One Bite at a Time




Thursday, March 31, 2011

Developing Genius

Interesting post over at Pitchers and Poets yesterday. (Any baseball fan interested in more than the same old bullshit would do well to check P&P out regularly.) Eric Nusbaum took sabremetrician and writer Bill James to task over an article James wrote for Slate Magazine, lamenting how we as a nation don’t invest the same effort to develop writers as we do to find baseball players.

Nusbaum’s right; James’s article is “interesting but extremely flawed.” I’ll not rehash each writer’s points here; they speak more eloquently for themselves than I could. I will attempt to add a couple of argument stones to Nusbaum’s side of the scale.

Before I begin, note that I have been a Bill James devotee since I first saw a Baseball Abstract in 1982. Aside from being the father of modern baseball statistical analysis, he’s a wonderful and entertaining writer, with a keen intelligence not limited to baseball. Several of my life attitudes have been adopted from things Bill James wrote, and I’m better off because of it. (Example: he once took “baseball men” to task for dwelling on what a player couldn’t do, instead of capitalizing on what he did well. Good advice when dealing with anybody.)

James drops the ball uncharacteristically in several ways in this article. Nusbaum catches most; I have a couple more. Wondering why Topeka can produce a major league player every so often, but never a Shakespeare, even though it’s about the size of Shakespeare’s London, misses the point completely. If using Shakespeare (or Dickens) as an example, the comparison isn’t with producing a utility infielder, or even a player who held down a regular position for several years. The comparison there is with Willie Mays or Ted Williams. Few cities of any size have produced players of their accomplishment. If Topeka has, please point him out.

James also errs in his locations. Shakespeare wasn’t from London; he was born and grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Dickens moved to London when he was three, but another James example, Graham Greene, grew up in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. They moved to London when they were already developing as writers. The analogy to Topeka would better be served to cite players who played minor league ball in Topeka, of which I’ll bet there are several well known names.

My arguments here are a hodge-podge, in part because so were James’s. So it goes. I suspect editorial and time constraints may have prevented his normal level of research. His point is still well taken: we don’t produce writers in anything like the quantities we crank out ballplayers.

Well, duh.

We never will. No one ever will, no matter how hard we might try. First, there’s no return on investment for writers. Scout the right ballplayer and you stand to make millions of dollars. The number of writers who can make a publisher comparatively rich can be counted on your digits. Baseball teams own the rights to their players’ work for six years after the reach the show; writers can change publishers with their underwear if they choose. No publisher is going to invest the money and effort to develop a writer who might give him one book, then leave.

Another key element is that baseball players—any athletes—are easier to spot. Watch twelve-year-old kids walk down the street. You can tell with some certainly which are the better athletes. Put a bat in their hands and it gets even easier. Choosing talent at the highest level is hard, but weeding out the chaff at the beginning of the pipeline is relatively easy.

Now take those same twelve-year-olds and tell me which one can write. What does a writer look like? How does he act? You can’t even tell by how he speaks. (People like to make fun of athletes, but I’ve heard some entertainingly inarticulate writers.) You just can’t tell with writers until you read what they’ve written, and even then you ought to read quite a bit before you predict someone to be a guaranteed success.
Comparing writers to athletes is a pointless exercise, not unlike saying Topeka has a population similar to Port St. Lucie FL, so why don’t they have spring training in Kansas, too? That’s comparing sunflowers and oranges.

The truth is, we have about as many writers—and ballplayers—as we need, or there would be more of them. Lord knows I’m not an ardent capitalist, but if we as a people wanted more writers, there would be more. We’d buy enough books for more of them to make a living at it. We don’t. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, good or bad.  It is what is is, and inventing convoluted comparisons to show how we are lacking because we don’t create more of them is like complaining about the uneven distribution of sunlight throughout the year. I don’t like it, either, but it’s  not changing anytime soon, and we may not like it when it does.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

City of Lost Girls

No slave to the madding crowd, I. The fact that I waited six months after release to buy a book does not prevent me from waiting another six months to read it. Everyone waits their turn, no matter how much I revere their writing, or I might only read a small handful of writers.

Declan Hughes, for example.

Ed Loy is back resurrecting a friendship with a acclaimed Irish movie director he fell in with back in his Los Angeles sojourn. Ed’s job in those days was to clean up Jack Donovan’s romantic messes. That was also the cause of the falling out. Time heals most wounds, and Ed’s well along the path of understanding himself enough to forgive others, so he takes Jack’s case again, this time to determine the source of some threatening letters. When two young extra go missing from the set, Ed sees the connection no one else wants to, that three extras disappeared from the set of another Donovan film, never to be seen again.

Hughes sets himself a task with each novel. In All the Dead Voices he went back in time to show how the crimes of that book had origins in The Troubles. Here the new aspect is the introduction of first person narration from the killer’s perspective. He’s better at it than most, but the serial killer justifying himself to himself has been done so many times it’s become almost self-parody. Only the caliber of Hughes’s writing saves it from cliché, though it’s still the least strong aspect of the book.

Hughes has mastered the art of keeping a series fresh by allowing the characters to grow in non-stereotypical ways. Ed’s drinking is substantially reduced, though he’s not succumbed to the banality that accompanies the tortures of the dry drunk. His relationship with a woman is more strained by her fear that he will become too suburban than by his demons.

Tommy Owens becomes a more reliable friend all the time, accepting more responsibility and pulling it off better—though not without difficulties—with each book. Among the best sidekicks in any current series, Tommy’s value to Ed and to Hughes’s books is the equal of what is expected of Crais’s Joe Pike or John Connolly’s Louis, though Tommy is never as predictable as either.

