.
‘Fuckin cold in here,’ he said.
‘Put a jumper on.’
They grinned at each other – that was their mother’s saying whenever the gas meter ran out and they didn’t have any money.
‘Get ‘er going,’ Pete said, and Jimmy pushed past him into the cubicle at the back. He unlocked the cabinet and took out the laptop. Pete didn’t want it kept in either of their houses, just in case. Jimmy booted it up and ran the Automatic Identification System software. Every ship over 300 tons was required to broadcast its location, speed, status and other information. This information was picked up by different tracking systems worldwide and made available to interested parties, usually for a fee. Jimmy had felt really cool when he learned this. Something he could do that his brother couldn’t. He zoomed into a section of the ocean north of Africa.

Here there’s another line about Pete: ‘Always worried about what might happen if it went wrong.’ This is to emphasise his paranoia as Jimmy sees it. Jimmy is far more of a risk-taker and sees his brother as an unnecessary worrier. Also, I’ve added in the information about the Automatic Identification System software. Further research had directed me to this information, and I’ve expanded on it because again it helps characterise Jimmy by comparison to his brother – he can do something his brother couldn’t, and felt good about it.

This will probably be the final version, though I’m still considering how much information about the AIS software to leave in. Does it add credibility to the scene? Or does it read like research that’s been shoe-horned in to show off? I’m still unsure.

The interest for me is to learn how a scene can develop over a period of about eight months. More experience as a writer tells you that you don’t have to get it all right first time. Putting in a ‘place-holder’, in brackets, was good enough until I could see my way through to write the scene properly. And even then it changed as more thought went into it. So what I’ve learned is to have more confidence that things will become clearer to me, as the writer, in the same way that they will become clearer to the reader. Getting it right first time isn’t always possible, so long as you put in the work to get it right eventually.

Keith Dixon
Altered Life

It’s the little things, stupid …

May 20, 2007

Worse than journeying into the land of Mordor is the voyage through the Swamp of Rewrite Hell.

Example 1: You’re on page two of rewriting and you suddenly realise that a minor character’s motivation – that you hadn’t given any thought to a year ago – suddenly becomes very important. Why would he be doing what he does now, when later in the book what he does is … ohmigod, the alarms go off. You scurry through the text, looking for every appearance of this character – what does he say? Does he compromise the plot? Does he make sense any more?

Example 2: On re-reading the description of a character’s relationship with his brother, you see that you’ve seriously undersold that relationship. The way the book has turned out, you need to beef up the conflict between them … while at the same time making it clear that there is a profound feeling between them that never gets expressed. All you’ve done in the book as written is to maneouver them around the plot, enabling them to interact with your protagonist but not actually developing them as individuals in their own right, and with a relationship to each other that turns out to drive the conclusion of the whole story.

These are examples from only the first six chapters of a 46 chapter book, and show how difficult it is to construct something that is logical, compelling and makes sense at even a superficial level. Well, difficult for me, I should say.

This book was the result of the most lucid and complete planning process I’d ever worked through … and still there are flaws in the motivations of characters. Partly this is because of the fact that as you write, the story continues to develop. Better ideas occur to you than did when you were in the planning stage. Or writing a character brings them to life in such a way that they begin to drive the story in a different direction to that which you’d planned.

I knew all that, and was ready for it.

But what I’ve learned is that not only must you have the direction of each scene planned – the way in, the conflict, the outcome for the protagonist – but you must also examine the motivation of each character in the scene. Why are they there? What do they want? How did they get themselves into this situation and what will they do as soon as they leave this scene? Obviously this is important for you to know about your protagonist and your major characters. But I’m realising you also need to know these things for your minor characters, too. Otherwise, a year down the line, you start to re-read and suddenly find yourself saying, ‘But that doesn’t make sense. Why would he do that? Given what happens later … ‘

Actually, this isn’t Rewrite Hell. This is the part I like best. Fixing it. Spotting the inconsistencies. Bottoming out the characters. Tying together the plot points so that they’re evident to the reader as well as to me.

But it’s frightening when you come across something plainer than the nose on the Wicked Witch’s face, and you didn’t spot it two years ago. In the immortal words of Jay Leno, ‘What were you thinking?’

The sense of an ending

April 30, 2007

I’m reaching the end of my second Sam Dyke book, and it’s strange and exciting in the same breath. Strange because it’s been 2 years in the writing. Exciting … because it’s been 2 years in the writing.

My books come to me in flashes – a beginning, an end, maybe a scene from somewhere in the middle. Nowadays I write according to quite a strict outline, whereas in previous years I’ve just written away from a beginning towards a middle, then away from a middle towards an end. The scenes in-between have come as necessary to fill the gaps. With an outline, though, all the thinking is done in the planning stage and the writing does become easier. It’s a kind of structured inspiration. I use the creative flashes in putting together a structure, and then I stick to it.

But an odd thing happens as you get closer to the end of a book. All of a sudden you start to have yet more ideas. The plan you had for the end seems flat when there are so much more interesting ideas out there. But if you follow that new idea, does that affect what’s gone before? Without intending it, your perfectly structured ending goes out of the window as new possibilities open up. And new ways of rewriting what you’ve spent 2 years writing …

So the end becomes a potential new beginning. And you begin to wonder whether what you’ve been doing for so long is in fact working. Is the reader going to care what happens to your characters? Is she going to be able to follow the subtleties of the plot that you’ve cleverly built in … or are they so subtle that in fact no one could follow them?

The tendency is to rush the end. To get it all down as quickly as possible. To conclude the story line, wrap up the characters, and write THE END. So of course that’s exactly the time you have to slow down. Stretch out the ending. Take longer over the action. Put in more introspective moments at just the point that the action is heating up. Add dialogue between your main characters to help them understand what has gone on beforehand. Describe in more detail the precise facts surrounding the events that conclude your story. Because if you don’t, you get to the end of the tale before the reader is psychologically prepared for it. They bring with them everything that has gone before – the storyline, the characters’ development, the prospect of a future beyond the end of the book. And if you cut them off too short, they feel let down and deprived. The story has been ripped from them before they’re ready for it, and they’ll feel disappointed rather than sated.

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in many years of writing stories and novels: your readers have a sense of an ending that will be right and appropriate. You have to give that to them, or they’ll never forgive you.

Altered Life

Making our people real

February 25, 2007

What makes you believe that the character you’re reading about is a real person? And what makes you want to find out more about them?

For me, these are two crucial factors for a fiction writer to consider. If you don’t believe in the character, you won’t be interested in what they’re doing or care what happens to them. And if you don’t want to find out more about them, then the story will have no real ‘guts’.

So how do you establish a level of characterisation?

There are two main tactics that writers can employ: speech and action.

When our characters speak in inverted commas, we hear them directly. There is no mediation by the author, no commentary by someone telling us what to think – we simply ‘hear’ the person speaking. So to make our characters real, they must use the language we expect them to use. Crooks don’t, on the whole, talk like college professors, and vice versa. Consequently we have a number of tools we can use:

– diction: the choice of words
– pace: the length of sentence together with punctuation
– structure: how the words are put together

Diction

“‘Man, I don’ lend my sled to nobody!’
‘Then who’d you lend your 12-gauge pump shotguns to? Boy, you spill on that.’
‘Man, I tol’ you I don’t own no shotgun!’
Jack stepped in. ‘Tell me about the Purple pagans. Are they a bunch of guys who like purple cars?'”

(James Ellroy, LA Confidential)

Here, the contrast between Jack’s slang-free speech and that of Leonard and Denton, crook and cop, sets him apart and is a ‘voice of reason’ whom the reader can identify with. Whenever he speaks, we listen and know that he’s using logic and rationality to gather evidence and filter information. He’s characterised as the good guy.

Pace

“‘Well, that’s a barn all right, and a beautifully drawn barn. I very much like the pattern of light and dark. You’re very talented, Sanford.’
‘And that’s a tobacco plant growing. That’s what they look like. See, it’s shaped like a triangle. They’re big. That one’s still got the blossom on top. It’s before they top it.'”

(Philip Roth, The Plot Against America)

Here the Rabbi’s more languorous sentences are compared to the young Sandy’s, which are choppy, eager, each sentence replicating a thought as it occurs to the young mind. The immaturity of his teenage mind is captured in sentences which also are immature, not shaped in the same way as the rabbi’s are. Notice also the rabbi’s more mature diction – ‘I very much like’.

Structure

“‘What do you think?’ he demanded imperiously.
‘About what?’
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
‘About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.’

‘Who brought you?’ he demanded. ‘Or did you just come? I was brought. Most people were brought.’

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

In this extract we see the man characterised by his repetition of phrases. Fitzgerald has structured his speech to show how the man’s mind works. He makes an observation, then uses the same word to enlarge on the observation – ascertain, ascertained; brought, brought. This slight structuring of his dialogue is enough to fix him in our minds as someone probably small-minded or precise and probably a little smug.

The second tool we writers have at our disposal, apart from speech, is action.

We get involved with the lives of a character when they do something out of the ordinary – whether it’s risky in a physical or psychological sense, or simply unusual in that we couldn’t see ourselves behaving in the same way. When that happens, we try to attribute a motive to their actions because it’s a human trait to want to understand why other people behave the way they do.

Why does Gatsby say he was driving the car that killed Myrtle Wilson instead of Daisy? Why does Yossarian act the way he does when asked to fly more missions? Why does Holden Caulfield abscond from school to visit his sister Phoebe? All of these are actions that help characterise the hero as ‘different’. And in the same way that we’re attracted to the ‘bad’ boys and girls at school, this refusal by our characters to follow a traditional, safe pattern of behaviour is what draws readers to them.