Often compared to Chandler and Macdonald, Hughes is, to me, Ireland’s James Lee Burke. No one else can get away with the florid, unabashedly beautiful use of the language in describing actions that are far removed from any beauty, and still manage to keep the beauty in the description alone, attributing none to the act. No need to resort to odd spellings and apostrophes; the accents are right there on the page for anyone who reads with his ear as well as his eyes, and anyone who knowingly chooses to read Hughes with his eyes only is a fool.

One of the nice things about reading books a year after their release is that the next installment is that much closer. Lucky me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grind Joint

I try to stay away from blatant self-promotion on the blog. It’s not as hard as one might think, since I have nothing to promote. (See above: A Humble Man, With Much To Be Humble About.) I will admit to being jazzed about Charlie Stella’s comments on my work-in-progress. (Charlie’s full blog entry here.)

To wit:

Grind Joint ... with the new manuscript service moniker (Knucksline Manuscript Service or KSM for short), we’ve now had our very first customer ... but let me say that we’re taking the fee under protest ... the book is called Grind Joint and the author is Dana King. The book, quite frankly, is terrific and is the second full length novel I’ve read by Mr. King. We feel it should be picked up by any agent out there looking for a new author with a ton of talent and/or any publisher looking to publish masterful writing and one terrific book (that is part of a terrific series). Grind Joint (about a casino going up in a small town) features local police and the nasty politics within the department, an up and coming real estate mogul who has bought his way to power, the one mistake he’s made (partnering with the wrong people--the Russian mob), some wonderful relationships between the well-rounded cast of characters and some of the poorer folk and dialogue as good as any out there surrounded by some superb narrative.
There is a home feel to the book that I had an unfair advantage with (having read a prior novel with the same core characters). Doc (not my Doc, who also has a book with Doc) Dougherty is a smart cop very protective of his own (including his family and home town--Penns River). He has an out-of-town cousin Nick in Penns River for a quick visit. The two are dynamic characters and as real as you’ll find in literature anywhere. There are other cops, civilians, witnesses, drug dealers, etc., but nothing is shirked in the development of these characters; none of them are picked from a formula/stereotypical shelf. King does a magnificent job of distinguishing one from another and each will tug at the strings of your heart in one way or another.
Frankly, this is masterful writing; a book that should be picked up post haste by any agents looking for new talent/publishers looking to publish page turning books featuring great writing.

Many thanks to Charlie for his support, encouragement, and excellent suggestions to improve the book. Anyone looking for a assessment of their work from someone who’s actually published multiple books (not just helped others, whose names may not be revealed), check out his reading service. Well worth your time, at a better than reasonable expense.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hunting Down the Pleonasms

It’s always fun to post rules for writing, if only to see how righteous the indignation becomes from those who don’t believe writing has any rules. If posting such rules riles your innards, think of them as guidelines, much the way New York drivers think of red lights.

When posting rules, it’s always good to get them from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Allan Guthrie is a kick-ass writer, though he has recently shuffled toward the dark side by becoming one of those gatekeepers all unpublished authors know is preventing them from finding the fame and fortune their writing deserves by keeping his jackboot firmly on their throats so his cronies can reap the rewards of literary success without competition. (Harumpf.) A few years ago, Mr. Guthrie took time off from smothering writers’ dreams in their cribs to publish a white paper he called, “Hunting Down the Pleonasms.” (Why someone in a field so intent on invoking the miscarriage of writers’ aspirations would take the time to share some of what has made him successful is beyond me. Must be part of the Gatekeepers’ Conspiracy I’m not clever enough to figure out.)

Anyway, Mr. Guthrie gave Adventure Books permission to reprint the document at its discretion. (See? The Inner Circle, working together.) I stumbled onto it there, after being directed from Facebook. Rarely have I seen so much good advice so well put, so I’m sharing it here, with a bow in the direction of the Adventure Books web site, and, of course, Allan Guthrie.

'Hunting Down the Pleonasms'

I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.

1: Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.

2: Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.

3: Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won’t say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they’re okay! What’s not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To ‘walk slowly’ is much less effective than to ‘plod’ or ‘trudge’. To ‘connect strongly’ is much less effective than to ‘forge a connection’.

4: Cut adjectives where possible. See rule 3 (for ‘verb’ read ‘noun’).

5: Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The ‘big, old’ man walked slowly towards the ‘tall, beautiful’ girl. When I read a sentence like that, I’m hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that’s probably a cue for a ‘noisy, white’ ambulance to arrive. Wailingly, perhaps!

6: Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.

7: If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.

8: Show, don’t tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila’s face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let’s hope so. So cut it. If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!

9: Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?

10: Don’t be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named Si Coe.

11: Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.

12: Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you’re in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you’re already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren’t necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what’s confusing and what isn’t.

13: Don’t confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.

14: Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”

15: Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.

16: Start scenes late and leave them early.

17: When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.

18: Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.

19: Don’t allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.

20: Torture your protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.

21: Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.

22: Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make.

23: Don’t allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.

24: Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. ‘He felt’, ‘he thought’, ‘he observed’ are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.

25: Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I’d gone to the hospital. They’d kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I’d seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I’d gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.

26: When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene and cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.

27: Don’t plant information. How is Donald, your son? I’m quite sure Donald’s father doesn’t need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.

28: If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.

29: Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.

30: Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.

31: Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John D. MacDonald put it: “Freeze the action and shoot him later.”

32: If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t