So characterising our heroes and heroines, and the lesser personae, isn’t just a case of making them look different physically (a common trait of beginning writers). It’s also a case of putting them in situations where they can make strong decisions that we don’t expect or even understand. And making them speak in ways that differentiate them from each other using different vocabularies, length of sentences and structured phrases. Then the reader begins to really see how they are different from each other – and interesting enough to want to read more about.

Keith

‘Tis a gift to be simple

February 13, 2007

I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut’s latest work, a man without a country, and as always with this great writer I’ve been struck by how simply he writes.

I’m sure a lot of writers get into putting words on paper because they actually like words – their complexities, their implications, their undercurrents. But with Vonnegut it’s almost as though he’s gone past that. He now recognises that it’s more important to be read widely and understood than to ‘dazzle’ with erudition and the use of words of more than two syllables. So he uses the most simple of sentence construction and the simplest of words.

And you know what? His writing has enormous power, dignity and truth because of it. Here’s the briefest of samples:

“Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.”

The simplicity lies in the straightforward sentence construction, without any sub-clauses. It lies in the use of active verbs and simple vocabulary. And it lies in the rhythms he establishes by using the word ‘dream’ in each of the three sentences, and by the repetition of the phrase “when there were no/was no”. The most complex word is ‘generation’, which has four syllables, but is a simple word to understand nonetheless.

Reading Vonnegut, to me, is a continual masterclass in how to communicate through writing. It’s as though he learned the lessons that George Orwell tried to teach in “Politics and the English Language” and took them one step further.

This simplicity, and power, is something we could all do well to aspire towards. That is, if we want our writing to mean something.

Dialogue that hums

January 29, 2007

I like good dialogue in a book.

It brings the characters alive, moves the story on, adds depth to the milieu in which the characters move. And to me, good dialogue always involves conflict. Take this example, from James Lee Burke’s Sunset Limited. Our hero, Dave Robicheaux, is a cop in Louisiana, and he’s about to take delivery of a suspect. This portion of dialogue could have been omitted or it could have been a straightforward exchange where Dave takes the suspect from the deputy and says thanks. Instead, Burke uses it to characterise Dave, the deputy, and the deputy’s attitude towards Dave:

A uniformed deputy picked up Cool Breeze in front of a pawnshop on the south side of New Iberia and brought him into my office.
‘Why the cuffs?’ I said.
‘Ask him what he called me when I told him to get in the cruiser,’ the deputy replied.
‘Take them off, please.’
‘By all means. Glad to be of service. You want anything else?’ the deputy said, and turned a tiny key in the lock on the cuffs.
‘Thanks for bringing him in.’
‘Oh, yeah, anytime. I always had aspirations to be a bus driver,’ he said, and went out the door, his eyes flat.

Notice how when Dave asks the question, ‘Why the cuffs?’, Burke doesn’t have the deputy answer it – instead, he says what’s on his mind. This adds more conflict immediately and the passage begins to hum with concealed tension. Compare it with this section from Patricia Cornwell’s Unnatural Exposure, where the tension is given to us overtly. Our heroine, Kay Scarpetta, is talking to her police contact, Marino:

‘I can’t believe this.’ I was only getting angrier. ‘I have to release information to correct misinformation. I can’t be put in this position, Marino.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of this and a whole lot more,’ he promised. ‘I don’t guess you know.’
‘Know what?’
‘Rumor has it that Ring’s been seeing Patty Denver.’
‘I thought she was married,’ I said as I envisioned her from a few moments earlier.
‘She is,’ he said.

This is a simple exchange of information. Scarpetta does her usual thing of getting angry at the flimsiest excuse (this is how Cornwell characterises her, in general), and then we learn about ‘Ring’ and ‘Patty Denver’ in a very mundane dialogue predicated on the fact that Marino knows something and Scarpetta doesn’t:

‘I guess you don’t know.’
‘Know what?’

… or that Marino is confirming something that she’s unsure of:

‘I thought she was married’ [ … ]
‘She is.’

It’s much easier to write dialogue like this, persuading yourself that you’re filling the reader in on useful information – and to be fair, a crime or mystery novel sometimes has to do this to fill in back story. But it’s not dramatic, it’s not much fun to read, and it leaves your characters speaking like robots. Just look at The Da Vinci Code to see what I mean.

So what can we learn? The lessons seem to be:

1. Resist the temptation to create ‘Call and Response’ dialogue: ‘Who’s that?’ ‘It’s me.’ It might seem to flow, but it’s dull.
2. Similarly, if you have a character ask a question, don’t let your next speaker answer it directly.
3. To prevent your dialogue being functional, add in a phrase or sentence that helps characterise your speaker – like ‘I always had aspirations to be a bus driver’ above.
4. Edit and keep the sentence-length short. Like this.
5. Never have someone tell someone else something they already know, just to fill in the reader.

Oh, and in the words of George Orwell, break these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous!

Keith


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